Monday, August 1, 2016

Wanderings: Sauk Mountain

If the world ends, let me be here.

Those words from Terry Tempest Williams' recent book The Hour of Land raced unbidden to my lips as I rounded the corner of the trail and gasped at the panorama spread out before me. At 5,500 feet on top of Sauk Mountain, I stood before verdant subalpine meadows, their graceful slopes descending down, down, down to the valley below; and rolling away into the infinite western horizon were the rocky Cascade Mountain peaks. A near-cloudless dome of blue sky stretched overhead, and fragrant wildflowers all around buzzed with honeybees.

Yes, if I had a to choose a place to watch the earth's last moments before being subsumed by whatever the coming apocalypse... I could choose no place better, no place closer to heaven on earth, no place with better views from which to bid farewell to everything I know.

I had not anticipated the splendor that waited at the summit as our book club hiking group navigated the winding and crater-ridden gravel road to the trailhead, stopped by the ski-chalet style pit toilet with a view, and then set out on the trail to Sauk Mountain. It was early morning and the grasses and wildflowers growing close in to the narrow dirt trail were still laden with dew.

Good morning, Sauk Mountain! Looking up at the slope we're switchbacking up... way up!

A short ways in, we stood at the base of a long green meadow sloping steeply upward toward the rocky summit. Squinting, I could see the trail switchbacking across the lush slope, and immediately realized the necessity of the switchbacks, as this mountainside was much too steep to walk straight up. You'd just about need climbing gear to attempt that endeavor.

We followed the narrow path back and forth, back and forth across the meadow as we gradually gained elevation. I had to avoid looking downhill, or my vertigo would immediately set in. With a trail this narrow on a slope this steep and exposed, I certainly didn't want to lose my balance and fall. There'd be nothing to stop me until I - or what was left of me - landed at the bottom. I was kind of regretting leaving my trekking poles in the car.

At the top of the switchbacks looking down. The parking area is visible left-center.

Thankfully there were many other sights to capture my attention and keep my mind off my fear of falling. And of course I'm talking about the wildflowers. There were wildflowers everywhere! I felt like I was strolling through someone's private garden as I brushed past purple penstemon and lupine, red paintbrush and columbine and yellow tigerlilies and daisy-like flowers, all being tended by bees and butterflies.

The climb passed quickly with the lush scenery and good company, and before long we left the meadow slope and wound around the backside of Sauk Mountain, where that heart-achingly beautiful view left me startled and speechless, save for those few words. 

If the world ends, let me be here.

After milling around and soaking in the view, we followed the trail to what appeared to be a campsite overlooking the alpine turquoise waters of Sauk Lake far below. By this time, the temperatures were rising quickly, and as the trail led us through a rocky, heather-dotted landscape toward the summit, I marveled at the fact that there was still snow up here. The few remaining patches were soft and melting quickly, and we had to carefully discern whether the snow was safe to walk on before continuing.

After pushing up a brief steep slope and clambering over rocks, we stood on the summit of Sauk Mountain and were once again stunned by the scene before us. Here on this high vantage point, we had 360-degree views of Cascade Mountains. We spotted Glacier Peak, Mount Pilchuck, the white top of Rainier, and looming large to the north was the perfect cone of Mount Baker. The turquoise ribbon of the Sauk River wound through the valley below, and to the west the fertile Skagit Valley farmlands ran flat and smooth toward Puget Sound somewhere out in the haze. Not to be forgotten were the Olympic Mountains, just barely visible on the far western horizon.

Mount Baker
Looking out toward the Skagit Valley
Glacier Peak

The view was tremendous. I could have sat there all day. My sister asked if I thought these views were better than those from the top of Mount Si. Feeling guilty for betraying my home valley, I shook my head and said these views beat Mount Si by a mile. Hands down. Although we didn't work as hard for these views as we did for the views from Mount Si, I was still going to revel in them, while feeling thankful that most of the elevation gain to the 5,500ft summit of Sauk Mountain occurs on the drive in, which only leaves the hikers with 1,200 feet of gain to tackle on foot!

We settled onto the still-cool rocks at the summit and swatted mosquitoes and ate lunch while discussing the novel we'd read for book club. As the conversation wound down, the mosquito bites became more numerous and the crowds increased, we decided to head back down the trail and reluctantly bade farewell to one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen.

On the way back down, I stopped to take a photograph of a metal tag driven into the ground that we'd noticed on the way up. I wanted a picture to reference so that I could look it up when I got back home. The tag was stamped with the words "National Park Service Science" and "NPS Cascades Butterfly Project Section C". After doing some research, I found that we'd been hiking through a study area for the Cascades Butterfly Project, which monitors butterflies in six protected areas in the Cascade Mountains, to study how climate change is affecting mountain ecosystems.

The most exciting part about the Cascades Butterfly Project was the opportunity for anyone to participate. Hikers who photograph butterflies in the study areas can upload their pictures to the project's photo inventory via the Butterflies and Moths of North America site. I happened to take photos of two different butterfly species during the hike, so I uploaded them to the site where they'll be identified by a project coordinator and the sightings added to the project database. And just like that, I became a citizen scientist.

These are the photos I submitted. They are terrible photos, really... but I expect there's enough detail there for the butterfly experts to make an identification. And despite the poor quality of the photos, I felt that in some way I'd helped the cause. That I had contributed to the greater good of a place threatened by climate change - that I had in some small and insignificant way given a gift to a place worthy of spending one's last moments. That perhaps I've helped those who are working to save this place from the inferno of climate change - the slow-smoldering apocalypse I feel ever more certain I'll be witnessing within my lifetime. But perhaps hope can be carried on delicate butterfly wings.

If the world ends, let me be here.

If you go: be aware that the gravel road to the trailhead is steep and cratered with enormous potholes and trenches. There were some regular cars that made it up to the parking lot, but I'd recommend a vehicle with higher ground clearance to avoid any damage to your car. Take it easy and watch for oncoming traffic. Also bring the bug spray! I came home with a dozen or so mosquito bites even though I did use a (natural and apparently ineffective) bug spray. Also, stay on the trail. There are many places where people have taken shortcuts through the switchbacks, which has eroded the trail and made an already-narrow trail on a steep hillside even narrower. 



  1. Love your write-up, as always. And that's so cool about the butterfly project and submitting your shots! I didn't even attempt to get butterfly shots, so good for you for trying.

    1. Thank you, Jill! :) Yeah, I really didn't have the right lens on my camera for butterfly photos, but when I got home and found out about the butterfly project, I was glad I had attempted to shoot a few! Not the best photos, but I think they'll work...