Summer's summit

What is a summit experience? For the 10th cohort of graduate students,  in NCI’s residency program, the 9-day backpacking trip that culminated their first quarter of graduate school was a summit experience, both literally and figuratively. This year the cohort split into two groups, with six students and one instructor with each group. Team veg started on the East Bank Trail of Ross Lake, climbing Desolation Peak on their fourth day. Team bourbon started on the west side of Ross Lake, hiking through old growth forests and over Big Beaver Pass. On the 5th day, Gerry Cook of the National Park Service met us with the MULE to transport each team to the other side of the lake. Team bourbon then hiked Desolation Peak and backpacked out along the East Bank Trail.  Unfortunately, an injury on team veg necessitated an evacuation. The team decided to stick together and continue learning about the North Cascades through front-country camping experiences in the Methow Valley. While the two groups had very different experiences, all students finished their trips elated, exhausted and in desperate need of showers! Here are reflections from each student about the experience….

Team bourbon

Team bourbon members Stephanie Pate, Scott Davis, Cece Bowerman, graduate coordinator Tanya Anderson, Elizabeth Penhollow, Codi Hamblin and Clint Hensley

The Nooks and Crannies –  by Codi Hamblin
Hitting the trail for nine days with my food and gear strapped to my back was a feat I only previously imagined accomplishing. Each step, although sometimes agitating, was another step forward to the next surprise around the corner: massive cedar trees, narrow log creek crossings, steep switchbacks and great mountain vistas. With each step I felt as though I was moving and changing with the landscape as we continuously shifted from moist, dense forests to drier landscapes. In 70 miles we got the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of the mountain valleys, and gaze across the sea of mountain peaks that comprise the North Cascades range. Within that nine-day period, we only scratched the surface.

Hiking the East Bank Trail

Dwarfed by Giants – by Clint Hensley The hike between Big Beaver and Luna camp was filled with gigantic red cedars, the likes of which I could never have imagined. This particular stretch of old-growth forest was filled with these ancient giants—some as strong as the mountains that surround the valley, others colossal remnants from centuries ago. To walk amongst these miracles was to be in the presence of majestic beings, whose age and wisdom is incomprehensible to us humans. The experience left me humble and eager to be once more in their realm.

Students frequently encountered large Western redcedars (Thuja plicata) along the Big Beaver and Little Beaver trails

Where the Wild Things Are – by Cece Bowerman
There were many opportunities to watch the residents of the land, in which we were only visitors. A loud rustling in a bush proved to be a black bear, which just barely took notice of us, as it walked not 30 feet away from where we stood. A moment later we were graced with another black bear sighting. We listened to loons call and watched them dive as we left the lake to hike Desolation Peak. On our return we saw a garter snake struggling to ingest a large frog. Finally, as we finished the final miles of the trip, an American Dipper splashed playfully in Ruby Creek, nibbling aquatic insects stuck on river rocks.

Cece Bowerman carefully steps across one of many log crossings encountered on the trail

Hiking with Kerouac – by Scott Davis
After the alpenglow faded away and we grouped together for the evening, we read a passage from Poets on the Peak describing Jack Kerouac’s experiences on Desolation Peak. We were to hike the mountain the following morning, setting the scene and intensifying the anticipation. The trail on the mountain was steep and the weather warm as we left the lake behind and climbed through subalpine, flower-filled meadows and beyond to the lookout on the summit. Meeting with Daniel, the fire lookout, was great. We poked around and looked at the map table, the pots and pans that Jack probably used years ago, and the toilet with the best view in the world. Hozomeen looked large on the clearest day in memory, blessing us all with a humbling and inspiring experience.

Team Bourbon, along with Professor John Miles and Graduate Coordinator Tanya Anderson, at Desolation Lookout
Clint Hensley sketching atop Desolation Peak

The Language of Wilderness – by Stephanie Pate
Other highlights were the dusk talks about wilderness. The groups had a reader compiled by John Miles, each article pertaining to the surrounding forests and other wild areas of the country. Our cohort spent these talks learning philosophies of environmental education as the sun dipped behind the mountains. The soft sunglow, headlamps, or glow sticks set a scene for different themes about nature. Morals, land ethics, childhood sparks and everything in between were touched upon. I felt connected to my team members as never before and could feel the passion for the natural world in everyone.

