“Alpine Trout” by Mark Boyle
  The Trail Blazers  
  How fish came to the Northwest’s remotest lakes.
by Michael D. Swayne


Ohe Trail Blazers are a volunteer organization of about 55 people that contribute most of their time, energy and knowledge toward helping the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) manage high lake fisheries. Members participate in fisheries studies, conservation and wilderness protection activities, camp cleanups, and stream restoration and trail maintenance projects. For over 70 years, the primary focus of the Trail Blazers has been planting and surveying fish in the mountain lakes of Washington. This mission has bound many members of the Trail Blazers together in life-long friendships.

Hooking Fish, Hooking People
I feel fortunate to have grown up in Seattle near the Cascade Mountains. This lucky accident provided me, my family and friends a quality of life that I say makes us richer than the old kings because of all the public lands available to us. These nearby lands with their peaks and lakes and rivers and forests provide opportunities for us to connect to the natural world on a grand scale. This connection resonates within us, I believe, because our distant ancestors lived so close to the earth for so many millennia and passed shadows of their feelings down to us. When I travel in the mountains to fish and hunt, look for good routes, keep an eye on approaching weather, camp by a fire with companions, lay on the ground listening to the night sounds, watch the stars revolve in the sky, wake to a cold morning and warm with the rising sun; I am reenacting activities performed countless times by my ancestors. My deep connection to these mountains has affected my outlook on life, how I work, what I work at, and my values.

Mike Swayne with Twin Lake cutthroat planted by Trail Blazers, 1960. Photo by George Kniert.
Mike Swayne with Twin Lake cutthroat planted by Trail
Blazers, 1960. Photo by George Kniert.
My dad, who was in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, started taking me on fishing and camping trips in the mid 1940s. At first, we camped with my mother and sister by accessible streams and rivers. During the 1950s we hiked to less accessible mountain streams and lakes and hunted deer. Sounds, smells and sights from those trips are still in my mind over 50 years later. I really enjoyed catching fish. In those days, I thought the fish in the mountain lakes and streams had always been there. My dad called them “native” trout. Later I learned that the fish had originally been planted to supplement the food supply of people working in the mountains. Like these workers, we did not catch and release for sport, we caught fish and ate them. One day I saw pictures of lakes and fish in the Ben Paris Guide by Milt Tanggard of the Trail Blazers. I called Milt and was soon attending my first meeting. I was invited to join the Trail Blazers in 1958 and have been active ever since, except for some years in the 1960s and 1970s when I lived outside the region.

After joining the Trail Blazers, I learned a lot more about high lake fisheries in particular and mountain ecology in general. I learned that the Trail Blazers had planted some of the fish I had been catching. I learned that most lakes were planted with less than 100 fish per acre only every three to five years, that fish live only a few years, and that conditions are often not suitable for spawning. I learned that our North Cascade lakes did not have native fish because fish could not ascend the steep, swift streams and waterfalls after the last ice age. Later I learned that some species of terrestrial animals with limited mobility had not had time to hop or crawl back into some basins in the North Cascades since the last ice age.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, we carried one pound of fish in four to five gallons of water in steel containers on Trapper Nelson pack boards. One pound equaled about 200 to 1,000 fish, depending on the species, time of year, and hatchery water temperature. Fish were usually planted from June through September, depending on ice and snow conditions. I learned how to pick up the fish at the hatchery, keep the water cool and mix can water with lake water at the destination to minimize temperature differences. I learned these methods from experienced people who loved and knew the Cascade Mountains intimately and felt that planting trout in barren lakes was a good thing to do. Putting trout in the lakes not only provided fish for people to catch but also caught the people themselves by putting them back in touch with the natural world as they increasingly lived in urban environments. I learned how to travel cross-country by following hogbacks, staying out of brushy drainages if possible and sliding through the brush if necessary, following game trails, and traversing rockslides, alpine meadows, snowfields and ridge lines. It was like entering another world, and I was never the same afterward.

