Thursday, September 22, 2016

North Cascades Post Labor Day

[My apologies for the variable type size and spacing.  I wrote the text on word processing and copied it to Blogger which added so much HTML coding that I cannot figure out how to get it right.  I gave up after a couple of frustrating hours. I won't do copy and paste again but for now you're stuck with this.  I hope it doesn't distract too much from the story.] 

Nine years after moving to Washington I finally made it up to the North Cascades National Park. I walked through them in 2007 when I accompanied my Appalachian Trail thru-hike partners on the last couple hundred miles of their Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike and have wanted to return ever since. In years past, whenever I thought about heading up I learned that most National Forest and Park Service campgrounds closed almost immediately after Labor Day, my preferred time to for the trip. This year, however, the national park campgrounds were open through September 20. That was incentive enough to brave Seattle traffic on a sunny Wednesday.

The drive up isn't bad—just the usual I-5 traffic. Seattle is busy but the express lanes are open heading north so Maggie and I shoot through the city handily. We leave the freeway at Arlington and follow WA 530 along the Stilaguamish River through Oso and Darrington before intersecting WA 20, the North Cascades Highway, at Rockport. The day is perfect for a countryside drive as we work our way into the mountains. The sky is blue, the air is crisp, a few trees are showing a bit of color, leaves blow across the road. It's not fall yet but the season is definitely starting to turn. 

The highway follows the Skagit River into the park. We pull into the Newhalem campground and find many campsites sites open for Wednesday and Thursday nights but reserved for Friday night. We need all three nights. We find the one space that works for us and lay claim to it. We also discover that a second loop is open (according to the park website only one loop was open after Labor Day). Others are already camped there and most vacant sites have a card stating that they are open for for through Friday. We quickly spot a nice secluded site. Maggie brings the truck around and we set up camp. We learn later from a ranger that the decision to open the second loop was made only the day before.

Our site is well-removed from either neighbor with enough vegetation to block our view of them. We can see traffic on the road to the visitor center and entering the campground but none of it amounts to any intrusion. What is an intrusion is the horde of small biting insects, so small we did not notice them. We expected mosquitoes and were ready to slather on bug juice at their first sign. By the time we figure out that we were being bitten, the little buggers had exacted a toll. Even covered up and juiced up, we still get bites on our exposed hands. That aside, we enjoy a long sunset and twilight. Maggie and I walk around the campground road, checking out other campers' rigs (everything from tents and utility trailers to very high-end motor homes). We meet a few other campers and their dogs. A big near-full moon rising in the east is barely visible through the forest canopy.

Thursday morning is slow. I am up at first light watching the light push away the dark. Light comes slowly here. Our campsite is hemmed in by three steep ridges--one south and west, another to the north and east, the other east and south—so sun doesn't crest the ridge until well after sunrise. Even then we still have the shade of the thick foliage above. I can hear the quiet rush of the Skagit River not far away. I can also see and hear traffic on the road. It's not especially heavy but it is certainly noticeable given that much of it is larger trucks and utility vehicles. We make breakfast, clean up and visit with neighboring campers before hiking up to the visitor center under a warming sun. 

The trail from the campground to the visitor center climbs up a low ridge that rises from the Skagit flood plain. Most of the flood plain is overgrown with forest. It doesn't look like water has flowed this high for many a year, no doubt because of the three upstream dams that power Seattle City Light's hydroelectric generating facilities on the river. On this day the forest is lush and quiet. The climb is steady but not steep and brings us to the backside of the visitor center and its patio. Inside are displays of local geology, ecosystems, life forms and cultural influences. Lots of info on trails along the North Cascades Highway, too. We putter around taking it all in before heading back down the trail.

Just before reaching the campground we turn on to the River Loop Trail, a two mile trail along the flood plain. The forest is fairly open and sunny at first. Many trees show evidence of an earlier fire. Closer to the river, the foliage is thicker and the trail much shadier. Shafts of late afternoon sunlight punch though the canopy, dramatically contrasting with the deep green of the forest. Large, old growth western cedar and hemlock trees are still standing, their massive trunks a reminder of nature's awesome immensity. Back in camp we make dinner and clean up just before dark. Not long after we are in the truck. 


 On this night we learn just how badly we've been bitten. We both have scores of bites on our lower legs and ankles, on our forearms and hands and occasional bites elsewhere. I don't recall itching much last night but I've noticed it all day. As long as we were doing things and moving about I could ignore them somewhat. Now lying still, trying to sleep, the itching is noticeably obvious and leaves me scratching like a dog with fleas. Benadryl, cortisone cream and a topical gel offer some minimal relief but the night is a long one. At one point in between scratching, Maggie returns from the restroom to inform me that the moon is up and visible from the campground loop road. I pull myself out of the truck for the view. The moon is one day shy of new and well up in the sky. Some light clouds have moved in creating a halo around the moon giving it a subdued look although it still puts out plenty of light. 

