Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Take a Walk on the Quiet Side: Silent Meditation Hiking

It's amazing what you notice when you're simply paying attention. No talking; just walking, engaging all your senses.

Each frond of the luxuriant big sword fern I just passed seems alert and awake. Tiny mushrooms clumped together on a mossy log beside the trail glow neon orange. I breathe in occasional musky whiffs of decaying trees and plants, breaking down into new soil.

The lush temperate rainforest zings my senses.

Six of us are walking single file along a trail in the Cascade foothills east of Seattle. The lush forest we hike through feels like an interconnected community of life.

After 30 minutes of silent hiking, the clear ring of a bell echos through the forest. I pull out my sit pad and find a spot to settle alongside the trail for sitting meditation. Excited mosquitoes flit around me without landing; I’ve slathered on bug juice to thwart their feasting.

Ten minutes later, the bell rings again. I strap my sit pad back onto my pack and rejoin my place in line.

For the next 30 minutes we continue hiking silently, across a rustic wooden bridge over a coursing stream, through a grove of western red cedars, and up more switchbacks to a wooden bench at the summit. Time for another short sit. In the quiet afternoon, we then retrace our steps back down the mountain.


On a November Tiger Mountain hike, it rained the first two hours we hiked. High up on the mountain we passed through a soft, enveloping mist reminiscent of an ancient Chinese landscape painting. Nobody else was out there.

I prefer the misty, cloudy, rainy days for the quiet on the trail.

Several years ago I started joining Blue Heron Zen Community on their monthly silent meditation hikes, and now I organize and lead the hikes. We go rain or snow or shine, year-round. 

Give it a try! I bet you'll be surprised how refreshing it can be.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
Anyone and everyone are welcome to come along. The hikes can be a few hours to all day, depending on interest, and consist of a half hour of hiking interspersed with 10 minutes of sitting. Talking and laughter before and after the hike are encouraged!
For information about future hikes, go to the Blue Heron Zen Community calendar. If there's not a hike scheduled, check back, there will be soon! We average every other month or more.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Blissed out in Ballard

Oh so popular Café Besalu doesn’t really need another rave review. This foodie destination in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood is already jam-packed on the weekends, and the crowds ebb and flow during weekdays too. But I can’t resist.

As I sat sipping my spicy and not-too-sweet chai latte this morning, between bites of my buttery, crispy croissant, I thought about why I love this place. Each bite of the still warm pastry felt like a good morning hug. But I also come here during my disciplined gluten-free phases, when I go for jasmine tea straight up, sans milk and sugar.

About seven or eight years ago I first wandered into Besalu in search of the former bakery in its 24th Avenue Northwest location. Light pumpkin-colored walls and French bistro-style tile floors drew me in, cozy and inviting. And the immaculately clean pastry case full of fabulous-looking fruit tarts and Danishes, croissants, brioche, and quiches sealed the deal. Cheerful co-owner Meg—serving at the counter—welcomed everyone like a guest in her fun home. Her business partner and pastry wizard, lanky James—meticulously rolling out pastry dough behind the counter—seemed too focused to notice all the crushes he was spawning among the women customers. (Meg has since moved to Philadelphia, and owner James Miller is now married to his current baking partner Kaire Alvet.)

I started coming back every few weeks. Not since I ate my way through the finest patisseries in Paris during a semester abroad (and gained a few too many pounds in the process) have I enjoyed such lovely French-style pastries.

Maybe it’s such a nice place to linger because everyone is happy to be there, intoxicated by the delicious sweet and savory fare. But I also think it’s because of the calm but friendly James and his talented crew. And the quality touches like homemade jam, a house-blended chai, exquisite seasonal fruit pastries, the signature creamy ginger biscuits, and bright bouquets of flowers brought in by customers.

So I stop by when the schedule allows, take my journal and write while I sip, or catch up with other regulars with whom I’ve become friendly. This is not a place to park with your laptop, with too few tables for the sometimes long line of customers out the door. I now avoid going on weekends altogether. But I’ll keep coming back as long as James and Kaire maintain this charmed little slice of Ballard.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ross Lake: Paddling in the Path of Beat Poets

Want to catch a little of the magic that inspired the Beat poets' sojourns in Washington's North Cascades?

In the 1950s, the North Cascades Highway was still 20 years away from opening, and the Skagit River canyon was only recently inundated after Ross Dam was built in the late 1940s to form Ross Lake. So the string of Beat poets (most famously Jack Kerouac) who spent several summers on peaks rimming the lake (Sourdough Mountain, Crater Peak, and Desolation Peak ) over 50 years ago experienced a truly remote wilderness just beyond the lakeshore.

