Amusing to me because the tulip fields lie just 20 miles to the south of where I live and have been the subject of my own blog twice. (Tourists and Locals Love Tulip Time and A Trip to Skagit Valley’s Tulip Farms) I had already planned to make my re-entry this week to my blog about the tulip festival (after an absence due to my preoccupation with my duties as Executive Director for CASCADIA International Women’s Film Festival) . The idea was prompted by a notice that this weekend would be the last for the tulip festival this year. It’s always a little sad to learn that those beautiful flowers will be clipped and harvested starting tomorrow bringing an end to another display of fields of color.
I’m sure those who live in the immediate area are a little happy and relieved to see the month-long event come to a close as literally thousands of people are drawn to see the brilliant blooms causing residents to post ‘no parking’ signs along their property and take alternate routes to avoid the traffic back ups leading to and from the nearby freeway. For visitors, finding a place to park along the roadways becomes a challenge if you opt not to pay the fee asked by those with the lots. But it all seems worth the time and money spent to admire the planted ribbons of color and masterful landscaped gardens of the various growers.
Among the most popular of these farm stops is the RoozenGaarde owned by Washington Bulb Company. The company flourished under the ownership of William Roozen, a Dutch emigrant who purchased the business in 1955 from its original founders and the first bulb growers in the area, Joe Berger and Cornelius Roozekrans. Today, the Washington Bulb Company is the largest tulip-grower in the country with 350 acres of tulips and 70 million cut flowers shipped throughout the U.S. annually.
In addition, the company also plants 500 acres of daffodils (not nearly as much a draw as the tulips), 150 acres of iris and 600 acres of wheat (no one goes to see that.)
Someone, I can’t recall who, once told me that the tulips cultivated in the Skagit Valley when harvested are shipped to Holland where they are propagated then returned to the U.S. and marketed as “Dutch” tulips. Whether or not this is true or just legend I don’t know and haven’t, as a good journalist should, followed up to ask company officials.
The flowers were late this year due to an unusually longer cold spell of weather and didn’t come into full flourish until mid-April. The festival itself, begun in 1984 by the town of Mount Vernon, starts April 1st, regardless. What began as a three-day event now is a month-long celebration that includes not only self-guided visits to the fields, but a parade, a ‘tulip’ run,’ concerts and a street fair.
I’ve not seen the figures but I can only imagine what the economic impact of this highly attended annual festival has on the town and the surrounding area as people make the trek from all over the state and British Columbia just to take in the splendorous display by nature and the bulb farmers. Kind of nice to know that in this day and age of virtual reality and high-tech devices that people can still find such enjoyment and pleasure in what nature has to offer.
I didn’t make the trip down to the fields this year, opting instead to satisfy myself with the tulips growing in my own garden. But it’s likely I will, as in years, past, go again along with the thousands of others because the beauty of the tulip fields of Skagit Valley is still compelling no matter how many times you’ve seen them.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
I must be an optimist. What else could explain why, every year about this time I spend hours in my garden planting hundreds (yes, hundreds) of tulip bulbs? I do this every autumn despite the fact that I know I will need to do battle with the voracious tulip-devouring deer that frequent my neighborhood.
Every autumn, I gather my gardening tools, my bulb food, my bags of newly purchased tulip bulbs and head out to my flower beds to spend an hour or two. I pull on my gloves and strap on my knee pads and begin punching holes into the ground with a clever little cone-shaped tool designed to do exactly that.
After years of performing this annual ritual, I have finally developed a system. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me. Punch the holes, place the individual bulbs over each one, then twist and lift out a cylinder of dirt using my bulb planter. Next, I sprinkle a little bulb food or bone meal into the hole, stir it up a bit to mix it into the dirt, drop the bulb into place, then empty out the dirt from my tool back into the hole. I do this for no less than 15 bulbs at a time as it seems to make the process go more quickly. Once I’ve covered over the planted bulbs, I poke a little red marker into the perimeter of the area I’ve just worked so that I don’t mistakenly repeat it later. (Took me a few years to figure that one out.)
