Two Men, a Book, and Mt. Pilchuck

Edith and David Capocci, with David’s book, Rambling and Scrambling around the Mountain Loop, courtesy Edith Farrell
Green Gables interior with a customer playing a hand-crafted flute, courtesy Edith Farrell

To the delight of travelers along the Mountain Loop Highway, an almost 80-year old landmark at Verlot has been renovated and reopened after closing last September.

The new owners of the Green Gables general store, Edith and Randy Farrell, offer friendly advice to hundreds of hikers and campers who come to play in Snohomish County’s backyard. They also offer food, coffee, and vacation necessities, as well as an eclectic mix of specialty items. For those wanting to know more about the Mountain Loop area, they carry a variety of new and used books.

Green Gables sits at the base of Mt. Pilchuck, the destination of an estimated 28,000 visitors each year. The store is also only a mile or so from where I lived as a child. Almost every day of my life until I left home for college, I looked up to see Mt. Pilchuck looming to the south. Some of my pleasantest memories are of exploring the mountain’s flanks or climbing its peak.

For six years while I was growing up, two naturalists, Harry W. Higman and Earl J. Larrison, studied the plants and animals that inhabit the forests, bogs, lakes, meadows, rocks and cliffs of the mountain. In 1949, they summarized their findings in an unusual, very  readable work of fiction they called Pilchuck, the Life of a Mountain. I’d never heard of the men or their work until I found a copy for sale in the Farrells’ collection.


The story’s main characters are Doc, Merle, and their woodsman friend Frank. Although these naturalists are fictional, their adventures, work, and descriptions of life on the mountain are obviously drawn from the authors’ own experiences. Edmund J. Sawyer contributed beautiful line drawings. Since I’ve been an avid nature observer and a lover of Mt. Pilchuck for many years, I found the time on the mountain with Doc, Merle, and Frank a treat not to be missed.

The mountain, like all mountains, is a living entity whose plants and animals are perfectly adapted to their own niches in the ecosystem.  I loved the historical and geological bits sprinkled in, although some of the latter are a little outdated now. The authors give marvelous descriptions of the incredible views, the quickly-changing weather, and days and nights spent at the lookout station on Pilchuck’s summit.

Today’s hikers have easy access to the mountain from the Interstate 5 corridor. They can drive to the 3,150 foot level, leaving only 2,200 feet of altitude to gain in about three miles of hiking. But when Higman and Larrison worked on Pilchuck in the 1940s, the trail began at the Stillaguamish River and climbed upward for five miles, much of it through timber. A trailside cabin had been built at timberline for a man who lived there during fire seasons. He made trips to the summit to watch for fires. In good weather, he found it easier to stay in a tent at the top.

The Forest Service ran a telephone line to the peak and eventually built the lookout a cabin there, with a cupola atop where he could have an unobstructed view. That lookout station was first built by the U.S. Forest Service in 1920, rebuilt in 1941, and renovated by the Everett Mountaineers in 1977.

While reading about that unknown watchman and his cabin, I remembered my first climb to the summit with a group of high-school friends. We wore old shoes and light jackets and carried our lunches in brown paper bags. As we labored up through the forest, the fog turned to mist and then to drizzle. Noticing lengths of rusted wire paralleling the trail, running through porcelain insulators or just nailed to rotting stumps not far above the ground, we guessed we were looking at an old telephone line. We paused to eat part of our lunch at a level spot where piled stones indicated a low wall. Rotted timbers, sunken in moss, outlined a rectangle. After many decades, I finally know why someone had built a cabin halfway up Mt. Pilchuck.

When Larrison and Higman roamed the mountain, they occasionally shared it with mountain goats, cougars, coyotes, and even a wolf. They studied shrews and six kinds of mice, fish, many kinds of birds, and they even found toads at the very pinnacle of Pilchuck. The larger mammals are scarce now, but marmots and pikas, two rodents of the high places, can still be seen by the hikers who stream to and from the lookout on an average day. Those with skill and know-how can still enjoy wonderfully wild and untouched spots on Pilchuck.

But for those who must do their adventuring from an armchair, Pilchuck, the Life of a Mountain, will serve as a lively, enjoyable guide.

Although the book is out of print, copies are available in libraries and through online booksellers.

    Henry Wentworth Higman and Earl J. Larrison, Pilchuck, the Life of a

Mountain, illus. by Edmund J. Sawyer (Seattle: Superior Publishing, 1949)

Look here for a list of libraries in this region that have copies:

Download the book to your computer:

Good Samaritans to the Rescue

Last Saturday’s picnic turned out quite differently than planned.

The October weather couldn’t have been lovelier as we headed out to look for a picnic spot along the Mountain Loop Highway. But the parks we passed were closed for the season. As we passed the road  leading up Mt. Pilchuck, I suggested to Hank we turn there. We could always eat our sandwiches in the car, and we’d have a grand view.

