My friend Jo and I had already done one amazing road trip to Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier but that felt like a lifetime ago. It had been too long since either of us had been to the mountains so together we planned another trip. This time we were heading north to do the North Cascades Loop. North Cascades National Park is one of the least visited National Parks in the lower 48 states; startling considering its proximity to Seattle. A short two hour drive will get you from the centre of Seattle to the heart of the North Cascades which makes it a perfectly doable day trip. Jo and I, however, decided we would take our time, planning to do some hiking and camp overnight in the park somewhere around Washington Pass. The next day we would drive south through Western Washington’s Methow Valley, crossing back over the mountains via Stevens Pass.
Jo got the camping gear sorted while I looked online for a site to overnight. There were several options but the one that looked most promising was called Lone Fir. Apart from the fact that I loved the name, it was perfectly located just off Highway 20 close to the summit and just outside the National Park, in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. I made note of some other sites in the area just in case that one was full by the time we got there, and then set about finding a hike for us to do on our first day. I happened across a review of a trail up Sauk Mountain which was on our way to the North Cascades. It read: “Easy, gentle hike through wildflower-strewn meadows with a panoramic view of the Cascades at the end.” It sounded like an idyllic little jaunt on our way to the park so we put it on our itinerary. This is the route we decided upon.
We set off bright and early in Jo’s little car which was packed to the brim with camping gear and provisions. I-5 was blissfully traffic-free and in no time at all we had left Seattle far behind and were in the heart of the Skagit Valley, home to the famous tulip festival I visited last year.
At Burlington we left the freeway and turned eastbound onto the North Cascades Highway, passing through the delightfully named city of Sedro-Woolley. The city was formed from two neighbouring rival towns – Woolley was named after railroad developer Philip A. Woolley who built up his business in the area. Sedro was very nearly named something entirely different. Mortimer Cook, ex-mayor of Santa Barbara, moved up to this as yet unnamed town in the mid 1880s and decided he wanted to name the town Bug due to the overwhelming number of mosquitoes. His wife and other women of the town objected vociferously to the name so he had to change his mind. Instead, he chose the Spanish for cedar, cedro, spelling it with an ‘s’ to add his own flourish. In 1898, the two towns and several other smaller homesteads merged and Sedro-Woolley was born. The town made national headlines in 1922 when an elephant named Tusko escaped from a travelling circus and stomped through the logging town, taking out telephone poles, chicken coops and a Model T. Poor old Tusko was passed from one bad owner to another over the following years but was eventually rescued from a life of misery when in 1932 he was brought in chains on a flatbed truck to Seattle to be displayed as a sideshow freak. The mayor of Seattle was horrified at his condition and confiscated him from his unscrupulous owner. Tusko lived out his last 8 months on the planet under the loving care of staff at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo.
The next town we travelled through had the rather grittier name of Concrete. This town started life as a settlement by the name of Minnehaha which later changed to Baker after the nearby Baker river. In 1905 a cement factory set up shop across the river and gave its settlement the imaginative name Concrete City. Three years later, a cement company built a plant in Baker and the two towns decided to merge. It was put to the people to name the new town and they came up with Concrete, which is proudly displayed on the unmissable giant silos along Highway 20.
The nearby Concrete High School is also rather eye-catching; the school building is built as a bridge spanning a roadway.
We didn’t dally long for the mountains were calling for us. The North Cascades Highway twisted and turned and the Skagit River slipped quietly along beside the road in a strip of sparkling turquoise. This was turning into a glorious day.
6 dusty, gravelly, pothole-filled miles later our little car chugged into the parking lot and we got ready to hike. The sun was blazing down and the view from the parking lot was spectacular; I couldn’t wait to get started. I grabbed a water bottle, my hat and shades and hopped out of the car filled with enthusiasm, ready to take in a great lungful of mountain air, but before I could inhale, the air seemed to swirl in front of my eyes and I was engulfed by a swarm of black flies. I squeaked and waved them away but they just laughed at me and resumed their attack. Jo was already at the trail head so I decided to make a run for it, catching up with her and settling into a comfortable walking pace beside her. But it didn’t take more than a minute for the flies to catch up with me. The smaller flies darted around but the bigger flies came in for the kill and I realized to my horror they were biting me. Zap, one got my elbow, zap another one got my ankle. I squealed like a stuck pig and started flailing around trying to get them off me. Jo watched my antics with concerned amusement. She seemed quite unperturbed by the flying menaces; in fact they were positively ignoring her. Occasionally one would circle around her and then circle right back around and launch itself at me. I continued on gamely through waving grasses filled with wildflowers, trying to stay upright in the face of the fly onslaught. It really was beautiful, at least the bit I could see through the veil of biting flies looked lovely.
The trail led us through the meadow to a forested area where the flies thankfully dissipated and we stopped for a quick sip of water before continuing on. The respite was only a brief one for the trail did a switchback and once we were out from under tree cover the flies returned with gusto, descending like a cloak of doom. I gazed up at the summit and the trail that made 22 switchbacks in total. It seemed like a very, very long way away. Thwack, I smashed another fly that had bitten me through my clothes. I looked down and to my dismay saw a coat of flies covering the legs of my jeans and had to do a rather ungainly version of Riverdance to get them to shift. The sun was getting hotter, or maybe it was my frenetic dancing and flailing that was heating me up, but now I was bathed in sweat and could tell by the heat emanating from my face that I was probably bright red from exertion. We were only on the third switchback, there were still 19 more to go.
