Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sea Kayaking Sitka Sound: Many Islands and Shades of Gray

This is the first of a few posts from Southeast Alaska, which is just a quick jet trip north up the coast from the Pacific Northwest and shares with us an ocean, northern latitude, similar flora and fauna, and a spirited outdoors culture.

I didn’t arrive in Sitka this morning with an agenda, but as soon as I see the cluster of small islands just offshore as we drive the short trip to town from the airport, I’m seized with desire. I must kayak out there.

It’s a drizzly, gray day, and low clouds obscure the surrounding mountains (most notably Mount Edgecumbe). But on the upside, the water is placid and no one else is out except a few trawlers.

As soon as I drop my luggage at the hotel, I ask where to rent kayaks and a friendly local sends me over to Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures at the Crescent Harbor marina, about a 10-minute walk away.

I find the old blue school bus with a kayak propped in front in the parking lot and ask the fresh-scrubbed young woman outside, “I’d like to go kayaking this afternoon, can I rent or join a group that’s going out?”

“No one else is signed up, but you can go with a guide, “ she replies with a smile. “The water is so calm now, can you go soon?”

Most definitely. I dash a couple blocks into town to grab a quick lunch at Two Chicks in the Window, a local seafood stand recommended by the guide service. Ten thumbs up to this spot. Today’s special is white king salmon on grilled rosemary bread with spicy coleslaw. The flaked fresh fish, topped with a red pepper aioli and spring greens, is so sweet and tender that I chow it down quickly. Divine.

Lucky me, they managed to find two single kayaks for my harbor outing rather than a double. My friendly guide Mitchell is a handsome Vermont transplant who has been bouncing around for several years living the footloose outdoorsy life I wish I’d done in my twenties.

After getting all rigged up, we shove off a boat launch into the smooth green water and immediately head out towards the islands I saw earlier. It feels great to find that rhythmic, push-pull paddling cadence, and we move quickly across the forest-fringed harbor out to the small islands.

Along the rocky shoreline of Aleutski Island, which reminds me a lot of Washington’s San Juans Islands, neon orange and deep purple starfish cling to rocks beneath the clear water surface among plump green-yellow rockweed and dappled ribbon kelp.

“See that lighthouse out there?” says Mitchell, pointing about a half mile away. “Let’s head toward that.”

We pass more petite islands topped with thick evergreen trees and draw close to the tall white structure, which isn’t actually a functioning lighthouse. Mitchell tells me it was built by a quirky local veterinarian, who only made people pay for his services if he didn’t like their pets.

Since I’m a decent paddler and we’re making good time, Mitchell suggests that next we head for a couple narrow islands another half mile farther towards the open ocean. By this time we’re both damp from the light, steady rain, but it doesn’t bother either of us.

“On the other side of those islands, there’s nothing between us and Eurasia,” he tells me. I’m game.

A breeze picks up as we get close to the inland side of the islands. Atop one of the windblown trees is a big immature bald eagle, whose head is still dark on top. We draw close and linger for a minute, where the water is still.

“I could float here for a long time and just be with the Zen of the moment,” says Mitchell, who has revealed the soul of an artist. I know what he means. I wish we could just hang here for a while and listen to the wind in the trees and water lapping against the rocks.

To our left is a small gap between the island and a rocky shoal where ocean waves are breaking in foamy white splashes. Mitchell tells me to stay in the middle of the tight channel, and we paddle quickly through and around to the outside.

“Look over to the right,” Mitchell says. “There’s an old World War II bunker.” Perched on the rocks facing the ocean is an gray, forlorn-looking concrete structure. I sure wouldn't want to spend a winter there.

What a contrast to the inner harbor. Big ocean swells roll in and break on the weathered, rocky shoreline and then bounce back toward us. Our kayaks bob up and down several feet in the choppy, rolling water. It feels exactly like air swells on the flight this morning up from Seattle.

Unfortunately there’s a time limit to this sweet sojourn, and we need to head back. As we’re approaching the end of the Sitka Airport runway, an Alaska Airlines jet takes off and roars not far overhead. And soon we’re back on land.

