FURTHER AFIELD: Venturing Out Again

After over a year of refraining from overnight travel* we made a brief foray with friends to the other side of the mountains, what I like to call The Dry Side. The western and eastern halves of Washington State are separated by a formidable barrier: the North Cascade Mountain Range, a vast, wild, land of evergreen forests and rocky summits. When prevailing winds roll across the Pacific Ocean and onto land, the Cascades exert a powerful effect on the weather. Clouds mass and stall on the western side of the mountains, releasing rain and snow in a process that creates lush, temperate rainforests and gives Seattle its Emerald City nickname. After dumping all that moisture on one side of the mountains, the other side gets very little, a phenomenon called the rain shadow effect. For Washingtonians, that means all you have to do is travel over a pass to the other side of the mountains and you’re in a different world.

Our friends proposed that we meet in Vantage, a small town situated roughly in the middle of the state. After leaving home at a reasonable hour we drove south, then east on the interstate. We cleared snowy Snoqualmie Pass by 11 am and drifted down the other side of the Cascades, losing 2,000 feet of elevation as forests of Lodgepole pine yielded to open, rolling, foothills as far as we could see. Finally, we reached the mighty Columbia River, where we turned north and then back west for a few miles to meet our friends. Our rendezvous spot was at the base of a series of wide, grassy hills, the site of a network of interpretive trails for Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. You heard me right – ginkgo – and no, ginkgo trees haven’t grown here for millions of years, but petrified ginkgo logs were discovered near Vantage by chance, almost 100 years ago.

2. Gentle hills, gentle colors.

3. Looking across the Columbia River at a spare landscape of rock, grass, sage, and water.

4. Petrified wood

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6. Muted desert colors in the leaf litter.

It was something very American – highway construction – that led to the discovery of the rare, petrified wood pieces now on display at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. A local college professor recognized a rock someone was carrying for what it was when crews began moving earth for a new highway in the late 1920s. Professor Beck rounded up a group of students to get to work and see what else was hiding under the dry hills. The mix of petrified trees they found was strange – Douglas fir (still abundant in many parts of Washington), magnolia, and ginkgoes shared space with species from a variety of habitats. Long ago, water from floods or lava from volcanic eruptions probably transported trees from different places to this spot, and over time, mud buried the trees and kept them from disintegrating. When lava from a major volcanic fissure crept across the area and quickly cooled, basalt was formed, causing the submerged wood to slowly morph into mineral and rock.

One of us, a keen lichenologist, pointed out extensive communities of lichens growing on the petrified wood. Who would have thought that stone could host all that life? But look closely and a whole new biological world opens up in front of your eyes. It was the same thing on the hillside where we hiked – what looked like a sere expanse of dry grass from afar yielded a bountiful crop of wildflowers in shades of gold, purple, pink, and white. All you have to do is walk slowly and examine your surroundings, which is exactly what we did. And frankly, we walked very slowly.

The ecosystem is called sagebrush-steppe and indeed, sage was everywhere, lending a soft, gray-green cast to the landscape. Only 8 or 9 inches of rain falls in the region annually, so plants have adapted to the aridity with low, mounding shapes, fuzzy leaves, pale colors, summer dormancy, and other tricks. The soil is coated with something called a cryptogamic crust, a slow-growing, delicate layer of lichens, mosses, algae, and cyanobacteria that stabilizes and protects the soil. These biological soil crusts are very susceptible to disturbance by grazing animals, invasive grasses, and human traffic of all kinds. We tried to stay on the trail but temptations to gently step off for photographs were hard to resist. Spring is when the rains come and the flowers sprang up like gems in the rough, each one presenting pure color to the dome of blue above. The liquid, warbling song of Meadowlarks drifting over the hills was a treat for our ears. Squeezing a few leaves of sage between my fingers and inhaling the pungent scent, I remembered desert trips from the past. The Dry Side was yielding a feast of sensations.

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7. Investigating plants and rocks.

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9. Petroglyphs that would have been lost underwater when the Columbia River was dammed were moved a mile downriver to reside at the interpretive center. The display sparked a conversation among us about the universality of symbols.
10. Spring green in the form of little “paws” on Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata).

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The next day we crossed the river to hike at Ancient Lakes, a landscape of towering basalt cliffs, canyons, and mesas scoured out by Ice Age floods that left basins of water behind like scattered pearls dropped from a broken necklace. This complex environment has more interesting features than we had time to investigate that day; our eyes, ears, and noses were well stimulated.

