Monday, September 19, 2016

Supporting the Pacific Northwest Environment: Volunteer!

Photo by Milo Zorzino for the Nature Conservancy

With explosive growth in the Pacific Northwestespecially in Seattle and Portlandmore and more people are adding to the stresses on our rich and complex natural environment. How about pitching in to help keep this place beautiful and restore damaged habitats?

Recently a group I'm involved with spent part of a day volunteering with the Nature Conservancy at one of their sites in the Puget Sound region.  (One of the cool things about helping out the Nature Conservancy is that their sites are often scenic and rarely open to the public. Hence, no crowds.)

On a breezy Sunday morning, about 10 of us, an eclectic collection of Zen Buddhists, a retired teacher, father and son duck hunters, conservation biologists, and more, met up near Camano Island and carpooled to a private property to access the Livingston Bay Pocket Estuary site on Camano. Our goal for the day:  pull invasive Scotch broom, which changes the chemical composition of soil and crowds out native plants.

Our Nature Conservancy coordinater for the event, Lauren Mihel, gathered us in a circle for introductions before heading down through the woods to the beach.

"What's your name and what are you excited about for fall?" she asked as an ice breaker. Our responses varied from "making soup again", "fall colors," "cooler weather and rain," and mine: "hiking to see the golden larches." Then we headed down to the estuary with tools for uprooting the Scotch broom and big plastic bags for picking up trash.

We spent a few hours uprooting most of the Scotch broom we could spot, and some of us walked the beach looking for trash.  

On the outside of the pocket estuary, exposed to the ebb and flow of the tides, a lot of trash had washed upplastic bottles, plastic lighters, plastic bags, a few stray shoes, old tires, bits of plastic, and even a big plastic trash can.

I filled a big bag until it got too heavy to squeeze in anything else. Sadly, this much trash, predominantly plastic refuse, is now common, even on wilderness beaches and shorelines. So there are plenty of opportunities to help clean up on your own, too.

Pulling Scotch broom among the driftwood.
This plastic trash can was trash on the beach.
Photo courtesy of Milo Zorzino/Nature Conservancy.
Some things wouldn't fit in trash bags.
We finished up a bit earlier than the allotted time, and gathered for Lauren and fellow coordinator Joelene Boyd to talk a bit about the site, ongoing restoration efforts here that began in 2012, its value as refuge for juvenile salmon, and the Nature Conservancy's programs in general.
It's all part of a larger restoration effort in the area. 

In a sweet gesture, Lauren passed around tins of excellent chocolate chip cookies she made for the group.

Lauren Mihel, Nature Conservancy volunteer coordinator and cookie baker extraordinaire.
And of course it was a beautiful, peaceful place to spend several hours on a sunny Sunday.

Photo courtesy of Milo Zorzino/Nature Conservancy

Overall it was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding day well spent.  I met good people, got better acquainted with people I already knew, felt a sense of accomplishment, was outside moving in fresh air, and learned more about our precious Salish Sea ecosystem.

While there are many options for volunteering with the Nature Conservancy, there are lots of other organizations that could use your help too. Here are a few:

The U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest needs volunteers for many things such as trail maintenance and youth programs. Conservation Northwest has many volunteer needs for things like monitoring wildlife and planting native trees. EarthShare Washington and Oregon have a variety of volunteer and organizational needs. Portland Audubon and Seattle Audubon have active and well-organized volunteer programs. Sierra Club offers lots of ways to get involved. Washington Trails Association has regular work parties. The Portland-based Mazamas has lots of volunteer needs.

I could go on and on, although time doesn't permit it right now. Maybe you would like to suggest some ways to volunteer and your favorite environmental organizations by leaving a comment below! Or let me know if you'd like me to contact you with more ideas.  Because it's important!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

September Backpacking in the Pacific NW: Rain, Sun, and Huckleberry Pancakes

Despite watching the mountain weather forecast for several days in advance of our weekend backpack trip, here we are at the trailhead in a steady, drippy downpour. 

Welcome to hiking in the Pacific Northwest, where we hike in the rain. Even east of the Cascade Crest (the "dry side") in Washington's William O. Douglas Wilderness, it's time to bring out our rain gear.

