Features & Images » Travel

Twin Parks

Just across the border, North Cascades National Park beckons



Of all the Canada–U.S. border crossings, the one between Skagit Valley Provincial Park in the Fraser Valley and North Cascades National Park is the most unusual. For starters, there's no need to carry a passport; the dirt road that leads to the campground on the U.S. side ends abruptly on the shores of Ross Lake. To the south lies an impenetrable wilderness barrier of jagged peaks.

When Pique met U.S. National Park Service ranger Nicolas Giguerre in June, he compared this one-of-a-kind spot with other regions where he's worked during his decade-long tenure. "It's so quiet here," he said. "It feels like Alaska at the end of a long dirt road." With a smile, Giguerre added, "This is the most easily crossed border in the country."

North Cascades Park is a vast 204,277-hectare area stretching between Mount Baker and the Okanagan, almost 10 times the size of its Skagit Valley counterpart. According to Giguerre, North Cascades is much larger than most national parks in the lower 48. Established in 1968, the park predates the creation of protected land on the B.C. side. Thanks to lobbying efforts led by logger Curley Chittenden, conservation advocate Tom Perry, and then-Social Credit politician Rafe Mair, preservation of the Skagit Valley came about in 1973.

Benefits of the twin parks favour visitors in ways both visible and unseen. Access to the north end of Ross Lake, a dammed reservoir whose waters extend above the border in summer, is a snap for B.C. campers, swimmers, and boaters. At this time of year, water levels in the lake are kept at their highest, to attract anglers from south of the border as much as their Canadian counterparts. Recent changes in U.S. travel regulations have meant residents coming north must carry passports to reenter their country. The impact of the new policy has been to drastically cut American visitor numbers.

"Long weekends in summer are the only times now when we see folks from Washington," observed Giguerre. "Otherwise, it's all Canadians."

Such as Martin Orlmayr and Sue Bissonnette, two North Vancouver-based cyclists whom Pique encountered on the U.S. side at the Hozomeen campground. The duo used their campsite as a jumping-off point for extensive tours of the flat-bottom valley and the lake's shifting perimeter, at historic lows in June. And what's Hozomeen got that the duo couldn't find on the B.C. side? Free camping. Whereas the cost of spending a night at the nearby Ross Lake provincial campground is $16, no fees are charged in the national park. Not only does this represent a tidy savings, but the bottom line is that the forested campsites on the U.S. side are more widely spaced and less exposed to the winds that funnel through the valley. Add in a plentiful supply of fresh drinking water and immaculate washrooms and it's a wonder that, given the option, anyone camps on the Canadian side.