No roads lead to Stehekin, Wash. Village: Once the ferry leaves, it is so quiet you can hear the snow fall.

December 21, 1997|By Paula Bock | Paula Bock,SEATTLE TIMES

We skim along in a double-decker aluminum bathtub, thudding through small waves on a long lake, snow swirling down.

The lake stretches for 55 miles, squeezed by tall peaks, skinny as a ribbon, deeper than the Grand Canyon. It is the echo of a glacier that plunged through granite and schist 7,000 years ago.

Today, floating high in the mountains, the lake is dark and cold. The water sprays gunmetal gray against the boat's silver hull.

Lady Express can carry up to 150 passengers; but this is winter, so there are only eight of us aboard. We have plenty of room to stow assorted cross-country skis and snowshoes and weekend bags bulging with paperback novels.

Our destination is the village of Stehekin at the far north end of Washington's Lake Chelan. Our goal is to play in the snow and watch wildlife, but mostly we want to get away for a long weekend, to have no goals at all.

Stehekin seemed somewhat mythic before my husband and I knew much about it. To get there, we heard, you must hike all day over the North Cascades or fly above Lake Chelan in a tiny prop plane; these are the good weather options. In harsh conditions -- in winter -- a boat is the only way to go, and the boat only goes three or four times a week.

There are no roads to Stehekin; and once there, no televisions, no radios, no daily newspapers. There is one phone at the ranger station, for emergencies.

The woman at our motel in Chelan told us taking the boat "up" to Stehekin would be like traveling back in time. She told us Stehekin families shop for food by handing grocery lists and signed blank checks to the boat crew for delivery to the Chelan supermarket. She told us Stehekin, at the northwest end of the lake, gets more snow than Chelan at the southern tip.

We journey north by northwest, through the mountains, into another state of mind.

The village, when we float up to it, is hushed, a few brown and gray cabins scattered at the edge of a forest, a herd of sagging pickup trucks, a yellow school bus, parked. Snow clings to windshields, to wood on the dock. I wonder about the weekend weather forecast, whether the clouds will open up so we can see mountain peaks.

"Forecast?" the lodge manager shrugs. We are deep in the mountains. "The weather," he says, "is whatever is happening right now."

Gauzy sky. Snow falling.

In Stehekin, the mind must be quiet to notice beauty on a cloudy day. If there is too much noise -- glaring sun, loud sound, jittery thought -- the distraction drowns out the pale whiskers of moss and the texture of bark. They fade, leaving only damp and cold.

Late afternoon in the winter forest, after the boat drops us off and returns down lake, Stehekin is one of the quietest places on earth. It is calm enough to hear snowflakes settling on our jackets as we cross-country ski.

We glide past sheets of rock, crackled like hard-boiled eggs. We pass below pine branches curled up to the clouds. The Douglas firs have a rhythm to their layers, a sort of calligraphy, sky framed in the space between the branches.

Color startles. A twig pins a frozen golden maple leaf to a blackened tree trunk. The red limbs of an osier dogwood swell with buds.

We ski past a blank field and a rusty pickup truck abandoned neck-deep in the snow. With sky swooping around us and flakes whirling down, we seem to be in one of those plastic-dome shake-'em-up snow scenes. Nearby Rainbow Falls, a 312-foot cascade, seems predictable and showy by contrast.

Snow continues to fall. Two hundred forty-five inches so far, and this is only the third weekend in February.

The 66 year-round residents of Stehekin are split over whether they want winter storms to cede to spring, or a record snowfall of 300 inches.

No need for us to worry about that. We are suspended in the middle of a long weekend, mittens steaming on the heater, tucked under a quilt at 7 in the evening with a chocolate bar and a book and the smell of shampoo and damp wool -- everything we need for the moment, right here; everything else, far away.

At 7 in the morning, the sun touches the jagged peaks above Stehekin, lighting the torn edge like a piece of paper burning. Shadows linger in gullies; frost hugs rough rock; the lake is still.

Then the sunlight creeps golden down the mountain; a breeze ruffles the water; a Canada goose flies low along the length of the lake, black neck outstretched.

On our morning walk, we see a bald eagle dip and plunge for fish; three white-tailed deer foraging along the shore; cougar tracks with claws retracted into paw. We see a rare river otter slip through the water, leaving a wake of feathery ripples like an arrow.

We watch the lake from a plate-glass window while eating breakfast in Stehekin's only restaurant. Homemade buttermilk biscuits with country gravy, $3.95; one buttermilk pancake, $1.95.

Stuffed with starch and syrup, we stagger onto a creaky bus that will carry us a few miles up the mountain to the end of the road.

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