Impressions of the North
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part I: Landscapes of
My Place in the Mountains
From Across the River
My earliest memories, my reference to the rest of the
world, were from across the Skagit River beyond the tiny town of
Rockport, Washington. That place, framed by the Skagit and Sank Rivers
and the mountains beyond, was the landscape I knew and loved. This bit
of the Cascades was my home, a place of security and wonder, a place
that fixed the vivid impressions of childhood.
Woodlands and meadows, interspersed with meandering
water courses, ran from our log house to the Skagit and Sauk Rivers. I
spent boyhood days in this setting, exploring glades and sloughs,
reveling in the wildflowers and berries that flourished on loamy river
bottoms. This was a time of trusted neighbors and childhood friends. We
roamed the woods, swam our first strokes in cold backwaters, and knew
the excitement and colors of changing seasons.
Family livelihoods came from logging, small ranches,
river, and woods. With "woods savvy," a garden, a cow, and a few fruit
trees, there was little need for steady cash incomes. Jars of salmon,
venison ("vine maple beef"), and bear meat were hidden away for winter
behind the fruit and vegetables. Fresh meat, whether from the
pasture, woods, or river, was shared with neighbors.
A full root cellar, stacks of firewood, and a barn stuffed with hay
were measures of industriousness to ensure well being. I have more
bitter memories of the sack of cascara bark put up for our spring
Our life was centered on the land around us. A walk
in the woods or a picnic by the river was a special family event. I
remember hunting with my father for a new mother and calf by lantern
light on a cold, rainy night. I recall the first time I harnessed the
team by myself, standing on the manger, pushing the collar up over
Jerry's great head, trying not to pinch his ears. I remember well the
feel of sun and showers, the rich, mingling odors of sweating horses,
freshly worked soil, and the sweet scent of erupting cottonwood buds as
I trudged behind team and harrow. Are these just bits of nostalgia,
memories of a more innocent time? In reflection, those experiences were
much, much morethey were the weaving of a fiber which still
connects me to the land.
We sometimes shared berry patches and overgrown
orchards with wild residents. One summer evening I watched from our
yard as my older brother toted milk pails down the meadow to the barn.
The fun began as a big black bear ambled from the woods toward a wild
strawberry patch on a collision course with my brother. It was the best
real-life cartoon I ever saw as boy met bear. There were two speed
records set that nightmy brother bolting for the barn, milk pails
clanging, and the bear nearly somersaulting as it woofed and tore for
Neighbors often dropped by on weekends, and I was
delighted when they would stay for the evening. Our log living room with
open fireplace was an inviting setting for storytelling. On such
special nights and without complaint, I would stack in a big pile of
wood and curl up by the fire to hear the best stories a boy could
imagine. These were stories of people and the landstories of
hidden gold mines high in the Cascades, beautiful mountain lakes and
meadows, and isolated stream valleys where a person could live well with
ax, traps, and gun. There were accounts of prospectors and trappers who
never returned from the hills. Bear and cougar stories were riveting and
led to hesitancy on my part about carrying the lantern to visit our
outhouse at the edge of the woods.
To get to town, we walked or drove our old truck to
the ferry landing. If the ferryman was in his cabin on the far side, we
gonged the saw hanging from the maple which clung to the river's bank. I
hoped that old Frank would not come too soon. There were flat rocks to
skip, but often I would be quiet and listen to the murmur of the river
and wonder at its origin and timelessness. In late summer, through the
dusk and wafting mists, I could hear the slap of water as the great
salmon made their way upstream. My Indian friends knew there were
spirits in all thingsI too could hear spirit voices in those
gently swirling waters.
Frank would often stand on the ferry and look up the
river, as if transfixed by its flow or perhaps by the high Cascades beyond.
I wondered if he had returned to the pasta time and place on the
river which I would have loved to have known. One morning, when our
small school bus arrived at the ferry, an engine had been mounted,
replacing the spoked hand wheels which had powered the ferry's winches.
A stranger, a white man, was at the controls. As the engine roared and
the ferry swung into the Skagit, I saw Frank's canoe a ways downriver,
the old Indian watching, leaning on his pole against the current. I
felt deeply for this old river man and wondered about his past and our
Sixteen years later, a steel bridge spanned the spot
where the ferry and Frank Tom's weathered canoe shed had been, the same
year I returned to the Upper Valley to teach school.
A Harder Reality
By the time I was an adolescent, days of playing were
fewhard days in the fields and woods were reality. My father
worked very hard toward his dream of an independent ranch life, but it
was logging that kept our family in groceries and shoes. Ironically, my
father, who loved the natural woods, spent much of his life cutting
trees and clearing land.
