LOCAL WALKS: Signs of Spring in the Pacific Northwest

Because we need it….

1. Skunk cabbage, also known as Swamp lantern, lights up a wetland on Fidalgo Island. Lysichiton americanum was considered famine food by Pacific Northwest tribes so it wasn’t eaten often. The leaves were used for lining baskets and steaming pits.
2. Look closely at catkins and you’ll see they’re composed of dozens of tiny flowers that release pollen into the Spring air. These catkins are probably Red alder (Alnus rubra), an abundant tree on moist sites in our area.
3. More catkins. These don’t dangle but are upright. It’s a willow (Salix sp.) of some kind. We have many willow species and so far, I haven’t learned to tell them apart.


4. One of our most delightful signs of Spring is the Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Its luscious pink flowers grace drab, late winter woodlands with just the pop of color we need. Seeds from this plant were sent back to Europe by explorer David Douglas (1799-1834) and after a few years, they flowered. The introduction of the attractive shrub into the nursery trade was so successful that it covered Douglas’ expedition costs. Thanks to Douglas, a blogging friend living in Brussels has been enjoying the same flowering shrub on her deck that I’ve been photographing along wooded trails near home.

5. A pink haze of Red-flowering currant. This photo and the one above it were made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
6. In a dim tangle of fallen trees and branches, Red-flowering currant provides a bright spot.
7. Look carefully and you can see a Red-flowering currant bush blooming high up on this rock wall, its roots buried deep in a crevice. Lichens, Licorice fern, mosses, and other plants adorn this cliff at Lighthouse Point, in Deception Pass State Park.

8. I can’t resist!

9. I literally jumped up and down when I saw this tiny gem, the first of the little Spring wildflowers that grace the bluffs and small meadows on our island. In the iris family, this diminutive beauty is called a Satin flower, or Douglas’ grass-widow (Olsynium douglasii). The pair of flowers was just a few inches tall, growing near the edge of a sheer cliff. As the turbulent waters of Deception Pass rushed past below me, I crept up to the flowers on hands and knees, trying to photograph them despite stiff joints and a chilly breeze. You can bet I was smiling.

10. An early bee. It was a few minutes past 5pm when I saw this motionless bee on a Soapberry (Shepherdia canadensis) plant. It’s also called Soopolallie, “soop” like soap and olallie, a native tribal word for berry. The berries foam up when beaten to make a native dish. The tiny flowers must be providing nectar for early bees at a time when few flowers are available.

11. This distinctively marked Blacktail deer, a subspecies of the Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) has been munching its way through our yard off and on since we arrived in July, 2018. In this photo, taken March 8th, we think she looks pregnant. Recently she seems slimmer, so we’re hoping to see a fawn with her soon. Taken with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.

12. Mount Baker is about 40 miles as the crow flies from this field near Skagit Bay. Up on the snow-covered mountain, the Mt. Baker Ski Area has closed temporarily to allow its ski patrol medical professionals to assist people elsewhere. Skiers and boarders will have to wait and see if the lifts run again this season. Back in the winter of 1998-1999, Mt. Baker achieved the world record for seasonal snowfall: 1,140 inches, or 95 feet (28.9m).
13. The upright leaves and dangling flowers of Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) are a welcome sight in the forest. Indian plum (also called Osoberry) blooms early, in late winter. It’s an important nectar source for early bees and hummingbirds. I have photos of buds dated as early as January 30th. This photo was made March 10th, with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.
14. Indian plum leaves on a bush growing along a seasonal stream next to our house. Photo made with a vintage Takumar 50mm f1.4 lens.

15. The fine, green twigs and buds of the Red huckleberry bush (Vaccinium parviflorum) are a common sight in forests on Fidalgo Island. Later there will be little juicy, red berries. Supposedly a great pie can be made (using plenty of sugar, I bet) but I’ve never seen more than a few berries on a bush.
16. Kayakers are out again, plying the calm waters of Rosario Bay at Deception Pass. On a quieter bay behind the rock on the left, we watched a Harbor seal cavorting last week. Tail slaps, leaps out of the water and bubble blowing made up the above-water repertoire that seemed to impress a nearby female. Who knows what else was happening below the water! We can’t be 100% sure of the seals’ sex, but the display, which went on for over 20 minutes, sure had that “Check me out!” look.

17. Common mergansers (Mergus merganser) were gathering at Padilla Bay on this blustery March day. Soon they’ll migrate north to nest. Mergansers are diving ducks. I’ve seen them hunt in packs by herding minnows into tight schools so the fishing is easier. In the background, the whiter areas are sections that have been logged more recently than the darker areas.
18. This dark scene appeals to me for its muddy, early Spring atmosphere.

19. Mud at my feet, cherry blossoms overhead: Spring.

20. Thousands of Trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) overwinter in agricultural fields just east of Fidalgo Island. The Trumpeter swan is the heaviest bird in North America and has the longest wingspan – up to 8 feet, or 2.4 meters. Every fall our county’s farmers leave some potatoes and corn in their fields for the swans to forage all winter long. Soon they’ll be off to Alaska to breed.
21. Shooting into bright sunlight drained the color out of this photo, an effect I think adds a nice atmosphere to this roadside scene of Trumpeter swans drinking from a flooded field with a farmer on his tractor in the distance.
22. Skagit County farmers grow acres of daffodils and tulips. This field was planted by RoozenGaarde, a family company that grows flowers from bulbs. It’s largest tulip bulb grower in North America, with 1000 acres of flower fields and 16 acres of greenhouses here in the Skagit Valley. The “daffs” are at peak bloom now; tulips will bloom in about a month.

23. Back in the forest, Swamp lanterns bloom along a seep at the edge of the wetland.
Spring! I love it.

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Subtle Rapture

Last week I took a walk at Kukatali Preserve, a narrow, forested peninsula that’s owned and managed jointly by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Washington State Parks. The preserve reaches a long arm into a quiet bay where seals, cormorants and ducks ply waters alive with clams, crabs, oysters and more. A walk at Kukatali is always interesting, offering treasures from the forest, shoreline and bay. The photo below shows the view from the end of the peninsula on that overcast day. The bird you can barely see is a cormorant, likely the Double-crested.