As the potholed road wound up the mountain, I remembered all the times in the past I’d been up that road, and the times in my youth before the road existed, when we started at the river in the valley below and hiked five miles or more to the lookout at the top of Mt. Pilchuck. We shared the trail with very few people then, but things have changed. The hike is shorter now. It’s one of the most popular trails in Snohomish County.

As we neared the end of the road, we passed a spate of cars coming down. Good! That should mean plenty of parking would be available. But no, the graded area at the end of the road was filled with vehicles. There must have been hundreds of people up on the mountain. (We found out later that there’d been a wedding in the woods along the trail. The cars that passed us were probably guests leaving. Someone told us they’d seen the bride and groom, in jeans and hiking boots, put their balloons and leftover wedding cake in their car. Then the bride tied her hair up in a pony tail and away they went, up the trail!)

Hank spied a place large enough for our car and one other, if he nosed it up on a rocky berm.
So he did that, and suddenly we felt a front corner drop a few inches. A Ukrainian boy passing with a group of other young people called out, “You popped your tire.”

So we had, the first flat tire in the twelve years we’d had our Honda Odyssey. One of the young people offered to change the tire for us, but it was two o’clock and Hank declined the offer, needing some food in his stomach before doing anything else.

We hauled our folding chairs to the brink of the overlook and enjoyed a picnic with a view. The valley where I grew up spread below us. Beyond Green Mountain to the north, we could see the Cascade peaks on into Canada. To the west was Puget Sound with its islands, to the south, the Olympic Mountains. Somewhere out there in the haze lay Everett and other communities. And behind us loomed the rocky crest of Mount Pilchuck with all those hikers.

We finished our coffee and turned to the task at hand. There must be a spare tire and a jack somewhere in the car, although we’d never used it. I pulled the manual from the glove compartment and discovered they were stored in a compartment between the front two rows of seats. After a struggle, we dislodged and hauled them out. The spare with its wheel was about half the size of the other tires. The jack looked like a toy. And the wheel with the flat looked huge and heavy.

About then, a young man came down the trail to the car parked next to us. He saw our problem and offered to help. He sat on the ground and turned the wimpy little crank on the jack around and around, lifting the big van until there was room to loosen the lugs on the tire and remove it. He put the spare in its place and lowered the car to the ground. The tire had seemed firm, but under the car’s weight, it too went flat. We asked people arriving and leaving if anyone had a tire pump, but no one did.

“No problem,” Hank said. “We have Triple A.” He thanked the helpful young man, who left. Hank went to the brink of the overlook, the only place our phone got reception. But he couldn’t get through. A truck pulled into the empty spot beside us with a couple just out for a drive, not a hike. The man offered his more powerful cell phone. Then we waited and waited for the AAA receptionist to call back with news that a tow truck was on its way. The couple waited with us. Finally she called back, apologetic. Five or six companies had refused the job. They would not take their trucks out on a graveled mountain road and risk damaging them.

So the helpful Samaritan, Brock, put our tire in his truck and drove it and Hank down the mountain and back to Granite Falls, a round trip of about 35 miles. They got there just as the mechanic was closing up shop. He discovered a rock puncture in the tire, repaired and aired it up, and Hank and Brock returned to the parking area where Brock’s friend Linda had been keeping me company. By the time they got there, the temperature had dropped. Linda and I were sitting in the car, watching hikers pour off the mountain, hoping the men would get back before dark so we wouldn’t be alone.

Brock soon had the tire back on the car. Though he didn’t want to take it, we gave him the little money we had with us to help pay for his gas. He and Linda waved and headed down the mountain. By the time we reached the main road, darkness had descended and they were long gone.

We are so grateful for the good and generous people that still walk the earth. Thank you, Brock and Linda and all the other good Samaritans for “paying it forward.” When our turn comes, I hope we won’t need to change a heavy, dirty tire like you did for us.

Sunrise, Sunset

I grew up in the beautiful Robe Valley in Washington’s Cascades, surrounded by tall trees. From our front yard, we looked through a screen of firs at the north face of Mt. Pilchuck. If we walked up the driveway toward the road, we could see Green Mountain behind us. Watching the sunrise meant seeing the sun’s rays strike long fingers through the forest to the east. And once in a while, a red-tinged sky above the western tree tops indicated sunset. Not until I grew up and left home did I realize what we missed in our lovely but closed-in valley.

This morning Hank and I drove out to Silvana for breakfast. I stopped to take pictures and realized the sun was coming up. I wonder how many days in the year the sun rises in just this way at this particular spot. By the way, this is Mt. Pilchuck from the west.

Have you ever seen a mountain give birth to the sun?

Where we live now, we watch the sunsets move north throughout the year as summer advances, then back toward the southwest as the north pole tilts away from the sun. These were taken from our front yard in late September, facing almost due west.