Monday, December 26, 2016

Looking back at 2016: Top 5 most-read posts on the blog this year

Sauk Mtn - "May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view." - Ed Abbey

We've already arrived at the final week of 2016. It was a year of Wanderings, of exploring new places, meeting new friends, and reaching new heights. This year, my wanderings led me to reflect on our place in the world, our impact upon it and our responsibility to it. As the year winds down, let's take a look back at the most popular blog posts of the year.

1. Wanderings: Sauk Mountain

If the world ends, let me be here... a place that inspired a true feeling of gratitude and exhilaration.

2. In the News: Wildfires in Western Washington

Wildfires made an appearance in Western Washington this spring, and may become a regular occurrence with our changing climate.

3. Wanderings: Fragrance Lake

The first meetup of the Alpine Trails Book Club led to this tranquil lake surrounded by a forest full of history and interesting geology.

4. Wanderings: Mount Si

My biggest challenge yet, climbing Mount Si gave me a whole new perspective on my own abilities, and on my home valley far below.

5. Wanderings: Brightwater  

Hiking at a wastewater treatment plant? It's way more fun (and much less smelly) than one might expect.

2016 was a year to remember, and let's hope that 2017 will be even better yet! Stay tuned to A Day Without Rain in the new year - although the blog may be leaning more toward Musings and less Wandering thanks to my current pregnant state and my son to be born in early May - but you can bet I'll be getting him outdoors as soon as I can!

Follow along on Twitter at @LaineyPiland or on Instagram at @a_day_without_rain_blog.


Monday, November 28, 2016

Wanderings: Lord Hill Regional Park

Black Friday dawned cool and sunny, with blue skies that offered a welcome respite from the heavy clouds and incessant rain we'd seen for days on end. What better day to join the growing number of people choosing to "opt outside" on Black Friday, rather than hitting the sales at the shopping mall and big box stores. The Opt Outside movement was initiated by outdoor retailer REI last year, as they gave their employees the day after Thanksgiving off to spend time outdoors, and encouraged others to do the same. I'm not one for crowds and long lines, so it didn't take much convincing for me to make Black Friday hikes a new tradition!

Last year, my husband and I took a walk at the Redmond Watershed Preserve on Black Friday. The year before that - before opting outside was even a "thing" - my sister and I hiked to Coal Creek Falls on a particularly rainy and cold day after Thanksgiving. Despite arriving home soaked to the skin and freezing cold, the experience left me with memories of a fun adventure with one of my favorite people.

This year, my husband was once again my hiking partner as we hit the trails at Lord Hill Regional Park in Snohomish. Okay, let me be honest... I did have one other hiking partner with me. And that would be the future nature nerd growing in my rapidly expanding belly. We're having our first child in early May of next year - an entirely new adventure for the both of us! We chose Lord Hill for our Black Friday hike not only because it was a park close to home that I had yet to visit, but also because the gentle trails would be easier on this pregnant hiker who has sore knees and hips, and gets winded just walking up the stairs.

There were few cars in the parking lot when we arrived and made our way to the large map posted near the trailhead. We planned to take the Main trail to the West View trail, where the map advertised a viewpoint I hoped would offer views of the mountains or valley below. This would give us a nice hike of about three miles, and hopefully satisfy my longing to spend time outside, which I've been doing entirely too little of lately.

From the parking lot, we followed the trail as it wound downhill, left muddy and slick after the Thanksgiving deluge. The black mud was pockmarked with tiny craters where water had dripped from rain-saturated branches overhead. We crossed a few boardwalks over swampy areas and swollen streams, and marveled at the enormous old-growth cedar stumps still present in this second-growth forest.

We picked up the Main trail and followed it beneath an impressive bower of bigleaf maples, their branches bare now save for a thick coating of moss. Beneath the maples and scattered Doug firs, an unbroken grove of sword fern carpeted the forest floor. It was dark and shaded and damp through this stretch.

