9.3 miles, 2543ft gain/3537ft loss. We awake to a foggy morning, and climb out of dew/rain covered tents. The mountain that was so visible before is now obscured, and it’s difficult to see more than about 100 feet. North Cascades!!! Sigh…Oh, well, after breaking camp and eating our breakfast and cup of joe, we head out for our next leg of the journey that will take us down into the fog shrouded valley below to Elbow lake, our next destination.
“...it signifies that it’s a “difficult crossing”…More on that later…”
According to the Green trail map #45, Hamilton, there should be a trail marked #696 just north of the Mazama camp shelter, and a “horse camp” near the trail junction. It also is pointed out as an “other trail”, a dotted green line instead of solid, that takes you down across the Nooksack river, onto Road #38, then back across the Nooksack onto trail #697 to Elbow lake…I also happened to have in my possession, during the mapping process, a Green Trails map of the Mount Baker Wilderness/Climbing -13S, which shows in larger detail this section of trail, and there in the notes, it signifies that it’s a “difficult crossing”…More on that later.
But, for now, we seek the beginning of the Ridley Creek trailhead #697. There’s a slightly used path heading in that direction, so we follow it, but there are no trail markers. The path continues across the meadows here to the tree line, and there, nailed to a tree, is an old marker proclaiming the way to Baker Pass, a trail that is no longer used or maintained. Still, looking at older maps, US TOPO, for instance, it’s clear to see that the old Baker Pass Trail used to join to the Ridley Creek trail, so we continue on this heading, looking for a horse camp, or trail junction, but find none.
Clearly, the no longer used Baker Pass trail is obscured, and we follow the only path that seems to go in the direction we want to go, and it becomes hard to follow as well, as it crosses meadows, disappearing into the grasses, then reappearing on the other end of the small meadows that dot this section of trail. We continue through the fog, paying close attention to the GPS unit, making sure we’re at least heading in the right direction. Once through the meadows, the trees take over, and in the old growth firs, hemlocks, and cedars, the path becomes more evident, as it begins its descent to the river.
This trail is VERY seldom used, evident by the downed trees, and faint path that it has become, obscured by deadfall, and forest duff. It’s mostly dirt, except in the few instances where it feels more as if we’re walking down a now dry creek bed, now rutted with rocks, where spring run-off has washed down the trail. In several places, the trail is cut deeply by water that has surged downhill, creating dry creek beds that would be difficult for a horse to traverse, some of these washes are 10 to 12 feet deep, creating steep embankments on either side…
Just about a mile from Mazama camp, the trail begins its descent downhill, through the forest, and you will lose 1700ft of elevation in the next 2.2 miles, reaching the banks of the river at 3.38 miles in. At home, after downloading the GPS data we took, and overlaying on the TOPO map, it’s clear that the trail no longer closely follows the old trail… There’s not much to see as you descend, especially today, because of the low cloud cover.
“….like being tossed into a washing machine loaded with rocks during full agitation…Not good…”
As we near the Nooksack River, we can hear it crashing over rocks and boulders, and reaching its banks, there’s a sense that this could be ugly if we can’t find a downed tree across the churning waters. The river is brown and moving swiftly through this river bottom, and occasionally, you can see the tips of boulders jutting up through the chocolate colored torrent, a good reminder of just how bad it would be to fall in, like being tossed into a washing machine loaded with rocks during full agitation…Not good. Looking downstream, there doesn’t seem to be a good place, for the opposite bank seems to grow steeply, so we look upriver for a good spot. That and we can see that one person has gone before us, the single set of prints also head up stream. In about a 100 yards or so, we see where that person had crossed, and decide it’s also our best opportunity to cross.
“…No wonder they noted on the maps “difficult crossing”…Now, one more to go…”
Fortunately, the river had undercut a twin set of alders from the opposite bank, and they had spanned the angry waters. And, to aid those that intended to cross on this impromptu bridge, someone had lashed small chunks of wood to this side, creating a landing of sorts. The trees were wet, and narrow, so most of the crossing was done on hands and knees, making sure that a slip would not send one of us plunging into the violent waters below. Safely across, we climb the bank with new energy, thanks to the surge of adrenalin created from crossing the Nooksack. No wonder they noted on the maps “difficult crossing”…Now, one more to go…Hope we’re as fortunate on the next one…
Finding the trail, it’s only another .3 miles to the road, a gravel one lane that ends here at the Ridley Creek Trailhead. Feeling a bit like we’re cheating walking on the road, it’s still nice to have a flat footpath for a while, and we amble downhill to our next crossing. We follow the road for an easy 1.32 miles to where the map shows a left turn to join trail #697 to Elbow Lake, and sure enough, there’s a left turn, looks like a road! Cool! Perhaps there’s a bridge to cross the Nooksack?
