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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Unseasonable and Unreasonable

Yes, it’s word play, but seriously, the unseasonably cold weather here in the Pacific northwest seems thoroughly unreasonable, to me at least. (We could talk about the futility of pairing reason with weather, but that would be another conversation). Seattle’s airport, Sea-Tac, marked its snowiest February on record before we were even half way through the month. The airport might get its coldest February on record, too. We’ve been locked into a nasty pattern of snow and cold for most of the month now, with more snow possible this week.

Winter weather in this part of the world normally consists of a tedious parade of gray days with plenty of drizzly rain and temperatures hovering around the mid 40’s F (7 C). We don’t have a lot of below-freezing days, and when it snows, it usually melts away in a day or two. Usually. But “usually” is just a memory, now that we’re stuck in this unreasonably unseasonable February.

Combine at least six inches of snow on barely plowed roads, temperatures consistently at or below freezing, and a declared state of emergency and you’ve got the perfect storm of difficult winter weather for our area. Then there were the cancelled flights, schools closed for days, impassable highways…we just don’t do snow that well. In these conditions a lovely walk outdoors has become a rare treat. I hadn’t realized until now that I’ve become spoiled by the region’s normally mild weather and the easy access to extraordinary natural habitats.

Of course, what we’re experiencing is nothing compared to many places in the US, Canada, and other places where snow is serious business and cold lasts all winter long.  When I lived in New York I was used to shoveling out my car and slipping and sliding down the sidewalks. Since moving here though, I’ve acclimated to a different reality and I’m just not used to real winter anymore. Imagine my distress when for a week, my go-to coffee shop either didn’t open at all or closed early. During the worst of it, when Seattle suffered through its “Snopocalypse” I had my own crisis, i.e. “OMG where am I going to get my espresso?”

Lest I sound unreasonable, I don’t expect any sympathy, especially from my hardy friends in colder places. This is actually more about a sense of wonder that our blue, spinning earth continues to bring us so many surprises. May it always be so, and may nature always have the upper hand.

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It all began innocently enough with a light, rather picturesque coating of snow on the third of February.  At home, perfect little bird tracks in the snow and tiny ice balls in the nets protecting the fruit trees were a delightful novelty. The roads weren’t bad that day. Even the dirt road to Cranberry Lake was navigable, so I set out on a cold, careful walk in the woods. The forest was enchanting that afternoon, but my fingers got numb very quickly. I was grateful I had a warm home to return to.

 

1. A dusting of snow at Cranberry Lake.

 

2. Sword fern plants bowed down under coats of mealy-looking, icy snow in a dark corner of the woods.

 

3. The birds were busy, leaving a maze of tracks in the thin layer of snow under the feeders. I singled out one little hop for a black and white.

 

4. An enclosure to protect young fruit trees against deer was dotted with balls of ice.

 

The next day it was bitter cold and the roads were icy. I took pictures indoors, photographed a deer through the window, and caught up on things at home.

 

 

 

Soon the roads improved and the sun came out, but it was still very cold. I drove to a local park one day, hoping the road around it was passable. The boat dock sustained storm damage but – Yes! – the road was open. I drove happily through the woods at the proscribed 10 mph speed limit, stopping to photograph a twisted Maritime juniper tree. After 20 minutes in the cold I retreated back to the parking lot. Hearing the vibration of blasting music coming from a car, I muttered curses under my breath. Then I saw two young women sitting in their car, watching the sunset, and they seemed to be having a great time. Suddenly I realized the music was from the Bach Cello Suites! My frown turned to a smile. What prompted them to choose Bach instead of a hit from this week’s Top 100? I don’t know, and maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by their choice. I gave them a thumbs up and a big smile. What a nice send-off to that icy-cold day.

 

6. Looking up into the dead branches of a Maritime juniper tree. Imagine standing under this noble tree while listening to a Bach Cello Suite.

