Tacoma’s Fireboat #1

Fireboat #1. Ruston Way in Tacoma WA. Photo: KGilb.

Fireboat #1. Ruston Way in Tacoma WA. Photo: KGilb.

6/12/2012.  One of the benefits of trying out a new hiking/biking trail is that you never know what you might run into.  We came across this “firecracker red” fireboat drydocked along Ruston Way in Tacoma, WA.

Fireboat #1 served the Port of Tacoma proudly for 54 years.  With a roster of twelve firefighters working three daily shifts, she’s the only fireboat in the U.S. to continuously protect a major port all by herself for more than half a century.  During her long career, she was involved in waterfront fire protection, harbor security patrols, search and rescue missions, and water pollution control efforts.  She’s currently one of only five fireboats listed on the National Historic Landmark Registry.

Fireboat #1 was built in 1929 by the Coastline Shipbuilding Company of Tacoma, WA, for $148,000.  She’s one of the first boats designed and built specifically for fighting dockside or shipboard fires.  At the time, most fireboats were tugboats retrofitted with firefighting equipment.  #1 is 96 feet long and has seven water cannons capable of delivering 10,000 gallons of water per minute.  Strong enough to knock the roof off a burning warehouse!  The largest cannon, called Big Bertha, pumped 6500 gallons of water per minute with a spray of 425 feet.

Upon retirement, Fireboat #1 was put on permanent display on the southern end of Ruston Way.  She’s in good company.  A variety of other monuments–as well as some outdoor sculptures and little parks–can be found sprinkled along the two mile paved trail that runs alongside Commencement Bay.  There’s also a pier and a smattering of good restaurants down on the waterfront with some incredible views looking out over the bay.  A nice place to linger, especially when the sun finally peeks out from behind grey clouds.

Parking is available up and down the trail.  For a map and directions, please check out the Metro Parks Tacoma website.

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A Scottish Castle in Fort Worden

Alexander's Castle. Fort Worden State Park. Photo: KGilb.

Alexander’s Castle. Fort Worden State Park. Photo: KGilb.

5/31/2012. Alexander’s Castle is the oldest building in Fort Worden State Park. A fairy tale castle of red brick with a crenelated tower, it was never meant for the U.S. Army. It was built for love of a woman . . . though the woman in question never set foot across the threshold. Who was the romantic suitor who designed and built such a unique home for his lady love? A Scotsman by the name of John B. Alexander.

Reverend Alexander served as a rector at St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Townsend WA from 1882 to 1886. In 1883, he bought ten acres of land overlooking the water near Point Wilson and built a residence that reminded him of his Scottish homeland. It was a home he hoped to share with his intended, but when he sailed back to Scotland, he discovered that his bride-to-be had married another during his absence. He returned to Port Townsend alone.

Was the star-crossed Scotsman forever devastated by the loss of his fiance? There’s no indication that he ever married, but neither did he waste away in the New World pining for his lost love. He went on to live a fairly full and prosperous life.

In 1884, John B. Alexander accepted the post of Honorary British Vice-Consul, a position created by the British government to facilitate maritime trade in the region. Then, in 1882, he was appointed Her Majesty’s Consul and moved to Tacoma where the newly established Consulate office was located. Though he visited his country home many times after moving across Puget Sound, he never again took up permanent residence at the castle. He finally returned to England to assume guardianship of his niece and died there in 1930.

The castle and surrounding acreage was acquired by the U.S. government in 1897 and construction of Fort Worden began that same year. Through the years, the Army used the brick structure as an observation post, a post exchange, a tailor shop, and for family housing. The sprawling army base was decommissioned in 1953 and ownership was eventually transferred to the WA State Parks and Recreation Commission. It’s now part of Fort Worden State Park, a popular tourist destination on the Olympic Peninsula.

** Special Note: Alexander’s Castle has one bedroom, 1.5 baths, incredible views from most of its windows, and is currently available as a vacation home. The perfect romantic getaway! For details, please check the Fort Worden State Park website. 



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Scotch Broom is in Bloom!

Scotch Broom in bloom. Vancouver WA. Photo: KGilb.

Scotch Broom in bloom. Vancouver WA. Photo: KGilb.

5/9/2012.  “What are those beautiful yellow flowers we saw growing alongside the interstate?”  It’s a question we often hear this time of year from out-of-state visitors.  The answer, of course, is Scotch broom.  (also known as Scot’s broom)  But when the conversation turns to how pretty this flowering shrub would look in their own garden back home, they are amazed to discover that Scotch broom is considered a Class B Noxious Weed in Washington State.

Native to Europe and North Africa, Scotch broom was first introduced as an ornamental into Pacific NW coastal gardens in the late 1800’s.  Later, the hardy shrub was used for erosion control along public roads.  From there, it spread quickly into dunes, prairies, upland meadows, and other natural areas.

