Table of Contents


General Introduction


Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape

Part III: Landscapes of Vision

Sitec and Tomorrow in the North Cascades

I awoke to a roar that died and then returned. The air I breathed was frigid but I was warm as I rolled onto my back and pushed my hood from my face.

I had never seen such stars.

In an old story, stars were holes shot through a ceiling of night. From my bare, rocky bed, I saw bright heaven through those holes. A faded band of light, the Milky Way's far arm, glowed above me like threadbare cloth under a full moon.

There I was, almost a mile and a half high in North Cascades wilderness. Settling onto my back, I pulled taut the drawstrings on my jacket's hood and turned my head from left to right and back again, to wonder at the sky, which was filled with stars at all points of the compass. Neither haze nor city lights reflecting off polluted air dimmed my view of heaven.

And then there was the wind, my constant companion that night. It rushed across the deep, black lake upon whose shores we slept, up a sloping rock shelf, and across my bed. It flowed out the lower end of the lake and raffled through beds of tiny heather plants along the shore.

I lay in the murk of half sleep at a place I had found after a 15-mile walk. I was dizzy and unaccustomed to the thin air. Slowly, I remembered how I had come to this place so near the sky, so far from home. I shivered as I remembered that this place I had come to love, the protected core of the North Cascades, was slowly losing its soul.

Often, I retreat to such places to reflect on the lessons of the past, the folly of our daily lives, and the uncertainty of the paths we choose for the future. That starry night was a time for such reflection, and a time for making real the scientific abstractions that had lately defined my life. On that night, I contemplated the possibility of places being alive and possessing souls.

The Nooksack people, who have made their home for centuries in the northwestern quarter of what we now know as the North Cascades, use the word sitec to mean "soul" or, literally, "life force." An ecosystem is, in many ways, a living thing with its own sitec. It is complex, dynamic, persistent over time, and defined by its unpredictability. And if anyone would argue that an ecosystem cannot be alive because it cannot die, I invite them to visit any number of places in the American West where we have efficiently converted nature to strip mines, strip malls, parking lots, highways, and waste dumps. Ecosystems die—piece by piece.

If earth constitutes the North Cascades Ecosystem's flesh, rivers its lifeblood, and mountains its skeletal scaffolding, then the animals and plants comprise its sitec, or soul. Clearly, scientists tell us, the ecosystem's sitec is slowly slipping away. And, according to aboriginal stories common to many Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest, there is but one, inevitable consequence of soul loss. [1]

"The sitec, or soul is considered to be so light that it is easily dislodged from its owner," wrote scholar Sam Gill in his 1992 Dictionary of Native American Mythology. "Untreated soul loss is fatal. Death is usually slow, starting with unusual behavior . . ." [2]

The North Cascades Ecosystem, a roughly circular area to the east of Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Columbia may be one of the few places in North America that is still home to all the species present when Europeans first settled this continent. Its sitec is still mostly intact, but of late, many small changes, much "unusual behavior," has been detected in this living system.

This remarkable place is the wild backyard to the fastest growing city in Canada and one of the fastest growing urban areas in the United States. This odd juxtaposition of wildness and urbanity has brought the biodiversity crisis home to the residents of the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada.

In late 1995 a small story appeared on the inside pages of newspapers around the world. In my hometown paper, The Bellingham Herald, it appeared under the headline, "30,000 Species Face Extinction, UN Study Says." [3] The article reported the startling results of a research project sponsored by the United Nations. Humans are rapidly destroying habitat around the world, according to the study, and this has sped the extinction of plants and animals a thousandfold. [4] While we all seem to know that animals and plants are becoming extinct in the far corners of the world, what we do not recognize is that they also may be disappearing from the Pacific Northwest at record rates. We do not know this for certain because too little money is available to those who would study this crisis. Our leaders are more concerned with short-term economic and political matters than with extinction. This reminds us that extinction presents a scientific and a social quandary.

Recent scientific studies have found that dozens of species are about to disappear from the North Cascades. National Park Service scientists have found that in the North Cascades, as throughout the world, existing parks and preserves are not enough to protect species which have survived there for hundreds of thousands of years.

North Cascades National Park caretakers spend half the park's annual $5.1 million budget on road, trail, and building maintenance, according to the park's wildlife biologist Bob Kuntz. Resource management, the business of caring for the plants and animals in the park, receives about one-tenth of the park's annual budget. [5] This limits the park's ability to protect its plants and wildlife, Kuntz told me, and many species are in trouble in the North Cascades.

Seven of the North Cascades' salmon and steelhead runs are on the brink of extinction, [6] and the gray wolf, peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and spotted owl are considered threatened there. [7] Species which are at risk of extirpation, or may already be gone from the park complex, include the wolverine, bighorn sheep, fisher, marten, lynx, moose, American white pelican, Rocky Mountain elk, trumpeter swan, sandhill crane, osprey, great gray owl, Pacific Western big-eared bat, North American lynx, cascade frog, spotted frog, northern goshawk, harlequin duck, bull trout, and barred owl. [8]

The state of Washington is monitoring the following at-risk species in or near the park: golden eagle, flammulated owl, common loon, Vaux's swift, pileated woodpecker, and western gray squirrel. [9] The National Park Service lists fifty-seven plant species found near North Cascades National Park as endangered, threatened, or sensitive. [10]

To those who argue that the disappearance of these creatures is simply a "natural process," and that it has no effect on our lives or our economy, I can say only this: while we seldom see the direct economic benefits of grizzly bears, wolves, and flammulated owls, we undoubtedly benefit from the systems to which they belong. Our health and the well-being of our descendants depend upon clean air, clean water, and quiet, wild places where each can be alone. A healthy, untrammeled system provides great spiritual and aesthetic rewards as well. Indeed, when Christ faced his greatest challenge, when he survived his most difficult days on Earth, he did not choose a city, or even a church as his sanctuary. He instead spent his defining days in wilderness.

