In the dense forest, it will be dark for a while yet. If I don’t keep the headlamp on, I’ll trip over tree roots or laggardly toads. But even though it is dark under the canopy of mountain hemlock branches, the top of Baker starts to glow. I can see it through occasional breaks in the trees. Well, no, that’s not quite right… I can’t say it glows. That’s hyperbole; the reality is more subtle. It doesn’t glow right away. The top of the mountain starts to think about glowing. It’s a kind of a pre-glow. And then, after a while, it becomes an actual glow, violet-pink, as the sun’s rays make direct contact. The light slowly spreads down the slopes, over rumpled glaciers. It warms from violet, to salmon, to downright golden. Eventually it settles on dazzling white.
In the wet west-side forests of the North Cascades, it’s easy not to notice ferns. They are ubiquitous and green. Not too showy. They don’t bloom. And while green might draw your eye in the desert, it is monotonous in a rain forest or in a luxurious mountain meadow in the wettest part of North America. No one along the Yellow Aster trail will stop and exclaim “Oh my, how green the ferns are!” To an untrained eye, one species of fern may seem indistinguishable from (and just about as interesting as) another. And so it is that the hiker will walk right through the Sistine Chapel of ferns, the Angkor Wat of ferns, the Machu Pichu of ferns—and not even know it. Botanists make pilgrimages to this rocky hump, and go home spiritually fulfilled. Why? Because here—right here—in an area about the size of a basketball court, is an area of unparalleled fern diversity.
Every Spring, I am taken over by the same insistent question: How is the snowpack in the mountains this year? Come summer, a shortfall of snow brings an excess of fire. Here, everything begins with snow. Hold some snow in your hand; although you might not think so from looking at it, you are holding a run of steelhead in the Nooksack River, an abundance of plump blueberries in a meadow, a herd of elk, a field of corn, an apple orchard, a 200-foot western hemlock, a mama bear with cubs. Snow is life.
Let me introduce you to the neighborhood: The purple flower is Phacelia sericea, the Silky Phacelia. It always catches my eye and makes me delighted every time I see it. It is a striking combination of colors and textures: silvery-gray leaves and vibrant purple bottlebrush blossoms with a bright orange dot on each of the many anthers. Like other phacelias, it is a beloved flower to bumblebees. However, bees are not the only creatures drawn to the Silky Phacelia; prospectors also seek out this plant, due to its unusual ability to concentrate gold in its tissues, and therefore indicate the presence of gold-bearing ore. I consider the real treasure to be the flower itself.
A common companion to the Silky Phacelia is one of my favorite flowers, one that is prevalent on the slopes of Tomyhoi: Saxafraga bronchialis, the Spotted Saxifrage. It is a very small white five-petalled flower, not showy from a distance. To properly appreciate it, you should get on your hands and knees. The tiny red spots are only visible when you get close to it. I wonder about the spots. Whimsical, playful. Why are they there? What evolutionary advantage do they confer? Maybe beauty is its own reward. Saxifrages live in the coldest places on earth that a plant can live. Their Latin name means stonebreaker.
In the sharp scree and in every little crack in the shattered shale, grow my favorite plants of all: the tiny, delicate, and extraordinarily tough little alpine flowers. They tend to grow together, even right on top of each other, in a kind of blended mat. This vibrant gathering of phlox, sedums, and saxifrages demonstrates the concept of a plant community. On the exposed ridges of peaks, alpine flowers grow best when clustered. As it turns out, one successful plant improves living conditions—ever so slightly—for the next one, by holding moisture and warmth, widening cracks in stone, contributing organic matter to barren scree, and trapping soil. Maybe they also enjoy each other’s company.
Just shy of the summit, two globes of Moss Campion sit right on the edge of a cliff. If I follow a line right between the two globes, that line would also go right between two splendid peaks. The one to the right is American Border Peak, and the one to the left is Canadian Border Peak. The international boundary goes right between the peaks. The boundary does not, of course, appear on the ground as a dashed line. If it did, it would divide flower clusters. It would split nurse logs in half. It would confuse the ptarmigan even more. Every year that I come up here, I think about this border. I am struck by its arbitrariness, its meaninglessness to the living creatures that inhabit this place. The border is of no consequence to the toads, the ferns, the water that flows across it. If Mount Baker erupted, the ash cloud would not stop at the border. The skin of the earth is continuous.
The broad benches begin to narrow and steepen until the mountain’s shoulder defines itself as a rocky ridge. On both sides of the ridge, the flanks of the peak fall away for thousands of feet, into lush lowland forest. On the east side, a snowfield becomes a glacier; on the west, rocky chutes give way to cliffs. The ridge eventually leads to a blunt headwall; an ascent of the headwall delivers me to a little thimble of rock: the summit of Tomyhoi Peak. And it is during the last part of this journey—the part beyond the gentle creeks and rolling heather, the part that is in a harsh and craggy jumble of rock—that I find my greatest joy of the day.