Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part II: Landscapes of Experience

Cascade River: 1974-1996

All our landscapes, from the city park to the mountain hike, are imprinted with our tenacious, inescapable obsessions.

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

Over the years, she had learned more from the river than from any one person, and what she'd been taught had always come with passion—intense pain or joy. It was the nature of the river to be both turbulent and gentle; to be abundant at times and lean at others; to be greedy and to yield pleasure.

Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River

On clear spring or summer mornings the sun appears south of Eldorado Peak to throw early light over the last 7 miles of the Cascade River Valley. The stream flows west to meet the Skagit at Marblemount, and a short distance above the confluence I watch daybreak slip down the slopes onto bottomland, dark trees that were invisible at night now taking on shape and color. As light reaches the valley floor, alder and cottonwood along the riverbanks transform themselves into flaming green. At such moments, as someone has remarked, it feels as though "no other day will ever attain the impossible splendor of this one." Silver mist hangs over a current which had its origin in the ice and snowfields of Eldorado, Hidden Lakes Peak, Razorback Mountain, Forbidden Peak, Snow King, the Triad, Johannesburg. The river flashes white when its water curls past a boulder or rushes against the bank. In every direction except where the Skagit carries it west, peaks and hills hem in the blue-green, free-flowing Cascade. Crisp and clear air, clean and cold water: this stream of mountain mornings is comparable only to daybreak in the desert or sunrise on isolated ocean beaches.

Our culture deems it unsatisfying merely to enjoy such places. The additional power, pride, and pleasure that come with land ownership thus led me to buy property on the Cascade River. But why here, when experiences of beauty and splendor inspire a long list of places equally compelling? My wife and I had lived and hiked in Arizona's Sonoran Desert; I have wandered for hundreds of miles in the Grand Canyon and Wind River Mountains, traversed the Olympics a number of times, stood at the snout of the Hoh Glacier 30 miles from a road, kayaked in Alaska, the Queen Charlotte Islands and along the west coast of Vancouver Island. In some ways I prefer Maine, still a hinterland compared to our new Northwest. My children loved Tucson, and I even liked living in Chicago. Puzzling over where to buy recreational land near Bellingham, we were torn between the North Cascades and the San Juan Islands. We first decided in favor of saltwater, set down earnest money on 150 feet of Eliza Island beachfront, then backed out at the last moment to choose the mountains instead. I don't know why, except I grew up in the shadow of Mount Rainier and helped my father build a lake cabin in the hills west of it. Forty years ago I took my first hike on Rainier's Wonderland Trail and slept beside its glacial streams. Maybe the Cascade Range is in my blood?

For whatever reasons, in 1974 we purchased land near Marblemount on the Cascade River: 1,300 feet of frontage, parallel to the river road, 50 miles inland from Skagit Bay toward the mountains, and 340 feet above sea level. The river, nearly 70 feet wide as it passes my property, still moves along briskly after having fallen several thousand feet during a 20-mile plunge from alpine basins. B&W Mountain, standing for Bartell and Weeden, rises 4,000 feet directly above us. The property includes three acres of meadow and about twenty-five acres of alder, fir, hemlock, maple, pine, cottonwood, and cedar. Total acreage in any given year depends on the mood of the river. A salmon stream threads through the meadow and a seasonal seepage channel in the woods provides more salmon lodging. Deer, beaver, coyote, weasels, and rabbits pass through. Bobcat and bear tracks appear on sandbars, but only two bear have visited in twenty years, giving some credence to rumors that another 1970s newcomer to the valley shot forty-three during his first year. Mergansers cruise the river in summer, bald eagles congregate during the fall runs. Piliated woodpeckers disappeared at the same time as the drumming grouse, around 1978, perhaps retreating into the national park 5 miles away. We still see heron perched on stones or wading the shallows.