After last year's massive wildfires, this late summer rain is actually a blessing. 

We pull on rain pants and shells, cover our packs, and head on up the trail, dodging muddy spots as best we can. It is what it is, which is beautiful here in the damp forest. The air smells of pine, decaying trees, earth, and rain. (Yes, we can smell the rain here.)

My friend Mark has organized a mellow trip to accommodate someone with recent knee surgery, two reluctant teenagers, and several of us in so-so shape. The plan is an easy hike up to Twin Sisters Lakes, where we'll set up camp for a few nights and do day hikes.

Day 1
After driving the rough and bumpy dirt road (Julie calls it "a horrible maze of rockness") 7-ish miles past Bumping Lake and Goose Prairie, the trail up to the lakes is easy by comparisonjust 1.5 miles with only about 1,000 feet in elevation gain.

Ten of us are converging from Seattle and Missoula. Since the Twin Lakes area is popular with horsepackers, Mark and Andy quickly find a campsite that accommodates five tents. 

Our first night involves hovering close to the campfire, trying to dry out damp hats, socks, sit pads, and other gear without burning anything. With the drenching rain, it's safe to have campfires in designated pits.

Day 2
After a night with rain and wind buffeting our tents, our first morning is thankfully dry. Today we're hiking up another 1,000+ feet to the summit of Tumac Mountain, a volcanic cinder cone across the lake. (Amusing factoid: Tumac Mountain was named after two Macs, McDuff and McAdam, Scottish sheepherders.)

Tumac Mountain in the distance.
We lay about for a leisurely morning around the campfire, sipping tea/coffee/hot cocoa, cooking various versions of breakfasts. About 11 a.m.  our group sets off for the 2.25-mile trek up to the summit, the site of a former fire lookout.

We're on a high plateau about 5,100 feet in elevation, so the first 1.5 miles is relatively flat through picturesque meadows fringed with alpine fir and shrubs still wet with last night's rain.

The teens set a blistering pace...well, I set the pace because their parents insisted they follow an adult, but they want to MOVE. When the trail starts to really gain elevation, I relinquish the lead to Rick. (My intent isn't to let him brush the shrubs along the trail clear of moisture for the rest of us, but, well...)

Soon we lose the meadows and come out onto the gravelly, rocky upper reaches of the cone toward the summit. Thankfully the switchbacks get more gradual and less steep. And then we're on the summit.

Can't quite keep up on the last push to the summit.
View NE toward Pear Butte and Bismarck/Rattlesnake Peaks.
View east.
View NW to Twin Sisters Lakes.
While the panorama from up here is magnificent, clouds are obscuring the Big Kahuna due west (Mt. Rainier) and most of the Goat Rocks south beyond White Pass. But still, we all linger up here for over an hour in the sun, lunching, relaxing, taking photos, and signing the climbers' register. A previous comment on the register could just as easily be found in an online thread about the Presidential election. (Politics is not what comes to my mind here in this splendid wilderness. I'm happy to almost escape it this weekend.)

On the way down several us can't resist stopping to fill zip-lock bags with the abundant low-lying blue huckleberries. Earlier we passed some berry-infused bear scat on the trail, so we're not the only ones out here enjoying them.

Later this evening, after we've dined on things like mac & cheese, pesto pasta, rehydrated Thanksgiving stuffing, and chicken, the stars come out to shine.  There's nothing like a night sky brilliant with stars criss-crossed by the Milky Way, which so many of us rarely see in our urban lives.

I stop and gaze upwards for a while in a forest clearing before retreating to the warmth of the tent for another 10-hour sleep.

Mountain lake morning.
 Day 3
Now this is what it's all about. We awaken to clearing blue sky and soft sunlight filtering through the trees, mist rising off the lake like a freshly brewed cup of hot tea.  Out on the lake, the other nearby campers are out for an early morning paddle.

Now about those huckleberry pancakes...

I can't claim them. While I nibble on a half an apple and hard-boiled egg sandwich, I enviously eye Andy and Mark's pancakes slathered with real butter and maple syrup. But I plan on using my huckleberry stash when I get home.

Today I'm hiking out, ahead of most everyone else (work beckons), so after packing up, several of us go for an hour-long hike over to the bigger Twin Sister Lake for some last exploring. It doesn't disappoint, with numerous scenic inlets and some beautiful old growth forest hugging the shoreline. 

