This story featured in the 2012 July issue.
By Rob Lyon
"Desolation's way up there, Ray, six thousand feet or so looking into Canada … thousands of miles of mountains, deer, bear, conies, hawks, trout, chipmunks. It'll be great for you Ray." Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.
I had a call from an old friend who lives on Ross Lake in the North Cascade Mountains. Tom had worked summers at the floating resort there back in the '60s when the rest of us were dropping acid. He fell in love with the place as a teenager, and now 50 years later, he and his wife Carol own it outright.
"There's something going on up here you're going to want to check out," Tom said.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Trout. Somebody dumped a bait bucket overboard, at least that's the popular theory," he said. "Now's there's a million minnows in the lake. I'm standing on the dock right now and I can see, literally, thousands of the things! The biologists are pretty excited; they don't know what the impact on the fishery will be, but in the meantime the rainbows and Dollies are growing like mold in a bachelor's refrigerator!"
We laughed at that while I reached for the calendar. Tom and I are both avid fly-fishermen.
Two months later, nine of us caravanned from Lopez Island, in the sound west of Seattle, into North Cascades National Park where Ross Lake reaches south from the Canadian border. We were an eclectic team, consisting of a stained glass artist and farming radical, several photographers, a Deadhead contractor, a pair of university students, a city exec, a rock band soundman, an Ethiopian long-distance champion and myself. Between us, we had a 19-foot Lightning sailboat, two big, beautiful Mad River canoes and a support skiff. The sailboat would trailer into the lake via a long haul through Hope, British Columbia, carrying our canoes and much of the gear. The rest of us would shuttle up from the south and meet them at the border near the head of the lake.
The bifurcated itinerary had come about as I'd recruited interested parties for the trip. Bill Moody, who has run every Class IV rapid on the Deschutes and Main Salmon on a riverboard, was now determined to sail every major lake in the Northwest, starting with Ross. We welcomed his company, and the Lightning's gear-hauling prowess. As a group, we were three men in a tub cubed, no doubt about it, but for all our divergence we shared a common focus: one unique, awesome mountain lake. Our plan was to canoe or sail the 22-mile length of it, traveling south from Hozomeen, B.C., to the Ross Lake Dam in the States, and taking a leisurely four days to do it.
We made Highway 20 later that morning, the same east-west arterial that Jack Kerouac hitchhiked to take a job as fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the '50s. You don't see many people hitching in the valley these days, and when you do, you're wondering what meth lab they're heading to. But Kerouac found plenty of rides: "Now I was really in mountain country," he wrote. "The fellows who picked me up were loggers, uranium prospectors, farmers, they drove me through the final big town of Skagit Valley, Sedro Wooley, a farming market town, and then out as the road got narrower and more curved among cliffs and the Skagit River, which we'd crossed on 99 as a dreaming belly river with meadows on both sides, was now a pure torrent of melted snow."
We reached Marblemount with the glint of snow-capped peaks jagging the horizon, then the neat-as-a-pin town of Nehalem as the road twisted up and we left civilization behind. The gorge of the Skagit was still a rushing torrent. The altitude began to feed into us and it didn't take long before we felt it viscerally—that tang, the scent, that chill just held at bay. I checked my watch to make sure we were on schedule. Years before, some friends had missed the Diablo shuttle tug and had to hike down to the lake from the pull-off on the highway.
We made it with time to spare, but weren't the only people on the floating dock at Diablo when the old tug hove into view. It pulled up and we all pitched in brigade-style, making short work of loading the pile of gear aboard. It was a mix: city folk, apple farmers from the Methow Valley, seed farmers from Moses Lake, all, it appeared, heading for Tom's resort. The farmers are inevitably pop-gear fishermen with a bundle of rods and coolers and stacks of light beer, while the city people were mostly families and couples, sitting a little straighter on the molded, pink bench seats. Ten bucks a head for the 10-minute ride to the dam. The perky blonde deckhand who circulated among the passengers softened the bite with a lipstick smile.
Tom had offered to motor us up from the resort to the Canadian border. So we switched boats, throwing up a huge rooster tail as we zung past Big Beaver Valley, gashing the mountains to the west and taking in the icy peaks and rugged ridgelines while thinking: "Damn, I wonder what's over that ridge?" or, "Man, I'd like to check out that valley!" I felt like a black lab with his head out the truck window, ears flapping, nose twitching. Tom went on about the booming lake fishery and the scientists eager to study the phenomena: "I was out the other night, casting right from the boat, sink tip with a quick strip, fish-after-fish-after-fish. The bull trout are running around 5 to 8 pounds!"
