Wednesday, December 14, 2011


"A" joins me today for another stiff hike.  We've not met before, but as most everyone I've run into at the farm, we will get along just fine...I don't worry about such things.  As we ride up I find that "A" also knows plants and mushrooms much better than myself.  I tend to learn such facts only when I need them...he comes prepared.

The day is overcast and a few degrees warmer than it was two days back. 
Frost is absent from the trees and brush as we walk out to the squatter's cabin. 
A flicker greets us from the barn. 

We're going to walk the same hill that I walked on Monday, but instead of climbing straight to the top, we will go up about halfway and walk across the slope until we are over the north fields.  There is no other way to get a feel for the lay of the land other than to travel it, particularly here in the northwest under the dense tree canopy.  No map, no aerial photograph will show what we will find. 

After a short steep start, we get into the salal and fern level and begin picking up deer trails that run cross slope.  It's easier walking than on Monday, mostly because we aren't going straight uphill.  "A" starts spotting mushrooms and I start watching for them also - since I have someone that can tell me what they are.

barrel mushrooms
something in the oyster mushroom family

There's some variety to the hillside as we walk.  The large trees are mostly Douglas Firs, there are a few stumps, and some alders, of course.  The ground is steep, but it eases up in places.  The understory can be salal and fern, or just waist deep fern, or fern and Oregon grape.  It is, however, a full trip with a diverse variety of lichen and fungi...more than we can take in on a single walk.  As we near a ravine that forms the edge of the clear cut above the north fields, we find ourselves in a stand of dead alders, a stand that has more fresh woodpecker activity than I have ever seen in one place.  There are chips on the ground and holes in everything.  Some, the rectangular holes, are recognized as pileated woodpecker signs, but other have been here as well.  It may be worth returning to just to sit and see what shows up some day.

lichen, but I can't find my copy of Pojar & McKinnon
I have identified this as the crazy looking orange stuff - don't eat it.

We get into the edge of the clear cut, but it is often choked with blackberry vines.  So we retreat back to the deep ravine deciding that clambering over logs is better than crawling through thorny vines.  As we're dropping down in, we find a very cool fungus.

log is about 4 inches across - click on this for a bigger view - it's cool.

White rooty tendrils cover most of the wood, but notice that the tendrils radiate out from small holes.  I'm not sure what made the holes, but perhaps this is an insect/fungus dependency.

At the bottom of the hill we find the remnants of a logging road and a couple very fine cedar nurse stumps. 
It was an outstanding trip.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Out with the neighbor kid

My neighbor J comes with me to the farm today.

As we reach the Stillaguamish valley, the heavy overcast melts away to clear skies.  We find the farm deep in frost, the temperature below freezing, ice on puddles but not in any running water.  It is cold enough that the rime on the tree branches is not becoming forest rain. 

With an assistant for the day, I plan one of the hikes that heads into steep and difficult terrain.  It is one that I would do alone, if the days were long and the nights not so cold, but with the sun dipping behind the hills by 4pm, it would not be a good place to turn an ankle alone.  We head out to the squatter's cabin, seeing a several eagles along the way.  Coho salmon are running and they seem to bring a great many more eagles than when the pinks come up in September and October.  At the turn uphill from the river, we change from our lowland rubber boots to hiking boots. 
From the squatter's cabin, it is 50 yards of salmon berry and dense brush until we reach the edge of the tall evergreens.  There, the brush changes to ferns and salal.

It is steep, very steep.  When we can find a deer trail heading up, we follow it, otherwise we weave in and out of downed branches and trees, and around boulders, seeking the easiest terrain, when we can imagine it.  About half way up, the salal suddenly disappears and is replaced with a thick cover of Oregon Grape.  We also find a few non-native Hollies and one or two Himalayan Blackberry vines.  But mostly, it is the plants that we should find in a northwest forest.  We notice no stumps.

The neighbor kid, J
I notice something white near my feet and pick it up.  One to two inch long hairs of ice are clinging to a branch in a dense clump.  In fact, I thought it was animal fur when I spotted it. They are amazingly delicate, although we discover that they can be pushed and sculpted by gently pushing them with the finger.

They can also be made to disappear by blowing warm breath on them.  I've seen a lot of rime and hoar frost before, but never like this, never in the forest.