I remember the stream tumbling down through the old
forest on the hillside above our ranch, spreading through the maple and
cedar flats on our place. There my father taught me how to maneuver
through devil's-club thickets, find cascara trees, and look for the
first spring blooms of trillium and bleeding heart. We worked on that
flat selecting cedar poles and short logs, pulled out on narrow trails
by our horses.
One day we heard a 'dozer pushing a road onto the
mountainside above us and soon felt the crash of great old Douglas-fir
and cedar. Heavy equipment moved in and stripped that virgin stand in a
few weeks. This was being done by people we knew, men making a living in
the woods. Their crew got across our line, supposedly by mistake, and
cut much of our maple flat. My father declined the logger's offer to buy
the timber from us. We rigged a small spar tree and skyline to yard the
stuff with our horses. My dad, my brother, and our horses, old Jerry and
Queeny, worked to get the maple out before it cracked in the summer
heat. I was proud of our effort. I was becoming a logger. That winter
the stream washed its load of dirt and logging debris off the mountain.
By early the next summer the "creek" was a dry, barren gully.
Corked Boots and Copenhagen
We too began logging with power equipment. Our first
chain saw was an outdated, heavy old Mall which my father gained on a
trade for a heifer. In time we had more efficient saws, a "donkey," and
a D7 Cat. I learned woods skills of that place and time. By the time I
was out of high school, I was a logger. Working summers, and
sometimes laying out of school to go back to work
when the woods opened up, I alternated between an education on college
campuses and an education of corked boots, "widowmakers," and "sling'n
riggen." One fall, my employer raised my wages and offered a bonus if I
would stay "till the snow flied."
I have often joked that I left the woods because I
couldn't handle snoose and whiskey and cuss like a real man. But there
were other factors. One of the most beautiful places I have ever
experienced was the Baker Lake Basin. Groves of moss- and fern-draped
forest covered the mountainsides and ravines running down to the
natural lake. In the mid-1950s the Upper Baker Dam project was in progress
to greatly enlarge the lake, and logs started pouring from the clearing.
My outfit logged the shoreline on the east side of the basin. I remember
standing in a beautiful, old cedar and Douglas-fir grove at the mouth
of Anderson Creek. A few days later I hooked the last of the big trunks
and followed it up the muddy skid road to the landing.
The summer of 1958 was hot and dry. Our logging crew
was sent to fight fire in the Upper Skagit country. For years, a buddy
and I had debated which part of the Cascades was the grandest. I
championed the Mount Baker area. My friend, from an Upper Skagit family,
said that I hadn't seen anything yet. That summer my views were
We rode the City Light tugboat up the clear, deep
waters of Ross Lake. For my first time, I saw the rock-walled side
canyons and Nohokomeen Glacier high on Jack Mountain. Glacier-fed streams
fell from pristine hanging valleys. After we were dumped off at Little
Beaver Landing, we headed up the trail, at first on an exposed ridge,
and then into cool valley forests of great cedars. By dark we were
working our way up a faint, moss-covered trace along Perry Creek.
After a cold dip and a few hours' rest, we began our
climb up the ridge. Sunrise on that high ridge was unforgettable. I
could not absorb the beauty fast enough. To the west, rising out of dark
valleys through layers of sun-tinted fog and smoke, was an unbelievable
array of icy, jagged peaks. To the east, across the reflecting waters of
Ross Lake, were the spires of Hozomeen, and the meadowed dome of
Desolation. Into the distance flowed the ridges and mountains of the
Pasayten. My crew, men toughened by hard work and an often harder life,
stood in silence, as moved as I was by that scene.
I returned up valley to teach school in Marblemount
in 1961. With a love for the outdoors and a brand-new degree in biology,
I looked forward to teaching in that country setting. My students
studied ecology in nearby natural surroundings. We read the stories of
predator and prey printed in snowy woods. A fun project was observing
and recording life in and around a pond throughout the seasons.
My class struck up a friendship with Lenora and Rocky
Wilson, a couple who had prospected, hunted, and fished the Cascades for
over forty years. We visited them in their cabin on the Upper Cascade,
explored their mine, and heard wonderful stories of horse trips into the
In late September 1968, Rocky brought a freshly taken
bear hide to school to show the kids. He and Lenora had packed up to
Fisher Basin, one of their favorite places, for the High Hunt. During
twilight hours, a large bear came down to the creek close by camp. Rocky
lifted his old rifle and got off a good shot. While he knew it was a big
'un, he didn't see that it had a shoulder hump and frosted coat until he
got to the kill. This was the last-known grizzly bear to be taken in the
Cascades. Just days later the North Cascades National Park bill was
signed, prohibiting hunting in that place and throughout the newly
This past summer I hiked from Highway 20 over Easy
Pass into Fisher Basin, a much shorter trip now than it was for Rocky
and Lenora when they visited that high, beautiful valley years ago.