 

7. The svelte mid-section of another maritime juniper tree.

 

8. As the sun set that day it left an orange glow behind the Olympic Mountains, 60 miles away.

 

A few days later there was another round of snow, this time in the form of big, wet flakes falling softly overnight, leaving clumps of the cottony stuff everywhere. It was still snowing that morning but I set out for the coffee shop anyway, creeping along on clean white roads. Hardly anyone was out. After getting coffee I drove around March Point and tried to photograph the snow falling but there was little light to work with, and once again my fingers numbed in minutes. Back at home, I noticed our little creek was an important source of fresh water for puffy little Dark-eyed Junco’s that were endlessly flitting back and forth between feeder and stream.

 

9. This little creek is dry as a bone in summer.

 

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10. Cattails wore top hats of snow over their fluffy seed heads on March Point.

 

11. Leaning stakes probably mark old shipping lanes at March Point, where oil refineries share space with herds of cattle and a Great blue heron rookery.

 

12. The snow thickened over Fidalgo Bay, smudging the horizon.

 

Three days later, more snow fell….is this getting repetitive? You bet it is! I prowled around the yard again….

 

13. A Sword fern seems to shrivel and shiver in the cold. These hardy, evergreen ferns should be OK except for clumps damaged by the weight of wet snow. I believe those clumps will gradually recoup as new fronds emerge to replace the ones that broke under the snow.

 

14. How long before these petite clumps of snow fall to the ground?

 

After that  snowstorm, another bout of cabin fever hit me so I made my way to Deception Pass State Park at a snail’s pace. The parking lot hadn’t been plowed but since it’s on a busy inter-island thoroughfare (and maybe because there are restrooms there), vehicles had been driving into the lot, leaving deep tracks in the slushy snow. I steered my little car along the tracks, stopped, and got out. The staircase under the bridge had been trampled just enough – I could walk down the stairs while clutching the railing (and feeling thankful for waterproof boots). Under the bridge is a network of trails that traces the forested edges of Deception Pass. Only a dusting of snow had filtered down through the thick canopy of trees there. The path was easy to follow but it was dark and cold in the woods. Again, I didn’t last long but just being in the woods, gratefully breathing fresh air, was a treat. A tiny mouse raced past me, oblivious to my presence. He pawed at the snow, searching for food, and then ran off into the dark woods. I thought about my warm home….

 

15. The forest is dark on a perimeter trail at Deception Pass State Park.

 

16. Last year’s Ocean Spray flower (Holodiscus discolor) drips with melting ice and snow.

 

17. The water racing through the pass that day was a cheerful turquoise color, and the view through the tall trees across to Pass Island was delightful.

 

18. The leathery, evergreen leaves of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) cheer up the forest floor in winter. The orange leaves are dead Redcedar leaves from the drought we had last summer. All the snow we’re getting now will help prevent drought in the months ahead.

 

19. The mouse. I enlarged and lightened the photo as much as I could, and it’s still hard to see him…that mouse was tiny!

 

Steps away from the parking lot is the Deception Pass bridge, which has a pedestrian walkway. It’s usually a spectacular view from the bridge, high over the rushing water, but on that day the view was reduced by moisture still hanging in the air. Far out on the water I could barely make out some cormorants, gulls, a few seals, and one sea lion – all working hard for their living.

 

20. Snow on the rocks below the bridge at Deception Pass.

 

21. North Beach from the Deception Pass bridge. No one walks the beach on this snowy day.

 

22. A phone photo taken on the road home that day.

 

One day I ventured off the island to Mount Vernon, a small city with a good food cooperative where I like to shop. On the way I passed acres of fallow, snowy fields. The sun is bright out on Skagit Flats. The orderly rows of crops with their striped furrows converging on the horizon was pleasing to see.

 

23. A bus for migrant workers sits in the field, waiting for Spring. It looks like this is one of Skagit Valley’s famous tulip fields – you can see them coming up. The snow won’t bother them a bit.

 

24. Afternoon sun throws a maze of shadows on a farm building.

 

The snow has melted a little now, but it’s still below freezing at night and not much above freezing during the day. Friday I took a walk at Bowman Bay, part of Deception Pass State Park.  I lingered on the trail until sunset. The tide was out and a lone Great blue heron was busy foraging in the quietly lapping waves. The sun felt good.

 

25. A Great blue heron picks its way through the riches of low tide.

 

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