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  • Brian Johnson

Stehekin and North Cascades Nation Park - Part 1

The Next Johnson Adventure: Decision Point

Last year Lynn and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary, and in honor thereof we had a bucket list trip planned. No, not a Nile River cruise, or African Safari, although those are still on the list, but a camping trip to the remote Stehekin Valley in North Cascades National Park. Hey, you have your bucket list, we have ours, don ‘t judge. We were thwarted by a historic pandemic. So this year we thought we would try again, only to be threatened by a historic heat wave. Temperatures are in the 100s this week, and are forecast for the 90s next week. We leave for Seattle on Friday. I’m beginning to think that our alien overlords really don’t want us to go to Stehekin.

I have of course been searching for a Plan B, which has been complicated by it being a holiday weekend. I’ve looked at Olympic National Park and various wilderness areas in Oregon, and am constantly struck by how many places now require permits to be obtained ahead of time. It used to be that one could head for the nearest wilderness area and just hike out, but now even some of those are requiring permits issued before arrival. It makes me sad.

My current Plan B is for us to head to Mount Hood in Oregon and backpack into Paradise Park.  It’s only a 5 or 6 miles hike, and we get to camp in mountain meadows. Sounds like a plan, but…there is this little 2300 foot climb. And I found a trip report from someone who was just there last week, and who claimed that half the groups he saw turned around because of heavy snow still on the trails. I’m having nightmares about Lynn trudging up a steep canyon in heavy, slushy snow, with it being blazing hot at the same time. I think I would be in bad trouble.

Because of hotel logistics, and cancellation policies, our deadline for making a decision is by the end of the day Wednesday. I know I’m in trouble because Lynn says she doesn’t care, has no expectations, and it doesn’t matter what we do as long as she gets to spend the week with me. If you don’t think that’s a setup for total failure, you don’t understand how marriages work. Grave peril lies ahead. Happy wife, happy life is an absolutely true aphorism, but the opposite is also true. Unhappy wife, life is hell. So, do I make her go camping in possibly 90 degree heat, or do a really tough hike with full pack and a 2300 foot climb, possibly through patches of deep snow? I feel like it’s a choice between the pot and the frying pan.

Stehekin Journal: Day 1

After facing a knife’s edge decision, fraught with peril, between taking my beloved on a possibly sweltering hot camping trip, or on a hard mountain backpacking trip, because that was the best last minute option available, I ended up employing the Kobayashi Maru solution. For those of you unfamiliar with Star Trek lore, Captain Kirk, as a cadet at Starfleet Academy, was faced with a training simulation that was supposedly a no win scenario, in order to test his psychological reaction to stress. Not liking to lose, ahead of the test he re-programmed the computer to change the parameters of the game. That’s what I did.

There is a lovely little lodge in Stehekin Valley, right on the lake and accessible only by ferry, that has been completely booked for months. Apparently someone was scared off by the 90+ degree weather forecast, and at the last minute cancelled their booking for one of the handful of un air conditioned lakefront cabins for 2 nights. Stepping boldly where others fear to tread, I snapped it up. I’m hoping the lake provide some evaporative cooling, and the lodge has wine for Lynn, so I figure I’m half way home. We’re still on for 4 nights of camping after that further up the valley, but we’ll play it by ear, and if the heat is unbearable we’ll take the ferry back across the lake and head for Oregon.

Our first night has been spent in Wenatchee, Washington, which happens to have a “Brewery Row”. Who knew? We had a great time sampling and snacking, and then a good night’s rest. We’re getting ready to go catch the ferry now.

Stehekin Journal: Day 2

The drive from our hotel in Wenatchee to the ferry at Field’s Point Landing on Lake Chelan took about an hour. The first part wound through arid high desert and mountain country and the last section followed the shores of Lake Chelan to Field’s Point Landing, where the mountains rose steeply from the lake and turned the road inland. We made the ferry in good time for the 1 pm departure and settled back to enjoy the hour and a half ride to Stehekin Landing at the other end of lake. Lake Chelan is the third deepest lake in the country, at over 900 feet, and the blue-green waters provided a stunning contrast to the mountains rising steeply on both sides.

