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Land of fire and ice

Mount Baker at sunrise. - Terry Carr photo
Mount Baker at sunrise.
— image credit: Terry Carr photo

One of the most beautiful sights is sunrise over the Cascade Mountains across Boundary Bay. The sun casts a golden glow over the summit glaciers of this spectacular range and glistens on the water.

Towering above the distant peaks is the volcanic cone of Mount Baker, one hundred kilometers southeast. Living in the vicinity of such impressive mountains, we may take them for granted and are only reminded of their beauty when visitors stop to stare. It is worth taking a closer look.

The 3,286-metre peak of Mount Baker, an active volcano, formed when eruptions disgorged flows of andesitic lava. This highly viscous, silica-rich lava is produced where the oceanic crust sinks under the continental crust in a subduction zone. Mount Baker is one of a string of such stratovolcanoes that includes Mount St Helens and Mount Rainier, in Washington State, and the extinct Coquihalla Mountain in B.C.

Anne MurrayMount Baker is a relatively young volcano and is intermittently active. The last notable eruption was about 5,900 years ago, when ash and rock were blasted into the air and debris flows of mud, ice, rocks and trees crashed down its slopes. Spanish explorers, Galiano and Valdez, heard distant rumblings from the volcano in June 1792, and debris flows occurred through the mid-1800s. In 1975, gas escaped from Sherman Crater but the mountain slept on.

The ice sheets of the Pleistocene Ice Age only covered the valleys and lower slopes of the mountains, but alpine glaciers carved the summits. The North Cascades are the most glaciated mountains in the lower forty eight states, and they experience heavy snowfalls due to their west coast location. In 1999, Mount Baker received a staggering 29 metres of snow. It has 13 glaciers on its summit, yet despite heavy snowfalls, all of them are now shrinking.

The alpine meadows of Mount Baker are an ecological treasure. Hoary marmots and mountain goats live on the rocky slopes and chipmunks scamper among the heather and wild blueberries. Wildflowers abound in the short summer season: blue lupines, red paintbrush, yellow arnica and magenta monkey flower. Fine weather brings spectacular vistas of surrounding peaks, and a chance to hike the alpine trails. At other times, the mountain disappears in mist, rain and snow, and the temperature plummets. It is a harsh environment and only hardy species can survive.

Anne Murray is a local naturalist, blogger, and author of two books: A Nature Guide to Boundary Bay and Tracing Our Past ~ A Heritage Guide to Boundary Bay, available where books are sold and  from  www.natureguidesbc.com.

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