LOCAL WALKS: Whidbey Island Wandering

It was a day of serendipity. I had an appointment on Whidbey Island, our neighbor to the south, and decided to wend my way further south instead of heading right back home. The small, historic town of Coupeville beckoned. I’m sorry I don’t have photos of Coupeville’s charming Victorian architecture or its old wharf and quiet waterfront, but I was beelining to Little Red Hen for espresso and treats. Their too-small-for-COVID-times indoor seating space is closed so people lounged around outside as they waited for their orders, trying to maintain distance on the narrow sidewalk. I ordered an egg sandwich with goat cheese and crunchy fried kale served on their own English muffin. But wait, there’s more! I didn’t pass up the crisp, warm double-filled dark chocolate croissants, nor did I forget to buy a ginger-molasses cookie. You have to stock up when you’re in the presence of a baker who knows what they’re doing.

I found a spot with a nice view and wolfed down the sandwich, sipping a rich, intense macchiato between bites. Yummy. Then, on the way out of town I noticed a place called Ciao Food and Wine. I’d passed it before but never checked it out. It was time to investigate. Inside, a chef was frying garlic in olive oil only steps away from shiny displays of high-end Italian deli treats, the like of which I hadn’t seen in several years. I spent my formative years in New York, where Italian food reigns, and foods like like ricotta salata and sfogliatelle are comfort food to me. I miss that now and realize that I took good Italian food for granted, so I couldn’t stop smiling as I chatted with the salesperson, chose a wedge of cheese and a pretty pastry, and tucked a menu in the bag, in hopes of tempting a certain someone into coming back with me for lunch.

Treats in hand, I thought I was heading home but serendipity intervened again. The sky darkened with dramatic clouds to the west so I swerved off the highway in that direction to find a better view. The road led to Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve, a generous parcel of land along Whidbey’s Island’s western shore that features gorgeous views with a side of local history. Colonel Isaac Neff Ebey was an early settler on the island – or should I say, an early white settler. He brought his family over from Missouri and began making a life amidst conflict and hardship. Before he turned 40, Ebey was killed by members of a northern tribe (most likely Tlingit) in retribution for the death of one of their chiefs during a battle between a large tribal party that came down from their territory to effect a slave raid. Traditionally, a number of northern tribes took slaves from other tribes to establish wealth and rank but now, with whites in the picture, the scenario didn’t go as planned. Many people, including a chief, were killed by U.S. Navy sailors in what is known to whites as the 1856 Battle of Port Gamble. A small number of Tlingit men who were captured were eventually returned to their homeland, and again following tradition, they planned the revenge raid that ended in Ebey’s death. (He was actually not the target but ended up being a convenient mark for the tribe, as he was home that day and the doctor they planned to kill was not).

A few years later Ebey’s brother and cousin constructed a public house so his two sons would have a means of support. The handsome structure still stands, overlooking the broad fields that swoop down to a shoreline that once bustled with ferry traffic. The absorbing history of the Ebey family includes stories about Colonel Ebey’s role in the Oregon Territorial government, the death of his first wife from tuberculosis, and rumors about Ebey’s scalp, which was held by the tribe for a time, then sold to a fur trader and returned to the Ebey family. After that, the exact location of that sad remnant of a tragedy is murky; the trail runs cold in California.

Engrossing history aside, that day I was just looking for fresh air and stirring views.

In fact, the air was so fresh it was bracing. I found a trail passing the austere, slate gray house and tracing the edge of still-tended fields out to a bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet, where the Olympic Mountains pile on top of one other across the cold, choppy water. I quickly regretted not putting my hoodie on – the chilly wind whipped my hair in my face and bit at my ears. Invigorated, I paused on the bluff with my back to the gale and watched clouds ride the wind and switch places across a vast, shifting, gray-blue panorama. The beach below was strewn with driftwood logs and an occasional walker could be seen braving the wind. A few wildflowers waved their heads frantically and ravens tore across the sky, slicing it every which way. Then a family approached, triggering my retreat.

Going back was shorter, as it always is, so instead of scurrying to the car I stopped to peer into the gloom of Ferry House. I couldn’t see much inside – the light was against it – but what I saw in the windows made up for the murky interior. The dramatic, cloud-darkened sky swirled around in the glass. A window on the far side of the house appeared like a beacon and my own reflection, broken up by repeating rectangles, disappeared into an abyss of light.

