Nature

Wild thing

Spring in Portland is now winding down its cycle of magnificent blossoms from the many ornamental flowers that adorn lawns and parks. Because of a cooler and wetter than expected spring, like we used to have before the onslaught of climate change conditions, flowers bloomed a little later than we have seen the past five to seven years. Tulips and daffodils have come and gone.

The last great entrant I am seeing now, on their final leg, is the Japanese Iris (Iris ensata). The iris genus, which has many varieties that are planted by gardeners, is among the wildest and sexiest of all flowers planted by gardeners on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, in Oregon and Washington. It prefers wet soil and shade. Most of all, it is delicate and crazy at the same time, with its sultry mix of delicate petals and bold colors. For me, it is a rare gift from nature, which marks the culmination of moisture, sun, pollinators, and of course the flowers themselves. And, dear readers, because I am not a gardener, please correct me if I identified this one incorrectly.

So, with that, here are a few words describing my reaction to seeing these beauties last night. It was the Jimi Hendrix version I heard in my head too:

Wild thing
You make my heart sing
You make everything groovy
Wild thing ….

The Methow Valley, as white as the winter snow

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I became a passionate cross-country skier mostly because I had the good fortune of living in Anchorage from 2004 through 2010. There I was blessed with a fabulous and publicly-owned set of multi-use trails and trail systems in parks. I could ski sometimes nearly six months a year, depending on when the first snows came and when the last snows melted.

I mostly remember skiing being very accessible to nearly everyone because the trails were close to home and because gear was not too expensive for the basic set up of boots, poles, bindings, and skis. You could even get used equipment.

The local group promoting the sport and maintaining the trails, the non-profit Nordic Skiing Association of Anchorage, was committed to youth inclusion for all residents. That meant all young people, regardless of race.

When I lived there, Anchorage was more diverse than many outside of Alaska think, with about 65 percent of the residents who identified as white and 35 percent being non-whites, with the largest group being Alaska Natives. Some of that diversity could be seen in the faces of the young skiers competing for the high school teams and on the trails. But even then, in this very democratic and outdoor-oriented place, the faces I saw skiing were like me—white.

However, cross-country skiing in Anchorage is not like cross-country skiing in the rest of the United States. Today the almost entire lack of diversity of this sport nationally remains cross-country skiing’s great Achilles’ heel. That reality is not addressed with the type of debate that is needed.

In my view, everyone who does this sport, either Nordic or single-track style, knows this racial breakdown whenever they ski. If they do not, they are willfully fooling themselves from the facts before their eyes every time they clip into their skis and head out on trails in recreation areas that remain almost exclusively the domain of white Americans.  

Race and country-skiing are mostly taboo topics in the multimedia world dedicated to the sport and those who do it. However I found one recent article on the racial divide in this sport I still love on the FasterSkier website. Refreshingly, it confronted the basic facts about the folks who do the sport and the factors contributing to its glaring and overwhelming whiteness.

In the United States, cross-country skiing remains an outdoor activity mostly pursued by whites, including the many winter recreational visitors to the Methow Valley (like the author).

Skier and writer Ben Theyerl wrote in an article published in August 2020: “The demographics of where the places that harbor Nordic ski communities are on a map allows this statistic to go unchecked. The trail networks linked to small rural towns and resorts that are historically, and presently, white, shelter us from having to confront and come to terms with our sport’s lack of racial diversity. So do the images of our heritage as a Nordic community, and of what it looks like to be an elite Nordic athlete. … We can choose as a community to stay on this sheltered path, or we can take the road less travelled for the Nordic community to finally discuss the overwhelming whiteness of our sport and the places that we do it in.”

Cross-Country skiing in Washington and the Methow Valley

Downtown Winthrop has kept its old West look and feel, even as the surrounding area has become a magnet for wealthy residents of Washington state who have purchased their winter and summer recreation homes here.

As a former resident of Washington state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then again through 2004, and finally 2010 to 2014, I have cross country skied there during the winters of my now former state. My adventures over these years took me at different times to the scenic Methow Valley, in Okanogan County, just south of the Canadian border and west of the Cascade Mountains.  

Once an area that had homesteads and ranches on former Native American lands, it is now dotted with second and third homes of the upper middle class, the wealthy, and also the extremely wealthy—many from the Seattle area.

