Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 Northwest Highlights: Revisiting and Discovering

Puget Sound sunset from West Point
It's time again for the annual wrap-up.  Did you get out and explore as much as you planned/hoped in 2014?

I love visiting or discovering places I've never been before, whether it's a new hiking trail, restaurant, or road I've never driven.  This year I hit some old favorites as well as places around the Pacific Northwest that were new to me, even after a lifetime of exploring here.  

And a beauty of this region is knowing there are still plenty of places within the Northwest yet to discover.

Here's my attempt at selecting highlights from 2014, a year-end challenge!

January wasn't the month for exploring new places in 2014. Some good skiing  at Crystal Mountain and Stevens Pass kept us going when the snows finally arrived in earnest, a bit late. But later than usual seems to be the new normal...

Freshies at Stevens Pass
Early February was all about the Seattle Seahawks thrilling Super Bowl run here in the Northwest. While I wasn't among the fortunate to score tix to any games at the CLink, the spirit of the Hawks infused the region with pride. On the day of the victory parade through downtown Seattle, hundreds of thousands of us endured subfreezing temps for hours for the huge party. But the warmth generated by thousands on the streets made it worth the freezing fingers and toes. Go Hawks!

Letting our freak flag fly! Edmonds-Kingston Ferry

 Oh yea, there was some great Northwest skiing in February!

 By March around here in the Upper Left Hand corner, we're ready for more...sun, longer days, warmth.  In the meantime, I enjoyed an excellent early spring meal at Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island, dubbed a "food haven for Bainbridge as well as day-trippers from Seattle." Fiddleheads anyone?

Salmon, fiddlehead, fennel mousse appetizer at Hitchcock
March also saw the demise of a piece of Northwest skiing history when Crystal Mountain's Chair 6 was taken out by a ski patrol avalanche control blast (since replaced this season).

Surveying High Campbell and toe of the avalanche
Now April was jam-packed with new Northwest adventures. From the first annual Bird and Wildlife Festival on Orcas Island, to a hike up the new Turtleback Head trail, to a spring wildflower walk in Deception Pass State Park with nature blogger Dave Wenning, to Skagit tulips, to a weekend camp-out and beach cleanup at the Washington Olympic National Park coast. We had it all here -- brilliant sun, spring skiing, torrential rain showers, and of course plenty of gray skies.

Wild rhododendrons at Deception Pass State Park, WA
Cape Flattery, WA

By May we've got a profusion of green here in the Upper Left Hand corner and the hiking season is cranking into high gear. While there's still too much snow at higher elevations for high country hiking, we got out for some great hikes in the I-90 corridor east of Seattle (Little Si, Mt. Washington). I also made my first ascent to Angel's Rest in the Columbia Gorge east of Portland. Marvelous!

Angel's Rest overlooking Columbia River, OR

With tendinitis in my right hand, hiking took precedence over kayaking for much of the year. June brought a beautiful misty hike at Larch Mountain east of Portland, Oregon, with high school friends reunited via FaceBook.  This was the first time I've done the loop into the ancient crater and back, and it was as lush and beautiful as any Northwest hike I've done.

Larch Mountain, OR
Ah the crest of summer!  Island time.  Some friends from Arizona joined for a getaway to Orcas Island, and we managed some hiking, kayaking, and fantastic meals at local gems Doe Bay Cafe and Hogstone Wood Oven. But really, any time is island time.

Mt. Baker from top of Mt. Constitution, Orcas Island, WA
Years ago I declared August my favorite month -- it brings the warmest, softest summer nights here in the Northwest. Early August brought a whirlwind kayak camping trip to Cypress Island, with a morning hike up to the stunning Eagle's Nest for breathtaking views of the San Juan Islands. 

Cone Islands, Bellingham Channel, WA
Northwesterners know that September is really just about the best month to get out and about in the region -- kids are back in school, Indian summer often rules, and more often than not the sun is shining. With trips to Vancouver, BC; Cama Beach Resort on Camano Island; and another trip to Orcas Island, it was a full month of fun weekends.

Hiking in Moran State Park, Orcas Island, WA
Okay, October is really my favorite month now. Golden larches and vine maples are dressed up in brilliant colors like there's no tomorrow. If you catch a hike in the high country before the snow flies too thick and deep, it's spectacular. A weekend at the ever wonderful North Cascades Institute included a gorgeous hike and good workout on the Maple Pass Loop.

