Thursday, July 30, 2009

Gone to the Berries

Okay, too hot here in Ecotopia for me! July has been about work, but I did manage my annual trip out to Carnation in the Snoqualmie Valley to u-pick raspberries and blueberries, now tucked into zip-lock bags in the freezer.

Raspberries are done for the season, but you can still pick blueberries each weekend well into August at Henna Blueberry Farms on the Fall City-Carnation Road. Tip: For the best frozen berries, take the time to rinse and then freeze them individually on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet before putting your berries in the freezer bags. And here's my "recipe" for one of my favorite ways to use the bounty. Be creative and improvise your own favorite:

Northwest Berry Smoothie

Throw the following into a blender:

1/3 frozen banana
handful mixed frozen local raspberries
or maybe blackberries!

1/3 cup lowfat plain yogurt (I like Nancy's)
1/2 cup organic apple juice
1T ground flax seeds

Blend until smooth and creamy. Enjoy!

(I personally like my smoothies thick enough to need a spoon.)

Check back in the next couple days for my next post about sea kayaking to Lummi Island. In the meantime, keep cool!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Vashon Island: Lavender Fields Forever

Today’s post is a detour from my trip along the Cascade Loop; I’m off to Vashon Island just south of Seattle in Puget Sound. Any trip to Vashon feels like a trip back to the more bucolic, less populated Northwest I remember as a kid growing up east of Portland. So I relish my annual trips over to “the Rock” to help the Lavender Sisters harvest their organically grown lavender.

Northwest + Lavender = Festivals
Although many people think rain when they think of the Pacific Northwest, west of the Cascade Mountains we’re technically in a classic Mediterranean climate with mild, temperate winters and generally warm and dry summers. Perfect conditions for growing lavender, which has become increasingly popular in our region. Lavender festivals draw thousands of visitors each summer to the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juan Islands, and Vashon, which celebrates its seventh annual Lavender Farm Tour July 11 and 12 this year.

Heading Over
Julie, Felicity, and I head over for the Lavender Sisters’ first harvest of the season just a week ahead of the farm tour. Summer blesses us with a perfect day—clear blue skies and 75 degrees. We hop on the Fauntleroy-Vashon ferry for the quick 15-minute ride across the Sound.

We couldn’t have asked for a more lovely setting to harvest. Crescent Falls Organic Farm lies on a slope above Colvos Passage, a blue ribbon of sea that separates Vashon from the Kitsap Peninsula to the west. As we coast down the long driveway to the farm, we pass rows of lavender that resemble giant fuzzy purple caterpillars lying side by side.

Coming Together
This is my fifth season harvesting for the Sisters, and I always enjoy coming back for more. As we pile out of the car and gather outside the beautiful craftsman-style “farmhouse,” it’s an annual reunion as I exchange hugs with the Lavender Sisters—Katy Jo, Merrilee, and Dana. “Welcome!” cries Katy Jo as she embraces us, “So nice to see you again!”

About 15 or 20 of us, young and old, ranging in age from about 7 to 87, walk to the upper field to harvest today. “Okay, everybody into a circle,” says Katy Jo as we grasp hands, “and introduce yourself.” And we begin, as the Lavender Sisters call it, our community in the field.

Cut, Strip, Bundle, and Run
Although I came with a couple girlfriends, I team up with gorgeous fortysomething sisters Renee and Sheila, tall and robust farm assistant Camille, and Lavender Sister Dana. We form an assembly line between lush rows of royal velvet lavender. I’m a buncher today and take my position next to the stripper. (No, it’s not naked in the fields.) Our stripper grabs a hunk of freshly cut lavender from our cutter, shakes loose the “scunge” or “shamba” (that’s Dana-speak for withered or too-short stalks), runs her hands quickly down the stems to loosen and strip stray leaves, then hands it off to me. I check for uniform bundle size, loop a rubber band around the bottom of the bundle, and place it atop a freshly shorn lavender shrub, ready for the runner to come take it away.

"Don’t worry about the bees, they’re too drunk on lavender to bother you,” shouts Dana across the field. After the first few bundles, the pace picks up and our assembly line scrambles to keep up.
Soon we find our groove and conversation springs up naturally. We learn what each other does for a living. We figure out our six degrees of separation, although usually it’s just one or two degrees. In our little group today we discover that four out of five of us grew up in Portland. Three of us even went to the same high school. Our community is taking shape.

Good Food and Friends
This afternoon’s harvest went quickly, and soon we’re heading down to the house for our reward—a fabulous dinner of a mostly island-grown green salad, fresh salmon caught by Katy Jo’s husband Steve, hunks of whole grain artisan bread, and a rich, flavorful potato-fennel gratin. And of course good wine. Everybody is happy. Like the bumble bees, we’re all drunk on the heady, complex scent of lavender, fresh air, and plenty of sunshine. Unlike the bees, we’ve also got fun conversations with interesting new friends. IMO, life doesn’t get much better. Oh yea, there’s also that gorgeous sunset over the Olympic Mountains as our backdrop on the ferry ride home. Like I said….

