Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Atop Hyak, Summit East at Snoqualmie Pass, Washington
I don't know about you, but life right now for me is a frenzy of shopping, cooking, holiday events and parties, seeing old friends visiting from out-of-town, and heading out of town to visit family.  Whew!  But no matter, I'm making myself sit down each morning and just be with the moment. 

Just this. Right now.

I hope you can take time to slow down and savor the season.  Maybe you're with family, friends, or alone. No matter.  Every single minute is a precious gift.  

Sure, it's easy to throw out statements like that and move on. I know I do.  But maybe you know someone battling cancer, like my friend Jean, or are still mourning the senseless loss of children to violence. 

Reminders.  Every single minute is everything and all that we have. 

So my wish for you and everyone I know is this:  May you be fully alive and awake to the gifts that each moment brings. May your days be merry and bright.  And if you're a skier (or snowboarder) like me, maybe all your Christmases be white. :)

Holiday cheers!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Powder Energy: When the Snow Flies, Carpe Diem

As we all know but might need reminding, life can be shorter than any of us expect.  I had the pleasure to know someone who really took the term carpe diem to heart when it came to skiing and, I suspect, life in general.

Back in my ski school days, I shared some memorable backcountry runs with Mad Mountain Dean Meinert, a fellow instructor at Crystal Mountain. Our time together didn’t extend much past ski weekends, but we shared a natural affinity.  

And a passion for freshies.

We were kindred spirits at the regimented ski school—both in our early 30s and a little too old and nonconformist to take all the politics and rules too seriously. When I first met Dean, I quickly developed a little crush, but he was married with two small kids. He seemed oblivious to his rugged blonde good looks.  Dean was a no frills, ski-‘til-you-drop kind of guy. His ski clothes and gear were functional, not fashionable.

During lunch breaks, sometimes Dean would slow down and let me join him for a few laps in the Crystal backcountry.  He had a religious fervor, reminiscent of an evangelical preacher, about going out and “gettin’ some ‘pow.’”  He’d stuff a small pack with water bottles and Clif bars for lunch during lift rides and then hiking.  

I did my best to keep up with him.  Dean would wait for me to catch up, then he’d be off in a puff of snow as soon as I did. Seems like almost everyone who skied with him said the same thing. 

One day with temps hovering just above freezing and a light drizzle, I followed Dean out to what was then the North Back.  He plunged down into Brand X  with a series of jump turns, breaking through the ice-glazed surface and leaving a trail of crusty slabs on the slope behind him.  Dean could power his way through heavy Cascade crud like it was champagne powder and have a big smile on his face at the bottom, ready for more.

But I really liked Dean because he was a totally unpretentious, no bullshit, good guy. He wasn’t out to impress, he just wanted to squeeze as much out of every day as he possibly could. That meant watching the mountain forecasts each ski season carefully, then calling in sick on those epic days after the snow fell hard and fast and cold. The man had his priorities.

After four ski seasons together teaching, we both moved on and away from the Crystal Ski School and drifted apart except for the occasional email and lunch date. A few years later I got an email from a mutual friend and co-worker of Dean’s that hit me like a splash of icy glacial melt in the face.  As I scrolled down, I saw the words “I have some very sad and shocking news...”  

My friend Dean had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack while playing ultimate Frisbee.  He was just 37, one of the strongest and fittest people I knew.  It would be fitting to describe Dean with “leaps tall buildings in a single bound.” 

At his memorial service, his widow Michelle said that once while doing yoga with Dean, she was expressing her thanks for Earth energy and Moon energy.  Dean interrupted her and said “Hey, what about powder energy?”

I wonder if Dean had any premonitions of his premature demise. I don’t know if he was aware of a heart condition, but if he did, he never mentioned it to his friends and co-workers.  But I do know his life was about action.  Living life to the fullest, spending quality time with family and friends, drinking good beer, playing ultimate Frisbee, bicycling everywhere, climbing up and skiing down mountains as often as he possibly could, and the pursuit of epic powder days. 

When I heard that it snowed 4 feet in the last two days at Crystal, I thought of Dean and knew that he would have called in "sick" and gone skiing.

So get on out there. Enjoy the day. Ski hard.   Because you just never know what the future holds.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Good Northwest Reads: Closer to the Ground

While I usually write about everyday adventures here in the Pacific Northwest or  occasional essays or recipes, this is my first book review. Why?

I just love this book because it so authentically evokes the taste and feel of the  Northwest, and I suggest anyone living here (or anywhere) and raising kids (or not) read it. Beyond its Northwest ethos, the themes of family and respect for the environment are universal and applicable anywhere.

While I've been doing battle for a few weeks with a nasty bug and not getting out much,  I was vicariously transported to the forests, tide flats, and waters of the Puget Sound region and western Washington through this lovely and joyful book. 

In his first book Closer to the Ground, Bainbridge Island author Dylan Tomine writes sweetly and vividly about foraging, gardening, fishing, shrimping, crabbing, clamming, cutting wood, and more here in western Washington with his family, including his two small children. And amazing kids they are, eager and excited to join their dad on outings for wild edibles.

Organized by the seasons, Tomine writes about the different offerings of the sea and forests throughout the year.  From a wet and chilly weekend on the Washington coast with a group of friends harvesting razor clams, to fishing for salmon on the Sound near his Bainbridge home or in the Columbia River, to scanning for chanterelle mushrooms on the way to the grocery store, I thoroughly enjoyed going along for the ride.

