Primal Wild: Backpacking 80 Miles Through the North Cascades
By Michael Lanza
“Lots of bears at Grizzly Creek.”
Those words that a backcountry ranger spoke to me over the phone just yesterday echo through our heads now, as my friend Todd Arndt and I descend switchbacks from misleadingly named, 6,500-foot Easy Pass into the densely forested valley of Fisher Creek in Washington’s North Cascades National Park. Fog swirls around the jagged peaks nearly a vertical mile above us. Battleship-gray skies threaten a common meteorological occurrence in these mountains—rain—although we’ve seen only sprinkles and wind so far. We’re hiking downhill past ripe huckleberry bushes toward a thicket of slide alder and chest-high brush that the trail passes through—ideal bear habitat.
“That’s where they’ll be,” I say to Todd. Without taking his eyes off that tangle of alder and tall brush, Todd just says, “Yup.”
Although Grizzly Creek, our third night’s campsite, lies more than 30 trail miles and two hiking days from here, it’s much closer than the circuitous trail route to it suggests. Grizzly Creek itself begins its downhill journey on the other side of the 7,000-foot ridge forming the southern edge of Fisher Creek Basin—the fortress of cliffs and pinnacles we’re gazing up at in awe now. The campsite where we’ll sleep two nights hence only sits about five straight-line miles from where we stand.
That ranger, of course, meant black bears when she warned me about the healthy bruin population at Grizzly Creek. And in most of the U.S. West, the word “grizzly” in a place name serves as a melancholy tombstone for a degree of wildness lost long ago.
But in the North Cascades, that name delivers an ice-water-in-the-face reminder that North America’s apex predator still stalks these mountains.
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5 Days in the North Cascades
It’s our first afternoon of a five-day backpacking trip in one of the most uncrowded, rugged, and wild national parks in the contiguous United States—and a personal favorite of mine, for all of those reasons: North Cascades. Our 80-mile route will cross four mountain passes, traversing from the rainforest west of the Cascade Crest—where up to 120 inches of precipitation falls annually—to the park’s drier and sunnier east side.
It will take us from deep in one of America’s most primeval and ancient forests to sub-alpine views of the most heavily glaciated peaks in the Lower 48. While we’ll spend most of our time within the national park—nearly all of which is designated as the Stephen Mather Wilderness, more than 600,000 acres named in honor of the first director of the National Park Service—we’ll also spend parts of two days in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, one of the three units of the North Cascades National Park Complex and part of the Stephen Mather Wilderness.
I’ve backpacked, climbed, and dayhiked in mountains with many more grizzlies than the North Cascades, from Glacier National Park to the Canadian Rockies and Alaska. (I had my closest griz encounter in Glacier, with a sow and two cubs at a distance of about 30 feet—and you don’t want to get between a sow griz and her cubs.) The truth is, we really aren’t likely to see a griz here. Federal managers speculate that fewer than 20 grizzly bears reside in the roughly 10,000-square-mile area that includes North Cascades National Park and adjacent wilderness and national forests, a region with enough food sources, habitat, and rugged backcountry for bears to thrive and follow their best survival strategy: hiding from humans.
While grizzly sightings are rare, they’re out there: In October 2010, a hiker photographed a grizzly from a distance in North Cascades National Park, and federal biologists confirmed it—the first confirmed sighting in the North Cascades since 1996.
I don’t harbor an irrational fear of bears. I know they generally avoid humans. But as Todd and I stroll into chest-high brush where big, vicious apex predators would be lurking if they were anywhere in the neighborhood, I’m reminded how such circumstances tend to focus the mind of even the most rational hikers.
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The Most Rugged and Snowy Mountains
We’ve come in the last week of September, so it was pleasantly cool as we set out this morning on the Easy Pass Trail—a relentless uphill grind of nearly 3,000 vertical feet in 3.5 miles, about which the only “easy” aspect is soaking up the view from the pass while giving your legs and lungs a well-earned rest. Hardly breaking a sweat in the cool temps, we gorged on wild huckleberries growing trailside, a surprise treat so late in the season, and took in the fall color infusing the landscape—the purple of the huckleberry leaves and yellow of the larch trees, a conifer whose needles change color in autumn.
