Mt. Townsend | Wildflowers and Views for Days

I have a friend who has a wonderful way of looking at an opportunity and seeing only the potential and none of the difficulty. She plans for the challenges and then leaps without dwelling on them, finding herself stronger on the other side and often with a good story to tell. I am quite the opposite – the planner, the worrier, the cautious. But, I have learned that when she shoots me a text asking if I’m free on Saturday, I should absolutely say yes. The best kind of friends are the ones who push you just outside of your comfort zone.

This Saturday, I went along for the ride. It was a  *catch the first ferry to hope for the last parking spot at the trail head which leads up a mountain twice as tall as any I’ve climbed before in an area where bear spray is a necessity but you’re more likely to be charged by a mountain goat* kind of day. Of course, as always, it was worth it a thousand times over, and my comfort zone has expanded, noticeably.

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Mount Townsend is in the Olympic range – a small group of Mountains crowded between Puget Sound and the actual coast. The foothills are a mossy rainforest that looks straight out of a fairy tale, and the peaks are snow-capped year round. Truly, the Olympic peninsula epitomizes the uniqueness of the PNW with the close proximity of lush forests to stunning beaches and steep peaks rising above it all.

We started our hike in a mid-elevation forest, with thick undergrowth representing every shade of green, and the last few blossoms of the numerous rhododendrons reminding us that every hike should be done in as many seasons as possible to fully experience. As we climbed higher (immediately, continuously, and steeply I might mention) the undergrowth thinned and the trees became scraggly and weathered looking, smelling toasty and wonderful in the early morning sun. The numerous switchbacks became less shaded and every sunny meadow was suddenly bursting at the edges with wildflowers of every color – lupine, phlox, Indian paintbrush, columbine, columbia lily, Olympic violets, and too many others for me to even try to stop and identify.

The higher we climbed the thicker the carpet of wildflowers, and the fewer shady spots to rest. The views of the Cascades in the distance grew more and more spectacular with every switchback we rounded, and soon we were able to see an ocean of clouds separating us from our more iconic mountain range. We pushed on until we reached a nice overlook, desperate for a snack and a rest. With our legs hanging over a cliff we had lunch; aware of the lone young mountain goat casually snooping around the trail.

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With our energy renewed and the goat making us nervous, we took off for the final short push to make it to the peak. There we were greeted by unexpectedly clear views in all directions. The Sound and Canada beyond; the entire Washington Cascade range; a slight glimpse of a foggy sea to the west, and just behind us the stunning crowd of the other Olympic mountains. I could only think of how this peak (6,243′) felt like the top of the world compared to my other frame of reference for 360° views of this part of the state – Mt. Constitution (2,398′). This is easily one of the most rewarding hikes I’ve been on, not just for the incredible view at the top, but for the ridiculous amount of beauty crammed into every step of the way up.

It is remarkable to me that I have lived this close to this mountain range for most of my life, and have never really bothered to try to explore it. This hike, while a bit strenous, was certainly always within my capabilities, but I never really considered it to be an option. It took someone else giving me a nudge to get me up there, but I could have been pushing myself! Maybe next time I can be the one asking my friend if she is free to try a new adventure with me.

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Areas visited: Mt. Townsend (upper trail) – Quilcene, Washington.

Species observed: Mountain Goat, Snowshoe Hare, Robins, Juncos, and a yellow-throated warbler.

If you go: Get there e-a-r-l-y. Like 6AM early. This is a very popular hike and parking is quite limited. Also, consider bringing a map with you – there is no cell service on the forest road and the are many confusing turnouts. For the hike itself I would definitely be prepared for a tough one – we were thankful to have brought hiking boots, poles, and lots of high-calorie snacks. If you really want to enjoy those magnificent views, you might consider backpacking up and camping at the peak to see the sunset/rise!

Lake Twenty-two | Snow in June

I have had a major itch to get outdoors lately. Like, a can’t sit still, bouncing up and down, browsing trip reports during work meetings kind of itch. When I get like this, I just have to go with it. Planning a trip in advance does not work for me.  I fill up a backpack, push my family into the car before they know what is happening and set out with a vague idea of place in mind. Today was one of those days. I was up at 6:00 AM on a mission to get out the door and was downloading trail maps and calling the ranger station for a trail report while ordering a coffee and picking road trip tunes on the car radio. We set out for the Mt. Pilchuck area and settled on Lake Twenty-two when we got out there.