When the trail forked, we headed to the right and followed the West View trail as it sloped gently upward. This trail was bright and open and sunny, with glimpses of the valley below just visible among the thickly clustered maple trunks. We reached the top of a hill where the trail forked again, but the previously well-marked trails were now completely blank. Without really knowing which way to go, we took the right fork again and decided to see where it led.

As luck would have it, we should have taken the left fork. Our chosen trail ended up being the Devil's Butte trail, which winds downhill and around a large swampy pond before meeting up again with the trail we had actually wanted to take to the viewpoint. Although choosing the wrong trail added another mile or so to our hike, the narrow footpath brushing through waist-high sword fern also offered a chance to explore an interesting wetland ecosystem that we wouldn't have seen otherwise... and what would a hike be without some aspect of adventure? We circumnavigated the pond and then hopped over its slightly sulfurous-smelling outlet stream before climbing a steep hill that led us to the viewpoint which had been our original destination.

However, the name "viewpoint" was an unfortunate misnomer. The only view at this point was of the blue sky overhead, and the bare maple trunks all around the small clearing. Standing on a wet, algae-slick picnic table, I was able to take a photo of the only view available through a gap in the branches of a Doug fir.

We headed back to the West View trail, ambling slowly along the muddy path striped with alternating sunshine and shadow. Woodpeckers tapped on resonant tree trunks, wrens scolded and flitted among the tangles of salmonberry, a gentle breeze set bigleaf maple leaves waving, the golden leaves refusing to let go and fall to the ground. It wasn't climbing a mountain, it wasn't hiking miles to a lake or waterfall - but this hike in a quiet county park was all I needed to feel refreshed and reconnected to the greater, grander, marvelous world out there. And I think perhaps that's what "opting outside" is all about.

Upon reflection, after getting past the extra-sore hip and knee joints, I was grateful for the wrong turn that took us further into the woods and made our hike longer than expected. This hike ended up being a great reminder that not all hikes - and not all things in life - are about the destination. It's about enjoying the unfolding journey and embracing the small beauties, detours and wrong turns that make for an exciting adventure.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wanderings: Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse. Lainey Piland photo

Whales. That was the one thing on my mind as my husband and I pulled into the shaded parking lot at Lime Kiln Point State Park in early October. This small park located on the western shore of San Juan Island is known to be one of the best whale-watching locations in the state.

Earlier that day, as we wandered among the exhibits at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor and marveled at the massive skeletons of those majestic cetaceans, a small note caught my eye on a whiteboard shoved into a corner of the room. Just last night, it said, a few Southern Resident orca whales had been sighted cruising past Lime Kiln Point. Well, our afternoon excursion had been decided! Off to Lime Kiln we went, in hopes of spotting those beloved killer whales in person.

After hanging the Discover Pass from the rearview mirror, we bundled up against the brisk wind that had stolen the warmth from this brilliant sunny day and set out for the trail to the whale watch site. It was just a short jaunt - a hundred yards, maybe - from the parking lot to the rocky shoreline. The trail led us beneath bigleaf maples starting to turn golden, fragrant boughs of Douglas fir hissing in the wind, and numerous Pacific madrone whose branches were heavily laden with clusters of bright red berries.

Madrone tree and blue sky.

We bypassed the already-occupied whale watching location - a large semi-circular platform perched above the water and enclosed by a low stone wall - and followed a narrow path south until we reached a vacant picnic table. This picnic table had the world's best view, I think. Nothing but wide-open sky, glittering currents in Haro Strait, and waves crashing against the rocky shoreline, sending white spray airborne. Looking north, we could see the quaint white Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse still standing guard on the Point, although its light had long been dark.

Picnic table view

Large freight ships chugged by in Haro Strait, piled high with colorful shipping containers. After my visit to the whale museum earlier that day, I'd learned just how damaging those ships are to whale populations, as they pollute the water with noise so loud it interferes with the whale's echolocation and communication. We'd later wander over to an exhibit near the lighthouse where the push of a button would play the sound collected from underwater hydrophones just offshore in real time. I was hoping for beautiful whale music, but heard nothing but the grating, rumbling noise of passing ship traffic.