Golden larches at their peak on the Maple Pass Loop, North Cascades, WA
Some years we're skiing in November, but not this year.  However, a late warm dry spell allowed me to sneak up with a friend for an awesome but challenging hike to Blanca Lake.  Talk about magnificent!  The trail to this glacial-fed alpine lake was fairly busy even on a chilly mid-November day. Worth every drop of sweat for the view.

Blanca Lake, WA Cascades
Sure it's a crazy busy month with the holidays, but it's also an excellent month to get out and away from the city bustle.  With late snow and start to the ski season, some friends joined me for a truly awe-inspiring hike to the summit of Silver Star Mountain, just northeast across the river from Portland, Oregon. And in the shot below is a sneak preview for an upcoming blog post about an Olympic Peninsula getaway.

Mt. Olympus from Hurricane Ridge, WA
So many more photos to share of this past year!  Lots more to come in the year ahead. Check out Pacific Northwest Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more photos between blog posts.

What were some of your 2014 highlights?  Did you do some hikes you'd never done before?  Found a favorite new cafe in your neighborhood? We've love to hear from you in the comments below.

Wishing you happy trails and a truly Happy New Year! May 2015 be the best ever.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Holiday Connections

We live in turbulent times, full of an eye-for-an-eye violence, environmental degradation, and other things that weigh heavy. While it's easy to feel despair with the news cycle, of course there are always reasons for hope and laughter too.

This year for the holidays I'm keeping it close with family and friends and the great outdoors. Nothing boosts my spirit like getting outside in the woods, on the water, or in the mountains and savoring the joy of movement.

Christmas morning includes a walk in the lowland forest near my home, and the weekend is for skiing in the Cascades (snow willing) or hiking in the Olympics. Spending time outside in nature brings me back, grounds me, reconnects me to a sense of place. I know this is something we all need.

I hope you, too, enjoy the spirit of the season and nurture a connection to the natural world where you live, whether it's in the Pacific Northwest or across the continent or ocean.

Happy holidays and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Hiking Silver Star Mountain: Above it All

The road to Silver Star Mountain is not for the faint of heart or low of undercarriage.  I wince while negotiating potholes the size of small lakes on the rough dirt road up to the north trailhead, wondering if the punishing drive on my car is going to be worth the trip.  

We soon find out that it is indeed worth every bounce and scrape. Just don't take a regular passenger car if you don't want to risk losing your muffler.

While this hike in the Cascade foothills northeast of Vancouver, Washington, is popular in the summer for its stunning volcano views, on a misty late fall day I say it's equally stunning.

Plus you'll have more solitude.

With low clouds and mist hovering overhead, we start up the Silver Star #180 trailhead late morning this December day. On our way up, we passed two cars coming down (two gals said they never found the trailhead and turned back...glad we persisted) and just one other is here.

After a short flat stretch, the trail switchbacks a short distance up a mild grade until we emerge out of the trees and onto the beginning of what is essentially a long and varied ridge.

The Silver Star trail along the ridge, which can be accessed from the south, east, and north, traverses an ancient, extinct volcano. (My brother remembers studying the Silver Star granodiorite at the University of Washington Geology Department.) Remnant exposed rocks and bluffs add to the drama up here.

 On a clear day I'm told the views of the Portland, Oregon, metro area and surrounding volcanoes (Hood, St. Helens, Rainier, Adams) are magnificent. But I think there's enchantment in the mist that rises and falls for much of our hike.

Ultimately we gain a little over 1,000 feet in elevation before reaching the summit, but it's all pretty mellow. Not long before reaching the saddle between the false and true summit,  we descend a bit into a subalpine fir forest.

While we don't have any views from the summit (marked by the concrete foundation of a former fire lookout), we get a peak-a-boo view during the approach.

True summit to the right.
On the summit as we toast a great day with pieces of Fran's Chocolates (thank you Bob!), a chill descends and it starts to snow.  It is December. In years past this spot would be covered in several feet of snow by now.

Marley does his best Rin Tin Tin imitation at the summit.
I welcome the snow, but the flakes dissipate as we descend.  By the time we get off the summit and start down the ridge to our cars, the sky is clearing. With the late afternoon sun this close to the Solstice, there's some drama in the interplay of light and clouds.

An especially cool phenomena is a halo effect, which isn't easily captured in photos.  I try, however.  Each one of us sees our shadow encircled in a halo (or maybe we're all just saints :).

My halo.....
We get back to the trailhead with just enough time to enjoy a beautiful sunset as we pack up and head back down. 

