Sunday, September 25, 2011

Stalking Seagulls: A Rare Visitor from East Asia

“It’s not always this easy,” laughs Ian Paulsen, nature blogger and avid Bainbridge Island birder. We just pulled off of Marine View Drive to the Dick Gilmur Restoration Shoreline and Kayak Launch along Commencement Bay, and there it is.

Napping on a log boom about 50 yards offshore with the local seagulls is a “mega-rare” bird in Washington state: a black-tailed gull that strayed a tad too far from home, which is Japan or somewhere else in East Asia.

Seattle birder Kevin Aanerud, who graciously let me use the photo above he took of the rare gull, has a spotting scope set up at the park and aimed right at the gull. “Have a look, it’s sleeping right now.”

My sister Vic and I take turns peeking through the big lense on a tripod. I have to admit, for a seagull it’s cute, with a black tail the curls up at the end like an apostrophe. For these hardcore birders, though, it’s not about cute. It’s about spotting rare and unusual birds to add to their life list.

A few other people show up while we’re here. Word has spread fast among the Puget Sound area birding community that the rare gull has been hanging out here in Tacoma for the last week.

Armed with expensive binoculars, fancy spotting scopes, and cameras with lenses the size of an elephant’s trunk, the birders are a friendly, nonchalant bunch.

Suddenly nonchalant morphs, and a frisson of excitement grips the group. “It’s woken up and standing now!” cries someone. Now everyone can get a better view of the gulls’ distinguishing marks, like the red on the tip of its beak.

While it’s cool to see such a rare bird here, the momentousness of the occasion is probably lost on me since I’m not really a birder. I’m just enjoying the beautiful warm morning, the many seals popping their heads up above the blue water surface, the black cormorant shaking a struggling salmon in its long thin beak.

Since we’re on a tight schedule, after observing the black-tailed gull for a while we head north to stop by Dash Point State Park and check out the Bonaparte's gulls. This scenic park on Puget Sound has a broad stretch of beach at the bottom of a forested gulch. I really wish we could just stay here all day, squishing our toes in the sand and finding sand dollars and other shells.

When You Go

We saw the black-tailed gull from the Dick Gilmur Viewpoint and Kayak Launch on Commencement Bay. Dash Point State Park is off SR 509 a couple miles north of Brown’s Point.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Seattle's Phnom Penh Noodle House: Excellent Food, Remarkable Chef Owner

Sam (Seng) Ung cries quietly, dabbing his eyes with a crumpled tissue, as Tom McElroy reads aloud a harrowing passage from Sam’s book I Survived the Killing Fields. If you want the epitome of someone crying with dignity, Sam’s the man.

I’m at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District, just a few blocks from Sam’s restaurant Phnom Penh Noodle House, for the book reading. A few weeks ago I wandered past the restaurant and noticed a big sign in the window about Sam’s book. Intrigued, I went inside and bought a copy from his lovely daughter Dawn, who works in the family business.

Although I had plans to meet friends for lunch elsewhere in the I.D., I decided to come back for a meal soon. Who can resist a wonderful bowl of noodles?

I noted the date of Sam’s next reading and plowed through the book—a quick but sometimes difficult read, with a few flashes of humor. (When he was new to America and cooking in a burger joint, the waitress gave him an order for a burger but told him to “hold the onion.” How, Sam wondered, was he supposed to cook a burger while holding an onion?)

When I was a carefree American youth, Sam was living through the insanity and Hell on Earth that was Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s. He writes of being captured and interrogated by Khmer Rouge soldiers while out trying to find food for his family, seeing people around him murdered on a whim, watching family members die of malnourishment and untreated ailments, and much more. It goes on and on, with scenes of terrible suffering coupled with Sam and his family’s amazing resilience and endurance.

Sam is standing at the entrance to the museum in jeans and a T-shirt when I arrive for the book reading. As I introduce myself and shake his hand, I immediately sense a warm, gentle, and welcoming man.

After Tom, Sam’s collaborater-writer, finishes reading, someone asks Sam, “Does this hit you every day as you work and live?”

Slowly, he nods his head yes. “I’m sad every day about the camps.”

