Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hypothermia Hills, April 6, 2010


Q: Where the heck is Hypothermia Hills? A: Just about any trail near North Bend on a rainy day.

This was just about the most entertaining but frustrating hike we’ve done lately. The trail is not really a trail, rather it is a route that has sprung up like weeds that lead to any number of destinations, none of them sane or easily described. Add rain, sleet and mud and you’ve got Hypothermia Hills.

This trail (for lack of a better word) is undoubtedly nothing to a rock climber but a hiker will have their work cut out for them. It could be considered one of the climbers’ trails off Exit No. 38 and you might be able to find more information about this trail by researching The Internet or a bookstore, especially a used bookstore.

Of greater interest to some: you can look up “Dirty Harry” on The Internet but this Dirty Harry is not to be confused with Clint Eastwood. Dirty Harry was a gyppo logger who put in logging roads where other road-builders refused to tread. Let’s just say the foothills around North Bend were his cathedral, a place where his used-up trucks and equipment could forever rest.

A hike called “Dirty Harry’s Balcony” should also give you some idea of what to expect of the terrain and though guidebook author Harvey Manning was not fond of the logging industry (especially gyppo loggers), I believe he had a grudging admiration for wily Dirty Harry who built roads too stubborn to die. Legend has it that Harry is still around and if he’s not, his ghost is. Every time I come across a cable in the brush, I get a shiver thinking of Dirty Harry and the way he shaped the land up around North Bend. I also believe that though he used the land he loved it fiercely.

There’s also a place where a stream crosses Dirty Harry’s road where persistent hikers find and photograph the slow death of one of Dirty Harry’s trucks. I’ve looked but haven’t found it yet; like Harry, it eludes me.

I may have met his ghost. Recently on our way to Mount Si we screeched to a halt along the Mount Si Road where elk had just crossed and were disappearing into a field, silent as shadows. A few other vehicles braked to a stop and pulled off to the side for a closer look. A fiftyish fellow in a beat-up pickup had pulled over and rolled his window down – he was holding on to a cup of coffee with one hand and his lower denture in the other as he expounded to us on how “great” it is to see elk so close. We were as fascinated by this local as we were the elk – he was so amazingly unself-conscious about how he looked. I almost asked his name but didn’t. I’m basically shy. It’s one of the reasons I write.

When I was writing for The Seattle Post Intelligencer I got a handwritten letter from a reader who was a child when she encountered him on a logging road in North Bend. Her family had gone for a picnic and a Sunday drive on the back roads when their car broke down. It was getting on toward twilight and it was too far for the father to hike down to North Bend. As they sat in the car trying to think what to do a couple of rough-looking fellows pulled up in a beat-up truck. This was back in the days before cell phones; the men offered to drive the father down to North Bend for help. The woman continued her story describing how long it felt to sit in the car with her mother as darkness fell, waiting for her father to return. The story had a happy ending – obviously the ruffians were good men and did not harm anyone in the family.

Back to the present: Instead of going to North Bend we continued east, turning off I-90 at Exit 38; from there we continued east along the frontage road (Old US 10) to the east end of the exit (to head back west you have to drive back along the frontage road for the west-bound on-ramp). Parking is limited but there are a few spaces where you can park without blocking roads used by the Fire Training Center or land-management agencies. To find the beginning of the trail hike up the road as if you were going to the state Fire Training Center. Cross the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River on a bridge. Just after you cross the river on the bridge spot the trail heading east along the river.

Some hikers call this the “bird box trail” and I find this name agreeable despite the unpleasantness of the route on a rainy day. There are actually bird boxes on trees at several points along the trail. Nope, I don’t know who put them there but it’s nice to spot one (that way, you know you are “somewhere” at least).

We found the Bird Box trail by accident (we had planned to visit Dirty Harry’s Balcony) a few years ago. We’d planned to hike to Dirty Harry’s Balcony (further up the road past the state Fire Training Center) but spotted an obvious trail at the bridge. We’d been to the “balcony” before and since the trail near the bridge wasn’t signed we had to find out where it went.