We owned a home in Bellingham, and did not need the land—and the land certainly did not need more city-dwellers dividing it into recreational retreats. The purchase represented an idea, or rather a set of ideas, some held at the start and others evolving over time: to live here more simply and differently than in the city, to quietly observe the river and mountains, to own a private base camp for climbing, and to restore abused land back to health while coming to know it intimately—an ambitious and somewhat immodest set of goals. As the rumor about the bear killings might have forewarned us, the place and our work here would turn out to be less idyllic than first anticipated.

No one invents their own values and attitudes, and few of us have a clear comprehension of all the people, events, books, places, parents, teachers, and philosophies that shape our view of the world. In this case the main concepts seemed to have come from Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, and Henry David Thoreau. A Sand County Almanac prescribed a property-owner ethic and offered a model for practicing it. "That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology," Leopold insisted, "but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. . . . Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals . . . whoever owns land has assumed, whether he knows it or not, the divine functions of creating and destroying." [1] From Wendell Berry and from Walden one learns that knowing a single place well discloses more than seeing many places fleetingly. "I have travelled a good deal in Concord," Thoreau said, celebrating the particular over the general, the immediate and specific over the distant and abstract. Thoreau had a "conviction that the whole world can be revealed in our backyard if only we give it our proper attention." [2] Above all, as we took title to this raw land we heard the voice of Wallace Stegner who, more than any other modern writer, taught us to value a sense of place and made clear how much that awareness has been lost to our culture.

Ideals, of course, are relatively easy to hold, not so easy to maintain, and difficult to realize. My climbing plans succumbed to the pleasures of building a cabin, splitting firewood, and just walking around in these woods. Actively restoring land, as against leaving it alone, proved complex and required more knowledge than we anticipated. Next, even on thirty acres of privacy, enjoyment of the river and its solitude depended on what happened nearby and beyond our control—logging and the river itself. Personal use of the property by friends and ourselves, on the other hand, proved easier to manage.

The one-room log cabin took six weeks to raise, then a few years to finish. Standing at the end of a quarter-mile-long dirt road, it has two bunks, an icebox, table, stools, and rocking chair; it heats with a Franklin fireplace, has no electricity, no running water or propane. On the coldest winter nights it warms to 10°F above freezing; during summer it is abandoned for a tent and firepit by the river. After three break-ins, we stopped locking the door, there not being much left to steal or harm. Like us, friends and relatives find it a comfortable retreat.

The land and its cabin do not signify rejection of urban values; rather, both embody contrast. Instead of an American second home or cottage that replicates the main household, we wanted weekends, weeks, or even months in the North Cascades to be different, which to us meant doing without lights, television, oven, freezer, refrigerator, computer, radio, bath, microwave, fax, and telephone. Not counting a concession to the chain saw, all tools run on muscle, except in emergencies when a neighbor arrives with his tractor. Kerosene, wood heat, and hauled water are not better ways to live: the kerosene stinks, the wood pollutes, and the water pail quickly runs dry or may carry giardia. But they are simpler and different. We remain in relative control; physical effort helps us to appreciate sophisticated luxuries often taken for granted in Bellingham. We become aware of how variously people can and have lived. Most of all, we gain perspective on our culture, as Leopold did fifty years ago: "Nothing could be more salutary at this stage," he wrote, "than a little healthy contempt for a plethora of material blessings."

Whereas weekend or monthly visits can minimize human impact on land, such limited residence also makes it impossible to know people. Thus, we consider and accept ourselves as outsiders, perhaps not even as welcome as summer visitors who leave much more cash in the community than we do. In the eyes of local merchants we may belong with "those backpackers with their sunflower seeds and dried fruit who don't spend a nickel for nothing." Other differences can be striking as well: we do not fish or hunt, do not own firearms or operate heavy equipment, seldom volunteer in the village, and we do like the National Park Service.

Save us from gale and storm, O Lord
And from the German traveling abroad!

And from prosperous hikers, cyclists, mountain climbers, birdwatchers, and hobby farmers who burst into the country planning to make it over in their own image. In the 1960s the Federal Republic of Germany issued passports with a set of "Golden Rules for Germans Traveling Abroad." Many of the cautions make good sense for urban/rural relations, whether in Moab, Mazama, or Marblemount:

  • If you are of the foolish opinion that everything outside Germany is worse, stay at home.

