By Mark Rozema
Viewed from a great height, the Eureka Creek watershed looks like a human ear. You can see the ear from a jet plane, or in a satellite photograph, or on a topographical map. You can’t see the ear when you are in it. In fact, in the North Cascades, you can seldom see the true and complete shape of a watershed while you are in it—especially if you are below timberline. You must get above it.
Like all metaphors, this one requires imagination; the watershed is not exactly like an ear. It could be a kidney bean, or a backwards numeral 3. Fair enough. Nothing is exactly like anything else, and metaphors reflect the limitations of language. But because I want to hear what this landscape has to say to me, I’ll choose to see an ear. One of the first impressions urban folks have of alpine places is that they are quiet. But when, with time, ears are gently opened, countless subtle sounds fill them: streams under snow, wingbeats of a ruffed grouse, chirp of a marmot, clatter of rockfall, muffled hoot of ptarmigan, buzzing of horseflies.
In the almost quiet, hearing becomes most acute and discerning. A breeze through trees, for instance, is not one sound, but many. Is the wind threading through larch needles, or through the gnarled mat of subalpine fir at timberline? Through a grove of aspens, or cottonwoods along a river? The shape of a leaf and how it is attached at the petiole to a supple stem alters the timbre of the wind’s voice. With my eyes closed, can I tell the difference?
But back to the overhead view of this ear-shaped basin: First of all, it has two lobes; in this way it’s more like a backwards 3 than an ear. In the course of five or six miles, the South Fork of Eureka Creek almost completes a counter-clockwise spiral, flowing at some stage of its journey toward every point of the compass. Meanwhile, the North Fork spirals clockwise in similar fashion. Where the two forks meet, the completed creek then flows straight southeast through a steep valley toward its confluence with the Methow River.
Imagine two explorers in the watershed. Let’s say that like many explorers, they have navigated by rivers. Now they find themselves in the middle of the ear, where the two forks converge. They are headed upstream, searching for a way across the Cascade divide. They intend to drop into a watershed on the west side of the divide—the wet side–to find a river that will tumble through dense and lush forests and deliver them to Puget Sound, where they will find seafood, the New York Times, and good coffee.
But first, they have to find their way. So they split up; one goes south and one north, following each fork to its headwaters. The one who goes south will be spun counter-clockwise. If he follows the main stem all the way to the highest little rivulet, eventually he’ll get to a ridge on the shoulder of massive Robinson Mountain. He’ll drop down the other side, then follow a short and steep stream that all too quickly delivers him into territory that is familiar. He ends where he began, at the Methow River.
Meanwhile, our intrepid north fork explorer has a disconcertingly similar—albeit clockwise–adventure. The ridge and the river nudge her steadily to the right until she reaches a pass on the shoulder of an attractive peak. Perhaps she doesn’t know it (and the knowledge wouldn’t help her anyway) but the peak looking down at her misadventures with pity bears the odd name of Mount Lago.
Disoriented but hoping for the best, she drops from the pass into the watershed on the other side. If she’s paying attention to the sun, she knows that something has gone wrong. And although the journey takes longer than that of her southern compadre, she eventually finds herself—exasperated, sweaty, and besmirched—on the banks of Eureka Creek as it tumbles headlong toward its marriage with the Methow.
It is certainly possible that explorers going up either fork of the Eureka might cross the rim of the ear before completing the spiral, and find a way to the west side. Then they might follow the north-flowing Pasayten River, which might seem to promise a journey to the ocean, but would also end up swinging them east again, whence they came.
It helps to have a view from above. But even from above, this landscape is puzzling. It must have seemed diabolically complicated to early explorers. This part of the Cascade Range offers one of the most confounding bits of watershed geography in all of North America. Mountains sprawl in no discernible pattern. Rivers go every-which-way, and frequently change direction. It is a landscape folded in on itself, like the folded and buckled metamorphic rocks of which the mountains are composed.
Of course, these days, route-finding is easier. We have GPS, guidebooks, trip reports. We have Highway 20. And we have maps. A map is a way to see connections, to understand how parts come together to form… well, if not a whole, then at least larger parts. A map provides orientation, perspective, coherence and understanding. An overview.
