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.

EDGE-BLURRING: The Malleability of Time

The twin architects of our daily lives, time and space, occupy very different places in my mind/experience. Space is a concept I’m comfortable with; I can judge size accurately, I have a keen feeling for landscape, I relish the myriad permutations of form I come across in life. But time, that’s another matter entirely. Past present and future don’t always differentiate for me the way they seem to for other people. I am perpetually behind, I sometimes foresee what’s coming like it’s happening now, and I constantly get stuck in a mesmerizing present that puts me beyond the reach of the normal interruptions of daily life. Over the years I’ve learned to live with this mushy sense of time, and thankfully, people close to me usually tolerate the inconvenience it causes them.

Maybe my experience of malleable time and the erasure of boundaries promotes creative expression. Maybe new flowers grow in a place where time is not so fixed and the the border between now and then is smudged into oblivion.

1.

I want to tell you something

profound about time but

I have never understood it. They say one moment

is followed by the next. No,

this morning in dim gray light

the towhee ziggs-zaggs under the feeder – a

svelte, dark shadow

and junco’s white tail feathers flit in quick arcs

between the sword fern and the bird feeder, and

my grandfather smiles gruffly at the pretty redbird,

a cardinal gracing his front yard, and the Song sparrow pours

song into the air from a wire

outside my old apartment in Hastings-on-Hudson: the same

buzz-and-trill melody, over and over, and

the chickadee’s delicate claws

precisely grasp my seed-filled ten-year-old hand and

a thin, gossamer thread, twinkling rainbow colors in an

almost-felt breeze connects

all of it, here,

Now.

2.

3.

4.
5.
6.

7.
8.

9.

10.

11.

12.

13.

14.

The intention is for the images to convey a feeling of movement. Tempus fugit. Rushing ahead pell mell, turning back on itself in circles, the hazy fog where nothing is hitched to anything else….time is unpredictable and cannot be grasped. And at times it seems to stand still, but maybe not – as in the last photo of the German countryside seen from a speeding train car, where perhaps time is morphing into space.

***

The photos

  1. A flock of birds takes off across the bay at a refuge near Seattle. The horizon is tilted and the colors are distorted for effect. f6.3, 1/80th sec. December, 2016.
  2. Blurred Atlantic ocean water washes a bone I found on a beach many years ago. The bone is probably a dolphin scapula. From an old slide, circa 1979.
  3. The road rushes by on Big Basin Highway, Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California. Intentional camera movement on a Samsung phone. October, 2016.
  4. Intentional blur and intentional camera movement from a car, colors altered. Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, CA. f4.5, 2/5 sec. April, 2018.
  5. A Red-breasted nuthatch flies away from a suet feeder. f3.2, 1/125th sec. Not intentionally blurred but I liked the effect. June, 2016.
  6. The scenery disappears quickly through the window of a train in the Netherlands. Intentionally blurred. f22, 1/4 sec. April, 2019.
  7. Carp at a conservatory in Tacoma, Washington. Intentionally blurred. f20, 1 sec. November, 2017.
  8. Flowers on my deck at home. Intentional camera movement. f5.6, 1/3 sec. September 2016.
  9. A blowing leaf at a park, intentionally blurred. Aperture information unknown – vintage lens. 1/800 sec. February 2018.
  10. Rushing water in a creek in the foothills of the Cascades. Intentionally blurred. f11, 1/8 sec. September, 2014.
  11. I don’t think this doubled image happened intentionally – maybe the photograph was taken through a window, I don’t remember. f3.5, 1/320 sec. December, 2008.
  12. The view from Goose Rock, Deception Pass State Park, Washington. Intentional camera movement. f22, 1/3 sec. February 2020.
  13. A roadside outside of Portland, Oregon. Intentional blur and camera movement. f22, 1/8 sec. April, 2018.
  14. Fields seen from a train traveling between Cologne and Frankfurt. The view seems static but it’s actually blurred by the train’s movement. f3.5, 1/200 sec. April, 2019.

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

***

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

Winter Diary

Before they get buried in the archives, here is a selection of “scenes seen” in the last few months.

1. Working boats at a marina in Anacortes with steam in the background from a refinery across the bay. The colors have been modified to add a little more drama.

2. Seen in a vacant lot outside a lumber business, in the small town of Edison, WA.

3. Sand patterns at Cape Perpetua, Orgeon

4. Winter fog, same location as #2. Edison has a population of perhaps a few hundred people and a four-block downtown. On that street are a couple of art galleries, a bakery, and a few restaurants, each of which achieves the kind of quality you’d expect in a city fifty times the size of Edison. And they all need electricity.

5. Another telephone pole, by the Olson Building in Anacortes.

6. Calm hands.

7. Several days of snow shuttered the schools and many businesses. The Sword ferns aren’t looking very good after being laden with heavy, wet snow for days. These fronds will gradually recover though, and the plants will send up new shoots in the Spring.

