Friday, April 26, 2013

Skagit Flats Dash: Tulips, Sea, and Sky

Mt. Baker looms in the distance over LaConner and the Swinomish Channel.
There's something magical about the Skagit Flats that pulls at me.  This picturesque and fertile river delta/agricultural area of northwestern Washington makes me fantasize about chucking city life and moving north with my sea kayak, binoculars, and gardening tools.  Besides the fresh sea-kissed air, big sky and wide open vistas, and abundant fields of flowers and produce, I feel refreshed and embraced each time I visit. 

On a brilliant late April morning, I make a snap decision to hop in the Subie and drive the 70+ miles (about an hour) north from Seattle to catch the last of the tulip fields in bloom.  We "coasters" here in the Pacific Northwest have to seize our sunny days when we can this time of year.

What ensues is a bit of a mad dash up and back, with several quick stops. I leave north Seattle at 9 am and am back by 2 pm.  Doable, got my dose of Skagit love, but I suggest a more leisurely trip. In the meantime, come on a quick tour with me via this blog.

Snow Goose Produce:  Besides the tulips and sunshine, it's the spot prawns that draw me north today.  Coming from Seattle, I get off I-5 at Conway, the first exit after descending to the Skagit River Flats, and meander west past small farms and fields being prepped for the growing season ahead.  A mile or two after the road turns a right angle north, Snow Goose is on the left, but their advance signs shout at you (Spot Prawns! Ice Cream Cones! Farm Fresh Produce!).  

San Juan Islands spot prawns available at Snow Goose Produce

The friendly and knowledgeable folks there sell local fresh seafood (today it's fresh halibut and spot prawns), lots of produce and plant starts, fresh pasta, some yard furniture and gift items, and more.  Snow Goose is also famous for their generous ice cream cones from local makers like Lopez Island Creamery. I indulge in a  kid's size scoop of maple walnut, which is plenty.

LaConner/Snee-Oosh Beach:  Scenic historic town turned tourist destination LaConner deserves a whole blog post, but today I blow through on my way to Snee-Oosh Beach on Upper Skagit Bay.  I stop just across the Rainbow Bridge to take a few shots (the top photo above and below) before passing through the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community enroute to the beach.

Looking south at the Swinomish Channel from the Rainbow Bridge
Then it's a few miles over to the beach on this southernmost tip of Fidalgo Island, past my favorite-named road anywhere:  Pull-and-Be Damned Road. As I approach the bay, a sweeping view lays below of Hope Island, Whidbey Island, and the Olympic Mountains beyond. Parking at the south end of the beach near the boat launch is free, where I've launched in my sea kayak many times to paddle in the bay.  

This morning is a pretty low tide, which makes life difficult for the guys trying to unload and carry their canoe back up beach in the grabby tideflat muck. They tell me they camped on Hope Island last night and awoke to the lyrical sound of loons crying across the open water.

At low tides (like today), you can't paddle around Dead Man's Island in Skagit Bay.
The Olympic Mountains beyond Whidbey Island to the west.
These guys were not happy campers in the muck. Hope Island is in the background.

Tulip Fields Forever:  Well, not forever, since I'm catching the tail end of the tulip festival this year.  But the fields on the now-famous tulip route seem to go on forever in big patchwork rows of bold colors.  While I'd hoped to avoid the crowds on a week day, which was possible back in the 1990s and earlier, not so easy now.  It's just me and busloads and carloads of tourists.

These days the bigger farms like Roozengaarde's charge $5 to park at their farms.  Really the way to go is on a bicycle (bonus is how flat the Skagit Flats are and easy to negotiate on a bicycle). 

Christenson's Nursery: It's only fitting that this abundant land of farms has a spectacular destination nursery. I stop at Christenson's for inspiration and a quick stroll through.  They have multiple large greenhouses crammed full of just about any plant you can think of, from succulents to moisture-loving ferns and flowers, to trees and shrubs.  For all those wonderful plants there are also lots of pots and garden ornaments too.

Then I zip back into LaConner for a quick lunch.  The restaurant I choose is, sad to say, not blogworthy.  But I've had good chow before at the LaConner Brewery Brewpub and the Calico Cupboard Cafe, which is very popular with the older folks.

Before I'm ready, it's time to return to Seattle for a mid-afternoon appointment.  Bonus is that I beat Friday rush hour traffic.  Bad news, not enough time in the Skagit!

What are your favorite places to go and things to do in the Skagit?  

When You Go
The annual Skagit Tulip Festival continues through the month of April, so there's still time to catch a bit of the color.  It's also a great time to go birding and kayaking around Skagit Bay, many locations but start at the Skagit Wildlife Refuge managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Game near Conway.  A bit later in the spring more of the farm stands open, like Hedlin's Family Farm just outside LaConner and Pheasant Ridge Farm.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Saturday Night in Government Camp

Summit Meadow, photo by Scott Conover
Between the regular ski season, summer skiing, and mountain biking and hiking on Mt. Hood, there are usually always a few parties going down on Saturday night in Government Camp, Oregon.  Maybe it's a ski vendor-sponsored party at the Rat (Ratskeller) or locals gathering across the street at Charlie's for pool and dancing, but often you'll find lots of good beer and music and laughs.

But when it's clear and calm, Saturday night can be about something completely different. Maybe it can be about walking under the stars along a snow-covered road surrounded by forest. Maybe it's so light from the bright white snow that you don't even need a flashlight to make your way along the trail through the woods after dark.

A few weeks ago on one of those glorious first-gasp-of-spring weekends, three of us decide to forego the free drinks at the Rat after dinner. Instead we hike out toward Trillium Lake, just south across Highway 26 from Govy, with cameras in hand to photograph Mt. Hood as the sun sets.

Downtown Govy, photo by Scott Conover

Turns out the shot above is the best sunset photo of the mountain we got with a late start.  By the time we get to the Trillium Lake trailhead immediately west of the Department of Transportation maintenance facility on 26, it's pushing dark.

But that's okay because the road, which also doubles as a ski trail when there's snow cover, is wide and easy to follow through the trees.  So we walk on the snowy path toward the lake.

After a little over a mile, we pass a junction and see the lights from night skiing over at Ski Bowl to our right.  Then we pass a few cabins, and a cross-country skier glides past in the dark with her dog trotting along behind.

Shortly afterward, we come to a major clearing; we've reached Summit Meadows.  Mt. Hood is barely visible in the dimming twilight, but with a tripod, a good zoom, and time lapse, Scott manages a few pretty cool shots. (For more of Scott's photos, click here.)

Mt. Hood summit from Summit Meadows, time lapse and zoom, photo by Scott Conover
Photo by Scott Conover

Despite the windless night and my down hoody, it gets chilly under the stars and on the snow.  By the time we get back to the car, it's time to head over to the Huckleberry Inn for a hot drink and, for youngster Scott, breakfast for a late night snack.

Huckleberry French toast, Huckleberry Inn
I say skiing or walking under a brilliant starry sky trumps a noisy, crowded bar any time.  How about you?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Two Seattle Specialty Food Stores: Ultra Modern vs. Old World Flavor

Have you ever been frustrated that you just can't find that extra special or unusual ingredient at your local grocery store? For me last week it was black beluga lentils, which I've yet to find at a grocery story, even fancy stores like Whole Foods or organic bulk food destination PCC Natural Markets.

So I made a trip to one of my absolute favorite food stores ever, where I stock up on the unusual, exotic, and just plain good:  Big John's PFI, tucked in the lower floor of an old brick warehouse south of downtown Seattle. Up until last week, they were the only store I knew of in Seattle that sold the tiny caviar-resembling lentils. (I don't count Trader Joe's pre-cooked and vacuum-packed belugas.)

On my way home, I stopped by the new Marx Foods retail store, which I'd heard and read about recently, situated on the edge of Lower Queen Anne.  And discovered that they, too, carry beluga lentils, among many unusual and gourmet items.

But wow, what a difference in presentation and style.  While Marx Foods is sleek, modern, spare, and high-tech, PFI is uneven floors, wooden beams, crammed full of goods, and rustic in a Euro-charming sort of way (which is part of what I love about the place). Both very different, but both wonderful places.

Granted, these two wholesalers with retail locations overlap in some areas and not others.  They both carry things like these:

Imported Italian pasta, Marx Foods
Imported French escargots, PFI
And these:

Hand-harvested sea salt, Marx Foods
Unusual-flavored vinegars, PFI
But whereas PFI has personal hand-written signs and labels like this:

Marx Foods has coded labels like this, thoroughly 21st century:

Friendly and enthusiastic proprietor Justin Marx demonstrates for me that, with the appropriate app loaded to your smart phone, you can scan the QR code on this label and up pops recipes using this product, which you can email to yourself or view on the strategically placed e-tablets and recipe browsers throughout the store.  Recipes, by the way, which are developed by local chefs right onsite here at Marx Foods in their test kitchen. 

