Saturday, April 18, 2015

Wanderings: Cedar Butte (Olallie State Park)

Last Friday was a gloriously warm, sunny spring day here in Western Washington - a perfect day for exploring a new trail. My husband and I headed out to North Bend to tackle the hike up to Cedar Butte (or Ceder Butt, if you're with the US Geodetic Survey of 1937... but we'll get to that later!).

We took I-90 out to North Bend, and then parked at the trailhead at Iron Horse State Park.  Now this was a bit confusing: although we parked at Iron Horse, I'm almost certain that the actual Cedar Butte trail is located in Olallie State Park; at least that's what the Olallie web site indicates. The trailhead parking lot was also right across the street from the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, and the trail borders the Cedar River Watershed itself. There's a whole lot going on in this little corner of North Bend!

So, we set out from the Iron Horse State Park parking lot, and headed up to the John Wayne Trail, which is a wide graveled trail more than 100 miles long that follows an old railroad path. This part of the trail borders the Cedar River Watershed, and there are signs posted every 50 feet or so sternly warning people not to enter the Watershed.  That's our drinking water, people... let's keep it clean!

Above the sound of our shoes crunching on the graveled trail, I heard the high-pitched, vibrating, trilling buzz of a rufous hummingbird. A moment's search revealed him hovering high in the blue sky over our heads. Then all of a sudden, he dove and plummeted to the ground, then flew way up high and dove again. I'd never seen this behavior before... has anyone else? Please share in the comments if you can shed some light on what was happening there!

After about a half mile on the John Wayne Trail, we crossed a bridge over Boxley Creek, which has interesting historical significance, but we'll get to that later. Shortly thereafter, we found a small sign affixed to a tree on the right hand side of the trail, marking the trailhead for Cedar Butte. Peering into the trees, you can make out the narrow, rugged trail snaking up the hillside. We ducked beneath the branches and started the long, gradual trek up to the 1,870 foot summit of Cedar Butte (the trail itself only has 900 feet of elevation gain, however).

Starting out, I was rather unimpressed. The forest had an open canopy with plenty of sunlight spilling through, and the vegetation appeared dry and brushy and didn't look very healthy. And there was salal growing everywhere - at least in all of the places that weren't filled with brown, dried-out sword ferns. That little rufous hummingbird became our guardian throughout the first half of the hike, and I frequently heard his loud buzzing noise over my left shoulder, or saw him darting through the tangled brush and branches along the trail. He was good company.

Dried out ferns
We came to a fork in the trail, which we had expected, and took the left fork. We decided ahead of time to hike up this fork, since it was said to be shorter, and come back down the other fork. After another quarter mile or so, the forest suddenly changed. The dry forest packed with dead branches and dried ferns opened up into a spacious hemlock and Doug fir forest with a dense canopy overhead. Now this was much more appealing! The salal was still everywhere.

Salal grew thickly alongside the trail in many places!

We eventually came to another junction in the trail, and proceeded left to take the trail to the summit.  Shortly thereafter, the trail transitioned from a straight uphill track to gradual switchbacks all the way to the summit. We reached the top sweating, with hearts pounding and lungs gasping for air, and proceeded to stand agape at the incredible view opening up before us.  It was spectacular.  And we were so high up! I am not a fan of uphill hikes, so making it to this summit, knowing I had done so completely under my own power, was a bit of a triumphant moment for me.

Perched on a low log bench, we looked out across North Bend, saw Mount Si and the Cascades in the distance, and watched the slow chugging of traffic down I-90. It was windy up there on the summit; so peaceful and pleasant it was to hear the breeze rushing through tree limbs like running water.

Mount Si

In addition to the great view and tiny log bench to sit on, the summit also boasts a benchmark posted there by the US Geodetic Survey in 1937. According to this benchmark, we were now repining atop "Ceder Butt". That was worth a giggle or two.

After awhile, I'd taken all of the photos I could, and we were thoroughly chilled from sitting there on the windy summit in our wet, sweat-soaked clothing. It was time to head back down the hill. We set out, and as we descended, gaps in the tree branches afforded a good glimpse of Rattlesnake Lake off in the distance.

The hike back down the trail was rather uneventful.  At the junction, we went straight and took the Blowout trail (now doesn't that sound like fun...) instead of turning right and heading back the way we'd come. This trail would eventually meet back up with the main trail, at the fork we'd encountered toward the beginning of the hike. The Blowout trail was a bit longer, but so much more pleasant than the other trail had been. The forest was open and beautiful, filled with Doug fir, hemlock, and lots of limbs covered in Old Man's Beard moss.

After awhile, we passed by a sign affixed to a tree on the lefthand side of the trail bearing the words "Boxley Blowout Overlook". We looked, but there was nothing to see but trees. This might once have been an "overlook" but the trees on the hillside had grown too tall to allow us to see anything now. Having done my research before the hike, I knew that back in 1918, Boxley Creek flooded, bursting its dam and wiping out the village of Edgewick that once stood in the valley below.  This was the Boxley Blowout. Click here for a wonderfully detailed version of this historical event.

We continued along the trail, stopping for a moment to listen to the beautiful singing of a little brown bird in the brambles. I was able to later identify him as a Pacific Wren. There were some lovely sights along the trail, and we may have seen a few trillium... my husband counted 72 total. These flowers are blooming everywhere this year!

Overall, this was an enjoyable hike and I'd do it again. The view from the summit was without a doubt the best part of the hike; I'd been apprehensive about the 900 foot elevation gain - that's a lot for me - but it was no big deal. I might even say it was easy.