1. Deception Pass bridge seen from Kukatali Preserve.

We are at 48 degrees 44 minutes North so you might not expect Spring to be in evidence here, but the Salish Sea moderates temperatures and our winters are mild. Spring doesn’t have to wait for the snow to melt here at sea level. So far this year, rainfall has been abundant; the moss is green and luxurious and buds on the trees are plump. The first blossoms of the year have already opened: Indian plum’s little white bell flowers dangle from spindly branches and a few Red-flowering currant flowers are unfurling deep pink petals.

In recent weeks I’ve seen eagles sitting on their nests or hanging out next to them, apparently thinking things over. The Varied thrushes are looking handsome in their breeding outfits; Song sparrows are singing everywhere I go. Tiny insects can be seen buzzing the air too, but the landscape is still rather bare, as if the earth was holding its breath for a moment before a burst of energy. I know that’s not true though – the dance always continues on many levels, whether we see it or not.

Against this background of subtle colors and charged possibility I walked the length of Kukatali Preserve, curious to see what would present itself. I was not disappointed. Towards the end of the trail, a grassy field marks the spot where a home once stood; along the edge of the field, a haze of creamy white beckoned behind a maze of bare winter branches. It was a lovely wild Bitter cherry tree (Prunus emarginata) in full bloom, all by itself in the somber brown woods. Bitter cherry doesn’t boast the sweet pink of cultivated cherry trees – this tree’s flowers are a soft, creamy white. For a brief time in early Spring their subtle beauty graces forest edges and moist woodlands of the Pacific northwest. When they grow in the middle of the woods the puzzle of branches all around them allows only tantalizing glimpses of the delicate little flowers. It’s not easy to describe the phenomenon of walking through the winter forest and finding a blooming cherry tree, but you can bet my breath was taken away by the sight of this modest beauty, glimmering in the woods.

2. Normally each flower has five petals but the flower on the left has almost double the normal number, and two styles instead of one. If you think about how many flowers must be on one tree, no wonder some of them aren’t “normal.”


3. This phone capture conveys some of the complexity of the forest and the haze of cherry blossoms on an overcast afternoon.

4.

5. This blossom landed on a Sword fern that was half under water. Shadows complicated the picture. I could have picked out the Doug fir needles and lichens that distract the eye but I prefer not to make too many changes. Besides, finding firm ground to stand on in this wet spot was challenging.

6. Sometimes I treasure the fallen petals more than the blossoms still on the tree.

7. Moisture from the morning rain kept this single petal stuck on an old, lichen-covered log.


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12. New leaves

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14. In a certain light the creamy haze of flowers had a pink hue.

The Bitter cherry displays its bounty modestly, often behind a scrim of bare tree branches. Unlike that low-contrast scenario, the disparity between the nourishing beauty of my surroundings and the barrage of bad news about our earth, politics, epidemics and violence is intense enough to induce mental whiplash. This sentence from the newsletter of a local non-profit organization speaks about the painful discrepancy between the beauty we witness and the news we hear:

One of the tasks of these times, it seems, is to learn how to live in the space between unimaginable beauty and unbearable sorrow. To live without losing heart.

From The Pathfinder, the newsletter of Transition Fidalgo and Friends, a local non-profit.

15. A Madrone tree enjoys extra light by the water. Kukatali Preserve, south end.

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FURTHER AFIELD: Snow-covered Mountains and Moss-draped Trees along Route 20

Driving east from where I live you can be in the foothills of the Cascade Mountain Range in under a half hour. Keep going and you’re high in the rugged Cascade Mountains. Continue over the passes and you leave the mountains behind for the dry, shrub-steppe country of eastern Washington.

The road I’m talking about is Route 20, also called the North Cascades Highway. Each winter it closes near the highest point because of avalanche danger, and it doesn’t reopen until May, or even June. You can’t follow the the road all the way over the passes now, but it’s still worthwhile to drive east on Route 20 as far as possible for some mountain scenery. That’s what we decided to do on a bright, sunny day in February.

1. I took this photo through the windshield when we were far enough east (and high enough) to see snow on the roadside. We continued east to Newhalem, a tiny company town centered around the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, a series of dams supplying electricity to Seattle. The road is closed about 9 miles further up. People who live in Winthrop, on the other side of the pass, have to drive south and then west to get to Seattle in the winter, a four-hour plus trip.

2. In the distance is the Picket Range, seen from the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center in Newhalem. This section of the 789-square-mile North Cascade Mountains may not have the highest peaks, but those mountains are every bit as rugged as they look. Reaching the remote Picket Range requires a long, tough slog through steep, densely vegetated terrain just to get to the bases of the mountains. If you’re in tip-top shape and are an experienced climber, for $2050 USD you can join an 8-day alpine climbing expedition to the southern Picket Range in August. You’ll need to bring your own ice axe.

3. Zooming in on Pinnacle Peak (left, also called the Chopping Block), Crescent Creek Spires and the Rake. These peaks are so remote that the first alpine traverse, taking ten days, wasn’t accomplished until 1963. First ascents of individual peaks in the Picket Range were made from 1931 through 2004.

4. We were intrigued by the windblown, clean rock of Inspiration Peak (7900 ft) to the right.

5. Behind the viewing platform the cool, mossy forest of hemlock, alder and fir was quiet in the afternoon sun.

6. Rt. 20 follows the Skagit River down from several lakes in the North Cascades, where the river is dammed after passing the US – Canada border. Fifteen miles below Newhalem we pulled over for a closer look at the river. Here in Marblemount, a boat launch at the confluence of the Cascade and Skagit rivers makes a pleasant place to stop. Just downriver, Bald eagles congregate in December to feed on river salmon. I’ve seen more eagles out my living room window than I have along the Skagit, but maybe I wasn’t there at the right time. In any case, being near the river always refreshes one’s spirit.

7. This magnificent old Bigleaf maple tree (Acer macrophyllum) grows next to the river. It carries a heavy load of moss, ferns, lichens, fungi and is probably home to lots of insects, too. It looks like its been through the wars – half of its massive trunk is broken off and dead, and a clutch of great, heavy limbs spreads towards the sky on one side.

8. Looking up into the hairy armpits of the Bigleaf maple. The biomass of mosses, ferns and lichens on trees like this can be four times that of the tree’s leaves.

9. A close-up of the thick jowls of moss living on the old tree, along with elegant Licorice ferns (Polypodium glycyrrhiza).

10. This section of dead bark had a large fungus growing on the inner bark and moss edging a piece of outer bark.

11. As the sun lowered it lit up garlands of moss that sweep all the way around the tree’s heavy limbs.

12. Red alder (Alnus rubra) trees dotted the river banks.

13. The alders were covered with different fungi in beautiful patterns resembling a map.

14. Another example of decorated bark, from the Newhalem Visitor Center. A sapsucker drilled rows of holes into the bark of this conifer tree.

15. I saw these tracks, which I believe are River otter tracks, on the sandy riverbank at Marblemount.

16. Near the alders the ground is matted with last year’s leaves and tired grass stems, a rich, decomposing brew that will nourish this year’s plants and animals.

17. The river bottom was a tapestry of soft green, gold and rust-colored rocks, and the water was clear as can be.

18. Every time you look at the river bottom it’s a little different, as ice-cold water races over the rocks on the way to the Salish Sea and the light bounces off the surface of the river, reflecting variable skies above.

19. Black and white seems to suit this roadside view of an old homestead nestled in the snowy Cascade foothills that we saw on the way home.

***

EXTRA!

At the risk of destroying the illusion of paradise on Route 20, I give you this: the Marblemount Boat Launch honeybucket and a big puddle. I can’t vouch for the cleanliness of the interior.

***

You can read about traversing the wild Picket Range here.

JUST ONE: Seaside juniper

This is a joyfully biased tribute to a particular species of tree, the Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima). Also called the Puget Sound juniper, this rare evergreen has a very limited range, a range that happens to include one of my favorite places, Washington Park on Fidalgo Island. I wrote about the park a few weeks ago and the first photo in the post shows a Seaside juniper at sunset.

Western science recognized this tree as a separate species only twelve years ago. In December 2007 a paper was published that described why trees then known as Rocky Mountain junipers (Juniperus scopularum) growing on and around the San Juan Islands, are actually a different species of juniper. DNA, chemical compounds, plant structure and ecology were all taken into account in determining that “my” juniper differs substantially from its Rocky Mountain cousins. Exactly how the two species diverged isn’t known for sure but (if I understand correctly) it’s theorized that juniper trees may have persisted locally through the last glaciation, near the edge of the glacier, in the present-day Olympic Mountains. Some are still found on the eastern (drier) side of the Olympics. During a warmer period between 7000 and 500BC, it is thought that the trees may have spread to rocky, thin-soiled islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (U.S.) and the Strait of Georgia (Canada). What is now called the Seaside juniper is found mainly in these water-influenced locations, with a few outliers in the nearby mountains.

One way or another this rather odd tree has maintained its hard-scrabble existence in very tough places for millennia. Individual trees can be quite long-lived – a study found that one tree in Washington Park (#13 below) is close to 300 years old. I was drawn to these striking trees well before I learned how rare they are and naturally, learning about them makes them even more compelling.

But in the end it’s the aesthetic characteristics that keep me coming back to these junipers. And something about standing under one of these twisted old beings, dry, pungent-smelling, tough and graceful, is profoundly nourishing to the spirit. I try to honor the tree here as well as I can, knowing that I will fall short of truly understanding this tree, even as I stand under it.

**

1. A grove of Seaside juniper trees on an exposed, south-facing site.

2. Nearby, the skeleton of a Seaside juniper graces the view of Burrows Pass and Burrows Bay.
3. Under this old juniper skeleton are grasses and lichens that can tolerate thin, rather poor soil. Around the tree are more junipers and Douglas firs, which also do well in less-than-perfect conditions.

4. Another old juniper skeleton, partly fire-damaged. Photo #12 below shows the sawed-off limbs on the right.
5. This tree demonstrates comfort in the precarious environment where junipers are at home. You can almost feel the wind coming off the water. Four-legged creatures (like the doe in photo #24) have no trouble navigating the steep slopes – but I have to very careful here.

*

What luck that one of the most “robust populations” of Seaside junipers is in this park, where they’re protected. There are hundreds of Seaside junipers in Washington Park, but one in particular always gets the attention of visitors. It sits alone on a promontory where people typically stop and enjoy the view. Over the years countless photographs and selfies have been made here. Many initials and dates are carved in the wood and countless kids have climbed it’s branches. Mostly dead, it continues to feed itself against all odds, with one bushy green limb. The first time I visited the park I was awed by the beauty of this tree and I’ve returned again and again. One day I focused on the tree’s sinuous dead branches, creating a series of images posted here. On many occasions I’ve wandered the nearby juniper-dotted hillsides, peering at tiny blue berries, intricate gray-green lichens, tangled limbs, grand, furrowed trunks and sturdy, twisted roots. Sometimes I bring a vintage Super Takumar 50mm lens that accentuates the junipers’ gracefulness (#7,8,9,14,18). Once, I slowly lurched this way and that way as I tracked my exact coordinates with a GPS app, trying to locate a tree documented in a paper as the oldest in the park. I know the junipers have much more to reveal, and it will come slowly.

6. The one that started it all for me on a December afternoon in 2017, the first time I visited the park.

7. Sunlit leaves

8. Waves
9. Feathers

10. Sprawl and reach

11. Tangle

12. Chop

13. Venerable….this may be the oldest juniper on Fidalgo Island. It’s probably almost 300 years old, predating the arrival of white settlers on the island.

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The Seaside juniper favors warmer, drier, south-facing grassy balds with relatively thin, poor soil on the edges of islands. With their ghostly gray, twisted forms, they lend a distinctive character to the south side of Washington Park. There is something admirable about these tough trees.

Juniper’s colors are subdued, like desert colors. The wood is dry, furrowed and coarse, except after it’s been dead a long time and is weathered smooth. Tiny blue berries grace branch tips and brighten the ground under the trees when they fall. The foliage is an intricate overlapping weave of fine scales, tough and dry, but fern-like in the way it filters light. I was surprised to learn that junipers have essentially two types of leaves – younger and older. Mature leaves are compressed and somewhat smooth; new leaves are spiky and sharp-pointed. This probably discourages deer browsing – young plants are easy for deer to reach so being armed with prickly leaves protects the tree, an adaptation that reminds me of the desert, where other juniper species grow.

14. Sometimes juniper bark grows in a criss-cross pattern, a phenomenon I’ve seen on other trees, too. I wonder what causes it.

15. A branch tip in November, when water is once again plentiful.
16. Older juniper branches host a wide variety of lichens and mosses.

17. The light at the edge of the island where the junipers grow is sometimes shot through with water-drenched color.

18. On the first day of Spring, even long-dead branches appear to celebrate gentler times ahead.

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Junipers are gymnosperms – plants without flowers. They bear seeds hidden inside cones, like pines, but juniper cones are very different. The scales are fused together into a fleshy but rather hard, berry-like structure that surrounds and protects the seed. What we call berries are actually the female cones. The male, pollen-bearing cones and female, berry-like cones are born on separate trees. It takes two to tango….

Juniper berries are used to flavor gin…I think I was losing you, but now I have your attention, right?

The juniper berries used in mixed drinks come from the Common juniper (J. communis). A few species of juniper have toxic berries, but I don’t think the Seaside juniper’s berries are poisonous – at least nothing happened to me after eating a few. They were bitter, astringent, and reminiscent of gin (which originated in the Netherlands, one of many places where Common junipers grow). I appreciated the intensely pungent flavor, though I admit I spat out the seeds and pulp. Juniper berries are traditionally used for seasoning game. There are plenty of deer, rabbits and even quail around here but hunting on the island is forbidden. I doubt I’ll be sampling venison with juniper berries anytime soon. Maybe we’ll try them in another recipe, or experiment (carefully) with medicinal applications.

20. I believe these are male (pollen) cones.

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A few more juniper facts: Junipers belong to the Cypress family (Cupressaceae) which includes cedars. There are about sixty species of junipers worldwide, depending on who’s counting, with about fifteen in North America. Most of America’s junipers are in the West. They’re well adapted to dry climates and poor soils. You may have seen beautiful old junipers in the desert or the mountains, where they can be found up to 10,000 ft. above sea level. Their characteristically twisted, half-dead look is emblematic of the western landscape.

America’s western junipers aren’t always appreciated because they invade grasslands, which cattle-owners don’t like. They’re not great for lumber but are often used for fence posts or fuel. Wild birds and animals feed on the foliage and seeds and the trees can provide nesting places for rodents. I’m not sure how much our juniper is used by local animals and birds but the trees must provide a modicum of shelter, and the berries are most likely eaten by some wildlife. I know that for this human, Seaside junipers provide deeply nourishing food for the spirit.

21. Well-rooted.

22. Another venerable, well-rooted juniper, living through another dry summer.
23. An impressive, if untidy, mature juniper with sprawling, multiple trunks and crossing branches.

24. This unusual, nearly prostrate Seaside juniper grows in sand dunes at Deception Pass State Park, where a small number of these trees can be found.

25. You may spot tiny pink wildflowers in this photo taken in May. By mid-summer they’ll be almost gone. The ground will be parched until the rains return.

26. At dusk, a doe listens to a boat passing through the channel below, just out of sight. This is where juniper lives, and thrives.

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(Previous “Just One” posts include the Sword fern, the Pacific Madrone tree and the Licorice fern).

LOCAL WALKS: Washington Park

Set into a chunky peninsula on the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, Washington Park is a singularly beautiful place. I’ve been there thirty-odd times in the past couple of years and each time I return, I see something new, and I’m enchanted again. Here is a selection of photos from this favorite local haunt.

1. Winter sunset. The Olympic Mountains are low on the horizon; a gnarled, half-dead Seaside juniper tree is silhouetted on the bluff.
2. Ferries to the San Juan Islands (seen in the distance) leave from a terminal a mile away, but why leave?

3. A winter view from the park’s edge. The glacially-scraped rocks are serpentinite, from deep down in the earth’s mantle. These rocks are uncommon, and they’re around 170 million years old. This little cove has a mind-boggling variety of sea life hiding just under the water – brown and red algae, anemones, sponges, worms, chitons, snails, sea slugs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, barnacles, crabs, fish, and more have been found by inquisitive explorers.

4. Three males and a female – attractive Harlequin ducks ply the waters around the park in winter.

At 220 acres, Washington Park isn’t particularly large, but a varied habitat of saltwater shoreline, rocky bluffs and evergreen forest makes it a rewarding place to explore. From the park’s shores you might see harbor porpoises, seals, the occasional whale, oystercatchers, herons and even the elusive Marbled murrelet, which sometimes fishes near the shore. (The Marbled murrelet is an odd seabird. Back in 1974 a tree-climber found a murrelet chick high in an old tree; that was the first time Western science had found a Marbled murrelet’s nest. They may feed way out at sea and then fly up to 50 miles (80km) inland to raise their young. Their preference for old growth forests means habitat destruction is impinging on their nesting success. Foraging habits may also be negatively affected by climate change; currently the Marbled murrelet is considered endangered.)