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If I could calculate how many hours of my life I’ve spent poring over maps—topographic maps, climate maps, soils maps, vegetation zone maps–it would be a ridiculous figure. It might match the hours some people spend watching television or playing video games. However, even if the number of hours stunned me, I wouldn’t consider it wasted time.
My wife often asks me if I’m planning a trip. Sometimes this is the case, but more often it’s not. Usually I’m just contemplating maps I’ve studied hundreds of times before. Although it’s not an explicit intention, what I’m doing is memorizing. In my mind’s eye, I flit back and forth between the arrangement of lines and colors on the map, and a picture of the landscape as I imagine it or know it to be.
Most likely I’m looking at certain pockets of the North Cascades for which I hold a special affection. What I am committing to memory are watersheds. Through the map I’m absorbing the orientation and arrangement of watersheds: what ridges separate them, what passes provide passage between them, what obstacles to or opportunities for cross-country travel exist within them.
Of course, studying a map is no guarantee that things will be clear on the ground. Far from it. For instance, it always seems, from looking at a topo, that I’ll find it easy to discern the lay of the land. Ridges will be distinct, obstacles will be apparent from a distance. The reality in thickly forested terrain, however, is that rocky outcrops or impenetrable thickets will conspire to nudge me, imperceptibly, off of my carefully planned course. Before I know it, I’m not where I intended to be. Before I know it, I find myself in the middle of an unstable avalanche slope, or on a ledge that cliffs out, or in a gully that is desperately hard to escape. Now how did that happen? Somewhere along the line, I made a poor choice.
The phrase watershed moment is both literally and metaphorically apt. It can describe a journey in the mountains—and so much more. It is a moment in which a fateful decision commits the chooser to a course that is increasingly hard to reverse. In landscapes where one’s vision is hampered, this moment may happen before I think it will happen, before I notice that it already has.
Looking back over a sequence of choices, I may not recall the moment I entered disastrous terrain. Perhaps the ridge was sort of flat, its contours subtle and obscured by timber. I didn’t know I was on the wrong side of it. Or perhaps I was seduced by a fun and apparently easy glissade down a snowfield: Wheeee! It looked so much better than that unpleasant traverse across scree or shattered ledges. And now… I am in the wrong gully—a perilously steep chute, with scary snow bridges through which I could plunge into a raging creek. Or I am vertically bush-wacking through a mat of yellow cedar and the ground has dropped away. I can’t see the ground. I’ve been half down-climbing and half falling through a canopy of spindly cedar branches. I am in deep shit.
This has happened to me. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’ve been lucky. I’ve become better not only at reading maps, but at reading landscape. I’ve learned to look ahead. Learned to choose the hard way when it preserves my options, provides a clear view of the next step, and leads to a better place from which to take that next step. I’ve learned, but that still doesn’t mean I’m very good at it. Route-finding is an art. I’m still learning, and I benefit from good examples.
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One of the master route-finders was the man after whom that peculiar mountain in the Eureka Creek watershed—Mt. Lago–is named. Lage Wernstedt was a Swedish immigrant who graduated from Yale with a degree in Forestry in 1903, and then worked as a surveyor for the United States Forest Service. He was a tough, persistent, resourceful, adventurous and indefatigable early pioneer of the Cascades. He looms large in the history of Cascades exploration, cartography, mountaineering and firefighting.
Over the course of his career, Lage (pronounced Loggy) became one of the west’s most knowledgeable and experienced foresters. He was rich in both scientific knowledge and practical skills, from the application of new mapping methods, to firefighting techniques, to how to efficiently pack a mule train. He entered the ear of the Eureka Creek watershed in 1925 with his mule train, his surveying tools, his tripod, heavy camera, and photographic plates. I like to think his ears were open to what the land had to say to him as he traversed the length and breadth of the watershed, climbing all the high peaks that shaped the rim of the ear.
Along with Herman Ulrichs and Fred Beckey—the most famous early Cascade mountaineers–Wernstedt rounds out a trio of climbers who claimed most of the first ascents of the highest and most prominent peaks in the North Cascades. Wernstedt was the first of the three. Unlike Ulrichs and Beckey, he didn’t think of himself as a climber in the recreational sense. He didn’t seek the attention that comes from a community of climbers who consider first ascents a prize. Perhaps he was simply humble, perhaps he was just doing his job without fuss, or perhaps he never considered himself first, given the presence of Native Americans, miners and settlers in the area.