Since my first visit in late 1987 to this past weekend, I have seen it transform into a year-round recreation area that promotes winter sports and cross-country skiing. The residents who live and have lived there famously developed a wonderful trail community during these decades. That is seen in the group called the Methow Valley Trail Association (MTVA), which is a non-profit organization that maintains the incredible network of classic and single-track trails, snowshoe trails, and now fat-tire bike trails.

According to the MTVA’s website, the volunteer-led group maintains “over 200 kilometers (that’s 120 miles) of cross-country ski trails in the winter months,” and that network “is recognized as one of the finest trail systems in North America for Nordic skiing, mountain biking, trail running and hiking.”

I would argue that the Methow Valley is, without question, one of the finest cross-country ski areas in North America thanks to its geography, plentiful and mostly predictable snowfall, and the good work of these volunteers and donors who support this form of recreation. The area, like so much of the United States, also has racial divisions that can be seen in where most of the county’s non-white residents call home.

According to the 2020 U.S. Census Bureau, Okanogan County had a population of 42,104 as of 2020. The sparsely populated and beautiful mountainous county includes the towns in the Methow Valley like Winthrop and Twisp and neighboring cities like Omak. The Census Bureau reported that the county is 64 percent white (non-Hispanic or non-Latino), followed next by Hispanic or Latino at 21 percent, and American Indian or Native Americans at 13 percent. The diversity from the two next largest groups can be found in communities closer to the Colville Reservation like Omak and towns like Pateros and Brewster, where agricultural work is plentiful and Latinos have long-settled because of farmwork-related employment opportunities like other communities in central Washington.

However, that diversity is not visible in the Methow Valley. During my recent three-day visit, I saw some visitors who I would identify as having Asian ancestry, but no one on any trail who was African American. Most of the skiers I saw on the gloriously groomed trails were white like me. It is a fact that one cannot ignore when enjoying the beauty of this great sport. This fact has not changed in the last 12 years since I began skiing there after returning to the Lower 48 from Alaska (as Alaskans refer to the lower states).

The Future in Washington’s wealthy, winter Shangri-La

As the ski community grew in the Methow Valley in the last two decades, so did the country’s income inequality gap. That gap has accelerated the concentration of wealth in the hands of an ever smaller number of richer Americans since the Great Recession, and more recently the pandemic.

That wealth concentration can be seen in patterns of land use in the Methow that are visible to any visitor who travels there. Those who can afford to purchase retirement homes and summer and winter second and third homes—mostly white and wealthy affluent out of towners—have chosen to settle in this area, with its spectacular vistas and abundant forms of recreation that cater almost entirely to white Americans.

Winthrop resident Solveig Torvik described this in her column from Aug. 4, 2021. “The Methow many of us so smugly assume is a model of a caring community with widespread civic engagement … reads instead much like a cautionary tale of a failed society,” she wrote. Torvik pointed to a study of the valley by a Washington State University sociology professor, Jennifer Sherman, who described the obvious divisions: “The Methow Valley is a deeply divided community where wealthy urbanites ‘blind’ to their privilege ‘hoard’ their social capital while impoverished, excluded, resentful rural old-timers struggle to survive.”

The valleys surrounding Winthrop are now dotted with high-priced, new homes that cater to wealthy residents, who are not afraid to flaunt their wealth, and the affluent who are choosing to live in what the local media The Methow Valley News calls a new Zoom town during the so-called “COVID land rush.”

According to an Oct. 7, 2020 story in the local newspaper called The Methow Valley News, a virtual “COVID land rush” is underway, fueled also by the pandemic: “One thing it means is a dramatic increase in median home prices in the Methow Valley. The median home price in September this year was $440,000, compared to $329,000 in September last year and $312,000 in 2018, based on statistics [broker Anne] Eckmann compiled from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. In mid-September, there were 34 homes available for sale in the Methow Valley — 10 of them priced under $350,000 and eight priced over $1 million, Eckmann said.”

This is not that different than other winter resort areas in the country in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Vermont. What’s different now is how visibly those new, rich residents have settled in the last 15 years in the Methow Valley, particularly around the town of Winthrop. I have seen that change since I first Nordic skied here in 2010 when I moved back to Seattle, and then visited a friend who lives near Winthrop. It had been eight years since I was last there in February 2014.

Battles over future comprehensive planning in the county and water rights remain active, with many newcomers seeking access to the limited water resources and groups seeking to manage and plan for future growth. Growing threats from climate change and wildfire also have further exacerbated debates over growth tied to the desires of the wealthy to live in the fire-prone wildland urban interface, in places like the Methow Valley. The battles will likely continue there, similar to conflicts in communities in the West that have confronted the old maxim that “water flowing uphill to money.”

