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Impromptu camping in Washington's last frontier

Story by Whitney James May 4th, 2014

all aboard

Last summer, my best friend and I took an impulse camping trip to Stehekin, Washington. It’s a town of about 80 residents located at the top of 60-mile-long Lake Chelan in Washington State – the third deepest lake the nation and one of the top five cleanest. At least that’s what someone told me when I first started going to the lake each summer, when I was about three years old.


the journey

At the southern end of Lake Chelan, the water banks into orchards and wineries. Sixty miles to the north, it’s remote and cold. You can look down from your boat and watch wild salmon swim and eventually spawn here at the source of the lake. As the gateway to the North Cascades National Park Complex, you can only reach Stehekin by boat or seaplane. Grizzlies roam wild up here and there are simply no roads.

$24 gets you a one-way lift on the Lady of the Lake II, the slower version of the original, even slower ferry to Stehekin. The four hour trip makes a few stops along the way and offers views of the mountain cabins you’ve always wanted to own, casting killer waves for jet-skiers the whole way.



Bears aside, my best friend and I boarded the ferry to Stehekin with nothing but a two-person Eno hammock, sleeping bags, and a loaf of banana bread. We figured we’d pick up supplies, like beer, at the one-stop-shop at the ferry landing at the top of the lake.


the landing

Once at the top, we scoped out our options. It looked like in order to not be swinging in the trees between a bunch of families, we’d need to hitchhike by boat across the way to the secondary campground. We nabbed a ride across in a canoe, and were promptly eaten alive by mosquitos.



Luckily, we found an abandoned dock around the edge of the campground. The mosquitos were slightly less abusive, but we had a bigger problem. None of the evergreens had branches low enough to hang a hammock. We figured it’d be fine – how heavy can two girls be? At least there was plenty of firewood to smoke out the bugs.



That night, we woke to realize the slings of the hammock had slid down the branch-less trees, leaving us partially resting on the forest floor. If this doesn’t sound bad, imagine being taco’d against your friend with your feet and head elevated, completely immobile with all your extremities falling asleep. We moved to the dock where we could stretch out on the less-than-plush wooden planks, using the hammock as a pillow. In the morning, we were greeted with sore bodies, wildlife, and banana bread.

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there was yoga

But there was no coffee.
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The ride home

We needed to be back to Chelan earlier than the Lady of the Lake II, so we hadn’t bought a return ticket. That meant we needed two free boat rides – one out of our campsite, and the other back to the land of the vineyards. Within an hour, we’d found our ride; a flat-bedded party barge with top speeds of roughly fifteen miles per hour, filled with hung-over mountain bikers and one old husky. We also found coffee.

Needless to say, we barely made it back alive. Dehydrated, sunburnt, and probably with West Nile Virus, it was the most fun we’ve ever had camping. But next time we’re bringing more beer.

Footnote: All photos taken with my trusty Canon 60D