Chaos theorists, statisticians, and corporate lobbyists will attack the idea of a healthy ecosystem as unscientific, unsound, and fanciful. But to those of us whose idea of integrity is defined by the continued presence of those creatures present during European settlement of the American West, the critics' arguments seem shortsighted, narrow, and foolish.

Arbitrary borders, as well as ignorance, threaten the native plants and animals in the North Cascades, Bob Kuntz told me, and North Cascades National Park's northern edge is evidence of this problem. At the United States-Canada border protected forests give way in many places to enormous clearcuts. Pristine rivers turn to muck-choked gullies as they cross the border. Similar nonsensical borders mark the boundaries between Forest Service and Park Service land in the United States and between protected areas and forestland in Canada.

This divided home is one reason the region's native animals and plants are in so much trouble, Kuntz and other scientists believe. The lines humans have drawn on the land do not match the patterns nature has established over thousands of years. Some places remain wild but roads, clearcuts, and new human settlements divide and isolate the native species.

In the early 1990s members of about a dozen Canadian and U.S. environmental groups decided the time had come to fix what was wrong with the way we use public lands in the North Cascades. They called themselves the Cascades International Alliance.

The Alliance asked for the creation of an international park in the North Cascades. Besides a new name for the place, the Alliance wanted the federal and provincial land managers to manage first and foremost for biodiversity protection. Logging, mining, and other activities must only occur after we have made sure we are doing enough to protect all native species, Mitch Friedman, an Alliance leader, told me.

According to Friedman's explanation, protection and use of the ecosystem can be compatible, but the protection of habitat and biodiversity must come before logging, mining, and grazing. Timber and hydropower are what scholars and economists call "renewable resources." That means, under most circumstances, that what we use today can be replenished tomorrow, or in a decade, or perhaps in a century. They are resources we can use without using up, if we are careful. Biodiversity, on the other hand, is not a renewable resource.

We used up the passenger pigeon, and nearly used up the American bison, bald eagle, and blue whale. We are on our way to wasting the grizzly bear, countless kinds of birds, and plants which might someday provide a cure for cancer or AIDS. It seems a straightforward, even an economic, argument that whatever cannot be replaced should not be used up. This belief is implicit in the Alliance's definition of ecosystem management.

The North Cascades, for me, is a place in which to reflect on the meaning of our relationship with the land. It is a place from which to learn from the past, study the present, and hope for the future. It is a place that generates questions and provides an escape from the numbing abstractions of land management and ecological science.

The most important question we can ask about the North Cascades Ecosystem, whether we favor protection, intensive use, or some combination of the two, is simply, "What is the meaning of this place?" This is what I asked myself as I stared from my warm cocoon into that near, wild, night heaven.

I learned a great deal about how we interact with the North Cascades Ecosystem while I studied the park proposal. I have learned a great deal more by walking through the heart of the ecosystem, sleeping in its high places, and enjoying the gifts it offers those who visit on its own terms. No single place has taught me more about our relationship to the nonhuman world than the damp, deep-green forest of the upper Baker River.

Ecosystem integrity and biodiversity, which I first learned of by reading textbooks and scientific journals, became real to me during a day-long walk along the upper Baker River in midwinter. This river, along with that high ridge upon which I awoke under the stars, has taught me the meaning of the vision some of us share for the future of the North Cascades. In one day on the river I learned a great deal about the motivation of the park proponents and of those who would restore wildness and integrity to the North Cascades Ecosystem.

The upper Baker River begins as countless trickles on the westem flanks of the Picket Range in the heart of North Cascades National Park's northern half. It flows south and west from the Pickets toward Mount Baker. It rolls beneath the lee side of Mount Shuksan's imposing 9,127-foot greenschist summit and into civilization—the Baker Lake reservoir behind the black concrete hulk of Baker Dam. Sean Cosgrove, an Alliance volunteer and university student, and I left Bellingham for the upper Baker at 7:15 in the morning on January 23, 1995. For more than an hour we drove through farmland, private forests, and federal and state clearcuts whose stumps were often as big as small cars. We were on the trail at 9 A.M.

Sean had moved to the Northwest from Utah four years earlier and had worked as an intern for the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA), an Alliance organization. He has since been the coordinator of the Environmental Center on Western Washington University's campus in Bellingham and a grassroots organizer in the national movement to save unprotected ancient forests. He cares greatly for salmon, bears, wolves and wilderness.

Sean believes humans should be much better neighbors to large predators such as the wolf and grizzly bear. He argues for big wilderness, unbroken wildlands that would allow grizzly bears in Alaska to walk, unmolested and unhindered by humans and their inventions, to Colorado, to Mexico. He wants to help the wolf, salmon, and lynx return to their historical range. He wants us all to realize and eliminate the hubris which defines our relationship with the other residents of Earth.

He doesn't believe humans should hold any special position in the hierarchy of living things. If at all, he says, we should demonstrate our supposed superiority through acts of compassion and restraint, not through the wholesale conversion of the natural world to dollars, board-feet, and kilowatt hours. His beliefs, along with those of other supporters of the international park, remind me of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's insight into such matters. "It is certain that God sets greater store by a man than a lion," Leibniz wrote. "Nonetheless, it can hardly be said with certainty that God prefers . . . a single man to the whole of lionkind." [11]

Sean had written several articles for the Cascades International Park newsletter to explain the park proposal. He joined me on the trip up the Baker to explain his reasons for supporting the international park and to simply spend a day outside. We parked at a four-foot-high heap of plowed ice and snow near the road's end and checked our packs for lunch, hats and water. We hiked the last, snow-covered mile of Forest Service Road 1168 and passed through a flat, open camping area near the river.

The snow was 2 feet deep in places and firm as styrofoam block. Hoary frost covered the snowpack. It hadn't snowed there since it last rained, and it hadn't rained for weeks. It was the cold, hard snow of a midwinter drought. It squeaked beneath our feet.

We followed the broad trail through a frozen swamp. A cliff face was close by on the left. Sword ferns grew from the wall, and icicles hung from the moss beneath the ferns. My breath floated in front of me in white clouds and my vision blurred as I stepped through it. Cedar and hemlock of all ages lined the path and the Baker ran low and gray as steel to our right and below. Boulders, 10 feet high, had fallen from a cliff sometime since the last ice age. Foot-deep moss covered them. Trees 8 feet in diameter lined the path. The moss glowed green; the tree trunks were a solemn brown. My toes ached from the cold.

There were no clouds. The river, 30 yards wide, raffled in its bed. The water sang in winter bell tones. It jumped in its rapids like grease in a skillet, popping, splashing, throwing shards of daylight into the dark forest. Water swirled through pools, clear as molten crystal. An hour later we walked from the forest onto open ground. It was swampy again and we looked beyond to an icy beaver pond. The water level had fallen since last thaw and the ice hung magically above it.

Thick mist rose from the snow. Sublimation—when snow turns directly to vapor at temperatures below freezing—had wrung the moisture from the snow. Steep red cliffs rose to our left and a glacier, smoothed by winter snows, met the sky across the valley and up a steep, forested ravine to our right. Three rock pyramids waved banners of morning mist as they roughened the skyline above the glacier. We walked across a steep hill and into deep forest and passed a paper sign tacked to a young cedar. "NPS Boundary Marker."

When we walked into the park and its federally protected wilderness, we came ashore onto an island of protection in a sea of clearcuts. Green earth, green forest, green mind, green spirit. Snow in plots beneath the sky. Luxuriant mosses beneath heavy canopy. Ferns growing from dead trees.

Suddenly, willows. Sulphide Creek and its crib, the south face of Shuksan. Shuksan's glaciers looked like marshmallow creme, slathered on the mountain's back steps. From the west, Shuksan is a photogenic mountain. Its hanging glaciers and symmetrical summit pyramid have graced numerous calendars and car commercials. From the east, our view, it is a broken mountain, its gray spine shattered and thrust into the sky. From the north, it can be deadly.

A few months earlier, as an especially hot, dry summer was ending, the north side of the mountain had released one of its victims. In 1991 Gary Gray, a university student, talented photojournalist, and accomplished mountaineer, died in an icefall on that side of the mountain. While my friend Hugh Dougher, wilderness district ranger in North Cascades National Park, was recovering Gary's body with the assistance of the park's helicopter pilot, Gary's mother stood a few miles away, looking up at Shuksan from the base of the Mount Baker Ski Area. She watched the helicopter and men working from it, but did not know they were looking for her son's body. She had simply chosen that day to return to the mountain to contemplate its harsh beauty and utter indifference. Shuksan is that kind of mountain; the North Cascades, that kind of range.

"Thank God for the parks," Sean said as we stood in late afternoon sun at the confluence of Sulphide Creek and the Baker River. "Thank God for the Wilderness Act."

At that time and place, it was difficult to disagree. We stood inside North Cascades National Park's Stephen Mather Wilderness in Shuksan's shadow at the joining of two wild rivers. We also stood at the junction of times that have been and times that will be.

Four or five sets of footprints marked the rock-hard snow. Quarter-inch-long cones, petals splayed, covered the snow in places.

"Hemlocks," he said.

They helped me keep my footing, like sand on an icy walk. There was no sound but the river's.

Farther up the Baker, a gray ouzel dipped and dove, hunting his lunch and shedding water from his teflon wings. The fat bird, about the size of a robin, dove and rolled like a seal, or an otter. He worked the river like a fly fisherman, but with everything in reverse. He dove beneath the surface to hunt insects with his beak. He flew upstream and rafted down, dipping and diving rather than working gradually upstream. His work was smooth, a quiet dance. We stood, knees stiff in the cold, watching him raft around a bend and out of sight.

"I want to see grizzlies fishing from the banks of this river," Sean said. "I want to walk around this corner and see a pack of wolves bringing down a deer."

