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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Exploring the North Cascades' Horseshoe Basin - by Andy Porter

Horseshoe Basin (Andy Porter)
I have been up to Sahale Camp countless times and hiked up and over Park Creek Pass and along the Stehekin River road many times as well, but somehow never made it to Horseshoe Basin, which lies in between.

This summer I charted a route over Cascade Pass, down through Cottonwood Camp, up Park Creek Pass, and then (with a detour up to Sahale Camp) back the same way.Well, things never seem to go exactly as planned, but the trip was awesome!

On day one we schlepped up to Cascade Pass and down to Basin Creek Camp. One nice surprise was the creek and waterfall that bisect the trail on the east side of Cascade Pass, providing a much needed break and swim.

We made it to the trail junction with the spur to Horseshoe Basin, dropped our packs and headed up for a look-see.

The basin was aglow in the afternoon light, orange granite spires surrounding the lip-like fangs, too-numerous-to-count waterfalls glistening, their sparkling waters plunging down into the valley. There were wildflowers popping out everywhere, yellows and purples, reds and blues, all accenting the deep green of the basin floor.

The trail follows the stream up into the valley; it follows a course along the stream, across the stream and in the stream, brushy and wet. Shortly, the trail emerges into a clearing where boulders dot the basin floor. Climbing up on the largest, the view is transfixing. The green bowl is surrounded with grandeur, full of color and drama.

We hurried on, racing the sun, heading up the valley, climbing across boulders and scree, on to a snow field, up to the gaping hole of the Black Warrior Mine.

View from the Black Warrior Mine
 (Andy Porter)
The North Cascades are full of old mining claims, piles of colorful tailings, and rusted remains of sluices and Pelton wheels littered about. But I had never visited a mine that I could enter and explore. The Black Warrior Mine operated until the mid-1950s and is a National Historic place. There is a sign at the entrance giving a brief history of the mine, the names of the prospectors, and misled investors who poured their mostly futile efforts into this hole. There are two main cavernous rooms blasted into the mountainside, which make the opening of the mine. Wooden supports and floor boards are flooded with water. Old tables and remains of habitation litter the floor. The shaft of the mine runs deep, several miles of tunnel remain; open for any brave person to explore. 

The wonder of the place is still with me. Maybe it’s the history, all of the people who worked so long and hard here, digging and scraping for naught. Here, as in many of the North Cascade valleys, it was miners who blazed the trails that we now use to visit the high country. The road from Stehekin, long ago, came all the way to the mine entrance. Over time, nature has reclaimed the road, now vehicles can only go as far as High Bridge, 17 miles downstream.

The falling sun chased us out of the valley, and we camped at Basin Creek camp that night, then the next day, headed down the valley, east, toward Cotton Wood Camp.
The allure of fresh pastry made us alter course, and instead of heading up Park Creek Pass, we opted for a trip to Stehekin. Our timing was perfect; we made it to High Bridge (On the Stehekin River Road) at 9am and caught the North Cascades National Park tourist bus down the valley. We conversed with a through-hiker, almost at the end of his trip from Mexico. Along the way we passed a black bear and her two cubs foraging for berries. I was disappointed to miss the chance to visit and capture a few images, but my chance would soon come!

The Stehekin Pastry Company is rightfully famous. Delicious, fresh treats, ice cream, espresso, friendly staff and a comfortable place to relax...

Basin Creek (Andy Porter)
The hike along the Stehekin River Road is in itself fantastic. The river cuts a deep cleft through the cliffs at High Bridge and the confluence with Bridge Creek creates a wondrous series of cataracts and islands.

Heading back up through Cottonwood and the upper valley on a bright summer’s day, with a welcome breeze, we crossed Basin Creek again and started up towards the pass.

It was early in the morning when we came back to the trail junction with the Horseshoe Basin trail. I wanted to have another view, this time with different light. So we stopped and were having a snack before heading up the valley when we had a visitor.

The main trail coming down from Cascade Pass makes a long traverse of the mountainside, descending towards the valley floor. At the elbow of a switchback, the spur trail heads up the Basin Creek draw to Horseshoe Basin. We were sitting at the junction, relaxing, when I saw a black bear heading down the trail towards us. My camera was nearby and I ran for it, got the settings adjusted and started shooting. As the bear approached she spied us and slowed her pace. My pulse was pumping with excitement as she got closer and the images clearer. I was viewing the entire scene from my view finder and suddenly had the realization that the bear was getting pretty close!

