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Crowded In The Front!

Chewuch River Meander! Okanogan National Forest, Washington State.

On Wednesday April 17th, the Washington Department of Transportation opened the North Cascades Highway after its annual winter closure in November. Three days later, I headed over the mountains to visit the beautiful Methow Valley and the town of Winthrop.

Diablo Reservoir Reflection. North Cascades.

As with any drive through beautiful country, the sights, smells, and sounds of mountains, rivers and grand landscapes bring out and focus my spirituality. While I no longer conform to a specific religion, I do find myself, at each mile, talking with God and thanking him/her for making all of this and for allowing me to submerse myself in the wonder of this natural world. A little of this, and I quickly get lost further into my thoughts and memories, especially around those who are long gone, that I miss, and who definitely helped shape my life and passion for wild places. Spirituality as well, and maybe a lingering belief in a life after this one, a holdover I am sure from my early Catholic upbringing.

Ridgeline! North Cascades.

Those long gone include my father, who always wanted to go west (but never did), my friend Derek who taught me early on how deep a love of rivers can flow, my college roommate Paul, and Michael, who I met on my first day living in Bellingham and who came along with me on almost all of my outdoor adventures here in the Pacific Northwest. I often wonder what my dad thought when he first met my three best friends in the afterlife. After so many trips and miles together with me, surely they are now best friends. On every trip, these four accompany me, joking, jostling, telling stories, and laughing with me. It is always crowded (boisterous and happy) in the front seat!

Icefall! North Cascades.

So, on this morning, the five of us head into the brilliant sun, glistening snow, and towering mountains that surround us along State Route 20. One of the state’s oldest and longest highways, it was originally used by local Native Americans as a trading route to the Pacific Coast. It has been called the most beautiful mountain highway in the State of Washington, and according to on-line resources, it is only a three-hour trip from Bellingham to Winthrop. I’ve never come close to that, with constant stops to soak in all the beauty around me it takes me and my ethereal companions a full day to make that crossing each way.

Fire & New Life! Okanogan National Forest.

It is a wonderful trip at any time of year, perhaps more so just after the road opens and when the snow is undisturbed and you have been denied the upper elevations due to winter’s ice. We pass under the shadow first of Sauk and then Sourdough Mountain, then climbing to view the glacial silt and turquoise waters of Diablo Lake (reservoir). A few miles beyond and we cross over Colonial Creek (PHOTO), which, hidden by forest and mountain, leaves its glacial cirque headwaters and plummets twenty-five-hundred feet over Colonial Creek Falls (making this unseen gem the tallest waterfall in the continental United States and fifteenth highest in the world).

Moving on, the sights just get more spectacular. North Cascades National Park contains twenty-one peaks over seven thousand feet, with more than three hundred glaciers forming the rivers, creeks and falls that rush from right and left (seven hundred glaciers in the North Cascade Range). For comparison, twenty-six glaciers are on Mount Rainier and another ten on Mt. Baker. The views and the elevation crest at five thousand, four-hundred-foot Washington Pass, where we are surrounded by the South and North Early Winter Spires, Lexington, Minuteman and Concord Towers, Blue Lake Peak, and Liberty Bell, the most northern spire of the Liberty Bell massif.

Ridgeline 2! North Cascades.

From Washington Pass, it is all downhill (physically but certainly not visually) as you pass one of my favorite hikes at Cutthroat Pass (which on this weekend was still completely buried in snow) and drop into the warmer, pine scented eastern side of the Cascade Range.

Early Winter Spires! North Cascades.

That night, we camped in the Okanogan National Forest along the Chewuch River which means “creek” in the Southern Interior Salish language of the Columbia-Wenatchi, also known as Nxaảmxcín. Waterfall hikes, mountain lakes, camping along a river – what’s not to love?

Falls Creek! Okanogan National Forest.

But the best part of this trip… we need to do the laughing, kidding, and immersion into the mountains all again going back to Bellingham! Another half-day with best friends and stunning, awe-inspiring scenery.

It is good to be alive, especially with good friends who are not! Who better to put in a good word the next time you await a spectacular sunrise or hope wildlife will peek out of the forest… or just need another excuse to get back to the wild.


Recently, I’ve discussed the possibility that grizzly bears may be actively reintroduced into the North Cascades. And yes, I am a big fan of reintroduction (and bears).  On April 25th, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced a decision to do just that. The agencies will seek to move three to seven grizzly bears per year for a period of five to ten years to establish an initial population of 25 bears in the North Cascades ecosystem, roughly 9,800 square miles in size and larger than the state of New Jersey. For more information, go to NPR’s The Wild Podcast with Chris Morgan, or to Conservation Northwest grizzly bear page. And read the Hakai Magazine article on the impact of ecotourism on these bears up in British Columbia

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