See the wild side with new North Cascades tours

Seattle City Light’s Skagit Tours has added a guided van-and-hiking day tour of its Skagit hydroelectric project and nearby falls, gorges and viewpoints of the North Cascades. Photo by Jessica Haag.

By Mike McQuaide Originally published in The Seattle Times, August 3, 2011
Atop Diablo Dam, in the heart of the North Cascades, Sara Beaver unscrewed the top of her water bottle and, holding it out at arm’s length, prepared to demonstrate the dam’s unique anti-gravity properties.
“I’ve never tried this before,” said the North Cascades Institute naturalist, “but I’ve heard that it’s impossible to pour water down the front of the dam.”
Holding her bottle over the edge of the 389-foot-high dam, she tilted the bottle and poured. But instead of the water falling straight down as the law of gravity, as well as personal experience, would lead one to expect, the water sprayed horizontally, right back at her. Almost like she was squirting herself in the face with a garden hose.
Explanation for this “Mythbusters” myth confirmed-type moment? Westerly winds barreling down narrow Diablo Gorge run head-on into the front of the dam’s massive concrete wall (at one time it was the highest dam in the world) and have nowhere to go but up. So does something relatively light, like water from a bottle.
“It’s kind of a microcosm of the weather out here,” offered Daphnie Leigh, an interpretive ranger with North Cascades National Park, who was also with us atop the dam.
“Clouds coming in off the Pacific Ocean hit the mountains and, just like the wind has nowhere to go when it hits the dam, they rise and eventually cool, releasing all their moisture in the form of snow and rain.”
Ah, learning. Cool. We were spending our day on North Cascades Expeditions, a new-this-summer tour, combining van rides and short hikes, offered as part of the Skagit Tours operation of Seattle City Light, which operates this hydroelectric dam. Like Beaver, Leigh was providing various and sundry answers to the area’s hows, whys, whats and whens on this six-hour guided foray through this truly spectacular Upper Skagit-North Cascades part of the world.
Still to be discovered
Unlike with City Light’s popular and long-running Diablo Lake Boat Tour, the new aspect of these tours means that maybe word hasn’t quite gotten out yet. Offered Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through August, the tours are led by North Cascades Institute staff along with park rangers. Each tour can accommodate up to 13 people, but on our trip, it was just my 12-year-old son, Baker, and me. Which made for a rather nice two-to-two, guide-to-visitor ratio.
“The trips are geared for people who are interested in getting out and walking around to see things,” Leigh said.
“We drive for a bit, hike around for a bit. Drive some more, hike some more, and have lunch along the way.”
We began the day’s tour in the Seattle City Light town of Newhalem, where we toured the Gorge Powerhouse and learned myriad hard-to-fathom details of the area’s natural and cultural history, as well as that of J.D. Ross and the whole Skagit Hydroelectric Project. (You mean that 90 years ago, they dug a 2.6-mile tunnel through the mountains to transport water from the dam to the powerhouse? Really?)
From there we boarded a van and headed three miles east up the Skagit River on Highway 20 (the North Cascades Highway) to the Gorge Overlook Trail, a gentle 0.8-mile partially paved loop high above Gorge Dam. Leading us through pine and fir forest, Beaver, who has a masters in botany, pointed out interesting plants along the way, including candystick (Allotropa virgata). Its short stalks are reddish with nary a lick of green on them, they have no chlorophyll, and near their base look almost exactly like a candy cane.
Farther along, we passed through a dark, mossy, bouldery stretch where the rocks appeared carpeted in a 1970s-era rich green shag. Beaver couldn’t help but share one of her favorite fungus-related tales: “Alice the algae and Freddie the fungus got to lichen each other … ” she began, and followed up with various and sundry groan-worthy (yet educational) puns describing the symbiotic relationship between algae and fungi.
“Eventually, though, their relationship ended up on the rocks.”
Lunch by the lake
After a stop for a close-up look-see of the always-awesome Gorge Creek Falls, it was back in the van for the 5-mile drive east to the North Cascades Institute, on the shores of Diablo Lake. Here, we enjoyed lunch while gazing into the lake’s mesmerizing turquoise waters, stunningly set against a backdrop of regal Pyramid and Colonial peaks.
It occurred to me that “Expeditions” is a terrific way to experience all aspects of this place, which I’ve passed through many times without stopping along the way to smell the roses, so to speak. And to learn a ton, too.
Along with the dam-top anti-gravity demonstration, during our tour’s remaining hours we checked out the Skagit Incline Railway (not running), once used to carry workers and supplies up the side of Sourdough Mountain via a 34 percent grade, and the Diablo Lake Overlook. We hiked the short Happy Creek Nature Trail and stopped by the day-use area at Colonial Creek Campground for a gander at bird life on Thunder Arm.
But itineraries are not set in stone, Leigh said. Whatever a particular group is interested in, they’ll try to accommodate.
Said Leigh: “There’s so much up here that we have more options for different places to go than we have time.”
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hike! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at

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