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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
These days there’s a particular kind of beauty afield. It’s a beauty shot through with darkness, one that draws energy from the forces of disintegration. Everywhere I look I’m reminded that life is cyclical, and endings are every bit as integral to life as beginnings.
If I had to compare this time of year to Spring I’d say I’m happier in the Spring, even joyful. Now, as daylight becomes scarce, a pervasive undertone of sadness is undeniable. My drive to go outdoors isn’t as strong. When I do go out though, the beauty I find rewards close attention and second looks. It’s less predictable, more complex. Colors bleed through numberless permutations, forms contort in unthinkable ways, light bends and shifts, revealing forgotten corners. If I needed reassurance that ample beauty continues in this darkening world, well, that consolation is right in front of my eyes.
In the forest I listen to the gentle plunk of leaves hitting the ground. Some don’t make it – they’re caught on branches or land on other leaves. What irony that a tree bares its branches only to receive falling leaves from higher places. The vagrant leaves may be released with the next rainstorm, or maybe they’ll spend the winter hanging by a thread.
Leaves that do reach the forest floor crunch under my feet, wafting earthy scents into the cool air. A plethora of mushrooms add to the rich aroma.
Like a forest sprite, Licorice fern appears to spring magically from the rocks. Just as often, it climbs up mossy tree trunks, higher than you can see. The jaunty ferns are boon companions on many a walk: always friendly, ever-perky, enhancing every nook and cranny they get into.
Even after summer drought dries the fern fronds into a crunchy brown fringe, their tight curls still appeal. And when the rains return the ferns reappear as tiny green triangles of hope pushing into the moist, cool air.
Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) is a denizen of wet places in western North America, growing on mossy ground, across fallen logs and rock surfaces and even high into the trees, where it studs branches and trunks with emerald green. The Latin name breaks down as poly = many and podium = little foot, which refers to the way the rhizome looks, but usually it’s hidden from view under the damp, mossy substrate the plant prefers. A rhizome is a creeping, horizontal stem with multiple rootlets (the many little feet) to anchor the plant in place, and fronds springing up at intervals. Glycyrrhiza refers to the slightly sweet, licorice-like taste of the rhizome, which was used by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest for throat problems and to ease the unpleasantness of other, more bitter medicine. I can attest to the sweetness of the rhizome but personally, I’d rather get my licorice flavor fix by filching seeds from a fennel plant.
This attractive fern did not go unnoticed by the nursery trade; the Royal Horticultural Society in Great Britain lists a cultivar with long frond tips as available at six nurseries. On the west coast the same form can be purchased at a Washington nursery, or you can probably find the “straight” native plant at various growers.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2012 and began familiarizing myself with the local flora, Licorice fern was one of many new plants. It reminded me of a fern I knew from the southeast called Resurrection fern (Polypodium polypodioides). Resurrection fern is another small, bright green fern that grows like feathers on tree trunks. Its fronds can dry up and look dead, then come back to life after a good rain. As I understand it Licorice fern doesn’t “resurrect” like that – it puts out new fronds after the summer drought, when rain returns.
As interesting as the objective qualities of Licorice fern are, it’s the subjective beauty of this fern that keeps me coming back. I’ve seen subtle variations in form that delight me: sometimes the tip on a frond is very elongated, giving it a stylish, graceful aspect (this is the form that was bred to be sold as a cultivar). Fronds often cross each other and interweave as they grow, making beautiful patterns. Another feature I like is the look of the sporangium (the round dots on the underside that contain spores) when they’re raised, giving leaves a very organized aspect.
A word about photographing ferns
Photography offers a double pleasure: absorption in the moment as we concentrate on framing a piece of the world that for one reason or another excites us, and later, the pleasure of finding a way to perfect that framed image so that it expresses our feelings. The more that camera and processing skills become second nature, the less we need to think about mechanics, leaving us free to enter into the moment and respond with feeling. Being absorbed in the moment often erases the endless commentary and worries that interject themselves into so much of our days. I don’t pretend to describe the experience of making photographs for others, but that’s how it is for me, on a good day.
I delight in the beauty of this little fern as I encounter it outdoors, and later I admire the attractive patterns all over again, as I process the photographs on the computer monitor. This humble little plant gives me great pleasure. Why should you care about it? No reason at all, but for me, the way it grows in the most unlikely places, the brilliant green of new plants at a time of year when others are looking old, and the happy spring of the fronds lifting towards the light make it admirable. Licorice fern makes a good photographic subject too, so as they say, what’s not to like?
and the process of peeling off the layers of extravagant growth –
bit by bit,
leaf by leaf,
Six of these photographs were made using a vintage Takumar lens with an adapter (#1,3,4,11,13,14,15). This lens is about 50 years old. It’s not as sharp as lenses made today and it has its own look – a little warmer and perhaps less clinical than current lenses. It’s harder to use because aperture and focus distance have to be set manually. The lens can flare and in high contrast situations it may produce purple or green fringing. In spite of these eccentricities there’s always the possibility for interesting surprises with this old lens, like the moody look of the first photograph. My version of the lens has a slight gold tint, which in my mind makes it particularly well suited for fall. The Takumar tends to sit in a cabinet for months at a time, then I take it out and get excited about it, shooting for a while until I tire of the limitations and go back to newer lenses that are more predictable.
A few of these photos were made with an older Android phone (#9,10,12) and for the others I used Olympus lenses. Whatever you use to make photographs and express your connection to the world around you, I hope you are enjoying your tools.
