Of all the volcanoes in the northern Cascades, Mt. St. Helens is by far the easiest to climb. For starters, the most common route, Monitor Ridge on the south flank, is non-technical, eliminating the need for specialized gear or advanced mountaineering skills. At just 8,366 feet, its summit elevation post-1980 eruption places it several thousand feet lower than neighbors such as Mt. Adams, Mt. Baker, and Mt. Rainier, essentially taking the ill effects of altitude out of the equation. However, at 10 miles round trip and with about 5,000 feet of elevation gain, it’s still a robust day hike.
After numerous trips to the base of Mt. St. Helens over the years, reaching the summit of this active volcano has long been on my to-do list. When we moved back to Washington last summer, I knew I might finally get my chance. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest limits the number of climbers to 100 per day in the summer months, and the permits sell out quickly when they go on sale in March. Sadly, I missed the initial sale this year, leaving me to obsessively check every few days for cancellations. Eventually I got lucky and spotted two permits up for grabs in late-July. A few minutes later, they were mine.
From a distance and elevation gain standpoint, the hike up Monitor Ridge is comparable to many of Colorado’s famous “Fourteeners”. One major difference: on Mt. St. Helens we would be topping out at a lower elevation than one starts most Fourteener climbs at. The other big difference would be the terrain. Most Fourteeners have a fairly distinct path a good way up the mountain and are on reasonably solid rock (my dislike of exposure and falling means I haven’t done any of the ones on rotten rock). On Mt. St. Helens, after a brief foray through the forest, the climb traverses a mixture of large lava boulders and a loose scree consisting of pumice and volcanic ash. This is a hike where a mask was on the suggested gear list before they were cool!
To the hike! As the National Weather Service had accurately predicted several days in advance, the morning of our climb dawned with some fairly dense fog at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead where we had camped the previous night. We hit the trail at 6:00 am, anticipating that it would take us 4-5 hours to reach the summit. The first two miles of trail climbs gently through a moist and somewhat unremarkable second growth forest. At timberline is where the route changes from a well-maintained trail to the aforementioned scree and boulder scramble. Wooden posts serve as guides for the remainder of the climb, but following them too closely didn’t always make for the most sensible route. In places there is a fairly obvious path, while in others (particularly in the boulder fields), you just sort of have to find what works best. Just before arriving at timberline, we began to emerge from the clouds, revealing views of Mt. Adams to the east and the extremely conical Mt. Hood to the south that we enjoyed the rest of the day. Once above the trees, our pace slowed significantly, but before too long we were several hundred feet above the cloud deck we had been immersed in a short time earlier:
We made fairly good time through the ~2 miles of boulder fields. The final mile through a deep and loose mixture of volcanic ash and pumice was definitely the most challenging part of the hike. With masks on to prevent inhaling clouds of ash kicked up by our feet (and the wind), it was somewhat analogous to hiking up a sand dune: two steps forward, one step back, repeat. After about four hours, we were standing on the crater rim.
The first view northward into the bowels of Mt. St. Helens was stunning, and definitely one of the most dramatic viewpoints I can recall. Unlike many lesser peaks in the Cascades, or most peaks in the Rockies, where you are often surrounded by other peaks of comparable elevation, Mt. St. Helens stands alone. On this volcano, you are standing on what is, by far, the highest point for dozens of miles in any direction, with only the other volcanoes exceeding you in height. Looking down onto the crater formed by the 1980 eruption, the lava domes that are slowly rebuilding the summit, and the Crater Glacier (one of the few alpine glaciers in the world that is actually advancing) was spectacular. Cornices of hard-packed, dirty snow clung to the nearly vertical slopes of the crater walls just beneath our feet, necessitating caution as we moved our way along the rim. Gentle puffs of steam were visible on portions of the lava dome, a gentle reminder that we were standing at the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The dull roar of rock and ice fall from the crater walls was nearly constant for the hour we spent taking in the view from the summit.
While the hike up had been relatively uneventful, the journey down was definitely less pleasant. Hiking poles are a must for the descent due to the steep, loose, and rocky terrain. This is definitely one of those hikes where coming down is exponentially more difficult than going up!
Compared to our experience hiking Fourteeners in Colorado, the significantly lower elevation of this hike makes a huge difference and in my opinion dramatically lowers the overall difficultly of this route. There is a big difference between inching your way up a scree slope at 13,000′ and having to stop every few steps to take in oxygen, and doing the same at 8,000′ where breathing isn’t as much of an issue. While the terrain was definitely more difficult than your average hike with similar specs, in the end we felt like the difficulty of the Monitor Ridge route was somewhat over-hyped based on some of the accounts we read in advance. We wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. As far as special gear, a mask was definitely helpful for both COVID and volcanic ash purposes. Hiking poles were more or less useless on the way up, as the boulder fields often required the use of hands to navigate, but essential on the way down. Other sources recommended bringing garden gloves to protect against cuts on the sharp volcanic rocks. We bought some cheap ones and definitely found them useful. I never actually put mine on during the ascent, and made it to the summit with only one small abrasion on the back of my hand. Long pants are also a must if you don’t want your lower legs ripped to shreds by the rocks.
With Mt. St. Helens checked off, next up on the to-do list is Mt. Adams, which is also a non-technical climb at the right time of year, albeit longer. We may not get to that one this summer…perhaps our goal will be to climb one Cascade volcano per year!
This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.
The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)
This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!
We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.
On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.
As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) continues to put on a stellar show for skywatchers in the northern hemisphere. Over the past week, the comet has moved into the evening sky, making a trip out to see it somewhat more palatable than it was when I first highlighted the comet 11 days ago. Last week, I had the pleasure of viewing the comet twice in one night while camping on the east flank of Mt. St. Helens. High clouds prevented a great view at sunset, but had mostly cleared just four hours later when the comet rose again in the northeast. Just below and to the left of the comet was the distant cone of Mt. Rainier. Low clouds in the river valleys below us made for a spectacular view:
Unfortunately, the comet has dimmed noticeably over the past few evenings. While we still have a few days until its closest approach to Earth, the comet has receded from the Sun enough that its activity is likely beginning to wane. The next few nights will likely provide the final chance to see this comet and its tail with the unaided eye (until it returns ~6,800 years from now that is!) The waxing moon will begin to interfere by later this week and by the time the moon leaves the evening sky a few weeks from now, the comet will likely have faded from naked eye visibility. To see it, look northwest 1-2 hours after sunset. The comet will appear a little below the bowl of the Big Dipper, and is far enough north now that viewing is significantly better from more northerly locations. More details on spotting the comet can be found here: https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise
At 14,411 feet, Mount Rainier is the highest peak in Washington and in the entire Cascade Range. British naval officer Peter Rainier never even saw the mountain that now bears his name, but he had a friend that did. Clearly, it paid to have connections in the 1700s. Oddly, Rainier did fight against the Americans during the Revolutionary War, making the fact that we continue to utter his name when referring to this grand peak all the more peculiar. Mount Rainier was originally known as Tahoma or Tacoma by the Salish-speaking indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. There are periodic rumblings about renaming the peak, much like the name of Alaska’s Mount McKinley was officially reverted to Denali in 2015. Hopefully that will indeed happen someday…
Irrespective of name, Tahoma dominates the skyline from Seattle and much of the Puget Sound region. Tacoma and other towns to the south of Puget Sound are literally built on layers of debris deposited by gigantic lahars (volcanic mudflows) that periodically race down its flanks, filling river valleys on their way to the sea. The threat of future lahars and volcanic activity looms over those who live in its shadow. From my vantage point in the Yakima Valley of central Washington, the foothills of the Cascades obscure all but the uppermost few hundred feet of its glacier-clad summit (and which will, thankfully, block any future lahars). Obtaining a better view requires venturing into the mountains. Recently, we spent a weekend camping high on a ridge about a dozen miles to the south of the volcano’s summit. Our campsite in an old clear cut provided stellar, if slightly obscured views of Tahoma’s bulk.
The weather was quite variable throughout the weekend, ranging from mostly clear (but hazy) upon arrival, to partly cloudy, to overcast, to bouts of dense fog. Our view of the mountain was constantly changing. One evening I decided to capture a time-lapse of cloud movement and formation in the two hours leading up to sunset:
Sadly I did not notice the beer can stuck on top of the tree in the foreground until it was too late. Oh well. On another evening, a spectacular stack of lenticular clouds developed over the summit:
A nearly full moon provided sufficient light for photographing the mountain after dark:
Not to be outdone by Tahoma, the pinnacle of High Rock just to our west also put on quite the show at sunset, with the light of the setting sun casting an amazing shadow of the peak and it’s summit lookout tower on the foreground mists:
After this trip and our stunning view of Mt. Adams a few weeks ago, our goal for the summer is now to camp in the shadow of all of Washington and northern Oregon’s stratovolcanoes. Next up: Mt. St. Helens!
Naked-eye comet alert! Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), discovered back in March, has brightened to the point where it is visible to the naked-eye in the pre-dawn sky. Both the comet and its tail were easily visible to the naked eye about one hour and fifteen minutes before sunrise this morning:
This is the first time in ~20 years of skywatching that I can recall seeing a comet and its tail with the naked eye. (Western Washington’s persistent clouds and 49°N latitude stymied my attempts to see Comet PANSTARRS in 2013.) Such comets are relatively uncommon, making it well worth the effort to get up to see this one.
Here’s how to see it yourself:
Look northeast 75-90 minutes before local sunrise. You’ll need a relatively clear horizon in that direction. For most locations in the United States, the comet will be no more than 10 degrees above the horizon at this time. A large tree 200 yards away was enough to block the view of the comet from my patio, forcing me to take a short stroll through the neighborhood to find a better vantage point. The comet is small, but for at least the next few mornings should be readily visible. Here’s a wide field view to give you a better sense of the comet’s apparent size:
Timing is key. My experience is that the comet is best seen about 75-90 minutes before local sunrise. Too much earlier and the comet will be too low in the sky to see clearly. Too much later and the brightening dawn sky will render it invisible. This morning, by about one hour before sunrise, the comet had become much more difficult to pick out and the tail was barely visible to the naked eye. By 45 minutes prior to sunrise, the comet was no longer visible to the naked eye at all (although it was still visible in binoculars or a camera).
