An Expedition Into the North Cascades

Chapter One. 

August 15, 2015. Seth Swank, Christian Vaughan, and I had been mulling over this trip for about a year.

The idea all started back in the early spring of 2014 when Huckberry started doing their Explorer Grants with Alastair Humphreys. I’m a pretty big fan of Alastair, and his book, Microadventures, was what initially inspired me to start this blog. When I heard that he’d be the judge of the Explorer Grants, I was absolutely stoked and started brainstorming various adventure ideas with Christian. Our ideas ranged from exploring the jungles in Guatemala to doing a 160 mile expedition along Washington’s Cascades. We ended up deciding that each of us would submit an adventure proposition in the hopes that one of us would be awarded the 2014 Explorer Grant. Christian went with exploring the jungles of Guatemala and I went with exploring the Cascades.

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Unfortunately, neither of us won the grant. Yet the Summer of 2014 was still a wild one for me. After graduating from Oral Roberts University, I led a team for a month in South Africa with ORU Missions & Outreach, then shortly after returning to the States to debrief, I flew out to Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) as the assistant team leader for a refugee relief trip with More Than A Game. I arrived back in the States around the end of June 2014, and after a few weeks at home visiting my parents, I set off on a 150 mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (a.k.a. PCT – check out all six chapters of that adventure here). After finishing up that trip, I yearned to get back out there and explore the rugged North Cascades.

Like a kettle slowly simmering over a fire, the idea of an epic trek in the Cascades began to cook. When I was back in Oklahoma working with Americorps, I met with Christian fairly often and skyped with Seth whenever he was free (he was working in Djibouti for a construction company at the time). The first email for this wild expedition into the North Cascades was sent out on December 1, 2014 to Seth, Christian, and two other guys who ended up not being able to make the trip (Josh Verner, who was busy working during that summer, and Sasha Seymore, who tore his ACL while playing basketball for UNC). Initially, the trip idea was to head north on the PCT from Snoqualmie Pass and hike into British Columbia. As more details and ideas emerged, gear surveys were sent out. By April of 2015, a potential 120-mile hike was etched out and began to look more interesting than simply plodding north along the PCT with the swarm of hikers who had seen Wild.

North Cascades Route

We’d hike east along the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), bushwack up to the Chilliwack Slam, bushwack down Beaver Creek to the PNT, and follow the PNT around Ross Lake until it met up with the PCT. Then we’d follow the PCT north into Canada with a small climbing detour along the way. Roughly 120 miles mapped out with 14 days to do it. More email correspondence went out, phone calls were made, Canadian PCT Border Crossing permits were applied for and granted, equipment was catalogued, kits were finalized, and flights were booked.  Kodak sent us their SP360 camera to use and Delvcam sent us their action camera as well.

kit

Seth would arrive shortly before I flew in from Israel (see Travels to the Holy Land I-IV), and Christian would fly in the following day. We’d leave my house early on Saturday, August 15th, and drive the 5.5 hours north to the Hannegan Pass trailhead where our trail began.

KODAK Camera

A foggy morning greeted us as we departed. We drove north on I-5,  stopping only once to use the restroom at a small donut shop, before turning east and checking in at the Ranger Station in Glacier, Washington. The air was chilly and the clouds hung low like half pulled window blinds, but it wasn’t raining and for that we were glad. We went over our planned route with the rangers. I spread our maps on the glass countertop, and over the din of Chinese tourists, the rangers informed us that our first night’s planned campsite was already filled up at Egg Lake,  and that due  to a wildfire on the ridgeline south of Beaver Creek, the whole area northeast of Redoubt Creek was closed – effectively cutting off our planned route down from the Chilliwack Slam. Our only real alternative was to change the route by heading down Redoubt Creek and meeting back up with the Little Beaver Creek Trail below the fire on the ridge. As far as finding a place to camp for the first night, they suggested that we check in with the ranger staffing the fire lookout on Copper Peak and see what she says, but since we looked “capable,” there was also an off-trail place we could hike to along one of the ridge lines if we so desired.

KODAK Camera

We examined the maps again and gave copies of our itinerary to the rangers. With a National Parks backcountry permit dangling from my pack in its clear, flashcard sized ziplock bag, we were off.  After several miles on the narrow asphalt, we turned off the pavement onto a muddy brown forest road that winded through an evergreen forest, and began churning our way to the trailhead. The ten minute drive felt like hours as we nervously waited with eager anticipation for the coming adventure.

KODAK Camera

The trailhead was packed with cars. As we unloaded our gear from my Subaru, we spotted a few dayhikers coming off the trail absolutely soaked. One of them, a lanky brown-haired boy in his mid-teens, was kind enough to take a photo of us at the  trailhead while he waited for the rest of his family to catch up.

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We tightened our shoulder straps and began the long hike up to Copper Lake from the Hannegan Pass trailhead. After brushing past dewy boughs, the trail opened up into a vast valley with the steep walls of to our south Nooksack Ridge disappearing into the low clouds. Far below us meandered the blue-white waters of the Chilliwack as its glacier-fed waters flowed west. As we gained elevation, the hems of our shorts and pant legs began to be soaked with moisture from wet raindrops lingering on the large fuzzy leaves of salmonberry and thimbleberry bushes .

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Seth brings thoughtfulness and wisdom with him wherever he goes and helped us all keep our heads about us through our trek. Christian brought a much-needed sense of humour to our party. Throughout the whole adventure, he kept up our spirits with jokes, funny statements, and other warm nuggets. These two are solid troopers and capable of doing anything they set their minds to. So with spirits high and eager to complete the hard 14-mile push to Copper Lake, we tramped up the rocky, winding trail.