The most noticeable features of the Cedar Butte hike are the signs of historical human presence visible in the forest and along the trail. Many of us aren't well acquainted with the history of this area; and the old railroad signs, telegraph poles, notched cedar stumps, Ceder Butt benchmark, and the Boxley Blowout are all reminders that this area has been settled and subject to the influence of human industry for more than a century, even though it might appear at first glance to be an untouched, intact forest. There is so much history in our little corner of the Pacific Northwest, and this hike inspired me to want to learn more, to know what secrets and history are hidden in these forested landscapes.

I did my research ahead of time and looked up the Cedar Butte hike on the Washington Trails Association website.  If you're enticed to check out this hike for yourself, I'd definitely recommend using the driving directions and the directions to the trailhead found at the WTA website link above. Had we not had these directions printed out and in hand, we might have gotten lost!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wanderings: Saint Edward State Park

Dynamic, ephemeral, ever-shifting, ever-changing, blooming, sprouting, dying and living. These qualities of the natural world ensure that no single encounter will be the same as the last. You can return time and again to the same trail, look out the same window, walk the same route through your neighborhood, and -- if you're tuned in to your surroundings -- each experience will be completely different.

Saint Edward State Park is my favorite place to visit and spend time in nature. I've been there more times than I can count, have hiked every trail more than once (although I do have a favorite I tend to stick with), and yet with every visit I find something new to appreciate, or am able to experience the park in a new way. And my most recent visit was no exception.

Last weekend, feeling we needed some exercise, my husband and I headed over to Saint Edward for a late afternoon walk in the forest. Pulling into the full parking lot and taking in the crowded seminary grounds, it was immediately apparent that we weren't the only ones out to enjoy the park on this beautiful afternoon. The sky overhead was blue and adorned with cottony white cumulus clouds that allowed just enough sunlight to shine through to entice us pasty-skinned Pacific Northwesterners outdoors in droves for some much-needed vitamin D. Fortunately, the sneaky, almost-hidden parking area at the north end of the park was nearly empty, so we snagged a spot next to an old, beat-up pickup truck with its windows rolled down, blaring Italian opera at full volume. Interesting way to spend one's afternoon at a State Park...

We set out on the straightforwardly (but unimaginatively) named North Trail, which we had hiked up several times, but had never hiked down. Being that this trail is quite steep in places, I found it much more enjoyable to hike downhill!

Spring is still emerging in the green leaves budding on maples, the blooming salmonberry, and the tender fern fronds unfurling. We even had a nice surprise and found trillium blooming along the trail - the first time I've seen them at Saint Edward - and counted twenty-nine in total! These flowers were difficult to find in my forest haunts last year, but this spring they seem to be bursting into bloom around every bend in the trail and crowding every shady, fern-filled corner.

At the foot of the hill, the North Trail becomes the Beach Trail, and traces a little more than a quarter mile of the Lake Washington shoreline. Here, the conifers give way to giant cottonwoods, and the peace of the forest gives way to guttering motorboats and whining jet-skis. We arrived at the large, sun-drenched beach area where all of the trails end, and found it crowded with families enjoying the lovely afternoon. A pair of Mallard ducks waddled right up to our feet and eyeballed us expectantly. They were clearly looking for bread crumbs which they'd come to expect from humans. I trained my camera on the ducks, not wanting to miss an up-close photo opportunity; but before I could click the shutter, they took off in a panic to escape a little girl running at them with a large stick. She chased them until they reached the shoreline and took flight. The girl's harried-looking father hurried after her, apologizing. I thought to myself that he should perhaps be apologizing to the poor ducks instead of to me.

We took the opportunity to leave the crowded chaos of the beach for the peace of the forest; setting out on the South Canyon Trail (my favorite!) to head back up the hill toward the seminary grounds. Thankfully, we didn't have to contend with any crowds on this more challenging trail. We did however, hear the distraught wailing of the pint-sized stick-wielding duck chaser periodically echo through the forest throughout the return hike. She must have been getting a talking-to as her family hiked back up one of the trails parallel to the one we were on.

The sunny South Canyon trail lies within a different microclimate than that of the shaded North Trail, so we saw a different landscape of vegetation along our ascent up the hill, including bigleaf maple (this trail is famous for them!), salmonberry, skunk cabbage, devil's club, nettles, already-blooming bleeding heart, and a lonely trillium. The salmonberry bushes seem to be the prominent species of vegetation along the trail at this time of year, with deep green leaves and vivid pink blossoms erupting right at eye level.

Bleeding heart and stinging nettles, amongst other greenery!

Delightful tangles of salmonberry

(blurry) Devil's club, surrounded by nettles.  Can you find the lone trillium in this photo?

We emerged from the forest at the south end of the park, and wound our way around the seminary back toward the parking lot. Someone was having quite a fiesta in the seminary ballroom that afternoon, blasting the park grounds and its visitors with lively Mariachi music. (On an unrelated note, we ended up going out for Mexican food for dinner after our hike...)

The music faded by the time we reached the parking area. And wouldn't you know it, as we walked by the stormwater retention pond bordering the parking lot, a pair of Mallard ducks flew in and landed right in the water, paddled to the shore, and purposefully strode up the grassy bank to where I stood on the other side of the chain-link fence.  These two clearly had some unfinished business with me. I chatted with the ducks (sympathizing with their earlier terrifying encounter) as I snapped a few photos through the fence. When they realized we had no Wonderbread for them, the ducks became bored with us and waddled back to the pond.

Yes, my wildlife photography skills still need work... but to be fair, I was shooting a moving target through a fence...

Back at the car, the shady parking lot had emptied, the opera-blasting truck was gone, and all that remained was the silence of the forest. The trees exhaled their pine-y, intoxicatingly fresh air into the cool afternoon, and their gently waving branches whispered in a breeze and cast long shadows across the pavement. Ah, finally. Peace.