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FURTHER AFIELD: The Boulder River Trail

The green island where I live is brimming with lush parks, but as much as I enjoy the beauty here, my restless spirit keeps spinning dreams of the mountains, where up is higher, down is lower and vistas are rugged and vast. Late summer is a perfect time to venture inland, to places like Mount Baker in the North Cascades or Hurricane Ridge, high in the Olympic mountains. Those two places have been teasing my brain for months and we could visit either one – they’re two or three hours away. But it’s prime time for visiting parks and crowds don’t appear in the pictures in my mind. When the summer frenzy abates there will still be time for those trips. In the meantime, last week I was looking for an alternative, an easy hike that doesn’t require too many hours on the road. I came across the Boulder River Trail and we decided to give it a go.

The trail leads through a forest surrounding the rushing waters of Boulder River, which tumbles down from a remote lake, high up on Three Fingers Mountain, where three jagged peaks rise 6,500 feet above sea level. Following an old railroad grade on the side of the canyon, the trail enters the Boulder River Wilderness, where 49,000 acres of forests and mountains are distinguished by wet conditions (twelve feet of rain annually), thick vegetation and steep terrain. The river plunges down three separate waterfalls on the way to its confluence with the larger Stillaguamish River. One of those waterfalls is the big draw for the hike.

The first waterfall is noisy Boulder Falls, which can be heard but can’t be seen without descending off-trail through thick woods. The next waterfall is the prettiest and at just over a mile from the trailhead, requires the least effort. Some sources say it has no name but others call it Feature Show Falls. Just don’t disagree about the directions and I’ll be fine!

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1. The road to the trailhead is overhung with mossy Bigleaf maple trees.

2. A peak at part of the waterfall

Feature Show Falls is a lovely, 180-foot-tall double cascade that runs all year, unlike some waterfalls that dwindle to a trickle in summer. The hike isn’t long but you pay a price for that: the trailhead is at the end of a pot-holed, gravel road. Happily the road is only four miles long. Many Pacific Northwest trailheads can only be reached after navigating cratered roads at a snail’s pace for at least an hour. The relatively easy access and non-strenuous hike appealed to us. Even better, a mile up the road there is a well-built vault toilet with lots of toilet paper and a door that locks. Just when you need it!

We were relieved to see only three cars at the trailhead when we arrived on a Thursday morning at about 10:30. We set out under a stunning canopy of moss-hung Bigleaf maple trees, with golden light angling down from high overhead. Our packs held plenty of water and snacks and our masks were stuffed in our pockets. I had a new, wide-angle prime lens on my camera that I was eager to use. Unfortunately, I had left a circular polarizer on it the day before and didn’t notice it until well into the hike. It’s frustrating, but who hasn’t done that? If I’d known the polarizer was on the lens I would have turned it for the best effect. In some cases I would not have wanted it – our forests can be very dim, even in summer. Some photos were beyond saving and others needed a lot of help in Lightroom but, c’est la vie!

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3. This forest was logged many years ago. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, Western redcedar and Bigleaf maple are all plentiful. Slopes are very steep but timber is valuable, so back in 1909, eight miles of railroad track were laid into the woods here. It’s hard to imagine how they did it. Further into the forest, the trees were spared because the going got too tough.

4. We admired this well-worn boardwalk across a wet section of trail. It’s made with thick planks of Western redcedar, once felled and split for cedar shakes and shingles but now left to grow tall and play its part in the great scheme that is life, here in this one particular slice of our earth.

5. Setting off.

The trail is mostly level as it traces the old railroad grade cut into the face of a steep slope. Nature proceeds unhindered here. Trees fall and rot in place, returning nourishment to the soil, with its wealth of fungal networks that in turn, nourish the plants above. Of course, some trees fall right across the trail and if they’re too big to remove, you have to climb over or under – whatever works. We were awed by the size of the fallen giants, especially two conifers that fell across the trail right next to each other. There was very little space underneath them but they seemed way too big to straddle. I handed my pack and camera to Joe and took the awkward way, crawling under the log. A pass of the packs and it was his turn. At times like these, I think, “Will this be the moment when the big earthquake we are overdue for finally happens?” The funny thing was, on the way back we noticed that someone had cut large notches in the tops of the two trees, making it practically a walk in the park to climb over them. We hadn’t studied the situation well enough on the way out, or maybe we’re just not experienced enough to know to look for those handy notches. Swinging up and over wasn’t so hard and it was much nicer than crawling across sharp rocks!