We had spent the morning walking, staying warm and talking about the future of protected places. Neither knew what the future held but we had seen the 1994 elections move antipark and antiwilderness representatives into key positions on the Congressional committees responsible for places like this.

We talked a bit about the past, how the Baker must have changed when it was dammed and how this pristine upper stretch of river would be perfect for salmon spawning, as it was free of clearcuts and their silty runoff. The gravel looked ideal and lush forest shaded its channel.

Above the mouth of the Baker on the main stem of the Skagit, thousands of tourists gather every winter to watch bald eagles feed on the salmon still spawning there. As we walked upstream, Sean asked, "Have you seen any eagles this morning?"

I hadn't; eagles knew better than to fish above dams having no fish ladders. The black front of Baker Dam is impenetrable and indifferent to the salmon shadows that gather and bruise their bodies against its base.

We sat on a flood-stranded log and watched the river, the forest, and the sky. When a high, gray gauze of clouds began moving across the sun we decided to head home. We walked downstream on snow-covered gravel bars.

It was just above the confluence of the Baker River and Sulphide Creek that we found it. At first it looked like a gray rag, partially buried in snow. I stepped closer and saw silver flecks and a few bones resting at the bottom of a shallow depression in the snow.

We scraped the frost away and realized that the gray rags had once been a huge fish. Its gill cover, or operculum, was as large as my hand and the few remaining vertebrae and ribs hinted at a fish at least three feet long, maybe more. It was a salmon, apparently carried here by a bird whose wing beats had swept away the snow and whose talons had pitted the ground around its meal.

"Did the bird carry this fish here all the way from the Skagit, just to eat it?" Sean asked.

"I wouldn't think so, but how else would it end up here?" I answered.

We stood staring for awhile and wondering at what was left of the fish before we headed home in silence. In an hour the gravel bars led us to a dead end. A wide stretch of river blocked our way. We had walked onto a pea-gravel peninsula exposed by winter's low water. We headed back upstream, hopping frozen rivulets and ice-choked channels. As we reached the north shore we found a second fish trapped in a slough that had apparently been an active channel during flood stage.

Old growth along the Sauk River

A 2-foot-long salmon missing its head and tail rested beneath a thin layer of ice and 3 feet of acid-clear water. Its flesh had faded to white and begun to dissolve, returning nutrients to the bacteria and fungi that would feed insects and, in turn, its own young.

As we stood and watched the moldering fish we wondered how it had come so far, beyond a dam and back into wilderness. Baker Dam is at least 100 feet high—black, mossy, and brutish—and it has no fish ladders. Two weeks later we learned that salmon do indeed return to the upper Baker to spawn. Their return is artificial, by way of trucks, nets, and pumps, but, as Sean pointed out, humans had a lot to do with their disappearance from the river thirty-five years ago.

Even though they had not come on their own and their appearance here was as natural as their cousins' presence in the Seattle Aquarium, something seemed right about the river and its mountains: Shuksan, Icy, Cloudcap, and Ruth receiving their fish. And something seemed amiss, incomplete in the bear's absence.

Weeks later I asked Mitch Friedman, the leading proponent of biodiversity-based management in the North Cascades, why the bear mattered.

"Grizzly bears have a right to exist there and we want grizzly bears there," Friedman said. "That is the bottom line."

Friedman also explained that, as the ecosystem's largest predator, the bears probably played an important role in its processes. Bears might help till the soil as they dig for food and they likely keep other predators, such as coyotes and black bears, in check. They might also distribute salmon carcasses as a form of fertilizer as they drag them from the rivers, he said. Friedman admitted his arguments relied more on possibility and hope than on data, but I heard him out.

"Will the North Cascades turn into a parking lot if the grizzlies are gone?" he asked. "No, but there are other subtler changes, some of which we can predict, some of which we can't. That would be nice to avoid."

Most land managers say they must cooperate with their neighbors to do their jobs. They also say that science is a vital part of all effective management. Lately all of them have been talking about ecosystem, or big-picture, management. So everyone agrees that cooperation, science, and ecosystem management are compatible, important, and desirable. But few make the protection of biodiversity, including the great bear, their number one priority. Few are working to assure the grizzly bear and the salmon a place in the world of our great-grandchildren.

Critics argue we cannot protect species or control ecosystems and therefore should not even try. The systems are too complex, they tell us. And extinction is inevitable, change is natural, and ecosystem health nothing more than a sentimental notion. Whether these critics are right or wrong, there is an important lesson to be learned from another branch of science which has long dealt with the management and protection of such complex systems.

Medical professionals know that the human body is a vastly complex and inherently unpredictable bundle of systems, often impossible to control or protect. But they agree sometimes, perhaps all the time, that protection and restoration are worth a try. And we all agree with them when they tell us there is a difference between healthy and sick, living and dead.

We should use scientific principles, data, and action, therefore, to protect biodiversity in the North Cascades. Yes, it is a complex system. No, we do not understand it fully. Yes, we will make mistakes. Some species will become extinct despite our best efforts, just as some patients die despite the finest medical treatment. We should, I believe, act rapidly on the best available data and we should work ceaselessly to increase our knowledge of ecosystems and their components even as we begin treatment.