When You Go
Click here for information on the 2009 Vashon Lavender Farm Tour. Don’t bother driving on the ferries and fighting traffic and long weekend lines. This year there will be a free shuttle running between farms. If you’d like to join a harvest with the Lavender Sisters, email them at In the Seattle area you can buy their lovely lavender at Metropolitan Markets through most of July.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Along the Cascade Loop: Methow Magic

Day 1 PM

Driving down from the stunning twin rock spires of Liberty Bell at Washington Pass towards the Methow Valley, the first thing you notice is the change in the forest along the highway. Instead of mostly Douglas fir trees and the dense, mossy understory west of the Cascade Crest, ponderosa pines (“P-pines”) now dominate, with their rough cinnamon-colored bark and sparse forest floor. Suddenly you’re in a more arid climate. When I spend more than a day or two east of the crest, my naturally wavy hair straightens noticeably (which is fine by me).

Today, though, the rain follows me all the way down into the upper valley. After my soggy hike to Lake Ann at Rainy Pass, I turn off the highway and stop at the Mazama Store for a hot cocoa. This local institution is a cafĂ©/coffee shop/bakery/general store/sportswear shop/gas station/community gathering place rolled into one cozy and appealing spot. When I order my cocoa, the young barista rattles off several kinds of chocolate to choose from. “What's your favorite?” I ask. “I like the Mexican chocolate, with a dash of cinnamon,” she tells me. I grab a slice of their melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip-banana bread to go with my Mexican hot cocoa.

But the real reason for this trip to the Methow is to spend two nights at Sun Mountain Lodge (courtesy of a Methow Conservancy fundraiser). This wonderful resort sits perched over 1,000 feet above the kitschy Old West-themed town of Winthrop about 15 miles down valley from Mazama.

I was introduced to the Methow Valley by my good friend Mary Ann (thanks Mab!), whose family formerly owned the Lazy M Ranch property on which the resort lies. Her uncle Jack Barron developed the original Sun Mountain lodge back in the 1960s; since then the resort has been sold and redeveloped into a somewhat more deluxe place. Regardless, I fell in love with the valley on my first trip there and have since made many trips for doses of what I like to call Methow Magic. There’s just something about the clean dry air, the narrow mountain valley with lovely long vistas, soaring raptors overhead, the quiet.

Heading up to the lodge, I pass irrigated meadows with grazing horses, red corrugated-roofed vacation homes, and the long blue stretch of Patterson Lake reservoir. Winding higher up the dry shrubby rise, I don’t glimpse the lodge until suddenly it’s looming in front of me at the top of the hill, like an oasis in this semi-arid landscape.

In a separate building from the main lodge, my cozy room has a rustic wood-beamed ceiling, knotty pine furniture, and balcony with a mountain view (partially obscured by clouds today). The spacious tiled bathroom is the size of my kitchen at home. Of course I sleep great, covered by a light down duvet to ward off the mountain chill.

Day 2

In years past I’ve camped, skied, mountain-biked, hiked, ridden horses, jogged, and river rafted through and around the valley. This trip is about unwinding. So I don’t even leave Sun Mountain today. That’s okay because there’s plenty to do (or not do) here. After breakfast on my balcony, I head to one of the outdoor hot tubs to soak myself and soak in the panoramic views of snow-dusted Mt. Gardner and the valley below. It's a Monday morning, so I have the place to myself.

With a break in the clouds, I decide to walk one of the several trail loops from the lodge. Starting out on the interpretive trail, I meander through classic shrub-steppe, a low-rainfall natural grassland. Agriculture, fire suppression, and stock grazing has caused this transitional zone between the mountains and the desert to become one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America

It’s a few weeks past the wildflower peak, but some bright yellow balsamroot and purple lupine are still scattered among the grasses, shrubs, sagebrush, and occasional ponderosa pine. A breeze ripples through the tall grass like a wave, flushing out some orange monarch butterflies. Big red hawks are surfing circles on thermals in the sky above. While pausing to take it all in, it hits me—this is country. I’m miles and a mountain range away from the city. Any city.

After a very pleasant 2-mile walk, I’m back at the main lodge for my afternoon appointment at the spa. “Hi, I’m Beverly.” smiles my friendly, tan masseuse. “Come on in!” she says as she escorts me into a dimly lit room, "First just breathe deep and relax." Sun Mountain offers a range of spa services, but I’m having a basic Swedish massage today. Beverly tells me the lodge planned a larger spa with indoor whirlpools, but several years of drought scaled back their plans. (Water use is a hot button issue east of the Cascades.) Regardless, I melt into the table while Beverly’s skilled hands coax my tight back and neck muscles to loosen up.

My dinner this evening is at the casual Wolf Creek Bar & Grill next to the main dining room in the lodge. I always enjoy the good bar food and amazing views here. I pass through the rustic wood-paneled bar and snag a table outside on the balcony looking up-valley. With the mountain dropping away dramatically below, I almost feel like I’m in the cockpit of an airplane. Violet-green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) swoop and dive like acrobats putting on a show just beyond the balcony, their feathers shimmering iridescent in the evening light.

“What can I get you?” asks my healthy-looking, attractive young waiter. (Actually most everyone I encounter here in the valley looks healthy and attractive.) I order a turkey sandwich and green salad, and it’s good. Nothing fancy but quality ingredients and fresh local greens glazed with a tangy vinaigrette. In a nod to the local flavor, I quaff a schooner of a creamy ale from the Methow Valley Brewing Company in Twisp. It goes down easy.

Tonight I sleep deeply and dream of butterflies. It must be that Methow Magic.

When You Go
Click here for information on Sun Mountain Lodge. Be sure to bring your sunscreen, binoculars, and good walking shoes. Or your shit kickers if you want to go horseback riding from the lodge. The birding is excellent. At almost 3,000 feet elevation, evenings can be cool any time of year, so don’t forget a light jacket. And of course your bathing suit.