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6. The first of many trees to duck under or climb over, this one doesn’t need notches because there’s plenty of room to walk under it. The tree further down the trail can be walked around.

7. Another place I don’t want to be when the big earthquake hits. The notch is near the rock on the right; the second tree is hiding behind this one.

8. This piece of tree trunk plunged into the earth like a spear and then stayed there. I pushed and it hardly gave at all. It must have hit the ground with formidable force.

9. Sword fern shadows, a gentler side of the forest.

10. Like someone having a bad hair day, this frond on a Deer fern (Blechnum spicant) twists and turns every which way. Deer fern has two kinds of fronds – spore-bearing and sterile. The bright green sterile fronds usually grow low to the ground, like in the photo below. The spiky fertile fronds rise from the middle, standing straight up at first but contorting into wild shapes when they’re ready to release their spores. Yes, deer eat these ferns.

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12. A Pine white butterfly (Neophasia menapia) moved slowly enough for me to get a sharp image but in the end, I like this partly blurred one better. By this time I had switched to a macro lens.

13. This sculptural arrangement of roots and rock consists of at least one mature Western redcedar tree growing on an old, Western redcedar stump that grew on a large rock. To give you an idea of scale, the rock is big enough to sit on comfortably, with your feet barely touching the ground and your head two feet below the top of the stump.

14. Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) flourishes on moist rock walls. Unlike Sword fern and Deer fern, it’s not evergreen and the leaves were getting ragged. It’s not white, of course, but is fairly light in color, especially compared to evergreen ferns. I’m fond of the circular growth pattern.

15. Vine maple (Acer circinatum) prefers consistently moist environments so I rarely see it where I live. I was happy to see it growing here, even if some of the trees (technically they are large shrubs) were insect-ridden. Vine maple’s closest relatives are Japanese and Korean maples and like them, it is a graceful, delicate tree.

16. The forest is full of old trees; many of them have rotted. This mushroom, probably a Red-banded polypore (Fomitopsis pinicola) was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Black and white emphasizes the sinuous curves.

We heard the enticing roar of Boulder Falls, then rounded a bend and climbed an incline. Feature Show Falls was in range. After all, we were hungry so we must be near the end! We had taken far longer than the other six or eight hikers we saw. There was so much to admire – moss-covered trees disappearing into the canopy, filtered sunlight picking out leaf details, late-blooming wildflowers, six kinds of ferns, a dark, hollow tree with white, dew-dotted mushrooms inside it, huge stumps with loggers’ springboard slots cut into them…and finally, the waterfall appeared through the thick foliage. The trail had narrowed and footing was precarious in places. As we picked our way carefully across rocks and roots, we glanced across the deep ravine, getting bits and pieces of the falls. Eventually we arrived at a wide opening on the side of the ravine. A conveniently placed log offered a spot to sit while we ate lunch and listened to wild streams of water tumbling down 180 feet of rock to the Boulder River below. A rough trail leads steeply down to the river but we were content that day to just sit and listen.

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16. There were no vantage points to see the whole falls, top to bottom and right to left, without descending to the riverbed. I worked with what I had. This view is through the moss and lichen-covered branches of a Bigleaf maple tree.

17. The air was cool and fresh and filled with tiny insects flying back and forth in the charged air next to the falls. Leaves fluttered from breezes let loose by the force of the water. Fine threads glinted and wavered, catching the light – they were spiderwebs, strung high over the river from tree limbs. Only the rocks were still.

18. A view through graceful Western hemlock branches.

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Celebrating Two Years

Two years ago this week we traveled 70 miles north, leaving a booming Seattle suburb for a quiet, 41-square-mile island of about 20,000 people. We have witnessed all four seasons here twice now. We have zeroed in on an assortment of favorite places – bluffs and beaches for sunset views, shorelines to meander along, coffee shops to linger in, forests to immerse ourselves in. Our lives feel very different than they did before we moved. It’s a good time to celebrate the pleasures of this place.