But he says he got through that time by looking on the bright side, looking forward. One valuable distraction for him was writing down recipes he picked up from watching other cooks as well as his own concoctions. Sam had cooked at his family’s restaurant in Battambang, Cambodia, as a teenager, and dreamed of having his own place some day.

Which brings us back to the noodles. In 1987 Sam opened his noodle house, the first Cambodian restaurant in Seattle, 7 years after arriving as a sponsored refugee. He's now a respected local chef. Well-known Seattle chef and restauranteur Tom Douglas brings his interns to visit Sam, who also happens to be a master fruit carver.

My cousin and I dine at Phnom Penh Noodle House a day after the book reading. We both order the Battambang vegetarian noodle bowl, which is a bargain at only $5.99 for a huge bowl of thin rice noodles in a savory-spiced sauce topped with a hard-boiled egg, ground peanuts, cilantro, bean sprouts, and pickles. My cousin adds fried tofu to his order.

One of Sam’s three daughters notices me staring at my big bowl. “Is this your first time here?” she asks. When I say yes, she tells me to mix and stir to blend it all together. Good advice. I uncover more sauce with the noodles at the bottom of the bowl. I can only finish half and have a great noodle breakfast the next day.

Sam’s petite, youthful wife Kim is also working at the restaurant, and it’s hard to believe she is a grandmother with three grown daughters. Strong family ties is a major theme in Sam’s book, and it’s evident at the restaurant, too.

For a man who witnessed the worst of humanity, he’s a man of inspiring humanity. As Sam concludes in his book, “We have to remember we are all human, and everyone on this planet needs each other and we are all connected…We need to learn to forgive each other. Along with forgiving, we have to learn to respect others.”


When You Go

Phonm Penh Noodle House is on King Street, just a block south of Jackson, the main street that bisects the I.D. Click here for a map and directions. Sam is there cooking every day except Wednesdays.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Majestic Mt. Rainier: Hiking to Mt. Fremont Lookout

During our all too brief stints of beautiful weather here in the western Pacific Northwest, we Northwesterners dash outside in a manic frenzy. So of course I had to get out and play in the great outdoors last week with a string of warm sunny days—my destination was Mount Rainier National Park, just a 90-minute drive south of Seattle.

My friend Don and I drive up to Sunrise, a complex of historic old wooden buildings on the northern flank of the mountain and starting point for many great hikes. And at over 6,400 feet in elevation, we’re already high enough for spectacular views without even getting out of the car.

We’re headed to the Mt. Fremont fire lookout that sits on the prow of a ridge above Sunrise, one of four old fire lookouts still remaining in the park. This 5.5-mile roundtrip hike is fairly easy, with only 800 feet of gradual elevation gain along well-maintained dusty and rocky trail.

At first the trail is paved, but not for long. Soon we stroll past meadows strewn with alpine flowers, very late this year. Purple lupine, Indian paintbrush, and lots more cheerful and sweet blossoms line the trail.

The trail along Sourdough Ridge towards the mountain is relatively flat. Although it's a weekday, we still see numerous other hikers out today.

After passing Frozen Lake, which is not frozen but is roped off to keep visitors away, we come to a junction at 1.5 miles. Instead of continuing up the mountain towards Burroughs Mountain (and close-up views of glaciers), the Mt. Fremont trail forks off to the right through a large meadow, away and then parallel to the mountain, before angling up a rocky ridge.

Topping out just above the lookout, I scramble to the highest point before being waved away by some park rangers. “Please get down a ways, we’ve got a helicopter coming in for some pickups,” they shout.

Besides the incoming helicopter, there’s also an unwelcome welcoming committee as we sit down to have lunch—vicious mosquitoes. I foolishly didn’t bring bug juice, thinking it would be too late in the season. Wrong!

And then there’s the very aggressive chipmunk/ground squirrel, which at first seems cute. But after he runs up Don’s back, bites a big hole in my sandwich bag, and crawls into my pack, cute morphs into pesky.

From up here we look right down to Grand Park, a volcanic plateau traversed by the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates Rainier. Beyond we can see the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound, but due to some forest fire haze Seattle is not visible.

In front of us Mount Rainier looms spectacular and awesome in the truest sense of the word. We can clearly see huge crevasses gouging the massive glaciers, thousands of years compressed into these icy tongues snaking down the mountain face. (Factoid: Mount Rainier’s glaciers cover more area than all other Cascade volcanoes combined.)

