Swans’ Song in Skagit Valley

Winter in Northwest Washington is home to large variety of birds.  In fact, birdwatching is at its best here during the winter months when these feathered friends frequent our waterways and fields.  One of the many species that come here to winter is the largest waterfowl of them all, the trumpeter swans.  They arrive by the thousands to take over the farm rich fields of the Skagit Valley where they feast and rest until time to return to Alaska for the summer.

The farm fields of Northwest Washington's Skagit Valley provide a winter home for rumpeter swans.
The farm fields of Northwest Washington’s Skagit Valley provide a winter home for thousands of trumpeter swans.

Last winter, nearly 12,000 of these majestic birds landed in Skagit Valley.  Their population, once threatened nearly out of existence, have rebounded, according to the Skagit Audubon Society. In fact, the trumpeter swans who spend their winter in this area make up the largest winter population in the country.  I decided the other day to take the a drive down the winding Chuckanut Drive that hugs the coast south to the beautiful open flat expanse of Skagit Valley, about 19 miles.

A couple of trumpeters wade together through the mucky mud.
A couple of trumpeters wade together through the mucky mud.

Once you hit the flat land, heading into the little junction of Bow, Washington, you begin to see spots of white dotting the barren, brown fields.  On this particular day, I continued straight out from Bow following Chuckanut Drive or Highway 11.  I hadn’t gone far when I came across a fields full of the swans.  Turning off Chuckanut, I found I could closer to the birds in one of the fields on Thomas Road.  The birds are protected from harassment so the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife ask birdwatchers to stay in their cars when visiting or photographing if possible.  My husband pulled the car off to the side of the road, I rolled down the and pulled out camera.

The beauty of the swan's wings can be seen as this swan stretches its feathers.
The beauty of the swan’s wings can be seen as this swan stretches its feathers.

The birds stopped splashing in the muddy water standing in the field to check us out but after a few minutes decided we were no threat and resumed their chorus of honking.  The swans seemed not to mind as I started to photograph. The birds honked.   My camera’s shutter clicked open and closed as I patiently tried to maneuver from my seat in the car to capture a few images of the big birds.  Mallard ducks mixed in freely with the swans, as they waddled around the fallow fields. But it’s the swans that attract everyone’s eye.

The swans in flight are a incredible sight wtih wings that can span eight feet.
The swans in flight are a incredible sight wtih wings that can span eight feet.

In flight, against the day’s gray-white sky the birds outstretched wings looked immense and .  In fact, these wingspan of the swans is enormous and can be up to eight feet wide, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife sources.  They can weigh as much as 32 pounds and when standing erect will reach four feet tall.  Big birds.

The agricultural fields of Skagit Valley make a pcituresque setting for swans and mallards alike.
The agricultural fields of Skagit Valley make a pcituresque setting for swans and mallards alike.

After a while, satisfied that I might have a few images I would later like, we moved on. The swans were content to remain in the field, honking to their hearts’ desire as the light cold wind that had picked up ruffled their big snowy white wings. There’s still time to view the swans if you find yourself in the area.  Eventually, these magnificent birds will take off for the spring and summer, not to return again until next November.

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

For the past several years, I have ushered in the New Year on January 1st, with a celebratory paddle in my kayak on Bellingham Bay with my ever-faithful paddling partner, Pat. But this year, Pat was away visiting family, temperatures had dropped to below freezing and I had welcomed the New Year until after 2 a.m. Consequently, I was less motivated to get out on the water this year although I did feel a little guilty when, later in the day while out walking with a neighbor, I note how flat and alluring the water was.

Instead, I answered the call from another buddy to go snowshoeing on the second day of the New Year. I had already been out the day after Christmas and was anxious to go again. So it wasn’t a hard sell for her to get me to agree.

We rounded up a couple other friends and by 9 a.m. were headed up to our local mountain, Mount Baker, only about a 90 minute drive away. We decided not to go all the way up to the ski area which we knew would be crowded on this sunny, but bone-chilling day. Instead, we opted to stop at the Hannegan Pass picnic area where you can follow the road, now covered in snow and groomed for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

The views along the Hannegan Pass Road are stunning for snowshoers.
The views along the Hannegan Pass Road are stunning for snowshoers.

It’s not as high in elevation and comes just before you begin to make the twisting turns up to the ski area. And when we pulled into the parking, there were still plenty of places open. Also, the trail is relatively flat, which made it appealing to another of our party who had recently recovered from a rotator cuff surgery and wasn’t sure how much of a challenge he could handle.