Unfortunately, for those of us who live in the Northwest, Scotch broom is a prolific seed producer and very aggressive.  The bushes form dense stands which squeeze out native plants and so can have a devastating impact on local wildlife habitat.  They are also drought-tolerant, thrive in poor soils, and have a nasty tendency to resprout even after the shrubs have been cut down.  Think of them as the woody version of a dandelion.

Scotch broom is an upright shrub that grows 3-10 feet tall.  During spring and early summer, they are covered in a profusion of bright yellow blossoms that are a delight to see.  (for a close-up photo, please check the King County website)  But don’t make the mistake of planting one in your back yard!  Like a field full of dandelions, they are almost impossible to get rid of once they’ve gone to seed.

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Astoria Column

Astoria Column stands at the top of Coxcomb Hill.  Photo: KGilb.

Astoria Column stands at the top of Coxcomb Hill. Photo: KGilb.

4/27/2012.  The staircase spirals up from the base like a corkscrew inside the column.  The interior lighting is muted and echoes of voices bounce off the stone walls.  The rhythmic thump of heavy footsteps vibrates through the metal treads and hand rails.  You can’t help but count the steps.  97-98-99 . . . how many before you reach the top?  164, but the view is worth it!  When you finally step out onto the viewing platform, the world falls away in a sweeping vista of blue and green.

The Astoria Column is an iconic local landmark perched atop Coxcomb Hill.  At 600 feet above sea level, Coxcomb is the  highest point in Astoria OR.  Add the height of the column, another 125 feet, and the view is breathtaking.  A quick stroll around the platform can yield some spectacular snapshots of the Pacific Ocean, the rugged coastline, the Columbia River, and the rolling hills of the Coast Range.

The monument was built in 1926 to honor explorers and early settlers for their roles in developing what would become the Oregon Territory.  Patterned after Rome’s Trajan Column, it has a ribbon of historical scenes that winds around the exterior.  The scenes depict figures important to the region’s early history, such as Captain Robert Gray and the Lewis and Clark Expedition.   If unwound from the column and laid out flat, this “ribbon” of artwork would be over 500 feet long.

The Astoria Column is open to the public from dawn until dusk.  Ample parking available, though the lot does tend to fill up quickly during the height of the tourist season.  A half dozen picnic tables are scattered about the lawn for those who want to linger.  There’s also a gift shop on site that offers snacks, sundries, and souvenirs–including the super popular balsa wood gliders that can be launched from the viewing platform at the top of the column!

Special Note:  The column itself is free to the public, but there is a $1 per car parking fee.  (payable at the gift shop)  And for those unable or unwilling to attempt the stairs?  The view from the top of Coxcomb Hill is still incredible!

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Vista House – Oregon’s Crown Jewel

Vista House at Crown Point. Columbia Gorge. Photo: KGilb.

Vista House at Crown Point. Columbia Gorge. Photo: KGilb.

4/3/2012. Everyone should visit Vista House at Crown Point at least twice. The first time should be on a balmy summer day when the clear blue sky is filled with sunshine. Perched atop a 733-foot-high cliff overlooking the mighty Columbia River, the panoramic views are spectacular! (especially from the balcony on the north side of the building) No wonder it’s one of the most photographed sites along the historic Columbia River Highway.

The iconic octagonal structure is 55 feet tall and approximately 44 feet in diameter.  Designed by architect Edgar Lazarus, it was completed in the spring of 1918 at a reported cost of $100,000.  A scandalous amount of money, at the time, for a roadside comfort station/rest stop.

Inside Vista House today, visitors will find a vaulted ceiling supported by eight columns in the rotunda.  Look for the gilded plaster Native American face that adorns the top of each column.  Most of the rotunda’s interior is made of light cream and pink Kasota limestone brought in from Minnesota.  The floors and stairways, as well as the wainscoting in the basement, are Tokeen Alaskan marble.  The hand rails and other fixtures are polished brass.  See photos and video images of the interior on the Friends of Vista House website.

Down in the basement is a museum with panels detailing not only the history of Vista House and the surrounding area, but also the geological and natural history of the Columbia Gorge.  The adjoining gift shop has a good selection of high-quality artwork and local gift items.  There’s even an espresso bar on site that serves drinks and snacks.  But there’s no denying that the primary draw at Vista House is its outstanding scenery!

Vista House is located approximately 27 miles due east of Portland, OR.  From I-5, take Exit 22 and follow the signs to the top of Corbett Hill.  From there, turn left and drive another 3 miles until you reach Crown Point.  The “comfort station” is currently open daily from 10am to 4pm.  Extended hours during the summer: 9am to 6pm from April 16 through mid-October.  Admission is free and there’s ample parking on site.