Ambling back down brings a whole new vista of gorgeous views of the eastern flank of Rainier and its meadows. Right now there’s an odd juxtaposition of summer’s peak wildflowers along with shrubs turning autumn crimson.

Our hike took just about three hours, just like the park guide says. And if you’ve read my blog, you know I usually describe where to grab a treat on the way home. This trip we stop at Wapiti Woolies in Greenwater for ice cream cones out back on the deck. Don was bummed he didn’t notice the (famous) huckbleberry milkshakes until after he already ordered his cone. Next trip!

When You Go
The road to Sunrise is easily accessed from the White River entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, east up Highway 410 enroute to Chinook Pass. The road usually closes by the end of October, some years earlier, depending on the snowfall. Here’s a link to a map of the Mt. Fremont Lookout trail.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Northwest Flavors: Late Summer Fruit Tart

As a girl I never understood what all the fuss was about birthday cakes—or any cake for that matter. Sticking candles into a delicious fruit tart or pie would have made much more sense to me.

My love of fruit baked in pastry or a good crust probably started with my Swedish grandmother’s wonderful loganberry, Marionberry, and boysenberry pies, made with fruit from her garden. We grandkids would pick fat, sun-kissed berries growing just a stone’s throw above the beach on Puget Sound, and in return we’d get to savor warm pies with her perfect flaky crusts. She managed to capture the peak of summer in her sweet-tart treasures baked with love.

Sad to say, but I’ve never had the patience to master the art of achieving excellent pie crusts. I have, however, made some good fruit tarts and galettes over the years. This summer a friend introduced me to a new twist on a fruit tart, which I’m happy to share with you here with her blessing. [Note: a commenter reminded me that this recipe is technically more a clafoutis than a tart. I stand corrected!]

On a warm summer night over in Wenatchee, tree fruit central of the Pacific Northwest (a.k.a., the Apple Capital), Lesley whipped up a beautiful cherry tart topped with a sugary-crispy crust. As her sister jokes, Lesley is like a fine restaurant with a very limited menu. “I have a few things that I make very well,” she modestly says. Don’t be fooled. She does pretty much everything very well.

What’s especially tasty about this confection is the wonderful crust that develops during the baking process. After baking a hand-formed buttery crust in a tart pan or springform pan, pile the fruit of your choice in the center, and then simply pour a blended mixture of eggs, sugar, flour, and a touch of salt over the fruit.

We had this with dark cherries, but I’ve since made it with a plum-cherry mixture. With a late growing season this year, blackberries, nectarines, and peaches would be wonderful as well right now. Or any frozen fruit any time of year.

Lesley’s Fruit Tart (8” round)

Crust: 1 C flour, 1/3 C powdered sugar, and 1/2 C butter

Pulse together in food processor (or mix with pastry cutter) until mixed and forming a pea-sized crumb. Pat with hands into round tart pan or 8” springform pan (removable bottom). Bake in 350-degree oven for 12 minutes.

Innards: 2 C chopped fruit, 1/4 C flour, 1/4 tsp salt, 2 eggs, 1 C sugar

When the crust has finished prebaking, evenly spread chopped fruit over tart crust. (Do not pile fruit close to outside edge.) Put flour, salt, eggs, and sugar into food processor and pulse until pale yellow and creamy. Pour this mixture evenly over the fruit, being careful not to pour on the edge of the crust or overfill. Bake for another 40-45 minutes. Let cool a bit (5-10 minutes) and loosen tart from edge of pan with a knife. Remove pan sides. Serve plain, with ice cream, or whipped cream, and then enjoy with friends or family.

For 10” pan, multiply recipe by 1.5. For gluten-free recipe, substitute rice flour for wheat flour.

My Baking Notes

So when I baked this, it didn't turn out as beautifully as Lesley's, which is pictured here. My oven runs hot, and I took it out after only about 30 - 35 minutes because it was getting dark. To cover it up and to make it look prettier, I generously sprinkled powdered sugar on top through a sieve. I also used a tart pan instead of a springform pan and whole wheat pastry flour, which gave it a slightly more rustic crust.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Bottle Beach State Park: Miles of Mudflats and Prime Birdwatching

Hollywood is going birdwatching this fall, so how about you? Although the Steve Martin/Owen Wilson/Jack Black movie The Big Year was partly filmed east of the Cascade Mountains here in Washington, Grays Harbor on the Washington coast is our major birdwatching destination. Did you know that every year over a million migrating birds stop by Grays Harbor to chow down, party, and rest up on their way north and south?