Friday morning begins cool and clear. A bit of magic happens early. During an exchange of pleasantries about this wonderful place , another camper tells me he is heading home and asks if I want some firewood. I say yes and he says he'll drop the wood at our site on his way out.  Sweet. 

After breakfast Maggie and I drive up to the visitor center so I can imprint my journal with the park's passport stamps.  Maggie takes the opportunity to wash up using the hot water in the restroom.  Once done we head east on the North Cascades Highway.  We quickly pass through New Halem just up the road from the campground.  It's a company town built by Seattle City Light for workers at its dams and power stations upstream.  That explains all of the truck traffic I witnessed from our campsite, not to mention the power lines we followed upriver on our way here.   Still following the power lines upriver we pass the Gorge Dam, Gorge Lake, Diablo Dam and Diablo Lake.  The route snakes up a side canyon arm of Diablo Lake offering a nice view of Pryamid Mountain before returning to the Skagit River and  Ross Dam and Lake.  From here the highway follows Ruby Creek and Granite Creek to Rainy Pass.  The power lines and pylons ended at Ross Dam.  From here on it's just road and mountains.

Strictly speaking, Maggie and I ar not actually in the North Cascades National Park.  Our campsite and the highway we follow are located in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The national park is divided into north and south units flanking the recreation area.  Unlike the recreation area, the park units are roadless. Farther east, Rainy Pass, our destination for the day, is located in the Okanogan National Forest. The landscape pays little attention to these administrative boundaries. Everything wihin view is stunningly grand.


Coming up Ruby Creek we catch a view of Jack Mountain (9,066 ft) and Crater Mountain (8,128 ft). The former is a sharp ridge of silver-gray granite. The latter is lighter and more earth-toned in color and resembles its eponym.. The North Cascade Highway is an impressive piece of work. The long drill holes along some of the cuts attest to the challenge of constructing and maintaining a highway through this rugged terrain. The climb from Ross Lake to Rainy Pass seems deceivingly gentle (which is easy for me to say since Maggie is driving).

The Pacific Crest Trail crosses Route 20 at Rainy Pass. We pull into the parking area on the north side of the highway and find trail magic. A man who's been supporting his wife's PCT thru-hike is serving food and drinks to four young thru-hikers—two men, a woman and dog from Switzerland and a Czech woman—taking advantage of the hospitality. They are within a few days of finishing their hike and are excited to be nearing the end of their journey and a bit unsure what life will be like after the trail. I recall having those same thoughts and emotions during my last few days on the Appalachian Trail in 2002. I hadn't walked from Mexico when I crossed Rainy Pass in 2007 but I do remember looking forward to the end of the hike. After a while Maggie and I walk south a short distance on the PCT and also north. Nothing looks especially familiar. What I recall most are the toilets at the parking lot.



By the time we leave at least two more groups of hikers have stopped by for the trail magic. It's around five o'clock when we begin heading west back to the campground. The sky has become increasingly cloudy during the afternoon—a premonition of rain forecast for tonight and tomorrow. The drive back is as spectacular as our drive out, perhaps more so due to the low angle light that highlights the high ridges and peaks. Patches of early fall color—reds and yellows—stand out in the gathering dusk. Even the power lines and pylons glow with reflected light. Sky is getting cloudy as we make our way back down the highway.


In camp we find the promised load of firewood. We make a quick dinner and batten everything down in preparation for the expected rain. A few drops have already fallen but not enough to keep Maggie from building a fire with our unexpected trove of wood. The smoke seems to keep the biting insects away and we listen to owls calling from one to another. We can tell that one of them is moving closer to us but are startled when it hoots from just above us. The owls finally “meet” and carry on quite a conversation making sounds (cackles and caws) that I would have never expected to hear from an owl.  They come to some sort of terms and are heard from no more.

Rain begins falling after about an hour or so and we bail into the truck. The sound of rain falling on the camper shell is always a pleasant one (as long as I don't have to go out into the rain) and is a soothing accompaniment to my attempts to sleep. The itching is still pretty bothersome but tonight I took an entire benadryl, not just a half, and sleep better than last night.

By morning the rain is steady. We're heading home so we don't care too much and pack up most of our gear before exiting the camper shell. The rest is quickly moved from front seat to the back the camper and we pull our of the campground without bothering to fix breakfast. Highway 20 is misty and wet. Looking much more like fall with all of the rainWe find a restaurant in Marblemount for breakfast. By the time we finish eating, the rain has let up somewhat and is pretty much tapered off by the time we reach Sedro-Woolley. After short stop at the Park Service-National Forest visitor center there, we turn south on Route 9—we aren't ready for I-5 just yet—to McMurray. Back on the freeway we encounter traffic slowdowns in Everett and again in Seattle.  Neither are particularly bad and we make it home by dinner time.

The hot shower feels oh so good. The itching will soon dissipate and I will be left with memories of a fine time in the woods and even more desire to return.

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