Bear Creek Salmon Run 2018

Bear Creek is an active salmon-spawning stream running through the eastern fringes of Redmond and Woodinville, Washington.  These cities are part of what is commonly known in the Seattle area as the Eastside, a heavily populated suburban region that has grown up on the eastern shore of 22 mile-long Lake Washington, whose western shore serves as the eastern border of the city of Seattle.  Bear Creek flows east, then bends north from the Sammamish River, a heavily engineered, 14 mile long canal-like version of what was once a meandering stream draining water from Lake Sammamish, another fjord-like north-south oriented lake east of Seattle into Lake Washington.  From there, fresh water drains through Montlake Cut in Seattle to Lake Union, and then through the Ship Canal into the saltwater Puget Sound, otherwise known as the southern branch of the Salish Sea.

The City of Redmond website indicates that salmon were abundant in the Sammamish Slough in the 1880’s, before it was straightened and dredged, but hopefully points out that there are still fish migrating upstream to their spawning grounds in Bear Creek and at the Issaquah Fish Hatchery (at the south end of Lake Sammamish).  I live just up the hill from where Bear Creek passes through its valley on the way north to Woodinville.  This year I decided to make a serious effort to see if I could see any of those legendary spawning salmon before they were gone.

My usual observation spot is from the deck of a wooden bridge over Bear Creek on the Puget Power Trail, which begins at the point where a major high-tension power line crosses the Sammamish River.  It climbs up and over the hill I live on, crosses Avondale Road (a busy four-lane thoroughfare), and then Bear Creek before continuing on through Farrell-McWhirter Park.  It becomes inaccessible as it crosses private land east of the park.  There is a rib of hard packed rock and gravel right under the bridge that creates a riffle when the water is low.  If you are lucky you will get to watch the salmon (always sockeye in my experience) struggle a bit to get over the rib.

On my first visit this season the water was clear, but a little high.  I arrived just as a lone fish did, but with the high water there was no struggle and it was gone before I could get the camera out.  I visited the bridge a couple more times on my lunch break from work, but in the short time available did not see any others.

There is a stretch of land along the west side of the creek along Avondale Road that is more or less on my way home from the power line trail.  It appears to be public, based on the sign which reads “Lower Bear Creek Natural Area”.  Much of the creek-bank in this stretch is a thicket of Himalayan Blackberry (nature’s barbed wire around these parts), but it is possible to get close to the creek with some moderate bushwhacking.  The southern end of this area shows evidence of attempted landscaping, as if a trail or some other access point was to be built.  That end is adjacent to a senior citizens’ residence so some engineering is probably appropriate, if there is a plan for a picnic area or trails for the residents to use.

The northern boundary of the area is a paved street.  The bridge over Bear Creek on NE 106th Street is built of heavy timbers, cedar I would guess.  On the same walk where I missed a picture opportunity on the lone fish upstream, I took a couple of shots from the bridge and the low-lying land of the west side of the creek not too far from the street.

bear creek looking for salmon-1bear creek looking for salmon-10There were no tell-tale red flashes in the tannin-stained water, but I could see that there was a rough path I could follow downstream, close to the creek, when I had time to explore further.

That opportunity arrived on a sunny Sunday afternoon a few days after the pictures above were taken.  After making a pass across the Puget Power Trail bridge and a quick loop around Farrell-McWhirter (hoping for but being disappointed by the fall color), I followed Bear Creek southward (downstream) from the NE 106th Street bridge.  The creek meanders in a natural manner, with shallow, gravel bottomed sections and deeper pools in wide spots.

bear creek looking for salmon-5bear creek looking for salmon-16The rough path follows the right (west) side of the creek over blown-down trees, through the dried-out brush and grass of its floodplain in this area.  There are signs posted closer to Avondale Road indicating fragile wetlands, which told me this land is likely public and part of the Lower Bear Creek Natural Area described by the sign.  A lone empty aluminum can rested near the path, not far from the bridge, with the kind of pull-tab opening that was popular in the 1960’s, when aluminum cans first came into wide usage.  Since it obviously had been there for so long, I left it as a souvenir for someone else.

