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Thursday, September 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The buzz about Rattlesnake Lake — hiking, biking, swimming and more

special to The Seattle Times

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Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend is the site of the Cedar River Watershed Education Center, as well as a popular spot for swimming, picnicking, paddling, fishing, hiking and biking on a variety of trails.

Center hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 15, then 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday for the winter. Free admission. In addition to standing displays about the watershed, the center offers programs for families and adults. Upcoming:

Saturday: "Logger's Songs and Storytelling," 7-9:30 p.m., family program with artist and historian Bob Antone, featuring traditional Northwest fiddle music. Free. Registration period is past, but space remains; call 206-733-9421 or 206-233-1515 to confirm.

Oct. 17: "SalmonPeople: The Past, Present and Future of the Pacific Northwest," a "one-man tour de force of character, story and freehand cartography" featuring Peter Donaldson, for adults and children. Free. Register by Oct. 10.

Oct. 18: "Salmon of the Cedar River," with Rand Little, Seattle Public Utilities fish biologist. Van travel to various locations, for adults. $10. Register by Oct. 11.

Nov. 1: "Adventures in Archaeology" featuring Roger Kiers, Seattle Public Utilities archaeologist. Walking tour. $10 adults; $5 youth and senior citizens. Register by Oct. 24.

To register, call 206-233-1515. For more information on the center: 206-733-9421 or

Trails:

Rattlesnake Ledge Trail. Recent reconstruction has removed many switchbacks.

• The John Wayne Pioneer Trail follows the path of the former Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul-Pacific Railroad eastward across the state. For a novel mountain-bike ride (requiring a shuttle driver), start at the Hyak trailhead east of Snoqualmie Pass and bike about 25 miles (mostly downhill) to Rattlesnake Lake, including the Snoqualmie Pass railroad tunnel (usually open May through October). For more information, see www.parks.wa.gov/alpha.asp and click on "Iron Horse Trail" (another name for this stretch of the John Wayne trail).

• The 36-mile Snoqualmie Valley Trail connects through North Bend and Carnation to Duvall, passing farms, parks and river scenery.

Getting there: From Interstate 90 east of North Bend, take Exit 32. Go south on 436th Avenue Southeast, which becomes Cedar Falls Road Southeast. Parking for the trails is at various lots starting about 2.9 miles from I-90. The education center is at 3.5 miles.

NORTH BEND — It's a sunny weekday and the Puget Sound area hasn't showered for weeks. Yet, there I stand, like the lyrics in the 1963 hit by the Cascades, listening to the rhythm of the falling rain.

I can see an osprey a couple hundred yards away, circling high above Rattlesnake Lake, scanning the offerings below the surface like a tourist perusing the catch of the day at Pike Place Market. It's so clear today that I can make out tiny silhouettes a mile away moving back and forth on the summit crags at Rattlesnake Ledge. Yet, right now I'm hypnotized by the sound of falling raindrops creating earthy world beats as they dance atop African drumheads.

I suppose if we're going to get technical, they're not real raindrops — the kind that fall from clouds and tend to spoil parades and baseball games. Rather, they're human-assisted ones dropping from computer-activated drippers onto 21 frame drums, congas, djun djuns and others in the Rain Drum Courtyard at the still new-ish Cedar River Watershed Education Center.

Designed by Seattle artist Dan Corson, the courtyard is just one of the things at the education center — which opened in October 2001 on the east bank of Rattlesnake Lake — that elicit a knee-jerk "Wow, cool!" response. Especially when you consider that the drops fall not just randomly, but in programmed rhythms of Native American, Afro-Cuban and Balinese cultures. Close your eyes, listen to the rain, and let yourself be transported to another time and place. (When the real rains come, as in daily and 'round-the-clock from November through April, real raindrops will beat their own rhythms.)

In an area that's already a-bustin' with things to do — Rattlesnake Lake, the new Rattlesnake Ledge Trail, the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, and the Snoqualmie Valley Trail are all within a mile — the education center is one more thing to add to your things-to-check-out list.

'Opening' the watershed

The 91,000-acre Cedar River watershed extends roughly from Meadow Mountain in the Central Cascades — about nine miles south of Snoqualmie Pass — northwest to Chester Morse Lake (the watershed's reservoir) to Maple Valley. It provides water for 70 percent of the 1.3 million folks who live in the Seattle metropolitan area. The four-building, 10,000-square-foot education center provides a venue for people to learn about their water source and the importance of conserving it.

"Because the watershed is closed to the public, this is a way to bring the watershed to the people," says Chris Holland, facility coordinator for the center. "People can learn about how the watershed is managed, and about its cultural and natural history."

Funded by Seattle Public Utilities and the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed, a nonprofit agency, the $6 million center includes a Welcome Room (visitor center), auditorium, library and classrooms. In the Welcome Room's interpretive hall there's a relief model of the watershed complete with laser lights to show the water's flow.

In summer, the center offers three-hour tours of the watershed with stops at Cedar Falls, Chester Morse Lake and Masonry Dam, all of which are closed to the public in order to ensure the water supply's purity.

