North Cascades

Marching through the wilderness
Crying out for tenderness
They call me Mr. Pitiful
But everything is wonderful – David Byrne, Marching Through the Wilderness

On a paper map, my finger traces the Skagit River, thin blue as it coils beneath North Cascades Highway. A serpent sliding through green foothills, the river separates, then rejoins itself below Cokedale and Lyman. Following the graceful blue line, it flows eastward, before briefly turning south, hiding from the small town of Concrete. Barely visible on the map, Burpee Hill Road leads north past Lake Shannon, toward the heel of Baker Lake and Upper Baker Dam. I toss the map across the passenger’s seat and merge onto I-5, glancing back at the Seattle skyline.

Baker Lake sits twelve miles north of Concrete. North of 5b’s Bakery, Javazone and Cascade Burgers, in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, only a few miles from the western boundary of North Cascades National Park. Formed from a concrete gravity dam, the sapphire waters stretch 9 miles upstream, before meeting the Baker River, its original source. With levels that fluctuate an average of 39 feet annually, the water rested a few feet below the crest when I walked out onto the dam. On one side, the lake spread out blue-green smooth. Motionless, without an echo of movement. Across a deep ravine, the spillway violently empties into the dull emerald river below, a torrent of shocking white, above a small rainbow dancing against brown rock. Above the horizon, Mount Baker mingles with the clouds, lording over a vast outstretched forest.

Spillway from Upper Baker Dam.
Standing on Upper Baker Dam, shooting through a cyclone fence.

A small red boat eases its way down the launch as I park and walk to the shore of Baker Lake. It’s a perfect day, temperatures in the low 70’s, with just a hint of pine in the air. Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan provide vertical backdrops against a drifting cloud sky, as several kayaks form a semi-circle around a single instructor. His clipped voice drifts across the water, before one by one they form a line and begin to paddle out into the heart of open water. A few minutes later they shrink to colorful specs on the horizon, their wake disappearing into the blue before reaching the shore.

As I begin walking along a short gravel levee, the song ‘American Pie’ begins looping through my brain. It just happens. I hear a word – levee – and a synapse, perhaps weeks or decades dormant, snaps to attention. Time, place, smells, faces contextually hie from recesses into a current stream of conscious. 1971, Dondero High School, the faint scent of gardenia as Cindy passes me on the stairs. When I reach the top of the staircase, I lean over. A hint of black hair, the wisp of a skirt and she is gone.

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die 

Did you write the book of love
And do you have faith in God above
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock and roll?
Can music save your mortal soul?
And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Well, I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck
With a pink carnation and a pickup truck
But I knew I was out of luck
The day the music died
I started singin’

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry
And them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die 

Nearing the end of the levee, my mind, in musical freefall and without warning, jumps to another time. A time when we were intact. A time when I am whole. It’s a late summer evening and the boys and I are driving home from a ballgame. ‘Baba O’Riley’ comes on the radio and I crank the volume. Wordlessly we look at each other. We know what to do. Preston jumps into the intricate keyboard intro, his fingers dancing across the black dashboard. Channeling Keith Moon, Austin hammers the back of the seat. Oliver becomes Pete Townshend, windmilling the guitar, perfectly in rhythm. I jump in with Roger Daltrey’s screaming vocals. ‘Out here in the fields, I work for my meals, I get my back into my living!’ We pantomime our instruments the entire 5 minutes and 10 seconds. Near the end we all kick into vocals, ‘Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland, teenage wasteland, oh yeah, teenage wasteland. They’re all wasted!!’ We’ve done this before. When the song ends in an intense rush of sound, we take a collective deep breath.

“Jesus, that’s a great song,” I say. “God damn that’s a good song!”

“Find another one Dad,” says Oliver. “Let’s find another one.” And he begins flipping the dial.

Hello ladies. My name is Smitty. Please ignore my singing.
SPILLGATE 3. All caps.

Newhalem Creek Campground sits in dense forest below a curve in the Skagit River, just west of its namesake creek and the small town of Newhalem. During the 1910’s, when the power and fury of the Skagit River were being harnessed, Newhalem sprang up as housing for hundreds of workers and their families. Today, Newhalem is a ‘company town’, populated entirely by employees of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, or local county, state or federal agencies. A lonely outpost, surrounded by the American Alps and the everpresent sound of manipulated waters.

