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John McMillan’s Cabin: Traveling the paths of ghosts

April 14th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Hannah Newell, a M.Ed. Graduate student of the Institute’s 15th Cohort

Where would one place their grave in these woods? And how could one bury themselves? These two questions came to me as I was half delirious with exhaustion, wandering around on the west bank of Big Beaver Creek along Ross Lake. My cohort member and work study compliment, Joe Loviska, and I were on a two day excursion into the Ross Lake Recreation Area to document wildlife and for him, phenological stages as our season turns to spring. I was on a personal quest as well. The previous months leading up to this trip, I had been in contact with a number of resources to lend a hand in my discovery of the history of trapping in this area of the North Cascades.

The trappers and homesteaders were few and far between in this vast landscape of pinnacle mountains and dense forests. One could get lost among the giant cedars and accidentally wander into a forest of Devil’s Club without notice until their fate was sealed with this prickled plant. This is not a forgiving land to those foreign or unprepared for their travels.

I had heard John McMillan’s name in my first round of research into the topic of fur trapping and soon started to hear stories of his cabin. All that was shared with me about the location of this cabin was that it is somewhere on the west side of Big Beaver Creek, before the marsh and after the stream.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Joe and I had the advantage of hearing about first hand accounts of finding the homestead through the use of roughly drawn maps and a faint trail that was previously used by McMillan and the Forest Service before Big Beaver Trail was established.

McMillan-Rowland-Davis-NOCAMap-hrs3-4m

Trail map around Diablo Lake. Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service.

We found this faint line of a trail that lead directly into a fresh patch of fluorescent green moss and downed trees. We had immediately lost the trail, but continued on to meandering through the woods experiencing the true wonder of wandering among the old growth.

» Continue reading John McMillan’s Cabin: Traveling the paths of ghosts

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Hey Bud

May 23rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

You know when you’re waiting and waiting for your meal to be served at a restaurant so you finally get up to go to the restroom, knowing your hot plate of deliciousness will likely have been brought to the table when you come back three minutes later?

I recently pulled that trick, only with my ecosystem.

Having persevered through a winter of twigs and more twigs, the promise enclosed in leaf and flower buds has been an exciting tease for the past month or so, little green gifts wrapped up tight, tender morsels for herbivorous deer and my appreciative eyes alike. But, save for Ribes, most were taking forever to crack, much less unfurl wantonly in their photosynthetic glory. So I left for ten days of spring break at the end of April, confident that the forest from which I drove away would look nothing like the lush kingdom to which I’d return.

It worked! At this point, I can’t even hope to keep up with the explosive profusion of photosynthetic beauty, and this is just fine. Here’s a sampling of new growth in full force all over the Environmental Learning Center campus:

IMG_8040Vine maple (Acer circinatum) buds. Note the bright, licorice-red branches. These will turn green over time, an adaptation allowing the understory tree species to photosynthesize to its maximum potential even in low-light conditions or in the winter after it’s lost its leaves. Young green branches are flexible, and are used in making items such as snowshoe frames and drum hoops.
vine maple buds k. renzStill crumpled like damp, newly-born birds’ wings, fresh vine maple leaves frame dangling flower buds, all covered in fine, shimmering hairs.
vine maple flowers k. renzVine maple leaves, seven-to-nine-pointed peridot stars catching sunlight in the mid-canopy. The half-inch wide flowers will, if successfully fertilized, develop into winged fruits called samaras, commonly know as “helicopter seeds.”
IMG_8149There are a few black swamp gooseberry (Ribes lacustre) scattered around the wetter parts of campus. These small shrubs were propagated by the National Park Service from seeds gathered just yards away near Deer Creek and were planted as part of a successful restoration effort after the Environmental Learning Center was built in 2005. The detailed flowers are only about one-quarter inch big, and you can see the bulge at the base of the petals where the hairy fruit, purportedly very juicy and tart, will eventually form.
fresh mahonia k. renzOregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium): This year’s recently emerged, pliable, scarlet-tinged new growth on the left contrasts with the tough, leathery leaves from last year on the right.
alder buds k. renzRed alder (Alnus rubra) buds form on the young saplings that are growing at the edge of almost every road or significant path at the Environmental Learning Center. Why the profusion? Alder trees love disturbed sites, and are some of the first “pioneer” species that come into an ecosystem after land has been cleared. Since the buildings are less than a year old, this species is thriving.
4 beetles k. renz Beetle-mania! Iridescent cyan insects congregate on an alder leaf, munching away on the new growth. Several of the leaves in this grove between the parking lot and the office were the site of such six-legged shenanigans.
devil's club budRecognize these spines? New growth of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), an exceptionally important plant to indigenous tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast. This species can be used for everything from perfume and deodorant (pulverized bark) to treating lice (berries) and rheumatism (roots and stems). A Mountain School student from the Swinomish tribe in La Conner said his mom makes paint from this versatile plant.
devil's club leaves k. renzPhyto-palms stretched upward toward the light, the devil’s club buds have burst into leaves that will eventually grow up to over a foot across. Mention of another local use for this plant was gleaned from John Suiter’s book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint, 2002): To flog accused communists in the Skagit Valley during the Red Scare of the 1930s.
salal bud k. renzThe  tough, oval leaves of the ubiquitous salal (Gautheria shallon) frame the soft, blushy red buds that will later develop into smaller stems.
fiddlehead k. renz
 
