LOCAL WALKS: A Lake and a Forest in the Quiet Season

The lake is Heart Lake, a small, roughly heart-shaped lake on Fidalgo Island. The forest surrounds it. For a time the trees there were logged – but not all of them. Somehow a handful of giants missed the cut. The area was designated a state park but even so, a proposal to build condos around the lake was brought forward. That idea frightened the right people and finally, the lake and surrounding land received protection from the city of Anacortes. Now, this lush, precious green dot on the globe is preserved as community forest land.

That’s the story of what European-American culture has done here, but in no way is that the whole story. I invite you to enter into this landscape and recognize that part of you, a part that isn’t identified with any particular culture, knows this place. The plants and animals of Heart Lake breathe air and utilize water that travels ’round the earth. So do you. This isn’t a strange, exotic place. It isn’t “other” than you.

Give it a little time and this place will tell you a story beyond culture and words.

1. Feathery Western hemlock tree branches (Tsuga heterophylla) drift above a tangle of Sword fern (Polystichum munitum). February.

I delved into Heart Lake last year in a Local Walks post. This time I’m looking at the lake and forest between October and February, the quiet season.

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2. A subtle winter sunset over the lake. February.

3. Evening on the edge of the lake. February.

4. Ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris). November.

5. Dried Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilimum). January.

6. A lichen-covered branch tip. January.

7. Picking my way through old-growth Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) trees near the lake. The biggest trees were growing here long before Europeans arrived. February.

8. Towering Western Redcedars (Thuja plicata). December.

9. It’s impossible to convey the size of some of these tress in a photograph. This redcedar has a hole big enough to crawl into, but its branches are green, growing high in the canopy. I can barely see them. February.

10. The tip of a Western Redcedar branch on the forest floor. How did that twig weave through it? February.

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12. Tiny lichens colonize the bark of a tree that fell long ago. February.

13. Old growth Douglas fir has thick, deeply furrowed bark with its own community of lichens, fungi, insects, spiders and other beings. February.

14. A lush undergrowth of Sword fern carpets the ground under a moss-covered Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) tree. The forest here is damp and remains green all year. February.

15. Berries cling to an Orange honeysuckle vine (Lonicera ciliosa). November.

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17. Snow on a Redcedar branch. February.

18. Snow shrinks from the margins of Salal leaves, flecks the hemlock branches, and weighs heavily on little arcs of spiderwebs in the tree bark. February.

19. Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) loses its leaves gradually. November.

20. Young trees, old trees, and heaps of old wood on the ground create a healthy forest. February.

21. By November there’s very little left of the Yellow pond-lily (Nuphor lutea). The dark stem holds a chewed-up leaf.

22. Pond lily leaves and Douglas fir reflections at dusk. November.

23. Douglas firs stitch fine black lace edges across water and sky. February.

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“More powerful than any industrial plant, communities of photosynthetic creatures rearrange the elements on a planetary scale. They know how to compose liveable, breathable, nourishing worlds. As they exhale, they compose the atmosphere; as they decompose, they matter the compost and feed the soil. Holding the earth down and the sky up, they sing in nearly audible ultrasonic frequencies as they transpire, moving massive volumes of water from the depths of the earth up to the highest clouds. They cleanse the waters and nourish all other life…

To say that forests and marine microbes form the “lungs of the earth” is an understatement. They literally breathe us into being. All cultures turn around plants’ metabolic rhythms. Plants are the substance, substrate, scaffolding, symbol, sign and sustenance…”

Natasha Myers: How to grow livable worlds: Ten (not so easy) steps for life in the Planthroposcene. From ABC Religion and Ethics, an Australian website for religious and ethics journalism and discussion.