By 2:45 we were ensconced in our Stehekin Lodge cabin at Stehekin Landing. At the landing, besides the National Park lodge and a few cabins, totaling less than 30 units combined, are a general store, a Park information center, a post office, a scattering of cabins for employees, most seasonal, and several kiosks to rent bicycles, kayaks, small boats, and ATVs. The community of Stehekin is considered to extend 9 miles up the land locked valley road to the last private residence, the Stehekin Valley Ranch, encompassing a few dozen private residences. The road extends several miles beyond the ranch, but the land is all public land, and eventually dead ends. The only way in from the other side is to hike over the mountains. There are maybe a couple of hundred year round residents, and maybe a few hundred more with summer cabins. Winter lasts 5 or 6 months, and in a normal year of here will be 3 to 6 feet of snow on the ground, depending on which the next of the valley you live. It discourages a lot of in migration. The summer population, at certain times, is swelled by through hikers hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses the northern end of the park. We happen to be here during one of those times. Starting in Canada and heading southbound at the earliest opportunity the season allows puts you in Stehekin about now.

After exploring our immediate environs and walking along the lake a bit, we stocked up on some Stehekin Valley Riesling and snacks and headed for our cabin, where we parked ourselves on the second floor balcony looking out over the lake in time for happy hour and toasted our good fortune. Several times. Then we headed for dinner at the lodge. Unfortunately the recent heat wave had thrown a wrench into operations and they were running a very limited, mostly cold menu. But the avocado steak salad and the chicken salad were both fantastic. The key to a good dinner is to have happy hour first. After dinner we hung out on the balcony again and watched the sun go down before heading for bed. What a day.

Continued below...

Stehekin Journal: Day 3

Lynn and I awoke early, to the first soft glow of daylight streaming through the cathedral window in our cabin, directly into our loft bedroom. After leisurely morning coffee admiring the morning view over the lake, we walked up to the bike rental stand at 7:30 to grab a couple of bikes for our day’s adventure. No one was there, but they have a sign telling you to grab a bike and a helmet, sign the waiver, and leave it with the money. Bring it back in 24 hours. Everything’s chill in Stehekin.

We were back at the landing in time to catch the 8 o’clock red shuttle bus. It’s the craziest thing. There’s no way to get to this place but to take a hour and a half, minimum, ferry, or a float plane, or to walk 20+ miles over a mountain pass. Which a surprising number of people do. But once you’re here, there’s this 11 mile single lane road that travels up the valley, to where the road is now impassable. Up this road from landing to last stop runs a sturdy old red National Park Service shuttle bus, making several stops to drop off riders at various trailheads and camping areas. There are also a scattering of cabins, a bakery, an orchard, a garden, and a ranch scattered throughout the valley, above which rise steep mountains on both sides, and which is bounded by a 50 mile lake on one end and steep mountains on the other. Yet over this 11 mile landlocked road travel an assortment of vehicles, mostly trucks, owned by the couple of hundred year round residents and all brought across the lake by boat. The whole thing’s just wild to me.

Our first shuttle stop was the famous Stehekin Bakery, where we, and most of the other 20 or so riders, loaded up on coffee and fresh cinnamon rolls during the 10 minute stop. After that we stayed on the bus until the the last stop at High Bridge, where the driver unloaded us and our bikes. The ride up valley took about an hour. After admiring the view of the Stehekin River rushing under the namesake bridge, we parked our bikes, crossed the bridge, and hiked the half mile to our trailhead for Agnes Gorge. It was a lovely 5 mile round trip hike through redolent pine forests, with occasional views of waterfalls and the churning river below, and glacier capped peaks above. At the end we dropped down to Agnes Gorge and had lunch in the shade of the rocks by the river. We lingered for a bit, but fearing the building heat. We headed back up the trail.

