A trip that should not have happened

In August I spent a week in Seattle. Working. This was during the most glorious days in Seattle — sunny with temperatures between 60 and 80 (Fahrenheit), all was nice.

Starbucks

Starbucks

But this was in fact too nice. On a whim I decided to take a day off and go to North Cascades National Park. The weekend before I already went to Mount Rainier National Park, so this one would nicely round up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest for me. So off I went!

But as I got closer to the Cascades, it got very smoky. I heard on the radio that there were many wildfires. I hesitated … I had gone that far and did not want to turn back, but clearly, I would not see much. At 10:30 I entered the park and there was fire on the slope right across the visitor center. I went into the visitor center and talked to the rangers. I asked them if there was road closure (there was none). I knew they would not give any guarantee. I studied the trail maps again and told them that I would just go see some waterfalls then turn back. They said it was a “good call”. So thus I left the visitor center with this plan. I stopped across from the road again and took some pictures of the fire (this would be the “Goodell Fire”.

Wildfire

Wildfire

I stopped at a few places. At Diablo Lake, it was very windy and the lake is covered in smoke. I could see a snow-capped peak just barely through the smoke. I could not see that water at all. At that point I almost decided to turn back. But then I chatted with a couple who came the other way and they told me that “over the divide” it was completely clear at Washington Pass, which was 40 minutes from where we were. So I decided to check it out.

Indeed, as I continued to drive the sky became more and more clear. At Washington Pass there was almost no trace of smoke, except a little haziness in the distant air. I walked to the overlook, the view was panoramic and truly breathtaking. Although there was no glacier-covered peaks here, the jagged mountains are imposing and spectacular. There were even a few groups  having picnic there. At that point all seemed very peaceful.

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

North Cascades

North Cascades (view from Washington Pass)

This was around noon, and my planned had changed. I knew there was still the danger of fire, but the clear sky and the other tourists gave me some sense of hope and assurance. I decided to have lunch and take a short hike before I left. At Rainy Lake I ate my lunch at a picnic table, then took the 1-mile hike (on paved trail) to the lake. This Varied Thrush was a nice encounter on this short trail; it would be a new bird for me.

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Before long I reached the lake. This is a small glacier cirque lake. The setting was picturesque and the lake was serene … that is, if you can ignore the little chipmunk, apparently unafraid of people.

Rainy Lake

Rainy Lake

Chipmunk

Chipmunk

Then a lady came by and we chatted. She said she’s from Olympia. She said the fire was getting big over there, and I said I better get going in case the road was closed. But she said “so far so good” and was not concerned. She went for a swim in the lake.

I hurried back to my car, this was just after 3PM. I had planned to return my car before 7PM in Seattle and there was almost enough time. Ominously, a helicopter flew overhead toward west, the way I would go. The scenery from this road toward the west is spectacular, with a sheer wall of mountain in the front. I stopped on the road shoulder to take some pictures, now I could see that there were more smokes in the sky. Then as I continued, a couple in a white truck waved “turn around” signal to me and I stopped to talk to them. The road was closed, they told me. They are very friendly. I asked for directions to get back to Seattle. At this point, I knew I was in for a long trip back.

North Cascades

North Cascades

So I took Highway 20 East, through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp. There were many police cars and EMS vehicles, but no traffic jam. It turned out both towns were being evacuated. In some parts I could smell the burning from inside my car, and sometimes the sun was eerily orange. On the radio they said that 3 firefighters died near Twisp, in all likelihood, they were in the EMS vehicles that I drove by.

Eventually, between detours and road blocks (just my luck that they were blasting on Interstate 90 on that day and closed the road for an hour), I spent 7 hours on the road. It was nearly 10 PM when I got back to Seattle. I later found out, North Cascades National Park was closed for nearly 2 weeks after my trip.

Was this worth it? I spent most of the day driving. The precious moments were at Washington Pass and the hike to Rainy Lake, though even that was rushed. Had I known this was what I would have gotten myself into, I probably would have chosen a different destination – the Puget Sound, or Mt. Rainier again, or maybe even Olympic, the amount of time wasted just does not justify it.

But after it already happened, I am glad I was there. Incidentally, this was national park #30 for me (the 30th national park I have visited in the United States), and I rounded up all the national parks in the Pacific Northwest.

So all this, for a trip that should not have happened.

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