There were no fish to be seen here, but I did want to see how far downstream I could get on the path without walking where others hadn’t recently walked before me.  The creek bends west about a quarter-mile from NE 106th Street and then back south again as it flows below the previously mentioned thicket along Avondale.  I spotted a large beaver eating leaves in the middle of the creek at that bend last summer and wondered if there was a dam or lodge somewhere between it and where I was standing.

As I got close to the bend to the west, the creek got shallow, its bottom gravelly.  There was clearly no beaver dam between me and the spot where I saw the beaver.  It looked like the end of the line for my walk downstream.  I decided to snap a couple of pictures and as I did, I heard the tell-tale splash.

bear creek looking for salmon-13

There was one and then a second bright red sockeye salmon making their way upstream, clearly visible in the shallow water.

bear creek looking for salmon-1abear creek looking for salmon-3

They moved in and out of the reflections on the creek surface.  I adjusted the circular polarizing filter on my camera lens to minimize the effect but otherwise snapped away with abandon.  They splashed and jumped a couple of times as I tracked them upstream, trying to get shots with minimal reflection and the best possible detail on the fish themselves.   Looking at them now though, I find the shots where the reflected trees and the actual fish merge are more interesting.

bear creek looking for salmon-2bear creek looking for salmon-4

I followed them upstream a bit, along the same path I’d come in on.  There was a spot in the shade where a downed tree jutted out into the creek.  I headed for it, perching myself on the end closest to where I expected the fish to pass.  If they had continued upstream, I would have been looking right down on them.  One of them appeared across the creek and downstream from my vantage point, but must have decided to backtrack, disappearing back downstream.  The other fish never showed up at all.  I wondered if they were a couple and found their spot in a downstream section of the creek.

bear creek looking for salmon-20bear creek looking for salmon-21

Later research has me convinced that these two were both males.  The noted splashing and jumping was probably aggression.  I didn’t see a third fish that would have been the female they were looking for.  But maybe that’s why they turned around.  No point in continuing on without a mate.


Hidden Lake Peak and Lookout


A short while ago on an after work hike, a friend mentioned that he was planning an overnighter at the Hidden Lake lookout in the North Cascades of Washington.  It’s one of those decommissioned fire lookouts made famous by the Beat Generation of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. I’ve read a lot of Kerouac and Gary Snyder, starting with Kerouac but finding I prefer Snyder.  It’s still hard for me to believe those guys were my father’s contemporaries.

I don’t know if the Hidden Lake lookout was manned in its active days by anyone as famous as the denizens of the Desolation Peak lookout, farther north, near the Canadian border.  It was the focus of the early chapters of Kerouac’s Desolation Angels.  Snyder convinced Kerouac that he could re-discover the meaning of his life and make a little money besides by spending a summer there as a fire lookout.  It didn’t work out that way.  Kerouac could stay pure for only so long.

One Labor Day around the turn of the millennium I did a solo day hike to the lookout.  For various reasons I missed the one backpacking opportunity available to me that year, a through hike from Stehekin on Lake Chelan over Park Creek Pass, ending on the North Cascades Highway.  My friend Brian described the Hidden Lake hike sometime over the course of that summer and it seemed like the best substitute I could come up with for the backpack trip.

It was a typical socked-in Pacific Northwest morning, on the edge of drizzling, when I hit the trail.  It follows the lower reaches of the East Fork Sibley Creek up through the forest before opening into a semi-open meadow that appeared to lead to the base of a waterfall, where the creek falls from an upper basin below the lookout.

Sibley Creek falls

I was just starting to get serious about my photography at the time and had not yet gone digital.  In pursuit of that seriousness I sprung for a couple of rolls of Kodak Portra V160 print film for the weekend.  I had about 20 shots left on the first roll and the whole 36 on the second available to me.  Today, on a hike like that, I’d be shocked if I didn’t end up with over 200 shots.

Given the cost, I didn’t get the camera out of my pack until the falls were in view, but once it was out I got into the mode.  I guess the only real difference between how I operated then and now was that back then I only clicked the shutter when I was sure I liked what I saw in the viewfinder.  I learned to rely on the camera to get things right for me, almost always in aperture priority mode.  I still prefer that mode, only now I click away with reckless abandon.