Part of the perk of these spur-of-the-moment trips is that we go into them with very few expectations, which means that we almost always enjoy them with an open mind. But Lake Twenty-two would not have disappointed me even if I had been looking forward to it for weeks. It was the perfect day for it – mostly overcast, temps in the 60s, but decent visibility for the mountaintop views. The landscape felt similar to nearby hikes we have done like Lime Kiln and Heather Lake, but it was nice to try out a new spot. The trail follows a pretty steady incline the entire time, gaining almost 1500 feet, but is spread out over about 3 miles, so it doesn’t feel too grueling. It winds back and forth through the mountain rain forest and scrambly boulder fields in the avalanche zone, and much of the path is pretty much a running waterfall. No really, sometimes we had to stop and wonder if we were actually on the path at all, or if we had just followed a creek.

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When we finally made it to the top, tired and achy and ready for about a dozen sandwiches, we found ourselves at the most amazingly crystal clear lake with a skim of ice still floating on top and snowy caves all around the edges, with blooming spring flowers inside. The peak behind the lake is so tall I couldn’t fit the whole thing in my camera frame, and it was laced with gushing waterfalls.

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I could have stayed up at the lake all day if we didn’t have to get home eventually. But having a snowball fight in the middle of June before heading back down the trail was a pretty good experience to stumble upon on a whim.

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Areas visited: Lake Twenty-two – Verlot, WA

Species observed: Literally none. Unless you count humans. It was a pretty busy day on this hike.

If you go: Don’t think too much about it, just go!

But seriously, I would suggest wearing waterproof boots and maybe bringing trekking poles, particularly if you are planning on making the full loop around the lake. This is also a very popular hiking trail, and while we weren’t too bothered by the crowd, you won’t find any solitude here on a weekend or even on most weekday afternoons. Start (very) early if you want to get a parking spot and an unobstructed view. If you’d like a slightly less busy and easier hike that feels just like this one, I would suggest Heather Lake, which is located just on the other side of the same peak and will give you pretty much the same experience.

Turtleback Mountain | Orcas Island

When I was a kid my Dad owned a boat. Nothing fancy, just a boat with a cabin to sleep in and a table and a small stove. We would travel all over Puget Sound, spending nights in the marinas in the San Juans, or mooring off the shores of small and uninhabited islands where we would row our inflatable raft to the beach and scramble over the forest-y rocks without seeing another soul (unless you count raccoons). My sister and I would run wild all day, and often bring back dinner at the end of it. We learned to drop and pick up the crab pots ourselves, and sometimes we just waded in and picked the angry rocks crabs off the bottom. My Dad fondly recalls the time we brought him 10 pounds of shrimp, passing them through the boat window to him as we filled up our buckets right from the docks. Weekends spent on the boat were quite literally magic to me, and my experiences out in the Sound have shaped who I have become – my love and respect for nature, my hands-on approach to curiosity, and my constant need to get back to the sea and re-set myself.

I vividly remember our last summer with the boat before it was sold. I must have been about 11 or 12, and with nothing else planned for our break from school we spent weeks at a time out on the water, stopping in a different harbor every night. The last night was spent in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, on a perfect day at the end of July. After dinner I sat on the bow of the boat with my sketchbook, respecting the quiet that comes over the water at sunset. Someone a few slips down began playing a mandolin. I sketched as I listened, trying to capture the muted greens of the hills around the harbor, Turtleback mountain peeking up over the tops, the water glassy and calm, and the sliver of a crescent moon in the pale pink sky. I felt the most profound sense of being home in that place, in that moment, and I feel it again every time I’m back in the San Juans. Exploring everywhere else is nice, but that’s the one place on earth where I always feel like I’m meant to be.

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Getting to the islands now is a bigger undertaking. An hour long drive, an hour long wait for the ferry, and an hour and a half ferry ride makes for a pretty long day. I never mind the travel time, but the hubs and the kidlet aren’t too fond of sitting around for hours. But, this weekend I finally convinced them to come along, with the promise of a good hike and some ice cream after. And really, the adventure starts when you get to the ferry dock and can start making friends with beach animals while you wait around.

