ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest; Year 3!

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The group poses on Sentinel Peak, >20 trail miles from any road, with Mount Anderson and the Eel Glacier in the background. From this vantage point, we looked down on a soaring Golden Eagle, saw swifts rising and swooping along the adjacent cliff face, found an alpine flower species endemic to the Olympic Mountains (isolated by past climate changes), looked across the now free-flowing Elwha River and the valley’s wide unbroken lowland forests, and compared the current coverage of Eel Glacier to historic photos taken from a nearby vantage point. We would also take time here to individually ponder the value of large ecosystem preserves (such as Olympic National Park), and the kind of remote wilderness recreation experience they provide as humanity enters the Anthropocene, and as nearby Seattle prepares to take on another 1.5 million people over the next 25 years. Photo Credit: Tim Billo

This post introduces our course blog (http://envir495onp2015.blogspot.com/) documenting the third annual offering (click here for last year’s blog) of the interdisciplinary summer field course, ENVIR 495C: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest, offered by the University of Washington Environmental Studies Program. The course, taught primarily through the lens of a nine-day wilderness backpacking trip (July 11-19, 2015) in Olympic National Park, explores changes in the regional landscape in the distant (back to the last ice age) and recent (the last 150 years of European settlement and industrialization) past, and what these recent changes mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. In short, the course uses today’s wilderness landscape as a “baseline” for understanding global change in the Anthropocene, and thinking about where we are headed at this critical juncture in Earth’s history.

Each student on the course led an evening discussion around a topic he or she was interested in, often incorporating outside quotes and background studies as a way to introduce the topic and provide more fodder for discussion. Discussion topics this year included: 1) Native American relationships to nature and wilderness, 2) the literature of the sublime and development of sense of place, 3) ecology of invasive species in the national park and philosophies governing human management of “wilderness”, 4) the wilderness preservation movement and ramifications of the figurative separation of man from nature, 5) the importance of formal integration of nature (and possibly wilderness) experience into  curricula at all educational levels from pre-K to college, 6) wilderness and landscape management issues around water (and fire) in a changing climate, 7) the process and importance of developing a land ethic (inspired by quotes from Aldo Leopold), 8) a history and evaluation of wilderness recreation styles and management philosophies around recreation in wilderness, and 9) envisioning a wilderness definition that is more inclusive of permanent human settlement—or vice versa, a human settlement pattern that is more in harmony with elements of a wilderness landscape.

While in previous years, our discussions have often taken place around campfires, this year was one of the driest years on record in the Olympics, not due to lack of winter precipitation, but due mainly to record warm temperatures causing winter precipitation to fall as rain. Snowpack at high elevation measuring stations this winter was less than 14% of average, and basically 0% of average at lower elevations, leading to extremely dry conditions on the ground throughout the region. Hence, we adhered to the strict park-wide ban on open fires. One major theme of the course is climate change (past, present, and future), and this year offered a particularly unique insight into what the average summer 50 years from now is projected to look like. August flowers were already blooming (or finished blooming) in July, and many alpine blueberry leaves were already taking on their fall colors, as well as being flush with ripe berries, typical of late August or September. Areas that would normally be covered with many feet of last winter’s snow in July, were completely dry, with much vegetation dry and crispy. Grasshoppers, typical of late August and September, abounded in the meadows, and caterpillar outbreaks were extensive, with obvious extensive defoliation of some species–particularly willows. Correspondingly, butterfly and moth populations were thriving. Stream and alpine lake temperatures were far warmer than normal this year, and swimming was downright comfortable. While our trip ironically began with 3 days of much-needed rain, it was not enough to extinguish the large forest fire burning in a remote area of the southwest part of the park. We grappled with the policy of the Park Service to control this lightning caused fire in a “wilderness” ecosystem that according to the 1964 Wilderness Act, should be left to its own “natural” devices.