The trail follows the creek up to a point where it crosses below the falls, traversing a steep hillside among heather, granite boulders and stunted fir trees.  After a single waterfall shot I set the camera back in its case, but with the strap still around my neck, ready for more landscape.  The trail got steeper for a bit before starting to mellow out as it traversed.  I came around a bend in the trail, still winded from the ascent when two young black tail deer bucks, 2-pointers by western count, materialized out of the wall of fog.  Slowly I brought the camera up to my eye, afraid any movement would spook them.  But they were curious enough about me to stay put for a couple of shots.

Deer on the Trail

By the time I passed the spot where I saw the two deer, the most serious part of the elevation gain was behind me.  The fog remained dense as I followed the trail up through foggy open meadows toward the ridge line where the lookout was situated, just over the boundary between Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, where the trail starts, and North Cascades National Park, where it ends.

Granite Block

Just below the lookout, still in dense fog, I lost the trail as it ascended through a jumble of granite blocks.  I could hear voices coming from above so I was sure I was on the right track.  And as I reached more or less level ground on the ridge, I found myself above the fog, now visible as a cloud layer just below the ridge top.  The sky was clear blue, and the high peaks of the North Cascades stood above that same cloud layer, providing vistas like those from an airplane above the clouds in every direction.

Forbidden and Boston PeaksJohannesberg Peak

I finished the first roll of film and loaded my second roll as quickly as I could.  There were 4 other hikers on the ridge, visiting the lookout.  We exchanged pleasantries about the views there for us, and when I mentioned that I was a little worried about going back down the way I’d come up, they pointed in the direction of the actual trail that I had lost in the rocks.  Shortly after, they headed back down that way, and I had the ridge to myself.

Snow KIngLookout Skyline

My practice as a serious landscape photographer in those days was to leave evidence of man’s presence in the wilderness out of my shots as much as possible.  Today, with nearly 20 years of hindsight, I wish I had some pictures of the lookout itself.  That I don’t provides an incentive to go back there someday.  Another incentive to go back is to get images of the quality that I can easily get with the digital gear I use today.  But one thing that I got out of this trip that I can’t guarantee I’ll get on a return were the conditions – the airplane-like views of the distant peaks and the fog shrouded scenes from within the clouds on the way up and back.

Frugality back then led me to the practice of requesting that the photo lab develop the film but not make prints from the negatives.  I then scanned the negatives to digitize the images.  Toward the end of my time shooting film, I switched to slide film, which was touchier to expose but provided a better quality product out of the lab.  The images from this outing were processed through the same commercial grade C-41 film processor used for everyone’s film at the commercial photo lab I did business with.  I worked in one of those labs for a couple summers in college so I should not have been surprised at the results.  Most of the negatives proved my capture technique was good, but the excessive graininess, and hairs and other splotches on the negatives left me frustrated.

The photo lab ceased operating in 2005, prompting me to buy my first digital camera.  The freedom to take as many shots as I wanted, and to enhance them for display or print led me to ignore my collection of scanned film images for a few years, but I came back to these again around 2008.  I don’t recall why but I decided to take the negatives to one of the remaining labs in the area and have prints made.  My hope was that the in the process of making prints, the problems I had with the negatives could be solved.  I was disappointed again.

Fast forward to 2018.  I invested in Adobe Photoshop many years ago, and finally bit the bullet and sprung for the subscription version, to get Lightroom and to get updates whenever they happen.  Over the years I have become fairly adept at getting what I want out of Photoshop’s vast capabilities.  I find that for my digital images, though, Lightroom is easier to use and gets me good quality display images from my raw files.  I use Photoshop only when I want to get a little more creative, or if my plan is to make a print.

With a change of computers and the need to adapt to the Lightroom-Photoshop work flow, I brought over all of the old scanned files.  I had 2 versions of the Hidden Lake lookout files – one from the original negatives scan and one from the prints.  I have a newer scanner now and a lot more skill with Photoshop so I decided to do one more scan from the prints and then see what more I could get from these images.

