Three days into a strenuous trek deep into the middle of North Cascades National Park, my hiking partner Matt asked, “Has this trip been on your bucket list for a while?”
But this wasn’t what I had in mind when I’d dreamed of exploring the northern edge of the Picket Range.
I’d imagined impossibly beautiful peaks, cool mountain breezes, down jackets, bluebird mornings. Instead, we were sweltering in 90-degree temperatures, suffering through “Walking Dead”-like legions of biting bugs and gazing at valleys filled with dense smoke from nearby fires in the Pasayten Wilderness and British Columbia.
Talk about a buzzkill.
I crawled into my tent on that early-August night hoping the heat, the bugs and the smoke would disappear and my bucket-list dream hike would materialize magically.
It was not to be. But during the course of this epic, 60-mile weeklong grinder to Whatcom Pass, my relentlessly upbeat hiking partners from the Spokane area saved the day.
Nobody freaked out. Everyone attacked the challenge of this trip with gusto and made the most of our adventure into what is one of Washington’s wildest and most beautiful regions.
In the process, they taught me many useful lessons that I’ll carry into every other trip.
The Beaver Loop
In terms of visitation, North Cascades National Park is an infant compared to its other Washington state siblings, Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks.
Big brother Olympic is the seventh-most visited national park in the U.S., drawing nearly 4 million people last year. Big sister Rainier received 1.4 million visitors, ranking 18th nationally. Meanwhile, little North Cascades – hard to get to along the border of Canada – received a paltry 28,646 visitors in 2016, ranking 55th nationally.
If you are trying to avoid national park crowds, this is the place to go.
Whatcom Pass is one of the hardest-to-reach portions of this very remote park. It takes two solid days of hiking just to get there, either from the west at Hannegan trailhead off the Mount Baker Highway, or east from Ross Lake, off State Route 20.
We elected to take what’s called the Beaver Loop, starting and ending on Ross Lake. From Ross Lake Resort, we took a water taxi 14 miles up-lake to the Little Beaver Campground, where we spent the evening swimming and enjoying some lovely camping. As night fell, we were all alone with thoughts of a fantastic week of remote backpacking ahead.
Over the next two days, we hiked nearly 20 miles and gained 3,700 vertical feet to get to Whatcom Pass. Blowdowns and heavy brush made the hike even more difficult.
We knew this would be a struggle. The climbing website summitpost.org calls the approach to Whatcom Pass and the Picket Range “the wildest and most unexplored region in the North Cascades.”
It was a relief to be standing atop Whatcom Pass on our third day, gazing at 8,326-foot Mount Challenger and its massive glacier. But there was something else we were gazing at: Increasingly heavy smoke had crept into the region, along with stifling hot weather.
I can’t pretend it wasn’t a letdown. But nobody in the group succumbed to depression, threw a fit or gave in. Instead, we spent the next three days scrambling on the shoulder of 7,574-foot Whatcom Peak and exploring beautiful Tapto Lakes, surely one of the most gorgeous high mountain basins anywhere.
To finish the week, we hiked 28 miles out over two days on the Big Beaver Trail and caught a water taxi out. It was a lot of hiking, done in difficult conditions.
How do you stay positive in the face of such challenges? Here’s what I learned from my indefatigable hiking partners:
Stop whining. Nothing creates more tension and unhappiness on a backpacking trip than a mope. Our group of five never succumbed. Through all the smoke, my hiking partner John simply pretended it wasn’t there. He grabbed binoculars and routinely inspected the impressive spine of the Picket Range. On our last day, when the smoke shrouded even the biggest peaks in the national park, John stared into the gloom with gusto. “Is that Luna Peak?” he asked me excitedly, pointing to an indecipherable shadowy figure in the distance. Beats me, I thought, but I’m glad you’re happy.
Be nice. We suffered through many long days. Instead of groaning and complaining, my hiking partners greeted the challenges with good humor. “Thanks for another great day!” Matt said to me every night at bedtime.
Do your jobs. Backpacking has a never-ending number of tasks. Filtering water, setting up camp, taking down camp, cooking, food storage, dishes. On this trip, everyone pitched in, creating a team spirit that prevailed on even our hardest days.
Carry your weight. It’s hard hauling 50-pound packs up 3,000-vertical-foot climbs. It’s harder when you know your hiking partners are shirking their weight. Carry your stuff, and offer to carry more. Nobody complained on this trip when we divvied up the heavy food bags.
Embrace your inner kid. Zane, our youngest group member at age 13, injected amazing energy and a spirit of fun throughout our trip. He brought his Kendama – a Japanese wood and string toy that proved addictive to all of us. His exuberance made us all feel younger.
Find your personal “Zen.” Sometimes when the black flies attack, it’s hard not to fall to the ground, whimpering like Katharine Hepburn in “The African Queen.” My hiking partner Ted takes a different approach. “You need to be Zen with the bugs,” he said one day as we were all suffering. To prove it, he held out his arms and stood motionless. While the rest of us swatted away, the flies miraculously ignored him. “See?” Ted said. “Zen!”
John Nelson is a freelance writer based in Seattle. Read his blog at SkiZer.org.