Forest Fright

(First published October 31, 2013)


I’ve been saving this story for the right time, and I guess now is as good a time as any. After all, Halloween is the night we face our fears. Whatever you’ve been told about the pagan origins of the autumn festival, it really boils down to a single bit of ancient wisdom. Every once in a while you have to unleash your demons and let them run wild, just so the rest of the year they’ll leave you alone.

Sometimes, a bad scare does you good.



But, I don’t want to get all Vincent Price about it. This isn’t a story about demons or monsters. It’s simply about a fright I had one fall afternoon in the forest…

It was the day I happened upon a strange mound poking up from the forest floor.

To be sure, the forest can be pretty creepy in autumn. It isn’t just the dead stuff—the shriveled leaves and the slimy decay—it’s the light, too. Unlike the flat gray of winter’s naked canopy, the fall forest is still shady, and the lowering sun streaks through the sky-holes like bright swords, practically blinding you from the glare. As you walk, the effect comes and goes, so that one minute you’re fine, and the next, all you can see is a confusing jumble of dark shapes, backlit by searing gold light. Suddenly, mossy boughs seem to reach out from every angle like hairy, twisted arms, and twigs criss-cross everything like inky scribbles. It’s disorienting.





This particular afternoon, I was wandering on the loop trail, trying to get a little fresh forest air and some exercise. It had been a long day of painting in my studio and I had been a bit unsettled by my subject, a giant wolf spider. I could still see the plump, hairy body with all those legs and eyes—eight of each—plus that enormous set of fangs. I try to love all creatures great and small, but wolf spiders give me the serious willies.















As I walked down the trail, I tried to move silently to see if I could sneak up on the resident coyote. I had seen plenty of his scat so I knew he was lurking around somewhere, but the crispy leaves underfoot made too much noise for stealth, so I decided to hunt for mushrooms instead.

I came into a shady spot beneath towering Doug firs, hemlock, and maple. The understory was thick, and most of the forest floor was in deep shade. It was the perfect place for mushrooms. I was investigating a colony of tiny bright orange mushrooms along the side of a decaying hemlock when I noticed an odd shape—a mound—poking up from below a clump of ferns. Maybe it was a giant puffball, or a one of those mushrooms that looks like a sponge. Hmmmm…interesting.

I reached down, parted the ferns and squinted into the shadows. All I could make out was a silhouette—a rounded shape about the size of a melon, half-buried in the forest duff. The domed top was covered with clumps of thin, dark strands gleaming in the rays of golden light. Strange, it looked just like someone’s shiny black…


I leapt backward. The mound was a head. A human head.

I let out a shriek and then froze solid, feeling a sickening surge throughout my body. The forest seemed to suddenly lurch away from me, as if yanked backward by a giant tether. I could see nothing around me, hear nothing but the sound of my own pounding heart. The forest had vanished and there was nothing left but me and the hideous mound rising up from the forest floor.

I knew it was just adrenaline—the heightened yet narrowed focus, rising blood pressure, dilated pupils— it’s the classic “flight or fight” response—nature’s little bag of tricks for the primal struggle of Eat or be Eaten. Without it, our ancestors wouldn’t have amounted to anything but sabertooth tiger chow.

I tried to calm down so I could decide what to do. Had there been anything in the news about a missing person?

Stupid question. Of course there had been, there were always missing people. The TV news was nothing but a grisly string of stabbings, gunfights and murder. And now, I’d be one of those ridiculously awkward headlines, “Hiker Finds Head Hunting Mushrooms.”

I needed to call someone. Dail 911, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Always call 911, even if you’re not sure you should, that’s what they teach you. Better safe than sorry. Soon there’d be sirens and cop cars and flashing blue lights. There’d be reporters and News Vans and Chopper One. They’d tape off the whole forest and set up spotlights, and uniformed people would bustle around holding clipboards and talking on cellphones and picking stuff off the ground with tweezers. Eventually, they’d start hauling things away in black plastic bags.

Call 911! I fumbled through my pockets. Damn. No phone. I remembered now, it was at home on my desk, charging. Crap.

What should I do? Run, screaming, hoping I could find someone with a cellphone? There wasn’t a soul around, I was pretty sure I was the only person in the entire forest. I was completely alone…just me and a severed head.