At Easy Pass, we separated our bear canisters from our backpacks and stashed them in a copse of conifers and bushes about a hundred feet apart. (See my tips on that in “The Fine Art of Stashing a Backpack in the Woods.”) Taking just a water bottle and jacket each, we started hiking off-trail uphill over steep heather and grass and loose stones. Several hundred vertical feet above Easy Pass on its north side, at the crest of Ragged Ridge, we stopped to look around. Ghost-like silhouettes of pointed peaks stabbed into the clouds that swirled thickly around us. Several miles to the southwest, the cliffs and glaciers of 9,087-foot Mount Logan, fourth-highest in the park and among the 10 highest non-volcanic peaks in Washington, are lost in the gray gumbo of clouds.
Extreme weather and terrain collaborate to make the North Cascades one of the least-accessible corners of the country. Imagine a remote range in Alaska plunked down within a few hours’ drive of Seattle. Maps of Washington Territory in 1860 labeled these mountains “unexplored.” Not until 1906 was even a small piece of what is now North Cascades National Park mapped. One surveyor’s observation at the time rings true a century later: “The region… is very rough and mountainous; consisting of deep, impassable gorges, lofty divides and snow-capped peaks. … There is not an acre adapted to agriculture.” I’ve read that the North Cascades have more peaks that rise 3,000 feet in the last horizontal mile to their summits than any other mountain range on Earth, and that at least 77 peaks stand more than 6,000 feet above adjacent valleys. Few places on the planet exact as hard a physical toll on hikers and climbers as these mountains.
Today, just one road crosses an area the size of Yellowstone (which has several roads): WA 20, the North Cascades Highway. Completed in 1972—40 years after Trail Ridge Road was built across Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and Going-to-the-Sun Road across Montana’s Glacier National Park—the most-direct route from Seattle to east-side towns like Winthrop and Twisp closes each winter because of avalanches.
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Despite most summits here falling short of 9,000 feet—less than two-thirds the height of dozens of Rockies and High Sierra peaks—the so-called “American Alps” get snow like Nevada gets smokers carrying rolls of quarters. The ski area at Mount Baker averages 650 inches of white stuff a year and holds the title of Earth’s snowiest locale for the world-record 1,140 inches—that’s 95 feet—that fell during the winter of 1998-1999. Copious snowfall and northerly latitudes nurture 60 percent of all the glaciers in the contiguous United States—more than 700 between Snoqualmie Pass on-I 90 and the Canadian border. That snow feeds about 240 alpine lakes and innumerable waterfalls and, yes, cascades.
Tragically, climate change is rapidly melting the ancient ice formerly known as “permanent.” In interviewing researchers for my book about my family’s adventures in national parks facing the severe impacts of the warming climate, I learned that of 756 glaciers identified in the North Cascades by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1971, 53 had disappeared by 2006. The North Cascades Glacier Climate Project has monitored the health of 47 glaciers since 1967, and the National Park Service watches another four, the most extensive research of its kind in the world.
Their data suggests bleak prospects for rivers of ice that have existed here for possibly more than 16,000 years: 70 percent of North Cascades glaciers will likely be gone by mid-century.
Todd and I follow the Fisher Creek Trail’s gentle downhill angle through a quiet, ancient forest of Douglas fir, hemlock, and Western red cedar trees so tall we can’t see their crowns; some bulge to eight or 10 feet in diameter at the ground level. These trees grow so big that early settlers would sometimes make homes out of hollow stumps just by building roofs over them. A thick wig of moss carpets everything: boulders, rotting trunks of downed trees, even the ground itself on both sides of the path. Lace, maidenhair, bracken, oak and other ferns grow so densely we rarely catch a glimpse of dirt.
When we stop for a moment, drinking up the silence, I tell Todd, quite sincerely, “I feel so relaxed here.” He responds: “It’s incredibly peaceful.”
Lodging We spent the nights before and after our hike in a two-bedroom suite at the Freestone Inn at Wilson Ranch in Mazama, with very comfortable rooms and excellent food. freestoneinn.com.