at work

Non-fiction, 11/11/08

I wake up early Saturday to clear skies and consult my itinerary: 35 lakes of varying sizes, strewn throughout Whatcom and Skagit County, that I am to visit, photograph, and write engagingly straightforward descriptions on in the next two months. Call me the limner of limnology. Traveling with a seasoned guide, I will attempt to see as many lakes as possible on each excursion, starting at the highest elevations and working my way down. This is going to be awesome.

Today’s my first day on the new job. Hired by Western’s Institute for Watershed Studies for a quarter-long stint, I’m writing blurbs for each of the 35 lakes sampled in their Small Lakes Project. Each description will accompany the dry, number-heavy tables of sampling data on the institute’s Web site. This just tickles me pink, by the way. I’m essentially a public relations agent for these lakes, lauding their merits to people who care more perhaps about boat access and nearby trails than chlorophyll density and specific conductivity. These aren’t just abstract sampling sites, buddy—they’re lakes, with aesthetic qualities anyone can enjoy. At least that’s what I’m told.

I’m on campus by 8:30 a.m. to meet my esteemed navigator, Niki. Forty-ish, short, exceedingly friendly, with close-cropped hair and a waddling gait, Niki is a Huxley student pursuing her master’s in groundwater ecology, or something to that effect. We break the ice by talking about ice, of all things. Apparently she’s been getting lots around her house as of late; I haven’t seen any since last winter, and I relate this observation to her. Thus our friendship was born.

After gassing up on Sunset Drive we head north-east on Highway 542, toward the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The mild weather holds out for now, but already I see dark clouds looming ominously over the peaks ahead. We’re trying to reach a cluster of lakes near the Mt. Baker ski lodge before snow renders them nigh-inaccessible. It’s 10 a.m. and a light drizzle, more like a mist, starts to fall, stippling the windshield with thousands of beaded drops before the wipers whisk them away.

I can’t remember the last time I really took notice of the woods in autumn. Not like the docile copse on Sehome Hill, but something deeper, more expansive, almost primeval in its lush, dripping darkness—the Mt. Baker National Forest comes to mind, for some reason. This place is truly spectacular. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty witnessed from my passenger-seat window, even through a shimmering curtain of rain, even as we tear down the highway at 50 miles per hour. Deciduous leaves, some brilliantly red and yellow, others orange and brown, prepare to cast off from their moorings, a mass exodus of chlorophyll from the trees to the ground. Everything is drenched, sopping wet. Moss-covered big-leaf maples stand sentinel over alders and aspens, the wooly branches sporting sword fern toupees that cling tenaciously to their lofty perches. I’m reminded of childhood outings with my family along the Mountain Loop Highway, back in the days when I found hiking to be a chore, a hindrance to my computer-gaming fervor. What a stupid kid I was. Thankfully I’ve the sense to appreciate this splendor now, while it’s still here and healthy and fecund. May it persist long enough for my children and their children to enjoy, on and on in perpetuity.

Throughout this reverie Niki’s been jabbering on about who knows what, and somehow I’ve provided enough half-interested response to disincline her from stopping. I hear her say “convoluted” two or three times in a five-minute span and tune out again, watching the yellow road dashes disappear beneath our truck.

The air is noticeably colder as we climb in elevation toward the ski lodge. Occasional lumps of grayish-brown matter are our only glimpses of snow, which is good news for us: the subalpine lakes are reachable. Flanking the highway are canes of bamboo, six feet tall and evenly spaced, that serve to guide plows when snowdrifts obscure the asphalt. Now the rain comes down in fat drops, blowing horizontal in the stiff wind. I nibble a carrot.

I won’t go into detail about the lakes, because, quite frankly, they’re boring. After descending the treacherous road from Twin Lakes we drive back west, stopping in Maple Falls for a bite to eat. This gas station-cum-grocery store-cum-hardware supply-cum-coffee shop, called Maple Fuels, is pretty epic. There’s such a variety of literally everything. I’m sort of full and so order an Americano; Niki says she’s “really hungry” and scurries off to the grocery aisles. I see her linger at the dairy section. Now she’s poring over candy bars. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with. At the register she orders a mocha and plops down her lunch: Kettle potato chips, a Milky Way and a block of Monterey jack. A whole pound of cheese! This is amazing! By the time her mocha’s done she’s already torn into the block, crumbling off bite-sized chunks and eating them with murmurs of satisfaction. She offers me a piece. It’s really good cheese. Organic.

We drive along Highway 9 through Acme, where a white geodesic dome sits incongruously in a grassy field. This gets Niki going on about Buckminster Fuller and his preeminent genius, and how incredibly farsighted many of his inventions were. I point out that Fuller also envisioned flying cars and floating cities, his so-called Cloud Nines, which didn’t pan out so well. But I guess he couldn’t have brilliant ideas all the time. That wouldn’t be fair to everyone else.

Skirting along the south-west shore of Lake Whatcom, through the tightly-packed neighborhoods with their myriad docks and tethered watercraft, I realize we’ve seen a dozen lakes today. We arrive on campus at 4:30 p.m., the terminus of an eight-hour expedition across rugged, asphalt-inlaid terrain. Niki informs me we’ve driven 200 miles. Only one stop, Squires Lake near Alger, required hiking to, and that was a two-thirds of a mile loop. We are intrepid explorers, indeed.

Twelve down, 23 to go. The marathon has begun.

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