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    Pilgrimage to the Pasayten Wilderness

    Whether you're searching for abandoned mines, studying bears, or simply ogling the views, you'll find this "wilderness with an edge" is touched with a lot of history.

    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. 

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    Posted Mon, Jun 27, 10:38 p.m. Inappropriate

    Oh dear, not another hiker worried that he might have to share the Cascades with grizzly bears.

    Didn't Ed Abbey say something along the lines of "it ain't Wilderness unless there is something that can kill you and eat you?" Just kidding, just kidding!

    Not that it happens much, or at all. Strange, this fear of grizzly bears, animals that just want to stay the heck away from people, that seems to permeate much of the talk about them in Washington state. People in British Columbia don't seem to have much problem with them. My impression is that people there worry more about black bears, if they worry at all, which mostly they don't.

    Grizzly bears are a lot smarter than black bears, and much less likely to cause problems. And no, we shouldn't get rid of the black bears.

    Posted Tue, Jun 28, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    Dear Craig Parsley,
    I would hate to see the Pasayton over-run by urbanites looking for a quick fix of Wilderness. Your photos were helpful in this regard.
    I have been fortunate enough to do some serious back-packing in the Pasayton country and had not seen the likes of it anywhere else in WA State. I neglected to go there looking for airstrips and shelters and may have thereby missed the scenery you worked so hard to view. On the other hand, I did experience a sense of the West, before our devoted efforts to make the viewing of it convenient. I don't doubt the Nanny State would have intervened and halted my trek to Wilderness if they had the power to do so. After all, I may have fallen off a cliff, been eaten by a pack of marmots, or met some other untimely maiming or demise. As it was, I fulfilled one life goal of camping in the Horseshoe Basin and gaining a moment of serenity that only solitude in a Wilderness can provide.
    If possible, please restrain yourself from publicising the isolated jewels of our State, and focus instead on the flora and fauna around parking lots and fully developed destinations our governement has designated as our cultural pablum and solice.
    Thanks for your piece.


    Posted Sat, Jul 2, 9:22 a.m. Inappropriate

    Snoqualman…I wasn’t going to respond to your post until two front page articles appeared in the Times and P.I. about a grizzly sighting in the North Cascades. My article, however, was about the Pasayten, and its culture, history and geology. The point I made about grizzlies is based on these studies:



    In the first, BC biologists note that grizzlies maul five people every two years and kill one person every three years.

    In the second, USFS biologists cite “landscape permeability” across the BC/US border as the reason for southward grizzly migration. It has to do with contiguous bear habitats.

    But, the article is about the Pasayten, and given the discussion over at the Times, I believe it is safe to say that the only effect grizzlies will have on visitors to the Pasayten is the increased caliber of their personal protection firearms (say .38 to .44 mag). For the past forty years, horsepackers, llama packers and hikers only had to contend with black bears and cougars (of both there are many). Now they have to think about grizzlies too.

    That’s the way it is up in the Pasayten – its visitors go there to see the West the way it used to be – wild, untamed, and dangerous.


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