I peered down at the black hair shining in the beam of sunlight. It was so thick and healthy-looking. How sad. This had been a human being, probably someone young and beautiful and in the prime of life. What a sick world.

The sun disappeared behind the branch of an enormous maple, and the pool of shade around the head dissolved. In the flattened light, it was actually easier to see. I dug in my pocket for my ipod-touch. I should take some photos. The detectives might need photos.

Grimacing, I squatted, balancing on the balls of my feet. I set the ipod on flash and reached out my hand as far as I could. Nice thing about ipods, it’s easier to take photos at arm’s length. I touched the glass to focus on the head, and pressed the button.

There was only a millisecond before the flash went off, but it was long enough for the thought to register. I was going to see this thing fully lit. I hadn’t considered that. I knew it was only half-buried, but was the face showing? Would I see eyeballs staring back at me?

Before my imagination could kick into full panic mode, the flash went off and for a few long moments I saw the afterimage still burned into my retina: a melon-sized rootball of maidenhair fern, probably partially dug up by some animal, and topped with an odd-looking tuft of shiny, black, hairy fungus. Weird, but perfectly natural.

Roots and fungus.

I laughed out loud and fell over backward and lay flat on the leaves for a moment, staring up at the darkening sky. What an idiot. Scared of fungus. Thank goodness my phone was dead. I cringed thinking how embarrassing it would have been to call 911 to report a fungus.

As I walked back home, I thought about how fear affects us. These days, it seems like the whole world runs on fear, and most of it is based on miscalculation, misperception or hype. The least likely things to harm us seem to occupy most of our concern. We’re afraid to walk in the forest, but not afraid of driving on the freeway. We’re afraid of being un-armed, but not of a world where everyone is armed. We’re afraid of kidnappings and serial killers and mass-murderers, but not of climate change and mass extinctions. The fear response that once saved us from being eaten, is now eating us up.

I knew I wouldn’t ever be afraid in the forest again. It’s not good for the body or soul to be paranoid all the time.

A good fright once a year is enough.


Happy Halloween!

It’s Salmon Spawning Time!


Way back in the 1990s, Seattle realized it had a problem. Potentially, a very big problem.

The city was growing fast, but our drinking water was also needed by salmon. And not just any salmon…potentially endangered salmon. How would we make sure there was enough water for both people and fish?

Chinook, also known as King salmon, are the largest of Puget Sound’s five native salmon species, shown in watercolor.


Seattle began work on a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan, which encompasses the entire Cedar River Watershed—the main source of our drinking water. The HCP is a large-scale plan to protect and preserve fish and wildlife habitat.

I just finished a three-sign project that interprets a few aspects of the plan. It’s on a small parcel on the lower part of the watershed where Seattle and its partners are restoring habitat and building a small public access trail.



Seattle is unique in America in that it owns the entire watershed of its main drinking water source: the Cedar River. That means every inch of land that sheds water into the Cedar and that ultimately reaches our faucets is owned and controlled by us. Our water is protected from human-caused ickiness from the moment it falls from the sky until it enters the water pipe at Landsburg Dam. After that, it flows into the transmission and distribution pipeline system—1800 miles of underground pipelines until it reaches your tap. (For the whole very interesting story, watch the official video).

We don’t own the watershed below Landsburg Dam, but none of that water is used for drinking, so it’s not a problem…at least not for us. For fish and wildlife, though, it’s another story. In many places, wildlife habitat has been impacted by development. Things like levees or bank-hardening, invasive plants, and pollutants have impacted habitat in many places.

The lower watershed was once one of the richest salmon spawning habitats in the world, and Seattle and its partners are working to preserve and restore it to good condition. I did the watercolor on the sign below to highlight some of the main features of good salmon habitat.



The sign below shows the upper watershed—the area that is off-limits to unsupervised access. That glowing lake in the center? That’s your drinking water—as clean as it can be!



Want to see salmon spawn in the Cedar River?

NOW is the time to go! At Landsburg, you can see the best show, but there are other sites and also volunteer naturalists on hand.

To find out where and when to go, check the Cedar River Salmon Journey Website.


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Happy Birthday, Wilderness Act!

Fifty years ago today, the Wilderness Preservation Act was signed by President Johnson.

Below is a recycled post from last winter about two of the people who helped get the Act passed.


The Wilderness Preservation Act

This year the Wilderness Preservation Act turns 50. It’s worth remembering that Wilderness Areas were not a given—they were hard-won by a few passionate and determined people.



