Ten minutes from home
Mt. Erie is only 1,273 feet (388 meters) high, but it rises steeply from the surrounding land and is the highest point on Fidalgo Island. From miles away, on land or water, you can see Mt. Erie’s uneven bulge, topped by two cell antenna towers. At the top with the spindly cell towers there are a few small parking lots, some benches and viewing platforms, a toilet, a sculpture, and informational signs; one plaque honors a boy who died in a fall.
People enjoy driving up the twisting, two-lane road to the summit for the breath-taking view across the island and out to the Salish Sea. Most visitors leave it at that. But walk just a short distance into the woods below the peak and you’re in another world, enveloped in the hush of a forest layered in a hundred different greens.
Coyote maybe. A chunk of moss nearby had been torn from its roots; the evidence suggested a struggle. Here was a vivid slice of wildness just steps from the road, a road most people use only to access the summit for a quick postcard view of the islands below.
If a visitor could contort like a bendable toy and lean way out over the rocks, they might see a climber or two. Mt. Erie has enough rocky outcroppings to make it the scene of intense rock climbing efforts. On the Mt. Erie Climbing facebook page you’ll find route names like Street Fighter, PTSD, and Beard on Fire, and photos of climbers in action with expansive views of tree-mounded islands and deep blue water behind them.
I don’t have photos of climbers; I’d have to be under them, or beside them. I’ve taken my share of view pictures though – who can resist?
Each time I go to Mt. Erie I admire those views, but these days I spend most of my time on the narrow, winding trails just below the top, where a different kind of magic invites closer looks.
- This almost-prostrate Douglas fir hosts a thick collection of lichens. Underneath it a spongy layer of chartreuse moss supports Oregon-grape (Berberis nervosa) plants that are steadily turning red as autumn arrives.
- A closer view of lichens dangling from a fir tree on Mt. Erie. Lichens are tough to identify, and the Pacific northwest has a host of them, so I won’t venture further than saying this lichen is probably a species of Usnea.
- A closer look. Lichens are actually a complex marriage of an algae and a fungi. If that isn’t confusing enough, they also include a yeast. Lichens grow very slowly, so its important to try not to disturb them.
- I think this tree festooned with multiple lichen species is a Western Service berry (Amelanchier alnifolia). I was drawn to the way the lichens’ cool gray-green coloring complements the warm gold of autumn leaves.
- A Douglas fir cone is nestled into a bed of moss. The rust-colored fir needles probably dropped off the trees because of the drought we had this summer. Rain has returned and you can tell the moss is moist here, not shriveled and dried like it was last month. It’s soft to the touch too, which pleases me. Identifying moss is difficult, but I’ll guess this is urn haircap (Pogonatum urnigerum). (I cheated by locating a plant list for Mt. Erie and comparing photos and descriptions of mosses on the list with my photo).
- No one picks up fallen branches here to make things neat; it’s not a garden. The forest floor is crowded with moss, rocks, lichens, branches, ferns, and countless bits of flora and fauna that we’d need a hand lens to see. Step off the trail and you’re bound to be crushing some kind of intricate life form.
- The summer drought has even begun to affect the tough, evergreen Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). In the background, last year’s shriveled fronds are a cascading mass of crisp, brown curls. Even this year’s leaf is browning at the edges.
- Another tree limb draped with lichens. I’ve read that it may look like the lichen is killing the trees, but lichens are more likely to grow abundantly on trees that are already dying; leafless branches provide better space for the lichen to hold on.
- This bit of fur was just off the path, along with a disturbance in the moss. I picked up a piece of fur and smelled it – it had a rank, slightly sour scent, the smell of a wild animal. It went back where it was, to decompose in place.
