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Originally published Wednesday, June 26, 2013 at 7:02 PM

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In Ferndale, soak up history and garden fragrances — and watch out for eagles

Hovander Homestead and Tennant Lake make for a stimulating day trip, or a good stop on way to Canada.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Hovander Homestead/Tennant Lake park complex

Where

From Interstate 5 north of Bellingham, take Exit 262 and go west a half-mile. Immediately after the railroad overpass, take a sharp left on Hovander Drive, turn right on Nielsen Avenue and follow signs to each park.

Tours and facilities

The homestead is open for guided tours with a $1 donation (kids under 6 free) Fridays through Sundays from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. until Labor Day weekend.

Accessible restrooms, water and playgrounds at both parks.

Traveler's tip

There is an off-leash area for dogs at Hovander Park. No bikes or pets on Tennant Lake boardwalk trail.

More information

360-384-3444 or www.co.whatcom.wa.us/parks (print out the trail map from the website before you come).

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FERNDALE, Whatcom County — Park ranger Dennis Conner was describing his unexpected front-row seat to watch an eagle dive out of the sky in pursuit of a rabbit nibbling at Hovander Homestead Park’s grassy lawn recently. Conner was only about a hundred feet away, along with a nearby couple walking their dog. So ... what happened to the bunny?

“The rabbit got lucky that day.”

The 720-acre park complex at Hovander Homestead and adjoining Tennant Lake Wetlands attracts more wildlife now than when Conner started there 27 years ago, as industrialization in the area has driven more wildlife into its meadow and wetland habitats.

“I’ve seen more here than I’ve ever seen — every day there’s something going on with wildlife here,” Conner said.

The potential for birding and other wildlife sightings, a locally unique fragrance garden and interesting history make the complex a worthwhile day trip from the Seattle area or a good stopover on the way to or from Vancouver, B.C.

A stately manor

In addition to animals, the parks harbor several historical structures that are more than 100 years old. The manor-like homestead that dominates the grounds was the family home of Swedish architect H.O. Hovander, who bought the 60-acre farm — its rich bottomland soil courtesy of the nearby Nooksack River — in 1898 after making a tidy little pile of money in real estate in Stockholm.

In 1903, he finished the house, with its gleaming old-growth Douglas fir and cedar woodwork, Scandinavian-style bay windows, ingenious closet doors that doubled as room dividers and modern-for-its-day central heating. (Guided tours are offered for $1 on summer weekends.) But for all its grandeur, the inside of the house was never finished above the first floor, to save on taxes.

At the southeast end of the lawn, I found the trailhead for the River Dike Trail that leads over to Tennant Lake. The level, fine-gravel trail passes through a cottonwood and alder forest that shields the nearby Nooksack River from view. In the past, the river had been a main thoroughfare for Native American canoes.

“There was a lot of activity in this area — it was a crossroads because of the Nooksack River and also because of a land trail,” said Tim Wahl of the Bellingham Parks Department.

Logjams that blocked the Nooksack’s main channel for a half-mile were not unusual. According to Wahl, when there was a logjam Native Americans gathered to trade.

“The logjams functioned as free-trade zones, and there was a lot of economic activity going on.”

The trail emerges into a meadow, and at the trail junction, I turned left on the access road to Tennant Lake and the extensive flower beds of the award-winning Fragrance Garden.

Lush peonies and roses dominated on this early June day, but the less showy stars of the garden were plants such as bee balm, thyme, mint and other species planted for their distinctive fragrances and textures. Raised beds set waist-high above a paved path offer good accessibility, and visitors are encouraged to touch and smell the plants. I eavesdropped on a small boy and his mother exploring the garden.

“This one smells like the wax inside your ear,” he noted.

Visible from the gardens, the 36-foot wildlife-observation tower offers a fine view of the wetlands, although a video camera on the ground floor lets anyone stake out the marsh. From the tower, a 1.4-mile loop trail leads out to a boardwalk that meanders through the quiet wetlands.

On a major flyway, the site attracts more than 150 different species of birds over the course of a year. (It is Site 57 on Audubon Washington’s “Cascade Loop” of the Great Washington State Birding Trail; wa.audubon.org/cascade-loop.)

Tribal-hunting ground

The Nooksack and Lummi tribes used a site near the northwest end of the lake as a temporary camp while hunting waterfowl. They called it “Sil-ats-its,” which translates to a large woven willow mat (typically used to roof temporary dwellings). The lake’s modern namesake, John Tennant, established his homestead at this spot in 1858 and married the daughter of a Lummi leader.

To return to Hovander Homestead Park, I took the shorter half-mile trail across from the Tennant Lake parking lot and emerged behind the barn. A peek inside the open doors of the 60-foot high structure revealed vintage wagons and farm machinery. Atop an old tractor, a pair of teenage girls shrieked and giggled, posing for each other’s cameras.

Suddenly, cawing crows approached in the sky, chasing two eagles toward me. One eagle clutched a long limp form in its talons. I called to the girls to come see the eagles, and they tumbled off the tractor and ran outside, shrieking at the spectacle. Ranger Conner was right. There really was something going on with wildlife every day here.

Cathy McDonald is a freelance writer who lives in Renton.

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