Thursday, April 10, 2014

Dandelion Fritters

When the dandelions start popping up in our yard in the spring, it's time to make a batch of dandelion fritters. I first got this delicious idea from the Doula who helped with my twins' birth, and it became a favorite seasonal tradition in our house. I don't usually make a lot of fried food, but this treat is well worth it.

You simply go out in the yard and pop the flower heads off of dandelions before the lawn gets mowed. Avoid doing this in areas where weed spraying may have occurred, not just because we want those dandelions organic, but because weed killing chemicals for lawns are not necessarily bound by guidelines for agricultural use and human consumption

Then make yourself a batter. I don't think I've used the same recipe twice here. Any tempura batter or beer batter will do. This time I used the tempura beer batter recipe from The Joy of Cooking.

Since we don't have a deep fryer, I just put about an inch of vegetable oil in the bottom of a saucepan and kept the heat on a level where it wasn't scorching. I scoop a few flower heads up in a spoon and dip that in the batter, and pour it in the hot oil. As I said, I don't fry often, so I don't have a great deal of skill or tips to pass along here. Once they look crispy and golden like a tempura vegetable, they are done.

These are best enjoyed fresh and crispy while they are hot. I make up a little dipping sauce with sesame oil, soy sauce and vinegar, but you could eat them plain or dip them in just about any sauce that suits your fancy. I bet they would be delicious with an aioli. This is one of those social foods that's fun to make with everyone gathered around in the kitchen, enjoying them as they come out of the pan.

And here is a little something fun to listen to while you make them, a good kitchen song from my friends, The Dirty Dandelions:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Hiking the Elwha with Experience Olympic Tours

On my spring vacation back home to the Olympic Peninsula, I had the pleasure of going on a hike up the Elwha River with my friend and outdoor guide, Carolyn Wilcox of Experience Olympic Tours. I had many good childhood memories of hiking the Elwha with family and friends, and was excited to share it with my partner who grew up in the Midwest. Hiking an old familiar trail with a knowledgeable guide was a real treat, and a new experience. It was like seeing my home ground through a new set of eyes! It was a perfectly rainy day to take a hike (I cannot recommend day hikes in the rain highly enough), and March is just the right time of year to see a lot of wildlife in the Olympic river valleys. While I have had the good fortune to encounter a lot of wildlife on my outdoor excursions over the years, I don't always know where to go looking. It's often by happenstance. With Carolyn, it felt like we were on an adventurous expedition with a rich, educational component.

My interest was especially piqued when Carolyn said we would look for bears. Being a person who seems to have many bear experiences in life, I was excited by the prospect of finding and watching them on our hike. Not far from the trailhead, we stopped to look down at the old Anderson homestead meadow across the river, and learned that this is a good place to view bears in the spring and fall, and that they often make their winter bear beds on hillsides above such meadows. We were a little too early for them to be out and about, but now I had an idea of where to look for them. 

With all the good trail conversation, time went quickly and it wasn't long before we came to a familiar landmark from childhood hikes, Michael's Cabin.  Not long after, we passed some other hikers and rather than the obligatory and brief "hello" I exchange with folks I pass in the woods, Carolyn asked them if they had seen anything interesting. It had never occurred to me to gather information about wildlife or other things I might miss from other people rather than assuming I would find out for myself. They described a black and blue bird that sounded like a raven, which we ended up seeing not far down the trail. At the Humes Ranch cabin, we stopped to have lunch on the back porch overlooking the meadows. As we were sitting there eating, I was delighted to hear Carolyn say that this was the type of spot a bear would make their bed, in a high place overlooking a meadow.

 After we looped back towards the river from the Humes Ranch Cabin, Carolyn spotted something on the opposite bank. She got out her spotting scope and we observed a group of American Dippers, an aquatic songbird, doing their dipping dance and diving in and out of the river. I had just seen one on our backpacking trip over the weekend, but hadn't been able to get close enough to watch it diving.