Afterwards I chat a bit with Alison Dunlap, who owns Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures with her husband John. I’m probing her for some colorful quotes about kayaking in Sitka. “Many shades of gray,” she laughs.

Come to think of it, I’m drawn to many shades of gray myself. (Just look at my wardrobe for starters.) Sure, I wouldn’t mind blue skies and sunshine, but the gray and rain today also made the trip more special. It was just me and Mitchell, the bald eagles and ravens, and the beautiful island-strewn harbor all to ourselves.

When You Go
Sitka Sound Ocean Adventures runs daily tours, from a 2.5-hour harbor tour, which I did, to half day and more. I was just lucky to be the only customer on a rainy day, so I got a private tour. My trip was $73 with tax. Alison says they can arrange multi-day expeditions or rent gear for those wanting to take a longer trip.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Golden Gardens Sunset: Seattle Celebrates the Solstice

With just 5 minutes to go before the sun sets on this glorious summer solstice, we’re stacked up behind several cars waiting to park at Seattle’s Golden Gardens Park. Will we make it in time to watch the sun slide behind the Olympic Mountains on the western horizon on this longest day of the year?

“Here, will you take a few pictures?” I say, handing the phone to my niece while I maneuver the car slowly forward. She’s already on it. “Mine takes better shots.”

On this first summer night of the year, kissed with a hint of salt in the breeze off Puget Sound, it looks like half the city is here to witness the solstice sunset. And party. Numerous beach fires glow orange, surrounded by crowds of people. There’s something splendidly pagan about it all.

Finally I stop directly behind several cars parked facing the beach, turn on my hazard lights, turn off the engine, and hop out. Totally illegal, but who’s going to be pulling out of their prime parking spots for the next 10 minutes?

Here in Sunset City, I’ll never tire of watching a sunset on the edge of Puget Sound while the water turns shimmery ice blue and the sky fades to crimson-orange, rimmed by the dark blue silhouette of the jagged Olympics. Over on the main beach at Golden Gardens to our right, I’ve never seen so many people gathered there. It’s packed.

As the sun slips below the mountains to the west, everyone starts cheering and whooping, and I swear it sounds like the Huskies or Seahawks just scored a touchdown. On this beautiful, warm evening, it’s exhilarating.

Lindsey and I sing a silly song and dance for a minute because there’s good reason to celebrate. After the record-breaking cold spring we’ve had, it’s summer!

Happy solstice!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Fremont Solstice Parade Sneak Peak: The Ice Queens are Hot

I’m not sure that Seattle’s Fremont district is still the (self-proclaimed) Center of the Universe that it was some years ago, but the Fremont Arts Council’s annual Solstice Parade is still the best quirky, Boho party in the city. And the fabulous Ice Queens are one of the many reasons to catch this festive Seattle arts tradition.

With standout sculptures like Waiting for the Interurban (which locals regularly dress in new clothes), the Fremont Troll, and a massive statue of Lenin from the former Soviet Union, Fremont is a perfect place for a parade that doesn’t allow any written or printed words or logos nor any motorized vehicles (except wheelchairs). And then there are those famous naked bicyclists, although I think they call it street theater.

Tonight the Ice Queen Ensemble had a preview party in Fremont, where the numerous queens were modeling their wildly extravagant creations made primarily out of coffee filters. In a bright, airy space in Fremont with colorful walls and electronica music, the Ice Queens put the finishing touches on their costumes while posing for many pictures. (I think there were almost as many of us photographers as costumes.)

“What’s with the antlers?” I ask Ice Queen Lesley. All their headgear is festooned with red antlers.

“Our theme is based on the Finnish Solstice tradition,” she says. I guess that has something to do with reindeer. I love that these creative women have brought these artistic visions to fruition.

With music playing, cameras clicking, and people swaying, I could just drift right into the equinox. Here in the northern half of the Northern Hemisphere, of course we celebrate the longest day of the year. Whether you go to the Fremont Solstice Parade, or just watch the sunset behind the Olympic Mountains or the Pacific Ocean, have a great Solstice!

