Saturday, October 27, 2012

Seeing the Forest

Autumn has arrived on South Fidalgo Island with cooler temperatures and a welcome bit of rain.  Between showers, it's a great time for a walk in the woods.  Nearby Deception Pass State Park is one of the best places to see both the forest and the trees.  Hang your Discover Pass on your rear-view mirror and join me on a hike in the woods.

Overcast skies paint the landscape in shades of gray now.  Blustery winds will kick up some surf along the beach at Bowman Bay.  Our destination will be Lighthouse Point on Deception Pass.   It sits on the outer edge of Reservation Head on the right in the photo.  This is actually a small island that is connected to Fidalgo by a tombolo or sand bar.  The trail to Lighthouse Point begins just past the fishing dock.

A Great Blue Heron finds the railing of the dock a convenient place to rest after some early morning fishing.

The trail begins with a brief climb, skirts the cliff over Bowman Bay, then descends back down to the beach.  A small wetland and salt marsh on the tombolo are visible from the trail.

The beach along Bowman Bay becomes part of the trail to Lighthouse Point.  We will cross over the tombolo to Lotte Bay, then veer right back into the forest on Reservation Head.

Another brief climb puts us on a trail that skirts the bluff along Lotte Bay.  Pacific Madronas find low rainfall and a sunny, southern exposure to their liking.  Because the park sits at the edge of the Olympic Rain Shadow, drought tolerance is a requirement for the vegetation here.  The Madronas are shedding their thin, reddish bark to expose new green tissue underneath.  This is just one of the unusual characteristics of this very special tree.  These Madronas look like dance partners, undulating in unison to changes in terrain and light over time.

Arriving at a stone outcrop over Lotte Bay, we get the first glimpse of the Deception Pass Bridge.  Traffic will disappear into the forest where it exits the bridge as if entering a tunnel.  Whitecaps and rapids under the bridge reveal the swift tidal currents that can flow through the narrow gorge.  Small boats must sometimes wait for calmer conditions before venturing through.

The trail now heads away from the bluff and deeper into the woods.  The dominant trees are Douglas Fir, Grand Fir and Western Redcedar.  If "seeing the forest" is your goal, however, notice that there is a lot more growing here then trees.  You are in the midst of "Tracker's Pharmacopoeia."  If you've read Kidnapping the Lorax, you'll know what I mean.  You will also know how to use those Sword Ferns in the foreground to treat nettle stings.  This is like the forest in which Lacy Thurman learned to survive.

Arriving at Lighthouse Point, we find some of the best views of the Deception Pass Bridge.  There are actually two bridges situated at an angle.  The shorter span on the Fidalgo Island side crosses Canoe Pass.

The longer span crosses Deception Pass to Whidbey Island.  Between the spans is Pass Island which is basically a big rock sitting in the waterway.  Notice that the rugged landforms on the north side of the pass are built of solid, volcanic stone.

To the west, Deception Pass joins the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  The northwest tip of Whidbey on the left and Deception Island on the right are the "Pillars of Hercules," so to speak.  These mark the entrance to the pass.  The rocky headlands here are carpeted with Kinnikinnick.  Below the cliffs, forests of Bull Kelp sway in the swift currents.  Nearby, you will spot the small, mechanized navigation light that guides boats through Deception Pass.

From the meadows of Lighthouse Point, the trail continues in a loop back through the forest.  A few deciduous trees and shrubs in the understory provide some autumn gold highlights in a forest of green.

Watch your step along the trail.  After a rain, the native Banana Slugs will be out and about.  I noticed all the slugs on the Fidalgo side of the park have no spots, just like the ones in my yard.  The slugs on the Whidbey side of the park all had the camo look with black patches.  I wondered if spotless Banana Slugs are a special South Fidalgo Island variety.  Remember, these are not garden pests.  They are an essential part of the forest ecosystem and they deserve your protection.

Lichens and fungi of all sorts decorate the trees.  The gold stains on the trees are dust lichens.  Shelf fungi serve as obituary for what looks like a mature Grand Fir.  It seems a shame, but eventually, it will fall to the ground and become a nurse log for new generations.  Can you see the evidence that there are woodpeckers in this forest?

I liked the way these leaves were catching a bit of light in the understory.  They literally glowed in the deep shade.  Click or right-click on the photos to enlarge them.  The big leaves on the left are Thimbleberry and on the right, Salmonberry.  I did not need to stoop to get these photos.  These shrubs had grown way over my head reaching for precious sunlight.

Salal and and low-growing Longleaf Oregon Grape line the trail and carpet the floor of this forest.  Along with Western Sword Ferns, these are the foundation plantings in this garden.  Mosses become the lawn and lichens add a bit of sculpture.

The family resemblance of baby Madronas (left) to Rhododendrons cannot be mistaken at this stage.  On the right, lichens, mosses and succulents grow on the faces of stone walls along the trail.  They completely cover the stone like fancy, decorative wallpaper.

In the Pacific Northwest, this is our version of Eden.  If you look up, you cannot see the sky for most of the way along the trail.  The canopy is completely closed and the opportunity for photosynthesis is limited.  In these shady conditions, plants use other strategies for survival.

Can you spot the orchids growing with the Salal among the lichens and mosses?  Both Salal and Rattlesnake Plantain orchids have cast off a need for sunlight and fertile soil.  They rely on a symbiotic relationship with fungus around their roots for their nutrition.  Many Northwest plants and trees like the Pacific Madrona have adopted this strategy.

This is the look I am trying to create in the shade under the big firs in the back corner of my yard.  The soil is poor and tends to be dry, exactly what these native plants seem to like.  Even the ferns, once established, are surprisingly drought-tolerant.  These primitive plants are specialists in growing under conditions of scarce resources.  When it rains, some of the water will never reach the ground.  It will be trapped in the branches of the conifers and evaporate back into the air.  Can you see why local forests have become an inspiration for my garden?

