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!

Embarking from Anacortes

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These two visitors spent the night on this wooden platform at the rear of our slip in the Anacortes marina.

It’s not every day I wake up just feet away from a harbor seal and her pup – that was how our first day in the Anacortes, WA marina began.

The day earlier, I met up with a 20-person team of field researchers at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. We had all flown in from colleges and hometowns all over the country to complete a summer internship program with Minnesota-based company Global Treks and Adventures.

Together, the team was researching different topics about the San Juan Islands (such as wildlife, conservation, economy, water resources, and more) to compile a collaborative visitor’s guidebook to the area. Global Treks takes interns on trips like these around the world, to places as far as the Spanish Virgin Islands and remote areas of Australia. Last year, I sailed with Global Treks through the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, and was thrilled to travel with them again to this scenic wilderness in the Pacific Northwest.

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White-crowned sparrow

It was a long and slow drive up the Washington coast into Salish territory. Over the course of several hours, we left the busy cityscape behind for a landscape of tall Douglas firs and exotic-looking madrona trees. Some of us dozed in the comfort of the backseat while we waited to arrive at our jumping-off point: the Anacortes marina.

The exhausted group held it together long enough for a pizza party in downtown Anacortes, before heading back to the marina to spend our first night aboard our respective vessels. I was assigned to the impressive 50-foot Christelle, along with 11 other crew members. The smaller Maggie was docked a few slips away, with an eight-person crew.

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Evening in the marina, before sailing into the San Juan Islands.

The first morning of our venture was spent quite lazily for most of us, but soon became frustrating when boat inspections were taking longer than usual. It gave the researchers plenty of time to relax and get used to their new, tighter living spaces, but anticipation to explore the waiting wilderness soon dominated the mood. It wasn’t until afternoon that we finally glided out of the marina, beneath a perfect blue sky with islands all around sweeping up in impressive slopes from the waterline.

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Sailing to Lopez Island.

It wasn’t long before we noticed numerous types of seabirds and other wildlife; the mustachioed rhinoceros auklets would surface with tight-packed beakfuls of silver fish, and the elegant pigeon guillemots were almost never out of sight. Every now and then, the round, blubbery head of a seal would surface for a few seconds before ducking beneath the waves.

By early evening, we had anchored in a bay off Lopez Island, where we motored by Zodiac to the saltwater lagoon of Spencer Spit. We took off our shoes to wade into shore. A woman was seated on a log of driftwood not far away, and when we approached, she greeted us loudly. She introduced herself as Hillary, said that she was very drunk, and tried to convince us that clamming here on Lopez Island was one of the best things we could do, ever. She said that she and her family visit the island annually to dig clams and have a huge clam bake afterward.

“All you need is a shovel,” she said. “You just look for holes and dig.”

We only had an hour or so to explore, so a group of us set out to try to find a park ranger at Spencer Spit State Park to learn about the area. While we located what looked like a ranger station, there were no rangers to be found, so we instead hiked around the lagoon, stopping to admire washed up treasures such as the carapaces of tiny crabs and shells of countless creatures. A few sandpipers were foraging in the shallow marsh water, and a great blue heron was hunched in the center of the tall grasses, almost motionless.

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Worn out from the excitement of our first day on the water, we were eager to return to the boats for soup and grilled cheese before settling in for a peaceful night of sleep on the Salish Sea.

A sojourn through the San Juan Islands

IMG_7391The most frequent question I get asked when telling about my recent trip to the San Juan Islands is, “where exactly is that?” For many, myself included when I first heard of the destination, a mental image of a white sand beaches, palm trees, and sea turtles in gentle azure waters comes to mind.

Some of the Global Treks and Adventures expeditions are like that – but the San Juan Islands are a land apart. Located on the coast of northern Washington State, the San Juans are an assortment of coastal wooded islands bordering Canadian waters. I had the great privilege of spending a week with the Global Treks crew sailing through the islands, visiting everything from a working farm run by nuns to a whale watching center to the summit of a mountain. The following is a short series of posts documenting the places and people, both wonderful and strange, we met along the way. IMG_7215

Sailing the Islands: Manitou, Devils, and South Twin

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Our second day of sailing permitted much warmer weather as we set off for Manitou Island. The word “manitou” means “spirit” in the Ojibwe language–interestingly, the island in my hometown of White Bear Lake bears the same name and plays a role in the Native American legend for which the town was named. The story behind the name of this island is less certain, but possibly remains as a remnant from before the Apostle Islands were settled and renamed by white Europeans.

The island is smaller and receives less visitors than Stockton, but it does possess a unique historical site: a restored fishing village, salvaged and restored to a similar appearance that it would have had in the early days of commercial fishing in the Apostle Islands.

Approaching Manitou fishing village.
Approaching Manitou fishing village.

We didn’t spend long on the island, but volunteer interpreter Denise showed us around the camp, explaining that most everything in it once belonged to Olson brothers, who had started the camp many years ago. Denise herself lived in a former bunkhouse, a one-room log structure powered only by solar energy. The isolated nature of the island gives her the opportunity to do a lot of hiking and kayaking, and allows her to observe the activities of wildlife on the island. She once was granted a rare sighting of an American pine marten–an endangered animal that has only recently been found to be living in the Apostle Islands.

The American pine marten is the only endangered mammal in the state of Wisconsin.  -via circkles.com
The American pine marten is the only endangered mammal in the state of Wisconsin.
-via circkles.com

Denise explained the rustic life of the early fishermen, who sometimes preferred to spend their winter nights in the warmth of the horse barn rather than in their actual quarters, which stood vulnerable to the harsh, icy winds of the lake. The island was home to 25-30 fishermen at a time, who shared their equipment and resources and grew their own crops to sustain their remote island lifestyle.

After our short visit, we headed to Devils Island, famous for its intricately beautiful sea caves, carved out of its sandstone base for thousands of years. While some of our party took a daring and dangerously shivery dip through the tunnels and arches, I opted to go ashore to explore the Devils Island Lighthouse. Our small rubber dinghy floated just inches above the water, and dipped and rocked viciously in the strong winds.

Dinghy coming in for a landing on Devils Island.
Dinghy coming in for a landing on Devils Island.

We put ashore on a long, red bar of sandstone close to the water, and hiked up the rocks and cliffs to a more sheltered, forested trail. Only minutes into this walk, I stopped, shocked at the almost complete silence that surrounded me. Even though I knew the waters were slapping against the island stone, the quietness of this small forest made me feel as though I was miles inland, rather than having just stepped out of a rather precarious dinghy.  I looked around and noticed an abundance of moss, cedar, and other swampy undergrowth, which likely muffled the powerful and constant heaving of the great lake.

The trail soon opened into a broad field, dominated by a couple of brick houses, and in the distance rose the freestanding white tower of the Devils Island light. A knowledgeable Park Service volunteer led us around the grounds of the light station, explaining the methods for fuel storage, transportation of goods, and source of fresh water for inhabitants of the island. She also warned us about the precarious ledges and cliffs scattered around the island–it is difficult to see from above the rocks that are supporting you, and as she pointed out, it is easy to unwittingly wind up on a ledge with only a few fragile inches between you and a hundred foot plunge to the icy depths of Superior. She took us up the steep cyclical iron staircase of the rocket-shaped tower, having us don heavy green aprons before climbing the final ladder to the top.

Restored keeper's house, now quarters for the National Park Service volunteers who live and work on Devils Island.
Restored keeper’s house, now quarters for the National Park Service volunteers who live and work on Devils Island.
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Devils Island lighthouse

“We wear these aprons for two reasons,” she explained. “One is because the light keepers used to wear them, so you get a real sense for what it is like to be in their position. The other is so visitors don’t accidentally scratch the lens with zippers or buttons. It’s a very small space up there, so it’s easy to do without noticing.”

This Fresnel lens is the only one in the Apostles that is still located in a lighthouse.
This Fresnel lens is the only one in the Apostles that is still located in a lighthouse.

Devils Island is the only lighthouse in the Apostles that still has a Fresnel lens inside. These remarkable and beautiful crystal glass structures were once custom-made in France to refract and project light as far as possible. At one time, all of the Fresnel lenses were removed from the Apostle Island lighthouses with the introduction of the newer Coast Guard models, but this particular lantern was rebuilt and replaced in the lighthouse when it opened for visitors after restoration. Even still, the light bears the mark of years of wear and damage, exhibiting several scratches and cracks.

The modern-day Coast Guard light, affixed to the outer deck of the lighthouse, uses the same refraction technology as the Fresnel lens, but it is a smaller and more efficient model.
The modern-day Coast Guard light, affixed to the outer deck of the lighthouse, uses the same refraction technology as the Fresnel lens, but it is a smaller and more efficient model.

Soon we were ready to depart the island, though not before sighting a rather fearless snowshoe hare browsing through the thick underbrush.

Before our final bout of sailing, we had a quick tour-by-dinghy through the magnificent sea caves. After that, it was on to South Twin Island, our stop for the night.IMG_3826IMG_3860IMG_3851

Sea cave selfie!
Sea cave selfie!

Apart from a couple of kayakers, we had South Twin all to ourselves–but it wasn’t quite an island paradise. The mosquitoes there were worse than any we had yet encountered. I did have a good time combing the beach and skipping rocks (I was delighted to find a smooth, washed up chunk of rose quartz), but it seemed that our evening beach bonfire encroached on the home of the resident mergansers. We stayed out long enough for s’mores and to witness the hazy sunset before retreating to the mosquito net-equipped boat to escape the needling tormenters for the night.

