Every spring, the Skagit Valley, just south of where I live, is bursting with color as the commercial tulip fields there bloom. Thousands of people from the region make the trip just to spend an hour or two admiring the rows of bright flowers growing in the fields. I hadn’t visited the fields for a couple of years so thought I’d wander down on what was the last weekend of this year’s tulip festival.
The fields had bloomed early this year. The farmers had already begun topping the stems in preparation to harvest the bulbs. Upon arriving at the tulip fields, I checked in at the office of the Washington Bulb Company and asked about the conditions of the fields. The only field still in flower was behind the bulb company’s exhibition gardens. Access to it, through the gardens, wasn’t possible until 9 a.m.
By that time the light would be too bright for my photographs. A nice layer of low fog lying over the field could have made for some dramatic photos but since I couldn’t get into it until 9, it could disappear by then.
My choices were either to leave and go home without taking a single image or stay and see what I could do despite the limited access. I decided to stay and see what photographs I could make before the gates opened and the crowds began to arrive. It would be a good challenge.
My friend and I walked down the road to the unopened gardens. Plenty of tulips were growing in the beds outside the main gate and fence. I pulled out my camera and began photographing. Thirty minutes later, I had finished. I gathered up my gear and we headed back, stopping along the way for a couple more photos before pulling into a little cafe for breakfast. We were back in Bellingham by 10 a.m., our ‘field trip’ was over and the rest of the weekend still lay ahead. The images from that morning were not what I had expected and yet I found many that I liked. I hope you do too.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whenever my son, who lives in New York, comes home for a visit, we take a hike together. He misses the green of the Northwest and coming home gives him a chance to get a ‘nature’ fix. In summers past, we have gone up to nearby Mount Baker and usually set out on one of the trails from Artist’s Point, the highest point to which you can drive and open for only a short period of time from late July to early October. This year, however, my son requested that we find a different trail for our annual outing.
After conferring with a friend who hikes the area frequently with the local Mount Baker Club, we settled on the Skyline Divide Trail. The trail is, according to the National Forest website, one of the most popular hikes in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest although it’s recommended for more experienced hikers.
The two-mile trail up is quite steep (and harder on the knees going down than climbing up) but well-kept. I might add the mostly unpaved road to the trailhead parking lot, off the Glacier Creek Road turn-off, can be rough and, as we discovered, full of humps. Next time I’m taking an SUV or a car that sits higher off the ground than my own.
But the rocky ride up is well worth it, as are the aching calf muscles on the hike up. As my friend put it: “When you think you can’t keep going, just do because when you get to the top you feel like you should be wearing a drindl skirt.” Of course, what she was referring to was that famous scene from the film, “The Sound of Music” in which actress Julie Andrews, as Maria von Trapp, swirls in an alpine flowered meadow against a spectacular mountain backdrop. I myself had experienced that feeling and scenery years ago on my first trip to Salzburg, Austria and was anxious to see how this one would compare. The Skyline Divide trail was much more strenuous than the easy walk I made from my Austrian gasthaus. But the thought of a splendid alpine meadow view of the mountain without flying thousands of miles to Europe, was enough to keep me pushing. Hiking sticks are a definite plus as well.
It helped that a couple of hikers on their way down told us that we were “close”, even when we really weren’t. Nevertheless, when we reached the top, the view was breath-taking, in more way than one. Upon rounding the last switch back, we came into an expansive alpine meadow still bursting in color from the summer wildflowers and a view, that while not the same as the rugged Swiss Alps, was equally as gorgeous. Mount Baker’s glacier-covered peak rose in the near distance, and seemed not that far from reach. To the north, stretched a view of the Canadian Cascades. It made for a perfect spot to eat the snacks that we had carried along. Several other hikers joined us on the day we were there, taking in the powerful mountain panorama set against the late afternoon brilliant blue sky. One woman, a volunteer for the Cascades Butterfly Project, gathered a few curious hikers around her as she explained her mission to count the Lucia’s Blue butterflies, Celestrina lucia, that flutter about there. She showed the onlookers one of the delicate beauties that she had caught in her net before releasing it back into the air.
Just as blue as the butterfly were the subalpine lupines that covered the mountainsides. By now, I’m sure they have all disappeared, along with all the other bright wildflowers, as the autumn color takes over. The trail continues on from this meadow another 1.5 miles, which we did not do this time, and then another less maintained path up Chowder Ridge goes on from there. A number of backpackers were making their way on up, planning to spend the night and catch a spectacular view of the night sky.
We lingered for about hour, breathing in the fresh mountain air, relaxing in the warm sun and chatting with other hikers. It’s a time with my son that I treasure because it’s just us, the mountain and the meadow. There are no distractions at the top, no cell phone service, no Internet, nothing but nature. We talk without interruption. Or just stay silent together. At 5 o’clock, we decided to start back down although I could have easily stayed another hour or two.
I must say that the hike down didn’t seem as far but was fairly steep. A couple of young 20-ish women flew by us, running down the trail. I surely would have tripped up if I had tried it. Even so, we were back at the parking lot before we knew it.
The Skyline Divide trail is open year round although the best time to go is in the summer and early fall. I frankly can’t imagine making my way up that slippery slope during the rainy season. And I would certainly be sure to check on the road condition during the winter and spring months before driving up. The hike is a favorite among locals and visitors so expect company whenever you go. Once you’ve taken it you’ll understand why it’s so popular. It’s not likely that I’ll be going again this season, but it will be on my list for a repeat visit next summer.
Autumn is pretty spectacular around my section of the Pacific Northwest, as it is in many places across the United States. And it is prime time for hiking at nearby Mount Baker, located only a 90-minute drive from Bellingham in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The highest point to which you can drive is Artist’s Point, at 5,140 feet elevation. But due to the mountain’s long snow season, the road up is open for only for a short period usually from late July to early August, until mid to late October. On weekends, the parking lot there, and the trails which lead off from it, can be pretty busy as locals and visitors to the area run up to take advantage of the great weather, breath-taking scenery and the many accessible trails.
I try to go to the mountain for at least one or two big hikes during this transitional time from late summer to early fall. So far this season I’ve been fortunate to get in four separate trips to hike and photograph in the area. I thought I’d share a couple with you in separate posts in case you’ve never traversed into this territory. Or, if you have, perhaps this will remind you to take a hike before our weather turns and closes the trails.
The first of my mountain outings was my ‘birthday hike,’ so named because it was on my birthday. Two of my sons and a girlfriend went along. It was the girlfriend’s first visit here and my son kept telling her that she was in for a treat. On the drive up, just outside of the town of Glacier, we stopped at the Park Service Ranger Station to check on trail conditions and pick up a day pass for the hike. Everyone who visits, whether you hike or not, is required to purchase a permit. A day pass is only $5, or, you can buy an annual pass for $30.The rangers on duty are generally very helpful with information too about trail and road conditions, things to do and hazards for which to be on alert, such as bears. And there are trails maps available should you need one.
We chose one of the less strenuous trails known as Ptarmigan Ridge.The Northern Cascades. Some of the area’s hikes can be difficult, lengthy and have quite a gain in elevation. The Ptarmigan Ridge hike is a great one for visitors who don’t hike much or who don’t have a lot of time to spend up at the mountain but still want to experience some stupendous views of the volcanic peak.
The Ptarmigan Ridge hike leaves from the Artist’s Point parking lot along the Chain Lakes Trail. From the outset, the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker looms in the distance at 10,775 feet and unless the day is heavily overcast and cloudy, is visible for the entire route. As a safety precaution, be sure to sign in as you enter the trail.
The well-kept trail winds along the southern slopes of Table Mountain. Even in late summer, the wildflowers here were still in full bloom. Folklore says that once the magenta flowers on the tall stems of the Chamerion angustifolium, commonly known as ‘fireweed’, is done blooming summer ends and fall begins with winter not far behind. On this late summer day, the fireweed growing along the trail, was still largely in bloom.
Looking south from the trail, you can see down and across the large, open expanse of Swift Creek and Rainbow Valley and perhaps catch a glimpse of Baker Lake in the far distance. If you look carefully, you may even see mountain goat grazing and playing in the meadows below. They looked not much more than white dots against the verdant green to us but as another hiker, a television cameraman from Seattle, pointed out to us, if you breathed in deeply, you could get a whiff of their wild smell. Unfortunately, the lens I was packing that day, a Nikon 28 mm – 200 mm, wasn’t hefty enough to get a great photo of them.
I don’t pack a lot of camera gear with me when I hike. If I’m hiking, as opposed to making a photo trek, I don’t want to be slowed down by the weight of a lot of big lenses and equipment. I don’t even take a tripod but I will use a unipod because it can double as a good hiking stick too if needed. I have a handy bag, made by Lowe Pro, that clips around my waist in which I can carry my SLR digital camera, (it would also accommodate a Mamiya 645 when I was shooting film) an extra lens, lens cleaner, a filter or two, spare SD cards,extra battery, sun tan lotion (don’t forget that), chapstick, and a compact point and shoot camera if I want. That leaves my backpack open for snacks, an extra bottle water in addition to the one slung over my shoulder, a first-aid kit, bear bells (if I need them), a light jacket (preferably waterproof because up there you never know) or sweater. I was a Girl Scout. As such I learned to ‘Be Prepared’ so even if I think I’m only going out for a few hours, I never leave without these essentials.
From a photography standpoint, I know that I’m likely to miss something due to not having the right lens or maybe a tripod, but the way I figure it now, if I can’t get it with what I have, I can’t get it. I do the best with what I have, which usually turns out pretty well, and enjoy the experience without worrying about getting the perfect shot.
That’s not to say that I’m not looking for a great photo opportunity. Those are plentiful no matter when I hike at the mountain. Of course, the early morning or late day will yield the best images because that’s when the light there bring out the best colors. If it’s foggy or cloudy, that can add mood although you might not get a clear shot of the mountain’s summit.