Mountain slopes were just coming into peak bloom, the weather was hot,
and the melt ponds were coldbut a refreshing respite from a hungry
hatch of bugs. My partner and I camped near Rocky's old camp and
wondered if grizzlies would someday again be part of that place.
Forest Service Seasonal
In 1965, I began working seasonally for the United
States Forest Service. Much of the Skagit District had recently been
classified as Primary Recreation, and I was one of the first of a new
breeda recreational guard. I quickly learned that this meant taking
care of toilets, tourists, and garbage, in whichever order they
became a problem.
Some Forest Service hands were of the old school,
possessing a philosophy of mountains, pack animals, and people born of
long stints in the backcountry. From their point of view, horses and
mules, although sometimes a mite cantankerous, were at least
predictable. Now, people, especially flatlanders, were a different
Most visitors of that time were from nearby areas and
accustomed to doing their own thing with little restriction. The code of
the woods had to do with taking care of oneself and being careful with
fire. Enforcement of the newly adopted, and more restrictive, Recreation
Regulations had to be done with considerable diplomacy. In that role I
met wonderful, usually independent, people and made numerous friends. My
campground toilet and garbage runs were often interrupted by invitations
for coffee and goodies.
One of the grand old Forest Service traditions was
still in place. Each evening, fire lookouts would go on the air with
open mikes. Talk ranged from recipes, views, and sightings of the day,
to deep, and often far out, philosophical questions. Sometimes
there was live entertainment. One denizen of lofty
places could play a guitar and a mouth organ at the same time. "Lookout
Hour" was sacred. No matter how provocative the discussion, we
lowlanders did not intrude.
I came to understand that working those mountaintop
stations was more than a summer jobit was a place and time to come
to know oneself and one's place in the universe. A lookout friend
related, "Those summers on Sourdough and Copper Ridge have changed my
life forever." I visited a young woman lookout on Desolation, a Native
American graduate student in biology who was seeking to communicate with
cougars. There were those who were not ready for such encounters. One
young man pleaded to be assigned to Lookout Mountain late one dry
summer. Within days he was concocting stories to come down. We laughed
off his story of a bear trying to get into the lookout with him. His
next call, in a very faint voice, was that he had fallen from the tower
and was badly injured. An hour later, I watched him run from the rescue
helicopter when it landed at Marblemounta miraculous recovery.
Forest Service programs were centered around fire.
Pre-suppression money was allocated to build and maintain trails, phone
lines, lookouts, and guard stations. With fire suppression money, fires
were fought and caches resupplied. The joke was if there were no fires
there wouldn't be surplus coffee to supply the ranger station for the
winter. In the 1960s, fire was still an icon of the USFS.
The original Forest Reserves were established to
exempt some public forest land from the great land grabs of the
nineteenth century. By the 1940s private timberlands had been mostly
stripped and public forests stood as ripe plums. In my memory, each
landowner was "entitled" to an amount of free public timber, usually
cedar fence posts and shake bolts. Then came the small, unbid, local
"Ranger Sales" of commercial timber. These sales were soon found to be
illegal. That set the stage for competitive bidding, favoring large
timber companies. Sales were now laid out in huge blocks. The Forest
Service and the United States Treasury reaped new money from this
When I shifted to the Baker River District, my jobs
were timber related. In the fall of 1970 we surveyed a road into the
Lucky Burn, up Kindy Creek near the boundary of the recently established
Glacier Peak Wilderness. I was relieved when it was determined that road
building costs would outweigh revenue from salvaged timber. Logging in
upper Kindy was put on hold. Creeping into such decisions was the idea
that there was inherent value in wilderness. There were forest managers
and loggers who didn't understand "letting those trees rot and go to
Another dilemma for the Forest Service was how to
meet harvest quotas set by Congress while staying out of legislated
Roadless Study Areas. Consequently, roaded areas were horribly overcut.
The Finney drainage became a scalped land of large clearcuts,
ribbon-thin leave strips, and a maze of logging roads. Most managers
still espoused the concept that clearcutting and
burning were the means to rid the land of "decadent" old stands and to
get young, high-value trees growing. I was to work in Finney, laying out
roads, doing controlled burns, fighting escaped fires, planting trees,
and doing road-cut stabilization.