One of the biggest challenges of snowshoeing is simply putting on and fastening the darn things before you can set out. Sure, the clips and snaps and latches make it a lot easier than having to lace up anything in frigid temps, but it still is a bit cumbersome when you’re layered with warm clothing.

Our snowshoe group hits the trail.
Our snowshoe group hits the trail.

I’ve learned that it’s best not to overdress for snowshoeing. During my outing the weekend before, I finally had to shed the sweater I was wearing on top of my long underwear and beneath my sub-zero rated down coat because I was overheating. This time, I economized and started out with only the underwear top and bottoms, my ski pants and my coat. That turned out to be just the right combination even though the thermometer said 20 degrees. I also switched out the bulky, but warm, fingered gloves I had worn the previous time for the warm, lined mittens with a  top half that could be buttoned back to expose my bare fingertips so that I could more easily handle my camera.

Thus attired, we struck out on the trail. This particular trail, or road, follows along the scenic, winding North Fork of the Nooksack River. The snow glistened, just like in the song, in the late morning sunshine. The river sparkled. It was truly like walking in a ‘winter wonderland.’

Just like in the song, 'Winter Wonderland', the tree glistened along the trail.
Just like in the song, ‘Winter Wonderland’, the tree glistened along the trail.

As we rounded one of the first turns, someone had even built a snow couple and just across the trail was another, larger snowman who could have been, I suppose, Parson Brown.

We continued on, talking, laughing and stopping every so often so that one of our friends who was having some equipment issues could rebuckle his snowshoes.  But it didn’t matter, we were in no particular hurry to get anywhere and didn’t really care whether or not we reached a destination, although our intention was to go to where the trail, or road, stopped, a little more than two miles from where we had parked.

The trail had been fairly compacted but was still good for snowshoeing overall. There were some places where the dirt and gravel beneath were exposed but by and large, it was fine.

The white barren birch trees stand stand starkly in the snow.
The white barren birch trees stand stand starkly in the snow.

Along the way, we marveled at the long icicles that clung to the cliff beside us or on the rocks where water still trickled down the gully. We’d stop to gaze at the snow-covered treetops and thickets of trees while catching our breath or take a swig of water. Very important to always carry water with you when you snowshoe as you work up quite a thirst and sweat as you push along. Hydration is essential.

One in our group, Maria, had brought along a beautiful new leather-covered flask filled with an apple liqueur that a friend of hers had brewed for the holidays. We each had a taste and agreed that it was far superior to water although probably not as good for us.

Finally, we arrived at the trail’s end, another parking lot where, during the summer the hike up to Hannegan’s Pass actually begins. It was ‘snack time’, always something to look forward to when snowshoeing. Out came the trail mix, the thermos’ full of hot soup, the energy bars, and sandwiches. Funny how the treats you eat everyday at home taste so much more delicious on a hike or snowshoe adventure.

The author enjoys a snack and water before heading back on the trail.
The author enjoys a snack and water before heading back on the trail.

After a short rest and the consuming of snacks, we turned around and headed back out the way we came. As a photographer, I’m always aware how even the same path can look very different coming from the opposite direction and how you’ll often see things that you missed the first time simple because looking at it from a another perspective. I suppose that same thing could be said of the things we encounter in our daily lives.

On the way back, we encountered many more people along the trail, after being somewhat surprised earlier at how few people we had met. I even saw a couple of other friends who had come up to enjoy the day in the snow and we stopped for a few minutes to chat and wish each other a “Happy New Year.”

The parking lot, when we returned, was now full to literally overflowing with cars. Families were out along the river and on the trail with children and sleds in tow. Despite the cold, everyone seemed to savoring the brisk, cold sunny day. Or perhaps they were just destressing.

A family enjoys a romp in the snow by the river.
A family enjoys a romp in the snow by the river.

In the January issue of National Geographic Magazine, writer Florence Williams describes how some researchers believe that we ‘do our brains a favor’ when we get closer to nature. I believe it.

As we rode back down the mountain, about six hours from the time we had initially departed, I felt tired but refreshed, relaxed and renewed. A hot shower would certainly be welcomed but it had ‘been thrillin’ to go ‘walking in  a winter wonderland.’

You can view a few more of my images from this adventure in my Portfolio by simply clicking here.