Last week was a rough one for our Pacific Northwest. An already devastating wildfire season across Washington and Oregon worsened as our temps soared above 90°F and humidity plummeted. For a few days we saw ash falling like snow and the air was thick and grey, with the sun glowing through as an eerie blood-red orb. The weather has turned since then, and firefighters are thankfully making some headway at battling the flames, but we are still on edge as an outdoorsy community, watching our beloved wild places burn, one after another.
The urge to get outdoors, into the beautiful forests and mountains, has been even stronger for me this month, despite the sadness I feel walking through unscathed woods when I know others are burning. With road closures and smoke making many areas inaccessible I turned to the lowlands last weekend to hopefully find a little pocket of nature that I could still enjoy. Surprisingly, I was able to find it less than 20 miles away from the Suiattle Fire, in the foothills of the North Cascades.
As we drove toward the river the smoke became thicker and thicker, obscuring the mountain peaks that are normally such a showstopping view on the drive north. Signs warned of the extreme fire danger and the statewide burn ban. I began to worry that we would have to backtrack and find a different hike farther away. The thermometer read 92°F before noon, so it was already going to be uncomfortable even without irritated eyes and lungs. But as we pulled up to the forested trail head of the Old Sauk River Trail I could tell that my plan was going to work.
What I had been banking on, that ended up working out*, was that the river and dense tree cover on this trail, along with White Chuck Mountain directly between us and the fire, would work together to filter out much of the smoke and ash. We were able to complete a 6-mile trail run in almost complete shade and without even a whiff of campfire smell in the air. Even better, on a sunny Labor Day weekend we only came across two other people during our entire hike.
This trail has not really been at the top of our list. It’s easy, very low elevation gain, no big sweeping vista or magnificent waterfall at the end. Just a second growth forest along a river about an hour and a half away from home. I probably never would have made the time to go if not for the situation this day. But I am grateful that I did, and will probably make a return visit in the rainy season for a relaxing day spent in the woods.
The forest is like every other you can find this side of the Cascades. Once heavily logged, but recovered enough that there are finally a few cedars here and there among the firs. Salal and thick moss coat the ground in a carpet of green, and stumps from the area’s logging past now host huckleberry bushes and staircases of mushrooms. The trail follows the Sauk river upstream, and a gorgeous river it is, though fairly unfriendly. The color is the same surprising aqua blue as the creeks around Diablo Lake and the river rocks are painted with a coating of rock flour silt from the glaciers far away. The opacity makes the depth of the river hard to gauge, and it runs in rapids past this stretch of woods despite the hot dry weather. We found a few sandy trails down to the banks, but never found a spot safe enough to wade in. Luckily for us, there was still water at the end of the trail at Murphy Creek, which made for a nice lunch spot and a dip in the clear stream with baby fish swimming around our ankles.
Along the way we listened for birds and heard none. The quiet of the forest was offset only by the rushing of the river that faded in and out as we meandered through the trees. But as we got deeper into the woods we began to hear animals startling in the brush next to our feet. It took us a moment to realize what they were, when suddenly I noticed a toad trying his best to camoflauge in under a bush. A toad! I haven’t seen a Western toad since I was a child – they are elusive, quiet, and are often nocturnal. But as we continued to walk we saw many of them, along with a number of garter snakes. I don’t know if the unusual heat pushed them out looking for water, or if this is just a perfect habitat for reptiles and amphibians, but it certainly was a treat to see one of our lesser seen but still fairly common forest animals.
I’m glad that circumstances pushed us out to this place. No hike in the PNW is ever unrewarding, this one included. If I lived closer, I’d make it a regular trail running spot, but as it is, I’ll probably just make it an easy off-season hike to get some fresh air when the mountain passes are socked in. Always a silver lining, even when the cloud is made of smoke.
If you go: Consider camping in the area, or adding this one to another easy hike nearby. Or just enjoy the beauty of a mellow day in the forest 🙂
*Don’t mess around with wildfires. Check before your trip for road closures and areas on watch for potential evacuation. For this trip I knew that the wind conditions were not a threat and that the fire was nearly 95% contained, and evaluated the conditions when we arrived with back-up plans, extra water and food, and a map of the area in case we found ourselves stuck. A wildfire nearby means another could start just as easily at any time, so play it safe, and if in doubt, cancel your trip!