Although these days the campsites stretching up Ross Lake to the Canadian border can be full during the summer, a little solitude can still be found if you time your trip before or after peak season (July and August).

The Preparation
After an early morning drive from Seattle, Rich and I pull into the Ross Lake Resort trailhead parking area right off the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20). Weather forecasters predicted sunny and warm skies for the region, but a strong southerly wind is sending clouds racing overhead just above the snow-encrusted mountains. Not the best weather for kayaking. Nevertheless, we strap on our packs and set off on the mile-long trail of dusty switchbacks through the forest down to Ross Lake.

When we get to the lake, we dump our gear onto the floating dock just offshore, and Rich uses the free phone to call the resort across the lake to send a boat over for us. Within minutes a power boat pulls up to the dock.

“Good morning!” says the driver cheerfully, and we jump on board for the 5-minute shuttle ride. At Ross Lake Resort’s dock we rent Eddyline fiberglass kayaks. (It would not be fun to haul your own loaded kayak down the long trail from the highway down to the lake.)

With our kayaks loaded up, we take off into the gusty early afternoon. Big Beaver Creek, a bay about 5 miles up the lake, is our destination for this one-night trip. Fortunately the wind is at our back, making for a quick and pretty easy paddle northward.

The Start
Along the way north, we paddle alongside streams and waterfalls tumbling off the mostly steep forested slopes that line the lake. Although I think there’s something slightly forlorn about lakes behind dams (like Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite), they’re often in beautiful settings that allow boaters access to unusual places.

“Brrr! I need another layer!” I shout at Rich when the wind and a smattering of rain pick up after a few miles of paddling. Cougar Island looms ahead, where there’s a designated camping site and outhouse. We paddle to the lee side of the little island, and I pull my Gore-tex paddling jacket out of my dry sack while Rich runs up to the privy. Then I nose around the rocky shoreline to explore for a couple minutes.

The Campsite
Within a couple hours we paddle into the bay where we’ll camp tonight. Steep slopes give way to a small valley near the mouth of Big Beaver Creek, which gives us a view of more craggy peaks several miles upstream. I’m surprised to find a nice white sand beach rimming the bay.

When I paddle up close to the mouth of Beaver Creek, still swollen with snowmelt, the strong current spins my bow quickly 90 degrees to the right. Across the lake, patches of snow finger down from the rocky ridge summit of Jack Mountain, which juts up from the lake’s edge to over 9,000 feet.

Since we’re in the Ross Lake National Recreation Area/North Cascades National Park complex, the campsites are nice and well-maintained. After we set up camp, we hike the trail up Big Beaver Creek valley to a grove of ancient cedars upstream. Above the rapids at the mouth of the creek, Big Beaver is calm and placid, fringed by mostly alder and thick, second or third-growth fir trees. Within 45 minutes we're dashing back downstream to escape the swarming mosquitos.

By dusk the wind dissipates, and a patch of orange sunlight slowly fingers down the slope of Jack Mountain as the sun sets. I sleep surprisingly well in the mountain still night, with no other sound but Rich stirring in his sleeping bag occasionally and the distant rush of Big Beaver into the lake. I needed this break from the city.

The Return
We’re both up before 6 a.m., with blue skies and sunshine. A pair of black and white-streaked common loons swims close to the beach near our kayaks. I hope we’ll hear their distinct and soulful cries echoing over the water. No such luck this morning, though.

We eat a quick breakfast of tea and granola bars and set off to do a bit more exploring as we head back down the lake. "Osprey!" I cry as I spy the large hawk high in a tree above the lakeshore. (Actually we're both spying each other.)

This early in the morning, we see hardly anyone else on the lake. A motor boat passes by in the distance, heading north. The lake surface has morphed from yesterday’s choppy water into a glassy smooth, giant mirror; we paddle through the reflections of the snowy mountains above us.

Ambling around the sinuous bay shoreline brings us into a narrow cleft in the thick evergreen forest, where a rushing mountain brook is cutoff midstream as it plunges into the lake.

On such a beautiful calm morning, the rest of the trip back goes quickly. But I purposely slow my pace to prolong our time in this mountain fresh air, brilliant sunshine, and postcard perfect scenery.

About 24 hours from when we put in, we’re back at the resort. Next time I’ll venture farther up the lake—this sojourn was just a quick taste that’s left me wanting more.

