Sunday, January 8, 2017

Washington State's Route 20 from West to East

It's taken me six months to get this blog done! I took on a lot of travelling this summer and I kind of got overwhelmed with all the photos and adventures I wanted to share with everyone. I'm hoping to get caught up on a few more trips from last summer and fall over the next month, so I'll keep you posted.

For ten years, from 1993 to 2003, I lived in Olympia, Washington. About half of that decade was spent at the Evergreen State college, where I made the journey sideways from aspiring environmental scientist towards becoming another bright-eyed fine arts major; with that wonderful word 'Humanities' tacked onto my degree.  I've often though that "Oh, the Humanity!", would be more apropos.  

The second half of the decade was filled with self-serving art shows and band practices, and putting that four year degree to work right away with my new bartending job at the local nightclub Thekla.  I started djing as well, and when my mom and various friends eventually migrated to Seattle, I spent a fair amount of time commuting the hour north to see shows and hang out on Capitol Hill. While my introduction to birding did come during my first year at Evergreen and has forever changed how I view birds and animals in the wild, I never quite found my outdoor dream buddies in Washington. Sure, we would drive to Lake Cushman every summer and go skinny dipping, or spend every hot late summer day at the Deschutes River, but as far as camping and hiking and going out far away from people? I didn't have that support group. So by the time I left for Portland, OR in 2003, I had spent little to no time exploring this incredible state I'd spent ten years living in. 

Thankfully, Portland's proximity to Washington lends itself to being a big part of my outdoor life. During recent years, I find myself  spending more time in southern Washington than I do in Oregon. Gifford Pinchot forest is one of my favorite places in the NW and the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge has all of my favorite hikes, with maybe not as many waterfalls as Oregon, but also not as crowded. So, I had heard a few times about this gorgeous highway running through the mountains in northern Washington, Highway 20, "the road through the Alps of the Pacific NW." That sounded adventure worthy, so I started doing a little digging and planning and decided to hit it from the west. I could explore it as I drove east and then meander back down through the center on my way back home. Maybe try to hit up some other regions or towns I'd missed out on. Planning trips to new places is always lined with potential pitfalls, but I've learned to be flexible with my schedule, the weather, my truck, and just try to enjoy the scenery. 

This zen travel advice was immediately put to the test as I spent five hours crawling in traffic on I-5 north trying to get to Mukilteo.  I had originally planned to catch the ferry over to Whidbey Island, and get on Highway 20 at it's most western starting point, as well as getting to check out Whidbey.  I jettisoned this idea around south Seattle, as I sat gnashing my teeth in stopped traffic.  Grandiose plans on paper pale in comparison to the reality of the I-5 corridor. I finally made it up to Burlington and hung a right towards Mt. Baker. Whew! Breathing a sigh of relief, I started to put a little distance between myself and the seething hordes. The weather looked ominous and stormy, and I wasn't looking forward to camping in the rain, but I would just be happy to be out in the woods. With the town of Sedro-Woolley behind me now, I took a left before the little hamlet of Concrete, and headed north up the forest service road west of Shannon and Baker Lakes. There are a number of campgrounds along the this road, and I chose Shannon Creek CGround for the night. The camp was a dense series of loops, but with lots of tree coverage for privacy. I set up camp in the back of the truck and covered everything with tarps. The sun came out for a while and I sat my chair and read, just listening to and enjoying the sounds of birds, the lake, the trees. Sanctuary.

hiking along the north shore of Baker Lake

 suspension bridge over Baker River

Baker River

 mountain stream emptying into Baker River

no idea, but it just has to be poisonous, look at that thing! 

crap shot of Red-naped sapsucker; this wasn't the birdiest trip, so all comers are included, blurry or otherwise

 the illustrious Mt. Baker

I headed out the next morning, hiked around in the woods northeast of Baker Lake, then as the rain got more serious, I headed back to hit the road. My goal for the night was somewhere north of Conconully Lake in the center of the state, so I had time a little time to sight see. The views became ridiculous and I wish I had taken more photos. It's hard when you're traveling to find that right amount of taking pictures and just allowing it to soak in as you travel through it.