Ross Lake viewed from a dock

Taking the Plunge – by Elizabeth Penhollow
After a full day of sweaty hiking, sore bodies, heat rash and gnarly blisters, nothing could have prepared me more for an evening of laughter and discussion than submerging myself in the closest body of water. The plunge became a nightly ritual for us, a simple reward that washed away the day’s aches and pains. The creeks were freezing, each with their own beauty. Yet, nothing compared to climbing down the precarious rock ledge at Ruby Creek. The turquoise water was still and clear enough to see the jagged cliffs dive deep into the gorge that was once the home of Ruby City. Imagining this mining ghost town several hundred feet below as I swam was eerie, but the beauty of that place is unmatched. In a word, it was unforgettable.

Clear, cold streams offered graduate students a chance to refresh and rejuvinate spirits after a long day on the trail
Students rest and reflect on their first leg of the trip near Little Beaver Camp

Team veg

Team veg members Kate Rinder, David Strich, Teresa Mealy, Stephanie Bennett, Nick Mikula and Cassandra Lee

The Feeling of Wilderness –  by Teresa Mealy
Is wilderness just about seeing a place? It is a quiet the quiet Douglas Fir woods? Or atop a windy pass with a view of peaks around? While the sights of wilderness are spectacular, the smells, sounds and feeling of the place make it so much more. It is the warmth of the afternoon sun on your face, the call of pikas warning as you ramble by, the smell of wildflowers in an alpine meadow. All these senses commit the picture, nay, the experience of wild places to memory. Wilderness is much more than seeing the peaks and the trees, it’s about taking it in, one sense at a time.

Ross Lake

Desolation Elation – by Kate Rinder
And so we head up the Mountain of young Kerouac; I can see why you only climbed it twice, old Jack.
Steph, Teresa, Nick, Me; David Matthew, Cassie and spry Mr. John; up and up we go, past spring, rock, and tree, with more and more glimpses of mountains hither and yon.
One thousand, two thousand, three thousand–hey!; we’re out of the trees and into the sun–what a beautiful day!
We keep trekking up, past lousewort and paintbrush, stonecrop, lupine; if it keeps up like this, we’ll be doing just fine.
Then just below the top, when our quarry is near–“What Ho, is all well with you folk down there?”
“All’s well!” We cry, then rally our spirits and make the final march; and learn that Daniel, fine fellow, is manning Jack’s Lookout, atop Desolation’s arch.

A peek from inside the Desolation Lookout shows Hozomeen looming in the distance

Mountains! Mountains! And glaciers all over the West side; breathtaking, mesmerizing beauty as far as it is wide.
We gawk, we gape, we eat our PB & J; snap photos and quietly thank Earl for giving us such a beautiful day.
Before long, we must head down, let gravity take us back for another turn; bid Daniel farewell, and take one last look at the mountains for which we yearn.
Then down, down, down, four, three, two, one– almost a thousand feet per mile before the day is done.
But alas, woe is me–strikes calamity! My kneecap seems to have left me around mile 2.1, what a pity.
I hobble into camp, and without a backwards glance, wobble into icy Ross Lake as soon as I have the chance.
Desolation, you are so majestic, and you have my awe; your sheer rock, alpine meadows, and gnarled pines are wilderness in the raw.
And yet, I shake my fist at you, for you ate my knee; which put a rather big kink in our backpacking you see.
But fear not, for my group Veg comrades were true; and simply would not relinquish me to you.
We just went from West to East–through Mazama, Winthrop, and Twisp (where at the Cinnamon Twisp we did feast).
While the rest of the group climbed more peaks physically; I did my best to reach them aesthetically.
We laughed, we splashed, we basked in the sun; fought flies and mosquitoes–ok that part wasn’t so much fun.
But sharing stories ’round the campfire, only one more night to go; I knew that our adventure into the wilderness still happened, in spite of your plot, Desolation my foe.
And so, dear Mount, I thank you for your vistas and blooms; but your schemes to separate us were to be doomed.

View of Ross Lake from Desolation Peak

In wilderness – by Cassie Lee
What is wilderness?  It may be better to consider instead, where is wilderness?  It may be the places humans visit, but do not live (as it is written) or to me it is where people go to be humans as part of the world, to think and breathe and really live. For me, this past week, it was the trails around Ross Lake and those to the east of the Cascades. Following an injury we had the option to split our group or find new avenues by which to access nature; we chose to stay together. Though this changed our plans and brought us away from designated wilderness, in some ways it allowed us to inquire more deeply into wilderness. Assisted by a vehicle we ventured to places we would not have been able to include in our trip, and explored those places more deeply than we would have been able, had we a planned destination each day.
Hiking up Goat Mountain, poking around Mount Gilbert’s meadows, meeting visitors and colourful locals, watching the sun set behind a stand of fire-stripped trees and staring at the starry sky as meteors streaked greenly across it, falling asleep to the lullaby of the great horned owl’s hoots and waking to the sun brightening the sky after a night slept on the beach: These experiences, emotional, sensory and intellectual, connected each of us more fully to the natural world and helped us feel more human and more a part of nature than is possible in our daily lives. Even without spending much of our time in designated wilderness, its presence and the adjacent car-accessible natural spaces afforded us an opportunity to connect even more closely with nature, as individuals and as a group.