This old-growth Western Redcedar has survived time, fire and the vandalism of tourists.  Another dust lichen imparts a gray-green color to the bark.  This is a massive tree, about 8 feet (2.4 m) in diameter at the base.  I could not see the top through the canopy.  It serves as a landmark.  It sits where the trail divides to form a loop around Lighthouse Point.  I like to take the left route to approach the point and return clockwise along the right side of the tree.  When you visit, stop here to pay your respects to the old gentleman and treat him kindly.

Arriving back at the tombolo, notice the driftwood that has collected at the head of Lotte Bay.  Even driftwood, dead trees washed up on the beach, are an essential part of the ecosystem (pdf).  It provides food and habitat for wildlife, serves as substrate for plants, delivers organic nutrients and stabilizes beach erosion.  Life after death is the lesson of nature and of the forest.

A rustic wooden bridge marks the end of the trail back at Bowman Bay.  It crosses a stream that drains the wetland near the edge of the bay.  Watch your step.  The bridge can be slippery when it's wet.  While you cross, pause to reflect on both the forest and the trees you have just visited.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Civilian Conservation Corps

Deception Pass State Park was built in the 1930's by the young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  This was a stimulus program from another time.  It has been memorialized by this statue at Bowman Bay.  CCC alumnae are justifiably proud of what they accomplished.  My stepfather spoke fondly of his time in the CCC's working in Mount Rainier National Park.  Another photo of the statue appears in a previous post.  The State of Washington benefited from many CCC projects around the state.

Nearby, a wonderful example of "parkitecture" now serves as the Civilian Conservation Corps Interpretive Center.  Anyone interested in the history of the thirties and forties will find it as interesting as I did.  This and several kitchens, pavilions and bathhouses were built by CCC workers from onsite materials.  These are enduring structures created with skill and craftsmanship which have survived more than 75 years.

Deception Pass State Park has been nominated for listing with the National Register of Historic Places.  The Deception Pass Bridge, another Depression era stimulus project, was listed in 1982.

The air is chilly and the skies are gray now.  While some facilities are closed for the season, Deception Pass State Park remains open to visitors.  I think off-season is actually the best time to visit.  The crowds are gone so the experience is quieter, more like wilderness.  Enjoying the scenery, hiking, wildlife viewing and photography are just a few of the pleasures available year-around.  The Civilian Conservation Corps outdid themselves when they gave us this wonderful park.

Next up:  Seeing the Forest

Friday, October 19, 2012

Skywatch Friday: First Sunrise

After almost three full months of sunshine and blue sky, the weather began to change this past week.  With clouds rolling in off the Pacific Ocean, my interesting Skagit Bay sunrises have returned.  The changes also brought some very welcome rain to the region.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Home Again

8:05 AM, Temp 59.1° F, Dew Pt 55.2° F, Barometer 29,86 in, Wind 11 mph G 17, Humidity 87%

Skies are overcast, gusty winds have kicked up and it has rained off and on for the last 24 hours.  After almost three months of non-stop sunshine and blue skies, a change in the weather has arrived.  The weekend has delivered more typical October weather.  I must admit that I am not unhappy about the change.  There is a certain comfort that Northwesterners find in the dark skies, sun breaks, blustery winds and yes, even in the rain.

The Camano Island radar image also reveals something we haven't seen in a while.  At the moment of the screenshot, the Olympic Rain Shadow was in play here.  The brighter sky over Whidbey Island in the top photo is how the "shadow" often appears to us here on South Fidalgo.

As I write this, that rain system is arriving, and the winds are beating the drops against the windows.  The sun is shining even more brightly through the Rain Shadow over Whidbey.  The trees are sounding the arrival of wind gusts and there is a low surf rolling in on the beach.  It is finally autumn in the Northwest and we are home again.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Endless Summer

1:46 PM Temp 65.8° F, Dew Pt 56.1° F, Barometer 30.18 in, Wind Calm, Humidity 71%

It's October 1st, but summer seems to go on and on.  I never thought I would say this, but I sure wish it would rain.  These endless days of sunshine and blue skies are becoming tedious.  The rainfall for the last three months here tells a story:

July1.36 in   (35.5 mm)
August0.01 in   (0.25 mm)
September    0.07 in   (1.78 mm)

I think there are deserts that get more rainfall than this during late summer.  My garden is suffering the consequences.  The average September rainfall for Anacortes, Washington is 1.36 inches (35.5mm).  My weather station on South Fidalgo Island is about six miles from Anacortes and a bit further inside the Olympic Rain Shadow.  For the last five years the average September rainfall here has been 0.87 in (22.1mm).  The range was 0.41 in (10.4mm) in 2008 to 1.91 in (48.5mm) in 2010.

I mention this only to illustrate how unusual the September rainfall amount here has been.  We have certainly not suffered drought like the middle parts of the country, but it has definitely been unusually dry.  At only 0.01 inches (0.25mm) August, 2012 also registered the lowest rainfall figure for that month for the last six years.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the Pacific Northwest in late summer is one of the driest places in North America.  2012 is certainly illustrating this.  The Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Washington is predicting the onset of a weak El NiƱo.  This means we can expect winter to be slightly warmer than normal, drier than normal and with a bit less mountain snowpack.  This could be good news for commuters, but relatively bad news for municipal water supplies and ski resorts.

Weather Statistics for September, 2012

TemperatureHigh 82.6° FLow 44.0° FMean 56.6° F
Rainfall0.07 inches
WindHigh 19 mphAverage 0.8 mphDom Dir SW

Observed at South Fidalgo Island (See Climate page for complete climatological data)