Typical Day at the Learning Center

The Summit Learning Center (SLC) is open from 11 to 4 Friday through Monday, other days as can be arranged. Wednesday this week was cold and drizzly–in the low 50s at the top–yet dozens of bicyclists and far more hikers than I imagined had venture out in the weather and arrived at the top, cold, wet, and euphoric. At 10:45, faced with the decision to sit in a cramped RV all day or open the learning center where coffee and heat are found, I decided to open up and put the bikers and hikers out of their smug misery.

The SLC’s budget may never be the same. Coffee, hot chocolate, and tea were in (pun intended) hot demand, and directions to the “shortest way back to…” hikes were requested. Thankfully, I’d hiked both trails leading to/from the SLC, so the questions were easily answered. The supply of cups and hot chocolate were not so easily extended. Still, at least so far in our one week of hosting, that day was fairly typical.

2015-08-08 12.51.32Darlene is the usual Friday and Moday interpretive host, and she is the creative person behind most of the signs and artwork around the center. She, along with Doug (whom we replaced as on-site “interpretive host”), are also the bat specialists, and Doug does all-things-electronic. There used to be a tank of Kokanee fry to educate visitors about the fish hatchery at the base of the mountain as well as a display of live newts, but both have been discontinued as the tiny environments were deemed stressful to the temporary residents. The plan is to create a “bat cam” that will show bats in their natural habitat, without disturbing them (see Elliott’s post on bats (and if I did this right, that should link to his excellent article).

Most of the five hours of hosting duties is spent answering questions, such as:

  •  Why is Mount Constitution called Constitution?

Because Robert Moran, the man who donated the land for the state park, named it after the USS Constitution. He made his fortune as a shipbuilder.

  • How high is Mount Constitution?

Depending on which geologic survey you ask, anywhere between 2398 and 2409 feet. The latest and probably most accurate is the 2398 figure.

  • Why are female eagles bigger than males (in response to a question on the wall)?

Nobody knows for sure, but consensus seems to be evolving around the fact that females spend more time on the nest than males after the chicks are born, and baby eagles don’t yet have the ability to regulate their temperature, so mama eagle hovers and provides the warmth they need for the first two weeks or so.

Thankfully, there’s a computer at the center, so if something else comes up I can Google it, such as “What are the caves on the trail and where do they lead? Do they have bears here?” (Mine shafts and no, respectively.)

There’s also a coloring and treasure hunt station. The SLC has a sheet of images that kids are supposed to find and then circle with a 2015-08-08 12.51.48crayon (a bird, a moth, grass, etc.). When completed (even partially), the child gets a prize. The best thing for kids is a “Journey Pack,” which includes binoculars, a magnifying glass, several books, and plant identification charts, and they can check out the pack, to be returned to the park office at the base a day or so later.

There’s also a 24-hour webcam showing the weather at the tower, updating every couple of minutes (currently cloudy, cold, and drizzly).

The SLC is operated by Friend of Moran State Park, a nonprofit volunteer organization. roganjones-smallThey also operate the gift shop across the way, and are the ones who arranged for us to be hosts here. All of their funds go to making Moran State Park a rewarding, enchanting, and educational resource for visitors.




Little Summit Trail and Mount Constitution Loop

This is an almost 7-mile loop at Moran State Park–though my GPS registered it at 11 miles. I’m learning not to trust my GPS here. It takes about 3 hours to complete, and is rated “difficult” because it has a 1490 foot elevation loss/gain. If you start at the top, the only “unmarked” portion is at Mountain Lake–it *is* marked, but only if you look back over your shoulder after you pass the picnic area.

One of the most interesting parts of this hike is the changing ecosystem. Near the summit, much of the ground is rocky, with brush and small trees emerging from the bedrock–as if you were above the tree line, though that isn’t really the case, as some of the trees at the summit are taller than the tower itself now. On the Twin Lakes trail, trees are old, huge, and mossy, like childhood images of 2015-08-01 14.33.21an enchanted forest, sunlight streaming down in sparkling rays to lead you away from the haunted witch’s house. Further down the trail, trees are younger and taller, and trails are smoother. The sky is more visible, and the view opens up to the snow on Mount Baker, over 10,000 feet high and more than 100 miles away; from the trail, you can imagine you’re looking down on it. Then after Mountain Lake, the uphill trail becomes extremely steep and rocky, the remnants of an old pathway for phone lines back when crank phones were still used.

