Sunday, January 31, 2016

Musings: Advertisements in State Parks

Insert your ad here?

While visiting Rasar State Park recently, my husband and I walked past many empty frames like the one above. Normally, we'd expect to find some kind of informational poster there, perhaps pointing out some interesting plant life or historical tidbits about the scenery in front of us. I expect that those frames were empty because the displays were being updated. Or perhaps Rasar State Park has adopted more of a philosophical, existential "make your own nature interpretation" approach, which is also great! But what if those frames held something altogether unrelated to the state park's history, flora or fauna? What if it displayed an advertisement for the newest gotta-have-it cell phone, or discount car insurance, or the latest in outdoor gear and fashion?

This sounds odd, but it could become reality. A recent KOMO news story brought to my attention a proposal that might adversely affect future visits to my favorite Washington State Parks. The Washington State Parks Commission is considering a proposal to allow advertising in restrooms at and trailheads in state parks.

Being bombarded by advertisements in a place you purposely visit to escape from those very things is an entirely unwelcome possibility. There is a reason we head for the sanctuary of the forest, the beach, or the mountains rather than the shopping mall when we're in need of rest, restoration, and a few hours of peace. We want to escape from the constant pressure to buy things and the false sense of need planted in our minds by the constant hum of commercialism that surrounds us all day long through the television, radio, internet, magazines, and billboards. We want to escape to nature, where we feel that we already have all we need, and where all that's asked of us is to be present, to observe and listen and to tread lightly.

State parks just don't seem to fit in as a medium for advertising. And while a few advertisements at the trailhead or in the restrooms really don't sound like too much of an intrusion, there's always the concern that those few advertisements could multiply and expand. Will we ever get to the point where there are billboards alongside the trail? Motion-activated popup advertisements dropping from the bigleaf maple branches overhead or springing from a tangle of salmonberry in front of us? Will those lovely informational plaques found along some trails be replaced by television screens that force you to watch a 30-second advertisement before it will tell you about that giant old tree right in front of you?

I'm not saying that any of these things are in the Washington State Parks Commission's proposal (they're not!), but the mind does wander to those possibilities once the door is opened to advertising in state parks. One can't help but worry that this would be the start of a very slippery slope that will end up ruining our favorite natural spaces.

Then on the other hand, there's the less-concerned approach voiced by one of the park-goers in the KOMO news story. Many of us don't read or pay attention to the signs or information kiosks anyway. I know that when I visit Saint Edward State Park, I breeze right past those things and make a beeline for my favorite trail. And who cares about an ad posted on the door of a bathroom stall? Those are easy enough to ignore. Very true.

But there's just the principal of the thing that bothers me: I don't want to be advertised to at state parks. I don't want corporations to think they can reach me there. When I am in a state park, I am unavailable. I am a consumer of nothing but nature.

Whether or not you're alarmed by the thought of advertisements in these places, the underlying issue remains that our state parks are woefully underfunded. The parks were once 80% publicly funded, and that has now fallen to a paltry 25%. While we could sit here and argue about government spending and wasted money and taxes, I'd rather not get into that here. Call your representatives. Tell them state parks are important to us all and need to be funded.

Those of us who cherish and regularly visit the parks also have a responsibility to do our part. Buy your Discover Pass. Donate to the Washington State Parks Foundation. And you know that little box that we all decline to select when renewing our vehicle tabs each year... the box that automatically adds a suggested $5 WA State Parks donation to our vehicle registration fees? How about we don't uncheck that box? I've bravely added the $5 donation to my renewal fees for the past several years, and I haven't missed that five bucks. Although it's tempting to try and save some money, each year I'm reminded of the soaring verdant beauty of my maple cathedral at Saint Edward State Park, of the deep and quiet old growth at Rockport State Park, of the cold breezes sweeping across the top of Cedar Butte in Ollalie State Park, and I gladly submit my donation. That's what nature does to us. That's the power of wonder and the connection that comes with visiting truly unique and beautiful state parks, which we're so fortunate to have in Washington.

Now let's put that connection to work and stand up for the places we love. And while you're at it, bring a friend along with you!

My unofficially-named Maple Cathedral along the South Canyon Trail at Saint Edward State Park

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Wanderings: Rasar State Park

As most of you may know after reading last week's Nature Nerd Wednesday post, my thirtieth birthday was last Wednesday the 20th. I took the day off work, and what else would a nature nerd do but spend the day in the great outdoors? But what was I to do? There were so many amazing options: do I go up to the mountains and tromp around among the snowy trees? Do I go visit my favorite place, Saint Edward State Park? Do I tackle a new hike? In the end, I decided to head north to see all of the bald eagles currently converging on the Skagit River to feed on the salmon runs. That seemed like a pretty cool way to spend my thirtieth birthday.