5 switchbacks later we passed a group of butterfly enthusiasts who told us there were butterflies galore along the trail. One earnest young man watched my flailing arms with amusement and said ‘I see you’ve got the bug dance down’. I grinned mirthlessly at him as sweat dripped from my eyebrows and stung my eyes. It felt like 4,000 degrees under my hat. ‘I suppose the flies go away after a certain elevation’ I pleaded with my eyes for him to answer in the affirmative. He hesitated, possibly considering lying, but in the end the truth won out. ‘Not really, no. Good luck.’ I was crushed. I took another swig of water and poured some of it over my head and face to try to cool down a little. How much longer could I keep going? Every time the trail did a switchback I was convinced we had reached the top, but every time I looked up ahead at the trail more switchbacks appeared.
My face was on fire now and my whole body was aching but still the flies swarmed and chewed on me and still my arms swung in circles swatting and swiping and still my legs hopped and kicked like I was stricken with St Vitus Dance. Hikers passing us on the way down glanced fearfully at me. I couldn’t tell whether they were worried for me or for themselves. My face felt more purple than red at this point so I assume I looked as if I were about to have a heart attack but I was also deeply aware I looked more than a little like a raging axe murderer.
It was really slow-going now. I started to silently curse whoever had written the review I had read of the hike; nowhere did they mention the evil flies and the terms ‘gentle’ and ‘easy’ were not the ones that sprang to mind as I staggered and spun like a whirling dervish around yet another dastardly switchback. Jo was doing her best to fight the flies off me as she stifled laughter at my plight. She’d point out a particularly lovely butterfly or wildflower but every time I stopped to take a photo…
…a big black fly would fly down my shirt…
…or up my sleeve…
…and I’d whimper and swat at it and sprint a little further up the trail. My legs were like jelly and my heart was pounding with the nonstop jerking; I felt like I’d run a marathon even though the trail itself was only ranked as moderate. Expletives that should never be heard on the slopes of a noble mountain escaped my mouth with every fresh bite.
Jo was well ahead of me at this point, but she stopped and waved me on. “There are no flies here at all” she said encouragingly, but when I arrived the flies showed up. “They weren’t here a minute ago” Jo said, puzzled. “There were no flies there,” I gasped, “because I wasn’t there. I think every fly in a five mile radius has decided to have me for lunch”.
Finally, mercifully, the switchbacks ended and we pushed through some evergreen forest and out the other side onto snow-covered slopes.
The air was cooler and the flies were gone, nowhere to be seen. I almost cried with joy as I scurried towards the snow, picked up a big pile and rubbed it over the inferno that used to be my face, trying to stop the burning. I turned around, refreshed and smiling, camera in hand to take a photo and was instantly enveloped by a swarm of mosquitoes. ‘You’ve got to be kidding’ I yelled in dismay, and staggered back over the snow, swatting as I went.
The last haul was a clamber up some craggy, jagged rocks to the summit, which was tricky when half your hands are being used to fend off dive-bombing mosquitoes but after what seemed like three or four weeks, there we were, standing at the top, gazing out across miles of mountains to Mount Baker off in the distance.
We sat at the summit for a few minutes taking in the stunning surroundings. I took off my hat and used it to ward off aerial attacks and it turned out to be a lot more effective and a lot less strenuous than turning myself into a human windmill. I wished I had thought of it earlier. After drinking our fill of water we set off back down the trail. My face had returned to its normal colour after the rest and my hat was proving to be a very effective weapon so the way down was immeasurably better than the way up. We even developed a way for me to stop and take photos without getting bitten – when I went to take a photo Jo would take my hat and swat the flies away. What a team!
The journey back down was so much better I didn’t even count the switchbacks and before we knew it we were back in the meadow and on our way to the parking lot.
We briefly toyed with the idea of using the public conveniences at the bottom of the trail which were housed in an adorable little A-frame …
…but the flies were hanging around en masse so we decided to wait. We shot back into the car as quickly as we could but about 30 flies made it in with us, so we spent a good 15 minutes swatting the blighters until the car was once again fly-free. We took one last look up at the mountain that had nearly broken my will to live…
…and then spun our wheels and left a trail of dust behind as we scuttled back down the mountain and back onto the highway. Jo drove as I soaked tissues with water from my water bottle and wiped layers of sweat off my face and neck. “Jo”, I said, filled with sadness, “if the campsite has bugs like that, I may die.” She giggled. “It won’t” she said reassuringly, “but if it does, we can change our plans.” I breathed a sigh of relief.
Just a few minutes down the road I spotted a familiar name. Cascadian Farms is a range of organic produce that adorns the shelves of many Seattle supermarkets but until now, I had not made the association with the Cascade Mountains. Their farm is along the North Cascade Highway just past Sauk Mountain, so we pulled in to check it out. A little wooden cabin at the entryway was selling organic ice cream so we ordered up two cones of blueberry chocolate chip and went for a wander through their flower gardens.
Good ice cream has amazing restorative powers and it wasn’t too long before I was back to my old self, looking forward to whatever adventures were up ahead. As I opened the door to the car, a solitary black biting fly shot out, a hitchhiker from Sauk Mountain. We watched it fly away and then turned our car back out onto the highway and headed east into the mountains.
Here’s a little footage of our Sauk Mountain hike.