Friday, May 24, 2013

Skagit River Bridge Collapse


By now, everyone has heard about the collapse of the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Skagit River. As the crow flies, the bridge is about 12 miles/19 km from where I live.  I found it interesting that Google is right on top of it.  In less than 24 hours, the Google map is already showing the gap in the freeway where the bridge used to be (above).

There is something else I always find interesting.  Whenever the news media covers stories on subjects where I have specific knowledge, they always seem to be full of errors.  For example, this article at Think Progress originally put the bridge in Seattle.  They have now replace the word "Seattle" with "Washington" in the text.  I wondered if they thought everything out here was Seattle, which is actually about 60 miles from the bridge.  They get an F in geography and another F for lazy reporting.  These mistakes make me wonder about the accuracy of all the rest of the news.

Then, there is the pronunciation of "Skagit."  It's SKA-jit, just like it's spelled.  It rhymes with "gadget."  MSNBC apparently thinks it is SAG-get or something.  The name honors the Native American people who once lived where Mount Vernon, Washington is now.

The route I drive to work every day is now the designated southbound detour around Mount Vernon.  This means two lanes of freeway traffic will now now be travelling on one lane of country roads.  This will include all of the commercial traffic between Vancouver, Canada and Seattle.  I think it will be worse than the Tulip Festival, and it won't be over in a month.  I'll find out tomorrow.

Saturday May 25, 2013 UPDATE:  Since I posted this yesterday, the WSDOT has changed the alternate detour routes around Mount Vernon (map).  It includes a northbound I-5 to Anacortes ferry detour.  They indicate this may change, so keep an eye on the WSDOT websites.  They also have traffic cams through the Mount Vernon area which I found helpful this afternoon.

Friday May 31, 2013 UPDATE:  The WSDOT has added new traffic cams which include the detour routes around the bridge.  This one views the bridge itself providing a look at the progress of repairs.  They hope to have a temporary fix in place by mid-June and a permanent replacement by the end of the year.  Components for the temporary replacement are already being assembled at the site.

Wednesday June 18, 2013 UPDATE:  The temporary I-5 span over the Skagit River is now open to all traffic except oversize or overweight loads!  The speed limit is 40 mph through that section of the freeway, or 64 kph for our Canadian friends.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mount St. Helens Day


On May 18, 1980, I was living in Sedro-Wolley, Washington.  From Duke's Hill on the northern edge of town, I had a nice view of the valley below and points beyond.  I remember the morning began with blue skies, sunshine and warming temperatures.

At 8:32 AM I was on my deck in the backyard when I heard multiple explosions, boom-boom-boom-boom in rapid succession.  The house and deck shook and I felt a shock wave in the air.  Something in town must have blown up, and it was major.  I wondered if it was the plant that manufactured logging equipment.

That spring, the leading local news story had been the apparent awakening of Mount St. Helens in southwest Washington.  She was one of several dormant volcanoes spawned in the Cascadia Subduction Zone.  We were getting nightly news reports about small ash plumes and earthquakes.  We were learning the anatomy and physiology of volcanoes.  The term "harmonic tremor" entered our vocabulary.  These are long, low level vibrations associated with the movement of volcanic magma underground.  Measurements had detected the formation of a bulge on the north slope of the mountain.  Scientists and news reporters speculated on what all this meant and what would happen next.  It is not uncommon for these mountains to rouse for a time, then settle back down to continue their sleep.

It took a few hours for me to realized the explosions I had heard and felt were not from town.  They were the eruption of Mount St. Helens 160 miles/258 km away.  It had begun with the collapse of that bulge on the north flank which literally and suddenly uncorked the mountain.  Instead of erupting upward from the summit, all the furies inside the mountain exploded laterally to the north.  This might explain why I was able to hear it and feel it so distinctly.  I could also see the ash plume, a big cloud on the southern horizon.  What made the experience so amazing was how intimately it was felt, from something happening so far away.

In subsequent weeks I would see two more ash plumes.  My deck would also get dusted a couple of times by sparkling grit.  Of course, this was nothing compared to what eastern Washington experienced.  I still have a shoe box of pumice I collected near the Toutle River on a trip to Portland.

Today, the mountain has been designated a National Monument.  It has become a site for scientific research, exploration, education and tourism.  Every year on May 18th, Mount St. Helens Day provides a moment to remember the events that occurred in 1980.  What memories do you have of the eruption of Mount St. Helens?

Here is a nice concise video chronicling the event:



Photo:  Lyn Topinka via Wikipedia

Monday, May 6, 2013

My Wild Rhododendron Adventure


If you have been following the posts here over the last ten days or so, you know I have been on a quest.  For almost forty years, I have been growing rhododendrons in the garden.  You might call me a rhodie aficionado.  I have gotten to know this "king of shrubs" pretty well.  But in all those years, I had never seen our native Pacific Rhododendron (R. macrophyllum) growing in the wild.

Thanks to a little help from some friends at Washington State Parks, I found this grove in the Goose Rock forest in Deception Pass State Park.  It is located about midway along the Lower Forest Trail.  On my first visit, I spotted some flower buds just starting to open.  I have been returning at regular intervals to check on the progress of the blossoms.  I was back in the grove again this morning, and this time I was rewarded with a single shrub in full bloom.