1. Mt. Erie, the island’s highest point, wrapped in fog. June, 2020.

2. Mt. Erie from the south, with Pass Lake. December, 2019.

3. A trail through old Douglas firs. January, 2019.

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5. Lichen-encrusted branch, Bowman Bay. March 2019.

6. Cap Sante Marina. December 2018.

7. Abandoned building. Anacortes. September, 2018.

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9. Mt. Baker from Cap Sante. October, 2018.
10. Rain over Deception Island; Fidalgo Island is to the right. December, 2019.

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12. Driftwood, grasses and wild roses; Rosario Beach. February 2020.

13. Floating burr-reed (Sparganium angustifolium) (?) and reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. September, 2018.

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15. Evening reflections, Little Cranberry Lake. October 2019.

16. Rain shower, Little Cranberry Lake. February, 2019.

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18. The creek at home. February, 2019.

19. Heart Lake trail. August, 2018.

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21. A fishing boat tied up at Trident Seafoods in Anacortes. November, 2018.

22. Fog on Mt. Erie. December, 2019.

24. Heart Lake. February, 2020.

25. Looking west from Lighthouse Point. December 2018.

26. Bell, shadows and reflections at home. February, 2019.

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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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Local Walks: Tofoni at Larrabee

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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.

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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.

Further Afield: In the Mountains

Yesterday I went hiking in the North Cascades with a friend who loves the mountains and is as curious about plants as I am. It’s time for berry picking now and most of the wildflowers are finished, but we hoped to find a few flowers hanging on. One of the flowers still blooming was a delicate, pure-white flower that looked familiar. I knew I’d seen it in the field guides but I couldn’t remember the name for it. I made a few quick photos to study when I got home. The pretty little wildflower was dropping snow-white petals onto the dark soil at the trail’s edge; it was a lovely, poignant sight signifying the end of summer.

After I got home I looked for the plant in my field guide and found it: it’s the Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata). The odd name instantly brought up a memory of my mother saying “Grass of Parnassus” as she described a similar wildflower she found hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina, where she lived. In fact, Grass of Parnassus is probably one of the flowers we saw on our last drive up into the mountains back in 1999, when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. Late that summer I visited her to help out and we took a pleasant drive together to see the scenery. It was one of many visits I made that year before she finally drew her last breath in her own bed, on Christmas Eve.

My mother loved wildflowers and passed that along to me. Mountains, too – she hiked many miles in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her hiking buddies. We never hiked in the mountains when I was a child; we lived in places with rolling hills and we vacationed nearby, or at my grandparent’s home near the ocean. But I remember standing on a hillside outside of Syracuse, New York with my mother when I was a schoolgirl and gazing at a glorious view spread out below us. It was essentially the same feeling I get from mountains vistas, that peaceful relaxing into open space that assures you there are endless possibilities ahead.

1. Mount Baker, or Koma Kulshan, an active stratovolcano in northwestern Washington, seen from a meadow on Dock Butte.

2. Mount Shuksan from the trail to Dock Butte.

3. The Sauk Mountain trail with a view of the Skagit River Valley far below.

4. A pond by the trail to Dock Butte.

My parents retired to place where they could hike in the mountains, and without making the connection to what they did, I did the same thing, although I’m on a different side of the country. But it’s no surprise since they set the stage early on, conveying a deep and lasting appreciation for nature. I kept the passion alive, thanks to my own enthusiasm and to the people around me. Now I’m living in a beautiful part of the world, making forays out to places that nourish the most fundamental parts of my life.

I’ll keep going back up to the mountains as often as I can, which isn’t as often as I’d like. It usually involves a long drive on terrible roads, and a bit of planning. But oh, is it worth it!

5 – 7. Wildflowers and butterflies on Sauk Mountain.

8. Another butterfly on Sauk Mountain.

9. Blueberries on the trail to Dock Butte. This blueberry bush has lost its leaves but the berries were incredibly sweet and flavorful. Another connection with the past: my mother picked quantities of wild blueberries in the mountains every summer and froze them for pies.
10. Old evergreens on the trail to Dock Butte.

11. Towering firs have a commanding presence on the trail to Dock Butte.
12. Sauk Mountain meadows and wildflowers in late July.

