Saturday, June 25, 2016

Wanderings: Brightwater

I lean on the metal railing and watch families of ducks and Canada geese gliding across the pond, its still waters reflecting the cloud-dotted blue skies overhead. Ruby - my dog-niece - is sprawled on the sun-warmed boardwalk planks at my sister's feet, sniffing in the direction of those watchful waterfowl and adorable fluffy babies. After a few minutes, we make our way back up the trail, passing through a bower of blooming fireweed, oceanspray, and Nootka rose. Robins chortle from overhead perches; violet-green swallows swoop and dive in our path; red-winged blackbirds sound the alarm as we pass by their nesting sites.

And presiding over this beautiful scene are the modern, low-profile buildings quietly processing the wastewater from more than 200,000 residents in north King and south Snohomish counties. It's another beautiful day on the grounds of the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Wait a minute. Wastewater treatment plant? Doesn't it smell bad? Why would anyone want to go for a walk at a wastewater plant?

After visiting Brightwater, you'll be wondering why anyone wouldn't want to go for a walk there! And no, it doesn't smell. Not a bit.

Anyone who has lived in the area for awhile can probably remember what a controversy the Brightwater project was. I can't recall whether it was the cost of the project or the location or both that were causing the consternation... but at any rate, the plant was completed in 2011 and now stands as a solid example of habitat restoration, and proof that new infrastructure doesn't have to come at the cost of natural ecosystems.

The treatment plant grounds are an ecosystem unto themselves, with forests, meadows and wetlands supporting more bird species than I have the knowledge to identify. You look around and there is not an invasive plant to be found (okay, there might have been some Himalayan blackberries along the fringes, but that's about all I saw...) because these grounds have been carefully replanted with such a lush variety of native plants that it almost seems unnatural. It's like getting a glimpse of what the landscape would look like around here if humans had never set foot in this region and brought our non-native and invasive plants with us.

Upon arrival at the plant, you're greeted by a large water molecule. The nerd in me saw this and rejoiced. Turn left at the water molecule and head toward Brightwater Center, a beautiful modern-looking building that earned LEED Platinum certification for its sustainable construction. This facility hosts community events, classes, and even church services on Sunday mornings. You can also rent it out for your parties or wedding, if you so desire. I've attended a few native-plant gardening classes in one of their impressive labs, and have even checked out the restrooms with toilets that flush using water reclaimed from the treatment plant.

Walking past the Brightwater Center and their gorgeous dahlia beds, you pick up the gravel path that meanders down to the large pond on the property, where you can find the boardwalk viewing area and families of ducks and geese. The pond now boasts dozens of wooden structures adorned with what appear to be willow cuttings. I don't know for sure, but my best guess is that they were placed in the pond to provide haul-out or nesting areas for the ducks and geese.

From the pond, follow the trail back out and head toward the north end of the park, where you'll find several loop trails winding through a forest, and a short climb to the top of a small hill with a partial view looking out over the treatment plant down below.

There's even a short trail that dead-ends in a shaded glen next to a quiet stream: the perfect place to sit and listen, think, or write.

The majority of the property is open and grassy, with trails that meander along wetlands hemmed in by cattails and willows, and guarded by red-winged blackbirds. Follow the trails through this meadow-like area to the south end of the property and try not to flinch as the violet-green swallows swoop close and dart past you. Here, you'll pass close by the wastewater treatment plant itself, but you'll notice that it is surprisingly quiet. And not smelly... all thanks to the fact that the treatment works are entirely enclosed, with nothing open to the outside air.

Anchoring the south end of the property is another - larger - hill similar to the one at the north end of the property. When I toured the wastewater treatment plant with coworkers several years ago (I worked for a company whose customers were largely from the wastewater industry), I discovered that those two large hills were created from the earth that was dug out to make room for the underground treatment works. The amount of earth they had to move was massive, and if you ever get to see the long, cavernous tunnel running beneath the plant, you'll be able to understand why those hills at each end of the property are so massive!

On this particular day, I had planned to hike to the top of that hill for a grand view of the whole Brightwater property, but Miss Ruby was panting in the heat and letting us know that she'd like to head back to the car and go home now, thank you very much. So the climb to the top of the hill will wait for another day... and you can be sure that I'll be back!

This place is worth a visit if you're in the area. Brightwater's 70 acres of natural habitat and easy, flat walking paths are perfect for a contemplative stroll, birdwatching, or tiring out a very energetic pitbull.