When You Go

Click on Ross Lake Resort for a map and directions to the resort by boat or hiking. You can drive to a shuttle on Diablo Lake that takes you to Ross Lake Resort instead of hiking down from the highway, but it only leaves once in the morning at 8:30. It takes about 2.5 hours to drive to Diablo and Ross Lake from Seattle. For information on how to get permits to camp at the boat-in campgrounds, click here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

48 Hours in Portland: In and around the Rose City

When I was growing up a few decades ago, provincial Portland used to carry a bit of a chip on its shoulder about its bigger, more glamorous sister to the north, Seattle.

So not so anymore.

Portland has grown up quite nicely, thank you. These days P-Town is the It city of the West Coast, and it seems like a week doesn’t go by without a story in the New York Times or other national media about the virtues of Oregon’s Big City.

I grew up 15 miles east of Portland in Troutdale, so I get down every few months to visit family and friends and savor the bounty of great places to eat and play. On my most recent trip, I tried to see things with the eyes of a true out-of-towner and be a quasi-tourist.

Way too early on a Friday morning I hop on a bus near my home in Seattle and ride downtown to King Street Station to catch Amtrak’s 7:30 train to Portland. These days train tickets cost about the same as a tank of gas (or less if you book early enough), and it’s much more relaxing and scenic than the I-5 slog. Four hours later we roll into the charmingly well-maintained, historic Union Station at the edge of Portland’s trendy Pearl District on the north side of downtown.

Noon Friday: I wander a few blocks west into the heart of the Pearl to hunt for an inexpensive, healthful, tasty lunch. And I find just what I’m looking for. I plop down at a sidewalk table outside Madena’s in the Pearl, a tiny, crimson-walled café featuring Mediterranean fare. I order a cup of freshly made red lentil soup and a hummous/veggie pita sandwich. The vegetarian soup is perfectly spiced, lemony, and savory. (I’m known for my great homemade soups, so I’m pretty fussy about restaurant soup.) Right after I finish my soup, a foil-wrapped, simple pita sandwich arrives at my table, which I unwrap and munch away. Nicely flavored hummous, tomatoes, lettuce, and pepperocini rolled into a basic white pita. Fairly light, not big, but just right for my appetite. Service is quick and friendly, and my lunch is only $7.50 (sans tip).

12:45 Friday: One block west of Madena’s, I stop in The Tea Zone to check email on my laptop and have a cuppa (sometimes it’s hard to be a tea drinker in such a coffee-centric place as Seattle). I snag a table in the sunny front room and order their daily iced tea special, a fragrant mango black tea, which comes with a cute miniature glass pitcher of refills. A luscious selection of tea pots line the walls up to the ceiling. I’m tempted by one of the classic Japanese steel teapots, but it’s not in the budget today.

3:00 p.m. Friday: Time to grab a snack and hit my favorite spot in P-Town: Powell's Books. First I stop in Whole Foods nearby and buy a basket of freshly picked local raspberries, which I proceed to inhale at a sidewalk table outside. Then I get my book junkie fix at Powell’s before catching the MAX light rail out to Gresham for an overnight with my mom.

7:30 p.m. Friday: On a warm summer evening, we’re lucky to get a window seat at Tad’s Chicken ‘n Dumplings, a historic, down-home restaurant on the Sandy River just upstream from downtown Troutdale. Tad’s has been serving chicken and dumplings (my favorite comfort food) since 1940. We dine with a view of the tangerine-pink sunset reflected on the forest-fringed river below. My mom and I split an order (chicken and dumplings, of course!) and have enough left over for her to take home for lunch the next day. The food is basic mid-twentieth century American, but it’s good and mostly fresh and well-prepared. We’re served a small tray of crudités to start, then a surprisingly good mixed green salad and warm, crusty fresh white rolls, soft on the inside. Our friendly waitress brings us a bowl heaped with two tennis-ball sized dumplings slathered in light chicken gravy atop succulent chunks of white and dark chicken. For me the only downbeat is the overcooked, canned string beans on the side, but hey, that’s what typical for this cuisine. We get an order of Marion berry cobbler to go for dessert; it’s tart-sweet, just the way I like it. All for only $21.95.

9:30 a.m. Saturday: My best childhood friend Becky, who still lives in East County, picks me up and we head into downtown Gresham for breakfast at The Central Café. This spot is bright and hip for the former small town Gresham I grew up with. After a misstep of ordering granola that turns out to be full of coconut, which I can’t abide, our waiter kindly obliges me and I reorder a poached egg , English muffin, and the wonderfully chunky, paprika-spiced breakfast potatoes. Bingo—the egg is cooked just the way I prefer, not runny but not hard. We leave satisfied and full. My breakfast is only $6.

