Back to the Eastside

by Joe Meche

*Author’s note: We are in the process of relocating our base camp after 25 years. If you’ve ever moved, you can understand the logistics involved … the least of which is shutting down and reconnecting with the Internet. With that in mind, I’ll offer this column from July of 2013, which basically mirrors the trip we just completed last week. The only difference is that our grandson is now 6’5” tall and a student at Whatcom /Community College.

I’ll be back for the August edition with more from the field. Enjoy every day!

Western meadowlark
photo: Joe Meche

Anyone who has read this column for any length of time knows that we traditionally begin our camping season with a spring trip to eastern Washington. Mid-May is the time of year that we usually target for our first trek, and that often coincides with the opening of Washington Pass. This mountain pass is the 5,477’ gateway to the drier and generally warmer Okanogan County. When the previous winter’s snow has been cleared from this high point on State Highway 20, residents of the wetter, west side of the Cascades are eager to sample a taste of the other side of the Pacific Northwest rain shadow. 

The effects of the rain shadow phenomenon are immediately evident as you begin the downhill run from the pass and continue eastward to Winthrop. One of the key ingredients to understanding this weather event is the vegetation you encounter along the way. The towering Douglas firs, western red cedars, and alders of the west side are replaced by larch, Ponderosa pines, and quaking aspens. This transition provides a veritable classroom example of exactly how mountain ranges affect weather and the environment on both sides of their crests. The entire Cascade Range is a rain shadow paradigm. 

After taking in the spectacular scenery of the North Cascades, the stop in Winthrop always comes at just the right time. It seems that after the long drive over the mountains and through the woods, a break is in order. Although you’re in north central Washington, there’s no doubt that Winthrop is east of the Cascades. This unpretentious and user-friendly little town has no stoplights and only one four-way stop at the main intersection. Nonetheless, everyone seems to adapt well to a minimum of traffic control – quite the contrast to what we left behind on the west side.  

Winthrop is a great place to stretch your travel-weary legs and also a perfect starting point for further exploration of this part of Washington state. Roads lead away from town and into the vast Methow Wildlife Area and up the Chewuch River Valley. Before you commit to the destination of your choice, you have another opportunity to pick up supplies that you either forgot at home or just can’t do without. For my grandson, Clayton, we picked up a few night crawlers since we were heading to Pearrygin Lake State Park.    

Since I had experience with this area for over 30 years, I hinted at a past meeting of the Board of Directors of the North Cascades Audubon Society that this might be a pleasant alternative for the annual group campout. The chapter’s first three gatherings at the Clallam County Park on the Olympic Peninsula were great, but proved to be challenging at times due to the capricious weather. This usually translated to cold and wet. So, for the second year in a row, Pearrygin Lake was the site of the chapter’s annual get together.  

This year, due to a number of extenuating circumstances, we left about a month later than usual to coincide with the Audubon weekend. It was interesting to contemplate the difference that a month might make, given that the peak of the nesting season could have passed. On the other hand, the weather was ideal with warm days and chilly nights, just as we expected. As it turned out, the birding was superb. In fact, excellent birds were constant companions throughout the campground.

The state park at Pearrygin Lake was opened in 1964 as a state recreation area and abuts the Methow Wildlife Area, which is well known for its scenic value as well as its wildlife. The campground on the east side of the park is the original site and this is evident by the mature trees and overall condition of the campground. Additional sites were added to the west side over the years in response to the popularity of the park. 

This park has something for everyone, as demonstrated by our own selection of gear, from kayaks and bikes to hiking boots and binoculars. It’s a perfect place to set up a base of operations to pursue any number of activities, or just relax. Of course, I was up and on the trail every morning to maximize the experience of waking with the wildlife. It’s always been a joy for me to hike through a sleeping campground with only the sounds of nature, and well before the cook stoves are fired up and the sound of a neighborhood emerges. This particular trip was the first time out with our new pop-up camping trailer, ending many years of tent camping and sleeping on the ground. Initial reviews are in and it turns out that we didn’t miss the ground at all

My morning hike out of the campground generally followed a path that led up to the ridges above the lake and through a variety of habitat types, including wetlands and shrub steppe meadows. Wildflowers were in full display with the first hints of sunshine and the colors really came to life as the sun rose above the ridge. Predominant among the blooms were arrow leaf balsamroot and lupine. These morning ambles always set the tone for my day, no matter where I might take them. In my own experience, morning light is the purest light of the day.

As my hike continued and the sun rose higher, the songs of vesper sparrows and western meadowlarks filled the air. Three species of swallows were on the wing as soon as the flying insects began to rise into the sunlight from the warming hillsides. Nesting birds with young to feed were busy gleaning food from just about every tree or bush, while pied-billed grebes and American coots joined red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds on the pond at the entrance to the park. The most spectacular resident at the pond was a male ruddy duck, sporting his outrageous spring colors, including a sky-blue bill to complement his overall copper-colored body.

This hike above the campground connects to the Rex Derr Trail, a three-mile loop that offers great views of the Methow Valley and the snow-capped mountains to the west. Deer and marmots are abundant, browsing the hillsides at first light while keeping an eye on you. You might flush the occasional dusky grouse as you exercise your mind and body while taking in the splendor of where you happen to be, entertained all the while by the songs of lazuli buntings and Bullock’s orioles. 

Bullock’s Oriole
photo: Joe Meche

Our four-day stay at Pearrygin ended too soon, as do all of our trips, and the first road test with our new camper was positive in every way. I’ve done wilderness backpacking in many places and will always point to camping with bare essentials as the best way to really appreciate nature. On the other hand, if you want a camping experience that offers a few amenities or just a pleasant change of pace, consider Pearrygin Lake or any of Washington’s other state parks.     

As I reflect on our spring getaway, I’ve been to many places where late evening gatherings of birds have been extremely noisy, and at times even annoying. On our last evening on this trip, however, the Klipchuck campground resounded with a veritable chorus of western tanagers, black-headed and evening grosbeaks, and Swainson’s thrushes. The tanagers and grosbeaks commanded the higher reaches of the Ponderosas while the thrushes were content to offer their flute-like songs from the lower bushes and trees. The overall sound was delightful and provided a wonderful end to another great road trip.  


Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written over 200 columns for Whatcom Watch.

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