We met at a civilized hour (three of us camped and two didn’t – guess which two didn’t!), crossed the Columbia River and headed to the Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area, part of a million acres of land managed by Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. We were still in sagebrush-steppe habitat, a hot-in-summer, cold-in-winter land of poor soil that was once occupied seasonally by Native Americans. Much of the surrounding land is now irrigated for wheat, potatoes, apples, wine grapes, livestock, and other crops. Thankfully, the unusual landscape at Quincy Lakes is relatively intact and available to anyone who has the time and wherewithal to look.

Speaking of looking, the first thing that caught our eyes when we stopped at a parking area was four White pelicans soaring high overhead in the cloud-paled sky. As we watched them circle round and fly off to another lake I thought about the squadron of White pelicans that spends five months each year on Padilla Bay, just minutes from home. They still seem exotic to me and hopefully, they always will. After looking around a bit we decided to continue on to a place down the road that two of us remembered from previous trips. By the time we settled on the right spot to explore, it was lunchtime. We perched on rocks overlooking a spectacular array of waterfalls, wetlands, ponds, and distant mesas as we ate hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, and snacks. The ticks, rattlesnakes, and unrelenting sun of warmer months were absent. We set off down a trail across a dramatic tableau of canyons, cliffs, and ridges, and soon lost ourselves in wildflower and lichen discoveries. One of the best surprises for me was finding tiny Shooting stars (see the photo below) hidden in the grass beside the trail. I associate this plant with wetter conditions close to home. I was amazed to see it in this harsh environment but when I thought about it, the place where I’ve seen Shooting stars before is rocky with thin soil and dry summers, like Quincy Lakes. Still, it was a sheer wonder to see this beautiful little flower wafting in the dry desert breezes.

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12. The results of volcanic eruptions that occurred millions of years ago delight the eyes today.

13. Sage is everywhere, dead and alive.

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16. I jumped with excitement when I saw little frog’s eggs in a shallow stream, like perfect, pink pearls, and so vulnerable. Sights like this make my day.

17. Power-lines on the horizon are a reminder that civilization isn’t far away.
18. This year’s blossoms rise from last year’s faded, crinkled leaves. Like #8 above, this is a Balsamroot, probably Arrow-leaf.
19. Down was easier than up.
20. Hats, walking sticks, sturdy boots, water, and curiosity….we’re prepared.

21. The last scene was the kind that makes you promise yourself that you’ll return.

We had to turn around for the long trip home sooner than we wanted to that day. We had filled our souls with the unaccustomed sensations of The Dry Side: Meadowlarks, Magpies, Balsamroot, sage, and burnt orange vistas, both gentle and rough. Maybe best of all was the pleasure of stretching one’s mind out over wide expanses of open space in the company of good friends. Here’s to more venturing out!

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*It had been well over a year since we traveled: the last trip we took before the pandemic stopped us in our tracks was to Vancouver, Canada, in November 2019. That year we took three other trips: a three-week foray through northern Europe in April, a road trip in eastern Washington in May, and another road trip through Oregon and northern California in September. The year before that (2018) we flew to Las Vegas to see Death Valley in January, took an Oregon/California road trip in April, and spent a week in Los Angeles in October – in addition to moving house in July! In 2017 we traveled to New York, central Oregon, and southwest Arizona and made numerous day trips around the state. We took the freedom to go where we wanted when we wanted for granted.

The pandemic changed everything. The enforced absence of travel, the radical limitations of our social lives, and the general tone of the world had a profound effect on me throughout 2020, more than I realized until we ventured out for a brief jaunt over the mountains. Suddenly the reality of 2020 was set in relief against the possibilities of seeing other places, being with friends, and feeling the freedom of the open road. The hectic pace of travel we maintained previously had ground to a halt in 2020. We entertained thoughts about a possible trip now and then but in the end, we decided to be safe and stay put for fifteen, long, quiet, months. I became so accustomed to life at home and its circumscribed rituals (most of which I appreciate) that I found myself missing my own bed, my routines, and my home after being away for only two days! Missing home is definitely NOT my typical response to travel.

But we’re getting back on the horse and already planning a trip to Boston and New York next month. After that? It’s hard to tell, isn’t it? We don’t know what the next year will bring.

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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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12. Roots and rocks look alike.

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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.

14.

16.

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.