Leaving Seattle: A ferry ride and a chance to imagine the glacial legacy of Puget Sound
A trip to Olympic National Park from Seattle usually begins with a ferry ride. If the mountains aren’t shrouded in mist, the jagged eastern skyline of the Olympics looms ahead, inviting adventure and solace from the giant metropolis that has replaced the once-virgin forests on the east side of Puget Sound. Our trip began much this way, at 8 AM on Saturday morning, July 12th, 2014, an unseasonably warm, sunny, and windless day unfolding, and most of Seattle still asleep. We loaded up the vans with 9 days worth of food and other gear, and rushed up I-5 to make the 8:50 ferry out of Edmonds. By 8:30 it was clear that we were going to have to “hurry up and wait”. The 8:50 ferry was full and there was a mile-long line of RVs and passenger cars ahead of us, all, like us, trying to escape to the beckoning beaches and mountains across the sparkling waters of the sound.
As with most wilderness expeditions, the hardest part is actually leaving home and getting onto the trail. Weeks of planning, packing, re-packing, and checking lists lead up to the final joy and relief of the moment when you finally set foot on the trail. Although first-time backpackers stress about what they might have left behind, experienced backpackers are comforted by the notion that whatever you might have forgotten, you probably don’t really need anyway, and if you do, you will have to either invent it or learn to do without. And the truth is, that most of the “stuff” that surrounds us in our daily civilized lives, is not really that useful or essential to our survival. Packing for a long wilderness trip, where every ounce of weight counts, forces you to examine and re-examine what is essential in your life and what is not.
|Entering the national park; the boundary line is clear, even without the sign which is riddled with bullet holes.|
As the thoughts of checklists scrolled through my mind while stalled in the ferry line amongst impatient vacation-goers, equally as anxious as us to escape the heat and bustle of the city, the momentousness and anticipation of our long awaited wilderness trip finally began to settle in. For the first time, our entire group was assembled in one place. For the first time we had the opportunity to go around and introduce ourselves, and share in our collective nervous anticipation. Today would be the day where we would find out if all of our training hikes up stairs and around city parks with iron weights and full jugs of water in our packs would pay off. For me the anticipation of the academic side of the course was equally appealing. Weeks of independent reading and participation in on-line discussions would give way to our first discussion of the trip, this very night, in perhaps the most primitive of settings: around a campfire in the wilderness. Back to reality, the line finally began moving and we were rolling our way onto the lower deck of a waiting ferry.
From the upper deck of the ship, with a pleasantly cool breeze whipping through our hair as we motored across the Puget Sound, we were treated to a magnificent view of the eastern Olympic Mountains, starting with the twin-peaked Brothers in the south, the jagged behemoth of Mount Constance dead ahead, and the soft ridges of Mt. Townsend fading into the northeast corner of the range; a perfect place for an introduction to the field part of our course. Boating across the Puget Sound is an excellent way to ponder the legacy of glaciation that shaped the Puget Trough and served in part to isolate the Olympic Mountains from the Cascades, leading to distinct differences in the flora and fauna of each range. Whidbey Island to the north and the approaching Kitsap Peninsula to the west are giant plains of sediment deposited by the massive ice sheet and glacial torrents that flowed down what is now the Puget Trough as recently as 12,000 years ago. While alpine glaciers also enlarged around this time, there were ice-free spaces in mid-elevation valleys in the Olympic Mountains that served as refugia for a variety of plants and animals, some of which have flourished and expanded their ranges, moving out across the post-glacial landscape of the last 10,000 years, and others of which continue to hang on in little pockets throughout the mountains. We would continue to explore the legacy of the Vashon and Juan de Fuca lobes of the Cordilleran ice sheet throughout the coming week.