"Damn," I said, trying to imagine.
Tom turned to me, grinning: "Yeah," he said, "it's crazy good."
I had the topo out as we flew north, trying to make sense of the skyline, jagged with peaks named Desolation and Despair, Fury, Terror, Damnation, and Nightmare—tells you what the early prospectors thought about the place. But along with that harshness comes a powerful sense of grandeur. The fact that this one river valley-turned-lake would vector us into the heart of this wilderness, this alpine fastness, was a pretty special thing.
Next morning, in the canoes at last and about two miles out of our first night's camp at Silver Creek, we passed within feet of a steep, rocky bank at an unnamed point, swinging in along the soft contour of Boundary Bay. Another two miles and we paddled below Desolation Peak, with Cat Island visible a mile distant. We were jonesing to fish. As soon as spotted some jumpers, we stopped to cast flies into the shallows directly opposite the trailhead to the peak and the tower where Kerouac wrote a portion of The Dharma Bums. I knew that peak, and that tower. Very well, in fact. As I cast, I recalled the night.
It was the mid-'90s, and a buddy and I had paddled in with our home-built cedar-strip canoe. We had hiked to the peak, prepared to sleep over. A storm brewed up suddenly and with the wind-chill, we were shaking in our down bags. Fortunately, we found a window covered with sheet plastic, peeled it off, crawled inside and dropped to the floor. The big wooden shutters were battened down tight for winter and ranger gear was stowed away in trunks and boxes. Hunkered in the middle of the room was a huge circular instrument, an Osborne Fire Finder, it was called. My buddy was an engineer and explained how it was used to find the azimuth to distant smoke columns, so that a watcher could direct crews to wildfires.
In a moment of spontaneity and feeling, the import of several different feelings all came together: sanctuary, Kerouac, the coolness of the tower itself. We stalked around the tower by headlamp, breath frosting in the icy air, holding steaming enamel cups in gloved hands and checking things out—gear and ranger journals—half-hoping to find one of Kerouac's. My buddy fell asleep and I ended up in meditative posture, sitting with my thoughts in the corner. For most of the night, I remained in half-lotus as the tower shuddered against the booming blasts of icy wind and me on a road trip of epic proportion through mind and soul, punctuated every now and then with a prayer that the tower didn't blow over. It was a wild, primal, stony kind of night, just the type Kerouac would have applauded. And in the morning, we spilled back out into bright daylight and the world of the senses again. I went around to each of the four corners where concrete blocks were pinioned into bedrock and cables as thick as my arm were firmly guyed out. It was quite—quite—the unforgettable night.
There were no towers on the agenda this trip. Instead, we caught the fish that ate New York. Brought back into the moment from my tower reverie, I found myself hooked to something unnaturally large and swimming directly under our boat. I reeled like hell to catch up and stuck my rod underwater up to my elbow while Steve spun the canoe around. I came up wet but still tied to the fish, and a moment later, it jumped—a black and silver torpedo with a swath of pink running down its side! A bit later we had it to net, a beautiful, mature rainbow trout, the likes of which we had never before on the lake. I've caught bigger fish, sure, but knowing the meager fishery here back in the day, then suddenly it goes red-hot and the fish triple in size … it blew us away. In the shadow of Desolation we hooked, just as Tom had said, "fish-after-fish-after fish" until finally we'd had enough for one day. We killed three to bank toward the next night's dinner and released the rest.
Cat Island is a tall island and I could see a trail like Jack's Beanstalk leading up a steeply switchbacked bluff through a forest of pine and fir. Steve and I tossed out our drybags and hauled the canoe up onto the dock. I pointed to the peak and said, "Whoa, dude … you think that's us up there?"
Steve laughed. "I hope to hell not," he said. At the ranger station no one had mentioned that the lone group campsite was on the summit of a small mountain. As luck would have it, it was our site all right. The redoubt reminded me of Restrepo, the 2010 documentary about a squad of Marines defending an outpost on an Afghan mountaintop.