I worked on reforesting a number of clearcuts in the
Baker Lake area near where I had logged a few years earlier. Planting
midelevation slopes to Douglas-fir made sense. But we were directed to
grub out naturally returning mixed stands of true fir, hemlock, cedar,
and hardwoods in an attempt to replace them with Douglas-fira
futile effort to create a monoculture crop with no consideration for
While torching a slash burn one fall on Finney, we
saw fire running up a logging unit on an adjacent slope. I have never
experienced hotter fires in the Western Cascades than in those heavy,
dry-slash areas. We pulled back onto a logging road that night as the
fire screamed up the mountain, crowning through leave strips. I covered
my face with my hard hat for protection from intense heat and rocks
being swirled up in the draft. What was meant to be sound
timber-management strategy, replicating nature with fire-treated
seedbeds for Douglas-fir culture, was out of control, well beyond the
inherent balancing processes and mediation of nature.
The debate about establishing a national park in the
North Cascades was a difficult issue for me. Changes had been made in
Forest Service management in proposed park areas that I liked. The North
Cascades Primitive Area, an administrative classification, had provided
some protection for the high country. With the Wilderness Act of 1964,
the heart of the mountains was to be legally protected. A moratorium had
been placed on logging in the high mountain hemlock zone, and management
for recreational values was in place.
While I supported the national park idea of
preserving special features and places for future generations, I also
knew that park status would bring many visitors and related pressures
to our little-known North Cascades. My father, who loved the mountains,
often said, "Someday people will come from all over the world to see
these mountains." This was soon to be, and my career would be
intertwined with those visitors and the mountains.
National Park Ranger
The North Cascades National Park bill was signed on
my birthday: October 2, 1968. I became a seasonal park ranger in the
spring of 1969 and permanently left the classroom soon after. For the
next several years I worked summer in the Park and fall and spring with
the Forest Service. These were exciting times in the North Cascades,
times of environmental awakening and many questions. Federal
legislation to protect air, water, wildlife, and wilderness spawned
many differences in philosophy and tactics on how the laws should be
applied. North Cascades National Park was a testing ground for
wilderness management. Fires were not always fought,
camping was eliminated from subalpine meadows,
campfires were limited to forested areas, backcountry permits were
required for overnight stays, road and trail camping were restricted to
designated sites. Throughout this time we had to respond to the
often-asked question, "Are national parks for people or for bears?"
One hot September afternoon I hiked up Little Jack
Mountain on High Hunt patrol. (That area, within the Ross Lake National
Recreation Area, remained open for hunting.) The next morning I was on
the highest point waiting for daylight and watching for hunting
activity. I checked in with Sourdough Lookout and compared views of the
sunrise just coloring the high peaks. I was joined by a hunter, he, too,
evidently waiting the legal opening hour and enjoying the incredible
scenery. He displayed buck and bear tags and carried a powerful rifle
with a long-range scope. As daylight entered the headwaters of Crater
Creek below us, three bearsprobably a mother and yearling
cubsmade their way into an open area
and began browsing. We watched, and as the sun warmed
the slope the youngsters began wrestling and rolling toward us. I
expected the hunter to take aim, but he sat quietly on a rock scoping
the bears and whispered, "What a treat. Who could spoil such a sight?"
The summer after the North Cascades Highway opened, I
led nature walks along Ruby Creek, a place rich with natural beauty and
mining history. A family from California who seemed to be delighted with
the experience joined me on one hike. The father asked several questions
concerning ownership of mining claims. As we were returning to the
trailhead, I became more aware of his interests. He identified himself
as a real estate person and exclaimed, "With this new highway, with no
developments or services in miles, do you realize that we are standing
on a potential gold mine?" My interpretive expectations and his mind set
were far apart.
A very worried man contacted me one night after my
campfire program at Colonial Amphitheater. He and a woman friend and his
two children had hiked to Fourth of July Pass that day. The woman and
boy wanted to go on and come out at Panther Creek trailhead on Highway
20. It was decided that the father and daughter would return to
Colonial and pick up the woman and boy at the trailhead late in the day.
The hikers had not made it out by dark. They had no flashlight or extra
gear and were very lightly dressed.
I headed up the long ridge from Panther trailhead. I
knew of a place where the creek often washed out and could be confusing
to follow, especially at night. I dropped down the steep switchbacks and
followed the creek up valley. Crossing the log bridge, I hoped to find
the couple at Panther Camp. They weren't there. I worked up Panther
through brushy avalanche tracks. As I approached a timbered area I heard
the woman's shout. I was a welcome figure in their long, scary, cold
night. They had become confused along the creek and decided to return
through Fourth of July Pass. It was getting late. As they hurried along
they were startled to find a cougar standing in the trail. The woman had
extensive hiking experience and had taught hiking/survival skills in the
Sierras. They made loud noises, and the cougar moved into the woods. A
ways further there was the cougar again, this time coming toward them.
