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North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

January 27th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017

Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.

This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.

Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

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Jack Kerouac’s first morning on Desolation

July 20th, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Catching up with Jack Kerouac, who served as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades 60 years ago this summer. In this passage from his classic novel The Dharma Bums, he awakens on his first morning alone on the mountaintop and marvels at his surroundings:

Lo, in the morning I woke up and it was beautiful blue sunshine sky and I went out in my alpine yard and there it was, everything Japhy [Gary Snyder] said it was, hundreds of miles of pure snow-covered rocks and virgin lakes and high timber, and below, instead of the world, I saw a sea of marshmallow clouds flat as a roof and extending miles and miles in every direction, creaming all the valleys, what they call low-level clouds, on my 6600-foot pinnacle it was all far below me. I brewed coffee on the stove and came out and warmed my mist-drenched bones in the hot sun of my little woodsteps. I said “Tee tee” to a bug furry cony and he calmly enjoyed a minute with me gazing at the sea of clouds. I made bacon and eggs, dug a garbage pit a hundred yards down the trail, hauled wood and identified landmarks with my panoramic and firefinder and named all the magic rocks and clefts, names Japhy had sung to me so often: Jack Mountain, Mount Terror, Mount Fury, Mount Challenger, Mount Despair, Golden Horn, Sourdough, Crater Peak, Ruby, Mount Baker bigger than the world in the distance, Jackass Mountain, Crooked Thumb Peak, and the fabulous names of the creeks: Three Fools, Cinnamon, Trouble, Lightning and Freezeout. And it was all mine, not another human pair of eyes in the world were looking at this immense cycloramic universe of matter. I had a tremendous sensation of its dreamlikeness which never left me all that summer and in fact grew and grew, especially when I stood on my head to circulate my blood, right on top of the mountain, using a burlap bag for a head mat, and then the mountains looked like little bubbles hanging in the void upsidedown. In fact I realized they were upsidedown and I was upsidedown! There was nothing here to hide the fact of gravity holding us all intact upsidedown against a surface globe of earth in infinite empty space. And suddenly I realized I was truly alone and had nothing to do by feed myself and rest and amuse myself, and nobody could criticize. The little flowers grew everywhere around the rocks, and no one has asked them to grow, or me to grow.

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» Continue reading Jack Kerouac’s first morning on Desolation

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Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades

July 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Sixty years ago this month, Jack Kerouac left Northern California for the Skagit Valley and North Cascades to begin his summer as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. We’re having fun tracing his trajectory through his writing found in The Dharma Bums and Lonesome Traveler, as well as John Suiter’s excellent history Poets on the Peaks.

“On the 18th of June, a Monday morning, Kerouac set out for Desolation from McCorkle’s (cabin in Mill Valley), marching off down Montford Road under full pack. In Mill Valley he began hitching north, following Highway 101 through Sonoma and Mendocino and Humboldt counties to Eureka and up into the redwoods to Crescent City. There he turned east to join up with Highway 99 at Grants Pass, Oregon. Now he was in Snyder country, following Gary’s well-worn path up into Portland, across the Columbia, north to Snoqualmie Pass, and beyond — to America’s last and greatest wilderness.”

— John Suiter, Poets on the Peaks

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“At Marblemount the (Skagit) river is a swift torrent, the work of quiet mountains. — Fallen logs beside the water provide good seats to enjoy a river wonderland, leaves jiggling in the good clean northwest wind seem to rejoice, the topmost trees on nearby timbered peaks swept and dimmed by low-flying clouds seem contented. — The clouds assume the faces of hermits or of nuns, or sometimes look like sad dog acts hurrying off into the wings over the horizon. — Snags struggle and gurgle in the heaving bilk of the river. — Logs rush by at twenty miles an hour. The air smells of pine and sawdust and bark and mud and twigs — birds flash over the water looking for secret fish.

As you drive north across the bridge at Marblemount and on to Newhalem the road narrows and twists until finally the Skagit is seen pouring over rocks, frothing, and small creeks come tumbling from steep hillsides and pile right in. — The mountains rise of all sides, only their shoulders and ribs visible, their heads out of sight and now snowcapped.”

—Jack Kerouac, making his way up the Skagit in to the North Cascades, from Lonesome Traveler.

YOU can hike Desolation Peak and visit the fire lookout Kerouac stayed in this summer on our “Beats on the Peaks” class Aug 4-7 ~ info and registration at www.ncascades.org/signup/programs/beats-on-the-peaks-2016.

» Continue reading Jack Kerouac in the North Cascades

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Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

November 7th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“August on Sourdough,

A Visit from Dick Brewer”

Poem by Gary Snyder from The Back Country; a reading with Rob Rich

You hitched a thousand miles

north from San Francisco

Hiked up the mountainside     a mile in the air

Thy little cabin – one room –

walled in glass

Meadows and snowfields,     hundreds of peaks.

We lay in our sleeping bags

talking half the night;

Wind in the guy-cables      summer mountain rain.

Next morning I went with you

as far as the cliffs,

Loaned you my poncho –      the rain across the shale –

You down the snowfield

flapping in the wind

Waving a last goodbye      half hidden in the clouds

To go on hitching

clear to New York;

Me back to my mountain      and far, far, west.

 

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Just behind the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, Sourdough Mountain looms. This fabled peak has enjoyed a front row seat to generations of comings and goings in the Upper Skagit: a glacial lake draining, indigenous peoples journeying to quarry ancient sea-floor stones, newcomers paving Route 20 through gorges, your car rumbling through them.

» Continue reading Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”