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The Land of Blue-Green Waters

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Friday, 07 July 2023, Burlington WA

North Cascades is unique among the National Parks in that Congress legislated a National Park Complex of three adjacent parks in one bill in 1968. North Cascades NP has a unit in the northwest corner of the complex, Ross Lake National Recreation Area (NRA) lies to the northeast and runs east-west through the center, another North Cascades NP unit stretches across the south, and Lake Chelan NRA sticks out of the southeast corner. No roads enter the North Cascades northern unit; to reach it you must hike from Ross Lake (or outside the Complex) into that park. There is, however, a single road that enters the south unit, a dead-end road that run 23 miles, half of that gravel.

For today's adventure, I drove to Ross Lake NRA corridor. Time to get wet! Several outfitters run whitewater rafting trips down the Skagit (rhymes with 'badge-it') River: I chose Alpine Adventures. A 10:00 start time meant I had to leave my room in Burlington by 8:15, tops. An earlier start got me there in time to correct a scheduling snafu (they had me down for rafting on Saturday, not today, but they allowed me to switch slots).

Unlike May's trip down Cataract Canyon, where my only job was to hold on, here they expected everyone to paddle. Abby would steer us, but she would command us to paddle to help propel the raft. It brought back memories of 1995, when I took a two-week course to learn river guiding.

My boat had five passengers: Casi and her 4th-grade son Calvin up front; teenage brothers Curtis and Charles in the middle, me behind, and Abby at the back, controlling the raft. [NOTE I apologize if I mis-remembered any of the names; let me know and I'll correct them.] John guided the other boat with four passengers.

NOTE: Calvin had taken advantage of an innovative program offered by the NPS. Any US student in the fourth grade can go online and get a pass that will get him/her and anyone accompanying them into any NPS site for that year. What a great way to inspire our next generation of conservationists!

The river tested us quickly, with a class II rapids as soon as we launched. It set the pace for the trip, alternating rapids with gentle currents floating us downstream. During those easy stretches, Calvin would take every chance to splash his friends in the other boat.

Ah, such a perfect day to be on the water. The high peaks of the Complex towered over the river. Temps were in the 70s, though the splashes of 45° water kept us cool. Everyone kept an eye out for wildlife, and we spotted a pair of deer crossing the river. Someone teased Calvin about a bear on the shore, laughing as he eagerly tried to spot it. However, around another bend a guide actually saw one climbing the slope; I got the GoPro on in time to catch it (from a distance) running across the road.

Halfway through our session, Abby had the front four paddlers change position, giving the brothers a chance to enjoy he best (and wettest!) seats. After another warm-up class II rapid, they got to paddle us through the only set of class IIIs.

Soon we arrived at a small beach for a break. Calvin had heard about Jump Rock here, a chance to make a high leap into the river. He looked over the edge, but Casi called him back until the other guide could show him where to leap. John walked up the rock and took the plunge. He told Calvin, "It all depends on your tolerance for pain." For Calvin, the thought of cold water gave him cold feet, and he climbed back down.

When we paddled away from the beach, Abby placed Casi and me in the front and allowed Calvin to ride the bow. Calvin quickly asked for a paddle. "But you can't paddle from the bow," Abby told him.

"I know! I just want to splash the other boat."

With Calvin armed, Abby steered our boat toward the other raft, and Calvin sprayed water onto John. But he hadn't anticipated the consequences. John turned around, grabbed Calvin by the life vest, and dunked him in the river.

See - he didn't have to jump from the rock to land in the water!

I enjoyed paddling from the best seat, though we only had a few class IIs left to test us. Memories of past whitewater bubbled up.

As always, the fun times ended too soon.

I then drove around the corner for my obligatory trip to the Visitor Cener for my passport stamp. I listened to the ranger's recommendations for hikes, laced up my hiking boots, and headed out on the one-mile river loop.

The loop took me into the lush Cascade forest.

The trail passed by big trees dripping with moss.

The sunlight weaving through the canopy cast interesting shadows. Along the river I could see the blue-green water (colored by the rock flour ground out by the nearby glaciers) flowing downstream. One vantage point revealed the Alpine Adventures rafts at the launch point, waiting for their afternoon clients.

The ranger also suggested seeing Ladder Falls another mile up the road. Back when they built the dams upriver, the utility company constructed a fanciful garden on the slopes above the powerhouse, filled them with ponds and exotic plants, and capped it with an electric light show that illuminated the falls each evening. In recent years, the utility company replanted the garden with native plants and restarted the light show. I started by strolling the gardens, but they looked neglected, and all the ponds had run dry. At least I still had the falls.

They did not disappoint.

The water careened off the cliff, dropped into a hidden pool, launched off more rocks, and plunged again. At least three drops enchanted the viewer.

Now for the main scenic attraction, the drive to the string of lakes (Gorge, Diablo, and Ross) that make up the heart of Ross Lake NRA. As the road climbs up the valley, a parking area allows you to get out and see a full-on view of Gorge Creek Falls. A steep plunge, but not much water.

Once you get up to elevation, the rest is only a matter of viewpoints - no adventure, just scenery.

Random thought: the lakes are colored by rock flour - but those colors must derive from the rocks getting ground (and from the angle of the light). The first photo below is of Diablo Lake that I took on my only other trip here.

This one I took in 1990 in New Zealand of Mt. Cook and the lake at its base.

Must be the Kiwi rocks!

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