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Big Ditch Slough, North of Stanwood—February 2002

By Holly Zox

What's the hiking botanist to do when the mountain plants are buried in snow? Follow the river down to the Sound. Get salt and silt on your boots and meet the birds at the salt marsh, lively indeed in gloomy February.

Good access can be found at Big Ditch Slough north of Stanwood. This WDFW entrance into the Skagit Delta lies within the Skagit Wildlife Recreation Area and requires a fishing or conservation license. Best is to visit on a weekday afternoon at low tide: weekday to avoid most of the duck hunters, low tide to keep the gunshot farther away and to allow wandering on the mudflat, and afternoon to take advantage of the glowing sunset in the Everett smog.

From the parking lot, cross a bridge over the slough, squeeze through the turnstile, and turn left. Duck into the brush on a muddy trail bordered at first by a grove of volunteer Prunus sp. (cherries) and note other spurred rosaceous small trees with shaggy vertical furrows in their bark. They are Maltus fusca, the Oregon crabapple. The tiny fruits are tasty when touched by frost and were harvested and cared for by all the people who lived in the trees' range. One box of apples was worth ten pairs of Hudson's Bay blankets in trade. Not so surprising since the apples are the size of olives.

At low tide, leave the brush and enter the tules. Scirpus acutus (hardstem bulrush), S. americanus (three-square bulrush), and S. maritimus (seacoast bulrush) remnants and emerging shoots all can be found. Walk the slough past the last plants and follow the bird footprints to the edge of the earth. Stand with water lapping at your toes and watch long-billed dowitchers bobbing their beaks in and out of a distant mudflat as they feed.

The water is rising. Turn around and walk the dike one mile or more north, toward Conway. The dike is covered with exotic pasture grasses. Pick your feet up to avoid tripping over the tough clumps of Festuca arundinacea (tall fescue). Drop down toward the Typha latifolia (cattails) and find Carex lyngbyei (Lyngby sedge) and Juncus balticus (Baltic rush) at the top of the salt marsh. Marsh wrens scold from the cattails.

Look out over that broad expanse of marsh and, weather willing, see Camano, Whidbey, Fidalgo, and the San Juan Islands, even the Olympic Mountains to the west, Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters to the north, and barley fields, trumpeter swans, and the North Cascades to the east.

Look closely at the marsh. It is not just cattails the marsh hawks are swooping over. Note patches of tules, dusty green Agrostis ssp. (bentgrass), and tidal streams with fishing great blue herons. Scattered everywhere are enormous drift logs, each one an island for moss gardens, herbs, shrubs, Picea sitchensis (Sitka spruce), and perching bald eagles. At about ¾ mile note nurse logs with Myrica gale (sweetgale), Lonicera involucrata (twinberry), and Spiraea douglasii (hardhack) growing together. The sweetgale, in bloom in about two months, is a treat, not showy, but lovely in a quiet way, a mass of glowing ochre branches amid the straws and browns and greens and burgundies and grays of the marsh.

The little houses and an alder grove are near. Walk past the houses and look to the alders for a perching red-tailed hawk. Keep going a bit more to spot the odd Crataegus douglasii (black hawthorn) on your left and then a big waving colony of Phragmites australis (common reed).

Dusk is coming, and the gate is locked at dark. Turn around and head back to the parking lot and if you are very lucky, when you are almost there, and you stop to watch short-eared owls hunting, hundreds of snow geese will be feeding in the barley field, be startled, and in a great cacophony of noise take off, first a few, then more and more till the whole flock is awing and turns and flies directly over your head into the setting sun.

Rubber boots that stay on are useful, and binoculars a must for this easy hike. Allow 1-2 hours.

Directions: Head west on SR 532 from I-5 and turn right on Pioneer Highway (SR 530) at Stanwood. In 2.7 miles, turn left onto Old Pacific Highway. Cross the railroad tracks and continue straight on a gravel road signed "Big Ditch Access" to the bay and parking area.

Updated: July 2, 2016
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