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus)

Windshield Wilderness – by David Strich
Being forced to evacuate the backcountry was not a tragedy; it was an opportunity to study the last portion of the summer’s course about Wilderness. I met people who love it as much as I do: three generations of families, retirees, multi-day backcountry expedition members, hang gliders, equestrians, ATVers, canoers, road bikers, fire lookouts, and day hikers. We met on or at trails, trailheads, viewpoints, campgrounds, and forest service access roads. We all used vehicles to get access to our favorite spots; I never believed that I would value the automobile for its importance in our communal enjoyment of the Wilderness, but I am thankful for the limited roads that (should stay limited and) lead into our public lands.

Hozomeen mountain

Slate Mountain – by Nick Mikula
This is my religion. Being here makes me alive. It makes me cry. Nothing else in my life has moved me more. Neither words nor images can describe this place or the emotions that flow freely from it. As hard as they try, symbolic representations can only serve as encouragement for people to venture outside and explore this wild world for themselves.
These people, this place, our adventure: so many little things brought us together and brought us here. And here we are, six friends who knew nothing of each other just weeks ago, now standing on top of a mountain, watching the sky flare orange and red as the sun drops below the horizon. Pictures are taken, smiles are shared, and memories, feelings are remembered. Another day reaches its end.
And this is my religion: a wonderful respect of the wild unknown; a silent reverence for the world untamed by roads and rarely seen by man; an intense love for wilderness.

Nohokomeen glacier

Home – by Stephanie Bennett
“Nature is not a place to visit, it is home.” – Gary Snyder
While driving westward on highway 20, I reflect on the past week and realize that this trip has reignited my passion to explore my surroundings. I begin listing in careful proximity to the learning center my goals for the next year. I want to hike Sourdough behind my new house. Then Colonial/Pinnacle/Pyramid/Snowfield/Paul Bunyan’s Stump across the street. Then Jack Mountain up the road. Then Tower and Golden Horn 30 minutes away and do the 21 mile loop over Twisp and Copper Pass viewing Washington Pass from different angles. Then hike Hidden Lakes, Torment, Johannesburg, walk on the Boston Glacier, scale El Dorado and then Forbidden. I want to camp on the Sahale Glacier and drink a bottle of wine while watching the sunset after obtaining the summit of Sahale. This is my new home and I want to know the place and no longer just the names.
Photos courtesy of Codi Hamblin, Stephanie Pate, Stephanie Bennett and Tanya Anderson


  1. Paul Wiemerslage

    You guys are great! Nice job.

  2. Jerry Rutherford

    Am now 88 and am unable to attend N.Cascade events—your pictures and comments “stirred my soul.” What magical, wonderful experiences. Thanks for sharing!!

  3. Kelsi Franzen

    Super awesome! I hope your transition to the Learning Center has been good! Go Mountain School and Cohort 10!

  4. Meg Anderson

    Your photos express the unique beauty of the North Cascades. It was interesting to read your reflections and various impressions on your lives. Enjoy your learning experience at N. Cascades!

  5. brent black

    Things that comes to mind when I see these shots and read your exquisite words are the similarities to my own experiences on the various Hawai’ian islands, pre and post hurricane Iniki. What a brilliant & privileged group you are!
    I worked with NOAA in various capacities throughout the nineties; from tracking endangered Hawai’ian Sea Turtle families doomed by fibrocystic papillomatosis to assisting in the cleanup of the shores of Ni’ihau after Iniki. The thousands of photos I shot during my time on Kaua’i were lost in the Corral Canyon wildfire of 2007; all of you are lucky to have had the presence of mind to post your images…
    After spending a month at NCI and seeing Stephanie’s sassy yellow boots within the splendor of the lovely Diablo Lake neighborhood, I am convinced that all of you are doing exactly what you should be; right on!
    With dorky aloha,

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