I turn around to deliver the disappointing news. My wife stands a few short yards behind me as we pause to catch our breath. “Okay, I know for sure where we are, the bad news is we’ve got another section of steep talus slope before we reach camp.” Having already delivered this assessment of our route at least twice, she pauses before venting her frustration, rivaling the intensity of the surrounding weather which reduces our world to a 20-foot radius of cold and dense fog. Four days into our 18-day Cascade crossing, we’re now going on hour seven of a six-mile, nearly 4000 vertical foot walk up the ridge arm of Sahale Peak in the North Cascades National Park. At this moment, she is done.
Between words of exasperation, I attempt to explain that our misunderstanding lies somewhere between my memory of the terrain, my description of it, and her interpretation of both. Mileage is a poor increment with which to quantify this hike — our camp is only 2.2 miles from Cascade Pass. But in true North Cascades sandbag fashion, the mileage describes the difficulty of this hike about as well as I do. The remaining 2500 vertical feet to the camping pads at the foot of Sahale Glacier, burdened as we are with eight days of food, camera equipment and camping gear, takes much longer than anticipated and the views denied us by inclement weather provide neither inspiration nor respite. I quickly realize that my best approach is to just shut up and put one foot in front of the other.
Three months earlier when our idea for crossing the North Cascades ecosystem under our own human-power from Marblemount to Chelan was thrown around over topo maps and malted beverages, I found myself sitting with my colleagues in the Mt. Baker Theater in Bellingham, listening to author and activist Terry Tempest Williams. Working as environmental educators for the North Cascades Institute, we teach children and their families about the natural world and try to inspire them on an emotional level. We are all too aware of the complicated challenges threatening to upset the balance, climate change among them. Williams artfully succeeded in articulating this to the audience (mostly environmental choir members, I suspect) and yet the mood was uplifting and positive as she brought the magic of our public lands to life in her deeply personal way.
A young woman stepped to the microphone and addressed the author with the enthusiasm that only a young idealist can. The entire room hung on her words as she expressed her intention to save the world through her studies and nascent activism. Her passion and earnestness were palpable. I sat in quiet reverence, shook my head at my erstwhile optimism and thought, “Good luck, kid.”
I cannot remember the sudden departure of my idealism, rather just a slow slipping away. Somewhere around the age of 35, the rose-colored patina it lent to my worldview dimmed. The truth, as it stares back at me now, cannot be ignored. The remaining glaciers of the Cascades are melting and there is little we can do to reverse it. Once gone, their life-giving waters will no longer flow throughout the increasingly-hot summers and the landscapes will be slowly and irrevocably changed. It’s going to get hotter, drier, and some species who call this area home will simply disappear.
Glacier National Park has set a date of 2030 by which they expect to bid farewell to their namesake ice. Whether shortly behind Glacier or a few decades after, it will happen here as well in the blink of a geological eye; and for many reasons and many species this spells disaster. My attitude, I realized as I left the Mt. Baker Theatre, is also in a state of sharp decline. But I can no sooner join the choir of naysayers then I can jump on board with our young idealist. I crave the renewal which Williams describes in her talk and latest book, The Hour of Land.
Now, the necessity of our Cascade adventure—bicycling from the shores of Diablo Lake to the road’s end at Cascade pass, backpacking into the isolated community of Stehekin with side trips up Sahale and Rainbow Pass, and paddling our sea kayaks down Lake Chelan, fully grabs me and simply won’t let go. I need some time away from responsibilities in the national park in order to simply be there.
Becoming a naturalist has forever changed the way I view the wilderness. Where once I saw only topography, weather, and group management decisions, I now see layers of plants, animals, and processes in increasing levels of interdependence. As I come to know this complex place one life-zone at a time through its geography, flora, and fauna, so too I come to learn about myself.