  • Whenever traveling in a foreign country, see to it that it echoes with your silence. The quieter you are, the louder others will talk.

  • Dress to blend in with the natives.

  • Don't try to shine when a foreigner knows more than you; when you know more, let yourself be defeated with a smile.

  • Try to understand what seems strange; if you can't, look first for the reason in yourself.

  • In a foreign country, lift your finger only to learn, never to teach. [3]

Despite or perhaps because of these rules, we became friends with our neighbors who once owned the land, Ralph and Helen Dexter. He had been an outfitter, logger, and electrician; she had handled trucks, buses, and pack horses. The Dexters raise most of their food, build what they need, and can repair nearly anything. They share meals, cash, tools, and time with people in need, stranger or friend.

A short, slight woman who at eighty can still outwork many teenagers, Helen Dexter came to Marblemount from Idaho with her first husband, Larry Winn, a mechanic for logging outfits in Alaska and Oregon; he died from cancer the day before Christmas, 1965. It is hard to believe that this quiet, demure lady has led mule trains loaded with dynamite to the Thunder Mountain mines, cooked and bossed camps for trail crews, and once stayed in the backcountry for forty-one straight days. During a fall evening she crossed the Skagit at dusk in a canoe to deliver a child, Aaron Bussier, and earlier she was the first woman to drive a school bus in the upper valley.

Ralph Dexter, now in his late sixties, grew up just south of the Stillaguamish east of Granite Falls. He topped and rigged his first tree a week before his fourteenth birthday and he left school at age fifteen to begin logging on the Upper Skagit. Short and wiry, he quickly became a high-rigger, in those days the highest-paid job in the woods. He was among the first men to use a chain saw for topping trees, some of them Douglas-firs over 200 feet tall. Later he led crews that cut through extensive stretches of North Cascade old growth. A life member of the National Rifle Association, Ralph has guided hunters for deer, goats, and bear. He is also a naturalist with a large personal library to supplement his phenomenal memory for insects, flora, fauna, and birds. With rain slanting against the house on winter nights, he sits by a window reading Richard Dawkins' River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, books by Stephen Jay Gould, or Brian M. Fagan's Ancient North America: the Archaeology of a Continent. His knowledge of local history is immense and detailed, once the basis for a weekly column in the Concrete Herald. Dexter does not admire the Park Service, considering it a federal bureaucracy that put him and his wife out of the packing business so it could mismanage a wilderness, yet in the 1960s, on environmental grounds, he opposed the North Cross-State Highway as well as Seattle City Light's proposed Copper Creek dam. Knowing Helen and Ralph Dexter has become part of our relationship with the Cascade River.

The Keller's cabin

Besides enjoying friendship with the Dexters, we have bought supplies from Gary Stewart, cedar shakes from Clarence Jones, and hired a bulldozer from Gene Graignic to move the cabin. Fritz Wenrich hauled rocks from his quarry, and Keith and Dawn Nushart raised the finest pork on the Skagit. Dan and Sara Huntington were always friendly at the Mountain Song Restaurant, a collective enterprise founded in the early 1970s but now gone. Like everyone in Marblemount, we know Merv Peterson and also had the good fortune to meet his father Otto, an early settler in the valley. And like everyone else, we visit the post office daily, looking for mail and chatting with the postmaster.

We owned our land for twenty years before any conflict with Marblemount neighbors occurred, and instead of involving the Dexters, Joneses, or Petersons, it happened with urban immigrants like ourselves. In 1994 an Everett couple purchased eighty nearby acres with hopes of realizing their dream, the creation of a private recreational-vehicle park to be called American Alps Resort. Their resort occupies land formerly owned by Golden Phoenix. The new owners bought their recently clearcut unit with intentions of replanting and rebuilding the habitat. Well suited to the county government's growth philosophy, the resort conformed to zoning requirements and glided through hearings and reviews to gain approval by summer, 1995.