LOCAL WALKS: Heart Lake

The first time I visited Heart Lake was a warm summer afternoon in 2018, shortly after we moved to Fidalgo Island. I had just learned about Heart Lake and the Anacortes Community Forest Lands: 2800 acres of forests, wetlands, and lakes right here on the island, with 50 miles of trails for hikers. As if the presence of Deception Pass State Park wasn’t enough, the island also enjoys a fine complex of forest, wetlands, bogs and lakes that sprawl across its middle. Near the shore of one of the lakes a grove of very special trees has thrived for hundreds of years. It’s one of the few remaining stands of old growth trees in the Puget Sound lowland ecoregion, and once I heard about it you can bet I was eager to see it.

That August afternoon I parked at the bottom of Mount Erie, a 1273-foot promontory that identifies Fidalgo Island from miles away. Trails wind up and down Mt. Erie but that’s a story for another day – I was more interested in what lies at the bottom of the mountain. As I crossed the road and entered the forest a striking sight stopped me in my tracks: a sleek but massive Western Redcedar tree with a hollowed-out base big enough for a child to crawl into. The tree stood there like an ancient guardian spirit, wounded but unyielding. Apparently a fire gutted the tree’s core long ago, but gazing upward I could see a dense canopy of healthy branches, far above my head.

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1. The base of the old Redcedar tree (Thuja plicata).

It was an appropriate way to begin the walk – with wonder. I’ve been back fifteen times since then, through every season. Sometimes it’s just to pause near the edge of the woods and photograph the placid lake. Once, last May, I joined a group of botany enthusiasts from the Washington Native Plant Society for a field trip through the Heart Lake woods. But mostly I go simply to tread the trails and commune with the giants.

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2. A path through old growth Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). This trail is designated for walking only; bikes and horses can use other trails.
3. The tree canopy.
4. Western redcedars thrive near the lake, to the right of the trail.

5. The distant shore is thick with Douglas fir trees.

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A little history: In 1919 Fidalgo Island’s only city, Anacortes, purchased a large parcel of property from the Washington Power, Light and Water Company. The goal was to preserve the lakes and the land around them so the island would have a backup source of clean water. That purchase prevented development and protected the forest to a degree but for decades, the city logged sections of the forest for revenue. At one point in the tangled history of Heart Lake, it was managed by the State Department of Natural Resources, which actually proposed a condominium development along the shore! That proposal prompted citizens to mobilize in order to prevent any development at Heart Lake. For a time, Heart Lake was designated a state park. Ultimately the city of Anacortes purchased the land from the state, in 2002. Then Heart Lake and the surrounding forest became part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands.

But people care deeply for this land and soon, a conservation easement plan was created to add more protection for the land. Acre by acre, forest land is purchased by private citizens or entities from the city and set aside for perpetuity. Easement land can never be used for any commercial purpose. No logging, no mining (yes, there are a few old gold mines in these woods), no leasing or selling the land for any reason. Easement land is safe from the buzz of the saw, thanks to the organizing power of tree huggers!

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6. After this couple passed me I quickly photographed them to show the size of the trees. Mild winters in our region encourage fast growth.

7. Fishing on Heart Lake in October. Mount Erie rises in the background. The lake is stocked each year with trout for recreational fishing, either from the shoreline or from non-motorized small boats.
8. Leaves of the Yellow pond lily (Nuphar polysepala) in October.
9. Cattails (Typha latifolia) at the edge of the lake in November.
10. I found this strange mushroom called Witch’s butter (Tremella mesenterica) in January. Note the spiderwebs! The common name comes from Europe, where the appearance of the mushroom at one’s home signified that a spell had been cast. This odd mushroom is found on most every continent and it may have medicinal properties.
11. This winter has been a good one for moss. February saw abundant rainfall and by March, mosses were overtaking small obstacles everywhere I looked. This clump made its way up a bare stick. I think it’s Oregon beaked moss (Eurhynchium oreganum).

