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Places of the Pacific: The Pasayten Wilderness

By 9 am, we were already sweltering in the early-July heat as we drove through Winthrop, Washington. My partner and I were driving to the Pasayten Wilderness, where we would spend the week backpacking. Reports had warned us about the heatwave, but we were confident we could withstand the solar wrath for a couple of days before we got into cooler higher-elevation terrain.

Remmel Lake in the Pasayten Wilderness. Photo: Richard Forbes

We had thought everything through: bear cans were packed, meals planned in gallon size ziplocs, bug spray and sunblock were holstered to our backpacks’ hip straps to be ready at the draw. Our GPS was calibrated, maps acquired, all of the necessary layers had been checked off our lists.

Working off the little information we found during our research of the area, we were ready for what the Pasayten had to offer. We stumbled upon this particular wilderness area while researching secluded backpacking locales in the state. Despite it being peak recreation season in Washington, we struck gold when we found the Pasayten, which lacks the crowds and the commotion characteristic of summer in the Cascades.

Adventuring in the Pasayten

The Pasayten Wilderness is located within Washington’s Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and skirts 50 miles of the Canadian border. The Pasayten is one of the largest wilderness areas in Washington state, second only to Olympic National Park. The area contains 531,000 acres, with over 600 miles of bisecting trails east of the North Cascades. Yet most Washingtonians do not know this half-million acre wilderness area exists. With so many recreation opportunities in the Cascdes, many hikers do not expand their horizons past the eastern foothills of the mountain range to see the Pasayten beckoning. Without the high-influx of visitors of many other wilderness areas in the North Cascades, the Pasayten’s vastness feels truly off the map.

Cathedral Lake in the Pasayten Wilderness. Photo: Rebecca Hunter

In the first mile of our 7-day trek from the Thirtymile Trailhead, it became clear we would get the solitude we wished for, by dint of the fact that hiking through a burn scar with no shade cover in a July heatwave made it nearly inhospitable to human travel. As we began our trek that first day, we silently wondered if we had made the wrong decision. The bugs were worse than we had planned for, the temperatures higher, and our careful, prepare-for-anything packing strategy meant our backpacks were on the heavier side. We began to question the information we found touting the Pasayten’s untamed beauty.

In spite of our initial doubts, though, we soldiered on, up the Chewuch drainage through clouds of black flies and mosquitos determined to suck every last drop of our blood, our sweat a compelling anti-DEET. We shoved through dense stands of early successional trees that cut and stung our legs, drawing blood in nature’s coordinated attack to further feed the mosquito army.

The Chewuch drainage is a recovering landscape. Several recent high-intensity burns in 2001, 2003, and 2006, including the immense Farewell Fire, also known as the Fawn Creek fire of 2003, burned approximately 81,000 acres of the Pasayten and claimed many firefighters’ lives. As we moved through the burn scar, we saw proof of a high-intensity fire’s shattering impact on existing ecosystem structure, and how remnants of such a disturbance brands a landscape for centuries to come. Charred lodgepole pine and douglas fir stood motionless on the slopes around us like tombstones in a seemingly endless graveyard.

Recreating in the Pasayten Wilderness is worth it, although the environment has changed, and will continue to change rapidly. The burn scars will invoke in visitors a deep sense of loss, and the quiet lakes, to the carpets of wildflowers and rugged peaks, the vast and free wilderness will show the hiker what needs protecting.

The blackened husks of trees were juxtaposed with abundant pink fireweed and penstemon, evidence of life sprouting from the ashes, which imposed on me nature’s incredible resilience and capacity for regeneration. The clusters of magenta blooms inspired us to keep trekking through the valley in pursuit of the magic we had heard the Pasayten possessed, the promise of dense montane forest, fields of indigo lupin, and pristine alpine lakes that Kathleen Dowd-Gailey of Your National Forests magazine described as “vast and varied.”

The Pasayten boasts some of the most incredible biodiversity in Washington. The wilderness area is home to the largest population of long-legged lynx in the lower 48, a species that has only dozens of individuals left. In addition to lynx, the Pasayten hosts grizzly bears, mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep, and deer. Grey wolf sightings have also been reported in the Pasayten since the early 2000s. In 2008, the first pack of grey wolves in 70 years was confirmed south of the Pasayten in Twisp.

Plant communities in the Pasayten are similarly diverse. Larches, firs, hemlock, and cedar stand tall, and in the summer, yarrow, lupine, penstemon, and indian paintbrush make colorful mosaics across the landscape. The character of the wilderness feels different than other landscapes in Washington. In his piece for The Seattle Times, Jeff Layton described the charm of the Pasayten as “one of the more unusual places in Washington: part Ireland, part Austria, sprinkled with a little bit of Yosemite and a whole lot of Lord of the Rings.”

The Pasayten is indeed charming to behold. Gazing out across the landscape, one sees peaks, valleys, rivers, expansive meadows, and quiet streams. We stood at the top of Cathedral Peak, just 2 miles from the Canadian border, and looked north on miles of continuous peaks that straddle 2 countries. The border itself was invisible from where we stood, and irrelevant for nature’s purposes, without guards to defend it or a fence to delineate it.

The Pasayten’s Fire Future

Mid-way through our trip, well beyond the initial burn zone, we were camping at the edge of Cathedral Lake when we stepped out of our tent one morning into an intense haze. Smoke hung heavy over the lake, and the temperature had noticeably dropped. Without having a radio for a report on the location and magnitude of the burn, we did not know what to expect as we hiked south down the Andrew’s Creek trail on our way to Remmel Lake.

We learned after we returned to Seattle that the smoke we saw at Cathedral was from 140 wildfires burning in British Columbia, just a few miles across the border from where we were backpacking. These fires eventually spread to Western Washington, and continued burning, enveloping Seattle in a cloud of raining ash for a week in August called the “Smokezilla.” University of Washington meteorology professor Cliff Mass said the situation in Seattle with “a smoke cloud so dense one would think it is low stratus deck” was unprecedented in his 30 years of experience. The 2017 summer wildfires occurred in one of the hottest and most arid years on record for the state.

Cathedral Peak in the Pasayten Wilderness. Photo: Richard Forbes

Just a few days after we finished our backpacking trip in the Pasayten last July, the Diamond Creek Fire started burning in the area and eventually spread to devastate 127,000 acres before it was extinguished in late October. Everything we backpacked through burned- the photos included in this piece portray a landscape that, just several weeks later, were burned by the megafire.

John Roher, wildlife biologist for the Methow Ranger District said “the entire fire area was within designated critical habitat” for the lynx. This fire will indeed leave its mark, and the most concentrated lynx population in the lower 48 will suffer this habitat loss for decades, as it will be at least 25 years before forest succession will provide a dense cover for lynx, according to Roher.

Continued climate change will create more unpredictable and record weather years, changing fire regimes across Earth. In addition to climate contributions, invasive species infestations, like the mountain pine beetle across the Western U.S., contribute to more dead trees that fuel the flames. Compounding factors such as climatic patterns, invasive species, and habitat degradation are giving way to more high-intensity and larger magnitude fires.

Be a Steward of the Pasayten

The Pasayten Wilderness’ increasingly frequent high-intensity fire regime will change the present ecosystem. With the lynx, we see the detrimental effects that intense fires are having on the species that live in the Pasayten and rely on intact habitat to survive.

The vast and free wilderness will show the hiker what needs protecting.

The devastation of lynx habitat in the Pasayten is a deeply unsettling casualty of increased intensity fires that spread further and burn hotter. Like the lynx, species that rely on the montane environment are not adapted to withstand such frequent and high-magnitude fires, and the species of this incredible wilderness bear the yoke of climate change, like so many other precious wildlife and wild places in the Pacific region.

Recreating in the Pasayten Wilderness is worth it, although the environment has changed, and will continue to change rapidly. The burn scars will invoke in visitors a deep sense of loss, and the quiet lakes, to the carpets of wildflowers and rugged peaks, the vast and free wilderness will show the hiker what needs protecting. This place gave us the immense gift of freedom. We bathed in brooks every day, ran sliding down scree slopes, and brushed our teeth just meters away from inquisitive mountain goats.

Recreating in these special places also gives us a latent responsibility to be stewards of the ecosystems we visit, to learn about how these ecosystems function, and to give back by protecting and defending threatened species and places. If you decide to explore the Pasayten, practice Leave-No-Trace principles and acquaint yourself with the wilderness regulations before you go—and maybe avoid July and August, unless you bring a full-body bug net.

Support the Pasayten and other wild places you love in the Pacific Northwest by donating to the Pacific Wildway.

For more information on the Pasayten Wilderness, visit:
USFS Pasayten Wilderness
Washington Trails Association Pasayten Wilderness
Caltopo Pasayten Wilderness Fire History Map

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