Picnics in the Pacific Northwest are always an exercise in hope. That's because of an inveterate, uninvited guest: the weather. So people cope by doing everything from packing tarps to wearing fleece, vying for the most likely sunny days and having a Plan B.

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In this capital of fickle sunshine, where cloudless days number only in the 50s, picnics are an eternal exercise in hope.

Pack the basket, backpack or Outback. Meet at that perfect spot and plunk yourself down. Pray it doesn’t rain as you take that first bite of grilled burger, rice ball or veggie dog.

And if it already is, pray it doesn’t rain any harder.

Picnics in the Northwest, whether they’re gatherings of several thousand strong at a rented farm or a party of five perched above the Ballard Locks, are a window into our wacky relationship with that inveterate, unpredictable extra guest: the weather.

Here, churches, tech companies, martial-arts clubs and atheists vie for favorite parks on coveted weekends that local prognosticators identify as “the driest on record” (July 30 and Aug. 4, for those keeping track).

Here, mere drizzle isn’t enough to call off a long-awaited picnic, especially if there’s a shelter to huddle beneath.

Here, a crafty picnicker will wedge a staple gun into the basket alongside the salmon, quinoa salad and sporks just in case the tablecloth must be kept from blowing away in the likely event of an “unexpected” (insert your season here) windstorm.

“I’ve seen picnics in the wind where people are chasing canopies in the park,” says Joanne Orsucci, head of the Seattle Parks sand Recreation Department’s event-management unit, which books picnics throughout the city.

Run your fingers over the battle-scarred wooden tables beneath Picnic Shelter 6 at Lower Woodland Park for evidence. That’s the site of the annual Climbers Picnic (the same park used by the Seattle Yee Fung Toy Association, the MIT Club, the Puget Sound Repeater Group and the King County Labor Council).

On a sunny (!) weeknight in late April, it’s where Matt Perkins chitchats with fellow mountain lovers. They eye chicken and burger patties sputtering on the grill and edge closer with their paper plates. Horseshoes clang at nearby pits. The endless lawn around them dances with dandelions and daisies.

They’ve picnicked mostly at this same spot off and on since the 1980s. As with other groups, the weather has become a defining memory, a way of cataloging a shared history and, sometimes, suffering. Take last year’s picnic.

“Was that the year when it was raining sideways?” Stewart Matthiesen asks Perkins, munching from a bag of Natural Cheetos.

“No, last year it didn’t rain,” Perkins answers. “It was just cold.”

PICNICS TRANSCEND race, class and religion like few other social traditions. They’ve persevered as a time-honored social event through recessions, war, peace and prosperity — accessible to anyone who can get to a patch of lawn or a grassy glade, regardless of income. We may have swapped our hats and gloves for flip-flops and fleece, replaced our flowered blanket with a practical tarp, but we still love to gather over food al fresco, whether it’s homemade tamales or handcrafted Salumi.

Picnics have the power to connect strangers, reinforce families and strengthen friendships. Perhaps it’s the notion of coming together on neutral turf, a clan united against the outdoor elements; perhaps it’s the hot links.

Or maybe it’s nostalgia for times past, ritual, tradition, keeping rhythm with the seasons.

Fred Yee used to wonder why his group’s picnic, a time for dancing, scholarships for the youngsters and plenty of catching up, rarely strayed from Lower Woodland Park. Now the past president of the Yee Fung Toy Association finds himself excited for the annual gathering, where he’ll dine on roast pig, barbecue pork, chow mein and watermelons, 30 years after he first attended.

“As I grow older, coming back to the same place and the same location actually has its own charm,” he says. “It is a time for many of us who have been anticipating a time to see each other and share stories.”

In this time of financial crisis, the big corporate outdoor get-together may not survive (Microsoft canceled its mammoth annual picnic). But smaller picnics are gaining steam over restaurant dinners and rented halls.

“This year there’s been a pretty big increase in rehearsal dinners in parks, especially with the economy,” confirms Julie Lee, a scheduler with the city parks department.

Seattle, blessed with a fairy-tale blend of mountain, Sound, lake, forest and skyline vistas, played host to 3,420 reserved picnics last year during “picnic season,” which runs April through September.

Golden Gardens, Lincoln, Seward, Magnuson and Lower Woodland parks top the popularity list. Demand forces some groups to change dates or reserve their second or third choice, so next year the city will offer partial- and full-day rentals so more groups can squeeze in.

That jockeying for reservations mainly happens for July and August, the apex of the Puget Sound region’s fleeting, swoon-worthy summer and prime time for the annual picnics of all manner of organizations: the Seattle Numismatic Society, Burning Man Seattle, Seattle Ukulele Players Association, Seattle BiNet, Seattle Basque Club, National Association of Asian American Professionals, the Icelandic Club of Greater Seattle, Seattle First Baptist Church.