We passed another group on the trail who reported seeing a pair of Canada Geese. As we looped back around near Anderson meadow, we saw the geese hanging out on the nearest shore, and Carolyn spotted a group of eight elk grazing across the river. We were the only ones out of all the hikers we passed to spot them!

When she got out the spotting scope, I was able to get an up close and personal view of the elk I had never really seen before and realized they were watching us as well! Their intent gaze really made me wonder what they thought about us.

We stopped by Goblin's Gate where the river narrows into a rocky channel with rock faces that reminded early Anderson homesteaders of goblin faces. It was a beautiful stop before our ascent out of the river canyon and the hike out in the beautiful, drizzly forest.


I feel like I would be doing the world an injustice if I didn't tell you a little bit about Carolyn and Experience Olympic Tours. I have decided that she has the coolest job in the world, and a lot to offer folks with what she is doing in the Olympics. Carolyn has been taking family and friends on unofficial guided tours for nearly a decade and began Experience Olympic Tours in 2012. I asked her to tell me a little more about how Experience Olympic got started, and her favorite things about her career. I thoroughly enjoyed her response:

 "I had lived in Port Angeles for 3 years and tried different jobs and as with other small economically depressed towns, you run out of options fairly quickly.  Yet, I wanted to live in Port Angeles – not because my spouse was born here or because I think it is going to be the next Bend, Oregon.  Just like Goldilocks porridge, I think Port Angeles is just the right size and most importantly it has excellent access to Olympic National Park.  I love all my city neighbors, even the ones that tell me about their UFO sightings.

I grew up in suburban Ohio and had a very happy childhood.  However, once puberty hit, I was totally miserable.  I went to college in an economically depressed area in Ohio and I was kind of miserable there too until I happened upon a poster in the Biology Department (where I essentially lived those four years) that advertised a semester program organized by Round River Conservation Studies.  This was the light bulb moment, the one that ultimately led me to start Experience Olympic.  When studying with Round River, I lived on the Blue River with six other students between the small towns of Alpine, Arizona and Clifton, Arizona on wilderness that now home to Mexican Wolves.  We were like wolf ambassadors, there as annoying Easterners and city kids to stir up the local communities.  I backpacked, birded, and slept out under the stars (no tent) for the first time in my life.

When I returned for my senior year of college in Ohio, I was a bit like a backwoods alley cat.  I ended up spending lots of time at Ohio State University and felt more comfortable around kids with different color hair (blue was especially comforting to me).  I grew to love the cemetery next to our college - not the area with grave sites but some wooded areas near the river which would be populated with Palm Warblers during spring migration.  I would take my camp chair out there and pretend like I had never left the Blue River.  I have been on a path to try to be outside as much as possible ever since.  There have been some hard lessons along the way - I once got lost in the Ozarks, I ended up on backpacking trip where I stopped speaking to the Ironman contenders on the final day (and actually to this day), and I found myself in the hospital for a back injury from a faulty backpack but the doctors couldn't see past my flu symptoms.

I want to introduce others to the joys of experiencing the outdoor world in a manner that they might not otherwise do themselves.  This could be as simple as looking through a spotting scope at an animal or bird you would have otherwise never noticed or as profound as going on the longest day hike of your life.  There is no limit to interpreting the natural world - always more professional development opportunities than there is time.  Some of the best naturalists in the world live on the Olympic Peninsula.  Thank goodness I am not yet 40 and have big plans and hopefully still time to learn and grow from their fine examples."
And here is a link to more about Carolyn, outdoor guide extraordinaire: 

This leads me to some other important and exciting news, the Elwha dam removal and Elwha River Restoration Project. This pioneering project got started in the fall of 2011, and currently the Elwha Dam is gone, over half of the Glines Canyon Dam is gone, both Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills are drained, and the Elwha is flowing unimpeded from it's headwaters. The riparian restoration project is well underway and the Lower Elwha Hatchery where I did a summer internship during college, is working to restore salmon habitat and populations. These are exciting times on the North Olympic Peninsula, and worth a visit while this is all in progress.