2015-07-28 17.05.15I didn’t see any black-tailed deer on my hike (this photo came from the day before, without any telescopic enlargement), but that’s probably due more to the time of day than anything else, as they are prevalent all over the island, and blasé about humans. “Got food?” they seem to ask, though we’ve been warned not to feed them because they can be unpredictable. One night around 10 p.m. we were startled by the sound of someone shuffling through the gravel right next to the RV. It turned out to be a curious deer in search of food or company.

The trail from Twin Lakes to Mountain Lake was wide, flat, and suitable for trail running in most places. (I tried running for a short distance, but I’m too unsure of my footing. Each rock and root became a major obstacle to my peace of mind.) The path narrowed somewhat when getting to the lake, but from a distance I could hear 2015-08-01 13.21.11the sounds of swimmers, boaters, and campers. The loudest shrieks came from kids on a rope swing halfway down the east side of the lake. A small boat ramp showed where kayaks and inflatables put in, and a boat of fisherpeople was loading just as I arrived. The Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks trout in the lake, and both trout and Kokanee salmon are found in Cascade Lake.

And then the hike became a serious uphill trudge. Up till now, it was all pretty much downhill–all 1500 feet of it. The next mile was so steep I found myself stopping often to catch my breath, with all sorts of “what ifs” going through my head. There is no cell phone serivce here, so–What if I fell down a ravine? What if I twisted my ankle? What if a tree fell on me? None of these was likely, so I shoved the thoughts out of my mind and concentrated on the trees and plants around me. The path parallels the road for a while, then branches off toward Little Summit, only a short three-tenths of a mile away. At that point, it might have been 300 miles, as I was too focused on getting back to the top in time to check in at the Summit Learning Center. I’ve been told the views to the west at Little Summit are unlike those at the top, which are to the east. Now, a couple of days later, I’m wishing I’d taken the time to go, but I guess that’ll be a tale for another day.

Day trippers! Friday Harbor

A Mission At Dawn

Yesterday, Ann and I set out on a special mission, its purpose one of compassion. We were determined to bring about a happy reunion, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

Orcas Island is one of the San Juan Islands, the largest of which are served by a state-sponsored inter-island ferry service which is free to pedestrian and bicycle traffic. It’s popular to hop the ferry over to the other islands to see their unique sights, and savor their special ambiances. All well and good for tourists, but we were not tourists! (Ok, we WERE tourists, but, hey, it’s called MULTI-TASKING!)

jobUp before dawn, and with but coffee for our breakfast, we drove down the summit, re-securing the night gate  behind us.  We made our way to the ferry at West Sound, where  the Orcas Hotel provided round two of coffee, with a side of muffin. Incidentally, the grill and tap room at the Orcas Hotel is just wonderful, with an old jukebox sporting a bronze plaque dedicating it to some previous managers of the hotel. The place looks like a proper Fawlty Towers sort of B&B, but without Basil Fawlty to gum up the works. The ferry arrived, and off we went, sufficiently caffeinated, into the rising sun, gliding across the inlets and channels of the San Juans.

DSC_7739At Friday Harbor, our mission was to find Cammille, who was waiting at (according to my memory of it) some vaguely nautical sounding coffee shop. I asked several people where to find ‘The Salty Dog’.  She was awaiting us seated, just where she should be, in a place called ‘The Crow’s Nest’.  (Ok, that worked! ) Next up: The Joyful Reunion…DSC_7796

The Joyful Reunion

“Are you Cammille?”, I asked.

“Yes, are you Mr. Walsh?”, said Cammille, a hopeful light in her once sad eyes.

“I am! This is Ann, and here…”, I said, “…is your wallet!”, producing the once lost object with a flourish.

