Lost in the Whistle Wood
It was a grey day. A wet road led to the trailhead. I parked between cedars and fir, the only car in sight. The woods greeted me like an old friend. We embraced. When was the last time I’d visited Whistle Lake? Last summer? Yes, swimming with a friend by a rocky outcrop on the west side. And the time before that it was covered in snow!
Many trails I seek in their best season, with wildflowers, or golden leaves. But the Anacortes Community Forest Lands are wonder filled year-round, each season offering its special gifts. All the lakes, wetlands, forest, and hills are linked together by miles of trail options and days, weeks, months of happy exploration. I came to walk to the lake, as I had many times before. After that I had no agenda.
The old forest road to the lake is wide with a gentle grade, an easy walk. It’s framed by huge cedars at the start then by a rock face on one side and a tree lined shore on the other. I reminisced as I walked, remembering when I’d lived nearby and walked my dog here. How I’d seen people of every age in summer swimsuits, toting an air mattress or rubber raft up this trail. In winter cross country ski tracks traced the route through the snow. On this January day, the lake was calm. I heard voices along the west side, so I turned east.
All the trails are marked and numbered, so if I’d brought a map, I’d be able to track my route with some accuracy. If I’d brought a map. But I’d walked these trails so many times, I felt confident without one. The trail followed the lakeshore around the east side until it reached a rocky shore. I took a seat, had a snack and a sip from my thermos. A row of cormorants were evenly spaced on a log suspended over the water, looking like clothes pins on a line. I gazed across the lake to the curving summit of Mount Erie rising in the distance. The south end of the lake has a rock face where teenagers jump in, screaming, but not today. Madronas leaned out over the rocks, stretching skyward at the water’s edge. One old tree that had shed its papery, red bark, revealed a puckered-up surface below. A long hollow gouge left only the outer shell still thriving.
I turned away from the water, the usual route I used to take with my dog, on to trail 29, which is more narrow with some twists and turns, ups and downs. I could have turned left on the first trail, or the next, but wanted to lengthen my walk so I kept going, a little beyond where I’d been before. I have a good sense of direction, a natural compass, but on a grey day, with no visual clues like mountain peaks or town spires, I wasn’t sure. This trail wasn’t familiar. Still, I kept walking. Whenever I thought the trail should wiggle to the left, it would inevitably wiggle to the right.
I came to an overlook and spied the Sharpes Corner round-about, Skagit Valley, and the North Cascades. I hoped this trail wasn’t leading me down to Highway 20. Eventually, the wiggles started turning toward the west. Even with the ups and downs, switchbacks and rock faces, I felt I was finally moving in the right direction. Near the end of my hike, I met two women and asked how far I was from the main trail. They insisted on guiding me until I could see it and knew I was just a short stroll from the parking area.
I had to laugh. I love getting lost. It makes me more aware of my surroundings, working my mind as much as my muscles. It was a longer walk than expected, but a better one. Aren’t we fortunate to have so many trails that we can get lost now and then? I rewarded myself with tea and cookies at the corner store.
You may want to bring a map.
Directions: From the round-about on Commercial Avenue in Anacortes, go south to the top of the hill. Turn left at the T onto Fidalgo Ave. and left again on Hillcrest. Turn right on Whistle Lake Road and follow the signs. The road will turn left and then right onto a dirt road before it ends at the parking area. Please don't leave valuables in the car.
By Bus and Bike: The nearest bus stop is on R Avenue and 33rd, 3 miles away. For a cyclist the hill from Commercial Ave. to Fidalgo Ave. could be daunting. There are no bike lanes, but the speeds are low. The road narrows as you approach the lake.
Mobility: The main trail to the lake is wide and smooth with a gentle uphill grade. Other trails around Whistle Lake vary widely from rough and narrow to smooth with room for two people to walk side by side.
“There’s no glory in climbing a mountain if all you want to do is to get to the top. It’s experiencing the climb itself – in all its moments of revelation, heartbreak, and fatigue – that has to be the goal.” -- Karyn Kasuma
We don’t conquer mountains when we climb them, of course. But we conquer something within ourselves, and the mountains help by being there. It’s the climb that rewards us; the view at the top is like a pat on the back, a ‘welcome home’ when you walk in the door after a long journey from far away.
The mountains were calling. Kath and I had just finished some big assignments, so we looked for an adventure to celebrate our accomplishments and challenge our bodies. But mountains are in short supply on our islands. Mt. Erie is the tallest on Fidalgo. What about Whidbey? Well, the honor of the highest point on Whidbey goes to a non-descript mound near Strawberry Point. A mound is not a mountain. Goose Rock, closer at hand, has a real peak, and a view. Great. That’s where we would climb.
