Skagit River Eagles

28 01 2013

It’s Bald Eagle Festival Time! Every December and January, both bald eagles and birdwatchers head to the Skagit river. The eagles come from as far away as Alaska to feed on the carcasses of spawned salmon. At first light, the eagles head to the river to feed. They’re a talkative bunch and will make lots of noise calling to one another. After eating, they head to the skies. On clear days, they’ll go exploring. On grey and rainy days, they’re more subdued and tend to hunker down in nearby trees. Those are the best days to go eagle watching. Growing up in Virginia, in the aftermath of DDT, I thought seeing a bald eagle in the wild was a once-in-a-lifetime treat. On the Skagit in winter, you can see several at each bend in the river.

Distant Eagle

Alas for my photography, this is the closest I could get to an eagle. We stopped on the side of the road on the way home for this shot.

I didn’t know all of this before Saturday. Friday night, all I knew was the address of the Bald Eagle Interpretive center in Rockport, WA. That, and that they have guided nature walks each Saturday at 11:00 in December and January. Everything else I learned from Bob, the retiree who generously lead us on our walk through Howard Miller Steelhead County Park, who brought his own spotting scope and tripod, and who set it up low to the ground especially for Alex and Patrick after everybody else had left. I love volunteers.

I learned a few other things from Bob. For instance: The salmon run was two weeks earlier than normal this year, so most carcasses had already washed far downriver. The eagles follow the carcasses. Ergo, there was not a single white feather to be seen in Rockport. (For the kids, Bob trained his spotting scope on a Great Blue Heron. And we did see one immature bald eagle — all brown feathers — flying low overhead as we walked back to the car.) We drove through two hours of rain and walked through a half a mile of mud for eagles, and all we got were spindly-legged frog fishermen that we can see in abundance 15 minutes from our house. What?!

Patrick is not impressed

Patrick is not impressed with the wildlife.

To salvage the trip, we headed 8 miles up Highway 20 to the town of Marblemount to grab some lunch and check out the fish hatchery… supposedly a good stop for kids, and another place to spy some eagles. Well, let me tell you about Marblemount. In the winter, this town is literally the end of the road. As you approach, you’re first greeted by roadsigns telling you this is your last chance for services for 76 miles. Then, you’ll see the signs telling you that Highway 20 is closed for the winter in another 30 miles. This is it… a dead end. The town, when you get to it, is a post office, the fish hatchery, and 10 storefronts, 8 of which are closed for the winter.

And you know what? Marblemount was awesome. 1 of the 2 open storefronts was a restaurant that served huge portions of burgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, and French Fries. It gave us the nourishment to continue our adventure. And the fish hatchery was delightful. Yes, it is a cold, concrete, industrial building. But like the Bald Eagle Interpretive Center, it too has a retiree volunteer, this time ready to share his passion of fish rather than fowl. The boys got to see salmon eggs, salmon fry, and a frozen 48-pound Chinook salmon that looked like a monster from the last ice age.

Patrick and the Small Fish

Newly hatched salmon. You can still see the yolk sac. 

Frozen King Salmon

A Chinook salmon caught by one of the hatchery workers. They put it in the freezer and bring it out for the tours. The teeth are terrifying in real life.

In spite of setbacks, the Miracle of the Mountains made it a wonderful day. In the mountains, fog and mist are beautiful and mysterious. In the lowlands, that’s just dreary. On our way back to Seattle we drove through pockets of snow flurries and watched them swirl around moss-covered trees. In Seattle, it was just rain — part of the wet purgatory that will last until July. And as we headed downriver on the way home, I knew to look in the trees. I saw bald eagles at every bend.

Mist

In the mountains, this isn’t dreary. It’s mysterious.

Boys at the Trailhead

The boys love spending time outside. Here they are at the trailhead at Howard Miller Steelhead County Park.





Boys, Troll

7 01 2013

Boys, Troll

Two days before Christmas, I spent the morning hanging out with the boys and the Fremont Troll. This was an even better idea than it seems. The boys climbed, jumped, got dirty, and had an all-around excellent time. It was better than a playground.

My ulterior motive was a clandestine trip to The Book Larder, Seattle’s best cookbook store. There, I bought a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home as a present for Molly. We haven’t had much of a chance to cook from it yet, but I can’t wait to spend time with it in the kitchen. (Wait, I said it was a present for Molly, right?)





Pumpkin Time

7 10 2012

This is what I imagine it feels like to visit Australia at Christmas. All of the holiday trappings are there, but the weather is just wrong. That was our experience today. In spite of the full-on summer weather — cloudless, sunny, warm — the calendar says October so we headed to our favorite pumpkin patch: The Farm at Swan’s Trail.

Pumpkin Patch

Like last year, we went with Asher, T.J., and their family. With all the jumping the kids did, I estimate they spent 20% of the trip not touching the ground. The hay pit seemed especially popular. It was shaded, and the kids got to spice up their usual routine of “jumping” with “throwing hay.” (Although, in my role as Meanest Dad in the World, I told them to stop throwing hay whenever I saw it. That never seemed to stick for long.)