Many people have a negative impression of wastewater treatment plants; thinking of them as noisy, smelly (okay, many of them do smell), and a blight to ecosystems. In fact, these facilities are often staffed by people who care as much about the environment as I do, and whose grounds offer wildlife habitat and incorporate sustainable practices like producing electricity from waste methane gas and recycling treated wastewater for irrigation or recharging wetlands... or flushing toilets.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Wanderings: Mount Si

Mount Si

"I'm going to need to come up with a new blog category just for this hike!" I joked; sweaty, red-faced and wheezing as I leaned heavily on my trekking poles and heaved myself up the trail's relentless incline after my sister. "Something like Strugglings. Or Strivings. Or Butt Kickings."

Because let's face it: there are no "Wanderings" when it comes to hiking Mount Si. At eight miles and 3,150 feet of elevation gain, this was by far the most challenging hike I've ever attempted, and I wasn't sure that I was going to make it. A short way in, after a quarter mile of hiking a gradual incline, I was already sweating and breathing heavily, and my heart rate was alarmingly high. I bent over, hands on knees, and informed my sister that I was going to vomit. She informed me that this was a no-vomiting hike. I found myself wondering what I was doing here. I don't do hikes like this. Surely people as out of shape as me, with knees as bad as mine, with no experience with this kind of elevation gain... surely these people don't do hikes like this one.

I considered the possibility of turning back, finding a shady spot beneath the trees in the parking area and waiting for my sister while she went on and finished the hike. But then I remembered why I was here. There was something to be discovered at the end of this trail, at the top of this mountain, within myself as I strove to make it to the top. After readjusting my gear and shedding my jacket, I felt good enough to continue. And up we went.

Growing up in the Snoqualmie Valley, I've long been acquainted with Mount Si and its rounded, hunched profile presiding over the southern end of the valley. It was a landmark, a familiar sight that faded into the white noise of the surrounding scenery. I never paid it much thought, and certainly never considered climbing it. That is, until, my sister hiked it a few years ago, and my eyes were opened to the possibility that maybe I could do it too. Some day. After lots of training and preparation.

So imagine my surprise when in April my sister announces that she's hiking Mount Si next month, and asks if I want to come with. I do... but can it be like... a few months from now? You know, so I can prepare? Nope. Next month. After a few days of consideration, I agreed to go with. I bought myself some trekking poles and proceeded to watch the forecast over the next few weeks, half-hoping that maybe the chosen weekend would end up rainy, cloudy, and otherwise undesirable for hiking a 3,900 foot tall mountain.

Backpack, trekking poles and Gatorade, all ready to go.

Memorial Day dawned mild and clear, the only day without rain on an otherwise gray and soggy weekend. After the customary coffee stop (chai tea for me), my sister and I arrived at the trailhead at 7:30am to find there were already about forty cars in the lot, with more arriving right behind us. We geared up and headed out, me tripping over the trekking poles that I wasn't really sure how to use.

The hard part about the Mount Si trail is that there's no gentle warmup: you hit the trail and immediately start climbing (hence my cardiac event and near-vomiting...). And so we did, gradually working our way upward through the dense second-growth forest, full of tender green leaves set aglow in the morning sunlight. All these times I'd seen Mount Si from a distance, as a rocky lump covered in dark green forest, but had never considered what it looked like from the inside. And it was beautiful! Peering out between the crowded tree trunks, we could catch a glimpse of nearby hills and see that we'd already gained some elevation.

About two miles in (pretty much the halfway point), we reached Snag Flats - the only flat place on the trail. I was overjoyed to be walking on level ground, and so were my screaming quadricep muscles. A Pacific wren sang in the trees just overhead, and the cries of baby pileated woodpeckers echoed from a cavity high up in a dead tree. I craned my neck upward and watched the mother feed them. And then craned my neck upward to follow where the trail was leading us, and to my dismay realized it led right up the steep slope that rose sharply from the level area of Snag Flats. Squinting, I was able to make out other hikers way, way up there. We had arrived at the section of trail my sister referred to as "the Switchbacks of Death."

Looking down at Snag Flats from the first switchback

The long switchbacks zig-zagged up the slope, and we climbed slowly and stopped frequently to catch our breath and get a drink of water. It was hard climbing. I got into a rhythm with the trekking poles, picturing the Olympic cross-country skiers flying over the snow, poles whipping back and forth as they glided effortlessly along.

