Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reflections on Water: Waiting to Inhale

Occasionally when I’ve been working too hard and haven’t gotten out for any Northwest adventures, I post personal essays.

I recall no panic or fear as I looked up at the cloud-covered sky through the layer of water above. Instead of gazing down into the pond at rainbow trout darting through wispy clumps of green algae, suddenly my gaze was reversed skyward.

 It was peaceful beneath the water’s surface, surprisingly so. Then arms reached down and pulled me out. My 8-year-old brother David had the presence of mind to act quickly when he saw his 3-year-old little sister underwater.

My parents must have been horrified—I remember their strong reaction contrasted dramatically with the soothing underwater world. Soon thereafter, the whole lovely landscaped pond area of our front yard—the upper pond, the waterfall crossed by a wooden bridge, and the larger lower pond—was enclosed in an ugly cyclone fence to prevent me from falling in again.

 Maybe because I had no fear during my tumble into the pond or because I was born under the sign of Pisces and raised in Troutdale, I was never afraid of water. Loved to pull on my galoshes and run outside whenever there was a driving rain. Spent hours in the swimming pool with my brother trying to outlast each other treading water. Thrilled in jumping into lakes and ponds and pools and rivers. My father called me the little waterdog.

 It makes sense that I call swimming laps my mental and physical therapy.  During an evening lap swim in college, a lifeguard at the pool had to yell at me to stop swimming because it was time to go home and go to bed. I’d lost count after 100 lengths.  The water enveloping me felt like freedom.

The first time I was in a sea kayak I felt a whole new level of freedom and wonder. Sleek and trim, close to the water’s surface, the kayak revealed new watery dimensions. As I glided over the glassy calm saltwater of Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, neon orange and violet sea stars clung to the rocks just below the hull of the boat, within arm’s reach. 

But just like the other elements, water can lull, and then turn if you’re not respectfully cautious. It happens all the time—people don’t pay attention, don’t take appropriate precautions, think they are immortal, and suffer the consequences.

So I, too, had a lesson to learn about water.

It was at a swimming pool in a basic kayaking skills class. We were shown how to “wet exit” in case of a capsize.  I wasn’t afraid the first time I went over. I just tipped sideways until the kayak rolled upside down, then rolled forward, pulled the sprayskirt around my waist loose from the combing around the cockpit, and did a somersault out of the boat. I popped up to the water’s surface, flipped the boat upright, and hauled myself back in. 

Then it was time to try again. Hanging upside down in the kayak, I yanked on the front loop to loosen the sprayskirt, expecting to again tumble easily out of the kayak.

Nothing happened.

I was still hanging upside down underwater, sprayskirt enclosing me within the kayak cockpit. I yanked the loop again and again. Then I panicked. For the first time, my lovely watery cloak felt all wrong. I needed air. NOW.

I tried to get upright for air, frantically clawing the water with my arms. Shot through with adrenaline, I managed to jerk and stroke to get the kayak sideways and my face above the surface for a brief gulp of air before the boat dropped upside down again. A trainer finally noticed my panicked splashing and swam over to flip the kayak upright.

I got the attention of the whole class as the woman who was the example of what not to do, how not to react. I should have pulled the loop forward to loosen the sprayskirt from the cockpit combing rather than straight upward.

Although rattled, I did force myself to get back in the kayak and do it again—correctly.

When I was a small child, I probably hadn’t been underwater more than a few seconds before my brother hauled me out.  I've read that babies (and therefore small children?) instinctively know to hold their breath for a few seconds underwater.

So over 30 years passed before I finally learned I’m not amphibious.

Water still beckons me—I swim laps and kayak as often as possible. But now when I first get in the kayak cockpit and pull the sprayskirt securely in place, or if the wind and waves pick up, I remember that fear. I have to stifle the brief flashes of panic and calm myself, knowing I can call on my training to read the situation and react appropriately.

