Monday, October 29, 2012

Kayaking Seattle: Golden Gardens to West Point

Just north of West Point Lighthouse in Seattle's Discovery Park
Between storms and rain squalls, Puget Sound kayakers know any time of year is a great time to kayak the Salish Sea.  Like right now.

If you're lucky and check Orca Network updates, you might even be kayaking with orcas (also known as killer whales) this time of year.  While we missed seeing the Southern Resident J and K pods of orcas yesterday by about 30 minutes (darn!), we still had an invigorating and fun few hours paddling from Golden Gardens Park in Ballard south to the historic West Point Lighthouse and back. 

We put in around 11:30 a.m. at the smooth sandy Golden Gardens beach and headed south along the outside of the Shilshole Bay Marina jetty.  A perk of going on a Sunday morning is the abundance of parking spots right next to the beach, something you won't find easily on a nice summer day.

This jetty, or breakwater, that protects the busy Shilshole marina is a great place for diving and birdwatching. Watch for the tiny beach on the outer jetty at lower tides, where  you can stop for a quick break if needed.  As we glided close to the jetty, we spotted tons of cool birds:  great blue herons, Heerman's seagulls, cormorrants, hooded mergansers, western grebes, and more I couldn't identify.   

A ruffled old crow roosting on the sea monster's snout atop the jetty.
Great blue heron
Great blue herons and a gull atop the Shilshole jetty
Even though there was a good breeze, here north of West Point and Magnolia is somewhat protected from the brunt of the southerly winds.  Just west in the Sound, a sailboat race was going on.

With very little motor boat traffic, we easily dashed across the entrance to the Ballard Locks over to Magnolia.  While most of the upscale Magnolia neghborhood is packed tightly with homes, Seattle is fortunate that a large chunk along the bluffs above the Sound was protected from development as military outpost Fort Lawton, now encompassed by Discovery Park.

Just north of West Point, a narrow strip of land that juts dramatically westward into the Sound, the calm sea is always a contrast to the water south of the point.  We also caught an unpleasant whiff of the happenings at West Point wastewater treatment plant, although trees and shrubs obscure views of the plant.

"Check out the seal right behind me!" says Matt.  Up pops a shiny dark head with huge eyes, which checks us out and submerges again quickly. Too fast for a photo.

Ramped up for a water break in the protected cove north of West Point, looking west

West Point Lighthouse, which dates to 1881, is the same design as the Point No Point Lighthouse and other historic lighthouses in the Sound.

We carefully rounded the point and beached on the south side to stretch our legs for a short break. With much rougher sea on this side of the point, landing and taking off is usually more exciting than on the calm, northern side. 

South beach at West Point

Walking to the lighthouse on one of the many trails in "Disco" Park is a popular Seattle outing. But we stopped just long enough to eat a snack and pet a few dogs on the beach.

Looking southeast toward Magnolia Bluff

Tobias was more interested in my muffin than posing for a shot.
With the wind at our backs, the return paddle was a bit easier.  We meandered north along the Discovery Park/Magnolia shoreline, enjoying the nice afternoon.  Families and couples were out walking near the shoreline in the park.

Heading back north, with Magnolia on the right and Shilshole Marina straight ahead of me in the distance.

Although I wish we'd dawdled a bit longer and seen the passing orcas, I love the view of the hillside above Shilshole and Golden Gardens this time of year. Who cares if it's cloudy when the golden glow of bigleaf maples brightens up a gray day?  

Golden Gardens ahead.

When You Go
Before kayaking this time of year (well, any time, but particularly fall and winter), be sure and check the local tide tables and marine weather forecasts.  Some kayakers actually seek rough seas to practice their rescue skills--not me, but a little wind and chop keep us from getting too complacent, which is a risk for many who don't take the risks seriously.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pacific Northwest Autumn: Here Comes the Rain Again

And so the season turns. Our record-breaking dry spell here in the Pacific Northwest, which blessed us with unusually warm sunny days and cursed us with devastating forest fires, ended last week. 

The rainy season has arrived.

For the next 6 months+, our weather forecasts will be filled with clouds, rain, drizzle, maybe a little snow, a few sunbreaks, and likely even fewer sunny days. 

But we wouldn't live here if we didn't welcome the rain, right?  Many of us cheered its return, although I don't cheer the damp chill that comes with our rain.  But it keeps this land west of the Cascades a perfect environment for temperate rainforests draped in moss and abundant fungi.

While digging through some boxes in my basement recently, I found a short piece I'd written years ago for my high school newspaper after a similarly dry fall. So here's my voice from the distant past, as printed in the Reynolds High School Royal Lancer:

Let there be rain...

Well, our weather is finally back to normal.  After two fall months of unusually prolonged sunshine, our Oregon rain has begun its seasonal appearance.

Rain and Oregon have become synonymous in the past few years to the rest of the nation, thanks to the Oregon ungreeting cards. But we natives know that this is no new commodity to thwart tourism.  Our liquid sunshine is as common to us as dirt to other states.