Back at High Bridge by 1 pm, we retrieved our bikes and headed the 11 miles down valley. The heat was really starting to kick in, so thankfully the grade was mostly downhill, but there were enough sections of uphill to make it challenging in the 90 degree heat, especially over the gravel sections. Along the way we made a couple of stops, once to check out the historic one room Stehekin schoolhouse, and once to check out Harlequin Camp, where we would be spending 4 nights after tonight. Two miles from the Landing, we stopped for the second time that day at the Stehekin Bakery, where we tanked up on cold beverages and got a couple of slices of pizza to go to warm up for supper back at the cabin. We made it back to our cabin about 3:30. Both of us were exhausted. Lynn, the badass boss Hiker Queen that she is, had hiked 6 miles and biked 11 miles, the last part in 90 degree heat, and gave no sign of wanting to kill me, although I think I got some serious side eye a couple of times. I was so proud of her.

After some cold beverages and a good hard rest we were recovered in time to enjoy happy hour on our balcony overlooking the lake. We followed this up with our microwaved Stehekin Bakery pizza and a salad. One of the best pieces of pizza I’ve ever had. Hunger does that.

Our plan is to stay up long enough to watch the stars come out above this designated Dark Sky Park, but that may be 11 pm. Lynn decided she would need another power nap to make it, so I sit on the balcony writing these words as she naps. Just as I start to despair of seeing her again tonight I hear stirrings inside. The last faint orange glow of the sun is disappearing behind the jagged peaks across the lake.

Stehekin Journal: Day 4

After our big day yesterday, we planned for today to be a bit more relaxed, although we ended up with a full day again. We are camping the next 4 nights at Harlequin Camp on the Stehekin River, a primitive camp about 4 1/2 miles up the valley. We decided to take the 2 pm shuttle, and after packing our backpacks and checking out, we stored our packs in front of the general store and rented kayaks. The clerk made us sign waivers saying that we understood how cold the water is, and don’t do anything crazy to tip over. By then we had already tested the waters, and we were believers.

We spent a couple of very pleasant hours paddling around our little end of this huge lake, admiring the mountain scenery. We made a stop at Weaver’s Point on the other side of the lake to check out the campground there. It was a beautiful campground in a park like setting among tall trees, with views out over the lake. It was disconcerting because not a single person was there in this amazing campground. The only way to reach it is by boat, or to hike in several miles from the trailhead we happened to be camping near that night. Apparently there were no takers. After exploring we paddled back across the lake to turn in our kayaks so we could catch the shuttle up the road to our camp.

The shuttle dropped us off at Harlequin Bridge, which we crossed over to reach our camp on the other side of the river. The seven well spaced sites are all laid out in a line right on the turbulent river, with tall trees providing a canopy overhead. It is a peaceful setting. Our site by the river was quite shaded and pleasantly cool. After setting up our tent we grabbed our day packs and walked back down the road a ways to check out Rainbow Falls. A rushing torrent of water cascaded several hundred feet into a rocky basin. The large amounts of mist thrown up when the water hits the rocks form rainbows in the sunlight. It was spectacular! After viewing the falls from two different vantage points, and lingering for a while in the cooling mist, we started back for camp. On the way we stopped to explore the historic Buckner homestead and orchard. This may be the most scenically located orchard in the country, with mountains rising all around. The orchard stopped commercial operations in the 1960s, but the National Park Service took over operations and maintains the orchard today as a historic site, with several apple varieties still grown.

When we eventually made it back to camp I made Lynn some Packit Gourmet freeze dried Pasta Bolognese, which we washed down with a bottle of Stehekin Cabernet which we had picked up at the general store before we got on the shuttle. We had somehow forgotten a cork screw but realized it in time. The store didn’t have any wine openers for sale, but offered to uncork it for us and let us go with it. Everything’s chill in Stehekin. Full of wine and pasta, we barely made it until dark before heading to bed. We have a big hiking day planned tomorrow and need to make an early start.

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