Paul Bunyon Stump

Christmas in the American Alps

December 25th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Whilst traveling home from Bellingham, I became enchanted by tales of Christmas in the Tirol (Tyrol) province of Austria while tuning in to “Travel with Rick Steves” on KUOW radio. A woman with a delightful Austrian accent described the many Christmas traditions celebrated in the Tirol beginning with Advent on the 1st of December. Although the events are many, the root of each is in simplicity. Natural items are brought into the home to make holiday decorations. Considerable baking and crafting of handmade gifts for friends and family takes place. Little children are taken sledding by one parent while the other decorates the Christmas tree with older children, leaving the revealing of the completed tree to be a surprise for the little ones. Church is attended on Christmas Eve, and at midnight, people pour into the streets to wish one another a merry Christmas. Travelers are drawn to the Alps of the Tirol for their beauty and opportunities for snow sport. It all sounded quite magical, and I began daydreaming of a journey there next December.

What gave me pause, as I considered the costs associated with a high season transatlantic flight to Europe, was the very fact that I currently reside in mountains commonly referred to as the American Alps. All of the traditions that I found charming about the Tirol could be recreated (on a considerably smaller scale) here in this glorious National Park which I have come to call my home. I would have my Austrian Christmas in Diablo, Washington.

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Misty Mountains: Colonial Peak is silhouetted above Thunder Arm

It would seem that the gathering of natural items to make holiday decorations for the home would be the easiest endeavor of my American Alps Christmas. However, allow me to pause here to remind readers that the gathering of natural items of any kind is prohibited in North Cascades National Park (other than one pint of edible fruits, nuts, or berries per person, per day). So I ventured to the parking lot of Roadside Park near Rockport where I gathered downed Western Redcedar and Douglas fir branches along with some downed tufts of lichen. Bald eagles sat nonchalantly in the trees above the park, scanning the Skagit River for shiny salmon. Bright red viburnum opulus or “guelder rose” berries were gifted to me by a friend. Although non-native, they added the perfect holiday color to the collection.

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Western Redcedar and viburnum opulus or “guelder rose” berries

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Western Redcedar and lichen made a Christmas centerpiece

Gingerbread cakes, vanilla spice cakes, iced gingerbread men, and piles of other homemade foods made their way from my kitchen to friends (and my belly). Living 90 minutes from a proper grocery store creates the necessity for a well-stocked pantry. I rather enjoyed the homestead-like feeling of baking with snow covered mountain peaks standing sentinel from every window. My love for soap-making was rekindled and many a bar were molded and sent to family and friends.

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Home Baking: Iced gingerbread cookies

Good friends from Oregon came to visit, and we walked along the now closed Highway 20 to view the mountains. Miles of untouched snow revealed copious animal tracks about which we imagined dramatic backstories. The mountains towered steep above, properly doused with marshmallow creme after many days of heavy snow.

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The gated closure point on Highway 20

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Jack Mountain from the Diablo Overlook

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Tracks in the pristine snow on the closed portion of Highway 20

The familiar waterfall trail up Sourdough Creek at the Environmental Learning Center was almost unrecognizable in places, covered in thick powder. The falls fell like gauzy tulle through the mist. The emerald eyes of the Skagit River were brought out by dark rock and white frosting as it flowed just below the Diablo Dam. The recent snowstorm blew in and transformed little Diablo into a snow globe with fluffy flakes whipping the wind chimes outside my home.

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Beyond the Veil: A misty view of the waterfall up Sourdough Creek

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The Skagit River just below Diablo Dam

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The author’s snow-blown home in Diablo, Washington

On Christmas Eve, my friends and I traveled to Concrete to attend a lovely candlelit service at the Community Bible Church. There was plenty of beautiful music and the pastor meditated on the idea of simplicity. His words solidified my unspoken intention for this holiday season. This Christmas there was no mall shopping or Black Friday madness. There was no rush, no stress, no maxing out of credit cards. What I had in abundance were friends, food, and gratitude in this extraordinary place. A quiet Christmas meditation was the greatest gift of my own American Alps.

Lead Photo: Paul Bunyan Stump and Pyramid Peak from the Ross Dam trailhead. All photos by the author, Elissa Kobrin.

Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.

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