 waterfall in the gorge

 the stunning Lake Diablo, a dammed reservoir south of the pristine and remote Ross Lake

 Lake Diablo

I spent the night at a campground north of the town of Conconully; what a quaint and lovely, little place. The residents just stop in the road in their cars to talk and are surrounded by just silly-pretty scenery. It reminded me of Northern Exposure for a minute. The main campground and it's landscaped acreage appeared as big as the rest of the town put together, which is why it probably costs $25 a night to stay there. I just can't do bring myself to do that if I can find somewhere cheaper or free, but for families with kids and boats who want clean and manicured, this is it. There's a road east of the lake and campground with some vacation homes that I walked while looking for birds. Apparently this is quite the winter town for snowmobiling too, everyone had one or two in the garage.

 Conconully Lake

 gaggle of California quail after crossing the road, seemed like there were 30 or so..

 Western wood-pewee, this was the most plentiful bird of this trip. I got real accustomed to that call..

Cedar waxwing

old burn off of highway 20.  I was in the last stretch of Alps forest and heading east to drier soil.

After driving through all different kinds of towns, from the old West themed Winthrop, to Omak, through Waconda, and over to Republic (for gas and a Subway sub and large soda, Please, in the now sweltering summer heat), I was kind of amazed by what I'd seen so far. I had crossed so much diverse terrain, and every place was new to me, and relatively unpeopled, like much of central Oregon. What treasures these huge natural areas are to someone like me. Even the private land is still glorious in it's remoteness, despite my frustration with cattle farming, and gray wolf reintroduction, but let's not go there right now.. 

I dropped down out of the forested mountains on the lovely Sherman Pass scenic byway and crossed the Columbia River at Kettle Falls.  Heading east to just past Colville, my goal was the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. I got there in the late afternoon, talked with an incredibly nice ranger just before she closed the office and then headed in to find Bear Creek Campground. There were one or two other camps before that but people were at them, and I was hoping for a little privacy. They were all free and first come, first serve. I was happy to find that mine was empty, but only slightly more ecstatic to see this young moose browsing through the foliage in the field adjacent to camp. We didn't know what to make of each other and before I had time to do anything more than park at the campground and start to look for it again, a white sedan drove down the road, stopped and the yelled at the calf. YELLED at it. What the hell is wrong with people? I mean does anyone know?! A short explanation??! Sigh.. I was bereft. 

Well, the long and short of it is, I love this place. I will be returning to Little Pend Oreille NWR asap next year for at least a week, to listen to wolves, and look for moose and grizzly. Ironically, this place has a birding auto-route throughout, but it was just not a birdy day or two for me. However, I did have a chance to document some lovely wildflowers, which has become almost as fascinating as birding to me. Nothing quite like a stationary subject matter!


 lovely moose!


 warm Ponderosa puzzle bark, smells of vanilla and cinnamon

 Western wood-peewee


 Chipping sparrow

 beautiful and isolated Bayley Lake, had it all to myself

 except for this guy

 Rufuous hummingbird

 dragon fly


Bachelor button and guest 

Bluebell bell flower

 St. John's wort






 Bittersweet nightshade

 Song sparrow

Sitka valerian

Almost to the east side of the state, I traveled south along the Little Pend Oreille River, towards the town of Newport, where Highway 20 would end and I would come back west towards the center of Washington. I was just a short distance from the Canadian border and felt tempted, but no, I hadn't brought my passport. And I was excited to get to the desert and see what was up at Potholes NWR.

 Crystal Falls

Salsify-what a great name for a plant

the Little Pend Oreille River 

juvenile Herring gull posing

 Great egret being dramatic

 Black-crowned night heron watching the terns fish

 Forster's terns fishing in Frenchman's Wasteway

Forster's terns

 Potholes reservoir

juvenile Yellow-rumped warbler 

 Cabbage White moth on Purple Loosestrife

 Eastern kingbird

 Barn swallow

Western wood-pewee right outside my camp spot.  I began to wonder if the same one had followed me around the whole state.

