Duck, Duck, Goose!
I was planning to bike and hike to Guemes Mountain with friends last Saturday. The forecast said there was a 20% chance of rain. But one friend was sick on Thanksgiving day, and another the day after. Jack and Kath would be babysitting a grandchild. So it was just me and my niece, Deb, visiting from Seattle.
We drove up Whidbey as I watched the clouds grow more threatening. On our way, Jack texted to say he and Kath had been relieved of their babysitting duty and would meet us on Guemes Island. So Deb and I took our bikes on the ferry. We met Jack and Kath and began to ride the shoreline road. It was cold. It was windy. It was threatening rain. Jack said the forecast had been changed to a 60% chance of rain with a downpour at 2pm. That bit of news percalated in my brain for a minute before it spit out a response. “Abort! Abort!” This was not a good day for a trip to Guemes Mountain.
Instead we caught the ferry back to Anacortes, biked to a café and had a nice lunch and a good visit. Then we all headed back to our respective warm, dry homes like sensible people.
Sunday dawned bright and cold. There were a few clouds and a cool breeze, but the day held far more promise than the day before. I drove a few miles to Deer Lagoon. The clouds gathered again, but as I walked through the trees at the start of the trail, the skies cleared. I needed that vitamin D!
I met Libby who lives nearby and keeps an eye on the birdlife. She handed me a heart shaped rock, a good omen. Walking on, a kingfisher announced my arrival. Pairs of mallards and coots hid among the cattails and duck weed. I passed some downed trees from wind storms. Folks had stacked the limbs into loose piles which provided shelter for wildlife. In the channel I saw tubby little buffleheads and elegant pintails. Colorful hooded mergansers glided by showing their broad white crests. On the marsh in the distance were a dozen Canada geese. A pair of Northern Harriers swooped this way and that. Gulls made a white line across the blue water. But most of the birds I saw were wigeons. Wonderful wigeons! Hundreds, maybe thousands of wigeons!
I thought about Kevin Costner dancing with wolves. He can dance with wolves if he likes. I would much rather go waltzing with wigeons, though walking with wigeons was fun, too.
Just being around wigeons makes me happy. Like when you walk into a room full of friends that have just shared a good joke and everyone is folded over laughing? That’s what it’s like to encounter wigeons. They have such a hearty laugh. It makes me smile, even if I didn’t hear the joke. There must be some good storytellers among them. Of course there are. I mean there are so MANY! There must be some clowns. The males have that bright green eye patch set off by their white forehead like a duck in clown face. And the word “duck” is funny, too. Lucky duck. Just ducky. Duck, duck, goose!
There were other birds, too. Eagles swooped down and scattered the ducks into giant cloud of wings. One eagle perched on a post to dine on take-out. There were sparrows and towhees hiding in the blackberries, and hawks soaring between the trees. There were people, some with dogs, walking the trail, too. I met a charming fellow named Smokey. Double Bluff framed the scene to the west. The skyscrapers of Seattle stood out to the south, and a line of beach homes circled it all. But the wigeons ruled the wetland. It was a sunny, funny day for a walk with the wigeons.
Hear recordings of wigeons here.
Directions: From highway 525 just south of Freeland, turn south on Double Bluff Road. In about a half mile turn left on Millman Road. Then turn right on Deer Lagoon Road. Drive to the end and park without blocking any driveways. Please be considerate of the neighbors, stay on the trail, and properly dispose of your dog's waste.
Bus and Bike: The Island Transit Route 1 stops at the corner of Double Bluff Road and Highway 525. There is room for 2 bikes on a bus. The road is almost level and the distance is less than 2 miles to Deer Lagoon. Please wear something bright for visibility while walking or biking the road or waiting for the bus.
Mobility: The entrance to the Deer Lagoon trail has been modified to make it more accessible. It is nearly level with a surface of small gravel and dirt, wide enough for 2 wheelchairs to pass.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird--
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters…
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The robin, the rosehips.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing,
since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Beach View Farm Trail -- it’s plain, straightforward, and mostly wide open. It’s a mile and a half walk one way in a straight line, and a mile and a half back. The west end is a natural meadow with a small copse of trees close to a lakeshore, but otherwise the trail is across open pastures and farmland.
We began at the west end, near West Beach. We followed the shoreline of Swantown Lake, beneath willows and alders, then through meadow grasses and rosebush hedges. There was no breeze rustling the leaves of the trees, but as we stood beneath them, one leaf fell, then another, and another. As is my autumn habit, I got beneath a falling leaf to catch it, missed, waited for another, missed again, then finally caught one in my hand. I honored it and set it down on the ground to rest after its short lifetime of giving us oxygen and shade.
The farm trail heads east from here, along the edge of Beach View Farm. At the farm, several dozen chickens and one rooster flocked around a portable chicken coop, mostly contained by a perimeter fence that had a small gap at one end. Some of them had discovered the opening and escaped through to join us along the trail. Unfortunately, it looked like an escapee from the day before had ended up as dinner for a coyote or other predator. These chickens didn’t seem to care as they stepped among their dearly-departed’s feathers and bones.