Since you’ll be observing in twilight, light pollution conditions shouldn’t make much of a difference here; this comet should be visible even from urban areas, provided you have a clear northeast horizon and time your attempt correctly. A pair of binoculars greatly enhances the view. For more detailed information on viewing Comet NEOWISE, check out https://earthsky.org/space/how-to-see-comet-c2020-f3-neowise
Now for a bit more on what you are seeing and how the comet’s appearance might change over the coming days and weeks:
Comets are city-sized “dirty snowballs” made mostly of ice and rock. They are leftovers from the formation of our Solar System and orbit the Sun on highly elliptical paths. Comet NEOWISE takes several thousand years to complete one orbit of the Sun. While comets spend most of their time in the cold outer solar system, when they approach the Sun they are heated by solar radiation, causing ices on the comet to begin sublimating (turning from a solid into a gas). This creates a temporary atmosphere surrounding the comet nucleus known as the coma. That’s the bright part of the comet you see in the close-up below. A stream of ionized gas “blown” off the comet by the solar wind can form a tail, while dust particles left behind the comet can form a second tail. As you can see in the close-up, Comet NEOWISE does appear to have two distinct tails at the moment.
NEOWISE made its closest approach to the Sun back on July 3rd and is now on its way back into the outer solar system. Typically, as comets move away from the Sun’s heat, they dim. So far though, NEOWISE appears to be bucking the trend. This is exciting because while the comet is moving away from the Sun, it is moving closer to us. It will reach its closest point to Earth by about July 22nd. If the comet can maintain its brightness for just another week or two, the show could get even better. Now is still the time to look though. The comet will be visible in the morning sky for just a few more days before it disappears into morning twilight. It will reappear in the evening sky by mid-July. Here’s hoping it is still bright enough to see by then. If so, we can all enjoy its presence without having to get up at 3:30 AM!
Mt. Adams is a striking feature of the western skyline from here in the Yakima Valley of Central Washington. Here’s what it looked like from our neighborhood at sunrise a few months back:
The towering volcanic cone looks close enough to touch, but in reality, reaching the base of Washington’s second highest peak requires a nearly three hour drive down a labyrinth of Forest Service roads. We’ve been wanting to explore the Mt. Adams area since we returned to Washington last year. With winter’s grip beginning to ease in the higher elevations of the Cascades, earlier this week we finally got the chance.
Mostly clear skies, calm wind, and a dark moon made for some great photo opportunities. While it may be debatable, I think some of these were worth their weight in mosquito bites. Several small ponds dot the lower flanks of Mt. Adams and snowdrifts still lingered in the shadier patches of forest, making the entire landscape somewhat damp. Consequently, the mosquitoes were ferocious! Sadly, our mosquito “repellent” only seemed to attract more. I was quickly reminded that a vastly underrated aspect of living in the southwest is the lack of bugs!
The forests just to the west of Mt. Adams happen to be located nearly in the center of the four large active stratovolcanoes of the south Cascades: Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier to the north, Mt. St. Helens to the west, and Mt. Hood just across the Columbia River to the south in Oregon. A variety of relatively short but steep hikes in the area ascend lesser peaks, resulting in fantastic views of all four volcanoes, plus the dense forests of the Cascades:
The real fun came after nightfall. Dark skies are much harder to find in Washington than in Utah, and this was my first good look at the Milky Way since last summer. The calm weather allowed me to capture the Milky Way’s reflection in Takhlakh Lake. Jupiter was kind enough to rise directly above the summit of Mt. Adams. And I got lucky and captured the brightest meteor of the evening in one exposure. This was certainly a case of being in the right place at the right time! (One might argue that the “right time” would have been a few months from now, when all the mosquitoes are dead, but then the Milky Way would not have been positioned so perfectly.)
Today was our first 90 degree day, so I can confidently say that summer has arrived here in Central Washington. As Washington slowly begins to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the last few weekends have brought our first few forays into the mountains since early this year. We’ve deliberately avoided highly visited areas, which in Washington is basically synonymous with “trails with views”. The highlight of these excursions instead has been the wildflowers, which are currently in full bloom at elevations between about 2000 and 4000 feet. With higher elevations still buried in snow, the off-the-beaten path trails in the Cascade foothills are the sweet spot right now:
Apparently a global pandemic is what it takes for me to have time to post new photos. We are thankful to be healthy and safe here in Washington and hope you are as well. Just before things started getting rough, we were excitedly welcoming the end of winter’s icy gray grip and had begun exploring the desert landscapes of central Washington.
The Pacific Northwest may not be known for its sand dunes but about one hour north of the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland) lies the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area, a ~7,000 acre BLM-managed anomaly in the middle of privately-owned central Washington farmland. The dune field itself extends well beyond the wilderness area, and is used heavily by off-highway vehicles. Most of the year, reaching the wilderness area on foot requires a several mile sand slog through the OHV area. Fortunately, in the spring months, the owners of an adjacent ranch allow access through their property, permitting direct and quick access to the heart of the dune field.
I first visited the Juniper Dunes on a geology field trip a decade ago and it is been on my list of places to revisit ever since. The dunes are a mix of active, shifting, barren sand, and partially stabilized dunes covered in grasses, moss, and sagebrush. The area also represents the northernmost extent of the western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis), a few of whose berries will be proudly featured in an upcoming brew from the Pyroclastic Pixels brewery. 🙂
During our visit at the beginning of March, the first vestiges of spring were appearing: namely, abundant sunshine and a handful of small wildflowers poking their heads out of the sand:
A few weeks later, and just a few days before a statewide shelter-in-place order took effect, we “socially distanced” ourselves by heading to the White Bluffs, a several mile-long stretch of chalk-colored cliffs along the banks of the Columbia River directly across from the Hanford Site. Part of the Hanford Reach National Monument, the bluffs are a mixture of fine sediment, some deposited by the ancient Columbia River itself, and some by massive floods that swept across central and eastern Washington during the last “ice age” 12,000 to 18,000 years ago. Persistent winds scour loose sand from the cliffs and associated landslides, depositing it in a large dune field along the crest of the bluff.
The aforementioned floods shaped much of the modern topography of central and eastern Washington. One of the most spectacular features formed by these floods are the broad, steep-sided ravines known as coulees. Formed when floodwaters aggressively plucked large columns out of the basaltic lava flows that blanket much of the Pacific Northwest, most of the coulees are eerily dry today and not until the 1920s did geologists unravel their true origin. Two of the most impressive and easily accessible are Frenchmen Coulee and Echo Basin, just off of I-90 between Seattle and Spokane. Crammed with rock climbers in the good weather months, in mid-January when we visited we had the coulees almost entirely to ourselves:
More photos to come from the 2019 archives! I’ve also been working on creating a more comprehensive “Galleries” page where you can view my photos sorted by location. Check it out here.
As in past years, with the coming of the New Year I decided to take a look back at all the photos I took in 2014 and select some of my favorites to share with you here on the blog. Between finishing graduate school (yippee!) and making a permanent (for now) move from the Pacific Northwest to Colorado, I had less time to devote to photography than in previous years. Nevertheless, picking out my favorite photos was difficult as usual and a good reminder that I was fortunate to have the opportunity to experience and photograph a a number of new places in the past year, from the coasts of Olympic National Park to remote alpine basins in the Rocky Mountains.
Without further ado, here are my ten favorite photos from 2014 in chronological order. Here’s wishing you all a healthy and happy new year!
1. Tulip Fields at Sunset, Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, Washington
Held annually in April, the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is a must see for any spring visitor to NW Washington, photography buff or not. On weekends, especially sunny ones, the tulip fields that spread out across the Skagit Valley about an hour north of Seattle are overrun, making photography difficult. Fortunately, I lived only about a half hour away and was able to visit on a less-busy weekday evening in order to photograph the picture-perfect bulbs in their prime and without the crowds.
2. American Bison, Yellowstone National Park
I’m going to come clean: this is the only photo on this list taken from the confines of my car! I was departing Yellowstone at the end of an impromptu day-trip to the park while attending a geology conference in Bozeman when I spotted this solitary bison along the road. Fortunately, no vehicles were coming up behind me so I was able to grab my camera and capture the glow of the late afternoon sunlight and the diffuse reflection of the bison in a pool of late-season snow melt.
3. Milky Way, Airglow, and Light Pollution from Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington
Living near Seattle doesn’t exactly do wonders for one’s chances of observing rare celestial events. What’s one to do? Get above the clouds of course! I was thrilled to be visiting Olympic National Park during the peak of the Cameleopardalids meteor shower in May. In order to get an unobstructed view, we made the drive up to Hurricane Ridge just before midnight in hopes of catching some meteors. As you may recall, the meteor shower fizzled spectacularly but all was not lost: I was able to capture this panorama of the summer Milky Way emerging from the disgusting Seattle light dome (over 50 miles away as the crow flies) as it rose in the west. Despite the light pollution, I also managed to capture the ghostly green glow of an atmospheric phenomenon known as “airglow” (which I’ve written about previously) and the low lying clouds smothering the Elwah River Valley several thousand feet below.
4. Giant Green Anemone (Anthopleura xanthogrammica), Olympic National Park
I developed a slight infatuation with seeking out and photographing marine life during my two years in Western Washington. Timing trips to the coast with some of the lowest tides of the year helped me discover a wide variety of anemones, nudibranchs, sea stars, urchins, and much more. Anemones were perhaps my favorite group to photograph, their neon-colored and delicate tentacles waving back and forth in the surf.
5. Panorama from Hole-in-the-Wall, Rialto Beach, Olympic National Park
Rialto Beach is one of the most popular spots in Olympic National Park…for obvious reasons. The short 2-mile hike to Hole-in-the-Wall was one of my favorite experiences this year. Once reaching the famous rock formation, we found an nearly entirely overgrown path that led us up to a viewpoint on the crest of Hole-in-the-Wall, getting us away from the surprisingly scant Memorial Day crowds and immersing us in expansive views of sea stacks, rocks, and islands along the Olympic coast.
6. Summer Wildflowers at Ice Lake, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Despite my ravings about Rialto Beach in the previous photo, our trek to Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado was hands down my favorite hike of the year, and one of my most memorable ever. My only regret about this day was that we weren’t prepared for an overnight (or at least a hike back to the car in the dark!), which means I missed out on what was surely a epic sunset from the basin. Click the link above for more photos of this spectacular place.