We sprawled out at our picnic table, soaking in the view. Even with sunglasses, I squinted across the water made harsh and bright by the brilliant sunshine, searching for a dorsal fin or puff of spray in the glare. There were a few false alarms where both my husband and myself would grab the other's arm and point: what's that??? It was always the shadow between waves or a piece of driftwood. Until it wasn't.

After twenty minutes or so of determined searching, I caught a faint specter of white haze hovering over the water several hundred yards out. I grabbed my camera, thankful I'd brought my longer lens, and squinted through the viewfinder. A large burst of spray came up from the water, followed by another, smaller one. WHALES!!! I yelled, pointing at the distant patch of water. My husband turned to look, as did the small crowd behind the wall at the whale watching spot who were still within earshot. Still watching through my viewfinder, I snapped away as two dark backs with tiny hooked dorsal fins emerged from the water.

We watched them swim northward past us, a momma and baby whale, their rhythmic surfacing, blowing spray, dark backs slipping through water and tiny dorsal fins disappearing and reappearing in a repeating pattern. Once we caught a glimpse of a fluke. Before too long, a small boat with RESEARCH emblazoned on its side appeared, with a half-dozen people crowded on deck. The boat remained several hundred yards away as it followed the whales in their northward progress. We watched them, whales and boat, until they were no longer visible around the point.

Eyes stung and watering from the glaring sunshine and cold, penetrating wind, I turned to my husband with a huge grin and said that was awesome! My whale encounter hadn't come in the form of playful orcas breaching near shore as I'd been hoping, but there was something almost more real and personal in the quiet passage of a mother and baby whale slipping along the shoreline, cruising to an unknown destination, to unspoken business. Due to their size and dorsal fin shape, we decided by process of elimination that these must have been Minke whales. They were too small for humpbacks, too large for porpoises, and the dorsal fins were not right for orcas.

After the whales had passed and crowds dispersed, we left our picnic table with the world's best view and made our way toward the lighthouse. We stopped briefly to poke around on the shoreline, and squinted into shallow tidepools where chitons and anemones had taken up residence in the clear water.

Upon arriving at the lighthouse and interpretive center, we discovered that it was closed for the season. We'd missed it by just weeks - it is open May through early September, and offers guided walks, lighthouse tours and educational programs during those months. Those programs - plus the prospect of better whale-watching opportunities - is good enough reason for me to plan a return trip sometime in the summer!

And of course, while we were there we couldn't neglect to visit the park's namesake lime kiln. The trail to the lime kiln is just over a quarter mile long, and brings you to the very top of the massive stone oven used from 1860 to the 1920's to process the limestone quarried nearby into the final salable product: lime, which was used largely for agriculture. In a restaurant in Friday Harbor, there's an old photograph hanging on the wall from the early 1900's, showing a portly, well-dressed man selling San Juan Island lime at the Puyallup Fair. The interior of the lime kiln is still stained white with lime, as is a nearby hillside, where the leftovers and residue were dumped off a cliff into the sea. A steep staircase leads down to the "ground floor" of the massive kiln, where you can peer into the oven itself and run your fingers over the strangely worn stones.

The old lime kiln

We followed the trail through the madrone forest back to the parking lot, which had filled up quite a bit since we had arrived. Watching the carloads of new arrivals set out toward the whale watching site, I hoped they'd have the same memorable experience I had, and perhaps would also walk away with a same sense of reverence and responsibility for the incredible creatures that call these waters home.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Musings: Last Chance Tourism

Mount Baker still covered in white, Summer 2016

Last chance tourism is the latest trend for globe-trotting travelers. The "last chance" doesn't refer to getting in on a good deal on airfare at the last minute, or scoring a seat on an overbooked expedition after being on the waitlist forever. Nope, last chance tourism is something a bit more somber: it has to do with climate change.

