Sourdough Ridge - North Cascades, WA

June 12 - 14, 2004

Dave Svilar, Dan Svilar



"Neat!  Look at that son, a Western Tanager," Dad exclaimed as we stopped the car at the trailhead in the tiny government town of Diablo.  I didn't see anything until squinting my eyes and finally noticing a small dot moving in the grass 50 yards away that appeared to be a bird.  "Brilliant yellow breast and bright red crown - what a great look."  As my eyes finally focused in on the tiny, distant bird I marveled at how excited my father could become over something that an ordinary person wouldn't have noticed.  Unpacking the Maxima and filling our packs with mounds of food Mom had prepared I couldn't help laugh at the two sides of my father.  On one side was his eagle vision and remarkable ability to spot birds by site and sound.  On the other, Dad was so technologically incompetent that he could become completely flummoxed by a backpack's buckle.  These two sides would play a recurring theme in the next three days of the trip.

Gaining more than 5,000 feet in just four miles, the trail to Sourdough Ridge is notoriously steep and punishing, and on this day particularly hot and grueling.  Laboring under a pack more suited to month long expeditions Dad grunted like an overworked mule in the 80 plus degree heat.  Knowing the power of Mom's "hiking cookies" I reluctantly offered one to my fading father.  "Hiking cookies" were originally used for a sugar boost on the trail, but have now been relegated to enjoying in camp due to their salivating good taste.  Even with the cookie Dad was clearly not enjoying himself, and when I offered to take the pack he hardly resisted.  Dumping most of the contents of my pack into Dad's I took the behemoth off his back and let him take what amounted to a daypack.  Still, the way was steep and the tree-bound trail offered little in rewarding vistas.  This was the first father-son hike in almost two years, and the first father-son overnighter in almost six years (six years!).  Realizing how precious this time was I began to worry about my selection of a hike as Dad was clearly not enjoying himself to this point.

As miserable as Cascades bushwhacking and endless tree hiking can be, it is always quickly forgotten when the goal is reached.  In this case our hike finally broke into alpine meadows as we neared the ridge giving birds-eye views of Ross Lake 5,000 feet below, rimmed by ice-clad peaks that disappeared into the distant haze.  Upon reaching the ridge top we hiked a short distance over intermittent snow and dry trail until reaching the famed fire lookout once inhabited by legendary beatnik-era writer Jack Kerouac.  Long since abandoned for purposes of spotting fires the door was locked probably to keep intruders like ourselves out of the historic structure.  Tired from the day's hike we settled for a bivy on rock a mere 20 yards from the lookout.

POET'S PARADISE  Bivy beneath the famous lookout.

Dad choked down a pasta dinner, and finally able to relax seemed to enjoy himself for the first time since spotting the bird at the trailhead.  "Beautiful spot, good weather, and even better company Son.  Looks like we'll be alone up here."  I agreed with all of it until I heard the unmistakable crunching of feet on snow.  I looked up to see an awkward, short version of Michael Doleac (Mormon basketball player) coming our way.  "Hi, my name is Brian, I'm from Utah, I work for Delta Airlines."  Good for you I thought, now leave us alone and get out of here.  Before I could say what was on my mind Dad engaged him in conversation just before committing the ultimate sin.  He offered Brian two cookies.  I seethed.  It didn't matter that we had eight pounds of cookies, those cookies were for us to enjoy and nobody else, especially not this annoying pest, Brian. 

The next day dawned bright, but hardly clear due to an extreme amount of haze.  Brian exited early with the weather.  Shortly after starting a day hike across the ridge clouds, thunder, wind and rain forced a retreat back to camp.  Not expecting foul weather we were unprepared, and thus in no condition to battle the elements - the only answer was to head for the car.  Dejectedly we collected our gear near camp that had been scattered by the wind and packed our damp belongings for the trip back to the car.  However, before we could leave I felt compelled to find my blue foam sleeping pad which had apparently blown down the ridge out of sight.  Determined to find my beloved pad I tracked the blue foam with sleuth-like precision.  Testing the wind every few steps by throwing dirt up to the wind I tracked the foam several hundred yards down the ridge sure I would find it behind each boulder.  'Stupid Dad' I thought to myself as he headed in the opposite direction also trying to find the foam.  After almost 30 minutes of searching I gave up and decided to call Dad off the search as well.  To my surprise I could see Dad even farther down the ridge, and carrying the missing blue foam.  Like a hawk spotting its prey in a vast field, Dad had used his own superior vision to find my blue foam.