13. Wildflowers and mountain views, Sauk Mountain trailhead, 4300 feet (1310 m).

Late in July I hiked Sauk Mountain, another North Cascade Range peak. I didn’t quite make it to the top that day but that did not diminish my pleasure. The wildflowers were riotous, the butterflies and bees happy, and the view seemed endless. I’m sure my mother would have enjoyed that day. My son would have too, if he’d been there. The passion for nature, especially for the mountains, is alive in him.

14. Going camping in the mountains.

There’s something exhilarating about being high up in the wilderness. I’m thankful that my parents instilled a keen appreciation for the outdoors in their kids, and thankful I have friends and family who share the passion. My wish for you is that even if the mountains aren’t accessible and the wilderness is out of reach you can still go outside, quiet down, and forget yourself. With a little luck, the energy around you will bring peace, and maybe even a tear to your eyes.

15. Fringed Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), losing its last petals in early September on the Dock Butte trail at about 4200 feet (1280 m).

Small Town Parade

Happy Fourth! We didn’t want to miss our local Independence Day parade. Anacortes has a reputation for being a bit odd, and I think you’ll see the evidence here. The town is pretty laid back, too. From senior citizens in wheelchairs to toddlers driving tiny cars – and let’s not leave out dogs dressed as lions – everyone is happy to keep it simple and low key – no self-conscious displays of power or anything else. Let’s just have a good time. And throw me some candy while you’re at it!











I threw this post together quickly….the pictures needed to get out there before it’s over. Those of you in the US are probably already barbecuing by now or on your way to watch fireworks. Some of you will watch from a rooftop, some from a beach, some in the back yard. Those of you outside the US are probably asleep already and won’t see this until tomorrow, but no matter.

A few American traditions have already wrapped – on Coney Island, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest by scarfing down 71 of ’em. Yum. In small towns and big cities the parades are over, ball games are being played, beaches are crowded. We’ve heard from several relatives and friends today. Everyone’s fine.

We’ll skip the tanks, thank you, and we’ll be fine too.

ROAD TRIP: Over the Pass

A few weeks ago we took a three day road trip to the Methow Valley, a popular weekend hiking, biking and skiing destination in north-central Washington State. I read that Methow is an Okanagan word for sunflower (seeds). I don’t know why “seeds” is in parentheses, but I suppose that the sunflower is Arrowleaf balsmaroot, a locally abundant flower that brightens the valley’s hills in Spring.

Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) flowers backed by Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at peak bloom.

To get to the Methow Valley we had to drive over the North Cascade Mountains, following the two-lane North Cascade Highway east for over 100 miles. By the time we reached the pass, our elevation had increased by about 5,450 feet (1661m). It’s an exhilarating drive, once you get into the mountains. We stopped at Newhalem, a tiny company town built around the hydroelectric plant that has powered Seattle for almost a hundred years. Here, we took a short walk on the Trail of Cedars to enjoy the view of the Skagit River and the beauty of the mature forest around it.

Skagit River at Newhalem, with mares’ tails clouds
Northern Starflower (Trientalis arctica) on the forest floor.
Mid-day shadows are well defined, and black and white brings them out.

We stopped a second time at an overlook to gaze at the blue-green waters of Diablo Lake, a reservoir created by one of three successive dams on the Skagit River.

Diablo Lake with Davis Peak in the background

As we approached the pass the clouds thickened and patches of snow appeared on the sides of the road. The North Cascade Highway is very avalanche-prone during the winter and closes from October until sometime in May, depending on weather. For a good six months you have to drive further south to another pass if you want to get from one side of the state to the other.

North Cascade Highway (Route 20) heading towards Washington Pass

Up at the pass there’s an overlook with an impressive mountain view where I hoped to stop for a look. The short road to the overlook was closed and still snowy, but we were able to park the car outside the gate and walk up. Taking care on the snow, we sucked in the fresh mountain air and enjoyed the silence.

Ravaged trees covered with lichens stand tall at Washington Pass.

A North Cascade mountain view at Washington Pass


The lichen-splotched rocks are an elegant complement to the plant life at the rugged pass.