As I lay thinking under the stars I struggled with the meaning of all the debate about ecosystem management, ecological integrity, and the future of the North Cascades Ecosystem. To my left, about ten feet away, Lori Zatz, a park ranger and friend, slept in a six-foot-long tent. The tent's yellow sides flapped in the flood of cold air. Somewhere in the darkness to my right, Hugh Dougher and Mary Jane Lavin slept in tiny tents.

Hugh and Lori are rangers in North Cascades National Park. Hugh is a native of Pennsylvania's Dutch country and a Park Service veteran. Lori is a seasonal Park Service employee who grew up in Philadelphia. She has spent two summers living in the park's backcountry, meeting-visitors and helping them in their times of need.

Mary Jane Lavin is a special agent with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. She investigates illegal wildlife trade and tracks people who buy and sell endangered animals, their fur, hides, teeth, bones, and internal organs. All three are law enforcement specialists. All three, in different ways, guard the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the ecosystem.

The night before, we had shared a pasta dinner and a dessert of cinnamon liqueur. At sunset we had shared silence and a view of an empty, steep-sided valley below our camp. It is worth mentioning that the names of the particular places we visited are unimportant for several reasons. First of all, as my friend Chip Dennerlein, a former director of Alaska's state parks system, told me recently, "It is not where these places are, but what they are that is important." Indeed, our circuit of valleys and ridges could have happened in any of a dozen places in North Cascades National Park and the lessons I learned would have been the same. Further, it is said that in many aboriginal cultures when a person had lost his soul, his sitec, and death resulted, no one spoke his name again. It is mainly in deference to the sitec, the vanishing plants and animals of the North Cascades, that I withhold the names of the places in the rest of this story.

My traveling companions and I had camped on the lake's rim at the head of a forested valley. We watched the stream drop from the lake and wind toward a distant river, a half day's walk away. At dusk the stream had turned to a leaden blue thread as it wandered through meadows and disappeared into dense forest. We watched for signs of people in the valley bottoms below our perch.

The four of us had met about 36 hours earlier at the park's wilderness district office in Marblemount to prepare for a long, off-trail patrol of a seldom-visited part of the park. I had been excited to spend days in the backcountry with rangers, to watch them work and to learn more about the park and its place in the ecosystem.

Mary Jane and I had driven together from Bellingham to Marblemount. As we traveled, she told me stories about tracking criminals who traffic in the body parts of endangered species around the world. She has trekked through the jungles of Guam and posed as an upscale shopper in search of that hard-to-find fabric knit from the wool of the world's most endangered wild goat. But all in all, she told me, she preferred the meticulous research and thinking also required of detectives. Wilderness patrols such as this were the exception rather than the rule. She was particularly interested in finding poachers responsible for stealing endangered duck eggs within the park. Thus she justified the time she was about to spend outside.

We met Hugh at the ranger station and, after the requisite gear shuffling and food check, were on our way to the mountains. We drove an hour or so east on the North Cascades Highway and stopped at an unmarked, nondescript, wide spot in the road. "A friend of mine has been camping here for decades," Hugh said. "It's a perfect spot to spend the night before an early morning start." That perfect spot, on Forest Service land, is about to be developed as a car and RV campground. And so it goes.

We were on the trail near a gravel-spur road at seven o'clock the next morning. In the first half hour we passed from a Park Service parking lot, across a state highway, into Forest Service land, and finally into North Cascades National Park.

The trail disappeared beneath rank vegetation in the meadows and avalanche chutes but was clear and broad where it wound through old-growth groves. At each patch of slide alder I paused, looked upward, and imagined the power the cliffs, thousands of feet above, unleash through the winter.

At the park boundary, perhaps 2 miles from the trailhead, an avalanche had escaped its old chute the winter before and blasted through a stand of 500-year-old trees. It had taken the wooden sign marking the park boundary with it. Hugh found a few remnants of the sign under freshly bucked log rounds lining the trail. A huge, healthy fir, 3 feet thick at its butt, had exploded in the slide. The scattered shards of wood and bark reminded me of fallen cornstalks after a late summer storm. The ancient trees' frailty in the face of the slide reflected the ephemeral nature of even the ecosystem's oldest and largest residents.

As we walked down drainage toward the confluence of our creek and one of its many tributaries, we dropped into a notch between peaks that stand over 7,000 feet tall. The first high peak we passed rose sharply on our left to its pyramid-shaped, 7,600-foot summit. Steep, forested slopes broken by gray cliffs and bright green clearings rose from both sides of the trail toward the sky.

The valley floor was mostly forested. Its rims were rocky. Meadows, perhaps old fire scars, marked the skyline with odd patches of pale green. Thin veins of snow clung to the highest and deepest ravines. We were headed from the North Cascades' basement and its flowing water to the catwalks and buttresses of its high country.

As we followed the flowing water, Hugh listened carefully to his two-way radio. A call came in from the Golden West Ranger Station in Stehekin, the small village at the head of Lake Chelan. There had been trouble there the night before with a black bear. The bear had been hanging around town for a while looking for food and scaring tourists, Hugh told me. We talked a bit about bears and people in parks and the interesting situations that arise when hungry bears meet sloppy campers.

