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Where the Powerlines Start

April 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 provides the perfect thinking spot. Usually this is the place where my mind starts to wonder things like “Why does traffic happen” and “When will they make flying cars?” The most recent time I was fortunate enough to be stuck, however, my mind drifted over to the powerlines beside the road. More electrons than I could count were wizzing past, heading into homes, phones and even some cars. The hyper-speedways of electricity, we only see powerlines in the transportation or end state. But they have to start somewhere, right?

My quest to see the start of the powerlines had me heading east on Washington State Route 20. If you wish to pursue this adventure yourself be warned: there is not cell phone reception and most importantly no traffic. Heading east along SR 20 will take you past the towns of Sedro-Woolley, Concrete and Rockport. Make sure you fuel up in Marblemount though as it is the last place for gas before heading into the park.

Keep traveling, and you will see the large North Cascades National Park sign just past mile marker 111. Gradually, you will begin to see civilization be replaced with the expansive wilderness that is Western Washington. Even the little town of Diablo (which will be on your left) is dwarfed by the forests, mountains and the mighty Skagit River.


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Gorging the Senses on Gorge Lake

March 21st, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Though I moved to the Environmental Learning Center last August, I had visited many times before during my first summer while living in Bellingham as a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Each time I drove by Gorge Lake, I marveled at the huge sand banks with gigantic tree trunks, remnants from before the dam was constructed and the gorge was flooded. One of three manmade reservoirs on the Skagit River, Gorge Lake is part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Built in 1921, it makes up one third of a three-part system that helps power the city of Seattle. The two other parts of that system are Diablo and Ross Dams, with their consequent lakes.

During the warmer summer and fall seasons, the utility company, Seattle City Light, keeps the Gorge Lake water level relatively low, making the lake bed look like a vast expanse on a foreign planet. Not long after I moved up to the Environmental Learning Center in September, Seattle City Light raised the water level in Gorge Lake. The Skagit River in winter, without the addition of glacial flour scoured from the mountains above, is a dark emerald green that begs for exploration.

tylerdrygorgelake.HaleGraduate student Tyler Chisholm explored the cracked surface of the de-watered Gorge Lake last fall, looking for signs of a moose who some encountered visiting the town of Diablo. Photo by author.

I recently had the opportunity to canoe the lake with some friends, and though it was a drizzly day, the company was warm and light. We started in the town of Diablo, close to the bottom of the Diablo Dam. Two in our company, Dylan and Max, were advanced paddlers, which made for an easy learning experience for the rest of us who all came with varying degrees of canoeing know-how. Starting close to the dam was a wonderful idea as it gave us a new perspective of the small, company town as we floated by. The Diablo Power House, built into the rock wall, seemed so much more impressive on water than it did on land.

As we floated down lake, we came to a small section of white water where Stettatle Creek meets with the mighty Skagit. My canoe partner, Max, gave me a few quick pointers before we entered the waves and we floated down easily without much duress, bumping and tossing as the flow pushed us here and there. As we shot out the other end, Max and I let out a WHOOP! It was a short bit of rapids, enough to keep us on our toes and to be a ton of fun. We watched as Dylan, Annabel and Kristi expertly navigated the waves before paddling on toward where Highway 20 crosses the lake. On the other side of the massive bridge, we slowed down and meandered through stumps and sandbars that momentarily sit above the water line. We could see far through the deep green water, with visibility at ten or so feet. The sand bars above and below the water line had deep cracks in them, presumably due to the shifting level of the lake. The remainders of the stumps that we could see were old, large and teeming with new life. It is remarkable how quickly nature reclaims that which has been disturbed.

powerhouse.KristiKlinestekerGraduate student Samantha Hale and Seasonal Naturalist Max Thomas paddle past the Diablo Power House. Despite its grey, concrete exterior, the inside is quite fancy, complete with marble and granite flooring, an art deco water fountain, and a tiled goldfish pool. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
submergedtree.KristiKlinestekerStumps of old trees poke through the green waters of Gorge Lake, like 100-year-old ghosts lending paddlers an idea of what the landscape looked like before the dam and reservoir were constructed. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

