Larch Madness, 2016: North Cascades NP

At the beginning of October, we went to the North Cascades to see the larches, and man. It’s just so beautiful up there. Like: supernaturally beautiful. Like: we’re seriously thinking about moving to Winthrop beautiful. Like: “Maybe we can make it as part time baristas and just play in the mountains every day?” beautiful.

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It ended up being a mostly sightseeing trip – a million stops at a million brown signs – but there’s something sort of nice about that. And we did take a short stroll, on the Heather – Maple Pass Loop, which, even though seriously short (around 8 miles before side trips) still might be one of the prettiest dayhikes I’ve ever taken.

Oct. 1: Seattle to Winthrop

1.

So here’s the trouble—literally the only trouble—with the North Cascades: they’re super far away. Krista had to work in Seattle, so I drove up Friday, nervous amid the mid-day traffic, and we slept in town Friday night. The weather forecast was pretty rough for Saturday, so we got a late start, snailed out of the city, and were on the North Cascades Highway by, well… at least we made it before sundown.

2.

I love just being a tourist sometimes: stopping at all the pullouts, reading the signs, running around the visitors center with the other six year olds.

We stopped twice at Diablo Lake: once where Krista’d picked me up from the PCT to say something sappy, and once at a beautiful viewpoint just east of the lake, where it started to lightly snow.

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3.

Then on toward Washington Pass, up through increasingly golden hills. Even just from the window of a pulled over car, it really is an incredible place.

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4.

At the pass proper, there were larches everywhere: along Kangaroo Ridge, up Copper Pass, on the side of Liberty Bell… everywhere. It was Krista’s first time seeing them, and she looked like a kid at Disneyland. I guess I probably did too.

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5.

We left with the last of the afternoon light, and made our way quickly down to Winthrop, where we’d reserved a room for the weekend at an old two-story hotel that managed to be both pleasantly old-fashioned and completely ungimmicky—like something out of Sisters twenty years ago. I loved it, and the town, completely. We ordered pizza, watched some cable novelty, crossed the river on a grand over-built bridge, and took a dark evening amble down the deserted main street, where I got the feeling it probably always feels like Christmas Eve.

Oct. 2: Heather – Maple Pass Loop

6.

The next morning, we woke up around seven, ambled again into town for coffee and breakfast, and drove the easy half hour to Rainy Pass.

Most people do the Heather – Maple Pass Loop counterclockwise, seemingly for no other reason than that’s how all the guidebooks describe it, and I guess maybe the climbing’s a little less steep that way. But it’s really just a pleasant ramble either way, and we decided to go clockwise, more to have the thing to ourselves for the first half than anything else.

7.

The first mile or so was through uneventful forest, but soon enough it opened onto bright red ridges and glowing gold trees. And it started to snow, despite the sun – fluffy flakes the size and shape of New Years confetti.

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8.

As we were standing on stones along the trail, trying (and failing) to take it all in, two women a little older than us passed, stopping their shouted conversation briefly to offer some odd encouragement in an oddly patronizing tone. “When you get to the top, it’ll be worth it!”

Huh? I stood there puzzled for second while they walked on, undeterred by my unresponsiveness. Krista looked over at me, eyebrows raised. “Wasn’t… wasn’t it worth it right from the beginning?” Their hollered conversation hovered back to us. The encouraging one was talking about the workout classes she teaches. The importance of motivating people. Conquering difficult terrain. Just Doing It. I guess when you’re a hammer the world looks like a nail.

The attitude made me sad. I love going outside because I love being outside. And I walk the way I do—sometimes far, sometimes short, sometimes only a few feet from the car—because I want to see what’s there, and want to get the feeling of moving through these places, immersed in everything they offer. Staying in some sort of vaguely adequate shape and getting to the top are at most side benefits.

I don’t know what to make of the bizarre, creeping instrumentalism that treats mountains as things to be conquered. It’s like trying to conquer a sunset or a symphony, the harmony of leaves rustling in wind. Like trying to conquer the air we breathe.

Anyway, we waited a while before going on.

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9.

The area just below Maple Pass was, to skip back on an already broken record, overwhelmingly beautiful: white and red and gold and green, all so pure and sharp that it felt like someone’s over-saturated photograph. I caught up to Krista and tried to figure out something to say. “Jesus.” She shook her head yes and gave me knowing smile. “No filter.”

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10.

There was a tiny tarn just under Maple Pass, I guess part of a drainage leading to Rainy Lake, and I spent a while looking down, negotiating with myself. “Maybe we could go down, cut over the corner of Frisco Mountain, descend to Maple Creek, bushwhack to the PCT, take a side trip to Stehekin… I mean, we have headlamps, right? Maybe we could just hike home.”

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11.

From Maple Pass, the trail followed a high, rocky ridge around Lake Ann, then side-hilled down to Heather Pass. The views in this section were maybe the best of the trip, with mountains stretching in every direction as far as we could see. I thought, for neither the first nor last time, that one could easily spend a life learning this place.

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12.

At Heather Pass, we decided to wander a ways west, toward Lewis and Wing Lakes, not so much trying to get anywhere in particular, but just to see something a little off the beaten path.

There’s a reasonably well-worn trail running from Heather Pass to Lewis Lake, and it’s apparently a standard approach for people trying to climb Black Peak, but a good deal of the route runs through a big boulder field – I want to call it talus, but that feels too generous. It was actually sort of fun scrambling, but we were both in tourist mode, and only made it halfway across before deciding we’d seen enough and heading back.

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13.

Once off the rocks, the way back to our car was like the day in general: mellow, muted, happy walking through bright, brilliant color. We ran into more and more people coming up—a jaunty old man who asked if I had any beer or whiskey in my pack (I did), a group of kids in shorts and sandals almost running up the trail—and the afternoon ended easily, as the trees slowly overtook our ridge, and we rambled through their shadows to the car.

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14.

We spent the evening in Winthrop, eating at the only open restaurant—a family Mexican place that sold beer by the liter—and watching the sunset over the unhurried river and the delightful, dusky, wood-walled town.

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Oct. 3: Home

15.

I used to dread long drives home. I’d get impatient and the whole thing would end up feeling like a chore. But for some reason I’ve been really enjoying them lately.

We left in the mid-morning, and stopped a few miles south in Twisp, for coffee and pastries at a warm, comfortable, condensating bakery on the town’s main street. There was a big group of law-enforcement people there—a few police, rangers from the Forest Service and the National Park—all sitting together at a big table, having coffee and cinnamon buns. We stood in line behind the sheriff, who spoke to the woman at the counter like an old friend, but also with a sort of professional deference. It was almost unbearably sweet.

I could get used to living in this sort of place.

3 thoughts on “Larch Madness, 2016: North Cascades NP

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