It’s just a little over 400 feet above sea level, so I guess it’s not exactly a climb. Our real goal was just to be outside, to be in the forest, to feel our heart beating and know that we are alive, to smell the scents of life returning as winter fades, to get the good tidings of life, to be one with the earth.
"Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!” -- Dr. Seuss
It was late afternoon. We had less than two hours of daylight. The sun hung low in the southwest, its light already muted by the woodlands.
I had forgotten my Discover Pass at home (me, of all people…) so we parked on the shoulder of Cornet Bay Road. The trail there drops down to a small wetland, which we crossed on log bridges that feel like a part of the water and woods. This trail heads to Cornet Bay, at the foot of Goose Rock. The summit looked high from here! Daylight was burning; it was time to get going, straight up the southern trail.
We ascended slowly, easily, catching my breath when I needed to, pretending I was taking a picture or studying the beauty of a tree or listening to a bird song. A hiker passed us going down, remarking that we were taking the hard way up. Indeed.
Step by step, rock by rock, tree by tree, we climbed higher, and higher, and soon we were on the last switchback, the trees fewer and smaller. And then we were going through an alley of fences at the summit.
Some of you may personally know the beauty of a bald head. The top here is bald too, sporting rocks slickened by the glaciers of just a few thousand years ago.
On one slick and sloping rock, Kath took a seat rather quickly, skinning her arm as she landed. We had removed our first aid kit a few days earlier for some reason; so we used a towelette wipe and an unused doggie bag to create a bandage of sorts… use what you have, right?
Then we strolled over to the highest point on the rock as the sun gave its last light above the Olympics. We were at the summit! We were above the rest of the local world. All our other plans, accomplishments, worries and dreams fell away into the emptiness of light and space around us. Others were here too, enjoying being at the peak, being together, being alive.
The time always comes to go back down. We took the northwest trail down to the Discovery Trail, then through the woods and back to Cornet Bay Road. We both felt drained and yet deeply refilled.
Directions: The trails to Goose Rock begin at the Deception Pass Bridge parking area at the north end of Whidbey Island, or at the Deception Pass State Park office, or along Cornet Bay Road west of the Retreat Center.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddam mountain.”– Jack Kerouac
By Bus: Take Island Transit's 411W north from Oak Harbor, stopping near Cornet Bay Road, or 411W south from the March's Point Park and Ride near Anacortes.
By Bike: Highway 20 is a busy high-speed highway with narrow shoulders and rolling terrain. The bridge itself is particularly challenging to get across, with no shoulder and a narrow sidewalk with railings on both sides.
Mobility: The trails up Goose Rock are challenging, with between 250 and 400 feet of elevation gain in less than half a mile on trails that are rocky, crossed with roots in places, and very uneven footing.
I had been through this before, this deep grief, this cutting hurt. I had lost loved ones and struggled to stand, to sleep, to breathe. So I knew what I needed to do. To get off the couch. To stop staring out the window. To go out!
The raging waves roared lifting logs and tossing them on the stony shore. Dark clouds settled on the distant mountains. Columns of rain streaked the far shore. I walked. I climbed. My heart pounded. The wind scoured my face, blew into me, swept through me. Climbing. Standing. Purging.
I noticed a little girl, in a pink coat, singing, playing, dancing by the water’s edge. The smile on her face. The joy in her step. Her father nearby, her protector, her guide.
I lost my father on New Year’s Eve. It was time. He was ready. But what a cavernous hole in my heart! What a deep well of sorrow! The only thing to do was walk.
I walked through the forest where the old trees grow. I walked by lakes and ponds of mallards and mergansers. I walked over pastures and among trees with hooting owls overhead. And I went to the bluff. Only in wild beauty, strong wind, vast waters, could I find solace. A gaping wound such as this needed powerful healing, and that is what I found.
Steps lured me to the ridge. The path led me up the bluff. Twisted trees danced with the wind. A gull hovered steady as a kite looking me in the eye. It was a rare day, alone on the bluff. I walked watching the tiny figures on the beach below. At the very end I pushed past the rosehips and Oregon grape to where there used to be a sign. “End of the Trail” it had said, but the sign was gone.
So I turned and looked back. On came a man with a broad hat. On came another with a red shirt. One by one they went down the steep slope to the beach. I turned to retrace my steps along the ridge.
I felt better. Not so devastated. Eyes sore and limbs tired, but not completely undone. I could walk and stop and take in the view, a passing ship with an escort tug, a ferry crossing from Port Townsend to Whidbey, a faint hint of Mount Rainier on the horizon. Walking on I heard kinglets all around me and caught a glimpse of their shiny gold crowns. Eagles sailed high on the wind. People came and passed, smiling, as I stepped aside. The old log where I'd sat with friends on many previous bluff hikes had withered to skeletal remains. Nothing lasts forever.
