Friday, March 13, 2015

Sea Kayaking Upper Skagit Bay: Easy Does It

I'm lucky to live in a sea kayaker's nirvana here in northwestern Washington. 

With scenic islands and hundreds of miles of shoreline to explore in Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea, it's easy to escape terra firma for a few hours or days. It's a different world out there on the sea. Quieter, rich in marine life and waterfowl.

One of my favorite destinations for a day or even just half day trip is upper Skagit Bay. It's not much more than an hour north of Seattle on the western edge of the Skagit River delta.

On my recent trip there, we'd passed through heavy fog on our way north from Seattle and discussed aborting to avoid paddling with poor visibility. But when we drop down into the Skagit Flats and get off I-5 at Conway, only tufts of fog remain. 

When we arrive at Snee-oosh Beach on the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community west of LaConner to launch around 9:30 Sunday morning, we're the only ones here. I love the quiet of Sunday mornings.

Deadman and Little Deadman Islands in Skagit Bay

As we're sorting gear and hauling our kayaks to the beach, I discover my life vest didn't make the trip up from Seattle with us. Not good. 

However, because the sea is so calm, we decide to do a shorter paddle south to Deadman and Little Deadman islands and then stick close to the shorelines. (I've already blogged about kayaking north to Hope and Skagit Islands and Cornet Bay.)

Paddling south toward these small islands at low tide is tricky because this shallow area turns into mudflats (or tidal flats), the result of Skagit River deposits in the bay. Fortunately the tide is pretty high this morning.

So we shove off into the easy sea and stroke at a relaxed pace southward. 

When we pull abreast of the eastern shoreline of Deadman Island, I look up and spot two big bald eagles perched in side by side trees just above us. (Always check the tops of trees and or snags in eagle country.) They quickly decide not to linger with us nearby. Those big eagle wings are surprisingly quiet as they fly away.

While circumnavigating Deadman Island close to the rocky shoreline, Julie notices an abundance of small mussels growing on the barnacle-encrusted rocks. I notice the lack of sea stars (aka starfish), which sadly suffered a massive die-off along the whole West Coast the last couple years. I assume no sea stars = more mussels and barnacles because a major intertidal zone predator is gone.

Rounding a bend, we scare off a big great blue heron, which takes off and flies over to a rock next to Little Deadman Island, where we're headed next.

Little Deadman Island
And then we kayak back at a mellow pace, seeing no other watercraft nearby except a solo paddleboarder. 

Of course we stop a few times to just hang and savor the unusually warm March day and soak up some sun. Up here in the Upper Left Corner of the USA, most of us are chronically low in Vitamin D.

So today's paddle was short and sweet. We're back at the beach in a little over an hour.  But that gives us more time to make a few stops at some of my favorite places here in the Skagit.

Back at the beach too soon.
After Kayak Eats
We bypass touristy LaConner and stop at my current favorite place to grab a bite in the Skagit: Rexville Grocery, an old gas station converted to a gourmet grocery/cafe/community center.

We order half sandwiches and salads (I get turkey/provolone/pesto) and grab a spot at the counter where locals gather. Behind the counter, the new owner makes our meal.  He tells us he's not going to change the current format but will add more goodies.

We consider an ice cream cone at Snow Goose Produce on our way back to I-5, but darn it, by 1:30 the line for their famous cones extends halfway back to Seattle. Well, not really, but it's too long for us to wait around. It's too early in the season for their also famous fresh local fish and spot prawns, but I snag some fresh chard, kale, and carrots.

All in all, a fun and relaxing day.  

Have you kayaked/paddled in the area? Would love to hear about your trip(s) there under the Comments below!

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons. In between blog posts check us out on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter for more photos and Northwest news.

When You Go
Drive to LaConner, WA, about 60 miles north of Seattle off Interstate 5, cross the Rainbow Bridge over Swinomish Slough, then take a left on Pull-and-be-Damned Road (isn't that a wonderful name for a road, or anything?) to Snee-oosh Road on the bay. As soon as the road drops down to the water level, take a quick left onto the dirt road to the boat launch /parking area, where you can park for free. Check the tides before you go since the currents can get pretty strong around the islands here and a low tide means tideflats that can restrict travel to the south.   (It’s not fun carrying kayaks through sticky, mucky mudflats to get to the water.) 


Thursday, March 5, 2015

Hiking Columbia River Gorge: Lower Eagle Creek

Life happens, the years fly by, and suddenly you realize it has been far too long since you hiked a favorite trail. Does this happen to you too?

After driving down from Seattle on a Saturday morning, it's close to noon when we hit the trail at Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge. We decided on Eagle Creek thinking it'll be less crowded than the Wahkeena Falls-Multnomah Falls-Angel's Rest trails because it's farther east from Portland.

Nope, apparently Eagle Creek is the most popular trail in the Gorge. When we arrive, there are so many cars parked that we have to walk about 1/2 mile to the trailhead.

For those of us who grew up in east Multnomah County and remember parking close to any trailhead in the Gorge, and then hiking  in relative solitude, the current reality takes some adjustment.

But any day on a trail is a good day.

We start out along the creek and soon climb gently through forest dripping with  moss.

While the trail is plenty wide and there is a cable handrail against the basalt rock walls, walking along the ledge portions of the trail does require being careful and watching your step. Because, well, accidents do and have happened here.

We meander a little over a mile through forest and along ledges, cross a pretty stream, and take the  Lower Punch Bowl Falls Trail cutoff at about 1.5 miles along.

From the cutoff trail, it's less than a quarter-mile down to a rocky beach area below the falls. Many hikers only go as far as the Punch Bowl Falls, as do we today because of time limitations.

And then we step over cobbled river rocks as far as we can get to a decent view of the basalt "punch bowl" into which Eagle Creek tumbles. 

We pass a half dozen or so rock cairns, one of which now bears a stone I carefully added. I love that cairns, or stupas as a Zen teacher I know calls them, are all over these days.

Behold the obligatory Punch Bowl Falls shot.  Because it is indeed breathtaking up close in its natural gorgeousness and power.

As we head back down the Eagle Creek trail, I follow my former high school classmate and hiking buddy Colleen and her trooper of a little dog Marley, my models today. :)


Along an undercut rock wall on the trail, we pass beneath a light waterfall streaming down from the cliff above. 

So there are a few spots along the trail that can be dicey in slick or icy conditions, but on a dry, warmish day like today, ambling along the Eagle Creek trail is a pleasant, easy walk.

After Hike Eats
Who's not hungry after a hike? Afterwards we drive back west on I-84 and cut south into historic downtown Gresham.  The small town where my father had a couple businesses and I spent so much time as a girl is now considered a charming destination. 

Main Street, Gresham, Oregon
Colleen suggests we grab a bite at The Local Cow, a cute little burger bar on Main Street that serves high-quality, Oregon pasture-raised beef.  (And, I discovered, is located in the same building/space where my father operated an office supply business many years ago.) Excellent little beef sliders, great mixed green salad, and refreshing Spire Mountain pear cider

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons!  In between blog posts check us out on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter for more photos and Northwest news.
When You Go
While any time hiking in the verdant mosslandia of the Columbia River Gorge is wonderful, anymore I suggest going on a week day if you can. If it's just weekends for you, go early. 

From the Portland area, travel east on I-84 to the Eagle Creek exit, about a mile past Bonneville Dam. To the Punch Bowl and back from the Eagle Creek trailhead is about 3.4 miles, although we added almost a mile with having to park so far away. You can continue on for several miles, or as a backpack, all the way to Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, as I did when I was in high school. You'll need a Northwest Forest Pass to park or risk a fine.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Winter in the Pacific Northwest: Extra Spectacular Sunsets

When was the last time you couldn't tear yourself away from a sunset?

After missing two gorgeous sunsets in a row here in Seattle, I went to Golden Gardens to shoot the last in a string of bluebird day sunsets. A front was already on its way, so I had to carpe diem. This is February in the Northwest after all.

Winter sunsets on clear days in the Puget Sound region are especially gorgeous.  The sun sets farther south on the horizon, behind the jagged outline of the Olympic Mountains across Puget Sound.

When clouds lay low behind the mountains and clear skies with wispy clouds rise above, the effect is especially aaah-worthy.

On this evening, I arrive about 20 minutes before sunset.  Sailboats on the Sound are getting good breeze, people are playing on the beach, couples are huddled together watching the sun sink, and even a few seals are frolicking just offshore.

After sneaking about a half dozen shots of the couple sharing the blanket, I hear my name when I walk in front of them to the beach.  Ha, someone I know! I love that my big city still feels like a small town. They offer me some of their wine/cheese/fruit, which is a perfectly romantic way to watch a sunset.  

 By now the sun has set and the colors in the sky are starting to heat up.

But the display is just cranking up.  Behind the mountains is a cool backlighting behind the clouds.

By now perhaps you've figured out this blog post is mostly an excuse to throw up a bunch of photos because this sunset just screams for it. No post processing or playing with exposure and color saturation on any of these shots. 

All for reals.

It's hard to tear myself away and stop shooting to just observe the glory happening in front of me, across the Sound.  I take little breaks, but soon the camera is back in front of my face and I'm snapping more photos.

Within another 10 minutes the color starts diminishing, first in the higher clouds, and darkness starts to predominate.

A few of the infamous Golden Gardens beach bonfires are burning bright when I finally take leave, exhilarated.

I never tire of a beautiful sunset. Have you seen a memorable sunset recently?

Happy trail and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! We're on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter as well, so check in for more Northwest images between blog posts.

When You Go
There are many excellent places to watch the sunset from the east side of Puget Sound.  If you're not one of those lucky enough to have waterfront views, some great Seattle area places are Alki Beach in West Seattle, the bluff along Magnolia Boulevard in the Magnolia neighborhood just north of downtown and due west of Queen Ann, Golden Gardens as mentioned above, Carkeek Park in northwest Seattle, and if you're extravagant, atop the Space Needle or while riding a ferry across Puget Sound.

Where are your favorite sunset viewing spots?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Eastern Washington Getaway: Hiking Frenchman Coulee

From mossy temperate rain forests to arid sagebrush and exposed rock formations, the Pacific Northwest is rich with dramatic diversity. 

I like to head east of the Cascades every so often to rediscover this:  The "dry side" is just as compellingly beautiful as the lush green forests that to many epitomize this region.

On an unseasonably warm February weekend, our destination is to hike some of the coulees along the Columbia River in the Vantage/George/Quincy area.

When I was a kid, this was farming and scrub land we zipped past on the interstate. Today rock climbers flock to the Columbia River basalt columns above Frenchman's Coulee to hone their skills. Concertgoers make the pilgrimage to the nearby Gorge Amphitheater for outdoor summer concerts, while hedonists seek the wineries and luxury spa and resort at Cave B Inn.

And of course lots of us go to walk, jog, or hike through this striking landscape.

After missing the easy-to-miss turn off to Frenchman Coulee just off I-90 past the Columbia River crossing, we drive a couple miles down Vantage Road wedged close to the side of a sheer cliff, without guardrails.  Probably not a concern for the rock climbers who don't mind exposure. For me, a tad scary.

However, soon the road reaches a flat "bench" above the Columbia and we park near the clearly marked trailhead.

Basically you can't get lost here--start by following an old jeep track, which traverses the mostly flat but occasionally undulating coulee a couple miles to the very visible waterfall.

For the sake of the native shrubs, do your best to stay on the track. And there are rattlesnakes lurking about too, but they are hibernating until things warm up even more in the springtime.

Essentially it's a stroll up the coulee to the seasonal waterfall, which dries up in the hottest months.

Millions of years of Columbia River basalt breaking down.

I heard that the waterfall is the result of an agricultural lake formed during the Columbia Basin irrigation project in the 1930s and 1940s, an outgrowth of Grand Coulee Dam.

So we stop a lot and take shots of the stark but stunning landscape, which is such a contrast to the west side of the Cascades.

Looking back down the coulee.

On the way back, we traverse the north side of the coulee, which puts us a little higher. (And yes, we went off piste.)

All in all it's a lovely couple hours enjoying the landscape and incredibly sweet fresh air.  As the lichen crusting many rocks attests, the air quality out here is good.

With a mid-afternoon start, the sun is close to setting on this winter day as we get back to the car and meander back up the ridge. We walked a little over 4 miles, with a few slight detours to explore.

View down into Frenchman Coulee.
 Looking back down into the coulee, I'm reminded of looking down into New Mexico's Chaco Canyon (without the ancient dwellings) from the mesa above. But for whatever reason we don't call them mesas here in Washington.