In 1977 a Fidalgo Island resident named Kathleen Sharpe deeded a choice parcel of land to the county, to be used as a park in memory of her husband and his father. Irish-born Thomas Sharpe had arrived on the island about a hundred years earlier, establishing a farm and orchard. The 1870’s may not sound like long ago in historical terms, but Sharpe was one of the early permanent white settlers on Fidalgo Island. He and his family must have relished the peaceful views from their homestead.
Sharpe Park doesn’t impress with size but its beauty is undeniable. Set along rugged cliffs at the island’s western edge with spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands, this is the kind of place that is normally dotted with private homes. Instead, it’s a county park where anyone can enjoy the views free of charge. The park maintains a low profile; only a discrete sign at a small parking lot on a quiet road identifies it. Additional land was added to the park in 2003, thanks to the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust and funds from private, state and county sources. That cooperation dedicated to a mutually valued goal produced a gem of a park.
We used to drive up to Fidalgo Island to enjoy the scenery when we lived near Seattle. It was on one of those trips in the fall of 2017 that we discovered Sharpe Park. We followed winding, root-studded trails past a wetland and drifted through a moist, evergreen forest before arriving at Sare’s Head, the high bluff overlooking Rosario Strait. The expansive view took our breath away. Standing on that bluff with the silver water spread out far below, your mind-chatter fades away as everything quiets.
Since moving to Fidalgo Island, this park has become one of my favorite places to wander and relax. The trail system has easy, moderate and challenging sections as it follows the twists and turns of the shoreline. There’s a simple bench on the bluff and another on a second bluff to the east, making perfect spots for picnics. Walking through the peaceful forest, catching those first glints of blue through the trees and emerging on a bluff overlooking the water 400 feet below is always a treat.
The seasons roll forward revealing a parade of discoveries: dried cattails reflected in the dark waters of winter, a tiny native orchid penetrating the leaf litter in July, stripes of fire damage in the bark of a Madrone tree, and a suite of pretty Camas flowers lighting up the ground in a clearing. In March a friend and I watched a Bald eagle attempt to land on a branch that was too small. It tipped over and tried to right itself by spreading its wings. It was unsuccessful. We couldn’t help laughing as the eagle went to find a better lookout. There are supposed to be Harbor porpoises off Sares Head but I haven’t seen them there. That’s reason enough to keep coming back.
These photos are a celebration of tafoni* and accompanying formations in the rock at Larrabee State Park, along with two vistas so you can see the context. And there are children enjoying their finds before returning them to the water, and two intertidal denizens called Purple sea stars.
Tafoni – in Sicilian it means windows (or so I read in Wikipedia). And in Corsica, taffoni (with two “f’s”) also means windows (says Wiki). The tafoni we’re talking about could be related to a Greek word for tomb, taphos but in any case, the window/tombs I’m thinking about are sensuously sculpted holes in rock. Tafoni is a term geologists use for certain the intricate patterns that occur in rocks from complex weathering processes.
This phenomenon can be found in the desert and at the shore, and the shore is where these photographs were made, at Larrabee State Park in northwestern Washington.
Larrabee was Washington’s first state park, thanks to a wealthy family who donated some beautiful waterfront acreage to the state over a hundred years ago. Primarily a rocky stretch of saltwater coast, the park also includes the west side of Chuckanut Mountain. The cliffs there are very steep: last year a man died in a fall from the rocks, and a couple was injured in another fall this year. The narrow, winding road that passes through Larrabee is full of blind curves and marvelous scenic views which you can enjoy as long as you remember to pay attention to where your tires are. After arriving at Larrabee I like to cross under the railroad tracks and follow the easier paths along the shoreline. The rocky beach is great to explore at low tide when tidepools reveal all sorts of creatures.
Maybe because they’re more dependable than sea life, the rock formations are the big draw for me. Whether the rocks are towering over the shoreline or defining it, the 57-million-year-old sandstone displays many fascinating forms. You can’t help but wonder how the tafoni and the smooth, svelte curves came about. The process of honeycomb weathering (those Swiss cheesy holes in the rocks) is fairly complex. It begins with the process of physical weathering, a loosening of the structure of the rock caused by a tree root, freeze and thaw cycles, the action of wind, acid rain…a myriad of forces that work on rocks to alter their shape. At Larrabee the rock is quite permeable. It’s subject to salt from ocean water, carried from many miles away by the tides and storms. Salt water splashes on the rocks, leaving salt crystals between grains of rock as it dries. The salt crystals grow, pushing grains of rock aside, a process that happens readily because sandstone here is quite porous. Certain minerals in the sandstone are more susceptible to salt crystallization than others and once a pit begins it can increase its size more quickly than the surrounding rock, so weathering can be very uneven.
Add to this the effect of algae growing on the surface of the rocks. Where algae grows, the rock absorbs water much more slowly so weathering is retarded. In places without algae the rock is eaten away faster, expanding into a hole. There is controversy about the exact science here and frankly, this is as much detail as I can absorb! If you’re interested, Dave Tucker at Northwest Geology Field Trips points to further discussions of tafoni in a blog entry here.
Better yet, visit this little stretch of shoreline and admire the rocks in person. Run your hand along the surface – it may look smooth but it’s not; the grains are large and rough, providing nice handholds if you want to scramble. Or locate a place close to you where honeycomb weathering can be found. Altdahn Castle in the Palatinate Forest of Germany, Mt. Wellington in Tamania, and Arches NP in the US are some examples, and here’s a map of the world with tafoni locations. Check it out. And bring your camera.