Lake Chelan

If you’ve never been to Stehekin, it takes some time to get to. Lying at the head of Lake Chelan, Stehekin is only accessible on foot, by boat, or plane. I’ve traveled in and out many times over Lake Chelan in the past year and each time, it gave me time to witness the climatic, topographic, and glacial changes that make this area biologically diverse.

View from ridge looking into deep valley with lake

Upper Lake Chelan and the lower Stehekin River valley seen from a ridge above Rainbow Creek.

Lake Chelan is cleaved into the heart of the North Cascades and is one of the more spectacular places in the area, biologically and geologically. Most people who arrive in Stehekin in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area do so via ferry. When the ferry motors away from Fields Point Landing, about one third the distance from Chelan to Stehekin, it leaves a relatively dry habitat with sparse tree cover, but this can look lush compared to areas farther down lake. At the lake’s outlet, the town of Chelan receives only 11.4 inches (29 cm) of precipitation per year. It is a downright arid place.

Mountain slopes with few trees above lake

Sparse vegetation along the lower half of the lake is the result of an arid climate with hot, dry summers.

As the boat continues up lake, stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir slowly thicken. At the elevation of the lake (1,100 feet, 335 meters) however, several factors continue to limit tree growth even along the lake’s upper reaches. Fires frequently burn the slopes while bare rock and sheer walls inhibit soil formation. Summer drought is common with scant rain and hot, dry temperatures that bake the lake’s western and south facing slopes. During spring, the mountainsides are flush with water from snow melt, but in late July and August the soil will become so desiccated it rises like powder under your footsteps.

Snow covered mountain with dead standing trees

In 2015, wildfires burned large areas near Lucerne, a small village on the lake.

Mountainside with dead standing trees and snow filled gullies

With ample snow melt, water is easy to find on the mountainsides next to the lake. In mid to late summer however, many of the gullies will become completely dry.

The North Cascades are famous for prodigious snowfall and plenty still clings to the mountains at this time of year. During the last glacial maximum, nearly the whole lake basin was filled with a glacier that carved it into a land-locked, steep-walled fjord.

In its middle reaches, Lake Chelan plunges to great depths. The mountain topography on either side of the valley restricted the glaciers outward flow, but not its forward movement. The tight topographic pinch created by the mountains enhanced downward erosion by the glacier. The lake basin, averaging only a mile wide over 50 miles, was greatly over-deepened, even reaching below sea level. At its deepest point the lake is almost 1500 feet (456 meters) deep. (More info about Lake Chelan’s underwater topography.)

Diagram of lake basin. Y axis is depth in feet and and X axis is length in miles

The upper basin of Lake Chelan is its deepest and most voluminous. Near mile 16 on the horizontal axis lies a submerged glacial moraine.

Section of bathymetric map of Lake Chelan. Contour Lines in 100 foot intervals. Greatest depth 1486 feet.

The steep mountain topography continues underneath the lake.

Steep mountain above lake

Sheer cliffs plunge steeply into Lake Chelan above the deepest areas of the lake. Below the boat on which I stand, the water is over 1,000 feet deep.

The volume of the former glaciers is apparent by looking at the shape of the mountains. Where glaciers overran the mountains, the ridges and peaks are smoothed over and somewhat rounded. Mountains that were tall enough to escape complete glaciation remain craggy and jagged. Measured perpendicularly from the deepest area on the lake to the crest of nearby mountains, vertical relief can reach 9,000 feet (2,744 m) and glaciers filled most of the space in between.

Snow covered mountain peak and ridgeline

Knife-edged ridges and peaks were not completely glaciated. Glacier ice eroded lower ridges, smoothing them over.

Looking at a map of Washington before I arrived here, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the area’s diversity or its glacial story. Here, arid adapted species like sagebrush can live on hot, dry rocky outcrops just a short distance away from a cool, moist ravine with western red cedar and thimbleberry. Glaciers left their mark up and down the lake, accentuating topography even further. Lake Chelan is Washington’s inland fjord surrounded by, perhaps, the most diverse habitats in the whole North Cascades ecosystem.

Restoring Grizzlies is not a Threat to Wilderness

Wilderness Watch, a non-profit advocacy and watchdog group for the National Wilderness Preservation System, opposes active restoration of grizzly bears in the North Cascades ecosystem. While their strict adherence to wilderness values is laudable, in this case it could lead to the extirpation of grizzlies from the ecosystem. Arbitrary wilderness values are not more important than the restoration of grizzlies.

