TJ – North Cascades Backpack Trek 2007


North Cascades

August 2007

DAY 1: 4 scouts and 5 adults met at the gravel lot at 0900 for the long drive north to Colonial Creek CG on Thunder Arm of Diablo Lake. We left Interstate 5 at Arlington and followed Highway 530 along the Stillaguamish River towards a junction with Highway 20 at Rockport. The sun finally broke through the clouds and we had dazzling views of Whitehorse Mountain as we arrived in Darrington at around noon. We spent a few tourist dollars at the IGA buying ingredients for a roadside lunch.

The road from Darrington swings north as you leave town and follows the milky blue Sauk River as it flows toward the mighty Skagit River at Rockport. It looked like a great river for a canoe trip, and there were vaguely mutinous rumbling sounds from some of the die-hard paddlers in the group as we caught brief glimpses of swirling rapids and river bends while driving.

Lunch on the banks of the Skagit with bald eagles soaring overhead in the sunshine was pleasant. We crawled back in the cars and headed for the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount to file our Backcountry Permit with the rangers there. Another stop at the National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem, and then it was on to the Colonial Creek CG to set up our tents in sites 101 and 102 and kick back for a while before supper. You can click for more info on getting guides to visit and tour islands.

DAY 2: We tried for an early start in the morning. The Old Goats had fresh nectarines, blueberry muffins, yogurt and java-pressed coffee for breakfast. We pulled out of the campground before 8 AM and headed east on Highway 20 to the Ruby Creek/Chancellor trailhead. We unloaded, shuttled the RAV4 back to the Ross Lake trailhead, and brought the Synchro back with both drivers to Ruby Creek.

We admired the brand new bridge that spanned the clear waters of Chancellor Creek. It had been finished just the week before and still had sawdust left in some spots. A short hike down the trail led us to the crumbling remains of an old prospector’s cabin, used as a backcountry guard station during the 1950’s by the Forest Service. Another finely crafted foot bridge took us across Ruby Creek, and then the trail immediately began an inexorable climb towards McMillan Park and Crater Mountain.

The weather was cool and dry. The trail was well-graded and smooth despite seemingly infrequent use. I could imagine wranglers leading a string of pack mules up the mountain, carrying loads of groceries and supplies for a summer at the fire lookout cabin perched atop the summit. We took our time ascending with those heavy first-day loads, stopping for water and snacks, including some succulent blueberries. We were not the only ones enjoying wild fruit—there was a large day-old heap of bluish-black bear scat in the trail not far from the blueberry patch!

3,400 feet, five miles and four hours later, we grouped up at the Crater Mountain junction with the trail to McMillan Park, and headed up another three-quarters of a mile and 800 feet higher to a lovely campsite nestled below the outlet stream of the tarn under Crater Mountain’s two summits.

Max and Kitt selected a scenic bivouac spot that looked east towards Ruby Mountain. The rest of us crowded our tents on the available bare ground and then took walks up to the tarn and explored the rocky canyon cut by the stream. The clouds moved in towards dusk as we prepared dinner and strung up a bear line for the night. My menu for the Old Goats started with mandarin orange cups, miso soup, teriyaki chicken helper with rice and cashews, and hot green tea with green tea Pocky dessert sticks. We stayed up for a bit of a fire and then headed for the tents and a chance to rest. A squall blew up the valley and pelted us with rain and wind before quieting down at around midnight.

DAY 3: We took things a bit easier in the morning, hoping for some sunshine to help dry the tents before packing them away. The clouds rose somewhat, offering some glimpses of ridges and glaciers across the valleys to the east. We retraced our steps back to the trail junction, and headed through open meadows of McMillan Park. I noticed an old rusted-out metal camp stove, probably a relic of past summers of over fifty years ago, when sheep herders would bring their flocks up to summer in the mountains.

The trail wound around a “corner” and we began to see the backside of Crater Mountain, especially the Jerry Glacier, a large snowfield on the northeast flank of Crater. We descended to a dry crossing of Nickol Creek, and then climbed back up another thousand feet in gentle switchbacks to Devil’s Park. The old shelter sat in the middle of acres of flower meadows, near a stream. Although a bit buggy, it was still a good spot for lunch and a rest.

The trail continued at a gentle grade up another quarter of a mile to the “head” of the park, and then veered north and made a climbing traverse through more flower meadows and clumps of fir trees. Ground squirrels whistled at us, blue butterflies fluttered along the trail at our feet, the fresh wind blew, and as we climbed, we could look across to Crater Mountain, Jerry Lakes and Jack Mountain. We kept climbing at a steady grade along Jackita Ridge for nearly an hour, eventually reaching a spot on the ridge’s shoulder where the mountain fell away from us in a steep scree field, and we could see the trace of the trail dropping nearly eight hundred feet down to a rocky basin far below.

We descended—carefully. The basin turned out to be dry. We rested briefly near a marmot burrow and then set off again, climbing up the other side to another wrinkle in the ridge above another basin. Descending steeply through a rockslide area and bunches of trees, we arrived at a beautiful meadow bisected by a robust icy freshet, and found a small campsite near another tiny creek. The views of Jack Mountain were splendid. We all took the chance to wash up and soon the “laundry bushes” were in full flower!

Tony treated the Old Goats to chicken noodle soup, Spotted Dog (the “scratch” version) and butterscotch pudding. Those ups and downs had us all in bed soon after a gorgeous sunset.

DAY 4: Situated west of craggy Jackita Ridge, our campsite did not feel the rays of the morning sun until late. It was a bit tough to get up with frost on the tent flies and challenging for those of us who hadn’t brought gloves to get items strapped and packed. Soon we were hiking up out of the basin to the ridge crest, and hoped to make Devil’s Pass for lunch. From the crest we realized that we would be dropping a thousand feet and then regaining nearly all of that elevation again before swinging north and west in a sidehill traverse at or above timberline to Devil’s Pass.

We swung down a steep trail that clung to the hillside in stubborn switchbacks before crossing a beautiful stream near a marmot burrow. Brad and I stopped to pump water and have a “second breakfast” before tackling the steep climb to the head of the cirque below the rocky pass called Anacortes Crossing. Silently I revised my ETA to Devil’s Pass to mid-afternoon tea instead of noon luncheon as we plodded upward and then made the turn high up on the hillside to head towards the pass.

We all re-grouped at Devil’s Pass at around tea-time. We were all fairly tired and decided to try for Skyline Camp, a scenic but waterless broad spot on the ridge about a mile before Devil’s Dome. We still had 2 liters of water apiece, and figured that would be enough for a frugal supper and a quick brew in the morning. A basin on the far side of Devil’s Dome would provide a chance to “camel-up” and share a hot trail breakfast on the next morning.

The trail evened off to a mostly level traverse through clearings that offered still more views to Jack Mountain and back to Jackita Ridge. We could pick out our travels from earlier today and from days before and actually relate the dotted line on a map to the ridges and basins we’d crossed.

By 5 PM we were setting up our tents at Skyline, at about 5,900 feet. Lovely silvered snags and alpine firs provided some shelter from an otherwise very welcome but chilly breeze. We quickly put on nearly all of our extra clothes and raingear. The ridge itself was carpeted in white partridgefoot and dwarf indian paintbrush flowers. We ate leftovers from lunch and wrote in trek journals while Rebecca cooked up hearty corn chowder for the Old Goat supper, followed by Good Earth spice tea. It was cold enough to drive most of us into our tents relatively early that night for some welcome rest.