Our day was sunny and clear when we set out about 4 p.m. We passed by the turn-off for Chain Lakes Trail (that will be another post) and continued on towards Mount Baker. From this point, the trail starts to head into the more tundra-like terrain. The little yellow flowers, Mimulus tilingii known as Alpine monkey-flowers, that grow along the mountain streams, created by the snow pack run-off are delicate and compact.
Occasionally you can spot the trail’s namesake, the ptarmigan, a chicken like bird, running around. We didn’t see any.
We hiked about 90 minutes which put us just short of the snowfield that leads further up the mountain. We decided to stop and take in the panoramic view surrounding us. After all, if you don’t stop to see where you’ve been then you miss half the reason for going at all. We crunched handfuls of trail mix and ate the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that my son’s girlfriend had made earlier while stretching out on the rocks. Other hikers with backpacking gear for camping passed by on their way to the campsites ahead. The light was starting to deepen. We put away our food and water and headed back out the same way we had come.
It’s funny how the views change depending upon the direction you are going. Headed in you see one perspective, going out, quite another even though you remain on the same trail. Walking back you are presented with outstanding views of Mount Shuksan’s jagged peak. The trail back didn’t seem as long either, probably because we didn’t stop for as many photos or maybe we were moving at a slightly faster pace in order to get back to the parking lot before dusk set in.
Round trip, the Ptarmigan Ridge trail is 10 miles. We covered about four or maybe five of it this day. It wasn’t a long outing, but very satisfying. It’s exhilarating to be so high, breathing the clear air and taking in the view that extends well into Canada to the north, towards the San Juans to the west, the wilderness of the National Forest to the south and the other mountains in the Northern Cascades range to the east. And it made for a very wonderful birthday.
Artist Point at Mount Baker is closes today, Tuesday, Oct. 16 for the winter season. This popular scenic spot is located at the very end of Mount Baker Highway, State Route 542 and provides a 360-degree view of Mount Shuksan and Mount Baker, as well as access to a variety of trails.
At more than 5,000 feet above sea level, the Point is usually buried under snow and closed October through June. This year, Artist Point opened in late July, which is fairly typical. With snow already in the forecast for the mountain, Mount Baker National Forest Park officials are closing the gate to the area. Visitors will still be able to drive up to the Heather Meadows and Mount Baker ski lodge portion of the route but access to the uppermost parking area and the trails that start there will be off-limits.
Everyone who lives in the surrounding area knows to scramble up to the top as soon and as often as possible after the state’s transportation team opens the road because the window of access to this spectacular place is short. In 2011, the last bit of road up to the top parking was never opened because of the snow depth and a late spring snow. This year, with a record period of no rain, most of us assumed the top lot might remain longer than usual but the weather changed and so did the plans to keep it open.
I managed to squeak in a hike two weeks ago on Chain Lakes Trail starting out from the trail that leads from the Artist Point parking lot. It was a stunning autumn day. Brisk and a bit chilly at the top but once out on the trail, it didn’t take long to warm up, causing me to shed my outer jacket. Several other hikers had also chosen that day to get out and enjoy the spectacular scenery and weather. The low-growing huckleberry bushes had turned bright red igniting the mountainsides with color and making the blues of the glacier water and sky even more brilliant.
My hiking companion for the day, Nancy, and I ambled along the well-kept trail with me stopping often to frame out the views in my camera. We made our way over past Mazama Lake, crossing cold streams that flowed off from ice that had melted. At Hayes lake, we spotted the orange tent pitched by two overnight hikers who we had met on the trail with their big, friendly yellow dog.
The backside of Iceberg Lake, just before you begin the climb up to Hermann Saddle, was an ideal place for lunch. The sandwiches, trail mix and yes–even an indulgence of chips and cookies–are so tasty after two hours of hiking. We sat and chatted over lunch then listened to the silence.
When you’re enjoying yourself as much as we were on this day it’s easy to lose track of the time. But we knew we needed to start the walk out. The trail itself is only a four to five-mile hike with an elevation gain and loss of about 700 feet. While it’s a good workout, it’s not the most difficult hike in the area.
Instead of continuing down to the Bagley Lakes, we chose to reverse our steps since it was now nearly 3 p.m. and since we had left our car at the top parking lot. Otherwise, at the end of the trail you must climb back up to the Artist Point parking lot or hitch a ride with someone on their way up. Since it was already the backside of the afternoon, the likelihood of our catching a ride up was not great. And, as I pointed out to Nancy, when going back in the opposite direction you don’t see the same things as you did when heading in.
It’s true. Things looked different on the walk out. We had turned around and now had an entirely different view than when we had gone it. And the light had changed as well. The mountainside was beginning to be bathed in that beautiful, late afternoon sun, with rich, deep color and shadows. Wonderful for photography.
We encountered fewer people on the way out. Many had already hiked back wanting to be back in the parking lot before darkness set in. By 5 p.m. we were again at the car. After dumping our gear in the back, we paused to once again take in the fresh, clear mountain air and have one last, long look at the view which we knew would soon be covered over by snow. Now that the road to Artist Point has been closed for the season, that day lingers in memory until another winter passes, the snow finally melts and reveals for a brief, almost magical, time the beauty that lies beneath.