Picture this: It’s the last morning of your 5 day backpacking trip in North Cascades National Park. You have just descended back to your campsite from the summit of Mt. Hannigan where you took in a beautiful sunrise that was mostly unobstructed by the wildfire smoke that had been lingering around the peaks the few days before. You’re milking your last moments in the wilderness, eating breakfast slowly and packing up camp even slower, doing whatever you can to delay returning to your car and facing the realization that you have to go back to the city. As you’re stuffing your sleeping bag into the bottom of your pack, all of a sudden:
That’s the sound of a black bear being hunted down in the Mt. Baker Wilderness in the National Forest just outside of the National Park. Thankfully the rest of our trip, while filled with surprises, was much more chill than the sudden sound of a gunshot. On my first trip to North Cascades National Park, I found out just how beautiful, but rugged and dynamic it can be.
The trip of choice was the Chilliwack Valley/Copper Ridge loop in the upper northwest part of the park. We chose this, besides for its supposedly epic nature, because of fire danger in the rest of the Northern Cascades. The North Cascades are being decimated at present by wildfires and wildfire complexes, as they were when I did this trip a few weeks back. As most prevailing winds are from west to east, Copper Ridge is situated well to be mostly smoke free in relation to current wildfire locations (map).
Day one was a short day, hiking through the national forest and jumping over the boundary into the national park. It was cloudy and we encountered some rain, but not enough to dull the excitement for the rest of the trip. Day two, our longest at just 9.7 miles (like I said, our trip was chill), was along the floor of the Chilliwack Valley. In lush forest, cool temps, easy trail, and with the help of a cable car stream crossing, we made miles quickly and reached our destination for the night, Indian Creek Campground. Indian Creek was majestic, as the day’s cloud cover began to dissipate late in the afternoon, revealing the evening sun through the tall old-growth trees. An afternoon nap by the creekside didn’t hurt either, and was a nice way to prepare for the big climb expected on day three. On day three, we woke up to perfection. Clear, blue skies had us psyched up for our first day of big views. Early in the day, we were treated to the sight of spawning
salmon. It was a sight unlike any I have ever seen. The river we had to cross was absolutely filled with huge, pink, Sockeye! We watched for a considerable period of time, completely enthralled with such a rare experience. With a long climb ahead, we set off. Eventually, we reached the junction of the Chilliwack Valley Trail and Copper Ridge Trail, which is just a few miles from the border of Canada. From there, the trail climbs up to Copper Ridge some 3,000 feet to our campsite for night three, Copper Lake. However, our luck was about to change. After relentless uphill switchbacks, we reached our first view. It was super crisp and clear, of a high rocky ridge in front of a cloudless sky. Within the next 45 minutes, the winds changed, the smell of campfire set in, and the views were gone. Yep, smoke from the various forest fires was blown our way, and we spent the entire rest of the day without any distant views.
While certainly this was disappointing, it was important to keep perspective. These fires were wreaking havoc on forests and towns…my views really weren’t that important. On another level, this was another unique experience unlike any I’ve ever encountered. Being from the east coast, forest fires are not a huge part of my backcountry consciousness. It helped me realize the breadth of affects the forest fires can have, and how the slightest environmental change can drastically affect the course of such an earthly event. It was amazing to have my very own senses and awareness be affected by wildfire, because previously in my life, my only experience with wildfire was probably a news story headline.
Moving forward to Copper Lake, we got there and had our choice of campsites. We chose a beautiful one overlooking the lake, and enjoyed some afternoon swimming and cliff jumping. Smoke was filling the lake basin, but there was decent visibility, enough to see the entirety of the lake and surrounding cliffs and explore the banks. Into the night, the cool air dragged the smoke down into the valley, and we were able to spend a tentless night looking up at the stars.
Day four, we woke up early, hoping to be on the ridge, and possibly to Copper Ridge Lookout before the warm air and winds kicked the smoke back up. Our plan paid off, we reached Copper Ridge Lookout by 8 am or so, and got some mighty fine views. There was definitely smoke haze, but after talking to a backcountry ranger, the views were much better than the previous day. We had stunning views of Mt. Shuksan, Mt. Baker, Ruth Mountain, and Mineral Mountain, and more! I found myself unexplainably drawn to Mineral Mountain. I loved the shape of it, the look, and the way it stuck out through the smoke.
Having decent views and a short day ahead, we were in no rush. We stayed up there for over an hour. Not to mention, it was probably the most beautiful setting I’ve ever used an open-air privy (because I know you wanted to know that). In general though, despite the smoke, it was probably one of the greatest views of my entire life, proving the top tier destination that Copper Ridge really is. We began our descent, but the fun was certainly far from over. Hiking along, the smoke picked up again into the afternoon, but it wouldn’t matter much to us as we’d soon be reentering the forest. Hiking long and chatting too, we let our minds focus more on the conversation than our environment for a moment. Well, maybe that’s why we were unaware there was a bear up ahead rummaging through the brush in search of blueberries. Soon enough, my friend Doug walked up alongside a bear, no more than six feet away. Being “Mr. Bear Safety,” I started shouting at the bear to hopefully scare it off a bit to so we could walk safely away. Well, this particular bear did not care. It just carried on about its business. All we could do was walk away, feeling less than tough. Ultimately, the bear was more concerned with berries than it was us. I’m fine with that. While I didn’t stick around to try to capture a great photo, I was able to snap a few off…
Long story short, we chose to camp outside the national park on our last night, and instead on the shoulder of Hannigan Mountain in the shadow of Ruth Mountain and Mt. Shuksan. This set us up nicely for both a sunset and sunrise hike to the summit, both of which we did. They were absolutely spectacular, especially the tranquil sunrise whose cool temperatures depressed the smoke and revealed mountains previously unseen to us such as Mt. Challenger, and including more of Mt. Baker.
You already know the rest of the story. Just about 25 yards down the trail from us is where the hunter was set up for his perfect shot. He later came up to us and explained that he knew we were there (note: we had no idea he was there, or that a bear was in the area), but was unsure if he could warn us and still have enough time to get his shot off. I certainly understand seizing an opportunity, but none the less, we felt it was poor form on his part not to let us know. There is nothing to snap you out of an easy morning euphoria like a rifle going off just yards away. If nothing else it proves true that the national forest is “a land of many uses.” This trip truly had it all.
NOTE: Bear hunting is legal in national forests, and the season had been open since August 1st.