This kind of floral display is unexpected deep in the forest.  At the same time, I am amazed how beautifully these shrubs fit into the understory here.  Rhododendron gardeners should take note of this habitat when creating their own gardens.


The Pacific or Coast Rhododendron is the Washington State Flower.  It was chosen so that it could be entered in a floral exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.  It was officially designated by the State Legislature in 1959.

The Pacific Northwest is a world center of rhododendron horticulture.  Our soil and mild climate west of the Cascades provide the ideal requirements for growing these beautiful shrubs.  It has been my experience, however, that the native species does not adapt well to garden conditions.  They are acutely and fatally susceptible to Root Weevil attacks.  They are also rarely available in garden centers and should never be dug up in the wild.


It is a beautiful flower and well chosen to represent the state.  But it is also somewhat rare here.  Besides Deception Pass State Park, it can be found growing in Olympic National Park and in a few spots on the western slopes of the Cascades of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and northern California.  I feel privileged to find them so close to home.

Click on the photos to view them full size.  Notice the Bumble Bee visiting the flower in the photo above.  These pollinators will help assure the future of rhododendrons in this grove.


I noticed something interesting during this morning's visit.  The V-shaped branches in this photo belong to a rhododendron growing out of a dead, fallen Douglas Fir trunk.  These so-called "nurse logs" typically are host to a number of Pacific Northwest plants, trees and shrubs.  The Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), in particular, is associated with nurse logs.  Where soil is poor and sunlight rare beneath the canopy, nurse logs help to sustain the life of the forest.  While exploring these woods, notice the variety of plants growing from the decaying trunks of fallen trees.


On my first visit, I counted a total of five buds that would open into blossoms.  This morning I found a sixth opening later than the others.  You can see the speck of red in the lower right quadrant of the first photo.  I managed to aim my telephoto lens through branches and leaves to get this shot.  Even the immature blossoms are beautiful.


On my return to the Deception Pass bridge, I was greeted by this fellow, a Douglas Squirrel.  This is the native squirrel of Pacific Northwest coniferous forests.  These are noisy little guys, usually intolerant of trespassers in their territory.  This one, however, seemed unconcerned by my presence.  Like so many things around here, (e.g. Douglas Fir), he is named after the naturalist David Douglas who explored the region in the early 1800's.


The Deception Pass Bridge can be seen through the trees along the North Beach Trail.  Now that my wild rhododendron adventure has concluded, the bridge will take me home to South Fidalgo Island.  Then I can start planning next year's visits to the Goose Rock rhododendron grove.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Madronas in Bloom


This is one of the native Madrona trees (Arbutus menziesii) in my yard and it is blooming like crazy.  I don't recall ever seeing this tree bloom before.  As I drive around the area, I am seeing Madronas blooming profusely everywhere.  Along the Highway 20 corridor into Anacortes, the trees are revealed as giant clouds of white blossoms all along the roadway.  I had never realized how many Madronas were growing there.

These are special trees to Pacific Northwesterners, and this year, they are really putting on a show for us.  The Madrona (also called Madrone and Arbutus) has been correctly described as one of Nature's works of art.  The 'Lem's Cameo' Rhododendron in the foreground of the photo is a Madrona relative.


The flowers are urn-shaped, very similar those on the Madrona's Heath family cousins Salal and Kinnikinnick.  On the Madrona, the flowers are arranged on a Christmas tree-like structure at the branch tips.  The flowers will produce sprays of berry-like fruits relished by birds.  The fruits give rise to one of its common names, Strawberry Tree.  Like rhododendrons, new branches will sprout below the flowers.


This Madrona is growing at the summit of Goose Rock in Deception Pass State Park nearby.  Even on the warmest days, the trunks of Madronas will feel cool to the touch.

Madronas were also recognized as special by indigenous peoples of the region.  In Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Pojar and MacKinnon relate two stories from native lore, told by the Straits Salish:
"Pitch used to go fishing before the sun rose, and then return to the shade before it became strong.  One day he was late and had just reached the beach when he melted.  Other people rushed to share him.  Douglas Fir arrived first and secured most of the pitch.  Grand Fir obtained only a little; and by the time Arbutus arrived there was none left.  Therefore, Arbutus has no pitch to this day." 
"Chief Phillip Paul of the Saanich tells how Arbutus was the tree used by the survivors of the Great Flood (a tradition common to almost all Northwest Coast peoples) to anchor their canoe to the top of Mount Newton.  To this day, the Saanich people do not burn Arbutus in their stoves, because of the important service this tree provided long ago."

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Rhododendron Progress Report

Rhododendron macrophyllum

I was back at Goose Rock in Deception Pass State Park this morning to check on the progress of the rhododendron blooms.  I can see five blossoms now, but they are not quite fully open yet.  I will check back on Monday.  Meanwhile, here is a gallery of some of the rhodies currently blooming in my garden:

Rhododendron catawbiense 'Album'


Rhododendron "Furnival's Daughter'
Rhododendron 'Lem's Cameo'


Rhododendron 'Nova Zembla'


Rhododendron 'Ramapo'


Rhododendron 'Hotei'
Rhododendron 'Anah Kruschke'


Rhododendron yakushimanum