When we crest the hill, we find cedar stumps again.  Perhaps the steep hillside was too rocky for cedars to survive, but here they are again at the top of the hill.  The top is an old clear cut.  We walk to the high point for a view.

After some coffee and cookies, we return the way we came.  I had been careful to look behind me, so I would remember what the scene should look like if we come down in the right place.  It's harder on the legs, but easier on the lungs than the climb was.  We find the drainage that created the blow-out on the diagonal road...just another piece to some puzzle that I haven't created yet.  It doesn't seem to run with water anymore.  We come down just a hundred yards from the squatter's cabin intersecting a deer trail that, for some reason, I remember and recognize from a month ago.  I wish I knew how that part of the brain works.

To finish off the day, we hike up to the upper beach where we find a bird kill site, a dismembered coho salmon and a drift boat coming downstream.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

You only have one chance

You only have one chance to experience a place as wilderness.  Returning to that spot, it will never be the same, it will always be a reunion. 

The first time I came to the farm, S. asked me if I wanted to look around and I responded, "no, this will do just fine."  I walked much of the land before looking at any way of not peeking under the gift wrapping, but instead preserving the discovery for a time when I would be standing amongst it.  As time goes on, I create my own stories for what I find, the squatter's cabin being the best example.  I think out loud and share my theories on who might have built it.  This is where I differ from the scientists that I've worked with.  They do not have that luxury, their facts and conclusions are up for peer review.  While my creations are up for peer review as well, they need not be facts. A friend of mine coined what I do as "personal geography" - as good a description as any.  I map what interests me, I collect what I find - but I find what interests me, and I am particularly good at filtering out disturbances that do not count, in my mind.  I can create my own wilderness even in places that are no longer wild.

S. is at the farm today and sheds a bit more light on the squatter's cabin.  But, he is clearly careful not to ruin any surprises for me.  The cabin was attached to a mining claim, but both of us acknowledge that that does not mean any mining took place.  It does not, in my mind, look like something a prospector would build.  But, if there was a claim, there might be a record, and a record would have a name.

I head out to collect another piece of wood.  This one takes on mystical qualities.  It was almost unmovable two days ago.  Today, I can lift one end with just fair effort.  Then, as I trundle it towards the road, I need to adjust it, and once again, I cannot so help me lift it.  I sit back and wonder how to get out of the fix.  With no brain solution, I go back and pick the end up without much trouble.  When the time comes, it drags me on my ass, quite unapologetically, to the bottom of the hill.

I return to retrieve my pack and tools and finding sun penetrating the forest, I take time to sit up against a cedar for awhile, glad to have brought a thermos of coffee out.  I am tempted to sit here until the sun goes away.  But, curiosity takes me to the last piece of wood, one that I only noticed two days ago as it is partially buried.  I load it up.  When the time comes, it drags me fully out of control to the bottom of the hill.

Out of gas, I rest in the sun, and then go and walk the creek, this day taking the far side.  There is a lot of beaver and deer sign.  They like the same trees - the beaver cut down a cottonwood, the cottonwood sprouts a hundred shoots, the deer come and eat the shoots.  It looks like the beaver are coming to the creek overland from the river as most of beaver sign is on the river side of the creek (the creek parallels the river through much of the farm).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Raining in the cottonwoods

It is raining in the cottonwoods under what is soon to become a sunny sky.  The night frost is melting from the branches.

I head in to get a second large piece of rotting wood for a sculpture project.  I hope to return it sometime when I no longer need it.  I don't like the idea of taking from the forest.  It is a loan.  I hope the forest will understand.  I ponder about how often I think, "my dad used to say..." when I am in the forest.  As I hang onto the ropes that I use to guide the 300+ lb piece of wood down a steep slope, I fetch his memory of hanging onto the plow horses when they got turned toward the barn (my great-grandfather was rather late in buying a tractor).

