Monday, April 28, 2014

Deception Pass State Park: In Search of Spring Wildflowers

Way up at the northern tip of Whidbey Island, a spring wildflower display is amping up the already stunning natural beauty of Deception Pass State Park. Within verdant old growth forest, along beaches, and around wild meadows, rare and common native flowers are scattered like jewels on a treasure hunt.

A few days ago I was fortunate to tag along with fellow blogger Dave of Fidalgo Island Crossings and Wild Fidalgo for a hike through the park.  Dave, who has lived near Deception Pass for over 25 years, is an astute observer of the natural world.  He is the perfect guide for a walk in the park he knows well, and shares his impressive knowledge of plants with an infectious enthusiasm.

We meet on a weekday morning at the North Beach Parking lot, where Dave greets Julie, Jerry, and me with a smile and leads us up the trail and into the forest.  Our primary goal is to see the wild rhododendrons (or "rhodies" as I grew up calling them) blooming in the forest below Goose Rock.

Dave leading, scanning the forest.
Right off the bat Dave starts identifying plants that we pass. "There's elderberry in bloom," says Dave, pointing to some white blossoms high up on a shrub about 10 feet off the trail in the thick understory.

Thinking I'll show what I know about native plants from growing up beside a lowland forest, I point out "Oregon grape!" 

In the nicest way possible, Dave corrects me. "That's actually mahonia nervosa, low Oregon grape. Easily confused." 

As we stroll through the gorgeous forest, Dave talks about the poor soil conditions here, and how the smaller trees shoot off from the older, larger trees to grow and be sustained. So really, under the soil surface, much of the forest life is interconnected.  Which I think is quite beautiful and analogous to most life on our fragile planet.

Dave gets excited as he spots the first rhodies in the woods.  While not in bloom, the rich, dark pink buds are visible on several branches, atop the shiny splayed leaves.

Turns out we're a few days early; the only rhodie in bloom is the one pictured at the top of this post.  But there are many other things to spot.  

We skirt down to the Cornet Bay shoreline, where I attempt to go dip my fingers in the sea, a ritual of mine.  The others sensibly watch me from the high tideline. It's too mucky to get to the water.

We then follow Dave up another trail that goes to the top of Goose Rock. En route, we have views down to the bay and spot brilliant orange-red harsh paintbrush alongside the trail. 

Harsh paintbrush (Castilleja hispida)

Approaching the rock "balds" near the summit, all sorts of delicate meadow wildflowers line the trail.  Cameras come out and we start snapping away in the spring sunshine.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis, F. lanceolata) in front, blue common camas (Camassia quamash), and buttercups.
Death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum, Zigadenus venenosus)
Cresting the summit, we're greeted by a breathtaking panorama of Whidbey Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south-southwest.  On top of all this splendor, we're the only ones here right now, which is a rare thing on a beautiful day. (Go on a weekday, if at all possible.)

Work demands that we head back down now, but first Dave leads us under the south side of Deception Pass Bridge and up onto the bridge. I always find this bridge/view exhilarating.

Have camera, will travel.

Looking west-northwest towards Deception Island and Lopez Island in the distance.
Many thanks to Dave for his cheerful and knowledgeable lead on this hike.  Besides the wildflowers, there are many more trails and beaches to explore at Deception Pass.  Go see for yourself!

What spring wildflowers have you seen this year? We always love to hear from you in the Comments below. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

When You Go
Now playing! The show is on now, so go soon for the peak display. Bring your camera, sturdy walking shoes, and the usual suspects such as rain gear, sunscreen, etc. depending on the weather forecast.  You'll need a Discover Pass to park at Deception Pass State Park, which is about a 90-minute drive north of Seattle. Here is a map of the park, where you'll see Goose Rock. We found the rhodies on the Discovery Trail - I think.

Click here to see Dave's blog, where you can learn about the plants and wildlife we saw on this outing. My blog is more about experiences and some things I learned along the way.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Washington Coast Cleanup Day: Fighting the Tide of Debris

We're hunched over, scanning the driftwood-littered beach for washed up trash on this soggy April day. Here on the Washington coast, storm fronts off the Pacific slam hard, and we're getting pummeled by the rain and wind. 

But with raingear and boots, many are out here for Washington CoastSavers Coast Cleanup day. After all, a good rain never stopped a true Northwesterner.

"It's like an Easter egg hunt!" jokes Paul, as we see multi-colored bits of plastic shards scattered among the logs and debris up near the tideline. We've gathered plastic bottles,  rusted tin cans, shoes, bits of tires, styrofoam, various other things like a tin of chewing tobacco, and plastic. LOTS of plastic.

I appreciate Paul's humor because finding all this plastic on Second Beach, a relatively pristine wilderness beach in Olympic National Park, is frankly depressing. People, we must cut down on our production and use of plastic!

Too much plastic in our oceans!
Volunteers from all over western Washington have gathered at beaches stretching from the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca down to the southern Pacific coast to pick up trash. The South Sound SurfRiders are our sponsor for beaches near LaPush. They are friendly folks who provide us a hot lunch afterwards.

After checking in the morning and getting big black garbage bags, we head to Second Beach and hike the .75 mile down to the beach through lush forest, past magnificent Sitka spruce and flowering skunk cabbage.

We're hit by the steady, driving rain as we emerge from the forest onto the picturesque beach, where others are already at work picking up trash. 

For the next few hours, our group of six walks up and down the beach filling our bags with trash.  With the bulk of debris being small pieces of broken plastic, often wedged in the sand or natural ocean debris, it's slow and messy going.  

Between the wind and rain, we're coated in sand after a while. But occasionally I stop to take in the beauty of our surroundings. It's a many shades of gray kind of day.

After a morning of getting pelted by the weather, we call it quits and head back.  (Last year it was a nicer day and some stayed out until mid-afternoon.)

I was disappointed to not fill my bag, but the predominant tiny pieces of plastic would have taken a couple days to fill the bag.  We couldn't haul the several big tires we passed embedded in the sand, but a couple strong guys dragged one back up.

Beach litter no more.

My takeaway from this event:  Use less plastic.  Buy less plastic.  That's my personal challenge.  

I hope you, too, consider doing the same and encouraging others to do so also.  We're trashing our oceans with waste.  It's shameful.

When You Go
The Washington CoastSavers has other events throughout the year. Visit their website for details. For Oregon coast beach cleanup events, check out the SOLVE website. 

Were you out there too? Would love to hear about your experience or what sort of trash/debris you've found on our Northwest ocean beaches. Just click on the word Comments below.  Thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Orcas Island Bird & Wildlife Festival: A Welcome New Island Tradition

"There he is!" cries our enthusiastic guide Natalie.  We all look skyward and see a sleek peregrine falcon zipping high overhead, silhouetted against the powder blue sky.

As part of the first annual Orcas Island Bird & Wildlife Festival, I'm on a marine bird watching boat tour with Deer Harbor Charters. We're in good hands with local naturalist Natalie Herner and Nate Averna, who grew up on Orcas and is working with his father Tom in the family business.

Here on the north side of the island, a pair of peregrines is building a nest on a cliff above the sea. While I've seen peregrines before, I've never seen a nest site.

But that's not all. Natalie points out lots of marine birds as our group scans the surrounding water and islands with binoculars glued to our hands and eyes. Surf scoters, pigeon guillemots, a few kinds of grebes, cormorants, showy harlequin ducks, lots of bald eagles, and more are spotted.

Naturalist Guide Natalie Herner points out a belted kingfisher in Deer Harbor.

When we pull away from Deer Harbor mid-morning on the southwest edge of Orcas Island, a marine cloud layer hangs low above. By the time we pass Jones Island to the west and are nearing Speiden Island, it's clearing to a sunny day. This is the San Juans after all, which are in a rain shadow and receive less than half the annual rainfall of Seattle to the south.

As we round to the west side of Speiden and slowly head back east, we're greeted by an unusual spring green.  This island is brown most of the year and grazed by exotic European deer and goats that were introduced for hunting decades ago by private owners, Natalie tells us.

Between soaring bald eagles and Bonaparte's gulls (pictured at the top of this post), we motor past clumps of sleek and shiny harbor seals sunning on rocky outcrops. They're checking us out, too.  Someone sees what looks like a pup, which is quite unusual this early in the season.

Harbor seals

I find these guys comical. Just look at those faces. :)

Rounding the easternmost tip of Speiden, a group of massive Steller sea lions are hanging out, with a couple big guys bellowing at each other. Although they are threatened up north in the Bering Sea, Natalie tells us this more southern (Eastern Distinct Population Segment) is doing okay and no longer listed as Threatened or Endangered.

Steller sea lions
After a couple hours, Nate picks up speed and we swing back to Deer Harbor through the Wasp Islands.  Natalie points out a few huge bald eagle nests and a big osprey nest on some of the islands we pass.

Sentinel Island, with British Columbia in the distance.

Osprey nest
Too soon our adventure is over, although we were out over 2 hours.  Nate expertly maneuvers the boat up to the dock back at Deer Harbor and we scramble off to the next adventure (another blog post soon!).  I've enjoyed sharing these few hours with several other birders, most more serious about birding than I am. 

Natalie and Nate, Deer Harbor Charters staff extraordinaire.
Many other naturalist led walks, lectures, and boat trips took place during the three-day festival.  Saturday evening we went to a lecture in Eastsound on Coastal Raptor Research, which was informative and sometimes funny (in a sweet science geek way:).

When You Go
After the first of the year or so, check the Birdfest website for details on next year's festival, which was sponsored this year by the friendly folks at the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce. In the meantime, you can go on trips with Deer Harbor Charters in the summer ahead. And thanks to John Green for letting me use some of his shots.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Spring Skiing in the Pacific Northwest: It's not too late!

Now that it's April, maybe you're thinking about hiking, gardening, surfing, or other warmer weather outdoors pursuits. 

Don't hang up those skis or boards yet! Late season skiing in the Northwest/B.C. can offer the best conditions of the season. 

Minimal or no lift lines - check
Longer and more bluebird days - check
Sometimes lots of fresh snow and less competition for freshies - check
Parking closer to the lifts - check 
Special deals on ticket prices - check

Some of my best skiing days ever have been late season. I still smile remembering that early June weekend at Whistler/Blackcomb, with over a foot of fresh snow and hardly anyone else on the mountain.

Run after run of freshies!  It was exhilarating and awesome. 

Just last Sunday a group of us had similar conditions at Crystal Mountain, less than 2 hours from Seattle. Big smiles all around.

On a bluebird day at Crystal last week, almost everyone (including me) stopped to take shots of Rainier....
...because Rainier is always so awe-inspiring.
So put off that yard work for a few days and head to the mountains to grab the last and maybe best weeks of the season. And then enjoy the spring and summer knowing you truly seized the snow days.

When You Go
Skiing extends well into the spring at several NW resorts.  Crystal Mountain is open daily until April 20, then weekends until May 18. Of course Mt. Hood just east or Portland is THE place for late season skiing, click here for links to all of the Hood ski areas and info. Mt. Bachelor in central Oregon is open daily until May 25. Up close to the Canadian border in Washington, Mt. Baker is open through April 20 and possibly longer. Mission Ridge above Wenatchee in central Washington is closing April 13.