The fertile estuaries around Grays Harbor make this area an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for thousands of birds migrating from the Arctic down to Central/South America and back. While more birds stop by Bowerman Basin/Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge on the north harbor, many also swing by the Ocosta area in the south harbor.

Bottle Beach State Park, which lies on the site of former 1890s boom-bust town Ocosta by the Sea, has recently been reclaimed for birds and other creatures that live or stop by the immense tideflats. According to Grays Harbor Audubon, Bottle Beach is best for viewing mudflat shorebirds like plovers, dowitchers, dunlins, and sandpipers, along with bald eagles and peregrine falcons.

I stop by Bottle Beach on a brilliant sunny day for a work-related reconaissance outing (tough gig, huh?) and am lucky to be with a wetlands biologist. We walk the half mile or so down a nice trail and boardwalk through wetlands down to a bird-viewing blind perched on the beach edge. During nesting seasons, it’s best to view the avian action from here to not disturb the birds.

Because work duty calls, we venture out onto the mudflats to explore. At low tide, remnant foundations of an old railroad turntable and dock pilings are visible (see the top photo above). It’s hard to tell where the mudflat ends and the waterline starts.

“Hey,it’s a ghost shrimp,” says biologist Jennifer, pointing out the anemic-looking white critter on the sand. I don’t know whether to watch the sand at my feet or scan the sky for birds. So I try my best to do both.

On the northern horizon and a tad to the east, the snow-laced Olympic Mountains are visible. Being a Seattleite, I’ve never seen these mountains from this direction. Very cool!

Afterwards, we have to make a stop in Westport, a fishing/tourist town on the south entrance to Grays Harbor just a few miles past Bottle Beach. (Some of the best local salmon comes from boats fishing off Westport.) The main street along the marina is full of kitschy shops and restaurants. Of course after all that intense work, we have to indulge ourselves with ice cream cones at a Whale of a Cone, every bite worth the wait in line.

When You Go
Click here for a map showing Bottle Beach State Park and directions. Springtime gets a larger batch of migrating birds, but there’s a great show in the autumn as well through October. Check the tides because the best birdwatching is just before high tide. And since I'm not really a good bird photographer, you'll have to check out Northwest nature blogs like Slugyard, Wild Pacific Northwest, and Wild Fidalgo for those.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Yes, You Can Prevent Forest Fires

Early last Monday morning while exploring the Thomas Lake cluster on the western edge of Indian Heaven Wilderness, we came across an empty campsite with the fire still smoldering (pictured). Can you see what’s wrong with this picture?

Fortunately, it was just plain luck that we noticed a forest fire in the making and put it out. We walked past it a couple times before what was happening really sunk in.

Although there were no flames and no visible smoke, the fire was burning slowly in the ground, extending beyond the fire pit and making its way toward the dry log to the right poised like a giant matchstick ready to ignite.

Immediately Matt sprang into action, pulling out his collapsible metal trowel to start stirring up the hot ashes. “Take my water bottle and yours and fill them up with water,” he instructed me. I scampered the 10 yards or so down a short steep bank to Thomas Lake, filled up both bottles, and dashed back.

As I poured water around the pit, smoke erupted from the ash, revealing hot spots. Matt stirred and dug, and I filled bottles and dashed down and back from the lake, pouring water in the overturned embers. After 20 minutes of this routine the fire safely succumbed.

“I think I lowered the lake level with all the water I carried out,” I joked.

While controlled burns are now understood to be valuable to forest health, careless and unintentional human-caused fires are always bad news—especially in designated and protected wilderness areas. Late summer is peak forest fire season, so it’s really not a good idea to have a campfire at all. Yes, campfires are mesmerizing and lovely, but they aren’t worth the risk. If you’re camping, bring a stove for cooking and flashlights for the dark.

Click here for more information on campfires and how to safely and thoroughly put out a campfire. Remember what Smokey Bear says and be a good camper!