Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Riding the Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail

A while ago my boyfriend and I decided to take advantage of a break in the dreary Western Washington weather and head out for another bike adventure. Ever since I got a tablet for Christmas I’ve been fascinated with exploring the bike routes feature on Google Maps, which highlights bike trails in green. I noticed that one of the longest strips of green in Whatcom County is the un-creatively named Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail in the Ferndale area.

I'm also somewhat of a transit geek, so I pulled out the bus schedule and quickly determined that we could get to Ferndale from our Fairhaven home on one bus. The 14, which runs through our neighborhood turns into the 15 at the Downtown Bellingham Transit Station, which turns into the 27 at Cordata Station and runs all the way to Ferndale Station. So, for $1 I put my bike on the bus and an hour and a half later we were in Ferndale.

It was an easy ride from Ferndale Station down Main Street to the WDFW boat ramp at the north end of Hovander Park, where we left pavement and found our first bit of trail. Whatcom County has done a great job of maintaining Hovander Park, and the gravel and sand trail from the WDFW boat ramp to the barn and main parking area is in fine shape. From there, we wound around to the Tennant Lake parking lot and the official start of the Tennant Lake to Marine Drive trail, where, unfortunately, things are in far worse shape.

Several inches of standing water greeted us covering the first few hundred feet of the trail. It wasn’t a big deal for us, it’s why we ride mountain bikes, but potential riders should be aware this is definitely not a trail for hybrid bikes or walkers without waterproof boots. It is not maintained to be dry in all seasons. As we wound along the first stretch down the banks of the Nooksack River, we crossed paths with two friendly duck hunters and their dog. We had a nice chat with them and they said it’s been a pretty slow year for duck hunting, but they were also taking advantage of the decent weather and giving it another shot. Most of the trail is on WDFW and DNR property set aside as a public hunting ground, and potential riders and hikers should be aware that you’re really on the hunter’s turf. My boyfriend is from an area chock full of hunters – Grays Harbor County – and I myself am newly getting into hunting, so that’s no big deal for us. But, if the sight of somebody carrying a shotgun down the trail or the sound of weapons discharging in the distance bothers you, you’d be wise to avoid the Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail during waterfowl season in the Fall and Winter.

Near the end of the first stretch of trail, there’s a large mitigation project being completed by the Port of Bellingham along Slater Road. According to the Port, this is a wetlands mitigation project on DNR land and is being carried out to offset the impact of some construction occurring at Bellingham International Airport. To construct this project they've laid out a nicely built access road. Given the shoddy condition of the trail, I was hoping that maybe this new road was going to form part of a new trail. Alas, this is not the case. The Port has informed me that the road is for construction access only, and although a connection has been provided to the trail, the Port’s project will not involve improving the trail, which is DNR’s responsibility. 

WDFW's cable barriers block the trail in several locations.
The problem is that all this construction, an unrelated guardrail installed along Slater and cable barriers put in place by WDFW have conspired to really muck up the trail’s crossing of Slater Road. Where the trail once climbed straight up the embankment and made a dubiously unsafe crossing of Slater at the neck of the Nooksack River Bridge, the County has put in a barrier to prevent cyclists and pedestrians from crossing there. This was probably a good move, but better signage is needed. The trail now detours East down into the WDFW parking lot on the north side of Slater, where a cable barrier strung by Fish and Wildlife designed to block vehicles requires dismounting your bike before riding through the parking lot and crossing Slater. It’s the same story with the adjacent parking lot across the street, where the trail picks up again, after another ridiculous cable barrier strung 18 inches off the ground at perfect “knock you on your butt if you didn’t see it” height. I understand that WDFW has a vested interest in keeping overzealous 4-wheel drive trucks off these trails, but the same thing could be accomplished with a couple of strategically placed concrete or steel pylons, without blocking the trail to bicyclists and pedestrians. I reached out to the WDFW office (Region 4) responsible for this area, but never received a response. After giving them two weeks to respond, I’ve decided to pull the trigger and publish this post without WDFW’s comment on these barriers. If they do get back to me, I’ll edit their reply in at the end. 

