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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.

    (Page 2 of 4)

    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.

    Personally, I like the horses because they have a tendency to keep the black bears and cougars out of the camps. Although these days it seems that the grizzly bear has become latest camp boogieman, and as anyone who has seen these awesome creatures will tell you, a “Griz” isn’t afraid of anything. 

    For the last two summers (2009 and 2010) my fellow Pasayten devotees and I have run into parties of biologists intent on finding grizzly fur and scat. Their methodology is fascinating. First, they pack into the airfield cabin a supply of rotten fish (“Griz Bait” imported from Montana) and barbed wire. Then, these young scientists wander through the woods spreading the bait on game trails, wrapping it in a ring of barbed wire. The wire is supposed to capture bear hair samples for DNA tests. Last year my buddies Jerry, Craig and I shared the airfield camp with some of the bear biologists. Jerry asked them a few poignant questions about their methodology. It went something like this: 

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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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