Leading photo: Only three inches above the mossy floor, two gracefully coiled fiddleheads of lady ferns appear to confer: To grow or not to grow? (Apologies for the pterido-pomorphizing….)

 

All photos by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She readily admits she has a problem, an addiction to snapping photos of all things botanical, a pathological attraction to leafy supermodels.

 

 

 

Desolation NCI

On the Lookout for Unalloyed Pleasure: Poets in the North Cascades circa 1950s

February 10th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascade Institute’s graduate Cohort 13 recently hosted our annual Instructor Exchange with other students and teachers from IslandWood and the Wilderness Awareness School. As part of this, I facilitated a session about the handful of poets who served as fire lookouts in the North Cascades in the 1950s. My notes were gathered almost entirely from John Suiter’s comprehensive and lovely book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint 2002). After the presentation was through, I realized my hunch was correct: People love these stories.

At this point, over half-a-century later, Jack Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled fiction and Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary (for the times) poems can seem romantic and co-opted to the point of being trite. Sometimes. More often, though, I regard this small club of men – Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac — who looked out, in solitude, from these mountains as an immense and symbolic source of relief. All three had connections and allegiances to the San Francisco Bay Area, a peninsula inhabited by freaks and artists and which regularly appeared as a setting in their writings. I, too, have been steeped in that place. It is a lifeline to know they lived and loved, wrote and pondered, here in the North Cascades, that they were the keepers of these ridges and valleys over a decade before these mountains were bestowed national park status. I can look up toward Sourdough Mountain, if it’s not hiding behind heavy grey, and hear Snyder and Whalen reminding me what a stunning land this is, assuring me that the steep streets of North Beach, the forested flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the cacti gardens and Craftsman homes of Berkeley are a mere hitchhike away, should one choose.

The following relates three connected snippets of the poets’ experiences in the North Cascades. All information and quotes are from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.

*    *    *

It is 1954, and Gary Snyder is not happy.

After spending two summers as a fire lookout in the North Cascades, once perched in the highest structure, atop Crater Mountain, and later living on the comparatively “suburban” Sourdough Mountain, Snyder’s application to work a third season is rejected by the United States Forest Service. Had the 24-year-old poet and mountaineer done something wrong? Perhaps he had not spent the requisite 20 minutes per hour scanning the horizon for smokes or failed to memorize every peak amidst his diligent practicing of Zen Buddhism, outlining a future play about lookout life, reading galore and imbibing green tea?

view north from SD, K. RemzThe view from Sourdough Mountain, looking north toward Ross Lake. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The answer is hardly definitive. On February 10, the Forest Service supervisor in Bellingham denies Snyder’s application on unclear grounds. Snyder eventually receives an explanation from the Department of Agriculture, vaguely attributing his dismissal to a “general unsuitability” as opposed to “security” issues. One thing is clear: Snyder is blacklisted from government work.

Homegrown campaigns against labor rights activists in Washington and Oregon got nasty after World War One, at times demonstrating a particularly Pacific Northwest brand of vigilante violence by flogging Wobblies with the spiky native plant, devil’s club (an ethnobotanical application of this highly medicinal species that usually goes unmentioned). Thirty-five years later, Snyder is irritated, hurt, and increasingly angry and frustrated by attempts to find other, equivalent employment. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare is raging, and though the young poet is an open pacifist and anarchist, he is not involved in any radical organizing. Calling all pikas! You mountain goats o’er there, with your un-American beards! C’mon Hozomeen, rally the chert!

Plan B. Snyder sends a stack of applications all over the Pacific Northwest and California looking for summer work doing trail-building, fire crew, or fire-watch. He is successful, and buys six weeks worth of groceries on the way to his new lookout job in the Gifford Pinchot forest. He is fired the next morning. He finds a position as a choke setter on Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation instead. From Zen lookout-poet to manning one of the most dangerous jobs in the logging industry, Snyder’s season was a challenge.

Poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg Backpacking
Though never a lookout himself, poet Allen Ginsberg [on right] was a friend and contemporary of Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac. He writes: “Between June and September 1965, North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, USA — Summer 1965, 8 day backpack climbing in wilderness area of northern Cascades, Glacier Park, Washington state, [with] Gary Snyder [on left] back from a near-decade in Kyoto studying & practicing Zazen. My first mountain walk.” — Image © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

As Snyder writes in a letter to his friend, fellow poet and lookout Philip Whalen: “I am physically sick for wanting to be in the mountains so bad. I am forced to admit that no one thing in life gives me such unalloyed pleasure as simply being in the mountains.” And later, he elaborates: “Everything feels all wrong: I just can’t adapt to not packing up and traveling this time of year and my rucksack and boots hang accusingly on the wall.”

Philip Whalen’s boots, however, are indeed on his feet, though they are likely propped up on a chair, his lap supporting a book, more often than his mountaineering friend Snyder’s ever were. Set above 6000 feet at Sourdough Lookout, it’s mid-August and Whalen is in his second season, occupying the one room home in which Snyder had experienced his own creative surge the year before in 1953.

Previously, Whalen had spent his premier lookout season on Sauk Mountain, with a choice view of the Picket Range, Mount Shuskan, and Mount Baker. The two men, both writers, became friends while students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Highly intellectual, Whalen is turned on to lookout-ing by the younger Snyder, thrilled not so much by the physical challenges of the outdoors but by the rare opportunity to embark on an intensive summer reading campaign while living embedded in beauty and solitude to inspire his writing. And getting paid by the Eisenhower administration to do it! Snyder also introduces Whalen to Zen teachings and practice.

During his short stint in 1954 atop Sourdough (fire danger is low that year, and the season starts late), Whalen’s neighbors include a herd of a dozen stags and a resident black bear. Upon returning to the valley, motivated and enthused, he writes in a letter to Snyder: “My imagination is in great shape. Goodness knows what will happen next.”

diablo from SD Katherin RenzA classic image of Diablo Lake, as seen from the flanks of Sourdough Mountain. In his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout”, Whalen describes it as “two lights green soap and indigo”. Photo by Katherine Renz.

It is a little over a year later, October 1955. A handful of poets, on fire, give a reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. Allen Ginsberg unleashes his incendiary “Howl”. Jack Kerouac, a writer and train-hopping Buddhist who’d recently arrived from a literary bender with William Burroughs in Mexico City, is in attendance, too. It proves a legendary night, the kickoff of the literary resurgence fueled by the so-called Beat Generation (not all participating poets, Snyder included, would enjoy this lasting label).

Whalen shares his tales of lookout work in the wild North Cascades to Kerouac. Snyder elaborates. Though Kerouac has never traveled in the backcountry before, he has long fantasized about holing up in a hermitage – writing rapid-fire, beset with visions, privy to a direct line to the divine. His experienced friends encourage him to apply.

Kerouac is accepted to man Desolation Lookout, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, for the summer of 1956. His anticipation is overwhelming, and he tells his friend, Carolyn Cassidy, “O boy, O boy, O here I go, I got the offer for the job watching fires…and I told the Forest Ranger I hoped he’d take me back next year, and the next, and all my life. It will be my life work…”.

kerouac copyright Walter LehrmanMay 1956, Kerouac at Gary Snyder’s going-away party (Snyder would be back and forth between Japan and California for the next 12 years) in Northern California. This is six weeks before Kerouac left for his season in the North Cascades. Image © Walter Lehrman.

Being a fire lookout does not become Kerouac’s life work. He writes a ton while on Desolation (his arguably most famous novel, On the Road, would be published a year later). But he is also lonely, scared of the looming Hozomeen, especially in the dark, having more delusions than visions and yearning more for debauchery and drugs upon returning to the city than for the dharma of the present. In his 63 days on the aptly-named mountain, he receives no visitors, his sole social contact being when he scrambles down to the Ross Guard Station, ten days into his season, to scrounge a one pound tin of Prince Albert rolling tobacco from the generous guards.

*     *     *

Three men, 360 degree views, a slew of haikus, tales and legends. It is 2014. I look to the peaks and they rumble poems.

desolation sign NCIAbove and top images © North Cascades Institute

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward to an obligatory pilgrimage to Desolation Peak this coming summer vacation, followed by a drink in North Beach.