Spring Fever

Recreating at Northern State

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Quilted clouds skidded low overhead and precipitation seemed imminent as I pulled into the trailhead at Northern State Recreation Area just north of Highway 20 near Sedro-Woolley. 

I’d come to reacquaint myself with this historically significant 726-acre agricultural site that supplied meat, milk, eggs, vegetables and fruit to Northern State Hospital from 1912-1973 and is now a Skagit County park.    

When I stepped out of the car, hundreds of songbirds were whistling and warbling and belting out melodious messages from everywhere.

“Music to my ears,” I gloated, shouldering my pack up the trail with Frisbee in hand and umbrella at the ready. 

Everything went swimmingly until one of the giant over-pollinated bumblebees I kept hearing came lurching unavoidably straight into my path and smacked me square on the forehead. No stings were incurred, but the sheer surprise of it nearly threw me into the bramble.

Passing more lurching bumblebees, I heaved myself up a steep path toward a cluster of derelict dairy buildings with caved-in roofs and lots of dark, empty windows peering out like ghost eyes.

Feeling watched by unseen forces, I escaped up a long, grassy lane to the first concrete tee-off pad and commenced the disc golf portion of my adventure. 

Even for a history buff/ghost-lover like me, it takes a special sort of resolve to seek peace, inspiration and outdoor recreation on the grounds of a shuttered insane asylum.

But at least I had been sufficiently schooled on how to cope with ghosts at Northern State.

Way back in the early aughts—while renting office/shop space in one of the surplus hospital buildings for a trail-based nonprofit—there were several spooky incidents that inspired me to seek guidance from more seasoned hands.

After maps and hand tools started to mysteriously disappear and I began to regularly hear a disembodied voice cry out my name at night, I started asking questions about the campus. How did the farm work? What sort of treatments did the patients receive?

Gradually, as I went about performing my routine duties as a trail-based education coordinator, I started bumping into locals or the children of locals who had at one time or another found gainful employment either as contractors for or employees of Northern State.

More names of ex-employees were mentioned. Meetings were arranged.

Sequestered comfortably at a number of smoke-filled greasy spoons and dimly lit watering holes no less than a night watchmen, a ward attendant, a laundryman, a seamstress, a baker and even an assistant physician who claimed to be a spiritual medium kept me glued to the barstools with spine-chilling tales about the place they colloquially referred to as the “bug house.”

Although the rain held off just enough not to soak me on the disc golf course a large, supernaturally vocal raven hounded me around the back nine, soaring, diving and cackling so profusely at my mere presence that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

It was a successful trip. But even now, nearly two weeks after my visit, I still feel confused and haunted.

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