by Joe Meche
I pointed out in last month’s column that our late season push to find suitable sites for Grandkid Camping 2015 led us to an unexplored (by us) local gem at Birch Bay State Park. When I planned for our third and final session this year, Birch Bay was filled to capacity on the dates we selected. Not a single site was available, so I had to scramble to find a place to set up our fun-filled road show. As it turned out, another local treasure was waiting to be explored anew. The place I found was the same place where Cindy and I spent our first New Year’s Eve together. The real perk was that we would enjoy the luxury of one of the cabins at Silver Lake Park, an integral part of Whatcom County Parks and Recreation.
The cabins at Silver Lake were built in the 1940s by the original owners of the resort. Even though they have been renovated many times, these cabins have maintained their “rustic charm,” just as the website claims. The proximity to the lake and all the available hiking and biking trails throughout the park make the cabins a very pleasant alternative to actual camping. This is not to say that the campgrounds themselves shouldn’t be explored. We’ll look into those campsites for next year’s camping season, and we know that the grandkids don’t care where we go … as long as we go!
Silver Lake has four areas for traditional camping and the layouts of each area provide ample elbow room for those of us who prefer more privacy. The forested areas are well maintained and offer a variety of spaces for tents, camper vans, and RVs. Typical amenities are available and accessible to all. The lake is within easy walking distance but still far enough to separate the two entities of deep forest and lakeshore. The posted limit on the size of outboard motors also makes for a quieter setting overall. There are no water skiers or jet skiers to contend with on lazy summer days.
Silver Lake has always been a great lake for fishing and the use of self-propelled watercraft. We took our kayaks and our grandson took his inflatable raft, which remained unused since he preferred to use one of the kayaks. If you don’t take your own vessel the park has canoes and paddleboats to rent for quiet times on the water. Taking the time to get out on the water is a good way to enjoy the perspective of where you are. The mountainsides rising to the east of the lake are often the first to show signs of the seasons, whether it be the new green of spring or the vibrant red and gold of fall.
A real treat at Silver Lake is an early morning or late evening paddle. On one evening in particular the north end of the lake was swarming with violet-green swallows. Apparently there were clouds of flying insects that we couldn’t see, but the swallows certainly could. As it got darker and we returned to the cabin it became obvious that bats had taken over for the night shift. I went down to the footbridge below our cabin to enjoy the last bit of evening light and watch the bats at work. I even managed to capture a few photographs of the bats in flight.
Bald eagles and ospreys usually have nests nearby and that speaks well for the general health of the lake itself. On the south end of the lake where it empties into Maple Creek, waterfowl species take advantage of the perfect habitat for nesting and raising young. I surprised a family of wood ducks on a morning paddle and enjoyed the company of a great blue heron that was eyeing me from the shoreline. Along with the violet-green swallows, barn and tree swallows also frequent the area.
Silver Lake is truly a park for all seasons and all reasons. On our most recent New Year’s Eve we stayed in one of the cabins and awoke to a heavy snowfall. The best part of the snowfall was that we could enjoy it from the cozy confines of our cabin. Since most of the cabins don’t have bathrooms, we donned our snowshoes and trekked to the facilities in the campground. Rarely has a trip to the bathroom turned into such a delightful walk.
Add this park to your list of places to go that don’t require a lot of time on the road, since one of the perks for visiting Silver Lake is its proximity to Bellingham. An easy drive up the Mt. Baker Highway and through Maple Falls will take you to yet another one of Whatcom County’s hidden treasures. To learn more about this great family park and to make reservations visit the website at http://www.whatcomcounty.us/1937/Silver-Lake-Park.
A Unique Wildlife Refuge
I always enjoy spending time at wildlife refuges, possibly because humans can find peace and quiet there as well as the opportunity to observe wildlife in a natural setting. Animals on refuges seem to sense that they are under no threat and are usually more approachable in their daily activities. On cross-country trips I’ve had occasion to connect the dots with planned stops at specific refuges. These stops are usually rejuvenating and provide a perfect escape, albeit temporary, from the usual highway stress, however intense that might be.
In all the years that I’ve lived in Washington I have flown over or driven past one particular refuge that has always been a curiosity. I’ve read reports on birding list serves and seen photos taken of some of the good birds at this refuge but I had never been there until late August. The prime motivator in this case was an invitation to do a presentation as part of the Summer Lecture Series at the Nisqually National Refuge. With this motivation I was prepared to take on the NASCAR-like traffic on the I-5 corridor where heavy traffic rules …. from Everett to Olympia. As it turned out, my timing was perfect coming and going but still served to support my joy of not having to make this commute five days a week.
The refuge itself is easy to get to and once you arrive, you immediately feel a sense of relief, or refuge from the freeway you just exited. The layout is as welcoming as any refuge that I’ve visited and there is no motor route here — foot traffic only. The standard headquarters/gift shop/visitors center is extremely well run and situated above a wonderful freshwater slough of the Nisqually River where wildlife sightings are immediate. This is such a perfect spot that you might have a tendency to linger for a while.
The rest of the refuge is accessed by way of a boardwalk that takes you through a variety of woodland and riparian habitats. Eventually the boardwalk loop takes you to the iconic Twin Barns, which are the last remaining vestiges of the former Brown Farm, which predated the refuge and typified the richness of the Nisqually Delta. The estuary of the Nisqually River is one of the few in Puget Sound that has not been dredged, developed, or otherwise spoiled in the name of progress. This area was set aside specifically for wildlife.
Beyond the Twin Barns and the boardwalk is a trail that follows an old dike and eventually meets with yet another boardwalk, which follows the drainage of McAllister Creek as it flows into Puget Sound. From the time you leave the parking lot at the headquarters you traverse seven distinct habitat types. These habitats are critical to the survival of numerous resident and migratory species. More than 275 species of birds utilize the refuge throughout the year. The diversity of species that can be found here includes songbirds, waterfowl, birds of prey, and shorebirds. The refuge is also home to mammals, amphibians and reptiles, and the Nisqually River hosts four species of salmon.
This refuge was established in 1974 to protect the Nisqually Delta and its diversity of wildlife habitat. It has become one of the more popular refuges in Puget Sound since then, but there’s plenty of room to share. To reach this refuge from Bellingham, drive south on I-5 through Seattle and Tacoma. Take Exit 114, just north of Lacey, and follow the standard brown directional signs along the Brown Farm Road. It’s a bit of a drive for a day trip but there are motels just one mile south of the refuge, so plan to stay long enough to experience late evening and early morning birding. Spring and winter are the best times to visit since the numbers of birds will be higher then.
A visit in late August was just enough to give me perspective of what the refuge will be like for birding at different times of the year. With that in mind, I’m already looking at my 2016 calendar for possible days to set aside for visits. Maybe I’ll connect the dots to Nisqually with another road trip to who-knows-where. If you’d like more detailed information about this unique refuge, visit the informative website at http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Nisqually/.