When You Go
The Fremont Solstice Parade starts at noon on Saturday, June 18, although the nekked painted cyclists begin riding the route at 11:45. Here is a link to a PDF map of the parade route. I don’t recommend trying to drive and park in Fremont unless you go really early. Hop on a Metro bus or bicycle there instead.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Driving and Hiking the Columbia River Gorge: Lovely Latourell Falls

I’m a firm believer in Heaven on earth and that it’s unique for everyone. My version of Heaven varies, but today it’s the lush, verdant Columbia River Gorge just east of Portland, Oregon, and its many dramatic waterfalls. Take a hike there above Latourell Falls on a late spring/early summer day when Cascade snowmelt peaks and I bet you’d agree.

Probably it’s my slice of Heaven because I grew up on the Gorge’s western edge and roamed there frequently as a girl. But a drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway and a hike in this misty land of green forests, moss-covered basalt cliffs, and streaming water always leaves me refreshed. Call me Gorge Girl.

The Drive
Like a homing pigeon, on a recent weekend I drive south up the more narrow but still lush Sandy River Gorge from Troutdale, then angle northeast up along bucolic fields through Springdale and Corbett, and past Chanticleer Point (where everyone must stop for the magnificent view upriver) to catch the old highway east.

I always watch carefully for roadside deals at the small farms along the road up to Corbett. Today I grab an extravagant bouquet of plump purple lilacs for only $5, less than half the cost you’d pay at farmer’s markets in Seattle or Portland.

After driving cautiously down the first narrow switchbacks of the old highway around a few blind turns, I stop briefly at the Crown Point Vista House perched 733 feet above the Columbia on a massive basalt outcrop. This lovely, German-style Art Nouveau stone structure dates from the early days of the highway as a rest stop/viewpoint (it opened in 1918), and it still draws many visitors for the same reason.

The Hike
Sure, there are longer and more challenging hikes in the Gorge, but 224-foot Latourell Falls, the first waterfall along the highway east past Crown Point, is a beautiful introduction to the Gorge trails. At a little over 2 miles, with ups and downs totaling close to 1,000 feet in elevation gain/loss, it’s a decent workout.

I start out at the trailhead just east of the bridge over Latourell Creek in Guy W. Talbot Park. It’s a short hike up a paved trail to a nice viewpoint of the waterfall, but continue up the dirt trail to the left.

The trail rises gently and switchbacks up through the dense mixed deciduous-evergreen forest, passing a profusion of moisture-loving plants like maidenhair ferns, trilliums, wood sorrel, and bleeding hearts. Numerous species of native plants unique to the Gorge are not found anywhere else in the world.

Within a half mile or more the trail tops out and then drops down a bit to Latourell Creek above the falls. Today the falls and stream are rushing thick and fast with springtime abundance. I continue on, passing over a few small footbridges over side streams until I hear the roar and feel the mist of Upper Latourell Falls before I see it.

Upper Latourell Falls is almost as dramatic as the lower fall, and hikers can get closer to the base of the falls on another wooden bridge. The columnar basalt is strikingly visible here in angled vertical columns of dark wet rock. As a girl I strayed beyond the bridge closer to the base of the waterfalls, but with slick rocks, it’s not really a good idea.

Since I’m running late to meet friends, I need to pick up the pace on the way back. As I pass above the lower waterfall, in haste I miss a junction and end up at a narrow finger of rock that lies not far above where the waterfall plunges over 200 feet to the creek below. This spot is crossed by a cable to keep people away, but today the cable is lying on the ground and easy to miss. When I get close to the edge and realize where I am, vertigo hits and I have to step back. Be very careful up here! But the view is good up the Columbia River.

As the trail leaves the creek and waterfalls and travels west a bit before dropping back to the highway, the forest understory becomes a bit drier and has less of a rainforest feel. Here in the Gorge you pass through several microclimates, depending on how close you are to a waterfall.