One can ponder how Thoreau or Aldo Leopold might have reacted to a new neighbor with one hundred full-amenity RV sites, fifty tent platforms, five cabins, two bathhouses, a service center, playground, swimming pool, caretaker, and clubhouse. The developers, the Forest Service, and local officials all agreed that expanding the actual or planned 700 RV sites between Rockport, Newhalem, and Colonial Creek was consistent with the future of the North Cascades. They noted that Skagit County's comprehensive plan called for promotion of outdoor recreation and tourism, with the Forest Service endorsing the new resort as "consistent with the desired future condition of the Skagit Wild & Scenic River." [4]

The Forest Service notwithstanding, American Alps Resort seemed incompatible with a one-room, nonamenity log cabin on wildlife habitat-zoned open space. Not only did the project mean more traffic, noise, outdoor lighting, and potential stream pollution, it also, despite genuine environmental convictions held by its owners, embraced a different philosophy about how society should use the North Cascades. As part of the continuing mechanization of outdoor recreation, an RV resort imports urban leisure values of power and convenience into rural settings. Dirt bikes, personal watercraft, snowmobiles, outboards, jet boats, dune buggies and helipads, ski lifts and trains reach their climax with motorized homes, vehicles which bring families into the country to enjoy comforts of townhouse and suburb. Instead of land for sleeping outdoors, running rivers, hunting, packing, climbing, and exploring on foot or horseback, the North Cascades becomes a place to recline and relax. Instead of being different, it is more of the same.

Like the owners of American Alps Resort, in 1974 we arrived upriver with intentions of restoring our land. The person who had previously purchased the property from the Dexters had cut a fresh road above the riverbank, his first and last step toward a future trailer court before cancer intervened, forcing him to sell to us. Years earlier the forest here had been logged and never replanted, a few cedar and fir stumps five feet thick the only remnants of giant trees once occupying this land prior to our tangle of alder, cottonwood, devil's club, and vine maple. Ruins of a collapsed sawmill poked up through moss and deadfall on the Cascade Lumber and Shingle Company site where, in 1954, Ralph Dexter had milled 20,000 board feet of fir and hemlock a day. Twenty years later, in 1974, a dozen abandoned cars dotted the riverbank woods, surprising the unsuspecting hiker. Six or seven open pits also pockmarked the land.

One of the first unpleasant tasks involved the gravel pits—telling Fritz Wenrich that his previous supply of accessible river-run sand and gravel was closed. Then came three years of planting, pruning, thinning, and more planting in an effort to make the land once again resemble the thick forests that rose above it.

Transplanting young cedars met with some limited success and a few healthy firs set around the meadow have survived, but the Dexters and others must have shaken their heads when we placed 200 Weyerhaeuser fir seedlings (only a nickel each) on either soggy or rocky ground under a cottonwood canopy. They must have laughed aloud at the sight of city folk planting alder sprouts in the gravel pits. Fritz Wenrich, who had spent all but two of his sixty years near Marblemount, watched us fret over his excavations. "Nature always comes back," he said of the gravel pits, "no matter what humans may do."

Besides transplanting alders, our naïvet&ecute; did not account for two forces beyond individual control, one geological and the other economic: floods and logging.

For millennia all of our land had been floodplain. Today eighty percent still is. When buying the property my urban eye did not observe that most of the forest "damage" had not been the work of humans but of a higher order, namely rapid, swirling water loaded with debris. The valley's crisscrossing, empty, and overgrown channels that appeared on the assessor's aerial photos in Mount Vernon seemed only remnants of ancient history, not a warning. The massive stumps, old standing maples, and ninety big cedars scattered over thirty acres testified that the Cascade had to remain within or near its present banks. It does not, and never has.

