It was the last day of June. Scattered clouds punctuated the horizon, a cool breeze promised fresh air, and the sun was strong. This is what Pacific Northwesterners live for: bright, comfortable summer days when the water beckons and worries are set aside.
After a difficult week, I was ready for a relaxing walk. Though Deception Pass State Park has as many visitors a year as Yosemite does, I can usually find a peaceful corner somewhere in the park, even on perfect summer days. My hopes and expectations amounted to nothing more than enjoying nature and finding a little inspiration along the way, right in front of me. There was no need to travel far or think hard about what I might photograph – it would be enough to be outdoors by the water and trees on a pleasant day.
I made my way to a favorite, sandy beach made wide by a low tide. Clouds blew across the beach, obscuring the scene like one of Christo’s monumental fabric installations. Actually, it was a kind of fog created by differences between the air and water temperatures. Shivering in the billowing shrouds of moist air, I reminded myself that I’d be warmer once I crossed the beach.
As bewitching as the effect was, I wanted to focus on the ground, which never disappoints my curious eyes. Soon I was in my own world, observing a jewel-colored leaf, ripples in the sand, and crooked ribbons of eelgrass. Mostly as smooth as a fresh sheet of paper, the sand was darker in one place, flecked with green in another. Wavy ripples broke up the surface at the far end of the beach where a cliff changes the way the water flows. There, in the dappled shade of a Pacific crabapple tree, a driftwood log made fine, arcing lines in the sand where softly lapping water hesitated before withdrawing. So subtle they almost disappear, the patterns explained in detail the gentle out-breath of a lowering tide – if only you could read the script.
After perhaps ten seconds of silly internal debate about expending the energy or not, I decided to continue on a favorite trail around a peninsula called Lighthouse Point. I wondered what wildflowers would be blooming near the water. Pausing to let a few people go ahead, I inhaled the fresh air and listened to the faint whisper of a few Chestnut-backed chickadees. As I entered the forest I stepped off the trail to let passers-by through once more, favoring my own slow pace where the trail meanders through a patch of tall Douglas fir trees. It was noon and the sun had been up for almost seven hours but the salal bushes on the trail were speckled with water drops. I don’t think it rained overnight – maybe it was dew. I was surprised. This is what happens when you trace the same path over and over, I thought, familiar things change and encourage the observant walker to pause and ponder the unexpected.
Soon the forest opened out to a clearing at the southern tip of the peninsula where two small coves are separated by craggy rocks bordering Deception Pass. Across the water to the south is Whidbey Island, to the east is the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge, and to the west is the Salish Sea, where nutrients from the Pacific Ocean pour down into Puget Sound and up into British Columbia. History, geography, and ecology could tell long, complicated stories about this transformative place.
But my concerns were more immediate. At my feet was a narrow cliff edge where delicate wildflowers bloom in spring and summer. First, midnight blue larkspurs cavort with pure white chickweed, then cheery yellow stonecrop flowers mix with wild pink onions and golden grasses. Now, to my amazement, more than a dozen upright spikes of Rein orchids were just coming into bloom. I’ve seen the unusual flowers in other parts of the park, never here. As I sat down to photograph them I cursed the harsh sunlight but I smiled, too – this is one of my favorite plants. These specimens were so healthy and floriferous that I wasn’t even sure which species they were. I don’t often see them growing in such salutary conditions. Only when I got home and carefully checked the photos was I sure of the identification: the Elegant rein orchid.
And that was just the start of the wildflowers.
Striking purple Harvest brodiaea flowers beamed up from thick beds of golden grass. First I saw only a few, then I found a generous offering of the little gems. Once the small, edible bulbs were harvested by indigenous tribes. These days the flower is sold by nurseries as a rock garden specimen. The genus, Brodiaea, is named for Scottish botanist James Brodie. Formerly in the lily family, since 2009 this plant has been put in the order Asparagales, family Asparagacae. Plant names are constantly changing as genetic and molecular differences are better understood. That can be hard for people (like me!) who understand plants based on the way they look (morphological differences) because plants that look very different may now be classified as closely related. For example, agave and yucca are in the order Asparagales, just like the little Brodiaea.
But on this bright June day I didn’t care about names.
The beauty of the meadow at Lighthouse Point is that it’s surrounded by water on three sides, dynamic water that races with the turbulence of the tides. The surface can be mirror-smooth at times but boaters know that’s deceiving: eddies and currents can be treacherous here. Large volumes of nutrient-rich water from the ocean forced through narrow openings also hide a kaleidoscope of marine life, only a fraction of which can be seen from land. Beds of Bullwhip kelp (Nereocystis leutkeana) hug the rocky headlands. The long stem (or stipe) of this huge brown algae floats on the surface when the tide is low. At the top of the stipe, a gas-filled bulb allows a fan of leaves (or blades) to rest on the water’s surface. Far underneath, a holdfast (like a rootball) anchors the algae to the bottom. Bullwhip kelp forests are important habitat for many marine species. For this human, watching Bullwhip kelp drift in the current is as relaxing as watching a goldfish tank. Maybe better.
Deception Pass waters really are greenish-blue. Phytoplankton – photosynthesizing microorganisms – that live in the top layers of the water thrive on the rich upswell of nutrients carried down the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean, giving the water a beautiful, milky blue-green color. Shades of turquoise have begun to appear in my wardrobe over the last few years. Maybe it’s the landscape entering my consciousness in ways I didn’t expect.
Golden grasses set with purple wildflowers, the calls of oystercatchers, blue-green water stretching to the horizon – it was a day of breathtaking gifts, more than I expected. But that’s often the way it is when I go for a walk – expecting little, I am given so much.
To complete the day, as I made my way around the loop trail I saw a familiar face – it was Mary Jean, a fellow seal sitter. We each volunteered many hours this spring to protect a Northern elephant seal and her pup, the first Northern elephant seal known to have been born on this island. Both of them are back at sea now, hopefully living their lives as their species has for millennia. We walked back together through the forest and across the beach, still billowing with fog. We wondered aloud where in the vast Pacific Elsie Mae and Emerson are now and when we’ll see them again.
No one knows, and no one knows what the next walk will bring.