Bright blue camas flowers, yellow buttercups, scarlet paintbrush, chocolate lilies, and tall grasses swayed back and forth from the wind across the hillsides of Yellow Island. Phil Green, the Nature Conservancy Caretaker of the island for the past twenty years stated, “This is the second best bloom I have seen in all my time here.”
We were lucky. The whole island was in bloom. Birds were singing. The sun shining bright, and the beautifully-restored 1934 wooden sailboat in which we’d sailed on was anchored 300 yards from shore, waiting for our group’s journey back to Anacortes.
For the weekend of May 5-6, 2018, a group of North Cascades Institute supporters and I set sail on the Orion, a vintage yawl owned by Deep Green Wilderness and captained by Kevin Campion. Our mission was to embark on a natural history field-excursion in the San Juan Islands to see seabirds, marine mammals, island wildflowers, and yes, the prickly-pear cactus: the only cactus species native to Western Washington.
One moment it’s sunny and then the next moment it’s raining. And then later in the day, rain is falling on sunshine. That is what spring is like here in the North Cascades. Below are photos and entries from my journal of the last month, documenting the Skagit Valley’s seasonal transition into spring. I hope you find something worthwhile in my daily observations, and have had the chance to get outside and note changes yourself! Enjoy.
April 1st: There has been a notable increase in birdsong around the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. As I walk around, I see flocks of Varied thrushes (Lxoreus naevius), robins (Turdus migratorius), and Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) hopping across trails. The other day, I heard Golden-crowned kinglet song ringing from the tops of evergreen trees by the Peninsula trail, and the cackle of a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
April 2nd: This morning I awoke to unexpected silence in Marblemount. I didn’t hear the usual birds sing, and there was no sound of rain on the metal roof of the cabin. With a cup of hot tea in hand, I peeked out the window and saw fresh snow blanketing the Earth. It was astounding – I had not expected there to be any snowfall overnight! After momentary awe, I worried about the climbing trip I had planned for the day. Friends and I were going to drive down valley to climb at Mt. Erie. Anacortes was predicted to be sunny and 50F – perfect for one’s first outdoor climb of the year!
I hoped for the best despite the weather. It snowed during the drive down to Rockport State Park. When I stepped out of the car, and walked through the groomed fields by the parking lot, I saw Osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis) in bloom. Its white flowers contradicted, yet resembled, the white mineral covering the ground. I pressed my nose into its pale, crushed up leaves in my palm and inhaled a cucumber fragrance. To me, these flowers – this plant – represents warmer days ahead.
As I continued the drive down Highway 20, Red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) flitted back and forth across the road, and dark clouds began to part. Soon snow turned into rain, and then rain turned into sunshine around Sedro-Woolley. I looked back on the Cascade foothills to the east to see a veil of grey clouds covering their rounded summits. Towards the Salish Sea, the good ole’ Olympic Rainshadow was in full effect, with sunlight shining down on the prominent hill of Mt. Erie.
“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” – Hal Borland
February is the beginning of my favorite stretch of year – the transition from winter into spring, and then spring into summer.
This winter I am finding myself drawn to the lowland forests and deciduous banks of the Skagit River. My time upriver has been the most wintery winter I’ve endured; I am now accustomed to the semi-regular process of scraping ice and snow off my windshield, and wearing microspikes as I walk down the icy road of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. However, a walk in the forest feels like a visit with an old friend. It reminds me of my island home at the other side of the watershed, Deception Pass. Everywhere in the forest, signs of familiar companions are appearing and talking and that makes my heart feel much warmer, though my toes and hands are just as cold.
These interactions have also filled my journal with many, flowery ramblings. In between classes, and now Mountain School trainings, I try to take a walk outside and note changes in my environment. February is especially a time of rapid change – one day it can be cool and damp out, and the next day there’s seven inches of snow on the ground and slush in my boots. Below, I’ve noted some of the changes witnessed within my little sphere of the world this past week. What have you noted, too?
Recent Naturalist Notes
On February 16 – I heard a Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) sing outside of my partner’s cabin in Marblemount, while branches cracked from the weight of freshly fallen snow.
February 17 – During a rainy walk in Rockport State Park, I found Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), or osoberry, breaking leaf buds all along the Suak-Springs trail.
Also spotted were young buds on the Vine maple (Acer circinatum), leafy buds of the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), and two of my favorite edibles popping up along the forest floor: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)and Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytona sibirica). It’s only a matter of time until I can make a batch of nettle pesto!
And there were signs of moss reproduction everywhere, with the stalk-like shoots of the sporophyte popping up. The spore capsules are about ready to release spores that will grow into new moss. Next time, I will take my hand lens with me to get an even closer look.
On the drive home, I stopped at mileposts 100 and 101 to stand by the Skagit River. I saw three Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at 101 and noticed the snow line on the mountains and grey clouds. It felt good to stand close to the talking river and listen to the eagles.