So my husband and I drove up north to Rasar State Park in Concrete, and like me, the park is also celebrating its thirtieth birthday this year! The land was donated to Washington State parks by the Rasar Family in 1986. I chose this park for our eagle-seeking adventures because it has a nice long trail that follows the Skagit River and should offer optimal views of the majestic eagles sitting in the trees along the riverbanks, swooping low over the water to scoop up a salmon, and gathering on the gravel bar to tear into their meals. It would be amazing.

Spoiler alert: we saw no eagles. Not a single one.

Despite this disappointing turn of events, the day was not lost. Far from it, in fact. Rasar State Park may be small and not well-known - I'd never heard of it - but it is a wonderful place to explore, with sweeping views of the Skagit River and misty Cascade foothills.

Upon arriving at the park, we followed the road all the way to the end, where it ended in the nearly-empty day-use parking area with a playground, covered picnic area, restrooms, and grassy lawn with picnic tables neatly arranged. We were surrounded by an intensely green, mossy forest of bigleaf maple, hemlock and cedar, still dripping from morning rain showers.

The most direct route to the river is via the paved ADA- accessible trail that leads from the day-use area through a large meadow directly to the sandy path of the River Trail. The Skagit River was running smooth, fast, and quiet, its water a murky gray-green with silt and mineral runoff from the not-so-distant Cascade Mountains. We stood at the water's edge and scanned the bare branches of the solid wall of bigleaf maples along the shoreline. Try as we might, we couldn't spot a single eagle.

We continued west down the River Trail and picked up the Skagit River Woods Trail, which we followed to the property line before turning around and going back the way we'd come. When hiking in the woods, one expects to be walking on a path of mud or humus, but here we were walking on a footing of firmly packed sand - evidence of just how far the river intrudes into the forest when it swells and floods beyond its banks. The river was in sight the entire time, but there were still no eagles to be seen, although we did hear one calling, tantalizingly just out of sight. Its voice was clearly audible in the hushed quiet of the forest, where the only other sounds were the dripping moss and quiet rippling of the river along the nearby shoreline.

After reaching the junction of the ADA Trail and the River Trail where we'd begun, we continued east along the other portion of the River Trail. At this point I accepted the fact that we'd missed the eagles, but was still eager to explore this unfamiliar State Park and discover what marvelous scenery it might hold. The rest of the River Trail was lovely, and offered multiple points of access to the riverbank, where we stood on the sandy shoreline and watched the water rush past us on its journey from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Upon reaching the end of the River Trail, we took the Field to River Trail (these trail names sure spell out clearly where they'll lead you!) to head back to the trailhead and parking area. We passed through a stand of alders with their bare winter branches stretching toward a serene gray sky. Little birds flew overhead, darting away too quickly for me to be able to identify them. The trail led us to a wide open meadow, with views of snow-dusted Sauk Mountain. I imagined this meadow would be a great place to camp out with a pair of binoculars for a day of birdwatching, but it was too chilly for that today.

Skirting the edge of the meadow, we made our way back to the paved ADA Trail and walked back through the dripping branches toward the still-empty day use area. Although we hadn't seen any eagles that day, I still thoroughly enjoyed my thirtieth birthday meandering through the forest, leaving footprints on the sandy riverbanks, and reveling in the fresh air and misty mountain views.

If you go... according to the information kiosk at Rasar State Park, the best time to see the bald eagles is November through February, before 11am each day. We arrived around noon on the day we visited, which clearly was just too late to witness the eagles' morning meal. If you want views of the river, this trail is probably best hiked during the winter months, when the trees are leafless and don't obstruct the view. Also remember to bring that Discover Pass, or be prepared to pay the $10 day-use fee.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Wanderings: First Day Hike at Cama Beach State Park

View of Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island from the Bluff Trail at Cama Beach State Park.

New Year's Day dawned freezing cold and frosty here in western Washington, with clear blue skies and brilliant winter sunshine. Bundled in layers of polar fleece, my husband and I headed out to Cama Beach State Park to participate in our third annual First Day Hike. What better way to kick off the New Year than exploring the natural scenery of one of our state's many wonderful State Parks?

In past years, we participated in First Day Hikes at Deception Pass State Park (2014) and Wallace Falls State Park (2015). These parks also hosted First Day Hikes this year, but I wanted to explore someplace new, to become further acquainted with the parks closest to my new homeground in Snohomish County. With its 15 miles of trails, Olympic Mountain views, and picturesque setting overlooking Saratoga Passage, Camano Island's Cama Beach State Park was an enticing option.

We arrived at the park and found a parking spot on the frozen asphalt of the Birch lot. Each lot A-D is named after a different tree species: Alder, Birch, Cedar, and Douglas fir. How fun is that! The two Alder lots were full, so it appeared that Cama Beach would have a decent turnout for the First Day Hike today. After soaking in the last few moments of warmth inside the toasty car, we pulled on gloves and heavy jackets and steeled ourselves against the freezing temperatures into which we were about to embark.

