Nature, Landscape, and Night Sky Photography by Zach Schierl

Bellingham

A Photographic Journey Down Chuckanut Drive

Chuckanut Drive, a.k.a. Washington State Route 11, is one of the premier attractions here on the extreme northwestern fringe of the U.S. “The Nut”, as I like to call it, winds for just over 21 miles between Bellingham and Burlington. Hemmed in by the Chuckanut Mountains to the east and numerous scenic bays, inlets, and islands on the west, it offers a stunning variety of scenery for such a short stretch of road. Chuckanut Drive has truly been a gift to me the last year and a half, because I can be cruising down it (well, as least what passes for “cruising” in a 16 year old Corolla…) and taking photos within 5 minutes of leaving my house. I’ve done this several times recently, now that the Sun is once again gracing us with its presence past 4pm.

Chuckanut Drive is chock full of destinations that make you feel further from civilization than you actually are, places that are perfect for occasions when time is in short supply. One of my favorite such spots is the beach walk at Chuckanut Bay. Fortunately for me, it also happens to be one of the closest, sitting just barely inside Bellingham city limits. Close enough for me to walk if I was feeling ambitious. Nearly inaccessible at high tide, once the water level drops a couple of feet, a few hundred yard stroll to the northwest shore of the bay puts you in the middle of spectacular and bizarre rock formations sculpted out of the Chuckanut Sandstone by freezing sea spray that accumulates along the margin of this sheltered cove. This is also a great place to see honeycomb weathering features along the shore, as is adjacent Teddy Bear Cove.

Low tide critters at Chuckanut Bay

I’m not sure what sort of critter makes these little volcano-like structures, but they are all over the place at low tide in Chuckanut Bay, one of my favorite local spots for photography.

Rock formations along the Chuckanut Bay Walk

Some of the intriguing and bizarre rock formations along the Chuckanut Beach Walk.

Chuckanut Drive is heaven for the geologically inclined for a couple of reasons. For one, the road itself is built on layers of weak sandstone that slope precariously towards the sea. When it rains, water seeps into the spaces between the layers, dramatically decreasing something called the coefficient of static friction, which is normally responsible for keeping the rock intact. In other words, the water essentially lubricates the surface between rock layers, causing causing large chunks of the hillside to frequently slough off, making Chuckanut Drive one of the most landslide prone highways in the state. Last winter, it seemed like the road was closed at least every few weeks in order to repair large gashes in the pavement caused by falling boulders.

Two, the sandstone exposed here, a rock unit known as the Chuckanut Formation, is chock full of fossilized ferns, palm fronds, gingko leaves, wood, and bark, relics from a time when the Pacific Northwest was just as wet as today, but a whole lot warmer. An exposure of this same rock unit an hour to the east even turned up a footprint of a giant Eocene flightless bird a few years back, which is now on display at Western Washington University.

A few miles further south of Chuckanut Bay is Larrabee State Park, the first state park in Washington, whose landscapes and marine life I’ve documented previously and continues to be a favorite spot to catch the sunset:

Sunset at Larrabee State Park

The Sun dips behind the San Juan Islands as seen from Larrabee State Park.

Sunlight streams through the fog along Chuckanut Drive
Winter brings frequent morning fog to the coast of NW Washington, but it usually starts to burn off around mid-day. 10 minutes after I took this photo, the fog was gone, replaced by sunshine and a clear blue sky. 

Heading south from Larrabee State Park, the road becomes increasingly curvy and narrow as it clings to the hillside passing oyster bars, cascading waterfalls, and smattering of million-dollar homes. (You never actually drive along the coast proper, that route is reserved for the Burlington Northern Railroad, but the views are even better as a result.) Keep your eyes on the road and wait for one of the plethora of pull-offs where you can take it all in without running the risk of driving off a cliff.

A short but steep hike from near the route’s southern end puts one at Samish Overlook, which offers unparalleled views of the San Juan Islands, the Skagit River Valley, Olympic Mountains, and even Mt. Rainier on a clear day. On days when the winds are right, this is a launching point for local paragliders. It’s also a cool place to go during a foggy spell; at nearly 1300 feet above sea level, the Overlook sits above the fog deck most days making for spectacular sunsets and less than spectacular dark and foggy hikes back to your car.

Sunset from Samish Overlook, with fog and San Juan Islands in the background.