In any case, from Slater, the trail continues South along the East bank of the Nooksack through WDFW and DNR public hunting grounds. There are also some decent looking banks along the river that I intend to check out with my waders and fishing rod during the next salmon run, but that’s a story for another time. The trail follows the crest of the dyke in highly marginal conditions before terminating at the WDFW lot along Marine Drive between the Nooksack River and Silver Creek. This is definitely mountain bike territory, and shouldn’t even be contemplated with any other type of cycle. In all, I’d give the trail conditions a C-, and that’s being charitable.

After recently riding the Cascade Trail in Skagit County, a well-cared for trail that I’d place in A- range, it was disheartening to see one of the most substantial trails in my own county in such poor condition. But, I understand that DNR/WDFW and Skagit Parks have different missions. Clearly, WDFW and DNR have neither the budget nor the volunteer support to build and maintain a trail to high standards. They’re also not starting with the pre-cleared railroad grade that the Cascade Trail takes advantage of. And, it’s also possible that they don’t really want massive herds of cyclists making their way through a busy waterfowl hunting ground, so there may be an incentive to allow the trail to remain sub-par. But the least they could do is remove those stupid cable barriers.

This is how Google Bicycle Maps should work:
Red Trails: Mountain Bike Only. Yellow: Mtn /Hybrid Bike (No Road Bikes). Green: OK for Road Bikes & All Bikes

Bottom line, it was a fascinating case study of the stark difference between what you see on a Google Map and boots-on-the-ground reality. The Cascade Trail and the Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail look the same on the Google Bicycle Map, but they have about as much in common as an Interstate Highway and a Wagon Road. I knew going into this ride that because it’s the mountain bike leg of the Ski to Sea race it would definitely be a muddier, rougher experience, and that’s cool. But still, it was somewhat surprising to see just how different the conditions can be between two trails that look the same on a Google map. And that’s a big part of the reason why I’m writing this. The bottom line is that the Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail is a fun, wet muddy mountain bike track along the river. And if that’s what you’re expecting, you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re looking at the Google bicycle map thinking you’re in for a flat, dry even graded Burke-Gilman Style ride, you've got another thing coming. Google says that bicycle maps are in Beta, and this is why. It would be cool if they could add a distinction in bike trails between conditions and equipment needed. Maybe a tertiary system, with trails like the Seattle's Burke Gilman Trail and Bellingham's Boulevard Park Trail at one end “your grandma could ride this on a road bike,” trails like Cascade Trail in the middle, “OK for hybrid bikes in most places only a few rough spots” and Tennant Lake to Marine Drive Trail, “Mountain bikes only. Expect to have fun getting a little muddy!” That would be smart, and could help take Google Bicycle Maps from Beta to more reliable.

From the end of the trail at Marine Drive, we wound our way down Marine riding on the street a few miles to the old “Fort Bellingham” area. Near the flightpath coming into Bellingham International Airport on the South end of Marine we were happy to discover the Port of Bellingham’s short “Marine Drive Trail,” a few hundred yards of well-packed gravel path that winds it’s way through some Port property and offered a welcome respite from riding with traffic. As that petered out, we found ourselves back on Marine, as it turned into Eldridge and then Holly. We continued up Holly to Roeder to Cornwall and hooked onto the Boulevard Park Trail and Taylor Street Pier back to Fairhaven. We crunched the numbers and discovered we’d ridden a total of 15.5 miles from Ferndale to Fairhaven, and had an AWESOME time.

It was a great ride, and we’ll totally do it again. Just let the record show, Tennant Lake to Marine Drive trail is a lot of fun, but it’s for mountain bikes only. Let the record also show that the people at Google are smart, and they should develop a way to differentiate smooth well-maintained trails from the rough muddy ones before they take Google Bicycle Maps from “Beta” to the next step.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cascade Trail: A Rails to Trails Gem in Skagit County

The Cascade Trail is a genuine “Rails to Trails” gem in Skagit County. It runs along the old BNSF right of way, 22.3 miles from Sedro-Woolley to Concrete, winding up the Skagit River Canyon. Because it’s an old railroad grade, the uphill climb is virtually imperceptible. According to the Seattle Times, it’s a 1-2% incline the whole way. The historian in me wants to point out that railroad grades make great trails because they were always built to find the path of least incline. Going uphill burns more fuel, be it human leg power or coal or diesel and the railroads knew that, so there’s a reason railroad grades always have easy inclines and often follow water. It’s the same reason that the Columbia River Gorge remains one of the most active trans-mountain rail lines through the Cascades. It just requires less fuel to run along the river.