Cammille had dropped her wallet at the summit of Mt. Constitution the previous day while biking up there on a day trip from San Juan Island. A kind and honest soul had turned it in to us unmolested, and we had located Cammille by searching the internet. LinkedIn yielded a business name, which in turn helped us to obtain Cammille’s cell number, and our rendezvous was thus established. It seemed like a great excuse to day trip to Friday Harbor. Ann and I smiled, mission accomplished, and prepared to take our leave, but Cammille wouldn’t hear of it, and offered to drive us around San Juan, and show us the sights. “Delighted to!,” said we.

Cammille and Ann
Cammille and Ann

Cammille’s stories about working, biking and vacationing on San Juan were even better that the amazing coastal trails she hiked with us. A northern Californian, she had been living there for the past few months doing body work for a spa. Time would eventually take her back to California, but in the meantime she was enjoying the beauty of these islands. Here’s a small gallery of the sights we saw yesterday:

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Such an amazing place we’re living in, and with such wonderful people!

Summit to Twin Lakes Hike

Hiking the Summit to Twin Lakes

One of the major benefits of living at Moran State Park is the abundance of hiking trails–almost 40 miles of trails in the 5252-acre state park. Some of the trails are only open to hikers, while others allow horses and still others permit mountain bikes in the wintertime. Because we’re based at the tower on top of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, all trails lead downhill.

And it’s a heck of a downhill. The shortest trail–that to Twin Lakes–is probably also the steepest. It descends 1289 feet to a pair of lakes 2015-07-29 14.39.27a mile and a half away. The brochure describes it as “easy to difficult,” with the easy part being around the lakes themselves. It’s a challenging hike on the way back up.

The trails are well maintained, though deadfalls over the summer mean one has to step over a few of them. Come September, the local mountain biking group will return to clear the paths for winter biking, and then rangers will clear them again in the spring.

Most of the trees–lodgepole pine, Western red cedar, Western hemlock, and Douglas fir–are what I would call “old growth,” though compared to some of California’s sequoias they are probably just mere saplings. Many of them stand more than 100 feet tall, but there is little of the underbrush found in Eastern forests.

Elliott and I saw and heard a raven (though for a brief time I was convinced it was a bald eagle). An interesting fact from the Summit Learning Center: a circling group of flying vultures is called a kettle, because it resembles the bubbles in a kettle of boiling water. Otherwise, our only wildlife viewing was a curious chipmunk.

The trail down to Twin Lakes is variable. Some of the path is filled with loose rock and fairly narrow, while other sections are wider and easy for trail running (at least for this novice). There are only a couple of times where Mt. Baker can be seen. Still, the feeling of being “one with the wilderness” is everpresent.

Ann Elliott Twin Lakes July 2015The hike around the lake is through rocky trails, and hikers venture onto a part of the local YMCA’s Camp Orlika, which shares a border with the lakes. Kids were swimming in the lake, which we were later told was full of leeches. We took our first selfie here.

And then we started back up. I had to stop at nearly every switchback to catch my breath. As Elliott said, this is like going to the top of the Empire State Building on a handicapped ramp. We finished the hike in 2-1/4 hours (including going around the lake, stopping for photos, and so forth), and felt renewed, refreshed, and out of breath.


Bat Research on Orcas Island

bat5Last night I attended a sunset Bat Talk presented by young scientist and educator whose passion for her subject was utterly infectious. She is Rochelle Kelly, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Biology, University of Washington. (I think of her this morning as the Bat Girl.)

This woman knows her subject, and wasn’t shy about presenting the cool, post-graduate level facts and bleeding edge science being done in the world of bat research.bat1

There are ten different species of bats on Orcas Island. They are nocturnal flying mammals, of course. One of the species found on Orcas is also the only known species of bat found in the Hawaiian Islands.  And, yes, it is presumed that they flew there from both the American and Asian continents, because there are two distinct genetic sub-species found on Hawaii, one from Asia, and one from here.  But while bats do best with bodies of fresh water nearby to provide an environment lush with insects (most species of bats consume huge quantities of mosquitoes, spiders, and moths), they, in general, do NOT fly over large bodies of salt water.  Those Hawaiian bats are quite a mystery!

bat2She brought in a very small suitcase about $30K dollars worth of high tech gadgets which are the tools of her trade. One piece was a small very high frequency omni-directional microphone, which could detect bat calls used for echolocation and navigation. Those sounds are “down-shifted” by a computer to a range where human hearing can detect them, and the signals are analysed and presented in a graphic fashion on a computer screen. Different species of bats can be distinguished by the wave forms they send, and the purpose of differing signals is being ferreted out: hunting, navigation and distress calls all showing differences.