Willow catkins

Liberty Bell mountain from Washington Pass

As we walked back to the car, a pair of Gray jays flew into view. It was clear that they were checking us out, and I knew what that meant – they wanted food! These birds are called Camp robbers, a well-deserved reputation. We happened to have a bag of nuts with us so we doled out a few peanuts, and could barely contain our joy the two jays swooped down onto our hands and grabbed the treats. I’ve fed birds by hand before, but not jays. I was struck by the satisfying plunk of their strong feet on my hand – these birds actually have a little weight to them, unlike the tiny chickadees I’m used to.

Hitting the Jackpot


Over the pass, down the mountain and into the valley we drove, from the wet west side of the Cascades to the dry east side. Before checking into our bnb we made one more stop, at Lewis Butte, where we dawdled amidst fragrant bitterbrush, lovely lupines, and sparkling aspens.

Aspen grove off Gunn Ranch Road, Winthrop

A pond reflects the Cascade foothills
A tree skeleton amidst the wildflowers near Lewis Butte

Homes with views

It’s such a pleasure to be able to experience a completely different environment after just a few hours’ drive. The small towns of Methow Valley have their charms too, with their “Wild West” atmosphere. They can get overrun with tourists at times, but it wasn’t a problem on this trip. We had a great time exploring back roads, and I plan to post photos from the rest of the trip later.

FURTHER AFIELD: Old Forest

Under an ancient volcanic mountain on the edge of the North Cascades, a wide river meanders through a moss-shrouded forest of giant Douglas firs, Western hemlocks, Western Redcedars, and Bigleaf maples. Lumber has been a prominent industry here for centuries, so you’d be correct to think that a healthy forest with easy river access would have been harvested at least once by now. Somehow, part of this verdant lowland forest escaped the cut.

“Rockport State Park” isn’t a place name that excites me. It doesn’t make me want to know more. I had passed by the park sign several times without a thought, bound for places like “Diablo” and “Twisp.” But it turns out, there’s magic behind that sign; after reading about the park, I was determined to go beyond the sign.

Winter is quiet in this corner of the world. Few people are interested in walking through damp woods on a chilly day in January.  They’re up in the mountains skiing, they’ve gone south, they’re indoors. So a winter weekday afternoon proved to be a good time to walk the trails at Rockport State Park. The predominantly evergreen forest practically glowed with vivid greens. Leaves, lichens and mosses dripped with moisture, thanks in part to nearby Skagit River. Creeks gurgled, the trees stretched higher than we could see, mist floated in and out of the tree canopy, and shafts of sunlight knifed into the fern-laden understory. The effect was otherworldly. We were smitten.

Two weeks later we returned to walk another trail, where we were treated to a meeting with a magnificent Redcedar tree that has owned that spot in the forest for hundreds of years. Regal doesn’t begin to describe the bearing of that tree.

I wonder what early Spring flowers are beginning to poke though the moss and forest floor litter now. We’ll have to wait until we return from a trip to explore the park again. In the meantime, here are photographs from two mid-winter walks in the old growth forest at Rockport State Park.

1. On the Way
2. Greenglow
3. Sword fern fronds
4. The green machine at work in January
5. Bigleaf maple trees were leafless but colorful, from thick coats of moss, lichens, liverworts and ferns.
6. Moisture dripped through multiple layers of growth to the forest floor.
7. Everywhere, fallen leaves were caught on branches, and even trapped in lichen clumps. What’s happening between the decaying leaf and the lichen strands is a language I don’t speak, but sometimes I can feel it – that quiet language of nourishment and constant change.
8. Precious drops of water hung like pearls on a slender piece of Usnea longissima lichen. The lichen will use what it needs, and what’s left will drip down to nourish another part of the forest. A sign of clean air, Usnea doesn’t grow in places with significant air pollution.
9. A fallen leaf from a Bigleaf maple tree has laid here long enough for moss to crawl over it.
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10. Age and youth.
11. The bench gives you an idea of the immense size of this old Redcedar. Leaning against it was comforting. Circumambulating it, I paid my respects.
12. A certain someone leans in.
13. Water drop magic.
14. Moss or lichen? It can be hard to tell.  I think this is a moss. Naming the plants isn’t necessary but it gives me pleasure. It helps keep me grounded.
15. A big piece of foliose lichen, probably lung lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria), tumbled to the ground to rest on a bed of Sword fern and Bigleaf maple leaves. This lichen can be found in wet places in North America, Asia, Europe and Africa, and it’s been used medicinally in most if not all of those continents, as well as for dye and perfume making.
16. Trees could be seen at every stage of life and decay.
17. Mist and moss conspired to create an otherworldly feeling.