Over the holidays, my boyfriend and I rode the Sammamish River Trail from Redmond to Lake Washington, another old railroad grade. And it reminded me that Washington is blessed, thanks to the efforts of hardworking volunteers and parks officials, with some great bike trails that run along these beautiful low-incline rights of way where rails once stood. On New Year’s Day my boyfriend and I decided we wanted to go for a bike ride, I pulled out the tablet and brought up the Google maps feature that highlights bike trails and instantly noticed the huge green line in Skagit County representing the nearly 23-mile Cascade Trail. I googled it and as soon as I saw the words “old rail bed” I was sold.

Speaking of Google, I noticed there are several websites that mention the Cascade Trail has “numerous access points along Highway 20” but there is nary a mention of a specific access point, so here’s one: Where can I access the Cascade Trail? There is a trail access parking lot at Hwy 20 and Fruitdale Rd in Sedro-Woolley. That’s where we parked, and headed East up the Skagit Canyon. Almost immediately, we came upon a herd of 40-50 elk in a field. We stopped to admire them, you don’t see elk like that everyday, and struck up a conversation with a nice couple tending to their cows on an adjacent property. We asked if they knew if the elk were wild or domestic, and they told us they were most definitely wild, and the 40-50 we were seeing were only about one quarter of the actual herd. How about that!

Proceeding upriver, we came across a pretty cool beaver pond. It looks like the Skagit County Parks Department has struggled with keeping the trail grade dry and clear of beaver-caused floods in that area, and although the trail isn’t perfect, there are signs that it’s been freshly worked on, which is encouraging. 80 years ago some dynamite and a rifle would have solved a beaver problem, but with today’s changed environmental values and regulations dealing with beavers can be difficult, to say the least. It looks like the County Parks workers are doing a good job of “living and let live” allowing the beavers to keep their habitat while playing a good game of defense to protect the trail.

We continued on upriver and came to a beautiful vista at an elbow bend in the river, where from the looks of it, the guys and gals in charge of maintaining this trail have fought another epic battle with water. The mighty Skagit points dead on North at the trail just downhill of Lyman before swinging back West, and at that elbow it’s clear the river has cut into the trail. Bear in mind that this is no pansy river, the international Skagit is one of the great rivers of the Northwest and its dams provide most of the hydroelectric power used by the city of Seattle. It’s a force to be reckoned with, and the fresh trail work at that riverbend shows that Skagit County parks officials have been working hard to strike a good balance between allowing the river to meander as a healthy stream does, while protecting the right of way. Again, good work by Skagit Parks on the fresh gravel and (presumably) underlying layer of rip-rap.

We made our way up to the town of Lyman, past the locally-famous Lyman Tavern almost a solid 10 miles from our starting point before daylight started to get short and we had to make the judgment call to turn back and head for Sedro. An easy ride back down the well-maintained gravel trail had us covering the 10 miles in about an hour. In the last few miles we came across the herd of elk again. We stopped to admire, and a giant bull elk with the largest antler rack I’ve ever seen turned to look at us, seemingly saying “I see you too.” Fortunately, there’s a solid barbed wire fence between the trail and the pasture the elk have taken such a liking to. Unarmed on a bike, I wouldn’t want to tangle with that animal! I found myself looking back a few times to double check that he wasn’t following us, he turned his head and paid close attention to us as we left but didn’t cause more concern than that. A few quick miles more down the last bend, and we were back at the trailhead where we’d left our Subaru at Fruitldale Rd & Hwy 20. All in all the Cascade Trail was a great bike ride. Although if we do it again in the winter, I’ll remember to take gloves; I always forget how cold your hands get biking in winter!