For another involuntary "Wow, cool!" and to get a feel for what it's like to be a worm, look up when you enter the Welcome Room. Suspended from the ceiling are four tree roots, harvested in the area, and still with rocks and other of nature's bits and pieces intact. Like electrified snakes, blue and green neon light coils are intertwined through the roots. This "Snaking Root Ceiling" was also created by Corson.

Laid back by the lake

About a mile-and-a-half of easy trails and paved paths lead from the center down to and along the east shore of Rattlesnake Lake. Since it only sounds like it's raining but is in fact in the mid-70s and sunny, I follow one down to the shore.

One thing I don't worry about is rattlesnakes. The lake and nearby ridge are said to have gotten their inapt name from Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny when the rattle of seed pods on a nearby meadow frightened a road surveyor into thinking he was being attacked by a rattler. The surveyor didn't know there were no poisonous snakes in Western Washington.

Above, that osprey is still flapping in circles and eyeing the lake. It's hard at work, but it's the only thing out here that is.

Rattlesnake Lake today is a study in lazy. Takin' it easy. Doggin' it. Kickin' back. Lollygaggin'. I see kayakers who couldn't possibly paddle any slower were their paddle shafts made of lead and paddle blades filled with concrete. Anglers casting their lines but too busy shooting the breeze to notice whether anything's tugging at them. Swimmers too distracted by views of Rattlesnake Ledge rising almost straight up, 1,100 feet from the lake's west side, to do much swimming.

Except, that is, for the three pre-teen Dormody boys and their pre-teen friend, who are working hard at annoying each other with their blue and red swim noodles. Ten-year-old Oliver holds his under water and when it's filled, blows into it like it's a giant straw, squirting his brothers Joshua, 7, and Daniel, 3, and friend Alex Cureton, 9.

"I'm playing 'Star Wars,' " he says, when the others protest. (I don't remember any swim-noodle scenes in "Star Wars"; then again, they might be in Episodes I or II, which I haven't seen.)

With his noodle, Joshua hammers away at the water and takes it in stride when he accidentally hammers his brothers and Alex.

"They're called the monsters from Sammamish," says mom Linda Dormody, who brings the boys to Rattlesnake Lake a couple of times a week when the weather's nice.

"It's so expansive that even when there are a lot of people here, there's enough space here that you don't feel crowded."

It's not crowded I'm feeling but rather, with the craggy pyramid of Rattlesnake Ledge looming so close, a little bit of summit fever. Or rather, because the ledge tops out at just over 2,000 feet, a fever for a little summit. I say goodbye to Cureton and the Dormodys and walk a few hundred yards around the north end of Rattlesnake Lake to the trailhead.

The summit beckons

The old Rattlesnake Ledge Trail climbed 1,100 feet in 1.3 miles. That's pretty steep stuff. I last hiked it three years ago and remember it as a series of seemingly endless switchbacks. And judging from the condition of the trail, switchbacks that many hikers couldn't resist the temptation to cut in order to head straight up the mountain, eroding the hillside in the process.

No more. The wide new trail, which is about 90 percent finished, takes 2 miles to get to the top and has hardly any switchbacks. When completed, it will use only about 600 feet of the old trail.

"The old trail was built for maybe 50 people a month, but now we have 50,000 hikers a year using it," says Doug Schindler, who as director of field programs for the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust spearheaded the effort behind the trail's reconstruction. Other organizations that helped include Seattle Public Utilities, Washington Trails Association and EarthCorps.

"In the next five years, I think it'll become the most heavily used trail in the state."

The Mount Si Trail, just five miles across the Snoqualmie Valley, currently holds that distinction, with about 75,000 hiker visits per year.

"This is half as long as Si and has just as good of views," Schindler says. "This one is more suitable for the masses."

Trail builders had hoped to have the trail finished by early June in time for National Trails Day. But last spring they discovered peregrine falcons nesting near a rocky section that needed to be blasted for the new trail. So they held off, intending to wait until the young birds left the nest. Then, an unusually dry summer brought unusually high fire danger and as of press time, the remaining section near the top still hadn't been blasted. Schindler's best estimate is that it will take place sometime this month.

Still, you can make it to the top — and what a view once you're there! Mount Washington, gateway to the Central Cascades, rises skyward to the east, like a sentry keeping watch over Chester Morse Lake and Seattle's water supply. To the north, Mount Si keeps its eye on the entire Snoqualmie Valley. And directly below, just 1,100 feet of air away, paddlers and splashers in Rattlesnake Lake resemble twigs and bugs in a puddle.

On the ledge is where I find Kelly Coleman of Newcastle admiring the views while exerting as much energy as those lazing in the lake below.

"It's my day off," she says by way of explanation. "It's always better to come up here on a weekday than on a weekend when everyone and her mother is up here."

Right now, it's just me and Coleman. And a 270-degree vista that includes more forested folds and ridges, and rocky peaks and canyons than I can count. I can hear the wind whistling through the trees in the canyon below. And the occasional disembodied "Whoa!" and "Yooo!" from someone on the lake.

But try as I might, I hear nary a raindrop.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham free-lance writer and author of "Day Hikes! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books).

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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