Saturday, October 24, 2009

'Round the Olympic Peninsula

From Port Townsend, we continued on Highway 101 along the north coast, passing through more small fishing towns and marveling at the beautiful scenery. We visited Neah Bay, a quiet village on the Makah Indian reservation, where we toured an interesting museum and learned that the Makah tribe is the only tribe allowed by treaty to hunt whales. From here, we drove to the trailhead for the Northwestern-most point in the continental US, Cape Flattery. The 1.5 mile trail is described as requiring "moderate exertion" - we must have missed the fine print that said that
was for the downhill portion. The trail to the point is a series of wooden staircases and dirt path down to to a wooden platform overlooking the ocean, a hike well worth the views of the rugged coastline and lighthouse on the adjacent island. After a short, refreshing 3-hour crawl back to the parking lot, we headed home to a night of rest and Bengay.
Our next trip was to the town of Forks, a small town that has been overrun with teens and pre-teens since the movie "Twilight" the story of a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire, was filmed here. Having raised a teen-age daughter, we didn't find this particularly unusual. Signs highlighting the movie are everywhere: the high school that the heroine, Bella attended, the Thriftway Market where she bought groceries, and on, and on. Locals told us that it's not unusual for a summer crowd of 15,000 to visit on a Saturday. Yikes. But we weren't here to see Bella, but to visit the Hoh Rain Forest, a few miles outside of town. This area, like much of the coast, is a "temperate rain forest" and receives an incredible 12-14 feet of rainfall a year. We walked along beautiful trails through the thick, moss-covered forest, with large sword ferns everywhere. Some areas look more like a Louisiana swamp than a Pacific Northwest forest. Along the trail were interesting tree formations; one looked to us like the head of a Pileated Woodpecker, anther resembled the head of a unicorn. Although we enjoyed the visit, this area is no

different than many other areas along the coast, and some, especially the areas of the redwood forests, are even more beautiful (and wet). But it was a nice day and there were no "Bella was here" signs.
We continued South and stayed in Westport, a vibrant fishing village, where each day we walked the docks and drove the back roads to small bays and rivers. It was quiet during our stay, with many of the dockside shops and restaurants closed for the season, but is a popular place to visit during the summer. There were hundreds of Brown Pelicans, a variety of Gulls, and even large flocks of migrating Marbled Godwits, a shorebird we'd never seen in such a large group. In Westport, we watched an interesting scene of fisherman trying to catch coho (silver) salmon from the docks. Each year, fingerling salmon are released in the harbor basin and they return 2-3 years later to spawn. By now, many are in the 12-14 pound range and provide a real challenge for anglers in a "combat fishing" environment - we watched as a salmon was sighted and 12-15 anglers frantically rushed together to fling lines into the water. One angler had almost landed his salmon when a Steller Sea Lion popped out of the water and grabbed it. Sitting in a dockside restaurant with a good view of the action was more entertaining than watching any TV reality show. Down a ways from Westport, we toured what for us was a big surprise -the local cranberry bogs. There was an extensive area of the rectangular sunken fields, and the harvest was ongoing. These bogs were not flooded like the ones we were used to seeing on the TV commercials, but were being harvested by small, self-propelled machines that looked like miniature threshing machines. There was even a cranberry festival in the small town of Grayland, with cranberry baked goods, sausage, and ice cream. It wasn't exactly the highlight of our trip to the area, and only took 30 minutes before we'd seen everything. But we shared an "elephant ear" which always makes a festival better.
We enjoyed our stay in the area, but after too many lunches of Albacore Tuna and chips, it was time to raise the jacks, fire up the engine, and continue our journey down Highway 101. Next stop, Astoria, Oregon - C'mon back!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Olympic National Park

Traveling around the Olympic Peninsula, we followed Highway 101 north, then west along the Strait of Juan De Fuca to the small coastal town of Port Angeles. This is a working town, not a destination resort. Dominated by a paper mill and a blue-collar downtown, the small houses on hillsides are more reminiscent of a mining town than a seaport. An interesting feature of the area is Ediz Hook, a hook-shaped arm of land that forms an arc around the harbor and provides a shelter for shipping and waterfowl. From the spit, you can look across the harbor for a great view of the port and the Olympic Mountains as they rise behind the town. From Port Angeles, it's just a short drive into Olympic National Park, a surprisingly beautiful area. Huge in size, the park and wilderness area take up most of the peninsula, over 1,400 square miles and nearly 1 million acres. Not as well known as other parks, it's an amazing place with three distinctly different ecosystems: glacier-capped mountains, rugged seacoast, and huge old-growth forest and temperate rain forest. What's striking is the elevation gain - from sea level to over 7000' in what seems like only a few miles. We started our visit with a trip to Hurricane Ridge, a 17-mile drive that gains 5000 feet in altitude. On the way, we could see across the water to the ghostly looking Mt. Baker on the horizon, over 60 miles away. We started our trip in a comfortable temperature of 65 degrees, but by the time we parked at the visitor center, it was closer to 30, with a biting wind. The view from the visitor center, at a horizon filled with snow-covered mountains, was breathtaking. Covered in clouds, Mt. Olympus, the highest peak at just under 8000', was surrounded by other peaks with a light covering of snow. We had arrived just after the first snow of the fall, so it was clear that the mountains retained a large amount year-round, and on one mountain it was interesting how the last snowfall only remained in the trees, which made them resemble Popsicles. From the visitor center, we took a few of the short side roads, and around one corner came upon these two black-tailed fawns soaking up the sun. As we drove back down to Port Angeles, it was striking how deep the valleys are in this rugged area. It's no wonder that the first expedition of explorers from Port Angeles took one month to reach Hurricane Ridge and that much of the park was unexplored until the 1900s. The exploration of the peninsula is an interesting story, you can read more about it here.
We'll be heading west to explore Cape Flattery and the Hoh Rain Forest, stop back and visit!

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Ramblin' Round Rainier

Leaving Cle Elum and the quiet forests of the Eastern Cascades, we headed west over Snoqualmie Pass and into the madness of five-lane, bumper to bumper traffic that is the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area. We lived here 30 years ago while stationed at McChord Air Force Base, but since then the population of the metropolitan area has grown to over 3 million, and now resembles Los Angeles, except here the pine trees are really trees, not disguised cell phone towers. It's still a beautiful area with lots of trees and steep hills overlooking Puget Sound and the many islands of the area. Pulling into Fort Lewis to stay at the their Travel Camp, we were amazed at how much the post has grown; with almost 19,000 military and family members, it’s a city in itself and the shopping and service facilities were very impressive. The one aspect of this area that makes it special is Mount Rainier. On a clear day, the 14,000’+ mountain, perfectly shaped and snow covered year-round, appears to be painted on the horizon. What sets it apart is that the Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area is near sea level, so unlike the mountains in Colorado, for example where the surrounding elevation is over 5000’, Mt. Rainier truly looks HUGE. While Brenda was shopping at the commissary, I took this picture of the mountain and one of Ft. Lewis's helicopters. It was fun driving around town to see how things have changed; some areas, like downtown, are much nicer now. We even found the house we lived in - it hasn't changed much, but seems smaller....why do they always seem smaller?

We hit the road early one day to make a circuit of the mountain. Our route took us east, then north to the visitor center at Paradise, a place we used to visit during the winter to go sledding. On the way, we passed through old-growth forests and crossed streams with breathtaking views of the mountain. It's a long climb to Paradise (say....isn't that the title of a country western song?) but the drive is worth it. At 5400' you're still a long way from the top, but the views from here, surrounded by meadows and wildflowers, is well worth it. This is the time of year when there's the least amount of snow and ice on the mountain, but even now you can see many of the 26 glaciers and much of the 35 square miles of snow and ice. From Paradise, you can see how rugged the mountain is and get an appreciation for the difficulty of climbing to the top. There's a new, well furnished visitor center at Paradise, and after a look around the exhibits and viewing the movie (thanks, Park Service, for reminding us that we standing on an active volcano) we headed back down the road around the mountain to the visitor center at Sunrise, on the northeast side of the mountain. On the way, the views changed as we saw the mountain from different angles, and the amount of snow and ice increased as we moved to the north. After a couple of hours driving through more forest, we finally arrived at Sunrise, which was a bit of a disappointment - the visitor center was closed, and the position of the sun made it difficult to see the mountain since it reflected off the much heavier snow cover. I guess the time to see the mountain from here is at..duh..sunrise, but since our retirement Brenda and I have avoided that time of day like a vampire avoids bright sunlight. But it was still a nice drive and we had a great, non-eruption day.

No trip to the area would be complete without a visit to Seattle and the Pike Place Market. We decided to go on a Saturday, expecting the traffic to be wasn't. Apparently the people trying to get home from work on Friday were still trying on Saturday morning, because it was bumper to bumper with lots of complete stops. Navigating through the streets of Seattle, we found the market and parking (a mere $4 an hour), and took a walk around the waterfront and admired the skyline. The market is a combination of small shops in an old warehouse and an outdoor area of street-side vendors and shops. We were a bit disappointed in the shopping; it seemed to be more of a group of festival vendors with lots of jewelery, crafts, and unique clothing. The open air market, which we remember as being primarily produce, was reduced to only a few small vendors of produce but lots and lots of beautiful, low-priced flowers. Some things hadn't changed; the neat little stores selling food products from around the world, and of course, the fish vendors with their custom of throwing the fish from employee to employee. You can spend the entire day here looking at all of the shops, and there's also the waterfront area with the excellent Seattle Aquarium, museums, and restaurants.

We enjoyed our stay here; it's a beautiful area with much to see and do; just remember not to be in a hurry to get anywhere. We're heading west from here to explore the northern coast of the Olympic Peninsula - be sure and come back!