Oh, and the second time you should visit Vista House?  On a blustery spring (or autumn) day when the wind is ripping through the Gorge.  Wind gusts of up to 100 mph have been recorded at Crown Point, strong enough to sweep you off your feet.  Don’t believe me?  Check out this video by steelhead34.  Exhilarating!

**Special Note:  To protect the historical integrity of Vista House—but still provide ADA access to the museum/gift shop downstairs—an elevator was installed that actually comes up through the marble floor in the rotunda. 

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Whale Watching on the Oregon Coast

Whale Watching Center. Depot Bay OR. Photo: KGilb.

Whale Watching Center. Depot Bay OR. Photo: KGilb.

3/25/2012. The whales are coming! From now until June, as many as 18,000 gray whales will make their way up from Baja California to their feeding grounds in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Many will swim close to shore feeding on the tiny mysid shrimp found in Oregon’s kelp beds and other whale delicacies. Others, including mothers and their calves, will rest awhile in our protected coves and inlets. Record numbers have already been seen heading north, so this is the perfect time for whale watchers to head for the Oregon Coast.

To celebrate this annual migration, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department has designated March 24-31 as this year’s Whale Watching Week.  Over 200 volunteers will be stationed at 24 prime viewing spots up and down the Oregon Coast.  These volunteers will be on duty from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, helping visitors spot these gentle giants of the sea.  For a map of locations, please check the Whale Watching Center website.

Tips for Whale Watching:

1. Dress for the weather.  The Oregon Coast can be windy and cool even on a summer day.

2. Bring binoculars and have them ready, but watch for “whale sign” with your eyes.  When you locate a blow, then bring your binoculars up for a closer look.

3. Morning light is better.  When the sun shifts to the west, afternoon light reflects off the water (into your eyes) and can make whale spotting more difficult.

4. Higher elevations (top of a bluff) are usually much better than beaches or jetties to spot a whale.  Though any spot with an ocean view—even a hotel room with a balcony overlooking the sea—may yield surprising results.

5. Learn the diving and feeding habits of the whales, so you’ll know where and how often they may surface.  The Whale Watching Center in Depot Bay is a great source for information about gray whales.  Their motto is “Whale Watching Spoken Here”

Nothing matches the excitement you feel when you catch your first glimpse of a whale swimming in the wild.  Whether it’s that telltale “spout” erupting from the waves or the flip of a massive tail, this is one experience you don’t want to miss!

Special Note:  There are several whale watching charter boats located in harbors up and down the Oregon Coast.  A special treat for those who want to get up close and personal with these incredible creatures. 

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Beneath Cold Seas

Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.  Cover Art: David Hall.

Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Cover Art: David Hall.

2/29/2012. Candy stripe shrimp, opalescent nudibranchs, sunflower sea stars, mosshead warbonnets, and red Irish lords. Just hearing the names of these colorful marine creatures brings to mind images of tropical coral reefs and the sun-drenched waters of the Caribbean. What a surprise to discover that these beauties are actually found in the cold dark waters of the Pacific NW.

Beneath Cold Seas by award-winning photographer David Hall is an awe-inspiring look at the incredible diversity of life that exists beneath the surface of the Northwest’s gray-green ocean. The photographs are hauntingly beautiful, but it’s the range of color that’s so striking. The bright oranges, lemon yellows, royal blues, crimson reds, and deep rich purples found in the deep.

Hall is clearly an artist, wielding an underwater camera in place of the traditional palette and brushes. With a natural eye for composition, he has created some truly stunning alien landscapes. His action shots are as intriguing as those taken of wildlife roaming the dry expanse of the Serengeti. And his over/underwater images are almost surrealistic, tying life beneath the waves to earth and sky above. (like the lion’s head jellyfish shown on the book’s cover)

Interior shots feature sea pens and anemones, wolf eels, sculpins, hermit crabs, harbor seals, illuminated squid, stellar sea lions, gooseneck barnacles, and jellyfish galore. Not to mention a few salmon. To sample some of the book’s photographs, please check the the Sea Photos website.

Beneath Cold Seas is the perfect addition to anyone’s library. A “must have” for nature and underwater enthusiasts. The photographs are incredible, and the tales of David Hall’s diving adventures here in the Pacific NW proved just as interesting as the photos.

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Spokane’s Flour Mill

The Flour Mill. Spokane WA. Photo: KGilb.

The Flour Mill. Spokane WA. Photo: KGilb.

2/17/2012.  The old flour mill sits on the north bank of the river in downtown Spokane, WA.  Built in 1895 and operated continuously until its closure in 1970, remnants of its working past are still visible everywhere.  (check out this photo of a mill wheel by Don Slackwater)

Inside its brick walls today is a maze of corridors, ramps, and stairways leading to an eclectic blend of retail shops and businesses.  Some of our favorites:

Wonders of the World – An import/gift shop with an amazing mix of product.  Everything from jewelry and fossil art to wind chimes, quartz crystals, collectibles, and a whole lot more.  Where else might you find an incredible statue of Pegasus, the winged horse, and a T-Rex skull on display in the same shop!

Chocolate Apothecary – Gourmet chocolates galore.  In addition to truffles, cream centers, chewy nougats, and caramels, shoppers can choose from a variety of gift ideas and chocolate bars from around the world.  The perfect place for what ails you!  (they also serve coffee and gelato, but for me, it’s all about the chocolate)

Tobacco World – Spokane’s oldest tobacco shop, established in 1974 during the Spokane Expo.  Good selection of premium cigars, pipes, and pipe tobaccos.  They also have a nice assortment of gifts and accessories, with a friendly helpful staff to help with your selection.

Clinkerdagger – One of Spokane’s premiere fine-dining restaurants.  Olde English atmosphere and great service paired with a classic American steak and seafood menu.  A favorite with locals and out-of-town visitors alike.  The rock salt roasted prime rib is excellent, but watch out for the spicy horseradish on the side!  It’ll bring tears to your eyes.

Spokane’s Flour Mill is an intriguing blend of locally owned shops housed in a unique historical setting.  A nice change from a traditional shopping mall.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visit there.

The Flour Mill is located at 621 West Mallon in downtown Spokane, WA.  Metered parking on the street or validated parking in a lot nearby.  For a map, please check the Flour Mill website.

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Pulpit Rock

Oddly shaped rock used by missionaries to preach the gospel near The Dalles OR. Photo: KGilb.

Oddly shaped rock used by missionaries to preach the gospel near The Dalles OR. Photo: KGilb.

2/4/2012. Pulpit Rock once stood on a hillside surrounded by nothing but scrub brush and pine trees. In 1838, the Reverends Jason Lee, Daniel Lee, and H.K.W. Perkins founded a Methodist mission there in an attempt to convert the Wasco Indians to Christianity. The Wascopam were known to water their horses at a spring nearby.

For almost a decade, missionaries used the 12-foot-tall oddly shaped rock as a pulpit in order to preach the gospel. (see photo of Native American missionary taken in 1896)  Though their efforts to reach the natives were largely ineffectual, the mission itself did become a major stopping place for wagon trains traveling the Oregon Trail.  To the footsore, half-starved pioneers pouring into the territory, the cluster of log cabins and outbuildings must have been a welcome sight.  An oasis of sorts in the midst of the wilderness.

Though the mission is long since gone, the rock still stands, carefully preserved as a historical monument by local residents.  But instead of wilderness, Pulpit Rock now sits smack dab in the middle of a residential street just south of The Dalles-Washtonka High School.  An early victim of urban sprawl.

Want to see this unique bit of history for yourself?  From I-5, take Exit #84/City Center into the heart of The Dalles, Oregon.  Go south (up the hill) on Union Street and then turn left onto 12th.  Pulpit Rock is located at the intersection of 12th and Couch Streets.  You can’t miss it!

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Tolt Pipeline Trail

Tolt Pipeline Trail near Woodinville WA. Photo: KGilb.

Tolt Pipeline Trail near Woodinville WA. Photo: KGilb.

2/9/2012. It was late afternoon and the sun was sinking fast. Way too fast. We only had time to walk a couple of miles before twilight fell. Unfortunately, the Tolt Pipeline Trail stretched out quite a bit farther than that, taunting us as it vanished over the top of a distant hill. I couldn’t help but wonder what lay behind that hill as we reluctantly turned around and headed back the way we had come.

The Tolt Pipeline Trail was created from the right-of-way acquired by the Seattle Water Department in the early 1960’s so they could build a pipeline.  The pipeline—parts of which are still visible—carries water from the Tolt River Watershed to the City of Seattle.  The right-of-way is 100 feet wide and runs approximately 12-14 miles in almost a straight line from Bothel’s Blyth Park to the outskirts of Duvall,WA.

Towering firs line the dirt/gravel access trail that dips and climbs through an ever-changing landscape.  We crossed a small stream and hiked past patches of wilderness that had probably never felt the bite of a shovel.  Farther along, I’m told the trail passes through a mix of wineries, breweries, equestrian estates, and some beautifully landscaped private homes.  Reason enough to come back soon.  And next time, we’ll start walking well before sunset!

The Tolt Pipeline Trail is well-maintained and enjoyed by hikers, mountain bikers, dog-walkers, and equestrians alike.  Parking areas can be found wherever the trail crosses major thoroughfares like 216th Avenue NE and the Woodinville-Redmond Road.  It can also be accessed from other trails in the area like the Snoqualmie Valley Regional Trail.

**Thanks and a tip of the hat to Seattle realtor Riley Juhl for giving me the idea for this story.  Thanks, Riley!

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