The images taken on the way up and on the way down were all below the cloud deck, which must have been at around 6,500 feet that day, as the elevation of the Hidden Lake lookout is around 6,800 feet.  The dense fog provided a softening white backdrop where the sky would have been, and allowed details like trees and rocks to fade away the farther I was from them.  One of my favorite Photoshop tools is the Blur Gallery.  I used the Field Blur and the Tilt-Shift blur on most of these shots to smooth out the graininess and add apparent depth.  For the deer I used the Iris blur simply to put all of the focus on the curious deer.

Heather and GraniteRock Garden

The prints of the fog images were reasonably well done, but the color in most needed help.  There was a lot of heather and other evergreen, offset by granite.  The Lightroom Turquoise and Red creative color setting did a nice job where there was a lot of heather, adding density to the deep greens and the lavender flowers.  Where the fog and the granite were dominant I used Warm Shadows where there was some color, or Desaturated Contrast when it was more about the shapes.

More Granite and HeatherGlacier Peak and Snow King Mt

Images taken from above the cloud deck presented a different set of problems.   In a few, the graininess was excessive.  In others, the grey in the clouds of the cloud deck and passing the peaks above it had shifted to a weird pink in the scans.  Cool Light, Soft Mist and Desaturated Contrast were my go-to color presets in Lightroom.  I tried them all and kept the one that looked best in each case.  I added medium contrast and blemish corrections to all of these in Lightroom, knowing I was going to do a lot more correcting in Photoshop.

Most of the airplane view images had solid cloud deck in the foreground, distinct horizon views of near and far mountain peaks, with passing clouds or blue sky above.  Where the overall graininess wasn’t too bad I used the Tilt-Shift blur gallery selection, trying to smooth out only the cloud deck and the sky with blurriness.  For a few, only the full Field blur would do.  The goal in all of these was to keep the solid surfaces sharp in proportion to the amount of fog blurring in the original image, and to soften the passing clouds, the blue sky and the cloud deck below.

Glacier PeakOn the way down

Since so much time has passed, I have to say these images probably don’t look exactly like what I saw through the viewfinder when I snapped the shutter, either in terms of color or overall tone.  Fog lends itself to abstraction anyway, so why not run with it?  I do have a return trip to the Hidden Lake lookout on my to-do list.  It will be interesting to compare what I get with modern digital capture to the idealized, labor-intensive shots I have here.


Notes on equipment:

For this outing I had a Minolta Maxxum 5, with Minolta 35-80 and 70-210 zoom lenses.   I used Kodak Portra V160 color print film and had prints made.  I scanned the prints using an Epson Artisan 810 All-In-One printer and scanner and VueScan x64 Professional Edition scanner software.  Photo editing was done in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic and Adobe Photoshop CC.

I currently use a Panasonic GX-8 micro four-thirds camera body with a Panasonic Leica 12-60, Panasonic 45-200 telephoto zoom and a Laowa 7.5 f2 prime lens.


Aasgard Pass

According to Wikipedia, “(i)n Norse religion, Asgard (Old Norse: ”Ásgarðr”; “Enclosure of the Æsir”) is one of the Nine Worlds and home to the Æsir tribe of gods. It is surrounded by an incomplete wall…”.  On the map below, the pass known as Aasgard is called Colchuck Pass.  If the Enchantments are the home of the gods, Aasgard Pass, as the place I describe below is known now, must be the incomplete part of the wall.



The Enchantments are, according to the definitive 100 Classic Hikes in Washington by Ira Spring and Harvey Manning (The Mountaineers, ninth printing, 2008) “(a) legendary group of lakes in rock basins over 7000 feet high amid the Cashmere Crags of the Stuart Range”.  Part of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington state, the area lies east of the Cascade Crest and is accessed via Icicle Creek Road, out of Leavenworth. There are two trails into the area.  The Snow Lakes route follows Snow Creek for about 10 miles before reaching the Lower Enchantment Lakes.  The other route follows the Stuart Lake and Colchuck Lake trails from Eightmile Road (off of Icicle Creek Road), up and over Aasgard Pass to the Upper Enchantments.   The trails are connected and can be hiked as a loop.  The description in this book strongly implies that it should be done that way, and only in one direction.

