Jack Mountain with trail

A farewell to the North Cascades

September 10th, 2009 | Posted by in Adventures

For the last year I’ve called the North Cascades home.  It was home because I was a graduate student with the North Cascades Institute and for one year I lived at the Environmental Learning Center, completely a professional residency.  Throughout the year I learned about environmental education, worked with amazing educator and naturalists, and studied nonprofit administration.

Living at the Environmental Learning Center, with Sourdough Mountain rising steeply to the north and Pyramid and Colonial Peaks looming large across Diablo Lake, I found my place.  I can’t describe the connection I now feel for the North Cascades, the urge I feel to wander the valleys and climb the peaks, the sense of wonder I feel when I discover new plants and critters; what I do know is that I’ve never felt more grounded.

I could think of no better farewell to the North Cascades than a long hike, thru beautiful country, with good friends.  The trail we chose crossed high mountain passes, wandered through long deep valleys and traversed rocky, exposed ridge tops.

Jack and Crater Mountain with flowersJack and Crater Mountains. (Top) Looking south west from the trail at Crater Mountain.

Canyon Creek Trailhead to McMillian Park (Stats: 6 miles, +3400ft,-400ft)

Our first day on the trail was by far our easiest.  Granted the climb out of Canyon Creek was steep we all felt great and were excited about the five days of hiking before us.  In addition, the trail welcomed us with abundant, delicious huckleberries; lovely, Sicklecell Lousewort flowers and glimpses of distant peaks.  And to top it all off Betsy made us delicious coconut curry with mushrooms, peppers and summer squash for dinner!

Kevin, Aneka and Betsy in Devil's Park
Kevin, Aneka and Betsy in Devil’s Park

McMillian Park to Sky Pilot Pass  (Stats: 15 miles, +4600ft, -4000ft)

Now, if your looking at the map while reading this you might be thinking, are they crazy?  How many miles is that?  And how much elevation?  Kevin and I, the trip planners, perhaps did some of the calculations wrong or maybe we missed day two while planning?  In the end all I know is that it was a long, hard day,  but beautiful!  Mountains rose steeply in every direction, corn lilies, huckleberries and vine maples were all shifting to their fall colors and low, dark clouds peppered the sky.

The trail carried us along the west side of Jackita Ridge, wandering north through the Devil’s Creek drainage, across Devil’s and Deception Passes,  to a camp just shy of Sky Pilot Pass.  The trail from Devil’s Pass to camp was pretty rough.  Rickety boardwalks, slimy bridges and thick brush made this section of trail slow; scarce water sources made finding camp tricky; and a slow drizzle made it, well, kind of miserable.  Camp that night was a small, flat meadow with just enough low brush to get everything wet.  Camp had two redeeming factors: a small stream flowed nearby and around sunset the clouds broke.

Scree slope on the Devil's Dome Loop
The trail down a steep scree field on the south end of Jackita Ridge
Jackita ridge
Jackita ridge

Sky Pilot Pass to Buffalo Pass (Stats: 14 miles, +3700ft, -2700ft)

We woke early the next morning to wet tents, damp sleeping bags, soggy boots and of course the sound of Kevin’s recorder.  Have I mentioned the recorder?  This small, plastic instrument proved to be a continual source of humor and entertainment throughout our trip, as well as our daily alarm clock!  Kevin’s favorite song: I can’t make you love me by Bonnie Raitt

Sheep herders camp
Sheep herders camp near Canyon Creek

Day three lead us from a narrow, poorly maintained, unnamed trail to what felt like a  super highway: the Pacific Crest Trail. It may be an exaggeration to say that it was smooth sailing from there, but after days of steep, jarring trails that felt more like game trails than manmade trails the gradual grade, smooth switchbacks and overall state of the PCT was fabulous.

U-shaped valleys
Massive u-shaped valleys

Once on the PCT we crossed five mountain passes, meet a handful of hardy thru-hikers, walked through stands of Tamaracks, and stood in awe of massive U-shaped valleys and endless vistas.  I think I can safely say the toughest decision of the day was which picturesque pass to pitch our tents at.