As Earth warms, we're witnessing the face of the planet change forever. Some areas are melting, some are parched, some are drowning. Ecosystems are shifting and changing and many species are in decline. Unique and irreplaceable places are being lost at an alarming rate, and it is to these places - the Great Barrier Reef, Antarctica, low-lying tropical islands like the Maldives - that tourists are flocking, in order to see these places before they disappear forever. Because let's face it: once the ice fields of Antarctica melt, they're not coming back anytime soon.

A recent article from the Sierra Club explains the paradox of last chance tourism. These already- sensitive places are struggling with the effects of climate change, and now the influx of tourists is putting further pressure on the imperiled ecosystems. The tourists may be hastening the demise of the very places they're racing to see before they're gone forever.

The article got me wondering: how would last chance tourism apply to our home here in Washington state? What are we losing to climate change? What places do we need to visit, what hallmarks of the region do we need to witness before they're gone? Here are a few that I came up with...

Mountain snow

With mountain snowpack less than half of normal, the winter of 2014/2015 gave us a grim look into the future, as winters will become warmer and average freezing levels race ever-higher up the slopes of the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Warmer weather means that precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, leaving the mountains with very little of that cold white stuff we're used to seeing them swathed in during the colder months.

Less snowpack is bad news for everyone. During the hot summer months, ecosystems rely on water supplied by the slowly-melting snowpack to feed rivers and streams. No snowpack means no supply of water during the summer. And during the cold winter months, the skiers and snowboarders who flock to the mountains also rely on snow - it's kind of hard to ski without it. And with our mountain passes and ski areas located near the freezing level, it won't take much warming to push that freezing line to a higher elevation and leave those ski areas warmer, soggy, and snowless.

Don't miss out: enjoy the sight of snowcapped mountains on the horizon, and get up there to play in the white stuff while you still can.


With carefully timed migration and spawning, and with their requirement for cold water, salmon species are especially susceptible to a warming climate. As the climate changes, the volume of water in rivers and streams will change from what the salmon are adapted to. The Pacific Northwest is projected to see more days of intense heavy rainfall, which will flood salmon spawning streams; damaging nests and washing away eggs. Additionally, the lack of snowmelt feeding into rivers and streams during the summertime leaves the water shallower and warmer: not a good thing for these coldwater fish. These conditions also facilitate the spread of disease and parasites among salmon.

Salmon have already suffered greatly due to human activity. I'm sure we've all heard the quotes from the Native tribe histories, where the salmon were once so numerous in Pacific Northwest rivers that you could walk across their backs to cross the river. Thanks to damming rivers and overfishing, salmon populations have plunged. Many species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Now as the climate changes, one-third of salmon habitat will be too warm for these species to inhabit by the end of the century.

Want to make a difference for salmon? Find a conservation organization or check with your county conservation district for streamside planting events, where native plants are put in the ground along creeks and rivers to provide shade and cool the water for salmon.

Don't miss out: sit on the banks of a nearby river or creek and watch these amazing fish return from their long journey to spawn a new generation of salmon. Your county or local watershed might even have salmon spawning events and a map of viewing locations, like Salmon SEEson in the Lake Washington Watershed.


Okay, the forests here in our Evergreen State are not going to disappear, but they are going to change from the forests that we've grown to know and love, as they face threats from warming temperatures and increasing populations of harmful insects.

It's no secret that the hotter, drier summers we're expected to face in the coming decades have a negative impact on trees. Last year's drought left our forests with parched conifers and thirsty decidious trees - couple that with the hotter temperatures (which speed evaporation of water from needles and leaves) and you have some seriously stressed trees. It has become commonplace to see little western red cedars or doug firs along forest edges or in highway medians that have died due to drought stress, their needles an unnatural flaming red. Even now, a year later, trees are still succumbing to the effects of drought stress - even the bigger trees. Hot, dry weather also creates perfect conditions for wildfire. Wildfires are expected to burn larger areas and cause more damage in the coming decades, and will surely consume their fair share of forestland in Washington state.