Mardy and Olaus Murie – Voices for Wilderness

This week’s post is about two people, Margaret (Mardy) Murie and her husband Olaus Murie. Their love of nature—especially the arctic wilderness—drew them together to share a life of adventure and activism. And they both played key roles in the passage of the Wilderness Preservation Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The main source for this story is the book “Arctic Dance”, The Mardy Murie Story.” 


I did this watercolor of the Northern Lights from imagination.


Love and Adventure

It all started in the wilds of Alaska nearly a century ago…

In 1916, In the frontier town of Fairbanks, Alaska, a fourteen year-old girl was saying goodbye to her mother. She was excited and a bit nervous to be taking her first journey on her own, a trip on the Valdez Trail to her father’s home in Southeast Alaska.

Mardy and her fellow travelers were bundled into enormous wolfskin robes for the trip across the Alaska Range in an open, horse-drawn sleigh. Mostly, they traveled at night when the snow was easier, and they stopped to rest in roadhouses along the way.


Horse and Sleigh on the Valdez – Fairbanks Trail, 1911-1920. Photo Library of Congress.


After what seemed like weeks in the sleigh, she transferred to a wagon, then train and steamship, finally arriving at her father’s island home in Southeast Alaska.

It was there, during a summer of exploration and outdoor life in the remote inlets, bays, and forested islands, that Mardy’s love of wilderness was born.

To most fourteen year-olds today, spending a summer roaming free in the wild would probably be the adventure of a lifetime. But for Mardy, it was just the beginning. While still in college, she met an arctic biologist, Olaus Murie, a tall, handsome blue-eyed arctic biologist who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). He was doing research on caribou and other wildlife.

Olaus was a strong and gentle man who had spent most of his life in wilderness and was an expert in arctic survival, wildlife, and the native language. His interests were scientific, but he was a gifted artist as well, and spent much of his free time in the backcountry drawing and painting his observations of nature.

Olaus Murie

Olaus Murie. Photo U.S.F.W.S


While they were becoming acquainted, Mardy and her mother went to visit Olaus near Mount KcKinley where he was working. It was there that their friendship deepened into love as they spent five days “tramping about in a rosy haze in those enchanted mountains.” The two of them realized they were perfectly matched: a shared love of adventure and wilderness life.

Mardy completed her business degree and was the first woman graduate of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska Fairbanks). She and Olaus married in 1924 in a log chapel in Anvik, a remote village on the Yukon River. Mardy’s mother and the rest of the wedding party arrived to the wedding by sternwheeler.



Mardy and Olaus shortly after their wedding in August 1924. Photo U.S.F.W.S


For their honeymoon, the two of them set out on a three-month, 550-mile riverboat and dogsled trip up the Koyukuk River to the Brooks Range, above the Arctic Circle. Mardy, dressed in furs and skins from head to toe, had to learn how to mush her own sled pulled by seven Siberian Huskies.


Olaus and Mardy wearing their trail furs. Photo U.S.F.W.S



Mardy and her dog-team mushing on the trail. Photo U.S.F.W.S.


They camped in a canvas tent warmed with elk hides or stayed in shelter cabins. Olaus conducted caribou research and did sketches and paintings, and Mardy wrote in her dairy and fell in love with the arctic wilderness.

Mardy wrote of a day on the trail as they approached a shelter cabin:

“…the sky is midnight blue and fully spangled with stars, and the moon is rising brighter and brighter behind the pointed trees. In the north, a flicker of green and yellow; then an unfurled bolt of rainbow ribbon shivering and shimmering across the stars—the Aurora. The dogs begin to speed up; we must be nearing a cabin; yes, there it is, a little black blotch on the creek bank. The air is cold and tingling, fingers are numb…


A little later, when warmth and light and food and our few possessions had made the tiny cabin our home for another night, we listen to that ‘whoo, hoo, hoo-hoo’ from the forest; it makes a day on the arctic trail complete.”


Margaret (Mardy) Murie, “Two in the far North”


As their epic honeymoon ended, they each felt they had found their perfect life. From then on, they spent as much time as possible together in the wilderness. The next year, Olaus was sent back to the Arctic to explore the remote headwaters of the Old Crow River. By this time they had their first son, Martin, who was just ten months old. But Mardy had no intention of being left behind, so she packed up the baby and the three of them went on another wilderness adventure.