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There are plenty of gorgeous spots to see in the San Juan Islands, so it can be a little hard to choose where to start. If I had the whole weekend I would have island hopped to try to get many of the small hikes in on Lopez, San Juan and Shaw Island, but for this trip we only had one day. We chose to hike Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island for a few reasons: It’s the only nature preserve on Orcas I haven’t already explored, it’s a short hike with moderate difficulty which was enough to be satisfying on a day trip, and it is one of the less visited hikes on the island, making it still a peaceful getaway on a busy holiday weekend. My motivation for getting us there was purely to revisit the island and feel that heart-swelling sense of “home”, but the hike itself turned out to be a much more worthwhile little trek than I had realized when I picked it.

Apparently, Turtleback Preserve is a unique habitat in Washington. It is one of our few remaining Garry oak savannahs, and it is, like all of the others, being encroached upon by Douglas fir forests now that wildfires are an infrequent and controlled occurrence. Garry oak trees, and the prairies in which they grow support a number of plants and animals that struggle to survive in other habitats. This landscape is similar to the Mima Mounds, which we visited last year. There is a different atmosphere here, though – the rocky soil and coastal breeze cultivate thick mosses and lichens and madrona trees are abundant. On this 75 degree day the air was perfumed with the scent of saltwater and the toasty smell of the woods in the sun – oak and madrona and fir and wildflowers. I wish I could bottle it and carry it around with me all summer!

The hike was a HIKE for sure, but as we were huffing and puffing up the forested trails we would be treated to occasional views of the water from mossy outcroppings. The lower elevation path is all streams and ferns with shoulder-high nettles and candy flowers. Once you get up into the rocky prairies the few swathes of shade become more welcoming, and the undergrowth becomes more sparse, except for the coast manroot vines climbing everywhere.  At one overlook, we thought we had finally reached the top and started heading back down, and were confused when we came upon another fork in the path. Thankfully, we took the short dead end trail first and wound up at the real overlook at Ship Peak – a breathtaking view of the entire island. We hung our feet off the edge of the cliff and watched swallows and turkey vultures soaring on currents far below us.

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I’ll hike anywhere, explore anywhere, and find something to enjoy about it, but a sweeping vista at the end of a long and tiring climb is a highly motivating reward, for sure. By the time we made it back down to the car we were all aching and ready for ice cream. We lazed around on the beach in Eastsound for a while, taking in the beauty as the light turned golden. We caught the ferry just in time to watch the sunset, and as the sky turned pink I caught that little sliver of a crescent moon again, reminding me that the island will always be here for me when I need it.

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Places Visited: Turtleback Mountain Preserve on Orcas Island, WA | 3 miles | 850ft elevation gain.

If you go: Plan your hike according to what you’re comfortable with. We chose to do the south loop to Ship Peak because the north trail is slightly harder, and we had a 9 year old in tow. If you hike the south loop I recommend going up the Lost Oak trail and down the main trail on the old fire road. Lost Oak is more shaded and has a lot of switchbacks for the ascent, but the main trail is mostly straight up in full sun. That being said, the main trail is also pretty hard on the knees on the way down, so that may be worth considering as well.

Species observed: Canada goose, Pelagic cormorant, Great blue heron, Turkey vulture, Red-tailed hawk, Pigeon guillemot, Rock pigeon, Anna’s hummingbird, Olive-sided flycatcher, Northwestern crow, Purple martin, Violet-green swallow, Barn swallow, Chestnut-backed chickadee, American robin, European starling, Cedar waxwing, Yellow-rumped warbler, Song sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, Red-winged blackbird, House sparrow, Harbor Seal, Black-tailed deer.

 

 

Padilla Bay and Kukutali Preserve

After a long week at work I was going stir crazy this weekend wanting to get out and experience a little bit of spring. Unfortunately spring in Seattle means rain, and that’s just what we got, all weekend long. A rainy hike doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but my daughter somehow lost her rain shell, so I had to figure out somewhere dry to go. I spent hours on Saturday comparing precipitation probability maps with trail conditions and difficulty until I finally settled on a combo that worked. We decided to head north into a corner of the Olympic rain shadow and see what was going on in Skagit Valley this time of year.