- Trees at the top of Mt. Erie are exposed to the elements; some are mere skeletons. In the distance are Whidbey Island and the Salish Sea. As Wikipedia says, “The Salish Sea is the intricate network of coastal waterways that includes the southwestern portion of the Canadian province of British Columbia and the northwestern portion of the U.S. state of Washington.” Not exactly a sea, this body of water was named the Salish Sea only 30 years ago, by a local marine biologist attempting to raise awareness of the importance of the ecosystem. The “Salish” part recognizes the indigenous people who inhabited coastal areas here before Europeans arrived.
- A Douglas fir tree leans out over the spacious landscape at the top of Mt. Erie. Trees up here exist in every stage of growth, from sprouting seed to decaying stump, affording habitat for countless organisms.
- This photo was taken in July on a dry, sunny day. The prominent rock, called Rodger Bluff, barely fits within Deception Pass State Park boundaries. To see it closeup requires a longer hike than I’ve been up to so far, but maybe one day I’ll get there.
- Steep, moss-covered rocks and tall trees draped with lichens make magic at Mt. Erie. Sounds are muffled by all the soft plant matter, but chances are good that you’ll hear the hoarse call of a raven at least once if you spend an hour up here.
- These lichens have grown so long that the wind tangled them up.
- This Douglas fir is devoid of living branches and now hosts several kinds of lichens, forming an aesthetically pleasing screen of pointillist simplicity.
- Towards the end of the day the forest gets quite dark, but the bright mosses glisten with reflected light.
- Serviceberry leaves applaud the last light of the day.
What do these images have in common? They were all made in the last month or two, in the same part of the world, and there are obvious connections between some of them, but you might say it’s a motley crew overall. Some are in color, some are monochrome, some were taken with a phone, some with a camera. What I hope they do have in common is a sense of seeing the world with fresh curiosity and genuine appreciation.
- This is Boot (BOOTIE! to me), an American pit bull terrier, a breed that strikes so much fear into the hearts of some people that it has been banned in entire cities. Boot is a sweetie, believe me. Here, I caught his rear end with my phone camera, as he relaxed on the grass at an Ultimate Frisbee Tournament where his master was playing. Boot has his own Instagram page if you want to see his front end.
- A rock formation at Larrabee State Park which is on the Salish Sea about 15 miles south of the US – Canada border. The softly eroded, curvy rock is sandstone that was deposited here around 50 million years ago. This type of weathering is called honeycomb weathering, and the round perforations often seen in honeycombed rocks are sometimes called tafoni. The original photo was in sharper focus. I chose to slightly blur it to bring out the graceful, curving form. More photos of Larrabee’s intricate geology are shown in previous posts here and here.
- Branches trailing in the water or hanging just above it draw complex, meandering reflections at Whistle Lake, on Fidalgo Island. By the time I took this photograph it was after 5pm and rather dark at the lake’s edge, so I boosted the brightness in Lightroom several different ways: by increasing the whites (basic panel), applying a slight “S” tone curve, and increasing the luminance of individual colors. Small increases in contrast, clarity, saturation and vibrancy also helped brighten and define the image.
- A piece of detritus on a pier in Anacortes. The photo was taken with my phone on the evening of an art opening at the historic Port of Anacortes transit shed, a huge 85-year-old wooden building once used to store goods in transit into and out of the region. It was possible on this evening to walk through a big show of quality painting, photography and sculpture, and then wander outside directly onto a pier, where we had an interesting conversation with the first mate of a tugboat tied up at port while waiting for orders. For solid working culture and the arts to share space like that – well, to me, it was heaven.
- More detritus, this time on a beach at Bowman Bay on Fidalgo Island. The shell may be a Bent-nosed clam, a small, edible clam. The seaweed is probably Eelgrass (Zostera marina), an important plant that provides nourishment and habitat for waterfowl, crabs, shrimp, fish, shellfish and probably more creatures I’m not aware of. Eelgrass is declining in some places in Puget Sound; the causes are complex.
- A friendly reminder seen on an old warehouse in Anacortes. The photo was processed in Color Efex pro and Lightroom.