At Sahale Glacier camp, elevation 7600 feet, the mountain weather continues its assault as we set up camp. Greeted with rain upon our arrival, it soon turns into face-pelting sleet. Is this what I had in mind all those months ago? Scrapping our carefully packed menu, we scarf hasty rations of ramen noodles, hot cocoa, and gummi bears. We put on every layer of clothing we have, cram the remaining seven days of food into our two bear canisters, and crawl into our mostly dry sleeping bag. Channeling my inner optimist, my thoughts turn to the morning’s forecast which promises sunshine.
We arise to just that, a world clearing below us—a world of ice, rock, alpine meadow, water, valley, jagged peaks, cloud, and sun. Sahale Peak provides a backdrop to the pinnacles dividing the region into west and east, Mix-Up Peak and Magic Mountain among them. The heavy blanket of moisture to the west below us flows like the park’s namesake over the pass and into the valley beyond, evaporating before reaching the floor. We pause to witness this vanishing waterfall of cloud tumbling in slow motion, the orographic effect giving life to both the biodiversity and dampness of the region.
Having arrived as we did in the gloom of the night before, this world made new, now remakes us as we linger and dry out well into the afternoon before descending to our next camp. The memory of yesterday’s climb gives us a good laugh as we walk down into the clouds, smiling.
Our itinerary across the North Cascades gives us 18 days to cover nearly 150 miles, dedicating roughly a third each to cycling, backpacking, and paddling through a network of federal lands protecting 684,000 acres. Being in the wild should not be a race, my partner reminded me as we refined our plan. My ego knows we can cover more ground each day, but more than once, I find myself grateful for her foresight as we set up the tent and have dinner well before sunset.
This adventure isn’t something new— people have crossed Cascade Pass for over 8000 years as the charcoal evidence uncovered in ancient campfires suggests. The path to Stehekin (Salishan for “the way through”) is mostly downhill, a mere 32 miles; and now, it is possible to shorten it by hopping on the tourist shuttle bus at High Bridge. Yet, our way through, and in particular the sea kayak leg, elicits a positive and surprised reaction from people we meet along the way. Perhaps we’re on to something?
As we lose elevation from our highest camp, we transition from the cool, wet west side to the hot, dusty east. Turning north from Bridge Creek camp on the Pacific Crest Trail, we run out of water during the hottest part of the day. But, the North Cascades surprises us once again, for within the hour, we renew body and soul in the ice-cold oasis of Maple Creek.
Turning southeast, we hike up and over Rainbow Pass. The climb offers few companions other than pesky, salt-hungry flies, but the overgrown trail is loaded with wild blueberries that fuel us upward. One lingering break in the sub-alpine meadow and ice-cold stream and we tackle the last 1000 feet of trail through talus to the saddle ridge. After reaching it, we realize it is all downhill from here. This high-five moment—as well as the view of the half-moon hanging in the pink sky above fading layers of mountain ridges—conjures up one simple emotion… gratitude.
As we descend into the Stehekin valley, we see the fireweed and pinegrass reclaiming the landscape after the 2010 fire. The Ponderosa Pines and Douglas Firs still stripped to their trunks, provide no respite from the sun on this southwest-facing slope, but the forest is still very much alive. As we round the final ridge, our goal comes into view, the 50-mile glacially carved Lake Chelan.
We spend a day transitioning to our sea kayaks in Stehekin—showering, washing clothes, and gathering vegetables and cheese from a local farmer. The roomy hatches of our boats allow for luxury items such as eggs, goat cheese, and wine. Without a thought to weight, we shove it all into the boats and my shoulders immediately thank me. Our challenges turn from steepness of terrain to wind speed and wave height.
Paying tribute to those who took a similar path, we shove off from the Stehekin landing and paddle past the pictographs along the western shore of the lake. These drawings appear to have been left here last month rather than thousands of years ago, and the mid-century contributions by the class of ’46 reminds me how far we have come in our respect for anthropology.