Insect pests are another threat to forests in our state. Many species of bark beetle exist in our region's forests, and these tiny pests have the power to kill entire stands of mighty trees. The warmer winters (lack of freezing weather), and the hotter, drier summers that leave trees already stressed and vulnerable are the two major factors contributing to the success of these insects. On the east coast, the wooly adelgid is responsible for decimating eastern hemlock trees, and in California nearly 30 million trees have succumbed to the pine bark beetle. We should be prepared for these scenarios to play out in the forests here in Washington as well.

Don't miss out: hike, walk, sit, study, soak in the forests that give the Evergreen State its name.


Fall is a season of change, and this season itself will change along with the warming climate in coming years. Hold on to your pumpkin spice... autumn is going to look a little different. This Grist article outlines a few of the ways climate change will affect autumn across the country. Here in Washington, one big change that we're noticing already this year is in the leaves. Normally we can expect a splendid show of oranges, reds and yellows as the leaves on deciduous trees turn color and drop to the ground. It is these colors - the wading through ankle-deep drifts of gold with a canopy of the same spreading out overhead - that really speaks autumn to us.

However, you may have noticed that things are a little less spectacular this year, especially in regard to many bigleaf maple trees in the area. Some maples are dropping their leaves early, and others have leaves that aren't changing color at all, but rather shrivel and turn brown on their branches before dropping to the ground in crispy heaps. Researchers are pointing to last year's drought and the continued warmer weather this year as a likely culprit for the bigleaf maple's fall foliage bust. The stressed trees simply don't have the resources to keep their leaves, and are forced to drop them early and hope for rain. As hotter, drier summers (and perhaps drought conditions) become the status quo in the coming years, we may need to get used to seeing less of those fall colors we love.

Don't miss out: enjoy those autumn hues in their full glory. 

There are many other wonders and places in the Pacific Northwest threatened by climate change, but the list above is a big-picture look at some of the most noticeable ones. And while nothing will happen overnight and while not all of those listed above will disappear completely, many of these losses are already in progress - although it might be a long "last chance," the day will still come when mountain snow, forests, salmon, and autumn are forever changed, along with our climate.

We will have to adjust to a new normal, but we don't have to face an inevitable goodbye to these hallmarks of Washington state, if we can find a way to act on climate and minimize the impacts of climate change on this beautiful place we call home. Let's keep that in mind as we go about our daily lives - in the personal choices we make, and in the leaders we elect - so that we don't have to become "last chance tourists" in our own home.

For more on the anticipated effects of climate change in Washington, check out my summary of the 2014 National Climate Assessment

Friday, August 26, 2016

Wanderings: Among Ancients in the Cedar River Watershed

Findley Lake Old Growth

Early on a Saturday morning that would later become a scorching August day in the mid-nineties, my sister and I headed for the shady refuge of the forest. Old-growth forest in the Cedar River Watershed, to be exact. The Cedar River Watershed Education Center is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit.

I've already attended one of their signature Watershed Tours and an Adventures in Forest Ecology class, and I was eager to sign up for their old-growth forest ecology class called Among Ancients. For only $15, I got to spend the entire day in the company of ancient trees, on an educational outing led by Clay Antieau, Seattle Public Utilities scientist and self-titled "plant guy" who truly has a wealth of knowledge on his subject.

After exiting I-90, we drove up Cedar Falls Road and passed the already-full parking lot at Rattlesnake Lake. This is a popular destination, for the lake itself as well as the well-known trail to Rattlesnake Ledge. Cars were already spilling out of the parking lot and lining up on the shoulders of the road. We breezed right past the adventurers strapping on backpacks and hoisting inflatable water toys, to the quiet, shaded, and nearly-empty parking lot at the Education Center.

Upon arrival, I made a beeline for the rain drums in the forest courtyard just outside the Welcome Center. These rain drums always leave me entranced. I could listen to them all day.

