Jim Harris Remembered

I met Jim Harris 30 years ago on one of my first hikes up Thunder Creek into the North Cascades when I was a young, brand-new backcountry ranger. Who was this guy who seemed to have been around forever, since “before the park,” and had all these stories about logging and mining and cougars? At first I found Jim intimidating. He wasn’t cut from the same “the most important thing is wilderness” cloth as most of my friends. And he wasn’t shy about sharing his opinion about those of us who didn’t have much use for the old days when the story of the North Cascades was written by explorers and loggers. But we shared a deep love of these mountains, and over the years, Jim, along with Bill Lester, backcountry area ranger, became one of my most important mentors. He helped shape my understanding of the North Cascades as a place where people lived and raised families, as much as a place of wild summits and raging river valleys. He was a great friend and supporter of North Cascades Institute – one of our most popular instructors, contributor to many of our curricula and always good for a story and a laugh. I miss him.
— Saul Weisberg
ps. A tribute to Jim Harris is planned for Sunday, August 16, at 2 pm at Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport. More information at orcasfireval@live.com. If you have a special Jim Harris memory or remebrance to share, feel free to leave a comment at this end of this post.

They Claimed these Mountains : An Interview with Jim Harris


Bacon and Nip and Tuck Claims were the ones that started all of the excitement up here, around 1878. Most people didn’t stay long. For so many it was the lust for gold and the adventure. When they saw that it wasn’t easy, they left. The few that stayed, like George Holmes, John and Emma McMillen, Lucinda Davis and Lillian Bulldog Brown, really left their stories. When I was a kid, we had neighbors that had claims up here, were trappers and so on, who’d come by and often spend the evening at our place in front of the fireplace telling those stories.
In ‘68 the Park bill was signed and I quit teaching school and went to work with the Park. Today is my birthday; it’s also the birthday of the Park. It was created in 1968 and I’m 68 years old. Just days before the Park bill was signed, Rocky Wilson and his wife Lenore were up on the high hunt in Fisher Basin. Rocky was, at that time, in his mid to late seventies. They had spent years mining, prospecting, hunting and fishing in the backcountry. In the evening they set up camp and a big bear came down off the hillside to the creek. Rocky was able to get off a good shot and it dropped. It wasn’t only a big one, it had grizzly grey all up over the front with a big hump! A neighboring camper came by and took pictures. They skinned it out and stopped by school to show us teachers and the kids. It was part of the story of their life. I wondered how they felt about it. Years later, I asked Rocky, “What if this was the last grizzly bear in the whole country?” I remember him sitting there quite a while before he responded. The Park was created by that time, and that eliminated hunting, eliminated their lifestyle. He said, “Well, my life will never be the same. These are all things of the past.”

My dad was very much this way. I worked with him logging from the time I was a kid and I remember when we’d fell a big tree, he’d say, “Look at the daylight in the swamp!” This is the irony: he loved the forest, the mountains, and he spent his lifetime logging and clearing them. He loved the old forest and he loved to cut it down. I used to do a logging-history talk for Park audiences. Some of the managers were kind of concerned about this, until they learned more about what I was doing. I called it: ‘They Claimed These Mountains.’ I did logging demonstrations – falling and bucking, splitting shakes. I would go into the role of the logger, not dressing up like a logger, or pretending I was a logger, but as a park ranger who used to be a logger. It’s sort of two different worlds, but I maintain that somebody who’s interested in making their living out of the forest should be the best kind of forest steward.
There are so many places with lots and lots of stories. I think it’s universal – people telling stories, the excitement, the drama of life. When I go to these places, especially when there aren’t crowds, I can wander around and identify with people who lived here in the past. To me there’s a kind of spiritual connection to know that they were here, the things that they did, the struggles they had. You can drive through this route in two hours. You can get from this side of the mountains to the other side of the mountains. And what do you know? What have you seen? What did you experience? Think about the people that came before you and their lives here. What was it like? How has it changed?
Jim Harris is a local historian who was raised in the upper Skagit. He has worked as a logger, teacher, forest ranger and park interpreter.
This interview is part of a project called “The Dipper’s Attitude: Conversations with Northwest Naturalists” by Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele. They interviewed Jim on October 2, 2005 on the East Bank Trail in North Cascades National Park.

