Of all the Canada–U.S. border crossings, the one between Skagit Valley Provincial Park and North Cascades National Park is the most unusual. For starters, there’s no need to carry a passport; the dirt road that leads to the campground on the U.S. side ends abruptly on the shores of Ross Lake. To the south lies an impenetrable wilderness barrier of jagged peaks.
When the Georgia Straight met U.S. National Park Service ranger Nicolas Giguerre in June, he compared this one-of-a-kind spot with other regions where he’s worked during his decade-long tenure. “It’s so quiet here,” he said. “It feels like Alaska at the end of a long dirt road.” With a smile, Giguerre added, “This is the most easily crossed border in the country.”
North Cascades Park is a vast 204,277-hectare area stretching between Mount Baker and the Okanagan, almost 10 times the size of its Skagit Valley counterpart. According to Giguerre, North Cascades is much larger than most national parks in the lower 48. Established in 1968, the park predates the creation of protected land on the B.C. side. Thanks to lobbying efforts led by logger Curley Chittenden and conservation advocate Tom Perry, preservation of the Skagit Valley came about in 1973.
Benefits of the twin parks favour visitors in ways both visible and unseen. Access to the north end of Ross Lake, a dammed reservoir whose waters extend above the border in summer, is a snap for B.C. campers, swimmers, and boaters. At this time of year, water levels in the lake are kept at their highest, to attract anglers from south of the border as much as their Canadian counterparts. Recent changes in U.S. travel regulations have meant residents coming north must carry passports to reenter their country. The impact of the new policy has been to drastically cut American visitor numbers.
“Long weekends in summer are the only times now when we see folks from Washington,” observed Giguerre. “Otherwise, it’s all Canadians.”
Such as Martin Orlmayr and Sue Bissonnette, two North Vancouver-based cyclists whom the Georgia Straight encountered on the U.S. side at the Hozomeen campground. The duo used their campsite as a jumping-off point for extensive tours of the flat-bottom valley and the lake’s shifting perimeter, at historic lows in June. And what’s Hozomeen got that the duo couldn’t find on the B.C. side? Free camping. Whereas the cost of spending a night at the nearby Ross Lake provincial campground is $16, no fees are charged in the national park. Not only does this represent a tidy savings, but the bottom line is that the forested campsites on the U.S. side are more widely spaced and less exposed to the winds that funnel through the valley. Add in a plentiful supply of fresh drinking water and immaculate washrooms and it’s a wonder that, given the option, anyone camps on the Canadian side.
To be fair, the provincial counterpart does offer more spacious drive-through sites for RVs, as well as a children’s playground. The International Point interpretivecentre at Ross Lake’s day-use area presents a telling portrait of cooperation between B.C. Parks and the National Park Service. As well, it highlights another financial disparity. Over the past decade, interpretive services at B.C. Parks have been all but eliminated. But thanks to funding from the Skagit Environmental Endowment Commission—formed when Seattle City Light, operators of the reservoir, and the provincial government created a $5-million legacy in 1984 for education research in the Upper Skagit Valley—daily presentations on wildlife, as well as brochures on hiking trails, are available at the Hozomeen information kiosk.
No matter what the season, but particularly in late summer when the pulse of fall wildlife migration picks up, search out Chittenden Meadows. A pedestrian suspension bridge spans the Skagit River just north of the Ross Lake campground. Anglers fly-fish from nearby gravel bars in one of North America’s premier rainbow-trout streams. Although a strict catch-and-release policy applies to the river, trout caught in the lake are fair game for the frying pan. Meander through the meadows, where the interface between Coast and Interior forests, as well as a profusion of wildflowers, stands vividly on display. A grove of ponderosa pines, at the western limit of their range, offers mute testimony to long-time resident Curley Chittenden’s efforts to preserve the upper valley. When ordered to log the meadows, as he had done further south in advance of flooding on the U.S. side, Chittenden not only refused the provincial government’s offer but also sought media attention to prevent what he saw as a desecration. That pleases the likes of composer Erik DeLuca, a National Park Service artist in residence. The Georgia Straight crossed paths with DeLuca shortly after he’d recorded a dawn chorus of songbirds in the meadows. Artists in residence in parks: yet another illustration of the cross-border contrasts to be found during a visit to this international wild space.
Access: Skagit Valley Provincial Park begins 180 kilometres from Vancouver and extends 60 kilometres south to North Cascades National Park on the B.C.–Washington border. Take Highway 1 east to Exit 168 on the outskirts of Hope, then go south on Silver Skagit Road from the settlement of Silver Creek. For more information on the provincial park, visit the BC Parks website. For North Cascades National Park, visit their website.