North Cascades, Trip reports, Writing

Growing roots in the mountains

Today is my last full day in the North Cascades, where I’ve spent three weeks as a creative resident at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center (ELC). As I’ve written before, my plan was to hike, write, and soak in the North Cascades, which have been the focus of my research and writing for more than 15 years.

I am simultaneously content that I’ve accomplished my mission and a bit sad to be leaving this remarkable place.

Here’s what a typical day looked like.

I wake up in Diablo, a company town owned by Seattle City Light, which runs the Skagit Hydroelectric Project that provides 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity. The house I’m in is scheduled to be “deconstructed” (a more polite term than “demolished,” I guess) so it’s pretty bare bones.

Company houses in Diablo
Company houses in Diablo. Mine is the one on the far right, next to the water tower (Lauren Danner photo)

In fact, if it weren’t for my housemates, there wouldn’t be much there but beds and a dining room table. But I’ve won the roommate lottery. I’m sharing with staff members Travis, a smiling 30-something uber-athlete and poetic free spirit who works as a naturalist, and Mike, a cerebral student of Marxist economic theory and Magic (the game, not the hobby) who applies his interest in food justice to his work in the ELC’s kitchen as a baker. He uses his sourdough starter to tasty effect, and we’ve enjoyed his bread — and his TV. My first night (and let’s face it, I wasn’t sure how these two would respond to a middle-aged historian being plunked into their midst) we watched Dead Poets Society, squished together on the ancient couch, and I figured everything would be all right.

Each morning, I either drive a few miles or walk to the ELC over the Diablo Dam trail, a short (1.5 miles) path that wakes me up better than coffee.

Diablo incline railway
Part of the incline railway visible from the Diablo Dam trail. The picture doesn’t do justice to the steep, 34.2-degree grade (Lauren Danner photo)

The first half is long, rocky switchbacks up the side of a low ridge on Sourdough Mountain, where Beat poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the 1950s. (The trail to the top of the mountain is known as one of the hardest in in the park, gaining 5,000′ of elevation in five steep miles. Travis makes a point of hiking it once a week.)

At one point, the dam trail cuts near the top of the incline railway that ferried equipment and tourists about 350 feet steeply uphill to where a road connects with Diablo Dam. The trail also intersects the road, a bit farther down, and I walk the rest of the way on fairly level surface.

The ELC is a cluster of buildings — offices, dining hall, residences, classrooms, maintenance — sited on the shores of Diablo Lake. It’s the North Cascades, though, and that means walking up and down sloping ground to get most places.

Environmental Learning Center buildings
Some of the LEED-silver certified buildings of the ELC (Lauren Danner photo)

I start at the dining hall, where breakfast is served most mornings at 8am. This is Mountain School season, when the ELC hosts group after group of schoolkids for a 3-day, 2-night immersive environmental education experience. There are usually groups of energetic kids running around while they wait for the signal to go in for breakfast. Mountain School is taught by ELC staff and by the graduate students who are here as part of their master’s of education degree program at Western Washington University. When I arrived, the grad students were preparing for the first Mountain School group of the year and, for most of them, their first hands-on teaching experience.

Mountain School usually fills all the seats in the dining hall, so I stay in the smaller and quieter staff room.

Grad students and staff
Some of the great grad students and staff I’ve gotten to know over the past few weeks (Lauren Danner photo)

Grad students, naturalists, and staff scarf down eggs, potatoes (housemate Mike says the kitchen staff “really knows its way around a potato”), fruit, yogurt, cereal, toast… enough to fuel a full day of outdoor teaching. The 17 grad students are a smart, fun, and intimidatingly outdoorsy bunch. It’s not unusual for them to head out for some rock climbing or a short hike at the end of the day. In the staff room, micro down jackets and well-used backpacks are piled everywhere. People fill stainless steel cups with organic herbal tea, top off their water bottles, and head out to round up their groups of kids and chaperones.