The lack of snow made it an excellent year to assess the retreat of prominent alpine glaciers, such as the Eel Glacier on Mt. Anderson and the Lillian Glacier on Mt. McCartney. We were able to re-create historical photos of both of these glaciers, demonstrating massive retreat in the case of the Lillian Glacier, and possibly the last view ever of this glacier if this summer continues to break record high temperatures. Much to our surprise, the low snowpack also allowed us to “discover” an unnamed glacier near Graywolf Pass. The lack of snow had exposed the glacier ice and crevasses (a sign of downhill movement of the ice), as well as ice worms living in the glacier. Ice worms are a direct legacy of the last ice age (explained later in the blog), and one of the animals most endangered by glacial recession in the Pacific Northwest.

As in previous years, we were also able to study the effects of previous climate change events on range shifts of forest species up and down mountain sides. Large Douglas firs at high elevations are the remnants of a warm dry period 700 years ago, and silver firs at lower elevations seeded in during the Little Ice Age which ended only 200 years ago. Many alpine glaciers that expanded during the Little Ice Age have now massively contracted, leaving in their wake characteristic glacial deposits and a unique succession of species colonizing the bare soil. Along with the loss of ice and snow also comes a decline in a unique suite of species (in addition to ice worms) tied to this ecosystem. This was the first year in a long time that I have observed no Rosy Finches, a species that breeds on cliffs and forages best on the plethora of invertebrates that live (and die) on the surface of snow.

The Olympic Mountains and its many historical alpine glaciers were connected to the continental ice sheets that flowed through the Puget Trough and Strait of Juan de Fuca only 16,500 years ago (sounds like a long time ago, but really a geologic “eye-blink” and not that many generations ago for our longest lived trees!). Despite the intrusion of ice from the north, as well as the growth of alpine glaciers down valleys in the Olympics, many of the highest ridges and some valley bottoms remained ice free during the last ice age, providing refugia for many local species, as well as arctic species that had moved south. Many of these species can still be found today in small relictual populations (we discovered rare populations of Rocky Mountain Juniper and Engelmann Spruce this year), and some of them have evolved into forms unique to the Olympic Mountains (including alpine plant species such as the Piper’s Bellflower and Olympic Mountain Groundsel, which we discovered in several ridgetop locations). Plant and animal species isolated on high ridges will be some of the first to go extinct given current projections for human-induced climate change, and it will be up to humans to decide whether to help these species out by moving them to places more climatically amenable (assuming they are incapable of dispersal themselves), or to let them go extinct one by one. Certainly the ecosystem will not unravel at their loss, but whether we have a moral imperative to save them is a bigger question, which we explore on the course, especially in “wilderness” areas which we have traditionally thought of as areas where nature should be left to take care of itself.

Between 1895 and 2015, the Seattle area grew from 40,000 people to over 4.2 million. In the next 25 years, Seattle will grow by another 1.5 million. Virtually every piece of accessible habitat in the lowlands of the Puget Trough has been severely impacted by humans at one time or another, in some cases irrevocably. It was by stroke of luck (due in part to the inaccessibility of the terrain in the early days), and a big dash of courage from some forward-thinking leaders around the turn of the 19th Century, that Olympic National Park and other areas like it were saved from the ax and/or development. In only 25 miles as the crow (or eagle) flies from Seattle, an international hub of high tech industry, one can begin a walk into the Olympic Mountains, a roadless area of over 1 million acres (approximately 1600 sq miles), not to mention similar areas in the Cascade Range. It is this short gradient from ultra-urban to wilderness, that also makes the region such an appealing place to live, as well as a unique place to reflect on landscape change (past, present, and future), and ramifications of this change (namely, the loss of “wild” spaces) for society in the Anthropocene.

