24 November: My Friend from Bellingham and I drove to Mt Baker hoping to hike into Mt Baker Wilderness. After the snows in the last few weeks, the mountains sparkled in the early morning light while the valleys were draped in shadow. At one point we stopped to admire the columnar basalt, the result of the lava cracking to form vertical columns as it cooled. I wondered if this flow on the side of a ridge had formed like the one under Sunrise at Mt Rainier. Had the flow formed during the last glaciation when the lava had to slide along the side of a massive valley glacier, unable to melt the thick ice filling the valley?
We had not brought our snowshoes but hoped the snow would be packed enough from others to be able to walk the Bagley Creek valley from Heather Meadows. The temperature hung in the 20s and two inches of fluffy snow sat on top of the crust. The snow was at least waist deep in the places I broke through the crust on the way to Table Top Mountain, which loomed in front of us. Parties of two to six people passed us on snowshoes or skis. Some followed the trail or crossed the frozen lake, while others headed directly up the steep slope toward the plateau. A pair of snowboarders traversed down from the top, stopping regularly to plot their next move. We could hear their conversation faintly as they came to the side of an avalanche slope. One of them sat in the snow while the other explored several possible alternate routes. Finally, they backtracked along their path to an open route down. We could see small places along the slope where the snow slid, forming small snow balls that rolled down the hill. In another month, their route will be prone to avalanches.
Bagley Creek gurgled along the valley floor, tumbling and bubbling over rocks. Ice sheet walls paralleled frothy white water. Ice hung in sheets just above quiet pools, indicating that water levels had been higher than they are now. One flat sheet suspended an inch above the water had a network of droplets dripping from the underside; forming intricate designs like Chinese paper cuttings. A large pool contained a perfect reflection of the snow bank on the far side.
I spotted an American Dipper working the creek and crept along the trail so as not to spook it. The bird jumped down to a rock in the creek and then dove into the water. For 30 seconds, it stood in water up to its belly with its head underwater, looking one way and another. It then swam 3 yards down the stream, looking occasionally down, like a snorkeler, before climbing on another rock. Water droplets beaded up on its back. A brief shake and the bird looked perfectly dry, showing the excellent water proofing on its feathers. From there, it flew over to an ice sheet where it stood on the ice without any concern for how its feet might feel on the ice. Several times as it worked along the creek, it flew up onto the bank and walked along the snow, leaving wonderful footprints in the fresh snow. Their resistance to cold constantly amazes me. The water must be right at the freezing point with all the ice we saw and yet they can go about their daily lives as if its summer.
My friend spotted a half dozen brook trout resting in a pool 2-feet deep and 10-yards long. Crystal clear water allowed us to watch them suspended stationary in the water column facing up stream, which permitted the current to push water through their gills. Brook trout are native to eastern United States and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife stocked these mountain streams and lakes to provide more fishing opportunities for anglers. I teased my friend that he should wade into the water with his fly rod to catch some. I said “I wanted to see if you can do as well as the dipper with the cold water.” He called my bluff when he said, “I will go fetch my rod from the car but you have to sit and watch while I see what I can catch.” He told me that the Fish and Wildlife Department was encouraging anglers to remove the brook trout they caught in these alpine streams to reduce the population of trout. Brook trout eat the same aquatic insects that dippers consume.
We spotted tracks of white-tailed ptarmigan in a number of places. The tracks led from bush to bush, and based on the multiple footprints around the stems, they were nibbling on buds. Below a mountain ash, the snow was trampled and wing feathers brushed the snow. They had jumped repeatedly to grab at the red-orange berries hanging on a branch 3-feet above the snow. Ptarmigan have feathers on their toes and we could see the extra impressions in the snow from them. At one place a mouse had scurried across the snow at right angles to the ptarmigan tracks. I would have loved to see a ptarmigan but with all the people along the trail this day, I suspected they were hidden high on the slopes in a good resting place. In their white winter plumage, they would blend in perfectly with the snow.
After a few hours, we headed back toward the car. Sigurd Olson in his book “The Singing Wilderness” talks of the joy of immersing oneself in wilderness such that you hear it sing. As we hiked back, I felt we had a good day and had heard this wilderness sing.