18. There was elegance along the trail.
19. A leaf caught on a branch, wrapped around it, and stuck to itself. Then another leaf landed on the first one, and they breathed the moist, forest air together.
20. Either my fingers were too cold, or I was too lazy to switch lenses on my camera. I photographed the river in brilliant sunlight with my phone, which doesn’t handle bright contrast well. But you can get the idea – it’s a big river with an abundance of life all around it.
21. Creeks race through the forest to feed the river below.
22. A tree trio in black and white.
23. Thanks to mild winters and abundant moisture, massive amounts of mosses, lichens, liverworts and ferns live in the trees. Bigleaf maples can actually grow roots from under the bark on their branches, tapping into the nutrients of the spongy mass of life.
24. Another Bigleaf maple leaf caught on a twig, in a most unlikely manner. Such a delicate balance, and believe me, I didn’t touch it!
25. On the drive home clouds shifted over the heavily logged foothills. The pale patchwork shows what might have been, if the forest behind us had been logged too. I’m glad those trees still stand.

***

When this post is published I’ll be in the air, hurtling east towards Amsterdam for three weeks’ vacation in northern Europe. While on the road I won’t have the tools I prefer to do a proper post. Another post is scheduled for a week from now, and maybe I’ll post a few phone photos from the streets European cities if there’s time. I hope to get back to Rockport after I return from Europe, to see what changes the waking-up season has brought to this beautiful forest.

Lens and camera notes: On my second visit to the park, I used the vintage Super-Takumar 50mm f1.4. lens (discussed in this post) most of the day.  When I wanted a wider view I used my phone.  Photos #2, #3, #5, #6, #7, #13, #15, #19 and #24 were taken with the Takumar. Photos #1, #11, #12, #20, and #21 were taken with the phone.  Photos #4, #8, #9, #10, #14, #16, #17, #18, and #23 are from my first visit, when I used a Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens and an Olympus 60mm f2.8 macro lens. I used an Olympus 14-150mm f4/5.6 zoom lens that day for #22 and #25.

A Little Farther Into the Woods

Since moving to Fidalgo Island last July I’ve immersed myself in my immediate surroundings: the park, town and shoreline locations that are minutes from home. We are a long 90 miles (145km) from the ocean, but it’s still a water-defined landscape; Fidalgo’s shores look out onto sounds, bays, channels, and more islands, and even the forests here are dotted with lakes.

If you head east off the island, it’s a very different landscape. As you mount a high, arcing bridge, overlapping layers of foothills and mountains appear in the distance. Agricultural flatlands spread out on either side of the road, to the north and south. The view ahead steals the show as rhythmic mounds of forested hills rise up and gradually crumple into the jagged, rocky folds of the North Cascade Range. That rough and rugged terrain was beckoning me a few months ago – but I’m no mountaineer, so on a quiet Tuesday in October, we headed east for a lowland walk in the Mount Baker – Snoqualmie National forest.

 

1. Baker River Trail/East Bank Baker Lake Trail.

 

The goal was to meander along the East Bank Baker Lake Trail, an easy walk through the thick, coniferous forest that Baker River passes through as it divides into countless turquoise ribbons, braiding their way towards Baker Lake. The river’s namesake, Mt. Baker, or Koma Kulshan, is a young, glaciated volcano, and the third-highest mountain in the state, at 10,781 ft. (3286 m).  Koma Kulshan’s lofty, somber face dominates many a vista in this region. You might think Baker River begins under a glacier on Mt. Baker, but it actually rises under Whatcom Peak, to the northeast. From there, the river cuts a deep valley southwest, flowing around Mt. Baker before emptying into Baker Lake.

 

2. After a dry summer, the river is a series of shallow ribbons of cold water, unfurling over a rocky bed.

 

Getting to the trail was harder than we thought it would be. The first part was simple – drive east past fields and small towns on State Route 20. Then, in the tiny hamlet of Birdsview, you leave civilization behind to follow Baker Lake Road for 26 miles (42 km). The problem was the final six miles, where the road is not paved, and barely maintained. We still have the cars we brought with us from New York City seven years ago, and neither one is appropriate for the rough, deeply pot-holed forest roads that usually lead to trailheads. It’s really a pickup truck, SUV and Subaru world here. The going was tedious as we crawled back and forth across the road, trying not to wreck the car’s suspension. Occasional glimpses of snowy Mt. Baker beckoned through dense curtains of towering trees, and eventually the painfully slow slog ended.