10:30 a.m. Saturday: We wander a few blocks over to Gresham’s Farmer’s Market. I pick up some lovely baby fingerling potatoes, fresh string beans, a big bundle of baby carrots, some tiny little apricots, and an amazingly sweet, ripe Maryhill peach. This far south of Seattle we’re in a slightly warmer growing zone, and I see big artichokes and a greater variety of berries than we get up north. We taste marvelous loganberries, Marion berries, boysenberries, raspberries, strawberries, and a hybrid called Sylvan—a mix of blackberry and Marion berry.

11:30 a.m. Saturday: On the way back to my mom’s we take a detour down Stark Street into the lush and green Sandy River gorge, part of the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. It’s time for some exercise to work off breakfast, so we cross back over the river to Troutdale and stop for a walk up through the forest on Robin’s Way. This pathway through the woods follows the route of an old Indian trail from the hillside above Troutdale down to the river. On the way up, I think about Robin Dix, the trail’s namesake and a former classmate of mine who was tragically killed in a car crash at 25. We pop out on top at the edge of a subdivision that lies where the Dix family used to farm beautiful strawberries. Sigh.

2:30 p.m. Saturday: I can’t come to Portland without a trip up the Columbia River Gorge. My mom and I drive on the scenic route through the pastoral rolling hills east of the Sandy River, up through Springdale and Corbett to the amazing view up the Gorge from Chanticleer Point. Just a mile or so eastward and a bit below we can see the recently restored Vista House at Crown Point, and Beacon Rock in the distance beyond, which Lewis and Clark climbed during their famous expedition in the early 1800s. We continue on down the old historic Columbia River Highway, that winds through the Gorge just inland from Interstate 84.
After a quick stop at Crown Point, we head east and drive past several beautiful waterfalls along the verdant green slopes on the south side of the highway. Today we don’t have time to stop and hike any of the many great trails that wind to and above the numerous falls. We do make a quick stop at the biggee, Multnomah Falls, but the crowds are dense on a warm summer Saturday afternoon, so we don’t linger long.

7 p.m. Saturday night: Okay, McCormick’s & Schmick’s wasn’t my choice for dinner, but I obligingly meet my friend Matt for dinner there in Old Town just a block from the Willamette River. They serve classic American guy food: thick, tender steaks, mashed potatoes, and generous portions of fresh seafood. Matt goes for a surf ‘n turf— a 9-oz steak with scampi and mashed potatoes—and I go with a shrimp and crab Louis with 1,000 island dressing. It’s a throwback but, like my dinner at Tad’s, it hits the spot. Matt cuts me a little chunk of steak, and although I usually shun red meat, I have to admit it tastes really good. With tip, my salad and fresh-squeezed lemonade is $25. After dinner we stroll through the warm summer evening to Pioneer Square and hang out, talking, sipping a cup of tea outside Starbuck’s.

10 a.m. Sunday: After another night in Gresham, I take MAX back into downtown Portland, where my brother and his wife meet me for breakfast on 23rd Ave in Northwest Portland. At Matt’s recommendation, we hit Vivace, a coffee house and creperie. Set in a converted old Victorian house, the prices are reasonable and the breakfasts are wonderful. Today we don’t order crepes but opt for French-style omelettes, thin and folded up just like a crepe. My spinach and feta omlette is light yet filling, and the whole wheat bagel that comes with is not an excuse for a side—it’s fresh, chewy, and darn good. I only drop $7 on breakfast and jasmine tea.

12:15 p.m. Sunday: Time to leave. My brother drops me off back at Union Station, and I luckily get a window seat on the west side of the train (the water view side). I’m always a little sad to leave Portland, but I sit back and relax for the pleasant ride back to Seattle.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Confessions of a Farmer's Market Junkie

It started innocently enough. In 1996 after a Saturday morning class at University Heights Center in Seattle’s University District, I noticed what looked like a festival going on in the old parking lot south of the former school. So after class I wandered over to check it out. Big bouquets of flowers wrapped in white butcher paper, fresh fruits and vegetables piled high in baskets, and chunky loaves of rustic bread neatly arranged on cloth-covered folding tables greeted me as I walked past tidy rows of white tents. Everybody seemed happy.

At first tentatively, then zestfully, I stopped at each stall. I gathered bunches of scarlet baby carrots, lissome green string beans, multi-colored little potatoes, fresh pasta, locally crafted goat cheese, until I was hauling around two heavy bags of food. Dinner that night was a revelation. I’d forgotten what real garden-fresh produce tasted like. With each bite, I was transported back to my childhood summer evenings eating produce from our family garden. This farmer’s market was an amazing discovery. I had to come back next week!

So a dozen years have passed. Another beautiful Saturday morning and I’m headed to the University Farmer’s Market, canvas bags in hand. As usual, I’m wearing my wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. I park in a quiet neighborhood several blocks north and take off walking to the market at a brisk pace. Gotta beat the crowds.