As we continued on our journey, we stopped here and there to explore the many waterfalls that feed into the lake. By this point, the drizzle had turned to full-blown rain, swelling the cascades around us, giving an even better idea at the amount of water coming off the land. No wonder they call this place the North Cascades. To make the occasion all the more special, it was Kristi’s birthday weekend, so we took our time meandering around some lakeside caves and waterfalls of all sizes and shapes. We continued on much farther than we had originally planned, finally coming to rest at the point where the Gorge Falls meets its namesake lake. The falls are impressive from the roadside, and even more so from the base. Climb as we did, it was too damp to get higher for a full view of the falls. However, there were many waterfalls closer to the lake that were equally as impressive and easier to access.

canoeinggorgelake.KristiKlinestekerChasing waterfalls: Thomas and Hale canoe past one cascade after another, meandering toward Gorge Dam up ahead. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

After a bit of playing in the snow and taking a plethora of pictures and “selfies”, we were on the water again. Before heading up lake we stopped to touch the massive 300 foot dam on our way back. I can now say I have seen and touched all three dams on the Skagit. On our return journey we hugged close to the opposite shore, investigating an equal number of waterfalls as well as avalanches and rock slides. Rain or shine, the day was exquisite, and I can’t wait to return to the Gorge Falls on a sunnier day. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone, but would suggest going when the water level is higher as it makes for a more relaxed journey.

Enjoy your weekends and get out exploring, my friends!


We made it to the Gorge Falls!  From L to R: Kristi & Dylan Klinesteker, Samantha Hale, Annabel Connelly, and Max Thomas. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
Leading photo: The trip began in the shadow of Diablo Dam. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.


Samantha Hale is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She has a background in marine mammal research and is ever in search, via canoe, of Diablo Lake’s elusive porca.



Long Goodbyes

August 6th, 2013 | Posted by in Adventures

Five weeks seems like a long time to spend in the North Cascades, but as the final days of my sabbatical from National Parks magazine approached, I realize I could’ve easily filled another five weeks… or ten… or twenty. Early days spent reading, writing, or simply thinking were replaced with attempts to see as much of the park as I could on foot, in the air, or in a canoe.

The more I hiked in the park, the more I realized there was far too much to see. So I cheated a little. North Cascades Institute staff were kind enough to connect me to John Scurlock, a local pilot and photographer who took me up in his small plane. We took off from Concrete Airport on a perfectly clear morning, and flew up to the edge of Mount Baker, where I could see climbers ascending the peak, walking in the footsteps left behind by others. We made a clockwise circle from there, with John rattling off the names of dozens of peaks—far too many for me to take in. I was amazed that one person could keep so much knowledge in his head. But as thankful as I was to see literally dozens of peaks at once (a view that earned me the envy of nearly every Institute employee), there was a part of me that just wanted to set foot on one of the glaciers, to reach out and put my hand on one of those jagged edges that seemed so close.

ScurlockPlane2One of the many incredible views from John Scurlock’s airplane

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Wild Adventures on wild lakes

July 9th, 2012 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

North Cascades Wild has the power to transform lives.

As a trip leader, North Cascades Wild is equally transformative for me as it is for the students that we reach. Never before have I witnessed a group build such a close family bond in such a short amount of time. The faces and behavior of the students I met on the first day were not the same as the students I hugged good-bye. We all became more confident, more alive and much more aware of ourselves as humans. Together we faced challenges and fears, ventured through unknown lands in search of knowing more about those places, supported each other, and learned from each other. Each sequential adventure we had brought us closer together.

The transformations are only getting started. North Cascades Wild started its busy season with two trips June 24th – July 1st.  Sixteen high school students from Washington embarked on eight-day backpacking and canoeing trips in North Cascades National Park Complex, one group on Diablo Lake and the other on Ross Lake. Aimed at providing first-time transformational experiences in the North Cascades, North Cascade Institute, in partnership with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, provides opportunities for high school students to explore the wilderness, gain awareness in natural and cultural history practice leadership, communication, and outdoor skills, support the natural world through environmental stewardship projects, and garner a greater appreciation for their natural surroundings and themselves.

North Cascades Wild Trip 2 on Diablo Lake enjoy a day of paddling together! Photo by Sarah Bernstein.

Each season of North Cascades Wild is special, but this year is particularly special because North Cascades Institute is piloting two new features. Four 8-day trips will now run on Ross Lake and Diablo Lake in an effort to increase the number of students reached. Additionally, many of the trips will be accompanied by a North Cascades Wild Trip Leader Apprentice. The Trip Leader Apprentice program is designed to support young leaders in the Institute’s Pathway for Youth by providing a stepping stone from a prior youth program experience to the deeper responsibilities of being part of a trip’s leadership team.

