The Watcher

photo taken last summer out my window — Kulshan (Mt Baker) looms over the Pitt River Bridge and the Port Coquitlam dockyards

She keeps her secrets frozen under glaciers way up north
And people have got lost up there, in the home of the grizzly bear
And you can ask the mountain, but the mountain doesn’t care.
— Antje Duvekot, Long Way

Now, in the dead of winter, The Watcher is totally buried in snow. Kulshan, its First Nations name, is called Mt Baker by the colonists, but in earlier traditions, and to me, it is The Watcher, keeping an eye on what is happening all the way from Victoria and Vancouver to Seattle, from where it can be seen. Even on clear days it is often shrouded in cloud and fog, but when it emerges it is breathtaking.

The Watcher is 90km (58mi) from my window, and two miles (3300m) high, but it dwarfs everything else along the long rugged skyline visible from my panoramic view. It is an active volcano, like its sisters Mt St Helens (Lawetlat’la — “The Smoking Maiden”), Mt Rainier (Tahoma — “The Water Source”), Mt Hood (Wy’east — “Lawetlat’la’s Suitor”), Glacier Peak (Dahkobed — “The Parent”), Lassen Peak (Kohm Yah-mah-nee — “The Snowy One”), and Mt Shasta (Waka-nunee-Tuki-wuki — “Walk around and around, but never on top, because that is only for the gods”).

The Watcher is really a baby as far as volcanoes go. While the area has teemed with volcanic activity for four million years, The Watcher, mostly constructed from the debris of many earlier and now collapsed volcanoes, only emerged as an active volcano 140,000 years ago, and its greatest volcanic activity occurred from 40,000 to 12,000 years ago. A more recent eruption permanently changed the course of the Nooksack River, which once emptied north into the Fraser River and now empties west into Bellingham Bay. There are concerns that, with climate change, constant “atmospheric rivers” might so flood the lowlands north of The Watcher that the Nooksack might once again flow into the Sumas Valley and hence into the Fraser, with catastrophic implications for BC agriculture and the local First Nations peoples.

Small eruptions occurred as recently as 1843 and 1880, and even more recently (notably in 1943) escaping gas and high pressure have caused explosions leading to avalanches and mud flows. No one knows when it will erupt again.

The Watcher has a remarkable 12 glaciers angling down from its peak, covering an area of 50km2 (20 square miles). But the glaciers are melting, even though the peaks of The Watcher are the snowiest place on Earth, receiving between 60′ (20m) and 100′ (35m) of new snow each year.

So more extreme weather events are now a double threat to the peoples who live in the shadow of The Watcher — disastrous flooding in the rainy winter, compounded by spring snow melt, and then disastrous drought in the summer, when retreating glaciers mean sharp declines in water supplies downstream.

As the photo above illustrates, even a mountain that receives so much snow can be dry by the following summer.

What will happen when the snows become rains instead as the planet warms? When the water stored up in glaciers in past years instead rushes immediately into the lowlands and hence into the sea, leaving flooding and erosion in the spring, and drought and dried-up rivers in the summer and fall?

The Watcher isn’t telling. It’s been here longer than even the earliest hominids. It’s seen ice ages, when ice covered everything for hundreds of miles around, two miles thick. It’s been here since before the Salish Sea was carved out by the ice’s retreat, when Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and all the Gulf Islands were just a part of the mainland. It will be here long after humans cease tinkering with the land and the waters, when nature once again follows its own course.

It’s just marking time, stoically chronicling the rise and fall, the ebb and flow, the changing of seasons and climates. Kind of like I am, I guess, though it does so with much more grace.

It’s not here to watch over us, after all. Just to watch, to see what happens, to witness how the story ends.

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