Story and photographs
by John D’Onofrio
The surface of Diablo Lake is a turquoise mirror.
The air is still, without the faintest breath of wind. I dip my paddle into the water and the canoe moves silently away from the shore. Behind us, the boat launch at Colonial Creek recedes as we move down Thunder Arm and out into the main part of the lake. The sun breaks through the clouds. All systems go.
Between the four of us, we have a double kayak and my freighter of a canoe, the venerable Queen Edna. We plan to make our way up to the head of Diablo, shuttle the gargantuan canoe and double kayak to Ross Lake and paddle its length, north to Canada. All told, 28 miles. If all goes according to schedule, we’ll be picked up at Hozomeen at the north end of the lake in five days.
Ross Lake is a justifiably famous north country paddle. 23 miles long, the lake is only a mile and a half across at its widest point. Lined by precipitous blue-green mountains, it resembles a fresh-water fjord. A little bit of Norway in the North Cascades. No roads reach its shores except for at the extreme north end, where the 43-mile long Silver/Skagit Road, a bump-and-grind dirt track in Canada, ends at the Hozomeen Campground.
The Queen Edna moves easily up Diablo, its water a vibrant aquamarine, thanks to the glaciers swaddling the peaks all around us. Incredibly, meltwater from ten percent of the glaciers in the lower 48 states finds its way into Diablo Lake. It is the color of angels dreaming.
Past Hidden Cove, we enter the canyon at the head of Diablo, a reminder of its salad days as a free-flowing river. We paddle beneath rugged cliffs softened by small hanging gardens of red columbine. Golden beds of moss cover the rare horizontal places. Waterfalls stream down creases in the stone and we linger at one, paddling right up to the torrent, breathing it in, taking our time.
At the head of the canyon is a dock. This is the pick-up point for the Ross Lake Resort shuttle. We call the resort from the telephone mounted beside the dock and soon a flat bed truck arrives in a finely-sifted cloud of dust. We load the boats in the back (the Queen Edna dangles alarmingly off the back end) and climb in beside them for the short drive around the dam to the dock at the southern end of Ross Lake, across from the historic Ross Lake Resort.
The Resort consists of a string of floating cabins on the far side of the lake. Since the water level in the lake fluctuates wildly depending on the outflow of the dam – as much as 125 feet – the resort maintains its waterfront status by going with the flow, rising and falling with the changing surface level. The water level currently is about 20 feet below “full pool” according to the shuttle driver.
We reload the boats and paddle around a bend out into the open waters of the lake, where we encounter a stiff wind at our backs. We are prepared for this and open the trusty over-sized umbrellas that we’ve brought to use as sails. We fly up the lake, raising froth, my paddle acting as a rudder. Our first camp, Cougar Island, comes into view in early afternoon.
Due to the low level of the lake, the dock is hanging uselessly on the rocks, completely out of the water. We beach the boats on a sandy patch and haul our stuff to the top of a bluff with a splendid view of Colonial Peak rising among a retinue of snow-covered mountains. We sprawl in the sunshine and ponder our good fortune, free spirits in a benevolent world, alone on the island.
Wanderings from camp reveal strange Indian Pipe plants emerging from the forest duff and cliffs draped with penstemons. At twilight we build a fire and sit close, warm in the flickering light, enjoying that familiar sense of freedom that floods the senses at the beginning of a trip. A most pleasing combination of contentment and anticipation, shared with kindred souls, beneath the sky.
In the morning the wind is once again blowing up-lake, the way we are going. Good for us. We deploy umbrella power until the wind turns our umbrellas inside out, so we glide up the lake without them, moving at a good clip just the same, wind to our backs.
It’s to be a short paddling day today; we’ve planned to stop at Big Beaver Creek and hike up into the old-growth forest to have a look at the ancient trees. The vociferous wind makes landing an exciting proposition, but we manage to nose in through the waves amongst the rocks. There’s a dock, but once again it’s high and dry.
Camp is established on a promontory overlooking the lake and, daypacks loaded, we head up the trail beside the creek through a thousand shades of primordial green, past exotic ferns, wild ginger, columbine, dwarf dogwood, huge swamp lanterns. We cross creeks and get our feet wet. The brush is sopping and soon so are we, so when it begins to rain it doesn’t matter. Life is good in the Valley of the Big Beaver!