The visitor center is a short walk from the campground. North Cascades is a massive park, so I wanted some suggestions on which hikes offered the best views and the least people. Ranger Kim, gave me the once over before she spoke. Several rangers have started a conversation with me in this manner. Then they all ask the same question, “How many miles do you want to hike?” It’s a test. Is this guy serious about hiking, or does he want the ‘garden trails.’ I want both.

“Three to ten miles each, depending on the elevation change.” My standard reply. “The fewer people, the better. The more spectacular the view, the better.”

“Okay. How long are you in the park?”

“At least a few days.”

“Okay. Diablo Lake Trail starts beside the Environmental Learning Center, here,” she marks a spot above Diablo Lake with a yellow highlighter. I love rangers with yellow highlighters. “This is one of my favorite trails because it is isolated and you get some great views of the Skagit and Cascades before reaching Ross Dam. It’s about eight miles out and back. Some pretty good elevation changes, but nothing too dramatic.”

“Sounds good. Next.”

“Pyramid Lake Trail, here, is about five miles,” circling the small black line on the map. “It’s steep, but you get to see a really diverse habitat along the way. The lake is small, but beautiful.”

“How about one more.” I was thinking about the tortuous hike to a small ‘beautiful’ lake in Olympic a few days earlier.

“Happy Panther is a little over ten miles, but it’s relatively flat. It follows the shoreline of Ross Lake. There’s also the trail behind the gorge powerhouse to Ladder Creek. It’s about a mile east of here. Great little falls.”

“Thank you so much Kim. You’ve been a great help. This should keep me busy for a few days.” I pick up the yellow marked map, turn and begin to walk away. Then remember I have one more question. “Do you know why they changed Gateway Arch from a National Memorial to a National Park? I can’t seem to get an answer.”

She frowns. “The Gateway Arch is a National Memorial. It’s not a National Park.”

“They changed the designation a few months ago. In February.”

“I have no idea. Didn’t know it had changed. Huh.” Still frowning, she shrugs. I can’t tell if she’s embarrassed, defiant, or completely disinterested.

“In any case, thanks for your help. I really appreciate it.”

“Take care.”

This is the 9th or 10th ranger I have asked about the Gateway Arch. It’s the middle of June. Each one has told me that Gateway is still a National Memorial, or they have been completely unaware of the change in designation. I sense a gap in the lines of communication. Baffled, I walked over to the ink pad and stamp my book – park number 41 – buy an old style WPA note card for my friend and begin walking back to camp. Still a bit bone weary from the last several days of hiking and driving, I wanted nothing more than to curl up with a good book and slip into sleep. About 5 pages into ‘Tales of the South Pacific’, the book slid from my hand. A few hours later I woke to a sea of stars.

Morning dawned rosy cheeked and warm. I made a strong pot of coffee and a couple of eggs, before heading east toward the Gorge Powerhouse. Constructed in 1924, its turbines spun with water diverted from the Gorge Dam, three miles upstream, this is the first, and lowest, unit of the original $86,000,000 “staircase” hydroelectric power development on the Skagit River. Seattle still depends on its power and two other dams upstream: the Diablo and Ross. I cross the suspension bridge and walk a short distance into manicured gardens, before a few steep steps find the surrounding forest. Between slanting rocks covered in bright green moss and flowering ferns, water rushes over a shallow ledge. A cool mist rises up from the falls, a smell of freshly turned earth hanging in the air.  As I walk back toward the road, I remind myself that a hike doesn’t have to be long to be remarkable.

Pratt through truss bridge over Skagit River on Gorge Dam Access Road.

Diablo Dam Road juts out of North Cascades Highway at a forty-five degree angle. Immediately the road begins to descend. Narrow and flanked by thick cement retainers and an unforgiving vertical wall of granite, it twists down until the tall white lamp-posts standing guard atop the curving lip of the dam come into view. Below, turkish blue-green under the morning sun, Diablo Lake lays flat across the remains of Diablo Canyon. Skimming the lake for another mile, the thin road hugs her curves, never straying too far from the shore. Near the end, Diablo Lake trailhead sits off to the side of a rocky, unpaved, almost full parking lot.

Crossing the Diablo Dam.

