Valley to the Cascade

One thing has not changed in the 25 years since I first visited the Nooksack Cirque: it is as beautiful and redoubtable as ever. For years I’ve wanted to revisit the Cirque and witness the effects of climate change. We all know the glaciers in the North Cascades are receding−the glacier above the Nooksack Cirque is no exception. This amateur scientist estimates the ice mass of the East Nooksack Glacier is less than half what it was in 1983. Take a look at the photo from July 1971 on our home page, and compare the glaciation below Cloudcap with that portion of the 2008 panorama.

Last year, my friend Graham Hubenthal joined me on another hike to the Cirque. We had planned the adventure in 2007, but the weather was a no-go. When I noticed that a stable high pressure system had formed over NW Washington, I made the dash to Bellingham from Spokane, picked up Graham, and we headed for The Cirque on September 15th.

I was warned that the hike would be different than it was in 1983. The bridge over Ruth Creek was washed out in a flood and not replaced, making the trail at least 2 miles longer. What’s more, to reach the trailhead from the parking lot, we had to balance on a ten inch diameter log, at least 30 feet long, and 15 feet above raging Ruth Creek. Tightrope slippers wouldn’t have been out of place. Once across, it was amazing to see the old road overgrown in the mere 12 years since the wash-out. But there was a trail and, as before, it eventually led us through old growth forest to the boulder strewn banks of the North Fork, where the trail ends and the fording begins.

The river water was not as milky-gray as I remembered. We boulder hopped and sloshed through the icy cold rivulets for a few miles and camped on a sand bar. In the morning, we ventured farther up the enormous valley spying many impressive waterfalls as we went. Hopping and sloshing our way forward, we often had to resort to grabbing tree roots in the cut-banks to steady our crawl over huge granite boulders along the river’s edge.

We reached the alpine wonderland of the Cirque by noon (the alpine conditions here are the lowest in the Cascade Range). I expected a change, but seeing the towering rounded cliffs, now dripping with hundreds of waterfalls, that before had been largely covered with ice fields built by the calving glacier high above, was shocking. I thought, this is new; the Cirque had become the definitive CASCADE!

Creating the panorama was not part of the plan. We were standing at the center of The Cirque near a patch of wildflowers, attempting to absorb the grand spectacle all around us, when Graham suggested, “Let’s do a panorama.” As the early afternoon sun hung above, I held his baseball cap high above the Nikon “Coolpix” 5700 to shade the lens. Graham took 13 photos to complete the 360 degree wrap around collage. Back home, with software to assist in matching the individual photographs into a seamless image, and with the digital magic of Peter Coe, the panorama appeared.

The NOOKSACK CIRQUE PANORAMA is quite a sight plotted out at 48 inches wide. The resolution of the primary digital file is 20 times larger than the image shown on this website. At ten feet wide, the panorama is still crisp and beautiful. I hope a ten foot panorama will find a home on a wall in the Glacier Public Service Center, or in the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount.

For now I plan to investigate how access into the Nooksack Cirque can be improved. The Ruth Creek crossing is not safe. And I want to return at least every five years until I’m 90 to witness again the changes (the word on the trail is that many climatologists think all the glaciers in the North Cascades will be gone in 20-25 years). The Ruth Creek Bridge should be replaced, and the old trailhead brought back. Any suggestions on how to achieve this improvement would be appreciated.

The idea here is not to launch a stampede to see the Nooksack Cirque. It is a very special place, a marvel of nature, that should remain unspoiled. Those that do this difficult hike, please take special care to follow the National Park Service’s rules for wilderness areas. I hope earth scientists will continue to use this phenomenal geological event to teach us more about the wonders of the North Cascades. The majesty of the Nooksack Cirque should be shared.

Greg Higgins, Architect

PS: Below are a few more photos from the hike.

Nooksack Cirque Ice 2   Nooksack Cirque Flowers 3   Nooksack Cirque Ice 3