Big Jump

The Farm added a new attraction this year: A large, orange, inflated jumping “pillow.” Imagine one of those inflatable bouncy-house attractions from a street fair or Pump It Up, and just remove the side walls, and you’ve got the idea. This was as fun as the hay pit.

Bouncing Children

This is the first year I got to experience The Farm’s signature attraction: A 12-acre corn maze shaped like Washington State, complete with highways and over 200 cities marked inside. Last year, Patrick was too young for the maze, so he and I skipped. This year, we were maze buddies and we got through in record time. I can’t wait until the kids want to explore the maze and find all the things hidden inside, rather than just escape the maze.

An arial view of the corn maze.

Patrick’s going through an animal-obsessed phase right now. He and I spent a lot of father-son time away from the others, checking out the animals at the farm. Patrick had an odd obsession with the “Four Little Pigs” show. He remembered it from last year. From my adult perspective, it’s a lot of waiting in a small, crowed amphitheater for a five-minute interpretation of the Three Little Pigs. It must have made some impression on Patrick, though, because he would have happily waited in an empty amphitheater for hours, just waiting for the show to start. He didn’t want to miss those pigs! (It took all my powers of persuasion to convince Patrick that it was OK to leave the empty amphitheater, and we could make it back in plenty of time for the show to start.)

Patrick most enjoyed the hands-on animal exhibits: Petting rabbits and holding kittens. I must admit it melts my heart to see how thoroughly these little animals captivated our red-headed imp. He was gentle and sweet with them the whole time.

Patrick Holds a Kitten

Perhaps because of the weather, we stayed a few hours longer than we have in the past. Everyone was exhausted (and a little pink from the sun) by the time we headed home. A marvelous day.





Sun Lakes / Dry Falls

30 07 2012

What I love most about living in Washington? Spend just a little time in a car and you can get to a completely different climate. This weekend, we opted for a dose of hot, dry summer and headed east for a weekend camping trip at Sun Lakes / Dry Falls State Park. It was our first time to that part of the state, and we had a wonderful time. 

Though just four hours from Seattle, the landscape of Dry Falls looks like it belongs in the Southwest — sagebrush desert and dramatic cliffs. The landscape is a gift from the last Ice Age, when an ice dam burst and unleashed a cataclysmic flood over the area. According to the visitor center, the flood had ten times the water flow of all the rivers in the world combined. 

Nothing that dramatic happened on our camping trip, luckily. Just some lazy time in the sun, playing in the water, and enjoying the scenery. Perfect.

Dry Falls (II)

Sandpile

Patrick in Park Lake





Epic Weekend

22 04 2012

I don’t need to tell people who live here how nice this weekend was. Even certain recent visitors to Seattle would agree that it was a beautiful, sunny, and warm weekend.

Molly & I won’t forget this weekend for a long, long, time. As a delayed birthday present, Molly had arranged for our regular babysitter to watch the kids overnight on Saturday. We decided to spend our night away at the lovely Inn at Langley. We’d been to Langley once, ten years ago, for their annual Murder Mystery weekend, and I’ve always wanted to return. It’s not far from Seattle — maybe an hour and a half, depending on the ferry traffic — but it feels like another planet. It’s a sleepy little town that overflows with art galleries and amazing views over the Saratoga passage to the Cascade mountains.

We were a little late getting out of the house on Saturday. It turns out it takes longer to get a babysitter ready to spend the night than it does to get a babysitter ready to watch the kids for an evening. Plus, it had been an unusually busy Saturday morning, so we didn’t have a lot of time to pack or prepare beforehand. I glanced at the route on Google maps, and it seemed straightforward: Head to the Mukilteo ferry, then follow the signs for Langley. But I didn’t have time to look at the ferry schedule, so when we finally got everything settled with the babysitter we just started driving north and hoped for the best.

It turns out we had amazing ferry karma. We got to the ferry dock at 3:11 and we got to sneak on the 3:15 ferry. What luck! All during the ferry crossing, we were playing a memory game… when was the last time we rode that ferry? We remembered having the kids with us, because we remembered parking in the ferry lot and walking on the nearby beach. (We saw scuba divers getting out of the water!) But where had we been going? Molly thought we’d been heading to visit my college friend Cynthia, but that didn’t make sense. Cynthia lives by the Hood Canal, and you can’t get there from the Mukilteo ferry. We would have taken the Bainbridge ferry when we visited Cynthia.

We still hadn’t solved the mystery when we got to the other side and started driving. After driving about 10 minutes, I started getting really confused. There were no street signs pointing the way to Langley. The street signs I did see made no sense… Port Gamble? I remembered biking through there and I didn’t think it was on Whidbey island. Signs for Bremerton? Why? We came to one fork in the road — we could go West or South, and I had no idea which one would get us to Langley. That’s when we pulled over and consulted the map on my phone. This is what went through my head, with horror, when I saw the data from the phone’s GPS.

Ferry Mistake

Not only were we far from Langley — we weren’t even on the same landmass! Instead of being on Whidbey Island, we were on the Kitsap peninsula. I muttered, “I could have sworn I was supposed to take the Mukilteo ferry! What happened?” It took another minute or two to realize: Yes, I was supposed to take the Mukilteo ferry, but the Mukilteo ferry isn’t the first ferry north of Seattle. It’s the second! Without knowing it, we’d hopped on the Edmonds/Kingston ferry by mistake. (And, incidentally, the last time we’d taken the Edmonds/Kingston ferry was to visit my friend Cynthia over by the Hood Canal, so the mystery was solved once we knew where we were.)

At this point, we had two not-good options. We could turn around, take a ferry back to the mainland, drive to the Mukilteo ferry, and take it to Whidbey. That wasn’t a lot of drive time, but has two unpredictable ferries. Or, we could drive around to Port Townsend and take the Port Townsend/Coupeville ferry over to Whidbey. A much longer drive, but only one ferry. We decided one ferry was better than two (and for what it’s worth, Google Maps agreed that driving to Port Townsend would be marginally faster.)

We got lucky again in Port Townsend. The ferry had just docked and was starting to unload when we got there. Things still could have been bad: The Port Townsend ferry is one of only two in Washington State that take reservations, and we didn’t have one. What saved us is it still isn’t peak season, so we were able to fit on the small boat.

Once we got over to Whidbey, finding Langley was easy. However, the mistake cost us about two hours, so by the time we got to town the shops were closed. Still, the Inn was nice, we had a nice meal, and we were treated to beautiful weather the next morning. Plus, we woke up gently to morning sunlight on the water rather than by hyper kids jumping in the bedroom next door. So in spite of the mishaps, it was still a nice… no, epic weekend.

Saratoga Passage Sunrise

 

Morning Coffee





Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

21 02 2012

Monday was a special father/son bonding day. Microsoft doesn’t have the day off, so it was just me and the boys. I decided to celebrate by taking the kids back to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium. Our last trip there was a little over three years ago, which is just so odd to recall. In my memory of that day, Alex seems so old, yet he was younger then than Patrick is now. Memory plays odd tricks, I guess. As the eldest, Alex will likely always seem old in my memories, and my mind will always refuse to accept that Patrick is growing up at all.

One nice thing about our trip to the Point Defiance Zoo is we actually saw animals. That may seem an odd thing to say until you tag along with our family on one of our trips to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. The kids now have a routine that involves remarkably little animal watching. They love getting the kids’ mac & cheese meal at the Rain Forest Pavilion (it is remarkably good mac & cheese). Then they head over to the Zoomazium for a good twenty minutes of climbing and sliding. We always have to drag them out of there to see the animals.

In contrast, our trip to Point Defiance was filled with animals. It started the moment we walked through the front gate, when we found the two free-roaming peacocks. One of them was safely perched in an area beyond the reach of kids. The other, unwisely, was right on the main walkway. I had to keep sternly reminding Alex and Patrick, “Don’t scare the peacock!”

Trio

I don’t think it worked, because it didn’t take too long before the bird was in full look-at-how-big-I-am-BEWARE! mode with his tail. (Although, in my kids’ defense, the peacock spent most of his time facing down an oncoming stroller with his tail on full display, so perhaps that was scarier than my boys.)

On Display

As we made our plan to see the zoo’s sights, we each picked an animal we wanted to see before we left. Patrick picked the walruses, Alex wanted to see the meerkats, and I picked the polar bears. We chose well; each animal visit was cool in its own way. The meerkats themselves weren’t any different than the ones in Seattle, and they didn’t hold the kids’ attention that long. However, they were in the zoo’s outdoor Kids’ Zone, which really set both Alex and Patrick’s imaginations on fire. It didn’t take long for Alex to start pretending to be a hermit crab:

Alex the Hermit Crab

…and Patrick found a kid-sized nest and transformed into a baby bird. He spent the rest of the zoo visit flapping his arms like wings.

The walruses were amazing because they were so big yet so graceful in the water. (The zoo’s male walrus weighs over 3000 pounds!) It was hard to pull Patrick away from the underwater viewing area where he watched these giants glide silently past, over and over.

But the real stars of our visit were the polar bears. By pure luck, we got there just as the zookeepers started feeding the bears. Instead of watching white furry rocks sleeping, we got to see the ten-foot-tall bears swimming through the water to catch their fish, just inches from our faces. It was the coolest thing I’ve seen at a zoo in a long time.

 





Great trip to the zoo

10 01 2012

At this point in our lives, trips to the zoo are so commonplace that I don’t bother writing about them. However, the weekend before last, we had a particularly nice trip. We ran into old friends:

Alex and Annika

And the animals were unusually photogenic.

Meercat Tiger

What’s that? You’ve never seen a wolf picture from me before? Well… that’s right. In five years of bringing a camera to the zoo, I don’t have a single picture of a wolf. Most times we don’t get to that part of the zoo, or when we do, everybody’s napping. Not this time!

Wolf

(And there are more where that came from!)

So all in all, a really nice trip and a really nice way to start 2012. Even if it made me think that at least one of us would be happier in a wolf pack.

Patrick and Wolf Cubs