Tuesday, June 28, 2016

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.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Pacific Northwest Old Growth Hikes: Thunder Creek

"Does anyone think this forest is old growth?"

We're standing at the first junction along the Thunder Creek Trail from Colonial Creek Campground in a lush green forest thick with trees. I look around for the big old trees I've always associated with old growth here in the Pacific Northwest, but see mostly small, thinner trees with just a few big-ish trees. I figure I've got this:


I don't think anyone of our group of eight or so hikers says yes.

"It is indeed," says Max Thomas, North Cascades Institute environmental education staffer who is leading the hike this morning. 

I guess this veteran Northwest hiker/former environmental activist (me) can always learn something new about our forests.

NW native Devil's club. Don't touch!
  Max tells us there are three visual characteristics that identify an old growth forest:
  • Pits and mounds (uneven forest floor where trees have fallen and decayed in place, becoming nutrients for new trees and undergrowth)
  • Variation in tree size (not the same-age trees you see in planted forests)
  • Less than five percent light filtering through the trees
 We look around and notice that we're in mostly shadow here, with just bits of sunlight hitting the ground.

What I've always considered old growth forest is what Max explains is a climax forest, with predominantly huge old trees (huggable, like the one pictured below on the Heather Lake Trail). There are several stages of old growth, as Max explains, and forests are always evolving.

We're hiking a couple miles up Thunder Creek from the campground as part of a getaway weekend at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.  I'm doing the hike mostly for the exercise and some Shinrin-yuko, or "forest bathing" (a whole 'nother blog post.)

But the environmental education aspect is also quite enjoyable.

About a mile along we come to a cluster of BIG old western red cedar just off the trail. These impressively large trees are several hundred years old, says Max.

This much-revered tree species likes to have its feet wet in a more moist, damp climate/soil. (Does a tree have feet? Okay, roots. But feet is more colloquial.) The Northwest Coast Salish peoples had several names for western red cedar, including Long Life Giver, Rich Woman Maker and Mother.

As we continue toward the first bridge across Thunder creek (at the 2-mile point), I fall behind the group when I can't resist stopping to shoot this colorful red columbine, a favorite wildflower.

When we reach the bridge and look downstream, Max tells us Thunder Creek has the most glacier melt flowing into the basin of any stream basin in the U.S. Lower 48. All the glacial "flour" makes for the lovely aqua-colored water.

Our hike is officially over here, but some of us continue up the trail a ways before turning back.  In the North Cascades National Park complex, Thunder Creek is a gateway to an extensive network of trails popular with backpackers.

For today, though, we're enjoying the lower trail with rich old growth forest and understory.

Do you have a favorite old growth hike? Would love to hear in the comments below.

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
Thunder Creek Trailhead is next to the amphitheater at Colonial Creek Campground on Thunder Arm off Diablo Lake in the North Cascades National Park/Recreation Area complex. It's near the western end of the North Cascades Highway, along the Cascade Loop. From the Seattle area, it's about a 3-hour drive via I-5 north, then west on Highway 20. You don't need a pass to park here! However, on a sunny early June weekend the parking area was full by late morning.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Northwest Weekend Getaway: North Cascades and Upper Methow Valley

My life is in Seattle, but my heart is all over the beautiful and varied Pacific Northwest.  Near the top of my go-back-as-often-as-possible list: the North Cascades and Methow Valley in north-central Washington.

This past weekend I traveled to the Methow via the North Cascades for the first time in far too longIt was a perfect road trip before the peak summer season.

Friday Afternoon: Hitting the Road
On a bright warm Friday afternoon ahead of a hot weekend, we head north on I-5 from Seattle. Our destination is the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center (ELC) on the shore of Diablo Lake.  I've blogged about this special place before. (If you're leaving the Seattle metro area on a Friday, leave as early as possible. We didn't leave until about 2, which added at least 45 minutes to the trip.)

Within an hour we're into the Cascades, traveling roads through river valleys that skirt some spectacular craggy peaks, like Whitehorse Mountain above Darrington. I'm not driving, so I roll down the window and snap some shots from the moving car.

Whitehorse, whose glaciers are receding quickly.
Skagit River, looking into the North Cascades just outside Marblemount.

Friday Evening: Into the North Cascades
We've booked hostel lodgings for Friday night at the ELC. We're in a clean, quiet dorm-style room that sleeps up to four, although there's just two of us tonight. Also included is an excellent dinner, breakfast, and fixings to make and pack a lunch. For dinner tonight they even offer three kinds of lasagne: with Skagit Valley grass-fed beef, vegetarian, and gluten free.

Overall it's a great deal considering the gorgeous setting, helpful staff, and the mostly organic, locally sourced food.

After dinner stroll up the Sourdough Creek Trail behind the ELC.
Saturday Morning: North Cascades Immersion
Since there is a Base Camp going on this weekend at the ELC (where anyone can sign up and enjoy activities such as hikes and canoeing), Saturday morning we join an easy forest hike up Thunder Creek, led by NCI environmental education staffer Max Thomas. (Next blog post will be about this hike.)

By early afternoon we're driving again, east-southeast along the North Cascades Highway. This officially designated National Scenic Byway is extra scenic when snow still clings to the surrounding peaks early in the season.

As of early June 2016, the Washington Pass Overlook is still closed and snow covers much of the access road. But that doesn't stop us and several others from walking up anyway to the snow-free overlook, where the views are always stunning.

Liberty Bell
Saturday Afternoon: Into the Methow Valley
As we drive down the long, glacial-carved valley from Washington Pass into the upper Methow Valley, the temperature rises. We're in the midst of another early heat wave, and it's well into the 90s F°.

 Lucky for us, our destination is the decidedly upscale but Western casual Freestone Inn at Wilson Ranch, where air conditioning and a nice breeze off the mini-lake keep us comfortably cool.

Methow Valley locals we met at the ELC all told us that the Freestone Inn has a great happy/cocktail hour, and I'm happy to confirm it does indeed. Excellent wines, a beautiful fresh fruit tray, savory hummus and warm pita, good cheese, veggie/chicken skewers, and more warm up (well, dampen) our appetite for dinner.

We're here for a Washington's National Park Fund gathering. This dynamic non-profit raises funds to support underfunded but important projects in the three largest national parks here in Washington. Today North Cascades National Park Superintendent Karen Taylor-Goodrich gives us a run-down of park happenings and upcoming events to celebrate the 2016 National Park System Centennial.


Saturday Evening: Methow Magic
Dinner tonight is at the Mazama Country Inn a couple miles across the valley, where a large group of us enjoy entrees featuring Bristol Bay salmon, steak, or chicken with seasonal veggies. My favorite part of the meal: the warm apple-apricot crisp.

As I stroll after dinner in the dusky evening near the Freestone Inn, I'm reminded why I love this valley so much. The dry fresh air, the particular quality of light, the surrounding mountains, and the quiet--they all draw me in, inviting a longer stay. Unfortunately this trip is just one night in the valley.

But I'll take it, however brief.

Looking up valley
Freestone Inn main lodge
Sunday Morning: Local Flavors
This close to the summer solstice, I'm up and out early for a morning walk around the pond/lake behind Freestone Inn.  I pass a man loaded up with with fly rods, tackle, and video gear giving two women a lesson in fly casting. (The lake is catch and release.)

There's something so elegant and mesmerizing about a fly being cast, with the line floating in easy figure 8 loops over the water. I have to tear myself away when the mosquitoes start biting my bare legs and arms. (Time to break out the insect repellent for the season.)

We forego a fancy breakfast at the Freestone Inn and grab tasty bagel breakfast sandwiches for $2.50 at the Mazama Store, local institution/general store/rest stop/coffee shop/bakery, and purveyor of treasures like locally foraged wild morel mushrooms. (I snag a small bag of them, which cost less than half of what I've seen per pound in Seattle.)

Mazama Store
Every time I return to the valley, this place seems to evolve and get bigger. It's a far cry from the days when this store was an old Quonset hut that sold mostly pop, beer, chips, and provisions like Spam. 

Sunday Afternoon Return
As hard as it is to leave, it's time to head back to "the coast." We retrace our route, with a stop at Canyon Creek above Ross Lake for a short hike along a mountain stream swollen with spring snowmelt.

Then it's the requisite stop at the Diablo Lake overlook, where thousands of photos have been taken by thousands of people driving over the North Cascades. The brilliant opaque aqua color of the lake is caused by glacial "flour" (silt) from the glacial-fed streams flowing into the lake. Max told us yesterday that Thunder Creek/Arm tributary to the lake is the most heavily glacier-fed stream basin in the contiguous U.S.

Thirty minutes later, the heat forces an ice cream cone stop. Okay, heat or not, the siren call of organic ice cream cones at the Cascadian Farmstand near Marblemount pulls in many travelers. Self included many times.

My favorite: raspberry chocolate chip (left).
A little over two days later, trip finished. I always want to stay longer in the North Cascades/Methow. Next time, I promise myself.

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 hostel lodging at the North Cascades Institute ELC cost $65/night, including three meals--a screaming deal for the quality/quantity of food alone. We neglected to read the fine print, however, which says the hostel rooms can be co-ed with strangers. A little uncomfortable IMO. At the Freestone Inn, we got a group rate that totaled $197/night for a spacious room with a fireplace (not needed in the summer) and private porch overlooking the lake. This is normally out of my budget, but it was a splurge. 

Here's a map of the route (if you don't see the blue route line, click on "more options" on the map below. If that doesn't do it, I'd appreciate a comment below):