Usually, I have fairly good luck with this method. Doesn’t even matter if I accidentally slice in half an old bulb buried deep in the ground from last season because tulips left over from the year before rarely produce good flowers the second or third year. (Unless, of course, you go to the trouble of digging them all up and separate off all the baby bulbs.)
For that reason, I quit wasting my money on the fancier breed of tulips from the nearby tulip farms or ordering the tempting delights found on the pages of the full-color catalogs that arrived in the mail. Now, I settle for inexpensive bags of 90 sold at a big box store because, as my husband never ceases to remind me, I’m just buying food for the deer.
If I am diligent and start in February to discourage the deer from having dinner on me, I wind up with a pretty lovely display of color in the spring. If I plan carefully, this springtime show will last for a couple of months. I try not to leave home too much during late March and April, when the flowers are in full bloom, so that I can literally enjoy the ‘flowers of my labor.’ I still like to make trips to the local tulip fields, but I find my own much more gratifying.
So, today I once again don my gardener’s gear, collect my tools and spend some time digging in the soil, performing the exercise of the optimist. Let me know if you’re an optimist too.
There’s nothing like a hike to escape the stresses of a workday. Especially in autumn. Especially here in the Pacific Northwest. So when I found myself overloaded one day last week, I picked up the phone and asked one of my buddies if she would like to join me for a short hike. She had the day off and was happy to spend part of it on the trail.
We had originally hoped to hike that day, to leave early in the morning, drive up to the Mount Baker National Forest and take one of the many wonderful hikes up there. But an eye appointment for her and work issues for me preempted our plans. Besides, the weather forecast was a bit ‘iffy’, as it so often can be here this time of year. Rain was in the forecast and neither of us were excited about hiking in inclement weather. So we cancelled our plans. Yet as the day wore on, no rain appeared although the wind had steadily picked up causing white caps to appear on the water in the bay.
I spent the morning tackling the things I needed to do in my studio. And when I felt I had most of it under control, I shot off an e-mail to my buddy, whose vision was blurred by the dilation from the eye exam and consequently stuck at home, to see if she’d be up for taking a shorter hike closer to home. Fortunately for us, we live in a place that has an abundance of greenways, trails and wilderness areas within the city and county limits.
It’s easy to quickly get to a trailhead within minutes of your home, no matter where you live in the city. It’s one of the reasons I love living here. The problem is deciding which one to take because there are so many choices.
We settled on one of the easier but still scenic and beautiful trails–the Lake Whatcom Park trail. It’s a mostly flat, well-maintained trail that starts at the north end of the lake and follows the shoreline for three miles south. I had not walked that trail for more than year and quickly agreed when my friend suggested it. I picked her up and together we drove out to the park entrance and the parking lot. This trail, because of its proximity and relative ease, is a popular one for people with families and dogs. The parking lot is usually full, particularly on our warmer summer days. As this was a weekday, and in the middle of the afternoon, there were only a few cars.
The great thing about this trail is that you are quickly into the forest. And a few minutes later, the trail descended out of woods to follow the shoreline. From there on, we had the lake on side and a densely green woods on the other. Occasionally, there would be outcroppings of huge boulders from which trees somehow found a way to cling. Surprisingly, much of the deciduous foliage was still very green. I had expected to find much more color on the leaves and had brought along my capture to hopefully record it. I guess the nights have not yet been cold enough to bring out all the fall brilliance although in the section of the city where I live, which is at a little higher elevation, autumn is in full swing.
There was still plenty to photograph and kindly, my friend waited patiently as I stopped along the way to set up and capture a shot. The clouds above the lake were dark and threatening, but no rain.
The white-capped waves crashed against the logs that had fallen and lay on the shore as we set out, but later calmed some. The waterfalls that ordinarily tumble full down the cliff side were there but only a thin stream of what they would have been during a wetter year. It was possible to see them from the trail through the branches of golden leaves but could have been easily missed. Still there was plenty for my friend and I to stop and admire and investigate.
We only encountered a handful of people on the trail this day. It was nearly like we had the place to ourselves. We didn’t walk all the way to the end, turning around to retrace our steps at the two mile marker. By the time we arrived back at the parking lot, we had been out just about an hour and a half. Not so long that I couldn’t get back to my desk and finish up what I needed to do but long enough to give us both a much-needed refresher from the stresses of that day.