Someone suggested relocating the bear. Hugh disagreed, likening relocation to "firing a guy from his job and dropping him in the middle of a strange city without food, money, shelter, or family to fall back on." He said relocation is seldom better than simple execution for the bear. People should change their behavior to protect the bear, he said. Our talk soon moved beyond "town bears" and to stories about "real" bears, grizzly bears. Lori had seen a half-dozen bears that summer, usually a mother and cub, foraging near the streams or stepping quickly across the trail ahead of her. They were all black bears.

Grizzly bears lived throughout the North Cascades before European settlers arrived in the region and began traveling, mining, ranching, and homesteading in the river valleys. But for all practical purposes, "Griz," as Hugh called the animal, is gone from the North Cascades.

A federal research team found that in 1993 the public land within the Greater North Cascades Ecosystem could once again support a viable grizzly bear population. The grizzly bears, longtime residents of the range, are still out there, according to the same government report. As early as the 1850s European explorers reported grizzly bears on the north fork of the Nooksack River near Mount Shuksan. The grizzly bear is also present in the stories of the Upper Skagit and Swinomish tribes although it was more common in the territory of the Thompson and Methow tribes on the east slope of the range. [12] The great bear is sitec embodied, utterly wild and utterly vulnerable, "so light that it is easily dislodged from its owner," as Gill wrote.

The bears began to disappear from the range after European fur trappers arrived in the early 1800s. They became even less common after miners and ranchers settled in the region's river valleys, including the Methow, Skagit, Twisp, and Okanogan. These valleys were likely the bears' favorite places, their preferred habitat. Conflicts were common and miners killed bears to protect themselves and their property. Settlers cleared forests and built roads and homes, driving the bear from much of its range. [13]

From the beginning of European settlement until 1983 there were 234 reported grizzly bear sightings in the North Cascades. After a five-year study lasting from May 1986 to November 1991, the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC) concluded that some grizzly bears remain in the North Cascades. "We have documented the presence of a small, resident, widely distributed and reproducing grizzly bear population in the North Cascades ...," the committee wrote in its final report. [14]

The Committee ranked twenty-one grizzly bear observations between 1964 and 1991 as "class one" sightings—sightings either confirmed by a biologist or by a photograph, carcass, track, hair, or other sign. They also verified two sightings which were captured on videotape and identified a track and a food cache as those of a grizzly. Based on this meager evidence, the team concluded that between ten and fifty bears remain in the ecosystem. They called the numbers "an educated guess." [15] Critics of their work have called the numbers a tally of supersmart "stealth bears."

Bob Kuntz, the park's wildlife biologist, told me there maybe some bears in the ecosystem, but that the report's numbers may be misleading. "You could say grizzly bears are still here, but they're not," he said. "We have them, but there's not a viable population out there. We need to augment, we need to bring bears into the system if we're going to have that."

The IGBC also found that the North Cascades provides "excellent habitat and foods to support a viable grizzly bear population," and Kuntz agreed. The team reported that there is enough space in the North Cascades for the bears to make a comeback but the bears there are an isolated, "island" population. [16]

Grizzly bears hold a special place in the history of the American West. They haunt native legend and pioneer lore. They are, some say, the hallmark of wildness and ecosystem integrity. Hugh told me that no one he knows has ever seen a grizzly in the North Cascades.

Still, I half-expected to see one tearing into the loamy, streamside soil or fishing at a pool on the creek we followed that day. Bear stories, like ghost stories, have a way of conjuring their hairy, toothy subject matter at every bend in the trail. But not even an overactive imagination brought us any bears during our hike to the park's high country.

At the confluence of the two creeks we turned east and began ascending a second valley toward a high lake and a pass beyond that. We stopped for lunch at the pass and sat in the shade of some trailside trees.

Lori and I had not met before that day but she was friendly and easy to know. We talked a bit about the pass, her camp there, and her work. The day before she had written her first ticket, a citation to a fisherman who had neglected to buy a license.

All backcountry rangers in North Cascades, I learned, are law enforcement officers. Gun, badge, two-way radio, you name it. If, at this used-up end of the twentieth century, you want to be a real park ranger, a wilderness ranger, you must first become a cop.

We headed west from the pass toward a named peak, about 5 miles distant. As we left the pass, the trail, and the last signs of civilization, talk turned to bears again. I suppose our departure from the trail had something to do with it.

We planned to visit places no one on the park's staff had ever visited. We would camp in drainages where, perhaps, no one had camped in a decade or more. We were, as much as is possible in the lower forty-eight states in 1995, leaving the beaten path. And with images of wilderness and wildness came images of grizzly bears, the North Cascades' sitec manifest in flesh, fur, and fang.

I have never seen a grizzly bear in the wild and I have only knowingly shared the woods with five black bears in my life. But the open benches on the back side of the ridge we traversed, their shallow tarns, luxuriant mosses, and dense stands of stunted firs seemed the perfect backdrop for bears. We talked more about grizzlies than anything else on our first day out.

Hugh enjoyed regaling us with his bear stories. "I have three specialties," he said, "law enforcement, search and rescue, and bear management."

Hoping to learn something more about bears from an expert, I asked Hugh how he handled bears like the one that had visited the park campground the night before, especially mothers with cubs.

"Well, the best thing to do is separate the cubs from the mother and then tree the cubs," he said. "You just get a good run at the cubs, make a bunch of noise, and they go up the tree and the mother doesn't know what to do."

