Pilgrimage to the Pasayten Wilderness

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.

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: 

Jerry: What happens if the bears decide to come into our camp to eat the bait? 

Biologist: We’ll make a lot of noise.

Jerry: Does that scare a Griz?

Biologist: It depends on the bear and how hungry it is.

Jerry: How hungry do they get?

Biologist: I wouldn’t want to be around a hungry Grizzly.

Jerry: Then maybe you better wash that bait off your clothes, you smell like a fish.

It seems there is no end to the study of the Pasayten. After 30 years of visiting, I have met just about every kind of scientist involved in the study of forests. The grizzly study is just the most recent. Geologists, entomologists, hydrologists, fire scientists, and amateur ornithologists all seem to have a reason to be in the Pasayten hinterlands. What they do with their field notes is a mystery. Things never seem to change there from year to year; the fires keep burning, Pine Beetles continue to eat the trees, the grizzlies keep hiding from the biologists (oh they’re up there, all right), and rivers still flow in the same direction, real cold and full of fish.

There is a point though: It is a landscape worthy of study. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson figured that out in the mid-1960s. The Pasayten wilderness was not included in the Wilderness Act of 1964. When the senator proposed the North Cascades National Park in 1967, he attached language that added the Pasayten to the National Wilderness Preservation System. The wilderness designation was secured in October 1968. In his Interior Committee report to the Senate, Jackson described the Pasayten thus:

To the east of Ross Lake…will be the Pasayten Wilderness, a region of mellow geology and dry climate compared to the [North Cascades] park area. With the completion of the North Cross-State Highway [SR 20] to the south, increasing numbers will backpack or pack train into the heart of this unsurveyed back country…This act will establish for all generations to come a matchless complex in an untouched land of silent glaciers, unique geologic exhibits, and important ecologic communities. [Emphasis Added]

While the Pasayten may not have been “untouched” it certainly never did have a proper geological survey. The first comprehensive geologic study occurred in 1971, when the U.S Dept. of the Interior sent in several intrepid geologists to do some serious fieldwork. In a remarkably detailed account titled Mineral Resources of the Pasayten Wilderness, geologist M.H. Staatz found a wealth of poorly documented mining claims. Staatz was also the first geologist to make sense of the lack of placer gold in the region. (Note to hikers: If you want to find an abandoned mine, read this book.)

Sen. Jackson was also correct about important ecological communities. The USFS has been conducting studies on what grizzly biologists refer to as landscape permeability. Translation? A grizzly needs contiguous ecosystems suitable as habitat to promote bear migration. That is, migration from southern British Columbia. The Pasayten and North Cascades Complex are perfect habitats for migrating bears. So good, in fact, that B.C. game biologists (in conjunction with U.S. counterparts) are working on what they call “augmentation” of the grizzly populations in the Manning Provincial Park area (directly north of the PCT’s terminus). The plan is to place female bears (of good temperament) next to the U.S. border in hopes of increasing the sparse grizzly population. Where? The Pasayten, of course, and perhaps the northern Ross Lake area.

The grizzly enhancement project is, no doubt, well-researched. But party lines are quickly drawn depending on whom you talk to up in the Okanagan region. Regular users of the Pasayten, such as horse packers, lama trekkers, and backpackers, find the idea a bit weird. The Canadians (in cooperation with their U.S. counterparts) are planning a density of grizzly bears in the North Cascades of around 1.5 grizzly bears/100 square kilometers. While I don’t think the bear planters are intending uniform grizzly density over the entire Pasayten, it is important to point out that there are 2,145 square kilometers of land out there. That’s a lot of bear country. There will be problems…particularly on the heavily used PCT. 

How could it be otherwise? I can only add this context from personal experience: In 1983, Indian Bob and I took a pack string up to Beauty Creek. In a fluke accident one of our horses fell and broke its neck while getting a drink. The next morning we found a Cinnamon Bear at the carcass. After his slurry of expletives directed at the bear, and a few well-placed stones, Indian Bob made a prophetic statement, “If I didn’t know better I would swear that’s a young Griz.” Perhaps it was, maybe it wasn’t. All I can vouch for is that some of that horse’s bones can still be seen amongst the mine tailings at Beauty Creek. 

It’s hard to find places like the Pasayten anymore. Abandoned mines are usually the stuff of tourist traps, or so heavily visited as to be monuments to graffiti artists with pocketknives. To hike in an area where you are nearly certain to see a bear, likely a cougar, and occasionally a wolverine is, well, rare. The place is like a half-million-acre museum of everything we have done right and wrong to our national wilderness. 

That’s why the Pasayten is so compelling as a destination. There are no more secret spots untrod by human feet. Those days are long gone. What remains is one of Washington’s most intriguing wilderness areas — a place where nearly every visitor has left his or her mark.

Read more about:

Share On:
Support Crosscut