7. Ice Lake Panorama, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Did I mention Ice Lake was spectacular? It snagged two of the coveted spots on the top 10 list. That means you have to go.
8. Circumpolar Star Trails from Escalante Canyon, Colorado
Photographing star trails is a bit more complex in the digital age than it was with film. This was only my second legitimate attempt, but I was happy with how it turned out. Extremely long single exposures suffer from a variety of maladies so this photo is actually a composite of over 100 consecutive 30″ exposures (for the stars), and one 3″ exposure for the foreground juniper which I illuminated with a headlamp. In post-processing, I had the pleasure of removing more than a dozen aircraft which passed overhead during the hour or so it took to gather the series of exposures. I elected not to remove the two meteors (astronomical objects flashing through the frame are fine by me) but I’m looking forward to doing some more star trail photography from places not on major transcontinental flight paths.
9. Exclamation Point, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado
I love this photo because it exemplifies how the canyon got its name. Despite being taken at 10 o’clock in the morning, the narrow gorge carved into dark Precambrian metamorphic rocks remained shrouded in shadow, while its surroundings (and portions of the canyon bottom) are basking in the bright, mid-morning sunshine. This photo was taken from an overlook on the remote and seldom visited North Rim of Black Canyon, which offers the most spectacular views into the narrowest portion of this amazing gorge and is truly worth the effort to visit.
10. Waving Aspen and Grasses, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
I didn’t purchase any new camera gear this year, but was the recipient of a 9-stop neutral density filter for my birthday, a filter I’ve been wanting to experiment with for a while now. That filter allowed me to take this photo, a 30″ exposure at f/22 in broad daylight, and capture the motion of a colorful aspen and meadow grasses waving in the wind on a autumn day in Rocky Mountain National Park.
After spending the first 18 years of my life in Arizona, moving to the Pacific Northwest for college was a bit of a change for me climatically. Even living on the “dry” eastern side of Washington, I couldn’t believe how the clouds could so easily stick around for weeks on end. Relocating to one of the cloudiest cities in the country two years ago was even more of an adjustment. Somehow I had gone from 300 days of sun to 300 days of clouds in just four short years (but also from 0.85 to 3.60 breweries per 100,000 people so there’s that…). Now, after six years in the Pacific Northwest (punctuated by a few summers on the Colorado Plateau), I’m trading the Cascades for the Rockies and moving to sunnier climes in Colorado!
The Northwest is home to some fantastically diverse and photogenic landscapes, perhaps more so than any other part of the country I’ve spent time in. In Washington alone you can find sand dunes, waterfalls, and prairies amongst the rolling hills of Eastern Washington, jagged sea cliffs and pastoral farmlands along the coast in the San Juan Islands, and glacier capped peaks and rainforests so lush you swear you’ve been transported to the Amazon in the Cascades and on the Olympic Peninsula. I figured now was a good time to share some photos that represent this amazing diversity and reflect a bit on my time in the Northwest.
What really epitomizes the Northwest for me is the abundance of one of the most common substances in the Universe: water. Whereas in the Southwest water is hard to find, in the Northwest it is difficult to escape. Whether on the coast, in the foothills, or in the mountains, water is never far away, be it saltwater, freshwater, glacier water, or rain water. While backpacking in the Northwest, you can almost always count on coming across a stream every few miles to replenish your supplies (unless you’re hiking around and active volcano, as I unpleasantly learned a few years back), a welcome change from carrying 8 pound gallon jugs on your back. Prolonged droughts and water restrictions, a way of life for decades in the Southwest, are near unheard of in the Northwest. Large dams in the Northwest are being removed and reservoirs drained, something that would be a cardinal sin to even think about in the arid Colorado River Basin, lest we lose even a few drops of precious water. Major rivers in the Northwest actually reach the sea, rather than being sucked dry in the desert, a la the Colorado.
It is this abundance of water in its many forms that makes the landscapes of the Pacific Northwest what they are. Case in point: here in the mountains of Colorado, we have peaks higher than any in the Cascades and temperatures just as cold (if not colder), yet the glacier score is Washington: 3101, Colorado: 141. As I write this from my computer in Western Colorado, a few small drops of rain are beginning to fall from a storm cloud overhead and my neighbors are gathering to comment on the spectacle. This phenomenon sums up the difference between the Southwest and Northwest perhaps more succinctly than any prose I could ever write.
More photos from my Northwest adventures will be forthcoming since I have a huge backlog of images waiting for me to think of something moderately interesting to write about. Aside from that, plan on becoming much more familiar with the landscapes of the Rocky Mountains in the coming years as I explore my new (and drier) home!
Cameras can be strange machines. We tend to think of cameras as devices that faithfully record the nature of the landscape around us, which they do…at least most of the time. When this paradigm does break down, it is usually because the camera has failed to record something important, something that made a moment or an experience worth remembering. Oftentimes when this happens, we become disappointed. How many times have you been scrolling through vacation photos and lamented at how poorly they turned out? Sometimes we even realize the limitations of the camera in the moment itself. Perhaps you’ve experienced something akin to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset and becoming so resigned to the fact that no photograph will ever satisfactorily capture the grandeur in front of you that you begin to ponder the option of chucking your camera into the great chasm below.
On rare occasions though, the camera delights us by managing to capture even MORE than meets the eye. After returning from a recent camping trip to the San Juan Islands in northwest Washington, I was surprised to find an unexpected apparition in some of the long-exposure photographs I took from our campsite on the west coast of San Juan Island.
Getting to the San Juans is no easy task; it took me about 5 hours to get there, even though “there” is just 35 miles by air from my front doorstep. As a result, the islands can feel remote and isolated, but standing along the coast at night is a not so gentle reminder that you’re actually only about eight miles across the Haro Strait from Victoria, a metro area of more than 300,000 people. Taking advantage of a somewhat rare, perfectly clear Pacific Northwest evening, I took a series of 15 second exposures looking west across the strait which I composted into this 180 degree panorama:
The first thing you notice is the egregious light pollution from Victoria. Even the skyglow from Vancouver, five times further away but seven times more populous, is visible through the tress. Amongst all of the artificial light sources though, some natural ones still manage to shine through. The faint tendrils of the winter Milky Way just barely register on the camera’s sensor but the bright winter constellations of Orion, Canis Major, and Taurus forcefully punch their way through. If you look really closely, you’ll see a faint, slightly elongated, pale blue glow hiding in-between the lights of Victoria and Sidney. This is a phenomenon known as the zodiacal light, and it’s what took me by surprise when I started putting these images together. Here’s an annotated version to help you out:
See it? It’s a slightly different color than the light domes and isn’t as round and symmetrical as the light radiating from the cities, but rather looks squished and creeps upward into the sky at an angle. What really betrays the nature of this mysterious glow is its location: it coincides almost perfectly with the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system which is also the apparent path that the Sun, Moon, and planets follow as they move across the night sky.
What does this have to do with the zodiacal light? Well, it turns out that the plane of our solar system is home to lots and lots of dust. Not the dust made of dead skin cells and carpet fuzz you find around your house, but rather interplanetary dust particles made mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen. These dust particles are really small, on the order of 10 micrometers in diameter, about the size of a mold spore. The exact source of this dust is controversial; most of it is thought to be the result of collisions between comets and asteroids although some may be leftover from the formation of the solar system itself, tiny pieces of debris that never got incorporated into a planet. Regardless of where it cam from, the dust is really good at reflecting sunlight. Just after sunset (or just prior to sunrise), the angle between the Sun, dust, and Earth is such that the light reflected of the surfaces of the innumerable dust particles reaches our eyes (or cameras) here on Earth, giving rise to the zodiacal light.
When you consider how small the dust is (and that the dust particles are on average more than 2 miles apart from one another!), it’s not hard to understand why the zodiacal light is so faint and difficult to spot. Due to a quirk of celestial geometry, spring is a great time to observe it from the northern hemisphere, but even then spotting it with the naked eye requires extremely dark skies. The conditions in the San Juans, while darker than many spots in Western Washington, are far too light polluted. However, digital cameras are MUCH more sensitive to faint sources of light than the human eye. It’s actually rather common for a camera to detect things in the night sky that aren’t visible otherwise. On the night I saw the aurora borealis for the first time about a year and a half ago, its presence was first betrayed to me as a faint green glow hugging the horizon on my camera’s LCD screen, hours before it became bright enough to see with the naked eye. If not for my camera’s ability to detect it, I would have been fast asleep instead of standing in a marshy field near the Canadian border when the aurora dramatically brightened a few hours later and streamers began appearing all over the sky.
Have you ever captured anything on camera that you found surprising? Share your thoughts or stories in the comments below.
Up until a few days ago, I would have felt extremely confident saying that I’ve seen more fossilized sea snails in my life than I have real ones. After all, teaching a lab that revolves around sedimentary rocks for two quarters will put one in close contact with more dead gastropods than one ever thought possible. And when you spend a lot of time staring at multi-million-year-old fossils, it’s often easy to forget that lots of the little buggers have closely related relatives still trolling the high seas today.Just a few of the many, many, MANY different colored and patterned varieties of nucella lamellosa, the Frilled Dogwinkle
A few days ago though, I stumbled upon a sea snail breeding ground of epic proportions at a place called Point Whitehorn Marine Reserve. I had gone there with the express purpose of looking at rocks and I remain convinced that the snails made their dramatic appearance in order to force me to confront the inherent irony in going to a marine reserve to look at rocks. Near the low-tide line, a couple of bright orange striped shells grabbed my attention, sticking out marine creamsicles amidst the backdrop of drab green algae and seaweed, dull brown barnacles, and grey sky reflected in the waves. I soon realized that I was surrounded (in a benign and not even remotely threatening way) by hundreds upon hundreds of sea snails exhibiting a dazzling array of different colors and patterns.
Now, my knowledge of sea snail taxonomy is limited, but it appears that despite the disparate appearance of these snails, they are all part of the same species: nucella lamellosa, also known as the Frilled Dogwinkle or Frilled Whelk (if anyone has information to the contrary, please let me know). Most of the snails in these photos are smooth; they have lost their ridges or frills that normally run along the length of their shell. This is apparently a common fate of nucella lamellosa that choose to spend their lives in places like Pt. Whitehorn which experience very rough surf during the winter. The frills literally get worn away, not at all surprising when you consider that the shells are made out of calcium carbonate, a substance that in it’s crystalline form is only a we bit harder than drywall.