 

It was a pleasure hiking with and learning from the 9 inspirational students, from a variety of majors, who embraced the physical and mental challenges of the course. Miranda Knight-Miles, a student on last year’s course, and recent Environmental Studies graduate, provided additional leadership and enthusiasm as a Teaching Assistant. Each student has written about one day of the trip, and offered additional personal thoughts on the importance of wilderness, a commodity whose value has recently been questioned in some conservation circles, as we enter the Anthropocene. For my part, I have spent close to 200 days traveling in the backcountry of Olympic National Park over the last 15 years, and always enjoy getting to know the landscape more intimately, while encouraging others to do the same. I also relish the opportunity for reflection on what our local wilderness areas teach me about myself and the greater landscape of “home”, as well as the many values our wildernesses offer society, from the ecological to the psychological. Extended wilderness travel offers us rare time and space (both of which are commodities in today’s world)  to think deeply about how we might move forward as a society at this critical juncture in earth’s history, the beginning of the Anthropocene era. It is my hope that this blog conveys the power of the wilderness learning experience and its deep impact on the lives of those who are lucky enough to experience it. For those who do not have the opportunity to experience it, perhaps this blog will bring them a step closer.

Some stats from our trip:

Mileage Covered: 55 miles

Number of Days in Wilderness: 9
Number of Person-Nights in Wilderness: (11 people x 8 nights) = 88 (for reference, 88 was our contribution to the astounding 40,000 person nights a year typically recorded in Olympic National Park’s backcountry!)
Number of people encountered on the trail before the last day of the trip: 4 (Despite ONP’s high visitation rates, the backcountry did not feel crowded!)

Cumulative Altitude gained: ~19,000 feet (about 18000 feet were lost)

Highest altitude attained: ~6,700 feet

Number of bird species observed: 49

Number of bears observed: 0; most years we observe 1 or 2.

Number of mountain goats observed this year: 1

Number of deer observed this year: >9
Number of golden eagles observed this year: at least 4 (a record high for this course)

ENVIR 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region, Spring 2015

It was another incredible season of natural history exploration in the Puget Sound Region, with many personal highlights including an octopus and a tailed frog.

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Visiting the same places year after year allows us to document important environmental change. Here is a view to the Elwha River in Spring 2014 which we will compare to spring 2015 below. Both pictures were taken in the 3rd week of April.

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Elwha River Spring 2015. Note that the river channel has moved from last year to this year. Also note the gradual process of vegetative succession on the flood plain.

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Some of our group posing in front of Marymere Falls. We searched for and found the elusive tailed frog just downstream of the falls. (photo by Jorge Tomasevic).

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I finally found the tailed frog, an endemic species to the Pacific northwest–its cousin in the Blue Mountains was recently split into another species. This primitive frog only lives in fast flowing side-branch streams in the mountains. It is not found in the larger valley bottom Barnes Creek (as far as I know). Here I am with the tadpole I just found clinging to a rock in a rapid. This was cold, wet work, but with some perseverance I finally found one.

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We got some very nice photos of the tadpole and its amazing suction mouth, viewed clinging to the side of this water bottle. These tadpoles are famous for latching on to rocks in fast flowing streams, and the unusual suction mouth parts allow it to do so. They take 1-4 years to reach adulthood, and spend most of their time eating algae off of smooth stream rocks. Adults (with unusual tail which is a copulatory organ), practice internal fertilization (unlike most other frog species). Eggs and sperm would otherwise be washed away.

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Tailed frog tadpole.

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American Dipper in Barnes Creek (Photo by TA Jorge Tomasevic). The dipper was John Muir’s favorite bird, which he refers to as the “water-ouzel” in a book chapter by that name. John Muir was no stranger to the northwest, and he is known to have explored some of the Peninsula’s lowland forest several years before the famous “Press Expedition”, which was the first documented crossing of the mountain range by Europeans.

