LOCAL WALKS: Mount Erie

1. Swaddled in a warm blanket, someone settles in to enjoy the view.

On this darkest day of the year, let’s stay with the theme of extremes and go up to the highest place on the Fidalgo Island, Mount Erie. At 1273 feet (388 m) high, this hunk of Jurassic era volcanic rock wouldn’t even be noticed in most places on the mainland but relative to sea level, Mt. Erie is a prominent point of reference. Locals like driving up the narrow, winding road to the top to take in breathtaking views of the landscape around the mountain and beyond, where islands dot the horizon and two distant mountain ranges rivet one’s attention. Even on a chilly, late November day like the day when this photo was made, a quick trip up the mountain is rewarding.

Here’s a topo map of the mountain if that’s your thing. Personally, I love the way topographic maps translate on-the-ground reality into simple, graphic patterns.

Before we look around the mountain itself, let’s take a step back and see how it looks from a distance. When I’m out on the flats (Skagit Valley agricultural land) and I see Mt. Erie’s distinctive, bumpy shape and twin cell towers, I always feel reassured. I know that home is nearby. Before there were cars and roads, the mountain would have been an important navigation tool.

2. On a snowy February afternoon the bulge of Mt. Erie, with light from the open waters of the Salish Sea glowing beyond it, is a very pleasing sight.

3. Exactly six months ago, on the summer solstice, we were exploring Cornet Bay on neighboring Whidbey Island during a super-low tide. Looking northwest, we were happy to see our mountain.

4. There it is in the fog, looking east from Washington Park on Fidalgo Island.

*

*

6. This view at the base of the mountain shows a pretty little waterfall on a trail that traverses the wooded west face. The waterfall runs all year and nourishes one of the island’s few colonies of Maidenhair fern, growing in moist, rocky crevices.

But enough, let’s go up!

7. Erie Mountain Drive in November…

8. …and on another foggy day in June.

9. One rainy day in December I drive up and park at the top. No one else is here.

10. It’s peaceful.

11. A view through the branches of a Shore pine on a September afternoon.

Mount Erie lies within the Anacortes Community Forest Lands, comprising almost 3,000 acres of protected forests, wetlands and lakes on Fidalgo Island. A network of trails climbs up and down the mountain. If you choose to hike from the parking lot at the bottom to the summit, you’ll gain about a thousand feet in 3.5 rocky, rooty, twisted, scenic miles. The most I’ve done is to climb Sugarloaf, Mt. Erie’s shorter neighbor (on the right in photo #2). That left me feeling beat. I prefer to hike along trails near the bottom or drive to the top and wander through the forest just below the summit.

12. Ravaged trees and lavender-gray mist on eerie Mt. Erie.

13. Some of the older Douglas fir trees are gnarled and twisted from years of exposure to the elements.

14. The mountain catches moisture and holds it close, which these lichens find very agreeable. This tree is almost buried in them!

*

*

*

18. Douglas firs grow tall and straight just below the summit.

19. Looking northwest toward the San Juan Islands during the Pacific Northwest’s “June Gloom,” a weather phenomenon we suffer through each year while we wait for the sunny days of July and August. Beauty can be found in that June Gloom!

20. On a bright summer day a pastoral view includes hay fields, freshwater lakes and a tall, rugged cliff called Rodger Bluff. Pacific Northwest painter Morris Graves lived a hermit’s life up there in the 1940s. He bought 20 acres on “The Rock” for $80, using money he made selling paintings to the Museum of Modern Art. You can find more about Graves’ sojourn on Fidalgo and see his work in this article by local blogger Julee Rudolf.

21. Joyous Young Pine, 1944. Morris Graves.

22. The North Cascades from Mt. Erie.

23. Mount Rainier is over a hundred miles away and doesn’t exactly loom on the horizon but the sight of it always quickens my heart.

*

Maybe one day when we’re all free to roam again you’ll visit Fidalgo Island and see the views from Mt. Erie for yourself. Maybe you’ve already been here, or perhaps your only glimpses will be virtual ones. In any case, I hope you’ve enjoyed one person’s very subjective visual diary of this old hunk of rock.

A previous post about Mount Erie can be found here.

***

High Contrast

Last week I talked about the contrast between my new home and the town where I used to live: life went from noisy and fairly stressful in Seattle’s growing metropolis, to the quiet and calm of a more rural setting. Looking at the photographs I’ve taken over the last two weeks, I see a lot of contrast too. Many of them are marked by the brilliant highlights and deep shadows of intense, midsummer sunlight. I hesitate to carry the high contrast metaphor too far – the shadows in my life are not terribly dark these days – but I can’t help wondering if the contrasts I’m seeing are purely a function of season and time of day. Maybe my general state of being is influencing what I photograph. Maybe I unconsciously gravitate towards high contrast scenes that reflect an inner state of being unsettled, which certainly makes sense for someone who has just moved.

In any case, here is a group of images I’ve made in the last few weeks, close to home. I’ve been taking walks in local parks and preserves and driving around the island to get the lay of the land. A few photos were taken with my phone when I didn’t take my camera or I didn’t have a wide lens. I hope you enjoy the views, whether close-up or distant. And I hope you might find your way up here, to America’s northwest corner. It’s quite a beautiful place.

 

1.

 

2.

 

3.

 

4.

 

5.

 

6.

 

 

 

8.

 

9.

 

 

 

11.

 

12.

 

13.

 

14.

 

 

 

 

16.

 

17.

17.

 

18.

 

19.

 

20.