The North Cascades requires a special combination of weather to unleash major floods down its western slopes, random conditions which coincide every few years. By early November the soil must be either saturated or frozen before a storm drops a heavy layer of wet snow in the foothills down to 2,000 feet. Before the snow can consolidate, a fresh storm sweeps in out of the south on warm winds, carrying sheets of rain that drench the earth for 2 and 3 days. After the first 24 hours, a turbulent Cascade has filled its banks. After 48 hours it looks more like surging mud than water, bouncing along boulders, stones, roots, and tree trunks that include 150-foot hemlocks and cedars as well as everything else that grows in the mountains. Now 400 feet wide, pushing aside anything in its path, including its banks, the river is sheer, breathtaking power. By the third day it runs and spreads everywhere, braiding new channels, stripping and shattering large trees into splinters, turning frontage land from green cover into rock, sand and silt.

It always recedes, the new landscape turning out to be wild if not very scenic. Four hundred feet of riprap from Wenrich's quarry has disappeared from our bank. Weyerhaeuser's saplings are somewhere between Hamilton and Fir Island in the Skagit delta. Medium-sized fir and pine along the proposed trailer court driveway are gone, as is the drive itself. Parts of the cabin road are now trench.

This has happened not once but eight times: in 1975, 1979, 1980, 1989, 1990 (twice) and 1995 (twice). The cabin, originally set 300 feet away from the stream presumed safe among cottonwoods mistakenly imagined to be at least seventy-five years old, enjoyed a classic river view. Downstream between cabin site and river stood a grove of mammoth maples, some with moss-covered lower limbs 50 feet long and 3 feet thick, almost equal in girth to their trunks. The oldest maples must have looked over the Cascade when Alexander Ross came down the river in 1814. But after the 1979 flood these maples disappeared, probably lodged in a fifteen-foot high jam between us and the state fish hatchery, a facility itself nearly submerged by Jordan Creek after the 1980 flood. The river, which normally erodes or rebuilds its bank a foot or two a year, by 1985 had sliced off 300 feet to flow within two yards of the cabin. A classic view indeed.

With the help of Ralph Dexter, Gene Graignic, and others we retreated another 400 feet from the river, moving the cabin to higher ground (but still low enough for the 1990 and 1995 floods to reach its steps). New trees installed around the meadow survived: a 6-foot fir planted in 1976 now stands 75 feet tall and a 1974 sequoia Christmas tree, the very first act of renewal, reaches 55 feet. A cedar sprout on a nurse log in twenty years has grown into a 16-inch trunk that rises up over 50 feet. Transplanted from near Lake Whatcom and flourishing in our meadow stands the offspring of a century-old butternut. Otherwise, land restoration, or perhaps we should say rearrangement, is left to the river. Dogwoods disappear on their own. Fir and hemlock do not like a floodplain of stones instead of soil. Cedar and maple do better, except that silt-caused rot around the base of maples will eventually bring them down as effectively as a chain saw. In the midst of this, we have learned to respect the tough virility and persistence of cottonwood and alder which require no human help with their sex life.

A more recent factor in the frequent deluges has been large-scale logging in the Cascade River watershed. Assuming that the Cascade parallels timber harvest rates in Skagit County, the greatest cuts in history occurred in 1977, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, and 1992. The record harvest happened in 1986 when almost eighty percent more timber left the mountains than a decade earlier. [5] Nevertheless, extensive removal of forests did not cause or start the floods. A November torrent swept away the Lucinda Davis homestead a mile downstream from us in 1897 after Davis had barely survived high water in 1894 and 1896. The Skagit, coming up 23 feet in 8 hours in 1897, also took out Sauk City below Marblemount. In 1909 the waters rose 2 feet higher. [6] Early reports of the Lower Skagit describe one immense logjam 5 miles wide, and local folklore recounts an old Indian advising early settlers on where to put their homesteads: "See mud on tree. Build higher." Major floods racked the Skagit drainage in 1917, 1921, 1932, 1935, 1949, and 1951, well before the large-scale clearcuts of the past thirty years. [7]

Still, laying bare entire mountainsides no doubt increases runoff and produces heavy erosion, such as the Lookout Mountain and Boulder Creek mud slides into Cascade River Park. The former killed four people 5 miles above us on November 1, 1985, and was caused by logging on steep slopes, a 4-inch downpour in 24 hours, clearcutting, and faulty road construction. [8] Logging most likely contributed to an increased general flooding between 1974 and 1995; exactly how much is difficult to determine.

