One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner…, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve, or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.
Dylan Thomas, from A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
I like to read certain stories as we move through the holiday season. This one is special to me as my ancestors were Welch. Years ago, local poet, David Whyte, used to read it for us in his authentic British accent. I can relate to some of the characters, like the old man who “would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back, as he would take it wet or fine on Christmas Day or Doomsday…” It always makes me smile, even though our snow had melted.
I was stuffed after my holiday feast of food, family, and friends, but unlike the uncles in the story who were content to sit by the fire smoking their pipes, I felt the need for a walk. I knew a wall of rain and wind was just hours away, so I headed for Trillium Woods. Hunting season was over, and with over 700 acres, I knew I could walk for hours without running out of trail.
I’ve walked through Trillium Woods countless times with its green and grey trees and lush underbrush. But I was surprised and delighted to see gold glowing fungi on the trail from Smugglers Cove Road. I walked to Patrick’s Way and turned left toward the red gate at the Pacific Dogwood trailhead. Several trees had fallen across the trail and a crew with a chainsaw had cleared them leaving bright orange cut log ends like faces smiling as I passed. A wet spruce cone and a dried fir twig lay at my feet sharing the same golden pallet. Later, on a side trail I noticed willow leaves beaming yellow. Three colorfully clad ladies, trekking and talking at a fast clip, emerged from behind a toppled tree on the Raven Trail. At one spot I was surrounded by golden crowned kinglets and chestnut backed chickadees. All added color to an otherwise grey day.
I made my way to the Bounty Loop entrance where there’s a trail accessible for wheelchairs. A large tree had fallen there and been cut into sections that now sat beside the trail. I counted the rings. The tree and I were about the same age. Some rings were broad indicating years of great abundance, and some were thin, just getting by.
I reflected on my own life. The year I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail was a very good year for me. A couple of rings later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer while my mother was dying of pancreatic cancer. That was a hard one. I thought about the phone call I’d just made to my father back east. He’s 95 and suffers from dementia. He said he had to pack to go to his mother’s house. His mother passed a long time ago and I knew he wouldn't be leaving home. But I realized after the call that when we were kids, we’d pack up and go see his mother for Christmas dinner. I thought of the concentric circles of the cut trees, and my Dad’s mind circling through all the Christmases of his 95 years, “One Christmas was so much like another”.
I thought about my own Christmas memories, gathering with extended family in the 200-year-old homestead, or stuck in an airport as many were this year. Lately, I’ve celebrated at home with a few friends and family. We eat too much, share stories, sing and play by the fireside. And we walk together “wet or fine on Christmas Day or Doomsday”. After the guests departed, the dishes were washed, and food put away…
"I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept."
To hear A Child’s Christmas in Wales read by the author click here.
To learn more about Trillium Community Forest, find a trail map with wildlife guide on the back, and get directions to all three entrances click here.
Bus and Bike: Smugglers Cove Road is the best approach by bike with wide shoulders and less traffic than Highway 525. Island Transit’s Route 1 bus runs both north and south along Smuggler’s Cove Road. Check here for the bus schedule.
Mobility: The Bounty Loop Road entrance has a .2 mile loop trail that is wheelchair accessible. Patrick’s Way, the main trail down the middle of the park, is a wide, gently sloping old forest road. It is most easily accessible from the Pacific Dogwood entrance which starts with a paved but hilly road. The other trails are narrow with some puddles.
To read a story of a man who tries out the trails in his wheelchair click here.
Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America, growing wild on long-running vines in sandy bogs and marshes.
The first peoples took advantage of the cranberry’s many beneficial attributes. By mixing mashed cranberries with deer meat, they preserved a food called pemmican. And the rich red juice of the cranberry was used as a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing.
The Samish call this interesting berry:
German and Dutch settlers to America started calling it the "crane berry” because of the flower’s resemblance to the head and bill of a crane. That was the name that stuck in English.
With the holidays – and cranberries – on our minds, we headed to the Georgia Avenue access to Little Cranberry Lake.
Once upon a time, this lake’s bogs and bays supported wild cranberries, so pioneers named the lake “Cranberry”. Over on Whidbey, another lake also grew cranberries on its shores, and was given the same name. To keep them distinct, our Fidalgo lake became “Little Cranberry”.
But the growing town of Anacortes needed a water supply, so Little Cranberry was dammed at its northern end over a hundred years ago, raising the lake level and drowning the cranberry plants.
