National Park Number: 9 of 59
On our way through Washington, we made a few delightful stops.
First up: Snoqualmie Falls and Twede’s Cafe in North Bend, where we reminisced about Twin Peaks and bought a pillow that looks like a log so I can live out my fantasies of becoming a full-on Log Lady. (The cherry pie at Twede’s, by the way, was pretty fine.)
Next, Leavenworth, the cutest little German theme town you ever did see. This place is legitimately charming; the town went all-in on the Bavarian theme and the surroundings look very Alpen. We bopped around town for a bit, then drove through wine country to Winthrop.
Washington theme towns really excel at what they do, we discovered. Winthrop is a wild west town with a great vibe. It’s also, if you’re in the market for a new place to live, an outdoor wonderland, with tons of hiking and the largest cross-country ski area in the U.S. We had an excellent pizza there and a stunning view of the sunset from Sun Mountain Lodge (which we didn’t stay in, of course; we just parked there and made dinner and ran around on the grass like a bunch of vagrants.)
We stayed overnight in Winthrop and headed toward North Cascades early in the morning. The drive up into the mountains took us through some of the most stunning scenery we’ve seen yet: the Cascades are such young mountains—sharp and jagged and craggy. There were waterfalls and patches of snow and gorgeous cliffs and we were loving it. Before we got to the actual park we stopped in at the Washington Pass Overlook, which takes you to the tip of a rock overhanging the forested valley and has a beautiful view of the Liberty Bell massif.
We decided to get a little aerial footage with the drone, which David had just repaired from a snafu a few weeks earlier. This is where our troubles began.
A few minutes into flight, we noticed a golden eagle starting to watch the imposter flyer. David tried guiding the drone back to where we were standing, but because this was the maiden flight after its previous injury, we’d set it to super-slow speed. It was slowly making its way back to us when the eagle began to dive for it.
It’s very cool to watch an eagle doing aerial dives over and over again, less cool when the dives are threatening to send your camera plunging to its death. David frantically tried steering the drone away from the eagle and finally managed to land it safely in a tree.
The idea was to give it a quick, soft landing where we could climb the tree and get it. Instead, we gave it a quick, soft landing 40 feet up in an unclimbable tree at the edge of the cliff’s drop-off.
I won’t bore you with the details of our many attempts to retrieve the drone. There were various forms of slingshot involved, many bungie cords, projectiles attempting to knock it down, that kind of thing. Finally we decided to drive the 45 minutes back to Winthrop to get a ladder and pole. We got a 24-foot extension ladder and a 12-foot pruning pole and headed back up the mountain. One death-defying climb later, David was able to knock the drone down with the pole and it miraculously landed on some loamy soil and didn’t even break an arm.
Nobody died, no expensive equipment was lost, and we made it back to Winthrop to return the ladder and pole just before the hardware store closed (which thing we did because a: that ladder was eye-poppingly expensive and b: we had no idea what to do with a giant ladder that had to be fed through one of the bus windows in order to fit in the first place.)
So we spent the entire day rescuing the drone and didn’t even make it to the park.
Unfortunately, this meant we only had one day for North Cascades. We’d only budgeted for two days there since we couldn’t find much hiking on our level and since we had to leave for Alaska to meet a deadline.
This isn’t a park you can “do” in one day (I don’t think any of them are) but it is, luckily for us, one you can see beautifully from the road that bisects the park. We stopped for a bit of traipsing around Diablo Lake, did a few small loop trails near the Visitor Center, and spent a good bit of time talking to the rangers about the park while Graham worked on his junior ranger book.
Everything we learned made me very excited to come back and explore this place more. North Cascades was formed to protect the glaciers—it’s home to most of the glaciers that are left in the lower 48. It’s also the last place in the U.S. with an intact ecosystem, meaning all the plant and animal species that lived here when explorers arrived hundreds of years ago are still here. One species, though, has become very scarce in the park: grizzly bears. Park officials think the grizzly population is down to fewer than 20 bears, not a sustainable population.
So here’s the awesome thing: the park has a federally-approved plan to begin reintroducing grizzlies over the next 25-60 years (there are still some questions about how many they’ll introduce per year and thus, how long the program will run.) The idea is that grizzlies will be re-homed from places with a healthy population of bears and a similar environment (especially important for food reasons: an Alaska bear used to feasting on salmon wouldn’t do well with foraging in the North Cascades); right now they’re planning on getting the bears from northern Montana and British Columbia. The bears will be air-lifted into the park, set in remote locations all together (apparently when they’ve done this before and scattered the bears, they had trouble finding each other again to breed), and tracked. The people of Washington have given the plan an 83% approval rating.
Grizzlies are very slow at reproducing and so few of them will be brought into such an enormous area that it’s unlikely the bears will change the ecosystem much. Still, to me it seems like absolutely the right thing to do. Stewardship of the land involves making reparations, and there is so little bear habitat intact that preserving their population means we need to take active steps to ensure healthy populations of bears where we can. Why do we need bears around in the first place? For the same reason I think we need wilderness. Being in the wilderness and being among creatures who knock you right off the top of the food chain shapes you. I can’t think of another experience with the potential to so change our perspective of where we fit in the world and of our responsibility to it. Heaven knows we could use some humility up in this human species, and I’m pretty convinced it’s the natural world who will serve us that humble pie. We can go outside and seek those lessons now, or we can wait for the earth to change so radically that that humility is forced on us.