East of the Cascades
by Joe Meche
If you’ve followed this column for a while, you know that Cindy and I always take a fall trip to the other side of the mountains, and this year was no exception. After spending time tying up a summer’s worth of loose ends, we headed south and then due east to Pearrygin Lake State Park. The thrill of being on a familiar road for a favorite drive was most evident when we took the Cook Road exit off Interstate 5. This exit has become a magic milestone for us, and this is where the pace changes noticeably.
After the brief encounter with Sedro-Woolley, we connected with the Skagit River at its confluence with the Baker River at Concrete. This is another meaningful milestone that convinced us that we really were on a road trip. We honored tradition by stopping at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport. Just past the towering evergreens of Rockport State Park, this is one of the small communities that are close to the river and have a distinctive river feeling. We continued through Marblemount and enjoyed an idyllic drive along the Skagit to Newhalem for our next stop.
The remnants of the recent wildfires around Newhalem and Diablo offer a healthy dose of perspective when you see how close the fires came to these mountain communities. The residents were literally trapped with only one way out and it must have been terrifying to see the flames so close. From the main thoroughfare in Newhalem, blackened trees and rocks on the steep mountainsides tell the tale. It’s difficult to comprehend how stressful this event must have been.
After these two Seattle City Light communities, the climb to the pass was long and steady with numerous opportunities to stop along the way. Even though we’ve traveled this road quite often in 25 years, it’s still a wonderful drive. The Diablo Lake overlook with its views of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks is always awe-inspiring. For this trip, we actually had an earlier start than usual, allowing us more time to enjoy the drive. A campground reservation relieved us of any need to hurry.
In just over four hours from home we pulled into our place of residence for the next five days, but getting there was only half the fun. There’s something magic, it seems, about State Highway 20 and the lure of spectacular alpine scenery leading up to Washington Pass. It would be unfair not to mention the appeal of any new adventures that might await us each time we make the journey.
Most notable upon our arrival was the fact that the campground was full. This wasn’t surprising since I knew that it would be when I made our reservation. However, this proved to be a non-issue since the demographic favored retired couples in big RVs and a NO CAMPFIRES posting for the entire park. With low nighttime temperatures and no campfire to sit around after nightfall, it was early to bed for most of the campers. It was mid-September camping at its finest.
I should backtrack ever so slightly to confess that we were not always excited to join the masses at campgrounds like Pearrygin Lake. We found that we preferred something a little less civilized, if you will. Of course, those were our tent-camping days when the ground didn’t seem to be as hard as it is now. I can’t blame this on climate change, however. We simply evolved into a preference for a good night’s sleep of the warm and dry variety. This is what led us to our current pop-up tent camper, which suits us just fine. While we don’t need an electrical hookup, why pass up the opportunity?
Added to the creature comforts provided by our camper is the ability to take along our favorite toys – bikes and kayaks. Wherever we end up on a trip becomes our base camp for any number of activities. The beauty of a stay at Pearrygin Lake is the relative proximity to Winthrop for a good bike ride, and the immediate proximity to the lake for kayaking. A variety of hiking trailheads are available directly from the campground. In particular, the Rex Derr Trail is a middle-distance loop that begins on either end of the campground and takes you high above the lake for great views of the surrounding countryside of the Methow Wildlife Area.
If you’re fortunate enough to reserve a site on the lake, kayaks or canoes are the ideal craft to take along. We took our kayaks, which enabled us to go farther into areas that are unexplored by most boaters. Morning kayaking on a perfectly calm lake is a great way to start the day. As wildlife awakens, you’re in a perfect position for viewing. Cindy enjoyed a family of river otters on one such outing.
Bikes offer an alternative to using your vehicle to run into town. We followed our standard route into Winthrop by pedaling along the lake and through the west campground before getting on the road. From that point, it’s mostly downhill into Winthrop. That means, of course, that there’s a bit of uphill on the return. We pedaled into Winthrop to spend time at our favorite coffee shop/bakery, the Rocking Horse, where we sat out a passing afternoon rain shower. The pedal back to the campground was a relative breeze and good exercise creates a good appetite!
My habit of early morning walks continued, even though the temperatures were in the upper thirties. Cindy caught up on sleep while I searched for the great horned owls we heard during the night. In the past, I’ve found as many as three individuals perched for the day in the lakeside willows. I failed to find them on this trip, but I did locate a large foraging flock of California quail just after sunrise. This was also the time of day when a lone osprey started its morning rounds above the lake. Even though fall birding in the Methow can’t compare with spring, there were a few treats on the lake like western grebes and hooded mergansers.
From our first day, it seemed that the park was going to be ruled by American robins and Brewer’s blackbirds. I’ve rarely seen such large concentrations of these two species in the same place. There were occasional territorial disputes, which the robins handled with ease. Along with these early birds, black-tailed deer were foraging in the campground throughout the night. I had the close-up company of deer every morning while I brewed my first cup of coffee. I’ve always felt that animals understand the safety of non-hunting areas like state parks.
Throughout our stay, the weather could not have been more ideal. Afternoon breezes off the lake kept the daytime temperatures well inside the tolerable range for the east side of the mountains. Nighttime temps ranged to a low of 37 degrees, but we were warm and cozy. It was cozy enough at night, in fact, to continue another tradition – scrabble by lantern light. I’ve always said that I sleep very well when I can hear owls and coyotes outside in the darkness. These magical sounds were a nightly occurrence.
On the way home from our latest getaway, we talked about the possibility of a quick return, maybe for my birthday in early November before winter sets in. We’ll never get tired of going to the same place and doing the same things that we’ve done before. The comfort that comes from familiarity is hard to beat, and this latest trip might have been one of the best yet. Before too long, deep snow will close Washington Pass for another year, but we’re already thinking ahead to May when the pass reopens.
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 150 articles for Whatcom Watch.