A Thousand Cranes on the Platte River

A thousand is an understatement. There are an estimated 600,000 sandhill cranes, with a handful of extremely endangered whooping cranes, that gather on the Platte River in Nebraska in late March and early April.

A trip down to Lincoln this spring gave us a chance to spend a few hours driving the back roads around Grand Island, Nebraska in search of cranes and other wild birds that flock to the shallow river during migration.12888784_10207754503653316_6290075787449453672_o

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Conditions were not great for photos during our visit to the Platte River. As Minnesotans, we enjoyed the chance to bask in some spring sunlight, but the sun also heated up the ground so much that there is a severe shimmer effect in all of my photos! This sight, of cranes gathered in the field, was common for hundreds of miles surrounding the river, where cranes go to feed during the day.

 

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The Central Flyway, which funnels tightly through Nebraska, creates an immense gathering place for sandhill cranes on their way to their northern nesting grounds. Image from visitgrandisland.com.

The best time to see the cranes is in early morning or before dusk, when they are gathered in massive groups together on islands and sandbars in the river. They return here at night to protect themselves from predators, but during the day they spread out to seek nourishment in the miles and miles of farm fields surrounding the area. The spectacle is so immense that it attracts thousands of visitors every year. Famed scientist Jane Goodall reportedly visits the Platte River during migration each year.

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The map we received from the Crane Trust Visitor Center.

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Masses of cranes spend the evenings on the banks of the Platte River, where their large numbers of defensible position best protects them from predators.

The Crane Trust Visitor Center supplied us with maps of the surrounding area, with helpful tips to find a few additional waterfowl species. One pond north of the center was full of pelicans and cormorants, saving energy to make the next leg of their migration north.

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American white pelicans with double-crested cormorants.

We spent a long time just cruising down dirt farm roads, admiring the rural scenery as much as the frequent sightings on cranes gathered out in the fields. We made a stop at the Rowe Sanctuary visitor center, where we were able to go inside a blind set over the river. The blind allows observers to sit close to the action without disturbing the birds.

One person reported that a whooping crane had been seen that morning at the sanctuary, but we were unable to sight one ourselves. However, while it was still snowy in Minnesota, it was refreshing to see meadowlarks, northern flickers, blue-winged teals, and sandpipers around every corner.

Some of the cranes we saw in Nebraska will spend their summer nesting in our neck of the woods. I’ve always been thrilled to see a family of cranes in a marsh or cornfield. They look like the last living dinosaurs, and their call is a primal rattle that is as soothing as it is unsettling. Closer to home, the Crex Meadows preserve in Grantsburg, Wisconsin also acts as a local gathering spot for sandhill cranes, especially when they gather up just before fall migration.

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Baby sandhill cranes are called “colts.” These two cranes were seen in a marsh in Lino Lakes, Minnesota.

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A sandhill crane family I saw last year in Hugo, Minnesota.

Other sandhill cranes that pass through Nebraska will end up in the far, far reaches of the Arctic; an impressive yearly journey.

To anyone thinking about visiting the cranes, I definitely recommend setting aside more time than we had, and booking a spot in a blind for the morning or evening gatherings. Also, keep an eye out on the many ponds and sandbars for other types of interesting birds and wildlife common in the area.

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Nebraska, land of art graduates and living dinosaurs

12120040_10206781518209288_2542783253607606511_oHaven’t updated in a while, but I do hope to keep this blog going because my adventures certainly aren’t slowing down.

Next week, I’m headed off on a weekend road trip to Lincoln, Nebraska. One of my friends from college is having an art showcase as part of his graduation requirement at the University of Nebraska. We’ll head down to for the art reception, and spend a couple days exploring the wide open spaces and hopefully catching a glimpse of the massive sandhill crane migration on the Platte River.

Catch you soon!

Glensheen estate is more than its murders

fullsizeoutput_3158I wasn’t aware that it was approaching the 40th anniversary of the famed murders at the historic Congdon Mansion in Duluth when I visited in June. I make it to Duluth probably once or twice a year, and every time I’ve passed the historic estate, situated just northwest of town behind iron gates, I’ve reminded myself that I always meant to go there.

This summer, I finally made it. The 39-room mansion that faces out on Lake Superior is now run as a museum by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I’ve read in several articles that many visitors don’t know about the murders that took place there in the 1977, but it was the first thing I learned about Glensheen when visiting Duluth on a family vacation. Someone even told me you could still see bloodstains from that gruesome night.