Many rocks were encrusted with dozens of the snails, varying in size from babies barely larger than a pea, to a few gargantuan snails nearly four inches long. This species hatches in late winter and early spring, so this is a good time to get a sneak peak at the next generation. A female sea snail can apparently lay thousands of eggs each year, although like most species who opt for quantity over quality when it comes to reproduction, only a small percentage survive to adulthood. In the case of nucella lamellosa, that number is estimated at a paltry 1%. Upon reading this, I realized in horror that the occasional sharp “crunch” heard from underneath my boots while I was taking these photographs was nothing other than the sound of my contribution to this rather depressing and morbid statistic. But with any luck, those shell fragments I (inadvertently) created will get weathered, transported, buried, and fossilized, eventually re-surfacing in the collection of some enterprising geologist a few million years from now, a fate that can only be described as THE ultimate honor for any ambitious gastropod.
Chuckanut Drive, a.k.a. Washington State Route 11, is one of the premier attractions here on the extreme northwestern fringe of the U.S. “The Nut”, as I like to call it, winds for just over 21 miles between Bellingham and Burlington. Hemmed in by the Chuckanut Mountains to the east and numerous scenic bays, inlets, and islands on the west, it offers a stunning variety of scenery for such a short stretch of road. Chuckanut Drive has truly been a gift to me the last year and a half, because I can be cruising down it (well, as least what passes for “cruising” in a 16 year old Corolla…) and taking photos within 5 minutes of leaving my house. I’ve done this several times recently, now that the Sun is once again gracing us with its presence past 4pm.
Chuckanut Drive is chock full of destinations that make you feel further from civilization than you actually are, places that are perfect for occasions when time is in short supply. One of my favorite such spots is the beach walk at Chuckanut Bay. Fortunately for me, it also happens to be one of the closest, sitting just barely inside Bellingham city limits. Close enough for me to walk if I was feeling ambitious. Nearly inaccessible at high tide, once the water level drops a couple of feet, a few hundred yard stroll to the northwest shore of the bay puts you in the middle of spectacular and bizarre rock formations sculpted out of the Chuckanut Sandstone by freezing sea spray that accumulates along the margin of this sheltered cove. This is also a great place to see honeycomb weathering features along the shore, as is adjacent Teddy Bear Cove.
Chuckanut Drive is heaven for the geologically inclined for a couple of reasons. For one, the road itself is built on layers of weak sandstone that slope precariously towards the sea. When it rains, water seeps into the spaces between the layers, dramatically decreasing something called the coefficient of static friction, which is normally responsible for keeping the rock intact. In other words, the water essentially lubricates the surface between rock layers, causing causing large chunks of the hillside to frequently slough off, making Chuckanut Drive one of the most landslide prone highways in the state. Last winter, it seemed like the road was closed at least every few weeks in order to repair large gashes in the pavement caused by falling boulders.
Two, the sandstone exposed here, a rock unit known as the Chuckanut Formation, is chock full of fossilized ferns, palm fronds, gingko leaves, wood, and bark, relics from a time when the Pacific Northwest was just as wet as today, but a whole lot warmer. An exposure of this same rock unit an hour to the east even turned up a footprint of a giant Eocene flightless bird a few years back, which is now on display at Western Washington University.
A few miles further south of Chuckanut Bay is Larrabee State Park, the first state park in Washington, whose landscapes and marine life I’ve documented previously and continues to be a favorite spot to catch the sunset:
Heading south from Larrabee State Park, the road becomes increasingly curvy and narrow as it clings to the hillside passing oyster bars, cascading waterfalls, and smattering of million-dollar homes. (You never actually drive along the coast proper, that route is reserved for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but the views are even better as a result.) Keep your eyes on the road and wait for one of the plethora of pull-offs where you can take it all in without running the risk of driving off a cliff.
A short but steep hike from near the route’s southern end puts one at Samish Overlook, which offers unparalleled views of the San Juan Islands, the Skagit River Valley, Olympic Mountains, and even Mt. Rainier on a clear day. On days when the winds are right, this is a launching point for local paragliders. It’s also a cool place to go during a foggy spell; at nearly 1300 feet above sea level, the Overlook sits above the fog deck most days making for spectacular sunsets and less than spectacular dark and foggy hikes back to your car.
The last nine miles of the route angle away from the mountains and coast and traverse the flat lands and fields of the Skagit River Valley. But just a few miles west of the Drive, along Bayview-Edison Road, you’ll find the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, which operates an excellent interpretive center with exhibits about the coastal ecosystems of the Puget Sound area and a small aquarium. This is also a great place to spot a number of the bald eagles that visit the Skagit River Valley and surrounding area each winter to feast upon dying salmon. Padilla Bay (actually an estuary) is so shallow that at low tide, mudflats extend for hundreds of yards away from the coast.
Eventually, Chuckanut Drive meets up with I-5 in Burlington, just a few miles north of the infamous I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River last year. From here it’s a quick 15-20 minutes drive back to Bellingham along the interstate. Or if you feel like braving that bridge, I hear there are a few good breweries in Mt. Vernon….
So this is a taaaaad late, again, but since my shameless self-promotion retrospective was somewhat popular last year, I figured it was worth making another post highlighting my favorite images from the past year, even if it is now nearly a month into the new one. In honor of 2012, I chose my 12 favorite photos. This year I’ve chosen just ten, so as not to head down a road where this post gets ever so slightly longer and more agonizing to read each year.
As was the case last year, some of these photos you may have seen already if you follow me. Including some new images wasn’t difficult though, considering that I took an average of 1478 photos per month this past year, yet averaged just 1.5 posts per month. That adds up to 17,736 photos in the past year (a 221% increase over last year!). With the end of grad school in sight, hopefully I’ll be able to share photos more frequently this coming year, but for now I now humbly present my favorite (not necessarily for technical quality) 0.05% of the photos I took in 2013:
1. Mt. Baker, Washington.
One of the things I dislike about the Pacific Northwest is that there are so many damn trees everywhere that even hiking to the crest of ridges and mountains in search of an expansive view is often a futile endeavor, especially in the lowlands. Unless that is, your summit has had the pleasure of being clear-cut in the past decade or so, in which case you can see halfway to Alaska (if it’s clear…). I was surprised to find myself in one of these clearings on a January hike outside Bellingham following one of our biggest snowfalls of the year and took advantage by taking in a nice view (and some photos) of Mt. Baker and the foothills, alas one complete with more of the aforementioned clear cuts in the foreground.
2. Monarch Butterfly, Pacific Grove, California.
The town of Pacific Grove, California loves their butterflies. Monarch butterflies specifically. So much so that an image of one can be found on every street sign. In March I visited the official Monarch Grove Sanctuary where thousands of monarchs flock to reproduce each year. While I don’t doubt this claim, on my visit I saw about a dozen butterflies, none of which where in range of my camera. I found this one downtown, along the beach, in a much more accessible location. I’m not sure what this guy is eating but it looks delicious.
3. Golden Gate Bridge Fog and Sunset, San Francisco, CA.
This was one of the few shots on this list that actually had some degree of planning behind it. I had recollections of a good vantage point of the bridge from trips to San Francisco made pre-camera toting days. Fog had been rolling in and out of San Francisco all day but it seemed to be a thin layer and I surmised that if I could get above the clouds, I might be treated to a dramatic view of the bridge’s towers poking up above the fog where they could intercept the last rays of sunlight. As you can see, that’s pretty much exactly what happened. It’s incredibly satisfying when hunches work out that perfectly. I only wish I had possessed one of these suckers so that I could have increased my exposure time and smoothed out the rapidly moving fog. If anyone is looking for a belated Christmas present or a donation, hint hint…
4. Blood Star, somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington.
While I like this picture enough to have a 5×7 framed on my bookshelf, it was the experience associated with it that makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. Back on Memorial Day weekend, I headed out to the Olympic Peninsula (oddly enough, not to look at sea stars but rather the Elwah River restoration project) and happened to stumble across some epic tide pools one misty morning. We’re talking sea stars comparable in size to small children, anemones and urchins the size of bowling balls, and masses of gargantuan mussels sufficient in size to keep the aforementioned sea stars fat and happy. Despite it being a holiday weekend and one of the lowest tides of the year, there were only a smattering of people wandering around the tidal zone. I spent several hours taking photos in a steady rain while balancing the need to keep my camera dry AND myself from slipping on kelp and splitting my skull open on jagged basalt. Several groups approached me during this time and asked me if I was local and how I had found about this place. After responding “Uhh, not really…” and “the Internet”, I proceeded to have a few nice conversations about the incredibly diversity of marine life in front of us. What was interesting was that each and every group urged me to keep this location a secret before continuing on their way. And given that other spectacular tide pools in Washington have suffered from over-popularity, I’m going to honor that request.
5. Snake eat Snake.
Any year in which you get to photograph wildlife eating other wildlife is a darn good year in my book, even if it is only two snakes rather than say, a mountain lion taking down a deer in full stride.
6. Sunset at Gunnison Point, Black Canyon National Park, Colorado.
If you ever want to visit a National Park in the summer and don’t want to feel like you’re at Disneyland, you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere more spectacular than Black Canyon. Think you could go to the Grand Canyon or Yosemite and have a major overlook all to yourself at sunset in mid-summer? Think again. In case you didn’t notice, lurking just above the far right horizon in this photo is the 2013 Supermoon for an added bonus.
7. Lightning and the Big Dipper.
I had to include at least one night sky shot in this list (its part of my contract). Neither subject here (lightning and the Big Dipper) is particularly interesting on it’s own, but I think together they make a nice pair. I really would have loved a wider-angle lens on this one; I had to wait about an hour longer than I would have liked for the Big Dipper to rotate into the field of view of the cloud tops, and by then the best of the lightning storm was past. I also wish there was something more interesting in the foreground but achieving that would have meant leaving my front porch, something that I was very loath to do on this particular evening for obvious reasons. As nice as a intriguing foreground would have been, being alive to share this photo is even sweeter.
