Whatcom County's rainy season often sends area residents indoors for fall and winter excursions such as museums, art galleries and classroom programs.
But here are three activities to draw you into the stunning beauty of Northwest Washington: cutting a Christmas tree in the national forest; bird-watching in the Skagit River flats; and looking for eagles and spawning salmon around Lake Whatcom and in the Mount Baker foothills.
All these trips require some car travel, but they also offer a chance to stretch your legs on a long or short hike, depending on your abilities. If you're traveling in foul weather, remember to dress in layers appropriate for the day. I like to bring a change of shoes and socks and sometimes even a dry shirt for the drive home. It's also nice to carry a towel or blanket to cover the car seat if you're soaking wet. When our children were small, we often brought a complete change of clothes in case the kids got drenched and dirty.
Unless you plan to stop along the way for a meal, carry warm drinks and a lunch or snack foods that everyone enjoys. Remember to bring water so people stay hydrated - even in winter.
SKAGIT VALLEY BIRDING
One of the finest places to see migratory birds - especially raptors and waterfowl - is the farms and fields of rural Skagit County, said Glen Alexander, education coordinator at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Bay View, west of Mount Vernon.
Alexander suggests that visitors start their birding tour at the Breazeale Interpretive Center, a natural history museum at 10441 Bay View-Edison Road. It features hands-on displays, a children's activity area and aquariums that showcase the marine life of the Salish Sea. Nearby trails go to the Padilla Bay shoreline and through an upland forest and meadows of a former dairy farm. Staff at the center are knowledgeable and will answer your questions.
"The Upland Trail is very good for birding," Alexander said. "But in winter, the most interesting things are out in the bay."
Migratory shorebirds and waterfowl such gray-bellied brant are fascinating, even if you're not a serious birder, Alexander said. He said the gray-bellied brant - which number only a few thousand - are different from the more common black brant, and they winter only in the Padilla Bay area. The "charismatic" birds are a delight, he said.
"I call it the 'Charlie Brown' factor. They are cute in a way that captures your heart."
For those who want to see hawks, eagles, falcons, harriers and owls, Alexander said to drive north on Bay View-Edison Road toward the village of Edison.
"Between (the Breazeale Center) and Samish Island is best for raptors," Alexander said. He especially enjoys watching flocks of birds turn in unison at the sight of an airborne predator.
"The flash of color when a flock changes direction, there's something visceral about that. It's like a dance, a dance in the sky."
Raptor viewing in the area is best with binoculars from your vehicle, Alexander said. The rural roads have narrow shoulders and can be dangerous to walk along. Besides, pedestrians tend to frighten large birds - but the raptors are accustomed to cars.
Near what locals call the "West 90," where Bay View-Edison Road makes a sharp turn away from Samish Island Road, is state-managed land with trails accessible to the public. A state Discover Pass is required and the area is popular with hunters during waterfowl season. Hikers should be prepared to see people with firearms and hear gunfire.
Farmland south and east of the Breazeale Center is a popular wintering spot for tens of thousands of snow geese and swans, among other waterfowl.
Alexander said a good viewing site is at the end of Rawlins Road, off Fir Island/Browns Slough Road. "It's a great salt marsh area," he said. "They can drive out to the end off the road and there's a dike to walk on."
Another good site is the Skagit Wildlife Area, in the delta at the end of Wylie Road. It features miles of trails. Parking here requires a Discover Pass.
To get to the Breazeale Center, take Interstate 5 exit 231 west on Josh Wilson Road, turning right after about 6 miles onto Bay View-Edison Road. Admission is free, although donations are accepted. Parking is free and the center features clean restrooms and a place to picnic. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, except state holidays. For more information, call 360-428-1558 or go online to padillabay.gov.
The center also offers seasonal programs and its birding classes are among the most popular. Alexander recommends registering for an email notice when new classes are posted in November. Look for the "newsletter" link at the website. A map of Skagit Flats birding areas is available from the center or under the "recreational opportunities" link at padillabay.org.
CUT A "WILD" CHRISTMAS TREE
For an outing that combines the excitement of cutting a Christmas tree with the exhilaration of a winter walk in the mountains, try searching for a "wild" Christmas tree this year.
Tanya Kitterman, a wilderness ranger at the North Cascades National Park, said cutting a Christmas tree in the Mount Baker area is growing increasing popular and sometimes people have to settle for a tree that's less than stellar.
"They're not as full as the trees from a Christmas tree farm, Kitterman said. "We've had the 'Charlie Brown' trees a couple times ... sometimes we use the top half and make garlands from the scrawny bottom branches.
"You don't need as many ornaments and they're a lot easier to clean up at the end," she said.
But there are trees out there nonetheless, even the alpine fir that's among the most desired 'wild' trees, Kitterman said. Those often are at higher elevations that are inaccessible by vehicle, she said.
Kitterman suggests asking friends for advice on where they've found good trees or hike the trails in fair weather, making note of locations to search when the snow flies.
"It's kind of like a treasure hunt," Kitterman said. "Sometimes, that's kind of fun too - the experience of getting into the fresh air.
"Some people like to take snowmobiles or ski, she said. "Sometimes families like to do it as a Thanksgiving outing."
A permit to cut a tree 12 feet or shorter is $10 and $20 for trees taller than 12 feet. Permits usually go on sale in mid-November and remain on sale through Dec. 24, Kitterman said.
Locally, permits will be available from the Glacier Public Service Center, which is open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, or from the U.S. Forest Service office at 810 Highway 20 in Sedro-Woolley, which is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call the Glacier center at 360-599-2714 or the Sedro-Woolley office at 360- 856-5700 ext. 515.
Usually, a Northwest Forest Pass or day-use permit is required in the national forest. But those without a forest pass can place their tree-cutting permit on the dashboard while they're looking for their tree. Be aware of where you park, because some locations require a state Sno-Park permit or state Discover Pass and not a Forest Service-issued pass.
Safety tips and other information are listed at this Forest Service webpage: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/home/?cid=stelprdb5337967. A link labeled "Christmas tree facts" is a PDF with general information about where trees can be cut. Two other links, labeled "Mount Baker Highway" and "Baker Lake Road" have printable PDF maps that show main roads through the national forest.
In general, winter travelers should come prepared and use common sense. It gets dark by mid-afternoon in the woods, so start early and head back before darkness falls. Check current weather conditions and dress accordingly. Make sure you have enough fuel and it's always advisable to carry extra food, clothing and blankets when traveling in winter wilderness.
SEE EAGLES AND SPAWNING SALMON
Autumn in Whatcom County is a favorite of Holly Roger, education coordinator and naturalist with Wild Whatcom Walks, a nonprofit educational organization that offers classes and excursions that highlight the natural history of Western Washington.
"I like the smells of fall the best," Roger said. "It's my favorite season." For weekday hikes, she enjoys the easy trails at Stimpson Family Nature Reserve near Sudden Valley for their sheer beauty and the diversity of mushrooms that sprout after the rainy season begins. But for fall and winter family outings, she prefers the North Lake Whatcom Trail.
"It's a great trail," she said. "It's also incredibly stroller-friendly and bike-friendly." Roger and her boys like to find a sandy spot along the shore and play in the pristine waters of Lake Whatcom - even when temperatures are in the 40s and low 50s.
"With our Indian Summer it's best for a late-fall swim," she said. "The water is still warmish and there's just enough beach to play on. The water is fresh and clean, not like near Blodel-Donovan (Park)."
But the greatest lure of the lakeshore trails are the two waterfalls that tumble out of the surrounding hillsides and the spawning chinook, coho and chum salmon that arrive from October through December.
"For watching salmon, oh my gosh - it's happening right there," she said. "They're way cute."
Roger also takes her 9- and 6-year-old boys to see salmon along the Nooksack River near the Mosquito Lake Road bridge, where bald eagles mass seasonally to feast on the carcasses of spawning fish. Deming Homestead Eagle Park on nearby Truck Road is another good spot to see eagles and salmon in November and December.
"That's one of my favorite places to play," she said. "Right there is where the Middle Fork and the North Fork meet, it's the confluence. That whole river changes right there all the time, right in front of you."
Roger said she parks under the bridge and wanders along the river, where her children poke around and build structures from branches carried out of the mountains.
"They go there and play for hours and hours," she said. "(But) the river moves pretty fast through there, so you want to be careful."
The North Lake Whatcom Trail is at the end of North Shore Drive along Lake Whatcom. Parking is free but the only facilities are a pit toilet at the trailhead. Bring hand sanitizer or other means of washing. Parking is free at Eagle Park and near the Mosquito Lake Bridge. No toilet facilities are available.
More information about Eagle Park and the North Lake Whatcom Trail is at co.whatcom.wa.us/parks/parksandtrails.jsp. Learn more about local salmon at whatcomsalmon.whatcomcounty.org.
Robert Mittendorf is a Herald copy editor and page designer. Suggest your ideas for local family-friendly events, hikes or day trips at 360-756-2805 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.