In fact, I was sad to have to take leave of the Tomine family when I finished the book. The author takes you into the woods and on the sea and then writes enticingly about preparing and enjoying the fruit of their labors with family and friends.  

"Candace has a big crab pot loaded with clams, butter, garlic, white wine, and parsley. A couple of big crusty loaves from the bakery up in Port Townsend are warming in the oven. Stacy's tossing winter greens with dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, and vinaigrette...Stacy yells 'Soup's on' and the feast begins. The crisp oysters burst with the briny flavor of the sea...A rich, citrusy amber ale from 7 Seas Brewing down in Gig Harbor quenches thirst and complements the food. We are getting down to some serious eating now."

Can I just be there for their next party?

Puget Sound mussels

Here's a family who, although not foraging for subsistence and survival, chooses to involve their children in food gathering and production.  

"For us," writes Tomine "I think it's more about living and raising our children in a way that keeps us in touch with our surroundings." 

Edible lobster mushroom

And kudos to the author for working in messages of concern for and protection of the environment as well as meaningful ties with family, friends, and community.  In this day of sedentary kids glued to their iPhones and games, I'm heartened for the future by Tomine's children Skyla and Weston, who are getting a solid grounding in respect and enthusiasm for the natural world, outdoor pursuits, and healthy food.

Thank you for this beautiful book Mr. Tomine!

Where to Buy
For starters, if you're in the Seattle area, how about making a trip to Bainbridge Island to pick up this book at the author's home community at Eagle Harbor Books. Or buy online via their website

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.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Kayaking Seattle: Golden Gardens to West Point

Just north of West Point Lighthouse in Seattle's Discovery Park
Between storms and rain squalls, Puget Sound kayakers know any time of year is a great time to kayak the Salish Sea.  Like right now.

If you're lucky and check Orca Network updates, you might even be kayaking with orcas (also known as killer whales) this time of year.  While we missed seeing the Southern Resident J and K pods of orcas yesterday by about 30 minutes (darn!), we still had an invigorating and fun few hours paddling from Golden Gardens Park in Ballard south to the historic West Point Lighthouse and back. 

We put in around 11:30 a.m. at the smooth sandy Golden Gardens beach and headed south along the outside of the Shilshole Bay Marina jetty.  A perk of going on a Sunday morning is the abundance of parking spots right next to the beach, something you won't find easily on a nice summer day.

This jetty, or breakwater, that protects the busy Shilshole marina is a great place for diving and birdwatching. Watch for the tiny beach on the outer jetty at lower tides, where  you can stop for a quick break if needed.  As we glided close to the jetty, we spotted tons of cool birds:  great blue herons, Heerman's seagulls, cormorrants, hooded mergansers, western grebes, and more I couldn't identify.   

A ruffled old crow roosting on the sea monster's snout atop the jetty.
Great blue heron
Great blue herons and a gull atop the Shilshole jetty
Even though there was a good breeze, here north of West Point and Magnolia is somewhat protected from the brunt of the southerly winds.  Just west in the Sound, a sailboat race was going on.

With very little motor boat traffic, we easily dashed across the entrance to the Ballard Locks over to Magnolia.  While most of the upscale Magnolia neghborhood is packed tightly with homes, Seattle is fortunate that a large chunk along the bluffs above the Sound was protected from development as military outpost Fort Lawton, now encompassed by Discovery Park.

Just north of West Point, a narrow strip of land that juts dramatically westward into the Sound, the calm sea is always a contrast to the water south of the point.  We also caught an unpleasant whiff of the happenings at West Point wastewater treatment plant, although trees and shrubs obscure views of the plant.

"Check out the seal right behind me!" says Matt.  Up pops a shiny dark head with huge eyes, which checks us out and submerges again quickly. Too fast for a photo.

Ramped up for a water break in the protected cove north of West Point, looking west

West Point Lighthouse, which dates to 1881, is the same design as the Point No Point Lighthouse and other historic lighthouses in the Sound.

We carefully rounded the point and beached on the south side to stretch our legs for a short break. With much rougher sea on this side of the point, landing and taking off is usually more exciting than on the calm, northern side. 

South beach at West Point

Walking to the lighthouse on one of the many trails in "Disco" Park is a popular Seattle outing. But we stopped just long enough to eat a snack and pet a few dogs on the beach.

Looking southeast toward Magnolia Bluff

Tobias was more interested in my muffin than posing for a shot.
With the wind at our backs, the return paddle was a bit easier.  We meandered north along the Discovery Park/Magnolia shoreline, enjoying the nice afternoon.  Families and couples were out walking near the shoreline in the park.

Heading back north, with Magnolia on the right and Shilshole Marina straight ahead of me in the distance.

Although I wish we'd dawdled a bit longer and seen the passing orcas, I love the view of the hillside above Shilshole and Golden Gardens this time of year. Who cares if it's cloudy when the golden glow of bigleaf maples brightens up a gray day?  

Golden Gardens ahead.

When You Go
Before kayaking this time of year (well, any time, but particularly fall and winter), be sure and check the local tide tables and marine weather forecasts.  Some kayakers actually seek rough seas to practice their rescue skills--not me, but a little wind and chop keep us from getting too complacent, which is a risk for many who don't take the risks seriously.