STEHEKIN LANDING RESORT AND LAKE CHELAN

            We were in no hurry to leave Paradise Inn dining hall.  Indeed, we wished we could stay there another day, but since the hotel was all booked up and our other reservations had been made long before, Lucy and Connie settled into their nests in the back seat; in the front, we changed drivers, and drove down the mountain.  Just before we arrived at the Stevens Canyon Entrance, we passed through the Grove of the Patriarchs.  Another “blessing for another time” was to return here and revel in those thousand-year-old Douglas firs and western red cedars.

            Passing through the rugged Tatoosh Wilderness on hwy 12, we continued on to one of the nation’s best known fruit-growing regions, the Yakima Valley; from here we took hwy 97 north, arriving at Lake Chelan in mid-afternoon.  Here we checked in at the Lakeside Best Western, beautifully landscaped with flower-beds, shrubbery and trees.

THE TIME WARP

            Here and there in life, if we’re both adventurous and lucky, we stumble on certain places that are magical.  When we’d told our nephew, Byron Palmer (who works for Alaska Airlines) that we planned to explore Washington state, he categorized Lake Chelan and Stehekin as “must-sees.”  But even though we found the south end of the lake to be attractive, nothing prepared us for the northern terminus 51 miles away.

Lake Chelan

            Next morning early, we boarded Lady of the Lake II for what turned out to be a journey into a time warp.  As the boat moved north, the genial captain pointed out places of interest—the verdant orchards and vineyards gave the lake a Mediterranean look.  We learned that fjord-like Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the United States, its 1,486-foot depth exceeded only by Crater Lake’s 1,932 and Lake Tahoe’s 1,645.  We were surprised to discover that Chelan is considered to be the deepest gorge in North America: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a mile deep, Kings Canyon is 7,800 feet deep, Hells Canyon is 8,200 feet deep, and Lake Chelan’s gorge (given that it plunges down to 386 feet below sea level) is 8,631 feet deep.  Indeed, so deep is the lake that we were told it takes the water flowing in to the northern part of the lake from Stehekin River ten years to reach the south end 51 miles away.  Needless to say, its greens and blues, being glacier-fed, are a feast for the eyes.

View of Cathedral Peaks

           Roads reach only the midway point of our four-hour boat trip.  Soon cell phones ceased to function, no power lines or telephone lines exist, and human habitations are mighty few.  We did see one bear off to our right.  The Lady made several stops to let people off or pick them up at wilderness jumping-off points.  Other than the boat’s twin turbines, we heard nothing else.  Looming high above us were the snowcapped mountains of the North Cascades National Park, reminding us no little of the Alps.

            Finally, we docked at a little hamlet of about 85 full-time residents few Americans have ever heard of—Stehekin.  The only way one can get here is by boat, float plane, or trail.  All motor vehicles used here are brought in or taken out once a month by barge.

View of Lake Chelan from deck

            We disembarked and registered at Stehekin Landing Resort, all wooden buildings of recent vintage (1983 and later).  We stayed in two of their lakeside cabins—the front-deck view was to die for.

            In 1814, Alexander Ross of the Northwest Fur Company became one of the first white men to explore the Stehekin Valley.  But it was not until the first steamboat (built on the lake in 1889) that settlers and homesteaders moved in.  Without electricity or roads from the outside world, lifestyles were little different from frontier life: water was carried from the river, wood was used for both cooking and heating, kerosene lamps were used at night.  Not until 1963 did Chelan County PUD put in a small hydroelectric plant so folks could have electricity.  When the North Cascades National Park was established in 1968, the southern part of Lake Chelan was excluded.  A park headquarters was established in Stehekin.  Part of the legislation mandated that a road would never be built into Stehekin.  Since that time, preserving the Stehekin way of life and cultural history has become a mutual effort between the community and the park service.

* * * * *

            Stehekin really comes to life in the summers, and the population swells in order to accommodate people like us.  Young people especially revel in coming here where there is no TV and only one satellite telephone—it is such a different world from anything they’ve ever known before.  We found them a joy to talk to as they served us in the rustic dining room.

Rainbow Falls

            In mid afternoon a driver was rounded up to shuttle us up to Rainbow Falls.  We were totally unprepared for it, for it was something on the scale of waterfalls in Yosemite.  321 feet high, you can hear its thunder before you ever see it—yet, unbelievably, it appears to be virtually unknown.  We have nothing that can compare to it in the Colorado Rockies.  It wasn’t just its height that impressed us, though it did—it was the sheer volume of water coming over the falls.  As we walked part way back, we saw few motor vehicles but quite a few people on bicycles.  We stopped to inspect the old log-cabin schoolhouse so reminiscent of those of a century or two ago.

            We moved on, following signs to “The Bakery.”  First town I’ve ever been in where a bakery was the destination so many people considered central to their lives.  We stopped there.  Back at the landing, it gradually came home to us that when the year-round towns-people spoke of Stehekin as “the island,” it really made sense, for they are cut off from the rest of the world—one of the very few hamlets in the lower 48 where this is so.  In the winter, when boats (and the mail and supplies they bring) reach here only three times a week, Stehekin settles down to an even quieter life.  Since there may be five or six feet of snow on the ground, with Chelan 51 miles away having none, it’s not too surprising to hear—as I did!—that the north end of the lake was 600 feet higher than the south.  Go figure!

            We found the park headquarters to be a magnet; Connie rushed over there (about 500 feet) to get her park passport stamped first thing.  In the evening, I attended a lecture there.  In talking to locals, I discovered that a number really sacrifice in order to live here (one dentist works all week in Ellensburg, returning home by boat for weekends).  Children are either home schooled or attend the “newer” schoolhouse (if the snow’s not too deep).  The postmistress is a retiree who came here in order to experience life again, to be needed.  She and her husband love it on the “Island.”  When she takes mail to the boat, she locks the door “because of federal regulations—but I really don’t need to here,” she told me.

            During the night, the wind came up.  Its sound in the evergreens was wonderful.  With no other sound, and the lights off around us, it really seemed like another world.

SPECIAL NOTE

            Next week it’s on to Enzian Inn and Leavenworth.

SOURCES

Barnhart, Mike and Nancy, Stehekin: A Mountain Community (Stehekin, WA: Bridge Creek Publishing, 2003).

Barnhart, Mike and Nancy, Lake Chelan and the North Cascades (Stehekin, WA: Bridge Creek Publishing, 2000).

The Lady of the Lake (Stehekin, WA: Ladyofthelake.com, 2010).

Lake Chelan (Chelan, WA: Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

Lake Chelan, Washington (Chelan, WA: Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce, 2010).

North Cascades National Park (Las Vegas: K.C. Publications, 2008).

Hackenmiller, Tom, Ladies of the Lake (Wenatchee, WA: Point Publishing, 1998).

Scott, David L. and Kay W., The Complete Guide to National Park Lodges (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1998, 2009).

The Stehekin Guidebook (Stehekin, WA: Stehekin Heritage, 2010).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2009).

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. This description by Joe Wheeler reminds me of how very fortunate we are to live in the beautiful Northwest; and to have visited these places a number of times. In fact, used to live about 35 miles away from there.
    The town of Chelan has some great attractions too….including BEAR FOODS.

  2. Dear Barbara,

    You are so right. Until this road trip, hadn’t realized how many beautiful sights there were to see in the Northwest. I’m sure we’ll be back!

    Blessings!

    Dr. Joe

  3. Yours is the nicest image of Lake Chelan I can find. I’d like to use it, credited to you, as a small picture in a story about Washington State. Please let me know if that’s not okay.
    Thanks!


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