As we walked further along the open trail, we compared the experience to forested walks in the ACFL, to beach walks such as Ebey’s Bluff or Lighthouse Point, to climbs to the top of Mt. Erie or Guemes Mountain, or nearly any other trail on Whidbey and Fidalgo. The Beach View Farm trail is … different.
We were just voicing how plain the trail appears to be when a northern harrier floated on by, just a few feet off the ground, hovered around a potential meal we couldn’t see, then drifted upwards and onwards, soon followed by another flying in a different direction.
We passed sheep grazing inside a fenced corral. A large, very large black bull wandered in the corral next door. Distant cows mooed for dinner. Cowpies lay alongside the trail.
Plain, straightforward, and mostly wide open -- the way our hearts can be as we are thankful. I came to appreciate the wide-open landscape, the elemental beauty of a place that simply grows our food out of the earth.
Walking across farmland seemed appropriate this week. We too are flesh and bones, made of earth. Thanksgiving reminds us to give thanks to our earth and the many lives that sustain us.
And we are thankful for each one of you who joins us on our weekly hiking journeys. May your time with family and friends bless you with the joy of being together, hearts wide open, celebrating the cycles of life all around us.
Directions: From Highway 20 at the south end of Oak Harbor, take Swantown Road 1.4 miles to Wieldraayer Road. Park at the northwest end of the church parking lot (the spots are marked with signs, next to the bulletin board). Or park at West Beach County Park on West Beach Road; walk south 200 feet, then east 300 feet on a gravel road to Island County's Swantown Lake Park.
By bus: Take the new Route 9 bus to the corner of Swantown and Monticello and walk 450 feet to Wieldraayer Road, turn left and walk 1/3 mile to the trailhead. Or take Route 6 stops at West Beach Road and Fort Nugent Road, about a mile from the West Beach trailhead.
By bike: the roads in this area are narrow, and somewhat high speed, but with low traffic volume.
Mobility: most of the trail is graveled and gently sloped. The Swantown Lake County Park portion is narrow, and only partially graveled.
Early Birds Get the...
Fish. That’s why they’re here.
For me, it’s the mist rising off the water as the sun creeps over the horizon, the frosty grasses and seaweed twinkling in the morning light, the enormous logs washed up on a cobbly shore, the whimsical driftwood creatures, the long brown tangles of bull kelp, the old pilings, what’s left of historic structures, and the wide expanse of blue water, flat, calm on this quiet morning.
Oh, and the birds. Of course. This is an Important Bird Area after all. Full of important birds.
The sun was low, burning through the fog when the bus arrived at Keystone Spit. I disembarked and crossed a field of long, frosty grasses toward the water. Approaching the old pier, I expected to see a crowd of cormorants, but there was only one black silhouette, sitting silently atop a post.
Passing a row of picnic tables I stood at the edge. The cobbled shore dropped precariously to a sandy beach. As the tide was out, I had options, cobbles, gravel, or sand. I tried them all making my way along. Stopping intermittently, I spied on glowing gulls, incoming cormorants, and the graceful, red eyed grebes. I used to see Western grebes in great numbers in the winter. What an elegant bird. Their black head looks like an ink pot was poured down the back of their long slender necks. And the red eyes look almost supernatural.
I walked beyond the pier as the sun bloomed brighter and a lonesome loon emerged from the ancient past with a fish in its mouth. It spied me on the shore and hesitated. Then tilting its head back, the fish disappeared into the bird’s wide gullet. The lump in its throat looked awkward and uncomfortable. But loons have been doing this for a very long time. They know a good meal when they catch one. It’s long silver body is built to float, more at home in the water than on land, with feet like a propeller at the back of its body, cruising through the ages in perfect form. Their unearthly calls carry unobscured across the water.
A smaller gray bird popped up in the distance. Could it be a marbled murrelet? It lays it’s eggs on mossy limbs in the rainforest and then flies for miles to spend most of its time on saltwater. It ties these two ecosystems together even as logging cut them apart. They became a representative of old growth forest, a cute little poster bird illustrating the interconnections of all life.
Focusing on the distant birds, I almost missed the giant jellyfish at my feet, rocking back and forth with each gentle wave. The Lion’s Mane is something I’d expect to see in September, but these two are late. Still, they seem healthy and happy here. Our warming oceans bring many surprises. If I were a diver, I could explore the underwater park next to the boat launch. I often see divers going and coming from that undersea aquarium by the jetty as if they'd just hiked in from Port Townsend. But none this morning.
I walked on, looking around me and stumbling over driftwood logs slick with melting frost. One rises up into the air like a horse. Another soars like a dragon. Driftwood huts with creative furnishings loom large near the end of the spit, evidence of a summer day full of ambitious endeavors.
Finally, I reach Driftwood County Park where I climb the bank and find ducks in the little pond just off the beach. Buffleheads and Goldeneyes swim like little rubber toys in a tub. They make me smile, as do the others, and the sun, and the water, and the bus coming as I step to the street to flag it down. An eagle alights from a nearby telephone pole as I board and we are on our way!
To take part in a beach clean-up with other volunteers visit this page.