I was one of the four trip leaders on Ross Lake for this first session, and the eight students on my trip, along with my other three co-leaders, had a whirlwind of a week! After a quick visit to North Cascades National Park’s Wilderness Information Center and Newhalem Visitor Center, students spent a day at North Cascade Institute’s Environmental Learning Center. Then it was on! After learning how to canoe at Ross Lake Resort, students paddled their way to McMillan Campground on Ross Lake. For most students, this was their first time canoeing – first time on a boat, first time in the water and, for some, a chance to face their fears. Along our way, we saw the only pair of loons left on Ross Lake, providing for us a balletic display of courtship. The was the first of countless nature moments that continued to unveil themselves on Ross Lake. At McMillan, students learned how to set up tents, cook food in the backcountry and, in a nutshell, live outside. Living outside allowed us to see a hummingbird visit our campsite, watch deer crossing our paths, hear the creaking of the trees, and immerse ourselves in the smells of the natural world.

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The History of Skagit Dams – Seeing Things Anew

August 26th, 2011 | Posted by in Field Excursions

By Ana Maria Spagna

I’ve driven Washington’s Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, for years. I used live in Rockport right along the highway, and I used to work for the national park that straddles the highway, and for one interminable summer when Laurie worked on the east side of the crest and I worked on the west, I commuted over the highway. I’ve been wowed by the mountains and soothed by the rivers, sure, sure. I’ve hiked from trailheads and watched wildlife and even taught writing at North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. It was there, at the Learning Center, that I first thought seriously about the dams.

To reach the Learning Center you drive right across Diablo Dam. Overhead the power lines buzz. But when writers sat down to describe their surroundings, they usually wrote about birds or fish or trees or clouds. Never the dams. I was as guilty as anyone. The three dams that line the Skagit River, Gorge, Diablo, and Ross, are all more or less visible from the highway, but, in writing as in life, I’d mostly ignored them. Why? I knew the answer: because we nature-loving types have a kneejerk reaction against anything human-made. While we’re in the woods, we want to see the woods. But part of why people come to the Learning Center is to learn about things they know little about, to appreciate them anew. For me, I realized, that meant the dams.

So I was delighted this spring to see that my old friend Jesse Kennedy would teach a class at the Learning Center on the History of the Skagit Dams. Jesse can bring enthusiasm to any subject (you’d have to attend one of his defensive driving classes to believe me) and in this case, the subject could not have been more perfectly suited to him. Dr. Kennedy, who studied both ophthalmology and diesel mechanics extensively before migrating into cultural resources, described dam construction with an engineer’s precision and told the story of J.D. Ross and his battle to bring public power to Seattle with a historian’s heart. Turns out it’s a wild story with several wild subplots. Ross single-handedly fought off proponents of privatization and brought the dams in on schedule and under budget to provide more people in Seattle with more power sooner than in other American cities.

Ross was also a renowned expert on lilies and tea plants, who borrowed monkeys and albino deer from Woodland Park Zoo to place on islands in Diablo Lake. The animals, along with a colorful light show and a hearty chicken meal and a ride up the dramatic cable incline used in dam construction, served as attractions for generations of city folks Ross wooed upriver for inexpensive tours from the Depression through the 1960s. When he died, Franklin Roosevelt offered space in Arlington National Cemetery, but Ross had specified that he’d prefer to lie for eternity along Highway 20 in Newhalem. A plaque at the site quotes Roosevelt who heralded Ross as one of “the greatest Americans of our time,” which is particularly impressive considering that Ross was Canadian.

When at last we visited the dams, we saw a rare sight. The dams, overfull from late snow in the high country, were spilling. The spill would be dramatic in any case, all that water, all that power, but when Jesse turned our attention to the construction, the graceful concrete arc to keep the force of the water from shaking the dam to the ground, my heart swelled the same way it does to see the larches on Liberty Bell backlit in fall. Pure beauty. And this, I realized, was why I’d come. Sometimes it takes a little knowledge to nudge you out of your ideological safety zone, a few good stories, to make you see things anew, to make you think.

These days, I’m thinking a whole lot about reclamation. More on that soon.

Originally published August 10, 2011 on Ana Maria’s blog.