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

United 232 Hero Pilot Denny Fitch Has Died

United Airlines Flight 232 hero pilot Dennis E. Fitch has died. Fitch was a pilot instructor for the DC-10 aircraft, and was onboard the ill-fated flight as a passenger. When the number two engine exploded in mid-flight, crippling the airplane by taking out the triple-redundant hydraulic systems, Fitch volunteered to assist the flight crew in getting the aircraft under control.
Denny Fitch appearing on the TV Series
"Air Crash Investigation"

United 232 was a scheduled flight on a DC-10 from Denver to Chicago that took off on July 19, 1989. The DC-10 was a trijet aircraft, with engines number one and three under the wings, and engine number two in the tail. The airplane was designed with triple-redundant hydraulic systems that manipulated the flight control surfaces, which provide all directional control. The design was intended to allow the aircraft to remain flyable if one, or perhaps even two, of the hydraulic systems failed. The design had a critical flaw, however, in that all three hydraulic systems came together in the tail of the aircraft.

When the number two engine exploded somewhere over the Midwest, the force of the blast took out all three hydraulic systems. The airplane was crippled, the pilot and copilot had virtually no directional control from the stick and rudder of the airplane. Without hydraulics, they were unable to use the airplane’s control surfaces to fly the aircraft.

Thinking under pressure, Captain Alfred C. Haynes and First Officer William Records were able to regain a modicum of control over the airplane by manipulating the throttles of the two remaining functional engines.

Dennis Fitch knew that the plane was in trouble, and went to the cockpit offering to help in any way he could. Captain Haynes asked Fitch to manipulate the throttles, while he and Records continued to fight with the non-functional avionics.

Interviewed years later, Fitch said that he felt that aircraft was talking to him, that he could almost tell what the plane was going to do moments before it did it, allowing him to adjust the throttles accordingly and keep the aircraft in level flight. His adroit skill and bravery allowed the flight crew to bring the crippled plane in for an emergency landing at Souix City, Iowa.

The horrific crash landing of the DC-10 at Sioux City was caught on film by news cameras and the footage of the DC-10 bursting into flames and coming apart in a cornfield stands as one of the most iconic images of aviation disaster. Sadly, 111 people died in the tragedy, but thanks to Dennis Fitch and the crew of United 232, 189 people survived that day.
UA 232 Crash Landing at Souix City
(Wikimedia Commons)
The situation in the air for United 232 was dire. Flying and landing a DC-10 without hydraulics had never been done before. It was only thanks to the quick thinking of Captain Haynes and First Officer Records, and the volunteer bravery of Dennis Fitch in gingerly manipulating those throttles that the people onboard that doomed flight stood a chance.

The Daily Herald (of the Suburban Chicago area) reports that Fitch died on Monday, May 7, 2012 after a battle with cancer. He was a true American hero. 

The National Geographic Channel program “Air Crash Investigation” produced an excellent 45 minute documentary on United Flight 232 and Denny Fitch’s heroism. It can be watched on youtube:

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fishing Report: 2012 Trout Opener on Lake Padden

I don’t do a ton of freshwater fishing, I’m more of a saltwater kid, but when a good freshwater opportunity comes up I never say no. The Lake Padden Opener was one of those opportunities I just couldn’t turn down. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife planted 20,000 trout in the 160 acre lake. By all accounts, it should be stupid easy to land some nice trout with those numbers.

Lake Padden (wikimedia)

The lineup at the Lake Padden boat ramp on opening day is the stuff of legend. My buddies and I were told by local oldtimers to expect a wait of 60-90 minutes just to launch. It would be worth it, we figured, for those odds on trout. We headed up at 6:00 AM, and much to our pleasant surprise, there were only a half dozen rigs in front of us waiting to launch. Most people were prepared, efficient, and quick. Except the guy in front of us, who zigzagged his trailer back and forth easing down the ramp for about 5 minutes, before dropping one wheel off the side of the concrete.

I’m big on boat ramp etiquette, and it was drilled into me from a young age the all-important commandment of trailer boating: “Thou Shalt Not Waste Time at the Boat ramp.” I grew up on Lake Washington, and my hometown had only one boat ramp. On busy summer days, the line to launch or retrieve could be hours long. It was imperative that you get in, get out and move on as fast as possible, with surgical precision. I’ve had a lot of practice, and I live by this mantra. I’m quite proud of my boat ramp skills, and when people compliment me on my quick launch or retrieval I often joke that I “lettered in it in High School.”