I do not know when I will travel to the Methow Valley again. It is a 400-mile journey by car from my home in Portland.

I took this trip to take a needed break from my work on Oregon’s pandemic response. I needed a recharge, and Nordic skiing is one way I can do that. It worked, too.

I enjoyed my stay with a longtime friend who moved there years earlier, who shared with me the struggles she is seeing as a resident over development there. In the end, I am left with almost magical memories of groomed trails, snow-covered mountain peaks, and the ongoing awareness that this sport that I once did daily on a community trail in urban Anchorage is still not widely shared by many.  

Flowers work magic on long, long days

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

I have not had a proper vacation in more than two years now. I have had some weekends off, and I did have five days off in February 2020 to attend to my mom’s passing.

But these pauses from my jobs do not amount to a week’s break from work. That means I am, at times, tired and at times less elastic than I ideally strive to be.

For the last five plus months, I have been working in Oregon’s COVID-19 response. My job requires long days and, I have to admit, not enough compliments to sustain one’s energy as a day drags beyond 12 hours, with no lunch breaks. The situation is fluid, because this is a pandemic. The nature of my job means that many people I engage may not be satisfied that their needs are not met to their liking. So there is frequently unhappiness that is directed at the person who provides them what they cannot get.

Some days my abilities to navigate this are tested. When that happens, I have been fortunate with longer daylight hours and the arrival of spring to stop and literally smell the flowers at the end of my workdays.

Portland’s flowers have brought me much joy the past few months. A flower does not criticize you or bear you ill will. A flower also does not harm human health.

Flowers simply bring joy and provide pollen to our insect pollinator friends. Thank you for making my life more joyful this spring!

Christmas 2010 in the Methow Valley

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Ten years ago, to this day, I finished a trip in the Methow Valley, in north central Washington State. It is a premier North American cross-country ski destination, with dozens of miles of beautiful groomed trails for all levels of skiers.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with a friend who I hadn’t seen in years who had moved there.

She took me out on some excellent trails, and or skiing pace matched well. We both love good workouts and heart-buster trails, as well as the woohoo downhill screamers that make the hard climbs worth it.

The trip was at the beginning of a two-year journey back to graduate school, which I did not relish. Mostly it reminded me of the importance of friendships in living a good life and feeling fortunate when you have good company to keep.

As for finding the Christmas spirit in this winter wonderland, are you kidding me? Just take a look. It was amazing!

Merry Christmas, everyone, and may you all have a safe, healthy, and meaningful 2021. Remember what is important and what matters, mostly the people in your life.

Late Fall Swells at Seaside

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This weekend, I took time out from other projects and headed to Seaside Cove, my normal go-to location for surfing in Oregon. Though waves were ranging from five to seven feet, the conditions were surprisingly calm for a late fall day on the normally frothing Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast this time of year.

I caught my requisite number of waves to put my mind in a state that is hard to describe.

For me, when I surf, I can think of nothing else besides waves, the weather, the current, and the ride that still may come. Surfing, which I started in earnest in 2016, has been a way for me to let go of stress. It was almost essential for the years leading to my mom’s inevitable death from Alzheimer’s disease in February 2020. I am grateful for that.

There are other things on my mind now, besides the pandemic: our economy, my nation’s divisions, global problems and conflicts, climate change, and so much more. Some of these concerns are entirely personal. So surfing remains a good check on the weight of life. It gives me a jolt of a good ocean feeling that can last long after I last surfed.

The last year I went out to the ocean less than half a dozen times. I hope to get out a few more in 2021. My job routine is now changing, so it might be possible if the stars align. For that I remain grateful.

I still find surfing to be a deeply personal sport.

However, sport also has downsides. As a commercial activity, it encourages unsustainable tourism. It also brings out human vanity—glorifying physical beauty as a commodity when it is an empty shell and basic narcissism—and turning an activity with deep cultural roots into a commercial transaction.

For me it remains what it has always been since I finally committed myself to start surfing in the cold Pacific.

Welcome, summer!

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

This series comes from one of my many summer adventures in Alaska with some very tough and fun women. It also seems like a fitting way to welcome summer.

