Sunday, January 3, 2016

Summer memories: Ross Lake by kayak

I was reminded recently (at Christmastime) about last August's five-day exploration of Ross Lake, and why hadn't I posted anything about it on my blog?
Yours truly approaching Green Point with the Colonial Glacier basin and surrounding peaks above.
Well, the reason is simple: For the second summer in a row, our lives were interrupted by wildfires, which were already wreaking havoc in the area as we rolled back into the valley from our vacation. News reporting duties, an evacuation and a power outage took precedence, and I never got around to sharing our memorable lake adventure.

Ross Lake is a 23-mile-long reservoir within North Cascades National Park. It fills the glacially carved upper Skagit River valley, which was flooded after Ross Dam was completed in 1949. The Canadian border crosses the lake about 20 miles north of the dam. The only road to the lake is accessed from Hope, British Columbia.

"What?" you ask, "There's no road access to the lake in Washington state?" It's true. To access Ross Lake on our side of the border, you must either hike in from several trails in the national park -- the most direct being the Ross Lake Resort trail off Highway 20 -- or boat in from Diablo Lake and pay the resort to portage you and your gear over Ross Dam.

Until last year, my experience of Ross Lake had been limited to views from highway pullouts more than 700 feet above the water. Friends' stories of boating and backpacking trips in the area did not prepare me for the wondrous possibilities of discovery, adventure, and natural beauty on Ross Lake.

Diablo Lake: the beginning and end of the adventure.
Prior to the trip we talked to friends, looked at maps, read trip reports online, and looked at the North Cascades National Park website, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife website, and the Ross Lake Resort website. We planned to paddle no more than four hours per day, having learned that wind is often a problem for boaters in the afternoon, and we noted our preferred campsites accordingly: Night 1, Cougar Island; Night 2 & 3, Lightning Creek; Night 4, Big Beaver.
The morning before our departure we were at the Winthrop ranger station at 8 a.m. sharp, where the officer on duty called over to the national park office and was able to reserve our preferred campsites for the nights we requested. We found out later that other parties had been unsuccessful in getting reservations at the Marblemount ranger station on the morning of their planned departure, so they were forced to delay their trip by a day.

Thursday morning, August 13, we drove west on Hwy. 20 over Washington Pass to Colonial Creek campground on Diablo Lake: 60 miles from our home. We had the boats off the car and loaded in no time. We were on the water by 9:30 a.m.

We paddled 3 miles on the famously turquoise water of Diablo Lake and through the narrow river gorge up to the floating park service dock near the foot of the dam. A telephone in a wooden box instructed us to call for shuttle service, which we did. With some effort we muscled the kayaks up the gangway and onto the bank above, and within minutes a flatbed truck crept down the steep service road in low gear.

The driver helped load our boats onto the flatbed and we scrambled up onto bench seats, each steadying a boat with one hand as the truck lurched up the switchbacky gravel road, 520 feet over the dam and back down 120 feet to the level of Ross Lake. We were surprised to see a man and woman carrying their loaded canoe, on foot, up the same mile-long incline. They saved $20, but we heard later that they had to stop every 10 steps, put down the boat, and rest before taking the next 10 steps.

Once over the dam we launched again and headed for our first night's camp on Cougar Island, where we landed around 1 p.m. As predicted, the wind began to blow steadily out of the south, and we were glad to be off the water. It was a hot afternoon -- in the low 90s -- and increasingly smoky from the Wolverine Fire on Lake Chelan, 35 miles away as the crow flies, so we did the only logical thing: jumped in the clear warm water for an exploratory swim around the island.

Paddling into the submerged mouth of Lightning Creek. Several flooded creek canyons invite exploration.
Now, I won't bore you with every excruciating detail of our trip, but a few points deserve mention:

  • A dramatic thunderstorm on Day 2 forced us off the lake early due to wind, waves and lightning, so we felt justified in making camp early at Dry Creek, from which we watched several dramatic beach landings by other boating parties. We found out later that the same storm traveled eastward across the mountains, sparking the Okanogan Complex Fires.
  • We paddled into Lightning Creek camp on Day 3, in the rain, where two brothers invited us to share their tarp-sheltered picnic table. Note to self: pack a portable shelter next time.
  • We took a side trip around Cat Island, where we talked to a boatload of Park Service firefighters who were keeping an eye on a lightning-caused fire above the remote west shore of Ross Lake.

Mergansers on Cat Island didn't seem to mind the rain. Loon calls echoed across the lake at dusk.
Devil's Creek -- my favorite place -- merited two separate explorations, on the way up lake as well as on the return trip.
  • A short hike up the Big Beaver Trail took us along silt-clouded Big Beaver Creek and into an ancient grove of enormous red cedars.
  • We docked at Ross Lake Resort on the return trip in order to walk around and check out its charming floating cabins. Must be reserved a year in advance, but it would be so fun to rent a cabin with a group of friends!
The trip was a delight. We have already begun talking about a repeat visit this summer (2016), hopefully with our pals Lisa and Garrett, with whom we backpacked part of the John Muir Trail two summers ago. They'll be able to rent a nice double kayak at Ross Lake Resort and -- who knows? -- maybe we'll rent a boat too and skip the portage over the dam next time.
Frank approaches Cougar Island from the north on the final morning of the trip.


  1. Here are some pictures and the story of a kayak adventure last summer. Enjoy!

  2. This was great, Laurelle! I loved the photos!!!!!

  3. Ok, I'm inspired. I love this!! Betsy