Sunday, August 2, 2015

Wanderings: Cedar River Watershed

Chester Morse Lake. Lainey Piland photo

A white-hot sun beat down unabated from the brilliant blue August sky, its warmth heating the hundred-year-old concrete dam beneath my feet and radiating up in waves all around me. I gulped a much-needed drink of water from my water bottle, slightly in awe of the fact that the very water I was drinking now, which I'd brought from home, had recently come from the sparkling pool of deep blue water before me.

Yesterday, on the scorching first day of August, I toured the Cedar River Watershed and visited my drinking water at the source. The Cedar River Watershed Education Center, operated by Seattle Public Utilities, offers fantastic tours of the watershed every weekend from July through September. These 2.5 hour-long bus tours are led by very knowledgeable and friendly naturalists from the Education Center, and take visitors through the watershed that provides drinking water to the greater Seattle area.

I highly recommend making the drive out to North Bend to visit the Education Center and participate in one of the tours. It was well worth the price, and was honestly the best $10 I've spent in a very long time! If you're planning to visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center and attend one of the tours and want to be completely surprised and delighted by the unexpected, then read no further! I'm going to share some of the photos and details from my own visit, and this might spoil the surprise for you. If you're not convinced yet... read on, and you'll surely want to check this place out for yourself!

Living roof and lush gardens at the Education Center.

The tour started at 10am, and my husband and I planned to arrive just a little early to make sure we didn't miss the bus. We drove past the very busy parking area for Rattlesnake Lake and the Rattlesnake Ledge trailhead, and shortly thereafter arrived at the beautiful Education Center tucked away on the right hand side of the shady road. As soon as we parked and started walking toward the buildings, I was already in awe of this amazing facility, which is comprised of small, immaculately kept buildings connected by covered walkways with living roofs. Lush gardens of native plants filled in every empty space between buildings and walkways, and permeating throughout is a quiet, hushed feeling of peace and tranquility.

Approaching the central courtyard (called the Forest Court), I heard a deep and resonant drumbeat that sounded like the very beating heart of the place. In fact, I delightedly discovered that the sound was created by scattered rain drums situated among the plants and trees in the courtyard, each one playing a different note with very-carefully timed drip irrigation to create the mystical, primal-sounding music that so captivated me. This ended up being my favorite part of the Education Center itself. I could have sat on a bench in that courtyard, shaded by the lush greenery, and listened to those drums playing all day long. I just might go back and do that one day soon! Check out this video for more information on the rain drum art installation created by Dan Corson.

After tearing myself away from the rain drums, we checked in at the Welcome Center, wandered through the exhibits, and then met the naturalist guiding our tour and loaded up on the bus. After passing through a security gate, we drove through the small historic town of Cedar Falls, which once housed the water department employees and was an important stop for the railroad. Now a ghost town, only a few of the tidy white-painted homes remain, and some of the old five-globe streetlamps still stand proudly.

Next, the bus took us into the watershed along old logging roads that are often (very) bumpy! We drove up to the Masonry Dam, a huge hundred-year old structure that regulates the flow of water from the reservoir (Chester Morse Lake). Here, we exited the bus and walked along the top of the dam, peering down at the Masonry Pool to our left, and the face of the dam, old and moss-covered, sloping steeply downward to our right. All around, velvety-green hills ascended sharply from the shores of the Cedar River and the Masonry Pool. Our guide shared information on the history of the dam, then we filed back to the bus to head toward our next stop.

The Masonry Pool.
The Masonry Dam, with Cedar River water flowing through it.

It took awhile to get to our next stop. We crossed a bridge over Chester Morse Lake and then wound uphill on a slightly frightening gravel road. After attaining significant elevation, the bus pulled off the road and we disembarked, following a narrow gravel trail through a very dry hemlock forest. After a few hundred yards, the trail opened up to an amazing vista. To the left, looking way, way down, we could see the Masonry Dam and Masonry Pool. Off in the distance, we could make out the city of North Bend, the iconic profile of Mount Si, and I could even see the cone-shaped form of Cedar Butte, which my husband and I hiked earlier this year, huffing and puffing our way to the top. It looked humblingly small from our high vantage point. Turning to the left, we could see the sparkling deep blue waters of Chester Morse Lake, and the dark green foothills rolling away into the distant hazy blue Cascade Mountains. It was a stunningly beautiful vista, and I felt just a little like a cheater for having been driven up here on a bus rather than hoofing it on my own two feet. There was a nagging dissonance there, where I almost felt like I hadn't earned the right to enjoy that view, but I did anyway!

Looking toward North Bend, you can see the Masonry Pool below, and the cone-shaped Cedar Butte on the right.

Breathtaking view of Chester Morse Lake, looking toward the Cascades.

The group retreated back into the forest, where we could stand in the cool shade and listen to our guide discuss the ecology and history of the forest here in the Watershed. Since the forests had been logged early in the twentieth century, most of the trees in the Watershed were only about fifty to eighty years old. Our guide also pointed out that this was not a healthy forest. All of the trees were the same size, about the same age, and were competing for light and space. The patch of forest in which we stood was comprised mostly of hemlock, crowded close together, with the forest floor largely bereft of any vegetation, save for the occasional sword fern. A gentle breeze swept across the hillside, shaking loose the dead hemlock needles and sending them sailing through the trees like a golden rain, whispering soft musical tinkles as they landed in the dry brush around us. Hearing this rare, sad music, I was reminded of this piece from Orion Magazine eulogizing the dying eastern hemlocks.

Hello, hemlocks! Not the most diverse forest.
Although very lovely and impressive, the forest looks homogenous even from a distance.

We followed the trail back out to the bus and loaded up for the white-knuckle drive back down the steep logging road. The bus headed back toward the Education Center and as we drove, our guide discussed the history of Native Americans within the Cedar River Watershed, explaining that very low water levels in Chester Morse Lake during the late 1980's had led to the discovery of stone tools, pots, and other Native artifacts there that were dated to 9,000 years old. Clearly, this beautiful landscape has drawn and supported humans for thousands of years.

I couldn't help but feel disappointed when the tour bus rumbled back into the parking lot at the Education Center. The tour had gone by way too fast! Out of necessity, the tour moves along at a brisk pace, and I'm one who definitely prefers to linger, to soak it all in and fully experience the scenery all around me. Even though I couldn't spend as much time as I'd like, I thoroughly enjoyed the "behind the scenes" look the tour had afforded us, of a landscape - a forest, a sparkling lake, winding river, soaring hills - not freely accessible to the general public.

Now, my water seems so much more precious. When I turn on the faucet in my home, I know that the clean water pouring into my glass has made a long journey; that it streamed down steep hillsides where gentle breezes stir the branches of a triumphant second-growth forest, whose hemlock needles come tinkling down in a golden, musical shower; that it pooled in the glimmering depths of Chester Morse Lake, trickled into the Masonry Pool, and flowed through the penstocks of the Masonry Dam; that it tumbled over boulders in the Cedar River, frothing and roaring as it flowed past the ghost town of Cedar Falls. My water has a story, and now that we're better acquainted, I feel more responsible than ever to use it carefully, and gratefully.

So, are you convinced yet? Book your tour here!

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