The Washington State Ferries, while huge and bulky and seemingly sluggish, slide along at an incredible clip. It is important to admire the mountain views while you can, as the forested ridges and sea-cliffs of the approaching Kitsap Peninsula quickly gobble up the ridge-tops. Even Mount Constance, famously mis-identified as Mt. Olympus by early European expeditions that made maps of the areas as they traveled, disappeared behind the ferry terminal in Kingston. Behind the roar of Harleys (always first off the boat), we were off on our way to Highway 101. Crossing the Hood Canal (another arm of Puget Sound), the road rose into a stretch of vast miles-wide clear cuts with toppled trees, brush, and occasionally a group of 2 or 3 spindly trees left standing here and there as “habitat”. These lands are a matrix of private and public management. “Public” in this case is the Department of Natural Resources, and as the road-side signs proudly state, these forests, now in their third timber rotation, fund our schools and hospitals. Ahead on the road, the eastern Olympics loom, large and dark, with United States Forest Service lands somewhat more intact with more conservative cutting practices now in place. Beyond the uniform canopies of second growth timber land, one can see the ragged canopies of old-growth forest signifying the boundary with wilderness land (designated by the 1964 Wilderness Act) also managed by the US Forest Service.
Land use approaching the national park: Private, DNR, USFS, and Indian Reservation
The trip from Seattle to the Olympics is an instructive study in landscape change (both in the spatial sense and the temporal sense). In as little as 30 miles from Seattle (as the crow flies) one can travel from the heavily urbanized, industrialized, and densely populated landscape of the east side of the Puget Sound to one of the most wild and uninhabited areas in the lower 48. Suburban and urban landscapes encroach on timberlands and the timberlands march right up to the boundary of wilderness preserves—so much so that the outline of Olympic National Park and adjoining wilderness areas is clearly visible from outer space. Our wilderness preserves serve as a reminder of a regional landscape that as little as 100 years ago, was still comprised largely of contiguous, roadless and wholly intact forest, much of it characterized as oldgrowth. In 1895, Seattle already had 40,000 people living in it, but the Olympic Peninsula was still largely unexplored by Europeans. Access to Port Angeles was by ferry, not a network of roads, and many myths existed about what lay behind the imposing ridges easily viewable from Seattle. Now, 100 years later, 4.2 million people live on the eastern shore of the Puget Sound, with this population set to grow by another 1.5 million over the next 25 years. The demand for resources from local to international scales has greatly impacted our landscape, in ways that we are only beginning to come to terms with as a society, especially as anthropogenic climate change is now thrown into the mix.
Traveling around the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula on Highway 101, we passed Discovery Bay, the first Puget Sound anchorage of Vancouver’s ship Discovery in 1792. The madrones (Arbutus menziesii) overhanging the road are just as Menzies described them in his journals as the surgeon-naturalist of Vancouver’s expedition (except that there was no road there when Menzies walked that land). Menzies made detailed descriptions of flora and fauna, as well as the native peoples they encountered on their journeys. Our next stop would be the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation where we briefly pondered the native American presence on the landscape dating back for more than 10,000 years. With much of their native language lost or forgotten (due largely to violent enforcement of turn-of-the-century US government policies forbidding the speaking of indigenous languages), the very words that describe the natural history of the landscape, and ultimately connect a people to their native landscape, were lost. Thankfully the Klallam have recovered much of their language, but they are struggling to recover the stories and traditions that are so intimately intertwined with their native landscape, that were also lost with the language. Totem poles, for example, depicting native animals and spirit creatures, abound on the reservation, but are not part of the original culture of the tribe. Later, we would have opportunity to discuss native American concepts of wilderness and legends specific to this landscape in an evening discussion led by student Merrick Calder (described later in this post).
Picking up our Park Service Permits: partners in the complex mission of the NPS
Our next stop was the offices of the National Park Service in Port Angeles. The National Park Service is charged with the mandate to manage the national park “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations”. The current interpretation of this verbiage of the 1916 “Organic Act” emphasizes “unimpaired”. To this end, the park has stringent permitting requirements for all people (and especially groups such as ours) entering the park, with emphasis on minimizing impact in ecologically sensitive areas, either by keeping people out of them altogether, or emphasizing “Leave-no-Trace” practices. One requirement for groups such as ours, is that every person carries a Park Service issued bear canister. Olympic (unlike, for example, Yosemite) has had very few problems with bears becoming accustomed to humans and human food over the years because of this policy, and they would like to keep it that way. While some view park service regulation as a hassle and barrier to the “enjoyment” clause, when you consider that the park has become an international destination for backpackers, the regulation is necessary. Lax regulation would result in a violation of the “unimpaired” clause, and ultimately also the “enjoyment” clause both through ecological degradation and through the encounter of too many people in the areas where backpackers go to seek solitude. The park service does not actively keep people out of the park (thus serving the "enjoyment" clause), but quota areas require that sometimes visitors are forced to visit another part of the park, rather than their number one choice. Luckily for us, our permits were reserved months on advance.