HAZED  Smoky atmosphere produces layering effect looking north towards Hozemeen.

This story of the blue foam pad would not be noteworthy except for the time it bought us.  Wasting over an hour looking for the pad had given us just enough time to see the blue line forming to the west.  Perhaps our trip wasn't over after all.  Optimistic that the weather might indeed cooperate we continued our hike across Sourdough Ridge.  As predicted the blue line in the sky was legitimate, and we soon found ourselves hiking under sunny skies across one of the most beautiful alpine meadows I had ever seen.  Open heather meadows dotted with snowmelt ponds and bright white granite boulders provided the foreground for distant peaks that were now cleared of haze by the storm.  Snowfield, Colonial, Buckner, and the Boston Glacier in one direction; Hozemeen and Ross Lake in the other, and just ahead was the rugged and wild Picket Range. 

"Hozomeen, Hozomeen, the most mournful mountain I ever seen, and the most beautiful as soon as I got to know it and saw the Northern Lights behind it reflecting all the ice of the North Pole from the other side of the world."

- from "Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac


LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON  We both catch naps in the sunshine of the perfect meadow.  Photraphs by Dad

I prodded Dad to make it to one final high point along the ridge thinking it would provide the setting I had imagined before starting this hike.  It did not disappoint.  Granite boulders glowed bright white under the afternoon sunshine.  Scraggly alpine trees, melt ponds and surrounding mountain views added to the nearly perfect spot.  Not surprisingly, the scene seemed to be sleep inducing for Dad, as he was soon asleep on one of the many comfortable boulders.  Not far from where Dad slept I hung my head over my own boulder and took in my surroundings.  Vast echoes of water crashing towards the valley floor provided soothing background noise, as I stared across the enormous glacier-carved valley towards Azure Lake and McMillan Spires - gateway to the Pickets.  The scene was so perfect - warm temperatures, gentle breeze, and most importantly the company of my father who was still able to get his almost 60 year-old legs to such a remote and beautiful place - probably as close to heaven as I'll ever come.

We returned to the same boulder we had camped on the previous night enjoying the crystal clear views and lack of other human presence.  However, we weren't fortunate enough to be without the presence of a swarming mob of mosquitoes.  Dad was killing them by the threes and fours, while I just took solace in the fact that they were not after my mom's cookies.  Much better to have them sucking my blood than the chocolate out of the cookies I reasoned. 

EXTERMINATOR  Dad proudly shows off one of his many mosquito killings.


SMUG  Feeling good after an evening's mosquito killing.

I vowed to stay up and watch the stars, but the relentless attack by the mosquitoes sent me ducking to cover prematurely.  To make up for missed star gazing I awoke almost two hours before sunrise and took a hike in the other direction down the ridge looking for picture opportunities.  As the sun rose I positioned the tripod near a chunk of heather in full bloom and watched it turn a striking shade of pink with the first rays from the sun.

FAREWELL  Dad takes one last, long look from the bivy before packing.


FIRE LOOKOUT  A hazy view that would have startled Kerouac.


HEATHER SUNRISE  Gorgeous Cascade dawn looking towards Colonial and Buckner.

After joining Dad for an early bowl of oatmeal we slowly packed for the trip back to the car.  Even though he had dawned the pack numerous times on this trip alone I was not surprised to find myself explaining the mechanics of saddling a pack.  "Don't get frustrated Dad, the backpack isn't trying to be difficult.  Yes, that's it... arm through the loop, around your waist, and snap the buckles.  You can do it.  Good."  For my Dad the difficulties of strapping on a pack is something akin to quantum physics, but as predictably inept as he is with technology he always makes up for it with outstanding trail company.  On the steep descent to the car parked near Ross Lake we discussed numerous topics including our favorite national parks and the usual Bush Administration bashing.  Driving on Highway 20 towards a greasy post-hike dinner at Skippers I had already determined that this outing would almost certainly rank #1 in my shortened summer.

-written August 2004

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