Cultural History

Across Terrain and Time in the Skagit River Valley

By Robert Mierendorf

native canoe
We tend to develop a natural connection to places in the wild Upper Skagit. Place is also about history and the people who came before us and their relationship to the land. The cultural history of the North Cascades and Upper Skagit Valley is rich with thousands of years of human history, from  the first native peoples through to the colorful parade of explorers, miners, loggers, fire lookouts, climbers, rangers and dam workers that followed. We believe that familiarity with the human history and stories of a given place builds intimacy and respect for that place.


If you were to look at a map showing the physiography of the entire Cascade Range, you might notice that the range is widest, ca. 160 miles, near the international boundary. In the remainder of the range, all the way to its southern limit in northern California, it averages ca. 60 miles wide. You might also notice that there is only one large, north-south trending mountain valley, wider than any others, that splits the Northern Cascades down the middle—this is the Upper Skagit Valley occupied by today’s Ross Lake reservoir. This is only one of many natural characteristics that impart uniqueness to the upper valley.

In contrast to today, for most of the time that humans have lived in this valley, it took a week or more to travel here by canoe and on foot following routes across streams, steep mountainsides, sharp ridges, permanent snow pack, and sometimes glaciers. People came from Puget Sound on the west, from the Columbia River and its tributaries on the east, and from the Fraser River country to the north. Today, we drive these distances in a matter of hours.

At least 10,000 years ago, indigenous Northwest peoples began to visit the valley and the surrounding mountains. They adapted to a landscape that was newly uncovered from the melting of massive glaciers extending across northern Washington, including Puget Sound and Seattle. If we could see the ancestral Skagit River Valley that those early people saw, we might not recognize it, considering how different were the plant and animal communities and the overall ecology. The people, then and now, the river, the land, and all its inhabitants are linked by time and history to this place, which flexes to the dictates of climate, environment, and evolution. Because of this, our best understanding of the present is achieved by knowing something about the past.


The headwaters of the Skagit River valley are deeply carved by glaciers, remnants of which remain as local alpine glaciers. In the segment of the Skagit valley occupied by Ross Lake, the shaping ability of the massive, but now extinct Cordilleran glacier is dramatically evident on local mountain ridges and summits. This glacier advanced down the Skagit Valley from British Columbia, widening the valley and smoothing and rounding the formerly sharp-edged ridges (with your eye, follow these smooth ridge lines from the bottoms to the tops of the mountains: where these ridge profiles change to jagged and uneven marks the upper limit of the ice sheet). Between Newhalem and Ross Dam is the ten-mile long Skagit River gorge. This gorge formed as the river sliced through the crystalline core of the North Cascades mountains, powered by meltwater from the Cordilleran ice sheet and surrounding alpine glaciers. Diablo and Gorge reservoirs have inundated most of this gorge. The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is built where Sourdough Creek, a minor tributary to the Skagit River, has built a large alluvial fan. This large landform is perched on the edge of the Skagit gorge, which remains unseen beneath the aqua blue waters of the reservoir.


Up-valley from Ross Dam, the ecologies of mountainsides, avalanche slopes, snow-corniced ridges, and glaciers are mirrored in the reservoir waters. Interestingly, Ross is not the first lake to fill the valley, as at least one other existed 18-24,000 years ago, impounded behind glacial ice or debris deposited near Big Beaver valley. Deposits from glacial lake Skymo are visible today as silt and clay beds along the shores of Ross Lake between Rainbow Point and the mouth of Devil’s Creek. By ca. 14,000 years ago, the last bits of the glacier that had filled the upper Skagit Valley with a mile-thick sheet of ice had melted away. Sometime afterward, the first humans to see the newly exposed land came into the valley and began to use it for subsistence purposes.

One of the first things they noticed was that the mountains here provided varieties of fine-textured rock that could be used to make tools. One of these tool stones is called “Hozomeen chert” (similar to flint) and it is widespread in landforms of the upper valley. Some of the big mountains overlooking the valley, such as Jack Mt., Hozomeen Mt., and Wright Pk., are partially made of this distinctive, mottled gray rock. It can be seen in river and stream gravels, and it is common in some bedrock exposures, mostly east of Ross Lake. Scattered here and there throughout the upper Skagit valley are the ancient rock quarries where the ancestors of today’s Skagit Indians (and other Northwest tribes) gathered, cleaned, and shaped the stone to make knives and other tools. The oldest of these quarries has been radiocarbon dated to 8,400 cal. years old. At present, this is the largest and oldest chert quarry studied in western Washington.


Ecology of the upper Skagit valley is unique compared with other areas of western Washington. Because the high and rugged mountains on the west side of the valley (a subrange called “the Pickets”) collect most of the moisture from Pacific storms, the east side of the valley experiences a dry, sunny rainshadow. The driest portion of this rainshadow occurs in the vicinity of Lightning Cr. where we are camped. Here, looking closely at the openings in the forest canopy above Ross Lake, you can see large Ponderosa pines; during our hike on this trail, you will see native bunchgrasses, Balsalmroot, and other plants typical of the dry environments of eastern Washington. Before building of Ross Dam and the impoundment of its reservoir, this section of the valley was referred to as “Little Sahara”. Not surprisingly, this was an important wintering area for black-tail and mule deer, who browsed on the brush and shrub vegetation that covered Little Sahara. In turn, these large winter deer herds became an important subsistence base for various Northwest indigenous hunters. Currently, there are over 160 pre-contact archeological sites recorded in the upper Skagit valley, representing at least 10,000 years of indigenous use.


The first written record of the upper Skagit valley is from Henry Custer’s 1859 boundary survey explorations. Guided by knowledgeable Fraser River Indian guides, and traveling in a dugout canoe specially built for this trip near today’s Hozomeen, they followed the river all the way to the mouth of Ruby Creek. It was an amazing trip of discovery, interrupted in places by huge log jams requiring them to portage before they could continue. Near today’s Cougar Island the river entered a narrow, rock-walled gorge (the beginning of the Skagit gorge) that almost swallowed their canoe before they could find a pull-out. If you examine a contemporary topographic map of this part of the North Cascades, you might notice that many of the geographic features have names reflecting an indigenous origin. This is in part because Custer was a Swiss citizen and he preferred to label local features with names used by his guides. Consequently, “Hozomeen” (an Interior Salish word) today designates a mountain, a lake, and a river; Nohokameen is a glacier on the north slope of Jack Mtn.; Similkameen is a river east of the Skagit; and Chilliwack is a river west of the Skagit.


Indigenous people continue the ancient tradition of visiting the valley. Although they no longer subsist by the old ways, tribal communities are a key part of the partnership that has formed to manage the archeological sites within the reservoir. Today’s three Skagit River tribal governments, the Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, and Swinomish, along with the Nlakapamux (Lower Thompson) First Nation of British Columbia, provide insight and advice regarding archeological sites and other resources relating to their traditional connection to the valley. The National Park Service and Seattle City Light regularly conduct tribal tours of the valley to discuss management of resources along Ross Lake. Increasingly over the last decade, tribal members have begun to visit the valley and to renew their ancestral and spiritual attachments to this special place.

Robert Mierendorf was a National Park Service archaeologist whoworked in North Cascades National Park since 1987. He is a specialist in the adaptations of mountain peoples and his work has drastically changed thinking about the interactions of prehistoric peoples with the North Cascades landscape.