A colorful winter sunset from Samish Overlook, nearly 1300 feet directly above Chuckanut Drive. The tops of a few of the San Juan Islands are visible protruding above the fog.

The last nine miles of the route angle away from the mountains and coast and traverse the flat lands and fields of the Skagit River Valley. But just a few miles west of the Drive, along Bayview-Edison Road, you’ll find the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, which operates an excellent interpretive center with exhibits about the coastal ecosystems of the Puget Sound area and a small aquarium. This is also a great place to spot a number of the bald eagles that visit the Skagit River Valley and surrounding area each winter to feast upon dying salmon. Padilla Bay (actually an estuary) is so shallow that at low tide, mudflats extend for hundreds of yards away from the coast.

A bald eagle sits in a tree at the Padilla Bay National Estaurine Reserve

Spring brings large quantities of nesting Bald Eagles to the Skagit River Valley. We saw four eagles within five minutes of exiting the car at the Padilla Bay Interpretive Center.

Ripples in the sand catch the last light of Sunset at Padilla Bay

Ripples in the muck reflect a cold, windy, and colorful  sunset out on the mudflats at Padilla Bay.

Eventually, Chuckanut Drive meets up with I-5 in Burlington, just a few miles north of the infamous I-5 bridge that collapsed into the Skagit River last year. From here it’s a quick 15-20 minutes drive back to Bellingham along the interstate. Or if you feel like braving that bridge, I hear there are a few good breweries in Mt. Vernon….


Starfish. Starfish Everywhere!

Twice a month, the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth all lie in a straight line. It is during this time that we see the Moon as either “new” or “full”, depending on whether the Moon lies between us and the Sun, or we between the Sun and Moon. Never content with a simple geometrical description, astronomers call this alignment of celestial bodies a syzygy, a word that surprisingly will net you just 21 points in Scrabble given that it requires a worthless blank tile in order to play. While a syzygy’s effect on your board game exploits may be negligible (unless you manage to plunk that “Z” down on a double letter score and the final “Y” on a coveted triple word score…in which case, whoa! You’re up to 93 points and the game is most assuredly yours to lose!), the effect of such an alignment on our planet is actually quite pronounced. The gravitational fields of the Sun and the Moon exert an attractive force on us; the difference in the magnitude of this attraction on opposite sides of the Earth is, in part, what gives rise to the phenomenon we know as tides (for an explanation longer than two sentences, I refer you to NOAA). During a syzygy, the force from the Sun and the force from the Moon are aligned, with the result being that the range in tides we observe is larger. In other words, high tides are higher. Low tides are lower. And when low tides are lower:

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Starfish_field

You can’t quite see them all in this photo, but by my count there were about five dozen starfish visible in the field of view when I took this photo. The first syzygy of March 2013 provided me with some abnormally low, mid-day low tides and consequently the opportunity to photograph the plethora of starfish that call Larrabee State Park just outside Bellingham home. During typical low tides, such as the ones we get when the Sun and Moon are at right angles to each other and their gravitational pulls partially cancel each other out, most of these starfish are comfortable below sea level. Even then, a little searching will undoubtedly reveal a handful of starfish clustered beneath rocks or under piles of slimy, green, washed-up seaweed. But when the tide drops below  the typical low tide level, the most common starfish in the area, Pisaster ochraceus, the purple or ochre sea star, is literally EVERYWHERE. The quantities can actually start to make you feel somewhat threatened until you remember that starfish move at like 0.0003 miles per hour and have something called “tube feet”. As you can see, the starfish tend to cluster in cracks and crevices within the rock. This is annoying because the cracks and crevices are about the only place you can put your feet without running the risk of losing your footing and smashing your skull open on the sandstone and exposing your brains for the seagulls to pick at, given that most of the rock is covered in slick seaweed that makes banana peels look like coarse sandpaper when it comes to the degree of traction provided.

Pisaster ochraceus comes in three different flavors…err, I mean colors. The purple stars dominate, but orange and pink individuals are not uncommon. I was able to locate one extremely diverse constellation of starfish (I have absolutely no idea what the collective noun for starfish is, but it would be pretty cool if it was “constellation”…) hanging out under a rock:

A group of multi-colored starfish

The wide range of color variation exhibited by Pisaster ochraceus.

