Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Cattail Wanderings

Winters in the Pacific Northwest are not particularly suited for outdoor activities. Now, this is not to say that one cannot enjoy a short walk in the forest or even a weekend camping trip to the coast (both of which I have done on more than one occasion since my arrival here). However, with daily rain and temperatures consistently hovering in the 40s, to heed the temptation to stay indoors is not always an ill-advised course of action.

With this backdrop firmly in place, it was several evenings ago that I made a normal pilgrimage outside only to be greeted by a warm, moist wind blowing from the southwest. Nicknamed the “Pineapple Express” by meteorologists, this phenomenon brings heavy rain to Western Washington when it occurs and often carries with it the risk for major flooding.

Being cooped up in a house for too long will do things to a person. Human beings bore easily, and we are always looking for new things to catch our attention or distract us. In any case, I promised myself that evening on the porch that I would take advantage of the milder weather and spend the following day exploring the forest in my area - a worthwhile pursuit in my opinion.

One of my principal fascinations as of late has to do with attempting to replicate the fascination, excitement, and awe with which toddlers and young children approach the world. Somewhere along the course of my life I have replaced much of said sentiment with anxiety, stress, and fear. Blame it on my culture, blame it on other people, blame it on myself – Actually I would rather not play the blame game. Somewhere deep within, buried under layers of subconscious thoughts, repressed feelings, and the like is that inner child.

Going back to my story, the next day broke cloudy but bright, dry (ha!), and warm by Western Washington winter standards. I eagerly ate a quick breakfast, packed some water, and was off.

The previous day I had overheard a conversation regarding the Tolt River (a local waterway) and its history. According to my source, there was a 9,000 year old trail that paralleled the river into the mountains and somewhere up there was an old hunting camp site.

Armed with this information and a conscious attempt to let my imagination run wild (food for adventure), I built up a plan in my head to explore this mysterious river. Along the way perhaps I would learn a thing or two about the landscape and my place in it.

Marking out a plan with map in hand, I decided that a location called Moss Lake Natural Area would be a good jumping off point to start my expedition. The river is hard to get to as a general rule. Finding its beginning as snowmelt high in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area of the Central Cascades, the river’s forks course downward until they (the South Fork that is) find themselves compounded by a reservoir which happens to be a primary source of drinking water and electricity for the city of Seattle. From this point onward, the river flows through state forest and logging land, being logistically difficult to reach as access roads are gated and at times patrolled by security personnel keen on protecting the area’s natural resources.

Understanding these challenges, I set off on the footpaths of Moss Lake towards the river, which lay to my southeast about a mile away and a few hundred feet into a canyon. The day was beautiful, with that same gentle Southwest breeze bringing fresh scents of evergreen. Birds were singing happily, and I noted that the Red Winged Blackbirds had migrated back into the area.

Moving into the forested area at the back side of the lake preserve, I was stunned by the great beauty of the woodland. In my short time here I have noticed that there is a great span between the make and manner of recently logged forests and those that have had time to heal or even those who were never tampered with in the first place. Standing amidst the great and beautiful Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs with the open and needle-padded floor beneath my feet, I discerned between the ferns a small footpath. Intrigued, I decided to follow, as it led in the general direction of the river.

The route along the path was fairly silent and introspective. The songs of birds had died and the beautiful forest was quickly giving way to the unfortunate scene of a former clear cut area –all too often I have found that those special areas one encounters in the world are often so close to those places that have seen devastation.

Making my way onto an old logging road, my senses informed me that the river was not far off - I could not only hear the sound of rushing water, but it was apparent that the land dropped off steeply to my right.
What joy I found as the road took me onward that up ahead the near-vertical  hillside was dotted with gigantic Douglas Fir trees - easily needing three or even more people to reach around. Making my way to the embankment was like an adult hanging candy in front of the eyes of a hungry child. Below was a dark forest and pools of emerald green water, but there was no easy way down without risking injury. The hill was steep and to make matters worse unstable from the recent heavy rains. The descent would have to wait for another day.

Scrambling back up to the tableland, I faced a decision. Thirst and hunger had got the best of me, and, as I carried neither of these items with me, I would need to either return to the car or look for my own nourishment.

Reluctantly turning towards the lake, my choice to head back was abruptly cut off by a sudden brisk wind. A group of true firs seemed to be waving at me in the distance. Following seemingly such seemingly-fanciful whims has always dealt me good fortune in the past, so I decided to take head to the tree people and press on.

The decision was a good one. As I passed the group of waving trees, I found a small fork in the road. Just to the right were numerous beds of soft grass covered in drops of fresh rainwater. Stooping down, I giddily lapped these up – delicious. Even better news came when I looked up and noticed a small puddle full of cattail stocks. Wading in, I dug a root. Sticky, starchy paste in the fibers provided a tasty treat and a needed boost to my energy. Dandelion leaves finished off the wilderness feast - I was thankful that I had been invited.

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