First stop, Padilla Bay – a ginormous marine estuary which sits in beautiful contrast to the farmland that rings it. The dikes that keep the saltwater out of the fields also act as an easy, flat trail from the head of a slough to a rocky strip of beach. The whole out and back is a bit over 4 miles.

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The scenery is gorgeous, but what I’m really all about it the wildlife. The bay is a popular stopover on the “Pacific flyway” – a migration pathway for birds along the coast from Alaska to Mexico. We saw plenty of ducks and what was probably the last of the snow geese before they head north. Sadly we missed many of the wintering shorebirds, but the resident bald eagles and great blue herons were plentiful. We also listened to the thundering calls of hundreds of frogs in the farm fields all the way there and back. Another little sign of Spring.

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Once we reached the far end of the trail, we took a break and beach-combed a bit. From a distance, the tide flats look like a barren stretch of muck. But up close you can see that every inch of them is alive. The craziest thing is how many mud snails there are, scooting through the eelgrass and around the shore crabs.

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We poked around for a while, had a snack, and then turned back so we could make time for another stop on our trip. We walked back quickly as one little black cloud started dumping hail. Spring in Seattle indeed. As quickly as it passed overhead the cloud floated away and golden sunlight illuminated everything again.

With the kidlet getting bigger and us having plans for longer hikes this summer I can’t settle for just a 4 mile hike in a day. We added Kukutali preserve on as an easy extension. Kukutali is a new trail; part of the Swinomish tribal reservation and joint managed by the state. It’s not big, but it was absolutely worth the trip. A narrow spit connects to Kiket Island where a few short trails offer a surprising variation in scenery.

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The most beautiful example of a native forest I have seen and views of Deception Pass from the top, beaches so covered in bleached driftwood and crushed shells they look white, kelp covered rocks holding secret tide pools and the blue green ocean crashing on the shore. The forests of madrona and cedar are choked with ferns, lichen and moss and are alive with bird calls. Red-flowering currant and Oregon Grape were blooming all over the tiny island. A couple paused on their walk to tell us how they love the preserve so much they visit every weekend during every time of year and never get tired of it. That’s a lot to say for such a little place, but as I said – it was absolutely worth the short stopover. If you’re already visiting Deception Pass, Bayview, Camano Island, etc. it would certainly be a nice little detour.

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As with any good time spent outdoors, now all I want to do is go back. I’d love to catch Padilla Bay at just the right time in winter to see the migrating shorebirds and maybe an owl or two, and I think Kukutali might be just incredible with the summer foliage. It seems like every place I cross off my list just gets added right back on.

Areas visited: Padilla Bay Trail, Kukutali Preserve (Kiket Island).

Distance walked: About 8 miles total.

Species observed: American Crow, Bald Eagle (3 juveniles and about 6 adults), Great Blue Heron (dozens), Northern Harrier, Red-winged Blackbird, Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Red-tailed Hawk, Dark-eyed Junco, Song Sparrow, Golden-crowned Sparrow, a strange sparrow I couldn’t identify, Double-crested Cormorant, Bufflehead, American Wigeon, Snow Goose, Glaucous-winged Gull, Western Gull, Greater Scaup, American Robin, Belted Kingfisher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hairy Woodpecker, Chesnut-backed Chickdee, Common Merganser, Asian Mud Snails.

 

 

Neighborhood Walks | 3.26.2017

Typically when I walk my neighborhood I pick a small segment of it and take my time, inspecting plants and pausing at animal sounds so as not to scare them away. There are a lot of great trails within a few miles of my home, and I like to frequent all of them to change things up. It’s nice to have so many options for nature watching so close to my front door. Today, however, I was in the mood for a challenge. I’ve got bigger goals for myself for the next year both for exploring more difficult to hike areas and for increasing my overall activity level. My usual 1.5-3 mile walks are making me feel a bit cramped, so this morning I set out with a plan to extend it. I would walk ALL of my neighborhood trails in one big sort-of loop! The route I chose would conveniently equal my daily step goal, but I would plan to do it in about 3 hours. Plus, I could check out all of my favorite spots at once!

