Impressions of the North
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part III: Landscapes of
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 diepiece 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. 
"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 . . ." 
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."  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.  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
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.
 This limits the park's ability to protect its plants
and wildlife, Kuntz told me, and many species are in trouble in the
Seven of the North Cascades' salmon and steelhead
runs are on the brink of extinction,  and the gray wolf, peregrine falcon, bald
eagle, and spotted owl are considered threatened there. 
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. 
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.  The National Park Service lists fifty-seven plant
species found near North Cascades National Park as endangered,
threatened, or sensitive. 
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
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
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 civilizationthe 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." 
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
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
Thick mist rose from the snow. Sublimationwhen
snow turns directly to vapor at temperatures below freezinghad
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
"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
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.
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
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 highblack, mossy, and
brutishand 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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.  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
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
The Committee ranked twenty-one grizzly bear
observations between 1964 and 1991 as "class one"
sightingssightings 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."  Critics of
their work have called the numbers a tally of supersmart "stealth
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. 
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
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,
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 asphaltrough, dirty, and
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
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
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
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'
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
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.