We checked in at the Welcome Center after listening to the drums play for a bit, and loitered around the large relief map of the Watershed as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Our instructor gave the group an introduction to the Watershed and its history, and then we piled into the air-conditioned white vans and headed into the forest.

Our first stop was a familiar overlook high above Chester Morse Lake. This patch of forest gave us a good idea of the second-growth forest that dominates the majority of the Watershed. Like much of our region, the forest here was logged by the timber industry over the past hundred years or so. The City of Seattle gradually bought up parcels of land piece by piece from the timber companies and from the Forest Service, until they owned the entire watershed. This is a unique situation - for a municipality to own their entire watershed and have the ability to manage the land for a safe and plentiful water supply. Watershed scientists are now studying ways to restore these second-growth forests to the levels of functioning seen in old growth.

With closely-spaced western hemlock trees crowding one another out and prohibiting any plants from growing on the light-deprived forest floor, this second-growth forest lacks biodiversity and is not ideal for water quality or for wildlife habitat.

We then traveled to the Lost Creek old growth, a stand of classic lowland old growth forest 300-400 years of age complete with huge trees and a diverse plant community. We followed a trail into the woods, listening intently as our instructor pointed out and named nearly every plant we passed. He gathered us around a clump of bizarre white stalks pushing out of the duff. They looked like some kind of fungus, but were in fact mycoheterotrophic indian pipe plants - plants that lack chlorophyll and gain energy from nearby trees through an association with fungus, rather than obtaining energy through photosynthesis as all other plants do. During the course of the day, we also saw many pine sap and coralroot plants - two other mycoheterotrophs.

Indian Pipe

At the end of the trail, we settled down on a log and received an education about old growth forest - not just about the characteristics of an old growth forest, but also about tree physiology and the functions of the forest that we cannot see, like the roots from different trees meeting beneath our feet, grafting together to create a super-organism that can communicate and share nutrients from one tree to another, even over great distances. Throughout the talk, my sister and I could hear heavy items falling from high overhead, slapping through branches before hitting the forest floor with a soft thud. This went on for several minutes before a Douglas squirrel scampered into view to snack on his harvest of pinecones.

Can you spot our pinecone-throwing friend?

Our final stop was accessed via a long and bumpy road winding deep into the Watershed. We parked in a meadow of daisies and foxglove at the trailhead leading to Findley Lake. By this time, we were sweating in the sweltering heat. I drank from my Camelbak, feeling a bit flushed and heat-stressed. Forays into the Watershed involve a careful monitoring of hydration balanced against the scarce availability of porta-potties. No squatting in the bushes here - they are very serious about maintaining water quality!

As we were ready, members of the group set out on the trail to Findley Lake. My sister and I were alone for the large part of it, as we huffed and puffed up the steep and rarely- traveled trail. Thankfully it climbed through the cool shade provided by the 200 year-old silver fir trees that comprised this patch of old growth forest. What a luxury this was, to spend a Saturday out in the wilderness, on a trail that was not only uncrowded, but on which people were not allowed to travel unless participating in one of the Watershed programs. We were one of just a few dozen people to set foot here every year.

Huckleberry fields forever...

We passed through endless thickets of mountain huckleberry (very tasty berries - our instructor said we could take berries out of the Watershed... as long as they were inside our bodies!) and passed a marshy tarn before emerging next to an old shingle-sided building on a hillside above Findley Lake. As we waited for the rest of the group to catch up, we learned that this site was used by the University of Washington for forest canopy research from the 1970's up until just recently, when funding for such research sadly dried up. While it operated, the facility produced groundbreaking research, including information on the fascinating root grafting we'd heard about earlier.

A short trail led to the shores of Findley Lake, a beautiful sub-alpine lake with glassy waters and shorelines untrampled by the boots of careless hikers. And it's a good thing there are only a few dozen people allowed to visit its shores every year: this lake boasts around its edges a thin fringe of russet sedge - a plant that we learned is rare to find. It was very buggy near the lake. I swatted mosquitoes away, and then a bug flew in my mouth. I instinctively went to spit it out, then stopped myself. We couldn't pee in the Watershed... but could we spit? I looked furtively around, then spit the bug onto my shirtsleeve and brushed it off. You're welcome, people of Seattle and the Eastside... I nearly ate a bug to preserve your water quality.