We did an adventure in the Chugach Mountains, in Chugach State Park outside of Anchorage. Though we knew where we were on the map, we couldn’t our way once the clouds and rain hit us as we climbed over a pass. It was fun, with some moments to pause because of the steep terrain and cliff drops.

Back in the day, 10 or more years ago and before my mom developed Alzheimer’s disease and later passed away, I used to live more adventurously.

These days I no longer head to the high altitudes. One day I simply stopped going.

I still miss being with people who didn’t complain about: being lost, being wet, being cold, and having expeditions go awry.

Half the point of having an adventure (in the wild, in a job, with someone you love, or working to change things) is to get lost and maintain your calm when things don’t go as planned. However, if you are in the wild, be sure you do that with the right people, like my two friends.

Please, go out, do something that makes you very uncomfortable, and don’t worry if things don’t go as planned.

 

 

Final fall fling and fading colors

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Fall in Portland this year was drier than normal. The colors, which are primarily red and yellow, stuck around until the end of November. I took these shots on a route I normally run, through Riverview Cemetery, through the River View Natural Area, and along the Willamette River. A running injury forced me to walk it two weekends back. When you go slower, you see the same scenery differently. The leaves are now mostly fallen and the stark openness of winter is upon us.

Enjoying Oaks Bottom’s final fleeting fall colors

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Portland’s fall season normally ends just after Thanksgiving. Because of warmer weather and a mild autumn this year, leaves still clung from tree branches along the Willamette River, about a half mile from my home, when the first weekend of December arrived.

I found the last hold-outs along the river’s edge and in the Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, next to the river. Before everything fell to the ground, I made my mandatory fall leaves photo outing. Though this safari did not feature the Kodacolor brilliance I remember from Alaska, it more than did the job. I had a chance to photograph some of the juvenile black tail deer that have made their home in this wetlands area. I also found a few other holiday-themed treats, including decorated small rail cars used for seasonal rides from Thanksgiving through Christmas.

When I left Seattle a little over four years ago, I wondered if I could ever replace the beauty and views I had of the Puget Sound and that spectacular area from several parks near my home. Luckily I have with this space, walking distance from my new home. I never have a bad time running or walking in this urban wildlife area.

November morning light at Cannon Beach

 

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My relationship with the Oregon Coast has changed since I became a surfer two years ago. I now see the rough Pacific Ocean waves as fickle tricksters, always appearing beautiful but seldom inviting to insignificant surfers who dare paddle a few hundred feet from shore.

I also appreciate the magic moment when the first cold light of a fall day climbs out from behind the coastal range and illuminates the beach from the east. I have come out many times at this golden hour of the day, just after sunrise.

I drove out this month with a friend, hoping to catch some approachable waves. Unfortunately, the five-foot breaks resembled overheads, and grew taller as the waves barreled close to shore. We still had the beauty of the beach before us.

We first headed to Seaside. Both of us disliked the ferocity of the breaks. Next we headed to Cannon Beach. Our first spot already had two expert surfers in position.

When we saw the intensity of the waves we decided to bag that location too. It is also a secret hideaway that locals want kept that way. We knew we made the right call after seeing one the two surfers get stuck in the current. He spent 15 minutes in the current, stuck, unable to get back out to the lineup. As we were leaving, another surfer arrived, obviously upset by our presence. On such a beautiful morning, my friend and I let his cool glaze roll off our backs.

We suited up instead for some mediocre foam rides at a spot called the Needles, just south of Cannon Beach’s landmark Haystack Rock. Despite the junky foam waves rides, we caught our quota and soaked up the beautiful morning on the crisp, cold, clear fall day. Nothing could be better. You can never go wrong after a morning surf.

The Wildwood Trail of Forest Park

 

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Fall is a lovely time to go for a run or hike in Forest Park, in Portland, Oregon. The park is one of the nation’s largest urban forests. Visitors will find more than 100 species of birds and an extensive trail system, including the more than 30 miles that make up the Wildwood Trail.

I photographed the Wildwood Trail last weekend, one of many times I have captured it in different seasons.

As a photographer, I love preparing for a shot in nature. You have to pause, set up your tripod, and think the process through. That makes you enjoy the moment better. But as a trail runner and walker, I hate carrying gear and do not want to be bogged down. This short series attempted to do both. In the end, I brought the wrong tripod and did not get a great walk. That is probably the reason I only got a few good shots.

They have no particular meaning other than my impressions of the sights and visitors I encountered. I never have had a bad time in Forest Park.