Ah, spring. There are plenty of signs of it around the country: Daffodils and dandelions outside, spring cleaning inside, and changes in wardrobes. You can find those almost anywhere. Whidbey Island sees other signs, some that are expected, others that aren’t.
The tourist and tulip season has begun, two seasons that rely on people. Both get busy over the next month or two.
Families arrive when the kids are on spring break. Romantic couples arrive for quiet retreats. Getting away from where they were may be more important than where they’ve arrived. An hour or two drive from Seattle, Vancouver, or their suburbs and arrive in a place where the pace is slower, the birds may be the loudest noise you hear, and there aren’t many crowds.
Over in the Skagit Valley the tulip fields will begin producing acres of color. They are plants, so they are natural; but their display happens because we planted them here. There are some twists for the visitors. Gorgeous displays of color are a side effect. The farmers are growing bulbs that happen to produce unbelievable displays. The other twist is that, even though they’re “only” pretty flowers, the fields are crops which means the farmers don’t celebrate people tiptoeing through the tulips. Bring the right camera and tripod on the right day and get some magnificent photos.
Two signs of spring have been here regardless of the arrival of people. Sometime after the glaciers retreated, the forests and meadows settled in and the whales returned. Pines, cedars, and towering conifers aren’t known for flashing spring displays. Look to the meadows and wetlands, though, and find an iconic and oddly named flower, the skunk cabbage.
There are so many kinds of whales here that some have seasons. Orca Network keeps track of them thanks to a self-selected team of volunteers. The whales that get the most attention are the Orcas (hence the name of the organization) and the greys. Some of the orcas live in the area, the Salish Sea, throughout the year. They enjoy the salmon and the seals. Spring, however, is announced with the first whoosh and tail flip of a grey whale swimming into Puget Sound. They linger here on their migration from Mexico to Alaska to refuel on snacks of ghost shrimp. Whale boats are handy, but the whales eat ghost shrimp, ghost shrimp live in the shallows, the shallows are by the shore; so, stand in the right place on the shore and watch them doing their natural thing in a natural setting while you’re within a short walk or drive of your dinner.
Back on land, look for big yellow flowers that look like one-petaled tulips were planted in some swamp-lover’s garden. They’re called skunk cabbage, which describes the subtle hint of the furry black and white critter but without the intensity. Some try to pretty them up by calling them marsh vegetables, or something that avoids allusions to smelly experiences. Maybe they should be called Bodacious Bog Tulips. They’re easy to make fun of, but they were welcomed by the original locals as something to harvest after a long winter.
The whales may arrive naturally, but that doesn’t keep people from making the whales’ arrival into a party. This year, the Welcome the Whales parade is part of a two day event, April 14-15. Go ahead and laugh at people dressed up as grey whales, orcas, really any aquatic animal that folks want to create a parade costume for. Go ahead and laugh, and be ready to cheer because, as weird as it may sound, the grey whales frequently show up, too. Of course, they have their own agenda and places to dine, so sometimes they are called away. Whether they show up or not, there’s a party going on in their honor (and as an excuse after that long winter mentioned above.)
There are other signs of spring: festivals begin again, farmers are planting fields, birders drop by to catch glimpses of migrating species. Everyone has their own sign of the summer to come. Settle in, get to know the area, and find what makes you want to celebrate – and keep a look out for the whales. They may be massive, but they’re also subtle, sneaky – until they decide to jump high enough to belly flop back into the water. Splash. Welcome to spring!