8. Collared Lizard, Dominguez Canyon, Colorado.
I’ve come across these flamboyant lizards more than a few times in the southwest. Normally they peace out as soon as you get within 10 yards or attempt to intimidate you from coming closer by launching into their patented push-up routine. This one seemed to want his picture taken though. Almost motionless for several minutes, I reeled off a couple dozen shots trying to get the focus just right.
9. Sunset from the Sign, Ouray, Colorado.
Another shot that involved a fair bit of planning. Ouray, CO might be about the most picturesque town this side of the Alps. Back at the beginning of the 20th century, some yahoos thought that a big metal, light-up marquee advertising one of Colorado’s most famous natural wonders (Box Canon) would somehow be a good idea. Thankfully, the lights on this metal monstrosity have since gone dark and nowadays the sign is barely visible from town unless you know where to look. But the sign’s location on a precipice above town makes for a great sunset vantage point, especially following an intense summer thunderstorm which left some wispy clouds hanging around the amphitheater to catch the last rays of sunlight.
10. (Golden) Western Larches, North Cascades, Washington.
Since I just wrote about this trip a few months ago, I won’t say much here…other than that I hope you enjoyed these photographs, and I would love to hear your comments or criticism in the comments below! Happy (belated) New Year!
Golden Larches at Blue Lake in the North Cascades.
Still reeling from the disappointment of having to leave Colorado a mere fortnight before the world’s largest Aspen forests exploded into their annual displays of color, I was determined to find some similar photo opportunities in Washington this fall. The “Aspen of the Pacific Northwest” is arguably the Western Larch. Most common in the Northern Rockies, a handful of Western Larch stands can be found east of the Cascade Crest in Washington state. Tall but unassuming for 50 weeks out of the year, and then drop-dead spectacular for two, the Western Larch looks all for the world like an evergreen, but it is decidedly deciduous. Most high-altitude Pacific Northwest forests are all evergreen, so unless seeing dead and decaying brown pine-needles pile up on the forest floor is your thing, autumn up in the high Cascades isn’t anything to get too excited about. Add larch though and it’s a different story. The yellowish-green needles of the larch go out with a bang, turning a glittering golden-yellow for just a few short weeks in the late fall before leaving the tree buck naked until the following spring.
Golden larch season in the Cascades is an event that generally attracts hordes of needle-peeping Seattleites to the mountains. My hope was that the several feet of early-season snow the mountains had received in late September would be deep enough to temper the crowds. I was wrong. The parking lot at the Blue Lake Trailhead off of Highway 20 in the Okanogan National Forest was completely full, forcing us to park alongside the highway. Fortunately, photographers are born with an innate desire to bask in late-afternoon light which meant we were headed up the trail to Blue Lake late enough that most other folks were already on their way down. One advantage to having lots of folks on the trail was that we were alerted to the presence of a solitary mountain goat scrambling along a rocky gully a few hundred feet above the trail.
The lower portion of the trail was snow-free, but by the time we reached the goat and the larch groves, it was several feet deep. The main trail was hard-packed snow and ice due to all of the foot traffic but wandering off trail trying to take pictures of the larches sans people would definitely have been easier with a pair of snowshoes. The larches were nothing short of spectacular, especially against the snowy-white backdrop. In the late afternoon sun, the color of the needles was so resplendent that you could have painstakingly coated each needle in gold leaf and not known the difference. Individual larches on mountain ridges miles away could easily be picked out, their needles back lit by the sun, shining like beacons in a sea of mountains.
A surprisingly sunny and warm October afternoon in the North Cascades is perfect for larch hunting.
Exploring off trail, gazing out at the Cascades through the larches.
Later in the evening, headed to a lower-elevation (read: warmer) camping spot, I was able to catch the very last rays of sunlight on Liberty Bell Mountain. And just in case larches and a spectacular sunset weren’t enough, the clear skies and nearly full moon were ideal conditions for some nightscapes of the North Cascades!
Sunset along the North Cascade Highway.
The constellation of Aquila sets over North Cascade peaks illuminated by the Full Moon .
Driving west on Highway 2 over Stevens Pass last spring, I kept catching glances of what appeared to be some sort of elongate, dark grey, overgrown, man-made structure paralleling the highway on the opposite site of the Tye River valley. Whatever it was, only isolated chunks of it were visible through the dense vegetation and the deep, late-season snowpack. It appeared to me to be made of concrete, although it was hard to be 100% sure given that my primary goal at the time was to prevent a van full of people from careening off the highway and plummeting into the gorge below. Ironically, little did I know that the very existence of the mysterious object I was seeing was the result of a passenger train carrying hundreds of people doing exactly that 113 years earlier.
Walking through a large concrete snowshed along the Iron Goat Trail, built at the site of the 1910 Wellington disaster to prevent future avalanches from sweeping trains and passengers off the rails.
It didn’t take long after getting home to my internet connection to figure out that what I was seeing was the old grade of the Great Northern Railway, the northernmost of the transcontinental railway routes in the U.S. The Great Northern reached Seattle in 1893 and the route it took across the Cascades can best be described as “gnarly”. A series of extremely steep switchbacks, and eventually a 2.60 mile long tunnel completed in 1900, funneled trains safely, if not easily, over Stevens Pass to Seattle. In the summer at least. The biggest danger of the route lay in the combination of heavy winter snows and steep rugged topography. The railway built a number of snowsheds, large concrete or timber structures which covered the rails in avalanche prone areas to protect the locomotives. Avalanches don’t always play nicely though, and in March of 1910, during a storm in which 11 feet of snow fell in one day, a 10′ thick slab of snow detached from Windy Mountain several hundred feet above the tracks and swept two trains off the tracks just outside the railroad town of Wellington, Washington. 96 people perished in what remains the deadliest avalanche in U.S. history, and one of the worst railroad disasters in the country’s history to boot.
Despite the somber backstory, the old railroad grade has been turned into what has to be one of the most fascinating hiking trails in Washington: the Iron Goat Trail. Taking its name from the mountain goat on the logo of the Great Northern Railway, the Iron Goat trail follows the portion of the railroad grade that was abandoned in 1929 after the 8-mile long Cascade Tunnel (still in use by the BNSF today) opened, which for the first time allowed trains to bypass the pass and its deadly avalanche chutes entirely.
Looking into the abandoned Windy Point Tunnel along the Iron Goat Trail
While this hike may not provide a wilderness experience (Highway 2 and the associated drone of motor vehicles is just a stone’s throw away across the valley), it does provide a heavy dose of history and just enough eeriness to keep you from ever wanting to spend the night. In between the Wellington disaster and the opening of the Cascade Tunnel, a span of just 19 years, the Great Northern Railway heavily fortified the section of rails near Stevens Pass in an attempt to prevent another disaster. I hiked the four mile section of the trail from Highway 2 to the Wellington Townsite and nearly the entire stretch was engineered in some way: tunnels, timber snowsheds, concrete snowsheds, you name it, the Great Northern Railway spared no expense in attempting to tame the mountains and make this a viable travel route over the Cascades. They even gave the town of Wellington a new name, “Tye”, because of all the bad publicity. Ultimately though, the mountains emerged victorious: the line was abandoned in favor of the tunnel less than 30 years after it was first constructed, leaving the man-made structures built in response to the Wellington disaster to slowly decay and become re-assimilated into the mountain.
This process is already well underway. After decades of enduring heavy winter snows, timber snowsheds are now unrecognizable piles of rotting wood. Concrete snowsheds are crumbling, exposing their innards in a scene that my hiking partners likened to the post-apocalyptic visuals of the Hunger Games.
Deep snow and avalanches ultimately get the better of anything man builds to lessen their impact
Many of the tunnels have partially collapsed, including the Old Cascade Tunnel, the longest in the world when it opened at the beginning of the 20th Century. In 2007, a portion of the roof collapsed, creating an unstable dam of debris which occasionally likes to rupture and send a deadly torrent of water rushing out the west end of the tunnel without warning. The Windy Point Tunnel, built to keep trains from derailing around a particularly sharp curve, is also slowly crumbling away while the entrances are slowly reclaimed by the forest:
Moss and debris slowly reclaims the old grade of the Great Northern railway at the entrance to the Windy Point Tunnel
Portions of the Windy Point Tunnel have been heavily damaged by rockfall. Thankfully, Gary and the fall foliage escaped unscathed.
After a somewhat strenuous 700 foot climb from the trailhead up to the Windy Point Tunnel, the hike follows the gentle grade of the old rail bed for several miles in either direction. Thanks to impressive work by local volunteer groups, the trail is well-maintained and a series of interpretive signs explain the history of the Great Northern Railroad and the chain of events that led to the Wellington disaster. Several spots on the trail have great views of the Tye River valley and the surrounding peaks in the Cascades making for a beautiful, intriguing, and incredibly diverse hike. But stay away during the winter for obvious reasons, and like I said, not really somewhere you’d want to spend the night…
Fun graffiti inside the concrete snowshed
For more info, trail maps, and directions, check out http://www.irongoat.org/
They are separated by more than 1600 kilometers. One barely rises above sea level while the other boasts six peaks exceeding 14,000 feet in elevation. One is most easily accessed by kayak or porpoise, while in the other it is difficult to escape the incessant drone of Jeeps, dirt bikes, and ATVs that trawl the vast network of old mining roads. One is beset by a deluge of by rain eight months out of the year, whereas the other is inaccessible except by ski, snowshoe, or helicopter for six. To the untrained eye, the San Juan Islands of NW Washington and the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado couldn’t be more different. My current job situation has me living about an hour away from the mountains for 3 months out of the year, and an hour or less away from the islands for the other 9 months. And viewed through the lens of a camera, I have discovered that there are more similarities that you might expect. The first of which will probably be rather obvious:
They both posses stunning scenery:
View from Deception Pass State Park on Fidalgo Island looking southwest across the water towards the Olympic Peninsula.
Rosy Paintbrush in an alpine meadow near Red Mountain #1 (yes, nearby can be found Red Mountain’s #2 and #3. The old miners were a creative bunch.) in the San Juan Mountains.
Both offer opportunities for “extreme” sports:
A paraglider enjoys a serene aerial view of the San Juan Islands and several tankers headed for the oil refineries in Anacortes, WA.
