Author Archives: scmckee

Long Beach

Encouraged by a couple of successful day-trips, we decided it was time to try an overnight journey. A trip to the Washington coast, say, would let us practice our neglected packing skills and prove that we could find a place to charge our car.

We booked a suite at The Breakers in Long Beach, a town north of Deception Bay, the mouth of the Columbia River. It’s one of those places where you stay in somebody’s well-equipped condo, but there’s also hotel staff nearby to make sure that things go well.

It was pure luck, but we left Seattle just as August’s historic heat wave was beginning, and, except for some of our time enroute, we managed to miss all of it.  It was 20 degrees cooler in Long Beach while we were there.

A cyclist pedals along a paved trail through tall grass near beach.

Every coast should have its Long Beach. For most of us the name probably evokes California, but the one in Washington is the longest on the West Coast, at 28 miles. For this purpose it has its own peninsula, lying between the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay.

Staying three nights gave us a chance to try two very different bike rides. The first took us east and north, offering access to both bay and ocean by turns.  This route was was pretty urban (by beach-town standards) and involved some narrow highway shoulders, though traffic was light. We stopped for a while at a park that had a tall antenna-like structure; we figured out later that this was the tsunami warning device.

The second day’s ride was along the Discovery Trail, a dedicated bike-and-pedestrian path that starts in the parking lot of our hotel and runs south about seven miles, into the forest where the terrain starts looking hillier. It’s possible to continue well into Cape Disappointment State Park, but we were satisfied with our tour of the grassland and turned around near the Beard’s Hollow trailhead.

The linear organization typical of the beach town makes navigation easy. The little supermarket is right across from the little post office, and we visited often enough to have a favorite parking space. The Breakers itself offers the authentic beach-house experience:  sturdy, versatile housewares, light-blue accents, a collection of maritime knick-knacks, and an easy intimacy with the outdoors.  Every unit has a view straight out toward the ocean, and from the units on the ground floor, like ours, there’s nothing to keep you from just walking there from your back door.  Our unit was near the Level 2 charging station, and we seemed to have it all to ourselves. We charged to 80% capacity, and had about 20% left after the 175 mile drive home, suggesting that the car used some of its energy to cool its battery in the unusual heat.

The trip home took us by the Willapa National Wildlife Reserve and since the weather there was still pleasant we parked and strolled along the walkway. We missed most of the wildlife, but there was public art and some explanatory material.  By the way, Willapa Bay has a Long Island as well as a Long Beach, but we left it to others.

Snoqualmie Valley Trail

Picture of a distant farmhouse among trees.

Encouraged by our trip along the Cedar River, we loaded the bikes on the car again and headed for Duvall, near the northern end of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, another railbed re-purposed for pedestrians, horses and cyclists.

The convenient starting point is, fittingly, at the well-appointed Depot Park.  The Milwaukee Road built the facilities — and in fact moved the former town of Cherry Valley here — in the early 1900s.  The valley had been the home of the Snoqualmie people until the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855.  Homesteading began after the Civil War, and Francis and James Duvall arrived in 1871. I believe that locals stress the first syllable when saying the name.

There’s a half-mile of trail north of here, but we rode only south, upriver, with the winding Snoqualmie River and numerous oxbow lakes on our right. Much further upstream, the river’s three main forks provide routes into the mountains, but down here the scene is farm and dairy land.

In fact, the next town is Carnation, named (then un-named and named again) for the evaporated-milk company, once a big presence. The original name of the town was Tolt and I assumed it was Germanic, but in fact it’s the Anglicized version of the Lushootseed name for the river that joins there. Carnation is also the site of several nice big parks, and on our return trip we pedaled into town and ate lunch at the amiable Blake’s Pizza. I don’t think we ever saw those famous dairy cows, but the trail is popular with horses as well as cyclists. We turned around just here after this bridge, a bit short of Fall City, giving the day a total of 27.4 miles.

The seminal book on cycling in Washington, Bicycling the Backroads Around Puget Sound, by Erin and Bill Woods, first published in 1972, focuses on this part of King County (Bill and Erin had built their home out here east of Redmond).  Alex and I did the rides from Duvall to Carnation, and from Fall City to Carnation, and up the Tolt River, back when we were first riding together, back before the railroad turned to gravel trail, back when parts of the trip were still on Highway 203.

