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Jim Harris Remembered

August 6th, 2009 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

I met Jim Harris 30 years ago on one of my first hikes up Thunder Creek into the North Cascades when I was a young, brand-new backcountry ranger. Who was this guy who seemed to have been around forever, since “before the park,” and had all these stories about logging and mining and cougars? At first I found Jim intimidating. He wasn’t cut from the same “the most important thing is wilderness” cloth as most of my friends. And he wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion about those of us who didn’t have much use for the old days when the story of the North Cascades was written by explorers and loggers. But we shared a deep love of these mountains, and over the years, Jim, along with Bill Lester, backcountry area ranger, became one of my most important mentors. He helped shape my understanding of the North Cascades as a place where people lived and raised families, as much as a place of wild summits and raging river valleys. He was a great friend and supporter of North Cascades Institute – one of our most popular instructors, contributor to many of our curricula and always good for a story and a laugh. I miss him.

— Saul Weisberg

ps. A tribute to Jim Harris is planned for Sunday, August 16, at 2 pm at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport. More information at orcasfireval@live.com. If you have a special Jim Harris memory or remebrance to share, feel free to leave a comment at this end of this post.

They Claimed these Mountains : An Interview with Jim Harris

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Bacon and Nip and Tuck Claims were the ones that started all of the excitement up here, around 1878. Most people didn’t stay long. For so many it was the lust for gold and the adventure. When they saw that it wasn’t easy, they left. The few that stayed, like George Holmes, John and Emma McMillen, Lucinda Davis and Lillian Bulldog Brown, really left their stories. When I was a kid, we had neighbors that had claims up here, were trappers and so on, who’d come by and often spend the evening at our place in front of the fireplace telling those stories.

In ‘68 the Park bill was signed and I quit teaching school and went to work with the Park. Today is my birthday; it’s also the birthday of the Park. It was created in 1968 and I’m 68 years old. Just days before the Park bill was signed, Rocky Wilson and his wife Lenore were up on the high hunt in Fisher Basin. Rocky was, at that time, in his mid to late seventies. They had spent years mining, prospecting, hunting and fishing in the backcountry. In the evening they set up camp and a big bear came down off the hillside to the creek. Rocky was able to get off a good shot and it dropped. It wasn’t only a big one, it had grizzly grey all up over the front with a big hump! A neighboring camper came by and took pictures. They skinned it out and stopped by school to show us teachers and the kids. It was part of the story of their life. I wondered how they felt about it. Years later, I asked Rocky, “What if this was the last grizzly bear in the whole country?” I remember him sitting there quite a while before he responded. The Park was created by that time, and that eliminated hunting, eliminated their lifestyle. He said, “Well, my life will never be the same. These are all things of the past.”

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My dad was very much this way. I worked with him logging from the time I was a kid and I remember when we’d fell a big tree, he’d say, “Look at the daylight in the swamp!” This is the irony: he loved the forest, the mountains, and he spent his lifetime logging and clearing them. He loved the old forest and he loved to cut it down. I used to do a logging-history talk for Park audiences. Some of the managers were kind of concerned about this, until they learned more about what I was doing. I called it: ‘They Claimed These Mountains.’ I did logging demonstrations – falling and bucking, splitting shakes. I would go into the role of the logger, not dressing up like a logger, or pretending I was a logger, but as a park ranger who used to be a logger. It’s sort of two different worlds, but I maintain that somebody who’s interested in making their living out of the forest should be the best kind of forest steward.

There are so many places with lots and lots of stories. I think it’s universal – people telling stories, the excitement, the drama of life. When I go to these places, especially when there aren’t crowds, I can wander around and identify with people who lived here in the past. To me there’s a kind of spiritual connection to know that they were here, the things that they did, the struggles they had. You can drive through this route in two hours. You can get from this side of the mountains to the other side of the mountains. And what do you know? What have you seen? What did you experience? Think about the people that came before you and their lives here. What was it like? How has it changed?

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Jim Harris is a local historian who was raised in the upper Skagit. He has worked as a logger, teacher, forest ranger and park interpreter.

This interview is part of a project called “The Dipper’s Attitude: Conversations with Northwest Naturalists” by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele. They interviewed Jim on October 2, 2005 on the East Bank Trail in North Cascades National Park.
http://www.bendrum.com/past_projects/dippers_attitude/

Copyright © 2005 Sara Joy Steele

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