Outdoors: Dharma Bumming on Ross Lake

An excursion to the wilds of the North Cascades builds up arms, legs, and confidence while rekindling inspiration

In honor of my recently transpired 40th birthday, I spent the better part of last week with an old friend paddling kayaks some 12 miles up Ross Lake and then climbing Desolation Peak in North Cascades National Park. The trip for me was a pilgrimage of sorts some 25 years in the making, ever since that otherwise uneventful high school summer when I read Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums, which chronicles the intersecting lives of the author and poet/essayist Gary Snyder. My interest in the so-called transcendental qualities of nature and the outdoors were piqued by the real-life adventures described in the book, which many consider Kerouac's greatest (if not best known) work. At the end of the book, taking the advice of Snyder, Kerouac makes way for a 60-day stint of solitude at the Forest Service lookout atop Desolation Peak scouting for fires, drying out, and addressing demons as they floated by on the vigorous updrafts from Ross Lake 5,000 feet below. While I am certainly not the first or last Kerouac devotee to scale Desolation Peak and visit the fire lookout where Old Jack wrestled with his demons, I can take heart in the fact that I made the arduous journey and came back a better man for it.

Day One
We drive up to Marblemount, WA on State Route 20 and get permits at the National Park Service's Wilderness Information Center for three nights of backcountry camping at specific spots along Ross Lake. We car camp for the night at the National Park Service's lovely Goodell Creek Campground a little further east on State Route 20.

Day Two
We get up and go, driving further east to the Ross Lake Dam parking area off SR 20, where we unload our backpacks full of camping gear and make our way down the forested one-mile trail to the base of Ross Dam. We call across to Ross Lake Resort which sends a motorboat to ferry us ($2/person) to its docks on the opposite shore where our rental kayaks await. We jam-pack our gear -- sleeping bags, tent, food, etc. -- into the front and rear hatches of the sea-worthy Eddyline kayaks the Resort provides, and shove off for the 12-mile paddle to our reserved backcountry campsite at Lightening Creek. While it's always a tough slog to kayak that much in a single day, we make good time and are ensconced in our campsite by 5 pm to enjoy several more hours of golden daylight and a refreshing swim in the lake before a sumptuous fireside dinner of rice and beans and Caesar salad from a bag. Life is good. With muscles sore and head weary, we sleep well in anticipation of the morrow's demanding hike.

Day Three
We wake up early to get a head-start on what promises to be the hottest day of the year so far (topping 90 degrees F). We paddle over to the trailhead, stash our boats in the woods, trade our crocs for hiking boots, and hit the trail. Switchback after switchback after switchback after switchback, and we are slowly but surely gaining thousands of feet in elevation as our views of the lake below get ever more vertiginous. Wildflowers dot the trail, and as we rise higher trees give way to alpine meadows and, eventually, barely passable snowfields. The lookout, constructed in the 1920s by the Forest Service as part of a network of mountaintop aeries equipped for solo smokespotters to wile away the summer months and radio-in reports of where to send in fire crews to dig lines to divert spreading flames, has appeared on the horizon atop the hump that is Desolation's summit. Another hour and several hundred footsteps pass and we are there, chatting up Dan the lookout, a Marine who has already made his patient girlfriend wait out two tours through Iraq before putting her through another lonely spell as he works this most solitary of summer jobs. Like Kerouac and some 50 others before him, Dan will spend two months alone atop Desolation in this little one-room shack, his spirits buoyed by occasional two-way radio chatter and the almost daily visits of hikers and Beat searchers. He shows me a sheet of paper that Kerouac supposedly used to roll his own butts back in the summer of 1956, as well as the same lightning stool Old Jack used to wait out electrical storms. The bed/mattress of ropes (to ward off midnight lightning) Kerouac bemoans in Dharma Bums is also still in service under Dan's neatly rolled sleeping bag. He shows off the Osbourne Fire Finder, and ingenious device found throughout North Cascades' lookouts that helps fire watchers pinpoint the location of smoke in the distance. We offer him the butt end of the sourdough roll we have laced with peanut butter for our lunch, and he eagerly accepts, obviously relishing in the feel, smell and taste of real bread--he has been eating nothing but freeze-dried foods for his entire stay at the Lookout thus far. The banana we top him off with kills him with even more kindness, and we have made a friend for life. (Our practice of charity would make Kerouac the Buddhist seeker proud.) After snapping a few pics inside and out, we head off down the trail, bracing for the beating that the 4,500 foot elevation loss in five miles of hiking (that we just came up) will take on our knees and feet. Slowly but surely we make our way down, savoring the views as the afternoon light gets sweet on the peaks and glaciers all around us. After several hours of hiking down, we finally get to the lakeshore again, pull our kayaks out of hiding, and paddle them back a short distance to our campsite. We dive in the lake to get the dust and grime off, then boil up some water and indulge in our own freeze dried dinners before heading off for another glorious night of rest by the comfortable lapping lakeshore.

Day Four
We get up early again, make some oatmeal and coffee, then pack everything back into the kayaks for the long paddle back to Ross Lake Resort. Since we have all day, and the weather has gotten hot, we stop every couple of miles to swim in the lake, which helps keep the blood flowing into our otherwise locked-down kayak legs. By 4 p.m. we have taken our last dip of the day and are paddling into the docks at Ross Lake Resort, happy that our vigorous ordeal is over but knowing we will miss the simple easy living on life on Ross Lake. After unpacking the kayaks, someone from the resort ferries us back over to the trailhead where we load up our backpacks and make the one-mile climb, this time uphill, back up to the parking lot where our car awaits and where reality begins to come creeping back into our lives. While the notion of taking showers and sleeping in real beds is alluring, we both wish we could just keep on Dharma Bumming forever.

Whether or not you visit Desolation Peak or paddle a kayak, Ross Lake in summertime is well worth a visit. Ross Lake Resort will not only rent you a floating cabin--they book up a year in advance but maybe you can get lucky last-minute on a cancellation--but also provides motor boat rentals ($95/day), fishing gear and other lakeside living essentials. If you've already done the Olympic Peninsula, Hood Canal, Stevens Pass and the other areas everybody else does, check out Ross Lake and all it has to offer. You will not be disappointed.

Check out more pictures from the trip at Roddy Scheer's website...

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