For the record, I understand that not everybody is as awesome as me when it comes to backing a trailer down a ramp, but for crying out loud, people should practice. Go to an empty parking lot and practice backing the boat. Move the steering wheel in the direction you want the back of the trailer to travel. And don’t over do it. Less is more. Anyway, the guy in front of us had clearly did not know what he was doing at the ramp, and after wasting everyone’s time he finally got his boat in the water.

My group was next, and I had the boat backed straight down the ramp, 18 inches from the dock where my buddy stood holding the bowline. Boat was in the water, floating, off the trailer, car in gear, trailer pulled out, boat ramp clear, next customer please, in about 17 seconds flat. It was pretty difficult hearing anything over the sound of how awesome we are. We were definitely the fastest ones there, but coming right after the Mr. Slowpoke made us look even better.

I parked the rig, and we climbed aboard. Lake Padden is a no-gas-motors lake. Small trolling motors are allowed, which we don’t have, so for us that meant oars. We set out for the East end of the lake, and tried our hands fishing with Powerbait, to no luck. The morning started off very slow. Nary a bite, for any of the three of us onboard. For about an hour, nobody seemed to be catching anything, on our boat, or anywhere else. Then, they started hitting. We paid attention and noticed that it was the guys who were trolling nearby that were landing fish.

So, we re-rigged. Two of us put on Dick Nites, I used a green “frog” color Dick Nite, and my buddy used a gold and silver spoon. The third rig in our boat went into the water with a green rooster tail. We set out trolling under oar power, and landed our first fish. The mood onboard changed instantly. One of the best fishing quotes I’ve ever heard came from a John McPhee book, The Founding Fish, when a New England angler lands a shad and exclaims “When you’re fishing, nothing beats catching fish!” Indeed.
My first fish of 2012, nice lil trout

I once went on a fishing trip at my family’s cabin in the San Juan Islands, and caught nothing. When I returned to the mainland I talked to my uncle, who asked how I did. I told him that I didn’t catch anything, but it was fun just to try. He belted back “Oh that’s HORSE S***! It’s fun when you CATCH SOMETHING!” The guy in McPhee’s book and my uncle are right. It’s fun when you catch something. Soon, all three of us onboard had our first fish of 2012, and the mood brightened considerably. We also discovered that trolling under oar power sucks. Bigtime. The guy who is rowing has to prop his rod in the stern, or hand it off to another person. In theory, you’d think that if a fish strikes he can drop the oars, grab the rod, and land the fish. In practice, this just doesn’t work. Too much time gets wasted between noticing the strike (harder to see visually, when you can’t feel it), setting the oars down, and grabbing the rod. It also doesn’t work to have your buddy hold it. He’s concentrating on his own pole, and in the melee of a fish strike, trying to hand off a rod to a guy fumbling with oars just doesn’t work well either.

The best anchor is a free anchor

We noticed that they were hitting consistently on the South end of the lake in a certain spot whenever we trolled past, so we decided to drop anchor and cast with our lures. I picked up this sweet free anchor when a river net tender washed ashore and was abandoned a few years ago at Little Squalicum Beach on Bellingham Bay. International law of flotsam and jetsam: that that floats ashore is finders keepers, that that sinks in a shipwreck remains property of the ship’s owner (or the crown). This anchor washed up on the beach in an abandoned hull with a gaping hole in the starboard bow, so it was up for grabs. I got the rode (that’s the proper nautical term for the chain, rope or chain/rope combo used to attach an anchor to a boat) for free too. A guy I know works at the Samson Rope factory, and gave me 15 fathoms of rope from their employee freebie bin.

The combination proved quite sufficient for the muddy bottom of Lake Padden, and ably held us in place in the hot zone. Over the next hour we all pulled out some nice fish, for a boat total of 12, out of a possible legal limit of 15. We reeled in and started to head back to the boat ramp because of obligations onshore, and made it halfway across the lake when we realized that the two people not rowing could troll as we went. About two hundred yards from the boat ramp I had a massive strike, started to reel in and got it close enough to see that it would have been easily the biggest fish of the day, when about 10 feet from the boat my line snapped, and the fish got away.