Entering the park and beginning our hike: First evidence of the natural history of climate change
Finally, we were on our way up the Deer Park road, with a requisite stop at the national park boundary. A small sign riddled with bullet holes announces the entrance to the park, although a sign is hardly needed. The park boundary is clear. On one side the forest is cut, and on the other it is intact. Heading uphill into the park, we passed through stands of old, but slow-growing Douglas fir in this, the driest part of the Olympic Mountains. Periodic fire probably maintains Douglas fir as the climax species here, unlike most other areas at similar elevation where western hemlock becomes the climax. At Deer Park, the forest is dominated by lodgepole pine. A recent fire, started in the mid-1980s by an out of control campfire, has aided the dominance of this species. However pure stands of the tree can be found, even in areas that haven’t recently burned, with the overall experience much like the dusty pine-scented east slope of the Cascades. Lodgepole pine is relatively rare in the Olympics, but these stands give a taste of what is to come with warmer and drier climates.
|Hiking down through the burn with Douglas fir and lodgepole pine regeneration in the foreground. Three Forks is in the valley in the background.|
As we finally left the trailhead behind with the freedom that comes knowing that you have all you need to survive for over a week on your back, we passed downwards through the ghost of a forest lost in the mid-1980s fire. Gravelly alpine slopes dominated by Olympic onion, vetch, phlox, and desert parsley were interspersed with subalpine meadows full of paintbrush and other subalpine flowers. Between the widely dispersed trees were patches of snowberry, service berry, and dull Oregon grape, all drought tolerant plants forming a community not unlike areas on the east slope of the Cascades at the shrub-steppe interface. Vanilla leaf grew surprisingly high here too, under the canopy of patches of Douglas fir that survived the fire.
As we began to drop below treeline, a large flock of evening grosbeaks flew overhead landing in the tree tops near us with their ringing “cleerr” call; a wonderful welcome to the “untrammeled” wild (to use the language of the 1964 Wilderness Act) as the trailhead finally faded out of view and the hot beating sun became mercifully lower in the sky. Quickly we descended through fat old Douglas firs mixed with subalpine firs and silver firs, the Douglas firs being remnants of a warmer drier period around 700 years ago that allowed Douglas firs to move uphill into the subalpine zone. Silver firs continue down to around 3000 feet of elevation in this part of the Olympics, but they are not doing well at the low end of their range—as these are remnants of the Little Ice Age cooling trend that occurred some 500 to 200 years ago. The silver fir zone will gradually shift uphill here to escape the current warming trend, unless fire and summer drought are strong enough that lodgepole pine out competes it. The forests on this hillside form closed canopies, with generally rocky and nutrient poor soils. Saprophytic plants are common and we found a beautiful specimen of candy stick (Allotropa virgata) at the side of the trail. Nearing the bottom of the valley, the trail passed through an interesting grove of Pacific yew, known for the compound taxol, used in a chemotherapy drug. Yew has one of the broadest ecological tolerances of any tree in the Olympics, growing well in the wettest valley bottoms and the driest ridges. Interspersed with the yews was one loan hazel nut tree, a species that is hyper abundant in the forested parks of Seattle, but only one of two I would see on our whole trip.
|Candy Stick (Allotropa virgata), a saprophytic plant that lacks cholorphyll (and probably gets its energy from decomposing plant material), is well-adapted to the intense shade of the closed canopy. Photo by Anthony Dang.|
The trail from Deer Park to Three Forks (the confluence of the Cameron, Grand, and Gray Wolf Rivers) drops 3,500 ft. in 4 miles. The trail sucks you ever downward to about 2000 feet of elevation at the bottom of the canyon at Three Forks camp. And the valley floor really is canyon-like, with a deep V-shape profile, indicating that mountain glaciers probably never descended this far down these particular valleys.
