The highway department's priorities this week: Scrape the last ice off the North Cascades Highway to open the state's northernmost route today. Then tell octogenarian Tootsie Clark at The Eatery west of Marblemount that today's the day the pass will open.

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ROCKPORT, Skagit County — The highway department’s priorities this week:

• Scrape the last ice off the North Cascades Highway to open the state’s northernmost route today, beating the old record by two weeks.

• Tell octogenarian Tootsie Clark at The Eatery west of Marblemount that today’s the day the pass will open.

Clark set her alarm for 2 o’clock this morning to do what she’s done since the 1980s: bake fresh cinnamon rolls and race her 1988 Cadillac 30 miles up Highway 20 to be first in line when the westside gate opens.

The opening of the highway means so much to merchants on both sides of the pass that many line up behind her to celebrate the opening, Clark says, and one of these days one of them’s going to beat her.

“They keep threatening!”

Open gates

• At 11 a.m. today the winter closing of the North Cascades Highway will be history. Since the highway opened in the 1970s, there’s never been an earlier reopening or faster attempt to clear snow from the 34-mile pass with an elevation of 5,447 feet.

• This year, instead of the traditional 70-foot-deep snowdrifts to remove, state transportation workers spent 10 days cutting through 2 feet of solid ice.

• Traffic delays are still expected, however, as work continues on landslide areas.

In her 83 years in the area, Clark has never seen a year with less snow or ice, even in the 1976-77 drought, the one year the North Cascades didn’t close at all.

Though it’s “cold, cold, cold,” Clark’s ritual is to drive once the gates open to Rainy Pass and take photos of the snow depth. If she’s needed back at The Eatery, she turns around there. But most years she drives the entire 80 miles to Mazama to pick up wine at the Lost River Winery, a customer favorite.

And back on the same day?

“Oh, yes!”

Clark’s father was a big proponent of a cross-state highway. She and her husband, Rudy, started driving across the North Cascades in 1971 before the road was even finished.

Though she still gets local people lined up outside The Eatery on Saturday nights in the offseason, the cafe and cabins at Clark’s Skagit River Resort were like a “ghost town” earlier this week compared to the 1,000-plus cars a day that will cross the pass when it’s open.

The bank book suffers most if the North Cascades Highway doesn’t open by fishing season, Clark says. The latest opening was June 14, 1974, and the earliest was March 22, 2001.

Washington state Department of Transportation crews from the Methow Valley side began clearing the 34-mile closure zone Feb. 28. Because of this year’s mild winter, a task that can take from one to two months was completed in 10 days, another record.

The demand for Clark’s buttery cinnamon rolls at the Milepost 134 gate keeps going up, and this year she expected to bake several dozen, which she carries in her trunk with jugs of coffee.

Tootsie Clark — so named when a family friend called her “Toots” instead of her given name of Madrene — comes from a long line of tiny, determined women intent on feeding their neighbors.

Her grandmother came to the upper Skagit Valley by canoe in 1889 to open a roadhouse for hungry gold miners. In the 1930s, her father and mother created “the first hot tub,” Clark teases; they treated neighbors to Saturday baths in water heated by electricity that ran the family’s lumber mills and cheese factory.


Tootsie Clark, who runs The Eatery west of Marblemount, walks across the empty North Cascades Highway, which was to reopen at 11 a.m. today. Business owners are always happy to see the route back in service, and this year’s record-early reopening will be cause for celebration. Clark will celebrate with cinnamon rolls and a drive to Mazama.

The scrubbed folks would come back that night for a dance and midnight supper, which is where Clark learned to “cook cheap” and expansively. She still works 12-hour days at The Eatery.

Her son, Don, and daughter, Judi Brooks (and husband Bob) came back in 1990 to help when Tootsie’s husband, sister and brother died within months of each other.

Whiskey-laced bread pudding, mincemeat pies and pork-slaw sandwiches. … Judi is trying to add some of her mother’s recipes to a cookbook, but Tootsie is hard to pin down.

“I don’t measure,” she says.

God willing and the cinnamon rolls rise, Clark will be home early enough tonight to get up at 6 a.m. tomorrow to help her crew open The Eatery, ignoring admonishments to sleep in.

She’ll work that hard until late fall, when she’ll think to herself:

When is that highway going to close?

Sherry Stripling: