Springtime in the Northwest means melting snow in the mountains, streams rushing with cold, clear water and showery days warmed by the occasional sun break. Trees sprout new leaves, flowers appear and the days grow noticeably longer. For families with children of any age, it's a time to reconnect with nature, to truly appreciate the beauty of the region we call home.
Whatcom County boasts two parks that offer excellent opportunities to introduce young children to nature - and at the same time spark interest for adults and older children.
Both Tennant Lake in Ferndale and the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve near Sudden Valley feature short hikes on improved trails. Both are accessible and have ample parking. Tennant Lake has bathrooms, but there are no facilities at Stimpson.
Tennant Lake, an 80-acre wetland that's really more of a shallow peat bog covered in lily pads, features a mile and a half of raised wood-plank boardwalk through a marshy area teeming with wildlife.
Its loop trail offers a fascinating stroll through soggy scrub and small trees to a viewing site surrounded by water lilies at the edge of the lake. It's perfect for tots and families with children in strollers, although -- thanks to beaver activity -- an inch or two of standing water sometimes washes over the boardwalk, even in summer.
There's also a short side trail to the lake, where you find a dock and benches to sit and to gaze across the water, listen to birdsongs and catch tiny critters just below the surface. On clear days, there's an impressive view of Mount Baker.
Start your trek on the marsh trail, a dirt path that begins near the 50-foot observation tower east of the parking lot, past the park's Fragrance Garden. A shallow puddle sometimes covers the first few feet of the trail.
After crossing a footbridge, take the trail left toward Tennant Lake. Look for signs of beaver activity, such as nibbled trees and branches. If you keep conversation to a minimum, you'll hear a chorus of songbirds calling from the scrub brush that lines the trail.
The boardwalk trail begins as the path enters a shady swale. When this portion of the trail is flooded, the boardwalk can be slippery.
If the loop trail looks too flooded to navigate, keep to the left and the lake will come into view after a few yards. The shortened hike may seem anticlimactic, but if you bring binoculars for bird watching and a bucket and magnifying glass for examining aquatic life, it can be an interesting trip. We've captured dragonfly nymphs and observed water striders and water boatmen -- two kinds of aquatic insects -- as well as snails and freshwater shrimp. We listened to the call of red-wing blackbirds and marveled at the color and variety of dragonflies and damselflies.
On your way out, climb the observation tower, which offers a sweeping view of the lake and surrounding countryside. In the Fragrance Garden, help children discover new aromas and textures by letting them gently run their hands over the multitude of herbs and them breathe in the fragrance.
For a printable PDF map of the trails around Tennant Lake, go to www.co.whatcom.wa.us/parks and click on "park maps" on the left. Click on Hovander Homestead Park, which shows the trails around both parks. Other information is also available online at co.whatcom.wa.us/parks. Click on "current conditions" at the left, then scroll down to the park.
Tennant Lake Park is just outside Ferndale. Take Interstate 5 to Exit 262 (Main Street), then head west toward town. Make a hard left on Hovander Road, just past Samuel's Furniture and before the Nooksack River bridge. From Hovander Road, take the second right, which is Neilsen Road, and follow it to the dead end. Plenty of parking is on the left.
The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is a jewel of the Whatcom County parks system, featuring some four miles of trails through lush wetlands and mostly second-growth cedar, fir and hemlock.
Its easy trails are well-maintained, and creek crossings feature solid bridges. There are some hilly portions, but no long, steep switchbacks. Total elevation gain/loss is only a couple hundred feet. I have seen couples pushing strollers on the trails and plenty of small children who handle the trek with gusto.
If you're quiet enough, you'll pick up the phrasing of various songbirds and the tap-tap-tap of a red-shafted flicker. The two trailside ponds often feature an array of waterfowl -- including the occasional hooded merganser. There are beavers at Beaver Pond just past the trailhead, but I've never seen one -- only evidence of their existence in the form of gnawed trees and footprints.
Another feature is the 6-foot-wide old-growth Douglas fir, dating to the 1600s, near a marble bench along the backside of the main loop trail.
As with any outing, dress in layers for the weather (it can be cooler among the trees), and pack plenty of water and snacks. Bring binoculars for bird-watching and for spotting beavers. A general nature guidebook is helpful for keeping small children interested in the various flora and fauna they observe.
Because it is designated as a nature reserve, bicycles and pets are not permitted on the trails, and collecting of natural features is not allowed. This a family trail, so serious hikers should expect to hear the naturally loud voices of tots and preschoolers. Parents, however, can gently encourage their children to use their "inside voices" in hopes of seeing more wildlife and being able to hear the sounds of the forest.
On the north side of Geneva Pond is a stream that drains toward Lake Whatcom. For a teachable moment, parents can discuss how the rainfall and creek runoff from Lookout Mountain to the south fills the pond, and then the pond drains toward the lake. It's the same water that comes out the taps of Bellingham homes.
The Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is on Lake Louise Road, about a mile west of Sudden Valley Gate 13 (Western Lane). To reach it from Bellingham, take Lakeway Drive east to Cable Street, turning right on Austin Street-Lake Louise Road, just a couple blocks past the South Whatcom Fire Authority Station 21.
Follow Austin Street uphill until it curves left and becomes Lake Louise Road. When the road starts a steep, curvy drop, look for a parking area on the left.
Follow from the trailhead a few hundred yards to a signed junction with the main trail. Go left to a turnoff for the 1.2-mile Geneva Pond loop trail, or continue to complete the main circuit of about three miles. Families with older children might want to combine the two trails for a more strenuous outing.
For those who want to save a car trip, take the Whatcom Transportation Authority bus No. 512 (Sudden Valley) from the downtown station. Buses run hourly during the daytime except Sundays, hitting the Stimpson stop about 5 minutes before the hour.
Suggest your ideas for family-friendly events or day trips to Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or email@example.com. Read more Bellingham Families news online at BellinghamFamilies.com or on Facebook at Bellingham Families.