We headed down the driveway toward a small shelter that we'd seen on the way in, hoping to find a trail map so we'd know where to go. I've found that oftentimes after arriving at a State Park, it can be difficult to find out where the action is... where the trailheads, maps, and main attractions are to be found. Having never visited Cama Beach, we were flying blind today. Thankfully, the shelter did have a map and a very kind and helpful park ranger who was more than happy to point out and describe each trail. We could hike down to the beach, along the bluffs, through the forest to a marsh and beaver dam, or even to the neighboring Camano Island State Park.

I wanted a hike with some views, so we opted for the Bluff trail, a gentle stroll about 2 miles roundtrip that took us along the forested bluffs overlooking Saratoga Passage. The kindly park ranger pressed us each to take a First Day Hikes button and help ourselves to the snacks and water bottles, although we weren't participating in the official guided hike that day. I proudly pinned my button to my camera strap, and after thanking the ranger we set off toward the trailhead.

Days of freezing temperatures had left much of the muddy trail frozen solid and hard underfoot. Deep thickets of salal lined either side, and Doug fir, Grand fir, cedar, and madrone trees towered overhead, leaving much of the trail in deep shade. The briny tang of saltwater mingled with the earthy smell of dampness and decay in the forest. After a few minutes' walking, we came to the first viewpoint, marked with a wooden platform and lovely views of the velvety blue water of Saratoga Passage, Whidbey Island, and the not-so-distant Olympic Mountains, which were putting on a show on this clear, sunny day. The platform also boasted two informational plaques that had been created as an Eagle Scout project, which described and identified the wide variety of vegetation to be found along the trail. We studied the plaques for a few moments, and thereafter were inspired to find each of the species they detailed, occasionally stopping along the trail, pointing at a plant or tree, and quizzing one another: Okay, what's this? This made the hike much more interactive and really connected us with our surroundings.

As we arrived at the platform, the guided First Day Hike group was just leaving. We lingered for awhile to allow them to gain some distance on us. Guided hikes are wonderful and informative, but most of the time I prefer to hike at my own pace, to allow time to dawdle, take photos, and admire any birds, wildlife, or interesting plants I come across. After a few minutes, we continued along the trail in the cold shade of the Doug and Grand firs whose branches overhead stole all of the honeyed sunlight slanting low through the afternoon sky. Looking out through the bare alder trees edging the bluff, we were treated to views of Saratoga Passage throughout the entire hike.

View from the first platform
The water was so tranquil

We visited a second viewing platform and pored over more informational plaques featuring native plants, then continued on through the forest. A little further along, a short side trail led to a larger platform with an almost wide-open view of the sun-drenched water, mountains, and way down below, the historic cabins clustered along the shoreline of Cama Beach. Warm sunshine spilled over the platform, warming our chilled fingers and cold red noses, and combined with the fresh air and modest exercise, it was enough to induce a slight drowsiness.

Olympic Mountains

Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island

Cabins on Cama Beach

Any comfortable sleepiness quickly disappeared the moment we returned to the trail and continued through the shady forest. Another quarter mile or so, and we reached a junction in the trail. One trail appeared to leave the property, and another looped back through the forest before rejoining the Bluff trail. Deciding that we wanted to continue enjoying the views from the bluff, we turned around and headed back the way we came.

This trail has more to offer than just its spectacular views. There was plenty of wildlife to be seen: Douglas squirrels, Pacific and Bewick's wrens, chickadees, woodpeckers, and clinging to a tree trunk, one tiny brown bird that was the cutest, roundest little thing I've seen. I wasn't able to identify it, but was able to take one of my fantastic wildlife photos, so surely someone can shed some insight...

The little brown bird. Seriously... someone sign me up for a remedial wildlife photography class!

Interspersed along the trail were notched tree stumps; remnants of giant trees felled by the saw early in the 20th century. The notches were cut into the trees to insert a springboard, upon which the logger would stand as he sawed the tree down. These stumps are ubiquitous on most trails in the region, and speak to our area's long history of logging. However, the notched stumps you typically see are cedar stumps - the tannins they contain help them to resist decay and to persist long after the other conifer species have rotted away - but along the Bluff trail I mostly noticed notched stumps of the Douglas fir variety. Very unusual!

The parking lot was filling up even further with hikers arriving for the late afternoon guided hike as we bundled back into the car and turned on the heater. We'd had a lovely hike, but unfortunately not enough physical exertion to warm us up in this 35-degree weather! Pulling out of the parking lot, my husband and I agreed that we'd have to make a return trip to Cama Beach State Park to further explore the sights: there was the beach and historical cabins, and the trail that led through the forest to a beaver dam, which the park ranger had been particularly enthusiastic about. More adventures to look forward to! What a great start to the year.

The Bluff Trail was a gentle, easy hike that is perfect for a contemplative stroll through the forest, with serene views of Saratoga Passage. I'd recommend hiking this trail during the winter months, as the deciduous trees lining the bluff will likely block much of the view during the rest of the year when their branches are leafed out. Be sure to bring your Discover Pass!