I lowered the camera and considered what to do. The bear was now at the trail junction, about 15 feet from me. She paused, considering her options. My friend and I both realized that she wanted to pass up the spur, trail to the basin, right past us!

New friends on the trail
(Andy Porter)
We sort of backed up, along the hillside, and spoke soft words to the bear. She gave us a look of resignation, then headed further down the main trail, cutting across the hillside, just below our spot, traversing below us for about 50 feet, then popped back up through the brush and back onto the spur trail. She gave us a last look, and continued her way on the trail up to, we assumed, good foraging grounds in Horseshoe Basin.

Exulting in our good fortune, excited and energized, we finished our snack and followed her up the valley to the basin.

Tracing our earlier steps from a few days ago, we hiked up into the valley, but this time, not all the way to the mine entrance. I worked on my mostly futile efforts to capture the grandeur of the flowers, spires and waterfalls, and then we headed back down to our packs and stated the long climb up to Cascade Pass and Sahale Glacier Camp.

Andy Porter is a renowned photographer based out of Sedro-Woolley, WA. Visit his web site for more of his fantastic prints, at 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Washington State Welcomes New Wilderness!

September 3rd marked the 48th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which has been used to protect nearly 110 million acres of land to date. President Obama declared September to be National Wilderness Month for the 4th year in row.

It is fitting, then, that Washington State welcomed its latest designated Wilderness on September 14, 2012 – an addition within the Ross Lake National Recreation Area to the Stephen M. Mather Wilderness.

If you are thinking that you don’t recall a bill in this Congress to designate Wilderness in the Ross Lake NRA adjacent to North Cascades National Park, you are probably not alone. While there are two bills in the current Congress that would designate wilderness in Washington State – The Alpine Lakes Wilderness Additions and Pratt and Middle Fork Snoqualmie Rivers Protection Act (HR 608/S 322) and the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (HR 5995/S 3329) – neither deals with the Wilderness designation that occurred this month, in an area known as Thunder Creek.

Diligent research would lead you to a reference on Thunder Creek in the Washington Parks Wilderness Act of 1988, the law that designated the majority of Wilderness on National Park Service-managed lands in Washington State. That legislation designated 1,728,138 acres of Wilderness within North Cascades, Mt. Rainier, and Olympic National Parks, as well as Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas.

That law, however, also identified a handful of areas as “Potential Wilderness,” including the 3,559-acre Thunder Creek unit.

So what is “Potential Wilderness”?, the federal government’s online resource for all things related to Wilderness (run by the Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center) defines Potential Wilderness as:

“…lands that are surrounded by or adjacent to lands proposed for wilderness designation but that do not themselves qualify for immediate designation due to temporary non-conforming or incompatible conditions. The wilderness recommendation forwarded to the Congress by the President may identify these lands as "potential" wilderness for future designation as wilderness when the non-conforming use has been removed or eliminated. If so authorized by Congress, these potential wilderness areas will become designated wilderness upon the Department of Interior Secretary's determination, published in the Federal Register, that they have finally met the qualifications for designation by the cessation or termination of the nonconforming use.”

Potential Wilderness is a common, but less understood, provision in Wilderness bills nationwide. In our own state, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Act of 1976 included potential wilderness provisions, as did the Washington Parks Wilderness Act of 1988.

The reason that Thunder Creek was not designated as Wilderness outright in 1988 was due to a potential non-conforming use. In this case, the City of Seattle was exploring the potential for hydropower development on Thunder Creek. The City has abandoned these plans, and with no other uses planned for the area, the Secretary was able to designate this area as Wilderness, as directed by the 1988 Washington Parks Wilderness Act. 

Once the non-conforming use had been removed, all that was legally necessary to designate Thunder Creek as Wilderness was publishing the determination in the Federal Register. The National Park Service, however, made an extra effort to solicit public input on the determination through their Ross Lake National Recreation Area General Management Plan. Comments on the determination were overwhelmingly supportive.

Washington Wild, along with 12 other conservation groups, sent a letter to Secretary Salazar, urging him to make the designation final.

