Editors Note: Although this trip is a bit out of our general region that we cover in our guidebook posts, it is a special spot, an amazing lake and we are dreaming of summertime adventures. We thought this worthy of sharing.
by Wilmer Perez
“Cougar Island? Where is that?” asked Fernando, on the phone from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada“It is at Ross Lake,” I answered from Wenatchee. “We’ll meet you at Colonial Creek Campground, which is in the middle of North Cascades National Park, but is not technically a part of the National Park, but the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. We will leave you a written note at the entrance of the campground so you can find us.”
Navigating the North Cascades National Park can be confusing for the non-initiated. After close to 30 years in Colorado, I moved with my family to Washington State to be close to this park. Rugged, isolated, beautiful, and most of all, ignored by tourists. It is considered one of the least visited of all National Parks (25,000 visitors per year compared to 4,200,000 per year in Yellowstone). Many of those visitors actually go to the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National recreation Areas, that are not part, administratively, of the North Cascades National Park. Most of North Cascades is designated Wilderness Area, so roads, bike trails, Park Rangers houses, gas stations, visitor’s centers, are forbidden. They won’t even charge you with an admission fee.
Around 11 pm, Fernando Mora and his wife Claudia Fraser, arrived at the campground. Fernando had been a hang gliding partner when we were growing up in Venezuela. Hang gliding, led to caving, climbing, Amazon expeditions, and a close friendship.
“Fernando y Claudia, ¿tienen hambre? (are you hungry?)”, asked Mirza, my wife, while warming up our gasoline Coleman stove, meat with red peppers, onions, champignons, and paprika, knowing in advance the answer.
During the night, I kept thinking if my decision of renting three canoes to transport all of us, food and camping equipment was a wise one. Exception made of my experience with makiritare curiaras in the Amazon 40 years ago and a recent visit to Canadian Lake 2..my experience with actual canoes was limited at best. Two owls maintained a vivid conversation close to our tents and finally I fell asleep.
While Mirza and Fernando prepared sandwiches and coffee for all of us, we dismounted the camp and loaded the cars with our backpacks. It was 6 am, still dark, cold and rainy. We drove East on highway 20, passed the Diablo Lake overlook and reached a parking area at the start of a trail that descends to the dam of the Skakit river. An unpaved road connects Diablo Lake to Ross Lake. Because Ross Lake is a National Recreation Area, private businesses are allowed. This is the last week of operation of Ross Lake Resort which closes until mid June of 2019. We found a young couple that was walking such road transporting supplies and a canoe from Diablo Lake to Ross Lake but not using the services of the resort. We gave them a hand with their load and wished them well. There is a phone near the South shore of the lake that we used to let the resort know we were waiting for them. In a few minutes, a powered boat arrived and all of us were transported to the actual resort, on the North shore of the lake.
The Ross Lake Resort (we took this information from their Internet site) is open from mid June to October 31. They have individual cabins and bunkhouses, they rent canoes and motor boats. Each canoe cost $42 + tax. Reservations can be made at 206-386-4437. As far as I know it is the only business of this kind in the whole Ross Lake.
We were warned to keep an eye on the sudden winds that come over the lake and that can make navigation quite difficult (as we found out the next morning). The canoes turned out to be very stable and we could accommodate all our equipment with no difficulty. After some discussion we decided to spend the night at an island called Cougar. My wife was concerned with the activity of bears prior to winter and an island sounded pretty safe. Ross Lake is about 20 miles long. Cougar Island was only about 1.7 miles away from the dam. The wind over the lake was pretty mellow and our paddling turned out fairly efficient. These are the last 2 weeks of activity at the resort (end of October 2018) so we saw minimal tourist activity.
We obtained a Backcountry permit from the Ranger Station in Winthrop, Washington, the day before. This permit is mandatory to spend the night in any place at Ross Lake or any portion of the wilderness areas. They won’t give it to you on the phone. You have to be present at the Station to get it. Proof of back country registration was then requested at the Resort.
Once camped at Cougar Island, we decided to accept the challenge of rowing with increasing wind speed in the early afternoon. It was coming from the West. Trying with our best efforts, we could not advance more than half a mile against it! That was a warning to be ready to deal with the next morning. So, we turned back to the island to set our camp, eat, and do some photography.
We set the alarms at 6 am and despite the apparent good weather, we dismounted our camp and started loading the canoes keeping a close eye on the wind.
Eventually we got back to Ross Lake resort, wet and cold, but happy! We were transported to the South side of the lake, walked up the trail, reached our cars, Fernando and Claudia left to Vancouver, British Columbia and we went back to Wenatchee.