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The Staircase Where It Happened

The story goes that the elderly heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her live-in nurse were killed as part of a plot by her adoptive daughter. Both were killed in the middle of the night — the nurse was bludgeoned to death on the main staircase, and Elisabeth was smothered with a pillow while sleeping in her second-floor bedroom.

Having read this story in advance sated my curiosity about the mansion’s grislier moments, which allowed me to enjoy the rest of Glensheen’s unique, rich history.

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A student worker dresses in the uniform of a butler to welcome visitors to the mansion.

Each successive room is like a museum in itself, with different interior styles influenced by cultures from around the world. Chester Congdon, who made his fortune in the mining industry, was a world traveller. Evidence of this is visible in his many collected items of exotic decor throughout the home. His smoking room, influenced by Japanese style of the time, is one of the most interesting examples, with a carved wooden door that seals so thoroughly as to block out sound (and smoke).

I think my favorite room of all was the deep, sea-green breakfast room, with a panorama of windows facing out to the lake. A wrought iron table and chairs sit in the corner, while lush green plants line the walls. Natural light filters through custom stained glass oak leaves, creating an atmosphere of quiet tranquility.

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I was especially intrigued to learn about Helen, the Congdon’s middle daughter who seemed like a woman after my own heart. She enjoyed hunting and shooting sports with her brothers, and despite her father’s political stances had the audacity to marry a Democrat.

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The mosaic fireplace in Helen’s room, done in the colors of her school, Vassar College.

Of course, my ticket limited me to the first two floors of the mansion, so I did not get a peek at the “men’s floor.”

If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can see the upper floor of the mansion, and even take a “nooks and crannies” tour into places not normally accessible to tourists. I had only an hour to visit, but in that time I managed to get a sense of the family history tied to the mansion, and enjoy a stroll around the picturesque grounds on the shore of Lake Superior.

 

Minnesotans fight to keep mining out of the Boundary Waters region

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Photo from Boundarywaters.com

This is a piece I originally wrote for my newspaper, but I was unable to find a good source with an opposite viewpoint to balance the story out. However, my own views on this issue are unequivocal — once the Boundary Waters are polluted, we can’t get them back.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of Minnesota’s biggest draws, both to locals and visitors, but the proposal of a copper mine just a few miles outside the protected area has caused concern across the state.

In the northeast metro, one group has been holding public meetings to discuss what mining near the BWCAW might mean for Minnesota’s wilderness and industry. Chris Donato works for the organization Save the Boundary Waters, which has focused its efforts on the proposed Twin Metals mine project south of Ely. The mine would be located along the south Kawishiwi River, in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.

Impacts on the ecosystem

Watershed MapAccording to its website, Twin Metals would extract copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium from four underground mine locations. These metals are encased in sulfide-bearing rock, or volcanic rock that has been buried by centuries of sediment. The rock is located so deep below the earth’s surface that it has never been exposed to oxygen or water. The mining process brings this rock to the surface, where it reacts with air and water to create sulfuric acid. Nearby fish and wildlife would have to adjust to increased acidity in the water, and many would die off. Plant life would also begin to die, and the banks of the waterways begin to erode without the support of those root systems.

The mine website reports that excess rock will remain underground as backfill, but some waste will be stored in aboveground containers known as tailings ponds, which have been known to leach into groundwater. Environmental regulations do not require that a mine create zero pollution; they simply require pollution stay below an acceptable level. For Donato, however, the only acceptable level is zero.

“The Boundary Waters are so pristine that any pollution is going to be noticed, and it’s going to impact the people who rely on these areas,” he said.

This type of mining has never been done in Minnesota, but it has been done in Chile, Arizona, Utah and Montana.

“Treating sulfuric acid pollution takes up to 500 years,” Donato said. “The company claims, ‘We’ll treat it for 500 years.’ I don’t know if you can think of a company that’s been around for 500 years, but I certainly can’t. We haven’t even been a country for 500 years.”

However, Twin Metals has addressed environmental sustainability as one of its standards. “Environmental protection will be a design criteria — not an add on — for the proposed project,” the website said. It promises to work closely with state and federal agencies to meet and exceed all environmental standards.

Mining and industry

Copper and other strategic metals are used in many industries, including modern technology, and in parts used in components of renewable energy resource systems such as wind turbines. Copper mining is required to produce alternative energy. “The problem is, there’s no shortage of copper,” Donato said.