For more info on winter birding with Whidbey Audubon, click here.
To learn more about Important Bird Areas like this one, click here.
Directions: From Highway 20 near Coupeville, follow the signs to the Coupeville Ferry. Keystone Spit is just east of the ferry landing and runs for 2 miles to Driftwood County Park. In between, there are places where a car can turn off the road onto a rough paved road. You’ll need a Discovery Pass to park there, but not at Driftwood County Park, and not if you take the bus.
Bike and Bus: The Route 6 bus can take you to the ferry landing Monday-Friday. The Route 1 bus will take you on Saturdays. There is no bus service on Sunday. You may put 2 bikes on the bus bike rack. The road has wide shoulders and many people like to ride bikes around Crockett Lake. Please wear something bright and use lights to be visible to motorists.
Mobility: The beach is steep with cobblestone and gravel. There is a lot of driftwood to climb over to get to the beach. However, the rough road down the middle of the spit is accessible for people with mobility challenges. Two driveways link it to the main road. There is an observation deck for bird watching and interpretive signs. A Discover Pass is needed to park there.
falling into winter
We enjoy a view of Mt. Erie from our home in Anacortes, except for those foggy or smoky days when it hides.
After a weekend of downpours and drizzle, followed by a nighttime snowy gale, we awoke to see Erie rising above it all, wearing a winter coat of white. It beckoned, enticing in its holiday attire.
Let’s hike up to the summit, we said! The downside was the temperature, hovering at barely above freezing, with winds bitingly crisp, whitecaps whipping down Rosario Strait.
Dress appropriately, we told each other. Layering up with long-johns and leggings, hoodies and fleece, parkas and puffies, wind pants, stocking caps, mittens and everything else in the closet, we then downed some hot tea and headed to the mountain.
Getting on the trail, the cold air invigorated us. There’s a scintillating feeling of adventure to be on a mountain in winter weather, the elements more primal, the senses heightened and alert. The forest had been transformed with its white blanket. Snow crystals danced around us, sparkling in the sunlight filtering through trees.
Be careful, we reminded each other. Be sure of our footing. The rocks and roots will be frozen and slippery, the snow slick. We listened for the potential sound of branches breaking overhead, always a concern in the woods. Other than the wind still bending some of the treetops on the ridge, the forest was quiet. Muffled. Silent in the snow. No birds sang of summer here. No squirrels chattered away. The only sound was the crunch of our footsteps and a little labored breathing as we climbed the steep trail towards the top. An occasional golden maple leaf fell atop the snow.
That’s when we heard it. A crack, a crescendo of sound, and a ‘whoomph’ on the forest floor as a tree trunk broke and fell, hitting hard. We rounded a bend in the trail and there it was, fallen straight across the trail, the top half of a dead tree, its bottom half still standing nearby where it has stood for decades.
We stepped over the log where it fell, reminded of the danger that is here at any time of the year, but especially in winter weather.
The trail climbed quickly from this point, over bare slick rocks requiring a helping hand in places, up tree-root steps, always climbing, ascending to the highest point on Fidalgo Island. We reminded each other to go slow, be careful, be sure of our steps, and at the same time delighting in the wild wonder all around us.
Soon we came to the salal-covered bench just below the summit. A trail sign encourages us here, stating “Summit” with an arrow to the left. We climbed the last stretch of rock and emerged at the top.
The view fell away before us, islands, lakes and bays, and a big blue sky above. The Cascades sparkled in their finery of winter white. The sun warmed us and bathed a golden trail across the Strait. The northerly winds couldn’t reach us here. We basked in the beauty all around.
The sun continued to drop lower; the temperature did too. We walked the ice-slickened roadway back down, stopping at the western overlook to see our home in Skyline. I slipped and fell on a steep stretch of black ice; we walked carefully on the soft snowy shoulder the rest of the way down.
Summer hikes are pleasant and relaxing. But in fall and winter, safety concerns are amplified, and adventures can become misadventures with a simple misstep, or an unexpected act of nature, or any other unfortunate surprise. Be alert as you walk, of course, and don’t go if the conditions are not safe.
Still, by taking appropriate precautions, the rewards of winter walks are distinctly memorable and worthwhile. It’s a joy to behold the transformed world of winter.
But try not to fall!
Directions: From Anacortes take H Avenue to Heart Lake Road. From Whidbey Island follow Highway 20 north of the Deception Pass Bridge, drive about four miles and turn left on Campbell Lake Road, then turn right onto Heart Lake Road. Look for a parking area on the east side of the road just south of Heart Lake.
By bus: there is no direct service to this part of Fidalgo Island.
By bike: Campbell Lake Road, H Avenue and Heart Lake Road are low volume, hilly but doable, to Heart Lake. Highway 20 has high volume traffic and some challenging shoulders on some of the Fidalgo Island route.
Mobility: The trails on Mt. Erie are steep in places, filled with rocks, roots, downfall, and other challenges, to say nothing of snow sometimes. Alternatively there is a road to the top, steep in places but with low volume traffic. But beware of ice this time of year! I am a good example of how easy it is to slip and fall.