I’m not sure if it was Harvey Manning or Ira Spring who closed the write-up of the Enchantments hike (#48) by expressing the judgment that approaching the core Enchantments zone by way of Aasgard Pass is in very bad taste, but surely they agreed on it.  I believe the “bad taste” characterization relates fact that the highest point on the trail is reached before any of the lakes and rock basins that so enchanted the explorer that gave the area its name are even seen.  The opinion expressed starts out with the assertion that “(i)n recent years the Aasgard fraud has been perpetrated”.  The fraud part may have to do with reason many visitors approach through Aasgard – it’s a couple of miles shorter.  There is fair warning in everything I’ve heard and read that shorter doesn’t mean easier.

There are peaks to climb on this trip, approached from both the lower and upper Enchantments, so for climbers the Aasgard approach makes sense.  My one and only trip to there, undertaken in late September 2015, was in a party made up of Brian, Craig, Derek, Ron, Sam, Z and me.  For expediency’s sake, we entered and exited the core Enchantments zone via the Aasgard route.   Ron left the morning after we ascended Aasgard, concerned about his creaky knees and the weather forecast.  Craig, Derek, Sam and Z were focused on the climbing to be had, while Brian and I were expecting to do a lot of exploring, just not of the peak-bagging variety.  According to the Washington Trails Association Hiking Guide, the trail over Aasgard proper gains “nearly 2000 feet in just three-quarters of a mile”.  The Hiking Guide calls the hike up Aasgard a “thigh-burning, chest-bursting, eye-popping endeavor…“.   With hindsight I have to say that the thigh-burning, chest bursting moments were few and far between.  My physical condition on the hike was such that I really couldn’t move fast enough to stay winded.  The eye-popping part was definitely true, though.  Given that the goal of the day was to get up the hill, I didn’t take as many photographs as I did the next day in our exploration of the upper and lower basins.

And just as the words “gains 2000 feet in less than a mile” don’t begin to do the hike up Aasgard with a full pack justice, it’s very difficult to convey the scale of the pass as a trail hike and the experience of going up it with pictures.  My first look at Aasgard was from an opening in the forest above the shore of Colchuck Lake on the hike in from the trailhead.  The trip to our beach campsite on Colchuck was itself a serious grunt with a full pack.  With 7 hikers we broke up into groups, with the 2 oldest and slowest, Brian and me, grouped with Z, who fell back from the faster hikers because he had his camera out.  From this vantage point the trail up is clearly visible.  In the picture it doesn’t look that steep or that difficult, the perspective perpetrating its own fraud on our eyes.  The white clouds that shrouded the top of Dragontail Peak, the fresh dusting of snow on its steep face, and the deep emerald water of Colchuck Lake grab your attention here.  Aasgard is lost in the shuffle.

First look at Aasgard

The second shot of Aasgard was taken from our beach campsite.  The tents of another party pitched on the beach below the pass give it some scale.  But again, the beach and the lake surface between us and the tents of the other party dominate the shot.  Aasgard is background.

Aasgard Pass from the beach on Colchuck

After an evening spent drinking beer and chowing down on some very heavy, decidedly non-hiking food hauled in by some of the party, including a six-pack of Aasgard IPA, we got a brunch-time start.  Just getting from our campsite to the base of the pass was an ordeal.  Expecting to find a trail above the boulders that bordered the sandy beach on the south shore of Colchuck, I scrambled up through the boulders in that direction.  Alas there was no real trail.  During the scramble a pack cover I had clipped to the top of my pack came loose and fell into gap between 2 boulders that was deep enough that I had to drop the pack and fish it out on the end of a trekking pole.  The rest of the way to the actual trail was a combination of boulder hopping and bushwacking.  I burned a fair amount of energy just getting there, with all 2000 feet of elevation gain yet to be done.

My camera was available for the entire ascent, but the lowest reaches of the trail included quite a bit more boulder hopping.  So I didn’t snap my first picture until we were about a quarter of the way up.  If framing Aasgard from a vantage point across the lake resulted in an underwhelming photograph, the temptation while on it was to use it as a platform for shots of the lake and the peaks around it.  I did take several shots of the trail ahead of me from this picture stop.  With the foreground taking up most of the frame and the upper reaches of the visible trail fading to infinity, the two shots here provide the best sense of the experience of walking up it.

