July 27, 2019
Chiwawa River Road to Napeequa River Valley
Chiwawa River Road, Little Giant Trail, Little Giant Pass
We spend the night in Wenatchee, sleep until seven, eat a hotel breakfast. Then up to near Stevens Pass, and north to Lake Wenatchee. Resort residents are just waking up to the weekend.
Krista’s heading up the PCT, starting a bit south of me, so we drop her first at the Little Wenatchee Trailhead. The road there is mostly great pavement until it’s mostly awful dirt, but our little Honda makes it, and we say a hurried goodbye as it begins to rain. The plan is for her to head north from here to near Suiattle Pass, and for me to come in from the east and catch up at some indeterminant point. “I’ll see you… in a bit.”
Then back to Lake Wenatchee, and up Chiwawa River Road for 20 bumpy miles to the tiny pullout that marks the Little Giant Trailhead, where I’m set to start.
I fuss around with my pack for a while, worrying whether to bring more food or stuff for snow travel. By the time I finally set off, it’s after noon.
The first order of business is fording the Chiwawa River. Fifty years ago, there was a bridge here, and a bustling campground on the other side, but, like a lot of infrastructure in this part of Glacier Peak, things have faded. There’s already a backpacker at the crossing, making a meal of changing out of Crocs and into boots. I assume he’s just crossed until he starts talking. “I don’t think it’s passable,” he tells me, somewhat sagely. “I was going to circumnavigate the mountain, but I think I’m going to head up Buck Creek instead. Keep it safe.”
I thank him, then cross in my trail runners. The water’s fast, but there’s a long, flat, unobstructed runout, and at its highest the water’s just past my thighs.
There’s a flat floodplain on the other side, full of moldering remains of the area’s old life: fire rings covered in moss, bits of old metal, a signpost that’s lost its sign. The trail is hard to find at first, but I eventually catch it switchbacking up along Maple Creek, away from the plain.
The first few miles climb somewhat steeply out of the Maple Creek drainage and toward a minor fork of Little Giant Creek, which the trail crosses in the first of many meadows. Past the crossing, the trail steepens into subalpine groves of burnt snags and beautifully bare granite. And flowers. Flowers blooming to the horizon.
I lose the trail at a steep, open rockface, but climb up the line of least resistance and find it again beyond the rock, in a tangle of blooming bistort. Then more meadows and more rock, an ancient campsite on the lip of an old avalanche track. Finally, the trail juts north for one last, long switchback, and views open in every direction: south to the Alpine Lakes; east to the Entiat; north Mt. Maude and the North Cascades; and west to my pass—it must be up there somewhere in that jumble.
Little Giant Pass is a minor notch on Chiwawa Ridge, nestled below Little Giant Peak. The ridge is thin—just five or ten feet across—but wide enough for me to sit in the wind for a while and eat a late lunch.
Thousands of feet down to the west, the Napeequa River meanders through its broad valley. I’ve been reading about this valley for years—Manning calls it Shangri-La—but nothing has prepared me for how grand it is in person. The valley floor is so flat that the river’s free to roam, and it does—a broad band of blue water, wandering from one side of the valley to the other in sweeping half-mile strokes.
Without really realizing it, I tear up at the ridiculous grandeur of it all.
The descent into the Napeequa from Little Giant turns out to be… a little less grand. There’s a trail at first, but it quickly fades and braids, and the slope down is steep. Several times, I find myself going hand-over-hand, or clinging onto the bits of brush that constantly intercede on the trail.
The trail doesn’t so much switchback as drunkenly stagger, but it goes, and after a few spicy sections I’m on a safer slope, gently descending to the valley floor.
When it reaches the floor, the path becomes less distinct still—almost indistinguishable from the dozens of game trails that crisscross the valley. But the whole idea of a “correct” trail here feels a little academic, as all of the routes are equally overgrown. And equally magnificent.
A mile in, I meet a deer, standing in the center of what I’d taken to be my human trail, utterly uncertain what I’m doing here. Then, a half mile later, I startle a big black blob—a bear—who runs through what I’d taken to be impenetrable brush.
After a few more miles of traipsing through overgrown grass and slide-alder and mud, I reach a faded old sign marking the Boulder Creek Trail, which I follow for a few hundred feet until it dead-ends at the river.
I’ve been warned about this.
In contrast with the Chiwawa this afternoon, the Napeequa here is slow but obvious very, very deep. I’m also hitting it at probably the worst possible time, when the afternoon snowmelt, and thus the river’s flow, is at maximum.
I have no idea how deep it is, and no way of knowing without just jumping in. So I take off my pack and start in just to check. Immediately, it’s up to my mid-thigh, but it’s slow enough that it feels safe: if I fall, it’ll just be a question of swimming through the gentle current. At its deepest, it’s halfway up my chest, but I’m able to stand the whole time, so I go back for my pack, hoist it above my head, and gingerly make my way through.
On the other side, just above the bank, there’s a family of deer, who have seemingly been watching me this whole time, betting on my chances.
Past the main channel, there are a few smaller branches to cross, but nothing’s above my thigh. And beyond the river’s floodplain, the trail’s suddenly fantastic. I follow it up a few small switchbacks, and find a perfect old camp hidden in the trees.
The deer family’s followed me up, and we all have a lovely dinner a few hundred feet from camp—them on the valley’s new spring foliage, me on some freeze-dried thing that feels weirdly out of place in such a grand old setting.
After dinner, I wander back down to the floodplain, and watch the evening close-in on Clarke Mountain and the upper valley. Upriver, another family of deer’s frolicking through the meadows, their shadows dancing on the dark blue water.
This place—this whole valley, Shangri-La—feels important in a way I don’t immediately understand. I often get this feeling on the top of some grand ridge or peak, looking out over uncommonly vast distances. But this isn’t that. There are views, to be sure, but independently of them, the place itself feels imbued with a certain significance.
The valley feels outside of time in some way—not timeless, but untimely, from an age far distant from ours. There’s no easy way in: it’s guarded on all sides by walls so steep that crews no longer try to bring tools in to tend the trails. And so the modernity that’s elsewhere made its way into the wilderness is here stopped at the gates.
In and just after the European Enlightenment, there was a view among some philosophers and scientists that the broad expanse of time could in some ways do the work earlier attributed to God. The view is most obvious in Diderot, who understood his life’s work—the attempt to catalog the whole of human knowledge and civilization in his Encyclopédie—as a blueprint for the construction of a future paradise on earth. “Posterity is for the philosopher what the ‘other world’ is for the man of religion.” The future, for Diderot and those like him, “replaced God as the judge and justifier of those virtuous and enlightened ones who were not of this world.”
There was, though, a certain limit on what we can do for that posterity: the things we make decay over time, so why believe that through those things we could make a permanent future? Diderot tried to solve the problem with writing’s permanence: material degrades, but words—words and ideas—can last as long as language itself.
If Diderot thought our words could carry the world forward to heaven, others—more often scientists than philosophers, though forcing that distinction on the 18th and 19th centuries is a bit of an anachronism—believed that the material heaven that is already on earth could be explained by simple laws acting on the world over bygone eons. The view is perhaps most famously presented in the final paragraph of Darwin’s Origin of Species:
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us… Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Others carried the Darwinian logic to new domains. In geology, earth’s topography had traditionally been explained by a single Biblical catastrophe—Noah’s flood or something similar—but, in the late-18th and 19th centuries, scientists began to understand that the shape of our world could be explained in much the same was as Darwin explained the residents of Eden: as the result of simple laws acting over unimaginably long periods of time. Muir expressed the logic beautifully, in his explication of the glacial history of Yosemite:
There is sublimity in the life of a glacier. Water rivers work openly, and so the rains and the gentle dews, and the great sea also grasping all the world: and even the universal ocean of breath, though invisible, yet speaks aloud in a thousand voices, and proclaims its modes of working and its power: but glaciers work apart from men, exerting their tremendous energies in silence and darkness, outspread, spirit-like, brooding above predestined rocks unknown to light, unborn, working on unwearied through unmeasured times, unhalting as the stars, until at length, their creations complete, their mountains brought forth, homes made for the meadows and the lakes, and fields for waiting forests, earnest, calm as when they came as crystals from the sky, they depart.
In college, I was entranced with Diderot’s view. I studied philosophy and politics, I got a PhD, I wrote diligently—always motivated by the idea that my words could somehow bring a better heaven. And I still sort of believe that. But in the last few years I’ve realized that the obsession with building a new heaven in the future can blind to the one that the world’s long history has already built for us here. So, in addition to the work of progress, we need to heed the work of preservation. Leaving this a better place is not just a matter of creation; it’s a matter of conservation.
I walk back to camp as the day’s last light fades, and interrupt one of my deer friends from earlier, who’s apparently made a bedding area near mine, and is lying there with her eyes half open. I worry for a moment that she’s hurt, but no: she jumps up just after I notice her, walks a few feet to a seemingly preferable place, and lazily lies back down.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Drifting off to my own sleep, I think again about the grandeur of this place. It’s grand not because it provides uncommonly long view, but because the time it represents is, in the context of a single human life, uncommonly—one almost wants to say unthinkably—long. And it feels distant not because it’s from the distant past, but because it exists on a timescale far different from my own. It’s been building for longer than we’ve been a species: its contours sculpted by ancient ice, flowers and grasses evolved over millennia. On that timescale, the deer and I really are just distant cousins.
Time’s made a paradise here far greater than I or we ever could. If we have any role here at all, it’s to guard it for the future, so that posterity can inhabit the heaven that we too often overlook.