Words and Photos by Rob Lyon
Paddling into a stiff headwind on Ross Lake, my buddy and I were reveling in some of the most rugged and inspiring country in the Pacific Northwest that also happened to be a fine place for some rainbow trout fishing. The 22-mile-long lake nestled into the North Cascade Mountains, right along the border of British Columbia, fills an ancient valley where the great Skagit River once ran free.
It was a late September afternoon and we had just begun the return haul to camp after a long day in the saddle. The skies were clear above a rim of snow-capped peaks, the wind was brisk and the smell of timber filled the air.
After a quick recharge in the form of a cold-brew coffee, I wiped the spray from my sunglasses, pulled my hat down low and dug my blade into the water.
Paddling in these conditions is all about finding a simple rhythm and grinding it out. Any drift at all and the wind has your number. A couple points of land impinging the straight run of the lake would provide us a bit of lee, so we locked in our angles and kept paddling.
By the time we pull up to our camp, we’ve gone ashore to hunt up mushrooms in the horse camp at Lightning Creek and packed aboard a trove of white chanterelles, and then in the water around Cougar Island we troll up a pair of fine, fat bow. We crack two cans of dark ale a few minutes later. The wind blows still, soughing the canopy overhead and pushing small breakers onto the rocky shore below, but we have ears for a fisherman's supper of sautéed mushrooms and pan-fried trout.
In the entire Northwest, there is nothing quite like Ross Lake. I first heard of it when I lived in Oregon, working as a guide on the Deschutes River. Familiar with Jack Kerouac's work, I discovered he had spent a season as a fire lookout high above the waters of Ross on Desolation Peak. The more I looked into it, I discovered that not much had changed in the time since Jack was here.
Since that day we have come to the lake a dozen times or more, paddling up lake and camping on islands and lakeshore campsites. We boat, hike and live off the trout we catch. Sometimes we book a cabin, especially in late fall when snow dusts the surrounding peaks.
Back in the day, the rainbow were hard to come by. The only insects on the lake, really, are chironomids and trying to grow fat off a diet of those is like eating appetizers for dinner. Then someone emptied a bait bucket into the lake a decade ago containing the frisky red-sided shiner. Fast-forward to today and the lake is full of large bows and voracious Dolly Varden, grown fat on the ubiquitous bait fish.
Something I've always appreciated about Ross is how it vectors you into the wild. You'll find trailheads leading off into the Pasayten Wilds along the lake and there are deep ravines to paddle into sylvan wonderlands of moss, ferns and waterfalls.
The hike up to the fire lookout on Desolation Peak is a good one. The microclimate flora changes radically; morphing from cedar, alder and maple along the lakeshore, dense areas of spruce and fir to the rocky outcrops and madrone that remind me of my island home in the San Juans, finally to a bar knoll at the top of Desolation where a tiny cabin with big shutters enclosing the windows sits framed against a witchy looking Mount Hozomeen in the distant B.C. wilds. Jack wrote about that witchy looking peak in Dharma Bums.
Just getting boats into the lake is half the battle. If you're bringing your own boats, you have a couple different options – none of them easy. Drive in from Canada on a long dirt and gravel road. Cart your boat down one of the trails to the lake from Highway 20, high above. Or paddle across Diablo Lake to the base of Ross Dam and shuttle up to Ross on an open flatbed truck sent down from the resort.
Heads up for winds that can kick up on a dime late in the day and blow like blazes. Also be sure and carry some form of emergency shelter in case you need to sleep in your bolt hole.
When: Early June–Oct.
Where: A remote 22-mile-long wilderness lake that crosses the Canadian border in the North Cascades, Washington. For directions/portage/water taxi/boat rental information, visit www.rosslakeresort.com.
Headquarters: Ross Lake Resort, (206) 386-4437. Backcountry permits are required to camp in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. They can be acquired in person at the Wilderness Information Area in Marblemount en route to the lake. MORE INFO here.