The view is lovely from both sides of the watery looking glass, but I prefer being on the side of the sky.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blake Island Overnight: Puget Sound Boaters' Paradise

With the highest pleasure boat ownership per capita of any metropolitan city, where do Seattleites cruise to on summer weekends? 

All over Puget Sound, of course! But Blake Island State Park is a favorite destination and unique local treasure. This forest-covered, 475-acre island marine park, which is just 8 nautical miles from downtown Seattle, is now undeveloped except for Tillicum Village on the northeastern side.  Blake is also thought to be the birthplace of Seattle's namesake, Chief Seattle (Sealth).

Recently I was fortunate to join my friends and gracious hosts Mark and Andy and their daughter Lena for an overnight sailing trip to Blake. With clear skies, temps in the low 80s (F), and a light breeze from the north, the weather was perfect for a leisurely sail across the Sound.

Heading west across Puget Sound, with downtown Seattle and Alki in the distance
 "Hey, look over there!" I exclaim, pointing just to the south off our port side a mile or so from Blake. Sleek black dorsal fins round up and back into the water in a circular motion, signaling a pair of Dall's porpoises. We take that as a good sign.

By the time we arrive on the western side of Blake early afternoon, all the mooring buoys are taken and tents line the campsites above the beach at the forest's edge. No matter, we drop anchor and get settled.

After a very tasty shipboard lunch, it's time for a trip to the island. Lena wants to play on the beach, us ladies want to use a flush toilet, and we all want to stroll through the forest trail to Tillicum Village across the island.  (Some Seattleites need their fresh coffee.)

While we don't indulge in the Tillicum Village salmon feed and Northwest Indian show in the neo-traditional longhouse, it's fun to wander a bit around the grounds where lots of folks are camped over here.

West side of Blake Island looking south, near Tillicum Village

Totem pole at Tillicum Village, looking north toward Bainbridge Island
Longhouse entrance detail

Evening and early morning on the boat are my favorite times. Industrious little Lena catches a couple sole for breakfast in the waning light. Kayakers camped on the island practice rescues, and everyone out here is enjoying a beautiful summer evening.

As the sun sets and skipper Mark battens things down for the night, we're treated to a beautiful sunset behind the Olympic Mountains (originally called the Sun-a-do by the local Duwamish people).

Tonight I achieve one of my summer bucket list items: sleeping under the stars. Before falling asleep on the deck, I count about 14 shooting stars dropping in the sky like scattered fireflies. 

And then there's the beautiful dawn. How's that for a view when you roll over and wake up in the morning?

We enjoy a generally relaxing morning, with another trip in the dinghy to the beach, crabbing, and then packing up and sailing back to the mainland. Too soon.

Can you name that landmark structure? :) Which, BTW, is back to its original color.

Summer weekends are never long enough, don't you agree?

How about you? What are you favorite boating destinations?

When You Go
Campsites are first-come, first-served on Blake Island. There is no fee for mooring at the buoys, but the campsites do require fees. There are a variety of sites, some reserved for kayakers and canoeists as part of the Cascadia Marine Trail. Here is a map of the island.

Most boaters stay on the west side of the island, but some people also ride the Argosy tours boats from Seattle to Tillicum Village and camp overnight on the grounds and beach at the "village," where's there is a small marina. You can explore over 5 miles of beaches on the island and wander several miles of trails through the forest. And hundreds of years before Blake became a state park, it was a traditional camping site for the local Duwamish and Suquamish people.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hiking Mount Rainier: Spray Park's Wildflower Palooza

While this was going to be a post about sea kayaking the Skagit River Delta (so much to get out and do here!), with my waterproof camera and photos gone overboard, I'll share with you about hiking to Spray Park on Mount Rainier instead. And with the alpine wildflowers coming to their peak in August, I can't think of many better destinations in the Pacific Northwest.

