Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness is a clash — of cultures, geologic forces, and land-use ideologies. Depending on the day, it is a whiff of wood smoke or horse turds, arid Okanagan breezes or Pacific rain. For the last 6,700 hundred years it has been hunted, mined, hiked, hard-used, and burnt boot-black.
As we head into the height of backpacking and hiking season, it's a good time to appreciate this 530,000-acre wilderness as one of the most beautiful places in North America, albeit just a little bit crusty if you look too closely. The Pasayten is wilderness with an edge. It’s neither pristine nor trashed. As a visitor you just need to be aware that thousands of years of human activity can leave a significant historical record. On the other hand, its unique geologic exhibits have a tendency to mask any human scars.
Oddly, the Pasayten’s notoriety has diminished in recent years with the current generation of "fastpackers," hell-bent on mileage, and not landscape or history. Its main north-south thoroughfare is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), a passage through breathtaking subalpine splendor. And yet to the east, 2,000 feet below the panoramic vistas of the PCT, lays a not-so-well-kept secret: an abandoned airfield, once a hub for wilderness-seekers wishing to trek to the Canadian border or hunt mammoth Mule Deer. Built in 1931, the airfield served as a base for fire-suppression activities and trail building.
Misinformation about the airfield abounds, and this only adds to the Pasayten’s allure. For example, a popular myth is that the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built it. Not true! President Roosevelt formed that organization in 1935, four years after construction of Pasayten Airfield. It is likely that the charming log Ranger Station, nestled in the trees adjacent to the airfield, was built by the WPA (according to the logbook onsite), but even this is second-hand information. The cabin’s true history is as murky as the rumors of Depression-era muleskinners packing in an entire bulldozer, piece-by-piece, to build the Pasayten landing strip.
A west-to-east through-hiker enters the Pasayten via a grueling slog up the Boundary Trail from Ross Lake, cutting just south of one of Washington’s few backpacker pilgrimage sites, Desolation Peak, where Jack Kerouac learned about the value of solitude. Arriving at the Cascade Crest (looking east) trekkers are treated to a panoramic view that seems to encompass all the space between British Columbia and Boise, Idaho. Vast valleys carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age snake between peaks easily bagged on day hikes from base camp.
The glaciers had another interesting effect on these valleys: They scoured the river bottoms so clean that very little placer gold remained in the region. Since the 1870s, 605 mining claims were staked in the Pasayten Wilderness, most of which were “hard rock” mines given the lack of “flash” in the pans of prospectors. An adventurous backpacker, willing to do a bit of off-trail exploration, will be treated to a wealth of mining debris, abandoned shafts, cabins, stoves, and antique whiskey bottles. Not the most pristine wilderness, granted, but the miner midden piles abandoned 75-100 years ago (prior to the “pack-it-out” era) yield up a wealth of history and entertainment for hikers who would otherwise spend the afternoon reading another Bill Bryson novel.
Westbound hikers entering at Horseshoe Basin (the Tonasket side) will find a “diggings” once operated by Germans as a Tungsten mine. Much of it is well preserved. The tragic irony is, of course, that the Tungsten extracted from this claim was used against the Allies during WWI. While most of its structures and the mine itself are off-limits to the public, numerous other Pasayten mining sites await exploration. By simply scoping mountainsides or river tributaries for telltale mine-tailings (or mule trails), a through-hiker can strike it rich. Slow walking and a sharp eye will yield a vast deposit of rich Washington state history.
Beauty Creek, a simple one-day hike out of Mazama’s Robinson Creek Trailhead, holds the remnants of a once-productive gold mine. The shaft is now flooded (though it could be siphoned out). In the 1970s, a local (and old friend of mine) known as Indian Bob collected several samples of its mine tailings to have assayed. He alleges there was one-half ounce of gold per ton of debris sitting at the shaft entrance. I’ve seen the tailings and I believe him. Nevertheless, don’t bother trying to stake a claim; it’s protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and, besides, Indian Bob don’t cotton to covetous claim jumpers. He is typical of many old-timers met by hikers up in the Pasayten — hard-living, cantankerous, and fiercely independent.
It seems this country has hosted all kinds of notables. Parson Smith stands out for his eccentricity. A mountain man and poet, he paused on June 6, 1886, to carve his initials on a tree within a stonecast of the then-unmarked Canadian border. Known as Parson Smith Tree, it stood for years as an unofficial wilderness boundary marker between the U.S. and Canada. The tree was eventually cut down and packed out to Twisp, Washington. All that remains of Parson Smith’s legacy is a stump cast in concrete and one of those nicely routered U.S. Forest Service (USFS) signs.
The border is now marked with an impressively straight clear-cut about a hundred feet wide. Aluminum obelisks spaced at regular intervals stand sentinel on the world’s longest undefended border. You’ve got to see it to believe it.
No story of the Pasayten can be told without mentioning Claude Miller, a horsepacker of some repute. Outfitters like to chide him over his infamous Sunset magazine cover photo 40 years ago. Locals joke he needed a larger hat after the publication (with all due respect, of course). Miller had a reputation for treating his packhorses well. One year, before the infamous Andrews Creek Fire (aka Farewell Fire), he dropped a party of hunters and some saddle stock up at Airview Lake (best fishing in the Pasayten back then). One gentleman asked Miller how he wanted the horses tied out at night — hobbled or on a pony-drag. “Don’t tie up my horses at night,” Claude bellowed, “You’ll lame em’ up.”
Just before sundown the hunters did as they were told, unsaddling the stock, and leading them to a meadow. The next morning the horses were found at Spanish Camp, 17 miles away. When Mr. Miller returned the following day with the wayward horses, his Stetson brim was pulled down low over his eyes. As he dismounted from his own horse he growled, “How come you didn’t hobble em’ ya city slickers.”
Unlike some wilderness areas, particularly the High Sierra, horses and hikers seem to get along pretty well in the Pasayten. Backpackers know that it is horse country and has always been horse country. True, wilderness purists might take offense to some guy that looks like Robert Mitchum allowing his pack stock to drink out of the same creek they do, but that sort of attitude is best left at the trailhead. Horse packers have their designated concessions, granted by the USFS. If a backpacker doesn’t like horses, then a few extra miles of trekking will give the Pasayten hiker all the solitude and pure water he or she desires.
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