I reach the highway and walk across the historic Latourell Creek bridge back to my car, although the trail continues down below the bridge along the creek far below. As usual after hiking in the Gorge I feel energized and especially alive despite the sweat-inducing exercise. There’s just something magical about the abundant and thriving plant life and coursing streams here. Like I said, it's heavenly.

When You Go
Right now is a great time to go drive, bicycle, or hike past the waterfalls since there’s so much water in our streams and rivers this year. Here’s a map of the western Gorge waterfalls. There isn’t a sign indicating the hike distance at the trailhead where I started, so I couldn’t remember if I would be hiking for a mile or two or more. I recommend sturdy trail shoes since the trail is pretty rocky and damp in places. You can also get to Latourell and the other waterfalls more quickly off Interstate 84 along the Columbia River.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hiking to Heather Lake: Early Season, Late Snow

Yes, I know that hiking to an alpine lake in late spring/early summer after a record-breaking snow season is a bit risky. But I’m ready to stray beyond lowland foothills hikes. I can’t resist.

“How about hiking to Heather Lake?” I suggest. “It’s at only 2,500 feet and the freezing level hasn’t gone below 4,000 feet in the last week.” This isn’t the best logic, but it works. My friend Julie is game.

So we drive up north on I-5 from Seattle to Marysville, then head east, taking the Mountain Loop Highway to the trailhead near the base of Mount Pilchuck. We’re not alone. Northwest hikers eager to get out in the mountains have jammed the small parking area and their vehicles spill over onto the roadside. (Heather Lake is a very popular hike, but with the road to the Pilchuck trailhead still closed due to snow, it's especially busy this early in the season.)

After throwing on light jackets and packs, we start on up the trail, immediately heading into thick second-growth forest. The grade isn’t too steep, but with our damp weather lately, the trail is pretty muddy and wet in places. In a few spots it’s literally just a stream crossing. But nothing too intense, and with waterproofed hiking boots our feet don’t get wet.

I’m glad I wore decent boots because the trail is also pretty rocky in some spots. I’m amazed (but not surprised) that I see hikers out in short shorts and flimsy sneakers, especially since I read that the trail is still snow-covered for the last half mile. But everyone happily treks away, regardless of insufficient gear and attire.

Along the trail and slopes are stumps of the behemoth old-growth cedar trees that once graced this area. A mile or so up the trail, we pass through a grove of some big trees that somehow managed to survive the rampant logging. I just have to give one a hug. (Yes, I'm a tree hugger.)

Sure enough, we start hitting snow about a quarter mile below the lake, and it gets pretty deep pretty quickly. Actually the compacted snow is easy to hike on (albeit a little slippery) and the trail is well marked with footprints. Although the real trail might not be exactly where the footprints go, they lead to the still mostly snow-covered lake.

Heather Lake lies tucked in a glacial cirque a couple thousand feet directly below the summit of Mount Pilchuck, stunning in its dramatic setting. Steep rocky cliffs rise abruptly above the lake, which of course today is not so much a lake as a snowfield with a few small openings.

We find a big rock and a snowless tree well beside the lake to sit and grab lunch. A few tree wells back we passed a group of guys cooking up a great smelling lunch. “Hey got any leftovers?” I tease them as we walk past.

I get chilled after sitting and munching lunch for about 15 minutes. Out come a shell, wool beanie, and gloves out of my fanny pack. I wonder how those who wore shorts and sneakers are faring.

We got a fairly late start (about 12:30) so I’m surprised by how many people we pass on the way down who are just making their way up the trail. But this time of year it doesn’t get dark until about 9 p.m. We’re back at the car a little before 4, after about 3 hours hiking this 4+-mile trip. But not before I snapped more shots of some of the lush, lovely native greenery along the trail.

When You Go
Here’s a map and directions to Heather Lake, which is about an hour drive from Seattle. Be sure and register and pay the $5 user fee at the station beside the bathroom. (We didn’t see it until we got back to the car.) You also need to have a Northwest Forest Pass in your vehicle.