Brian and I, lagging way behind the rest of our party, probably took an hour longer than the next slowest among us, arriving at the second campsite 3 or more hours after the first of us to ascend.  I tried to maintain a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race mindset for the day.  Big views of Colchuck Lake and surrounds were available every time I turned around.

The walls on the left and right (Dragontail) seemed like they would close in as we ascended, but they never did.  Instead the scenery immediately around where we were became the focal point of each shot.  The way up that we took stayed to the left and the wall on that side seemed to get bigger as we got closer to it.

The apparent summit seen from the uphill perspective shots is a false summit.  At one point well above the stand of trees visible way up the trail in those shots, in the middle, there is a smooth boulder face we needed to ascend.  It was a couple of feet too high for me to reach a solid handhold I could use to pull myself up over the edge.  There was a gap to the left of the face that was just wide enough for me to squeeze into sideways and work my way up above the edge with a chimney-like rock climbing move, followed by a corkscrewing of my body up onto the ledge above, pack still on.  After that my interest in photography faded.  My mindset became one foot in front of the other until we were there.   We finally arrived, sweating in tee-shirts and shorts, to a cold wind at Aasgard Pass proper.  Sam met us with some whiskey near the pass and led us to the campsite.  Tents were already pitched.  Craig and Derek were out exploring.  Those two with Sam and Z had already climbed Little Annapurna.  Ron and Z were off scouting for alternate campsites, though everyone present was planning on staying put.  That is what we ended up doing.

After pitching my tent I went off to take pictures in the slanting late afternoon sunlight.  The view of Colchuck Lake from the top of the pass was taken on this walk.  The steepness of the trail is evident in the fact that it is not visible from this vantage point at all.  The shot might as well been taken from a cliff.


I have a lot more trouble descending trails than I do ascending.  My ankles are have been trashed for years and will roll at the slightest change in the surface.  I wear basketball style ankle braces over my socks even with high cut hiking boots.  That seems to have solved the problem but I was still nervous all the way down when we started back two days later.  There was a goat on the trail about a third of the way down.  The wall on the right on the way down is obviously massive with him walking up a ledge at its base to get away from us.


Brian and I camped by the outlet of Colchuck Lake on the last night of the trip.  Everyone else hiked all of the way out.  This last shot, with Aasgard as just the gap to the left of Dragontail, across a lake, was taken from that last camp, in the hazy morning light.


Many years ago I visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas.  My first impression was that it was a lot smaller than I expected.  Legendary places become legends through the experience of them, not from first impressions.

All photos were taken hand-held with a Panasonic DMC-LX100.  Brian Sandmann took the one with me in it.

Endless Summer on Rainier

Trips to Sunrise on Mt. Rainier’s northeast corner have been a nearly annual event for me since I first arrived in western Washington 30 years ago.  The road to Sunrise crosses Fryingpan Creek about halfway between the pay station and the intersection that sends some to Sunrise and others to the White River campground.  There is a small parking lot north of the bridge, always full.  Wide spots on the shoulder of the road south of the bridge and north of the parking lot are also always taken.  Still, it took a few years before I was curious enough to find out why.  The trailhead leaving the parking lot is to an area called Summerland.  Had to be beautiful with a name like that, right?  I drove up on a weekday during my 2012 sabbatical with the intention of hiking the trail.  All of the parking was taken by 10AM on a weekday, so I went elsewhere.

My friend Brian was also curious about Summerland, and proposed a long day hike through the area, with the ultimate goal of Panhandle Gap, a saddle in a ridge separating two of Rainier’s drainages.  Brian, Sam and I decided to go for it on a July Sunday that was, up to then, the hottest day of the hottest summer I’ve experienced in the Pacific Northwest.