I never cease to be fascinated by the robust rigidity of starfish. The purple ones in particular look like they should be nothing more than wet, sticky, gelatinous blobs of silly putty, but alas you can’t even copy newsprint with them, much less mold them into an sphere, which is the ACTUAL shape of a star—that is unless the star is rotating rapidly, in which case its shape may be more closely approximated by an oblate spheroid.

I have no idea what this starfish is trying to accomplish...

I have no idea what this starfish is trying to accomplish here…

Some of the stars exhibit signs of multiple personality disorder, giving us some bizarre orange and purple combination stars like this one here:

Starfish_closeup

As brightly colored as they are, the sheer abundance of Pisaster ochraceus along the NW Washington coast makes them the black bear of the starfish world. Impressive surely, but not really what we came to see. A closer inspection reveals some less commonly spotted species. For example, meet the “grizzly bear” of sea stars:

Pycnopodia helianthoides

The find of the day: a 20-armed sunflower star, otherwise known as Pycnopodia helianthoides.

I think we can all agree that Pycnopodia would be one of the most utterly terrifying species on the planet if it was capable of moving at any rate of speed that could be considered “fast”. Sure, it doesn’t eat humans but neither do spiders and this thing pretty much looks like a gigantic, orange, 20-armed spider with spikes. Given that I know plenty of folks who start to dial 911 at the sight of a spider the size of a pin-head, there is no doubt in my mind that there would exist an entire industry devoted exclusively to Pycnopodia extermination if it had managed to move more than the 3 inches that it did in the 20 minutes I sat there watching it. Clearly Alfred Hitchcock never encountered a sunflower star or I think his film-making career would have featured less birds and more marine life.

Dermasterias imbricata

Two spotted arms of a leather star, Dermasterias imbricata, poke out from under a rock.

For a list of upcoming sygyzgies, check out this handy moon map, and to see when starfish viewing will be ideal along your favorite beach, you can find no better resource than the official NOAA Tides & Currents website.


More Than 50 Shades of Gray: a Cloudy Winter in Bellingham

My college English professor once told me that a great way to hook people on a story is to begin with a personal anecdote. Though now that I think about it, he also told me that bacon was bad for me and that my writing was good, so I suppose I should take anything that came out of his mouth with a grain of sodium chloride. But heck, I’m even prefacing the primary anecdote with this secondary anecdote so you should probably just read anyways.

Let me set the scene for you: Bellingham, Washington; nestled along the coast where the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan De Fuca merge together to form a bewildering assortment of coves, islands, bays, and inlets, where half the license plates you see on the highway are from British Columbia, in the only place where the occasionally explosive Cascade Range makes its way allllllll the way down to the beach, and where the nearly 11,000 foot ice sculpted summit of Mt. Baker dominates the view from town on 100% of the 25% of the days out of the year when there is actually a view from town. (Read that again if you need to…) You see, Bellingham is really cloudy. It also happens to be where I currently reside. I’m not trying to knock Bellingham; it’s a great town in a myriad of different ways. Really great. The pictures on this page should prove that. But it’s really, really, REALLY cloudy. Especially in the winter.  When I first got here I had a professor tell me that a sunny day is a perfectly legitimate excuse for turning in an assignment late. Many days I wake up, open the blinds, and think that I must be watching an old episode of Gilligan’s Island…you know, the one’s before they started making it in color?  In fact, the official motto of Bellingham is “The City of Subdued Excitement”.  I am convinced that this is mainly because it’s a little hard to be anything other than subdued when a gray pall can settle over the city for weeks on end. It’s like nature’s Vallium.

Cedar Lake after a rare low-altitude snowfall

Cedar Lake, a short hike from the outskirts of Bellingham, after a rare low-altitude snowfall.

Anyways, the anecdote. Upon the advice of  professors, students, and other acquaintances familiar with the winter…er…”conditions”…here, way back in September (one of only three months out of the year where it is statistically more likely to be partly cloudy or sunny than completely overcast) I made a visit to Rite-Aid with the intent of purchasing some Vitamin D tablets. Now let me assure you that the vitamin section at Rite-Aid is the very epitome of robust; my local store stocks about eight different complete lines of nutritional supplement products. Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, Vitamin Q, calcium, magnesium, iron, glucosamine, corn silk, echinacea, fish oil, cod oil, beet juice, cow bile, pig urine extract…it was all there. Except for the Vitamin D, whose slot on the shelf belonging to each and every brand was completely empty. An omen if I’ve ever seen one.