Turning away from the water, the park’s woodlands invite scrutiny. Weather-ravaged junipers and Douglas firs command rocky headlands. Mounds of delicate, slow-growing reindeer lichens (Cladonia sp.) speckle forest openings and wildflowers that may be uncommon elsewhere bloom in the park each Spring. Deer, squirrels, and birds abound. There’s a bench by the loop road (open to walkers, bike riders and cars willing to go 10mph) with a lovely water view. It has become a favorite spot to hand-feed chickadees, sparrows, towhees and other birds. Tiny Chestnut-backed chickadees will perch on any outstretched hand with a few seeds in it; they’ve cleaned me out of nuts and seeds more than once.

6. Moisture from the Salish Sea keeps mosses green through most of the year. This photo was taken in November; in the summer there is very little rain. Plants adjust by going dormant, dropping leaves or just biding time until the rains return in September.

7. An old Seaside juniper is flanked by the evergreen leaves of several young Madrone trees. The uncommon Seaside juniper (Juniperus maritima) only grows in certain parts of southwestern British Columbia and northwestern Washington State. Scientists recognized it as a separate species in 2007. The trees favor drier, south-facing slopes on the islands and are fairly plentiful in Washington Park but are scarce to nonexistent elsewhere. Seaside juniper is vulnerable to climate change since many of the trees grow on islands. If an island’s climate becomes inhospitable, the trees cannot slowly migrate away like they might be able to do on the mainland.

8. Seaside junipers and Madrones enjoy good light on this open headland slope facing uninhabited Burrows Island. The uprooted tree will slowly decompose on a bed of moss and reindeer lichen. Leaving the log where it is allows a whole host of non-flowering plants, insects, and other creatures to live their lives, which are connected to our lives.


9. Dewdrops line up on dried grass.

10. A little Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) blooms here in June.

11. This unusual, tiny plant, a fern called Indian’s dream (Aspidotis densa) lives on serpentine soils, which tend to be inhospitable to many other plants.
12. Pretty pink Sea blush (Plectritis congesta) and white Field chickweed (Cerastium arvense) mingle on ground littered with broken, lichen-covered branches.

13. Tiger lilies (Lilium columbianum) were blooming in the forest only a few yards from the loop road, in June. What a delightful discovery!

14. A Douglas fir needle dangles from a Red huckleberry twig by a thread of spider silk. The forest at Washington Park sometimes seems to glow green, with plant life. The high, dense canopy of evergreens reduces the light entering the forest but open water on three sides of the park reflects light that brightens dim places.

15. Branch tip of a Seaside juniper tree.

16. Three juniper cones on the ground. I’m tempted to call them berries but they are actually cones containing one or two seeds each. A number of the park’s Seaside juniper trees may be over 200 years old.

17. Tall Douglas firs are plentiful in the woods, along with Western redcedar, whose gracefully drooping leaves are to the left.
18. I guess this rock is a glacial erratic. In the forest it quietly gathers lichens, mosses and insects, producing an ever-changing palette of life on its surface, even on a gray November day.

19. The complexity of crossing branches revealed after leaves have dropped is absolutely dizzying.

20. This beauty looks like it’s covered with snow but no, those are lichens that have found a happy home on a dead evergreen. The tree may no longer be producing needles and branches, but it still plays a vital role in the forest.

21. The snow-capped Olympic Mountain range is shrouded in clouds on a quiet December afternoon. Barely visible to the left is the Burrows Island lighthouse, the oldest intact wooden lighthouse in the state. The light went into service in 1906, then it was automated in 1972. The uninhabited island can only be reached by private boat. One of the delights of Washington Park is gazing out at the Salish Sea and dreaming of “what-ifs.” You can bet I’ll keep going back as long as I can.

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Quiet at the Turn of the Year

To close the door on a year – or a decade – is really a pretty abstract concept. It’s essentially a numbers game that relies on a somewhat arbitrary system of calendar organization. I’m a sensual person and I prefer to think of this time of year in sensory terms, so that’s what I’ll talk about here.

There’s a quiet cast to the light these days. You could say the sun has gotten rather introspective: less likely to light up every little corner, more apt to hide its brilliance. Almost all of December was cloudy here. The sky spat out rain now and then, and kept referring back to itself in a gray-on-gray kind of way. On a few days, towards sunset, rogue openings appeared in the cloud cover, and yielded brief but welcome drama. If the clouds thinned to reveal bits of blue, the sunlight was weak but appealingly gentle. The punch has disappeared from color, textures are flat, and a sheen of moisture-soaked air has smoothed over the worn surfaces of wood and rock.

Wet air encouraged the verdure of lichens and ferns; many are as green as Springtime. Tiny plants sprout on the forest floor too. I don’t know what species they are, but I notice two, four or more tiny leaves climbing on fragile stems toward what light there is, with great determination. Will the little plants survive? Surely the ground will freeze sometime in the next few months. We’ll see. There’s always more to learn about, much of it right at my feet.

I’m drawn these days to the edges of the island, places where I can weave in and out of the forest as I walk, investigating the detritus washed up at the last high tide, gazing out over the water to look for birds, and picking my way along forest paths among the evergreen giants. Woods and water make a fine pair for this quiet time of year.

1. A bit of rain falls towards uninhabited Deception Island.

2. Countless wave cycles have worn this old mass of roots down to a tough bundle of bumps, knobs, holes and craters.

3. Raindrops fall on the rocks at West Beach, Deception Pass. This is the time of year I’m glad I have a “splash-proof” camera and lenses, not to mention warm socks.

4. People love to balance rocks. The cairns don’t last too long at the beaches I frequent so I usually don’t mind them. In some environments, like deserts, animals depend on rocks for shelter so moving rocks around can make life difficult them. And leaving a cairn in an otherwise pristine place can subtract from the experience of being in the wild for other people. At the same time, rock-balancing requires focus, attention and creativity, which are qualities I wouldn’t want to deny anyone from expressing.

5. Another view of the rock pile seen above, in sepia.

6. The tides create numberless small compositions with rocks and sand.

7. A rare December blue-sky day at North Beach, Deception Pass State Park.

8. Water deepens the colors of this amazing pile of plants torn from from the Salish Sea seen after high tide. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.