We settle into a new pace as we move down the lake, rising early to avoid windy conditions and easily reaching our camp by mid-day. We begin to measure our days by the schedule of the Lady of the Lake passenger ferries that connect Stehekin to the greater world of roads and commerce. Tourists, residents, packages and groceries alike ride on the company’s boats across the lake as they have for a century.
Strangely, conversations with power boaters along the lake seem to lack the esprit de corps of those we met along the backpacking trails. There, we were fellow hikers bound for different destinations, but sharing the same rough trail conditions, rain or unrelenting heat. Perhaps those factors remove barriers to meaningful connections in a way that the convenience of a power boat cannot facilitate? We remain an oddity on the lake.
As the smoke from the nearby Glacier Peak wildfire makes its way into the valley, we discover another Cascadian surprise. The smoke adds an intensity to the setting sun that fills the valley with a haunting red glow. We paddle out to investigate and spend the next hour in awe.
On our final day, we find ourselves returning to civilization amid lake-front homes and buzzing jet skis. It has been a slow reintroduction as we move south, but now we enter the Chelan vacation wonderland. We feel like strangers in a strange land, but we are also excited about an ice cold drink and a made-to-order sandwich. It is always bittersweet moving from the natural environment which sustains me on an emotional level to the constructed environment which sustains me physically.
The pace we discovered along our journey offered us an altered perception of time, making 18 days feel more like three months. Time away from e-mail, news feeds, politics, and the minutia of daily life fills me with something I haven’t felt in a while, hope. It may be a cliché, but the effect on me is remarkable.
Williams writes, “Our national parks are breathing spaces in a society increasingly holding its breath.” I may not be able to reverse the effects of climate change, nor save the places I love from becoming something entirely different within my lifetime. But perhaps, these places can save me from my own despair about the future and remind me that I still live in a beautiful world; and that is something worth fighting for.
Freedom in a Can
What started out as an expedition in 2012 has turned into a lifestyle. Shari Galiardi and David “Hutch” Hutchison of Boone, NC, said goodbye to their professional careers in higher education and their 3-bedroom, 2.5 bath house and hit the road in a restored 1957 canned-ham style travel trailer. Going from 1650 to 72 square feet was a challenging downsize in which the couple found “Freedom in a Can.”
As outdoor enthusiasts and advocates for sustainability, the couple spent the past four years traveling 65,000 miles across our country and Canada, visiting 49 states, over 60 national parks & monuments, and many other public lands. Along the way they visited old friends, made many new ones, found meaning through seasonal work and volunteer service, and fell in love with America all over again. Their blog and website include stories, advice, and images of the places they’ve visited.
“It just seems like a natural next step for us and what we should be doing at this time of our lives,” they reply when people ask them if they are “living the dream?” They’ve been called brave, adventurous and just plain crazy, but they are dedicated to “living large by living small.” Their lifestyle offers them a means to be outside and close to the natural wonders that they want to experience, while never having to leave home.
Shari and Hutch spent the past two seasons working as environmental educators in Acadia National Park and North Cascades National Park and are presently serving in Kenya, Africa. Prior to this, they spent a combined eight months volunteering on organic farms from Maine to Hawaii. “Our ideal lifestyle is a balance of paid work, volunteering, and travel—committing around four months per year to each.” In addition to seasonal work, they have discovered new passions in photography and writing. Shari captures their experiences from behind the lens while Hutch finds his voice in crafting the right phrase. The couple is currently working on a book about their experiences.
As educators and speakers, the couple has taken their story on the road and online. They’ve presented on college campuses, at the Grand Rapids, Michigan RV, Travel, and Camper Show, were interviewed on both radio and TV, and were featured presenters on an international online RV Travel Summit. They are passionate about travel and tiny home living.
David Hutchison and Shari Galiardi are a traveling freelance writer/photographer couple who set up their base camp in the North Cascades last year. Both are outdoor and environmental educators who have explored, volunteered, and worked across the country for the past four years. The Pacific Northwest has a special place in their hearts.