Monday, November 26, 2012

Piper's Creek Salmon Run in Carkeek Park: They're Back!

Lena points out a salmon hanging in the pool in Piper's Creek
Maybe some of you kick off the holiday season by shopping Black Friday or eating leftover pumpkin pie for breakfast, but for me it's all about spotting spawning salmon in a creek near my home. 

A simple, miraculous pleasure.

While I will never completely understand how salmon make their way back from the mighty ocean to their small home stream, it's a thrill to see them answering the call of their biological imperative:  spawn and die.

As I park and hop out of the car at the  environmental learning center parking lot in Seattle's Carkeek Park, several volunteers are gathering, clipboard and pens in hand.

"Is it a good run this year?" I ask.

"Yes," says friendly volunteer Barb, "It's the best run in 9 or 10 years, and the fish are really big."

With that I skitter down the wooded trail to the best viewing spots along Piper's Creek, which runs through a gulch rimmed with second-growth lowland forest.  On this rainless, sunny weekend after Thanksgiving, lots of people are out to celebrate and see the returning salmon. It's quite a popular outing for families with small kids.

A big salmon was spotted right underneath this footbridge.

At the junction of Piper's Creek with Mohlendorph Creek (a small tributary),  I see two grayish-green chum salmon hanging in a pool on the opposite stream bank, below some overhanging tree roots. Occasionally they surge forward with a splash, and then drop back.

After meeting up with several friends, we hopscotch along the creek toward Puget Sound, spotting about half a dozen salmon in varying stages of dying, death, and decay. 

"They release about 300,000 fingerling salmon into the stream and usually around 300 or so make it back,"  a pony-tailed young man tells us. As of midday November 24, there were 363 chum salmon counted entering the creek so far, and a smaller percentage of the more rare coho.

Alas, since Piper's Creek is in an urbanized watershed (too many toxins in the runoff and too much water entering the stream without natural filtering), the salmon run needs to be supplemented with hatchery fingerlings.  Years ago early settlers logged off all the old growth and trashed the stream in this watershed, and the original salmon runs were extirpated/destroyed.

Regardless, with the efforts of local volunteers, tribes, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, salmon have been returning to Piper's Creek again for many years.

This guy would probably rather be chasing a ball than watching for salmon

While it's hard to get a shot of the salmon in the stream, I get a few shots of some carcasses on the beach that washed back out to the Sound with the heavy rains.  

Male chum salmon carcass

So grab those rainless days here in the Northwest while you can this time of year.  Get on out to the beach, the woods, or your nearest park if you can't make it to Carkeek or another salmon stream.  If you see something amazing like salmon spawning or bald eagles hunting, remember you're just bearing witness to what's been going on for milennia around here.  

Looking south from Carkeek beach to Meadows Point and beyond
Have you watched spawning salmon returned to their native streams? Would love to hear when/where in a comment below.

When You Go
Peak viewing for the Piper's Creek salmon are from about the third week in November to the second week in December. So you've still got time to catch the action.  Carkeek Park is located in NW Seattle. Take I-5 exit #173 going either north or south. Proceed west on Northgate Way (turns into NW 105th) to 3rd Ave NW. Turn right on 3rd Ave NW to NW 110th. Then turn left on NW 110 (turns into Carkeek Park Road). Go through park to Salmon Viewing Areas. Parking is available nearby. Or take Metro Bus #28 and get off at Eddie Mcabee entrance across from QFC, or at NW 113th and walk to Salmon Viewing Areas (along the Lower Meadow trail in this map).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Orcas Island Getaway: Hiking Turtleback Mountain

When I drive onto the Orcas Island ferry with a mere 30 seconds to spare, I know this is going to be good trip. 

After all, if I missed the ferry after driving an hour and a half north from Seattle, I'd have a four-hour wait until the next ferry to Orcas. Thirty seconds. A gift.

But I think every trip to the San Juan Islands is a gift.  This scenic and lovely archipelago 65 miles north of Seattle always feels touched with magic. Especially Orcas.

While the San Juans are heavy with tourists in the summer, I'm sneaking up for an overnight on a Wednesday in mid-November. If you want to feel the flavor of regular island life without the throngs, I suggest you head up here during the off-season, midweek.

Although I bring a book to read on the ferry, I'm usually glued to the deck with my camera and binoculars, scanning the sea for marine life such as seals, Dall's porpoises, waterfowl, and orcas (killer whales). Today I see some seals, bufflehead ducks, and something splashing and blowing just off Decatur Island in Thatcher Pass, but nothing surfaces.

Initially a marine cloud layer hovers low overhead, but the farther west we churn into the islands, the lightening sky reminds me of the classic Golden Age Dutch landscape paintings, like a Jacob van Ruisdael.

After disembarking on Orcas, I drive to Eastsound, the largest village at narrow top-center of the island, for a quick lunch at Mia's Cafe. Whilst I wish I'd brought my sea kayak on this sunny and windless day, I plan on hiking Turtleback Mountain Preserve this afternoon. The friendly lady at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center in Eastsound gives me a map and tells me how to get to the north trailhead off Crow Valley Road on the west side of the island.

This afternoon mine is the only car in the parking lot, but because this is Orcas, I don't feel skittish hiking alone. As I start ascending the dirt road trail,  instead I feel embraced and comforted by the lush, mossy second-growth forest and occasional wetland and stream bracketing the trail.

After hiking up about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace, I reach the Waldron Overlook, where I scoot off the main trail 20 or 30 yards to a splendid panorama spread below.

Looking northwest toward Waldron Island and the Gulf Islands of B.C. beyond.

With darkness coming early this late in the year, I don't linger too long and continue upward on the main trail. But first I make myself stop for a minute and silently give thanks for being here on this beautiful day.

