Summer Cruising on Diablo Lake: History, Poetry and Mountains Majesty

Unique in the National Park system, the partnership between Seattle City Light, North Cascades National Park, and the North Cascades Institute offers visitors a plethora of recreational delights. Among them, a tour on Diablo Lake aboard the Alice Ross IV provides a relaxing—and inspiring—way to while away a summer’s day.

There are two options for visitors: the three-hour lunch tour or the shorter afternoon excursion. Both offer up spectacular views, a slice of history and even some poetry by Gary Snyder. But the star of the show is Diablo Lake itself, an ethereal aquamarine, the color of glacial melt. Fifty-two glaciers feed the lake, more than any other lake in the lower 48. The surrounding mountains are steeped in drama and serendipity: home to the beat poets who memorialized these peaks in ecstatic cantos—Snyder, Kerouac, Whelan.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

It’s an excellent way to introduce your non-hiking friends to the spectacular scenery of the North Cascades in the heart of the Skagit River country, while learning about the colorful history of J.D. Ross, the “father” of the Skagit Hydro Project.

Ross, born in Ontario, was fascinated with electricity from boyhood. After graduating from college in 1891, he travelled to Alaska on the advice of his doctor who urged him to “get outdoors more.” One thing led to another (as it so often does) and he found himself in Seattle in 1900 and soon became embroiled in the effort to create a municipal electric utility.

 In 1910, Seattle City Light was formed and by 1924, the Gorge Dam had been built on the Skagit and electricity hummed through the power lines to Seattle, 100 miles away. The Diablo Dam came on line in 1936, forming Diablo Lake.

Ross died suddenly in 1939, 10 years before the final piece of his massive project was completed, the largest dam of them all, named Ross Dam in his honor, creating 23-mile long Ross Lake.

The Alice Ross IV is the latest in a succession of tour boats plying the lake, a tradition that goes back 80 years. With its glass ceiling, wall-to-wall windows and open aft deck, the vistas are unencumbered. The boat swings around Thunder Point for a view up Thunder Arm and slips up between the waterfall-laced walls of what was once called Box Canyon, a gorge that transports passengers to the base of mighty Ross Dam.

Photo courtesy Seattle City Light

Ross was more than an engineer; he was a public relations genius, recognizing that by making the Skagit Hydro Project a tourist destination, he could engender public support. One of his more bizarre ideas was to import exotic animals to inhabit a pair of islands in the lake that he dubbed Deer and Monkey Islands. He brought Asiatic Deer to populate one and Rhesus Monkeys the other, for the amusement of visitors. The local cougars (who knew they could swim?) put an end to that enterprise.

Today, despite the absence of monkeys, a summer afternoon spent on Diablo Lake remains an idyllic way to enjoy the beauty of the North Cascades.

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