Descending a scree-filled colouir after summiting 14.150′ Mt. Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains. While most of the climb is straightforward and requires only a hefty amount of scrambling, there is one tricky section near the summit during which a fall would likely mean the end of one’s mountain climbing days…or any other days for that matter.
Both were shaped and sculpted by vast quantities of ice:
Glacial striations in slate high above the Uncompahgre Gorge in the San Juan Mountains. The parallel grooves in the rock were carved by rocky debris trapped along the base of a long-gone glacier that was partially responsible for scouring out the gorge.
A Washington State Ferry passes a cliff of glacially scoured rock in the San Juan Islands. Glacial striations identical to those in the previous photo are ubiquitous throughout the San Juan Islands, evidence that the area was buried beneath more than a mile of ice during the peak of the last glaciation, about 15,000 years ago.
And finally, both are home to curious wildlife:
An American Pika investigates a bush at 11,000 feet in the San Juan Mountains.
A Blood Star investigates a California mussel below sea level in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
In case you didn’t know, that’s what starfish look like when they are curious.
Remnants of early morning fog along the Elwah River
In 1910, the Elwah River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State underwent some changes. Big changes. Power was needed to support the burgeoning timber industry in and around Port Angeles, WA. A dam would be built. A 108 foot high dam that would transform the river upstream of it from from a wild, roaring river teeming with five different species of native salmon, into a flat and placid reservoir, filled not with salmon but with sediment. With no fish ladders, these salmon would be denied access to their spawning grounds upriver by a massive concrete block known as the Elwah Dam. Within a few decades, any fish that managed to miraculously jump over the 108 foot high dam would have a second nasty surprise waiting for them just a few miles further upstream, the 210 foot high Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927.
Sunset over the Elwah Valley from Highway 101, just west of Port Angeles, WA
Fast forward nearly a century, and big changes are occurring yet again. In just a few short months, these two barriers will have been completely and permanently removed and the Elwah River will once again flow, uninterrupted, from the permanent snowfields and glacier of the Olympic Mountains all the down to sea level and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even now (June 2013), only a small remaining stub of Glines Canyon Dam is preventing the salmon from moving back up into their traditional spawning grounds, and nearly 24 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams from moving down to the river’s mouth. To give you a sense of just how much material that is, 24 million cubic yards would be enough to bury an American football field under so much sediment that not even seven Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other would reach the top of the pile. While numerous dams have been decommissioned and removed around the world over the past several decades, none have been as large as Elwah and Glines Canyon. Nor have any been as controversial, as indicated by the fact that Congress passed legislation to remove the dams in 1992, yet demolition did not begin until 2011.
The former site of the Elwah Dam, now occupied again by the free-flowing channel of the Elwah River
Groundwater containing dissolved iron was trapped beneath the reservoir for decades. With the reservoir gone, this water can escape and the iron rapidly oxidizes as it is exposed to oxygen in the air.
Controversy aside, it is not often that one gets the opportunity to walk along the bottom of a reservoir without fear of drowning. As removal of the two dams enters its final stages, there exists a fantastic opportunity to watch an entire ecosystem attempt to return to its natural state. I visited the Elwah River valley on a cloudy, yet pleasant by Olympic Peninsula standards, weekend in May to see the effects of dam removal first hand. My first stop was the former site of Lake Aldwell, the narrow, yet shallow reservoir, 4 km long and 30 meters deep, that once existed behind the Elwah Dam. Lake Aldwell was the lower of two reservoirs on the Elwah (the other being Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam), just five miles upstream from where the river ends its 45-mile long journey from the mountains to the sea. It was also the first to be drained, in 2011, and consequently has already had an entire growing season to begin recovering from over a century of submersion. Assisted by planting efforts, so far, “recovery” consists of some small alders, grasses, and a handful of wildflowers that have taken root in the layers of extremely fine grained sediment that accumulated on the bottom of the reservoir from 1910 to 2011.
Prior to the construction of the dams, the Elwah River valley contained spectacular old growth forests, the proof of which can once again be seen today. It is is the stumps of these gargantuan trees that are perhaps the most impressive sight at Lake Aldwell. Giant cedar stumps, the result of early 20th century loggers who were understandably eager to harvest the enormous trees on land slated for inundation, have been exposed as the river rapidly washes away the layer-cake of sediment that piled up at the bottom of Lake Aldwell. The size of the stumps are humbling and they are shockingly well preserved; many of them still contain the deep, horizontal notches cut for logger’s springboards, some so fresh in their appearance that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t felled just a few years ago, a testament to the preservation power of the meters of silt and dozens of meters of water that covered them for a century.
Giant Cedar stumps on the floor of Lake Aldwell. The former level of the reservoir can be clearly seen on the far bank.
Century old stumps are joined by new vegetation just beginning to take root in the lakebed sediments.
A stump that has been only partially exhumed from the sediment, with the six-foot tall photographer for scale.
The most powerful location from which to contemplate the restoration of the river is undoubtedly the site of the former Lake Mills. Unlike Lake Aldwell which is located right along US Hwy 101, Lake Mills requires a little bit of effort to get to. Located within the confines of Olympic National Park, the head of the now drained reservoir is reached only by driving up a narrow, one lane dirt road that winds through the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula several hundred feet above the course of the Elwah. Near the end of this road, a narrow footpath leads down to what was once the lake’s edge.
Being the uppermost of the two reservoirs, Lake Mills was where nearly a centuries worth of sediment accrued, scoured out of the Olympic Mountains just as it had been for thousands of years, by storm after storm after storm blowing in off the Pacific, dousing the mountains in rain, and sweeping the sediment into rivulets, tributary creeks and streams, and eventually the cold, swift, and turbulent Elwah. Once Glines Canyon Dam was built in 1927, the whole system just shut off. Vast quantities of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that would normally create a delta at the mouth of the river began creating a delta in Lake Mills instead.
Immediately upon breaking out of the trees, one is taken aback by the sense that something drastic has happened here. Over a thousand vertical feet of dense, dark green, damp forest immediately transitions to a landscape that looks like it belongs on Mercury or the Moon rather than the lush Olympic Peninsula. One is greeted by a staircase of spectacular gravel terraces leading down to the river’s edge, terraces cut by a river eager to make up for 100 years of lost time. The river’s path is changing on a near daily basis as it cuts down through the canyons of sediment. The only sound that accompanies the roar of the river is the constant and somewhat unsettling sound of miniature rockfalls breaking loose and sending pebbles, cobbles, and sometimes boulders scurrying down slope, the sounds of a landscape still changing by the minute as the river tries to re-establish its old course through the valley.
Terraces carved out of delta sediments by the resurrected Elwah River as it runs through the valley formerly occupied by Lake Mills.
The erosive power of the Elwah can be seen just by observing its color as it runs through its former delta. When the river first exits the confining gorge of Rica Canyon and explodes out into the wide valley once occupied by Lake Mills, it shines with a brilliant aquamarine color, almost tropical in its hue, due to the presence of extremely fine grained sediment suspended in the river. The river does not retain this color for long though. For decades, any coarse sediment brought here by the river would be abruptly dropped at the entrance to Lake Mills, as the energy level of the river dropped precipitously entering the tranquil reservoir. Now, with the reservoir gone, all that sediment is there for the taking and the river quickly takes full advantage. Just a few hundred yards later, the river has turned the color of a late-afternoon summer thunderstorm, a deep and foreboding dark gray, as the Elwah picks up coarse sediment and begins moving it downstream where it naturally belongs.
While the dams may be gone, and the fish have already shown signs of returning, the story of the Elwah is, in reality, just beginning. All the effects, both positive and negative, of such a large scale experiment won’t be known for many decades. I encourage you to go see it for yourself; as I mentioned earlier, opportunities to experience a landscape changing at such a rapid rate are rare, much less one in as spectacular of a setting as the Elwah River.
More information about the Elwah River Restoration project can be found here. To get a better idea of the changes that have occurred so far, I strongly recommend checking out slideshows and time-lapse videos made from a series of webcams that have been monitoring the progress here.
Introducing Mt. Shuksan:
This image strip is just a small part of a 45 shot, 550 megapixel panorama I recently took of Mt. Shuksan from the Mt. Baker Ski Area. Since WordPress doesn’t offer me a way to display a picture of this size at full resolution, I’ve uploaded a (nearly) full resolution version of the image to GigaPan.com and included a link below (just click on the photo). There are lots of cool features that you can see if you play around with the image and zoom in; such as the terminus of the aptly named Hanging Glacier just below the summit peak, lots of cornices along the summit ridge, innumerable avalanche tracks, some really interesting linear and polygonal features in the snow (developing avalanche scarps?) and even some waterfalls and the entrance to an ice cave!
This was the first time I had made a panorama of this size and resolution. Photoshop’s Photomerge feature (which I n0rmally use for panoramas) had trouble handling so many images so I ended up using a free program called Microsoft Image Composite Editor to stitch and blend the images together. While this program doesn’t allow for editing of the final panorama, I was able to easily export the composite image and make minor adjustments to contrast and brightness in Photoshop. The individual frames were shot in RAW mode using a ball-head tripod and a 200mm zoom lens on a Nikon D90. Exposure settings were set manually and kept mostly constant in order to facilitate seamless integration of all 45 images.
