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Sunday, June 18, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Stehekin: A refuge among Washington's peaks

Special to The Seattle Times

The sun had just dipped beneath the snow-flanked peaks of the Seven Sisters when Cliff Courtney bent his large frame under the fence railing that surrounds the horse pasture.

He approached me with a grin and an outstretched hand, the tips of his cowboy boots damp from walking through irrigated grass. After introductions, I told him that my companion and I had arrived on the new high-speed ferry that afternoon, the one that roars and bounces along Washington's Lake Chelan, delivering passengers from the town of Chelan to the Stehekin Landing, a distance of 55 miles, in just over an hour.

I asked if he'd ridden it yet.

Without hesitation he said: "I'm still in denial that it's even on the lake. It has nothing to do with what Stehekin is all about."

The comment, I was to discover, revealed a lot about this fourth-generation Stehekinite, a gregarious, wry, opinionated man who has lived here most of his life. But it took me a few days to realize exactly what Courtney meant by it.

To understand Cliff Courtney, one doesn't have to look far. The style of the Stehekin Valley Ranch, which he operates nine miles up the road from Stehekin - the tiny community at the north end of Lake Chelan in north-central Washington - is the first tip-off.

Under the shade of giant maples near the pasture stand several tent cabins with wood frame walls, canvas roofs, kerosene lanterns for light, and no plumbing. They are similar to the tents that Cliff's father, Hugh, a legendary high-mountain horse-packer in these parts, would set up for his clients on multi-day trips across the North Cascades.

Hugh's guests would feast on three hearty meals a day, as Cliff's guests do now in the ranch's brawny log lodge, which has a rustic sawdust floor in the dining area and big pots of cowboy coffee - a strong brew made by adding ground beans directly to hot water - warming over a wood fire.

Cliff's brother Tom runs a high-mountain horse-packing business and offers daily trail rides. But Cliff does little riding these days; he's too busy running the resort and serving as activities coordinator. He keeps the ranch small (30 guests maximum) so he can give personal attention to everyone.

Courtney might tell you about a lake where trout rise eagerly to a fly or, for a jolt of adrenaline and a clear view of the valley, he might recommend a guided raft trip down the sinuous Stehekin River. If your desire is to catch up on a novel, he might suggest renting a mountain bike and riding down to the Stehekin Bakery for an espresso, coffee cake, and a bit of reading. (The valley's single 23-mile road is mostly gravel, with little car traffic.)

Guests can catch a valley shuttle bus to one of dozens of trailheads. Some trails are flat, short valley hikes along rushing streams; others are steep, arduous ascents into the spectacular alpine regions that dominate this section of the state.

When I told Courtney that we wanted to go into the high country for a look at the area's best-known peaks, he suggested the Goode Mountain Ridge trail. It sounded tough - nearly 4,600 vertical feet in 5 1/2 miles - but the views were supposed to be gorgeous. We decided to go the next morning.

High country

After a tasty breakfast of blueberry pancakes, bacon and fruit, my friend Ben and I packed sandwiches and gear into our day packs, and pedaled (on bicycles we'd brought with us) west toward the boundary of North Cascades National Park.

A few miles down the road, a simple sign announced our entrance into the park. What a refreshing change, Ben observed, from the manned booths at other National Park gateways that dispense pretty brochures as they divest you of money.

We kept a brisk pace along the winding one-lane road that at times hewed close to the Stehekin River, which flowed loudly and powerfully down the valley, brimming with the melt of last winter's record snowfall. The air was cool under the canopy of trees, and occasionally we felt the spray of waterfalls pounding into the river.

We stashed our bikes a short distance up the trail and began the climb up Goode Ridge. Compared with the often-crowded trails of the Interstate-90 corridor, this one was almost deserted. Grasses even sprouted from the soil, indicating scant foot traffic.

After a couple of hours of slogging, we realized why few casual hikers venture up here: sweat poured off our bodies and leg muscles protested under the strain.

About a mile from the top, we encountered a vast snow field that, in a normal year, would have disappeared by this time (late July). Fresh tracks of another hiker blazed a trail for us. The slope was gradual and the snow was soft, so our ice axes served mostly as walking staffs.

The hiker was a park ranger at the summit of the ridge. He appeared to be enjoying himself as much as we were; his "work" consisted of checking the condition of the trail. He helped us orient ourselves on the map with the panorama of 8,000- and 9,000-foot peaks that surrounded us, an unobstructed 360-degree view as breathtaking as any I've seen in the Cascades.

It was the kind of place where cameras seem useless; even a wide-angle lens can't begin to capture the sweeping scale of grandeur. As my eyes settled on peaks with names like Booker, Buckner and Storm King, it was difficult to imagine that a century ago these mountains swarmed with up to 1,000 people - prospectors hungry for silver and gold, and the assayers, merchants and other entrepreneurs who serviced them. Minerals were the main attraction for the first white people who came to Stehekin, in the 1880s.

