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.