Click the image below to explore the GigaPan:
Twice a month, the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth all lie in a straight line. It is during this time that we see the Moon as either “new” or “full”, depending on whether the Moon lies between us and the Sun, or we between the Sun and Moon. Never content with a simple geometrical description, astronomers call this alignment of celestial bodies a syzygy, a word that surprisingly will net you just 21 points in Scrabble given that it requires a worthless blank tile in order to play. While a syzygy’s effect on your board game exploits may be negligible (unless you manage to plunk that “Z” down on a double letter score and the final “Y” on a coveted triple word score…in which case, whoa! You’re up to 93 points and the game is most assuredly yours to lose!), the effect of such an alignment on our planet is actually quite pronounced. The gravitational fields of the Sun and the Moon exert an attractive force on us; the difference in the magnitude of this attraction on opposite sides of the Earth is, in part, what gives rise to the phenomenon we know as tides (for an explanation longer than two sentences, I refer you to NOAA). During a syzygy, the force from the Sun and the force from the Moon are aligned, with the result being that the range in tides we observe is larger. In other words, high tides are higher. Low tides are lower. And when low tides are lower:
You can’t quite see them all in this photo, but by my count there were about five dozen starfish visible in the field of view when I took this photo. The first syzygy of March 2013 provided me with some abnormally low, mid-day low tides and consequently the opportunity to photograph the plethora of starfish that call Larrabee State Park just outside Bellingham home. During typical low tides, such as the ones we get when the Sun and Moon are at right angles to each other and their gravitational pulls partially cancel each other out, most of these starfish are comfortable below sea level. Even then, a little searching will undoubtedly reveal a handful of starfish clustered beneath rocks or under piles of slimy, green, washed-up seaweed. But when the tide drops below the typical low tide level, the most common starfish in the area, Pisaster ochraceus, the purple or ochre sea star, is literally EVERYWHERE. The quantities can actually start to make you feel somewhat threatened until you remember that starfish move at like 0.0003 miles per hour and have something called “tube feet”. As you can see, the starfish tend to cluster in cracks and crevices within the rock. This is annoying because the cracks and crevices are about the only place you can put your feet without running the risk of losing your footing and smashing your skull open on the sandstone and exposing your brains for the seagulls to pick at, given that most of the rock is covered in slick seaweed that makes banana peels look like coarse sandpaper when it comes to the degree of traction provided.
Pisaster ochraceus comes in three different flavors…err, I mean colors. The purple stars dominate, but orange and pink individuals are not uncommon. I was able to locate one extremely diverse constellation of starfish (I have absolutely no idea what the collective noun for starfish is, but it would be pretty cool if it was “constellation”…) hanging out under a rock:
I never cease to be fascinated by the robust rigidity of starfish. The purple ones in particular look like they should be nothing more than wet, sticky, gelatinous blobs of silly putty, but alas you can’t even copy newsprint with them, much less mold them into an sphere, which is the ACTUAL shape of a star—that is unless the star is rotating rapidly, in which case its shape may be more closely approximated by an oblate spheroid.
Some of the stars exhibit signs of multiple personality disorder, giving us some bizarre orange and purple combination stars like this one here:
As brightly colored as they are, the sheer abundance of Pisaster ochraceus along the NW Washington coast makes them the black bear of the starfish world. Impressive surely, but not really what we came to see. A closer inspection reveals some less commonly spotted species. For example, meet the “grizzly bear” of sea stars:
I think we can all agree that Pycnopodia would be one of the most utterly terrifying species on the planet if it was capable of moving at any rate of speed that could be considered “fast”. Sure, it doesn’t eat humans but neither do spiders and this thing pretty much looks like a gigantic, orange, 20-armed spider with spikes. Given that I know plenty of folks who start to dial 911 at the sight of a spider the size of a pin-head, there is no doubt in my mind that there would exist an entire industry devoted exclusively to Pycnopodia extermination if it had managed to move more than the 3 inches that it did in the 20 minutes I sat there watching it. Clearly Alfred Hitchcock never encountered a sunflower star or I think his film-making career would have featured less birds and more marine life.
For a list of upcoming sygyzgies, check out this handy moon map, and to see when starfish viewing will be ideal along your favorite beach, you can find no better resource than the official NOAA Tides & Currents website.
My college English professor once told me that a great way to hook people on a story is to begin with a personal anecdote. Though now that I think about it, he also told me that bacon was bad for me and that my writing was good, so I suppose I should take anything that came out of his mouth with a grain of sodium chloride. But heck, I’m even prefacing the primary anecdote with this secondary anecdote so you should probably just read anyways.
Let me set the scene for you: Bellingham, Washington; nestled along the coast where the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan De Fuca merge together to form a bewildering assortment of coves, islands, bays, and inlets, where half the license plates you see on the highway are from British Columbia, in the only place where the occasionally explosive Cascade Range makes its way allllllll the way down to the beach, and where the nearly 11,000 foot ice sculpted summit of Mt. Baker dominates the view from town on 100% of the 25% of the days out of the year when there is actually a view from town. (Read that again if you need to…) You see, Bellingham is really cloudy. It also happens to be where I currently reside. I’m not trying to knock Bellingham; it’s a great town in a myriad of different ways. Really great. The pictures on this page should prove that. But it’s really, really, REALLY cloudy. Especially in the winter. When I first got here I had a professor tell me that a sunny day is a perfectly legitimate excuse for turning in an assignment late. Many days I wake up, open the blinds, and think that I must be watching an old episode of Gilligan’s Island…you know, the one’s before they started making it in color? In fact, the official motto of Bellingham is “The City of Subdued Excitement”. I am convinced that this is mainly because it’s a little hard to be anything other than subdued when a gray pall can settle over the city for weeks on end. It’s like nature’s Vallium.
Anyways, the anecdote. Upon the advice of professors, students, and other acquaintances familiar with the winter…er…”conditions”…here, way back in September (one of only three months out of the year where it is statistically more likely to be partly cloudy or sunny than completely overcast) I made a visit to Rite-Aid with the intent of purchasing some Vitamin D tablets. Now let me assure you that the vitamin section at Rite-Aid is the very epitome of robust; my local store stocks about eight different complete lines of nutritional supplement products. Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, Vitamin Q, calcium, magnesium, iron, glucosamine, corn silk, echinacea, fish oil, cod oil, beet juice, cow bile, pig urine extract…it was all there. Except for the Vitamin D, whose slot on the shelf belonging to each and every brand was completely empty. An omen if I’ve ever seen one.
Now that I have (hopefully) made my point, the question becomes: can we quantify just how cloudy Bellingham is? On the surface, one would think that composing a list of the cloudiest cities in the United States would be a relatively straightforward exercise. You would be wrong. It turns out that a variety of methods exist to generate such a list. One can, for example, calculate the total number of overcast hours per year expressed as a percentage of possible daylight hours (if that made any sense at all). Others prefer instead to count simply the number of days in which the Sun remains hidden behind clouds for the entire day, or the number of days in which the sky is overcast for more than 50% of the daytime hours. And none of this even begins to take into account this potentially thorny issue: what constitutes “cloudy”, exactly? Should “partly cloudy” count as “cloudy” or “sunny” in a tally? One imagines that the answer to this depends on weather the meteorologist undertaking this task is more of a “glass half empty” or “glass half full” kind of person. And what about night? Do we care if it is cloudy at night? Or are we only interested to know how much sunshine we are losing? As an astronomy enthusiast, I demand that the percentage of cloudy nighttime hours be taken into account. As you can see, madness is never that far away.
The lack of any well-established protocols when it comes to defining “cloudiness” leaves ample opportunity for cities who rank highly on one list to try and come up with a new way of calculating the list that moves them down a few spots. Or, ideally, out of the top 10 entirely. After all, you don’t see too many glossy tourist brochures exclaiming “Come visit the 3rd cloudiest city in Washington and enjoy a vacation without the hassle of having to reapply sunscreen every 3 hours!” Catchy as it sounds, it just doesn’t sell. (However, if you happen to be a tourism exec from Aberdeen, WA and you are interested in licensing this slogan for use in your promotional materials, please contact me using the oh-so-appropriately named “Contact” link above!) Regardless of which metric you use though, Bellingham, Washington generally ranks near the top of such lists. If it doesn’t, chances are the makers of the list are interpreting the word “city” rather loosely and including every little hamlet and village on the Olympic Peninsula in their calculations, yet another devious method of getting yourself off the list.
To give you some perspective on my rant, I feel obligated to disclose that I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city that receives, on average, more than 300 days of sunshine per year. Such a concept is about as foreign to Western Washingtonians as a hurricane warning is to Saskatchewanians. The rain here is different too. During a lecture on precipitation last quarter, one of my professors asked the class, composed almost entirely of western Washingtonians, if anyone had ever experienced a “thunderstorm“. Less than half of the class raised their hands. More often than not, we experience what someone in New Zealand would call “pissing”, a steady, extremely light rain that that lasts for days and yet somehow manages to thoroughly permeate everything with dampness despite never requiring you to change your windshield wiper setting from “intermittent” to “warp speed”. However, when the rain finally ceases and the clouds part, the emotions experienced is roughly on par with the feeling that Arizonans get when it rains for the first time in months. Everyone just sort of stops whatever it is that they are doing (including driving apparently…as much as it rains here, you’d think people would be better at driving in it) and goes wandering around outside looking up at the sky, squinting, and trying to figure out what the hell is happening.
And then there’s me. While everyone else stumbles around in disbelief, I grab my camera, put on my hiking boots, and head to the nearest beach, mountain, waterfall, overlook, or trail to enjoy and photograph a majestic landscape that truly deserves to be uncloaked and put on display far more often than it is. But naturally, I do all of this in an extremely subdued manner.
Continuing on with our recent geological theme here at Pyroclastic Pixels (you’d almost think I was a geology grad student or something…), today we are going to take a look at one of the most picturesque geological curiosities you’ll ever find: honeycomb weathering, also frequently referred to as “tafoni”. Those two terms aren’t really exactly quite completely equivalent but we’re not going to journey down the nit-picky fork in the road today. Honeycomb weathering is pretty cool. About the only thing that would make it better is if the holes were actually filled with honey. That joke sounded way better in my head than it looks on the screen.
Specific geographic and geologic conditions are needed for honeycomb weathering to develop, yet these conditions can be satisfied in a variety of places, from the arid deserts of the American Southwest, to the storm-battered shores of the Pacific Ocean. Here in northwestern Washington State, honeycomb weathering occurs along the coast, along and just above the high tide mark, in areas where a rock unit known as the Chuckanut Formation is present. The pictures on this page were taken at Teddy Bear Cove, just south of Bellingham, WA, which has some of the most spectacular examples I’ve ever seen. The Chuckanut Formation, or “the Nut” as I like to call it when I’m feeling lazy, is a thick series of sandstones, conglomerates, and occasional coal seams that were deposited about 60 million years ago when NW Washington occupied a large basin at the foot of an ancient mountain range that occupied more or less the same space that the Modern Cascades now occupy.
