- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

NEWHALEM, Wash. (AP) - On a recent visit, my first sniff when I opened the car door at the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center on the edge of Newhalem told the story: Did you ever put your nose really close to a cold, dead campfire the morning after a wienie roast?

That’s what Newhalem smelled like. No mistaking that there had been wildfires nearby.

That’s not to mention the patches of brown, dead trees visible on 6,052-foot Mount Ross, just north of Highway 20, which closed because of fires - along with most of the park - for 10 days in August. Or the short stretches of charred trees coming right up to the edge of the visitor center’s entry road, just beyond the closed-by-fire Newhalem Creek Campground.

Alarmingly, those burned areas are only a few hundred feet from the park’s main visitor center.

Singed campground

In the 110-site Newhalem Creek Campground, the park complex’s only campground with reservable spaces, fire burned part of Loop C. Flames also encroached on nature trails including the River Loop Trail, and the nearby Trail of the Cedars and Ladder Creek Falls trails, the latter known for a nighttime light show illuminating falling water.

In the Newhalem area, for the time being only the very short Sterling Munro Boardwalk trail remains open (though it gives a pretty nice view of the remote Picket Range, including charmingly named Mount Terror and the oddly squared-off Pinnacle Peak, shaped a lot like Devils Tower of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame).

The closures are a safety precaution, park ranger Katy Hooper told me on a tour of the burn areas. Burned trees or branches could fall without warning.

Safety assessments are under way, but it will be spring before park officials determine what can reopen and when, she said.

For park rangers, the fire is now something to give talks about, like other natural-history topics such as animal tracks or bird calls. As we looked out at Mount Ross from the end of the Munro Boardwalk, Hooper gave a naturalist’s explanation of how the fire wove its way down from the peak, following tree lines and stalling at rocky outcroppings, after lightning hit a single tree on or about Aug. 10.

“This hillside is a good example of the mosaic effect of how a fire burns,” she said, pointing at the mix of dead, charred trees alongside green and unscathed patches.

That’s the take-home lesson: The brown and black blends with enough green to significantly soften the visual impact. It’s definitely noticeable but doesn’t look half as bad as you might expect.

To highway’s edge

What’s alarming, however, is not only how close fire came to the visitor center, but that it came right down to the highway’s edge. You’ll see a few burned trees and bushes directly across the road from the Seattle City Light “company town” of Newhalem. After jumping the highway farther east, the fire essentially surrounded the town. Only the vigilance of firefighters kept significant investments from burning.

“I was surprised to see so much burned area, even on the other side of the river,” said visitor Dick McConkey, from Ellensburg, whom I met at the Gorge Creek Falls viewpoint, about the easternmost point from which the burn can be seen along the highway. He and his wife make the North Cascades drive every fall, he said, calling it “the best time, before the snow comes.” Did the burned trees bother him? “No, it’s probably burned many times before up here, don’t you think?”

Drive clear across the mountains and you’ll still enjoy pristine views of orange-turning larch trees seen from Washington Pass Overlook, before you descend into Okanogan County.

Back on the west side, the village of Newhalem, singed around the edges, looks otherwise the same, with tidy homes for people who work at the nearby dams, the village green dotted with picnic tables, the old locomotive for kids to climb on, the flower boxes blooming outside the Skagit General Store (“est. 1922”).

“A lot of people are coming this way for curiosity,” said Kelly Regan, a clerk at the store. “A lot of people who retired from City Light, who worked here, are coming back to be sure we’re all OK!”

And what about that cold-campfire “perfume”?

“The first snow, that’s what we’re waiting for,” Regan said. “They say it will dampen down the smell.”

If You Go

Planning an October trip across the North Cascades?

What’s open and undamaged by fire

. Most trails in the national park and along North Cascades Highway

. North Cascades Environmental Learning Center (ncascades.org/discover/ ncelc)

. Ross Lake Resort (rosslakeresort.com )

. Popular roadside stops such as Rainy Pass picnic area and Washington Pass Overlook (in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest)

. Colonial Creek Campground (in winter mode; walk-in tent sites only, no water or flush toilets, no fees)

. Goodell Creek Campground (no water, flush toilets or fees)

. Gorge Lake Campground (no water, flush toilets, fees)

What’s not open

. Goodell Upper and Lower Group campgrounds

. Newhalem Creek Campground

. Goodell climber access parking area and route

. Newhalem crags climbing area.

. Trapper Lake outlet

. Newhalem-area trails (Ladder Creek Falls Trail, Linking Trail, Lower Newhalem Creek Trail, River Loop Trail, Rock Shelter Trail, To Know A Tree Trail, and Trail of the Cedars)

. Newhalem Creek Trail

. Park Creek Trail north of Two Mile Camp

. Cascade River Road (and access to Cascade Pass trailhead), closed for construction at Milepost 20 through late October

For more information: nps.gov/noca and fs.usda.gov/main/okawen


The original story can be found on The Seattle Times’ website: https://bit.ly/1GwMirk


Information from: The Seattle Times, https://www.seattletimes.com

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