The trail offers a less urban experience, and in fact it got woodsier the further south we rode.  In some spots trailside exhibits provided information about wildlife and plants. Speaking of flora, there were salmonberries too, the third and possibly least noticed of the local brambles. These may ripen to a scarlet color, or maybe just stop at golden, but in any case their flavor never amounts to much. In fact, the plant’s leaves, shoots and branches are as likely to be used as the berries are. They do have showy pink flowers in the Spring though.

This trail’s rustic nature seemed to make it dustier than the last one too. Our bicycles were not allowed back in the house, or even off the carrier, before making a trip to the car wash.

Cedar River Trail

A picture of Alex riding through an underpass toward a hillside covered with blackberries.

There will be blackberries.

On the first full day of summer, we got our new-ish bicycles, car and bike rack together for the first time and headed down past Renton to try out the Cedar River Trail.
A picture of gravel trail through woodland.

We started at the far end, near the Landsburg Fish Ladder, figuring to put a park and some facilities near our turn-around point.  Though there’s a commuter-like stretch in the middle (paralleling State Route 169), both the northern and southern ends of our ride were shaded by dense stands of tall old trees. We stopped just short of the Liberty skatepark; we’re familiar with most of the trail north of there because we use it when we ride around the south end of Lake Washington.

A picture of some rapids from the Cedar River Trail.

On former railbed next to a stream, the path offers a gentle grade.  In a bit over 32 miles we first mostly lost, and then mostly regained about 700 feet.  There are spots along the way to view or approach the water — fishing was popular among the people we met in the parking lot. Upstream from the trail, the Cedar River watershed provides domestic water for our part of Seattle.

A close-up of the leaves and fruit of the thimbleberry -- one of them bright red.There are already thimbleberries. Unlike blackberries, these are borne on the current year’s canes. and they mature quite early.  Like their closer relatives, raspberries, they leave their little white cores behind when picked.  They’re not ripe until crimson, by which time somebody else has usually eaten them, even though they taste pretty much like aspirin until then.

A picture of our modest little black Kona with a load of bicycles on its stern.

Well, it was another year mostly spent close to home.  We did see a couple of milestones though.

We’ve bought an electric car!  It’s a Hyundai Kona SE.  It’s efficient and fun to drive, and we’ve already outfitted it to carry our bicycles and we hope to train it to carry a kayak as well.  We’re still waiting for our condo association to get our charging station wired up, but, on the other hand, after a month and a half, we still haven’t needed to plug our car in.  Sadly, this acquisition meant parting with our 13-year-old Escape hybrid.  The Snowball Diaries, which began with our move to Mexico in 2009, have seen their final entry.

Last year we reported on the purchase of Alex’s e-bike.  This year brought a new bicycle for Scott, as the old one threatened to fail catastrophically.  The new bike promises to be a little more versatile, with fatter tires to handle woodsier parts of the state’s trail system.

Another new thing is the weather.  Used to be, western Washington seemed practically immune from forest fires.  We would sometimes get smoke from across the mountains or from British Columbia, but only if the wind blew just wrong.  With hotter and drier summers, Washingtonians are now producing our own smoke.  I made the mistake this year of bragging about how we’d been spared, and then October kept us indoors most of the time.  There was one day when Seattle had the worst air quality of all the world’s major cities.  Then the smoke was followed by weather that was both cooler and wetter than usual, again casting a pall over outdoor activities.

Still, there were plenty of times during the year when we ventured into the real world. Some earlier forays include an exploration of one of our neighborhood thoroughfares — Broad Street — and an introduction to some local wildlife — Our Crows.  Here’s some holiday cheer from Westlake Park:

Another new bicycle

Well, there we were, at Gene Coulon Park in Renton, nearly half-way into the loop around the south end of Lake Washington, having a snack at Kidd Valley.  I had my bike propped up in front of me, and as Alex was off getting milkshakes, I noticed a tiny black line running much of the way around its downtube, near the fork. 

Unlike steel, aluminum isn’t required to give you any warning before failing.  I was probably pretty lucky to spot this problem, and to have a chance to find another way home and to retire my faithful frame before any catastrophe could occur.

