Old Sauk River Trail | Wildfire Season

Last week was a rough one for our Pacific Northwest. An already devastating wildfire season across Washington and Oregon worsened as our temps soared above 90°F and humidity plummeted. For a few days we saw ash falling like snow and the air was thick and grey, with the sun glowing through as an eerie blood-red orb. The weather has turned since then, and firefighters are thankfully making some headway at battling the flames, but we are still on edge as an outdoorsy community, watching our beloved wild places burn, one after another.

The urge to get outdoors, into the beautiful forests and mountains, has been even stronger for me this month, despite the sadness I feel walking through unscathed woods when I know others are burning. With road closures and smoke making many areas inaccessible I turned to the lowlands last weekend to hopefully find a little pocket of nature that I could still enjoy. Surprisingly, I was able to find it less than 20 miles away from the Suiattle Fire, in the foothills of the North Cascades.

As we drove toward the river the smoke became thicker and thicker, obscuring the mountain peaks that are normally such a showstopping view on the drive north. Signs warned of the extreme fire danger and the statewide burn ban. I began to worry that we would have to backtrack and find a different hike farther away. The thermometer read 92°F before noon, so it was already going to be uncomfortable even without irritated eyes and lungs. But as we pulled up to the forested trail head of the Old Sauk River Trail I could tell that my plan was going to work.

Old Sauk River Forest

What I had been banking on, that ended up working out*, was that the river and dense tree cover on this trail, along with White Chuck Mountain directly between us and the fire, would work together to filter out much of the smoke and ash. We were able to complete a 6-mile trail run in almost complete shade and without even a whiff of campfire smell in the air. Even better, on a sunny Labor Day weekend we only came across two other people during our entire hike.

This trail has not really been at the top of our list. It’s easy, very low elevation gain, no big sweeping vista or magnificent waterfall at the end. Just a second growth forest along a river about an hour and a half away from home. I probably never would have made the time to go if not for the situation this day. But I am grateful that I did, and will probably make a return visit in the rainy season for a relaxing day spent in the woods.

Sauk River

The forest is like every other you can find this side of the Cascades. Once heavily logged, but recovered enough that there are finally a few cedars here and there among the firs. Salal and thick moss coat the ground in a carpet of green, and stumps from the area’s logging past now host huckleberry bushes and staircases of mushrooms. The trail follows the Sauk river upstream, and a gorgeous river it is, though fairly unfriendly. The color is the same surprising aqua blue as the creeks around Diablo Lake  and the river rocks are painted with a coating of rock flour silt from the glaciers far away. The opacity makes the depth of the river hard to gauge, and it runs in rapids past this stretch of woods despite the hot dry weather. We found a few sandy trails down to the banks, but never found a spot safe enough to wade in. Luckily for us, there was still water at the end of the trail at Murphy Creek, which made for a nice lunch spot and a dip in the clear stream with baby fish swimming around our ankles.

Sauk River Murphy Creek

Along the way we listened for birds and heard none. The quiet of the forest was offset only by the rushing of the river that faded in and out as we meandered through the trees. But as we got deeper into the woods we began to hear animals startling in the brush next to our feet. It took us a moment to realize what they were, when suddenly I noticed a toad trying his best to camoflauge in under a bush. A toad! I haven’t seen a Western toad since I was a child – they are elusive, quiet, and are often nocturnal. But as we continued to walk we saw many of them, along with a number of garter snakes. I don’t know if the unusual heat pushed them out looking for water, or if this is just a perfect habitat for reptiles and amphibians, but it certainly was a treat to see one of our lesser seen but still fairly common forest animals.

Western Toad

I’m glad that circumstances pushed us out to this place. No hike in the PNW is ever unrewarding, this one included. If I lived closer, I’d make it a regular trail running spot, but as it is, I’ll probably just make it an easy off-season hike to get some fresh air when the mountain passes are socked in. Always a silver lining, even when the cloud is made of smoke.

Sauk River

If you go: Consider camping in the area, or adding this one to another easy hike nearby. Or just enjoy the beauty of a mellow day in the forest 🙂

*Don’t mess around with wildfires. Check before your trip for road closures and areas on watch for potential evacuation. For this trip I knew that the wind conditions were not a threat and that the fire was nearly 95% contained, and evaluated the conditions when we arrived with back-up plans, extra water and food, and a map of the area in case we found ourselves stuck. A wildfire nearby means another could start just as easily at any time, so play it safe, and if in doubt, cancel your trip!

