The North Cascades are full of secrets to discover, and I won't ruin that a bit. What I want to do is highlight some general things I've found about the North Cascades, so other explorers w/ packrafts can benefit from general beta:
Diversity of Runs: The North Cascades have a very broad range of boating possibilities. There's:
Long and well-known floats, like the lower Skagit, Snoqualmie, and Skykomish rivers.
High-Class, Well-Known Skull-crushers, like "Tumwater Canyon": a section of Wenatchee River that runs along Highway 2 for several miles. Check it out see some North Cascades Class V.
Beautiful Alpine Lakes. To get a taste, check out Snow Lake, from Snoqualmie Pass. It's one of the most popular hikes in Washington: a beautiful area, classic 3-5 mile north cascades hike among peaks into the lake, and - although traffic is high - very well off for the volume of people who visit it: for the most part, people have been very respectful of the area. The lake is also deceptive: from the shore, it' doesn't look *that* big. It's actually over a mile long. Jump in your raft, paddle out, and you're in a world of your own; explore the classic, jagged cliffs vanishing into it's crystal waters, or paddle to the far end, beach your raft, and clamber around in the talus and cliffs of Chair Peak, where the glacier that carved the lake used to enter it.
Solid Class II-III Runs. Grab a copy of a Washington Whitewater Guide, and check out the Wenatchee (class II-III, below Leavenworth, the Snoqualmie (above North Bend), and the Skykomish, for starters.
Fun little creeks, the full range from kind to... well, more than I'm gonna do yet. If you're just getting into paddling mountain rivers, try Baker River above Baker Lake, near Mt. Baker & Mt. Shuksan. Above the Baker River Trailhead, you can hike upriver and check out the Class II-range (for the most part) water moving through cobble flats. After getting a feel for it hiking up, paddle down it, keeping an eye ahead for any sweepers you saw on the way up. The cobble flats make for easy stopping & scouting, and on a warm summer day, you can stop and sun yourself on the rocks if you get cold.
Backcountry creeks, lakes, rivers, etc... All of the above is front-country, but you can find much of the same in the backcountry, via exploration & research.[/list]
This is a great mountain range to explore; it's just important to respect it: steep mountains, recent glaciation, and some *very* high gradient, chewy water in places. In my experience, there's no "typical" North Cascades paddler or trip profile.... it's a diverse mountain range, young & jagged.
Safety & Other Thoughts:
Sweepers. Steep mountains, fast-eroding rivers... = some MAJOR sweepers. Some rivers, like the Suiattle, look great on a map but are full of cross-river sweepers. Watch out! Another almost ate me on the Twisp River, which is otherwise a fun little Class II morning run with a mountain bike and an open boat.
Snowmelt! The NC aren't necessarily any warmer than Alaska rivers: many are fed through the summer by snowmelt.
Rugged Terrain. The terrain is spectacular. The North Cascades are sometimes called the "American Alps," although "the Lower 48 Alps" might be a better term. There are lots of waterfalls, steep gradient areas, and generally rough terrain. You can be a few miles off a road but still be "a long ways out." River character can change RAPIDLY, so I try to keep my eyes nd ears open and scanning ahead whenever I'm on unfamiliar water. A friend of mine got a bit shaken when a Class II river turned Class IV-V on him in the course of about 100 feet, on the North Fork of the Nooksack.
Sometimes, the Lakes are It... There are dedicated "lake-baggers" around here... I find I have a lot of fun by keeping on open mind, and not just chasing creek-runs. Some of my most memorable days have come from exploring Alpine Lakes around here - and they can be phantasmagoric.
Tread Lightly. The North Cascades experience heavy snowfall & rainfall, and have a very short growing season. Many of the areas in them have remained mostly pristine because of the respect people have treated them with. I try to avoid damaging vegetation, carry out garbage I find, and even avoid leaving prominent tracks in many areas. Some very, very hardcore folks explored these mountains before I was even born, yet I still feel like one of the first people to find some areas - and I try to preserve that sense of freedom & discovery for those who come after me.
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