Snoqualmie Pass and the wildfires.


Many of you will remember the horrible wildfires that burned entire forests throughout every province and state along the west coast of Canada and the USA in 2017.  And you’ll remember the terrible smoke that was blown everywhere, into our homes, boats, cars, RVs, and lungs.  The sun was a deep blood red for weeks because of the smoke and ash in the air.  You could look right at the sun even at high noon because the smoke and ash blotted out so much of the light.  The photo to the right is mine taken around 4 pm on a “sunny” summer day in Des Moines, WA.  Those aren’t clouds; that’s ash and smoke from the fires.

The smell of the smoke in the air was acrid.  Many people had serious breathing problems; some people had to move to the midwest or to the east coast of North America until the smoke cleared weeks or months later.  Many hundreds of homes and other buildings in towns and in large cities burned to the ground; a number of firefighters died.  What was equally troubling (maybe more troubling?) were the thousands and millions of acres of forests that were destroyed … the likely millions of animals and birds and fish and insects that were killed.  It will take hundreds of years for all of this to grow back.  Some of the fires were caused by humans.  It was a summer and autumn that many of us will never forget.

One day in August, I’d had enough.  Even though I lived at sea level within blocks of Puget Sound and a few hundred miles away from the nearest fires, I could TASTE the smoke.  Online reports indicated that the air at higher elevations had less smoke density, so that’s where I went — up hill.  I wanted a break!

I had driven over Snoqualmie Pass (in the Cascade Mountains) many times when I was going to college at Washington State University (lots of years ago, don’t ask) but I hadn’t been up there for ten years or more, so that’s where I headed in the big white truck for the day.  Off I went into the hills and the mountains!

Well, it was kinda hard to see the hills, much less see the mountains.  The first two photos below tell the tale.  The first photo is one I took through the windshield of the truck on the drive this day, not while the truck was in motion of course, no siree.  The second photo was taken off the internet and shows what ordinarily should have been my view had there been no smoke.  (The black dots in the first photo are not UFO’s but just dirt on the windshield, my apologies.)  These two photos were not taken from exactly the same spot on the highway, but the mountain on the right is the same in each photo, just a bit different angle.

Where there should have been gorgeous, stunning mountains, there was nothing but a blank wall of smoke and ash blown in from wildfires east of the mountains.  Now, I firmly believed the mountains were still there, but I certainly couldn’t see them.  On the other hand, the air was already easier to breathe and so I kept going.  I had two destinations in mind … and I got to both of them and I’m eager to tell you about them.  Not everything learned today was good news unfortunately but some was good news and I saw some breathtakingly beautiful scenery and met some really great folks.

Snoqualmie Pass is a stunningly beautiful drive on a clear day.

Once I made it up to the highest point of the highway that went over the mountain pass, the air really did seem so much better.  Distances were still a foggy gray-ish brown, but I couldn’t smell the smoke any more, or taste it.  I was happy to be up there.

Just past Snoqualmie summit, Lake Keechelus appears on the right side of the freeway.  It’s a dammed lake.  [No, it’s not a “damned” lake .. it’s a dammed lake.  I know some of you went there .. don’t try to fool me.]  This lake is the source of the Yakima River that feeds into the mighty Columbia River that feeds into the great Pacific Ocean.  Lake Keechelus was originally a small lake, and is now a large water storage reservoir for irrigation of crops in eastern Washington.  The dam is an earthfill structure 128 feet high and has a single 8.5-foot square outlet gate, along with a bypass conduit so there will always be enough water in the river downstream for fish when the outlet gate is closed.  It has worked perfectly since 1917.

But this year was different.  The 2016-17 winter was so cold and the snow-pack so deep, and then the spring so warm with so much rain, that water continued to flow off the mountains and into Lake Keechelus in greater quantities and for a longer time this spring/summer than ever before.  In order to prevent that water from flooding the farms downstream, the outlet gate from the lake was closed more than usual, so the water level in the lake was much higher than usual.

As a result, this year’s summer run-off from the lake wasn’t enough to lower the water level of the lake; there was simply too much water in the lake.  Ordinarily, by mid-August each year, the view of the lake from the highway would be of tree stumps and lots of brown mud.  I expected to see an empty lake bed.  This year in August, however, the lake was FULL of water.  I pulled off at the first exit past the lake to check out the flow of water downstream from the dam, thinking the dam’s outlet gate must be closed for some reason, preventing outflow from the lake.  I had hoped to explore the dam and environs anyway this day, although now I wondered what was up.

Wow.  What ordinarily would have been barely a trickle flowing downhill from the muddy and almost empty lake was, this year, a raging river with overflowing banks.  The dam’s outlet gate was wide open and yet it still couldn’t get rid of enough water fast enough.  I stopped the big white truck on a small bridge that crossed this river because there were two other white trucks stopped there (obviously working trucks) with two guys standing on the bridge chatting (obviously workers taking a break).  They were happy to talk with me, telling me right off that access to the dam was closed to the public because of high water levels.