I set off at a quick pace and immediately felt unnatural about it. Like I said, I usually take my time and try not to miss any details as I walk by. Speed-walking instead of sneaking through my favorite wetland park was excruciating. If I always went this fast I would never have checked as many animals species off of my list as I have. As I passed a number of joggers I felt kind of sad for them – they run through here every day and have no idea what they’re missing with their headphones on and their loud footsteps scaring away anything before they even get close. But, I reminded myself what I was here for and kept it up. Even walking 16-minute-miles, I still managed to take in everything I love about my neighborhood.

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I walked through a flooded peat bog on a floating boardwalk, then wound through side streets until I came to the entrance of a paved trail which runs parallel to the city’s town center, but is separated by a green belt of native plantings. Somehow, it is secluded enough that the noise of a busy Saturday full of traffic and shoppers and people brunching cannot be heard less than half a block away. The paved trail meanders through old growth forest, swamps, new growth forests in the process of recovering and residential areas. At the end of it is a fairly nondescript city park, which is where the trail ends and I had to turn around. I backtracked to a certain point, then cut through the town center and trekked up a bit to a much less known trail head where I could follow a different creek upstream along hilly dirt paths. The creek here cuts a path through a gully and the forest is much denser here, full of different bird calls than the rest of town. I like to come here every spring before the grass gets to high to see the only pair of Wood Duck I’ve seen in these creeks. I think they always return to this spot because of the lighter foot traffic it sees. After coming to the end of this trail, I turned around and went back through the wetland, ending up at home with a few minutes to spare from my goal, and some seriously burning thighs to remind me that I should add some extra miles to my walks more often.

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Places visited: All of my neighborhood trails

Distance walked: 9.7 miles

Total elevation gain: 360 feet.

Species observed: Spotted Towhee, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, American Crow, Bald Eagle, Song Sparrow, Violet-Green Swallow, Mallard, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Wood Duck, Eastern Gray Squirrel, Yellow Spotted Millipede, Banana Slug.

 

 

 

Smith & Spencer Islands in March

Hey, it’s officially Spring! We’ve even had a few sunny days around here to kick it off. On Sunday I decided it was time to drag the family outdoors with me (pumped up with allergy medicine, sadly, because they’re both terribly allergic to the alder pollen that is turning my car a nice shade of yellow as I type this). As I promised myself last summer I thought it was time to make a winter visit to Smith and Spencer Islands to see what they look like without all of the greenery. Quite a bit different, as it turns out.

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With all of the cattails and canary grass matted down we had a stunning view of the brackish marsh that is Spencer Island. Like many of the river deltas around Puget Sound, settlers built dikes along the rivers here to take advantage of the rich soil for farming. After the land had been reclaimed as a wildlife preserve the county broke the dikes and allowed the daily flooding to resume, as the Snohomish river estuary backs up with the incoming tides. We arrived during low tide, and thus got a view of the mud flats. I’d love to revisit at high tide for a bit of better bird watching in the marsh, but I did see plenty of wildlife anyway.

I found it very interesting that during our last visit we walked up to the edge of the marsh and saw nothing but green and blue filling the valley, but now with everything brown and flat, secrets were uncovered that we never would have thought to look for. A small dock with an observation area had been hiding right in front of us before, completely engulfed in reeds. Now we were able to walk out on it, but noticed that it was so caked in mud that it likely becomes submerged when the tide is in. There was also plenty of evidence left behind from the days when this was a farm – wheels and big wooden spools, old horse-drawn equipment, and even a shed of some sort – only the roof remains, the rest has sunken into the muck.

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We wandered around the trails for 2 hours, but as the sun began to set we had to head home, even though we had not been able to finish the easy loop around the island. Another time perhaps, when we’re more focused on actually walking, and less on exploring and puddle stomping.

On our way back we took the gravel road past the treatment ponds that attract so many waterbirds. There were literally thousands of scaup on the ponds, mixed with coots, mergansers, and too many ducks to identify at a distance. I was even able to cross a new one off my list – a redhead – rare on this side of the mountains.

The wind picked up a bit and we hurried to get back to our warm car, but as we were driving off we got to say hello to one last animal – a white-tailed deer munching in the meadow by the highway. Like every time I get outside around the city I’m in awe of the amount of nature we have right beside our homes and freeways and office buildings. We can welcome spring without even getting out of the car – but of course it’s always so much more worth it to get out and explore.