Here is the Elwha River restoration page from the Olympic National Park: Elwha River Restoration.

Carolyn also offers tours of this, which I would highly recommend: Elwha Dam Removal Tours.

Lastly, I will share one more discovery I made on my travels, a little taste of the Elwha to take home. With a massive silt influx in the water as the dams come out, made up of all these rich minerals washed down from the Olympic Mountain peaks over the last hundred years, a local craft brewery, Twin Peaks Brewing and Malting Company made a very local beer celebrating the restoration project, Elwha Silt Pale Ale. "When the river runs clear, so will our beer." You can find it on tap at their brewery and by the bottle at local stores like the Country Aire in downtown Port Angeles. For me, it fit in perfectly with the whole trip and was literally a taste of my home ground.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tidepooling at Salt Creek Recreation Area

What is it about tide pools that makes them so fascinating? Perhaps it's the brightly colored creatures, or maybe the calm way the kelp waves in the tidal currents, or the feeling we are peering into a small secret world, but I could contentedly gaze into a tide pool for a very long time. Growing up where tide pools are abundant along the rocky shores of the Strait of Juan De Fuca, I went on so many school field trips to look at the tide pools out at Salt Creek,  I decided at some point that it was boring. Maybe it was 15 years of absence that finally made me appreciate this world-renowned wonder of marine biology right in my backyard that I took for granted. After visiting enough tide pools down here in Oregon and coming away saying, "That was nice, but I could show you some REAL tide pools where I'm from," I realized I was lucky to have that first-hand naturalist education right in my back yard.

I decided to take a vacation back home for spring break, and share the natural wonders of my childhood home with my partner who, being from the Midwest, did not grow up with tide pools. Salt Creek Recreation Area was on our must-visit list, and fortunately my good childhood friend just got a little homestead mere minutes from this amazing spot. We rounded up my friend and her daughter one evening during a low tide and were off on a tidepooling adventure.

The tide levels really fluctuate at Salt Creek with the beach being so flat, and at a high tide, you can barely get around the edges of the cliff to get anywhere. At a low tide, however, a rock island with a little forest on top is exposed, along with a rocky shelf coming out to a point covered in pools, mussels and kelp. I hadn't caught a tide this low out there in years, so our timing for a visit couldn't have been better.

Almost right away, Corey said he had found some kind of blue shell. It was a Chiton shell, one of my favorites I learned early on from those many field trips. These mollusks, also called "sea cradles" are protected by eight overlapping shell plates that provide armor from above, but allow the flexibility to move and curl up in a ball when necessary. They are exclusively a marine creature, mostly found in intertidal zones. I always loved them for their bright blue shells, but I also found out reading up on them that they were a common food of indigenous people in this area, and similar to abalone. Now that I know they are a wild food, I like them even more.

Although there weren't a lot of them out on this particular day, we saw one enormous Star Fish. These are the most common and well known marine invertebrate, found clinging to rocks exposed at low tides. They get around with tube feet on their undersides operated by natural hydraulics and you may be surprised to hear that although cute and seemingly benign, they are actually predators of smaller sea creatures. They also possess the ability to regenerate missing arms. Knowing all this makes them slightly more creepy, but still a fun find.

We saw quite a few Sea Anemone out on the rocks. They are named for the flower they resemble, but my friend said she always grew up thinking they were called "sea enemies." This name isn't too far off the mark, because in spite of their flowery name and appearance,  they are actually predatory polyps that close up on and digest unsuspecting prey that comes along.  They are very sneaky.

Down in the bottom of one pool we spotted a couple of Sea Urchins. They are also known as "sea hedgehogs", and to the name "urchin" as this was an old common name for pesky hedgehogs in British gardens. These spiny critters were a lovely bright purple, but they can also be green, red, blue and brown. I have run across their roe at sushi restaurants and am not a fan, but I hear the Urchins themselves are a common food of sea otters, star fish and eels. Somehow they look past the spines.

