Beaks and Bills
Artist Point and a Sense of Place
by Joe Meche
Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 145 articles for Whatcom Watch.
In the first sentence of Wallace Stegner’s “The Sense of Place,” (http://www.pugetsound.edu/files/resources/7040_Stegner,%20Wallace%20%20Sense%20of%20Place.pdf) he alludes to Wendell Berry’s thought that we don’t know who we are if we don’t know where we are. I have long believed in this concept and continue to look into more ways of getting to know where I am. While it might seem a bit simplistic at first glance, it’s as important as you want it to be. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always spent time orienting myself to my own sense of place. The first order of business when I arrived here was to look around to see where I was, in the broadest sense.
By definition, sense of place is a combination of the characteristics that make a place unique and the feeling that you have about it. Learning about and experiencing the place helps us to identify ourselves in relation to that particular piece on the rock we know as planet Earth. Perhaps it’s a longtime love of geography, cartography, history and associated pursuits that have driven me, along with an insatiable curiosity, to look around the neighborhood, no matter how broad the neighborhood might be. The amount of value you find in a relationship is often related to how much time you spend getting to know it, whether it’s personal or geographical.
We’re all different, and some are certainly more curious than others. When I first came to Bellingham almost 40 years ago, I worked with a man who had never been to Mt. Baker, although he had lived here for more than 50 years. This revelation came about after my excited report of my first trip to the ski area and Artist Point, at the end of State Highway 542 — the Mt. Baker Highway. I expressed the thought of taking him up the road to show him what he had been missing all those years, but he showed little interest in the idea. We’re all different. I revisited that idea for years and was saddened when he died, not just for the loss of a friend but for the fact that he never got to make the trip.
Although I’ve been to the end of that road numerous times in almost four decades, I had a strong urge to reevaluate my feelings in that one particular place. Having been victimized by the glorious weather in early June, I decided to take a trip to Artist Point to greet the day at sunrise. Like any whim or sudden urge, the only thing I took into consideration was my destination. I was excited to return to an all-time favorite place in early morning — my favorite time of day.
After checking the time for sunrise and knowing how long it would take to reach my destination, I set my internal alarm to wake me at 2 a.m. I was out of bed at 1:40, grabbed a quick breakfast, loaded my gear and was on the road at 2:25. To gain new perspectives, consider setting off on a journey in the so-called wee hours when most normal folks are still abed. You have no landmarks to guide you in the dark, so it’s just you and the road stretching before you. This is always a great time for introspection … use it wisely.
When I turned onto Mt. Baker Highway, I first noticed the waning crescent moon, hanging golden just above the foothills. This beautiful view stayed with me throughout the drive and was there waiting for me when I reached road’s end. As I passed through the sleepy hamlet of Glacier, the sky began to brighten with dawn’s early light, creating dramatic silhouettes of all the surrounding peaks, including Mt. Baker and Church Mountain. This spectacle grew as I drove farther into the mountains.
An hour before sunrise as I drove around Picture Lake, something appeared in the beam of my headlights. I slowed to a crawl to see what it was and it turned out to be a newborn fawn, teetering across the road on wobbly legs. I could tell that it was a recent arrival because it was still wet and not quite sure of where it was, or what I was. Perhaps it was following its mom and became disoriented by the bright lights. I watched as it ambled slowly into the underbrush. Already a highlight and sunrise yet to come!
When I first arrived at Artist Point, I was further delighted to find that the always crowded parking lot was totally empty. I was where I wanted to be, and I was totally alone. After doing a few mental cartwheels and taking numerous photos to mark the occasion, I realized it was cold! Adrenalin takes you just so far when you’re above 5,000 feet, and it was a while before I noticed the cold. I donned suitable attire and decided to increase my perspective by hiking to the top of Table Mountain, which rises above Artist Point. The precarious trail to the top was more challenging in the half light, but I arrived on the summit just in time to enjoy 360 degrees of magnificence and a glorious sunrise.
The view was spectacular, to say the least. With Mt. Baker and Mt. Shuksan towering above my vantage point, I was practically in tears to stop and think about where I was, recognizing my sense of place in the overall scheme of things. Artist Point has been a friendly and familiar destination for me in a variety of ways, including snowshoeing to the top. There are few places that can compare to this for the spectacle you encounter.
Another highlight of reaching higher elevations is the different birds and mammals you’re apt to encounter. It seems that the instant you pull your lunch from your pack, gray jays appear from nowhere. They’re entertaining and will quickly abandon you if you have nothing to offer, but Townsend’s chipmunks are usually close by. Hermit thrushes offered their subtle songs from treetops, while pipits and dippers foraged in the waters of Galena Creek. Hoary marmots were enjoying the sunshine in boulder fields, and small flocks of mountain goats browsed along the flanks of Chowder Ridge.
Glaciers are always visible on the taller peaks and offer an added bonus that characterizes where you are. Stare as long as you wish and attempt to understand how mountain glaciers work, grinding and polishing the rock they travel over in response to gravity and the overall mass that pushes them forward. On the steep sides of Mt. Shuksan, warmer weather occasionally causes parts of the hanging glaciers to break off and thunder into the valley below.
Wildflowers were in profusion along the trails on a fine June day, with pink and white heather, lupine, and Indian paintbrush dominating the landscape. The chilly morning air and a nice breeze kept bugs at bay. Be forewarned that this will change come August and September. Bugs notwithstanding, I am always impressed at the tenacity of vegetation to grow at higher elevations, given the harsh winter conditions. I’d like to believe that even plants have their own unique relationship with their surroundings.
A great example of recognizing one’s sense of place is “The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe,” by Chet Raymo (Walker & Company, 2003). In this book the author offers a closer look at a one-mile path he has followed for over 40 years from his home to the college where he teaches. On this familiar path he stops to observe everything in detail, connecting rocks and wildflowers with the rest of the universe and gaining new insights into his own existence. His point is that you don’t have to go far away to understand your basic sense of place. I heartily concur and encourage everyone to find their own special places. There’s also no limit to the number of places you can find.