Before too long, we passed a hiker coming back down who (bless him!) informed us that we'd made it through the most difficult part of the trail - the Switchbacks of Death. Apparently, that's just what they're called. We moved on, gasping through the last steep, boulder-climbing section of the trail before emerging into bright sunlight at the top of Mount Si. We made it!

Emerging into the sunlight at the top of Mount Si

It felt like we were joining a party up there. There were a few dozen people scattered around the rocky boulder field, eating lunch, resting, talking and laughing, and of course... taking selfies. I looked out across the valley, at the green-carpeted hills rolling east toward Snoqualmie Pass. Turning to look south, I gasped at the sight of Mount Rainier dominating the horizon. I had hoped for perhaps a hazy, distant view of the mountain at best, but here it filled my entire field of view, crystal-clear and glowing in the sunshine, glaciers casting blue shadows on its majestic slopes. The mountain almost seemed to acknowledge us; fellow alpine creatures for the time being, atop the high, snowless summit of Mount Si.

My sister and I climbed up over the rocky outcrop and made our way down an unassuming trail through the woods that led to a completely deserted lunch spot with benches at the base of the Haystack (Mount Si's true summit) looking westward over the Snoqualmie Valley rolling into the distant Olympic Mountains. It was stunning. This was the view I'd been looking for. I hadn't been as interested in climbing Mount Si as I was in seeing what the valley - my home - looked like from this high vantage point. I looked down at the rolling green fields, tiny houses and barns, at the thin blue line of the Snoqualmie River and could scarcely believe that we had hiked all the way up here. On our own two feet. Under our own power.

All was quiet save for the ever-present low roar of traffic on I-90 far below, and the rustling of a chipmunk trying to ply the leftover sandwich bits from a plastic Subway sandwich bag someone had carelessly left hanging from the bench. I grabbed the bag and shoved it into my already-stuffed backpack, shaking my head over people's carelessness and the fact that I had to pack out their garbage for them.

Chipmunk and Subway bag. I was afraid he'd climb in the bag and get trapped.

After drinking in the view and eating our lunch, the biting mosquitoes eventually drove us from our empty benches and chipmunk companions back through a small meadow-like area complete with tiny wildflowers to the trail through the woods, where we returned to the crowded rocky area. After a few last photos and parting glance of Mount Rainier, we ducked into the trees and began to make our descent.


It's always fun to be the person just descending from the top as other hikers are huffing and puffing and making their way up. You get to smile and be encouraging and tell them "You're almost there!" and see the look of pure relief washing over them. As we neared the end, I wondered at what point the dynamic shifts, where the tired hikers coming down are desperately asking the fresh hikers just setting out on the trail if they're almost there yet... "there" being back to the parking lot. The hike down was hard, and took us nearly as long as the ascent. My overexerted legs were wobbly and exhausted, and I fell twice but managed to catch myself with my poles before I completely wiped out.

However, even if I had completely wiped out... even if I'd gone over the edge of the Switchbacks of Death and tumbled all the way to the bottom, I don't think the joy of the day's hike - the breathtaking view, the sense of accomplishment, the adventure with my sister, the opportunity to cross something off my bucket list - would have left my heart for just one moment. Thank you, Mount Si. I'll see you again someday. Perhaps in five years or so. By then, maybe my legs will no longer be sore.

That's pure joy, right there!

If you go: GO EARLY. Plan on being at the trailhead before 8am to avoid the worst of the crowds and to ensure you can find a parking spot - the lot fills to capacity, and people get very, um, creative with their parking strategies. Also take your Discover Pass or prepare to pay the day-use fee. I'd highly recommend using trekking poles on this hike to save you when your legs get tired. Take bug spray. Don't give up... this hike is worth the effort and sweat to make it to the top! And when you do get up there, take the time to explore! Leave the crowds and wander over toward the haystack, find those westward facing benches and tell my chipmunk friends hello for me.

This hike was wonderful, but I have to comment on some of the bad behaviors of the other hikers using this popular trail. I've already mentioned the garbage left behind that I had to pack out, but in addition, there were hikers feeding the birds atop Mount Si - the gray jays up there are clearly used to being fed, and will land in people's hands to take a bit of food. DO NOT DO THIS. Hikers should not feed the birds, chipmunks, or any other wildlife. Additionally, we encountered some very loud groups of hikers. I get that this is popular trail, and of course people are going to be talking as they hike... but we had to hang back and let a particularly obnoxious group of teenagers/twentysomethings gain some distance on us so that we could get a break from their nonstop shouting conversations. Let's all respect the trail, the wildlife, and one another.