Our early start paid off with a parking spot just south of the bridge.  The trail to Summerland is officially part of the Wonderland Trail, which winds all the way around Mt. Rainier National Park.  It starts out wide, in old growth forest.  There are peek-a-boo views to the south up to the Sarvent Glaciers, which, according to the map, should be visible clinging to the cliff face above us.  There was just a narrow strip visible at the crest of the ridge.  We speculated that the glacier extended down the other side.  A couple of miles in, the trail crossed Fryingpan Creek on an enhanced footlog (railing on one side).  After that, the valley narrows as the vegetation transitions from forest to meadow.  While dusty, the trail at this stage was bordered by wildflowers and deep greenery.  To the right, across the creek, is the south slope of Goat Island Mountain.  To the left, after following the creek bed for a short stretch, the trail switchbacked its way up to Summerland.

With temperatures approaching 100 in the Puget Sound lowlands, the sunny mid-seventies that was happening above 6,000 feet was more than agreeable.  We stopped and looked around at Summerland, then continued on the Wonderland, first through open meadows, and then across rocky moonscapes.

We took a side trip to a small snowfield that had not yet melted out, before pressing on to our destination at Panhandle Gap, 6,800 feet.  Above was the ridge separating us from the Fryingpan Glacier proper.  We wanted a closer look at what remained of the snowfield, as well as the opportunity to bury the four bottles of 10 Barrel IPA that Sam hauled up from the trailhead in the snow long enough to get them cold again.

On the way across the rock-strewn moonscape above Summerland were scattered islands of vegetation.  Most were moss, low, flowering plants and tufts of grass typical for this kind of terrain.  The way forward was mostly bare rock, so we were easily able to avoid walking on them.  There were also scattered examples of colonization by trees in a spot they could not have grown in previously.  Comparing the picture I took to the Field Guide to the Cascades & Olympics (Whitney & Sandelin, Mountaineers Books, 2003), I would guess they are silver firs, growing on the rocky hillside more than a half mile from their nearest full-grown relatives.   In Resilience:  A New Conservation Strategy for a Warming World (, Jim Robbins wrote …

“species are on the move, rising up in elevation at a rate of 11 meters and poleward at 17 kilometers per decade — about 36 feet and 10 miles respectively — to escape the heat and stay within their niches”.

These fir trees seem like good examples of the phenomenon.

While we waited for the beer to chill, we walked up over the rocky bluff behind us to get a better look at the ice and snow covered rock face at the head of the cul-de-sac we were in.  On my Topo map, the ice and snow pasted on this wall is portrayed as a glacier.  The map shows this unnamed glacier extending down the face from about 7,000 feet to where we buried the beer at 6,400 feet, a rough triangle with one point near the beer and the junction of two runoff channels.  On this day, the wide part of the glacier petered out at about 6,500 feet.  Below that, there was about a 60 yard break in the snow cover before the bottom of the triangle.  At this rate, the lower section is likely to melt completely before the summer ends.

The remaining glacier ended in a low angle runout, level with the spot where we stood, about 40 yards short of the edge.  Stopping there was not a conscious decision for me, but the collection of rocks resting there in the melting snow tells me that getting any closer to the glacier would have been asking for trouble.  With the sun beating down on it, the glacier was melting quickly from the top.  Loose rocks were raining down from that melting edge continuously.

To the right side of the glacier, we spotted what looked like a glissade track that crossed the steep upper section.  It disappeared at a break in the ice where a rock band had melted through. No sane person would have slid down that steep face, so we looked for and found a large rock in the runout zone.  The track started again on a second steep section of snow and ice.  The rock must have gotten airborne when it hit an outcropping, bounced a couple of times in the snow above the runout, then slid to a stop as the slope angle mellowed out.  It was about the size of truck tire.

After the beer and some lunch, we headed for the shore of a shallow lake that the Wonderland Trail skirted on its way to our final destination for the day, Panhandle Gap.  Again, while the map shows a glacier extending down from 6,800 feet in a solid band to the lake, what we have is just a remnant, its triangle point terminating several yards from the lake.  The dirty ice of this one looks thick enough to last the summer, but it seems only a matter of time before it’s gone.  At the gap, more dwindling glaciers greet our gaze as we look south toward Ohanapecosh Park.

