Backcountry culture clashes in the North Cascades

by Brendan Buzzard

"User wars."

That's what I have heard them called before, and every season a different battle seems to erupt: snowmobilers vs. backcountry skiers, hikers vs. mountain bikers, worm fishermen vs. fly fishermen, rock climbers vs. falcon watchers, cattle grazers vs. cattle haters.

Yes, the lines are stark. Look at them, lined up there at the trailhead: Subaru station wagons on one side, RVs and American-made pick-ups on the other; Patagonia this end, Cabela's on that end; canned chili over here, organic freeze-dried over there. Some call it democratic, these different views of nature, the varied ways of using public land. But let's not be so warm and fuzzy about it. This is a clash of civilizations. I mean, look at them, the way they eye each other, their squints and grimaces. Look at the points on those trekking poles and ice axes, the horses and spurs, the bandannas and first-aid kits, the dynamite for blowing avalanches and the .308s for blowing … well, this is war.

And the people caught in the middle?

Who? Oh, them. Don't worry about them. They're confused, born of different worlds, a blend of towns and ranches, pickups and sandals. They save the whales while they cast for trout, paint the grizzly while they blast the deer. Intermediaries, that's what they are. Pacifists, probably; maybe hypocrites. But I tell you they'll choose sides; when it comes down to it, they will. There is no in-between out here.

That's how I feel each autumn during hunting season, when I park at a trailhead on the outer edge of the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington's North Cascades. Normally I try to get here early, a day or two before the opening day, to slip into the wilderness before other hunters arrive. This season, though, I am late, and when I arrive at the end of the dirt road, trucks already crowd the parking area. I pull up next to one of them, the farthest down the line, its tailgate covered in campaign stickers advertising politics I do not share.

As I step out of the car, I am met with hostile glances. Am I imagining it? A group of men is gathered near a large white tent that serves as a base for the packing company that will take them into the wilderness. Boots and wool pants, knives and olive-drab canteens; they stand around checking their rifles. Click-click. One of them wears a pistol on his hip. Ignore them, I tell myself, as I unload my pack and put on my hiking sandals, but I feel the stares keep coming. Even the horses look at me as though I'm out of place. A black-and-white Appaloosa stamps her foot on the packed, rootless ground.

Two Seattle-origin backpackers walk by, carrying smiles. I smile back, and watch their faces change as I pull my rifle out of the car, shattering their hopeful urban connection in this rural, wild land. That's the way it always is, a shattering, with the weekenders up here, the organics from the West Side of the Cascades, when they come to climb, and hike, and fish. Like autumn rain on an alpine ridge, I am between watersheds, shaped by judgments on either side, just as I was earlier in the summer at a local meeting on fish conservation, where sitting at the back of the room I pulled out a dried piece of meat to snack on and was scolded by an REI-fleeced woman. "How can you eat that in a place like this?" she demanded.

My backpack on, I watch as the men climb onto their mounts and file past. A man with a bushy white beard and a camouflage hat spits into a larch tree. Let them go first, I tell myself, because I won't be on the trail long anyway. But instantly I regret it. Following them down the path, I trudge through horse shit, clouds of flies, and I feel like I am beginning to smell like horses that have spent too much time in pens, and not enough time on open ranges. I turn off the trail through an alpine meadow and drop into the forest.

Days later, I am hunting the grassy meadows along a creek bed, creeping over grass and rock, my feet wet with morning dew. On a patch of dirt, I find boot prints, the first fresh ones I have seen in a couple days, and over a rise on the bank of the stream I see the figure of a man, white-bearded, orange-clad. We recognize each other. Suddenly, I smell horses again. It's them, I tell myself, and of course the deer will know. But I walk over, whispering something apologetic, as though I'm on someone else's ground.

He answers, uneasily at first, and gradually our whispers gain strength, turn to words. We talk about the deer, about the temperature –how it would be hard to keep meat in this heat; we talk about fresh bear tracks, about the geography of trails, about the creek and whether it might be a good place to fish.

We linger, briefly, in the morning sun, and before I pick up my rifle and move off up the valley, we reach out and shake hands, as though in this place we are allowed, for a moment, to transcend the façade, to be human first.

Brendan Buzzard writes from Lost River, tucked up against the mountains of Washington's North Cascades.

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