October 18, 2021

North Cascades Adventure

by Rob Root, DO

I pulled into the parking lot, just a glimmer of sun visible in the pre-dawn darkness. Only one other car was in sight, which meant my 4:30am wakeup and 30 minute drive to the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount had been a success. I took a number from the ticket counter and settled back into the car to wait until 7:00am.

There’s a familiar rhythm to obtaining a walk-up backcountry permit from the National Park Service. Done right, you arrive in the cool, dark stillness of the early morning with only a handful of other people ahead of you. Time passes, and the friendly crowd of dirtbags, retirees, and weekend warriors grows. As the sun rises so does the (masked) conversation: “Where are you coming from?” “Smart move bringing a stool, I should have done the same thing.” “I see your license plate is from Texas; is that where you live?” Finally the station opens, and I’m number two in line. I approach the socially distanced desk and the park ranger asks what backcountry campsite I’d like to reserve.

Generally I’m a planner, and try to have my backcountry permits long before arriving at a National Park. But 2020 wasn’t friendly to plans. Our once-in-a-lifetime family trip from home in West Texas all the way to Banff in the Canadian Rockies didn’t count as essential, so we’d made an abrupt left turn in Montana and diverted to North Cascades National Park. Thus the early morning walk-up permits.

“We’re hoping for an easy boat-packing trip,” I told the ranger. “We’ve never done an overnight trip in our canoe, so I was hoping for one of the campsites along Diablo Lake.”

Sliding a finger down her list, the masked ranger clucked her tongue and said, “All three campsites along Diablo Lake are booked tomorrow night. Green Point campsite on Ross Lake is available, but you’ll have to portage around the dam.”

“How far is the portage?”
“It’s pretty easy,” she replied. “Just a short way uphill and then down to Ross Lake. Less than a mile. There’s a commercial service you can use that will drive you up if you don’t want to walk.”

“Do you think it’s worth paying for, or should we just do the portage ourselves?” I asked.

“It’s really up to you. Are you set up to portage?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a portage yoke,” I answered.

“Shouldn’t be a problem, then.”

. . .

30 hours later, struggling up switchbacks with 60lbs of canoe on my back, it was a problem.

The day began easily enough in the Colonial Creek campground as we broke camp in pleasant early-September weather. We stowed the car camping gear in our enclosed cargo trailer and packed our 17ft canoe with everything a family of seven would need for a night in the backcountry.

Fully loaded with five kids and two adults, our canoe sat low in the water, with about 2 inches of freeboard. We achieved a delicate balance with myself (Dad) in the stern seat, our two boys (10 and 5 years old) and two older girls (9 and 7) sharing two benches in the middle. Mom was in the front seat, and our youngest daughter (2) proudly perched in the bow.

We shoved off onto the aquamarine waters of Diablo Lake just before noon, the most heavily laden boat in sight. Although this was our first overnight boat-packing trip, we’d been practicing our paddling all year, including several trips on Lake Couer d’Alene in Idaho, Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park, and along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. We’d even forced our kids into some mandatory capsize training at Baker Reservoir in Southern Utah, where the Memorial Day crowds cheered us on as we flipped and bailed and hauled and flopped just offshore.

Luckily nothing so exciting as a capsize happened on Diablo Lake. Instead we were treated to calm waters and comfortable sunshine. For our kids raised in Texas, the Pacific Northwest is a magically foreign environment, something seemingly out of a storybook. The deep shade of towering conifer forests, the sight of green in a thousand hues, the towering mountains of the North Cascade range—everything conspired to make this a perfect family backcountry trip.

Dozens of other people were out enjoying Diablo Lake with us. Many were fellow paddlers in canoes and kayaks, a few were in small motorboats, and others were on paddle boards. One group was even doing an impressive array of yoga poses on SUPs—this was the West Coast, after all. We made steady progress on our 3.5 mile route across the lake, though our heavy canoe was easily passed by most other paddlers. After around ninety minutes we arrived at the dock that marked the end of Diablo Lake.

While the kiddos enjoyed a picnic lunch, I started prepping the canoe and gear for the “no problem” portage to Ross Lake. Our first warning regarding the upcoming difficulty was the imposing sight of the steep gravel road that led up from the dock. Our second was when the truck from Ross Lake Resort arrived to pick up a couple of kayakers that had arrived shortly ahead of us.

“Did you guys book a ride?” the driver asked, looking at her list.

“No,” I replied, “we were going to do it ourselves.”

She looked incredulous, eyeing our large canoe, sizable pile of camping gear, and young kids. “Seriously? Good luck with that. It’s gonna be intense.”

How right she was.