According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Geologic Survey, if all existing copper mines stay at current production, there are approximately 270 years’ worth of copper yet to mined.

“The only reason to open this mine is that the company wants to increase its bottom line,” Donato said. “That’s not a negative thing; that’s what business is.”

Twin Metals has had mining permits for the land since the 1960s, but has never taken action on them. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of the mine’s permits in order to conduct a two-year environmental review. After that period, Twin Metals is free to reapply for the permits, but it is likely that the environmental review will recommend that no mining be introduced to the area, Donato said. Some legislators, such as Rick Nolan, have taken action to try to appeal the environmental review process in order for the mine to move forward. In an open letter to the U.S. Forest Service written in July 2016, Nolan wrote: “The potential economic benefits are substantial and provide a ray of hope and optimism for local families and communities that have seen a loss of jobs and a steady painful economic decline over the past 30 years.”

Those in support of the mine recognize that it will introduce many new jobs into the area. The Twin Metals website states that the project would create as many as 1,700 to 1,900 additional indirect jobs in the region’s economy.

“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, people worked in the mines so their kids didn’t have to,” Donato said. “Now you hear people at public hearings saying, ‘My grandfather was a miner, my father was a miner, I’m a miner, my kid’s a miner;’ it’s become part of their economic identity.”

Donato also pointed out that northern Minnesota has cultivated a tourism industry, which could take a heavy hit if a mine is introduced.

“The community depends on people from all over going up and spending money at the restaurants, the businesses, the outfitters. All of it goes together to support this wilderness economy,” he said.

However, the Twin Metals website points out that mining is under threat in the area, and that withdrawing mineral rights in the area will damage the area’s economy irreversibly.

“If enacted, the withdrawal proposal will cause the state to lose the potential for thousands of mining jobs, billions of dollars in future investment in northeast Minnesota, and billions in future revenues for the state’s K-12 education system,” it said.

Effects in the northeast metro

“If you talk to any Minnesota business owner, or the reason why people choose to work and live in the Minnesota metro, one of the biggest things that statistics will show is that it’s access to the outdoors,” Donato said. A 2004 DNR survey reported that 84 percent of Minnesotans reported that outdoor recreation in their daily life was either very or somewhat important.

Donato pointed out that many families in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties are cabin owners who consistently travel to the Boundary Waters region. Twin Metals will coexist with this industry, but Donato said the nearby mine may have an impact on home values in the area.

“Any one of those people who owns a cabin or owns property or goes up there and spends their hard-earned money at the resorts and campsites, that all will be diminished if the water quality decreases from these mines.”

Mining is also a finite industry, Donato said. Regardless of the number of jobs it creates in the immediate future, eventually it will exhaust its resources.

“However, the Boundary Waters, if it’s maintained, will be there forever … it is self-sustaining,” Donato said. “It is something that is an economic driver. And it is something that people will move for and people will move to Minnesota for.”

The Forest Service is now holding a public comment period to collect feedback from Minnesotans about the mine. The comment period lasts until April 20, and feedback can be given online at http://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency/contact-us or over the phone at 800-832-1355.

Repeated attempts were made to contact the Twin Metals office for comment, but I did not receive a response before press time. To learn more about Twin Metals, visit http://www.twin-metals.com. To learn more about Save the Boundary Waters, visit http://www.savetheboundarywaters.org. The group will also be present at the inaugural Water Action Day at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 19; visit the website to learn more. 13000159_10207971869287321_3290990106088177867_n

Taking part in the largest march in U.S. history

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I was one of more than 100,000 who marched from St. Paul College to the Minnesota Capitol the day after inauguration. I saw many people who wanted to treat participation in this march as controversial. To me, it was simple: I am a woman. I believe in women’s rights, and I believe in equal rights for every citizen of this country.

Also, that’s called feminism. It’s not a dirty word; and it’s not even just for women. (As you can see in the photos, there were quite a few male participants in the march as well).

Few things can be more American than the right to public demonstration of opinion. The Constitution was written on principles that (theoretically) made it possible for each person to live freely according to their own belief system, without fear of persecution. We are still working to become that society. I saw this march as one of many ways in which we as a nation are still exploring our ideals and our rights.

Not every person agreed with each and every sentiment that was expressed during this march (one of more than a few shortcomings of being a two-party system). I heard many criticisms that pro-life women were not welcome (and there was quite a bit of emphasis on pro-choice values, so I understand that this was not the friendliest environment for women with different beliefs.) There was also quite a bit of emphasis on female anatomy, which I understand left out a large group of individuals who identify as women but who are not represented by that anatomy. For both those groups, I wish there had been a way to allow them to feel accepted, as this event was more about finding common strength, rallying flagging spirits, and resisting attacks against human rights than making any specific political statement.