A bright, hot afternoon on the shore of Findley Lake. Note the russet sedge in shallow water.

Hiking back into the forest, we visited a few abandoned research sites and learned about the things discovered there. We stood amidst the forest comprised largely of silver fir and learned to gauge the average snowpack depth of the place by looking up the trunks to see where the the green lichen tufts started to grow. We gathered that they were about eight feet high on most tree trunks. Were it wintertime, we'd be buried under snow! On such a hot day, that actually didn't sound too bad.

With brains filled with new knowledge and awe, we piled back into the vans and made the long drive back to the Education Center. I finally felt free to drink all the water I wanted, knowing the bathrooms would soon be not far away!

It's fascinating to sit amidst the ancient trees and have their secrets revealed by someone who has studied and knows them inside and out. It's awe-inspiring to realize that old growth forests are impressive for more reasons than just their huge trees and diversity of plant and animal species. There is so much going on below the forest floor, beneath the thick and crusty bark of the giant trees, in the soaring green canopy overhead. The fruiting fungus, the placement of lichen and moss, the size and distribution of trees all have something to say. You gain a sense that the landscape has an intelligence of its own, a timeless knowing honed in rain, snow and sunshine, in wind and fire; an intelligence that preceded our human lives - and which will surpass us - by millennia.

Visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center website to learn more about their programs. I highly encourage you to take advantage of these learning opportunities, with scientists who are thrilled to share their knowledge with you!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Wanderings: Sauk Mountain

If the world ends, let me be here.

Those words from Terry Tempest Williams' recent book The Hour of Land raced unbidden to my lips as I rounded the corner of the trail and gasped at the panorama spread out before me. At 5,500 feet on top of Sauk Mountain, I stood before verdant subalpine meadows, their graceful slopes descending down, down, down to the valley below; and rolling away into the infinite western horizon were the rocky Cascade Mountain peaks. A near-cloudless dome of blue sky stretched overhead, and fragrant wildflowers all around buzzed with honeybees.

Yes, if I had a to choose a place to watch the earth's last moments before being subsumed by whatever the coming apocalypse... I could choose no place better, no place closer to heaven on earth, no place with better views from which to bid farewell to everything I know.

I had not anticipated the splendor that waited at the summit as our book club hiking group navigated the winding and crater-ridden gravel road to the trailhead, stopped by the ski-chalet style pit toilet with a view, and then set out on the trail to Sauk Mountain. It was early morning and the grasses and wildflowers growing close in to the narrow dirt trail were still laden with dew.

Good morning, Sauk Mountain! Looking up at the slope we're switchbacking up... way up!

A short ways in, we stood at the base of a long green meadow sloping steeply upward toward the rocky summit. Squinting, I could see the trail switchbacking across the lush slope, and immediately realized the necessity of the switchbacks, as this mountainside was much too steep to walk straight up. You'd just about need climbing gear to attempt that endeavor.

We followed the narrow path back and forth, back and forth across the meadow as we gradually gained elevation. I had to avoid looking downhill, or my vertigo would immediately set in. With a trail this narrow on a slope this steep and exposed, I certainly didn't want to lose my balance and fall. There'd be nothing to stop me until I - or what was left of me - landed at the bottom. I was kind of regretting leaving my trekking poles in the car.

At the top of the switchbacks looking down. The parking area is visible left-center.

Thankfully there were many other sights to capture my attention and keep my mind off my fear of falling. And of course I'm talking about the wildflowers. There were wildflowers everywhere! I felt like I was strolling through someone's private garden as I brushed past purple penstemon and lupine, red paintbrush and columbine and yellow tigerlilies and daisy-like flowers, all being tended by bees and butterflies.