On this day, our local weather had turned cold. My thermometer read 21 degrees at high noon. Snow had fallen the night before, giving us a dusting of maybe half an inch. We had a short window of weather to go hiking, with heavy snow predicted to begin mid-afternoon.
Little Cranberry lay frozen under a white blanket, with holes of steel-gray blue where the wind stirred up wavelets. We walked along the east shoreline, kinglets tinkling like golden bells above us. Roots and rocks were slick, but the trail was safely walkable.
A solitary eagle flew over the lake. Cedar, salal and madrone leaves were draped with snow, leaving the ground beneath clear for robins and wrens to root around.
The edges of the lake here were mostly free of ice, except where branches bobbed in the water, creating clinging ice ornaments.
At the shallow, protected south end of the lake, a sheet of ice connected the many logs and grass clumps. The trail that followed the south shore is now closed for lakeshore protection. We detoured along the Big Beaver Pond trail, saying hello to half a dozen fellow hikers embracing the bracing temperatures, and enjoying the chance to be out.
Back at the lake on trail 101, we hugged the western shoreline as the clouds deepened and darkened. The woods became still, and silent. The edge of the storm was here.
The lightly falling flakes felt like fairy dust dancing among us. We joined the dance, across the rocks and through the woods, admiring the quiet solitude of the forests, the transformed frozen lake, and the peace that comes from being absorbed in the natural world around us.
During the evening and all through the night, Fidalgo Island was blanketed with nearly a foot of snow. We watched from our cozy couch, sipping cups of creamy hot cocoa. The heavens snowed; Christmas lights glowed. And cranberries were ready for dessert.
Happy holidays to you all, and to all a joyous winter solstice as the sun begins its journey back.
For fun, you may enjoy watching some of these old-time Ocean Spray cranberry juice commercials:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4yxtVugOHCI tire swing
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pYLXYIKX2yc no added sugar
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Z8booCtoSA fruit stand
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjMR0Uwlr1c lap top
Directions: From Anacortes, we took Oakes Avenue to Georgia Avenue, then up the steep road to the north end of the lake. Or take D Avenue up the hill, through the roundabout, to A Avenue and almost to 41st to the kiosk and trailhead there. There are several other options; consult a local map.
By Bus: take Skagit 410 west from Anacortes heading to the State Ferry. Stop near Georgia Avenue for a half-mile walk up the hill.
By bike: I don't recommend a bike in snowy weather like this, but at other times, follow the directions as shown. The roads are somewhat busy and very hilly, and mostly narrow.
Mobility: the trails around the lake are mostly narrow, rough, and filled with rocks and roots. However, the trail from the north parking lot across the dam to the wooden overlook is mostly three feet wide and relatively smooth gravel.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
There had been flurries and rumors of snow all week, but I had seen none at my house. So I wasn’t expecting to find any as I went for a walk nearby at the Whidbey Institute. I was looking for a forest walk and hills to climb. What a surprise to also find a light frosting of snow on this winter day.
I parked at the top of the hill and walked down the old road. The snow had settled in the ravine where the sun cannot reach this time of year. The split rail fence had a few inches on top. Around the bend, Thomas Berry Hall looked festive with a light dusting on the ground. I recalled the holiday concerts I’d attended there with the Rural Characters and a community chorus 80 voices strong. But the windows were dark and the hall quiet on this late afternoon.
I passed by the Appletree Garden and the West Garden with their tall stalks bent low and beds tucked in. The Farmhouse was solemn and the sauna stone cold lacking only a fire within to be warm and welcoming again.
Climbing the hill toward the cabins, snow hid behind trees and snuggled down among ferns. I took the Farm Loop into the woods and then the Wetland Trail that I’d helped build long ago. Storms had rearranged things since then. Limbs were down so I practiced my kick-a-stick-a-day trail maintenance techniques as I walked. The sound of trickling water followed me as ravens threaded their way through a tall tangle of trees. Kinglets, juncos and chickadees peeped from the upper canopy. There was light up there somewhere.
I circled the hill behind the farmhouse, crossed the snowy bridge and climbed through the woods toward the Story House. Woodpeckers chipped away at leaning alders. Cedars stood tall on the slope. I wandered from one loop to another. Thick evergreen huckleberry and salal bordered the trail. I walked in circles not really knowing where I was. Signs at trail junctions and the photo I’d taken of the trail map below were helpful, but I found I preferred not knowing.
At the top of the hill the snow disappeared. I found myself in a dark forest with no undergrowth. I came upon a glacial erratic like an elephant laying on the ground. Would it rise up and follow me in the twilight? I glanced over my shoulder to see. As I stumbled upon the road I turned toward my car. In the gathering darkness the last lines of Frost’s poem emerged.
These woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
For a map of the trails click here.
Directions: From Highway 525 at Ken’s Korner shopping center near Clinton, turn south on Cultus Bay Road. In ¾ of a mile turn right on Campbell Road and look for the Whidbey Institute sign on the left. Drive to the bottom of the hill and park across from the trail kiosk where you can take a picture of the map with your phone. No dogs are allowed and please don’t enter buildings uninvited.
By Bike and Bus: The closest bus stop is at Highway 525 and Cultus Bay Road about a mile away. There are steep hills along the route. The road has very little shoulder for bikes. Please wear something bright and use lights for visibility especially in this dark season.
Mobility: The Wetland Loop at the bottom of the hill, and trails at the top near the Story House are nearly level, but in between there are steep slopes with narrow trails.
Can you feel the wind blowing off the Strait, hear the waves breaking on shore, see the trees bending with each gust, as an eagle wings its way overhead? Can you sense the immensity of time as a bank of alders becomes a forest of firs and cedars, which in time lay down as a bed for the generations to come?
Can you smell the smoke rising into the rafters, curing flanks of salmon for the winter season? Nearby fields are burning to keep the camas growing, and nettles and bracken. Hear tribal voices rise together in song honoring the return of salmon, as Orca breach the waters offshore.
Can you see several men rowing their launches from a large wooden sailing ship, heading into a nearby waterway as they discover this long arm of land is an island? Their captain honors the master of this crew by naming the island after him.
Can you hear smaller boats rowing ashore in the dead of night, bringing Chinese laborers, or cans of opium, disappearing on the island in a rising fog.
Can you walk through the meadows of fertile farms and pastures, crops and livestock feeding a growing population of Dutch settlers? Can you see a mercantile becoming villages becoming towns?
Listen to the sounds of trees falling as the new owner, the U.S. Navy, builds airfields and shelters; listen to the sounds of propeller planes practice-landing on the airfields. Listen to the small arms fire as recruits shoot targets with large berms used as backstops for their bullets. Listen as the whirring of propellers becomes a raging roar of jet engines.
Read reports that this hundred-acre corner is surplus, and would State Parks like to have it as a park? And lacking money, Parks asks KOA to build a campground here. Smile as Island County officials object, arguing a campground is inappropriate, encroaching on a shoreline, inviting traffic congestion, and endangering limited island water supplies.
Come back later and find a park, and once again find meadows, forests, open beaches, wetlands, wildlife, and trails leading among them all. The park is named in honor of that long ago master of the Vancouver expedition.
Evidence of the stories above can still be found here, other than the smuggling, although the remoteness of the beach needs little imagination to picture that happening too.
Kath had never been to Joseph Whidbey. I loved watching her discover the soul of the park. We started at the west end. Blue skies graced this weekend day, but the low winter sun created long shadows even at noon. A stiff breeze off the water had us zipping our coats up tightly. Waves with whitecaps made music on the gravelly beach.
An eagle hung around the treetops, while gulls cavorted and cruised over the shoreline. We walked inland, following the central trail through a forest of old alder, young firs, and cedars. Through our stocking caps we heard a barred owl’s muted hoot off in the distance.
The trails throughout the park are gentle, wide, and inviting. After a half mile the forest gives way to large meadows with pockets of trees, wild rose thickets, blackberry patches, and wetlands. We circled around for well over a mile, the trail never in a straight line, always leading to simple joys: a rabbit springing through the brush, kinglets like piccolos in bare trees, rose hips deep red in the afternoon sun, meadow grasses stark against dark firs.
We could hear the surf again as we headed back toward the beach. Dropping down through the driftwood, then onto the sea strand, waves marching ashore, gulls freewheeling above, we sensed the circle of life, the soul of the island.
"To include nature in our stories is to return to an older form of human awareness in which nature is not scenery, not a warehouse of natural resources, not real estate, not a possession, but a continuation of community."
~ Barry Lopez
Directions: From Highway 20 north of Oak Harbor, take Ault Field Road, straight through the roundabout, past the golf course and turn right on Crosby Road. State Parks opens the main gates April through September, but rough parking lots at each end accommodate visitors year-round.
By bike: the roads have minimal traffic once you are past the airbase; they roll with gentle hills but narrow shoulders.
Mobility: the trails are wide and graveled for the most part, with mostly gentle slopes, except between the beach and the main parking area which is quite steep.
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