- This appears to be an unfinished roof. It’s attached to a small building at the site of a weekly Farmer’s Market in Edison, Washington (population 133 in 2010). As I pulled over to photograph the dramatic sky through the beams, two black cats scurried down a dirt road, probably in pursuit of sparrows, and somewhere overhead, an eagle cried that distinctive, high-pitched whinny.
- I saw a sign advertising an art show one summer afternoon while driving through the Skagit Valley countryside. I drove over to the Samish Island Arts Festival to investigate. The art was almost all crafts – jewelry, hand knit clothes, etc. – and it didn’t appeal to me. But there was an interesting group of ramshackle wooden buildings there, across from a small oyster business. There was no fence, not even a “Keep Out” sign, so I spent some time photographing abandoned odds and ends. It was clearly a place where work went on, but it was hard to tell what exactly happened there. Rope, wood, rust and tarps were plentiful. I told myself I’d come back to “work the scene” again.
- Barbed wire fence keeps the rabble away from three unmarked silos in Anacortes. The town has enough intriguing industrial sites to keep me busy for a while. This photo was taken with my phone.
- This photo was taken on a bluff overlooking the Salish Sea during a prolonged dry spell. We hadn’t had any rain for many weeks; the grass was bone dry. I used a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens and made a few adjustments in Lightroom.
- My teapot is getting old and if you ask me, it’s more and more likeable. We found it years ago at a Catholic church bazaar on Staten Island, NYC, and paid 50 cents, if I remember correctly. I make strong Irish tea in it each morning. Over time, cracks in the pot have grown and darkened, and eventually it will leak, and we won’t be able to use it. For now though, it’s a perfect example of wabi-sabi, that wonderful Japanese aesthetic that encapsulates acceptance of imperfection as well as the impermanence of all things. The photo was taken with another vintage Super Takumar lens – a 28mm f3.5.
- Do you see that this is a corn stalk? It’s growing at the WSU Discovery Garden, a demonstration garden put together by the Washington State University Master Gardeners, who are trained volunteers. Lucky for me, the garden is just 15 minutes away, so if I ever tire of wild flora (unlikely!) I can go have my fill of cultivated plants. The original photo is in color and it was converted to black and white in Silver Efex Pro and finished in Lightroom.
- Why are these buildings just inches apart? I suppose it has to do with the lot sizes or building codes. Ever since I first visited Edison back in 2012, I’ve been intrigued by this little slice of strangeness a few doors down from my favorite bakery. There are always ferns growing in that dark little space! The photo was taken with my phone and processed in Lightroom.
- This photo was taken the same day as #3, at Whistle Lake, part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. A rocky, rooty trail along the lake swings down level with the water in places, allowing you close views of sinuous tree reflections in the placid waters. Photographing reflections in water always depends on a variety of conditions, and sometimes they come together perfectly.
As we transition from summer to fall, the wild grasses are bone dry. Dead cedar boughs litter the ground; maple leaves are splotched with yellow and brown. Berries are ripe, and seeds are ready to spring from their tight confines. It’s been a hot, dry summer, quickening the transition to fall. The paradox is this: as dry leaves crackle underfoot and trees are losing leaves earlier than usual, I am saddened and worried, but the color changes all around me are so very beautiful.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor every corner of our state (and neighboring Oregon and Idaho) has been touched by the drought. Conditions range from abnormally dry to extreme, so maybe I should be thankful that our corner is experiencing “moderate drought.”
The drought seems to be putting an early halt to summer, resulting in color changes that are paradoxically sad and pretty at the same time. Burnished golds, rose-tinged rusts, and ghostly pale greens mingle harmoniously, like polite guests at a dinner party.
Many plants along the forest trails are covered with dust, spider webs decorate nearly every tree and bush, and crisply curled leaves litter the woods. Some forest patches remain verdant, especially alongside lakes where moisture lingers in the air, but I can’t get away from the evidence: drought has taken hold.
Fall color tiptoes in early.
I walk, I look, and I wait for rain.
