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Destination: Washington

Cascades and Quiet : Discovering the rugged beauty of little-visited Lake Chelan park

June 29, 1997|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | Milstein is a freelance writer based in Cody, Wyo

STEHEKIN, Wash. — A storm was brewing overhead, yet I could not help but stare at the one raging below.

My hiking boots held tight to a rectangular stone outcrop along one side of a gorge rimmed by young firs. At a distance, this slate-gray bulkhead, about the size of a small building, had looked as unshakable as the surrounding peaks of Washington state's North Cascades mountains. So I did not hesitate to clamber a few hundred yards along the edge of a rushing river until I was perched atop it.

Which was when I noticed the big, solid, river-worn ledge trembling beneath me.

Where I looked over the edge, the river was about 10 feet below me and revving for a rough drop that churned it into foam. From there it fell away into a chasm that reverberated as if a thunderstorm were jarring its very foundation.

A shuddering raced up the canyon wall, through smooth stone and into the soles of my feet. For a brief moment, I felt as if the very pulse of this wild place was running through me. My wife, Sue, and I had been searching for a chance to touch the wilderness this way when we spotted Lake Chelan National Recreation Area on a driving map of Washington and saw that no roads led there. On the map, it looked thin and long--vaguely like a wriggling eel--and more like a river than a lake.

The 62,000-acre Lake Chelan National Recreation Area lies on the north end of the 55-mile-long lake on the east slope of the Cascade Range in central Washington. It's a little-known unit of the U.S. national park system that is not especially easy to reach but offers rich rewards to those who make the trip. Many miles from the nearest traffic light, Sue and I spent mornings here tearing into fresh cinnamon rolls, hiked over Kelly-green ridges during the day and settled down for a rejuvenating meal and a warm bed at night.

We were a day into our three-day visit last summer when we came upon the thundering water that held me on the ledge--entranced. Ambling three miles back to the trail head, we caught a regular shuttle van driven by a friendly park ranger and followed the river--it's called Agnes Creek on the map, but to me it looked more like a river--to its junction with the Stehekin River. From there, we traced the torrent through the small, friendly community of Stehekin until it dissolved into Lake Chelan (pronounced Sha-LAN), a waterway that ancient glaciers bulldozed out of the deep bedrock.

Just as the vast, fiord-like gorge occupied by Lake Chelan dominates the scenery with its near-vertical walls, it regulates traffic to and from the Stehekin Valley at the lake's spectacular north end. A single road--mostly dirt--stretches through the valley but does not leave it--no rental cars here. Electricity comes from an inconspicuous hydroelectric power plant along the river. You come and go by boat, floatplane or foot.

We had started our trip "down-lake," local lingo for Lake Chelan's arid southern end that abuts the busy resort town of Chelan. On our first day in the area, we spent a miserable night in a nearby state campground when our neighbors partied into the night.

So we were more than ready for a respite from the real world the next morning when we stepped from a dock onto the Lady of the Lake II, a roomy, 350-passenger vessel that makes the daylong round trip ($21 per person) from up the lake every day during the summer. A smaller boat called the Lady Express covers the same ground in less time (at a higher price).

As the Lady II headed north at a relaxed pace, the broad southern terminus of Lake Chelan slid out of view behind us and the east and west shores slowly angled up toward each other until, at one point, they were no more than a quarter-mile apart. Such topography hints at the power of the glaciers that have shaped it. About 17,000 years ago, a great river of ice gouged a path, leaving behind this steep-walled corridor with an average width of one mile.

Plunging from snowy crags, the walls dive 1,486 feet below the lake surface, almost 400 feet below sea level and about 100 feet lower than Death Valley, the lowest point in the nation. That makes Chelan the third-deepest lake in the country--after Crater Lake in Oregon and Lake Tahoe. Binoculars help sightseers distinguish patches of snow from white mountain goats on ledges. Waterfalls churn down red and gray chutes into the lake.

As the prime means of transportation up and down Lake Chelan, the vessel does double duty. It carries adventurous travelers, yes, but also ferries necessities such as food, mail and other cargo to a few remote settlements along the lake shore. During a short stop at Lucerne, we watched the crew unload crates of fruit, cases of soda and potted plants, in pass-it-on, bucket-brigade style. Lucerne is the lakeside gateway to Holden Village, a Lutheran religious retreat that occupies what was once the headquarters of a giant copper mine.

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