That’s what I get for using 30 year old line. Early in the day I had discovered that my reel was not functioning properly, and my buddy offered me his spare, but it had no line. I dug around in my tackle box and discovered that although I thought I’d packed a box of 6 lb. test freshwater line, in my haste I’d actually grabbed a box of 30 lb. braided saltwater line. No dice. The only other line I had was on an ancient reel that had belonged to my friend’s dad. I don’t know why I had it in my tackle box, but I figured that old monofilament would probably be better than new braided line. I’ve used heavy braided saltwater line in freshwater before; I can speak from experience in saying that it doesn’t work. The fish can see it, and they steer clear. Anyway, next time I’ll be better prepared with some proper line. At least the old monofilament held for the first four fish of the day. We pulled in at the boat ramp, and our group was, again, the fastest trailer in town. Filled with a smug sense of self satisfaction, we headed home to clean and gut fish.

A dozen nice lil trout! 

Not a record-breaker, but it'll grill up nicely

As I said, I’m not normally much of a freshwater guy, and something about catching stocked trout rubbed me the wrong way once upon a time. When I was a teenager, my mom and I went down to Red River, New Mexico and hired a flyfishing guide. He took us to a pond in the mountains, and taught us how to cast a fly rod. We asked where all these trout came from, and he said they were stocked. We recoiled at the un-naturalness of this. Stocked? Well, we said, they don’t do that were we come from. Everything’s all-natural in the Pacific Northwest. No, he politely informed us, trout are stocked everywhere. Sure enough he was right.

I had a replay of this the other day, when I mentioned that I’d been fishing for the trout opener on Lake Padden. One of my friends said she didn’t go for that, because it was so artificial, and she’d be holding out for Ling Cod season opening in May. The fact of the matter is that she’s right, the stocked fishery in Lake Padden isn’t natural, but really, hardly any freshwater fishery is. Trout are stocked in lakes statewide. There are shad, salmon and sturgeon hatcheries around the country. In Grant County, Washington, they pick up juvenile salmon and transport them by helicopter around Priest Rapids and Wanapum Dams to be released in the free-running Hanford Reach of the Columbia River.

The simple, sad truth of the matter is that we’ve messed up our environment so much, that virtually all freshwater fisheries are engineered now. If they weren’t, they would hardly exist. There are no saltwater hatcheries that I’m aware of. You can make the argument that the saltwater fisheries are “natural” in a way that freshwater isn’t, and juxtaposed against the 20,000 stocked trout in Lake Padden, it isn’t hard to do. But look at the condition of many of our saltwater fisheries, and you realize that it’s not all paradise out there. Puget Sound Rockfish populations have fallen to dangerously low levels, and the fishery has been completely closed in most of the places I customarily fish (Marine Area 7). It’s also easy, living on the edge of the Puget Sound, to get smug about the fact that we have saltwater fisheries that are largely unadulterated, but the fact of the matter is that those fisheries are surviving only because it’s been harder for humans to mess up their ecosystems. Harder, but not impossible. Non-point pollution, creosote from pilings and derelict fishing gear are taking a toll on the health of our saltwater fisheries in Western Washington. But that's a discussion for another time. The point is that back on land, the damage of overdevelopment and overfishing would have already manifested much worse in our freshwater lakes if the State didn’t stock them.  

In a couple weeks, I’ll be out there after Ling Cod, waxing poetic about how natural it is, and how great it is to live in a place that still has these native saltwater monsters. On opening day of lowland lake trout season though, I was glad to be out on Lake Padden, because catching stocked trout is stupid easy. And when you’re fishing, nothing beats catching fish.

Our boat, "Cheapskate Jerry" on Lake Padden

Friday, January 27, 2012

VFR With Tailwinds, Salmon Thirty Salmon

The pilots and aviation geeks on Airliners.net are reporting that Alaska Airlines famous "Salmon Thirty Salmon" has flown it's last flight. The Boeing 737 jet painted to look like a salmon was a fixture at SeaTac airport and around the Alaska Airlines network. Airlines will occasionally paint their planes with special liveries from time to time, and I've got to confess, this was the best one I've ever seen:

Photo courtesy Alaska Airlines
The plane's paint job was fitting, especially given Alaska's annual tradition of rush shipping the first salmon from the Copper River in Alaska each year to waiting trucks at SeaTac airport that whisk them to Seattle area restaurants and grocery stores. 