Areas visited: Smith & Spencer Islands – 4 miles

Species observed: Bald Eagle, American Crow, Red-winged Blackbird, Violet-green Swallow, American Coot, Glaucous-winged Gull, Common Merganser, Downy Woodpecker, Song Sparrow, European Starling, Canada Goose, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Lesser Scaup, Redhead, Ruddy Duck, Northern Shoveler, White-tailed Deer.

If you go: Wear boots! The paved trail is well-maintained, but once you head over the bridge to Spencer Island you’ll be trekking through quite a bit of mud in places. Be aware of the hunting seasons and use the appropriate path for hikers and not hunters. It would also be courteous to observe leash laws here as this is a sensitive nesting area for many species of birds, as well as a popular spot for dogs being socially rehabilitated.

Neighborhood Walks – March 2017

I’ve been getting out a bit more regularly, now that my knee has been feeling almost better. My main motivation to do so is a volunteer program I signed up for called Watch the Wild.  The idea is that you pick a place you visit frequently, such as your neighborhood or even your backyard, and you make regular observations about the weather, plants and animals that you see there. This helps scientists study patterns of climate change and ecological health that they would not be able to watch as often as someone who visits that spot all the time. It’s pretty easy to do, and even a great way to get children involved in being aware of their local environment, so I definitely recommend it if it sounds at all interesting!

The easy choice for me is my neighborhood, which is a mile wide wetland valley. I can thoroughly explore the whole area in depth in under an hour, but the variety of wildlife a lush wetland in the middle of a busy suburb can attract keeps me interested in heading out a few times a week to see what I can find!

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March is one of my favorite months to get outside in my neighborhood. Right now the wetland is mostly brown and completely flooded in the middle. It is often cold and raining, and at first glance it seems there is little stirring out there. But by paying close attention (and by getting out early enough) there is plenty I can spot.

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A few coyotes have a den in a blackberry thicket, and can be seen and heard in the early morning hours. Birds of prey are always out this time of year – we often see an eagle pair and their baby in the nest, a red-tailed hawk that comes back every year, and occasionally a sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk or a northern harrier. The Pacific chorus frogs are all out calling for mates right now, and though you’ll rarely see a salamander you can find their eggs in the rushing creeks. The soggy, matted reeds make it easier to spot the waterbirds, and there are plenty of those – mallards, green-winged teal and buffleheads are common, and this week I’ve spotted an American coot, a few blue herons, a large flock of American wigeon, a Virginia rail, a hooded merganser and some ruddy ducks.

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However, even though it feels like winter now, by the end of the month everything will be different. Already the leaf buds are opening on the alder and Indian plum, and the buttercup and forget-me-not leaves are carpeting the edges of the waterways. A few shoots are coming up in a patch of yellow flag iris, which means the cattails won’t be far behind. And I even saw a small flock of violet-green swallows hunting in the air – they’ve arrived about 3 weeks earlier than last year. The amount of change that happens in such a short time is incredible, and before I know it I won’t be able to see over the tops of the green grass and reeds at all, and they’ll be buzzing with honeybees and songbirds.

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It certainly is easier to keep slogging along through these grey days when you’re aware of the little signs of change coming your way. Spring might not really feel like it’s here for another month or two, but the impending signs are everywhere, if you pay attention.

Heather Lake and the Last of the Snow

Well, here I am, wondering what kind of an outdoorsy person I actually am. In the last 6 months I’ve only had TWO outings that I’ve felt qualified to post about. I’d say it’s embarrassing, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. A knee injury in early January has had me quite out of the game. I’m as healed up as I’m going to be now, and I’m slowly testing my strength just as winter, and the difficulties it poses to exploring outside, is waning.

At least I can say my first real excursion this year was both a great trip and a genuine challenge to someone who has done nothing more strenuous than her regular job since October (not that my regular job is a cake walk, but at least I haven’t come home with sore muscles in a while)! Heather Lake is a hike I’ve been wanting to take for a bit, based on the beautiful photos a friend of mine posts whenever she goes. She and I have been trying to get together for a day trip for a while now, and as luck would have it, our schedules finally lined up right as my knee felt well enough to get back to *outdoor* business as usual.