9. A large rock at the edge of the water stays damp on this gray day; its wrinkled surface and blue-green color elicit my admiration.
10. Ever-present moisture along the island’s margins nourishes lichens, moss, fungi and ferns, as well as the trees and understory plants. We don’t realize how much we benefit from all of this, however indirectly. Lighthouse Point, Deception Pass.

11. A large percentage of life – perhaps forty percent here – relies on downed wood for habitat. So far these fallen trees support moss, lichens and mushrooms. In time, ferns and seed plants will appear. The wood teems with insect life too, and birds and four-legged creatures will engage with the logs one way or another. This two-legged creature with a little black box stopped to look one afternoon.

12. A lichen, one of the Usnea genus, cradles valuable moisture on a damp afternoon. With no roots, it pays for the lichen to be able to hold onto raindrops.

13. Two old Western Redcedars grow tall next to Heart Lake on Fidalgo Island. This species thrives on abundant moisture. Drier summers and droughts here on the island have coincided with a notable increase in dying Redcedars and hemlocks. Arborists are studying the trees and weather, trying to determine if the drier summers are causing the die-off or not.
14. One day this old Redcedar will probably slip in the water, which is just to the left in this photo. Washington Park, Fidalgo Island.
15. The root worked its way into the rock, and now Licorice fern is taking advantage of the resulting cool, damp micro-climate. North Beach, Deception Pass.

16. Bark shed by Madrone trees fell onto this bed of moss (probably Oregon Beaked moss – Kindbergia oregana) in Washington Park, near the edge of the island.

17. Tree trunk slices are welcome stepping stones on forest paths in the wet months. Heart Lake forest, Fidalgo Island.

18. Light bouncing off Heart Lake brightens the forest. The large Douglas fir tree on the left has seen hundreds of Decembers and it just might see hundreds more.

19. I was amazed to glance down and see this delicate little Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) by the trail, still blooming in late December. Kukatali Preserve.

20. This foggy place is several miles from the shoreline but because it’s the highest place on the island, clouds collect here and stick around. Mt. Erie, Fidalgo Island.

21. It’s 3:07pm on December 18th. Soon the sun will set, but not before breaking through a thick cloud cover and gracing the snow-covered Olympic Mountains, across the Salish Sea and more than 50 miles away as the crow flies.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Little Cranberry Lake

On a quiet Friday afternoon last month I traced the zigzag outline of Little Cranberry Lake on Fidalgo Island. The peaceful, mirror-like lake with its dense fringe of evergreen forest is one of my favorite places to walk. In fact, since moving to Fidalgo I’ve trampled the trails there nineteen times in sixteen months.

I wrote about Little Cranberry Lake earlier this year in a post called “Dark Places.” That day I was thinking about allowing more darkness into my photography. After presenting ten darker-than-usual images I somehow veered off into a series of photographs from Little Cranberry Lake and totally lost the thread of what I’d planned to write about. But that’s what happens with me and this park – even looking at photos of it has the effect of hijacking my brain. The walk last month was no exception; amidst mesmerizing reflections and delicate seasonal changes, once again I surrendered to my surroundings.

1. A froth of golden blonde Bitter cherry (Prunus emarginata) leaves floats over the trail.

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How places get their names is always interesting. This lake’s name puzzled me: cranberries? I didn’t think they grew here, but sure enough, I found the native Bog cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccus, on a plant list compiled in 2000 – 2001 by the Washington Native Plant Society for Little Cranberry Lake. They must have found the plant growing on the boggy islands in the middle of the lake. I’ve gazed longingly at those small islands many times, intuiting that the plant life there must be different from the forest. I’ve never seen anyone on the islands. One of these days I will get a boat, paddle over there and see for myself.

The “Little” part of the name differentiates this park from the larger Cranberry Lake, just over the bridge on Whidbey Island. Fidalgo Island’s Little Cranberry Lake is the perfect size for a day’s outing: you can circumnavigate its shoreline on about a mile and a half (2.4km) of winding trails. More paths, some open to mountain bikes and horses, some only for hikers, wander into the hills and over to Big Beaver Pond and beyond. Narrow, rocky and rooty, the trails twist and turn, forcing you to slow down and watch where you place your feet, as scene after magical scene of enchanting evergreen forest and picturesque lake unfolds before you.

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No hunting is allowed here so you might spot a beaver, or perhaps a river otter – I have found piles of cracked crayfish shells on a path by the water where an otter had a meal. The first time I came here a Bald eagle flew down the length of the lake, emitted a piercing cry and disappeared. The hoarse, nasal “cronk” of ravens often reverberates overhead while the friendly chirp of Song sparrows emanates from the underbrush. On my November walk the silence was interrupted by chickadees fretting tiny insects from the Redcedars and Douglas firs, and an occasional Douglas squirrel scolding me for intruding. A few humans passed me on the trail too. As the sun lowered, the woods darkened and the water surface grew increasingly reflective. I photographed the lake from different angles as breezes rippled its surface and water dripped from overhanging branches, patterning the lake with concentric circles. A patch of late-blooming asters nodded at the edge of the lake, their lavender flowers enchanting against the blue water; lichens, abundant in the moist, near-shore micro-climate, decorated trees with a surprising range of colors and textures.

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I went back yesterday afternoon. Overcast skies darkened and spat raindrops onto the lake as I walked around it. A flock of Dark-eyed juncos called tsk-tsk as their white tail feathers flashed through the dim shrubbery. Before I knew it, the sun had set and I could barely see the trail. On went the cell phone for a bit of light on the path. I stopped for one last image: the reflection of a sinuous Madrone limb arching out over the midnight-blue water. I was almost tempted to just sit there and be with the deep blue stillness, but chilly air and thoughts of hot coffee kept me moving. There will be a next time.

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There are more photographs in the Lightroom library from Little Cranberry Lake: more water reflections, wildflowers, berries, mushrooms, fire-damaged trees, lichen-clad rocks, and an odd duck or goose. Maybe I’ll get lucky and see an otter next time I walk here. If not, I’m satisfied with the beauty of the land as it is, ever changing and generous with its gift of life.