After Hiking Eats
Even though it's Valentine's Day and we're told to not bother coming for dinner at Cave B's Tendrils Restaurant because it was fully booked, we stop by anyway. Because you never know.

View of Columbia River gorge from Cave B Inn at Sagecliffe Lodge.
We get there before 6 pm and are graciously seated at the bar for a full dinner.  What a treat after a hike! I'm so hungry that I don't bother snapping a shot of my excellent King salmon with seasonal veggies or salad.

And because this is a winery too, I have to get a glass of excellent viognier. Can you say happy hiker? Instead of ordering dessert, I indulge in a freshly made chocolate chip cookie from the cookie jar in the lobby. Nice touch.

We don't drive back to Seattle but instead booked a room at the Crescent Bar Resort on the Columbia a few miles upriver.  Because it's still winter with campgrounds closed and it's a splurge kind of weekend, we don't camp. We'll be up and out early for another coulee hike the next day (and another blog post soon).

Have you been to this area? Would be interested to hear your experiences too. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

 When You Go
The turnoff to Vantage Road that goes down to the trailhead for Frenchman Coulee is just 0.8 mile north off eastbound I-90 Exit 143, 135 miles east of Seattle. You'll need a Discover Pass to park.  Cave B Inn/Resort/Winery is about 5 miles north up Silica Road from the Vantage Road turnoff. It is a splurge, with a meal for two with a starter, entree, and wine well over $100. But we all can use such a treat now and then, right?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gray Wolf River/Cat Creek Loop: The Hike We Didn't Tell You About...

Sure I show you an edited, glossier version of reality here on Pacific Northwest Seasons. Ask most bloggers and writers, and they'd be fibbing if they don't say they do the same.  

Some outings aren't really "blog-worthy," so I just move on to the next hike/trip/meal/ski/kayak trip.  Maybe I didn't get many decent photos, or they're just sort of meh.  It happens.

I was hoping to blog about a road trip east of the Cascades, but we got rained and virused out this past week. (Can you say cold and flu season?). My only everyday Northwest adventure in the last week was going through a whole box of kleenex in two days. 

(I exaggerate; I did get out for a few walks in the woods in Carkeek Park, but I've blogged about it several times already.)

So while I try to show as pretty pictures as possible and wax enthusiastic about Northwest adventures, today you're gonna get a dud. Maybe you'll thank me.

In late December we road-tripped on the northern Olympic Peninsula, with an overnight at Lake Crescent Lodge.  On our way home we were snowed out of a hike at Hurricane Ridge, so instead drove up the Dungeness River drainage for some lower elevation hiking.

After crossing the river and passing a campground, we stopped at the first trailhead, for the Lower Gray Wolf River. Maybe we caught it on a bad day, but the trail started out oddly lumpy and strangely graded as it wound down and then flattened along what apparently is an old logging road. 

Not particularly scenic, so after about a half mile, we took the Cat Creek Loop into what was a lush, lovely grove of moss-encrusted old trees. (See the photo at top of this post.)

But pretty soon we started noticing an excess of downed trees, a tangle of branches and trunks all around us.  

Not long thereafter the trail ended in a collision of splintered, broken trees, looking like a tornado or something more sinister and nefarious happened here. We can't figure out what caused such destruction in this little gully.

"This is creepy, let's get out of here!" I say with a tinge of anxiety.

It didn't help that as we backtracked, we noticed a 10-foot-long strip of bark, looking for all the world like a huge dagger, hanging directly over the trail.  

"Widowmaker," says John.

We hightailed out of there back to the car after only hiking a couple miles at the most and took refuge at the 7 Cedars Casino to watch the Seahawks game. 

Watching a football game at a casino is NOT the sort of thing I blog about here. But of course there are a lot of things I don't blog about. At least the Hawks won that day.  As for the Super Bowl,  we'll try to forget about how the game ended shortly after The-Play-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

But I digress.  

I'm curious if anyone else has hiked that Cat Creek Loop with more success. What are some of your regrettable outings? Tell us about about your dud of a hike/trip/dinner out. Perhaps we can spare each other a similar experience with the warning.

Happy trails (really!) and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.