Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

General Introduction

The landscape of the North Cascades is bounded by the Fraser River on the north, the Okanogan Highlands and Columbia Plateau on the east, Snoqualmie Pass to the south, and the Puget lowlands to the west. Mountains, rising nearly from sea level, are the signature of this magnificent place. Fifteen peaks tower over 9,000 feet while nearly 300 rise in elevation between 7,000 and 9,000 feet. Torrents of water fall as rain and snow here, and as a result, 519 glaciers cover over 90 square miles between Snoqualmie Pass and the Canadian border. Lakes nestle in tight pockets between sharp, often serrated ridges. Most of these lakes are natural, while a few are reservoirs behind dams. The North Cascades is a dramatic place of deep-green hillsides and rock faces raked by streamers of cloud, gleaming glaciers riven by crevasses, rivers racing under gray skies, and ravens rolling on the wind.

The essays in this book reflect upon this mountain range, looking at its place in space and time. The essays are organized into three sections that address what the North Cascades landscape has been in the past, what it is today, and what it might or should become in the future. We look at a place dominated by rock and ice and huge forests and think it has always looked like this, that it always will and probably should. Yet we know it has not always been as it is today, and will not be so in the future, despite our wishes. What, then, has it been, and what might it become? We learn that humans have been among these mountains for thousands of years; those of European descent not much more than a century. Tectonic plates, volcanoes, ice sheets, alpine glaciers, and indigenous peoples have formed this land. Transformation has continued in this century of dominance as pioneers and developers have gained power and built dams, bored tunnels, shaved trees off hills, drawn boundaries around forests and parks, and otherwise made their mark. This last hundred years of history raises questions about the consequences of our actions for both ourselves and the other beings with whom we share this place. In the concluding group of essays, we look to the future and reflect on what will be necessary to ensure that the North Cascades remains the rich and beautiful natural area it is today.

I use the term landscape in this work. What is a landscape? According to Webster Collegiate Dictionary, in the usual sense associated with painting, landscape is the part of the geography we can see from one place. I can climb to the summit of Mount Baker or Glacier Peak and look out over row upon row of ridges and valleys. Mount Stuart stands sharply to the southeast while Mounts Daniel and Hinman, Chimney Rock, and Lemah Mountain dominate the southern horizon above Snoqualmie Pass. Mounts Redoubt, Spickard, and Hozomeen stand up to the north. Jack Mountain looms to the east and Whitehorse and Three Fingers are prominent on the western edge of the range. Even from these highest points, I cannot truly see everything that makes up the North Cascades.

Another of Webster's definitions of landscape is "the landforms of a region in the aggregate." Ridges, summits, valleys, cirques, horns, and moraines are all landforms found in the North Cascades. Add meadows, lakes, swamps, snowfields, glaciers, rivers, creeks, waterfalls, scree and talus slopes, timberlines, and avalanche trim lines. Include also the plant and animal communities: the fir, cedar, hemlock, spruce, bumblebees, hummingbirds, marmots, pikas, and thousands of other forms of life. And the human creations: the roads, mines, dams, clearcuts, campgrounds, parking lots, buildings, communities, national parks and forests, recreation and wilderness areas, state forests, private lands. All of this forms the aggregate we call the landscape of the North Cascades.

A landscape is a complex entity of physical and cultural dimensions. This piece of Earth has a reality entirely separate from us, preceding our human experience and definition of it by billions of years. Over this immense journey through the eons this particular landscape has changed countless times in ways that we, with our growing body of analytical tools, are only beginning to glimpse and understand. The essays by Scott Babcock and Jon Riedel introduce this understanding. At the same time, we "create" places such as this, give them names, attach to them cultural, economic, political, and symbolic importance, and come to think of them as fixed and lasting entities. There are many versions of the North Cascades, and in these essays we identify and describe our experiences with some of them. Jeanne and Jeff Hardy offer anecdotes from their living and working in community and wilderness on the east slope of the range. Bob Keller reflects on the changes that have come to his property on the Cascade River. Wendy Walker describes living and teaching in the remote Lake Chelan village of Stehekin.

Landscapes such as the North Cascades also have an imaginary element. They evoke emotional responses from us, and as social and cultural contexts change, so do these responses. This place has come in and out of fashion. At one time little known, these "American Alps" were elevated in the imagination of the nation and made a special place. They became a national park in 1968; pieces of the area were designated part of the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, 1968, 1984, and 1988. Native Americans saw this land one way, as a source of sustenance and inspiration. National Park Service archaeologist Bob Mierendorf explains our growing knowledge of these early North Cascadians. Skagit Elder Vi Hilbert offers the perspective of a contemporary Native American born and raised in this landscape. Early trappers and explorers, bent on conquest and riches, imagined themselves engaged in a struggle against the physical powers of the place. Miners, settlers, sheepherders, and loggers similarly fought to bend the place to their will and desire, with varying degrees of success. Jim Harris and Charles Luckmann tell the stories of some of these conquerors. Politicians and government agents, trying to mediate growing conflicts between various groups with interests in the region, drew lines all over it, relegating this part to wild nature, that part to hydroelectric energy generation, yet another part to logging, and so forth. Mountain climbers, hikers, and tourists of various ilk, some searching for sport and challenge, others for a renewal of contact with nature, imagined the North Cascades to be a place filled with monumental scenery and the last remnants of pristine nature, a place to be protected from human engineering and manipulation. Tim McNulty describes these realities in his essay.

Our goal in these essays is to explore the North Cascades landscape in all its many dimensions, to delve into the meaning of what is observed and experienced in this corner of the Earth. We are asking "What is this place and what does it mean to us?" We approach this question by exploring what it was before we came to it, what we have made of it, and what we might make of it in the future. Every contributor to this book loves this landscape, identifies with it, and wants it to continue to be a wild, beautiful, and at the same time human place. We all wonder what it will take to keep it so.

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North Cascades Conservation Council
P.O. Box 95980
Seattle, WA 98145-2980