Some bat calls are audible in the human range, but they are “social” calls, used for signaling one another, sometimes to identify their group, and sometimes to signal territory boundaries. These calls are in the very lowest registers the bats can produce, and you might think of them as “grumbling” sounds in a human context.

She also demonstrated an infrared camera capable of seeing  the dark brown bats as they streak across the night sky. They appear as “meteors”, or more properly as “ufos”, if they are changing direction in mid-flight.

A large part of Kelly’s research entails netting, identifying, assessing, banding and releasing bats. This is tricky work work, as the nets involved are exceedingly delicate, and can be quite large to set up. A large net can extend up to 60 feet (18m).  The bats can often “see” and avoid them, so there’s some craft involved to effectively trap specimens.

bat3Another fun fact: some bat mothers carry their young with them in flight to protect and nurture them. Please remember, they are mammals. The research is interested in sexing the bats, so bat nipples are important to evaluate in the trapped animals.

I wasn’t sure as I set out to this event if it would be worth the lost sleep, but was delighted with all I saw and learned. Bats are fascinating, and the store of knowledge about them has grown exponentially with the research and genetic tools now available to study them.

Living in a Small RV

Once Elliott got the mechanics of the RV figured out, it was time to discover how to live in it without stepping all over each other.

AC floor planFor example, the bed is up a short five-step ladder above the cab (see the bed above my head in yesterday’s post by Elliott). Whoever goes in first will have to climb over the other person if he or she needs to find the bathroom, 12 feet in the opposite direction–one reason to keep from drinking that third or fourth tea (or in my case, a second glass of wine…). We have to be fairly limber to just get INTO bed, much less crawl over someone on the way out in a space no larger than three or four stacked double mattresses, without heading head first down the ladder.

The refrigerator is slightly larger than a dorm fridge, and we discovered yesterday morning it has a tendency to freeze the fresh produce. Hopefully, the recent adjustment will take care of that without melting everything in the teensy freezer (current contents: two lbs. of coffee and a pint of ice cream). A small fridge is probably my biggest frustration so far, since we’ll be getting produce only about once a week at the farmers’ market–and I tend to go through a lot of produce in my cooking. So, for now, we’ll be having beans and rice, beans and pasta, beans and…more beans. I’m trying to think of it as practice for living on an imaginary sailboat for weeks on end! In the meantime, there’s more space for chilled beer–not a bad thing!

The shower is another place where space is constrained. Stand up and lift your elbows about three or four inches from your sides like a slightly demented robot. Now turn around. Yes, that’s how much space there is. That’s my foot in the shower, giving you a sense of relative size. 2015-07-31 09.24.52I’m exaggerating slightly, because the shower curtain gives you a little more flexibility, but a telephone booth (remember those?) would have given Superman a bit more to work with. It’s not like I didn’t expect it to be cramped, and it’s worlds better than the one in our LeSharo simply because you CAN stand up and take a shower, but it’s a reminder how luxurious a standard bath is.

Cooking is…different. One large pot, one smaller pot, and a tiny fry pan mean a lot of one-pot meals are in our future. The large pot doubles as a salad bowl, and the colander doubles as a fruit basket to remind us to reach for fruit instead of chips and such. We also have a coffee maker (like I would live without one) and a small crock pot, and one of these cold evenings I’m going to set it up with oatmeal for in the morning. We turn on the hot water right before our shower or 2015-07-31 15.58.36before we wash dishes, and then turn it off again when we’re done, and we turn on the propane stove as needed. By conserving gas, we hope to make it through the season without having to drive the ten very steep miles down to the propane supplier. Needless to say, it’s a one-cook kitchen.