Once you are in the valley, you feel like you are really entrenched in the wilderness. There is no easy way back to the trailhead. It’s like taking the plunge into an icy lake (which we would do several times in subsequent days). Three Forks is a tiny grassy clearing in the midst of a low elevation old-growth forest. Giant grand firs and western hemlocks ring the clearing. A large Douglas maple is at the back of the clearing and red alders border the stream. Last year there was an outbreak of hemlock looper caterpillars ravaging the hemlock trees in the clearing (and hemlocks all over the park), but these seemed to be receding this year. Outbreaks will likely become more common with climate change and will affect the composition of our forests.
Encountering the Legacy of early Euro-Americans, and a discussion of Indigenous concepts of the land
In the middle of the clearing, there is rough-hewn three sided shelter made from the trees that were cut to make the clearing, which served as a CCC camp in the 1930s. The CCC built all the trails in the heart of the Olympic Mountains and one feels a sense of that historic legacy and connection to the men of the CCC when camping at Three Forks. Despite the fact we carry lightweight tents and stoves, and clothing made of space-age materials, the essence of camping today is really not that different from how it was back then. A campfire ring in front of the shelter would be the site of our evening discussion and has probably been the site of countless discussions over the years. As darkness falls on the clearing, stars twinkle in the night sky above it, ringed by the looming darkness of an all-encompassing forest. It is easy to see why early settlers feared and loathed the forest which seemed to encroach on them from all sides, barring progress and harboring mis-understood predators (such as wolves and mountain lions). Undoubtedly wolves were once common in the Olympics before the last known individual was exterminated around 1920—and the Gray Wolf valley, our hiking route for tomorrow was undoubtedly one of those places. Mountain lions still lurk throughout the range, and in recent years there was one said to be living in a cave across the river from us.
|The most human of traditions; story telling around a campfire. Merrick began our first evening discussion by recounting several Native American legends pertaining to the Olympic Mountains.|
As day faded into night, and the food was hung (or placed in bear-proof canisters), Carter stoked up the fire and Merrick led us into a discussion of native American relationships to wilderness (a concept that really had no meaning to Native Americans in the sense that it existed in the minds of European peoples). Merrick made the comment that before even the CCC boys sat here discussing life around the fire, native Americans may have been here in this very place huddled around a fire as much as 10,000 years ago (as evidenced by middens found in the mountains). Storytelling is perhaps the most human of traditions around the night fire, and Merrick entertained us with a variety of local creation legends from the first peoples of the Puget Sound region. He explored the spiritual and ecological relationship that Native Americans traditionally developed with nature, and specifically, an animist (as opposed to humanist) belief system that allowed Native Americans to develop deep respect and reverence for the non-human world, and indeed placed them squarely amidst the larger community of plants and animals as opposed to separate from it. The humanistic beliefs of Europeans, on the other hand, led to the European conception that man was apart from and above the non-human world, and the invention of the concept of wilderness was no exception to this rule. Merrick asked us all to think about what animals we connect most strongly with on a spiritual level, and asked us to choose a “spirit animal” for ourselves. He asked us to think about how that spirit animal might allow us to connect to nature in a different way, and to imagine ourselves as that animal over the ensuing days as we traversed the range.
As the fire faded, we threw in some lodgepole pine cones collected on the upper part of the trail. Sealed shut with resin, the heat of the fire allows the scales to open and releases the seeds—part of the species’ adaptation to fire. As for me, I retired to my tent, content to rest with the steady roar of Grand Creek in my ears. For me, Three Forks feels like a home, and this night was the beginning of an annual pilgrimage into the Olympic Mountains that I have been making for the last 14 years.
My personal reflections on wilderness will be coming in a later post.