We took turns wearing the chef's hat, and while the duty cooks were getting a chicken dinner underway, we tossed plastic around the hilltop. It was a fine, warm evening. We'd brought in piles of fresh veggies from our gardens and a dozen big chicken breasts to grill over the fire. Steven and I joked, hiking down to the water with the chicken pieces sliding off the pan, how he hadn't had his hands on that many breasts in he-couldn't-remember-how long. We laughed so hard we had to wash them twice, and our buddies hiked down from the mountain to see what was going on.
Around a fire that night, the conversation was eclectic: from recording studios in L.A. to public art projects, to Seahawks football, to photography, to small-scale island agriculture. Moore and I took the Reflection out for a spin at one point to loosen up. Moore was a few years out of college and working as a soundman for rock bands up and down the coast. From a family of Hollywood actors, he grew up outside of Aspen, Colo., with neighbors like Hunter S. Thompson. I really liked the kid. We shared a Zen understanding of the nature of reality—it's not often that I find a soul on the same page with this. Whitewater kayaking was Moore's background and we talked about running the Owyhee the next fall. On the calm and unseasonably warm night, when we shut up we could hear the low susurration of Arctic Falls spilling into the lake. A pair of loons yodeled nearby, and the stars were diamonds and rubies sparkling in the heavens. I had not been on a lake in high summer in a very long time and it was sublime—not a breath of wind. After a while, we paddled in a big circle, hearing only the SHUSH of the paddles and the vagrant night sounds.
We hauled everything back down to the lake for another fine summer morning, set up our boats, and headed out. A couple of the guys paddled along the steep west bank. The sailboat was in another universe. Steve and I stopped to cast minnow patterns in the stumpy shallows by Desolation again, adding a few more fish to the dinner count. Schools of shiners careened under the boat, flashing in the midday sun. A deep ravine at Lightning Gorge beckoned and we beached the canoe at the creek mouth, wading up in our shorts to fly-fish for trout. Lightning is archetypal mountain-creek terrain: lush and cool with moss, fallen timber, and dark, mysterious pools filled with a small, aggressive trout. When we began to chill, we waded back to the boats and pushed off into the sun. It was a 10-mile day ahead of us and we hoped to make our camp in the lee of Roland Point before the big southerly winds kicked in.
It was a joy to put wood to water and knife through the lake, hugging the bank and scoping the shore for signs of life, digging the alpine peaks mirrored to the west and the odd loon or merganser busy fishing. Used to paddling a big dog of an ocean kayak, this was a treat—two guys, dip-pull, dip-pull, dip-pull, in our grooves, feeling the muscles start to come around. Before we knew it, we'd made Rainbow Point. We counted our fish and decided we needed exactly two more for dinner that night. The wind picked up just then and we turned into it, nosing into a low chop and rejoicing in the lift and knife of the bow splashing foam. We worked in the shallows close to shore, finding exactly what we were after.
One of the sailboat crew was the high-school track star named Solomon. Adopted from an orphanage in rural Ethiopia along with his two sisters by a friend of ours. Their parents dead from AIDS, the kids grew up embraced by our small island milieu. Sol had never caught a fish before when I took him out on our last evening on the lake.
We had zero luck. I could hardly believe it, as we trolled back to the dock. Sol was trash-talking about being a jinx when suddenly it happened. Solomon's rod bent double. Hard. Snag, I figured, we'd had plenty that week. I quickly back-padded to stop and return for the fly. But glancing at the big arc to the rod, I could detect a deep throb.
"Dude," I shouted, "hand off the reel. Let him run."
Not our Solomon. He would do no such thing; he manned up to the fish and proceeded to yard it in. The kid had hauled firewood for me before and I knew he was a human backhoe. It was just a damned-good thing I'd stuck the thickest monofilament I could through the eye of his fly! At the boat, I managed a deft swipe of the net. I could hardly believe it. We hooted and hollered and there was a slapping of backs and knuckling of knuckles! It was without a doubt the toughest, shortest, most determined fight of a fish its size I had ever seen. Solomon-style. It turned out to be the biggest rainbow the creel biologist at the Hozomeen border had ever seen come out of the lake.
There is something special about this place, this lake and the mountains that hold it. When I first read about it in The Dharma Bums, my first impression was of passionate reverence for the mountainous wilds. I did not get a hit so much of the lake as the surroundings. And indeed, that is the reality for me still today. As much as the lake stands alone as a destination in its own right, it may have a higher value as a vector into the heart of the remote and roadless American Alps.