Monday, September 22, 2008
Ross Lake: Paddling in the Path of Beat Poets
Beat poets' sojourns in Washington's North Cascades?
In the 1950s, the North Cascades Highway was still 20 years away from opening, and the Skagit River canyon was only recently inundated after Ross Dam was built in the late 1940s to form Ross Lake. So the string of Beat poets (most famously Jack Kerouac) who spent several summers on peaks rimming the lake (Sourdough Mountain, Crater Peak, and Desolation Peak ) over 50 years ago experienced a truly remote wilderness just beyond the lakeshore.
Although these days the campsites stretching up Ross Lake to the Canadian border can be full during the summer, a little solitude can still be found if you time your trip before or after peak season (July and August).
After an early morning drive from Seattle, Rich and I pull into the Ross Lake Resort trailhead parking area right off the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). Weather forecasters predicted sunny and warm skies for the region, but a strong southerly wind is sending clouds racing overhead just above the snow-encrusted mountains. Not the best weather for kayaking. Nevertheless, we strap on our packs and set off on the mile-long trail of dusty switchbacks through the forest down to Ross Lake.
When we get to the lake, we dump our gear onto the floating dock just offshore, and Rich uses the free phone to call the resort across the lake to send a boat over for us. Within minutes a power boat pulls up to the dock.
“Good morning!” says the driver cheerfully, and we jump on board for the 5-minute shuttle ride. At Ross Lake Resort’s dock we rent Eddyline fiberglass kayaks. (It would not be fun to haul your own loaded kayak down the long trail from the highway down to the lake.)
With our kayaks loaded up, we take off into the gusty early afternoon. Big Beaver Creek, a bay about 5 miles up the lake, is our destination for this one-night trip. Fortunately the wind is at our back, making for a quick and pretty easy paddle northward.
Along the way north, we paddle alongside streams and waterfalls tumbling off the mostly steep forested slopes that line the lake. Although I think there’s something slightly forlorn about lakes behind dams (like Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite), they’re often in beautiful settings that allow boaters access to unusual places.
“Brrr! I need another layer!” I shout at Rich when the wind and a smattering of rain pick up after a few miles of paddling. Cougar Island looms ahead, where there’s a designated camping site and outhouse. We paddle to the lee side of the little island, and I pull my Gore-tex paddling jacket out of my dry sack while Rich runs up to the privy. Then I nose around the rocky shoreline to explore for a couple minutes.
Within a couple hours we paddle into the bay where we’ll camp tonight. Steep slopes give way to a small valley near the mouth of Big Beaver Creek, which gives us a view of more craggy peaks several miles upstream. I’m surprised to find a nice white sand beach rimming the bay.
When I paddle up close to the mouth of Beaver Creek, still swollen with snowmelt, the strong current spins my bow quickly 90 degrees to the right. Across the lake, patches of snow finger down from the rocky ridge summit of Jack Mountain, which juts up from the lake’s edge to over 9,000 feet.
Since we’re in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area/North Cascades National Park complex, the campsites are nice and well-maintained. After we set up camp, we hike the trail up Big Beaver Creek valley to a grove of ancient cedars upstream. Above the rapids at the mouth of the creek, Big Beaver is calm and placid, fringed by mostly alder and thick, second or third-growth fir trees. Within 45 minutes we're dashing back downstream to escape the swarming mosquitos.
By dusk the wind dissipates, and a patch of orange sunlight slowly fingers down the slope of Jack Mountain as the sun sets. I sleep surprisingly well in the mountain still night, with no other sound but Rich stirring in his sleeping bag occasionally and the distant rush of Big Beaver into the lake. I needed this break from the city.
We’re both up before 6 a.m., with blue skies and sunshine. A pair of black and white-streaked common loons swims close to the beach near our kayaks. I hope we’ll hear their distinct and soulful cries echoing over the water. No such luck this morning, though.
We eat a quick breakfast of tea and granola bars and set off to do a bit more exploring as we head back down the lake. "Osprey!" I cry as I spy the large hawk high in a tree above the lakeshore. (Actually we're both spying each other.)
This early in the morning, we see hardly anyone else on the lake. A motor boat passes by in the distance, heading north. The lake surface has morphed from yesterday’s choppy water into a glassy smooth, giant mirror; we paddle through the reflections of the snowy mountains above us.
Ambling around the sinuous bay shoreline brings us into a narrow cleft in the thick evergreen forest, where a rushing mountain brook is cutoff midstream as it plunges into the lake.
On such a beautiful calm morning, the rest of the trip back goes quickly. But I purposely slow my pace to prolong our time in this mountain fresh air, brilliant sunshine, and postcard perfect scenery.
About 24 hours from when we put in, we’re back at the resort. Next time I’ll venture farther up the lake—this sojourn was just a quick taste that’s left me wanting more.
When You Go
Click on Ross Lake Resort for a map and directions to the resort by boat or hiking. You can drive to a shuttle on Diablo Lake that takes you to Ross Lake Resort instead of hiking down from the highway, but it only leaves once in the morning at 8:30. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive to Diablo and Ross Lake from Seattle. For information on how to get permits to camp at the boat-in campgrounds, click here.