The woman led the boy into the creek where they perched on a rock. The
cougar reappeared several times above and below them. It was getting
dark and they were cold and wet. The woman decided hypothermia was a
greater threat than the cat. She made a bough bed in the cradle of tree
roots and huddled in with the boy. The boy fell asleepshe watched
for shadowy movements.
I gave them my extra food and clothes, and we started
up the trail toward the pass. As the couple warmed they became quite
animated in telling their story. The woman was very concerned we might
destroy the cat. I assured her that was not our intent. It was a
beautiful nighta full moon slid over Snowfield Peak and Neve
Glacier as we descended into Thunder Valley.
A few days later, I received a thank you note from
the woman. She pleaded again for us not to take action against the cat
and said, that after the scare was gone, she remembered vividly the
beauty of the "panther" that would make their night on its namesake
creek so memorable.
As the North Cascades National Park Complex matured,
my job evolved. I became a permanent park ranger in 1974. With my
background in natural history and my connection with local human
history, I fell easily into interpretation. Along with interpretive
activities, I worked with bears, fires, emergency medicine, law
enforcement, campground maintenance, trail projects, and evaluating and
cutting hazard trees. One park manager described me as a "logging
naturalist." I trust my range of duties and experiences gave me a
broader insight into the North Cascades than could be acquired in a more
Many park visitors are from far away, with limited
time or abilities to experience the greater park. Interpreters often
use vicarious methods to bring park experiences to visitors. Through
interpreters' eyes, visitors can see the beauty and wonder of a glacial
basin or a cougar stalking its prey. Through stories they can know some
of the trials and adventures of those who came here before. I often call
upon my personal experiences and recall stories from old-timers to bring
people-mountain connections alive.
Connections from the Past
One spring day, while exploring the pools on upper
Ruby Creek, I found a rusted gold pan protruding from the gravel. I
later asked my long-time friend and Upper Skagit pioneer son, Glee
Davis, who it might have belonged to. He laughed and said, "Well, you
know, that could have belonged to any number of those old-timers,
including me." (The gold pan is now on display in the North Cascades
Visitor Center near Newhalem.) Glee used that occasion and many others
to pass on delightfully vivid stories of the characters and events of
the Upper Skagit. Through Glee and other storytellers, I have come to
know those "spirits of the past" and their special haunts. When I walk
where they walked, I share their excitement, their loneliness, the
beauty of a meadow or stream, my experiences connecting with theirs.
The Northwest Boundary Commission began a survey
across the North Cascades in 1857. Cartographer Henry Custer was hired
to explore that formidable route. In Custer's journals, along with notes
and maps, were scribed eloquent verses. On a late summer day in 1859,
Custer sat on a high divide and wrote:
No mortal pen could be found to describe this grand
and glorious scenery properly and justly. This endless variety of shapes
and forms, these thousands of different shades and colorshere the green
and blacks of the endless forest, and the lovely mountain meadow, here
the gray in all its endless nuances, the blue, the red, the dazzling white of the
snow and ice masses, reflecting and breaking the steady rays of the
midday sun, and the whole landscape covered by a light mist, which
chastens down the color and gives the whole matchless view an almost fairy like
Custer's impressions were recorded a short distance
from where I experienced the sunrise with my logging crew ninety-nine
years later. As I remember that scene, as striking as it was, our view
had been altered by a reservoir covering a once-meandering, broad river
valley. I wonder what that scene might be in another hundred years. Will
there be forest cuts and waterfront developments? Will vegetation be
paled from acid fallout? Will glaciers have succumbed to global warming?
Custer went on to say, "Whoever wishes to see Nature in all its
primitive glory and grandeur, in its almost feroci[o]us wildness, must
go and visit these Mountain regions."
In 1872 Jack Rowley and his partners, from the Lower
Skagit, took up Custer's invitation and challengethey set out to
prospect the Skagit to its headwaters. Panning each river bar, they
found scattered flecks of gold, enough to keep them going. At the head
of canoe navigation, now Newhalem, they were still seeking that elusive
mother lode. Native guides were hired to lead them high above and around
the river's narrow canyon. It was tough going and very hot. Sourdough
starter began to work in a prospector's pack, messing up his gear. The
place was christened Sourdough Mountain. The Indian guides would not
descend into the widening river basin below, a place of unfriendly
spirits, probably those of their ancient enemies from the north. A side
canyon entering from a far drainage to the east lured the prospectors
into the gorge. There, in waters containing ruby-red rocks, they found
fine streaks of placer gold flushing from that impassable chasm.
Rowley returned five years later. He had dreamed of a
hand pointing the way around the steep rock walls. Rowley followed his
vision through Hidden Hand Pass, at the base of towering Jack Mountain,
and traversed into the creek dubbed Ruby. Enough color was found to keep
his dream alive.
In 1879, about 10 miles upstream in a narrow side
canyon, Rowley struck rich placer and staked his Original Discovery
claim. A few days later Albert Bacon and partners, working the stream
below, were about to starve out. It was nip and tuck if they could hold
on another day. In a final effort they rolled over a rock, and there, as
sediments cleared, were golden nuggets shimmering through the clear
waters of Ruby Creek. Rowley's Original Discovery and Bacon's Nip and
Tuck claims kicked off the first Ruby Rush.
John McMillan responded to the Ruby excitement in
1883. He brought in pack animals and ran a pack line from Fort Hope,
Canada. For years John was a partner of Tommy Roland. They built a cabin
on the river and cleared a horse pasture above Big Beaver Creek Falls.
After Tommy became a bit strange (he thought he was a religious
prophet), John split, settling on the Big Beaver homestead.
On a trip north to Fort Hope, John came upon an ugly
scene, a trapper beating a young Indian woman with a club. When John
jumped off his horse to intercede, the trapper stuck a rifle in John's
face. This made John mad. He knocked the gun away and "beat the living
hell out of the man." According to hearsay, John was awakened that night
in his camp by the woman moving in with her meager possessions. Being a
kind man, John took her home.
John and his common-law wife had one child. They
named her May. One story reports that, several years later, John became
unhappy with his in-laws, who kept moving in on him, and sent the whole
family packing. A kinder account said that when May was of school age,
John sent mother and child north to be near family and school. May is
remembered by her namesake, May Creek, a merry little stream which drops
into the valley near Roland Point on Ross Lake.
In time, John journeyed to Seattle to seek
citizenship. While there, he fell in love with a young woman named Emma
Love. Part of John's proposal was that Emma return with him to Big
Beaver. Emma agreed to marry John and go to the Upper Skagit for the
summer. They stayed a lifetime. John and Emma were to live a hard but
wonderful life in that remote land. John prospected, trapped, and packed
supplies for gold miners along Ruby and Canyon Creeks. In later years
the couple ran a small hotel, the Ruby Inn, in the mining village of
As mining activity waned, John and Emma settled in on
their Beaver homestead. In 1922 John became very ill. Emma packed him out to
the doctor in Concrete. Old Doc Mertz gave John little chance of recovery. John's
final request was to return to Big Beaver. Emma led John's horse over the long,
rough trail up the Skagit.
Friends from far mountain reaches gathered to bid
John farewell. One man made a quick trip to Marblemount to acquire some
of that most potent Scottish medicine. The story is told of how John's
grave was dug behind the cabin and his coffin made from hand-split
planks as he passed his last hours in the company of Emma and friends.
Undoubtedly, some sipped from that bottle of pure mountain spirits, and
some passed it by. George Holmes led prayers as the coffin was covered
by the soil of Big Beaver Valley.
Emma spent winters in a little cabin near friends at
the present site of Diablo. Each spring she returned to Big Beaver.
Early-day trail men told stories of the kindly "Old Bread Lady" who for
many years invited them into her aging cabin above Big Beaver Falls to
share baked goodies and wild berry jams.
It was a beautiful October day when I found the
McMillan Place. The cabin and outbuildings were tumbled down and
overgrown. Huge old stumps marked the place where John's horses once
pastured. Behind the cabin, I found John's grave. The wooden head marker
was nearly rotted away, but the great rock face of McMillan Mountain
stood watch over that peaceful place.
I carved John a new marker and every few years return
to clear growth from his grave and visit awhile. I have never learned of
Emma's final resting place, but I sense that both John and Emma are at
home in their beloved Big Beaver Valley.
The Black Prospector of Ruby Creek
George Holmes arrived on Ruby Creek in 1895 after
much of the excitement had died down. A quiet man, George revealed very
little of his past. He had reportedly been born in Virginia to slave
parents and had traveled the country looking for freedom and a home.
George was devoutly religious and possessed exceptional strengths in
body, character, and patience.
Holmes first came to the Upper Skagit as a stable
hand for the Skagit Queen Mining Company. It was rumored that after a
pay day and a trip to Seattle's Skid Road, he became infected with a
venereal disease. In his penitence, he made a pledge that if he were
cured he would return to the Upper Skagit and be a Christian example to
the sinful miners of that wild country. George was that example for the
next thirty years.
Holmes worked up and down Ruby Creek, but eventually
settled in and built his cabin in an isolated place between a steep
mountainside and a deep, swift section of that beautiful stream.
Although a loner, George was known to be a kindly person, always ready
to lend a hand when anyone needed help.