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Neighborhood Walks 8.2017| Night Hikes

This month we have been beating the heat by exploring our regular neighborhood trails after dark instead of during the day. Seeing our familiar, everyday stomping grounds in a whole different light (um, literally) has been especially fun for the kidlet, and it has become a regular thing now that she won’t stop asking to go out once the sun starts to set!

Wetland Sunset

It all started when we decided to go look for weasels. Usually we see the cute little guys at some point during the summer, crashing around in the bushes or running across the boardwalk with a frog in mouth, or sneaking up on us from behind to sniff our shoes. This must be a low population year for them, because we haven’t seen a single one, though we have found their kitten-sized footprints in the mud. So, we got the idea that maybe we should go out at dusk to take advantage of their crepuscular nature.

We walked to the end of our trail, pausing to wait around all of their favorite spots along the way. We headed over to our neighborhood beaver dam and sat for a while, watching salmon jump in the pond as the sky turned from pink to purple. There was not a human sound, as all of the other walkers had gone home for the night. Just us and the breeze.

Sunset Spider

Standing back on the trail we waited, listening, squinting into the dim light for hopes of a rustle or a squirrely little shadow. Nope, nothing.

But then, just over our heads, a barn owl flapped smoothly and silently across the trail! We watched as it banked and wobbled in its strange, otherwordly flight across the wetland and then back again, scanning the reeds for sounds of movement, just like us. We have never seen an owl out here before, and had no idea there was such a cute little moonfaced predator so close to our home! We gasped and stared, waiting and watching as it glided all around again and again.

Finally, it became too dark to see the path well and we reluctantly headed back for the mile-long return home. As the light continued to dim we began to see sparrow sized bats flapping low over the marsh, some almost hitting us as they went for the clouds of gnats and mosquitoes that we were swatting on our way. An American Bittern glided overhead as well, looking just like a heron, save for his stunning stripes. A Wilson’s snipe startled as we passed, and flew off with its screeching call echoing in the still twilight. We came out of the wetland into a tunnel of cottonwoods – shade we relish during the hot midday, but looking like an eerie fairytale wood in the dark. We talked loudly to ward off our local pack of coyotes and made our way back up to the land of streetlights and dinnertime smells coming from open windows.

It was exciting to experience a new side of our neighborhood, and a good reminder that what you see when you’re out in nature certainly isn’t ever all there is. It also brought up a great conversation with the kidlet about how we had expectations set for seeing one animal, but ended up seeing several others that we didn’t expect, and how keeping an open mind about the way an experience may potentially turn out makes something that could have felt disappointing into it’s own good time. Life lessons from barn owls, I suppose!

Now, we wait for the sun to go down before we go out. It happens earlier and earlier every night now. Each time we have gone we’ve been lucky enough to see our owl friend again, along with the bats and the bullfrogs, and the scuffling of things just waking up or going to bed. Still, no weasels though.

We go home after our walks with the refreshed appreciation for the beautiful land we get to share with all of this amazing wildlife. We consider the value in revisiting the same places in different times of day and year and weather. The wonderfulness there is in truly getting to know a place to its fullest, rather than considering it a day hike to check off a list, never to visit again. It fills me with that same feeling I get after completing some farther flung and more hyped adventure – the fervent internal itch to get out again, do more, see more, and to pay attention enough to enjoy it all.

Sunset Moon

 

 

 

Maple Pass Loop | Hiking in the North Cascades

This weekend I left my lovely little family at home and went out to tackle a harder hike with a friend who can keep up a bit better than a 9-year-old. Actually, “harder hike” is an understatement, let’s call it a “butt kicker”. Maple Pass Loop starts at almost 5,000 feet and gains over 2,000 more across just a few miles. My friend and I both found the difference in oxygen a bit of a surprise in how much it wore us out, but pushed on to complete it nonetheless. Now I know to add an extra hour or so to a high-elevation hike. We are sea-level people, I suppose!

Maple Pass is a seriously gorgeous area. The steep trail follows a few connecting ridgelines around the bowl in which Lake Ann sits. There are several more of these glacially carved circques visible during the hike including Lewis Lake, Rainy Lake and a tiny little blue tarn that flows into Rainy. The height of the ridgelines make for unobscured views in all directions of the surrounding mountains – all the way to Glacier Peak on one side, and the rusty looking Cutthroat Peak right in our face on the opposite.

View from Maple Pass

Glacier Peak from Maple Pass

The lower elevations are thick with shrubs (including some delicious blueberries) and forests of pine and larches. I’m sure the fall color here is quite a show to be seen. Ascending the slopes, it is also obvious that it’s quite stunning here early in the summer – we saw the last of the fading lupine and paintbrush that must light these hills up with color. Flowers were still blooming in the delicate alpine meadows near the top – aster and gentian mixed in with the carpets of heather. The real color, however, came from the crazy clear lakes. Lewis Lake holds the same glacial flour in its waters as Lake Diablo, giving it the look of a saucer filled with turquoise paint, but Ann and Rainy were as clear as could possibly be – little blue gems standing out against the talus. I would love to find a way to make it up here when those lakes are still just thick snowfields, but the season is short and unpredictable, so who knows.