Although I told myself I'd head back down at 2:30 p.m., I'm drawn upward past my set turnaround time.  It's just too quiet and lovely up here.  

However, in a few minutes an explosion of rustling leaves and tumbling rocks erupts just below the trail, where I see two white-rumped deer leap and run into the forest. I'm not sure who is more startled, me or the deer.

In another 10 minutes the trail/road flattens out at a junction for the Raven's Ridge Trail beside a large wetland.  In hopes of getting to the 1,500-foot + summit and more views, I head on up at the junction.  But I just get deeper into the forest and finally turn around and head down (an island resident later tells me that the Raven's Ridge Trail loop does not lead to any viewpoints). I get back to the car at 3:45, 2 hours and 15 minutes after I started.

Icing on the cake for this perfect day is enjoying a beer and the sunset at The Madrona Bar and Grill with a friend who lives on the island. And then a party with local Orcas women at the home of another friend. So many wonderful artists on Orcas!

Overlooking Fishing Bay in East Sound, with Turtleback Mountain in the distance.
With another lovely morning, I thoroughly enjoy the ferry ride back to the mainland, just a wee bit sad that I have to get back to city life so quickly.  But more icing on this sweet getaway is the musician who parks at the front of the ferry to practice strumming and singing songs. Great accoustics up there.

Ferry music, real good for free
How about you? Have you hiked Turtleback Mountain?  What are you favorite spots on Orcas?  Jump in the conversation by leaving a comment below!

When You Go
I hiked the north side of Turtleback, but the south side has a few more overlooks and spectacular views, according to a local friend and island resident.  And thanks to generous private donors, Turtleback Head has recently been added to the preserve.  As of this writing, the Washington Trails Association has begun marking the location of a new trail from near the Waldron Overlook to access the head.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Great Northwest: Rivers Run Through It

Road to Paradise, Mount Rainier National Park
Water is the lifeblood of our planet, and here in the Pacific Northwest our usually abundant supply is fed by thousands of streams and rivers flowing off our mountains.  Doesn't it make perfect sense that the major mountain range that bisects the region is named the Cascades?

From the Columbia River, whose dams irrigate eastern Washington agriculture and provide hydroelectric power to much of region, to the Olympics and Oregon's Coast Range, water rules here.

While there are a host of economic and environmental issues surrounding use of our rivers and streams (Yea Elwha River dam removal! Boo potential coal export terminal on the Columbia River!), today's post is simply celebrating the beauty of Northwest waterways.

That's it. Just some photos of my favorite rivers and streams around the region. 

Wenatchee River flowing through Tumwater Canyon

Maybe it's because I'm a Pisces and was raised in Troutdale, or because I grew up spending hours exploring the small natural stream that ran through our front yard, but nothing soothes me like the sight and sound of a small river or stream.  Especially a mountain stream.

Skagit River above Newhalem
Skagit River just below Newhalem
 Naches River along the Chinook Scenic Byway
Water draws life.  Before the formerly mighty Columbia River was dammed into a series of "lakes," the salmon runs were epic.  That some persist is a testament to the tenacity of these incredible anadromous fish.

Columbia River looking east from Crown Point

Great blue heron, probably hoping for a migrating salmon, Piper's Creek, Carkeek Park

While I'm not a whitewater kayaker, I have done some kayaking in and around some regional rivers.  Thrilling! Although one of the coldest days of my life was kayaking down the Skagit River River on a snowy January day looking for bald eagles.  

Big Beaver Creek flowing into Ross Lake, Ross Lake National Recreational Area, North Cascades National Park

I love our Northwest rivers.  How about you? What are your favorite rivers and streams?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Democracy Northwest: Vote!

Have you mailed your ballot yet?  

If you're a procrastinator (like me), you still have plenty of time (measured in hours).  Besides dropping your ballot in the mail, you have until 8 p.m. to drop it in one of the many dropboxes around the region. Click here for Washington, and here for Oregon.

Washington Senator Maria Cantwell (center) running for reelection, stops by Miro Tea in Seattle.
Although some of you jaded citizens don't vote, America's newly recognized citizens who had to apply for citizenship are thrilled and honored to have the  privilege.  And if you think your vote doesn't count, well, in 2004 Washington Governor Chris Gregoire beat Dino Rossi by a mere 129 votes out of several million.

While Pacific Northwest Seasons is generally focused on everyday adventures and life here in the great Northwest, I'm dedicating this post to my late father P. Lee Irwin,  journalist, associate university professor, newspaper publisher, avid Husky football fan, super dad, and engaged citizen who kept politicians on their toes through his award-winning editorials for the former Gresham Outlook , Bothell (and later Northshore) Citizen, and other local papers.
Ples Lee Irwin in Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

As a publisher of numerous community newspapers around the Northwest back when newspapers were a going concern, my father's political endorsements through his editorials held weight with Northwest politicians, from the school board to U.S. Senators.  

He was passionate about exercising our right to vote and instilled that (among many other things) in his children.  As a kid I remember going door to door asking neighbors to please vote to approve our local school levy. (He was especially passionate about funding for education and was one of the key driving forces that led to the founding of Mt. Hood Community College.)

Although I tried to avoid the family stereotype and resisted becoming a journalist, here I am blogging away, feeling compelled to write about things that I'm passionate about.  So I urge you to vote if you haven't already. 

And remember, amid all the nastiness of the negative campaign tactics, read your voter's guide or go to websites that help sort through the issues without all the noise. (Ha, that's the closest I'll come to endorsements.)  Be an informed voter.

Your one vote does count.

And regardless of who wins and what initiatives pass or don't, we're still all fellow Americans in this together.