Overhead storage bins provide plenty of room for our clothes, and the pantry has plenty of space as long as you don’t mind hunting over and under other items for whatever it is you need. The big pot is stored in the oven. (Hey, I have an oven! Alas, no oven-proof dishes or pots.)

As a test experience, I gotta say that living in a small RV is working out just fine.

A & E on Orcas Isle: The American Clipper

There’s bound to be some interest from our readers about the “antique” motor home we’ve bought. It’s a 1976 American Clipper class C with a big block Dodge V-8. It showed up on a Craig’s List search for Bellingham, WA, which said it was located on Orcas Island, was in good running order, and was available for $4500 or best offer.  A little further research revealed that it had been listed a few months earlier for $6500, so had been marked down, and sitting on the market for a while.

After a few minutes on the phone with Randy Davis, who was , I think, handling the sale for a third party, I began to think it might be just what we needed.  Randy plainly stated that it was clean, and very well maintained, but had been sitting for quite a while. I asked him if it would safely make it to the top of Mount Constitution, a very challenging climb. He said he was pretty sure it would do that, but recommended that I have the brakes looked at. As it happens, Randy manages Gordy’s Garage at East Sound, Orcas Island, and would be glad to take care of that detail for us if we decided to buy.

I bit my lower lip, took a deep breath and offered him $4000, and asked if we could close the deal by mail.  I also asked if he would he be able to keep the camper there for us until we got there in late July, and what would that cost? He said that price was fine,  no problem, and no charge to store it. Deal done. Somewhere in there we also discussed that he couldn’t be certain that everything worked perfectly, but that at the price I was paying I was getting a very good machine, overall.

About doing business with Randy by phone, and with others on Orcas Island that I subsequently have called with questions, there’s this:  The people on Orcas, so far, are VERY friendly, intelligent, thoughtful, humorous, helpful and honest.

So, meet “The Clipper”:



It is extremely clean inside and out, with light wear on the interior furnishings. While being almost 40 years old, it looks new-ish. It’s significantly bigger inside than our little LeSharo back home, and with a much more comfortable floor plan.

Initial issues included a minor plumbing glitch which fixed with a $1 fitting. Also, and more seriously, the old Dometic fridge was not, at first, getting cold. It didn’t have any ammonia smell (a sure sign of total failure), so I was hopeful. A bit of fiddling with the control contacts, a few jouncy miles of driving, and it suddenly sprang into life, so much so that we had frozen cantaloupe this morning for breakfast. Other items on the “to fix” list include a small fuel pump ($14) to make the 3 kW generator work again, and a new coach water pump ($60), to make the boon-docked water supply flow.

The engine was, at first, very temperamental. The gas was old, likely a crappy ethanol mix, and vehicles hate to sit too long unused. Fifteen gallons of hi-test, and about 5 miles of driving, and it smoothed out just fine. I’ve learned that it’s important to warm it up. It stoutly climbed all the way to our home atop Mount Constitution without a stutter or a cough.

The Clipper is proving to have been a really great plan; both comfortable and satisfying. I’m very grateful to Randy Davis for helping us obtain and get settled in it. If you’re ever in East Sound and need something done to your vehicle, look him up at Gordy’s Garage, and tell him I sent ya.

Here’s a gallery of The Clipper:

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Getting to Orcas

Taking off from Eagle Neck

We said goodbye to Seattle about 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, I think. (Already I’m losing track of the days.) About 30 minutes north, we stopped at a Fred Meyer store in Everett to make last-minute supplies and grocery purchases. (For all you East Coasters, Fred Meyer stores are a lot like mini-WalMarts–pretty much all of the same supplies, but with fewer options of each.) Traveling as far west as Albuquerque in a small plane meant that we had limited weight and space restrictions, so “essentials” like folding chairs, dishware, and even bulky pillows were not included in our take-off plans. We had restricted ourselves to 50 lbs. each for clothes and personal items (including laptops and electronics), and then 50 lbs. for “community” items such as tools for any eventuality, blankets, pots and pans, and so forth. We managed to come in at about 40 lbs. each and an additional 40 lbs. for the rest, for a total of 120 lbs., well under the weight of an assumed 150-lb. back-seat passenger. Because weight and density altitude make it difficult to land in emergency situations, we wanted to be sure we could take off on shorter runways; though we never needed a longer runway, it gave us some measure of reassurance to know we were prepared.