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The next day we headed to Salt Creek on the Strait of Juan de Fuca for tidepooling at Tongue Point. Again, we made some amazing and unusual finds, this time with the Pacific Giant Octopus. I noticed the tips of the tentacles of this animal moving beneath the kelp. Thinking it was a marine worm of some sort, I reached in (unsuccessfully) to pull it out and take a closer look. Minutes later this octopus appeared on the surface, and worked its way around the tidepool, looking at each one of us, and even crawling out of the water at one point for a better look, before heading back into deeper water. It seemed this highly intelligent being was as curious about us as we were about it. Although we share only a distant common ancestor, I have never felt so connected or close to a mollusk. What a treat to be briefly visited by this beautiful animal! (photo by Jorge Tomasevic)

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With the exception of the blood star pictured here, sea stars were notably absent this year. Normally Pisaster stars would be abundant. This year we saw only a handful. Undoubtedly the effects of this absence, probably due to wasting disease, will be felt through the food chain. We mistakenly thought the blotches on the blood stars were signs of wasting disease, but the folks at UC Santa Cruz, who are running an excellent citizen science project assessing the disease, assured us that white blotches on blood stars are normal.

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Later in the day, we headed to Hurricane Ridge in summer-like conditions. Snowpack was 0% of normal. That is, where one would normally expect to find 3-6 feet of snow this time of year, there was 0 snow. The winter was not particularly dry, but it was too warm for much snow. This will make for very dry conditions on the ground this summer, and may give us some insight into climatic conditions that will likely prevail here by the end of the century.

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Looking across the Puget Trough bioregion to the Cascade Range. No snow in the Olympics.

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The beautiful alpine flower, Douglasia, though typically early, was blooming exceedingly early this year. Note also the unidentified caterpillar–perhaps from one of the rare alpine butterflies of the Olympics.

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Riding the ferry home after a long weekend of natural history exploration. Exhausted, but in the words of David Douglas, “amply gratified.”

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Next field trip to Mima Mounds and other Puget prairies. Luke working on his botany skills.

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Common Camas in full bloom at Glacial Heritage Preserve.

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TA, Andrew Jauhola teaches about native plants at Glacial Heritage Preserve. Harsh paintbrush in bloom in the foreground.

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Douglas fir ever invading the prairies.

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A miniature Douglas fir further out in the prairie.

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TA Jorge teaching the correct way to hold a garter snake.

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6’2″ TA Sam Timpe posing for scale in front of a cutaway Mima Mound.

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Pondering the origin of Mima Mounds, the Puget Sound’s biggest natural history mystery.

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Later in the quarter we moved to Yakima Canyon and Umtanum Ridge. A multitude of species, plant and animal, were encountered in this diverse convergence of ecosystems.

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The Yellow Breasted Chat and Lazuli Bunting did not disappoint.

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A copper butterfly (Lycaena) on what is probably Crepis atribarba.

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Lewisia was in full bloom and very dense this year. For all the talk of drought, the area seemed quite moist and flowers were really the best we’ve seen them in the past 3 years.

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Yun Peng displays a horned lizard after hunting intensely.

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Thompson’s Paintbrush, parasitic on stiff sagebrush.

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Emily getting ready to prepare the roots of the bitterroot, a traditional native food that Lewis and Clark famously sampled.

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Studying biodiversity and adaptation in the lithosol community.

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The group finds a scorpion in the lithosol community, amidst a variety of Eriogonum flowers.

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Working on flower ID on Umtanum Ridge.

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ENVIR 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region, Autumn 2014, Highlights

Fall in the northwest! This was the first offering of ENVIR 280 in the fall (as opposed to spring), and we weren’t sure how it would work out. But it worked out splendidly, with awesome opportunities to explore the alpine and glaciers, chances to witness migration in full swing, plenty of life in the lowlands as the summer wound down, and an opportunity to see the fall colors come out as the landscape readied itself for winter. Thanks everyone for a great quarter! And a special thank you to the freshman FIG cohort who took a chance and made this one of their first classes of their college career. Hope to see you all again soon.

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Early in the quarter, first stop: Nisqually Delta. Canada geese gathering for migration.

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Nisqually Delta, looking out to the Puget Sound. Tornado approaching. