Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Weekend Excursion: San Juan Island

It's hard not to feel incredibly thankful when a friend offers you a weekend in their family cabin on the water's edge on San Juan Island.  Without a doubt, the San Juan Islands are some of the most beautiful natural area of the country, and San Juan itself is a jewel in that crown.  From Seattle you drive north to the ferry that takes you and your car on a two hour trip past picturesque islands and coastline, and drops you off in a quaint village of Friday Harbor.  From Friday Harbor, with a car and your feet, the island is yours.

We stayed in a cabin with a wall-sized window overlooking Canada across the water.  The back of the house had stairs that led right down to the shore.  Somewhere in the water, below the surface, is a microphone, and you can tune into that microphone's feed on the internet.  You can listen for whale song, and when you hear whale song you can sit on your porch with a pair of binoculars and a coffee and watch for the whales to breach the surface.  We didn't hear or see any whales this time, but it fills me with joy to know that such a thing exists.

Beats the crap out of Sea World, that's for sure.

San Juan is covered with national parks, through and past which winding roads circle the coast.  It just so happened that I was there during the government shutdown, so all the parks were closed.  I'll try not to get too political but let's just say I hold a certain non-Democrat party responsible for that bit of ridiculousness and irresponsibility.  Yes, that is me being nice about it.

We did manage to take in some views from the road and one beach that was littered with felled trees, bleached white by sun and smooth by sea.  While we were on the beach, we saw some foxes running around in a field of grass.  Heading back to the cabin, we passed lama and sheep farms.  If the place were any more gorgeous, people would probably just slip into a state of bliss that turned them into pure light and they'd disappear forever.

The ferry ride up was at night, but the ferry ride back was during one of the clearest, brightest Northwest days I've experienced.  It was so clear you could see Mount Baker from the boat, and Mount Rainier as you drove back to Seattle.  And even though we didn't see any whales, on the boat ride back we did see a school of dolphins playing in the ferry's wake.

I can't believe I live here.

Hike #5: Bullett Chimney Trail

There are just an embarrassment of trails within just an hour of Seattle.  Some sport spectacular views, others old growth forests, others waters gushing with salmon or still as a fairy-tale mirror.  Some are just trails where you walk around and enjoy being outside.

Such was the case with Bullett Chimney Trail, or, I should say, the Squak Mountain trail system.  Squak Mountain is near Cougar and Tiger Mountains, both of which sport harder and easier hikes than Squak, and both of which offer more majestic experiences.  But, on the other hand, Squak Mountain boasts the fact that it's basically empty, or at least was on my wintry preamble.  It's the kind of alone-in-the-woods feeling I haven't gotten in a near-Seattle hike (the closest I have come was camping in the Olympics, but even that wasn't this empty and it was much further away from Seattle).

We originally set off to see the Bullett Chimney, which was... pretty much just a chimney.  I'm not really sure what I expected but when guidebooks say 'ruins' I get a certain Indiana Jones ideal in mind, and it's not quite that exciting.  The trail was so short and relatively simple that we decided to walk around some more to see if there were any other good bits to highlight the trail.  The Central Peak sounded promising, but there's not really a view and at the top there's some kind of microwave tower facility, which you can't get near (and I'm not sure you'd want to...).

The trails are very clear and we were able to get back to the parking lot by completely new routes, so check in the plus column for variety of walk.

This is a simple, well-maintained hike that's not too strenuous.  It isn't spectacular but it's a good place to try trail running or bring a dog or do some meditative thinking, or just to experience a greater isolation than most of the more well-trod paths without having to get too remote.

Cave B Vineyard

A couple of friends from Seattle got married at Cave B Vineyard, over the mountains and to the east of Seattle.  It was a moody drive out of the City, over the mountains.

I talk a lot about the impressiveness, peace, and beauty of the mountains, the variety of city life in Seattle, and the gorgeousness of the waterways of the Northwest, but Washington is unsatisfied to provide only those to me.  Oh, no, there's more.  It's on the other side of the Cascades.

Immediately over the peaks are flat patchwork farmlands, sporting old and new barns and homes and wind turbines.  I love a good wind farm - it makes me feel hopeful about society.

And on the other side of THAT is a desert scrubland of lava rock with low, brushy, dry plants like out of the southwest, and sliced clean through by the Columbia River Gorge.

Cave B Vineyard is planted on Gorge's edge, a dark green spot amid the brownness.  The buildings have a ubiquitous rustic Italian style, with a few exceptions (including some really cool units carved into a hillside).  Trails wind through the grapes, opening to posh sitting areas and bocce courts, and snaking down to the bottom of the canyon.  For a wedding, it was a beautiful setting that provided some great resort food (a personal favorite was breakfast the next day, which was a buffet, which is kind of my ideal eating situation - piles of a wide variety of food I can pick at for hours).  We took a wine tasting and the wine was great (I'm no wine aficionado but from that perspective, it was yummy) and they give you a souvenir wine glass to take home (to indicate how not a wine aficionado I am, this was the first true wine glass to enter my house since moving to Seattle - if ever I actually had wine at home, I drank it out of some French picnic glasses from a vintage store in Austin (which, if nothing else, makes me sound even more pretentious than just having a dang wine glass)).

The most fun part, though, was sleeping in a (dog-friendly) yurt.  On one side of the grounds is about 30 yurts in a little yurt collective, and each yurt can sleep a single or a couple.  They were one bed in the middle of a round room, with a small bathroom in one arc, and a round skylight top center.  And I mean - it's a YURT.  Just having a yurt option is exciting.  It was everything I had dreamed a yurt could be.

It's Been a Long Time! Catch Up with a Ship Parade.

Hey anyone who reads this blog.  It's been a long time since I've written anything, but I plan to remedy that with 5 blogs of things I've seen/done in/near Seattle since October, and hopefully keep a better schedule of this going forward.  Even if it's just a writing/crafting exercise, keeping up a blog feels productive.

Here's, then, post 1: Ship Parade!

Every December, Argosy Cruise Lines holds a Christmas Ship Festival.  The Argosy Christmas Ship sails to 45 different spots around Seattle, where choirs sing 20 minute performances that the cruise line plays on loudspeaker to the communities.  People in the area gather on the shore, around bonfires or in other small groups, to watch and listen.  You can buy tickets to be on the Christmas Ship, have dinner and celebrate.  The proceeds go to The Seattle Times Fund for the Needy.  People who own ships are also invited to sign up, decorate their ships, and follow along with the Agrosy to create a parade of festively decorated vessels.  

Even though I know I've only lived in Seattle for two Decembers, it still surprised me that there was such a delightful holiday event so close to my house that I had never heard of.  It's right up my alley too!  Looking at lights, watching boats, walkable distance, holiday music, bonfires, hot chocolate... perfect.  Luckily this year I had a group of new friends who were going and invited me along on Christmas Eve Eve.

Gasworks Park was full of revelers, from families to groups of friends.  A huge bonfire blazed on the brick lookout area, and people tucked in by that or up the hill or down at water's edge on the pathway.  Lake Union was filled with so many boats I don't know how they weren't running into each other.  The parade was mostly at a celebratory standstill there, but the line extended out into the ship canal towards the Sound and into the bay leading to Lake Washington.  There were tiny stand up paddle boats to small sailboats to huge yachts, all completely decked out Christmas Vacation style.  The lights of the Seattle skyline glowed across the water.  It made an already beautiful view even more cheery and festive.

At the very end, the choir on the Christmas ship did their performance, and it was incredibly lovely.  Is there anything more simply moving than an excellent a cappella choir singing a familiar classic in haunting, stirring clarity?  It may be me getting older, or more sensitive, but the right song and the right arrangement seems to strike at the very heart of my emotional core anymore - be it a choir, a marching band, a TV theme song... like Christmas, I think the magic is half nostalgia and half dream.