Thursday, October 01, 2009

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor: Monte Cristo Ghost Town and the Mystery #3 Mine

After the success of the last mine/mushroom hike we decided to head out and explore another mine and see if the boletes were up in the high Cascades. The destination was the Mystery #3 Mine outside of the abandoned mining town of Monte Cristo in the Mt. Baker National Forest.

In the 1890's the town was the center of a major gold and silver mining operation, and boasted a population of around 2,000. There was even a railroad that ran loads of ore down to Everett for processing. But apparently the financial turmoil of the times and the cost/benefit ratio of the mines worked against the town. Active mining was effectively done by WWI and by the 1930's the place was a ghost town. Even still it lived on as a summer recreation destination and is to this day. The town is on a mountain stream, which is one of several tributaries to the South Fork of the Sauk River. A few years back the road to the town, which follows the old railroad bed, was washed out. Since then it's been a four mile hike/bike to get to the town. Fortunately the place is maintained by a volunteer organization, the Monte Cristo Preservation Association. The trailhead is on the Mountain Loop Highway, outside of Granite Falls. Near Barlow Pass you'll see the gate across the road to Monte Cristo. You can park outside but need to display a pass. There's a ranger station at Verlot where you can buy one.

From the trailhead it's four miles to town. Many people were hiking and biking the trail that day. For time reasons we opted for mountain bikes. The trail is very easy. Except where it isn't. The problem is washouts, and there are several, but the only really bad one is where the Sauk washed out the bridge. Here you have to cross either on one of these logs, go around a ways, or just get your feet wet. Not really a big problem on this day, but my friend was up a few weeks back and the river was raging.

One of the goals was to look for mushrooms and see if the boletes were up yet in that part of the Cascades. Unfortunately, trying not to wipe out on the bike limited my off-trail mushroom spotting. But we did see a wide variety of mushrooms, I bet a more thorough investigation would find plenty of edibles. We did find this big monster bolete right at the parking lot. Didn't pick it (it was pretty old) but definitely a promising sign.

When we got to the town and got off the bikes we had more time to look. And boy did we find mushrooms! Everywhere. The problem was that they were Amanitas. Loads and loads of them, including this happy little Mario mushroom here. Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric. Really cool looking. Potentially deadly freaking poisonous. Wildly hallucinogenic. No wonder Super Mario is so weird. These guys, and their relatives (we saw some A. Smithiana), were everywhere.

I should mention that they recently did some sampling of the soil in the area and it proved to be thoroughly tainted with heavy metals, including arsenic, from all the mining. Maybe this amanita is double-deadly?

Here's another crop of amanitas. You can see that they are more mature that the button up above, and have taken a sortof olive-yellow color. The little white warts are still there. These mushrooms can range in color from the classic red to yellow-green to white even. So once again, perfect example of don't eat any mushroom unless you know exactly what it is!

As for edibles, we didn't really find much. We found some Chicken of the Woods, but since it was growing on an old cedar log it was probably L. Conifericola and we weren't too keen on eating it. We did find this Gomphus kauffmanii, a relative of the Wooly Chanterelle G. floccosus, but didn't pick it. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest advises against eating both, though some people do, and we bow to superior knowledge.

So after 4 miles of biking we were in the town. I must admit I haven't been mountain biking in years and my butt hurt something fierce and I was exhausted. Turns out my rear brake was rubbing on my tire. Joy. But we chained up the bikes and looked around the place. Many of the buildings have fallen apart or burned down over the years but there are still a few in place. Most are in the town center but there are random shacks out in the woods all over. The coolest thing in the town center is an old railroad turntable, where the engine and cars would be rotated around for the return trip down the mountain.

It still rotates, albeit with an amazing, ear-piercing wail.

We set off on the Glacier Basin trail and went about a mile along it. Again, loads of mushrooms and some cool old buildings and mining detritus. The area used to have a large boardwalk with several stores, and a tram that ran the miners up to the mines. Oh what I would have given to have that tram still work...

We reached the bottom of a boulder field that ran up the side of the nearby mountain, Mystery Hill. Here I have to add that I was never really told the full plan for this hike by my friend, and wasn't quite prepared for the climb to come.

You see, we'd reached the hidden stairway into Mordor.

And one does not simply walk into Mordor.

One slowly and painfully spends over two hours scrambling up boulders and through brush into Mordor.

One of the problems I've had trying to take photos of the trip was to capture a good impression of the slopes and altitude involved. The mind makes far off things look 2-D, and both at the base and the top of the climb you don't really get a good idea of the elevation gain. So here's a topo map from the GPS we had. In about a quarter mile it climbs from 3300 feet to 4200. A 900 foot elevation gain. Some parts were nearly a 60 degree slope of sliding rock. I was freaking exhausted by the end. I admit I am seriously out of shape and kind of hate exercise. It's not that I hate the idea of exercise, it's just that I don't like being sweaty. Or tired. And I was currently both of those. This had been the most strenuous outing I'd been on in some time. And it was only half over.

But we made it to the top! Actually the others made it there a fair ways before me. What can I say, I obviously need a Stairmaster or something. But we sat down to the best damn sandwich ever eaten by Man and a bottle of wine we'd packed in. By this point it was actually quite pleasant out. There was a nice view. There was lots of random crap strewn around, from old mining equipment to random camping equipment. And, creepily, shoes. Several pairs of old shoes. I kept thinking: "Please don't let there be a foot inside... Please don't let there be a foot inside."

We heard a weird scuttling noise from a nearby rock pile. Turned out to be this little guy, an American Pika. Apparently they're one of those creatures whose sole defense is cuteness, because they are currently under consideration for EPA Endangered Species protection. We kept hearing their weird high pitched alarm call, and hoping that it was just us freaking them out. You see, we'd been snacking on huckleberries the whole climb up the hill and well, bears like huckleberries too.

But it was time to enter the mine! We geared up for the coming exploration. Apparently back in the 1890's this mine was a model of mining progress. They even made a scale model and toured it around the country, showcasing the future of the mining arts.

Well, it's seen better days.

To be fair, this is just one entrance to an entire interlinked mining complex. Like most mines around here it's got a steady stream running out the mouth of it. This one happened to be very orangy and muddy.

We soon found out why.

Al was the first inside. He'd heard that the mud was there, but that it was shallow and you'd be quickly past it. He'd also heard that it was waste deep and impassible. Today appeared to be the later. It was pretty deep. Probing with a conveniently abandoned tent pole indicated that it only got deeper.

It was like a whole factory of Oompa Loompas had melted.

It was horrible.

I think that's what a group of Oompa Loompas is called, a "factory". If not it should be.

No really, it wasn't that bad. We could have waded in. Waste deep in neon-orange arsenic mud. We had changes of clothes. But it was getting late and discretion is the better part of valor. Al got his entrenching tool out and cleared up the stream a bit, so at least the mine might drain a bit better. Then we headed back down the boulder field, covering in about half an hour what had taken us two hours to climb. From there it was back to town, onto the bikes and back to the car. Again, fraction of the time it took to get there. The bikes are a pain riding up, but that coast the whole way down is sweet.

It was fun. It was thoroughly exhausting. The town is cool, I'll probably go back to look for more mushrooms sometime. But it will be a cold day in Mordor before I climb Satan's Stairmaster again...

Finally, again Disclaimer. Don't be an idiot. Don't go on sweet mountain bike adventures over raging rivers. Don't eat poisonous mushrooms because Mario told you to. Don't go into abandoned mines. Use some common sense, or if you don't have any, borrow someone else's for a bit. I'm not an expert on anything posted here, just an increasingly fat bloke who needs some more exercise and has strange friends and a supportive and patient spouse.

Editor's Note: Wow, this is post #101! Crazy. A proper blogstone, and I also think I recently passed my blogoversary. Blog blog blog.


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