I was fairly shocked and Hugh, as I would realize many times over the course of the next few days, was enjoying my gullibility enormously. He smiled, shook his head and moved on.

We followed a bare, open ridge system but stayed on its flanks to avoid the cliffs, loose rock, and nasty pitfalls that congregate on ridges. We traversed broad, marshy meadows linked like steps on an enormous, ramshackle staircase. Between each meadow we scrambled up a rocky step. As we passed a wet meadow and a shallow, warm pool on one of the benches Lori told me she had talked with the ranger who patrolled this area before she took the job in 1994.

"He worked here for seven seasons," she said, "and he told me that if there were grizzly bears anywhere in this park, this was the place. The open, marshy meadows, scattered stands of trees, and the well-guarded ridges and valleys just look like they would be great grizzly habitat." She told me she would like to think grizzly bears were still out here, but that she had little reason to believe they were.

I studied the thick, fibrous stalks of the plants growing on the swampy steps and imagined their fat, white roots would make great grizzly food. Huckleberry bushes grew on the higher and drier areas around the pond. The distant river, decades ago, would have made good fishing. Grizzly bears den on high, exposed ridges where heavy snow insulates them and the steep slope prevents water from filling their dens and waking them during winter thaws. I looked toward the ridge on our right and studied its steep flanks. I thought we had found a fine place for bears.

By three o'clock I was exhausted. We had been walking with heavy packs for eight hours and it was close to 80°F. I had been drinking about a quart of water an hour but still felt dehydrated and too hot. At the base of the last step before we reached a high plateau, we came upon a lake with no name at an elevation in the six thousands, as I recall. We stopped and swam. The water was cold and refreshing.

We dressed, hefted our packs, and began climbing the final step between us and the top of the ridge. As we neared the top I stopped and looked back at the lake. Our ascent had been so steep we seemed to stand directly above it. The shallows near shore were bright turquoise. The center of the lake was black and apparently bottomless.

We stopped at the top of the step above the lake for lunch. We sat on a rocky hummock near the middle of a rolling plateau the size of a supermarket parking lot. Snow covered half the plateau. Two ponds held half their winter ice. They would be dry by September, Hugh said.

I leaned back onto warm, smooth stone and listened carefully to the sky. Silence. No wind, no birds, no traffic. Across the small, slushy tarn an unbroken snowfield sat on the back of a knobby peak. The peak had no name and was little more than a rough spot on top of the ridge, but from my vantage point it seemed high and distant.

We finished our lunches and stood, groggily, to move toward that night's camp. The sun was low in the sky and we followed it. A 7,900-foot peak cast a shadow over our route. We dropped from the snowy plateau into a hanging valley. The valley was shaded by the ridge until afternoon and then in sun only for a few hours before the looming peak's shadow slipped over it. It was full of deep snow. We skied to the valley floor on our boots.

From the mouth of this hanging valley I looked up toward the sun and studied the black mountain. Its steep, shadowy north face stood above tomorrows route. Hugh and Lori made a few nervous jokes about hotshot climbers gearing up for the north side of the peak and reluctant rangers following in helicopters. The peak's north side reminded me of the underside of broken asphalt—rough, dirty, and ugly.

After staring at the shadowed peak for a few minutes I looked down. We stood at the mouth of the hanging valley and I could see treetops and then whole trees and meadows below. I couldn't tell how steep a drop we stood above but the ground disappeared behind some slanting slabs covered with loose gravel and a few larger flakes. I looked beyond the lip and realized we stood at the edge of a natural amphitheater.

To our left, the ridge's impassable flanks wrapped around the head of the valley. Directly across the valley (we stood at its rim, somewhere near midvalley) green, red, and orange meadows were pocked with bare rock and clumps of stunted firs. Our side of the valley was mostly shaded and held several acres of late summer snow. At the head of the valley a round rock knob stood in sharp relief against the sky. Snow melted and trickled downward in a dozen streams which met as the valley flattened. Directly in front of us and 1,200 feet below, the streams had collected themselves and we could hear water flowing down. I imagined bears all over again.

Evening light softened and deepened the valley's colors. It was a warm, vibrant, welcoming place that opened before us in dramatic counterpoint to the black peak on the western horizon. Someone checked a map for the valley's name and read it aloud. Given breath, it had a magical quality. I realized it was the first time any of us had spoken for quite some time.

Lori and I immediately decided the place needed exploring. It had to be the grizzly's stronghold and, because it had a name, so must it have a story. Old sheep pens, a ruined cabin, a cave converted to a hermit's rest, tools, or perhaps even books left behind by a forgetful or hurried shepherd or prospector surely sat somewhere down there. We had not seen the valley from the creek trail, although its mouth was near the lake and not far from the pass.

Lori remembered that the drop at the end of the valley was so steep and the forest so dense that it would be impossible to see into the valley from the heavily used trail below. It is close to a popular backpacking route but, as we would learn later, almost impossible to enter.

We were tempted to find a way down into the valley but the steep, blind slopes, loose rock, and the setting sun scared us away. We turned toward the sun and climbed up once more and out of the hanging valley.

In an hour we came upon another lake, almost a thousand feet higher than the last but much larger. The unnamed lake sat in a basin below the black peak. We stepped carefully across braided streams covered with rotten snow bridges, and looked for a flat, dry place to make camp.

