Take a Walk on the Wild Side

Kern Street Circus by LeAnn Powers. Photo: KGilb.

Kern Street Circus by LeAnn Powers. Photo: KGilb.

6/21/2012. Monarch Sculpture Park is like a country inn or manor house that has fallen on hard times. The scope and grandeur of the initial vision is still evident, but Mother Nature is moving rapidly to reclaim the area. In short, the grounds are starting to look a little wild. Though that does result in a different experience from what was originally intended, this unique park is still worth a visit. Some might even argue that the experience is more visceral now that the artwork and surrounding environment are becoming one.

A gently sloping path leads from the parking lot down into the 10-acre park. At that point, it branches off into a number of side trails. The sounds of nature are all around: birds singing in the trees, water gurgling in a nearby creek, a soft breeze sighing through the meadow grass. We even saw two deer grazing contentedly on the far side of an exterior fence. And everywhere we looked, there were sculptures.

Monarch probably has close to eighty outdoor sculptures representing a wide range of artistic styles. Modern, classic, quirky, humorous, ethnic, heart-warming, and more than a little surrealistic. Some are as small as a bowling ball; others, as tall and graceful as a willow tree. Some thrum with hidden energy. A few even sing out with the lyrical voice of a chime or temple bell. With area map in hand, we thoroughly enjoyed tracking them all down.

Monarch Sculpture Park is the dream child of artist Myrna Orsini. The idea came to her after several trips to Europe where she attended some workshops at which the artists lived, worked, and displayed their art all in one location. She wanted to establish a similar place here in the Pacific NW that would bring artists and the public together in an inviting natural setting. Land was purchased, a nonprofit organization was set up to oversee the project, and the park opened in 1998.

Unfortunately, in recent months, the park has suffered a series of setbacks. Orsini (now 70+ years old) is no longer able to care for or properly maintain the property–especially since the death of her business partner, fellow artist Doris Coonrod. The downturn in the economy certainly hasn’t helped either. All maintenance work is now being done by volunteers. Donations, of course, are gratefully accepted and additional funding is being sought by local communities in order to keep the park open. But some features and services have been curtailed or scaled back.

Monarch Sculpture Park is located at 8431 Waldrick Road SE, about ten miles outside of Olympia WA. Look for the metallic “Butterfly Tree” sculpture that marks the entrance. The Papillon Inside Gallery is open by appointment only from June 1st to October 1st. But the park grounds are open year-round from dawn to dusk. For a map and detailed directions to the park, please check Monarch’s website.

**Special Note: Be sure to bring along a sturdy pair of walking shoes. Though the trails are marked, they are no longer meticulously maintained. And don’t wait too long to visit. 


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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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Port Ludlow’s Fete du Fromage

The Inn At Port Ludlow. Photo: KGilb.

The Inn At Port Ludlow. Photo: KGilb.

The Resort at Port Ludlow is hosting a wine and cheese extravaganza called the Fete du Fromage from 2-6 pm on Saturday, May 26th.  Participants will have an opportunity to sample 50 to 60 cheeses from premiere producers in Vermont, California, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, and the Pacific NW.  What kind?  Fresh to fully-aged cow’s milk, sheep’s milk, and goat’s milk cheeses.  Each carefully paired with a variety of new and old world wines which will be available for tasting and pairing at up to ten stations.

Of special interest to “Wild About the NW” fans, The Resort will pair a selection of Washington wines with cheeses crafted by local producers like Mystery Bay Farm of Marrowstone Island, Samish Bay Cheese of Bow, and Willapa Hills Cheese of Doty.  Rachel Van Laanen, owner of Mystery Bay Farm, will also be on hand to represent her goat cheeses and field questions from participants.

The Fete du Fromage is for cheese lovers and wine lovers alike, novices and seasoned veterans.  Anyone, in fact, who is looking for a fresh new taste to compliment an old favorite.  Fete tickets are $39 in advance or $45 at the door.  Price includes access to all cheese tables and two wine tastings.  Additional wine tastes (2 oz pours) are $5.  Tax and tip not included.  This event is being held at The Resort at Port Ludlow, 1 Heron Road, Port Ludlow, WA.  For more information or to order advance tickets, please call 360-437-7412.

**Special Note:  The Resort’s Fireside Restaurant is cozy and intimate.  Their menu reflects a passion for Northwest cuisine, utilizing fresh ingredients that are grown, caught or raised locally.  In April, The Fireside received the 2012 Washington Wine Award of Distinction for its dedication and commitment to Washington’s wine industry. 

