Thursday, May 24, 2012

Kayaking San Juan Island's West Side: Seals, Eagles, and Maybe Orcas

Before the sun rises I'm awake, fidgety and excited to paddle once again in the San Juan Islands. With a banana and Clif bars stashed in the car for breakfast, I'm on the road early from Friday Harbor. My goal is to get on the water before the winds pick up.

When I arrive at Smallpox Bay in San Juan County Park a bit after 7 o'clock this cool May morning, a southwesterly breeze is already causing the big American flag at the park office to dance and flap. But no one else is here yet.

(Actually, the park doesn't open until 8 a.m.)

Thankfully, no whitecaps are forming on the small bay and in Haro Strait beyond, so I park and start hauling my Mariner Coaster kayak and gear down to the beach.

Here on the western side of San Juan Island, separated from Vancouver Island by the long sweep of Haro Strait, resident orca whales can sometimes be seen passing through or even feeding close to shore. I'm hoping I'll be lucky enough to spot orcas today from my kayak.
After launching from the beach, I paddle out to open water and then steer southward toward Lime Kiln Point State Park a few miles away. So far the sun hasn't risen high enough to clear the rocky shoreline of shadows, so I stray far enough off shore to catch the morning sun.

When I pass the historic lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point, I swing out even farther offshore to avoid getting tangled in the lines of several guys fishing in this bottomfish preserve.

Just before I reach the point, a big bald eagle glides straight overhead. A kayak guide I met the day before said there are a couple active eagle nests along this stretch of shoreline.

After paddling hard for 90 minutes while scanning the sea for signs of orca, I decide to slow down and start exploring the shoreline instead. While the orcas continue to elude me, I never tire of spotting seals, sea stars, and waterfowl.

First, though, I just let myself hang in the water and drift for a few minutes in the protected water behind the rocky outcrops of Pile Point.  When I round the point close to the rocks, a smallish gray seal less than 10 feet away slips into the water with a splash.

Group hug!

With strong tidal exchanges and huge volumes of Salish Sea water flooding and ebbing through Haro Strait, the San Juan Islands shorelines are rich with sea life. I skirt around kelp forests and eelgrass beds, some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. 

Kelp are also a great way to gauge the tidal currents. As I turn around to kayak back north, the long bull kelp strands are all pointed due south, indicating a strong ebbing current. (A reminder to myself and all you kayakers out there - remember to check the tide tables before heading out on any kayak outing in the Salish Sea.) With the wind now at my back, the currents are flowing in the opposite direction, which makes for some choppy, squirrely water around the points I pass heading back north.

Historic Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse. Note the big spotted seal on the rock outcrop to the left.

As I round a point while hugging the shoreline below a rocky bluff north of Lime Kiln, the oncoming current is so strong that I can't make any headway despite paddling as hard as I can.  Time to retreat.  I paddle back to a protected cove and wait 30 minutes. When I see another kayaker coming from the north, I try again, farther away from shore this time.

Next time I make it by surfing some big waves from the wind at my back. 'Twas a little scary exciting.

Four hours after I started, I glide back into the calm water of Smallpox Bay. Numerous kayak tour groups are now heading out for half-day paddles. This is the most popular put-in spot on the island for kayakers because of the nice public beach launch in the protected, scenic little bay.

So I didn't see any orcas, but a big seal did roll over on its back and scratch its belly as I glided past (just for me, of course :).  And whales or not, by my reckoning, not much beats four hours of breathing fresh sea-kissed air while kayaking in the San Juan Islands.

So have you had the thrill of seeing orcas while you were out kayaking? Or something else equally exciting?  Let us know with a comment below. Thanks!

When You Go
Numerous outfitters offer kayak tours out of Smallpox Bay, with some tours heading north and others heading south.  Discovery Sea Kayaks, San Juan Outfitters, and Outdoor Odysseys are few that offer guided tours for beginners as well as seasoned kayakers. If you're on your own, be sure and check the tides/currents for the day.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Seattle Parks: Join a Naturalist-Led Bird or Beach Walk

Early on a sunny Saturday morning—way earlier than I'd get to the office during the work week—a group of us  gather at Seattle's Discovery Park Environmental Learning Center. It's International Migratory Bird Day, and I'm here to go birdwatching with some ace birders.

With the early morning sun filtering through the verdant canopy of spring green trees, several people with binoculars hanging around their necks are scattered nearby. 

Volunteer naturalists Arne and Kate are here to lead this outing sponsored by Seattle Parks and Recreation.  For a paltry $3 each, six of us get 2 hours with seasoned birders.

And things get started before we even leave the parking lot. 

"Look for movement up in the trees," says Kate  "like right there!" Rustling high up the big-leaf maple on the edge of the lot is a western tanager, newly arrived from the tropics of Central America. It's a beautiful yellow bird with bright red on its head.

We continue for the next couple hours, wandering the forested trails and then up to the bluff past remnant buildings of historic Fort Lawson.  Along the way Kate and Arne point out to us lots of birds: a northern grosbeak, lots of sparrows, goldfinches (the Washington state bird), hummingbirds, red-winged blackbirds, juncos, a big osprey, and more.


Of course I don't get photos of the birds, which move too fast (like the Anna's hummingbirds we see). And I can't capture them adequately without a bigger lens. But trust me, it's a thrill to see them.

If you're on a tight schedule, bear in mind that when birders spot birds, they tend to lose track of time. I had to cut out ahead of the group to get back to my car a little after 9 to be somewhere else.

Are you a birder or wannabe? What are some of the most memorable birds you've seen in Seattle or in the region? Would love to hear your comments below.

When You Go
Besides these Saturday morning bird walks, Seattle Parks and Recreation is also sponsoring low-tide beach walks this spring and summer. For the bird walks, bring binoculars and dress for the weather. You need to preregister. Call the number at this link for a schedule and directions. And be prepared for an early morning, because, as most of us learned, the early birds get the worms.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Northwest Flavors: Raspberry Love, Mother Love

My oldest sister pestered me for years to start an edible garden, dropping not-so-subtle hints with gifts of gardening books, gardening gloves and tools, and seed packets.  While I never found much time to stay home and tend my neglected yard (think hiking, kayaking, skiing, bicycling, traveling....), this year I finally installed a raised bed garden. Why now?

Because of a very special raspberry plant.

About 6 years ago, my stepmother (and only surviving parent) Bonnie gave me a start from the row of raspberry bushes growing happily in her front yard in east Multnomah County, Oregon. Her raspberry patch came from a start that she had transplanted from the house where I grew up a few miles away.

So I toted that slender young start in a plastic bag on the train back home to Seattle and dumped it in a big pot, for lack of a decent spot in my little yard.  I thought it wasn't going to survive since it was so droopy, but Bonnie told me to keep watering, and within a couple days it perked up.

Raspberries, after all, flourish in our temperate climate west of the Cascade Mountains here in the Pacific Northwest.  I grew up picking raspberries for local farmers to earn money for summer camp. Fresh-picked berries were a summer highlight  in our home, a special treat served over homemade ice cream, heaped atop bowls of cold cereal with milk, or eaten naked and unadorned in their sweet sun-kissed splendor.

Bonnie loved her berries as much as any of us, and from her years growing up on a farm in Troutdale, she was blessed with a green thumb and instinctive wisdom about how to keep plants happy and thriving. And, as it turned out, she knew how to keep me happy and thriving, bringing stability and a mother's touch to our family sorely in need of such. 

You see, I unexpectedly lost my mother just a month after I turned five. My father was left a widower with five children between 5 and 16 and an all-consuming newspaper business to run.  While he loved us kids to bits, he was overextended, and for the next 6 years I was tended to by my older siblings, kindly teachers, other neighborhood moms, a few of my father's employees, hired housekeepers, camp counselors, and I'm sure others I don't recall. It was not ideal, but it was my childhood.

After a few years of mourning and then dating several women, my father hit the jackpot when he married Bonnie when I was 11.  Life became much nicer in ways I hadn't known I was missing, and I was blessed through the rest of my youth with a father and a mother in a loving home. And lots of fresh berries each summer.

With Bonnie's mind slipping away more rapidly in the last year after a long life well-lived, I suddenly felt a sense of urgency to do right by that raspberry plant. I recently looked at it, struggling to spread beyond the confines of that old pot, and knew I had to give it a better home where it could thrive.  

Just like Bonnie would. 

Despite my carelessness, that plant has grown and given me sweet fruit for several years now. (All the photos in this post are of and from that plant.) So about a month ago I hired a friend to help me install a raised bed in my front yard. I called a garden expert for advice about how to carefully transplant raspberries. 

I'm pleased to tell you that the raspberry plant is very happy in its new, bigger digs. Just look at that sweet little shoot coming up (pictured below).  Since I took that shot a couple weeks ago, more shoots are coming up and spreading their feet.

I'll tell Bonnie about it, and she'll be thrilled, although she won't remember after a few minutes. But she'll be equally thrilled when I tell her again. 

My hope is to share starts from this plant with the next generation of my family so its fruit continues to provide a sweet burst of summer for years to come. And, hopefully, an enduring connection to their grandma and auntie.

Happy Mother's Day to all you mothers, future mothers, mothers come and gone, and anyone who loves their mother, living or alive in your hearts.

And as always, I'd love to hear what you have to say on the topic of moms, gardens, raspberries, love, and life or anything else that this blog prompts you to think about. Just leave a comment below, and you'll make my week. :) Thanks!