Another fun find was this little Shore Crab scuttling around the rocks near the edge of a pool. Even though they are thoroughly crabby, I really enjoy watching them dart in and out beneath the kelp, and the fun surprise of picking up a rock and having crabs of all different sizes scatter everywhere.

I also found what I think was a Red Rock Crab with a full egg sponge. There is a good website for identifying tide pool crabs from Washington State Fish and Wildlife: Crab Identification and Biology.

It was a lot of fun to re-visit this childhood activity as an adult, approaching it with a new level of appreciation. I have made sure to take my kids tidepooling on our visits up the Washington coast, and finding new spots in Oregon. Although they haven't had the experience of numerous marine science field trips like I did, I am glad they know their tide pool creatures just as well as native plants and wildlife, and have an appreciation for what goes on under the surface of the water. It's a big world out there, with a vast ocean and the more we know about the other creatures living in it, the more we get a picture of where we fit into all of it. We have a lot to learn from tide pool adventures.

Here is a good link on tidepooling with kids from the Washington Trails Association:

And one from The Olympic National Park Service:

There is a lot to learn at the Feiro Marine Life Center on the waterfront in Port Angeles:

If you want a more educational experience, I know a great outdoor guide to go with: 
And Finally, the link to Salt Creek Recreation Area: Salt Creek Recreation Area

Monday, March 31, 2014

Going Wild: Off-season Backpacking on the South Fork Hoh River

Sometimes, you just need to go wild. I'm sure every one of us has a favorite outdoor spot, for whatever reasons are near and dear to us. Mine is the South Fork of the Hoh River on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula. Why is it my very favorite spot above all others in the world? Because it is so wild. This remote trail receives little traffic compared to the rest of the Olympic National Park because it provides no access to the high country and breathtaking mountain peaks. It terminates after about three miles, becoming a bushwhacking way trail from that point on, disappearing into the rich, lush temperate rain forest. The result is a place off the beaten path, that is easy to have all to yourself save the wildlife. Just my kind of place. I've been visiting for about 15 years and am always happy to go back.

I was born and raised on the north Olympic Peninsula, and fortunate enough to grow up backpacking all over the Olympic National Park. Over our spring break, the kids were going on a trip with their grandparents and I decided to give my partner a tour of my home ground. We planned our trip starting off on the West end with a backpacking trip up the South Fork Hoh, traveling around the top of the Peninsula visiting some favorite places and friends and coming back along the Hood Canal. As some of you may know, Washington weather in March is iffy at best, but this is a great time to see wildlife, waterfalls, and some very lush moss. It's also a time where you can count on some peaceful solitude on trails that get heavy summer traffic. I have enjoyed this trail in November, December and January in years past. The last time I visited was in June two years ago, backpacking on my own with three kids. We braved heavy rains, moving our tent due to rising water levels, and I even chased off a bear! It was a very wild adventure, which you can read about  here:

While the Main Fork Hoh trail is a well known destination, with a Park Visitors Center and the Hall of Mosses Trail, the South Fork has just as many giant, old-growth trees and just as impressive temperate rain forest vegetation. We enjoyed the peaceful hike weaving in and out between these towering giants, and only ran across one couple on a day hike. There were no signs of bear this early in the Spring, but plenty of elk signs.

The red huckleberry bushes were in flower, hanging with delicate bell-like blossoms, and birds were singing their spring songs.

It wasn't overcast, which was a great treat, and we were able to see Hoh Peak as the trail popped out along the river from time to time. It was a sight for sore eyes. We followed the trail to where it ended and bushwhacked another half mile or so until we found a big log to cross a side channel out onto an alder flat to look for a good campsite.

We got our camp set up and eventually got an alder wood campfire going. It took a while with things being damp, but we persevered. We had elk for neighbors and found fresh scat and tracks everywhere. They were cautious but curious, and hung back at the edge of the woods watching us gather wood and cook dinner. I enjoyed hearing their high pitched bugle in the early morning darkness.

It rained through the night, but stopped by morning and we were able to watch a glorious sunrise over Hoh peak. It ended up being one of the nicest, sunniest days I have had up there in at least a decade.