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The walk around Heart Lake doesn’t feature many expansive water vistas. Vegetation grows right down to the shore, as it would without human intervention and the trails are mostly set back from the shoreline. Exploring these trails is an up-close and personal experience, with countless fascinating life forms to examine. At the same time, the immensity of the trees puts you in your place, a feeling that isn’t always easy to come by. I think it’s worth spending time in places where humans are dwarfed. Lingering under these great trees, I stretch and strain my neck to discern their distant tops, then I bend down to peer at odd mushrooms and delicate wildflowers. I listen for the croak of a tree frog or the piercing “kireee” of an eagle, and I breathe in peace.

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12. Buttercups (Ranunculus sp.) along a Heart Lake trail.
13. Simple Forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica) always delight me, even though they’re not native plants here.
14. My backpack rests against the massive trunk of an old growth Douglas fir tree.


15. And now my phone.

16. A section of bark on an old growth Douglas fir reveals woodpecker damage, fire damage, spider webs, lichens and moss. With a hand lens we would see more life forms. The Heart Lake old growth trees grow where moisture is abundant and fires are infrequent. Severe damage from fires and windstorms historically happens only every few hundred years but we can still see the “biological legacy” of charred bark on the old trees.

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What is “old growth?” As a definition, old growth varies – the term doesn’t indicate a particular age or species of tree. Here in the Puget Sound lowlands the small amount of old growth that remains is made up of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) and Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla). One quality common to any old growth stand is structural diversity: there are trees of different ages and sizes, there are logs, snags, and clearings where trees have fallen. Look in any direction and you’ll find trees in a variety of conditions: small saplings reach for the light, some sprouting from moss-covered logs, mid-sized, straight-trunked trees are common, older trees appear like sentinels and a host of “dead” wood – snags, stumps, logs, and broken branches is scattered everywhere. The snags and logs may look dead, but they are fully engaged in the life of the forest. All manner of plants and animals take advantage of the changes that follow downed and broken trees: increased light means opportunities to grow more quickly, dead wood provides nesting spots, and insects, arthropods and their predators busily maintain the critical rhythms of decomposition and nutrient recycling.

Old growth is about age but it’s also about the complexity of an ecosystem that has evolved over time. In forests west of the Cascades it can be 175 – 250 years before the intricate layers of ecosystem diversity begin to emerge. After a century or two the forest looks more and more “spacially patchy” as ecologists say. An old growth forest looks nothing like a neat, even-rowed, managed forest. Irregular patches of growth support a community of wildlife, invertebrates, fungi, understory plants, mycorrhizal fungi and microbes, all living in concert with the tree layer. Here in the Pacific northwest, more than half the forests were in the old growth phase when Europeans arrived. Now perhaps 10 – 18% can be considered old growth, so even small remnants like the 20 acres of old growth around Heart Lake are precious.

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17. Rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia) leaves spring up from a bed of moss on the forest floor. Flower stalks will bear tiny orchids in the summer.
18. A fern leaf casts a shadow on a fallen log.
19. In June, the Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) trees drop their catkins.
20. It’s November and the Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) bushes are shedding their leaves.
21. Believe it or not, this was taken a few days before Christmas. The evergreen understory of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Sword fern (Polystichum munitum) blends seamlessly with the graceful, feathery branches of Western Redcedar.
22. Wetlands border the lake; this one has Swamp lanterns, aka Skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus) blooming in late March.

23. Even at 1pm on a summer afternoon, the light is subdued.

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The forest and wetlands around Heart Lake seem almost pristine now, after decades of protection. The single road that passes the lake isn’t busy; traffic noise doesn’t invade the forest. We need these quiet, outdoor places more than ever. For many people, spending time immersed in nature is very difficult right now. So far we’re lucky in Washington State – the governor said getting exercise outdoors is fine as long as we maintain a distance of six feet between ourselves and others. People are still going to the parks. In my experience, they respect boundaries by stepping off the trails to let others pass. Everyone is polite, almost painfully so. As nourishing as time spent outdoors is for body and soul, it can feel fraught in the moments when we encounter other people.

We wait and see, each of us dealing with restrictions and anxieties in our own way. This post is an offering of a brief respite.

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24. Heart Lake Road, September.

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