At any rate, he didn’t care much for claiming credit. There are plenty of peaks under Lage’s belt that we know are first (recorded) ascents, a number that he probably climbed first, and an even greater number that he possibly climbed first. He didn’t always build cairns or leave notes. What he did do is leave photographic evidence; examination of his photographs proves that he was on several summits that were claimed as first ascents by later climbers. Also unlike Beckey and Ulrichs, Wernstedt didn’t particularly care if a mountain offered interesting climbing. While his ascents were definitely hard work—especially given their remoteness at the time—they didn’t often present technical challenges.
So, if he wasn’t after glory and he wasn’t after difficulty, what was he after? Primarily, a good view. As a man bestowed by the Forest Service with a mission to survey and map this rugged, convoluted and still largely unknown terrain, he was looking for summits from which he could triangulate locations and begin to grasp what we call “the lay of the land.” In an age before Google Earth, GPS, satellite imagery or even aerial photography, the way to piece together the puzzle was to get to the high points on foot. No one was more single-minded in pursuit of this goal than Lage Wernstedt.
And no one was more discerning in knowing which peaks to climb. Although elevation was an obvious factor, it was not as simple as going for the highest or most prominent summits. He chose strategically located surveying locations from which he could begin to understand the logic of watersheds and ridgelines, and the influence of topography on the movement of water, weather, people, and even fire across the terrain.
He had a long career with the Forest Service, from 1908 to his retirement in 1943. During that time, he contributed much to the body of knowledge about mountains in Oregon, Washington and Alaska. His most active years in the North Cascades were 1925 and 1926. Much of the backcountry was still terra incognita at that time. He focused on the high peaks north and west of the Methow valley, in what is now the Pasayten Wilderness, and in the Washington Pass area, along the spectacular spine of the North Cascades.
The list of Lage’s definite and probable first ascents includes many monarchs of the range, including Logan, Black, Silver Star, Azurite, Osceola, Carru, Lago, Monument, Blackcap, Lake, Robinson, and Big Craggy. If a modern-day Cascades hiker wanted to compile a list of summits likely to provide both a superlative view and a strategic location from which to see and understand watershed boundaries, choosing Lage Wernstedt’s first ascents wouldn’t be a bad way to go about it.
I feel an affinity for the tough Swede in his cork boots and cowboy hat—not because I am in any sense his equal, but because this region that I think of as Lage’s country is my favorite part of the range. In 1925, long before roads penetrated this area, it took an extraordinary level of fitness, skill, confidence and determination to reach these peaks. I admire the curiosity that drove him not only to explore the mountains, but to develop new techniques of mapmaking using aerial photography and to pioneer bold new ways to fight fire. Not only was Lage Wernstedt a great cartographer and mountaineer; he was one of the co-inventors of smokejumping.
It may seem obvious in 2015 that maps can be made, checked and improved through the use of aerial photography. It may also seem obvious in 2015 that forest fires can be attacked from the air and that firefighters can jump from airplanes. But neither proposition was obvious in 1925. The first use of aircraft by the forest service, in 1917, was simply for fire detection. In the following decade, planes were used to battle fire by dropping water on flames and supplies to firefighters on the ground. But in 1939, an experimental program was established in the Methow Valley to see if firefighters could parachute successfully, with their tools, into rugged country. Lage Wernstedt, along with Assistant Chief of Fire Control David P. Godwin and USFS pilot Harold King, conducted the program. Their experiment succeeded: an elite group of firefighters—trained at the newly established smokejumper base in Winthrop—did indeed start jumping out of airplanes.
Lage was a route-finder in numerous ways. He was a discerning observer and creative thinker. He sought to manage the forest by wisely applying the best tools of science and technology available to him. He combined this approach with an intimate knowledge of the patterns in nature, gained through many years of putting his boots on the ground. He developed new approaches to the forestry problems of his time. If he were with us today, I wonder how he might reshape current paradigms in land management. I can’t help but think that his familiarity with the patterns of landscape, born of countless forays on foot into some of the most rugged terrain in North America, would give him invaluable insights into the behavior of both water and fire. He would be a wise man to have on both a fire line and an irrigation district board.