***

The Pull of the Tides

The tide –

a grand uncanny:

water pulling back

and pushing forward,

water in transit as we transit,

and

the moon transits and

nothing is

ever

still, is it?

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2. The tide sucks water through the sand forming fine-branched crevasses: a genealogy of rock particles.

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4. Different colored grains of sand come to rest at different places according to their weight and shape: a periodic table of sand.

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6. Waves throw rocks into driftwood depressions; if they fit snugly, maybe they’ll be there for a fortnight or two.

7. The swish and crash of water carves driftwood into smoother and smoother forms; the wood is like tough muscles awaiting the next task.
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11. A bed of Bull-whip kelp reveals the ebb and flow of the water: an EKG of tidal heartbeats.

12. A seaweed Mobius strip turns in and around itself, like the swirling eddies of water that left it here on the beach.

13. A sheen of moisture is left behind as a wave recedes. As soon as it appears, it evaporates. It can’t be grasped. Where is it?

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***

Getting a little more concrete about the “Grand Uncanny”

Several times each day water is pulled back and forth by the mingling of lunar and solar gravitational forces with the earth’s rotation. Wind, weather and even the shape of the land can play a part in these complex liquid movements that we call tides.

The most common type of tidal cycles are semi-diurnal tides. These consist of two high tides of about the same height and two low tides, also about the same height, each day. Semi-diurnal tides occur on Europe’s Atlantic coast and on America’s Atlantic coast, where I first experienced the ocean as a young girl. Our family vacationed at my maternal grandparents’ home on a coastal barrier island every spring. There, I watched migrating birds, ghost crabs and coquina clams on wide, sandy beaches with the Atlantic as a backdrop. I took the regularity of the tides for granted. We planned activities around them, like walking way out to a spit of land only accessible at low tide, or going to the dock to catch Blue crabs with baited traps at high tide. If I was at the ocean it was the Atlantic, and understanding the tides was straightforward. I just needed to visualize the smooth oscillations of high and low tides on a tide chart and remember that the peaks and troughs would hit around 45 minutes later each day.

Then I moved to the West coast. Actually, I was far from the actual coast, which was a place to visit from time to time for a change of scenery. The pounding surf, beautiful blue-green water and mammoth logs littering the shores of Washington, Oregon and California took my breath away. Amid all that drama I paid no attention to the tides. Then we moved again, this time to a small island far from the Pacific ocean but surrounded by salt water thanks to its location near the end of a long strait that is so big it’s called the Salish Sea. Living here has prompted me to get to know the tides again, but I didn’t know how complex tidal cycles can be.

The tidal cycles here are called mixed semi-diurnal tides: there are two unequal low tides and two unequal high tides each day. There are higher high tides and lower high tides, and lower low tides and higher low tides. Did you get that? Apparently mixed tides are a West coast thing, occurring from Mexico to Alaska, along the Chilean coast and in some other locations. My (east coast native) partner likes to theorize about the congruence between left coast attitudes and left coast tides. I thought all tides were as regular as the semi-diurnal ones back on the east coast, but when I look at a local tide table I see irregular waves, with peaks and troughs that vary from deep to average to almost non-existent. Here’s an example: the tide chart for December 25th, 2019.

In addition to daily tidal cycles there are spring and neap tides, which occur everywhere but which, to my mind, might make predicting tides here even more challenging. Spring and neap tides are tidal changes (also called differentials) that are bigger or smaller, depending on the moon phase. At the new and full moon the earth, moon and sun line up and their gravitational pull increases, making high tides higher and low tides lower. At the quarter moons the gravitational pull is lessened, resulting in lower high tides and higher low tides. The upshot is that tide charts are essential around here, whether you’re going fishing, want an easier time getting your kayak in the water, or are looking for Geoducks.

If you read this far you know that much more can be said about that Grand Uncanny we call the tides. Maybe I’ll write again as I learn more. For now just remember: ebb and flow, ebb and flow, ebb and flow….

15. Mew gulls pick through tidal leavings along a Fidalgo Island beach on a quiet winter evening.

***

LOCAL WALKS: Sugarloaf

Sugarloaf – the name is used a lot for peaks and promontories, but why it was given to this hill on Fidalgo Island I don’t know. At 1275 feet (389m) it’s a bit lower than the island’s highest point, Mount Erie. Neither place gets snow very often. As it happened though, the first time I hiked to Sugarloaf there were a few patches of snow on the ground. That was mid-February of this year.

1. Looking southwest towards Whidbey Island from Sugarloaf.

The sun was shining through the trees and ferns but clouds obscured the horizon. I had taken an easier route than the one most people use. Instead of beginning the hike at the bottom I drove up the winding, two-lane road that leads to the top of Mount Erie. Part-way up the drive there’s a trailhead for Sugarloaf and room for a car or two on the side of the road. I parked there and set out, keeping a map close at hand because of the confusing maze of trails through these woods. Trail 215 is part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands and is rated technically difficult because of numerous rocks, roots and a few steep pitches, but it’s short. I was at the top after about a half mile of winding through the forest.

2. A large old Douglas fir reaches out as if to embrace the trail.

3. The snow won’t last long.
4. Sword fern brightens the way with emerald green.

The view of Whidbey Island and the San Juans was a nice reward and behind some trees, a slice of the Cascade Range was visible in the other direction. Tall, fire-blackened Douglas fir trees stood in the clearing alongside the fresh green of young Madrones. I wondered how long ago the fire came through here. How was it extinguished, so far from a water source?

5. Some were spared, some weren’t.
6. Madrone trees grow among fire-blackened logs.

7. Rocks at Sugarloaf tell stories I can’t decipher.

I enjoyed the hike but it wasn’t until May that I got back there again, this time with a group of native plant enthusiasts. Learning about Fidalgo Island’s wildflowers was exciting. Gripped by a fever of wildflower identification, I came back three times that month, introducing friends to favorite new figures in my personal forest lexicon.

