Experiencing the Pasayten Wilderness
As I’ve told people about our backpacking trip over Labor Day weekend this year, most of the responses have ranged from, “Wait, you went where?” to “What was the name of it again?”
Truth be told, I hadn’t heard of the Pasayten Wilderness in North Central Washington until a few years ago when my wife stumbled upon a trail report while researching potential places for a backpacking trip. Since then the Pasayten has landed in the 2nd or 3rd place position on our lists when it came time to choose a destination, always being bested by a trip that either didn’t require as much of a drive or that packed more “star power.”
And there-in lies a large portion of the anonymity surrounding the Pasayten Wilderness: it’s remote, it lacks an uber-famous destination point in a state full of uber-famous destination points, and it’s so big that we were never sure what portion we could bite off and still be able to chew it.
The anonymity surrounding the Pasayten does not, however, have anything to do with its lack of beauty. Still present are the 7,000-8,000 foot peaks and crystal clear lakes that the Cascades are famous for, but in a totally different form. Gone are the lush forested slopes, the jagged rock faces that appear to have burst forth from the ground only days before, and the seemingly endless supplies of water. In its place are high desert grasses and shrubs, rounded hills of grass or rock that appear to be crumbling with age, and a slower trickle of water that creates slashes of vitality across an otherwise monotonous landscape. The beauty of this place isn’t in the abundance of life and color seen in every direction, but in the way that life scratches and claws to hold on in a land that appears fairly barren.
One example of this came from the small lake that served as base camp for our two nights in the Pasayten. For the first day and a half I scanned the water, looking for signs of the trout whose pictures appeared in on-line reports of other people’s backpacking trips here. But for a day and a half my looking came up empty. This lake appeared to be too shallow and lacked the structure necessary to give reprieve from hot Summer days. I saw nothing–absolutely nothing.
The lake that we day-hiked past on our second day was in worse shape: it was approaching the point of being dried up entirely, and the bottom of the lake was entirely featureless. Returning by this smaller lake on our way back to camp, I realized that the only benefit of the fly fishing gear I had brought along was going to be the extra calories I would burn from carrying its weight. The creeks were barely big enough to pump water out of and the lakes were empty.
We arrived back at camp shortly before dinner time, and in a moment of borderline desperation I decided that I was going to put at least one fly on the water to justify the inclusion of the gear. As I walked to the edge of what turned out to be a soft, undercut bank, a sudden and surprisingly large eruption happened beneath my feet: a healthy rainbow, with a deep crimson stripe streaked from its holding spot in the undercut towards the slightly deeper middle. I started laughing….and then I quickly tied on a fly in hopes that the fish would return.
For the next 40 minutes I stood in the same spot, watching as 3 or 4 fish slowly circled their way around this slightly deeper end of the lake, occasionally coming into casting range. Blind casting was pointless here–the entire bottom of the lake was clearly visible, and therefore there weren’t going to be any surprise fish rising from the depths. You had to target a single cruising fish, and you had to do so with a precise, one false cast presentation. Anything more than that and the long shadows created by the evening sun or the ever-so-slight spray of water from a cast fly would send these fish into a hasty retreat. After a few minutes of staring into empty water, another fish would circle back towards you. Eventually the smallest of the 3 or 4 fish was fooled by my fly, but an errant hook-set led to only a brief connection. By that point, dinner was ready.
Now, if there’s one thing that my wife has realized from our marriage, it’s that I contain a certain stubbornness within me. This is especially true when it comes to fishing. Since I had seen fish and momentarily hooked a fish, I therefore wouldn’t be satisfied until I had landed a fish. So I returned to my casting perch as soon as the dishes were washed, teeth were brushed, and the bear bag was hung. With the sun gone, the shadows would obviously be gone with it, and I hoped that this would turn the tables in my favor.
Another 20 minutes of standing and looking revealed that the low sun had actually been working to my benefit as much as to my detriment. While the shadows of my 6x tippet had been a primary cause of spooked fish, I had also been relying on the shadows cast by the cruising fish to spot them. With the sun gone, the fish were now swimming beneath a mirror-like surface, making them almost invisible underneath the reflected image of the mountains, trees, and sky beyond the lake. In those 20 minutes I had spotted only one fish, which spooked before the first false cast had even gone overhead. With the light almost entirely gone now, the advantage firmly in the corner of the fish, and the cold of a high desert night setting in, I began to reel up and kick myself for botching my one solid shot at a fish.
I had taken only a few steps when I heard a fish roll 10-15 yards up the lake from where I had been standing, and as my eyes went in that direction I could make out the profile of a nice fish working its way down the shore towards me. Quickly pulling line from my reel I prepared to extend one more offering. With one false cast my fly landed about 5 feet in front of the fish, and instead of speeding off towards the center of the lake, one flick of the tail sent this rainbow barreling towards my size 20 adams. I hardly had time to twitch the fly before the fish exploded through the glassy surface. The clicking of my reel’s drag combined with the splashes of several acrobatic jumps and my child-like laughter pierced through the otherwise silent setting. After a respectable fight, a 13 inch rainbow with a thick middle and beautiful stripe slid into my hand. Removing the hook, I watched it swim away, back to the invisible under the reflective surface.
Later that night I rose to see a sky filled with more stars than I had ever seen before, and the next morning we ate breakfast to the sound of coyotes howling in the valley just below us. As we hiked past the deeper end of the lake on our way to the trail that would return us to our car, and ultimately to civilization, I stopped in hopes of seeing one more cruising fish. Whether I did or didn’t makes no difference at all–the fish are most certainly there. They, much like the rest of the life and beauty of the Pasayten Wilderness, exist in the middle of the unexpected and the seemingly barren.