At the south end of the lake, near its outlet, we found a flat, rocky ledge. We each carried a sleeping bag and a shelter. Hugh and Mary Jane and I each carried a bivouac sack, a waterproof sleeping bag cover. Lori carried a tiny tent. We found room for four bodies and carefully scattered our beds along the ledge. During dinner we weighted our bags and sleeping pads with rocks the size of softballs and still worried they would blow south toward the distant river. And that is how I came to my bed beneath the stars.

After I awoke in the wind I studied the sky. I stared at the black interstices between the most obvious stars and when I had stared long enough, fainter stars appeared in the gaps. After another fifteen or twenty minutes a third set of stars, the faintest I have ever seen, appeared between the others. For the first time in my life I studied a night sky with more stars than space.

I drifted off to sleep somewhere between my second and third round of stellar interpolation and had a dream that still returns, although with decreasing frequency, nearly nine months later. In the dream, I rise high above that high camp, floating up a mile and then ten and then fifty. From my cold, remote dream locale I look down into the undiscovered valley, a tiny pocket in the barely discernible geologic fold that is the ridge we followed.

The park complex's backcountry, the adjacent Okanogan and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forests, are inky black. A few faint lights of remote cabins glow at the park's edges.

Just south of the ridge, inches away it seems, the lights of a remote settlement shine brightly. A glow in the west catches my eye. Some nights it is much stronger than others. I stare down and to my left into Seattle, Everett, Tacoma, and Olympia. I follow the glowworm streak of Interstate 5, the international highway trailing north, to the bright smudge of Vancouver, B.C. The city's haze always dulls its lights. My eyes adjust to the brightness of the city as I search for landmarks, for individual points of light.

I look away to find again the undiscovered valley below, but the urban glow has tightened my irises and I fail to see the ridge, the valley, or the faint lights of the outlying cabins.

I look north and see the glow of the tiny community of Newhalem near the three dams on the Skagit River. Farther north the darkness of North Cascades National Park and the Forest Service's Pasayten Wilderness yields to the lights of the Canadian border towns of Hope, Chilliwack, and Manning Park. To the south east of these intrusions into the darkness I see the shine of Twisp, Okanogan, and Winthrop. Farther south still, Wenatchee and its sprawling fringe glow against a backdrop of night.

I am watching the future unfold below me. How far will the lights spread into the dark wilderness, the ecosystem's wild heart? How far will we let development encroach on these remnants of the ancient system? I wonder if that pocket of green beneath me will ever see grizzly bears again. I wonder if we will see fit to make room for other species at some cost to our overly simple economy or if we will instead insist that dollars are the only things that matter.

I realize that the great bulwark of parks and wilderness is crumbling in the face of extinction's erosive force. I realize, too, that parks and wilderness are not forever. They are subject to changing values, political whim, and shortsighted greed. But extinction is forever. And today we are making important decisions about the way we will treat such places and their suffering natives tomorrow.

We, or our descendants, may someday begin a new era of biological stewardship through ecosystem management as the Alliance has suggested. Or we may allow species and systems to disappear forever. Only a thousand or a hundred thousand mornings will tell which path we will ultimately follow.

I awake from this dream to gray dawn and an uncertain future. It is a brightening morning, but hazy. I am inside a cloud. The sun has just risen but it hides behind a fat Engelmann spruce. The spruce's branches split dawn into a dozen rays that light the thick mist like diamond dust. Hugh and Mary Jane crawl from their bivy bags, kneel in the mist, and then stand as the sun rises over the low peak to the east. Lori sleeps quietly.

On that day we broke camp and skirted the lush, hidden valley out of respect and a sense of urgency. But we wondered what it held and what it would hold in the future. For the duration of our trip we searched for signs of the grizzly but failed to see even the faintest hint that we had crossed paths with the North Cascades' sitec embodied.

A month later I returned to that valley. Lori and my wife joined me. We spent two days and a night there and failed to find any sign of grizzlies. We were profoundly disappointed.

I realized that despite the seeming perfection of the place as bear habitat, despite government reports, and despite all our hopes, the grizzly was on its way out, fading toward extinction in one more corner of its former range. The valley is too disconnected from the rest of the bears' shrinking home. Perhaps it is too small, its forage too sparse. Perhaps too many hikers have visited the place for it to be a suitable home any longer.

I realized during our return visit that if we do not decide soon whether we value the continued existence of bears, wolves, salmon, flammulated owls, osprey, lynx, big-eared bats, harlequin ducks, and bull trout more than we value short-term economic gains, the decision will be made for us when these creatures disappear forever.

No scientific experiment can help us make this decision. We will decide on the basis of our beliefs about our place on the planet, our knowledge of its systems and of ourselves, and our vision for the future.

We, the greediest species, will run up against limits. It seems obvious we should learn restraint. By making room for other species today, we have some hope of making room for our own tomorrow.

SCOTT BRENNAN was born in Aberdeen, Washington and has since lived in all four corners of that state. In early 1996 he moved, with his wife, Meagan, and dog, Kai, to the "other Washington" where he is the Executive Conservation Fellow of the National Parks and Conservation Association. He received his BS and MS degrees in environmental science from Western Washington University's Huxley College of Environmental Studies.

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