Issaquah's Squak Mountain is climbing in popularity
Special to The Seattle Times
Then again, being lost for a few hours in the rain on Squak isn't really a bad thing. (Assuming, of course, you're in decent shape, have warm clothes and lots of daylight, enough to eat, and eventually you find your way back.) The fir and hemlock canopy is dense enough that the rain and wind are more sound than fury — you hear evidence of them up high, but relatively little seems to make it down below.
Being far less visited than Tiger and Cougar mountains — the two other Issaquah "Alps" — Squak Mountain and its 35 miles of trails have a remote, wild, otherworldly feel. Add mist and fog to this wooded hillside, where tree trunks are woolly with moss as if wearing sweaters of kelly green, where oversized sword ferns and vine maples reach out to brush your knees as you snake on by, where glacial erratics (boulders the size of dump trucks) provide exploratory fun, and you feel like you've stumbled across some enchanted forest out of the legend of King Arthur.
Except for the gunshots you sometimes hear and oddly juxtaposed cheering. On the Saturday morning of our hike, it sounded as if, down in the narrow valley between Squak and Tiger mountains, firing squads were executing folks whom the public couldn't wait to be rid of. (Truth be told, a soccer game was being played at Issaquah High School, not far from the Issaquah Sportsmen's Club shooting range.)
There were six of us hiking Squak that morning. We were led by Doug Simpson, president of the Issaquah Alps Trails Club and author of "Squak Mountain: An Island in the Sky," which the club recently published. Along with offering trail descriptions, the book details the mountain's rich coal-mining and logging history, and its acquisition by Seattle's Bullitt family as the site for a recreation retreat. Remnants of the Bullitt house, such as the great stone fireplace, can still be found on the mountain.
"Cougar Mountain is pretty close to Seattle, and Tiger is right off the freeway, so everyone already knows about them," Simpson said, explaining why he wrote the book. "There are some really great trails here on Squak and I thought it was time to let the mountain stand on its own merits, which are plentiful."
Indeed. From the club's Trails Center — a small yellow house in downtown Issaquah rebuilt on the site of the former home of the Issaquah Train Depot station agent — we carpooled to a trailhead on the east side of the mountain, just off a residential street. We would hike a 6-mile loop on the mountain's east side that connected the East Ridge, East Side and Phil's trails. Our turnaround point would be just below Squak's summit, 2,024-foot Central Peak. But as hiker Richard Mann said, it would be no great loss that we weren't bagging the peak.
"You don't get many views from up here, even when it's clear out," he said. "So you're really not missing out on much."
Which made a rainy morning like this one — or, for that matter, most likely the next six months — just about the perfect time and conditions for a Squak Mountain hike. Instead of panoramic vistas, our focus was on our immediate surroundings — canopy and below.
Be ready to climb
We came across chanterelles the size of pancakes, banana slugs by the bunches, vine maples with leaves as big as catcher's mitts, and fallen trees with twisted root tendrils that snaked so wildly they made Medusa seem well-coiffed.
On parts of the East Ridge Trail we zigged and zagged up switchbacks so steep that hikers in our party on the switchback just ahead appeared almost directly above us.
"Geologically, Squak is pinched, with very steep sides," Simpson said. "Much of it was never logged because it's just too steep."
Continuing on, the grade lessened and we dropped down a bit on the tamer East Side Trail. Deciduous trees were more in evidence and at boot level, the golds and greens and browns and oranges of their fallen leaves were everywhere. The effect of looking down to keep an eye on the trail was that of looking through a psychedelic kaleidoscope.
From time to time, through the trees we could make out a clearing on the west shoulder of Tiger Mountain — Poo Poo Point, which is always fun to say. (It's actually a logging reference. Before the advent of two-way radios, when a choker needed to let a yarder know that he'd set the cable around a log, he blew a whistle that made a "Poo, Poo!" sound.)
Speaking of names, what's in a Squak? As Simpson's book informs, Squak derives from the same Native American word that Issaquah does — pronounced "Ishquowh" — which, depending on the source, means "sound of water" or "valley of the singing birds." (Though other sources say it means "snake.") Squak, as a shortened form of the word, held sway in the area throughout the late 19th century.
"The town site that's now Issaquah used to be called Squak; Issaquah Creek was known as Squak Creek, Lake Sammamish used to be Squak Lake, and so on," Simpson said.
In 1895, Squak, the town, changed its name to Issaquah, with many landmarks eventually following suit.
The first step
After a short, steep jog up an unmarked trail that, were I alone, I would surely have missed, we stopped for lunch at the signed intersection of the Phil's Creek and Summit trails. This day's outing was one of the 150 or so weekend and midweek hikes offered each year by the Issaquah Alps Trails Club, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Started by, among others, Northwest hiking legend and author Harvey Manning, the club has been instrumental not only in introducing thousands of Puget Sounders to the forested hills just east of Seattle, but also in trail maintenance and advocacy. Club efforts have been able to keep much of Cougar and Squak mountains out of the hands of developers and helped them achieve designation as wildland park and state park, respectively.
"The club was a great help to me when I started hiking," said 65-year-old Simpson.
These days, he may be club president and an avid hike leader who now puts 500-plus miles on his hiking boots each year, but five years ago he was sedentary and rarely exercised. The birth of his granddaughter changed that. On an easy walk along the lower reaches of Tiger Mountain, Simpson had what he calls "my epiphany."
"I looked up at all the peaks around me and I thought, 'I'm going to start hiking so that I can live longer and enjoy my granddaughter,' " he said.
After hiking on his own for a bit, Simpson hooked up with the club and soon reached his two main goals — hiking the Mount Si Trail (he's done it twice) and through-hiking the 16-mile Tiger Mountain Trail. The TMT bisects the mountain from the High Point Trailhead at Interstate 90's Exit 20 south to near the intersection of Issaquah-Hobart Road and Highway 18.
"And now I know all the Issaquah Alps like the back of my hand," Simpson said, as we packed up after lunch and headed back down to the trailhead.
Given my history of getting lost on this mountain, I found those words most comforting.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham-based freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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