The most negative environmental impact on our land, however, has not been high water, which quickly recedes to reveal an interesting if altered landscape, but, instead, the ugliness of clearcut logging. The views across and upriver are no longer forested; they resemble the vistas of southern Arizona as fresh clearcuts shine like so many orange gashes under the morning sun. In a few months these 240-acre tracts will become gray-brown swaths that will remain for a half-dozen years or more until new growth takes over. The extent and magnitude of altered landscape is inescapable. [9]

I own a chain saw, am not opposed to logging, and have cut down perhaps 200 trees on my land in twenty years, including a number of large ones. I can even understand the logging error in 1995 that burned 225 acres of timber on the northwest slope of B&W Mountain behind my property. But shaving entire hillsides and stripping rock faces seems foolish, as do short harvest cycles, logging above 4,000 feet, and cutting on steep slopes or along creeks and streams. Today, trucks that work on lower Lookout Mountain carry loads that resemble the matchstick bundles extracted from Maine's exhausted woods.

The aesthetic and spiritual costs are clear. New forest growth at various stages, section by section, can never replace mile after magnificent mile of fir, hemlock, and cedar as far as the eye can see. Tree farms evoke no mystery, patriotism, or awe. A forest does. For Americans like William O. Douglas, Albert Bierstadt, James Fenimore Cooper, William Cullen Bryant, Thomas Cole, and Frederick Edwin Church, "the Promised Land is a dense woodland, not forbidding or packed with heathen terror, but a sanctuary in the literal sense of holy asylum. Its foliage trickles with sunlight; its waters run sweet and clear. It is the tabernacle of liberty, ventilated by the breeze of holy freedom and suffused with the golden radiance of providential benediction." [10] In 1974 the hills flanking the Cascade River still seemed to possess these qualities and a life of their own. Seeing them, one felt that "I matter but little" as when looking at stars that burn over the cabin on clear winter nights. A panorama of clearcuts sends no such message. It more resembles Seattle or Everett, where the glare of lights means people can no longer wonder at the stars.

Industrial-scale logging is visually and philosophically disturbing, but cutting on small, privately owned woodlots of a few acres is more annoying. During the so-called Spotted Owl crisis of the 1990s, timber prices rose, benefiting individual owners with small sections of forested land not blocked by cutting freezes. [11] In 1995 local mills paid an average of $400 per 1,000 board feet; export logs brought over $950. In the middle of Marblemount twenty acres of large trees came down because, people said, a widow "didn't want her kids to get it." Above us, an elderly couple cut their property in 1990 for $15,000 needed to supplement a token pension. To the west a younger man had spent ten years building a home in the woods, then moved to the San Juan Islands and sold his house and thirteen acres for $160,000 to a new owner who immediately collected $40,000 by just cutting the trees. Our neighbor Ralph Dexter, a sixty-seven-year-old retired logger working alone in drizzle and mud, could selectively cut four of his acres in 100 hours for a net profit of $8,000.

Eighty dollars an hour inspires a lot of loggers, including some who, unlike Dexter, are not especially good at it. The laughing men who logged the land directly north of my cabin were not selective or careful. A buzz of equipment shattered the morning solitude. Then, heedless of a salmon stream in their path, they splintered and destroyed alders and maples as they pulled out fir and hemlock; at one point they dropped two trees into a third. Cutting of immature stands on a few acres along the Cascade dissolves any illusion that the Northwest is still forested, an illusion lost years ago by those who climb or fly.