After the hike

That night I feasted on a sumptuous New York steak dinner, followed by cowboy coffee (yes, cowboys drink decaf, too) and pie. The desserts alone are worth a trip to the ranch. Baked each day at the nearby Stehekin Bakery, the dozen or so varieties of pie present one very large problem: deciding which three pieces you want to eat. Ben described the experience of hiking all day and coming back to the ranch to shower, eat expertly prepared meals, and sleep in a bed as a "midlife hiker's paradise." My aging joints and full stomach agreed.

The next day, we took it easy: We cycled up the valley a few miles to Agnes Creek for a short, flat hike. The trail was festooned with tiger lilies and Indian paintbrush.

Later that afternoon we joined a big group of vacationers on a raft trip down the fast-flowing Stehekin. Expansive views of the valley opened up between the trees as we paddled between wicked-looking log jams.

Courtney even took off his cowboy hat long enough to guide one of the three boats, a job he managed well despite looking a little out of his element.

I suppose that's the biggest difference between Cliff and his father, Hugh, who died on a horse-packing trip in 1982. Cliff, while disdaining many modern notions and conveniences, embraces others freely.

He told me, only half-jokingly, that he's devising a penalty system for people who use cell phones on the ranch, and he refuses to install a TV satellite dish, listen to the radio, or read the newspapers dropped off by the ferry every day. He gets his news from guests and friends in the valley.

On the other hand, Cliff installed generators so some of the cabins and the lodge could have power. He also has a Web site and an e-mail address.

After spending three days exploring the living museum that is Stehekin - old mining trails, abandoned log cabins weathered to a pale shade of gray, and a historic one-room log schoolhouse - I grew to appreciate the ethos of Hugh Courtney, much of which was passed down to his son.

"The mountains can teach us things," he was quoted in a 1982 Pacific Northwest magazine article that hangs in the lodge.

"Here (people) seem to discover something basic, something out of their past, out of the long experience of the human race. They find a new appreciation for the simple things. . . . They go away simplified."

Delicious food. A little fresh air and exercise. The splendor of mountains, glaciers and trees. We'd experienced some of Stehekin's good simple things. I wished I could have stayed longer.

On our last day there, as we pushed our heavily loaded bikes down the ranch's dirt driveway, Courtney came over to say good-bye. I joked that I'd e-mail him a copy of my story. He chuckled, knowing that my e-mail would first have to travel to the ranch's computer in Chelan, where someone in the office would print out a copy, put it in an envelope, and drop it in the mail.

Then, maybe a day or two later, the envelope would get loaded on one of the ferries for the trip to the ranch.

Preferably on one of the older, slower boats.

If you go

Getting there: To reach the Stehekin Valley Ranch, drive to Chelan, 80 miles east of Seattle. From there, take one of the Lake Chelan Boat Company's passenger-ferry boats up the lake. One-way trips take one, two or four hours, depending on the vessel.

Perhaps the best compromise between speed, comfort and sightseeing is the two-hour boat, the Lake Express.

The Lady of the Lake II is almost too slow at four hours each way, but is great for sightseeing along the fjord-like mountain lake, especially if you plan to stay several days in Stehekin and aren't pressed for time.

The Lady Cat, which began service last June, is a high-speed catamaran. Its ride is so bumpy, even on a calm day, that passengers must remain seated for the entire voyage and can only look out the side windows. It's also quite noisy. Round-trip fares range from $22 to $79 for adults, depending on which boat you take (another good reason to take the slower boats). Contact Lady of the Lake at 509-682-4584. Web site: www.ladyofthelake.

com

Day trip or overnight: More than half the ferry passengers stay for only a few hours in Stehekin and return to Chelan the same day. Big mistake. There's simply no way to sample even a fraction of what the valley has to offer in such a short time. Ideally, you should stay at least three days; a week would be better.

The most convenient accommodations are at the North Cascades Stehekin Lodge, located right at the ferry landing (509-682-4494). But you might as well be staying in a Motel 6, and the prices for the rooms alone are more than the Stehekin Valley Ranch charges for cabins and three very square, ranch-style meals a day.

For Stehekin Valley Ranch information, call 800-536-0745. Web: www.courtney The season runs from this weekend to early October. Rates for an adult, including all meals, start at $65 per night with discounts for longer stays and for children.

More information: Check the Web site: www.stehekinvalley.com

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The best trail guide to the Stehekin area - Fred Darvill's book Stehekin, A Guide to the Enchanted Valley - is available at the National Park Service office in Stehekin and at the ranch. Park rangers can recommend hikes in the area.

Scott McCredie is a Seattle freelance writer.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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