 

3. The paved section of Baker Lake Road.

 

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4. The road narrows and begins to get rough while Mount Baker looms majestically above us.

 

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5. An old Redcedar leans heavily over the trail.

 

6. This beautifully built suspension bridge puts a little bounce into your step, like it or not.

 

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7. We saw thousands of small moths that day, both alive and dead. This one came to rest on a Redcedar bough. Shining drops of morning dew still cling to the delicate wings and body.

 

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8. This little one was alive, but maybe not for long.

 

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9. A dew-spangled dead moth is cradled in the leaf litter.

 

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10. Another rough-hewn wooden bridge on the trail crosses one of many creeks feeding Baker River. The rustic bridges are a real pleasure to see, to touch, and to walk across.

 

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11. I have great respect for the people who built these bridges.

 

 

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13. The bridge views were mesmerizing. Baker River rippled past water-sculpted rocks and the light danced over smooth stones that were barely covered by the shallow water.

 

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14. Looking up river it’s easy to picture how, after a winter of heavy snow in the mountains, the river fills up with glacial melt and roars down towards Baker Lake, taking fallen trees along for the ride, only to abandon the logs in untidy clumps, as the flow dwindles over the summer.

 

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15. Bigleaf maples had dropped their leaves in layers of nourishing mulch – in the woods, on the trail, and on the road, too.

 

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16. Mushrooms crowded this stump like a Hong Kong high rise.

 

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17. A fresh mushroom bouquet decorated with sprays of Licorice fern.

 

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18. This handsome specimen emerged from thick moss on the moist forest floor.

 

19. Forest floor synergy could be seen at our feet: rotting logs, fallen leaves and twigs, moss, mushrooms, and so much more that we didn’t see, all working together to support life.

 

20. A hiker stops to admire an old growth Redcedar pressing against huge boulder covered with moss, lichens and ferns.

 

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21. Constant moisture from the river nearby means that in this part of the forest, every dead limb wears a luxurious coat of spongy moss, all year long.

 

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22. Feathery-boughed cedars with their tapered trunks and waving, mossy branches made an enchanted forest scene. Green never departs from this forest, it just waxes and wanes in intensity.

 

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23. Cedar bark invites a close look, especially when the tree sports a stripe of bright green lichen. Look closely and you’ll see other lichens here, too.

 

24. The drab but pert American Dipper is always a thrill to see. This little bundle of energy forages by dipping, walking and even swimming in the rushing water of tumbling streams. When perched, dippers constantly bounce up and down, and movement is about all that gives them away, since the plain gray birds are hard to see among dark boulders, fallen trees, and the noisy, rushing water.

 

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25. The days were getting shorter and we had a late start that day, so we turned back to avoid driving 26 miles in darkness.

 

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26. Low-angled sun silvered the meandering river.

 

27. As we were about to get into the car, I noticed a maple leaf caught on a twig and made one more photograph. There’s always one more….

 

If you’re in the area:

The East Bank Baker Lake and Baker River Trails are about 115 (185km) miles from Seattle, and about 124 miles (200km) from Vancouver, BC.  The trailhead is 64 rather slow miles from where I live. Once you arrive at the large parking lot, if it’s an off-season weekday, you may be all alone. Set out on the wide, flat trail among huge boulders and towering trees, and soon you’ll sense the river behind the trees. In half a mile a suspension bridge crosses the river. From there, the Baker Lake Trail continues down the river and then follows the lake edge, for a total of 14.5 miles one way. Along the trail you’ll find more bridges, and views of the snow-covered mountains high above that are the repositories for all this rushing water. If you don’t cross the first bridge you can continue straight upriver on the Baker River Trail, reaching a campground in 2.6 miles. It was so pleasant the day we were there, and there was so much to look at, that we didn’t get far at all. That was not the object. The point was to feel, hear, see, and smell this unique place, to fully sense the aliveness of one small corner of our planet.