Unlike Dorothy, a tornado doesn’t grab me up and deposit me in another world. Instead, my memories become a vortex. They draw me up, and as they tighten their grip, I find that I’ve been transported to the North Cascades, into a world within a world. Into my estimation of what Oz would be if found on Earth.
As memory and reality shake hands, a pitted and steep road called Watson Lakes Road, materializes. Out my window, I’m pressed back into the present. Through the glass I see Mount Baker and Shuksan, king and queen in all but name. Dizzying summits whose capstones are crowns of primeval rock and ice. Whose jewels are the prismatic alpine lakes dotting the landscape; whose trumpets are the innumerable waterfalls crashing from terrible heights; whose forests are the adoring subjects applauding them; whose horizon to horizon view is all their Kingdom–the enviable North Cascades. Crisscrossing it, by many paths, are the limitless yellow brick roads wayward wanderers can walk.
On this particular path, I return to a place called Noisy-Diobsud (Die-oh-b-sud) Wilderness, south of North Cascades National Park and east of Mount Baker Wilderness.
Whether or not you visit, know that the Noisy-Diobsud wilderness is called Noisy for the thundering creek by the same name. And Diobsud, some surmise, for an indigenous band or village that once occupied the river’s shores. Toponymy is tricky, though, and the written record tells another story. In 1904, the stream is called Diabasy Creek. A few years later, the name changes to Diabase Creek. And Diabase is a type of rock common in the area, one that prospectors would recognize and pass on to surveyors. But still, that’s not the name it is known by today. Only in the 1920s would Diobsud appear in written records. Whether or not that iteration is a corruption of Diabasy/Diabase, or an entirely separate designation, is unclear. Either way, I’d like to think that it was of native origin and some surveyor rescued it from obscurity.
My experience in this country spans two decades. On skis I visited Mount Blum, tackling it by three routes and descending two of them in two separate trips that also crossed over Hagen Peak and realms between. Later I would cross the wilderness on foot, and then by ski. This was followed up by another traverse on foot.
In each of these trips, by degrees, this rugged country has grown special to me. For most people, though, it is inhospitable. A collection of difficulties that no sane person would want to submerge themselves into. They’re right; this isn’t a hike, it’s a scramble-fest. A bug, brush and cliff infested route. There are no trails. No preordained paths. To go through this country is to make your own way.
And to love this place, as I do, you have to think of it like family. Family is, after all, forever.
My brother Jessy and I in 2009. On this adventure, I completed a hike, kayak and bike circuit car to car, a trip like one I'd done on the Ptarmigan Traverse a handful of years before.
Friends and I on a ski adventure through the region in 2014, with ascents of several peaks, including North Despair.
Adam Roberts and my brother Jeremy in the summer of 2014
August 23, 2022: Day one
My friend Carl Simpson is ahead of me on the Watson Lakes trail. Astride our backs, we each have 7 days of provisions for what is, in aggregate, just 33 miles.
Already the views are sending my heart a-thundering. Glacier carved, wreathed in cliffs, and overgrown in green–the land is as wild as it comes! Yet, each beat of my heart is a dinner bell rung, a siren song to the hordes of bloodsuckers I vainly attempted to send to their afterlife.
Not much more than a mile into our day, we broke from the trail and ascended Watson Peaks lower slopes. In evidence, all about this area, is the shattered regolith left behind from a shrinking Watson Glacier. Rocky erratics of every shape and size lay atop smoothed stone. In between, glistening in the sunlight, are arrayed a scattering of newly formed tarns. As I come near one, I contemplate swimming. Being lazy, I Instead lay on the slabs of rock. Propped up on my backpack, I let my eyes wonder across the highlands.
An hour later, we descended toward Diobsud Lakes, following a long traverse and eventual descent to the shores of the lake, and our first camp. While more of a mere (or pond), and not particularly inviting, it is still enamored with a rugged appeal. Half the shore is studded with avalanche-shorn trees and thick bushes, while the other half is rung with meadow grasses that fall away to a muddy shore and thick carpets of heather. I think what makes this place difficult is the pact between the ignominious biting fly and the sycophantic mosquito. This allegory of pestilence will leave you crying for home while the aforementioned beauty has the opposite effect. Which of them wins out, though, is a measure of personal fortitude.
In camp wanderings I paused and watched swirling storm clouds darken the sky, sunlight spear cliff faces and a rainbow brighten the gloom. All together, Mother Nature’s moods were on full display! And what’s more beautiful than a kaleidoscope of color splitting an angry sky?
August 24, 2022: Day two
On day two, I crawled into the brush beyond Diobsud Lake. Between trees and slide alder, thorns and ferns, we slithered our way down the outlet stream to the base of Bacon Peak’s southwest face.
Daunting as always, the route up Bacon Peak isn’t as apparent as it should be. It’s not that I don’t know the way. It’s that I tend to forget the sea of green between me and the high country. Only with some effort, I pushed through my wall of brush and spotted the route I was searching for. To Carl I yelled, “Over here!” In his approach he appeared like some beast hidden from view, trees and brush shaking with his passing.
As soon as he arrived, we surmounted the first cliff band.
A few hours later, as I crested an unnamed pass I like to call Zorro Pass (because of the Z-like route to the col), I found the way to Bacon Glacier melted out. The snow had retreated from the pass, so an alternate route was needed. That different way turned out to be a northward trending rocky ridge.
To the east shimmered cerulean waters of an unnamed terminal moraine lake. They caught my imagination. On display was the tragic love affair between glacier and lake. These once twined incorporeal beings can only meet at present when ice crashes from above. A kiss of death by degrees? A lake that will inevitably outlive its lover? All so heartbreaking, especially for this proud and mighty glacier. I imagine it in its prime when it rose like a blue wave that brushed the treetops.
With an incoming thunderstorm, Carl and I opted for an early stop on the summit of Bacon Peak.
In the hours that followed, day cycled to night. Star after star blinked to life, wrung out from the blue hour. Earthly sights to celestial, and a realization (all too commonplace) that my life has been missing something essential, a neolithic carryover humanity lost in our transition from fire to the lowly lightbulb. The stars, I’ve found, keep big ideas for company. I’m convinced if everyone gazed at the night’s sky, the world would be better for it.
August 25, 2022: Day three
A breeze swept through my tent that morning. A reminder of a mishap the night before. At dusk, thunder clouds poured hail and wind over our camp. As I rushed to my tent, I snatched my ice axe for a secondary anchor. In my hurry, the sharp end snagged the tent. My gear flopped out like guts from a fish on the chopping block.
While I could’ve rolled out my new DIY door, I decided to forget my previous nights error. Instead I stood at the threshold, bare feet in snow, and sipped my tea-with-a-view. Towering cliffs and naked wilderness horizon to horizon.
Gear crammed into our packs, Carl and I descended a snow ridge to a pass. Midway between, I lost my footing. Even though I quickly recovered, spring snow is a quiver of tiny knives and they charge their pound of flesh, just like the buzzing hordes.
As I licked my wounds, we descended the Green Lake Glacier. This isn’t the only way through this area, but the skier in me is always attracted to snow.
Near the terminus of the glacier, I looked into the cavernous underworld where fountains of water rushed, disappearing into the depths. Sometimes I wished I could transmute into that water. Glacier to sea–what an adventure that would be!
With no transmutations scheduled, a glacier tarn was found to be a fine alternative. Plus, few experiences in life are as revitalizing as diving headfirst into glacier fed waters. No dipping toes. No cozying up to your waist and then quickly dunking in. Oh no! A true concessionaire stares down the barrel of fate and whooshes into the cold orb of Mother Earth’s eye, diving downward in one foul swoop. Maybe you touch your soul, or perhaps you are forced to feel life’s crisp hour at its fullest? Whatever the case, it’s as revitalizing as anything in this life can be.
Sprawled on the glacier-smoothed rock beneath’s summer’s sharp eye, I knew I was feeling just about as alive as I was ever going to feel (as I always do at times like this).
Bacon Laken was our final destination for the day. Dried out by then, and in no hurry, we explored every nock and cranny. Wanderers like us have itchy feet only the earth can scratch.
The rest of the day was occupied with swimming, relaxation and stars.
August 26, 2022: Day four
When night turned over to morning, I suggested to Carl that we diverge from any sensible way around Green Lake. “Look,” I called out, “it’s so inviting!” Lush trees and open forest belied the reality; in between those trees was brush and trees ringed in cliffs.
“I think we can do it,” Carl agreed, “let’s go for it.” Life’s adventures are just as often micro as they are macro.
With the green light, we set off across boulder fields and toward the eastern shore of Green Lake. Before long, tree and trunk were found. From one cliff, I hung down, and unable to make the leap, lowered my pack by using my whippet (a ski-pole axe). The jump, even without the weight, nearly sent me tumbling haphazardly into the trees, but with Carl in audience, I was dead set on not entertaining him more than I already had.
Carl’s route was by way of a steep creek with loose rock as ready to flow like the creek as not.
It is at times like this that the well established fact that feet are for locomotion is challenged. Because, out here, hands and fingernails are the real movers and shakers. With them, we made it over our first obstacle.
After laying our packs in a ravine, we scouted the way ahead. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, we’d explored the entire area.
The reward for our efforts was found in a small cove. On a pebble covered beach, hemmed in by cliff and inhospitable terrain, I laid in the water like it were some Roman bathhouse. I swept away spiderwebs. For a second I swore a spider mother and her hundred babies were nesting in my hair!