Early afternoon I say my goodbyes and head back down, too soon of course. Maybe it's not truly an accident when I do a full-on faceplant on the trail after stepping on a loose rock. (If only I had that on video.)

Mark mentioned heading a few miles farther east toward Naches on Highway 410 for "burgers on the outbound" at Whistlin' Jack, but we opt to head back west and stop for milkshakes at Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater. Again...doesn't disappoint.

There's nothing like a hot shower after a camping trip, but then there's also nothing like leaving behind city sounds for nature sounds, starry skies, all that fresh air, good exercise, and lovely scenery. 'Twas a wonderful weekend indeed.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
We turned off Highway 410 (Chinook Scenic Byway) 19 miles east of Chinook Pass and continued past Bumping Lake to the end of the road at Deep Creek Trailhead/Campground. The road was so bad the last unpaved 7 miles that it took us almost an hour in my Subie Outback. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here. The drive from Seattle to the trailhead took us about 3.5 hours (excluding a 30-minute stop in Enumclaw).

Probably because of the rain, we saw hardly anyone else. Just a couple across the lake from us, and a few other parties passed en route to sites at the bigger Twin. Surprisingly, we saw plenty of horse droppings but no horses.

Bug Status: In what is clearly prime mosquito-breeding habitat, with lots of little ponds as well as the lakes, we were mercifully spared this weekend. Some climbers on the register complained about the brutal bugs, but with the heavy rain and perhaps the beginning of autumn, it was a bug-free trip.

Camping Etiquette: We were chagrined to see so many wads of toilet paper left carelessly on the ground in the open woods around the campsite. I'll spare the details, but it wasn't pretty. Please bring a small trowel to ALWAYS BURY YOUR BUSINESS (better yet, bring a zip-lock bag and carry out the TP) and LEAVE NO TRACE!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Riding the Alaska Marine Highway: A Whale of a Trip

This is the second of two posts about my recent excellent adventure riding the Alaska Marine Highway ferry home from Sitka, Alaska, to Bellingham, Washington. Read the first post here.

On this, my third day on the Alaska ferry heading south to Washington, the rewards of the sea and sky are abundant. 

As I awaken in the dim predawn, I look up and see we're in a narrow passage (Grenville Channel) bracketed by forested mountains. While I'm in that just-awake-but-still-fuzzy state, I wonder why the ferry is stopped because it doesn't seem like we're moving. But we are indeed.

"Would you like some tea?" asks Art, a retired salmon fisherman camped on the recliner beside me here on the upper back deck of the mv Columbia, since he's headed down to get coffee. Sweet. I hand him my tumbler and a tea bag for hot water.

The view at 4:30 a.m. Grenville Channel.
Soon I'm up on the deck, barefoot, camera in hand, snapping shots of this splendid day just beginning to unfold. Then I retreat to the warmth of my sleeping bag on the recliner to drink in the view, sipping tea and trying to be Zen, fully present for these magnificent moments.

Later down at the snack bar for my morning bowl of oatmeal, I ask Paul, the friendly cashier with the goofy laugh, what his favorite part of the ferry trip is:

"Ketchikan to Bellingham, when we're in Canada and out of cell range, and people aren't glued to their smartphones." Amen!

Amiable Paul laughs at my lame jokes.
Yesterday late afternoon we left Ketchikan, and we won't stop again until we arrive in Bellingham tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. So all day today we're cruising through the Canadian portion of the Inside Passage in B.C. I can't stay inside and away from the top back deck long, so I take my oatmeal back up for breakfast.

"Whale!" says fellow solarium camper Blake as he heads quickly toward the port bow, camera ready. We watch a humpback whale chasing a salmon, just barely surfacing and blowing misty little geysers. This is the first of many whale sightings today. (Apologies for the image quality, but this is my best shot, taken hastily.)