While Spray Park is a very popular hike within a few hours of Seattle, we manage to miss the crowds on a Saturday.  True, it started out as cloudy, cool morning, but the sun showed up to reveal Rainier in all its splendor.

After parking at Mowich Lake on the west side of Rainier, we hit the trail and meander a couple miles through forest. At the junction/spur to the Spray Falls viewpoint, we take the short detour for a look-see.

Spray Falls

And then scoot quickly up the steepish switchbacks for the next half mile because emerging into the alpine meadows is worth every drop of sweat. 

 My cousin and I go gaga taking pictures of the mountain, the meadows, and the wildflowers.  Because heavenly hardly describes how spectacular it is to walk amidst all this alpine glory.  

Avalanche lilies

With avalanche lilies crowding each other in their short, sweet burst of alpine summer, a breeze catching one catches them all.  As I stand in a riot of lilies that quiver en masse in the light wind, I sense their life force straining to capture every second. Maybe it's the altitude and I'm drunk with awe from the beautiful setting, but I swear they are alive, just like me.

Once we get up into the meadow area, we just can't stop going higher and higher, scrambling another mile or so up the trail and over patches of snow to get even closer to the mountain. Some clouds have rolled in again, but it's still marvelous up here. 

Looking down mountain

Hardier plants persist up here above timberline, but Indian paintbrush provide splashes of color in the more barren landscape.

Ultimately it's time to head down because we can't stay up here forever. Even though, at this moment,  I wish I could.

Have you been up to Spray Park recently? We'd love to hear about your trip there (or another favorite wildflower hike) in the comments below.

Happy Trails!

When You Go
The hike to Spray Park is about 6 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of 1,300 feet. However, I'm pretty sure we went another mile at least and another several hundred feet higher.  Take plenty of sunscreen and insect repellent; those pesky mosquitoes are also in a frenzy to soak up as much blood as possible in their short little life. The season is relatively short to hike up here, from mid-July into September and, possibly, October. Thanks to my cousin Andy for some of the shots in this post!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

North Cascades Overnight: Newhalem Creek Camground

As I recently told a friend, camping is a summer necessity.  Even if all you can manage is an overnight car camping instead of a backcountry trek, at least the air is fresh and often wifi-free.

I recently joined a lively group of musicians and outdoorsy folks at the woodsy Newhalem Creek Campground on the edge of North Cascades National Park. With no cell signal from my provider, I was truly unplugged for the weekend.

Which, I think, is a very good thing every now and then.

Sites are mostly first come, first served, but we had no trouble finding three adjacent sites on a sunny Friday early afternoon. At just $12 a night, it's hard to beat such frugal but scenic digs.

River loop walk at Newhalem Creek Campground
Set in a lowland forest on the banks of the Skagit River and within a short walk through the woods to the national park visitor center, this campground is a perfect base for day hikes in the North Cascades off State Route 20 or one of the Skagit tours nearby.

There was plenty to keep us busy for the afternoon--a walk through the woods to the visitor center, then along the river loop.  This lovely little stroll through the forest passes mossy woodlands and a stand of old-growth forest as it skirts close to the Skagit River, a green-blue torrent swollen with snowmelt.

Skagit Wild and Scenic River

Abundant and tart-sweet red huckleberries
After a tasty dinner cooked on a camp grill, the evening was for relaxing, music, laughing, going to a ranger talk, and sleeping in all that fresh mountain forest air.

In the Northwest, of course it's salmon on the grill

Ruthie is a mellow, happy camper

Despite the ranger's warnings, the pesky black bear sighted around the campground didn't make an evening appearance.  Whew!

There are many great campgrounds in the Northwest. What are some of your favorites?

When You Go
The Newhalem Creek Campground is in the Ross Lake National Recreational Area portion of the North Cascades National Park complex just a mile outside the City of Seattle's outpost community of Newhalem on State Route 20 (the North Cascades Highway),  at the base of the Skagit hydroelectric dams project.  It's about a 2-hour drive from the Seattle area.