Sharp morning sunbeams slice through riverbed mist, burn the fog of sleep from my eyes. This could be Scotland, a moor. Vegetation erupts in shades of green, the Skagit River lifeblood to these banks. Mist gives the impression of something hidden, revealed. The tent my partner Toby and I share is also green, pitched with ultralight aluminum poles on the gentle slope of a sandy riverbank. Our tent filters sunlight like the leaves of shrubby deciduous trees, crouching alders; it’s as if we have been sleeping inside a gigantic leaf lean-to.
When the mist rolls up most of our belongings are packed, sleeping bags stuffed tight into compression sacks and mattresses rolled in the bottom of bike panniers. I’ve moved the tent into a sunbeam in hopes that moisture accumulated overnight will evaporate while we eat instant oats for breakfast. I watch Toby carry a pot down to collect river water. He is lanky, lean, and moves with the long calculated strides of a heron. By the time he returns I’ve got the stove fired up and I’m rummaging through Ziplock bags for almonds and raisins.
The Skagit River drains the Cascades into Puget Sound. Its 240 kilometre waterway begins in Allison Pass, British Columbia, and curves like a fishhook across the border to wind south through North Cascades National Park. Between 1924 and 1940 a series of hydroelectric dams created Ross, Diablo, and George Lake, where the flow slows in pools before tumbling down the mountainside to the Pacific. The dams are impressive, both visually and in terms of generated electricity: the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project powers about ninety percent of Seattle. Despite the negative ecological impact—loss of wildlife habitat in flooded valleys, diverted flow from tributaries—the Skagit still remains the only Washington river to support all five native salmon species, which in turn encourages one of the largest wintering bald eagle populations on the continent. Traveling from as far as Alaska, the eagles arrive in late October to feed on Chum and Coho. While eating oatmeal on the riverbank, we see neither eagles nor salmon, but I imagine the frenzy: beaks and claws tearing through scales and flesh.
The Skagit River parallels our east-to-west cycle route along North Cascades Highway from Mount Vernon to Diablo Lake. Down from Peace Arch border crossing, we jogged east at Mount Vernon. Over the next few days we’ll wind up Highway 20 into North Cascades National Park, past Diablo Lake and over Washington Pass, then downhill through the ski town of Winthrop before pedalling into apple country on Highway 97. Then south, zigzagging the Cascades until we reach Baja California. Great swaths of desert and eternal summer await.
Yesterday Toby had a bike mishap. We were pedalling a rail-to-trail path that alternated views of the gushing Skagit with fields of wheat that shimmered like gold coins. Aside from the river, the only sounds were of our tires kicking up stones and the rustle of birch leaves, shuffled playing cards overhead. I half-expected to startle a pair of French lovers slinging baguettes and Brie in a picnic basket, when suddenly a branch wedged into the spokes of Toby’s rear wheel.He rocketed from the saddle, bike skittering into the ditch.
After Toby jimmied the branch loose, we realized his derailleur was most definitely shot. I made a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while he wrestled the thing off and pulled apart the chain, converting his touring bike into a single-speed.
“We’re going to have to backtrack,” he said, crouched beside me on the gravel. His hands, filthy with grease and crud, left suspicious-looking fingerprints on his sandwich.
“But what about the point of no return?” I groaned. Every cyclist has their point of no return—for me it’s about fifty feet after I’ve passed the turnoff. If I missed, say, Niagara Falls by more than that, I’d just have to keep going. In our case, the closest bike shop was in the town of Burlington, about fifteen miles back. Way past my point of no return.
“Let’s stick to the highway,” Toby said, “it’ll be quicker than gravel.”
With his derailleur detached, Toby was stuck in the lowest gear, a guinea pig strapped onto his spinning wheel. For stretches he gripped the three-foot pole of the BC flag that trailed from the back of my bike, and I towed him down the highway. We barely made it to the shop. The bike mechanics were impressed with his handiwork, and stayed open well past five o’clock close to get him rolling again. We hit the pavement again before dark and managed to cover some distance, however our riverbank camp spot was only a kilometre past the point we turned around at because of his broken derailleur.
First Nations have been setting up camps on the banks of the Skagit River for thousands of years. The river was named for the Skagit tribe, mistakenly believed by Europeans to be a singular group that was in reality two distinct peoples, the Upper Skagit of the Ross Lake and the Lower Skagit of Whidbey Island. Archaeological evidence demonstrates a booming 10,000-year-old trade network of chert blades quarried from Hozomeen Mountain, a double-summit peak next to Ross Lake. The name Hozomeen is actually the Salish word for “sharp blade.”
After our overnight on the riverbank Toby and I head into mountains, pit-stopping at an all-in-one gas station and general store in Concrete to stock up on calorie-rich nut mix and refill our water bottles. The highway has a decent shoulder and traffic is sparse. We pass white fences and chocolate horses, stars and stripes mailboxes, apple orchards, and ranch houses set back from the road on long gravel drives. Marblemount and Rockport follow, but the density of surrounding wilderness renders these towns forgettable, swallowed by dark woods and rock scree, the Skagit drumming below. The real hills commence once we hit the National Park, we’re told. Until then it’s just scenery.
By now, both Toby and I have begun to feel the burden of our endeavour, muscles aching deep to the bone and backsides sore from being saddled over strips of hard leather. On a bicycle, nothing yields. Not the handlebars, nor the seat or frame. A body must adapt, and mine’s having a hard time adjusting to the requisite chafing. When the slope picks up grade, east of Rockport, I begin to wonder if we shouldn’t have spent more time on the coast before tackling the Cascades. By now though, we’re long past the point of no return.
We reach the park late in the day, turning off for a lookout over Diablo Lake less than halfway up our first gruelling ascent. Diablo is the kind of aquamarine blue that reminds me more of cupcake icing than water. Under a coarse fur of conifers, ridges rise from all sides like sloped backs of giant sleeping beasts. The scar of a service road knifes the opposite shore, Diablo Dam barely visible on the western edge. Among a crowd of tourists, I marvel at the scale of this uneasy coalescence between industry and nature. It occurs to me that even the forest has been altered, lodgepole pines and douglas firs felled and replanted only to be torn up again by great harvesters, and finally, granted protection by National Park status. When the others have packed off into station wagons we pitch our tent on the drop-side of the safety rail, just out of sight from the parking lot.
That evening Toby and I watch bats chase twilight insects in erratic figure eights over the cliffs. We’re in it for real now, I realize. Crossed the international border, survived our first breakdown, and entered the Cascade Range. The two of us have stepped off the cliff and plunged into free fall; we’re past the point of no return and we’ll do what we have to in order to keep going, whether that means detouring to make repairs or persevering uphill even after the burn feels insufferable.
A close-flying bat wings over the edge and disappears above the lake before it roars into Diablo Dam. My cheeks pinch tight, a silent smile, in anticipation of what tomorrow may bring.