That turned out to be a route-finding romp but the weather was good and my companions were jolly. The crafty path wove between boulders in forest gloom before finally climbing to grassy, bald knolls with views down to I-90, the surrounding foothills and ridges. After gaining 1,300 feet or so the trail came out on an old road with a sign and arrow pointing to Dirty Harry’s Balcony (you can also get to this spur from Dirty Harry’s Road). From there it only took a few minutes to reach the Balcony. After the visit to the Balcony we followed the spur road back to Dirty Harry’s Road and hiked back to the car – that made a nice loop.

Silverback and I attempted to repeat that loop yesterday; we were raring to go despite the rain. After crossing the South Fork of the Snoqualmie I looked for the start of the trail and spotted it immediately (it is on the east side of the bridge).

Off we went in the spirit of optimism despite the rain. The trail is level for a bit as it parallels the river and gradually becomes an old road. The next stretch of the hike is part of a cable line road. Signs prohibit “digging” because of the buried cable but who would want to dig here anyway? After a bit of this and that we paused at an unsigned fork in deep woods interspersed with boulders. You will encounter several forks on this trail system, each one more vague than the one before.

Memory kicked in; I recognized a tugboat-sized boulder pinned to earth by a chain mail of steely roots. While the surrounding forest is dark and gloomy the outcroppings, are graced with the yellow-green sheen of moss that illustrates how long the boulders have been there (a very long time).

Meanwhile, back at the “junction” I couldn’t remember the correct “spur” to continue on the Bird Box Trail. First we tried the east fork; but that was wrong – the east “fork” does lead to another jumble of boulders but that wasn’t where we wanted to go.

We tried the other path; the correct one (this is actually the old road that is marked with buried cable signs). From that junction it was up, up and up. Occasionally we’d spot a bird-box or a cairn to help us find our way though once you are on the correct trail, it’s easy enough to follow.

The buried cable signs disappeared; the trail climbed steeply, through pockets of forest, skirting rocky promontories with what are wonderful views on clear days. Today the views were of fog in shades of white and gray, obscuring the ridgelines across the freeway. From time to time I-90 would partially materialize before disappearing again into the void.

Of course, we were dealing with Harry’s weather; rain, drizzle and fog. Worse, we began to encounter snow. Initially the snow wasn’t a problem though we had to watch our step where the path skirted an outcropping with nothing below but fog. After skirting about the 5th or 6th outcropping (we weren’t counting, we were too busy hiking) we lost the trail in a forested section where snow had covered the ground. We gamely carried on a while because we knew we were close to the road that provides egress to Dirty Harry’s Balcony.

We were ever certain of success when we spotted a wooden arrow pointing the way on a tree but Dirty Harry had a trick or two up his sleeve. He wasn’t going to allow these city slickers into the Balcony today; we spent quite a bit of time looking for the trail, always returning to the arrow so as not to get lost.

Lest you think we are idiots without route-finding skills give us a break; the GPS is broken and our only assistance was my less-than-perfect memory and our ability to follow the trail as the snow continued to erase the tread. It was getting late, we were getting wet and after bungling about on what “might” have been the “trail” we had to admit defeat and start back down the way we’d come (earlier in the day we’d gaily remarked how nice it would be to hike back down on Dirty Harry’s Road rather than the Bird Box trail). Be careful what you say!

Descending the trail was not pleasant; where there wasn’t a thin layer of snow there was mud. Then, of course, add rocky outcroppings looming over a foggy void where a haphazard slip could lead to Certain Unpleasantness. While this descent could hardly qualify as having a good time it went quickly, much more quickly than we’d anticipated. Fantasies of dry clothes and coffee back at the car added inspiration to our somewhat reckless and speedy descent (we managed to descend without slipping, a minor miracle).
We were chilled to the bone by the time we got back to the car; even the best raingear and boots will fail to some extent on such a wet day. Sound miserable? It was; but it was also a lot of fun.

As for the weather we call it hypothermia weather; hence, Hypothermia Hills. So rest guaranteed that just about any place you hike around North Bend on a wet day might put you at for hypothermia – go prepared. Watch out for Dirty Harry’s ghost, allow time to sleuth the way and if you ever do find the connection of the Bird Box trail to the Balcony drop me a note!

Last but not least I’d love to say we’d climbed a couple thousand feet for a 10-mile hike but it appears we’d gained only about 1,300 feet of elevation per my ancient altimeter; and I’ll guess at the mileage. Three to 3-1/2 miles the at most; it felt like more.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fuller Mountain


No kidding, you can get lost here. Ask me how I know that – yes, we came close to getting lost on a previous visit to this cute little peak.