8. A tea cup is a close friend on cold mornings.

9. Citrus is appealing these days.

10. A thrift shop vase with seasonal berries is welcome in the house.

11. Nigella (aka Love-in-a-mist) seed pods, as seen with an in-camera filter. The seeds are dropping out of the pods. Maybe I’ll plant them. A relative, N. damascena, is used as a condiment and according to Wikipedia, its seeds were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.

12. Paperwhite (Narcissus papyraceus) buds are reassuring whispers of hope.

13. Now that the buds have opened, the fragrance arrives like the blessing of a soft-cheeked infant.

14. In Port Townsend, a small town on the Olympic peninsula, moss overtakes a stairway. Port Townsend is in the Olympic rain shadow (which means the Olympic Mountains grab Pacific ocean moisture before it reaches this area). The town only gets about 20 inches of rain a year, compared to the U.S. average of 38. It’s still relatively cool and damp throughout much of the year, keeping the moss happy. This photo was taken in the wettest month, November.

15. The garden Buddha, enrobed.

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.

***

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Road Trips: Northern California in Color and Black & White

If you take the fastest route you can reach the little town of Ferndale, California in twelve hours from our house. Happily, we had time to spare so we took a longer route, avoiding Seattle traffic by taking a ferry to the Olympic peninsula and heading south along the scenic Hood Canal.

A ferry ride is a nice way to begin a road trip. On a cool September morning we watched two seals and a Great Blue heron fishing in the harbor while we waited for the next Coupeville – Port Townsend ferry. The heron’s successful catch was an auspicious sign for the start of our the trip.

1. Saturday, 8:45am. Coupeville ferry terminal

After disembarking from the ferry we drove through Washington and Oregon, stopping for the night in a small town off Route 5. The next day it rained off and on as we wound through southwest Oregon and into California via the Redwood Highway, finally arriving in Ferndale. The two long days on the road were a bit of a slog but we were in good spirits as we settled into one of our all-time favorite airbnb’s. The cottage was stocked with fresh eggs, home made muffins, local jam, coffee, tea, chocolate and wine – how could we not feel pampered? I woke up early Monday morning to fresh, cloud-dappled skies and a rainbow.

2. Monday, 5:58am. Ferndale
3. 7:12am. Ferndale

We had a leisurely breakfast, then headed into town. Ferndale is known for being a throwback kind of place where people cherish their old-fashioned, small town way of life. The atmosphere is such that movies have been made here and the entire town is a state historic landmark. The uniqueness could have gone to town’s collective head but residents go about their business in a low-key way, keeping the town a few degrees away from preciousness.

4. 9:25am. Ferndale

After wandering around town we drove up to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge. This is dairy country so there was a slight delay as a herd of cows crossed the road.

5. 10:41am. Ferndale
6. 10:16am. Ferndale

At the Ma-le’l Dunes unit at Humboldt Bay NWR we hiked across an expanse of sand dunes out to the beach. It feels so good to be at the ocean when you haven’t seen it for months. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in the cold water, delighting in the small spectacle of foamy water swirling over rippled sand. All day the skies paraded towering cumulus clouds as the storm we came in on sailed out to sea.

7. 2:21pm. Ma-le’l Dunes, Humboldt Bay

9. 6:48pm. Near Ferndale

The next day we followed a road out of town to a place on the map marked “Centerville Beach.” It turned out to be a county park, the kind where kids meet up after dark for a bonfire, and people walk their dogs unleashed and drive their trucks on the hard sand beach. To the south we saw cliffs rising steeply to grassy, rolling hills dotted with evergreens. Curious, we began walking down the broad, deserted beach towards the cliffs. There were strange rock formations along the way, things that make you wish you had a geology guide tucked in your pocket, or a handy app to consult.

Way down the beach we found a big piece of driftwood that we simply had to have. It was water-logged and very heavy. How could we get it all the way back to the car? Eureka! I found a fresh length of Bullwhip kelp, we tied it to the driftwood, and dragged it over the sand. Worked like a charm. (You’re right, I was NOT the one doing the dragging.)

10. Tuesday, 9:21am. Centerville Beach

12. 10:11am. Centerville Beach

Centerville Road swings past the beach and uphill into the grasslands. We wondered what was up there. On the map there didn’t seem to be much, though we imagined the ocean views had to be spectacular. Up we went, following the narrow, pot-holed road around tight curves, past deep gullies, up hills and out onto open range land. A few herds of grazing cattle and widely-spaced ranches were the only signs of humanity until we arrived at a small parking lot and trail. We hesitated to take the trail all the way down to the beach, thinking about the steep climb back up, so we ambled along the winding dirt path for a half mile. The views were breathtaking. We admired golden grasses and lingering wildflowers and wondered about animal trails tunneling through the grass. A fist-sized hunk of fur had been left on the trail next to some scat. There are mountain lions in the area. Maybe this was the site of a kill.