Trail Blazers planting Azure Lake (near Angeline) in 1936, the first plant of golden trout in the Cascades.
Trail Blazers planting Azure Lake (near Angeline) in 1936, the first plant of golden trout in the Cascades. Enlarge
Trail Blazers History
The Trail Blazers began when four Seattle-area men who fished and hiked together conceived the idea of a club for comradeship on the trail. They hoped to exchange ideas and experiences in hiking, fishing, hunting and photography on backcountry trips and to learn more about conservation of fish and game. They invited seven friends to join them and formally organized in December 1933.

During their trips, they found that many high lakes did not have fish. They discussed the possibility of planting these lakes with fish themselves and visited a state trout hatchery. The hatchery superintendent, “Chappie” Dunstan, took an interest in the club and gave them information on backpacking fry, furnished cans to hold the fry and went with them on a few trips to show them how to care for the fish. In recognition of his helpfulness, Dunstan was made the first Honorary Member of the Trail Blazers in 1937.

Trail Blazers membership is by invitation. Any visitor can attend meetings and go on trips but to become a member, a visitor must take part and show interest in the meetings and planting work. This system has worked very well for over seventy years with membership ranging from 45 to 55 active persons over the years. Members are an eclectic group from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions who dedicate much of their lives to fish and wildlife and environmental conservation and management.

Trail Blazer Al Carlson helped develop techniques for planting fish by plane. In 1938, Al obtained information from the Forest Service on techniques they used to drop supplies using small parachutes. He got a flying service to furnish the use of a floatplane and got the superintendent of plantings for the state interested. Experiments were conducted on Lake Washington dropping fish in 5-gallon cans tied to parachutes. When the details were worked out, Al dropped the first fish (7500 rainbow) by plane into Otter Lake in the Foss River drainage. They soon learned that they did not need the cans. Trail Blazer Myron Christy had surveyed Otter Lake earlier in the year, the first comprehensive survey performed by the club. The lake was known to be barren of fish but information was assembled on the ice-free season, topography, geology, shoreline features, vegetation, depth, clarity, pH, littoral vegetation phytoplankton, zooplankton, shallow and deep aquatic fauna and inlet and outlet spawning areas.

Triad lake was found glacial and barren of fish when surveyed after traversing from Buck Mtn. 1961 photo by Mike Swayne.
Triad lake was found glacial and barren of fish when surveyed after traversing from Buck Mountain. 1961 photo by Mike Swayne.
Each year as more lakes and streams were planted and people saw the results, some would inquire and learn the Trail Blazers were responsible. Each year more hikers and fishers came to meetings and took part in the activities. The club grew until WWII, when many members went into the armed services. All members returned except Bill Simon, who was lost in the Pacific. The Trail Blazers built a memorial shelter at Nordrum Lake for Bill and raised money to build a shelter in Necklace Valley as part of the Mountain Cabin Memorial Association. Membership recovered during the late forties. In 1952, the Trail Blazers were awarded the seventh Outdoor Life Conservation Award for their work.

The first Trail Blazers librarian, “Honest” Charlie Yadon, assembled and maintained Trail Blazer history from the first trips in 1934. I have worked on the Trail Blazer library for over 25 years and find it impossible to review this history without realizing the significance that Trail Blazer activities had not only on the high lakes but also on members’ lives. The “magic” the lakes and alpine areas had on the writers and the privilege of being able to experience these areas is often expressed in club records. This is no ordinary sports club; here is a story of unusual service, dedication and effort. Many lives were almost totally absorbed by club activities. It seemed the tougher the trip the better the Trail Blazers liked it.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Trail Blazers expanded their activities into the northern, southern and eastern Cascades and Olympics and started experimenting with various methods of carrying fish to reduce weight and improve survival. The use of an anesthetic was short-lived because the dose had little room for error. Another approach cut in half the 5-gallon cans and insulated them to keep the water cool. Another method used a gallon jug with a battery powered aerator. Starving fish for a few days minimized water contamination and reduced metabolism. During the 1970s, Trail Blazer Jim Mighell worked out the parameters for carrying fish in lightweight plastic containers, which was very successful and has been used ever since. Jim was made the first Trail Blazer Lifetime Member.

Twin Lake cutthroat. Photo by Mark Boyle.
Twin Lake cutthroat. Enlarge Photo by Mark Boyle.
During the 1960s, fishing and hiking activity greatly increased in the Cascades. This was caused by an expanding population in the Puget Sound area, increasing accessibility due to expanding logging roads, and baby boomers who had more time and resources for recreation. In 1960 when we stocked fish in the Enchantment Lakes on a nice weekend, I did not see a single person. During the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, a group of international climbers was taken by helicopter to the Enchantments for climbing and photography. Subsequent articles in magazines and hiking books with glossy pictures of beautiful alpine scenes contributed to the popularity of the high country. After Americans climbed Mount Everest, climbing and hiking went from a fringe activity to mainstream.

Clubs like the Seattle Mountaineers helped make climbing, hiking and skiing more popular. More climbing, hiking and fishing guidebooks were published. Seattle based REI was on the way to becoming the largest outdoor outfitter in the world. Major portions of the Cascades were designated wilderness areas in 1964 and in 1984 to protect them from development. Now a reservation is needed to camp in the Enchantments.

Naming Lakes
Over the decades Trail Blazers have traveled to virtually every lake in the Cascade Mountains and many in the Olympic mountains either planting or surveying or climbing for the view or for excitement. The Trail Blazers library has detailed records on fish plants and surveys, water chemistry, biology and physical features. The records also show that Trail Blazers named over 100 high lakes and ponds, many of which have been adopted by the Board of Geographic Names. A table on page 2 shows some of the mountain lakes named by Trail Blazers. Most of these lakes were also first planted with fish by the Trail Blazers.

Twin Lake cutthroat. Photo by Mark Boyle.
Twin Lake cutthroat. Enlarge Photo by Mark Boyle.
Trail Blazer Climbing
Climbing experience came in handy when traveling to some of the more remote and difficult lakes in the North Cascades. Several Trail Blazers became members of The Mountaineers or Washington Alpine Club. The first recorded climb in the Trail Blazer annuals was an ascent of Mount Rainier via the Emmons Glacier with Ome Daiber in 1947. Trail Blazers made several early climbs and first ascents in the Cascades. But more about that another time. Fortunately, Trail Blazers escaped serious injury and fatalities except when Doug Barrie was struck and killed by a rock while descending Mount Sir Donald in British Columbia after climbing the NW Ridge. Trail Blazers named a lake below Mount Triumph for Doug and placed a memorial register on Mount Despair in 1965.

Trail blazers

About Mike Swayne
Mike Swayne has been the Trail Blazers librarian for more than 25 years. As a climber, his first ascents in the Cascades include the North Face of Mount Terror in 1961 and the East Willis Wall on Mount Rainier in 1962. For more information about the Trail Blazers, see www.watrailblazers.org.

The Fish Plant Process
At Twin Lakes in the Chiwawa Mountains of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, a spawning station produces fertilized eggs from the resident cutthroat. The fertilized eggs are transported to the Chelan Hatchery, where they are hatched and, later the same summer, planted in mountain lakes. Millions of such fish have been stocked into hundreds of previously barren high lakes in the Cascades providing a native trout fishery that began in the early 1900’s.

At Twin Lakes, the fish are netted from each of three traps beginning in early May. Females are stripped of their eggs and males are stripped of their sperm. The eggs and sperm are combined in a salt solution for fertilization. When fertilization is complete, the eggs are rinsed in spring water and placed in insulated containers for transport to the Chelan State Hatchery, where the fish are hatched, then after several weeks, made available for planting.

The fish are transported to the objective lakes in plastic containers specially developed to be carried on foot.

A Note About the Paintings
“Alpine Trout” (featured on the top of this page) and “Yellowstone Currents” (featured on the addendum) courtesy Trail Blazer Mark Boyle.

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