Fred Meyer turned out to have pretty much everything we anticipated needing–but since our camper was as yet sight unseen and not tested, we held off on anything that might need refrigeration. (Isn’t it handy that red wine doesn’t need refrigeration? I think so.) This was our last chance to make purchases on the mainland–after this, we were going to be paying island prices. We ended up getting more cans of beans than Elliott imagined, and a lot of rice and pasta to tide us over. (I am eagerly awaiting the farmers’ market in Eastsound on Saturday.)

2015-07-25 14.39.12We made it to the ferry with almost two hours to spare and indulged in reading our books and people watching as we waited to drive onto the ship. The ferry was amazingly clean and calm, though we had a few moments of consternation when the loudspeaker announced, “Would the owners of the black Audi A6 with New Mexico plates please disable your car alarm.” Car alarm? We have a car alarm? By the time we got there with the key, the alarm had stopped, but we stayed with the car the rest of the journey to shore.

We landed on Orcas Island without further incident, and drove the few miles to Gordy’s Garage, where Randy Davis met us with the keys to our “new” 1976 American Clipper RV.

A & E, Great Escape: Seattle: friends, furnishings and frogs…

Leaving Ontario, the chief delight for scenery on the road was the windmill farms. They stood on the ridges, sometimes in sentinel solitude, sometimes in rows, sometimes in various sizes, tall medium and small, like those sticker families you see pasted on the rear windows of minivans, depicting the families inside. Wind power is the most pragmatically practical you could ask for; the winged machines that gather it are elegantly beautiful, and yet it amazes me that many people protest that wind farms are a blight on the land and sea-scape. People ought to realize how many smokestacks and gutted coal mountains those whirly-gigs replace.

2015-07-24 14.21.53We did take a sidetrip to North Bend to see the falls, and take snapshots of ourselves outside the “Twin Peaks” diner. Alas, the place was mobbed, and seemed to be functioning with a single waitress and no busboys. It seemed unfair to burden the poor woman with yet two more plates of cherry pie to fetch, so we skipped the pie, and drove on.DSC_7629

Seattle’s traffic rivals D.C. Now, about Kendra:

Kendra is our friend in Seattle. She’s been a teacher and a librarian all her life, until retiring just this past summer. She was the first friend I made in Houston, Texas, when I arrived there fresh from my air force stint. She was an important part of the story of Ann and I becoming Us. And we hadn’t seen her for something like twenty years. Long story short, friendships like that rekindle instantly. Your kindred spirits will fall in with you, “get you” and “be gotten by you” in the blink of an eye, even after all those years. It was wonderful seeing her.DSC_7645

She has a friend, Dale, who was cleaning up after a yard sale that day, and invited us to pick anything that was left over to furnish our camper. We found towels, sheets, a pillow case and pillows, and even a spare blanket to feather our yet “unseen” nest for the Orcas stay. Dale was moving away from a home she’d lived in for more than twenty years, and clearly loved. She gave us a tour, talking about the place; the fireplace insert, and garden plants. She had herself dug out a huge pond, almost four feet deep, lined it and fashioned a water course with a circulating pump to aerate the water, and all for the purpose of helping to reestablish frog populations.She had grown up in the same neighborhood, and noted how the frogs she’d remembered were vanishing. The frogs had been dying off from pesticide use and other pollutants. They are an indicator species, canaries in the coal mine of our environment, which provide an early warning when the toxicity is rising. With its lily pads, ferns, flowering water plants, and wriggling tadpoles, it was the most beautiful pond you could ask for.

Dale is hoping the new owners will take care of her pond. Me, too…

…our word-window on the world.