Sometimes my compulsions overcome me. Often I leave with more than I can possibly consume before the next market, the next batch of amazingly beautiful and tasty abundance. But I’m supporting the local farmers, right

In the last decade, farmer’s markets have sprung up like mushrooms after a heavy fall rain in the Puget Sound region and beyond. I used to pride myself on going to all the local markets, but now I can’t keep up. I’ve managed to hit Wallingford and Columbia City on Wednesdays, Lake City on Thursdays, Phinney on Fridays, Magnolia and University (still the grand dame to me) on Saturdays, West Seattle and Ballard on Sundays. But now it doesn’t stop there.

When planning vacations the last few years, I’ve scheduled my trips around the weekly local farmer’s markets. Been there: Troutdale, Fairview, and Gresham farmers’ markets outside Portland. Long Beach and Laguna Beach markets in SoCal. Of course the market at the Ferry Terminal in San Francisco (although I hear the market at the Civic Center is better and cheaper). Santa Fe farmers’ market in northern New Mexico. Durango in southwest Colorado. Chelan and Twisp in eastern Washington. Even the Paro market in Bhutan. I’m sure there’s more.

What’s so fascinating in this era of national fast food chains is the differences in these farmers’ markets and their offerings. California markets have citrus fruits, avocados, and orchids that we don’t have in the Pacific Northwest. Northern New Mexico markets feature a wide array of vivid orange-red chile powders and peppers. Durango ranchers sell grass-fed beef from Barzona-bull bred red cows. And of course there are the fresh oysters, apples, cherries, and wild mushrooms here in the Seattle area.

What I’ve concluded is this:

In an increasingly big box, chain-stored, homogenous world, farmers’ markets are a rich, remaining vestige reflecting unique regional and community culture. I love these markets, the farmers, the supporters, the authentic local food. And I’m not alone.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Snow Lake: 37 Dogs and Counting

Yeah, Snow Lake is the most heavily traveled hiking trail in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and yeah, if you go there on a sunny Saturday afternoon in late summer or fall, you’ll be hiking with the masses. But there’s a reason: first and foremost, it’s a beautiful hike that never fails to deliver. Doesn’t hurt either that the trailhead is just a couple minutes off I-90 at Snoqualmie Pass, there’s ample parking at the Alpental lot, and at just under six miles roundtrip, it’s a moderately easy hike.

Fueled up on caffeine this morning, a couple friends join me and we drive up from Seattle. Mostly for the exercise, but we also want to get a quick taste of spectacular alpine scenery. Right away we bump into some hiking buddies of my friend Betty. It's not uncommon to see people you know up there.

The first part of the hike is a gradual uphill grade with lots of shady evergreen forest interspersed by old rockslide crossings. By the time we hit the first switchback a mile in, we’re warmed up. I particularly like the plentiful rock and wood steps, so the grade is never too steep (easier on my fussy Achilles tendons).

Our pace today is pretty slow since Betty is nursing a cold, and we arrive at the big rock overlook on the ridge above the lake around noon. Snow Lake lies shimmering deep sapphire blue below us in a bowl of steep talus slopes. With plenty of others munching their lunches along with us, it's like being at a city park. But that’s okay. It’s a lovely day and everyone’s in a good mood.

On the way back we take the Source Lake overlook side trail, where we find late season patches of bright orange columbines strewn amongst the talus. 

As I often do on a busy trail, I start counting the number and variety of dogs leading their humans along the trail. Today I pass three standard poodles in a row. My record is 37 dogs, but today I get distracted and lose track in the mid-twenties.

By mid-afternoon we’re back at the car, a bit tired, sweaty, and content. I’ll be back before the snow flies, but next time I really need to sneak up on a less-crowded weekday. You should, too.

When You Go
To get to the Snow Lake trailhead, drive on I-90 east from Seattle. Exit at number 52/Snoqualmie Pass, and drive left under the freeway. Turn right into the Alpental Ski Area and drive 1.5 miles to the end of the road, where there is a large dirt parking lot. The trail is up the road on the right, visible from the parking lot. A Northwest Forest Parking Pass is required (get one at REI or at the Ranger Station over at Snoqualmie Summit). For you map junkies, here's a link to a topo map of Snow Lake.

The hiking season for Snow Lake is relatively short, depending on the winter snow pack. Generally it's open from early summer to the first big snowfalls in late fall. Every few years there seems to be an avalanche fatality on this trail, mostly showshoers. Personally I stay away during the winter and spring and just go hiking there when the snow melts.