I had heard many stories about the "Old Black Miner of
Ruby Creek," but never knew where his diggings were. One night on a late
patrol, I saw a fire down the mountainside on Ruby Creek and went to
investigate. A noisy party was under way in the remains of an old cabin.
I calmed the participants and cooled the fire. The next day I went to
check out the site and found a remarkable collection of rusting,
cobbled-together mining paraphernalia. Mining records showed that it was
the Himlock II, filed by George Holmes.
George built crude hydraulic systems to wash stream
sediments through sluices. He also dug deep holes along the creek and
washed ancient deposits. It was hard and lonely work, but George Holmes
had found his place. George traveled to Seattle every couple of years to
peddle his gold to jewelers who paid top dollar for the precious Ruby
Creek metal, but he was quick to return to Ruby.
George was very upset when he heard of a railroad
being built up the Skagit. He didn't want to see the changes in his
mountain wilderness that he knew a railroad would bring. A friend
wrote, "Holmes preferred the solitude, the contentment
of his lonely existence, to anything else the world
had to offer."
In 1925, friends carefully carried the dying old
prospector in a litter, made from a dugout canoe, on his final trip down
the Skagit Trail. Holmes passed away two days later in Mount Vernon. A
few years ago, I led a drive to place a monument on his unmarked grave.
The epitaph reads, "George Holmes found a freedom in the wilds of the
North Cascades which few attain."
A Pioneer in Petticoats
Lucinda Davis was born in Boston in 1848 and reared
with considerable refinement. She dreamed of going West. In 1884 her
two brothers came to Washington Territory to take up homestead claims.
Lucinda, now married with three children, managed to get her husband to
Denver, Colorado, but no further.
In 1890, Will Leach wrote to his sister that their
brother had drowned and pleaded with her to come and take up his claim.
Lucinda left her husband and set out with her childrenFrank,
thirteen; Glee, nine; and Dessa, fivefor the Cascade River near
Marblemount. Glee told me of their exciting trip by train, riverboat,
and stagecoach, climaxing in an Indian dugout canoe ride up the Skagit.
Glee said his mother, at that time, was deathly afraid of Indians and
Lucinda and children settled into homestead life. In
the summers of 1893 and 1895, she ran a small trading post at Goodell's
Landing, where she heard stories of the wild and wonderful lands beyond
the Skagit Gorge. Lucinda was intrigued. She took her family over rough
miners' trails to explore the upper river, and they became enthralled
with that wild country.
In the fall of 1897, after early snows and heavy
rains, a great flood washed away most of Lucinda's land and possessions.
She reclaimed what she could and moved her family to Sedro Woolley for
the winter. Twelve-year-old Glee herded the family cows 45 miles
down valley over muddy trails. Lucinda worked very hard to provide for her
family and keep their spirits bright. Frank, now twenty years old,
returned up river to hold claim to a creek bar they had found deep in
the Skagit Gorge.
The next summer Lucinda moved her family over the
developing Goat Trail to Cedar Bar where she was to establish a home, a
roadhouse, and a legend. Many years later Glee told me, "It wasn't an
easy life, but we worked hard and made a go of it. It was a good
The Davises hand-built a large house from the forest,
cleared land, raised gardens, and gathered precious wild hay. In time,
the Davis Ranch was to become a place of food and rest for an array of
mountain travelers, from miners and trappers to recreationists and
foreign mining investors. The boys also trapped, packed, prospected,
and worked for the miners and the newly created Forest Service. Lucinda
loved to explore and fish. They climbed mountains, found the best berry
and fishing spots, and guided guests on mountain trips.
A party arrived at Davis Ranch late one evening,
requesting board and room. Lucinda asked if they preferred fish or pork
for dinner. They decided on fish. Lucinda picked up her fishing pole and
headed for the river. This impressed the young boy in the party and
years later, when he told me this story, he wondered what might have
happened had they chosen pork.
Lucinda believed in hard work, social graces,
education, and a "clean" life. Not only was there no drinking at her
place, but she soundly scolded men who were known to imbibe. She saw
that each of her children spent time in the lower valley attending
school. Glee laughingly recalled that no excuses of floods, snow slides,
or wild animals kept them from going to school.
While at school Glee met Hazel Campbell. They were
married and, in time, added two daughters to the close-knit family at
Cedar Bar. Glee filed for homestead rights and, after a legal battle
with the Forest Service, was awarded part of their claim.
Others were interested in Cedar Bar. Seattle City
Light had gained a permit to build a large dam in the canyon above the
Davis Ranch. They needed Cedar Bar as a gravel source and campsite for
the project. The City of Seattle forced the Davis family to vacate and
sell their home.
