The following Trip Report was written by Ray Culbertson of Hood River, Oregon. Ray is one of the most avid outdoorsmen I know and has a legitimate and sincere love for all things backcountry. He backpacks year round in the PNW and has a great affinity for putting together challenging adventures. The following report is of his experience in North Cascades in Washington State during a mid 2015 trip to Desolation Peak. - Emory
After leaving a friend in Darrington, WA after our Glacier Peak summit attempt, he headed back down the dreary I-5 route to Portland while I moved North to Marblemount. The plan was to sleep in the car somewhere around town then hike into the Ross Dam the next day in search of the legendary lookout from Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. I brought my 10 lb. inflatable Explorer 42 raft from Alpacka Packrafts in order to float up the Skagit River (Ross Lake) to Cat Island for the night. I found a nice place for some pizza and beer in Marblemount then fixed a flat. The banks of the Skagit River offered the Subaru and I a place to sleep and a quick bath in the morning. I slept terribly in the car but after “reserving” my spot on Desolation Peak with the friendly ranger I felt much better.
Desolation Peak is more of a spiritual pilgrimage to me than a simple backpacking trip. I wanted to see firsthand the cabin where Jack Kerouac wrote about in Dharma Bums. That book has been the center of two spiritual awakenings in my life – first at 17 while discovering Taoism and Joy and the second when I turned 30 and had a baby on the way; it helped me recover from 10 years of spiritual drought. It made me feel young again. The area has changed so much from when Jack lived on the mountain. Primarily, the Mountain Loop Highway is now available, allowing tourists to speed through instead of pursuing the arduous trek described in the book. During Jack's time, the Ross Dam had just been constructed and the forest service float station is now a pack-in resort.
I parked up at the Dam parking lot and did the short half-mile hike down to a private put-in on Ross Lake where I inflated my one-man raft and tied my pack onto the bow. After assembling the five-piece kayak paddle and stashing a 6 pack of PBR tallboys under my pack I was off. The wind was perfectly still, allowing me to slip out of the resort area and start my 10-mile paddle up river. Jack Mountain and its huge glacier loomed above the east bank. I hugged the shore up to Cougar Island then crossed to the east bank. The travel was slow, but much easier than the 20-mile foot hike. Plus with the boat I could camp on one of the numerous islands.
Growing up I loved the national parks. I visited Yellowstone with my Mom (and saw the crazy Sturgis bike rally in North Dakota) and saw Olympic National Park with my Dad. But as I grew to enjoy backpacking I lost my love of the parks and their excessive rules designed for efficient mass consumption of nature as recreation. Plus, they don’t allow dogs. For this trip I was willing to tolerate that I had to register my exact location each night with the ranger. I feel like that style system ignores and stifles an organic experience in such a vast wilderness where it is important to always keep an open mind to alternate plans depending on conditions. It was bewildering to sleep in a literal sandbox designated campsite labeled as such in this remote area where I only saw two other hikers the entire day who had been dropped off by boat from the resort and did not reach the summit. Equally strange were the beautiful and massive docks installed on each island. It feels like an artificially imposed civilization, immaculately preserved, unused and unnecessary.
I had a few PBRs paddling to Cat Island and when I arrived I dove off the end of the pier to wake up. I explored the island and the available sandboxes before setting up as far away from the dock as possible. A trio arrived by motorboat and smoked on the dock then left. As I was falling asleep (still light out) a Blacktailed deer snatched my bag of goldfish crackers which I retrieved after we stared at each other meditatively. I felt an odd presence around me and looked up to see a bald eagle roosted in a dead tree above. Then I slept all night and missed the sunrise.
The next day I rode the boat across to the Desolation Peak trail pier where I deflated it and stashed the un-needed water and travel gear in the woods. The 4,000 ft. vertical gain hike up was very pleasant. It was the first time that I found wild strawberries which I discovered by scent and found to be very ripe. The hike was very dry and plain until the campsite was reached. The hike from camp up to the lookout is intense with views of the Skagit valley and the surrounding mountains such as Jack, Ruby, Hozomeen, Sourdough, Crater-shan and many more. I had imagined hiking a route north down the spine of the ridge to Hozomeen Lake, but could not find a practical route down with my limited time. I stayed at the locked-up lookout for hours meditating, shooing away the marmots that ate the backrest of my backpack while I meditated, and watching the light play on the peaks through the cloud layer. I loved peering through the windows of the lookout to read what books were on the shelf (labeled “Jack” and “Reference”). As I left, I wrote “Thank you Jack” in the dirt. The sun was set by the time I had descended to my tent and I fell asleep immediately.
The next morning I booked it back down the Desolation Peak trail. This is the northern-most trail on the east bank of Ross Lake unless you penetrate the interior valleys and go north to Hozomeen. I quickly inflated the packraft and set off, this time against the wind. It was very slow paddling and only the east bank has a trail that far north, forcing me to a less efficient route. I made it quite far, maybe seven miles into the ten mile paddle when rounding the corner for Cougar Island, the wind overwhelmed my capacity to paddle and I beached the raft hoping to bushwhack up to the sourdough mountain trail and back to the Ross Lake resort and dam. Almost immediately I gained a nice boot path and eventually hit a trail junction with a group of college student backpackers from Washington State. Four miles back to the trailhead with the boat on my back was well worth the extra effort in order to break up the trip and see a different perspective.