Buffalo Pass camp
Buffalo Pass camp

Buffalo Pass to Horse Heaven (Stats: 17 miles, +3300ft, -5600ft)

Sunrise from Buffalo Camp was stunning!  It was a good thing because by the morning of day four our muscles were all getting a little tired, our feet were feeling the miles and our backs were feeling the strain of days of carrying packs.

Betsy on a ridge top hiking
Betsy on the ridge between Tatie Peak and Glacier Pass.

Despite our aches and pains we shouldered our packs and headed south toward Hart’s Pass.  Just before Hart’s Pass we traversed below Slate Peak lookout, a fire lookout we’d first glimpsed in the distance two days prior.  After Harts Pass we traversed a high ridge between Tatie Peak and Glacier Pass, stopping along the way to enjoy views, rest by a small snow feed stream and listen to the shrill alarm calls of Pikas.  Then, it was time to descend.  After days of being above or at tree line we headed to Brush Creek.  Aptly named Brush Creek was nearly hidden from view by dense stands of Alder, Elderberry and Mountain Ash.  The creek bottom also had impressive piles of avalanche debris and to our delight ripe raspberries!

We found camp just before dark.  And while I’m unsure of how it got its name, Horse Heaven, the camp had everything we could have wanted.  A nearby creek deep enough for bathing, a small table of sorts, an established fire ring, flat tent sites and a rickety, old outhouse!  Perfect.

Watering hole
This snow feed stream was a perfect watering hole and rest stop.

Horse Heaven to East Creek Trailhead (Stats: 10 miles, +2300ft, -4300ft)

On our last morning we awoke and thought, only 10 more miles!  This, after some of our epic days, sounded great.  Or so we thought.  What we hadn’t considered was the fact that we would be leaving the PCT and venturing down a less maintained trail.  Perhaps unmaintained is a more fitting description.

The first feat of the day was climbing to Mebee Pass.  No more stock grade trails and gentle switchbacks for us, we got straight to the business of climbing, and I mean now.  Our first break for the day was at the pass, where Kevin, Aneka and Betsy promptly pulled out the map to identify distant peaks and ridges.  Hozomeem, Jack Mountain, Devil’s Dome and Golden Horn dominated the view, along with too many other peaks to name.

Betsy at Mebee Pass
Betsy at Mebee Pass

Dropping off of the west side of the pass we realized few people hiked this section of trail, very few.  It was completely overgrown in places, unfollowable in others, blocked by huge down trees and to put it nicely a mess!  We had roughly 4 miles of the mess to fight our way through if we were to make it home.  In retrospect this was the perfect end to our adventure.

View from Mebee Pass
View from Mebee Pass

What I mean is nothing about this hike had been easy, from planning to hiking.  This hike was kind of plan C.  Plan A was a popular loop hike over Copper Ridge.  However the day we were supposed to begin the trail was closed because of fire danger.  Plan B was a loop from Cascade Pass to Thunder Creek.  Then we discovered Cascade River Road would be closed for a few days.  Thus, Plan C.  This plan materialized hours before departure.  Nothing about our hike had been “easy” but it was continually exciting, challenging, fun and for me a perfect farewell to the North Cascades and life as a graduate student at the North Cascades Institute.

Being a graduate student at the North Cascades Institute wasn’t always easy, but much like the hike it was exciting, challenging and so much fun!  This hike was a farewell to both.  I know that I will return but no longer will I call them home.  Instead I will return as a visitor.  From my experiences here I will carry away with me an innate sense of place, a sense of responsibility, and an understanding of the relationship between the two.

Gary Snyder advices: “Find your place on the planet.  Dig in and take responsibility from there.”  And as I leave the North Cascades I realize that now, more than ever, I am committed to doing just that.

Kevin, Betsy, Jenny and Aneka at the end of the hike
Four intrepid hikers and the modes of transportion that made it all possible.
I would like to say a special thank you to Kevin, Betsy and Aneka for joining me on this crazy hike.  I could think of no better traveling partners for such an adventure.
Photos courtesy of Jenny Lee Frederick
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