But of course that’s not what I did, riding instead another nine miles very gently to the little picnic area just short of the Allentown Bridge, sending Alex home for the car, and taking this picture meant to represent end-of-the-line for my old Novara.

Alex is familiar with this scenario — it’s pretty much what she did that time I broke my hip, just with a different car and a different bike. And more distance.

And then, while she was on her way, I rode just another half mile to Cecil Moses park, where there are more amenities.

It was clear though that I should get another bike before my luck ran out, so a few days later I ended up at Gregg”s and found a bike about the same size as the old one, but with fatter tires — what they’re calling a “gravel bike”  or “adventure bike” these days. It’s a Trek Checkpoint ALR5, road-bike in shape but with lots of hard points for mounting luggage.  I’ve changed some parts around and it it seems to fit okay. A mere sixty-five years ago I wouldn’t have imagined that someday I would have a bicycle with hydraulic disc brakes. 


Broad Street


In this part of Seattle, thanks to a disagreement between early settlers, streets run southwest-to-northeast. Broad Street is the only one that ever broke through the east-west grid north of Denny Way, running diagonally from salt water clear to Lake Union.  The picture above shows beginning of Broad Street’s climb up the hill from the north end of Alaskan Way, the former Railroad Avenue.

For the last half of the 20th Century and beyond, Aurora Avenue made north-south travel easy north of Denny, but east-west traffic nearly impossible.  Broad Street crossed under Aurora though, at about the same place as Mercer but in its own idiosyncratic direction. Drivers coming from the freeway could choose to pass to the north of Seattle Center or to the southeast on Broad Street.

Following the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, big changes came to Aurora Avenue. Then after Amazon’s conquest of South Lake Union, something had to be done about Mercer.  During the last couple of decades Broad Street lost its importance and then, suddenly, about half of its length.  From the west it doesn’t really cross Fifth Avenue any more, though it does get a street sign on the far side. Its old alignment there is now a skate park:

The park is here because the new hockey arena claimed the former location, a quarter mile west.

Bits and pieces of vacated Broad Street appear among newer construction projects.

The photo above shows a scrap of old roadway, now an experiment in urban habitat, next to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Discovery Center.  The view below looks across the new tunnel entrance, back toward the skate park.

Further east, hints of the old Broad Street show up within parcels that are being developed.   But here’s an interesting thing:  the block that always connected Valley Street to Roy Street, right at Westlake, the part that lies in shadow in the picture below, is signed “Roy St.” on the pole; but if you view it on Google Maps at just the right magnification , it is still labeled “Broad St.”

Another quiet year at home! This summer could have meant a trip to a 50-year college reunion, but instead we spent time perfecting our housekeeping skills. This lull did provide an opportunity for some writing — here’s a link to the memoirs collected as Lockdown Lit, in case you missed them. Next year we’re hoping instead to be able to make the rail journey across Canada that we have already postponed once.

Our biggest milestone this year was Alex’s new e-bike. Until about the time she got it, we were still having most of our foodstuffs delivered; now, she does almost all our marketing by bike, visiting as many as four stores each week.

Here’s the bike on one of its first trips north along the Interurban Trail. An electric bike is a fairly sensible purchase here in Seattle, where two entirely reasonable sections of a route may be separated by a short, steep, disheartening climb. It may well be that Alex gets more exercise now that she doesn’t have to avoid the hardest parts. Her companion certainly does.

Our next step may be an electric car, if our building management is able to install charging stations as planned.  Check back next year, and have a great 2022!

Our Bumblebees

July arrived before I had seen even a dozen bumblebees; I was afraid that they were gone for good.  The blackberries had made alternate arrangements for pollination.  The vegetation installed specifically to support the bees was largely bloomed out — most notably the wild lilac, which I happen to know is their favorite thing in the whole world.

