LOCAL WALKS: SHARPE PARK

In 1977 a Fidalgo Island resident named Kathleen Sharpe deeded a choice parcel of land to the county, to be used as a park in memory of her husband and his father. Irish-born Thomas Sharpe had arrived on the island about a hundred years earlier, establishing a farm and orchard. The 1870’s may not sound like long ago in historical terms, but Sharpe was one of the early permanent white settlers on Fidalgo Island. He and his family must have relished the peaceful views from their homestead.

1. Most of the boats are motorized now but otherwise, this view hasn’t changed much.

2. A park trail bends around two old Douglas firs. Like most of the island, this area was logged, but trees grow fast here and the park has some sizable Douglas fir trees.

3. After a winter storm the tip of a Madrone branch rests on a bed of moss and lichens.

4. Reindeer lichen, moss, bits of Madrone bark and leaves, and a myriad of other fragments of life litter the ground on a mid-winter day.

5. The sky glows over Rosario Strait and the San Juan Islands.

Sharpe Park doesn’t impress with size but its beauty is undeniable. Set along rugged cliffs at the island’s western edge with spectacular views of the Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands, this is the kind of place that is normally dotted with private homes. Instead, it’s a county park where anyone can enjoy the views free of charge. The park maintains a low profile; only a discrete sign at a small parking lot on a quiet road identifies it. Additional land was added to the park in 2003, thanks to the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust and funds from private, state and county sources. That cooperation dedicated to a mutually valued goal produced a gem of a park.

6. Late September afternoon sunlight threads its way through the lush forest.

7. Across from the wetland the forest is a mad tangle of trees, bushes, ferns, and fallen logs.
8. The delicate look of unfurling of Bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) belies their tenacious grip on the landscape. Bracken colonizes drier places that most ferns don’t tolerate.

9. Licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza) has a limited range and gentler habits than Bracken fern. The rows of little bumps are the spore cases on the underside of the fronds, which are fresh and green even in winter, when this photo was taken. The plant can go dormant during our dry summer, springing back to life with autumn rains.

10. It looks like Pileated woodpeckers went to town on this old stump.

We used to drive up to Fidalgo Island to enjoy the scenery when we lived near Seattle. It was on one of those trips in the fall of 2017 that we discovered Sharpe Park. We followed winding, root-studded trails past a wetland and drifted through a moist, evergreen forest before arriving at Sare’s Head, the high bluff overlooking Rosario Strait. The expansive view took our breath away. Standing on that bluff with the silver water spread out far below, your mind-chatter fades away as everything quiets.

Since moving to Fidalgo Island, this park has become one of my favorite places to wander and relax. The trail system has easy, moderate and challenging sections as it follows the twists and turns of the shoreline. There’s a simple bench on the bluff and another on a second bluff to the east, making perfect spots for picnics. Walking through the peaceful forest, catching those first glints of blue through the trees and emerging on a bluff overlooking the water 400 feet below is always a treat.

11. A trail in January. The bent tree is a Madrone.
12. Gazing up into the heart of a tall Madrone tree. Believe it or not, this was in February.

13. In May a lovely Fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) nods its graceful head beside the trail.

14. This little bug looks quite alert as he poses on my leg.

15. I read somewhere that Mr. Sharpe had an orchard – could this be a remnant, or is it the native Pacific crab apple?

16. A fire-damaged tree frames the view of sun-drenched water and the jagged blue line of the high Olympic Mountains far across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The seasons roll forward revealing a parade of discoveries: dried cattails reflected in the dark waters of winter, a tiny native orchid penetrating the leaf litter in July, stripes of fire damage in the bark of a Madrone tree, and a suite of pretty Camas flowers lighting up the ground in a clearing. In March a friend and I watched a Bald eagle attempt to land on a branch that was too small. It tipped over and tried to right itself by spreading its wings. It was unsuccessful. We couldn’t help laughing as the eagle went to find a better lookout. There are supposed to be Harbor porpoises off Sares Head but I haven’t seen them there. That’s reason enough to keep coming back.

17. Dried cattails at the edge of the pond. Before they get this dry the leaves can be woven into mats or hats; the Salish people may have used cattails from this marsh hundreds of years ago.

18. Fire happens, as it did some years ago around this Madrone tree, which didn’t survive. Douglas firs have thicker bark and often do survive fires.

19. Here are the echoes of old Douglas firs that grew here before the fire. They still reach for the sky.

20. These trees (probably Douglas fir and Sitka spruce) wear coats of yellow lichen.

22. Raindrops will cling to these mushrooms for hours in the moist climate at Sharpe Park.

23. A well-defined fog bank is an ethereal presence over Rosario Bay. To watch fog morph and fade and thicken again is to know time in your bones.

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Many thanks to Kathleen Sharpe, the San Juan Preservation Trust, Skagit County and the Montgomery-Duban family for preserving this special place for the public. I’ll be back soon!

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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