You can do it with any map, but the game is most fascinating with a topographic map of a mountain area well known to you. The aim is to dig into dim bypaths of history to learn the stories of the persons immortalized in landmark names. Purists brush aside the Lovers' Leap and Artists' Point kind of thing—generally there never was a leaping lover or an artist anyway—and instead zero in on genuine people and actual happenings.
Maps of Mount Baker National Forest, an area that encloses the magnificent North Cascades in the northwest corner of the state of Washington, are ideal for this sport because the explanations are, tantalizingly, just beyond your grasp. Our history is so recent, so new, that forever I just miss the right "feller" to answer my questions. I don't know how many times I've been told: "Well, you just missed 'im. Used to be this old feller, up in his 90s he was and sharp as a tack, knew all about this country. Lived all his life on the old fur trail up on Little Beaver Creek in the Primitive Area with this Injin woman. But he comes to die a short while back...."
Still, I've bagged some dandies. I know that Dead Man's Camp, at a little tarn above Hannegan Pass, was named for a wealthy eastern hunter who disappeared while hunting wild goats up on Granite Mountain, and that his family offered large rewards but never turned up a trace of him. At the plea of his wife his camp was left just as he departed it, and so it remained until it moldered into the forest duff. I know that Damfino Ridge, the massive upheaval of rock extending from Church Mountain to Tomyhoi Peak, was so named because gold prospectors came upon an old coot hacking into a quartz vein and asked him, "Any gold in these mountains?" "Damfino," answered the miner, and Damfino is the ridge to this day.
On the other hand, who was Winnie of that horrendous ice wall named Winnie's Slide at the lower end of Mount Shuksan's Hanging Glacier? Did Winnie actually slip on that awful ice, across which climbers must cut steps? If you're one of us mapophiles, you know this kind of probing goes on forever. You can't win them all. The maddening thing is that Winnie and Damnation Peak and Mounts Terror, Fury, Triumph and Despair in the Picket Range of our North Cascades, and Three Fools Creek and Desolation Peak and Cutthroat Peak and Nightmare Camp—any of which should be good for a tremendous yarn—are ignored in the thin historical library of a young country.
The real teasers are the mountain men, a strange, silent breed who chose a lonely solitude without parallel in the settlement of the Pacific Northwest. Mount Baker National Forest is filled with their names, for the most part misspelled, but this adds a sporting handicap for the hunter. John McMillan, the squaw man who drove out his Indian wife and a passel of half-breed kids in a fit of rage, is there on his horse meadow, McMillian Park. Tommy Rowland, the trickster who talked a greenhorn into staking him to full diving gear for "exploration" of 18-inch-deep creeks in search of gold in the stream beds, is remembered at Rowland Point. Brave Anna Howard Price, the first woman to climb Mount Shuksan, is there, at Lake Ann; the great mountaineer. Hap Fisher, at the Fisher Chimney on Mount Shuksan; the baby daughter of a timber cruiser at Lake Doreen in the spectacular Bell Pass country; a railroad engineer of the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia logging train at Bagley Lakes; Frances Hayes, a lady mountain climber and nature lover who bathed nude among its ice chunks, at Hayes Lake in the Galena Chain of Lakes.
They left bits and pieces of themselves behind. Far up toward the summit of 7,868-foot Mount Larrabee, at the Canadian border, abandoned on a sliding shale slope to weather in the deep snows and terrible winds, there's a rusted wheelbarrow. Who pushed it there and why? I'm haunted by it and by the mystery of carloads of dry groceries brought in by mule train and packed deep into the bowels of Gargett Mine above High Pass on the same mountain. There are nameless log cabins lost in tangles of vine maple and bracken, smashed by the weight of tremendous snows, and rusted mining machinery twisted into the shapes of question marks, remnants of narrow-gauge wagons and coils of rotting cable left from the great gold excitement of the early 1890s. There are even mining camp stores abandoned in panic with full display of rodent-chewed dry goods on the shelves.
They all haunt you after a while, these voiceless ones. But the most persistent of my personal ghosts is the mightiest of all the mountain men, Joe Morovits, the pioneer of mountaineering in the Mount Baker region, who set about living a legend in 1891 that still is pith and fire of much of the oldtimers' talk around winter hearths in the isolated country of the upper Skagit River. For 27 years Joe was the jolly Hermit of Baker Lake, a sort of Paul Bunyan of the Cascades, who made lone first ascents of glaciated 10,000-foot peaks with such casual regularity that he neglected to leave any cairn to mark his triumphs upon their summits.
Morovits—with his name misspelled—is on some topographic maps at Morovitz Creek and Morovitz Ranch. But I really found Joe Morovits, as I found many of the mountain men, in yellowed old records of early rangers of the Washington Forest Reserve, which in those days encompassed all the national forests of northwest Washington. Joe, reported an angry ranger, had been up to his old tricks. He'd touched off a massive forest fire behind him on a trip out for supplies over 32 miles of rough trail from his ranch to Birdsview, the old stop for stern-wheel river-boats on the Skagit. A good rousing forest fire was Joe's answer to burgeoning Douglas fir forests and windfall that threatened to push him off his mountain. When trees started to grow over miles of trail he had built and maintained in his kingdom between Mounts Baker and Shuksan, Joe retaliated with holocausts the like of which haven't been seen since in that wild country.
There is no mark of Morovits' chief gold mines, the Fourth of July Mines, on the maps, but I could guess at their location on a rock outcropping about halfway between Austin Pass and Baker Lake at the side of Swift Creek. It took a long summer day of struggle down that rough 18-mile trail, overgrown now and brushed in as Joe never would have tolerated, to reach the site of his diggings and one-man stamp mill at the junction of Fourth of July and Swift creeks, deep in wilderness as profound and untouched as that known by lonely Joe. And there I came as close to knowing Joe Morovits as I'll ever manage.
I found his massive mortar (later I discovered that it weighs 2,300 pounds), apparently dropped out of the sky in the decaying mill, now spired with defiant young trees. No narrow-gauge wagon ever could have come up that trail. No team of horses or mules could have pulled together on that ore-crushing mortar. There sits that chunk of iron, as great a mystery as any in the Cascades, proof that Joe Morovits brought it in with nothing but his own brute strength and ingenuity. The old men of the river tell me that he windlassed it, hauling from tree to tree, all the way over his own crude trail from Baker City, now Concrete, on the Skagit River to Baker Lake and finally up Swift Creek to the Fourth of July Mines! The terrible haul took him two years. He worked at the task every day that he could spare from his ranch and his prospecting.