Nisqually Delta Boardwalk

     From September 1995 to June 2000 I lived in Olympia, Washington while attending Evergreen State College.  Olympia was boring and in those five years I logged thousands of miles and hundreds of hours driving I-5 between Olympia and Seattle.  While the majority of the trip one spends in the underwhelming suburbs of Tacoma or south Seattle, I always looked forward to passing through the short stretch eight miles north of Olympia that wound along the bottom of the Nisqually Valley.  Coming from the north or south the view is amazing. You cross the Nisqually River and catch the best snapshot of the journey looking five miles west over a delta whose horizon ends on the bottom of Puget Sound.

That two-mile or so stretch has additional meaning for me personally as it always makes me think of a friend that passed a little over ten years ago.  The train tracks that cross over the freeway and river for years had a long NEXT tag on the bridge, the letters man-high.  NEXT was my friend Nick and Nick was killed in a bike accident in 2001.  Nick’s name would be left untouched on the bridge for years, and his life memorialized in Olympia’s alleys with murals and flowers.  I saw Nick the week before his accident, running into him on my lunch break on Broadway in Seattle.  We ate Mexican food together and promised to see each other soon, as he was living with a mutual old friend and ex-roommate of mine in Olympia.  It was one of those great run-ins where you see someone who you want to stay close to, but distance and growing up have pulled your lives apart.  You remember in reuniting that you get along before for a reason, and make plans to re-kindle old times with promised beers together in familiar settings.  I never saw him again.


Regardless of it reminding me of a friend’s life cut-short, the Nisqually Valley absolutely fosters positive thoughts these days, and seems the only stretch on I-5 that will never change.  It looks the same today as it did thirty years ago.  All of the cities between Seattle and Olympia have morphed and changed through development (City of Dupont?) or neglect (Lakewood??), but almost all of Nisqually has been protected from development since 1974.  That’s when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department purchased what was once the 1,500 acre Brown Farm and protected the land from any development, setting the groundwork for a much-needed habitat restoration.  I’d always known that the land is protected, but had never in those hundreds of trips ever considered stopping and checking it out.  And then 2009 happened.  That year a federal and tribal habitat restoration project was implemented that removed a dike.  This removal project subsequently restored the natural commingling of fresh and salt waters in the area that existed there before 1904.  Salt water tides swept into the fresh water marsh for the first time in over a hundred years.  The marsh was first drained by a man named Alson Lennon Brown who had built the five-mile long dike that blocked the tides and allowed him to maintain a pasture on his 1500 acre hog and dairy farm.  Consequentially, Alson was the son of Amon Brown, a founding pioneer of Seattle.  Amon was an original settler on the Seattle waterfront at what is now Spring Street, and an apparent friend to Princess Angeline, the daughter of Chief Seattle himself.

The A.L. Brown Farm Courtesy: Washington State Historical Society

A.L. Brown Farm: Simultaneously horrifying and inspiring that these hogs once called the refuge home. Photo property of Washington Historical Society

After fifteen years the Brown farm failed and the land continued to be used for agricultural purposes until after WWII, when there were a number of ideas kicked around regarding the land’s potential future use.  These environmentally terrifying options included an oil refinery, landfill, and an aluminum mill. This beautiful and ecologically sensitive area barely avoided being turned into another doomed Duwamish/SuperFund Site.  Thankfully some early environmentalists, pioneers themselves, stepped up and saw that this area was especially sensitive and necessary for the livelihood of many natural creatures that contribute to the bio-diversity of the Nisqually Valley and Puget Sound.  So in 1974 the former Brown farm site and an additional 1000+ acres surrounding it were designated a protected wildlife refuge by the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife.

The land has remained protected since 1974 and in 2010 U.S. Fish & Wildlife completed the restoration of some 764 acres of the delta and in January 2011 opened up what brought me to the refuge, a board walk that offers amazing views of the finished restoration and dike removal, and that takes you a full mile out into the wetland.  I had read about the project and with last Saturday’s beautiful weather took the opportunity to check it out.  It was absolutely worth the trip and I was glad I arrived early as there were dozens of others out enjoying the refuge that day.

I took many photographs that reside on my photography page at Flickr and even managed to learn a thing or two from the many bird watchers out that day.  I’d be meandering along the trail or boardwalk and a paparazzi-like storm would be gathered around with all their binoculars and mega-lens camera’s pointing at some heron/tern/eagle/hawk/goose/duck.  I’d sort of sidle up and listen to them try to out do one another with tidbits about the rarity of what they were seeing or the health of the animal or its behaviors.  The refuge did seem like a happy place for the migratory birds and the their habitats that it was protecting.  There were lots of birds.  And this definitely made the bird watchers happy and was entertaining from my standpoint as the outsider, just a guy with a point & shoot camera checking out the delta.  At times it seemed ripe for a Christopher Guest parody a la Best In Show. It was a bit like a Star Trek convention for birds and those that love them.

Beyond the live comedy of watching people who are very nerdy about their hobbies coming together en masse, there was a more poignant moment when I overheard an older fella relating to his friend that he’d been bird watching almost his entire life and had come to terms with the fact that no one really cares more about his “bird list” (birds he’s seen and recorded) than himself, and that after he passed it wouldn’t mean anything at all.  His kids would probably just toss it with the rest of his life’s work in his desk in the house he’d been living in for forty years.  His friend said she felt the same way about all of her photography.  But they both agreed that at least they were still out there and enjoying it while they were alive.  The exchange reminded me of myself and my friends and our record collections, and the limitations inherent in having our life’s joy attached to physical objects.  It made me consider that more and more in my life I find it’s the enjoyment I get through the act of doing, not particularly the amassing of accomplishments or material things.  It’s a shift I’ve been going through over the last three or four years and I find myself working so that I can experience rather than gather.  Spending my money on travel and experience rather than something that will simply sit in my apartment, or whose use is limited to when I am actually there.  And that is likely the purpose of these writings and my photographs, to record and journal these experiences so that I can relive them down the road.  I think most of us have had that existential 21st century moment of wondering what will happen to our online profiles when we die, and I think the only thing we are sure of is that they’ll die with us.  And that’s okay with me because if I’m not using it all to relate to those far away (Facebook/Twitter) or relive the emotions of past trips and journeys (WordPress/Flickr), than it’s appropriate that they’ll end with me.  But just in case when I’m an old man filling out my will and getting my estate in order or whatever is required of an old me, I’ll leave my passwords in there, bequeathed to whoever I think at the time will enjoy reliving some past memories that we may have shared together.


Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand


“Every man carries within himself a world made up of all that he has seen and loved; and it is to this world he returns, incessantly, though he may pass through, and seem to inhabit, a world quite foreign to it.” –François-René de Chateaubriand

Socked In On Vashon

KVI Beach, Vashon Island

When it snows in Puget Sound the reaction of the population goes through predictable stages. Delight, acceptance, coping, and admiration are all words that come to mind when describing the emotions of our area’s residents when dealt more than 2″ of snow.  In Seattle we seem to have a different reaction and one that has us jumping straight into the panic stage and than on to the very metropolitan/urban annoyance stage.  Why does this snow hate me?  Why can’t I walk in my normal shoes?  When will the old, dirty snow go away?  How deep is that puddle?  The media told us we were in Snowmageddon/Snowpacolypse /Ice Storm 2012.  If you’re like me you balance the sensationalized mass media accounts with a humble, conservative Cliff Mass weather blog that scoffs at the local mass media predictions of 14″ and higher.

Luckily for me during last week’s snow/ice event I was on Vashon Island and it’s land-bridged neighbor Maury Island.  I was not in the city.  And although I missed the thrill that is sledding down Denny hill, I did not miss the sounds of people trying to go about their very self-important lives when it was very obviously impossible and perhaps dangerous.

On Sunday when the first significant snow came I was on Maury Island, hunkered down in the comfortable house where my girlfriend, Katlin, was house sitting.  We had plenty of provisions, playoff football, and a beautiful view of that first day of snow.  We ventured out during half-times.  I threw snowballs at her and all was idyllic and good.

Vashon Island view from Dockton, Maury Island.

Monday was MLK day so we were off at school.  But on Tuesday we went in for what would be our only day of work this week.  West Seattle Academy was thick with the distracting, youthful anticipation of snow days and the reserved hopefulness that teachers have when they know that maybe they won’t have to come in the next day.

On Wednesday the real storm arrived in Puget Sound.  What was forecast to be a one-day dumping of two to fourteen inches turned into a three-day snow, then ice, and slush event that crippled Vashon Island where I was now socked in with my girl.  Katlin lives in a mother-in-law/basement apartment below a beautiful home in Ellisport.  The home overlooks Vashon’s KVI Beach.  We had abandoned the house-sitting temporarily as we wanted to be closer to town in case we wanted to venture out and not be potentially stranded in Dockton.  Wednesday was wonderful and classic snow day fodder.   We put on our warmest clothes and headed down to the beach.  It was a beautiful site and an amazing vantage point from which to see the winter wonderland that Vashon had turned into.

Looking south on KVI Beach at the extreme high tide and the nearly frozen marsh. Winds kicked up significant waves that brought the cold water surging into the marsh from Puget Sound.

I had never been by the ocean during a proper snow storm and the extreme high tide brought the water right up to the snow line on the shore.  Big winds were also pushing water into the beach’s marsh which had a slushy, almost frozen solid water line.  We walked in the snow along the tide line, scanning for the plethora of interesting items that had washed up with the storm.  This happily included lots of large sea glass and shells, and sadly a recently killed baby seal.

We left the beach to check out the surrounding neighborhood and met up with Katlin’s brother-in-law, who was pulling his 4 year-old son/Katlin’s nephew behind him in a sled.  We followed him back to his house and relaxed for a while in the warmth after admiring the Jabba The Hutt they had made of snow in their backyard.  After warming for a bit we headed back to Katlin’s to grab some things and then returned back their way for a snowed-in evening.  I made carnè asada tacos for the family in her sister’s warm kitchen, we drank Manhattans, and watched the Last Waltz and High Fidelity.  We headed back to Katlin’s in the evening, chauffeured in a four-wheel drive vehicle by her brother-in-law.

Katlin later asked why I didn't help her down the stairs. I was busy taking this photograph.

We slept soundly with the power still on and with confidence that the next day would be another snow day.  Thursday was exciting to say the least.  The power was off when we awoke, coming on conveniently so as to allow us to make breakfast and then going out again around noon.  It came on for an hour in the evening and we actually were able to make dinner and charge phones/laptops before it crapped out again around 8pm.  It was out when we left on Friday at noon.

At about 10am the freezing rain came and added a layer of danger on top of everything.  We bundled up and went out to find a tense environment.  Katlin’s neighborhood was eerily silent except for the occasional bang and crack of giant tree limbs snapping and falling under the weight of the snow.  As we ascended her stairs around the house and walked the path to the road, we watched a tree snap in half and fall on her neighbor’s front entryway.  This set the tone for our walk and put an absolutely acceptable fear into Katlin.  I felt we could proceed safely but that we really needed to be aware of what we were walking under at all times.  Both road options for getting out of her neighborhood were blocked by ice-felled trees and driving was an impossible option.  We avoided being crushed by a giant cedar in her home’s front yard by maybe one minute.  The tree snapped completely in half, giving in to the enormous weight put upon it by the combined snow, freezing rain, and ice.  I heard it crack as we were approaching the drive way and saw the movement in the trees off to our right, yelled at Katlin behind me before we both ran until we knew we weren’t going to be killed.  Hauling ass until the only thing we heard was the settling snow and not the falling tree.  We “booked it” as Katlin said.  It reminded me of the movement in the jungle you would see before the smoke monster showed up on Lost.  You knew that something really big was falling, and you didn’t know where it was going to fall or really how big it was.  After we checked our underwear we rounded the corner up the driveway to see the aftermath.  You could smell the tree before you could see it.  The air was thick with that fresh cedar smell and the severed tree was twisted and broken on the yard.  The reddish-orange stump where it had once been connected seemed especially exposed and contrasted against everything else around it that was covered in white snow and ice.  It was glaring and looked like a fresh wound.

Violent episodes like this were happening all over Vashon and across Puget Sound and afterwards I was reminded of the other dangerous forest events I’ve seen.  I hear so much about man’s impact on the environment and then I see first hand the impact of the environment on its self.  The process of renewal is a part of nature and to witness it and accept it is a humbling thing for humans who feel (rightly so) that they have only one shot. Nature doesn’t work on the same timeline or with the same finality as humans.  I recalled the lightning strikes that every 100 years raze the forested peninsula where my father’s summer home is in BC.  These strikes burn the whole forest to the ground and two August’s ago I watched as forest service helicopters dropped loads of water on a fire that had started on the road leading to his home and the small, surrounding community.  It was a tense day and I prepared myself to answer the call for the “able-bodied men” needed to stand watch and extinguish hot spots flaring up in a fire that started with a strike of lightening. Seattle has it’s drivers and the more rural areas have falling trees and snapping limbs.  Unpredictable and tense explosions that block roads, fall on homes, and annihilate flimsy power lines.  A man in Issaquah was killed by one falling on his truck as he backed the vehicle out of his driveway.  A sad story and sadder still that the man likely felt safe in his 4×4 vehicle, only to be crushed pulling it out of the garage.  I was also enthralled by the reports of ice falling from downtown buildings.  What a way to go.  When we headed out before dinner on another walk to get the blood moving, we encountered that added danger of downed power lines on the side of the roads.  Lines that were still undiscovered and at times buried.  An added danger that contributed to my thoughts of renewal.

Walking around Katlin’s Ellisport neighborhood may not have been the safest idea, but to stay inside for so long when I know that the world outside is undergoing such a transformation was unacceptable to me.  I was able to see the beauty of Vashon covered in the snow and witness the fleeting product of an ice storm that only comes around every so often.  A storm that destroys in one day, trees that have survived almost 4000 days.  It was a beautiful sight and one that I would have missed in the city.  I know that we often wished we had the amenities available to us in Seattle and within walking distance of my Capitol Hill apartment, but the comfort they would have brought would have likely been attached to the mere chore of getting to them.  Without such options we were left with what we had (which was plenty), each other, and the show that was outside on the island.