My heavy work done, I don't have the gas to haul another piece, so it must be time to wander.  I head to the lower beach.  The creek is down a foot, and so it stands to reason that the river should be somewhat lower.  On my last trip I was unable to see the beautiful colored rock installation from the Lo-Fi Arts Festival and I want to check to see if it might have been under water.  At the beach, I scare up two killdeer and three ducks, clumsiness on my part.  A hawk stays perched on the far side of the river and watches me.  The sun did not arrive today like I said it would.  It remains everywhere a steel grey day, a November day that is so very common in the northern tier.  The installation is completely gone.  The water is low enough that it should be fully exposed, but it is nowhere to be seen.  I can't even find a hint of the colored stripe pattern.  High water from rain has already reached the edge of the forest once, and it is clear that the Stillaguamish carries a tremendous amount of gravel when it runs high.  Fresh gravel covers the silt patches where I checked for animal tracks.

up the creek

Just as I am about to leave, a guy from the Stillagamish tribe arrives to check for coho salmon.  I ask to join him.  We walk up the creek, both of us noticing how much it has changed at where it exits the hills.  Where there was a small pond, there is now a foot high ridge of gravely sand.  The restoration seems to be taking this year.  Kevin finds two coho as we ascend the creek.  We find G. with his back turned, head in his camera, and we stop for a moment or two trying to figure out how to not surprise him too much as he won't hear us coming with all of the tumbling water.  We go until it is unlikely that the salmon could pass any farther.  Then, we return and follow the creek most of the way to the river, checking under woody debris and in pools for more fish.  I point out snipe when we flush them (3 total).  Kevin only sees one because he is looking for fish - the two cohos that he pointed out to me I would never have seen. Gravel is returning to the bottom of what was a ditch this summer.  Beaver are working a new dam, higher up than the one I'd found earlier.  These are all good things for the salmon.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

It's older than I thought

Friday - November 2
The leaves are off of the cottonwoods - spindly bushy trees at this time.  It is surprising how much the view increases and how short the distances actually are, the openness inviting shortcuts.  Cloudy skies in town slowed my start, tamping down my early morning routine, extending my coffee and breakfast.  I saw six swans on wing and two eagles as I approached the farm where it is sunny and calm.  Dressed as I am for the forest, dressed in common sense and respect, it is shirtsleeve weather as I head for my first appointment at the squatter's cabin.

A shadow passes through my eye...a large bird, a not infrequent occurrence, and I look up to spot a mature eagle flying down river to perch in a nearby tree.  It is a completely normal and usual happening when I get to this point on the road.

When I reach the fork where I turn uphill, bird calls delay the turn.  I drop my field pack and continue toward the north field in hope of seeing what is calling.  I spot two young eagles on a high branch in the tall alder that is a landmark on my maps.  The tree overlooks the fields and a bend in the river.  A third eagle comes in and lands lower down.  Then a fourth joins the first two.  Then a fifth larger and more mature eagle, possibly concerned with my presence, flies past heading upriver.  The landmark tree now has a name.  I return to the fork in the road and two more eagles are calling unseen from up the hill in the direction that I must go.

Vanguard Satellite Fired - Successful Coup in Burma

I work on my list of missing data for the cabin - roof details, interior elevations - shelves, nails etc., and the locations of some debris.  When I think that I have gotten most of the stuff, I carefully begin to look under things for clues about the builder.  There is a wad of newspaper stuffed in a knothole on the "boulder" wall (one side of the cabin faces a cabin-sized boulder).  I carefully ease it out and take it out in the light where I can gently unfold it.  It is from the Seattle Daily Times for September 26, 1958.  The year lines up the date penciled on the wall, 6/14/1958.  This also explains the lack of plywood in the construction (there is one small strip of plywood near the door where a repair would have been likely) and the high quality fir studs and 1x10 shiplap that seemed a bit out of place for a 1970 build date.  It also dovetails with the razor blade box that I found, which would've been hard to find in a drugstore by 1970.

If the cabin is an artist shack, it is not a Fishtown derivative, but instead, a generation earlier.  There was a well-known art movement working in the Stilliguamish, Sauk and Skagit valleys at that time as well as several famous writers that were going into the Cascade forests to write in seclusion.  I would expect the builder would be at least 70 years-old.

This is about all the discovery I can stand for a day.  So, I pack up and head down to the cedar forest where I take a series of portraits with the forest women.

Mother and son

Before ending the day, I walk the lower farm.  Of note, the colored rock installation is no where to be seen on the lower beach.  Unfortunately, I did not get around to plotting its location.  It is either just under the high water or the river has washed enough fresh gravel (the river has been higher than it is today) onto it to make it disappear.