All of this melting ice piqued my curiosity, so I continued my explorations on the internet.  I stopped at the first link, to a study of Rainier’s glaciers published by the US Geological Survey in 1972 (  It is a product of its time.  The use of glacial runoff to generate hydroelectric power, and the threat that “glaciers in some places pose to the works of man” are provided as justification for spending taxpayer funds for the study.  Still, the paper was quite informative on the general subject.

By determining the approximate ages of trees growing at the margins of moraines (accumulations of dirt and rocks that have fallen onto the glacier surface or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves (definition from Wikipedia)) left behind by several of the major glaciers, the authors mapped the maximum advances of those glaciers over the past several centuries.   Included in the paper was a sketch of ice coverage on Rainier made in 1896 by two early researchers.  The geological formation (Goat Island Mountain) most relevant to the glaciers I’m focused on was clearly not drawn to scale in the sketch, but it still provides a dramatic contrast to what I saw at Summerland that afternoon, and to my observations of the Emmons Glacier over the years I’ve been visiting the area.

Goat Island Mountain rises more than 2,000 feet above Fryingpan Creek at the point where we crossed it on a footlog, about 5,200 feet.  It separates the Fryingpan Creek drainage from the Emmons Glacier and the White River headwaters.  The bed of Fryingpan Creek rises about 200 feet from the footlog to where the Wonderland Trail begins switchbacking through open forest to Summerland, 500 feet higher still.  When we looked down on Fryingpan Creek from the switchbacking trail, we were looking at land that was buried deeply under the lower reaches of the Fryingpan Glacier in 1896, if the sketch is to be believed.  In September 2008, I photographed the Emmons Glacier from the Sunrise Rim trail.  In the background, a disconnected remnant of the Fryingpan Glacier reaching down to about 6,600 feet is visible in the background, but the main glacier ends at a ridge near 7,000 feet.  So in the intervening 112 years, Fryingpan Glacier has retreated just over one mile.  It gives way to bare rock 2,000 feet higher up the mountain.

The comments above are my personal guess at the extent of retreat of the Fryingpan Glacier.  The USGS study provides more definitive data on the retreat of the Emmons Glacier between 1896 and 1972.  When we first moved to the Seattle area in 1983, our older daughter was a little girl with an aversion to hiking.  We found that she was interested in the Emmons Moraine trail, out of the White River Campground.   The end of the glacier reminded her of the Castle Grayskull from the He-Man cartoons she watched religiously.  So we visited often.  Back then, the Emmons Moraine trail left the Glacier Basin Trail about a mile out of the campground.  A footlog crossing and then a short walk down the side of the moraine led to a close up vantage point, less than half a mile from end of the Emmons.  The 1896 map shows the Emmons reaching nearly to the junction of the Inter Fork and the White River proper, nearly a mile further down the valley.  The study confirms the accuracy of the sketch.

The study places the oldest moraines in the Emmons study a little more than a half mile from the junction of the White River and the Inter Fork, which drains the Inter Glacier and the Glacier Basin area.  This is maybe a half-mile farther down stream than the 1896 margins, and is dated at around 1655.  The Little Ice Age ran from about 1500 to 1850.  During this period, the average temperature in the Northern Hemisphere was about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit lower than the average for that millennium (1000 AD to 2000AD) (  The result of that was the expansion of mountain glaciers in Europe and North America.  There is no question that now, the Emmons, and Rainier’s other glaciers, are retreating, and fast.  And it looks like the forest is moving uphill to replace them.

Notes on the photographs:

Images of the Emmons Glacier were taken in late September 2008 with a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT and a Canon 17-85MM lens.  It was late afternoon and the shortening of the days provided some nice light.  The Summerland hike images were all taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC LX-100 compact digital camera.  It’s taken a couple of outings to get used to it.  Some rules I have followed when shooting with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II don’t apply.  One was to underexpose, as the Canon blew out highlights routinely, but kept detail in the shadows and did a nice job minimizing noise.  The Panasonic shows the opposite behavior.  On this trip I bracketed exposures by plus and minus 1 stop, generally with a 1-stop underexposure in the middle.  On occasion I even did even exposure in the middle.  The result was that I tossed most of the lowest exposure images but was able to keep the 2 higher exposures.  I guess I’ll need to learn to trust the meter on the Panasonic.

John Harrington