Lake Ann North Cascades

Glacial Lake North Cascades

This trip was such a perfect opportunity to experience late summer in the wilderness. All the way along we were serenaded by clicking grasshoppers, chirping pika, whistling marmots, and the occasional “scree” of a hawk. Some of the grasses and leaves were beginning to redden; the perfect contrast to the cobalt blue skies that only this time of year can offer around here.  The heat of the day made a dip in frigid Rainy Lake at the end a must for cooling off and easing sore muscles. Around our feet swirled pretty green trout with their speckled tails, and we watched a dragonfly emerge from its larval casing right in front of our eyes. It was pure magic, everywhere we looked.

Rainy Lake Washington

If you go: Know your route options. The main trail is a loop, but there are several spurs you can take out and back to extend your trip. We took the short trails to the shores of Lake Ann and Rainy Lake, and if we had had the time, could have extended it out for a boulder scramble to Lewis Lake as well. Our roughly 9 mile version took us about 6 hours including a break for lunch, but we would have loved to have planned for more time to fully enjoy floating on a lake for a while (fishing is an option as well, if that floats your boat). Also important to consider is which direction to hike – we opted for counter clockwise to enjoy the ever increasing views along the way and a steep but short hike down. This was great for such a beautiful day, but it definitely extended the difficulty of the hike over a longer period of time and made for a knee burning downhill trek. Going clockwise would have given us 3 miles of incredibly steep switchbacks on the way up and a long easy way down. Apparently this second option is a better choice if you start out in fog or clouds that will burn off when you reach the ridge. As far as gear goes, we appreciated having our poles but would have been okay without them, and thought that a decently soled trail runner would have sufficed for the mostly sandy paths. Sunscreen, however is a must, as there is very little shade.

Species observed: Red-tailed hawk, heard quite a few jays and nuthatches in the forests, Pika, Marmots, Townsend’s chipmunks, Black-tailed deer (mama and a spotted baby!), grasshoppers, dragonflies, thousands of bees, cutthroat trout.

Summer on Whidbey Island

I have finally reclaimed my weekends from my busy July & August work schedule, and I’m determined to squeeze the most out of our remaining month-ish of summer. Even though autumn is my favorite time of year, I’m putting off thinking about the fall color hikes and ghost-town adventures I have on my wishlist, and am trying to stay in the moment. Sand + Sea is my mantra, and the islands are the way to get as much as possible.

I’ve written about our visits to Whidbey Island before, but only in the wintertime. Summer brings lower tides and golden wildflowers and a much more relaxing experience overall. It’s funny, I love the islands so much in any time of year that I rarely think to visit them in warm weather anymore.

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First stop: Coupeville. I knew I wanted to check out some tidepools, and the beaches in Penn Cove are my favorite for critter watching on the island. Every corner of Whidbey has a slightly different type of beach and I have my top picks for all sorts of occasions. Sand castle building, stone skipping, seashell gathering, sea duck watching, and so on. Coupeville hosts a long stretch of public tidelands with piles of boulders on a sandy shore and beds of eelgrass in the mud. The sheltered nature of the cove creates a safe habitat for all kinds of sea creatures from tiny shore crabs to the errant orca or porpoise. Being on the western side of the island also gives it the advantage of having a later low-tide than the rest of the Sound, which meant we didn’t have to get up at 4am to get out there in time.

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We explored until the incoming tide pushed us up to high ground, and then headed north to Deception Pass State Park. The Cranberry Lake area there is a fun and easy place to wander with a marshy lake, a sandy forest and a rocky shoreline.

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The sand dunes are at their best in August, swarming with red and yellow dragonflies and scattered with scraggly wildflowers. The forest was all filled in with greenery and sunburnt madrona trees, but still just as creepy as always with its witch-hair lichen and tunnels of spiderwebs. The West Beach area of the park is such an otherwordly environment! It was strange, too, to see all of the shorebirds and hawks and eagles of the colder seasons missing from this place and instead clouds of gulls in the air and quick little mammals foraging in the forest. We meandered around the many trails until dinnertime and then headed home over the bridge, catching one last spectacular view of the sparkling sea and the islands that we love.

Just a perfect summer day in the most Pacific Northwest-y of places.