13. 12:38pm. Lost Coast Headlands

14. 12:11pm. Guthrie Trail, Lost Coast Headlands

15. 12:19pm. Guthrie Trail

17. 12:14pm. Guthrie Trail

We spent the rest of the day exploring by car. Older wood frame homes dotted the countryside – some barely standing, others well kept. When I stopped to photograph one of them the neighbor from across the street approached us. Uh oh, I thought, here’s trouble. But no, he just wanted to offer us a few apples from his heirloom tree!

We drove through the town of Scotia, which we learned was built for loggers employed by the Pacific Lumber Company about 150 years ago. When a new owner took charge of the company in the 1980s, logging practices changed, clear-cutting for quick profit became common, and protests ensued. You may have heard about Julia Butterfly Hill’s two year sojourn living high in a 1500-year-old redwood tree to protest logging practices in the late 1990s. That tree was finally protected. During the 2008 recession the lumber company declared bankruptcy. Now the company, called Humboldt Redwood Company, is divesting itself of Scotia real estate. Logging isn’t as profitable as it once was, and running a company town no longer makes sense. What we saw was a depressed town, a busy lumber mill and an elaborate educational exhibit with live salmon, promoting the company’s efforts to preserve salmon habitat. Logging can pollute the streams where salmon reproduce; they and other animal and plant species may be threatened when timber is extracted haphazardly. On the surface the town of Scotia was calm, but protests at nearby logging sites continue.

18. 1:31pm. outside Ferndale

Wednesday morning we hiked at Headwaters Forest Reserve, a preserve comprising over 7,000 acres of redwood forest which was protected in 1999, thanks to over ten years of grass roots organizing to save one of the last intact old growth forest habitats from the saw. The land had been owned by the same lumber company that founded Scotia, the town we looked at the day before. For over 100 years the family-owned company provided an important, and probably sustainable livelihood for Humboldt County residents but a hostile takeover in 1985 put the company into the hands of an outside corporation that drastically increased the timber take and violated environmental regulations. Activists rallied together to stop the company, using legal actions, protests, road blockades and campaigns. Feelings on both sides were intense enough that one activist’s car was bombed. It took years to reach an agreement in which the company was paid to hand over 7,472 acres of forest land.

Previously logged forest is slowly being restored at the reserve, where you can still see evidence of logging. One intact old growth groves is open to anyone with the energy to hike 10.5 miles (17km). Alternately visitors can make advance arrangements for a tour to another old growth grove that’s only accessible with a guide. We hope to do that next time, but our walk through the surrounding, previously logged areas was delightful.

The weather was unsettled. Light rain interrupted us a few times but the forest is thick and we weren’t bothered. The woods had a magical look that morning, especially around the South Fork Elk River, where I concentrated on photographing the ever-changing reflections of foliage in the water. (Some of those photos are in the post “Transitory States.”)

20. Wednesday, 9:38am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

22. 9:42am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

23. 11:09am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

24. 11:09am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

25. 8:50am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

26. 10:53am. Headwaters Forest Reserve

27. 10:27am Headwaters Forest Reserve

We had time after hiking at Headwaters to return to the Lost Coast Headlands via another route, Mattole Road. This remote, scenic road is described here, on a “dangerous roads” website. We went as far as Steamboat Rock. We pulled over and wandered on the deserted beach, feeling like we were indeed on a lost coast. Interesting traces of ocean life and intricate rock formations were plentiful, but this time we only pocketed a few small shells and rocks. (The photo below of Ferndale was taken when we stopped for coffee before driving to the Lost Coast.)

29. 4:23pm. Steamboat Rock, Lost Coast

30. 3:12pm. Ferndale

Our time in Humboldt County went by way too fast. Thursday we had to be to another airbnb in Waldport, Oregon, before dark and it was 6 1/2 hours away. We planned to punctuate the drive by meeting Gunta for coffee in Gold Beach. That left an hour or so for one last stop to gape at California’s redwood giants. I chose a location in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park called Cal Barrel Road because it was on the way, easy to get to, and is home to some of the really big ones.

Steam poured off the tree trunks seventy feet over our heads as warm sunlight met cool, damp bark. It’s impossible to describe the experience of standing among these ancient beings and needless to say, photographs don’t do justice to 300-foot-tall, 1800-year-old trees. I hope you can see them someday for yourself.

31. 9:32am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

32. 9:23am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

33. 9:29am. Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

Perhaps I should have broken this post up into several shorter ones. If you read all the way to the end, thank you for your patience!

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