But just because it says summer on the calendar doesn’t mean it feels like it.

WEATHER THAT would cancel outdoor events elsewhere in the country often is tolerated here as the price of living in “the Emerald City.”

After all, if we waited for sun before we went outside, we might never leave the house.

“I think people are hopeful. I can picture my dad saying ‘Just wait! There’ll be a break in the clouds!’ ” said Orsucci, who grew up picnicking along Puget Sound. Among her prized heirlooms: A sepia-toned, 1940s-era photo of her well-coiffed mother, perched on a boulder at Salmon La Sac clad in a long wool coat, gloves and heels (that’s how they rolled at picnics back then).

Despite our best efforts to adapt, though, we have our limits.

It took an hours-long deluge to rain out last year’s Raw Vegan Picnic Potluck in Discovery Park. Hundreds of University Presbyterian Church congregants chose to soldier on, however, through the virtual monsoon that ravaged their 100th-anniversary picnic at Magnuson Park in the spring of 2008.

So it’s understandable why the appearance of the giant yellow orb in the sky can send us into a bit of a frenzy.

The first sunny, warm weekend of spring 2009 came late. But it arrived with gusto. A mob descended on Green Lake. The University of Washington quad teemed with souls. Picnickers ringed Lake Washington. And a line formed at Picnic, a gourmet shop in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood that sells all kinds of artisan picnic food: Charcuterie, cheese, beet salad, olives, wine. Customers kept asking where they should spread their blankets, co-owner Jenny Klock says. Only a few picnicked in the shop, a refuge from stormy weather other times of the year.

Husband Anson Klock hails from back East. After more than a decade here, he gets the mania behind the weather.

“Every year I think I’m used to it, and then the winter takes forever. People just really appreciate and savor the nice weather when it’s here. You have to store up the goodness.”

Sometimes, it’s enough that it’s not raining. The usual chat:

Well, at least it’s not raining. . . .

Well, at least it’s not windy. . . .

Or this year’s gem: Well, at least it’s not snowing.

KOMO-TV weatherman Steve Pool and KOMO weather blogger Scott Sistek have heard it all. Viewers call with requests to predict the weather months in advance of picnics, weddings, family reunions. It’s hard enough just figuring out what’s going to happen this weekend, says Pool, given Washington’s weird network of weather-warping topography: A pair of mountain ranges, the Pacific Ocean, the Sound, rain shadows, convergence zones, Eastern Washington deserts, you name it. Unlike the landlocked states, there’s no neighbor out West in the ocean to call for an update, either. The one predictable quality is mildness.

“There’s a time that stands out, late July and early August. That’s when Seafair’s scheduled. They did their homework,” Pool says. And here’s yours to commit to memory: Since 1893 it’s rained only nine times on July 30 or Aug. 4. The chance of rain during that two-week span? One in 10. Compare that to July 4, which (no joke) is the rainiest day in July.

The chance of rain literally drops each day that follows the Fourth. “It sounds like we’re joking, but the numbers actually support that,” Pool says.

“The joke is that it rains nine months out of the year. But everyone forgets there are 12 months in a year. Those three months when it doesn’t rain are spectacular,” says Sistek, an unabashed fan of clouds and rain. Here, summer may be cloudy from time to time, but hey, at least it’s not sticky and humid.

OUR INHERENT challenges aside, picnics live on. Evolve, even. Redmond’s Durable Plastic Design sells plastic lumber known as Orcaboard for the ultimate in rainproof picnic tables. Fall City’s Mambe Blanket Co. makes waterproof picnic blankets. Seattle-based REI sells picnic backpacks with special slots for wine glasses.

Last September, strawberry shortcake maven and Crave.com event planner Melody Biringer helped organize a “company picnic” for local entrepreneurs who, by virtue of their independence, typically miss out on the fun and networking opportunities of the traditional annual summer office party. She also upset the order of things a bit by moving the party inside the Armory on Seattle’s Lake Union — picnic tables, checkered cloths and all. On the menu: Grilled salmon, Caesar salad and beer.

After years of serving strawberry shortcake in summertime wind and rain, she wasn’t about to chance it in September. Still, it keeps things interesting.

“Think if you lived in California and it was nice every day. You’d almost get bored with it,” says Biringer. Back at the Climbers Picnic, the light is fading. The dribs and drabs of awkward conversation have been replaced with a steady hum as the group gradually melds.

“It’s such a nice day to be outside,” says Martha Stevens of Seattle, clad in a red-and-white-check halter top beneath her de rigueur practical jacket. “You’ve got to take them as they come.”

Karen Gaudette is a former Seattle Times reporter. Erika Schultz is a Times staff photographer.