But it gets better. According to Airliners.net, the day that Salmon Thirty Salmon was first spotted at a SeaTac airport several years ago, a sharp-eyed Southwest Airlines pilot notified Southwest HQ at Love Field in Texas. At the time, Southwest had three jets painted like Shamu the Orca whale, as part of a cross-promotion with Sea World. Clever Southwest dispatchers shuffled their planes around and saw to it that all three Southwest Shamu planes made a landing at SeaTac that day, because, after all, Orcas eat salmon:

Southwest Shamu 737 from Wikimedia commons
For now, Salmon Thirty Salmon has been repainted with normal Alaska Airlines colors (Eskimo on the tail). The special salmon paint job was starting to show its age and it was time to go back to the regular livery. Rumor has it though that Alaska may paint a new Boeing 737-800 as Salmon Thirty Salmon II, and I hope they do. 

I can't wait to see what kind of antics Southwest comes up with in response. Until then, farewell Salmon Thirty Salmon. May you fly in VFR and Tailwinds. (That's pilot speak for good flying conditions). And long live airlines and pilots with a sense of humor and creativity. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fair winds and following seas, MV Rhododendron.

Reports on twitter indicate that Washington State Ferries oldest boat, the MV Rhododendron, sailed her final voyage today. The State Legislature has mandated the retirement of vessels at age 65, and her number is up. She was originally built to sail the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, and christened the MV Governor Herbert O'Conner. When the State of Washington bought her in the 1950s and brought her to Puget Sound, they changed her name to the MV Rhododendron, in honor of the state flower. Her first assignment on Puget Sound was connecting the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas, a route made obsolete by the construction of the Hood Canal Bridge. 

She served several different routes around Puget Sound over the years, until some Coast Guard rule changes about watertight compartments restricted her mobility. Modern vessels are built with more watertight compartments than the Rhody had onboard, so the Coast Guard mandated that she only operate within one mile of shore at all times. She was perfectly safe and capable on the shorter routes, so she was assigned to the Point Defiance - Talaquah (South Vashon) run for the final years of her career. She was also able to serve the San Juan Islands inter-island runs if needed, as those routes keep the vessel within one mile of shore at all times too. 

Rumor around Puget Sound is that she is actually in pretty good shape for her age. Rumor also has it that the much younger MV Hiyu is in terrible shape. The Hiyu is a small boat that has similar restrictions to the Rhody, but is eligible to serve the San Juan inter-island runs and/or Pt. Defiance - Talaquah. Word on the Sound is that if it were up to the engineers, we might be retiring the Hiyu today, and running the Rhody for another several years. 

Not so, said the Legislature. Boats must be retired at 65, regardless of condition. So today, we say goodbye to a boat that by all accounts is in pretty good shape, just because she hit an arbitrary mandatory retirement age. I'm all for safety, but it seems like decisions like this are better left to professional engineers and naval architects, not politicians. If she's still running good, I don't see why we're pulling her off the team.  

MV Rhododendron at the dock.
Used with permission. Photo Copyright David  A. Lee all  rights reserved

I just hope they find a buyer who wants to keep her alive. She'd be a great floating restaurant, or maybe a tour boat on Lake Washington. I would hate to see her towed to Mexico and cut apart for scrap metal. That was the fate of the last three ferries Washington retired. Even worse, I'd hate to see her turn into a floating scrap heap like the MV Kalakala, rotting and sinking in Commencement Bay. 

Here is a photo of the Rhody on her final voyage to Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island to be "de-crewed" by Washington State Ferries, courtesy of twitter user @fanberg. She's still a beautiful boat.

Thank you for serving the people of Puget Sound safely for the last 59 years MV Rhododendron. Fair winds and following seas. 

Plaque outlining the Rhododendron's history, photo taken onboard.
Used with permission. Photo Copyright David A. Lee all rights reserved

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

USS Abraham Lincoln: So Long, and Thanks for All the Jobs.