Perfect ending to a perfect afternoon hiking.

Have you done this hike? Would love to hear in the comments below about your trip there, other favorite hikes, or whether you're familiar with the halo phenomena. 

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
According to other guidebooks, trip reports, and trail signs, we hiked about 5.5 miles to the summit and back from the north trailhead. The elevation at the summit is about 4,364 feet above sea level. Here's a link to a map of the area. I recommend checking out a guidebook or Portland Hikers.org website for specifics on the hike and getting there.  It didn't seem that far, but perhaps we were just too exhilarated by the beauty around us.  The road up there is quite rough, so be forewarned. But it's a lovely drive out from Battleground up the East Fork Lewis River.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Paddling Seattle: Lake to Lake

Between Puget Sound, lakes, and waterways, greater Seattle is blessed with many great paddling destinations.  Most kayakers, canoeists, and paddleboarders first take to the water here in the stretch from Lake Union through Portage Bay over to the Lake Washington/Washington Park Arboretum areas. Generally mellow, mostly protected, and scenic in an urban setting sort of way.

On what turns out to be a surprisingly beautiful late November afternoon after a stormy night, some friends and I opt for a mellow lake to lake (Union to Washington) "tour de bridges." It's close, easy, and good to be out on the water with friends.

Our goal, besides exercise and the sheer pleasure of paddling, is to check out construction on the new SR 520 Floating Bridge in Lake Washington. A couple of us worked on the bridge replacement project environmental analysis and design, so it's fun to see the fruits of our and many others' labor.

Since Seattle is surrounded and constricted by water, of course we have lots of  bridges.  First up as we head from Lake Union to Portage Bay is University Bridge, a bascule draw bridge. This bridge was originally built in 1919, just a couple years after the major project to create the Ship Canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound.

University Bridge crossing the Lake Washington Ship Canal
 After passing under the bridge, the much higher Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge looms overhead. Tucked beneath and beyond these bridges are live-aboard houseboats. Some are tidier and better maintained than others.

Enroute to Lake Washington, we skirt the southern edge of my alma mater University of Washington (Go Dawgs!) through Portage Bay. Choppy, bouncy water is usually the norm for narrow, manmade Montlake Cut, where hundreds of rowers have raced over the last century. Every year different Husky crews leave their mark on the sloped concrete walls lining the Cut beneath the beloved Gothic-style Montlake Bridge, another drawbridge/traffic bottleneck dating to 1925.

As we paddle through the Cut eastward into Lake Washington, it's fun to read all the spray-painted messages. Leaving the Cut, we enter the Arboretum to the right for a short detour. State Route 520 crosses through this wetland area, which today would be protected from a new highway construction under current environmental regulations.

Since we're blocked in by 520 construction staging, it's time to cut back out into Union Bay and around past Foster Island, a former native burial ground and now wildlife viewing trail. This part of the present-day Arboretum is rich in native history and use and a great wildlife watching area. As we approach the island, a flock of distinctive wild buffleheads hustle away in a splash of wings and webbed feet.

Foster Island
SR 520 western highrise ahead, Eastside and Bellevue beyond.
Out here we mingle with muskrats, beavers, and western pond turtles along with all sorts of waterfowl. You'd be surprised how many other creatures are out there living in our urban watersheds and forests. And how many you see while out on a hand-powered watercraft.

Aurora Borealis Sculpture
Wish I had on film: the time the dude in the red kayak pictured above climbed up to the Aurora Borealis sculpture platform, hauled up his kayak, and launched back into the lake in his kayak. Impressive and a little bit crazy.

After a short detour to check out the floating pontoons, we scoot over to and under the new 520 highrise being built. When it's finished, there will be a bicycle and pedestrian path on the north side.

Old bridge left, new bridge right
On our way back west, great views of Husky Stadium echo the excitement of just last night when we watched the Husky football team clobber the Oregon State Beavers there. (My two Beaver friends who were also at the game last night and are paddling with me today weren't so excited.)

Husky Stadium, where many arrive by boat.
And it's a cruise back to our put-in on north Lake Union via the Montlake Cut/Portage Bay. The weather cooperated nicely this afternoon. If you're lucky, that can happen any time of year, although less reliably so in the fall/winter.

Entering the Montlake Cut heading west.

UW research vessel, Lake Washington Ship Canal bridge above.
While we kayak in Puget Sound more often, this interlude in the lakes is a nice respite and always refreshing.  On this nice autumn day, when the Seahawks were in town and playing, we saw very few other boaters and enjoyed relative solitude on our urban waterways.

Have you paddled this area? Would love to hear your comments below.
Happy water trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go

There are many launch sites, but we put in just east of Gasworks Park near Dunato's Boat Yard, where we parked on the street and walk across  to a perfect little beach to launch. (Thanks to John for the tip.) Northwest Outdoor Center (NWOC) on Lake Union rents kayaks and paddleboards year-round. Other options to check out are Aqua Verde Paddle Club on Portage Bay and the University of Washington Canoe Center below Husky Stadium.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Hiking to Blanca Lake Before the Snow Flies

Some things are definitely worth the wait. 

Take Blanca Lake, crown jewel of the Cascades alpine lakes: Years ago I tried to hike there, but a road washout left us unable to reach the trailhead.  Then years passed, I developed chronic Achilles tendinitis, had to stop hiking for several years, worked back up to longer hikes again, and finally made my way to Blanca Lake.

We got a late start on this unseasonably mild and clear November day after driving several miles off Highway 2 and finding the road to Tonga Ridge gated closed. Thanks to my hiking buddy Jennifer for a  perfect Plan B, Blanca Lake.

After the long drive up backroads north of Skykomish and a wrong turn that led us to a makeshift shooting range, which was sort of scary,  we finally hit the trail around 11 a.m. (FYI, at the five-way intersection, take a true left.)

Essentially it's an upward grind through what seems to be mostly second-growth forest up 3 miles over 30 switchbacks, an elevation gain of 2,700 feet.  When we reach peek-a-boo views through the trees, over an hour has passed. In another 20 minutes we top out at a ridge with great views of nearby Glacier Peak.

A lot of this...

Glacier Peak

This late in the season we've missed what was likely, a few weeks ago, brilliant scarlet leaves on the thick huckleberry covering the steep slopes below. After pausing for a swig of water and snack above small Virgin Lake, we enter the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness (RIP Scoop) and plunge down somewhat rougher switchbacks for 600 feet in elevation loss feet to Blanca Lake. 

Columbia Glacier shown lower left feeds Blanca Lake

 We're not alone by any stretch.  Many are out taking advantage of this late season day in the mountains before the snow flies, and, thankfully, after the deer flies.  No bugs is a bonus for fall hiking.

First views of Blanca Lake evoke wows! and ooohhhs! Set in a basin below Monte Cristo, Kyes, and Columbia peaks, it's a postcard-perfect image of a beautiful mountain lake. For a relatively high, natural alpine lake, Blanca Lake is large and almost mirage-like.

Yes the water really is that turquoise-colored.

Of course photos don't capture what it's truly like to be somewhere, but I try with a zillion shots. The unusual opaque turquoise shade of the lake is caused by the glacial melt streaming down from the hanging Columbia Glacier across the lake.

One downside of hiking this late in the year, after the clocks have turned back to Standard Time, is much shorter days. Unfortunately we can't explore when we get to the lake because it'll likely be dark by the time we get back down. The sun is already setting around 4:30 pm.

So we backtrack after about 10 minutes, enjoying the alpine meadows above the lake and a last lingering view of Glacier Peak before dropping into the many switchbacked forest below.

Luckily we made it back down to the trailhead before it got too dark and managed without our headlamps.  I hope the numerous hikers behind us had  flashlights.

Some rate this hike strenuous and difficult; it all depends on your conditioning. I sure felt it the next day, with my quads and outside back of the knees talking to me. It's comparable to hiking Mt. Si, but perhaps a bit more. Various sources place it as about 7.5 miles with 3,300 feet in elevation gain and loss.

Regardless, it's a good workout, it's spectacular, and I'll do it again. Let me know if you do, too.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!

When You Go
It's about a 2-hour drive from the Seattle area to the trailhead. Reach the Blanca Lake trailhead via Beckler Road (FR 65) just past Skykomish. Take FR 65 for 15 miles all the way to the intersection of FR 63 and the private Garland Mineral Springs Road. Take a right on FR 63 and proceed about 2 miles. The trailhead is on a small spur road to the left, up another small hill. You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here.

 AND this late in the season the restroom at the trailhead is closed. DO NOT leave toilet paper lying on the ground in the woods behind the vault restroom. We go by a Leave No Trace ethic here in the Northwest, so bury it or better, stick it in a plastic bag and take with!