Osprey photo: Joe Meche
by Joe Meche
As winter has finally loosened its grip we are currently making preparations for another departure to signal the beginning of our own camping season. After last month’s look back over the past sixteen years of Beaks and Bills, I’ve been thinking about this annual rite of spring. Cindy and I have made a mid-May trek over Washington Pass for the past 26 years and it always coincides with the reopening of State Highway 20 over the North Cascades. Since I made our reservation for this year several months ago, we waited patiently to see if the pass would be open in time for our departure on May 20. Our timing was perfect since the pass opened on May 11. For us happiness is hearing the report that the high road has been cleared of snow!
Our initial trip over the pass was back in May of 1992 when we set off on our first camping trip together. We spent the first night at Alta Lake — one of the places that we’ve returned to numerous times over the years. At the time Alta was just a stopover on the way to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. We stayed in one of the trailers at the field station at Malheur for most of a week before returning home along the Oregon and Washington coasts. At that time, we promised to make this an annual event, but with more focus on the areas closer to home, like Winthrop and Twisp, and even the high Okanogan. This proved to be a great idea. There is so much to see closer to home. Come along for the ride as we explore favorite places from the past and even ponder ideas for the future.
Since our annual trip follows the same starting point crossing the North Cascades, our usual stops along the way remain the same. The first signs you encounter after the pass are for Cutthroat Lake Trail and Lone Fir Campground, and both are splendid stops for eastbound travelers; however, an all-time favorite is just down the road at the Klipchuck Campground … best known to birders as a haven for a variety of woodpeckers, flycatchers, and other higher elevation species like Cassin’s finches, evening and black-headed grosbeaks, and pine siskins. Just a few miles down the road from Klipchuck is the community of Mazama and the turnoff to Hart’s Pass. The twenty-five mile road from Mazama to Hart’s Pass is considered to be one of the most terrifying mountain roads in Washington state. There is one stretch of white-knuckle driving but monotony is the bigger threat in my own experience.
If, while driving across the Cascades you remember things that you left on the table at home, Winthrop is the place to pick up those items. It’s also a perfect place to stretch your legs and grab a bite before heading north, east, or south into the hinterlands of Okanogan County. While the main street can get a little crowded on summer weekends, the overall ambience of this town is quite pleasant and relaxing. There are so many places to go from Winthrop that a long list is imminent, but I’ll focus on a few of our favorites from past trips.
We used to shy away from big campgrounds like Pearrygin Lake State Park, but trips over the past few years have warmed us to this perfect place to spend time. This well maintained state park has something for everyone and serves as a perfect base camp for hiking, biking, and kayaking. I grew to like it so much that I recommended it as the North Cascades Audubon Society’s annual group camping trip destination. The group camp is separated from the main campground by a three-quarter-mile dirt road so the Auduboners can whoop it up as much as they feel the need. The birding around the lake is excellent in spring and early summer.
At Pearrygin Lake, day trip potential abounds from your base camp. In the past we’ve ridden our bikes into Winthrop for the day, but this year’s broken leg has limited my biking. Not to be deterred, we plan to make a day trip to the fabled Beaver Pond below the Sun Mountain Lodge via four wheels, followed by a day of schmoozing in beautiful downtown Winthrop for the afternoon. The Beaver Pond was recommended to me by John Miles a few years ago and I never pass up a chance to stop by, especially in the spring. Even with my bad leg I’ll be able to negotiate most of the trail that encircles this special place. I know the ospreys will be nesting, along with house wrens, western tanagers, and red-naped sapsuckers.
More four-wheel travel will take us above Pearrygin Lake to Sullivan’s Pond in the vast Methow Wildlife Area, a large expanse that is wide open for further exploration. This somewhat secret gem can be a hot spot for birding depending on the winter snowpack at higher elevations and the spring rains. If the pond is at a suitable level, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds will compete for prime nesting sites. At this elevation in Ponderosa pine forests you might also find a much sought-after species, the white-headed woodpecker. Cindy found a pair years ago and described them perfectly while I was watching a pair of soras on the pond. It was a great learning experience since she had never seen them before.
I have a lifelong fascination with moving water and I seem to have found the perfect place to absorb its energy. In typical fashion, the watercourses around Winthrop add to the appeal of this part of Washington. As you travel downhill from the pass you’re accompanied by Early Winters Creek which flows into the Methow River. On a very scenic bend just blocks away from the heart of Winthrop is the confluence of the Chewuch River which joins with the Methow as it continues its journey to the Columbia. The drive down to the big river is a day trip worth taking from your base camp at Pearrygin.
On most of the trips that I’ve taken to this part of north central Washington in spring, the one bird that I always look for is the osprey. Ospreys are one of the indicator species that say all you need to know about the overall health of our rivers. They are often called fish hawks because fish make up the majority of their diet. These magnificent migrants will not hang around if fish are not available. Their pursuit of prey is a joy to observe and their feet-first plunges must be seen to be fully appreciated. Numerous manmade nesting platforms are usually occupied in the spring and good fishing promotes reproduction and more ospreys.
When the typical, deep snows return in November, the North Cascades Highway closes for the season, again. While there are two other highways that cross the state to the east side of the mountains, neither compares to Highway 20. The traffic and congestion of U.S. Highway 2 and Interstate 90 are never worth the effort, so we wait and dream of mid-May and Washington state’s most scenic highway. Today, however, we’re packing!
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 over 170 columns for Whatcom Watch.