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Visit to Sauk Mountain, August 2012

by David Silva

Linda and I took a trip to NW Washington this Aug., and we hiked Sauk Mountain on the last day. This is of course where Philip spent his first summer as a Forest Service Fire Lookout.

The attachment to the email is an account of that experience. Below is a link to photos of the hike, which are referenced in the text.

Here's the link to all his sets of photos

Click on the link, then click slide show in upper right. When slide show opens, click 'show information' in upper right and you will see numbers referred to in the text, as well as an occasional description. Such as, photo 3 tells you to look for four small hikers in bottom right, so you can get some sense of perspective.

A few corrections to mistakes in this article are found below.

Aug. 15th was the last hiking day of Linda and my two and a half week camping trip to the Pacific North West. We’d spent a week on the Olympic Peninsula, then a few days first on the north side of Mt. Baker, then the last few on the south side of Baker.

On the last day we were looking for something that had a trailhead in a westerly direction within the Cascades, so we could put some driving miles in on our southerly trip home before nightfall. We also wanted something not too long. After 2 weeks of hiking 8 10 mile routes, we were a bit exhausted. We also wanted one last hit of the very abundant summer wildflowers we’d been seeing throughout this trip. Mt. Sauk seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

The bonus for the Sauk hike, for me anyway, was that it was one of the four peaks made famous by the three Beat writers Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Jack Kerouac. Philip spent his first year as a summer fire lookout on Sauk, and it was the only year that all three friends were simultaneously working as lookouts, all within eye-shot of each other’s lookouts, at least when using binoculars.

During my time in the Northern Pacific Cascades, I had of course considered hiking one or more of the other for poets’ peaks. Sourdough was the first choice, since Philip and Gary had both worked there, Philip for two summers, and both writers had published some form of their experiences there. However, the hike up Sourdough is considered one of the most difficult in the Northern Cascades. Though only 5 miles one way, it is a 5000 foot elevation gain. And, if you want to do it as a two day backpack trip, thus halving your daily miles and elevation, you have the problem of having to carry 10 plus extra pounds of water up with you. When considering Desolation, you have to contend with it being a 13 miles plus one way journey with the addition of a water taxi to take you across Ross Lake. Though, I had forgotten about Crater Peak, site of Snyder’s first summer as a lookout, I have since found out it is 14 mile roundtrip on an unmaintained trail, and requires technical climbing skills. How the heck did the Forest Service get him up there? Sauk, by comparison to these other three, is a mere two miles of trail and 1300 feet elevation gain. So easy, in fact, that it is quite traveled, especially on a gorgeous Sunday in August with peak wildflowers, which is when we did it.

To get to the trailhead, you take a 7 miles wash-boarded dirt Forest Service road off of Highway 20 near the town of Rockport. The hike up is a fairly decent grade, but in direct sun all the way, so best to be done early in the day. The abundance and variety of wildflowers was staggering. We’d been hiking for two weeks at peak wildflower viewing time, and not seen as large of a variety of species as we saw on this hike. Vistas on the way up are primarily of the valley below with the Skagit River forming the primary geological reference point. Also visible are many checker-boarded patches of clear-cut areas which were once forested. About three quarters of the way to the summit, Mt. Baker starts appearing on the south side of the mountain (Photo 2).

A few hundred yards from the top of the peak, after a brief leveling off on a small shoulder, the trail takes a steep ascent. The last 100 yards or so are notable for their extreme steepness (photo 3, 5, 6). I began to wonder how they could have even gotten pack mules up it back in Philip’s days.

At the top of the peak, there no longer stands a lookout structure, obviously taken down by the Forest Service many years ago after it ceased being used, and for public safety. There are, though, some remnants: a square of concrete from the original foundation, some old guy-wires, and old rebar, all of which hint at what was once here (photo 8, 11, 13). What is at once noticeable is how small in area the top of the peak is. It is hard to imagine a lookout sitting up there. And the rocks so pointed and jagged. Though I do not know what the dimensions of Sauk lookout were, lookout structures can be as small as 10 by 10 feet.

I was struck by how hard it would have been for Philip to get out and stretch his legs, or to get away from an almost certain case of cabin fever. Unlike all the other 3 lookouts used by the poets on the peaks, which sat on long ridge tops, here there was just nowhere to walk unless one takes a very step downhill journey, and even then you only have a small shoulder to walk on, unless you take the trail down to the trailhead. Also, about a thousand feet below to the north is Sauk Lake (photo 12), which could be a hiking destination (note: no trail.)

There’s quite an expansive view, with Mt. Baker dominating to the northwest, the Skagit River (photo 16) and valley to the south, and the vast expanse of peaks that constitute the northern Cascades to the east. Unfortunately the day we were up here, there had been a forest fire burning in central Washington for a couple of days, and the visibility was hampered a great deal. We got out our topo map, and did the best we could to identify Desolation and Sourdough (photo 15), where Kerouac and Snyder were residing respectfully the summer Philip was on Sauk. Due to the distance and low visibility, we could only guess within a few peak area. But one could definitely get a feeling for how these three writers and friends felt connected thru this shared space, as well as by way of occasional radio contact.

Spending an hour and a half in this space was quite moving for me, personally. Having known Philip in the 70s at the San Francisco Zen Center, having read his poems and John Sutter’s informative book Poets on the Peaks, and having many friends with whom I share all of these experiences, this was much like having arrived at a particular destination of a spiritual journey. And, it was just a mountain. On a gorgeous summer August Sunday in 2012, 59 years from the time a young Philip Whalen took on his first summer as a fire lookout. I so wanted to know what he was feeling, thinking, reading and writing while up here. . How did this isolated claustrophobic panoramic expansive landscape affect him? I was quite excited to go back to the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library Special Collections and read what he wrote in his all so famous notebooks during this time, and his next two years on Sourdough. Alas, I was crest fallen when I later discovered that his notebooks in that collection do not begin until 1957. And, upon checking out The Collected Poems, that there is only one poem from 1953, and that one in the spring, before coming to Sauk Mountain.

In the end, I’m left with only my own memories of this day, and a vague emotion of wonder and awe, and thankfulness that I once had this very unique man, writer, friend, in my life, and will always have those memories, and the words he has left behind for us all.

"I’m surrounded by mountains here
circle of 108 beads …
In the center of the circle
A void, a figure containing
All that is multiplied …
Which, as I said, will disappear
Anyway it will be invisible soon
Exchanging places with stars now in my head …
Into the cool
Like they say: "four times up,
Three times down." I’m still on the mountain.


From "Sourdough Mountain Lookout," PW

Corrections sent later: Please note: Kerouac was on Desolation in '56. In the summer of '53 he was in New York. He was never in the North (not "Northern") Cascades at the same time that Gary and Philip were there. Probably you are already well aware of this. The mountains that David Silva identifies as Sourdough and Desolation are not those peaks. From Sauk, Desolation Peak is nearly 40 miles away, and the view of it is blocked by many higher summits. As for Sourdough, one can see it from Sauk Mountain (27 miles away), but it's very small, and is not in DS's photograph ("#15"). [Note: I used a high digital zoom on this photo, so believe one could see Sourdough a/o Desolation, if they were within site-lines. DS]