Lucinda, by then in her seventies, saw the tremendous
change coming to her wilderness canyon. She stayed as long as she could,
renting rooms and makeshift cabins to the men who were building Diablo
Dam. When the dam was completed in 1930, Lucinda packed her belongings,
said goodbye to her home and life on the Upper Skagit, and rode the
train down the mountain canyon she had ventured up many years
We Belong to the Land
Since the last great ice flows were melting from
valley bottoms, people have inhabited this landsome for many
thousands of years, some for decades, and some very briefly. Today, in
remote valleys, I find hints of human presencea healed-over tree
blaze, signs of a marten trap, a moss-covered stump, a flattened place
with humps of rotted sills and blackened rocks. High on beautiful
ridges, I find rock flakes of ancient times. In other places I find
artifacts of bold intrusioncaved-in adits and rusting
I have found wonderful settings where I would have
loved to have lived, and places where I wonder how a person could have
survived a short while. In historic times many came to seek their "El
Dorado"few survived long. These mountains, as stunningly beautiful
as they can be, were a horrible barrier to those who sought easy
rewards. Those who came to know this land in all its moods and seasons
found rewards in lifestyle and place which far overshadowed riches to be
taken from the land.
Place names in the North Cascades often speak to
human interaction with the land. Names such as Terror, Nightmare, Eldorado,
Formidable, and Challenger reflect strong human feelings. Never could
the Cascades be taken lightly. Native place names often speak to a
spiritual connection. The name Sahale"high, heavenly" from the
Native Trade Jargonsuits well that high setting above Cascade
Pass. Native people went there to hunt and gather roots and berries, and
to speak with the powerful spirits of that place. Anyone who goes there
today surely, too, must feel a special communion with that grand
alpine scape, still molding in natures hands.
People of our century have recognized special places
of natural wonder and national treasure by establishing park and
wilderness areas to be enjoyed in their natural state and, in the
language of the 1964 Wilderness Act, "untrammeled by man." While this is
a grand idea, is it truly possible? We know that there can be no
protected islands. Outfall from our human-impacted world knows no such
Recently I spent a day along the Skagit River with
people who shared concerns for the health of the valley. We looked at
threats to the land and water. We also talked of possibilities. What
would it take to care for this land in the best possible way? Could the
resources again be whole and healthy? At the close of the day, an Upper
Skagit person, a leader in overseeing natural resources under tribal
treaties, gave us these words: "We must remember that the land does not
belong to uswe belong to the land." This profound understanding
comes from generations of people who know that human beings must respect
the spirits of the land if they expect to receive gifts from it. This
wisdom was passed on to us by the great-granddaughter of the old river
man, Frank Tom.
There is no question in my mind that we must hold
dearly to our remaining wild lands. Wilderness and park lands can give
us inspiration and hope, and provide an ongoing working laboratory for
our understanding of natural processes. But we must look to a much
bigger picture. Until we allow healthy ecosystems to occur in
nonprotected lands near and far, the treasures of the North Cascades and
our world's resources will disappear.
I also know there must be places highly managed for
human beings. I believe that the key to survival for us, and our fellow
earthly beings, is in the way we interact in everyday life with our
total environment. We must come to understand and respect all parts of
our world. As trees alone are not a forest, we certainly are not able to
stand alone on this planet.
The people whom I knew as a boy, and those who were
here long before us, did not always respect and treat the land well. But
they knew intimately a very important realitythat they were
dependent upon the land for their survival. Do we, today, make that
connection? It is scary when political and economic leaders show little
regard for that most basic truth. We must remind them and ourselves that
the land does not belong to uswe belong to the land.
Sometimes, in a moment of optimism, I look up the
Skagit to the forests and high mountains beyond. I envision people of
the past and the future receiving gifts from the river. I see forests
growing and healing. I see soils fertile and productive under nurturing
human hands, a model for others to follow. But too often I see and am
saddened by decimated hillsides and gutted-out spawning streams.
Sometimes I listen to the river and see an old Native leaning against
the current and I wonder, what will our future be?
In a brief ceremony at the close of each North
Cascade Institute's Mountain School Camp, each participant places a twig
of cedar on the campfire and makes a personal wish. Around the dying
fire, as each twig sparkles and ignites, I have heard wonderful words of
hope, which are often phrased, "May this place, with its trees, animals,
and river be here for others to enjoy forever." These words and these
children give me hope. I sense that on that river's shore, under those
great old cedars, dwell spirits of many children and elders from the
past who smile and share those wishes.
A lifetime resident of the Skagit Valley, JIM HARRIS
has been a logger, teacher, and National Park Service interpreter. He
specializes in historical interpretation in his work with the park.