Then I began to see a few bumblebees here and there by the roadside.  And now it turns out that our rooftop garden is loaded with them. Click on the image below (or here for a high-resolution version):


These big black bees are Bombus vosnesenskii, the Yellow-Faced Bumblebee. Popular with farmers generally, they’re the champion pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes. Plus, they’re immensely fun to interact with. It’s sometimes possible to touch the luxurious fur of one that’s fully engaged with a flower, though she may wave a  middle leg or two as a warning.  They’re also approachable when their body temperature is low.  Here’s one we met walking across Clay Street:

Bumblebees don’t have the same kind of regimented homelife that honeybees have: a bumblebee won’t always make it back to the nest at the end of the day, and may be found the next morning waiting for enough warmth to get started.  The image of the bee sleeping in the palm of the hand is celebrated in popular music, but note that bees vary somewhat in their disposition.  If the bees in your neighborhood look like ours but turn out to be B. fervidis instead, you may get a different reception.

We used to see three other kinds of bumblebees in Seattle regularly.  To the right is a picture of a Black Tail Bumblebee, B. melanopygus, who was our houseguest for one night back in May of 2006.

These bees are also called orange-rumped, and this second picture, blurred by the subject’s motion, shows why.

The other two species we used to see were much more numerous: B. californicus, which is banded much like B. vosnesenskii but has a black face; and B. sitkensis, smaller, scruffier, and popular in Alsaska for getting its work done in a short growing season.  Our current environment has a different mix of flowers from our old garden, and bees are apt to specialize, so we don’t have a clear picture of how our bees are faring.  The Yellow-Faced bee is said to have edged out its local competitors through a strategy of emerging early; maybe now they’re just resting on their laurels.

A New Urban Village

On my way home from the library on Saturday I thought that I might stop by the Pike Place Market, our current source for basil.  This meant descending from Fourth Avenue to First, and I started down Seneca Street.  When I got to Second I noticed that the big construction project there was no longer fenced off.  A closer look showed that, like many recent developments, this one provides a mid-block passage.

The new building has been called variously 2 + U (for its location at Second and University) and Qualtrics Tower, for its biggest tenant. Promotional literature suggests a tower built on stilts with an urban village tucked underneath. It was also said to be rare in that it would open fully leased; apparently that’s not the same as fully occupied, because I seemed to have the building pretty much to myself on this visit. Post-pandemic, I expect to have to share.

This panorama begins and ends with a glimpse of the former Washington Mutual Tower, across Second Avenue.  Halfway through, past a squarish tree, that dark building is the Harbor Steps, where we lived during the summer of 2009.  To the right of the legacy red brick building is the Seattle Art Museum.

It was once thought that the building would open in 2019. Several projects on Second Avenue have ground on for years; but at least this one, being on the west side, didn’t interfere with the bike lane like the others.  Not to say that it was without disruption — in 2016 our rug guys, Homa Rugs, lost their store as demolition loomed.  Now, fortunately, they have a place in one of the brick buildings that remained.  Here’s what their corner looked like after it was leveled, back in 2017 (all four of the Harbor Steps towers are at least partially visible here. We used to live in that nearest one.)

2020 Wrap-up

We got off pretty easy, during this Year of the Pandemic.  Our trip to Florida was finished before travel became a concern.  Some of Alex’s work for the Washington State Medical Quality Assurance Board required physical attendance, but that part was done by January.  (Her visit to Tukwila provided an opportunity for her spouse to try indoor skydiving, as reported earlier.)

With no social or professional obligations, we figured that we would be able to eliminate almost all possibility of infection, so we started getting all our meals or groceries delivered.  We did enjoy Washington’s “fresh air and exercise” exemption, perhaps more than advisable for us vulnerable, treatment-intensive oldsters; but otherwise we were pretty strict about self-isolation.

During the times when the transmission rates were low, we enjoyed walking down to the waterfront in the evenings.  But cycling always seemed safer.  When the Cascade Bicycle Club announced that its annual Seattle-to-Portland ride would be “virtual” this year — and that one would have eighteen extra days to cover the 200-plus miles, on any chosen course — we recognized what might be our only chance to secure bragging rights for this event  The unusual format was handy in other ways — we were able to combine other errands, like plastic bag recycling.  Here’s Alex pausing to pick up a couple weeks’ worth of nearly-contactless bagels.

It’s a good thing we got our biking done — and our mask-wearing perfected, because the end of summer brought another respiratory challenge, with smoke and ash from West Coast wildfires, some of them here in Western Washington.  Outside air was “hazardous” for days on end.

Inside, it was still pretty nice.