- So-called Himalayan blackberries (Rubus armeniacus) were introduced from Europe for fruit production, but got way out of control. They form massive, impenetrable thickets with thousands of berries that just sit there uneaten, because there are so many of them. In this case, just a few canes are working their way into a tree nursery outside La Conner, Washington. I thought the bright leaves and berries were striking against the soft browns and grays of the trees and grasses.
- A feather as plain and gray as this one is hard to tie to a specific bird. But did you know there’s a Feather Atlas to help identify North American bird feathers? This one (which I still can’t identify!) fell next to a trail on a bald on the western edge of Fidalgo Island. A fire ripped through here, damaging some trees and felling others. Look closely and you can see charred rock and burned fir needles.
- Beside the same trail a lichen-covered rock and a host of dried grasses compose themselves beautifully, without help or interference from humans.
- Near the edge of Fidalgo Island where cool, northern waters often create misty conditions on the land above, reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) grows in cloud-like clumps. I’m careful not to touch it because it is brittle from the drought, and it grows very slowly. I’m frustrated every time I see a broken clump but trails here usually avoid reindeer lichen growth to prevent damage from careless hikers. (I’ll admit I stepped off the trail to take the photograph, but I tiptoed across rocks and bare ground). This photo was taken with a vintage lens I just found at a local thrift store for half the price it sells for online. It’s a Super Takumar 28mm f3.5 from the early 70’s. I have another Takumar lens so I knew this one could be good, and the adapter to fit it onto my camera is easy to find. I’ve been out with it several times, and I’m enjoying it a lot.
- Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium or Epilobium augsutifolium) is a familiar sight in the Pacific Northwest. Called Rosebay willowherb in Britain, the tall wildflower’s magenta flowers produce distinctive, silky-haired seeds that float away on late summer breezes.
- The graceful shrub called Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor) often grows near water and bears sprays of creamy white flowers in late Spring. This specimen, on a hill at Cranberry Lake Park on Fidalgo Island, has a surfeit of pale green lichens growing on its branches. With leaves shifting from green to yellow to orange, dried, peachy-tan flowers and frosty green lichens, it was a striking sight.
- The cool blue-gray color of Stink currant berries (Ribes bracteosum) complements deep forest greens. I read that the whole plant is covered with glands that emit a skunky odor, but I didn’t notice it. I’ll have to check next time!
- At Mt. Erie, the highest point on Fidalgo Island, a species of Usnea lichen hangs from a tree whose leaves are losing their chlorophyll prematurely. Late day sunlight sets the leaves on fire, and fine web threads map a spider’s domain.
- A Bracken fern frond has turned dry and golden for lack of moisture at Sharpe Park, Montgomery-Duban Headlands.
- An attractive flower that hangs on well in a drought is Gumweed (Grindelia integrifolia). This patch, framed by two huge logs, is between a small bay and a beach, a fairly wet location. The photograph was taken with the “new” 28mm Takumar lens, late in the day.
- The forest floor is littered with fallen branches, leaves, wildflower seeds, fir cones, mosses, and lichens. Quiet colors create a neutral palette that emphasizes texture – one advantage of the drought.
- At Cranberry Lake a smattering of trees still cling to their defiantly bright green attire but in the distance, the rusty colors are from cedar trees that have died, probably from too many dry summers.
- An insect is resting on the back of this pretty leaf at Mt. Erie. I didn’t see it until I got home and looked closely at the photo. It’s not the first time that has happened!
- Another photo taken with the “new” vintage lens, in low light on the edge of the woods. These branches are mostly on Madrone trees. The leaves may be from a Madrone too, but I’m not sure. In any case, the funky curves of tree trunks, dead branches and leaves draw an intriguing picture together.
- Spider webs are abundant in the forests these days. These are on a cedar tree. There may be more on my clothes…
- The intensely colored, winged seeds of this ornamental maple beam with joy in the afternoon sunlight at a town park in Anacortes, Washington.