Wilderness, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Importantly, the Wilderness Act states wilderness areas also preserve “wilderness character,” a set of values that link wilderness conditions with legislative intent. Federal land management agencies must manage wilderness so it maintains all aspects of wilderness character. Wilderness must remain untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, provide opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation, and protect other features of value.

Bare mountain peak with lake below

Green view lake sits below Goode Mountain in the Stephen Mather Wilderness, North Cascades National Park.

Any ecosystem manipulation in designated wilderness will affect some of these values, especially during the effort to restore grizzlies. Specifically, the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan will temporarily trammel the land by manipulating a species’ population. Additionally, helicopters flights can impact opportunities for solitude, and tracking collars on bears will affect the wilderness’s naturalness and undeveloped characteristics. For these reasons, Wilderness Watch advocates for a natural recovery alternative, which would allow bears to return on their own and offer the greatest adherence to wilderness character and values. They state:

  • Information is lacking on the status of grizzlies on the Canadian side of the border where two moderately sized provincial parks provide some protection for the bears.
  • For dubious reasons, a natural recovery alternative was rejected for further analysis. Instead, the DEIS considers only heavy-handed management alternatives.
  • The extensive use of helicopters would continue indefinitely for monitoring bear movement and numbers. This heavy-handed management would be detrimental to Wilderness and bears alike.
  • None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.

However, some of these assertions are incorrect. There is a “natural recovery alternative” in the draft restoration plan. It’s the no action alternative, or Alternative A. This alternative may need further revision to achieve Wilderness Watch’s goals, but it hasn’t been rejected for further analysis or excluded. Perhaps most importantly, if Wilderness Watch’s position is adopted by the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it will likely lead to the extirpation of grizzlies in the ecosystem, where only six bears are thought to remain (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 90).

Grizzly bears are not doing well in southwestern British Columbia. Adjacent populations to the north are only slightly more numerous. Fewer than 30 grizzlies are estimated to live within the Stein-Nahatlatch and Garibaldi-Pitt areas (interactive map of grizzly populations in British Columbia). Under current conditions, no grizzly population in Canada or the U.S. is likely to expand and occupy the North Cascades region (Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan, p. 88-89).

Alt Text: Map of Grizzly Bear Population Status in British Columbia (Red=Extirpated, Yellow=Threatened, Green=Viable)

This map shows the current status of grizzly bear populations in British Columbia. Many areas of B.C. have healthy populations of grizzlies, but every population in southwest B.C. is either threatened or already extirpated. Red Circle is approximate area of North Cascades ecosystem.

Wilderness Watch is correct when they write, “None of the current action alternatives, involving translocating bears, are compatible with Wilderness.” In this case, helicopters and intensive management of translocated bears would impact the area’s wilderness character. The impacts may be unavoidable, but under certain conditions wilderness character can be manipulated for safety and management needs (i.e. invasive species removal). The NPS and USFWS would need to diligently consider ways to minimize impacts.

Anyone who is willing to share the ecosystem with bears and also wishes to preserve wilderness character should support Alternative B in the draft restoration plan, which proposes to introduce a small number of grizzly bears into the area, monitor them, then reevaluate whether more bears should be introduced. This offers the best compromise, in my opinion, between the no action (natural restoration) alternative and other options (alternatives C and D) that are much more heavy handed.

Wilderness and wilderness character is worth protecting. Groups like Wilderness Watch should continue to be a watchdog for designated wilderness. Yet, the effort to restore a healthy, self-sustaining population of grizzlies in North Cascades transcends arbitrary wilderness values. Bears need wild areas more than people.

I wish we could step back and let grizzly bears restore themselves. Nothing I’ve read indicates that’s a successful solution though. The North Cascades ecosystem was identified as one of six recovery zones for grizzlies in the Lower 48 partly because of its large, natural, and healthy wilderness areas. Bears can survive here, if we give them a push. I believe we can sacrifice a bit of our cultural need for an idealized, untrammeled wilderness to benefit grizzly bears. If we don’t act, if we allow grizzlies to disappear, then that would be one of the greatest trammels of all.

You can submit comments on the Draft Grizzly Bear Restoration Plan through April 28, 2017.

Related Posts:
Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting
Go Further So Bears Can Go Farther