And when I feel the loss acutely here is where I come for consolation, when times are hard and I am suffering. We are truly blessed to have so many places of peace so near at hand. Beaches and bluffs, forests and fields, wetlands and lakes where we can go to release the ache and breathe again. Ebey’s Bluff is truly a treasure for us all to share, in times of sorrow, and in joy. It cleared my head and began to heal my aching heart.
Directions: From Highway 20 just north of the Main Street stop light in Coupeville, turn left onto Ebey Road and drive to the beach. Or go a little farther north and turn left on Sherman Road and right on Cemetery Road. Park at the very end at the Ebey's Landing National Historical Reserve office.
By Bus or Bike: The Route 1 Island Transit bus stops at Sherman Road. Walk or bike a half mile south to the upper trailhead at the end of Cemetery Road.
Mobility: The picnic area by the beach is accessible from Ebey Road. Parking inside the gate requires a State Park Discover Pass. The trail is narrow and climbs steeply in places and has a steep drop from the bluff to the beach below.
heart and soul
There are some places in my life, and I am sure you have some too, that make you smile, that feel like home, that restore your soul.
In my previous life at Deception Pass State Park, people would oftentimes ask me where my favorite place was in the park. I would share that it was the last place I had just visited, wherever that might have been, because so much of the park has beauty and meaning.
But there was one place that captured my heart, and my soul, a place I would return to more often than any other when I wasn’t working. No matter my mood, my situation, the weather, or time of day; or whether I’m with family, friends, a loved one, or just on my own; or whether I was mulling over the past, meditating about the present, or dreaming of futures to come -- I always came away from this place with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.
My happy place is Rosario.
It’s a compact place. The trail is short, barely a quarter mile to the top of Rosario Head. But in that quarter mile, consider all that you can experience: a sweeping cobbled beach on one side, a quiet sandier beach on the other, with an isthmus (how often can I use that fun word?) between the two beaches that is home to a majestic storypole honoring the teachings of KoKwalAlWoot. Add to that a finely crafted Civilian Conservation Corps picnic shelter, and a bathhouse that is now a discovery center, plus tidepools, offshore rocks hosting oyster catcher nests, and a moorage dock floating in Bowman Bay. And then there is Rosario Head itself, a crowning glory to any hike with its wide windswept views of two straits, several islands, forested headlands and quiet coves, and grassy grandstand seats to experience it all.
This past Monday was cool and overcast, but the sun was trying to make an appearance. It was a holiday for many, so the parking lot and trails were busy but never felt crowded. Kath and I wandered down to the shoreline at Rosario, finding it buried in logs and debris from the recent king tides and storms. The tide was out a little, though, revealing the rounded rocks that hiss when waves recede. We clambered over the logs and strode along the beach, our hearts soon beating with the rhythm of the waves. Rosario was already working its magic.
At the isthmus, the Maiden stood there watching the day go by in two directions, north and south. Kids and kid-like adults played on the driftwood, on the dock, and on the beaches. Everyone was relaxed, smiling, absorbing the spirit of the place.
We headed up the south trail to the top of the head, passing folks with dogs, a young couple having engagement pictures taken, and birders scanning the offshore rocks and kelp beds, at this moment finding Harley ducks, buffleheads, seagulls and cormorants.
My breath is taken away every time I get to the top of Rosario Head. Words, movies, pictures, none of these can capture the heart of the experience of Rosario. We lingered a while, preserving the views into the emulsion sheets of our souls. We watched other visitors come up and then stop at the edge, mesmerized, as were we all.
Eventually we walked back down the north trail, watching waterfowl, then back to the isthmus, listening to The Maiden again as she reminded us of the ancestors that once filled and still love this beautiful land. Her ancestors never forget the beautiful world that gave them being.
Once again, I feel the connection of my life to all life, of my story to all history. Way to go, Rosario.
Directions: Just north of the Deception Pass bridge, turn onto Rosario Road. In 0.7 miles angle left onto Cougar Gap Road. Turn left onto Rosario Beach Road and follow it to the parking lot at the end.
By bike: Rosario Road and Highway 20 are narrow, winding, and hilly in places. Rosario Road has lower speed limits and fewer cars.
Mobility: the trail from the parking area toward the Maiden is firmly graveled and gently sloped. Beyond there the trails onto the head are challenging; the one up the middle is the widest, but also very steep. The one up the south side is the most gently sloped of all the trails, but it is somewhat narrow.
If you go there, what are your thoughts as you wander the fields, beaches and trails?