Even though everyone occasionally complains about the discomfort of soaking wet feet, one has to admit that it wouldn't be like home without our skies being frequented by drops of liquid moisture. [Ack! Did I really write that?]

A common but often overlooked sign is the simple beauty of droplets of rain clinging to a branch.  Autumn leaves felled by the rain make for a more colorfully hued campus.

Raindrops on golden larch, Wallowa Mountains, Oregon

Rain-downed leaves accumulating over a storm drain, Joseph, Oregon

Let's face it...what would Oregon be without rain?

Ha, as I  wrote those words, how could I have imagined that they would be available for anyone to read on something called the World Wide Web in the future?

But the point is this:  We tolerate our rain, we complain about our rain, we hike in the rain, we endure our rain, we celebrate our rain, and we love our rain. Who doesn't feel extra cozy laying in a warm bed with the sound of rain pelting the roof and ground outside?

How do you feel about the rain? Love it? Hate it? Something in between?

Me, well, like I said, I love it. But that doesn't mean I won't feel compelled to slip away to the tropics or a southern desert for a winter break. :)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Northwest Fall Road Trip: Maryhill and east Columbia River Gorge

View from top of Horsethief Butte
October is a wonderful time for roadtripping in the Pacific Northwest. I asked my friend Mary to do a guest post after I saw her beautiful photos from  a recent overnight trip from the Seattle area to The Dalles, Oregon.

Our getaway down to the eastern Columbia River gorge was so much more than I expected. This trip made me very happy!

The Drive:  We started by driving east from the Seattle area on Interstate 90 across Snoqualmie Pass past Ellensburg, south on Interstate 82 to Yakima, then south on Highway 97 to the Columbia River through Goldendale, and west on I-84 to The Dalles

Where We Slept:  We stayed at the Celilo Inn, which sits on a bluff with spectacular views of Mt. Hood, the Columbia River, and The Dalles. This inn is newly transformed from budget motel into a boutique hotel catering to the wine-touring crowd. I've never seen such a cool motel. [On October 16, Groupon offered a two-night package at the Celilo Inn! It might still be available today if it didn't sell out already.]

The view from our room was lovely, the bed was heavenly, and we enjoyed a swim on a warm fall day in their outdoor pool. In the evening, we were treated to wine and cheese on the patio as we relaxed by the fire and listened to a local musician while watching the sunset on the river.

The recently renovated Celilo Inn in The Dalles, Oregon

Dinner in The Dalles:  We had dinner at the historic Baldwin Saloon, which originally opened in 1876.  We enjoyed fresh, local halibut along with a Pheasant Valley organic Pinot Gris. Only Northwest wines are served at the Baldwin, with house pours from local wineries. For dessert we shared a generous piece of carrot cake. Just perfect.

Our Favorite Stretch of Road: After a light breakfast at Celilo Inn, we were ready to hit the road again. We crossed the Columbia River via The Dalles Bridge and then headed east on State Route 14, a wonderful road with so much to do and see along the way. 

Our first stop was Columbia Hills State Park to view the petroglyphs on the  Columbia River basalt along the river. This particular collection of over 40 petroglyphs and pictographs is bordered by a paved trail. While the carvings and paintings are sacred to the local Native Americans, they are open to the public.

Petroglyph near Horsethief Butte

And For Some Good Exercise:  Horsethief Butte in the Columbia Hills State Park is just awesome.  We noticed a hiking trail on the map  near the butte, so decided to check it out. We started not really knowing what to expect. The trail is very short, so basically the hike is a climb or scramble over the rocks to the top of the butte. 

Horsethief Butte
I wasn’t sure I could handle the climb because it looked steep, but my husband Michael convinced me to give it a shot. I'm so glad I went for it! The views were incredible in every direction. The top of the butte was cluttered with rock climbers, all decked out in their colorful climbing gear. We explored the many nooks and crannies at the top and  enjoyed the spectacular landscapes that completely surrounded us.

Yes, the view from atop Horsethief Butte is ahhhhhhh-some.
Rock climbers on Horsethief Butte
The Main Attraction:  Our main reason for taking this trip was to visit the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington.  Their new $10 million wing opened in May 2012. The original structure is a beautiful Beaux Arts style mansion built by railroad executive and entrepreneur Sam Hill

Maryhill Museum

I was so excited to arrive at the museum. The original mansion, the new modern addition, and the spectacular setting of the Columbia River and its banks was just so much beauty to behold. I was truly thrilled to be there and I hadn’t even stepped inside yet. 

The new Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing includes an education center, an outdoor plaza overlooking the river, a cafe and outdoor terrace, and the modern, all-glass Mt. Hood Gallery. The museum’s collection includes many sculptures and watercolors by Auguste Rodin, a large Native American collection, religious icons, a collection of chess sets from around the world, an outdoor sculpture garden, and much more.