Soda Lake; you used to be able to camp here, but no more. Potholes campground, where I stayed, was $30 a night, which was bonkers, but I had a whole row of lovely shaded spots to myself and access to all these birds, so I wasn't as bummed as I thought I was going to be. There is literally nowhere else to camp around there. Although it's all open desert, on the refuge you're fairly obvious to rangers and it's not allowed.  All the immediate surrounding area is mostly private farmland, so no options there either. If you can boat your gear out to one of the little islands in the reservoir, then you can camp there for free, but that wasn't an option for me.  Also, it was really hot out, so the shade trees were kind of key. Remember, this was late July in the desert in Washington; sweat-tastic sunstroke. 

 Double-breasted cormorant

 Rock wren

 Soda Lake

 Soda Lake

The next afternoon, I drove west to Wenatchee from Potholes, where I'd reserved a motel for the night. It was so hot at this point, I was really looking forward to a shower and some ice in my drink. I did all that, and found a little El Salvadorean kitchen that did takeout, and ordered some Papusas with cole slaw and hot sauce for dinner. Was nice to have some mod cons and relax with the AC on. 

The next morning I drove about an hour west into the mountains to visit the town of Leavenworth, which I had always been curious about.  I thought I might have a little walk around, get my German Grandma some hokey little gift and maybe eat a plate of schnitzel and spaetzle, while enjoying the view. Nope! Wow. I mean, wow. What a shit-show. I had imagined a quiet, quaint little mountain town influenced with a little Bavarian style. Every building, and I mean, every single one looked like a chalet from the 70's. From every scalloped wooden shutter and balcony railing, to the thousands of planter pots of hanging petunias, to the truly alarming murals of men in lederhosen with giant steins of beer, with their families yodeling off in the mountains behind them. And the town was full of tourists, insane amounts, not a single parking spot to be found.. Let's just say I took a baffled, slow roll down the main street and then hightailed it southwest of town to the fish hatchery, ready for a nature walk away from the madding crowd.  And then got some pork sopas from the Mexican taco cart on my way out of town. Ha.

 Peshastin Pinnacles, just east of Leavenworth

 Rufous hummer

 Orchards just east of Leavenworth, those famous Washington apples and pears!

 Adult Chinook salmon living out their lives at the Leavenworth Hatchery

Icicle Creek, where their spawn will get released when old enough, only 1% actually every make it back, those numbers seem so drastic..

 View from the nature trail at the Leavenworth Hatchery


Ponderosa paradise! I took my delicious sopas from the taco cart outside of Leavenworth to this estimable spot to consume. If only every meal were that satisfying and peaceful.

Okay, this finch was a bit odd.. there are yellow variations found on house finches but they are typically all over coloring, not just a bright yellow chest patch.. interesting.

 creek at Toppenish NWR

Empty and overgrown bird home at the now defunct Toppenish NWR.  It was kind of sad, so many empty feeders, old birdhouses left to seed. but there were also abundant plum and pear trees near the headquarters, clearly feeding all kinds of wildlife.  Another group of thirty-odd quail were quietly panicking through the underbrush as I grew closer.  I ran into one other birder there, and saw maybe two birds, again with the Western wood-pewee and an Eastern kingbird. I gathered my own handfuls of fruit and called it a trip well done. I continued on south, driving through the Yakima Indian reservation. before coming down out of the dry desert hills at the Maryhill winery on Highway 14.

I had an amazing week, and I can't believe it took me so long to explore these parts of my old home state. Better late than never, and I want to go back to many of these places, and I also want to do a whole ghost town trip as well, since there are many to see. Well, the road is always waiting, it's always the right time when you decide to get on it. Thanks for looking, and there are a few more pictures in addition to these on my Flickr page if you're interested. Safe travels and happy trails!