I was barely a teenager when the USS Abraham Lincoln first came to Everett in 1997. In the words of Joe Biden, it was a "Huge F***ing Deal." Naval Station Everett is one of the newest bases the US Navy has anywhere. The other military bases in our state have all been around since World War II or before, but Everett was brand-spanking-new in the 1990s. And we got it at a time when bases around the country were being closed, not opened. It was touch-and-go at first though. Was Puget Sound really going to get this new base? Maybe, maybe not. It was tough to tell if the Navy was really serious about a new base on Puget Sound, there was constant talk of closure right at the beginning. But when the Lincoln showed up, we knew it was the real deal. Uncle Sam was pot-committed when she came to port. 

Naval Station Everett was conceived in the 80s, and came to be thanks to the dogged efforts of US Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and other local leaders, seeking a way to give Snohomish County some more economic stability than the ups and downs Boeing and the timber mills had historically offered. It opened in 1994. The Navy moved a handful of destroyers and frigates in at first, but when the Lincoln arrived in '97, it was huge. I remember people talking about how this meant a lot of jobs were coming to the area. She hadn’t traveled far, her previous home port was just across Puget Sound in Bremerton. But, still I remember hearing about how this was a very, very good thing that the Navy was investing in a whole new base in Everett, and the homeporting of an aircraft carrier meant that the federal government was serious about bringing more jobs to Puget Sound.

And it almost didn’t happen. Before it even opened, the Everett Naval station was on the chopping block during the 1993 round of base closures. Fairchild AFB in Spokane was on the list too. Both were eventually spared, but the base's future was very uncertain. There was another round of closures in 1995. Everett was spared again, but for how long? There was talk of this new base bringing a lot of jobs, but then nobody was sure if it was really going to materialize, and how long it would last. When the Lincoln showed up in ‘97, we knew it was for real. The Navy wasn’t going to sink all this money into a new homeport for a nuclear powered carrier, and then bail.

There was energy about it when she showed up. People around Puget Sound were excited. I remember watching her arrive on King 5 news, and hearing everybody comment about how the Lincoln coming home to Everett was a very, very good thing for the region’s economy. This would mean jobs, and economic growth, and prosperity in the North End.

And it did. Today, the US Navy is the second-largest employer in Shohomish County, according to the Everett Herald. And, the Support Facility the Navy built at Smokey Point had a lot to do with the boom in that area. When I was a kid, the continuous “city” that stretched North from Seattle broke off and turned to “country” at Marysville. From that point North on I-5 it was basically a rural area. Now, the “city” stretches almost all the way to the Stillaguamish River. Smokey Point blew up with economic development. I have a hard time believing that would have happened if the Lincoln hadn’t come to port in Everett.

Despite all this, it’s unlikely that the Lincoln will be remembered far and wide for bringing an economic boost to the Puget Sound region. Most Americans will probably remember the Lincoln for the center-stage role she was forced to play in an infamous political stunt. Remember when George W. Bush made an ass of himself by landing in a jet wearing a flight suit on an aircraft carrier to pronounce “Mission Accomplished” 43 days into the Iraq War? You guessed it, he touched down onboard the Lincoln 30 miles off the coast of California.

It’s one hell of a twist of fate that today, the press is camped out at Joint Base Lewis McChord to welcome home the last large group of JBLM troops to leave Iraq. Today, their mission is finally accomplished. In December 2011, eight years and seven months after Bush’s idiotic stunt on the Lincoln declaring that their job was over.

Tomorrow morning at 10 AM, the Lincoln leaves Everett for good, deployed again to the Middle East. After that, she will call a port in Virginia home. Everett isn’t expected to lose any jobs, the USS Nimitz is coming to take her place. But it still feels profound from where I sit on my little corner of the shore of Puget Sound to see the Lincoln go. She brought the promise of new federal investment to our region and brought an economic boost to our area that will outlast her time here. Many will remember her for Bush’s stunt on her flight deck. I'll remember for bringing a welcome dose of economic stability to the shores of Puget Sound. 

Fair winds, and following seas USS Abraham Lincoln. So long, and thanks for all the jobs. 

EDIT 1: The troops arriving home on 12/6/11 were the last large group of troops from JBLM to return from Iraq, not the last of all US troops.