BELLINGHAM -- Heading up from the Fragrance Lake trailhead, I soon cross the Interurban Trail, the route of an old trolley line from Bellingham, then plunge into a thick, twilit forest of 100-year-old firs, cedars and hemlocks among a carpet of swordferns that rival the size of an Arthurian broadsword.
The chip, chip of Pacific wrens no bigger than my thumb competes with the rubber-mouse-like squeak of chipmunks and squirrels.
Otherwise, silence is broken only by the distant, haunting horn of a train passing on tracks that follow the saltwater shore below.
This is the sweet solitude to be found five minutes into a hike uphill from scenic Chuckanut Drive in Whatcom County, a route that teems with tourists in summer because of its saltwater views.
Several hiking trails head up into the Chuckanut Mountains and Blanchard Mountain from this historic, cliffhanging road, also known as Highway 11, once the only way to get to Bellingham from the south unless you took a train or boat. The trails are popular with locals year-round, but the cooler months are a good time to spend long stretches of hiking time on your own, usually snow-free, combined with a pleasurable driving destination.
On the way to Fragrance Lake, I pass a cedar that I would need a half-dozen friends along to encircle, and smaller hemlocks that are doing their best to grow straight out of some giant boulders, ensnaring them in weblike roots.
At .7-mile I turn off for a .2-mile detour to a viewpoint thats well worth the digression. A split-rail fence corrals a lookout to some eagle-perch firs on the hillside and a distant view of the high brow of Lummi Island. Beyond are Vendovi Island and Viti Rocks, named by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 for, respectively, a Fijian chieftain imprisoned on their ship, and Viti Levu, the main island of the Fiji Islands.
Back on the trail, the air temperature this day is about 25 degrees. Long icicles hang from mossy rocks above the trail, and thick hoar- frost turns the dirt underfoot crumbly like honeycomb candy. Thats one of the advantages of a winter trek here, I hear from two hikers I meet: If it werent so cold, the trails would be muddy.
Its so close to home yet so wild, said Kris Ekstrand Molesworth, of Bay View.
The scenery is just fantastic, added her friend, Inger Gibson, a Mount Vernon resident who recently walked most of the Washington section of the Pacific Crest Trail.
In about 2 miles the trail reaches the lake, with another 0.7-mile loop around the pretty pond that reflects the cedars and firs crowding its shore. Benches are thoughtfully placed. On the north side, pockmarked sandstone cliffs echo the geology of the nearby islands.
For the return, I follow an alternate route, down an old gravel logging road.