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.

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