Now that I have (hopefully) made my point, the question becomes: can we quantify just how cloudy Bellingham is? On the surface, one would think that composing a list of the cloudiest cities in the United States would be a relatively straightforward exercise. You would be wrong. It turns out that a variety of methods exist to generate such a list. One can, for example, calculate the total number of overcast hours per year expressed as a percentage of possible daylight hours (if that made any sense at all). Others prefer instead to count simply the number of days in which the Sun remains hidden behind clouds for the entire day, or the number of days in which the sky is overcast for more than 50% of the daytime hours. And none of this even begins to take into account this potentially thorny issue: what constitutes “cloudy”, exactly?  Should “partly cloudy” count as “cloudy” or “sunny” in a tally? One imagines that the answer to this depends on weather the meteorologist undertaking this task is more of a “glass half empty” or “glass half full” kind of person. And what about night?  Do we care if it is cloudy at night? Or are we only interested to know how much sunshine we are losing? As an astronomy enthusiast, I demand that the percentage of cloudy nighttime hours be taken into account. As you can see, madness is never that far away.

Looking down onto the clouds and fog from Samish Overlook. Oftentimes the best way to get out of the clouds is simply to hike above them!

Looking down onto the clouds and fog from Samish Overlook. Oftentimes the best way to get out of the clouds is simply to hike above them! The summits of two of the San Juan Islands, Orcas and Lummi, also poke up out of the clouds.

The lack of any well-established protocols when it comes to defining “cloudiness” leaves ample opportunity for cities who rank highly on one list to try and come up with a new way of calculating the list that moves them down a few spots. Or, ideally, out of the top 10 entirely. After all, you don’t see too many glossy tourist brochures exclaiming “Come visit the 3rd cloudiest city in Washington and enjoy a vacation without the hassle of having to reapply sunscreen every 3 hours!”  Catchy as it sounds, it just doesn’t sell. (However, if you happen to be a tourism exec from Aberdeen, WA and you are interested in licensing this slogan for use in your promotional materials, please contact me using the oh-so-appropriately named “Contact” link above!) Regardless of which metric you use though, Bellingham, Washington generally ranks near the top of such lists. If it doesn’t, chances are the makers of the list are interpreting the word “city” rather loosely and including every little hamlet and village on the Olympic Peninsula in their calculations, yet another devious method of getting yourself off the list.

Austin Creek Falls

Austin Creek Falls, on a cloudy yet photographically conducive day.

The Twin Sisters in the Cascade Range, just east of Bellingham

The majestic Mt. Baker and Twin Sisters in the Cascade Range, just east of Bellingham. A shame that they’re not visible more often.

To give you some perspective on my rant, I feel obligated to disclose that I grew up in Flagstaff, Arizona, a city that receives, on average, more than 300 days of sunshine per year. Such a concept is about as foreign to Western Washingtonians as a hurricane warning is to Saskatchewanians. The rain here is different too. During a lecture on precipitation last quarter, one of my professors asked the class, composed almost entirely of western Washingtonians, if anyone had ever experienced a “thunderstorm“.  Less than half of the class raised their hands. More often than not, we experience what someone in New Zealand would call “pissing”, a steady, extremely light rain that that lasts for days and yet somehow  manages to thoroughly permeate everything with dampness despite never requiring you to change your windshield wiper setting from “intermittent” to “warp speed”.   However, when the rain finally ceases and the clouds part, the emotions experienced is roughly on par with the feeling that Arizonans get when it rains for the first time in months. Everyone just sort of stops whatever it is that they are doing (including driving apparently…as much as it rains here, you’d think people would be better at driving in it) and goes wandering around outside looking up at the sky, squinting, and trying to figure out what the hell is happening.

And then there’s me. While everyone else stumbles around in disbelief, I grab my camera, put on my hiking boots, and head to the nearest beach, mountain, waterfall, overlook, or trail to enjoy and photograph a majestic landscape that truly deserves to be uncloaked and put on display far more often than it is. But naturally, I do all of this in an extremely subdued manner.

Sunset at low tide in Chuckanut Bay

Sunset at low tide in Chuckanut Bay.

When it's sunny, the Chuckanut Mountains just south of Bellingham provide excellent views of a snow-capped Mt. Baker.

When it’s sunny, the Chuckanut Mountains just south of Bellingham provide excellent views of a snow-capped Mt. Baker.