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.
A few days later, I would get a chance to do just that. North Cascades Institute staff Chris and Katie asked me to join them and Kimmy, a grad student, on a backpacking trip to Black Peak. It would be my first backpacking trip ever. (People are always a little shocked to hear that the editor of National Parks magazine has never actually loaded up a backpack and trekked into the wilderness for several days; this editor prefers historic park lodges, fireplaces, and thick mattresses, like most of his readers.)
We set out just before noon, and after about 30 minutes of suffering, my legs adjusted to the additional weight, although that didn’t prevent me from encouraging everyone to take snacks from my pack, whether they were hungry or not. We were about 2 hours in, and I was lagging behind everyone else, as usual, when I saw Chris go down to the ground. A cramp or a twisted ankle? I wondered. Turned out to be much worse. She’d stepped a little too close to a boulder, the melting snow gave way underfoot, and she scraped her shin against the rock’s knife-edge, gashing her leg pretty badly. All three of my hiking companions were certified Wilderness First Responders, so they had the wound cleaned and wrapped in no time. But the trip had come to a premature end. Chris hobbled back to the car, and the three of us caught up with her after a quick summit of Maple Pass. We ended up eating dinner at Carlos 1800 in Winthrop, and sleeping in our own beds, which, honestly, wasn’t all that bad, if you ask me.
On my last full day in the park, everyone was determined to make it special. Hike to a lookout tower? Drive to the East Side? I opted for the simple option, right in our backyard—a late-night canoe ride on Diablo Lake. Five us us set out in a big canoe, and what seemed like an hour turned into three. We explored the gorge, then finally turned around near Ross Dam, making our way back to the pier, when we noticed the water had turned to glass. So we stopped paddling, laid on our backs, stared up at the sky, and watched the stars come out one by one. We talked about everything and nothing at all. If you had to get a tattoo, what would it be, and where? What’s your favorite national park? Is Facebook evil or not? The sort of questions you discuss at a sleepover, with your best friends, until you simply can’t keep your eyes open one minute longer.
In my final hours in the North Cascades, I said goodbye to the mountains, and goodbye to the trees, goodbye to the water and the deer and the bears. And goodbye to the friends I’d made so surprisingly fast. But I’ll be back. There’s still way too much left to see.Leading photo: Looking out from a yellow 2-seater airplane, high above the mountains. All photos by the author
Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks Magazine, a quarterly publication produced by the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. This is his fourth and final post in a series about spending the summer in the North Cascades National Park.