Heather Lake was actually third on our list, but weather was not in our favor. We started with the Lake Keechelus snowshoe trail, but the snow was so wet we were sinking in deep, even with snowshoes. We made it about a half mile before giving up and turning back. Our second choice was just down the road, and figuring we’d face the same problems there, we decided to backtrack all the way to Granite Falls and do Heather Lake, even though we knew it would be pouring rain. It was pouring for sure, but it was absolutely worth it. Just look at this amazing snow!

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Snowy hikes are absolutely EVERYTHING. I’ve never snowshoed before, and never been on a trail icy enough to need traction. I don’t know why I always felt so intimidated though – once you have the proper gear (and a bit of healthy respect for trail dangers) you’re all set. However, I was surprised by how much more difficult the weather made what would normally be an easy trip! We ran into icy snow patches immediately, but the lower half of the trail was mostly impacted by snow melt. The sudden warmer temperatures turned bare trail into a running stream and turned the actual streams into swollen waterfalls. I was thankful for my waterproof boots, to be sure.

The elevation gain on this hike is about 1,000 feet, which doesn’t seem like much to me, but by the time we made it to the top we were in a whole different world. My (very uneducated) guess is that there was as much as 10 feet of snow in some places… the tree wells were awfully deep, and not fully uncovered. We were high above the actual lake when we reached it, and had to walk along precarious ice bridges to get there. Where previous hikers had stepped off to the side was obvious – there were 5 foot deep footprints with running water below them. I feel lucky we could make it when we did – another week and I doubt it would have been possible to make it to the lake without falling in.

We did make it to the lake though, and it was absolutely gorgeous. I mean… where the lake is was gorgeous. Most of it was still covered under a blanket of deep snow.

We sat on the one edge of my friend’s blanket that was still dry (the constant drizzle soaked everything to the core) and shared a thermos of coffee while watching and listening to the small avalanches rolling down the mountain sides across the lake. The power of all of that snow, and all of the water it melts into is just unbelievable.

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A few soggy selfies later and we were ready to hurry back down. A rainy day hike is really only a good hike when you’re still moving fast enough to stay warm! I’ve got to say, though, I was really enjoying the challenge of figuring out how to use microspikes and poles for the first time on such a precarious path! A hill of deep wet snow would flatten out into narrow ridges of slippery packed ice and then suddenly drop into a stream that we could only get down to by sliding, and then we’d have to really dig in to climb back up the snow bank on the other side. I learned a lot, but loved every second of it! Now I’m only disappointed that I couldn’t enjoy more snowy hikes when the season was still here – I’ll just have to make more plans for next winter.

If you go: Be prepared and dress for the trail! We saw a lot of people in nothing but leggings and Nikes with no real coats or gear. It would be so easy to get injured or stuck in the unstable snow, especially around tree wells, and without proper equipment, first aid supplies, etc. it could quickly become dangerous. I’ve never considered more the basic safety rule of heading into the wilderness: “Always be prepared to spend the night”.

Save

Winter, 2016.

I think the last time I really stepped outside and looked around it was fall, wasn’t it? Crisp in the mornings, sweltering in the afternoon, everything all golden and delicious and inviting. Then I received a package at work marked “Holiday”. And another. And 30 more. And then just as many every day. Open boxes, plan, assemble, bleed, sweat, cry, repeat. Lay awake with mental checklists running faster than I can think, sleep a little. Go to work in the dark, come home in the dark. And then it’s all done – everything I’ve worked for over two months. Step back… marvel… then catch up on sleep and prepare to spend the next six weeks babying all of my creations to keep them looking as perfect as ever.

Visual. Merchandising.

I’m not done with Christmas craziness at work, and won’t really feel like I can breathe again, much less take time for myself, until February. But today was an exception because it SNOWED! Actually, it snowed a bit more last week, but I could barely make time to enjoy it for more than a few minutes that day. Today was scarcely a dusting, but oh, how I love the snow… as I write this it is just over 20 degrees outside and every tiny flake that finds it way to the ground stays right there, a perfect little six pointed welcome gift to winter in typically rainy Seattle. Magic.