I wonder what insights he might offer regarding the challenges we face today: bigger and hotter fires, diminishing snowpack, collapsing fisheries, the depletion and poisoning of both groundwater and soil, the crashing population of pollinators, the loss of biodiversity, and—last but certainly not least—increasingly unpredictable climate. I have no idea what he would say about any of these things, but I know this: He’d seek a perspective that reveals connections between disparate parts. He’d pay attention to the landscape. And he’d seek to understand, always, the big picture, the view from above, the entire watershed. How things are connected.
Not far to the southwest of Mount Lago—perhaps 20 miles as the crow flies—is a splendid, dominant peak that rises above the others in its neighborhood. It is Tower Mountain, and it is one of my favorite summits in a region where spectacular peaks are abundant. Tower is smack-dab in the center of Lage Wernstedt’s territory. In every direction, the summits visible from Tower felt the footprint of Lage’s boots ninety years ago.
To the north are the relatively gentle summits of the Pasayten wilderness, with glorious meadows and larch-lined lakes. The Eureka Creek peaks are prominent in this direction. To the southeast is the massive, crenellated escarpment of Silver Star. Beyond it is North Gardner’s high pyramid. And to the west and southwest are two of the highest and grandest of the mountains that Wernstedt climbed in those incredible years of 1925 and 1926: Black Peak and Mount Logan—without a doubt, two of the best viewpoints in the Cascades. Tower is right in the center of it all.
Although it would please me if Wernstedt made the first ascent of Tower, there is no evidence that he did so. He did indeed survey from it, in 1926, but it’s not clear that he attained the summit. He may have. It’s not known who made the first ascent; it may have been surveyors from the USGS. At any rate, Wernstedt was one of the first on the mountain. It’s good to remember that Lage would not have cared about being first.
Rugged Tower presents a sheer face to the east, and a steep but fractured complex of gullies, ramps and cliffs to the west. The peak aggressively juts above its neighbors. It’s a hub—a nexus in the geography of the upper Methow watershed. In an aerial photograph, five ridges radiate from Tower Mountain. They resemble (to my overactive imagination) the splayed arms of a starfish. Between each of the starfish’s arms is a sharply incised valley with a creek tumbling vigorously in its own damned direction. It’s an amazing and satisfying sight to see five valleys separated by ridges that spread like dendrites from a peak that sharply pierces the sky.
The radiating ridges connect the sharp horns of surrounding lesser peaks: Golden Horn, Cutthroat, Hardy, and The Needles. But Tower Mountain is the queen, the apogee of the Methow River watershed. The Methow’s headwaters are in the larch and heather meadows near the lovely Snowy Lakes, at the western base of Tower. In a curious similarity to the South Fork of Eureka Creek, the upper Methow Valley looks sort of like an ear. It starts out flowing west, curves north, makes a broad sweeping semi-circle, and ends up flowing due east.
On a clear day, from a great height, all of this makes sense. It’s possible to see how the pieces fit together. But even by North Cascades standards, the drainage patterns surrounding Tower are convoluted. The general principle is clear: streams either drain to the west, into Early Winters Creek, or to the east, into the Methow River. Sure, this is how divides are supposed to work. It’s simple. And beyond that, all the unruly waters that cascade down the slopes of Tower Mountain will meet in the Pacific Ocean. Eventually. As Norman Maclean so beautifully put it, “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
To observe nature carefully, as Lage Wernstedt did on his many sojourns into the wilderness, is to be teased by simultaneous order and randomness. How delightful, to be perched on the ragged edge of discerning how the world is put together—but to still be perplexed by unconformities, anomalies, and asymmetries. It makes life interesting, how the world is both simple and complex. In their single-minded love affair with gravity, rivers shimmer on their way to the ocean. Countless variables divert their course—an endless interplay of pattern and variation. Looking upstream, in any watershed, we see divisions and distinctions, diversity beyond measure, endless branching, tributaries beyond counting. But looking downstream, we see merging and confluence. The Many becoming One. Inter-being. Everything is connected, and we are a part of it. This is what Lage’s Country has to say to me, if my ears are open to hear.
Copyright Rozema 2016