My first visit was on a Mountaineer hike led by the late Archie Wright. That was a day in fall and as we switchbacked toward the summit through a high sea of swirling sword ferns, I wondered how we’d find our way back. Archie, of course, knew the way.

I returned a few years later only to learn the hard way that staying on the trail was easier said than done. We eventually found the bald little summit but lost the trail on our way back. Over time the sea of sword ferns had grown deeper, the trees taller. We stood confused in a Sargasso Sea of ferns, salal, Oregon grape and look-alike second and third-growth forest – there were no distinctive landmarks.

That was on a cold winter day and the hours were moving much faster than we were hiking. Flummoxed, we thrashed around, cursed a bit, briefly panicked and finally found the wisp of a trail, making it back to the car with daylight to spare.

Fast forward to the present – suddenly it seems like everybody is discovering or re-discovering Fuller Mountain though we did find recent trail reports confusing. It seems that most hikers can only describe staying on the trail a little challenging.

Finding the “trailhead” is a challenge in itself unless you familiar with North Bend and the logging road layout. From Seattle drive to North Bend on I-90, follow North Bend Way to Ballarat Avenue, turn left. Ballarat Avenue eventually becomes the North Fork Road (gravel) and jogs uphill (left). We continued on the gravel road about three miles to Spur Gate 10. Spur 10 is a network of logging roads managed by Hancock Forestlands (formerly managed by Weyerhaeuser). We parked at the major road junction, the last place a vehicle can park without a (costly) permit to drive on Hancock’s gated roads.

The hike starts kitty-corner at the road junction at Spur 10; the sign for Ten Mile Creek is gone. Find the creek near the road junction at Spur 10 and you’ll spot the obvious trail. You might hear the creek before you see it. You’ll see two posts where the trail starts, the only indication of trail (the interpretive trail was created by Weyerhaeuser years before these lands were acquired by Hancock Forestlands).

Along the short trail some trees are designated with signs to help visitors recognize the trees that grow here. We noted a “Red Alder”, the biggest red alder I’ve seen in a while. Shortly past “Red Alder” Ten Mile Creek is crossed on what used to be a rickety bridge. The existing bridge is an improvement - a fat log with a rope and chicken wire on slippery wood makes it pretty easy, even for landlubbers like me who don’t relish stream crossings.

Near the bridge we stopped to gaze at ponds created by beaver dams – by golly, this is a pretty place!

The trail crosses an old road before it comes out to a road junction at the edge of a quarry; the end of the old interpretive trail. After you leave the trail turn left for a short distance on the gravel road, then almost immediately turn right onto an older gravel road and look for the trail (left). Previous reports mentioned it was marked by blue flags; we did not find blue flags but the trail is easy to spot if you’re looking.

As for the trail itself it provides more challenges of a different nature; the trail is uneven, rocky and being overtaken by vegetation, lots and lots of sword fern. We enjoyed peek-a-boo views of Klaus Lake below as the trail switchbacked toward the summit. En route there are a few blowdowns; none impassible.

It’s when the trail levels out on the broad summit area that things get perplexing; here, a myriad of trails twists and winds through a jungle of vegetation. Plus, the vegetation is surrounded by look-alike-trees; there are no distinctive landmarks. There are also flags here and there (some with polka dots, some white, some orange) these merely add to the confusion. A GPS would be handy for this hike; ours is broken and needs to be replaced.

It is beyond the skill of this hiker to describe exactly how to find the grassy bald with the view of Mount Si, Fuller Mountain and beyond. You are on your own once the trail gains the undulating summit ridge; we aimed for the sky and followed tread as best we could and by luck more than crook, we found the mossy knoll and settled down, satisfied that we did actually find the “summit” of Fuller Mountain.

There were no views today; Mount Si was barely discernible through the thick layers of clouds but I enjoyed the ambience anyway; the thick layers of intricate mosses that covered the rocky bald were fun to photograph; this is also a summit you’ll likely have to yourself since it is no easy task finding it.

But worth the try!!

The hike is 4 miles round trip with about 600 feet of elevation gain.