This time it was summer, a season that can be even tougher on arctic travelers than winter, with hordes of mosquitoes, and the warming weather turning the ground to a soggy sponge-like mess below their feet. Instead of mushing a dog-team for transport, they poled up the river in a tiny scow—their crankshaft having broken on the third day of their trip. Mardy made a little tent on the deck of the boat for the baby, where he was tucked securely into a wooden box.

In “Arctic Dance”, Mardy is quoted describing her daily routine in their camp:

“I used empty five-gallon gasoline cans for the dishes and for clothes, where the cans would be cut down through the center and the sides rolled back to make a handle. You can put in on the fire and warm some water for the diapers. And the diapers you just hang over the willow bushes. And in the other tin you prepared food and did all of the next day’s preparations.”


But the little family was undaunted by the hardships and challenges of the wilderness. They sang, grew closer, and reveled in the expansive, unspoiled world that teemed with wildlife.

“At my back…stretched the limitless tundra, mile upon mile, clear to the Arctic Ocean…we threw off our headnets, gloves, and heavy shirts, and stood with the breeze blowing through our hair…We could see, far out over miles of green tundra, blue hills in the distance, on the Arctic Coast, no doubt. This was the high point; we had reached the headwaters of the Old Crow. After we had lived with it in all its moods, been down in the depths with it for weeks, it was good to know that the river began in beauty and flowed through miles of clean gravel and airy open space.”



Mardy in camp. Photo U.S.F.W.S.


Olaus in later years, sketching on the deck of a boat. Photo U.S.F.W.S


At the end of their second trip together, Mardy felt as comfortable with wilderness life as Olaus, and they continued to travel and have adventures—something they would do their whole lives.

In 1927, Olaus was offered a position in Wyoming, and the growing family moved to Jackson Hole. Olaus continued his work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and he and Mardy became key players in the early conservation movement. Among other things, they helped found the Wilderness Society, and had a hand in the passage of the Wilderness Act and the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They both authored books and won prestigious professional and environmental awards.



Olaus and Mardy in later years. Photo U.S.F.W.S



Olaus died in 1963, but Mardy continued to be active in the wilderness preservation movement until her death at age 101 in 2003. She wrote articles, gave speeches, testified before Congress, and was invited to the White House when President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act in 1964. She worked until late in her life, and was dubbed the “grandmother of the conservation movement” by the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society.


Mardy Murie, left, as President Johnson signs the Wilderness Act. Photo U.S.F.W.S


Today, the Murie ranch in Wyoming operates as an Environmental Center.

Without the passion of committed people like Mardy and Olaus, today our Wilderness Areas might be developed, asphalted, and choked with traffic.

The fight for Wilderness is not over. Today, our federal lands are under increasing pressure for oil and gas development, as well as other high-impact uses such as motorized recreation.


Do you have any thoughts about wilderness, adventure or preservation? Please leave any thoughts or comments. I love hearing from you!


References and Links

Olaus and Mardy Murie: Alaska’s Passionate Protectors

Arctic Dance, the Mardy Murie Story, by Charles Craighead and Bonnie Kreps

The Wilderness Society

The Murie Center

The Wilderness Act and the Preservation Movement

The Wilderness Act turning 50

Two in the Far North, by Mardy Murie

Passive Use – a Thin Green Line

In Seattle, nature-advocates are awakening to the fact that our treasured natural areas are not as protected as we thought they were. Turns out, the brilliant Green of the Emerald City is fading, at least in the eyes of many.

Here is a post I wrote for The Seattle Nature Alliance on the subject. It was posted the day after Seattle voted to approve a controversial funding method for our parks.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple in Discovery Park.


Passive-Use, a Thin Green Line

Now that we’ve marched down the aisle and pledged our eternal and undying love for Seattle parks, one question remains. Will we love our parks to death?

Seattle is changing fast. Our population is exploding, neighborhoods are densifying, traffic is just plain nuts. We’ve come up in the world, which is wonderful. But, city life takes its toll and we’ll need greenspaces to keep us healthy and happy. We’ll also need careful planning so we don’t ruin the very nature we value so highly. Seattle only has 15% of park land that remains natural—one of the lowest percentages among American cities. The other 85% has been developed for active sports or landscaped.

