Spring is Here…and so are the Tulips

The best springtime destination in the whole wide world for someone with a camera in hand is Washington State’s Skagit Valley tulip fields. Monday this week, sun breaks and towering clouds coincided to make perfect lighting and background for fields ablaze with color. A chilly wind thinned the crowds so that parking, often a nightmare, was not a problem.

We pulled off Best Road and parked where tulips nearly inundated this old barn.
Artists were out, and who could blame them?

Fields of rainbows rolled away for what looked like a mile, ending at Beaver Marsh Road and the RoozenGaarde display garden.

Sometimes the best beauty is the least noticed!

Don’t walk between the rows. Not only might you lose your shoes in the mud, you might damage the flowers. The top layer of mud had dried on the road, but the ground moved beneath our feet as if we walked on a mattress.
Children and tulips…a perfect combination.

Parrot tulips have their own weird beauty.

Part of the display garden, with acres of daffodils in the background.

Pattern, design, color…beauty in the details.

Generous bystanders offered to take our picture.

RoozenGaarde was established in 1985 by the Roozen family, whose patriarch, William Roozen, emigrated from Holland in 1947. He found the Skagit Valley to be perfect for growing the bulbs he’d grown in Holland. Today the family business is the largest grower of tulips, daffodils, and irises in the world.

There are more than 1000 acres of blooming fields, 15 acres of greenhouses, and a 4-acre display garden which is completely redesigned each autumn and replanted with over a quarter million spring flowering bulbs.

Bulbs are shipped all over the world. My sister-in-law in Marysville tells of the year she ordered bulbs from Holland and waited eagerly for them to arrive. When the shipment finally reached her, the label on the package proudly announced, “Grown in the Skagit Valley of Washington.”

Oso Slide, Part of a Bigger Picture

A rock and mud slide along the Mountain Loop Highway

    A water-logged hillside in the Cascade foothills east of tiny Oso collapsed Saturday morning, sending a mile-wide wall of mud and debris crashing over a riverfront neighborhood. It buried the highway and dammed the North Fork Stillaguamish River. Horrified, we’re watching rescue efforts, along with the rest of the nation.

    We live in a region prone to such disasters because of unstable soils left by ice-age glacial events. Just this morning a newspaper article mentioned an 1820 tsunami caused when a headland on Camano Island’s south end collapsed into Puget Sound. Three hundred years ago, a mudslide near Lake Ozette on Washington’s coast buried and preserved a Makah Indian village. It was rediscovered in the 1960s when a fierce winter storm eroded the shoreline to reveal long-hidden artifacts.

    Smaller slides halt railroad trains every winter along the Sound between Everett and Seattle. We see slides along nearby Pioneer Highway, cutting into the bluff bordering the Skagit Delta farmlands.

    I remember a devastating slide in 1950 at Gold Basin, in the valley of the South Fork Stillaguamish where I grew up. That fork flows through Verlot and past Granite Falls before joining the North Fork at Arlington. Then the combined rivers make their way through the lowland valley to salt water near Stanwood.  Geologists tell us that historically as well as recently, slides are common in both the North Fork and South Fork valleys. Though the Gold Basin slide did not result in loss of life, it changed and is still changing the land.

    Both forks of the Stillaguamish share a geologic history with other river valleys in the Western Cascade Mountains. The river basins of the western Cascades begin as narrow, steep-sided mountain valleys whose floors are generally less than 3000 feet above sea level. The rivers flow into broad lowland alluvial river valleys, through flood plains to the extensive glacial outwash plain along Puget Sound. 

    The Puget Lobe of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet came down out of the north, as far as Olympia. It advanced, then retreated many times, shaping the geography of this region. Old channels and terraces that mark the retreat of the ice margins are still visible. As the ice pressed southward, smaller glaciers filled the upper river basins. Only the tops of peaks like Mt. Pilchuck protruded from the ice. The smaller glaciers scoured away the mountainsides. They pulverized solid rock into flour-fine clay and left bowl-shaped amphitheaters called “cirques.”

     About 14,000 years ago, the glaciers filling the lower mountain valleys melted. But remnants of the big ice sheet still plugged the valley outlets, blocking drainage. Long lakes formed in the valleys as the alpine glaciers melted and dropped deposits of rocks, gravel and lighter sand and clay. Finally, the retreating Puget Lobe allowed rivers like the Stillaguamish and the Skagit to find their way to the sea, carrying tons of silt along with them to form the rich soils found in the Skagit-Stillaguamish deltas.

SkagitValley clay soils, once part of the mountains in the distance
Dad and little brother David beneath the Gold Basin cliffs, c. 1947

     Old lake deposits are visible at many places, wherever the river cuts through embankments of sand, clay or gravel. Some are very deep, like the hillside that collapsed near Oso or the cliffs at Gold Basin State Park.  At Gold Basin, the forest-crowned palisades, layered with fine tan dirt and gray silty clay, towered nearly straight up from the river’s edge.  Fans of crumbled sand and gravel scalloped their base. In places, water seeped between layers of permeable and less permeable materials to streak the face of the cliffs.

65 years later, showing trees growing on slide and new location of river

    The winter of 1950, we had a lot of rain. It saturated the soil to a great depth and sent the river roaring toward Port Susan Bay. Water percolating down through the layered deposits at Gold Basin hit less permeable material. The water moved out toward the face of the cliff. And the waterlogged soil above the interface began to move with it. The cliff and its crown of trees collapsed into the river. With no place else to go, the river forced its way into the park, chewing away great chunks of the opposite bank and following the lines of least resistance to gouge temporary channels along and across what had been park roads. The sparkling waters of the Stillaguamish turned an opaque gray-brown. For years, banks and boulders wore a slick coating of clay.

    More than fifty years later, the bluffs at Gold Basin are still unstable. The river eats away at the bottom, dissolving the soil into gray fluid and making life difficult for fish and the creatures they live on. Below the slide, new forest has grown on the island that formed where the river once flowed.

    Storms and the river still combine to challenge those who live along the river and those who attempt to keep it healthy for the wild things that live in and near it.

    More recently, in October, 2003, huge amounts of rain fell throughout the northwestern Cascade Mountains. Back country trails washed out or were obliterated by slides, bridges crossing mountain streams were damaged, and sections of the old Mountain Loop Highway between Barlow Pass and Darrington crumbled into the Sauk and disappeared. People living near the Stillaguamish below Granite Falls found the river racing through their houses.

    The hill that collapsed on March 22 has been the focus of concerns since the 1950s. The Seattle Times refers to a report filed in 1999 with the U.S. Army corps of Engineers, warning of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.” The report was written by Daniel and Lynne Rodgers Miller.  “We’ve known it would happen at some point,” Mr. Miller said. “We just didn’t know when.”

    A lidar map is made by lasers which can visually strip away vegetation to reveal the underlying landforms. The Times published one such map that shows the semicircular scars of many past slides in the area of Saturday’s disaster.

    There were slides in 2003 and in 2006 on the same hillside, yet homes continued to be built in the path of danger. All of us should remember that it was Nature’s job to sculpt and change the land long before human history began, and she will continue to do so, regardless of our wishes.

The river sculpts the land.

Drama in the Blueberry Patch

Young Blueberry Plants Under Netting

My son Rob and his family live in the Skagit Valley on a former farm. They have fruit trees, grapes, raspberries, and a wonderfully productive patch of sixty-year old blueberry bushes. With all this bounty ripe for the snatching, their farm is a great attraction for the many kinds of birds that call the Skagit home. That’s why the blueberry bushes are sheltered by fine black netting, like in the photo above. But Rob’s bushes are so large they touch the netting. That means robins and starlings can perch on top of some bushes and pluck the berries right through the netting.

That led to one of nature’s dramas recently. A robin must have caught a foot in the netting. His struggle attracted the attention of one of the abundant raptors that cruise the farm fields surrounding Mt. Vernon…a peregrine falcon. These falcons have long been trained to the hunt in the ancient sport of falconry. Females are larger than the males, with a wingspan of three feet or more. Falcons prey on medium-sized birds, often catching them in mid-air following a spectacular dive, or “stoop.” Their dive speeds of more than 200 miles per hour make the peregrine falcon the world’s fastest living creature. Such an impact is devastating to the prey. In this case, it nearly caused disaster to the bird of prey, as well.

    When the falcon hit the robin, she also became entangled in the net. Rob walked by in time to notice what had happened. By then, the bird had pulled the netting to the ground, but it had wrapped several times around one leg. She was trapped.

    Armed with a stick to prevent the falcon’s sharp beak from snapping shut on his hands and his jackknife to cut the net, Rob approached the struggling bird.

“Nice bird. Are you going to let me help you? Don’t bite me. Just sit still and I’ll cut the net away.” Rob kept up his gentle talking while slowly unwrapping the tangled netting. The bird snapped a time or two, then seemed to realize that help had come. She stopped struggling and watched. Finally he cut through the layers. The falcon screeched and flew to the nearby cherry tree, where she tugged at the bits of cord still wrapped around her leg. Rob could see that she’d be able to get it all off, but she didn’t wait to finish the job. With a last look at her benefactor, she soared off to the safety of the open fields.

Peregrine Falcon at Lunch

    It was then that Rob found the robin, killed instantly by the power of the peregrine falcon’s blow. He rolled up the netting so the birds could harvest the rest of the crop unimperiled by man-made hazards.

The Joy of Picture Taking

    I paid one dollar for my first camera. (I was about twelve.) The negatives were the size of my thumbnail, and the black-and-white prints were less than 2 inches square. Light often leaked in and fogged the pictures. I loved photography, even as a young teen, and was thrilled to have a camera of my own. But to develop the pictures cost money and often I ended up paying for a set of blurred, streaked, unusable photos. That camera was more toy than instrument of art.

    My senior year in college, I acquired a real camera, a Yashica twin-lens reflex. I used it to take color slides which I shared with the children in my classroom when I began teaching. My husband didn’t take many pictures, but he liked cameras and for years kept us supplied with the latest in technology. When he passed away, I stayed with my tried-and-true film camera, years after everyone else had gone digital.

    But when my old Rollei showed signs of aging, I gave in and bought a Panasonic digital. I love it! Taking good photos is as easy as learning to use the dozens of menus in its little digital brain…well, that part’s not really easy. I haven’t yet learned all it’s programmed to do. But it takes good pictures. And when coupled with my computer, the sky is the limit as to what I should be able to do with my photos.

    Yesterday was February 1…as far as I’m concerned, the first day of the last month of winter. The sun shone, a good reason to declare a vacation day. Hank and I tossed the camera bag and tripod in the backseat and set off to see what the Skagit valley had been doing over the recent long stretch of rainy weather. The flat green farmlands of the delta are at sea level or maybe lower…we could see the waters of Puget Sound beyond the dikes. The soil is so saturated the rainwater can’t soak in, even though farmers plow drainage ditches across their fields, so the water sits atop the ground like a sopping washcloth on a countertop. Everything glistened. A good day for picture taking!

 Here’s a Great Blue Heron looking for something to eat in one of those fields.

And here’s one of the many eagles we saw, posing for photographers.

    This is the Lutheran church near Edison, with Mt. Baker watching over the valley.

Skagit Valley Sky Scenes

One of the things I love about the Skagit Valley (besides the river, the communities with personality plus and the variety of farming activities we see while driving through its flat and fertile fields) is the sky. It’s Big Sky, like they say in Montana…a wide, overarching screen upon which every kind of weather drama plays out.

Today storms were building over the Cascades to the east. Clouds also billowed up from the western horizon, echoing the shapes of the rocky knobs that jut out of Puget Sound at the edge of the delta. They almost obscured the snowy Olympics. Walking the dikes in warm sunshine, we felt very much dwarfed by the changing sky-scenes in every direction. Come enjoy the clouds:

Ps. 97:1, 2 The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice. Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

 Clouds over Mt. Three Fingers

Ps. 36:5,6, 7 Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep. How priceless is your unfailing love! Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings.

Tidelands from a Skagit delta dike, looking across Puget Sound toward the Olympic Mountains

Psalm 29:3 The voice of the Lord is over the waters: the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters.

Isaiah 44:22,24 I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you.
This is what the Lord says—your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the Lord, who has made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself…
 A great blue heron lifts off from a dike near the mouth of the Skagit River