But I was amazed to see so much support for each other, and to hear so many inspiring words from people who have made strides for change and who are just a few of my personal heroines. Here’s to the American woman.

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Sax Zim Bog: a primordial winter retreat

Contrary to what most of my posts suggest, I do actually spend lots of time in Minnesota, exploring the outdoors mostly near home, but sometimes a fair jaunt away to the more remote reaches of the state. img_2457

This is the case with one of my latest ventures, which was coordinated with an effort to achieve three northern Minnesota Checkpoints in one day (for more about the Checkpoint challenge, see my post from last year.) But Mission One was to make a stop at one of the premiere wilderness areas in the state: Sax Zim Bog.

The bog is renowned by birders, especially during winter, for the number of boreal species that winter there, most notably the enormous and ghostly great gray owl, as well as sharp-tailed grouse, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a number of other rarely seen owl species. The mixture of woods and fields makes the location an attractive habitat for these birds, many of which have flown south from the far reaches of Canada and beyond. The area is also home to northern mammals such as moose, gray wolves, and pine martens.

Typically, a bog conjures images of a muddy wetland. I always envision dark fairy tales of lost wanderers stumbling blindly after malicious will-o’-the-wisps and meeting their demise in quicksand-like mud pits, or urban legends (based on truth!) about human remains that are found mummified and unnervingly well preserved by the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of the surroundings. Really a bog is any wetland area where dead plant material is accumulated (mostly mosses), and in the case of Sax Zim it is populated by a mix of spruce, tamarack, and white cedar, in addition to nearby hayfields and sedge meadows. This offers a wide variety of terrain, which makes it perfect for the large number of species that reside there. img_2459

The bog is north of Cloquet, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from my home near the Twin Cities. We traveled into the tiny town of Cotton and went west a number of miles down a snow-packed country road to the heart of the nature preserve.

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The drive took us through Cloquet, where we passed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.

A tiny welcome center, heated with solar energy and lacking running water, sits on the property. Nevertheless, it is kept warm inside and several birders were sitting patiently with long lenses nearby, waiting for something interesting to visit the feeders. Each year, the organization Friends of the Sax Zim Bog hosts a winter birding festival, this year to take place Feb. 17-19.

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Somehow I had a feeling this would be the only owl I’d be seeing on my visit.

Feeders containing seed and suet are placed in various places around the bog, and these are often the best spots to find bird activity. Most people simply drive slowly down the long, snow-encrusted roads, scanning for movement without ever leaving their cars. Others prefer to hike, ski, or snowshoe through the area. Our time was limited, so we asked the desk volunteer where we might spot the best activity from the warmth of the car.

She pointed out a loop slightly north of us following Admiral and McDermitt Roads. She described the area as quintessentially boggy, full of spruce trees, and recommended a drive through at dusk to look for owls. The day earlier, she said, a great gray had been spotted sitting directly on the feeder.

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Squirrels were aplenty at the Sax Zim feeders.

On our drive through, we occasionally encountered other birders stopped on the road along the way, indicating a sighting nearby. In fact, small traffic jams started to build up this way. The first of these was a really fun encounter with a ruffed grouse, which was busy peeling the bark from a few thin branches and was twisting and turning this way and that, nonplussed by the observers in the nearby vehicles. Photography is challenging in this environment because if one chooses to stay in the car, the heat emitting into the cold air from the open window will cause a rippling wave effect which can blur the picture quality.

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Ruffed grouse

Unfortunately, our drive did not result in any other species observations (other than the numerous black-capped chickadees and red squirrels that were common at the feeders.) Despite the lack of bird cooperation, we were treated to a magnificent sunset along the jagged edges of the spruce tree line; an idyllic northern Minnesota scene.

We had three other cities to get to that night, so we had to hit the road after only a few hours at Sax Zim. I hope to revisit the bog soon, to keep looking for those elusive northern species. img_2526

The ocean and the mountaintop

Part 1: The Ocean

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When we left Sucia in the morning, everything was quiet. We were headed for our last stop on the journey – the large island of Orcas.