KODAK Camera

KODAK Camera

The trail began to narrow as the heavy green summer flora leaned over into the path. We passed by a high-school aged teen wearing a beanie and his dad as they filtered water from a small stream of mountain runoff. They seemed to be arguing as we came toward them but quieted down as we passed. A few miles later, the dad caught up to us, alone, and mentioned that his son had quit their camping trip and gone back to spend the night in the car. Everyone has a story.

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Ferns began to take over the trail as we neared Hannegan Pass. By now, we had shed our outer layers and were sweating in the grey, overcast mountain air. The trailside began to disappear as we rounded a bend and came upon a dry drainage.

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The tree roots and rocky supports had given way to piles of slowly moving pebbles, rolling down one rock at a time. The  trail jutted sharply upward and we clambered up the crumbling path with our 60lb packs full of food, clothes, and climbing gear.

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We crossed without incident and hiked higher into the clouds. We were starting to feel the burn familiar to any backpacker as the elevation sharply bit into our calves.

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Eventually, we reached Hannegan Pass and took a short break. We refueled our calorie-depleted bodies and guzzled on water. While we stretched and looked at our maps, a young couple came up the trail. They were thru-hiking the PNT and looked like they were having a blast. Unlike the PCT thru-hikers I encountered last summer, this couple looked well-fed and healthy.   DCIM101MEDIA

After resting up at the pass, we followed a series of switchbacks down into the basin toward Boundary Camp. A quiet stillness permeated everything and except for our crunching footsteps on the rocky path and the occasional clang of our ice axes on a carabiner, the basin was still.

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After heading northeast up from Boundary Camp, we passed through fields of bright yellow flowers appearing out of the fog like small pots of glistening gold. Our rest breaks became more frequent and we trudged slowly uphill. DCIM101MEDIADCIM101MEDIA

Very rarely did the trail flatten out enough to give our burning calves and hamstrings a break. When it did, typically at a bend in the trail, we usually paused just long enough to take in the view before taking a deep breath and heading out again into the windy, cold clouds and dripping darkened forest. DCIM101MEDIADCIM101MEDIA

Soon we spotted dark blue berries dangling from the moisture-laden bushes. Wild blueberries! They were everywhere and we began shoving them into our mouths. We continued our slog up the winding mountain path, lungs on fire, legs burning, and feeling both cold and hot at the same time. Pine cones the size of  bananas and weighing several pounds thudded out of trees. We cautiously scurried past overhanging clumps of the prickly cones. A head injury out here would be no joke, and death by a pine cone would be an awful way to go.   DCIM101MEDIA

Soon after enjoying the bountiful blueberries, we emerged out of the trees onto a rocky exposed area enveloped in the clouds. A trail runner passed us with his bear bells tinkling and his SPOT beacon blinking in the early dark. The wind began to pick up and we hurried along the trail until we took shelter beneath a small grove of trees. My fingers began to grow numb but my mind was too tired to make my body stop, take off my pack, put on my jacket, and re-shoulder my pack. 100_0136(1)-2 We passed by Egg Lake where all of the campsites were filled and went onward towards the fire lookout. A gash in the earth widened up as we approached in the cloud. Down, down, down it went, the ground beneath it invisible in the early evening cloud gloom. Somewhere far below us and separated by a cloud, the Chilliwack River teemed with spawning salmon and its clear waters flowed over polished stones.DCIM101MEDIA

To our northeast, the footpath rose windingly up toward the lookout, now hidden in the clouds. We peered longingly up towards where it would be, hoping for a brief break in the cloud to see a light, a shadow, anything. Like watchtowers of days long gone, the fire lookout stood stalwart against the cold wind, yet remained hidden from us.

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So with faith that it truly was there, we climbed the steep trail upwards, panting as every muscle yearned for rest. The rocks were glistening with moisture. Slipping occasionally, we reached the top and saw the fire lookout. A light was on inside and its windows were fogged with condensation. It was wooden and sat on four short legs, similar  to a cabin on the top of a mountain. We stopped for a few minutes and I took my pack off. We called out and a brunette ranger in her thirties and an unshaven trail crew member with round glasses on his face came out. We told them what the rangers at the ranger station in Glacier had told us about camping nearby and asked what they thought about that. The trail crew member went back into warm, heat-filled tower, leaving us with the ranger. She looked us over and remarked how we should have planned better since it was now sunset, but that we were welcome to camp at Copper Lake on the grass rather than the heather in the event that all of the campsites were full. We thanked her and headed along the rocky ridge to the switchbacks that crept down the cloud-soaked mountainside to Copper Lake.

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We turned our headlamps on and raced the setting darkness down the slippery rocky path. We started to spread out. Seth was ahead by  about fifty yards, then me, then Christian about fifty yards back.

KODAK Camera

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About thirty minutes later, we staggered within sight of the lake. Or at least what seemed like a good place for a lake to be when a cloud smothers it. DCIM101MEDIA

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We scouted around for a place to eat dinner. It was late and dark now, around 9:00 pm and we were starving. We had hiked roughly 14 miles and were tired and worn out. We set our packs down on a large boulder and busted out the Jetboil. We filled it with water from the lake, and I noticed tons of small wriggling little insect babies in the first scoop of cold lake water. So I scooped again. Same thing. I did it again, deeper this time and came up with significantly less aquatic species. We boiled the water and ate a luxurious dinner of noodles (the author), oatmeal (Seth), and a Mountain House entree (Christian). Then we filtered water for our bottles and set off to find a good place to camp. All of the established sites were taken so we went with the ranger’s suggestion of camping on the grass offtrail. Sleep came fast for me and after sliding into my sleeping bag, I was out.

Adventure awaits! Read Chapters 2, 34, 56, and 7!

-JC

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