Copyright © 2005 Sara Joy Steele


  1. Rebecca Merritt

    Back in my early twenties, Jim took myself and several other park rangers on a hike though the wilderness to find some of the old historical sites in the National Park. I remember my aching legs, my hard breathing, and having no idea where we were on our map. Jim laughed as he told the local history, seemingly inmpervious to the rough terrain and topography. He was about forty years older than the rest of us and twice as fast!
    As we came upon an old homestead, Jim tenderly cleared debris from a grave marker and told us the story of the man who lay there. He had carved the marker from wood himself, and showed us the historic treasures that soon would be hidden by time. It was a humble moment to realize how fleeting our time here is…

  2. Libby Mills

    Jim was the upriver historian, the old-fashioned park ranger, a professional listener and one to provoke the rest of us to listen and enjoy the storytelling. I met him in the early 80’s and will never forget all the contributions Jim made to all of us that love the Skagit valley, especially the Upriver community. He will be very missed by us all.

  3. Lucy DeGrace

    Though I didn’t know Jim well, I was fascinated and inspired by his stories. From my days in Skagit River Stewards a decade ago to my more recent upriver outreach efforts, Jim was always willing to share his knowledge and perspective with anyone who would sit still long enough to listen. I think he and Dick Knight are having a good old river rap session somewhere…

  4. Jennifer Getsinger

    The sorrow of Jim’s passing is like the sadness of saying goodbye to the grizzly bear in the other story. Another time, another kind of person lost forever.
    In the late 1970s when I was a geology graduate student at UW in Seattle, Jim Harris helped me, as a VIP (Volunteer in the Park), build the Diablo Lake overlook geological display. I chose the characteristic North Cascades rock types learned from Peter Misch, and wrote out what I thought the signs ought to say. After hitch-hiking up to Marblemount the first time, Jim insisted on having me take the bus from Seattle and he’d pick me up in Mount Vernon on future visits. We had to locate good examples of each rock type in boulder size, and then get them up to the Diablo Lake overlook. This was not done by big equipment or a front end loader. Jim and I would select a boulder as close to the road as we could find that rock type, and then coax it into the back of his pick-up truck with a “come-along”, a relatively primitive but amazing ratchet tool. I learned the term “tar heel” from him, as his family had moved from one NC to another (North Carolina to North Cascades). My ancestors were from South Carolina, so I guess it counted as a kind of bond. Jim sent the geological commentary off to “Harper’s Ferry” for National Park Service approval, which took a long while, and the signs that came back didn’t resemble the scientific language I had written in the slightest. However, when all was done, we had a circle of stones that has provided geological information for decades (grateful that someone has updated it). I remember visiting Jim’s family in Marblemount, and being impressed at how the children had colored sets of dishes they washed themselves, a good idea I was never able to implement with my own kids. It was really nice to see Jim many years later at a North Cascades Institute seminar, Susan Zwinger’s course on Orcas Island in writing nature essays. It meant a lot to me back then when I was young to have the encouragement of someone as friendly as Jim Harris welcoming me to work alongside of Park staff for a while.
    I’ve lived in Vancouver, BC, since 1979, and am sorry not to have visited the North Cascades more often. With a varied career as a geologist in academia, government, and mineral exploration, I am leaning toward a more literary bent with geological editing and creative writing, and still write in my journal. If I have time I’ll try to look up some memories of Jim Harris in my notes. I hardly knew him and yet he impressed me with his human qualities and lifelong fond memories, so it must be even more difficult for those who worked more closely with him.