Beach bonfire!
Beach bonfire!

Sailing the Islands: Stockton

The research team arrived at the Port Superior marina on Monday evening–no one knew each other yet, but the nine of us were about to spend the next week together in the 40-foot sailboat Apres Ski. Our first night was spent in the harbor, meeting with specialists from the DNR in the comfortable clubhouse up the hill.

Apres Ski at dock in Port Superior prior to departure.
Apres Ski at dock in Port Superior prior to departure.

After a breakfast of the incredibly delicious warm wine bread (a traditional Croatian pastry) from the Candy Shoppe in Bayfield, plus a meeting with the Auxiliary Coast Guard representative Chris Bandy (a world traveler and kayaker whose next mission includes a golden eagle hunting trip to Mongolia) we finally got underway.

Sailing is cold. My primary occupation on that day was shivering. After about 3 hours on the water, we docked at Stockton Island in time to do some hiking and exploration before dinner.
We stopped at the ranger station just uphill from the dock and visited briefly with Ranger Gail, who was stationed there for the week. The whiteboard behind the counter listed the trail conditions on the island. All trails were marked passable, except for one. Written next to its name were the descriptors, “unknown,” “good luck,” and “it’s there,” which made me laugh.Screen Shot 2015-07-19 at 5.19.04 PM

Stockton is one of the most well-traveled islands and is known for its Tombolo Trail, which passes through a diverse array of biomes, exhibiting different plants and wildlife along different points of the trail. The island also has a large bear population, and we ventured into the woods hoping to catch sight of one. While some of our group managed to encounter one on the Julian Bay trail, the only bear I encountered was the stuffed one, preserved safely in a glass display case in the interpretative center. Known affectionately as Skar the bear, this animal was shot after it had harassed too many campers in its pursuit of food. He is now featured in a children’s book, “Skar’s Picnic,” which is also displayed in the interpretive center.

Our hike took us to Julian Bay, known for its “singing sand.” While the singing sand beach was as picturesque as it sounds, the “singing” was a little unexpected–the sound from our footsteps more closely resembled a squeaky squelch or even a duck’s quack.

Singing sand beach in Julian Bay.
Singing sand beach in Julian Bay.

Speaking of ducks, I was thrilled to spot several families of mergansers in the islands, including one that was hanging around in Julian Bay. Coming from the Twin Cities, the only type of duck I’m used to seeing is mallard, and at times I almost forget that there is a huge variety of ducks and waterfowl all across the state. (On a tangential note: I remember once being shown up in a Gander Mountain when I tried to name all the breeds of decoy ducks and fumbled through only four or five. A real sportsman caught wind of the challenge and named every display on the wall with masterful ease–like a duck on water, you might say).

Merganser mania!
Merganser mania!

The mergansers’ almost comical mohawks became a familiar sight over the next few days, and we were even treated to a parade of ducklings at sunset.

Offshore of Julian Bay lies the wreck of the Noquebay, a lumber ship that sank when it caught fire on the way to New York. It is now a popular dive site in the National Register of Historic Places.

Our evening on Stockton included a presentation of the geological and industrial history of the Apostle Islands from Ranger Gail, plus a chat around a campfire. The awe of spending time sailing in such a beautiful place really sank in as I walked down Stockton’s dock toward the boat, the sky awash with sunset’s last colors. Knowing that I was about to clamber aboard that sailboat, and that I would be known and greeted by the people inside, made me so suddenly thrilled to be there. We spent a quiet night swaying gently in the water, beneath the pearly brightness of a full moon.

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The natural beauty of the islands hits home.
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J for Jackie, obviously.

I awoke early the next morning and hiked again to Julian Bay, inspecting the ground for evidence of wildlife passing in the night. I found a few bear tracks at the beach, and passed a few late lady slippers, but that was about it. After a pancake breakfast, I again set out down the trails, this time past the campsites. They all looked really awesome, seated up on the high sandstone cliffs overlooking the big lake, and often surrounded by groves of cedar or pine.

Toward the end of the campsite trail, there is a site that leads down to a tiny length of sand beach via a rope and wood plank ladder. A sign nearby advises use of the “Sand Ladder” for safety. I clambered down eagerly, feeling like a buccaneer in search of a long-forgotten treasure.

While there was no treasure on the beach there, I did immediately find a piece of sea glass, worn to a sandy smoothness by the pummeling action of wind and waves. I’ve never found sea glass before, so I was ecstatic to discover it. Afterward I made sure to always carefully scan the beaches, in case another treasure was lurking in plain sight.

We spent a while longer at Stockton, visiting again with Ranger Gail and invasive species specialist Michael Joiner before departing, setting sail for Manitou Island.