Funny, there’s no signage here indicating a trailhead…Only about 150 feet in, around a bend, the road ends, and there’s a fire pit here in the middle of a small turn around. Where’s the trail? A creek at the end of the circle here has been dammed up, and creates a way across this small creek, and it looks as if a trail heads on through the brush. We follow it, for once again, mapping from home, this should be where the trail heads across the river again. Once we reach the river after beating the brush, it becomes clear that this is not the way across, for the opposite bank is steep and uninviting, clearly not a place where one would cut a pathway…Where in the heck is our trail?
“…“River crossing not advisable, no footbridge”…Man!!!”
We head back to the road, and follow it for another .3 miles, and there, we find the trailhead for Elbow Lake! Trail #697! Again, clearly the maps are off a bit…There, on the trailhead info sign, is a handwritten note, “River crossing not advisable, no footbridge”…Man!!! Again, it looks as if we are going to have to find a way across without getting wet…Sure enough, there’s another tree fallen across the river, and it’s a bit wider, allowing a better purchase for wet boots. No one goes in the drink…It’s a relief to know that we’ve safely made it across both crossings now, and the trail seems to be in better shape, and easier to follow.
From the river, it heads steadily uphill through dense forest again, and switchbacks occasionally for the next 3 miles, where we finally top out at 3560ft, and 8.39 miles in. Now, it goes flat, and there are some small meadows here before reaching Elbow Lake. Looking around here, we find many Combs Tooth mushrooms, and we pick one for dinner tonight. Nothing like fresh wild mushrooms for dinner!!!! The trail hugs the western shores of Elbow Lake, and this side of the lake is steep down to the water, clearly no place for a campsite. At the southern edge of the lake, the trail crosses a narrow spit of land that divides Elbow lake, and little Doreen Lake, and crossing over this, you can see a relatively new trail marker indicating Elbow Lake camp on the east side of the lake. Ah, we’ve finally made it!
We follow the trail around the bend, along the marshy and flat side of the lake to the end, and…There’s only one campsite, a nice one under the large firs, but it’s occupied! Curses…Oh, well, we remember seeing a site on that spit of land between the two lakes, and we trudge back, dejected, for that would have been an awesome site!
This site is barely big enough for the tent that Dan and Eric have brought, and thankfully, it’s a Big Agnes 3 man, the Emerald Mountain, a great 3 season tent that will be our home for the night. The one man tent will remain packed…
Camp had only been set up for about 10 minutes, when down the trail came 3 guys on horseback, and I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see them. They came from the opposite direction, our way out tomorrow, and after talking to them for a bit, they had ridden in from the FSRD 12, from Pioneer camp, to do some scouting to see if the trails had been cleared beyond Elbow Lake of deadfall…Which it hadn’t…
“…he looked a little incredulous…”Hadn’t heard of that trail before”, he said, looking at me as if I was a little whacked…”
They brought a fishing pole, and promptly caught some nice sized trout out of little Doreen lake, making us wish we had brought our own…They asked where we had come in from, and when I told them the super highway known as trail #697 from Mazama Park, he looked a little incredulous…”Hadn’t heard of that trail before”, he said, looking at me as if I was a little whacked. I assured him that we had indeed traveled on this route, and showed him my TOPO map with the GPS track overlay.
After they had left, we scrounged some deadfall firewood, and made our selves a small campfire to ward off the chill of the foggy night, the remnants of which continued to blow in across Elbow Lake to our backs, then lift momentarily giving us a complete view of the lake, before settling back in. It ebbed and flowed like this until darkness settled in for good. Dinner was a nice, Parmesan noodle dish, with chicken and the liberated Combs Tooth mushroom, which really livened up the taste of the noodles…Sitting around the campfire that night, listening to stories and the crackling of the fire, helped lift the gloom of the surrounding dreariness of low lying fog and clouds.