The climb passed quickly with the lush scenery and good company, and before long we left the meadow slope and wound around the backside of Sauk Mountain, where that heart-achingly beautiful view left me startled and speechless, save for those few words. 

If the world ends, let me be here.

After milling around and soaking in the view, we followed the trail to what appeared to be a campsite overlooking the alpine turquoise waters of Sauk Lake far below. By this time, the temperatures were rising quickly, and as the trail led us through a rocky, heather-dotted landscape toward the summit, I marveled at the fact that there was still snow up here. The few remaining patches were soft and melting quickly, and we had to carefully discern whether the snow was safe to walk on before continuing.

After pushing up a brief steep slope and clambering over rocks, we stood on the summit of Sauk Mountain and were once again stunned by the scene before us. Here on this high vantage point, we had 360-degree views of Cascade Mountains. We spotted Glacier Peak, Mount Pilchuck, the white top of Rainier, and looming large to the north was the perfect cone of Mount Baker. The turquoise ribbon of the Sauk River wound through the valley below, and to the west the fertile Skagit Valley farmlands ran flat and smooth toward Puget Sound somewhere out in the haze. Not to be forgotten were the Olympic Mountains, just barely visible on the far western horizon.

Mount Baker
Looking out toward the Skagit Valley
Glacier Peak

The view was tremendous. I could have sat there all day. My sister asked if I thought these views were better than those from the top of Mount Si. Feeling guilty for betraying my home valley, I shook my head and said these views beat Mount Si by a mile. Hands down. Although we didn't work as hard for these views as we did for the views from Mount Si, I was still going to revel in them, while feeling thankful that most of the elevation gain to the 5,500ft summit of Sauk Mountain occurs on the drive in, which only leaves the hikers with 1,200 feet of gain to tackle on foot!

We settled onto the still-cool rocks at the summit and swatted mosquitoes and ate lunch while discussing the novel we'd read for book club. As the conversation wound down, the mosquito bites became more numerous and the crowds increased, we decided to head back down the trail and reluctantly bade farewell to one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen.

On the way back down, I stopped to take a photograph of a metal tag driven into the ground that we'd noticed on the way up. I wanted a picture to reference so that I could look it up when I got back home. The tag was stamped with the words "National Park Service Science" and "NPS Cascades Butterfly Project Section C". After doing some research, I found that we'd been hiking through a study area for the Cascades Butterfly Project, which monitors butterflies in six protected areas in the Cascade Mountains, to study how climate change is affecting mountain ecosystems.

The most exciting part about the Cascades Butterfly Project was the opportunity for anyone to participate. Hikers who photograph butterflies in the study areas can upload their pictures to the project's photo inventory via the Butterflies and Moths of North America site. I happened to take photos of two different butterfly species during the hike, so I uploaded them to the site where they'll be identified by a project coordinator and the sightings added to the project database. And just like that, I became a citizen scientist.

These are the photos I submitted. They are terrible photos, really... but I expect there's enough detail there for the butterfly experts to make an identification. And despite the poor quality of the photos, I felt that in some way I'd helped the cause. That I had contributed to the greater good of a place threatened by climate change - that I had in some small and insignificant way given a gift to a place worthy of spending one's last moments. That perhaps I've helped those who are working to save this place from the inferno of climate change - the slow-smoldering apocalypse I feel ever more certain I'll be witnessing within my lifetime. But perhaps hope can be carried on delicate butterfly wings.

If the world ends, let me be here.

If you go: be aware that the gravel road to the trailhead is steep and cratered with enormous potholes and trenches. There were some regular cars that made it up to the parking lot, but I'd recommend a vehicle with higher ground clearance to avoid any damage to your car. Take it easy and watch for oncoming traffic. Also bring the bug spray! I came home with a dozen or so mosquito bites even though I did use a (natural and apparently ineffective) bug spray. Also, stay on the trail. There are many places where people have taken shortcuts through the switchbacks, which has eroded the trail and made an already-narrow trail on a steep hillside even narrower.