By now, our temporary floating community is coalescing, and I'm charmed by the intriguing people along for the ride with me. Among my compadres are Karen, CEO of family-run JimBoy's Tacos chain; Leigh, retired software engineer and meditation teacher; Troy, Hollywood film guy/photographer; Joe, retired school principal traveling on his motorcycle; Hannah and Rodney, fresh-faced outdoor guides who just kayaked from Bellingham to Skagway, AK; and Blake, college math instructor who just rowed solo up the Inside Passage

I could go on, there are so many interesting, friendly fellow travelers. Our common thread seems infused with a particular adventuresome spirit. While it's a beautiful, scenic journey, the human dimension really makes the trip memorable.

Blake Miller, rower extraordinaire, rowed up the Inside Passage solo.
Rodney and Hannah just finished a 3-month journey kayaking the Inside Passage.
By about 9 a.m. we've cleared the marine layer of clouds and for the first time since I left Seattle last week, it's blue skies baby. A lot more people from the cabins down below have joined us, and the atmosphere is increasingly cheerful.

Sunshine, whale sightings, and no smartphones will do that.

For a while it seems like every few minutes someone says "Whale!" as we're nearing a stretch of sea exposed to the open ocean. At the back starboard railing several people shout in excitement, and I dash over to see a juvenile humpback explode straight up out of the water and crash back down with a huge splash. Then again. And again. I counted over 10 breaches by this little guy (or gal).

"There's a whale at two o'clock tail slapping," says the voice over the ship's speaker. Everyone hurries over to the other railing, lots of zoom lenses ready. I don't have a good enough zoom, but Blake shares some of his shots with me. (Thank you Blake!)

Tail slap. Photo courtesy of Blake Miller.
By midday we enter the passage on the inside of Vancouver Island, passing small islands in pockets of mist, until we enter much narrower Johnstone Strait in late afternoon. Memories of the gray, damp first two days are dimming in the brilliant sunshine of today.

Vancouver Island

For years I've read about kayaking trips in Johnstone Strait, which has the largest resident pod of killer whales (orcas) in the world. Sure enough, when Blake points out Robson Bight, an Ecological Reserve famous for drawing orcas to its protected waters, we spot about a half dozen orcas swimming close to the shoreline. We're just a little too far for any decent shots, but it's always a thrill to see orcas.

Tonight I splurge on a sit-down dinner in the dining room (my first and only visit there in three days) with Karen and two lovely women from B.C. My wild Alaskan salmon and baked winter squash dinner is tasty. But as I'm finishing my meal, I realize it's SUNSET time and I'm not on deck with my camera!

So I dash up, a little too late, but still, I think the waning light is lovely on the surrounding sea and mountains.

And for an extra special treat, I've been reminding everbody that tonight the Perseid meteor showers will be peaking.  As the evening twilight fades to dark somewhere just south of Campbell River mid-Vancouver Island, several of us pull our recliners out from under the solarium to lay under the open sky on the deck and wait for the stars to shoot.

And "shoot" they do.  Although I can't stay awake past midnight before falling asleep, I see some spectacular color-infused blazes across the sky.

When I awaken about 5:30 a.m., I know instantly I'm in my home waters of the Salish Sea Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island is coming into view to the south, and Mt. Baker is visible on the eastern horizon.

Mt. Constitution ahead.
Mt. Baker to the left above the clouds.

It's a beautiful early morning, with the promise of another bluebird day. Too soon this journey will be over, in just a couple hours.

So I pack up and collect all my gear spread out in my little patch of the upper back deck, say my goodbyes, exchange cards and emails, and then enjoy the last stretch around the southern tip of Lummi Island and on into Bellingham Bay.

To commemorate the trip, I'm inspired to compose a haiku:

Churning southward home
Through mountains, rain, sun, and stars 
It's all just perfect

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
The Alaska Marine Highway runs year-round, although the schedules vary with the seasons and tides. Although you can pay for a private cabin, I along with many others chose to "camp" on the upper back deck under the covered solarium, with overhead heat lamps. While often people pitch their tent on the back deck, no one did on my trip, which was nice because they didn't obstruct the views for those of us on recliners in the solarium. There are showers, outlets around the ship to charge your electronics, movies shown once a day (I didn't watch), a snack bar with sandwiches and hot food, a pricier restaurant, and of course heated clean bathrooms. ALSO next summer Blake is going to row solo again up the Inside Passage as a fundraiser for a hospital. I'll pass along the specifics about how you can contribute in due time.