As the early morning mist burned off on the river, we meandered up the gravel bar from our campsite to explore a little. I would have been happy to spend the whole day wandering around the river bars forested flats and stay another night, but we were visiting a friend whose only day off during the trip was the following day, and I didn't want to miss that. We sat in the sun along the river for a little while, and packed up camp for the hike out. I left feeling rejuvenated and recharged by my favorite wild place, and happy to share it with my partner on such a beautiful, fair weather day. The more I visit, the more intrigued I am to go exploring up the river to the headwaters. It's a good feeling to know that this is a wild place I will always come back to. I need a little wildness from time to time.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Spring Equinox has Arrived!

 The seasons are turning with the Spring Equinox today, and everywhere you look, there is no question we are headed out of winter. The sun is shining more often, you can hear the sound of birds chirping in the morning, hummingbirds are having a party in the quince bush, and plants are busy growing. It's a flurry for sure!

We took advantage of the warm, sunny weekend and turned our attention to the garden.

For once, I managed to get potatoes and peas planted around St. Patrick's Day. I have missed this date many years in a row, but things aligned this weekend and it stopped raining long enough for us to get it done. We even spruced up our garden paths with some new cardboard and straw mulch. If I haven't sung praises to mulching enough, our beds were so much easier to work with this year after sitting under a leaf mulch all winter. Building good soil is a slow but sure process, and the payoffs are great.

Our kale overwintered beautifully and is putting up robust, dark green leaves every day.

The garlic is coming along nicely, and we are looking forward to a good harvest this summer. We have some strawberry and asparagus starts waiting in the garage to put into our new raised beds, along with artichokes and rhubarb if we find time to build more.

We have enjoyed taking care of the old fruit trees and planting a few new ones. Currently we have two mature Asian pears, an Italian plum, five apples (plus some funky old cider trees down along the driveway), three cherry trees (Stella, Royal Ann, and one unknown), and one pear tree. 

And Spring Equinox wouldn't be complete without a little basket for the kids from the fairies with a traditional Lillie Bunny from a nearby bean-to-bar chocolate maker (and all around character) Jeff at Lillie Belle Farms

Spring will always be a welcome guest on our homestead!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

It's Good to See Your Long Lost Buds!

Looking around the yard, I am seeing buds emerging everywhere. The fruit trees, the berry bushes, the flowering shrubs and the hazelnut orchard are all busting out for spring! I've been enjoying taking a little time to notice how unique they all are, and I won't go into all the botanical details, but it really is an amazing regenerative process going on inside each one. We spent a lot of time pruning our apples trees and Asian pears this winter, so those big healthy buds translate into happy trees with good fruit this fall!

The blueberry bushes' buds bring the promise of delicious things to come.

The raspberry canes are unfurling their leaves and looking quite robust. We spent some time revitalizing the raspberry rows over the past year and are hoping for lots of my favorite summer fruit!

 Just as exciting as the fruiting trees and shrubs are the ornamental flowering shrubs. The Quince is getting ready to put on a dazzling display.

Cheerful, sunny Forsythia is already in flower along our hillside.

And the Rhododendrons are getting ready to put on their late spring show.

It's a good feeling watching buds, leaves and flowers come back every spring, like the return of old friends. There's a comfort in the consistency of Nature, and a lot to learn through our observations of what's going on in the world around us. On these sunny March days, I am glad to be going into another growing season with my buds.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lady of the Forest

With her gnarled tree-root staff in hand she walks through the forest beneath the tall, ancient trees. The Lady of the Forest watches silently with great care over every tree, plant, creature and insect in her kingdom...

My hikes out in the lush, mossy forests of Oregon offer a lot of inspiration for my art. These needlefelted wool Ladies of the Forest are a favorite creation of mine, representing all the green, growing things in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and beyond

Carrying tree root staffs, and sometimes baskets of acorns like this maiden here, I think they make a great addition to a nature table or seasons table, and bring a little bit of the outdoors in.

You can find them on my Etsy shop here:

and here: