When I turned down a fully-funded graduate position in marine biology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, I had no idea what I was going to do. It was my dream position; funded, studying walrus and in Alaska, a place I loved with all my heart. When I toured the university in January, a pit in my stomach grew and did not abate until I got back on that plane. It was the most visceral rejection of a life choice I had ever felt and there was no ignoring it. Even though it seemed perfect on paper and I didn’t have a back-up plan, I came home and withdrew from the program.
I realized so much of what I wanted from that program was a fantasy. I wanted a log cabin in the woods, with a cohort of fellow students that loved the outdoors, to become the person I thought I could be. I would cross-country ski to school, learn to ice climb, backpack in Denali, go scuba diving under the ice. I would have a group of like-minded friends that were just as excited as I was to live this off-the-grid life. Never-mind the fact that I hadn’t hiked more than 3 miles before this point, I was convinced I needed to go to Alaska to become the outdoorsy person that was hidden in Seattle. When I realized off-the-grid actually meant a cabin without internet, where I knew no one, without sunshine for much of the year and a project that had switched from marine biology to chemistry, I knew I couldn’t stay.
Everything changed after that weekend, though not in the way that I anticipated. When I came home, I realized there was nothing stopping me from pursuing that life. There were endless mountains in my backyard, marine biology opportunities at my doorstep, devoted friends that were equally excited to hit the trails. I don’t have a cabin without internet, but I stay in one sometimes. I spend more time outdoors than I could have imagined when I sat in the snow in Alaska contemplating my future.
While I slowly became devoted to living a life outdoors, my community grew with it. First, it strengthened friendships I already had. Meg grew with me on the trail, bringing enthusiasm and joy to every adventure. I shared trips with family members and loved showing them the places that were important to me. Over the weekend, it brought me a whole new group of people that I met first through Instagram, bonding through a shared love of Washington’s wild places. We spent all day wandering around Cutthroat Pass, loving the larches, all of us deeming it worth the 3.5 hours it took us to get there. Then we slept in tents at a campground, for the love of chilly air in October, not ready to be inside for the winter yet.
In the evening, we sat around a campfire for hours, faces lit by an orange glow. This was no fantasy, no late-night tumblr binge of cabins in winter, no Patagonia catalogue. Rather, this was a group united by a love of being outside and I felt at peace. The person I hoped beyond hope was somewhere inside me was not hiding in a dry cabin in the Alaska tundra, but on so many wilderness trails and beside a campfire under the stars in the North Cascades.
Pacific Crest Trail
We gathered at a frosty trailhead as the sun began to creep up the sky. My alarm cried angrily at 4 in the morning as I prepared for the 3.5 hour drive to the Cutthroat Pass trailhead but it was all forgotten as I stood outside the car in the North Cascades. Directly across the street from the Heather-Maple Pass Loop that Meg and I completed the previous weekend, I was back for another larch march.
We were a large group composed of many new friends but quickly split into two groups to avoid monopolizing the trail. The trail climbed through forested switchbacks, and slow meanders up the valley. After a few miles, the thick forest began to thin and we got our first views of the peaks. Dusted with a light snow, only a week since the last time we visited, the area was transformed.
The trail climbed oh so gently, nudging us upward until the evergreen began to fall away, rock replaced trunk and golden larches began to dominate. Covered in a light dusting of snow, where we could still see our breath with each exhale, our feet took us higher and higher.
After getting our fill of the rolling, rocky pass, we began the journey back down. I quickly fell in with the slower group as I stopped every few minutes to take another picture. The views deserved each moment of soaking it in.
After slowly making our way down the trail we arrived back to the trailhead. Unlike the previous week in the North Cascades, we opted to camp at the Lone Fir campground and avoid the super long drive home on the same day. We got to the campground fairly early, started a fire and ate for about four hours before heading to bed. I was worried about being too cold, but luckily with car camping, you can bring many layers, so I was cozy and warm in my little sleeping bag.
The next day, we swung by Washington Pass on the way out for a view of the Liberty Bell range with a dusting of snow before making the drive back to Seattle.
The North Cascades National Park has a fascinating history that is explored in the book Crown Jewel Wilderness by Lauren Danner. Both this route and Heather-Maple Pass Loop occur just outside the North Cascade National Park, directly off of the North Cascades Highway. When the boundaries of the national park were negotiated, the state retained management rights to the highway and the land directly adjacent.
The formation of the park began after a clash between conservationists and the timber industry. Of course, the history of land-usage in this area comes far before the presence of the federal government in the 1850’s. This area has a rich history of native settlement and land usage, and was not the “unspoiled wilderness” both groups liked to imagine as they sought to protect the land.
Presence of Indigenous people in this area stretch back over 10,000 years, as people moved towards the Cascade Crest when the glaciers receded after the last ice age. North Cascades are known as a significant mining region for white settlers, but the textured rock in this area first served as an important quarry for Indigenous groups. The oldest known quarry in this region dates to 8,500 years ago.
White “exploration” and “route discovery” led by Alexander Ross and others were guided by Native Americans. The extensive trail routes were known by local Indigenous people and much of the settlement by white miners, trappers and other land-users were aided by Indigenous people. Yet, this land was reported as “wilderness” that was “untouched by the hand of man”, essentially erasing the Indigenous people’s use of this land in favor for white settlement.
Cutthroat Pass and the adjacent areas were habited by the Nlaka’pamux tribe. They lived primarily on the eastern edge of the North Cascades and numbered around 5,000 at the time of white settlement. By the early 1900’s, population numbers were around 2,000 individuals after the introduction of diseases such as small pox. The Nlaka’pamux currently reside in southern British Columbia and the North Cascades remain an important traditional territory.
Sources & Further Reading