The Ephemeral Beauty of Solitude

It’s been a long winter in Washington. Though it is late May, temperatures remain cool at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and the surrounding mountains are still blanketed in snow. Leaf buds are just opening and most wildflowers have yet to make an appearance on our trails. An occasional errant butterfly gives us hope that spring is here, only to be chased back into hiding by rain or cold. Perhaps the most celebrated harbinger of spring in the North Cascades is the opening of Highway 20, six miles east of the Learning Center. Late snowfall and slides have kept the Department of Transportation busy this spring, and the highway that usually opens in late April is still closed, keeping those of us living at the end of the Highway in relative solitude.

The popular trail from Ross Dam to Big Beaver is still secluded in the springtime

Learning Center staff and residents look forward to the opening of the highway each year, welcoming the hiking, biking, climbing and culinary opportunities on the east side of the pass. This year, however, the delayed opening has enabled us to embark on adventures close to home without the usual company of tourists traveling the highway. I’ve come to appreciate the quiet, the feeling of being alone in a vast wilderness, and even the risks associated with traveling alone.
It doesn’t take much to get away from people this time of year. I can go for a jog on any trail or road from my home and there is a pretty good chance that I won’t see any other people. Even on bike rides on the open stretches of the highway during “rush hour” after work, I rarely see more than four or five cars, typically my own co-workers leaving the office.

The landscape of Ross Lake at low water levels

Weekends enable further explorations in peace and quiet. In early May, Scott and I hiked 14 miles from Ross Dam to Big Beaver Campground and back, and didn’t see another hiker all day. Early spring is an ideal time to do this hike, not just because it is one of the few trails below snowline, but also because lower lake levels uncover hidden treasures. Seattle City Light lowers the level of Ross Lake each year to prepare for snowmelt and protect communities down valley from flooding. This year they have lowered the level significantly more than usual to prepare for the higher than average snowpack. Big Beaver River, which normally flows gently into the lake nearly a half-mile inland from the current shoreline, returns to its original glory as a raging river with impressive waterfalls. An expansive sandbar surrounds the river and is an excellent location to track animals.

Waterfall only visible when Ross Lake levels are lowered

The highway closure also opens up miles and miles of excellent road biking without traffic. Graduate student Stephanie Bennett shares the excitement of this ride in her blog on May 8th. With the extended road closure, there have been numerous warm, sunny days to pursue this epic ride.

The author cycling near Rainy Pass shortly after DOT crews cleared snow from the highway

Spring solitude isn’t complete without a canoe trip on Ross Lake. In the summer, motorboats, kayaks and canoes fill the lake with tourists camping at the numerous boat-in sites or staying at the Ross Lake Resort. There is even a portage service offered between Diablo Lake and Ross Lake to help paddlers get their gear over the steep hill between the lakes.
When graduate student Teresa Mealy and I embarked on a Ross Lake adventure May 21st, however, we had to portage our canoe and gear with our own strength and the assistance of a borrowed wheel. We headed out for a day trip and were quickly mesmerized by the excitement of seeing the familiar lake transformed by shorelines 100 feet lower than usual. In addition to seeing the waterfalls at Big Beaver, we also paddled through forests in the lake, reminders that the area used to be a forested river valley before it became a lake. At Devil’s Creek we discovered a deep canyon with the hiker’s bridge looming far overhead.

The bridge over Devil’s Creek

While the beauty of the lake when it is untouched by motor traffic is unparalleled, the lack of other visitors also increases the risk to the adventurers. If anything happened, we would need to rescue ourselves. We exercised caution by staying near to shorelines with hiking trails. We also packed extra food and clothing, brought headlamps, set a prudent turn around time (and stuck to it), and told someone where we were going and when we expected to return. In a pattern typical for Ross Lake, winds picked up from the south in the afternoon, and the trip back took almost twice as long as the trip out. We completed the entire 26-mile trip with two portages in one day and made it home safely, exhausted but with soaring spirits.

The author and canoe partner Teresa Mealy at an uncovered waterfall near Big Beaver campground

Our spring canoe trip was a once in a lifetime experience. Next year, the lake level might and the landscape will surely be different, and an earlier opening of the highway will lead to earlier motor traffic on the lake. I also probably won’t be able to convince anyone else to squeeze what is normally a three-day trip into one day!
With the highway predicted to open sometime this week, I feel excitement at the new landscapes that will become accessible, yet sad to leave behind the solitude of May in the North Cascades without traffic. Soon, the sound of motorcycles will echo across the lake, anglers and boaters will join human-powered boats on the lakes, and trails will fill with hikers eager to explore. The park that has felt like my own for seven months will once again become recognizable as a park that belongs to everyone. I welcome the company; solitude would turn to loneliness if the highway remained closed forever. It is the ephemeral nature of solitude that makes it valuable and cherished.

A small canoe surrounded by vast wilderness, exemplifying the solitude we experienced on Ross Lake
Photos courtesy of the author.


  1. Kalon Baughan

    Thoughtful and provoking musings….that inspire my inner desire for solitude mixed with the reality and beauty of sharing an intimate wilderness experience.

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