Intense had never stopped our family of intrepid adventurers before, though. I’d recently done at least one difficult portage with this boat, hauling it nearly a mile out of the Rio Grande at the mouth of Boquillas Canyon on Christmas Day, 2019. Now once again I got to carry the canoe on my back, with our 7-year-old daughter walking at the front of the canoe as my guide. Mom and the older two kids split up our dry bags filled with camping gear, and off we went.

Very quickly our 2-year-old proved to be the weak link in the family chain wending it’s way up the road. She was accustomed to being carried on family hikes, and did not appreciate this new arrangement that required she get herself up the hill. Less than 100yds into the climb we had to have a family huddle. I couldn’t handle carrying the canoe at a toddler’s glacial pace, so we decided to split up. I would go ahead with the boat, Mom would walk with the 2-year-old at whatever pace she could manage, and the other kids could choose either group.

So began our long slog up the hill. I was joined by all four of the older kids, and we set a steady pace up the switchbacks. The “pretty easy” climb ended up being 500ft of elevation gain in three-quarters of a mile, and “less than a mile” was 1.5 miles on my GPS. That would be a nice little day hike under normal circumstances, and perhaps that’s what the ranger at the Wilderness Information Center had experienced. Carrying a heavy canoe in the afternoon sun, it wasn’t easy. It was really hard.

Our kids were doing great, trudging alongside me with minimal complaining, hauling big dry bags in their arms. The girls would trade off carrying the bag or guiding the canoe, and every fifteen minutes or so we’d take a breather. The portage truck passed us three different times along the way, a flatbed full of strangers watching us struggle up the trail. I made sure we picked up the pace a bit every time I heard the truck coming. After a grueling 45 minutes we made it up the switchbacks, and the second half was much less difficult.

When we finally tromped up to the dock at the south end of Ross Lake, we were greeted by scattered applause. The paddlers who’d been smart enough to pay for a portage and had whizzed past as we were grinding up the mountain gave us some motivation as we arrived at the finish line. I happily set the canoe down, made the kids swear they wouldn’t go near the water, and then took off at a trot back down the road to see if my toddler was alive and if my marriage was intact.

I found the caboose crew only a half-mile behind, moving at a faster pace than I’d expected. Mom had the insight to use a fallen branch as a yoke for her two dry bags, which made carrying the awkward loads much easier. 2-year-old daughter was trudging along behind with her game face on—she refused to even look at me when I greeted them.

Apparently she’d gone through all five stages of grief on the hike. When I’d taken off with the canoe she was wailing and refusing to move, solidly in denial. After five minutes of this she realized that my wife really wasn’t going to pick her up, and she made good progress scampering underfoot while yelling angrily in her barely-intelligible speech. Anger had eventually given way to bargaining, but her heart-felt pleas for relief were unanswered, and still she had to walk. When I caught back up with the two of them, my daughter was partway between depression and acceptance, and she even refused my offer to carry her the rest of the way.

There’s a secret power that comes to parents when we take our kids into the backcountry, and it’s demonstrated by my daughter’s walk to Ross Lake. Helping kids develop into confident, capable individuals can feel like a challenge in our decadent society. When you leave that society behind and get out to where your car won’t go, things change. Kids can wail and whine about what’s for dinner when they’re at home, because they know that the only thing between them and their favorite treat is your will. There’s a chance they’ll break you down. But when you hand them a sandwich in the Gila Wilderness backcountry and calmly inform them it’s literally the only food available, watch how quickly they scarf it down. Find yourself on an unexpectedly difficult portage to Ross Lake, where everyone truly needs to pull their own weight, and watch your toddler discover some grit.

Finally we all arrived at the Ross Lake dock together with our canoe and all our supplies. We loaded back into the boat and set off for our campsite at Green Point, only half a mile away. If we’d known how much effort it would take to get to Ross Lake, we’d have planned on doing more than dipping our toes into the very southernmost campsite. The effort wasn’t without payoff, though, because Green Point was flat-out the nicest backcountry campsite we’ve ever enjoyed.

Set up the tents, string the hammocks, cook the Monster Mac ’n Cheese; all the usual bustle of a backpacking camp ensued. But this camp was spiced with perfect weather, minimal bugs, gorgeous views, a dock perfect for cold-water swimming, and the satisfaction of a tough challenge overcome. My wife and I ended the day watching the stars from our hammock beside the lake, all five kids asleep in their tents. I wouldn’t have guessed it when we were halfway up the climb, but this really was a perfect day.

If you’re looking for an amazing wilderness adventure, boat-packing Ross Lake in the North Cascades National Park Complex is a top contender. It’s up to you whether or not you pay for the portage.