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Cranberry Wine – The Perfect Summer Cooler

Cranberry wine from Pasek Cellars. Photo: KGilb.

Cranberry wine from Pasek Cellars. Photo: KGilb.

5/15/2012. Mmmm, cranberry wine. The perfect accompaniment to a traditional Thanksgiving feast, and especially good during the festive holiday season that follows. But why put it away once the holidays have ended? The tart, refreshing taste of cranberry wine is a natural pairing with the long, lazy days of summer.

One of our favorite cranberry wines comes from Pasek Cellars in Mount Vernon WA. Made from cranberries grown right here in the Pacific NW, the wine starts out sweet, but ends with a delightfully tart cranberry finish. The color is a deep, rich red reminiscent of the berry itself which makes for a very pretty summer cooler/cocktail.

Pasek Cellars’ cranberry wine is best served chilled. For a more festive occasion like a patio party, graduation, or reception, try mixing it with champagne or sparkling cider:

1. Pour 2 oz cranberry wine and a splash of lime into a wine glass or champagne flute. Top it off with champagne or sparkling cider, and garnish with 3-4 fresh cranberries.

2. Pour equal parts cranberry wine and champagne over crushed ice. Garnish with a thin slice of lime or 2-3 strips of orange zest. Serve and enjoy!

Pasek Cellars was established in 1995 by Gene and Kathy Pasek. Their specialty? Though they do offer a crisp, light chardonnay, a syrah, and a syrah port, it’s their fruit wines that have proven most popular. Blackberry, cranberry, loganberry, raspberry . . . even pineapple and passion fruit. For a complete listing of available wines, please check their wine list.

Pasek Cellars wines can be found in specialty shops and grocery stores throughout the Northwest and can also be ordered online. For a special treat, stop by their tasting room which is located just one hour north of Seattle at the Conway Skagit Barn. They’re open every day from 11-5. In addition to free wine tastings, the shop also features a variety of wine-related gifts and accessories. For a map and detailed directions, please check the Pasek Cellars website.

Whether an avid cranberry fan or someone just looking for a unique new taste, don’t wait six months for the next holiday season to begin. Cranberry wine is the perfect summer cooler.

**Special Note: Pasek Cellars is the first stop along the Skagit Valley Wine Route




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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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“Birds and Blooms” Exhibit

Birds and Blooms exhibit runs through May 26. Cover Art: Art on the Boulevard.

Birds and Blooms exhibit runs through May 26. Cover Art: Art on the Boulevard.

4/18/2012.  No matter how cool and rainy it might be outside on the streets, Spring has definitely come to Art on The Boulevard in downtown Vancouver, WA.  MaryJane Larson and Denise McFadden are the featured artists in the “Birds and Blooms” watercolor exhibit currently on display in the gallery.  This special exhibit continues through May 26, but don’t wait!  Treat yourself to a bit of spring right now.

Northwest artist MaryJane Larson was born and raised in Petersburg, Alaska, but now lives in Vancouver, WA.  Growing up surrounded by creative family members—painters, potters, carvers, sculptors, weavers, and more—it’s no wonder she became an artist.  Her favorite subjects are flowers (big, beautiful blooms that look like they’ve been plucked fresh from the garden) and Northwest landscapes.  Her use of bright colors and realistic details help bring her canvasses to life.

Fellow exhibitor Denise McFadden worked as a graphic artist for various advertising firms in Chicago and Colorado.  When she moved to Vancouver, however, watercolor became her chosen medium.  A choice clearly applauded by many, as her work has since garnered several awards.  Her portrayals of birds in the wild (herons, gulls, pelicans, hawks, even blackbirds) are incredibly striking.  So graceful and yet thrumming with energy.  Of special interest are the 2-3 paintings on display from her woven/quilted series.

Art on the Boulevard is a non-profit art gallery whose mission is “to establish a community environment in which the arts flourish.”  Working with over 50 Northwest artists, the gallery is able to display a wide variety of media and styles:  oils and watercolors, pottery, sculptures, blown glass, jewelry, and photography.

The gallery is located in Suite #300 at the Vancouver Marketplace Building, 210 West Evergreen Boulevard, Vancouver, WA.  Hours: 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Saturday.  Stop by for a visit today!

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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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