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Power to the Lake

Northwest Feature

Written by Haley Shipley

Photos by Michael Mati

The enterprising J.D. Ross, known as the father of Seattle City Light, was passionate about bringing hydroelectric power to the people—and he hoped everyone would take as much joy in electricity as he did.

So the second superintendent of Seattle City Light made a plan to keep the public utility in the spotlight. In the 1930s, he created a rather fantastical tour of the Skagit River in the North Cascades, where dams provided (and still do provide) a large chunk of Seattle’s energy needs. Tour-goers were treated to a rainbow light show, an island populated by monkeys and albino deer, exotic flora like banana plants and orchids, music playing from phonographs and amplifiers hidden in the hills, and even a legendary fried chicken dinner.

The self-taught engineer’s goal was to impress people with the potential of electricity, and maybe even get them to buy bonds so the project could continue to expand. It worked. And more than 80 years later, the tours are still happening—although the albino deer and monkeys are no longer part of the show (most of the deer unfortunately became meals for mountain lions, although you’ll still occasionally see a lighter-colored descendant in the area).

Today, Seattle City Light, North Cascades National Park, and the North Cascades Institute come together to offer a handful of tours, the signature of which is the Diablo Lake & Lunch. The half-day tour starts by boarding the Alice Ross IV, a comfortable vessel with both heating and air-conditioning, plus an open deck and a glass-ceilinged cabin. As you cruise past breathtaking views of mountains, waterfalls, and islands, you’ll see parts of the lake that aren’t visible by road or trail.

Getting there is a little simpler than it was way back when. Today, it’s a relatively easy two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bellevue. In the early days, it required a few additional modes of transportation: a drive to Rockport, then a train ride to Newhalem, followed by a sideways car up the mountain to the lake.

You’ll learn all about that cultural history on the tour, along with the area’s natural history, biodiversity, and geology. For example, just how does Lake Diablo get that picture-perfect bluish-green hue? Thank the glaciers that melt into the lake. When rocks grind against the mountain, it produces a fine sediment called glacial flour. That stays in the water and is reflective, giving it a fairytale color.

Follow along with the trials and tribulations of the early explorers and settlers in the area, through to the challenges of building the three Skagit River Hydroelectric Project powerhouses and dam —Gorge, Diablo and Ross—in such a remote location.

To understand the hydroelectric aspect in greater detail, the tour makes a stop at a powerhouse. With hard hats on, attendees are treated to an up-close view of a generator, getting to match the visuals to the explanations of how it all works.

The interesting tidbits keep coming, and there are even a few surprises along the way. No, they’re not of the zoo animal variety, but you might just see a bear—in the form of a costumed guide who does a few quick changes that enhance
the storytelling.

When the boat ride is over, an organic, locally sourced lunch is waiting at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. If you’ve been paying attention, you might win a prize in a little trivia contest. Of course, the true prize is the chance to spend a couple of hours on the inviting waters of Lake Diablo, soaking in what makes this little corner of the country so special.

If you go... 

Here are the details on the Diablo Lake & Lunch boat tours for the 2018 season:

  • June 28 to September 10
  • Thursdays through Mondays
  • 10:15 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • $42 for adults
  • $40 for seniors (62+)
  • $21 for youths (3 to 12)
  • Free for infants (0 to 2)

In addition to the Diablo Lake & Lunch tour, there are other offerings from Skagit Tours, including:

  • Diablo Lake Afternoon Cruise

  • Take a shortened, two-hour version of the Diablo Lake & Lunch tour

  • (no lunch provided).

  • Powerhouse Insider’s Tour

  • Take a guided walking tour of Newhalem and Seattle City Light’s

  • Gorge Powerhouse.

  • Dam Good Chicken Dinner and Ladder Creek Falls by Night

  • Take a free guided walk to Ladder Creek Gardens and enjoy a chicken or vegetarian lasagna dinner at the Gorge Inn.

  • Newhalem Walking Tours

  • Take a free 45-minute walking tour of Newhalem and the nearby trails with National Park Service rangers and guides from Seattle City Light and the North Cascades Institute.

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