Logging and clearcuts are now part of the North Cascades and thus part of our modern memory—owning river frontage is no return to nature or escape from society. In our time any line between wild and domestic has blurred, perhaps never having been as distinct a line as we like to believe. Nor is the line between us and the past firmly fixed. If it seems today that "our impatient appetite for produce has ground the earth to thin and shifting dust," nevertheless humans always remember much more than what appears. [12] As Simon Schama has shown, all landscapes evoke a past, "generation laid over generation," to create meanings for us today and for those who come after us. Just as future generations will remember and no doubt better understand the RV resorts and clearcuts that so disturb me, occupying river land offers various levels of memory even now. With inquiry and effort we learn of the Skagit and Cascade Rivers' many-layered history and culture—of natives, of whom Annie Dillard writes in The Living; of miners pushing over Cascade Pass into Horseshoe Basin; of some other prospectors, or maybe just promoters, 660 feet deep in an adit above Skagit Queen Creek; of eternal summers, such as those Gary Synder and Jack Kerouac spent at places like Lookout Mountain, when lookouts were still lookouts. The names of peaks also tell of natives, miners, explorers, and climbers—Sauk, Sahale, Trapper, Tee Bone Ridge, Helen Buttes, Diobsud, Eldorado, Triconi Peak, Ripsaw Ridge, Sharkfin Tower, Mount Torment.

On our land beside the Cascade River lie the remains of a sawmill where a ten-man crew once cut 20,000 board feet of old growth a day. Above it rises the southwest gully of B&W where on July 15, 1952, logger Shirley Cook and his son Charley died in a roaring funnel of fire. What we now call our meadow was once someone's pasture bordered by prune trees and with water piped across it. My children first came here at ages ten and thirteen and they later brought along a Springer spaniel named Charlie who for fifteen years sniffed through the undergrowth and raced into any possible puddle. He lies buried beneath the sequoia, a grave that Ralph and Helen Dexter honored with flowers. Friends have used the land as a fishing and climbing camp, a rendezvous, a Big Brothers campout, a place to be joined in marriage, a site for meditation, or simply a place with clean air.

Land, river, cabin, and Marblemount carry these meanings and more. We camp next to the river after hot summer days and watch the sun settle behind Sauk Mountain as hills turn from violet to purple. In winter we stargaze under one of the best night skies left in Western Washington. Awakening into the Cascade's shining mornings, I like to imagine Alexander Ross 180 years ago with his Indian guides marching from Fort Okanogan across the crest, then over Cascade Pass, dropping down between Sahale and Johannesburg to stumble across the headwaters of my river. "We fell upon a small creek so meandering that we had to cross and recross it upwards of forty times," he later recalled.

The water was clear and cold and soon increased so much that we had to avoid it and steer our course from point to point on the north side. . . . We were among the rugged cliffs and deep groves of the mountain, where we seldom experienced the cheerful sight of the sun; nor could we get to any elevated spot clear enough to have a view of the surrounding country . . . for we could seldom see to any distance, so covered was all around us with a thick and almost impenetrable forest. [13]

Familiar questions with no easy answers often come to mind for sojourners like Ross. The same questions came to Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry, and after buying the land they also arose in my mind. Who was here before us? What lessons can this place teach? Where do we truly belong in the world? In a lifetime, how many of the earth's places can a single individual know and love with steady, unremitting passion?

Writing this in Buchenbach, Germany, I know the river and land are still there, 9,000 miles away. I know, having been born in the Northwest, that I belong in Washington and especially in its mountains, however fascinating the rest of the world may be. Owning one-twentieth of a square mile in the North Cascades for twenty-two years has brought me floods and gentle meandering, satisfaction and sorrow, joy and frustration. Not much has been achieved in trying to restore this land. Even when we own private forest tracts and streams, we end up feebly confronting our powerful society—feeling a cold fear for the future while finding personal pleasure in the present. Yet despite anger over neglect of rivers and abuse of land, much remains constant when I stand above the Cascade, a place of crisp mornings and spacious days:

And what is grief beside it? What is anger beside it? It is unfinished. It will not be finished . . .
The seasonless river lays hand and handiwork upon the world, obedient to a greater mind. [14]

A lifetime resident of the Pacific Northwest, BOB KELLER has taught history and mountaineering at Olympic College in Bremerton and Western Washington University's Fairhaven College in Bellingham. An historian, he has published extensively on U.S. Indian policy and is currently completing a book about national parks.

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