I managed to walk my usual neighborhood loop before frost bite set in due to poor clothing choices (Oh right, snow is cold! We don’t get much here, you know). The wetland was quiet, with only a few wrens and one field full of teal and geese for company. Everything crunched under my feet; hoarfrost frozen solid and the ponds 2 inches thick. Snow coated the ice, but left the brown and wilting marsh bare. It is harsh out there, and ugly to some, but I see only magic magic magic.

Light Snow in the Marsh

Frozen Pond

Frozen Stream

I’m thankful for a little snow day, and hopeful that I’ll be back out stomping around soon.

 

 

 

 

TBT – Smith & Spencer Islands

Let’s take a quick little flashback to a few weeks ago for an outing I forgot to share in the moment! Smith Island and Spencer Island in Everett, WA:

View from Smith Island

On our last visit to my MIL’s in Marysville I happened to be looking at my GPS as we crossed the Snohomish River, and noticed a photo for the area of a trailhead sign. I pulled up some information about it and realized that this was a spot I had been wanting to explore forever but didn’t know how to access, and surprise(!) there was an easy trail to get to this whole time!

See, if you hadn’t noticed already, I’m a bit of a bird nerd. This spot – the Snohomish River Delta – attracts a gigantic portion of our state’s avian species. Driving along I-5 in Everett you might notice some huge rectangular ponds. Those are the city’s water treatment ponds, and they are a favorite spot of migratory water fowl because of the relative lack of human access to them. Every fall and winter I pull out my binoculars as we drive past, on our way to somewhere else, and spot the silhouettes of some of my favorite ducks, grebes, etc. The areas north and east of the ponds have been reclaimed in recent years, flooded a bit, and replanted as wildlife sanctuaries. This, of course, attracts even more species – those which don’t prefer open water. As a whole, this big marshy island is a jackpot for animal watching. I can’t believe that with all of my interest in this place I didn’t take the time to look up how I could get there before!

But finally, after thousands of trips driving past and wondering, we found a free weeknight to do some exploring.

Ferry Baker Island

We started at Langus Waterfront Park, which is very close to where the river meets the Sound, and is therefore a popular boat launch. The river is wide and even here, with clear views of both Mt. Baker and Mt. Ranier. This park is on Smith Island, and connects to the protected Spencer Island via a nicely paved 2-mile trail. We strolled up the path in the summer heat, enjoying the juxtaposition over the water of swooping swallows and racing jet-skis. I imagine if we had come closer to twilight we may have seen bats and muskrat, even otters perhaps.

Rounding a bend, we came to Union Slough, which divides the two islands. One side is poplars, brambles, and grass, the other is cattails and old spruce snags. Here we started to spot birds. We saw our first ever Caspian Terns, dwarfing the gulls they flew past, their calls a startling “kowk”. We were also a bit surprised to find a few Eastern Kingbirds among the swallows.

Historic Jackknife Bridge connects the islands. From here there is a choice to go left to an area maintained for hunters in the fall and winter, or right to a loop around the wildlife preserve. I can’t wait to come back around February when the hunting season is over but the grasses are still low and the water high – the best time for observing water birds.

Going back over the bridge we were caught by surprise as a Peregrine Falcon, chasing a smaller bird in flight, swooped through the bracing and nearly hit me in the head! I can still feel the wind of its feathers on my face. I turned just in time to snap a photo of a second falcon, following close behind.

Peregrine Falcon Everett Washington

Still in awe, we stood for a while enjoying the summer sounds and fading light. When we were finally ready to turn back we took the dirt road that bisects the treatment pools. Every pond was lined with mallards, all in a row, preening and resting. In just a month or so they’ll have to share their space with flashier birds, but for now all was peaceful.

I’m so happy I stumbled across this trail. Watch this space in the winter, and hopefully I’ll have some photos to share of a different version of these islands!

Spencer Island Everett WA

Areas Visited: Smith & Spencer Islands – Everett, WA | 4 miles

Species observed: Canada Goose, Mallard, Wood Duck, Osprey, Peregrine Falcon, Caspian Tern, Western Wood Pewee, Eastern Kingbird, American Crow, Violet-green Swallow, Barn Swallow, European Starling, Song Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, House Finch, Band-winged Grasshoppers.