In Pasayten Wilderness, Feeling the Burn
By Paula MacKay
Last week, we revisited a camera station near Ashnola Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness, on the “dry side” of the North Cascades and just south of the Washington-British Columbia border. Robert, Alder, and I were joined by John Harter, our generous basecamp host and an occasional volunteer on our project.
Like Robert and me, John is an avid hiker, and he would undoubtedly dust me on a mountain bike ride. But by the end of our four-day, 45-mile backpacking trip, we were all feeling the burn.
When we first checked this camera a year ago, Robert and I completed the trip in three days—allowing ourselves no cushion to explore the surrounding wildlands. Sometimes we’re so busy chasing photos of carnivores that we forget to stop and smell the lupine. We vowed to build in a little extra time this year, and I’m so glad we did.
In 2019, I found the journey to be, frankly, unnerving. Much of the Billy Goat/Larch Creek trail system passes through the aftermath of the 2017 Diamond Creek fire, a campfire gone bad that burned more than 125,000 acres in the U.S. and Canada.
Among its immeasurable values, this area is critical habitat for Canada lynx, the rarest of Washington’s three wild cats (lynx, cougars, and bobcats). Lynx are state-listed as Endangered because of habitat loss and expected threats to the small population in the future—chief among them, climate change.
A recent study published by several of our colleagues identified wildfire, rising temperatures, and decreasing snowpack as hazards to lynx survival in Washington, at the southern edge of the species’ range. Trekking to Ashnola brought me face-to-face with these alarming trends.
“You’ll be hiking through a lot of black trees,” I was told by John Rohrer, a friend with the Forest Service, on the morning of our 2019 departure. In the ranger station parking lot, John also pointed out a memorial dedicated to three young firefighters who were tragically killed in the 2015 Twisp River fire—reportedly caused by a sagging electrical line. Coupled with the fact that we were venturing out on September 11th, I was a bit on edge, as reflected in my journal entry from that evening:
Walking through the burn today was tiring, both emotionally and physically. So many dead trees and some areas burned so hot that the ground and rocks remain scorched. Postapocalyptic. The trail was also beaten by horses, or, as Rob put it, ‘beaten by horses, ravaged by fire.’ Still, there were signs of life: mountain goats at Billy Goat Pass, including several kids. Also, a baby woodpecker, marmots, and pikas.
Maybe it was the cool weather, my lighter pack, or just a more comforting day all around, but I had a brighter perspective during last week’s hike. I didn’t see any mountain goats, but I did feel twinges of relief from a landscape in recovery.
We passed through flaming hues of fireweed, fleabane, and other wildflowers that painted our path, and we stopped more than once to watch sapsuckers and soaring eagles along the way. Cold, clear-running streamlets—less abundant last September—seemed to magically appear whenever Alder was thirsty or I needed to soak my feet. Looking beyond my weathered boots, I occasionally noted deer and carnivore scat on the trail.
“Everything looks so green,” each of us said aloud at one point or another, whether we were strolling through a surprisingly verdant meadow or observing the young, vibrant vegetation set against a stark backdrop of burn.
Once we settled into our camp at McCall Gulch, the trip got even better. Above 7,000 feet, we awoke each morning to ice on our tent, and after coffee and oatmeal, savored this small slice of the Pasayten at the relaxed pace it deserves.
Our camera station revealed that we were in good company, with a lynx (yes!), a cougar, badgers, porcupines, black bears, and numerous other wild animals having stopped by to give us a quick snapshot of their alpine existence.
And to remind us that they, too, are out there feeling the burn.
This post about her visit to a camera station near Ashnola Mountain in the Pasayten Wilderness originally appeared on Paula MacKay’s blog, Wild Prose. All photos (c) Paula MacKay, unless otherwise noted.
Paula MacKay is a freelance writer-researcher and field biologist, having studied bears, wolverines, and other wild predators for the past two decades. Paula served as managing editor for Noninvasive Survey Methods for Carnivores (Island Press, 2008) and earned an MFA in creative writing from Pacific Lutheran University in 2015. She has written for numerous conservation groups, books, and magazines. Visit Paula’s website at paulamackay.com.