Washington Wild has worked in recent years to develop several wilderness proposals, including the Wild Sky Wilderness, which passed Congress and became law in 2008.

An example of a Potential Wilderness designation in current legislation can be found in the proposal to expand Wilderness areas in the Olympic National Forest. The Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, sponsored by Senator Murray and Congressman Dicks, proposes to designate 126,000 acres of forest land as Wilderness, including 5,346 acres of Potential Wilderness. In this case, the non-conforming use for these Potential Wilderness acres are deteriorating, old logging roads on Forest Service land  that have been slated for decommissioning due to their high aquatic risk and high maintenance costs, but are awaiting funding to implement the work.  In the event that the FS decides to decommission one of these legacy roads after the Wild Olympics legislation has passed, that area can then be designated as Wilderness without an additional act of Congress.

Potential Wilderness designations allow proponents the opportunity for flexibility when proposing protections for critical areas.  It also assures relevant stakeholders that all non-conforming uses are being considered, and that those uses have to removed or eliminated in order for the Potential Wilderness designation to move forward.

In the case of the creation of the Stephen M. Mather Wilderness, which encompasses parts of the North Cascades National Park and the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, proponents were able to secure this designation by setting aside some lands as Potential Wilderness. Now, we are able to celebrate the addition of the Thunder Creek Unit to this beautiful area and we can be certain it will be enjoyed by current and future generations.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Get Involved with Washington Wild!

Say What?!  My backpacking trip (or day hike or horseback ride or snowshoe trip…) can be effortlessly combined with volunteering?!

Did you know that Washington Wild offers a delicious menu full of varied and engaging volunteer options?   Did you know that three of these volunteer options require that volunteers go hiking (or snowshoeing or horseback riding or ski mountaineering) to Washington’s most spectacular wildlands?  Over the course of the summer Washington Wild hosted four volunteer trainings to teach folks how to successfully accomplish these three adventurous volunteer tasks, and people came out of the woodwork!

The trainings started in June near Mailbox Peak outside of North Bend and concluded in August at Discovery Park in Seattle.   Volunteers learned about Ground-Truthing, PhotoDocumenting, Wildlands Narratives and basic backcountry safety and navigation.  Overall, 46 people expressed interest in the four summer volunteer trainings.  These people came from Bainbridge Island, Bellevue, Bothell, Gig Harbor, Kingston, Olympia, Seattle, and Tacoma!  This leads us to believe that we should be hosting volunteer trainings farther afield from Seattle.

What are the volunteer tasks?

A volunteer ground-truthing on the Olympic Peninsula,
October 2011. Do you think the place she is standing on
should be called a "road" on official maps?
Ground-Truthing asks that volunteers visit Washington Wild campaign areas to do hands-on documentation of forest road conditions.  Volunteers provide fact-finding support by collecting information regarding management, maintenance, and use of these roads (or former roads). Examples of what volunteers may be asked to investigate include: off road vehicle damage, maintenance of to-be and already decommissioned roads, bridge site materials, inventories of culverts on roads, ground testimonials of proposed mining site, etc.  In all of our wildlands campaigns it is essential that we have the ability to confidently demonstrate and justify the inclusion of lands within our wilderness proposals. Currently all of our Ground-Truthing needs are on the Olympic Peninsula in support of the Wild Olympics Campaign. 

Kayakers on the Dosewallips River, by Tom O'Keefe
PhotoDocumenting by volunteers will grow our photo inventory of wildlands in Washington and provide photographs of undocumented places that Washington Wild can use in outreach materials. Currently, we do not have photos for many threatened, unprotected places.  We recognize the power of a photo to inspire action, motivate stakeholders and tell a compelling story about these special places.  PhotoDocumenting would enhance Washington Wild's ability to protect these areas, convey their importance and gain invaluable support.   We hope this opportunity will also foster a meaningful connection between volunteers and the wild areas they photograph.