The morning waters were ethereal – with no wind, the surface was like a mirror. A dense mist hung overhead for a couple of hours, obscuring the tops of the craggy islands we passed along the way. We were almost silent, taking in the view and not daring to cause a disturbance with our chatter. After about 45 minutes, we started to notice the black, sickle-shaped dorsal fins of pilot whales cutting through the waters at a distance, sometimes falling back into our wake.

We didn’t sail at all – it was preternaturally still, and we sat back under the protection of the awning, which shielded us from the cold mist. It was like we were waiting for something to happen.

There wasn’t much of an alarm, but one of our group leaders got a call from a leader on the other boat, something got murmured about orcas, and then everyone was on high alert, scrambling for rain jackets, cameras, a good perch on the deck. I buttoned up my green slicker, tucked my camera in the roomy pocket so it would stay dry, and clambered into the chilly drizzle just beyond the main. I stood on the slick deck for about 20 minutes with numb hands and cold ocean spray in my face, peering hard at the horizon.

One of our group members had a family cabin on a nearby island, and her relatives had called her boat to report that they’d just witnessed a pod of orcas pass by. We happened to be very near the location of their cabin, and the info got relayed to our crew, so we diverted course in hopes of catching sight of the elusive whales. We all scanned the water fervently, watching for the slightest motion in every direction.

“There!” someone yelled from the wheel, and ahead I could just barely see what looked like four brief explosions of white water. I wasn’t sure of it at first, but as we got nearer the sporadic splashes continued, and it was clear there were some very large animals in the waters ahead.

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Before long, one of the double decker whale watching cruises arrived on the scene, along with several other sailboats eager for a sighting. We killed the motor and drifted in closer, where we could clearly see the enormous black fins, at this distance like needles among the waves. Once or twice we saw a bit more of the animals as they lunged a bit further out of the water, but mostly it was backs and dorsal fins. Sadly, one or two motorboats zipped obliviously straight through the pod, defying the distance regulations that are in place to protect wild orcas.

As the pod moved, it appeared that an adult and calf were isolated from the main body of the pod and encircled by a ring of eager viewers, including ourselves. This gave us our best view of the orcas yet. I felt a little bad that the whales were isolated among so many boats, but the day before, the whale watch volunteer had told us that the animals are used to a lot of boat traffic. I think it would have felt too commercial, too cheap, to pay fare for a whale watching boat, but the sighting seemed amazing and rare as we just happened to be sailing along. Lucky we received a tip from our crew member’s relatives – it was impeccable timing.

I still can’t believe we saw the whales. By Day 5, I was prepared to accept the fact that we probably wouldn’t, especially because the whale watching point at Lime Kiln had yielded nothing. I stayed on deck long after we’d turned away toward our destination.img_7585

Part 2: The Mountaintop

The weather soon cleared into a terrific sunny day, and we docked at Rosario Resort around noon, leaving us the rest of the day to explore the island. As we pulled in, there were families playing volleyball in the sand court, children playing a hand game, and guests splashing in the outdoor pool. The point was dominated by an enormous white mansion, which was once the extravagant home of the Moran family. It now contains a luxury hotel and spa.

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Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

The town on Orcas was on the complete opposite side of the island, so most of us opted to explore nearby Moran State Park. I banded up with a few others who wanted to climb up to the top of the San Juans’ only mountain, Mt. Constitution, which was located in the park.

The towel lady at Rosario gave us directions and maps, but dissuaded our group from climbing to the summit because it was likely to take three hours or more, and visibility would probably be limited due to clouds. She suggested a few alternative trails around Cascade Lake.

We hiked up a trail toward the park and zigzagged across several roads, and I lost the group almost immediately as I puffed my way up a steep hill and stopped to take a picture of a bird/catch my breath.

I thought two things: 1. If I was having this hard a time just getting to the park, I probably would never had been able to get up the mountain (never mind keep up with my energetic crew mates), and 2. I could certainly never hope to one day hike the Appalachian Trail.

Since I lost the group, I instead took my time on a stroll along the lagoon, photographing birds, deer, frogs, and interesting plants. The lagoon led to a bridge that bisected it from Cascade Lake, where lots of vacationers were enjoying every type of water activity imaginable: swimming, kayaking, paddle boating, everything. The water had that perfect

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Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

emerald-blue hue that lent an air of unreality to the scene. I moseyed along the rocky trail, encountering an old man with one of those ergonomic bicycles. He was pushing it along and asking for directions; I helped as best I could using the map the towel lady had given me. I rounded the lake and arrived near the park office. Nearby was the tiny flowage of Moran Creek on its way down to the lake, and a few structures that I found were an interpretive station and tiny fish hatchery for stocking trout. Just behind it was the trailhead for Cold Springs.

The Cold Springs trail rose gently uphill beneath towering cedars, before disappearing around a bend. Consulting my map, I decided to follow it a little ways, just to see what it was like on the mountainside, and whether I couldn’t make it to Cold Springs, if the summit was out of the question. The trail sign said 2.3 miles, which seemed manageable, although the map categorized the hike as “difficult.”

I spent the next two hours slogging it bit by bit up every hairpin switchback, stopping to catch my breath about every 15 minutes or so. I was surrounded by magnificent, ancient cedars, sprawling carpets of moss and ferns, and the constant trickle of shallow mountain streams in the background. I halted at a wooden bridge over a rocky ravine, where I sat cross-legged and ate a Pop-Tart. I contemplated turning back and completing my stroll around Cascade Lake, which was easy walking. Two women and a friendly black labradoodle came motoring through; one said something like “Having a quiet moment?” and I said, “Seemed like a good spot for a Pop-Tart.” The absurdity of that sentence really struck me as funny all of a sudden.

Just after they were out of sight, and the woods were still and quiet again, a second dog came rocketing around the bend and past me on the bridge without a second glance, trying to catch up. I laughed aloud at this spectacle.

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A “cyanide millipede” I found on the trail. They emit a scent like almonds, which is why they’re called that!

Anyhow, every time I was ready to call it quits and took a much-needed rest, I felt a little bit better and thought maybe I could go a little further after all. Soon enough, I ran into a few other members of my group, who had taken a rather expensive taxi ride straight to the top, where they had ice cream before trekking down. They told me that they had been hiking down for an hour, and that if I was aiming for Cold Springs, it wouldn’t be all that much further to the summit itself. The view was well worth it, they said.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll plan to be back a little late. I’m going to climb this mountain.”

It was almost another hour of rocky switchbacks, but everyone I met on the mountain was extremely nice. Even the two superhuman joggers who breezed past uphill said “thank you” as I stood aside to let them by. Every person I spoke with offered encouragement – “You’re almost there!” – and compared hike times. img_7689

The shade of the massive cedars and damp chill of the moss kept me comfortably cool, and soon I could feel the pure, refreshing ocean air coasting up the mountainside. When I hit the trail crossing I nearly shouted in relief – everything from there on was relatively easy going, and I was able to enjoy my surroundings a bit more. I passed several pristine mountain bogs and crossed the road to the last mile. To me, that last mile seemed like a mystic spirit wood, like something straight out of “Princess Mononoke.” I had a lot of time to think, contemplating the associations between mountains and wisdom, the significance of elements in spirituality, and reverence for the natural world, as well as human symbols and meaning-making. I felt a little bit like a pilgrim: a young learner seeking knowledge at the mountaintop.

I stopped to have my second Pop-Tart at the base of a cedar on the bank of Summit Lake. Near the top, the terrain changed drastically to a scrubby, lichen-covered rock face with small, witchy gray spruce and steep slopes of salal.img_7718

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Nearing the summit, this is my first glimpse of the lake and ocean below.

A short climb upward, and I was suddenly among hordes of noisy tourist families swarming over the old stone tower on the summit. Despite my fellow travelers’ promises that there was ice cream at the top, the Sugar Shack and gift shop were closed by the time I arrived.

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The hike back down took another solid hour and a half – but the downhill strolling offered a different set of physical challenges. Namely: not slipping on loose rocks/accidentally rolling an ankle, and quickly developing blisters from the repetitious pressure. Dusk was settling in, and beneath the trees it began to get chilly. I sang a few songs, kept up a brisk pace, and enjoyed the gorgeous setting, even glimpsing a few deer through the trees. I developed a sudden fierce appetite and stopped once to devour a granola bar I’d stowed in my daypack.

Sore, blistered, and dirty, I hauled myself back down the trail to the waterfront (it gave me some satisfaction to realize I’d gone from lowest to highest elevation on foot in the span of just a few hours). My crew mates were sitting around a bonfire chatting, and warmly welcomed me back from my venture. It was a wonderful way to end our last day in the islands.

You can bet I can slept pretty well that night: floating in the sheltered cove of Orcas Island.

P.S. After everything, what struck me as funny was that nothing I climbed on the mountain was nearly as strenuous as that stupid steep trail leading out of Rosario, where I lost my group in the first place. It was literally the toughest traverse of the day!