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.
One of the joys of living where I do is being so close to the water. After a long day at work or on the weekend I can paddle in my kayak and escape the distractions of cell phones, computers, televisions, radios and anything else that competes for my attention on shore. It restores me–if the water’s not too rough–and I emerge ready to take on the world again. Sitting on top of the water puts me at eye-level with the nature that surrounds me. Often, those surroundings bring pleasant surprises too.
A month ago, for instance, I took an evening paddle with my sister-in-law, who was visiting, to a favorite place where I take visitors who aren’t experienced kayakers. It’s a sheltered bay where the water tends to be warmer and shallower, especially at low tide and it’s just a short paddle out to an island designated as a wildlife and bird preserve.
We had just reached the rock separated from the island at high tide but adjoined by a sandbar during low tide, when I spotted them. Actually, I didn’t see them at first. First I saw two sea gulls perched on the rock’s highest point, proudly sitting on a nest. Then, coming round to the rock’s southern face, I came upon the other birds. “You’re in for a treat,” I told my sister-in-law coming up behind me. “There are a couple of oystercatchers here.”
Indeed, sitting on a scraggly rocky shelf above the water’s edge, were a pair of the jet black and long, narrow orange-billed birds known commonly as oystercatchers. They are almost comical in appearance with that orange ring around their eyes. These shorebirds, about the size of a crow, are exciting because only an estimated 400 of them exist in Washington state. In fact, the Northern Pacific Coast Regional Shorebird Management Plan has identified the Black Oystercatcher as a regional species “of high concern.” This pair, I suspected, were probably the same couple I have seen in recent summers when paddling that bay because not only do these birds tend to mate for the long-term but they also return to the same territory year after year.
Then I discovered the surprise, three surprises to be exact. Huddled up against the rock wall were three small fluffy grayish offspring. They barely resembled their parents except for their spindly legs and long beak . In the many years that I had been paddling around this island, I never had seen oystercatcher chicks and here, now, was a complete family!
My boat drifted quietly towards the rock but floated at a respectable distance so as not to frighten the birds or intrude on their nesting territory. The parents eyed me suspiciously. Satisfied that I had no aggressive intentions, they relaxed a bit. The chicks darted in and out between them, undaunted by my presence. Their beaks were not yet as brightly colored as their parents, nor were their legs. I bobbed up and down in the water watching quietly. After a long while, I backed off slipping my paddle into the water as silently as I could so as not to alarm them with my departure. The family seemed to content to let me leave.
Two weeks later, I paddled back out to the same spot to check on the young birds. They had relocated from their home on the rock over to the main island. I guessed that they had walked across at low tide as the chicks couldn’t yet fly. The family found a comfy new spot on the south side, where there was plenty of space for the five of them to move freely about. The chicks were now quite a bit larger from when I first met them.
Two were scrambling and playing down towards the water while mother keep a watchful eye on them (and me) from her place on the shelf above. A third chick was clinging precariously to the side of the rock, scaling it as if rock climbing. But unlike rock climbers, the young bird had no belay and when suddenly lost its footing, tumbled down several feet to the hard ground below. “Ouch!” I thought seeing it hit with a thud. Was it hurt? The concerned mother bird got up to check on her youngster, ‘tsk-tsking’ her baby as she moved in. But in typical youngster fashion, the bird bounced back on its feet after being momentarily stunned.
The antics of these young chicks entertained me as I attempted to capture a few images of the chicks with my telephoto lens. Finally, as the sun started to set, I reluctantly turned my kayak around and started towards shore.
Whether the chicks will still be there the next time I paddle out I don’t know. But it’s precisely these kinds of little surprises that turn an ordinary end of the day into an extraordinary adventure.
The first day of spring was a sparkling, clear, cool day here in my part of the Pacific Northwest. I took an early morning walk through the park with a friend. Everything looked so fresh and ready to pop into the spring season. Thought I’d just share with you a few of the images that I made yesterday to celebrate the awakening of spring. Hope your first day was just as beautiful.