As the trail leaves the road, it moves between conifers and leafless maple. A hummingbird flits in and out of woody shrubs, low between grooved trunks. Fallen trees lay scattered across the rocky floor. Several outbuildings appear as the path grows smooth. I see and hear no one as I pass. The trail quickly narrows and begins to undulate, moving into an ever diverse landscape. Ferns and mosses hang from dead branches that reach into the living. Grey, pitted boulders cling to the edge of the trail, as smaller rocks scatter among the trees. Sunlight plays through the green canopy, slanting and shifting with each step. Thin streams of water finding their way from the mountain, cross the trail in loud whispers, leaving a cool mist that rises, lingers and falls.

A few miles into the hike, the trail begins to ascend along a narrow strip, the ground diving sharpy into a deep gorge only inches from the trail. I think if I slip I will be able to catch a tree before falling very far. Cautiously, I watch each step until the trail moves away from the edge and traverses a boulder field. Countless thousands of rocks drape an entire hillside. Emerging from the treeline, they disappear as quickly as they appeared. Below in the gorge, the lake lies hidden from view. Invisible behind an impenetrable blanket of green. It is only the walnut colored path, spotted iron grey of stone and the soft shaded needles that I am allowed to see, before the forest abruptly parts.

Section of Diablo Lake Trail.

Thick velvet curtains slowly pull back to reveal a stage of glorious mountains floating above dappled trees. Daisy white clouds play in a sky of infinite blue, as a silent movement of green flows through the gorge.  I am alone in the cavernous Washington Theater on Main Street watching ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’. I am in the intimate Trail Theater, holding the hand of the woman I love. I am sitting in the wooden bleachers at Tiger Stadium, an endless field of grass holding Mickey Mantle in its embrace. I am here at this moment in time.

In sight of Ross Dam, the trail quickly descends through thick forest, before emerging at one end of a narrow footbridge crossing the Skagit River. Swaying just enough to plant a seed, the water below loudly rushes forward. As I step off the bridge, a woman with an ornately carved walking stick is approaching. She has grey hair pulled into a twist atop her tanned face. She is wearing a denim shirt, faded trousers and sturdy boots. This is not hiking gear, it’s working gear.

“Hello.” I smile.

“Hello. How are you?” She smiles in return.

“You heading back up that steep trail I just came down?” I nod.

“Sure am. It’s not that steep. Are you heading to the boat?” Still smiling.

“Didn’t know there was a boat.”

“Catch it over there, across the way,” she points. “Drops you off at the parking lot by the environmental center. It’s a lovely ride. Leaves about every hour or so. Takes people from Ross Lake Resort to their cars. I think it’s five bucks to hitch a ride.”

“I have exactly five dollars in my pocket,” I say reaching in to make sure.

“There you go.” She begins walking toward the bridge. “Enjoy.”

“My name is Smitty.” I extend my hand.

“Miriam.” She places her cane in the crook  of her arm and takes my hand in a firm grip. Her hand is callused and solid. This is a woman who knows hard work.

“Nice to meet you Miriam. Take care of yourself.”

“Always have, always will. Enjoy the boat Smitty.” She turns and crosses the bridge. I watch for a moment as she slowly, methodically moves upward.

The trail leads through a tunnel punched into rock, down to a large dock. As I unlace my boots and let my feet dip into the icy water, a large truck with an open bed full of people and luggage, backs down the launch ramp. Everyone scrambles over the edge, grabbing their bags and slowly walking down to the dock. A few large families have to make several trips to retrieve everything they brought. Two young girls, both with braided hair, sit next to me and hesitantly put their toes in the water. They scream. “Oh my God, that is the coldest water I have ever felt!” They dip lightly again. They scream again. Both turn to look at me as if I have superhuman powers.

“How are you doing that,” asks one of the girls. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“I’m from Michigan.” I’m certain a silly grin passes across my face.

“Oh.” Bewildered, they paused, the left to find their parents.

The old wooden boat pushes away from the dock and glides through the green water. At her side, white mountains and sky reflect back into the heavens. Granite walls line the Skagit, forest springing from odd angles above the shoreline. The low hum of the engine and moving water are the only sounds. Birds congregate on red water boxes, their voices running under the current of water, beaks moving as if in pantomime. My hand drifts over the side of the boat, the cool of the water rising to my fingertips. My bare feet feel the warm wood and in this moment I am at peace.

Hand reaching out of boat.
Two orange barrels on a blue Baker Lake.
The deer I thought was a bear and almost made my heart stop.
Small boathouse near Ross Dam.
Red barn under the Cascades.
Washington Pass, just east of North Cascades.
Reflecting water with tree stumps.
Ross Lake.
Love. If you find it, or it finds you, grab on and never let go.

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