DAY 5: Up early to a chilly sunrise and a beautiful view of Jack Mountain glowing pink in the sun above layers of valley clouds. We boiled up the last of our water for a hot brew apiece, broke camp and headed west to climb Devil’s Dome. The valley clouds rose and surrounded us as we switchbacked the ridge spine to the summit at 6,982 feet. On any other day the views would be breathtaking and worth a picture or two, but sadly this morning’s fog closed in and we could see very little from the top. Within an hour from leaving Skyline, we grouped up in a lovely alpine basin several hundred feet below the Dome for a hot trail breakfast among mountain heather and alpine aster. There was a perfect “cup-holder” crevice in the rocks that held a nalgene bottle precisely upright beneath the icy cold snowmelt.

We faced about a 6 mile descent of 4,000 feet to Ross Lake. We all pretty much traveled at our own pace throughout the day—lunching in a thicket of ripe blueberries, negotiating up, over, under and through quite a few large blowdowns, and an especially creepy section of trail involving waist-high deerbrush that was being devoured by thousands of fuzzy black caterpillars. The cloud cover dissipated and the day warmed up as we descended.

Still several miles from the lake, we met a party of two ascending, and then an Outward Bound team also heading up in the early afternoon. Eventually we reached the shores of Ross Lake and after some initial indecision, occupied a campsite up a ways from the lakeshore on some large rock outcrops. It was about a 10 minute stroll to the dock at Devil’s Landing, and we all made our way there for a swim and a wash.

Supper was lentil soup and a vegetable-rice curry prepared by Rebecca. The scouts feasted on mashed potatoes and BBQ chicken cutlets. The yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets did clean-up duty, barely waiting until we were finished. We got a bear-line set up and then discussed a plan for our “rest day”.

DAY 6: A pleasantly cool morning didn’t encourage us to consider a dip in the lake before breakfast. Brad, Dave and Rebecca decided to day-hike to the Lightning Creek suspension bridge about 3 miles further north along the shore. Tony and I stayed in camp to relax and read. We had Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and some collected essays by Gary Snyder entitled The Practice of the Wild to choose from. As the youth were hanging out on the rocks a bald-faced hornet flew at Casey’s face and stung him on the right upper eyelid. Some aggressive Benadryl intervention therapy kept the reaction under control, but he did look like he’d done a round or two in a boxing match.

The day hikers returned after lunch to find that a mule deer had stolen a bag of GORP from Dave’s pack and was making quite a pest of herself as she explored the campsite searching for sweaty clothing, urine-soaked soil, and any item of food that was within reach. She nearly made off with Max’s balaclava, and was quite brazen in her relentless search for salt. The boys nicknamed her “Stupid”, but she was merely doing what any deer would do.

An afternoon swim at the dock was next on our dance-card, and then the final day feasting began—everything edible was laid out for eventual consumption. Brad fixed Spanish Rice and Corned Beef for the Old Goats. We carefully opened the beef tin behind zippered bug netting before dumping it in the bubbling pot of rice. Leftover 6-day aged extra sharp cheddar cheese was a welcome garnish. The other half of the dinner initially planned for Day 4 was our second course—foil-packaged chicken added to a chicken noodle soup mix, augmented by an extra baggie of freeze-dried vegetables. Washed down with Good Earth spice tea, we let dinner settle before strolling to the creek at the nearby Horse Camp to wash the pots and filter water for the next morning.

An evening campfire and reflection was interrupted by several more visits from the deer. The trek had its challenges for everyone, and was a chance for us to experience the solitude and splendor of the North Cascades for the first time.

DAY 7: The Ross Lake Water Taxi picked us up promptly at 0830 for the 30 minute ride south to the landing at Ross Dam. The weather had turned cloudy and cool, and a stiff breeze was blowing out of the south. We had about another mile or so of hiking up a well-graded set of switchbacks to the parking lot on Highway 20 that overlooked the dam. The car shuttle took next to no time; both cars pulled in to the lot just as the second taxi group arrived at the top of the hill.

We had lunch at a restaurant in Darrington. The Logger Burger was the favorite choice. It would definitely be worth a return visit if we are in the area again.

We were home to Olympia by mid-afternoon.

Old Goats: Tony, Carol, Brad, Rebecca and Dave

Scouts: Max, Quinn, Casey and Kitt