Along the Snow Creek Trail,
by volunteer Aaron Theisen
Wildlands Narratives requires volunteers to hike in proposed wilderness areas and inventoried roadless areas in support of Washington Wild's place-based wilderness campaigns. Post hike, the volunteers will be asked to write a narrative about his/her hiking experiences, with specific instruction to reference Wild and Scenic River designations and wilderness or roadless areas. These "Wildland Reports" will be published on the Washington Wild website; they are intended to inspire others to take that same hike and to learn about why specific wildlands need protection.   By having diverse voices describe one specific place, we can help people to see the significance, the uniqueness, and the relevance that wild places play in their lives.  You can see an awesome example of a volunteer Wildland Narrative on our blog:

Looking to the future
As these were the first volunteer trainings hosted by Washington Wild, we are still very much in our learning and adjusting phase.  Volunteers provided invaluable feedback after each training, which we have incorporated into future training plans.  As the “Basic for Field Work” training, which focused on map reading, navigation, and safety, was a popular one we would like to offer more of it.  Rain was a huge negative during the first training, so we would like to include less of that in the future.  Hunting for snacks using a map and compass also proved popular, so there will definitely be more of that in trainings to come.

If you are interested in participating in a volunteer training, if you would like to jump into volunteering without training (totally possible for PhotoDocumenting and Wildlands Narratives), or if you have any suggestions or comments about these trainings – please contact Christine Scheele (

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

48 Years of Gratitude for the 1964 Wilderness Act

Boulder River Wilderness
Yesterday marked the 48th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, which has been used to protect nearly 110 million acres of land to date.

Forty-eight years ago, the environmental movement was in its infancy. Rachael Carson had only recently published Silent Spring and the nation was becoming more aware of the precarious state of the natural environment. After decades of unchecked dumping of municipal and industrial waste many water bodies were ecologically dead, some were even prone to catching fire. The nation’s public lands were in no better shape and were under constant attack from the mining and timber industries.

It was in the late 60’s that many people began waking up to this unchecked degradation of the natural environment. The 1964 Wilderness Act was one of the first pieces of legislation that passed during this new era of environmental awareness and activism.

In 1955, Howard Zahniser, then Executive Director of The Wilderness Society, composed the first draft of what later became the Wilderness Act. The next year bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate with the purpose of creating a national wilderness preservation system to prevent the destruction of pristine public lands and to keep them wild in perpetuity. Eight years later, after 18 hearings and 66 versions of the bill, President Lyndon Johnson signed The Wilderness Act into law on September 3, 1964.

It was a bold piece of legislation that would help pave the way for a new conservation movement that focused on ensuring America’s public lands were being managed with conservation in mind by creating a nation-wide Wilderness Preservation system. The Wilderness Act also helped pave the way for other important policies that set management guidelines for our public lands. Today, the Wilderness Act is still used to protect public lands from development and help keep conservation at the forefront of public lands management.

Originally, the law established 9.1 million acres of national forest Wilderness Areas that were previously protected under administrative orders. In Washington, Glacier Peak (458,105 acres) and Mt. Adams (42,411 acres) were designated as Wilderness under the passage of the 1964 Act. It wasn’t until 1976, that the Wilderness Preservation system in Washington was expanded again.

Washington Wild (formerly Washington Wilderness Coalition) was founded in 1979 in part to organize across Washington State from Spokane to Vancouver and from Yakima to Bellingham around an anticipated opportunity to expand the Wilderness Preservation System in Washington State.  In 1984, after years of hard work and perseverance, WW was able to use the Wilderness Act to greatly expand the designated Wilderness in Washington by adding 19 areas to the system and adding over a million acres of new wilderness statewide. 

Today, Washington State is ranked 5th in the nation for the amount of acreage of federally designated Wilderness. Washington currently boosts 31 Wilderness units, totaling 4.4 million acres, and we are still striving to protect wild lands throughout Washington State through advocacy, education, and civic engagement.  

Washington Wild is working hard to continue the legacy of the 1964 Wilderness Act by adding additional areas to the Wilderness Preservation System. In the Olympic National Forest, WW and our coalition partners are advocating for the passage of legislation that would add 126,000 acres of Wilderness to the ONF. This legislation is sponsored by Congressman Norm Dicks and Senator Patty Murray. WW has been working for 3 years to build local support for additional Wilderness designation in the ONF.

Additionally, WW has been leading charge to get legislation passed that would expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness area adding low-elevation, old-growth forests to this Wilderness area. It would be a great anniversary gift to the legacy of the Wilderness Act to get some more areas added to the system. WW hopes to deliver this gift to the current and future generations of Washington.