There is a good reason that sandstone is one of the rock types most susceptible to this type of weathering. Sandstone is essentially composed of countless tiny, sand-sized particles of various minerals (mostly quartz and feldspar in the case of “the Nut”) which are held together by some sort of substance, known as cement, that “glues” them all together into a solid mass. In most sandstones, this substance is either calcium carbonate (CaCO3) or silica dioxide (SiO2), also known as quartz. Honeycomb weathering forms when salt-laden sea spray lands on the sandstone. As the salty sea water evaporates, tiny salt crystals form on the surface of the rock. The growth of these salt crystals on the surface of the rock physically separates the sand particles from the cement. Over time (a long time…), this creates a small depression in the rock. Once a small indentation forms, a positive feedback effect is created; the hole has a greater surface area than a flat surface and thus more rock is exposed to incoming sea spray. Sand grains are thus separated from the cement at a faster rate, thereby enlarging the hole. In some locations, you can actually see little piles of sand grains in the cavities, grains that were once part of the rock but have now been forcibly removed by the salt. I’ve found that this is most prevalent in areas just above the high tide line where wave action can’t wash the sand grains back out to sea.
But Zach, you say…how then does honeycomb weathering form in places like the desert Southwest where the closest thing to sea spray you’re going to find is mule deer pee? Ah…well I’m glad you asked. We often observe honeycomb weathering in sandstone in places such as Southern Utah that are far away from the sea. I had some difficulty finding a halfway decent picture of desert honeycomb weathering from my archives, but I was able to find one that I took in 2008 in Capitol Reef National Park (see below). If you want to see a lot better examples, just do a Google image search for “Utah tafoni”. While the exact cause may vary, and the individual pits tend to be larger, the process involved is essentially the same. We still need to find some way to separate our sand grains from the cement. Many washes in the southwest are dry for most of the year but are very rich in dissolved salts when they do flood. In desert environments, it’s no surprise then that we tend to find honeycomb weathering predominantly along dry stream beds and canyons. When a flood comes through, even though the water may not be as saline as the ocean, it is still salty enough to form small salt crystals when it evaporates, which it invariably does. In other locations, slightly acidic groundwater percolating through rocks can actually chemically dissolve calcium carbonate cement, leaving the sand grains with nothing to cling to.
Hard as it might be for you to believe, this has been only a cursory explanation of the honeycomb weathering formation process. If your brain hasn’t begun to resemble honeycomb weathering by now and you are interested in the gritty details (perhaps you arrived here in the process of researching a paper or maybe you’re a geology nerd like me and just like knowing about such things), an excellent academic paper on the formation of honeycomb weathering can be found here. Regardless, your next step should be to pull out a geologic map, find the closest beach with some sandstone, pull your boots on and go find yourself some honeycomb weathering! Or you could always just look at the rest of these pictures I suppose…
You’ll notice that the Sun is shining brightly in all of these photos which should immediately tip you off to the fact that I’m several months behind in posting, since getting pictures this radiant at the present time would require either a a 200-mile drive east, or a 500-mile drive south. I’ll gripe more about that in a future post, rest assured.
One of the consequences of the copious winter precipitation here in the Pacific Northwest is the simply massive quantities of snow that pile up in the Cascades, just a half hour or so to the east of my current, comparatively temperate residence. In many areas, not all of that snow can melt the following summer and having more snow than you can melt is one of the key ingredients for a glacier. Almost all of Washington state north of Seattle has been covered by glaciers or ice sheets at some point in the last 20,000 years but nowadays the only glaciers remaining in WA are those high in the North Cascades and Olympics, and the tendrils of ice that snake down from the summits of the mightiest Cascade Range peaks; Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Glacier Peak, and Mt. Baker. Although the amount of glacial ice in Washington is getting ever smaller (Mt. St. Helens’ Crater Glacier is actually one of the few in the U.S. that is actually getting larger. Can you guess why?), according to the USGS Washington remains the 2nd most extensively glaciated state, 2nd only to Alaska. And they’re WAY further north so that’s sort of like cheating anyways.
The Easton Glacier on the southern slopes of Mt. Baker is one such glacier that has undergone rapid retreat over the past century. Covered by more than a dozen glaciers, Mt. Baker is an active volcano that was known by the Lummi as Koma Kulshan, which roughly translates to “Great White One”. Mt. Baker experiences some of the largest annual snowfalls anywhere in the world, including a U.S. record 1,140 inches (that’s 95 feet!) during the winter of 1998-1999 according to NOAA. So how could its glaciers possibly be getting smaller with that much snow? To understand that, we need to understand a bit more about how glaciers work. If you groaned at that last sentence and would rather skip ahead to the pictures at this point, go ahead. I won’t be offended. In fact, since this is a website, I won’t even know. But you’ll be missing a really great analogy that I use in just a bit here so you should probably just stick with me for another paragraph or two. Plus glaciers are really cool. Pun wholeheartedly intended.
Here’s the (very) quick and (very) dirty version: A glacier is a body of ice that flows downhill. During the winter, snow accumulates on the glacier, temporarily adding to its mass. When temperatures warm the next summer, the snow on the lower, warmer portion of the glacier will melt (as will some of the ice) but some of the snow on the upper, colder portions will survive and turn into ice, replenishing the glacier. If more ice is added in the upper part of the glacier than can melt in the lower part, then our glacier gets larger. If less ice is added than is lost, the glacier gets smaller. If they two equal, the glacier stays put. As hard as it might be to believe given the massive snowfall on Mt. Baker, rising global temperatures mean that in most years, the Baker glaciers lose more mass during the summer due to melting then they gain during the long, dreary, snowy winters. In geology speak, this is known as a “negative mass balance” and, if left unchecked, it spells doom for a glacier. Now, its completely normal for a glacier to have a negative mass balance year every once in a while. No biggie. Rather, it’s when negative becomes the new normal that the glacier will begin shrinking and will continue to shrink unless something changes to bring it back into balance.
Think of it this way: let’s say you wake up really hungry tomorrow morning and you decide to make yourself some bacon. Before you know it, you’ve gone right ahead and eaten that entire package of bacon all by yourself. I’m sure you can all empathize with THAT feeling. Anyways, while that may not be the healthiest breakfast you’ve ever had, doing so once probably isn’t going to have much of an effect on your long-term health. You’ll go for a run the next day and burn those calories right back off, much like a glacier might experience a low-snowfall year followed by a record breaking snowfall the next year to make up for it. (Note: by now you’ve hopefully noticed that this analogy starts to break down when you consider that a glacier LOSES weight during a negative mass balance year…) But if you start eating an entire package of bacon by yourself every few days, or even once a week, well….sad as it is to say, you might start having some serious health issues. Same is true for a glacier. If you lose mass one year, it probably won’t be that noticeable. But if temperatures increase, if the summer melting season becomes longer and you start losing mass year after year after year, then regardless of how much snow falls in the winter, it won’t take long before you start shrinking, and shrinking fast.
For example, here is a more expansive view of what the Easton Glacier and its surroundings looks like today:
The long valley or trough stretching across the image represents the path carved out by the ice when the glacier was much larger than it is today. Just 25 years ago, much of the trough you see in the immediate foreground would have been filled with ice. The prominent ridge on the opposite side of the trough is a feature known as a “lateral moraine” (rhymes with “romaine” as in romaine lettuce, which I can emphatically say is far less tasty than bacon). A moraine consists of loose sediment that was once trapped within the ice. When a glacier is stable, i.e. when it doesn’t shrink or grow but rather sits in the same for an extended period of time, all that sediment gets deposited in large piles around the edges of the glacier when melting occurs. The presence of a moraine here tells us that the Easton Glacier once filled the entire trough to the level of the far ridge, and did so for a prolonged period of time. Considering that the ridge crest is more than 200 feet above the floor of the trough, we can see that not only is our glacier retreating, but that it was also once much thicker than it is today.
One way to get an estimate of how long the glacier has been gone from a particular area is to look at the vegetation (or lack thereof). While the time it takes for vegetation to sprout up in an area uncovered by a glacier varies widely (depending on factors such as soil development, climate, and species), often times smaller plants will begin to reestablish themselves within about 20 years or so of the glacier’s exit. In this case, much of the bare, brown/orange colored land in the center of the image was covered by ice as recently as the 1980s. Even more amazing: follow the valley downhill to the right. Look how far down we have to go before we encounter even the slightest sign of grasses, much less trees. Scale is a little tricky in this picture but see that greenery way way down at the downhill end of the trough? That point is over a mile away from where the picture was taken and it happens to mark the approximate terminus of the glacier in the mid 1800s, near the end of a cool period known as the Little Ice Age. The Bellingham Herald has a nice article on the retreat of the Easton Glacier over the past 100 years, with spectacular photos comparing the modern glacier to how is appeared in 1912, here. As you can see, it is now a shell of its former self. Other glaciers on Mt. Baker are in a similar predicament.
Easton Glacier remains one of the easiest glaciers to access anywhere in the continental U.S. The toe of the glacier can be reached by hiking for about 2 miles along a moderately strenuous but well-maintained hiking trail. Eventually this trail crosses a wooden swing-bridge over the meltwater creek that issues from the glacier. From here, you simply head off trail and hike up the old glacial trough for an additional mile and a half or so (at the time of publication at least…) until you hit ice. This part of the hike is decidedly more strenuous but as you can see from these photos, the scenery is spectacular! Exploring the terminus of the glacier is fascinating! Huge piles of mud and debris deposited by the melting glacier cover the ice near the toe, masking the ice and making travel treacherous. A large meltwater stream emerges from the base of the glacier through one of these piles as if by magic. The ice near the terminus is heavily crevassed so one must tread carefully when hiking on the ice itself.
So next time you’re in the area, check it out before it’s gone entirely. Who knows, maybe you’ll even burn off the calories from that pound of bacon you ate for breakfast!
Larrabee State Park is located just a few miles south of Bellingham, WA and holds the honor of having been the first state park in Washington, being designated as such shortly after a local family donated the land to the state in 1915. Several short trails lead from Highway 11 down to beaches that are positioned perfectly for spectacular sunsets…when the sun is visible that is. These photos were taken in late summer, before the gray and gloom set in for the winter. I guess you could say I’m posting them now in an attempt to relive the sunnier days of yore. Or because the photos on the park webpage leave a lot to be desired…
At low tide, the beaches are lined with tide pools that make for an excellent way to kill time waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon while other trails lead into the Chuckanut Mtns. to the east where one can find views of the San Juan Islands and Bellingham itself.