Areas visited: Coupeville and Deception Pass State Park on Whidbey Island, WA

Species observed: Eurasian Collared Dove, Barn Swallows, Black Turnstone, Great Blue Heron, Belted Kingfisher, Rock Pigeon, Glaucous-winged Gull, Northwest Crow, Bald Eagle, Brewer’s Blackbird, Norway Rat, Harbor Seal, yellow and red Dragonflies, Green Urchins, Sand Dollars, Shore Crabs (and some raccoon footprints).

 

 

Diablo Lake Camping

How do I describe the last few days spent camping in the North Cascades in words, when all that’s in my head is color? A milky turquoise blue ringed with moss and evergreen and bleached stone grey. Color that looks fake to the eye; that looks unreal in photos – more evocative of a tropical vacation than of a trip to the mountains in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll just have to take my word for it that my photos aren’t ‘shopped.

Thunder Creek at Diablo Lake

We camped for a few nights at Colonial Creek, which is right on Diablo Lake, and spent most our time with open mouths, gaping at how stunning everything is. The atmosphere of the forests and the lake is just so different from everywhere else we have been.

Diablo Lake from Thunder Knob

The incredible blue of the lake comes from the glacier water that feeds it. The surrounding glaciers ground rock into such fine dust that the particles stay suspended in the water and make it look opaque and kind of magical. I had no idea until our visit that there are over 300 glaciers in the North Cascades National Park. The lake feels just like you’d expect glacial runoff to feel, too – wading in to launch our kayaks was like stepping into an ice bath, even after the air temperature last week hit 100°F!

Colonial Creek at Diablo Lake

I was absolutely enchanted by the way the creeks running into the lake were perfectly clean but had this soft milky blue color to them, just like the lake. I hiked Thunder Knob and Thunder Creek Trail during our stay, and loved the strange, sudden changes in the landscape. The trails meander through leafy undergrowth close to the lake, and as the path rises in elevation a carpet of yellow-green moss coats the cedar trees and softly furrowed ground in a velvety carpet. But then there will be a creek crossing, and not only is the creek itself this strange pale color, but the rocks are all stark white too. It’s obvious that the springtime snow-melt has a truly powerful impact on this landscape from the destructive looking rock-slides and downed trees where the stones are all stripped of moss and no undergrowth has taken hold. Climbing higher still, the landscape quickly transforms again, to windblown lodgepole pines and striated boulders of schist and gneiss and other rocks that I’m only loosely familiar with enough to vaguely identify but can at least tell are beautiful and different from the norm in the lowlands. And then, while dangling my feet off of one of these sunny crags on the side of a cliff, I can see that all around are peaks towering thousands of feet above me, with their own completely different terrain and flora and fauna, not so far out of reach from where I am now. It’s mind-blowing, the variations on beauty this one little region contains.

Davis Peak from Diablo Lake

Honestly and truly, I would have been happy enough to sit by the fire, reading a book and shooing away nosy chipmunks from my snacks at our mossy, secluded little tent site. I would have breathed in the fresh air under the low canopy of vine maples and marveled at the sliver of the lake through the trees and entertained myself watching the raven taking a bath under the park’s water spigot. But to get to enjoy some relaxation in the forest and to get to explore as many breathtaking views and captivating trails as I did just made my heart completely full. It was an adventure I’ll remember, and one that will probably spark a dozen more.

Diablo Lake in North Cascades

Areas explored: Camping at Colonial Creek Campground, Diablo Lake (by kayak), Diablo Dam, Gorge Creek Overlook, Thunder Creek Trail, Thunder Creek Nature Loop, Thunder Knob Trail, Trail of the Cedars (in Newhalem).

If you go: Plan your trip thoroughly, but leave room for spontaneity. There are lots of details to consider, but also a lot of little places to explore that can be done on a whim. We chose to download maps for all of the trails near the lake and on the drive home that were doable for a 9-year-old, and made our decisions based on our mood at the moment. There were a few harder ones that I would have loved to do that we missed, but this area is a gateway to so many incredible hikes that to do them all over a long weekend would be impossible, so plan for the highlights that appeal to you! There were also some safety concerns to consider – bears frequent the area, so using appropriate caution when hiking and camping is a must, and kayaking presented its own slew of preparations! Conditions change quickly on the lake and wind is a daily constant – if you’re planning to do some exploring outside of the slightly more sheltered Thunder Arm, I’d really recommend having a sea kayak with a spray skirt and being fully prepared for immersion and potentially being stranded on shore while waiting out the midday gusts. Our inflatables were definitely not up to the challenge and I would not use them on this lake again. If we had the right equipment, however, it would have been an amazing excursion!

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.