I worked at identifying flowers that were new to me, recording what I saw with the camera. When I could, I got down close for the challenging task of making photographs that were more than documents, often failing, sometimes succeeding. This kept me busy for weeks.

All of the flowers here were seen on Sugarloaf in May.

8. Setting up to photograph wildflowers in a meadow on Mount Erie.

12. A tiny moth was disturbed when I sat on a rock to have lunch.

13. Sugarloaf trail in spring.

15. Close-up of a Heuchera leaf.
16. Fog settles among the islands of the Salish Sea.

After the spring wildflower frenzy I didn’t get back up to Sugarloaf all summer. Then a few weeks ago I returned for a quiet woodland walk. I saw no one. One last flower bloomed in an opening, mushrooms lined the trail, and raindrops glistened in the bushes in the low, angled light. I amused myself with photographing tiny twigs and mushrooms.

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23. Two Douglas firs in the last sunlight of the day.

A raven soared by and was quickly gone, riding the mountainside updrafts. I lingered to watch the sunset over the mountains, far off in the distance. By the time I was heading back down the trail, the sun had gone under and it was getting dark. Dozens of small white mushrooms growing in the fir needle duff lit up the forest gloom, like little stars showing me the way.

I’ll be back.

24. A raven tilts its tail to catch an updraft and glide away.
25. Sunset at Sugarloaf.

26. Mushrooms in the forest.

***

Cells Breaking Down, One Way or Another

Who can be a wild deer among deserted mountains

satisfied with tall grass and pines…

Han-shan Te-ch’ing, from The Clouds Should Know Me By Now ed. Red Pine & Mike O’Conner. Wisdom Press

*

Who is this old image-maker

wrapped up in pristine forests and trampled leaves?

This week I took a walk in local park shortly after a band of rainy weather passed over the island. In the park a one-way, 2.3-mile road shared by foot and car traffic loops through thick forest with brief views of the water beyond. The 15mph speed limit discourages car traffic; most people walk. I like to drive part way around the loop, park at a pull-out, and take trails through the forest, which I did that afternoon. When I came back out onto the road I admired a bright spot where maple trees interrupted the evergreen parade. Pale gold leaves were falling to the ground, making soft layers in the woods, but all the leaves that had fallen on the road were trampled flat by the tires of cars. The leaves’ cells were breaking down in progressively ruined stages: just-crushed, flat and thin enough to reveal pavement bumps, becoming translucent, losing edges, skeletonized – many stages of decomposition were on display.

I wavered about photographing the leaves on the road. Part of me was drawn to the way the splayed and flattened shapes recalled graphic depictions of a maple leaf. Another part of me was repulsed by the dirty, crushed plant tissue. The textures were interesting but the colors had lost their life. I turned away, then turned back. The sun was disappearing and there was no time for second guessing. Photographers know that the phenomenon we view at any given moment won’t repeat itself: the smashed leaves at my feet would never look quite like they did that afternoon. So I made some photographs and I’m glad I did.

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I’ll look for the Bigleaf maples the next time I go to the park. Whatever I find it will be different next time, and the next. That’s part of the magic of walking outdoors. I’ll also be more likely to consider the aesthetic possibilities of crushed plant material the next time I come across it. That’s part of the magic of human imagination.

About the Bigleaf Maple

We are predominantly coniferous here on Fidalgo Island but we have our share of deciduous trees, trees that are mostly golden now as they work through the annual task of releasing their leaves. A standout among our deciduous trees is the Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), a well-named tree that’s hard to miss. With the largest leaves of any maple tree, it spreads its branches wide in the forest and frequently hosts copious amounts of moss on its trunk and branches. Happiest in moist climates that don’t get too cold, it ranges up and down America’s West coast where the weather is moderate, into the mid-elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and through coastal British Columbia.

Bigleaf maples turn yellow, gold and brown in the Fall as they cease food production and lose their chlorophyll, the photosynthetic pigment that green plants use to make energy from light. The same reduction in daylight hours that has me complaining prompts these trees to make layers of strong cells at the junction of each leaf stem and twig. The thicker cells allow weaker cells above them to break, severing the leaf from its home. The prodigious effort of food production that occupied the tree for the last six months or so is over; thousands of frail factories are floating down to the ground to gradually decompose. The process has its own intricacies; if you’re so inclined, here’s a study to about the mathematics of leaf decay from MIT.

Each spring before the leaves get started, male and female flowers share space on pretty, pendulous cascades that hang from branch tips. If there aren’t many other flowers out, the bees that visit Bigleaf maple flowers for nectar will produce a hauntingly fragrant honey. Last year I bought Bigleaf maple honey from a vendor at a farmers market and I savored every last drop until it was gone. I have to wait for another spring when I might be lucky enough to find it for sale again.

The flowers turn into winged maple seeds that ripen in the fall and are carried away by the wind for months afterwards to germinate in a moist, partially shaded spot when the time is right. A cut stem will sprout readily too. The little saplings are munched by deer and elk, birds and rodents eat the seeds, and various parts of the tree host a variety of insect life. Humans make use of the wood for furniture, veneers, musical instruments, crafts, pulp, and firewood.

The Bigleaf maple is an epiphyte paradise, gracefully supporting moss, lichens and ferns in great abundance. One study found that the trees carry an average of 78 ponds (35.5kg) of epiphyte biomass. They can actually grow small roots along epiphyte-covered branches to burrow into the rich substrate for nutrients captured from the atmosphere by the various epiphytes. Bits and pieces are always falling to the ground, enriching the soil.

These trees can live to be 300 – nothing compared to an ancient redwood, but an impressive number of seasons on earth. A photo of the biggest Bigleaf maple tree in the U.S. can be seen here. A person standing next to it makes the scale clear.

And here’s a photo of me holding an impressive leaf on a Bigleaf maple tree in July, 2012.

12. A BIG leaf.