Sauk Mountain

Sauk Mountain
Nine years ago, I had a post on my old blog entitled "Alice Knows What To Do," about an incident that happened on a hike at Sauk Mountain in the North Cascades. In this post, I've included the full text of the original post and added an intro section with some additional context and photos.

Sauk Mountain is a hike with spectacular views every step of the way, and the views from the top – less than two miles from the parking area – are legendary. You're looking down on the nearby Sauk and Skagit river valleys, and on a clear day you can see countless Cascade Mountain peaks (including Baker to the north and Rainier to the south), as well as the San Juan Islands and Olympic Mountains to the west.

Because it offers so much bang for the buck, Sauk Mountain is also a notoriously busy trail. So to minimize the number of other people we'd encounter, I decided in 2014 to wait until after the end of summer and then go up late in the day. We could watch the sunset and then hike down in the dark, an approach that we've done many times with the dogs.

Saturday, September 20 was the day we picked. Below are a few photos from that day, followed by the "Alice Knows What To Do" blog post that we posted on the next day.

Jamie and Alice always notice if there's snow around.
Walking along the ridge on top, with the North Cascades in the distance.
Back at the truck. The red circle shows the spot where we hung out at the top of a cliff.
It was so dark and clear that we could see the Milky Way. Those are the lights of Sedro-Woolley on the right, 30 miles to the west.

Alice Knows What To Do

(originally posted 9/21/2014)

Yesterday I took a hike with the dogs, to a spot I've known about for many years but had never visited: Sauk Mountain. Megan had other plans for the day, so it was just the three of us, and for a variety of reasons – many other people and dogs on the trail, cliffs at the top, lots of squirrels and other distractions – Jamie and Alice were on-leash almost the entire time. As usual, this meant the photos I got were mostly butt shots:

Butt shots on our Mount Sauk hike

In addition to the truism that on-leash hikes generate mostly butt shots, another truism of on-leash dog photography is that I rarely get photos of the most awkward or stressful moments, because the camera is usually put away at those times, and/or I'm using both hands to deal with more urgent matters. For example, I still don't have a good photo of the stretch of the Rock Creek Trail that is right next to a 20-foot cliff, because we always leash up the dogs there and focus on safety.

As an aside, I did get incredibly lucky once in capturing an awkward moment while out with the dogs. We were walking down the beach on Whidbey Island, with my friend Craig and his friend Trina, and Jamie and Alice were racing around off-leash, romping in sand and water and having a blast. The dogs were approaching quickly from behind, and I wanted to get a shot of them racing past us, so I had the camera down low and clicked right as they passed by.

The shot didn't turn out anything like I was expecting, because in the fraction of a second before I snapped it, Alice ran into Trina's left leg from behind, knocking her down, and I got a picture of Jamie trying to avoid smashing into her as she fell, while Alice was prancing with joy at all the fun "we" were having:

Alice knocking down Trina at Whidbey Island

I should probably add, for those who might wonder, that Trina was not injured and found the photo hilarious.

Anyway, that long intro is to explain why I don't have a photo of the awkward incident I'm about to describe, which took place on a steep downhill segment of our hike yesterday, in a field of boulders and rubble near the summit of Sauk Mountain. It could have made for an amusing photo or video clip, if somebody else had been around to get it, but I was too busy dealing with the situation to even consider taking a photo.

For some visual context, here's a photo taken on the way up, showing the type of terrain in the area where our little story takes place:

Near the top of Mount Sauk on the way up

Walking down steep trails with two big dogs on-leash is always interesting, especially when carrying a large, heavy, delicate camera. If the dogs are off-leash, I can use trekking poles and that's a very stable and safe approach. When Megan is along and the dogs need to be on-leash, we each take a dog and I can still use one trekking pole while holding Jamie's leash in the other hand. Jamie is very good about this arrangement, and it works pretty well. Alice is a bit wilder and less predictable, and poor Megan usually has that job. (FYI, we've tried switching, with me taking Alice and Megan taking Jamie, but the dogs are so accustomed to a specific hiking routine – Jamie leading Doug, in front of Alice leading Megan – that if we change that routine they both get antsy and try to correct the problem, leading to ever more chaos for all involved.)

So when I started to head down from the summit yesterday after the sun had disappeared, I knew I'd have my hands full. We had left the main trail and scrambled up to a spot with a view, and now we had to come back down that steep rocky stretch. I wanted to keep the dogs on-leash, both because of the cliffs and because of a marmot calling them from across a steep rocky ravine, so I put the camera away, and had a trekking pole in one hand with the two leashes in the other hand. I used the pole to brace myself when taking big steps down, but we were all moving independently, each finding the best route for ourselves, and I was constantly shuffling the leashes and pole between my hands.

All was going well, though, albeit very slowly, until we got to a spot where we had to step about two feet straight down from one rock ledge to another, with a few more big steps below that. Jamie knew I was concerned, so he watched while I set the pole and carefully stepped down to the first ledge, then he hopped gently down to stand right next to my feet.

Alice wanted to follow Jamie, but there wasn't room for her on the little ledge that Jamie and I were standing on. So I tried to get Jamie to take the next step down to the ledge below us, and then Alice could hop down as he had done. Meanwhile, Alice was trying to figure out what I wanted. I just wanted her to chill out for a minute, but she seemed to feel she was being left behind (even though we were all within a couple feet of each other, connected by leashes), and her mind was racing. And then she saw something.

In hindsight, Alice's actions shouldn't have come as any surprise. After all, I've spent years teaching her to leap on and off various things for photos, and I always praise her enthusiastically when she does so:

Examples of Alice getting on top of things for photos

What Alice saw was a boulder to my right, with the top of it about six feet off the ground. Ah, a clue as to what I wanted. :) To my horror, her expression instantly changed from confusion to joy. "Oh, I get it! I know what he wants me to do! I'm on it!"

She crouched and leaped as hard as she could, but didn't quite make the top of the boulder. She started scrambling with all four feet, trying to hang on. If she fell, all three of us might tumble down the steep rocks together, so I instinctively reacted by pushing her butt with my right hand (the one holding the trekking pole). With that boost, she made it to the top of the boulder, where she stood proudly, looking down on me and Jamie.

Now we were in a predicament. I was standing there in the semi-darkness on a little rock ledge, with two leashed dogs, one right next to me and the other standing on a boulder above me, and it wasn't clear how Alice could get down without hurting herself and possibly the rest of us as well. Not wanting her to try anything else, and needing some time to think, I praised her enthusiastically, trying to make her feel she was doing the right thing and didn't need to make any sudden moves. I dropped Jamie's leash and the trekking pole, and looked around. The back of the boulder was lower, because it was resting on the steep slope, so I quickly moved around toward the back side, and when Alice saw what I was doing she gracefully leaped down the back and joined me on the ground.

As it turned out, the solution was pretty simple. But those couple of seconds prior to it really got my adrenaline flowing!

Ironically, my suddenly relaxed and upbeat demeanor probably just reinforced to her that she had done exactly the right thing. I'll have to keep that in mind the next time she has the opportunity.