 

The photos:

  1. Looking east from March Point on Fidalgo Island, Mt. Baker’s snow-capped summit rises above the clouds. At 10,781 feet, this Cascade Mountain peak is visible from many places on Fidalgo Island, keeping me oriented as I drive around. Like most mountain peaks, its face constantly changes: sometimes obscured by a light fog of clouds, sometimes clear and sharp, other times lost altogether.
  2. A grain elevator on Rt. 20, the main road connecting the island with the mainland. Adjacent to the island, a fertile delta of agricultural land was created by diking the wetlands where the Skagit River, which begins high in the Cascades, empties into Skagit Bay. This land supports vast fields of tulips and other flower bulbs, potatoes, beets, berries, spinach and many other crops.
  3. An vintage pick-up truck at an abandoned farmstead on March Point, Fidalgo Island. March Point has two busy oil refineries, but cattle graze in the fields, and geese, herons and even pelicans are seen along the perimeter road.
  4. A typical Skagit County farm scene, with the foothills of the Cascades in the background.
  5. At Bowman Bay, part of Deception Pass State Park, a trail winds around the steep shoreline, and passes under a very old Douglas fir tree that’s slowly tipping down towards the water, far below.
  6. Red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) on the trail to Sares Head, a promontory on Fidalgo Island.
  7. Tiny Rattlesnake plantain orchids (Goodyera oblongifolia) rise from mossy woodlands at Kukatali Preserve, a pristine peninsula owned by the local Swinomish tribe, which opened the site up to the public in partnership with Washington State Parks. Another tiny orchid at Kukatali, the Alaska rein-orchid (Habenaria unalasencis or Piperia unalascensis), has gone through a number of name changes. You have to look hard to see both of these wildflowers, and unless they’re growing on a ridge above you, a photograph will require a deep bend too. These are the times I’m thankful for the camera’s articulating LCD screen!
  8. There’s a muddy, sheltered bay near home called Similk Bay. It’s full of beautiful driftwood logs that have washed ashore over the years.
  9. More driftwood, wildflowers and dry summer grasses at Similk.
  10. The burned bark is on a fir tree at Sares Head, where fires in 2003 and 1993 (?) scorched the beautiful madrone and Douglas fir trees. Reindeer moss (really a lichen) on the ground indicates a moist environment, but in the summer, even this lichen is brittle. The lower right photo shows two species of lichen clinging to the fine branches of a dead fir tree at Mount Erie Park.
  11. On Sares Head, a Douglas fir sculpted by wind and water looks out over Rosario Straight towards the scenic San Juan Islands, a popular destination reachable by boat or plane.
  12. A more southerly view from Sares Head, looking towards Northwest Island, Deception Island, and the shores of Deception Pass State park on Whidbey Island. I posted sunset views from Deception Pass last week. A huge blackened fir tree, probably felled during one of the fires, is off to the left.
  13. Fire-damaged firs make stark silhouettes at Sares Head, but the madrones put color back into the landscape with their orange bark and shiny, evergreen leaves.
  14. This tiny crab only caught my eye only because he moved. He put on a fierce show for a few seconds, then thought better of it and scuttled away into the seaweed in the wrack line (the edge of the debris left by the previous high tide). I think this is a Purple Shore crab (Hemigapsus nudus), a common denizen of the inter-tidal zone.
  15. Since I moved west, the madrone (Arbutus menziesii) with its striking bark, sinewy limbs and glossy leaves, has become one of my favorite trees. There are plenty of them on Fidalgo Island. These specimens at Sares Head have particularly beautiful, peeling bark.
  16. A local corner grocer has worms for sale. And beer, of course. All you need for an afternoon of fishing.
  17. A vintage Mercedes is parked along the main street in the very small town of Edison, about a half hour north of home. With its picturesque scattering of informal restaurants, galleries and shops, Edison has become a foodie pilgrimage site. I used to go there a few times a year – now I can make the trip any day of the week.
  18. Licorice fern often grows on trees, but it’s also happy taking root in the deep moss on the moist forest floor; here it glows in the late afternoon sunlight along the trail to Sares Head.
  19. The highest point on Fidalgo Island is Mt. Erie. At 1273 feet, it has a commanding view of the surrounding countryside and the waters beyond. You can drive all the way up to the top on a narrow, winding road, or hike up. The inhabited area towards the back of the photo is Whidbey Island, to the south. In the foreground is Lake Campbell, with Rodger Bluff holding the warmth of the evening sun. In the early 1940’s the painter Morris Graves built himself a primitive, secluded studio somewhere on that rock. He was driven out by the difficulties of getting supplies up to his aerie and the noise generated by a new naval base on Whidbey Island. He moved twice after that, ending up in northern California, close to Eureka. His story is as fascinating as his work is intriguing – I recommend reading at least the Wikipedia entry (highlighted above). The mystical overtones in his paintings connect powerfully to this area’s geography and atmosphere. Along with Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan and others, he was recognized as part of the Northwest School, an American art movement that took root here in Skagit County.
  20. At Kukatali Preserve a Bald eagle surveys the action. What a view he or she has, and how amazing it must be to take off and fly anywhere you want over this precious jewel of a landscape.

*

Here’s a map I made to try to sort out the complicated ins and outs of the island’s topography. If you’re curious about the places I mentioned above, this might help…a little.

IMG_20180726_110550306

 

And here’s a rough idea of the way Fidalgo fits into the larger scheme of things, at least geographically. It’s the yellow blob halfway between Seattle, Washington, US, and Vancouver, British Columbia, CA.

IMG_20180726_112356617