Before beginning our year-long residency at the Learning Center, we engage with the natural and cultural histories of the North Cascades region through field excursions. This intensive six-week course includes canoeing on the Skagit River, learning about local communities and sustainable agriculture, hiking in alpine areas, cohort community formation and a culminating 10-day wilderness backpacking experience.
Below are pictures from the paddling portion of our Place-based Learning Field Course, along with excerpts from our group journal. Enjoy!
Big Canoe and Community –August 9, 2017:
“With a little less smoke in the sky, Cohort 17 loaded into the Salish Dancer for a paddling orientation to Diablo Lake and the surrounding area. Before the canoe left the dock, we heard and saw two peregrine falcons – the fastest member of the animal kingdom – amongst the rocky cliffs of Sourdough Mountain.
Last summer I thru-hiked the Wonderland Trail in eight days during the shoulder season, and almost died. Maybe.
Now, it would have made sense to write my trail report um, last summer, but then I lost my journal for months before I found it in the most unpredictable place (think envelope within a kitchen drawer). Luckily the journal has been found, so now I must dive into the details of this incredible journey that everyone should do.
What the heck is the Wonderland Trail? It is a very scenic, 93 mile trail that circumnavigates the majestic Mount Rainier. In the span of a week, you see every “face” of the mountain and get a peek around every corner of the National Park. See?
And below is a picture of the Wonderland Trail’s elevation profile. What does it remind you of visually? To me it looks like a rollercoaster of thigh-burning hell. In fact, the trail challenges hikers with a strenuous 22,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
Now, what makes this place so special and treacherous trail worth the pain? Easy answer – everything.
The Park (and mountain) is freakin’ gorgeous, and if you avoid the crowds at Paradise, you will find solitude in the backcountry. The Wonderland Trail in particular takes you through old-growth forests, right along the tongue of massive, breathtaking glaciers, through wildflower meadows, to the shores of alpine lakes and remote places where wildlife roam undisturbed. I fell in love with all the faces of Mount Rainier during my journey, and finished the Trail humbled by the unpredictable forces of nature. For more general info on the W.T., check out this resource.
This blog post series will be written in a journal-like fashion due to the contents origin – a trail journal. I’ve never shared anything like this before, so bear with me as I try something new. The events that happened on Trail were sometimes dramatic, and I hope will translate well in this form of storytelling. Without rambling on too much, let’s get started.
This morning Tina and I met outside of the Longmire WIC to solidify our trip itinerary. Tina is a leggy-woman with long blonde hair and a vibrant personality. We don’t really know each other but are thru-hiking together. Last week, while sitting on the floor of the Paradise Visitor Center, I thought, “I wish I knew someone interested in hiking the Wonderland Trail with me.” Within a minute, Tina – one of Amos’ coworkers – approached me and asked if I was interested in hiking the W.T. with her. We’d only met once before. I said yes, of course.
Now I’m laying beside her in a two-person tent; life is funny that way. Today we hiked from Longmire to Nickel Creek with another one of Amos’ coworkers, Lindsey, and her friend Tyler. That’s a solid 14.6 miles with 3,000 ft of elevation gain. We started at 9am and made it to camp at 5 o’clock on the dot. A lot of uphill but tomorrow is supposed to be even more intense! And more beautiful.
A third coworker of Amos, Claire, showed up around 7pm after we’d all eaten dinner. My dinner was delicious, and a first – mac and cheese with cajun seasoning. Mmhmm. It’s the little things. I just got back from a .2 mile hike to Nickel Creek to fill up my “dirty” bag to filter water in the morning. It’s fun to fall back into old patterns such as water management and the tedious process of filtering everything you drink. After the A.T., I remember being amazed by the convenience of tap water. You just turn a handle and then you have beautiful, purified water ready to go (ideally)! Now I’m enjoying the slow process of hauling two liters back to my site, and the mindful walk alone in the darkening forest.
Recently Amos, Graham, Isaac and I snowshoed to a winter hut in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. We were in Maine for the holidays, and the guys like to do a winter trip when they’re all together. This year I was the tag-along-girlfriend, also know as Chris’ replacement (I don’t know who he is…).
Amos chose Katahdin Woods and Waters over Baxter State Park because, at the time, it was our country’s newest national monument and he wanted to check it out. We had followed the Park’s story in the news and sided with Roxanne Quimby, a founder of Burt’s Bees, and President Obama in wanting to protect the land for future generations to enjoy. The idea of exploring this newly acquired, federal land was appealing.
So he reserved the Big Spring Brook winter hut via email, and we prepared for our 14mi round trip in the dead of a Maine winter. Did it matter that the projected temps were 10-15f, overcast, and maybe snow/rain? Nah.