I head to the Wild Ginger library, a cozy and light-filled space that I’ve adopted as my writing office for the duration of my residency. The collection is, as you might expect, environmental in focus, and I enjoy browsing the shelves of nature essays, field guides, science books, and history. Several bookcases contain children’s books, and the Mountain Schoolers sometimes come in, flop down on a comfy floor pillow, and read.

Wild Ginger Library
Wild Ginger Library at the Environmental Learning Center. “My” chair is on the left just beyond the red ottoman (Lauren Danner photo)

I’ve claimed a corner for myself, and each day I plug in my laptop, arrange my notebooks and pens and coffee, and write. My office-in-a-closet at home pales in comparison. Grad students wander in and out, and I’ve learned about their backgrounds and their plans and their teaching philosophies. Sometimes they hold a discussion in the library, in which case I move to the single-slab polished wood conference table and work quietly.

Lunch is usually leftovers in the staff room refrigerator, packed food from the house, or a combination. When I start to lose focus around 3pm or so, I go for a walk. There are trails along Sourdough Creek to a pretty waterfall, along Deer Creek to learn about trees and plants, around a small peninsula below the dining hall, and one that parallels Diablo Lake’s shoreline for about 4 miles. I run into Mountain School groups everywhere, holding leaves and twigs up to camouflage themselves, turning over rocks, drawing leaves in their journals, or peering through microscopes in a classroom. Then it’s back to the library and the writing until dinner, another festive affair (if perhaps not quite as high-energy as breakfast; the kids are slowing down a bit).

My view on the walk home every evening. Nice, huh? (Lauren Danner photo)
My view on the walk home every evening. Nice, huh? (Lauren Danner photo)

After dinner, it’s back to the house — I leave early enough so I’m not walking the Diablo Dam trail in the dark, partly because it’s rocky and uneven footing and partly because staff has regaled me with some memorable cougar stories — and, usually, a debrief with Travis and Mike. I get the news from the kitchen and from the trail; we may or may not watch a movie.

About every four days, I hike. I’ve been to most of the places I hoped to visit, each important to understanding the history of the park. I backpacked to Big Beaver Creek valley to see the thousand-year-old cedars that helped stop a dam, huffed up to Easy Point to see where the last grizzly in the North Cascades was shot, and went to Cascade Pass, a popular thoroughfare for 10,000 years. I drove the North Cascades Highway and studied the route from Washington Pass overlook, hiked along Thunder Creek and up to Fourth of July Pass, and (yesterday) soaked up the views at Mount Baker, which isn’t part of the park though many thought it should be (more on that later). I toured the Skagit Hydroelectric Project and ate a delicious lunch in the historic Gorge Inn, the employees’ commissary. I’ve seen a lot, and yet, given the vastness and isolation of most of the North Cascades, really just nibbled at the edges. I’ve learned, though, that the North Cascades’ reputation as forbidding and fierce is deserved. These aren’t friendly mountains, a judgment shared by others I’ve talked with. Easy access points are few and far between. If you want to get into the heart of the mountains, you’re going to earn it the hard way.

And yet, I’m going to miss these mountains, and the people who live and work here, when I return home tomorrow. Sure, I’m ready to sleep in my own bed again and cook in my own kitchen and enjoy the 21st-century luxury of cell service. But the North Cascades exert their pull on me as they have on others for millennia. More than a century ago, a magazine writer enthused that nothing topped the North Cascades for “grandeur, sublimity, attractiveness, beauty, charm, wildness and unexpected glories.” That sounds about right. My creative residency has allowed me to experience that sublimity and wildness up close and personal, and I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity.


Creative residency by the numbers:
Number of trail miles hiked: 84.5
Number of feet of elevation gain: 15,135′
Number of boat/canoe trips: 2
Number of words written: 7,613 (so far)
Number of great people encountered: too many to count!
Number of cell calls completed: 0

Cascade River valley
The sublimely wild North Cascades (Lauren Danner photo)

3 thoughts on “Growing roots in the mountains

  1. What an amazing adventure to feel and breathe the landscape of your years of words! I love this media that let me share it with you.

Comments are closed.