Skagit Tours

A dam good time in the American Alps

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

When I got the press release from Skagit Tours inviting me and a few of my media cohorts to experience four of the upcoming excursions that will be offered this summer, I wondered if I’d be able to gather the fortitude to cram that much sightseeing into one day. I took a deep breath and realized: Of course I could. (I didn’t know then I’d be adding an extra stop that wasn’t even on the press junket.)

It wasn’t until we were about 45 minutes outside of Bellingham that my photographer/chauffeur commented that it appeared to be raining. Hard. We shrugged at the vagaries of the Pacific Northwest weather, and continued on along Highway 20 to our first stop in the tiny, weird town of Newhalem, where we joined representatives from Seattle City Light, the North Cascades Institute, and the National Park Service.

Before leaving Newhalem, we’d learn that the three hydroelectric dams we’d be visiting during the course of the day—Gorge, Diablo, and Ross—supply nearly 20 percent of the electricity for Seattle City Light customers. We’d also discover that the mastermind behind installing the dams, Seattle City Light’s second superintendent, J.D. Ross, was a guy who liked to show visitors to the area a really good time. (For example, those who visited in the mid-1930s could expect to be welcomed by thousands of colored lights and piped-in music coming from speakers and cords hidden among the trees at nearby Ladder Creek Falls.) 

Due to the torrential rain, our Newhalem Walking Tour (number one on the lineup) took place from a North Cascades Institute tour bus. That was O.K., as the small town resembles a place that may have been visited by the apocalypse—you can tell that people are living in some of the houses, but it’s hard to spot anything human.

I’m going to take a deep breath here and realize I can’t possibly share everything that we experienced during the next five hours. I’m going to try, though.

We visited three powerhouses, and got to go inside one and back in time in two. We ate an amazing, locally sourced lunch at the North Cascades Institute and got a short-but-sweet tour of the nonprofit’s Learning Center on the shores of Diablo Lake, which, in addition to being part of the Skagit Tours lineup, also hosts a seasonal roster of classes, excursions and volunteer opportunities focusing on connecting visitors with the natural world in the hope that they’ll want to help conserve it.

But that’s not all. We climbed aboard a boat dubbed the Cascadian to get on the waters of Diablo Lake and take a closer look at Ross Dam. While onboard, we spotted a few of the lower sections of the much-touted “American Alps” and heard about J.D. Ross’s “monkey island”—among many, many other historical tidbits of interest.

I’ve been to the area before, so even though it was raining and the postcard-perfect views were compromised, I know there’s much more to what lies off Highway 20 than what you can see from your car on your way to Eastern Washington. As was pointed out during the course of the day, the area is thick with hiking trails and boating opportunities—and, as we’d find out during our plethora of stops, learning opportunities galore. Plus, even in the rain, the lush, dramatic beauty of the area simply can’t be ignored.

By the time the tours ended around 3pm, I’d divulged to my driver/photographer that I’d never been over the pass to Winthrop. She got a gleam in her eye and told me today was the day. In short order, we got back in her Volkswagen and headed east. But that’s another story.

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