  5. Noel V. Bourasaw

    I am creating a website about Jim in the Skagit River Journal of History & Folklore (www.skagitriverjournal.com) about all the memories different people have about Jim and the part he played in their lives. We have already collected some and we will add memories from the Aug. 16 memorial. If you have any comments you would like included, please email me at skagitriverjournal@gmail.com or see the website and click the email button there.
    Noel V. Bourasaw, editor

  6. Cindy Bjorklund

    A lovely Sunday afternoon in August brought a couple of hundred of us together from the Upper Skagit Valley and the National Park Service, in a time of tribute to Jim Harris. He had touched our lives in deep and profound ways. I, like many of those at the gathering had known Jim from my first days in the Skagit Valley and looked to him as a mentor and steady caring friend. Friends and family members traveled from near and far to share their personal appreciation for knowing Jim and bringing his special sense of place to us all.
    Jim and I worked together for almost 20 years, side by side with him never really seeming like a supervisor. Jim shared many of his historical discoveries (Rock Shelter and Happy Creek Falls, among others) and interpretive writing with me to produce and collaborate on trail brochures, wayside panels and guided walks. When the North Cascades Visitor Center opened in 1993, Jim had a difficult time embracing the palatial building as he had the park which was his home in the woods. Instead, he used the Visitor Center as a base office and point of contact for visitors. Jim called me his Assistant District Interpreter and allowed me to manage the Visitor Center while he came and went, still sharing stories on rainy days inside and giving his legendary evening programs and trail walks. Jim was a ranger of all skills and the fire boss stories of the 1970’s intertwined the stories of trail building and homesteading and logging. Jim is indeed a legend in his own time and will always be with me as I travel the trails and the memories of the North Cascades.

  7. Janice Olson

    During Jim’s memorial this past Sunday, “Little Jim” suggested “planting the seed” in regards to naming the Newhalem Interpretive Center after Jim. What could we do to proceed w/ this?
    Janice Olson
    Lake Stevens, WA

  8. Janice Olson

    I would like to suggest that a 8″ x 10″ photo of Jim be put on display at the Interpretive Ctr. Maybe a scan from one of the photos on display at his memorial? There was a nice one that looked like it was taken within the last 5 yrs or so.

  9. godwin

    Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.

  10. John Cushman

    It’s heart-warming to see these tributes to Jim Harris. But, as Jim himself would likely point out, the North Cascades Visitor Center has already been dedicated to someone: Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who led the park’s creation in 1968. I’m sure Jim would be flattered by the suggestion of renaming this National Park Service facility in his honor, but would prefer to keep its original intent. If asked, he might say the best thing we could do is to keep the park ranger tradition alive. Could NCI start an annual fund to employ a Park Service seasonal interpreter to follow in Jim’s footsteps each year?

  11. Ron Strickland

    Jim Harris was the featured speaker at the national trails conference at the Bow Hill casino in 2003. He surprised me by telling everyone about meeting me in the North Cascades (probably in 1970) when I was beginning my decades-long attempt to create the Pacific Northwest Trail. Looking back, it was a great privilege to have known Jim and to have benefited from his knowledge of his beloved mountains. He was an inspirational ranger and a wonderful man.

  12. Maxine Franklin

    Just found this site. I’d heard that Jim died, but am surprised he’s been gone almost three & a half years! I met him during orientation in June 1973 as a new info tech working in the tiny headquarters in Sedro Woolley. What a warm-hearted tall man, the perfect ranger image. I loved that he was from the place itself, a wonderful outgrowth of the land and mountains. He made us newbies feel so important & welcome.
    I worked at North Cascades NP from 1973-79, and got to know him fairly well. He was always happy to help & guide me. He visited me on Desolation in the summer of 1976, my first summer as a lookout. He thought it was a hoot that I wanted desperately to see a cougar. I was always looking for tracks or sign or the cougar herself. I did find one track by the lookout.
    When I went back for two summers to Desolation –1997 & 98, he was still working for the park, at the new visitor center, and still laughing about my cougar quest. What a memory for small things that were important to other people. What an all-round nice guy! The park won’t be the same without him. Those of us who remember him will always have him in mind when we visit or remember North Cascades NP.

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