NORTH CASCADE LOOP

            Reluctantly, we checked out of Crescent Lake Lodge—but not before procrastinating all we could by taking forever to eat our breakfast in that sunny dining room.  Finally, I—Lucy calls me “the tour guide from hell”—got everyone rounded up, and we were on our way again.

            We had hoped to cross on a ferry to Whidbey Island from Port Townsend—but it was booked solid.  So we drove down the peninsula on hwy 101 to Kingston, and took the ferry across there.  It was a stunningly beautiful day, and Puget Sound flaunted its blue for us.  Next, we tried to get a ferry across to Whidbey Island from Mukilteo, only to strike out again—everyone, it seemed, was deserting Seattle for the holiday weekend.  Finally, we gave up, and grudgingly drove up I-5 to Burlington, where we checked in at a Hampton’s.  Bad news from the back seat: Connie had generously gifted her bug to Lucy.  Lucy’s case was to prove considerably worse than Connie’s—I got a baleful eye when I jocularly attributed the difference to Lucy’s inexplicable reluctance to chomp down on a couple tablespoons worth of garlic.  With both backseaters out of commission, Bob and I crossed over onto Whidbey Island on hwy 20.  An absolutely spectacular vista awaited us at the high bridge that connected the mainland to Whidbey.  Whidbey Island surprised us: we expected it to be much more built up and heavily populated than it is.  Back in Burlington, it proved to be a quiet evening.

Mt. Baker

           Next morning, we finally had the opportunity to see two iconic snowcapped mountains in the North Cascades.  We drove hwy 20 to hwy 9 north, then hwy 542 east.  We passed what shyly bore the #33, and had to go back.  It was a humble little narrow windy road that had much to be humble about.  Finally, we reached the Cougar Ridge vista point that wasn’t. 10,778 foot Mount Baker was taking the holiday off.  Regretfully, we unwound ourselves back down to hwy 542 and continued east all the way to the Mount Baker Ski Area—but 9,127-foot-high Mount Shuskan was taking the 4th off too.  Sadly, we turned around and headed back to Burlington. As Longfellow put it in “Rainy Day,” “Some days must be dark and dreary.”

            The next day, Lucy was worse, but we had to move on anyway.  Again, we picked up hwy 20 and headed east.  At Concrete, we turned north on hwy 11, following the shoreline of Baker Lake.  But both Baker and Shuskan had foggy hangovers from the holidays and refused to come out.  So it was that we had to leave Washington without seeing those two majestic mountains we’d seen in so many photographs through the years and had salivated for so long.  None of us could bring ourselves to say, “Two blessings for another time.” We could only sigh at the lost opportunity.

A WORLD OF ICE, ROCK, AND SNOW

            There are few untrampled wilderness areas left in the world
            North Cascades National Park is one of them.

                               —(North Cascades), 18

            The North Cascades National Park consists of 505,000 acres of rugged unspoiled beauty.  With peaks in excess of 9,000 feet, the park offers some of the most spectacular scenery in the nation; its average elevation is nearly 7,000 feet.  It is anchored by two young volcanoes both towering over 10,000 feet: Mt. Baker to the north and Glacier Peak to the south.  Even though these mountains may seem low compared to the 14,000-foot giants in the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevadas, their vertical relief is as great or greater than any other range.

            So why do these mountains carry so much snow and ice?  It is because, running parallel to the coast and only thirty miles from the Puget Sound, “North Cascades intercept the storms that sweep in from the Pacific.  As the warm, moisture-laden air is pushed up against the mountains, it rises, cools, and drops its moisture as rain and snow.  Average annual precipitation on the west side is 110 inches.  The winter season may deposit as much as 46 feet of snow.” (North Cascades, 15).  Indeed, so much snow falls here that Highway 20 is closed through the mountains from November to April—no traffic gets through

            In actuality, the Cascades are much larger than the park itself.  When you factor in adjoining land across the Canadian border and more than 2,000,000 acres of federally designated wilderness, the ecosystem encompasses over 3,000,000 acres of protected public land.  Very few roads bisect this vast wilderness.  Its creeks would be called rivers anywhere else; these creeks eventually merge into four mighty rivers draining into the Pacific: Chilliwack, Baker, Skagit, and Nooksack.  Since the eastern side attracts much less rain, the rivers are much smaller: the Methrow and Pasayten.  Its two greatest bodies of water are Lake Chelan and 12,000 acre 25-mile-long Ross Lake.

            We can thank Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson for preserving the Cascades for us.  Concerns about the pace of population growth, especially in the West, caused Udall to warn, “What we save now may be all we’ll save.”  Besides helping to save roadless North Cascades with its 318 glaciers (almost a third of all those left in the lower 48), Udall also joined forces with the Sierra Club to save what was left of the California redwoods (which live several thousand years and grow 300 feet high).  By Udall’s time, loggers had wiped out 85% of this old growth; Redwood National Park saved only half of them.  First Lady Lady Bird Johnson was also a great champion of these parks.  North Cascades National Park was created in 1968, so it’s only 42 years old.   Highway 20 wasn’t constructed until 1972.

* * * * *

Ancient Douglas Fir

            We next stopped at Rockport State Park with its stand of magnificent old growth Douglas fir, towering to 300 feet high.  Bob and I walked through one of the loops—the park is currently closed to auto traffic because of habitat destruction.  It would be our last view of old growth trees.  We could only imagine what it must have been like a century ago before the West was all but denuded of these great trees.  What a debt of gratitude we owe Park Manager Al Nickerson and all those other thousands of conscientious guardians of our fragile park heritage.  Without them, we’d lose everything.

Diablo Lake

            Next we stopped for huckleberry ice cream at a roadside hutch—but they were sold out of it.  Then, perversely—when it was too late to go back—the sun came out.  We all walked out to see the spectacular Gorge Creek Falls cascading hundreds of feet down the mountain, then rushing under the 900-foot-high bridge.  One more stop: the dramatic Diablo lake overlook—its jade-green water is so beautiful you almost wonder if it was computer-enhanced.

Western Town of Winthrop with Wooden Sidewalks

            Late afternoon found us dropping down out of that pristine wilderness into the gold-mining town of Winthrop.  True it was once Old West but little of it was left when, in 1972, borrowing a leaf from Leavenworth, Winthrop reinvented itself, complete with old West facades, wooden sidewalks, and old-fashioned streetlights.  Town leaders at least had justification for Owen Wister describes some of the town’s original sites and citizens in his novel, The Virginian.  Wister and his bride had earlier honeymooned here.  We stayed on the Chewuch River in a River’s Edge Motel cabin.  The river lulled us to sleep.

NEXT STOP: We’ll be visiting the Grand Coulee Dam.

SOURCES

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2002).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1997). [Very helpful].

North Cascades National Park (Las Vegas, NV: K.C. Publications, 2008). [Most informative!].

Oregon & Washington Tour Book (Heathrow, Florida: AAA Publishing, 2010).

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