The Seattle Nature Alliance is deeply concerned that Parks is managing natural areas to satisfy recreational desires rather than for ecological health and for our deep, human need to connect with nature. The Natural Resources Division—not the Recreation Division—should manage natural areas using urban ecology standards, not shifting recreational trends. The use should fit the resource, not the other way around.

Traditionally, Seattle park natural areas have been managed for wildlife habitat, passive recreation and natural beauty.Passive recreation means reserved for the general population: the non-motorized, non-mechanized, unhelmeted majority. Passive use is the central idea behind our national Wilderness system—conceived to protect nature for wildlife and the nature-experience for all people. Today, passive use is a thin green line between the remnant wild and the effects of development, over-use and ecological degradation. Without it, paradise would have been paved—or trampled—long ago.

The Parks Department is moving toward multi-use: slicing up natural areas like a pie and serving pieces to specialized user-groups. It’s been happening quietly—not as part of a   stated policy change, but rather through specific project proposals. Two years ago West Seattle was stunned to learn a commercial canopy zipline was planned for Lincoln Park’s mature forest. Recently, many Beacon Hill residents were upset to learn Cheasty Greenspace—one of Seattle’s last undeveloped natural areas— is proposed for a mountain bike skills course, with concept maps showing jumps, drops, and free-ride zones throughout the maturing forest. Now, there are vigorous protests and deep community divides.

Multi-use threatens to turn natural areas into community battlegrounds, with everyone scrambling for their own slice of the pie. Specialized user-groups are often supported by well-organized, well-funded, nationwide groups or even corporate sponsors with financial stakes in the specialized-use itself, giving user-groups an outscaled voice. The general population is left unrepresented, an easy target written off as NIMBY, grumpy neighbor, anti-bike, anti-sports, or anti-fun.

And, trying to accommodate multiple user-groups into a greenspace can easily exceed the limits of what nature can handle.

But, when park natural areas are reserved for the general population, every person has equal access. It is the fairest, most democratic way to manage our most precious remnant wild. It ensures nature remains accessible for all people while protecting wildlife habitat from over-use and ecological degradation.

Nature is not merely a setting to recreate in. Natural areas are living systems, and all people deserve an opportunity to explore and find wonder there. By spending quality time in nature and getting to know our fellow living creatures, we find our own place in the world. This is essential to human health and well-being.

Perhaps it’s time to split the Parks Department in two, as proposed for Bellevue parks by their former director Lee Springgate. We’d have a Seattle Department of Recreation Parks, and a Seattle Department of Natural Parks.


Seattle Nature Alliance enthusiastically supports that idea. It’s time.

Be our Ally! Drop by our Facebook Page and give us a “like”


Sources and References:

Seattle Parks and Recreation data, as supplied to the Trust for Public Land, City Park Facts, 2014

Cheasty Mountain Bike Project Concept Plan

Lee Springgate Open Letter

Best Practices for Natural Areas, Seattle Parks and Recreation






Wet Labs at Magnuson Park

A few months ago, my clients at the U.S.G.S. contacted me for some interpretive signs at Magnuson Park.

The topic was: Wet Labs.









No, not those kind. (Although, with Seattle’s first Dog Swimming Beach, Magnuson Park has plenty of those, too).

The U.S.G.S. runs the Western Fisheries Research Center with state-of-the-art Wet Labs to study fish. The facility is located adjacent to the park, but part of their equipment is inside the park, so they wanted me to create 2 new signs to help visitors understand a bit about their work.

The Center originated more than 70 years ago through the efforts of Dr. Frederick Fish, a visionary scientist who pioneered improved methods of studying Pacific Salmon.

(With a name like that, I hope he had a good sense of humor.)

Here are the signs I wrote, designed and illustrated. They will be installed soon.


This sign will be installed near a new pump station. The USGS figured park visitors would see the pump and wonder what it was, so they took the opportunity to educate them a little about their work at the Center. Seattle’s Magnuson Park was a pre-World War II era Naval Airfield and is now a huge complex of sports fields, tennis courts, trails, beaches, wetlands, and a Dog Swimming Beach.



This sign will be installed near a reconstructed wetland complex which provides rich wildlife habitat. Cleaned and recycled water from the lab helps keep it wet year-round.


If you visit Magnuson Park, watch out for the wet labs! Both kinds.