‘The air is rent by a blast of the boat’s horn, and with a surge of power the Lady of the Lake pulls away from her dock and sets off into the morning mist. Mighty engines push her hundred-foot hull through the cold waters, and yet at full steam she makes a sedate fifteen miles per hour, carrying passengers, cargo, and the US mail uplake into the heart of the wilderness.
High overhead, patches of blue sky shine through gaps in the October clouds, the promise of a brighter day ahead, but for now I still shiver as I stand on the aft deck, watching the town of Chelan slip away like the last promise of civilization. Vineyards cover the dry lakeside hills in a patchwork quilt, while million-dollar summer homes and vacation resorts dot the shoreline, private docks bereft of watercraft now that summer’s last gasp is ending. The unused waterslides and absence of jet skis foretell the tale that autumn’s chill crispness promises. Winter is coming.
Midway up the lake
The miles slip by, the homes and hotels grow more sparse and more spartan, and the lakeside roads disappear up into the surrounding hills or simply come to an end. An hour into the voyage the last bar of cellular coverage drops away, and a certain calm falls over me. There will be no more email. Nobody can call or text me now.
No status updates or instant messages. Briefly I wonder if it was wise to leave so much behind, no laptop, no e-reader, phone now relegated to the role of camera, but soon such worries drop away. The mountains beckon.
Looking back downlake:
The hills crowd the narrow lake, growing more rugged, more rocky, steeper, taller, and closer as we press north by northwest into the mountains. The vineyards and ranches are long gone, thick evergreen forested slopes in their place to the southwest, while bighorn sheep roam the steep, grassy cliffs to the northeast. The south-facing slopes still show the desert dryness we are leaving behind us, while the north-facing slopes are lush with the hint of wetter climes ahead. We are far from the sea, the bulk of the Cascade range between us and salt water, yet seagulls flit about the lakeshore, and Canadian geese make a mockery of our stately progress.
Two hours in, and we are over the deepest part of the lake. Fifteen-hundred feet down the glacier-carved gorge’s bottom lies in perpetual inky blackness, where the sun’s warmth and light can never penetrate. What treasures or horrors lay there will remain unknown, perhaps forever, as the lake refuses to give up her secrets. Only two lakes in North America go deeper.
Halfway to our destination the boat eases toward the northeastern shore. A small dock juts out from the steep shoreline, with a small but cozy cabin just beyond. The dock is too small for our vessel, but the captain noses us up close to its end, where an elderly couple await, the man holding a long pole with a bag on the end. On the bow, a crewmember holds an identical pole, and when we are close enough the poles are extended, the bag passing from one to the other. The crewman puts another bag onto his pole, extends it out, and thus the weekly mail is delivered almost to the door of this remote, off-the-grid home. Neither snow nor rain, nor gloom of night…
Mountain peaks reveal themselves through gaps where deep, narrow valleys wind their way down, often ending in waterfalls. Distant patches of persistent snow shine in the weak sunlight. Again, we edge our way to the shore, but this time there is no dock, no cabin, only a faint footpath winding away from what passes for a rocky beach. The captain knows his boat, however, and he knows the lake. We have a thick steel-reinforced bow, and the captain pushes us right up onto the beach. I feel the gravel and driftwood crunching beneath us, reverberating through the steel deck.
The same crewman as before lowers a gangplank over the bow, and half a dozen backpackers, heavy packs on their backs, carefully walk across and leave us. Most of them will be walking for several days in the wilderness, their destination the same as ours, though we will be there in just over an hour. The last three to cross, however, carry an ice chest between them, and fishing rods. My travel companions and I wonder aloud if they really intend to backpack with a cooler full of beer (for such it is), but no, it is quite obvious they will be camping on shore, fishing and drinking until the boat returns to retrieve them in a few days time.
Full reverse thrust, and with a last crunch of gravel we are off, afloat once more, our bow pointed north to our destination. We round the final bend and we can see it, Stehekin, the way through of ancient Salish lore, where the fifty-mile-long lake becomes a narrow valley between steep-sided mountains. It is a three-day walk from here to Cascade Pass, from whence one can look west toward the more populous lowlands of north Puget Sound.
We pull up to a small wharf, unload our cargo and mail, and I step onto the shore. Stehekin village, population sixty-one, unreachable by any road. I breathe deeply of the mountain air, look across the lake to the thickly-forested slopes opposite, and let my eye be drawn upwards to the orange splash of larches high on the mountainside, standing out among the evergreen cedar and Douglas fir. I shoulder my pack and walk up the path, leaving the world behind.’
Shehanne, thanks for asking me. I hope the hamsters like the picture I sent you for them.
A few visitors for the hamsters to play with.