History, North Cascades, Trip reports, Writing

On the horizon, America’s Alps

Sahale Arm above Doubtful Lake
Sahale Arm above Doubtful Lake, North Cascades (Lauren Danner photo)

On Saturday, I’m heading north. I’ll climb into my 15-year-old Honda Civic, which will be crammed with hiking and camping gear, clothes, laptop, notebooks, and camera — everything I’ll need for three weeks in the North Cascades. I’ve been invited to be a creative resident at the North Cascades Institute, a remarkable organization that promotes environmental education and conservation. Until the end of the month, I’ll live at the Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on the shores of translucently turquoise Diablo Lake, using the gift of time (and room and board) to hike and write in America’s Alps.

How did I get so lucky?

Let’s go back a few years. In fall 2003, I was writing a book about the history of North Cascades National Park. I’d been spending a lot of time in library stacks and archive reading rooms, taking crates of notes. The writing was going pretty well. The story of how a small group of outdoor enthusiasts decided to take on the powerful U.S. Forest Service and push for a giant wilderness national park came alive through the accounts and memories of those involved.

But something was missing. Except for once driving the highway that bisects the park on a road trip with our then-eight-month-old daughter, I had not been to the North Cascades. Reading hundreds of pages of letters and reports and memos and articles going back to the 1890s, the passion elicited by the North Cascades echoed clearly down the years. I wanted — I needed — to see them in person.

Easier said than done. We live in Olympia, Washington, at the southern end of Puget Sound. Getting to the North Cascades involves a 200-mile, five-hour drive. It’s not really day-trip material, but I was determined. Early one Saturday in September 2003, I threw pack and boots into the car and headed north to the Cascade Pass trailhead.

Approaching Cascade Pass
Approaching Cascade Pass (Lauren Danner photo)

Cascade Pass is one of only a few trailheads inside the national park reachable by road. North Cascades is technically a park complex, composed of a two-unit national park and two national recreation areas, Ross Lake and Lake Chelan. About 750,000 visitors come to the park complex each year. Barely 20,000 make it into the national park proper. (That’s by design, a topic I’ll take up in a future post.) Most folks stay inside the Ross Lake National Recreation Area, which hugs the North Cascades Highway and bisects the park’s two units.

Despite some unexpected obstacles (note to self: bring the right boots next time), I hiked to Cascade Pass and even climbed a ways toward Sahale Arm. Cascade Pass is a top-ten hike for many Washington recreationists. According to the Park Service website, it is “the shortest and easiest access in the park to the alpine environment.” Surrounded by sawtooth peaks, I got an inkling of why this landscape inspired such passion. The header picture on my Twitter account is from that hike. I’d still only seen a tiny speck of the park complex’s 684,000 acres, but I was hooked. I couldn’t wait to go back.

Trail to Stehekin from Cascade Pass
Continuing on to Stehekin from Cascade Pass was tempting, but unfortunately not realistic for a day hike (Lauren Danner photo)

Fast-forward a dozen years. After a longish stint with the Washington State Historical Society and a serious illness, I found myself eager to return to my book, which had been gathering figurative dust in a digital drawer. I began a major rewrite, finding that my not-entirely-self-imposed hiatus had given me new perspective on the story. In early 2016, I submitted a book proposal to a major academic press and received a positive response: we’d like to see the complete manuscript; when do you think it will be done? I set a deadline of June, reduced my teaching load at the local community college, and set a strict writing schedule. On June 28, I sent the completed manuscript in, and I’m waiting to hear from the publisher.

One thing bugged me, though, as I plowed through the rewrite. Although I understood the intellectual arguments for and against the park, my short trips to the North Cascades left me wanting more. Since that day at Cascade Pass, I’d only been back a couple of times, to watch the bald eagles that gather along the Skagit River each winter and to take a boat trip to Stehekin, a remote community at the head of 55-mile-long Lake Chelan. I was nibbling around the edges of a vast wilderness that, on paper, I know like the back of my hand. I wanted to hike where those early conservationists had hiked, follow in their footsteps, and see what they saw. That’s when I found out about the North Cascades Institute’s Creative Residency program. The Institute could be a base camp from which I explore farther reaches of the North Cascades, widely considered to be the wildest landscape in the lower 48. I applied and was thrilled to be accepted. For three weeks in September, I will live and work in the North Cascades.

And although the Institute is centrally located inside the park complex, it’s got modern conveniences like wifi, so I’ll be posting throughout my residency. I have a list of hikes I’m planning to do, but beyond that I’ll simply be in the mountains that have occupied my thoughts and dreams for more than 15 years. I’ll take John Muir’s advice below, and let you know how it turns out.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while care will drop off like autumn leaves. –John Muir, 1901

View from Cascade Pass
View from Cascade Pass trail (Lauren Danner photo)

3 thoughts on “On the horizon, America’s Alps

  1. I can’t wait to hear about what you see and do while up there. Of all of the things I miss from my Seattle days , I’d place the North Cascades at the top of my list. I’ll have to visit vicariously through your residency experience. What a great opportunity!

  2. I’m so glad you have this opportunity to live and breathe the North Cascades – best wishes! Can’t wait to follow your posts.

  3. Thanks, you two! I’ll be channeling your experience and expertise while I’m there (or else calling you for advice). If there’s a don’t-miss hike (I know that’s a large category in the North Cascades), let me know.

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