In the morning the wind is picking up and the lake is boisterous. We’ve got a long paddle today, starting with a crossing of the lake, so the boats are loaded with a sense of urgency. By the time we launch, the wind is really blowing. Our next camp, Cat Island is 8 1/2 miles up-lake, just off the eastern shore.
We rock and roll across the lake, the surface stippled with white caps. The umbrellas are unfurled, a sight that appears to amuse a passing family of loons. It takes one to know one. We duck into the mouth of Devil’s Creek, up into the green canyon between vertical walls draped with mosses and ferns. It’s a magical and enchanted-looking place, a haunt of elves. Our progress is halted at the base of a waterfall, spray in the air. Barely enough room to turn around.
Back in the lake, the chop is flying and the Queen Edna rides the waves, under umbrella power. Susan, in the bow of the canoe, has become an umbrella virtuoso, adjusting the angle with great precision to the ever-changing velocity of the wind. A few waves find their way over the gunwales but by and large, it’s an exhilarating ride across the white caps. On the leeward side of Cat Island, a fine gravel beach provides a perfect landing site out of the wind and soon the boats are safely pulled above the waterline.
Camp is established at the very top of the island in a green copse of trees. A nearby rocky bluff affords a view further up the lake, where a pair of spectacular waterfalls cascade down the mountainside; a preview of where we’re going. As evening draws near, the clouds hang low in the last light of day, like tattered curtains on the blue-green mountains.
In the morning, the sun is shining and the wind has dropped to a whisper. The surface of the lake is a mirror and we paddle beneath the sky on its vibrant reflection, headed across to the west side to get a closer look at the waterfalls. Drawing nearer, it becomes clear that in addition to the two epic falls, there are many other smaller cascades tumbling into the lake. We paddle along the shoreline from waterfall to waterfall, like bemused otters. At the base of the tumultuous cataract of Arctic Creek, we aim our boats right into the thunder and spray at the base of the falls, bathing in negative ions.
For the first time, the dark spire of Hozomeen Mountain is visible to the north, rising into the clouds. A foreboding sight. Hozomeen has a special place in my heart, owing to long-ago college days reading Kerouac during grey, New Jersey winters. To say that I found Kerouac’s love poems to Hozameen compelling would be an understatement. And this remote monarch on the Canadian border, momentous as it is, is hard to see from any easily accessible point in these northern mountains. This is my first close look. It does not disappoint.
We turn up Little Beaver Creek between fern-draped walls of green. The sunlight reflecing off the water casts a dancing light on the undercut sides of the canyon. A cool breeze blows down from the Pickets. At the dock, the boats are unloaded and camp is quickly set up atop a cliff, a prime vantage point for gazing back down the lake at Jack Mountain, it’s complicated summit swaddled in ice. A hike along the lake shore ends with much whooping and howling, as we take turns plunging into the freezing water. The sun is warm and a soft whisper of wind dries us off. The sky is a dazzling blue and Hozomeen, free of clouds now, rises like Dracula’s castle. Ooh la la.
It’s the first day of fishing season and Gary tries some casts. Immediately, he gets a bite and hauls in a prize rainbow trout, an absolute beauty. As darkness mutes the sky, he and Wendy build a fire and grill his catch over the crackling cedar. If I’ve ever tasted better fish, I don’t remember when. Frogs serenade us with their peculiar trance music. Tomorrow our journey will reach its end, and this knowledge somehow makes the evening breezes even sweeter.
In the morning we set out in sparkling sunshine. Only a few miles to the Hozomeen Campground, and our rendezvous with the support vehicle. As if to impart a final reality check, the wind again rises, compelling us to work hard to re-cross the lake to the campground, paddling into Canada in the process.
The campground boat launch comes into view in early afternoon and after landing, the boats are hauled up the beach, through throngs of sun-bathing Canadians, to the waiting VW Van. Gear stowed, we head up the bumpy road away from the lake, which is quickly lost in the trees. I turn back for a last glimpse of Hozomeen, but it too has disappeared from view.
Until next time.