They told me about the lake level and the snow pack and all of its history.  They said the outlet gate, that was ordinarily closed this time of year, was instead wide open in an attempt to get rid of as much water as possible before the 2017-18 autumn arrived with its copious amounts of rain and the 2017-18 winter with another predicted record high snowfall.  They said there is great concern about the dam being washed away this winter (or in spring 2018) by billions of gallons of too much water still in the lake.  It was decided to let the water empty as fast as possible from the lake, even though it meant too much water downstream in the farms.  Even if the dam holds, they told me most fish will be unable to make it upstream this fall because of the volume of water and, for those fish who do make it upstream, the water will be too deep and fast for spawning.  This was not good news and not really what I wanted to hear on a fun day out in the big white truck.  But I believe we all need to hear this.  They said this is happening all up and down the Cascade Mountain Range from Canada to California.

There are hundreds of rivers and streams where there are no people and no infrastructure available to control water flow and where native fish habitat (and the fish) are being destroyed … exacerbated by the wildfires which have cleared millions of acres of forests allowing mud to flow into hundreds of rivers and streams and so do even more damage.  It’s just not a good year.

On the other hand, these two men said there is hope that enough water can be drained off this particular lake to prevent destruction of the dam … and there are already plans and equipment in place to catch fish downstream and truck them up-river … and there are already places being constructed on creeks feeding this river where the spawning fish will be released and nature can take its course.  Both of these guys seemed knowledgable and genuinely concerned and yet also genuinely hopeful.  That made me feel better.  As much as this situation is troubling, these two fellows were sincere and their discussions about solutions were heartfelt.

But, besides all this environmental stuff, what felt really weird was the bridge we were on.  As mentioned, the river was much higher than usual, just a foot or two below the bridge.  I sort of noticed movement of the bridge when we were first talking but it slowly crept more fully into my consciousness over time.  The bridge was vibrating a LOT because of the volume and speed of the water flowing underneath it and against its supports.  The two guys didn’t seem to care, but I cared and was happy to get back in my truck and get to solid land.  Wobbling and bobbling bridges aren’t my thing!

That was interesting, but that was enough drama for one day so I decided to head to my second destination.  I wanted to explore a campground I’d heard about at Lake Kachess (a different lake than Lake Keechelus), just a few miles further down the highway.  It was beautiful!  After I got off the main highway a few miles further east, the 5-mile drive through the forest to get to the campground was wonderful.  There were a few homes along the way, but most were tucked back in the woods and couldn’t be seen from the road.

Lake Kachess, to the left!

There were lots of trailhead signs.

The Kachess Campground is very large.  There are water faucets inside the campground where you can fill your containers to take back to your campsite, but no hookups (water or electricity) are at any of the campsites.  You come prepared with a rig that’s self-contained.

I have a federal Senior Pass so get a 50% discount when camping on any federal land other than in National Parks.  This was National Forest land so I can camp here any time for half of the usual price.

It took me almost two hours to drive through the entire campground.  Part of that time was spent chatting with a most amenable Forest Service Ranger and part of that time was spent marking down campsite numbers of my favorite campsites for future reference … either on Gale Creek that feeds into the lake or in Thetis Creek Circle on the point of the peninsula where a number of campsites had great views of the lake.

The campground takes up the entire, large peninsula that juts out into Lake Kachess.  The photo below is an aerial photo that clearly shows Lake Kachess and the peninsula.  You can see a white sand beach tucked in a corner on the left.  That’s the public beach at the campground.  It’s a big campground!

And here (above) is that white sand beach seen from ground level.  That person bent over by the water is a child maybe 14 years old in a swimming suit, just getting out of the water after a swim in the lake.  Brrrrr!!  She must be hardier than I’ve ever been!

Lastly, I pulled off to one side of the forest road on my way back out to the main highway to snap this shot of Lake Kachess.  It’s a large lake and will be exceptionally beautiful when that smoke clears.  I’ll be back another day.  It’s on my ever-growing list of places to return to for several days of camping.

Oops, one more interesting thing.  The word keechelus (the first lake in this post) means “few fish” … the word kachess (this second lake) means “many fish”.  The lakes are within 4 miles of each other and both feed into the Yakima River so you’d think fish would work their way up into both lakes in equal numbers, but I’d guess the folks here hundreds and thousands of years ago who named these lakes knew what they were talking about way better than we do.  I’d put my money on Lake Kachess for good fishing.

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4 Responses to Snoqualmie Pass and the wildfires.

  1. BACCHUS Bob says:

    Once again, incredibly interesting information about your travels. WELL DONE!!!!! You have a wonderful gift in blogging.

  2. Ginger D says:

    The fires were horrible. Now Southern California is burning. It makes me sad to see it.
    You sure have some beautiful camping spots in your area.

    • Ann says:

      Hi Ginger,
      Yes, I’ve been watching the news about the southern California fires. So much damage, so much sadness, so much fear.
      And, yes, so much beauty up here. Friends of mine enjoy the wide open camping of the southwest, but I do love the forests and mountains and rivers and lakes up here in Washington.

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