Justin Marx next to an e-tablet with recipes at Marx Foods retail store.

 "We want to be your culinary concierge," says Marx Food's in-house food writer Matthew Johnson. And to demystify those exotic ingredients for us home cooks while they're at it.  While their wholesale and retail business is still 80 percent online, Justin has ambitions to open more such retail outlets around the US.

Back at PFI, when I ask clerk Chris whether they consider Marx Foods a competitor, he nonchalantly dismisses that idea.  "We're more like Remo Borrachini's place (long-time Italian Borrachini Bakery in Rainier Valley) or DeLaurenti's (in the Pike Place Market). But really, all of us local food wholesalers want each other to do well."

He does admit, though, that their initial primary demographic of shoppers, which were first- and second-generation immigrants, are passing away, and the owners (the Croce family) are considering ways to boost business with new and younger customers at their retail store.

Personally, I find PFI enchanting and have blogged about them before. All those imported specialties (mostly Mediterranean and European, but with local and regional goods, too) packed tightly together on the shelves make me envision romantic faraway places where grandmas whip up Old World delicacies and families gather around big wooden tables for hearty feasts.  And there's no competition with their famous long case full of exquisite cheeses, salamis, and a few other treats.

Imported and domestic cheese and olive selection extraordinaire at PFI. 

I'm just happy to have two such great places in Seattle, among several others, for cooking inspiration and high-quality, unique foods.

Primroses planted in old bulk olive cans decorate the handrail outside the entrance to PFI.

I'm really curious:  Do you ever shop online for specialty foods? Do you prefer an older store with character or a more modern store?  What's your favorite specialty food store? Would love to hear your comments on this topic below.

Bon Appetit! 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Mt. Hood Sunrise: Many Shades of Snow and Sky

For professional photographers, aspiring amateurs, or anyone with a smartphone,  the Cascade volcanoes offer stunning and accessible subjects.  Here in the Northwest we're blessed with the geologic equivalent of high fashion models, gorgeous and surprisingly chamelion-like, constantly changing with different lighting and angles.  

Alluring but sometimes dangerous.  And hard to resist.

Armed with my little Canon and Scott's much more expensive and professional-grade Pentax, three of us tumble out of bed in Government Camp ("Govy" to locals) early Sunday morning, groggy but wired at the same time.  Stars sprinkling the clear dark sky are starting to dim and there's a sunrise to shoot.

As we're driving the 6 miles up to Timberline Lodge, the glow of light emanating from the eastern horizon illuminates the timbered shoulders of Mt. Hood in layers of orange and blue.

While it's mostly clear, we welcome those little jet trails and wispy clouds for the drama and contrast they provide.  When we park in the lower lot at Timberline, flashlights aren't needed with the lightening predawn sky and reflection of all that snow.

Although my zoom lense isn't strong enough, we can see several tiny spots of light from climbers high on the mountain near Crater Rock, along with the moving glow of snowcats grooming the slopes lower on her shoulders. Scott was able to get a shot of the lights.

Climbers on Hogsback above Crater Rock, photo by Scott Conover.

And then we just shoot and shoot and shoot for the next hour.  This is when I realize clearly that I need a tripod and higher end camera to get the quality of images I'd like...that Scott gets.  My predawn shots are pretty much all slightly grainy.

Historic Timberline Lodge with summit peeking behind.

While Scott and Matt are focused on one spot in the parking lot, I wander up to the lodge and shoot Mt. Jefferson turning pink on the southern horizon, pinker than Hood today. Like I said, a little too grainy.  So instead let's say I was trying to achieve the effect of an Impressionist painting. :)

Mt. Jefferson

With the sun cresting over the mountain ridges, Hood takes on different moods as the light snakes up and around her flanks.  Illumination Rock  beyond the Palmer snowfield is one of the last spots to get sun as the sunlight pools on the lower slopes and her southeast side.

Illumination Rock with Palmer Chairlift and snowfield in foreground.


After an hour or so, with the sun fully risen, my fingers start to thaw.  Note to self:  Bring gloves for my next early morning photography outing.  We snap numerous parting shots before heading down mountain for breakfast at the Huckleberry Inn.  'Tis a morning worth savoring.

A room with a view (photo by Scott Conover).
The pro (Scott)

The amateur (me). Shot taken by the pro.

When You Go
Timberline Lodge is 6 miles up mountain off US Highway 26 from Government Camp at an elevation of about 6,000 feet above sea level.  Of course there are a zillion places to photograph Mt. Hood and other peaks.  What are your favorite spots?