On the terrace, Maryhill Mary and Bruce Stevenson wing
We had an excellent lunch at the museum’s cafe sitting outside on the terrace taking in another work of art, the Columbia River. Magnificent!

Another Must-See Stop: Maryhill Winery, on a bluff above the Columbia River and Gunkel Vineyard, is one of the oldest and most established vineyard sites in Washington.  We stopped and did a little wine tasting, and since everything we sampled tasted fabulous, we ended up walking away with a few bottles to take home.

View from Maryhill Winery 
And Before Heading Home: Just 3 miles east of Maryhill is the Stonehenge Memorial,  a replica built by Sam Hill and dedicated to local Klickitat County servicemen who died  during World War I.  Before we arrived at the war memorial I wasn’t sure what to think about a faux Stonehenge, but it turned out to be a powerful experience for us. 

Stonehenge Memorial, Goldendale, Washington
 We want to go back and tour more of the wineries in the area. Next trip!

When You Go.  A Washington highway map showing the areas we visited are sections 15 and 16 at this website. While this is a 3.5-hour drive from Seattle, it's less than a couple hours from Portland.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Why We Live Here: Orca Watching in Puget Sound

Orcas in central Puget Sound, October 8, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
One of the many things I love about living here in the Pacific Northwest is how the stunning beauty and wonder of the natural world overlaps with urban life, often without much warning. Like sighting orcas in Puget Sound from a downtown Seattle highrise, as many did yesterday. And how these thrills bring people together.

After getting a text alert from my sister mid-morning that orcas were spotted heading south in Puget Sound, I grabbed my binoculars, hopped in the car, and sped (yes, broke the speed limit) to Carkeek Park near my home. While I'm a native-born Seattleite and lived here most of my life, these magnificent marine mammals have eluded me in my home waters. 

Until yesterday.

It started with a series of updates on the Orca Network's Facebook page: 

"At least seven orcas were seen by the morning sun at 9 am in Admiralty Inlet, heading south between Mutiny Bay and Foulweather Bluff, headed toward Point No Point."

Mother orca with baby, Puget Sound, October 8, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.

My sis texted me when local Seattle TV stations shared footage of a "superpod" being VERY active near Point No Point and continuing south. A superpod no less! Aerial footage from a chopper showed orcas arcing up out of the water, dorsal fins pointing high, and diving back under in huge splashes. Awesome.

As I parked at the bluff overlooking the Sound at Carkeek, I jumped out of the car and breathlessly asked the guy sitting on the bench:

"Have you seen the orcas yet?"

He hadn't and didn't even know to look for them, but Jeremy and I ended up sharing my binoculars for the next 40 minutes as we spotted many orcas spouting, breaching, and splashing several miles across the Sound between Kingston and Bainbridge Island.

Seasoned orca watchers Alisa and Ed showed up soon after me, with more expensive binoculars in hand. These friendly folks pointed out things I wouldn't have noticed.

"Adult male breaching.  Mother with baby just south of the white sailboat off Indianola. Several now heading into Port Madison."  

Puget Sound orcas with Edmonds-Kingston ferry in distance. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
  As Ed rattled off these sightings, Alisa was sending sighting updates to the Orca Network FaceBook page. They had started up north in Edmonds earlier in the morning, where they watched the orcas near the ferry terminal before heading south.

I followed Ed and Alisa down to Golden Gardens, a few miles south and jutting farther west into Puget Sound. There in the golden glow of an unseasonably sunny and mild October afternoon, we watched more orcas put on a show that no doubt thrilled hundreds or thousands of us watching from the land and boats.  

As a female breached much closer to us than the others, I knew the spectacular image would be seared in my memory forever. The sense of awe and wonder surging through me felt just like each of those shooting stars I saw last summer.

October 1, 2012. Photo by Alisa Lemire Brooks.
In addition to a thrill of a lifetime to see these orcas near my home, what will stay with me is the friendliness of the several people I met.  

Forget the so-called Seattle Freeze.  Everyone was as excited and happy as a kid to be in the presence of our resident orcas making an unusual trip this far south.  Heck, I even passed out my business cards and learned about a new restaurant that Brian hopes to open in Ballard next year. Most of us figured out our two to three degrees of separation.

As they used to say, there's only a thousand real people in Seattle and we all know each other.  There's less than 90 resident orcas in Puget Sound, and they no doubt all know each other, too.

Orca off Alki Point, October 8, 2012. Photo by Christina Watson.

How about you? Did you see the orcas yesterday? If not, I hope you're able to see them soon. Check out the Orca Network regularly for sightings.

How to Help
The Puget Sound orcas are endangered and need our help. As of May 2012, the population of the endangered southern resident orcas was 88, 26 in J pod, 20 in K pod, and 42 in L pod. Here's a link to information on the National Marine Fisheries Service Orca Recovery Plan. It remains to be seen if, through our efforts, the population can be stabilized to a sustainable level.  But think about donating your time and $$ to organizations such as the Orca Network, which is dedicated to raising awareness of Pacific Northwest whales and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats.