Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hiking Downey Creek: Solitude on the Trail

With the explosion in hiking popularity here in the Pacific Northwest, I've stopped going to some of my former favorite trails on weekends (when most of us can hike). Heavy trail traffic, difficulty parking at trailheads, increasing litter, and noise take away from what I love about being in the mountains.

So it's a thrill these days to hike 6 hours in the Cascade Mountains without seeing any other hikers. We enjoyed this solitude in nature on a holiday weekend no less, just two hours drive from Seattle.

I'm tempted to not divulge this quiet trail, but that would just be silly. After all, we did this hike based on author Craig Romano's notice on FaceBook that the Downey Creek Wilderness trail was the Hike of the Week

I expected a busy trail. Instead, just one other party signed the trail register before us on a Saturday morning. And none came in after us.

After driving over 20 miles up the Suiattle River Road off Highway 530 outside Darrington, the last 10 miles on dirt/gravel, we pull into the parking lot after initially passing it by. (There's no sign at the lot entrance. Intentional?)

As far as trails go, it doesn't exactly shout "Here I am!"  We wander up the parking lot looking for it, dead-end, backtrack to the sign (INSIDE the parking lot), and finally notice the small trail. Then we cross the road and start up into the woods.

And the woods!  Lush, lovely, enchanting, park-like, scattered old growth...this is what the Downey Creek hike is all about. 

The masses are no doubt across the valley scrambling up Green Mountain to spectacular views. Here, we wander through the forest skirting steep slopes, crawl over a few big downed trees across the trail, slosh through and over streams, and wish for clouds (well, at least me) so the light would be better to shoot this lovely place.

Don, Jennifer, and Betty crossed the log. I walked across rocks in the stream.

As we head up the trail, the elevation gain is pretty mild. Jenifer's GPS, which we don't think was entirely reliable, recorded a total gain of about 1,700 feet (up and down) for the day. The WTA description says a little over 1,200 feet elevation gain. The most consistent uphill is the first half mile before we enter the Glacier Peak Wilderness.

Then the trail traverses a steep hillside, with Downey Creek rushing a few hundred feet below. Thankfully notches have been cut in the two big trees across the trail, so you can step without sliding down the trunk onto the steep slope below.

Particularly lovely  were the sections of forest floor covered with moss, like a plush green carpet. (Sorry, I didn't get the best shots due to the sunlight glare.)

About 3 miles along we finally reach some clearings in the forest and draw closer to the creek.  Across the creek, the historic fire lookout on Green Mountain is visible far above us. (It's there in the photo below on the right side of the green mountaintop.)

As the trail passes near the creek, it crosses over marshy areas rich with native moisture-loving plants like skunk cabbage, ferns, and devil's club, on boardwalks. This is where the bugs like to hang out. Not too bad today though.

We dine right beside the trail in a mossy spot just above the rushing creek because, of course, there's no one else out here. (Look for a future blog post about trail lunches; I love seeing the variety of food everyone brings.)

Right before the trail leaves the stream again we find a nice clearing with a firepit and some makeshift benches, a perfect campsite. We think we've reached the 4-mile point here, although the GPS says otherwise (3.3 miles).

While the trail continues another few miles (6.4 total) to a steep incline that climbs up to Dome Peak and the southern end of the legendary Ptarmigan Traverse, we opt to turn around here. (The Ptarmigan Traverse is the North Cascades equivalent to the Alpine Haute Route.)

Overall, we estimated either an 8-mile  or 6.5-mile hike. My legs told me the shorter length, but a couple others thought it was farther. There aren't markers along the trail, so it's hard to tell since we didn't count the streams we crossed. I'll see if I can figure it out and get back to you. :)

After Hike Eats
By the time we get back to the car and arrive in Darrington, it's around 5 pm and we're all pretty hungry. The proprietor at River Time Brewing recommended the Hawk's Nest sports bar, where they serve his beer along with food. 

Gotta say, the burgers and my pork slider are just okay, but the real standout is the Tater Tots. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, a Northwest classic. Figure you'll share because the portions are huge. The side order is a pound. Yes, a pound of tater tots.

Hopefully I consumed fewer calories in tots than I burned on the trail. 

So have you hiked the Downey Creek trail? Or perhaps even passed through on your way up or down from the Ptarmigan Traverse? I definitely want to go back in the fall, perhaps on a misty morning, armed to shoot with my Pentax.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go
Drive Highway 530 north from Darrington or south from Highway 20 near Rockport. Turn east on FR 26, the Suiattle River Road, and drive to a parking lot on the other side of Downey Creek bridge, approximately 20 miles from Highway 530. The last 10 miles or so of this road is gravel, and watch out for big rocks on the road at about 20 miles along (and a short distance from the parking lot). You need a Northwest Forest Pass to park here.

Kayaking the Lower Stillaguamish River: Eagles, Aromas, and Baby Rapids

I don't know about you, but I love going places I've never been before and seeing the world from a new perspective. Even if it's just walking down a different street in the neighborhood that I've somehow bypassed, I still feel that little surge, the thrill of discovery.

So when a last-minute spot opens up on a kayaking trip down the lower Stillaguamish River (aka the "Stilly") in northwest Washington, I sign up quickly. While I've hiked along the Stilly and driven along and over it many times, I've never been on the river.

Summer chose just the right day to return after a week+ of Pacific Northwest Juneuary. As I drive north from Seattle on I-5, thankfully traffic-free on a Sunday morning, the sky glows powder blue and cloud-free. Temps are predicted to hit the mid 70s F. 

Just about perfect.

After a 45-minute drive, I pull into the Haller Park put-in area in Arlington, where friendly trip leader Phyllis greets me. Others are already here unloading kayaks and gearing up, about 10 of us total on this Seattle Area Sea Kayaking Meetup Group trip.

Loading and adjusting a kayak before the trip.
The Stilly starts as two forks in the Cascade Mountains, and the North and South forks converge just upriver from where we're starting today. From here we'll pass through rural lowlands and end up at the Hat Slough take-out, for 16 total river miles. Not far beyond, the river flows into Puget Sound.

Before we launch, Phyllis tells us about two points along the river to watch out for. In the first few miles, we'll reach a rapid where we'll stop and portage (carry our boats). Then at a junction just below the I-5 bridge, we need to stay river right to avoid going over a small dam. Nope, that would not be fun for us sea kayakers.

Since the river has cleared the foothills by this point, we meander along a mostly mellow channel flanked by green. Pretty flat overall, but we pass some bluffs along the way.

There's still snowmelt coming off the Cascades, so the river current is decent. We need to keep an eye out for tree/wood snags and rocks in the river. Personally I think it makes the trip more interesting rather than just a lazy float downriver.

  A couple guys in the group who are also whitewater kayakers can't resist playing in the rapids at the portage.  Captain Kirk (below) has fun darting around the standing waves. (Yes, Kirk is literally a captain and an enthusiastic, accomplished paddler.)

Although I didn't get a decent shot, we hear and see bald eagles along the river. At one point a big eagle watches us pass beneath the big overhanging branch where it's perched.

I'm also happy to hear the lovely spiraling trill of Swainson's thrush (my totem bird) along and across the river, along with the chatter of kingfishers.

When we stop for lunch at a sand bar, I stumble getting out of the kayak (this is not normal for me!) and end up halfway in the river. My first impression is how pleasant and warm the water is here.

After lunch it's more of the same: pleasant, mostly mild water, lush green along the riverbanks, and lots of bird calls. After we pass under the I-5 bridge, we all hang right into a side slough to avoid the dam. 

Passing under Interstate 5
 My favorite part of the river is the next reach as we meander through the narrower slough, which amplifies the bird calls echoing around us.

However, a little way downriver we're assaulted by the heavy, over-ripe stench of livestock. This follows us off and on through the last stretch of the trip, and it's the only downside of this otherwise splendid day on the river.

Stretch stop
On such a brilliant early summer day, we don't see many people along the river but for a couple flyfishers angling for steelhead and a few families playing on some sand bars. This relative solitude is a nice change from overly crowded hiking trails and other popular destinations around the region.

After this day on the river, during which life's stresses and nagging aches slipped away for a good while, I come away feeling refreshed, tired in a healthy, "earned it" sort of way. I love these words, which capture perfectly a river's spell:

We are never far from the lilt and swirl of living water. Whether to fish or swim or paddle, of only to stand and gaze, to glance as we cross a bridge, all of us are drawn to rivers, all of us happily submit to their spell. We need their familiar mystery. We need their fluent lives interflowing with our own. — John Daniel, Oregon Rivers

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 

When You Go

Our trip was 16 river miles, with the put-in at Haller Park in Arlington and take-out at Hat Slough boat launch (links above in this post). We did a car shuttle, with cars at both the put-in and take-out. A Discover Pass is needed to park at the Hat Slough launch. Arlington is about 47 miles north of Seattle.

Phyllis, who organized this Seattle Area Sea Kayaking Meetup Group trip, is President and Director of Education for Shearwater University, specializing in sailing, kayaking, and navigation instruction. Check out the link if you're interested in learning more about kayaking, etc. And If you're an experienced paddler and planning your own trip, be sure and check the river stage.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Saving Wild Salmon: Return to Swamp Creek


Salmon have long been the symbol and lifeblood of the people who call the Pacific Northwest home. For the Pacific Northwest Tribes who've been here for thousands of years, millenia before European settlers arrived (and mucked things up), salmon were and still are part of their spiritual and cultural identity.

While I grew up fairly oblivious to the problems facing our wild salmon, I  think it's important to do all we can to restore our wild salmon. Since 2005, Puget Sound Chinook have been listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Back in the late 1990s I "adopted" the lower reach of Swamp Creek just upstream of where it flows into the Sammamish River at the north end of Lake Washington (north of Seattle). Swamp Creek historically was a salmon-spawning stream, and today a few stragglers still manage to make their way upstream.

Back then, the land along the creek was in very poor condition for salmon, who need forest cover to shade the water, good water quality, and large wood debris in the water for refuge. In the scanned shot below from 1999, I'm pointing out the lack of trees and abundance of invasive reed canarygrass bracketing the stream.

So I organized a few tree-planting parties through the King County Department of Natural Resources, which provided the baby spruce, western red cedar, and willow trees to plant close to the streambanks.

See the bare, grassy area? No trees!  Also note the flagged baby spruce just planted.

It was a fun group effort, a collaboration of co-workers and their families, friends, and neighbors. And Winnie the golden retriever, who was an enthusiastic tail-wagging cheerleader.

Recently planted spruce seedling. We had to cut back the grass that was trying to overtake it.
Over three plantings we put dozens of trees in the ground. In the intervening years, the land has become a City of Kenmore park and the subject of other, more comprehensive habitat restoration studies and projects.

Every few years I like to paddle upstream to check out the trees we planted. In 2010 I blogged about Swamp Creek. So here I am again.

This past Sunday my friend Julie and I, both involved in the 1998 planting parties, paddled up Swamp Creek on a lovely, bluebird almost-summer day. And the spruce trees!

Notice the healthy spruce trees on the right. We planted those!

Although conditions are still far from perfect, many of the spruce we planted are thriving and shading the stream banks. Only a few of the many cedar trees we planted have survived.

We can't paddle upstream as far as we used to because of downed trees in the water, a good thing for fish.

After almost 20 years, the new forest is starting to take shape along Swamp Creek.  But high water temperatures and low water levels the last two years due to record-setting heat have put a damper on salmon recovery efforts overall.

As usual we saw lots of cool birds and waterfowl, from abundant red-winged black birds, to chatty belted kingfishers, to awkwardly elegant great blue herons.

Besides the restoration aspect, it's very peaceful and soothing to paddle up Swamp Creek. In this region of close to 4 million people and growing, it's a quiet natural place, something to treasure.

It's very rewarding to see a forest emerging where there used to be mostly invasive grass. I look forward to going back again in a year or two. 

Let's hope more wild salmon find their way back too.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news. 

When You Go

You can access lower Swamp Creek by foot or hand-powered watercraft. We put in at the boat launch in Kenmore just off the 64th Street/Juanita Drive bridge. A Discover Pass is needed to park there. From the boat launch, we paddled up the Sammamish Slough/River about 1/4 mile to the mouth of Swamp Creek and on up.

Across the region there are lots of opportunities to volunteer to help restore salmon streams, even if just for a few hours or a day. A typical event includes clearing non-native, invasive plants and planting native plants and trees along streambanks, which improves habitat for salmon and their chances of spawning and survival.  Here are some links, but you can also do a Web search for opportunities near you: People for Puget Sound, Oregon Watersheds, King County (Washington), and River Restoration Northwest.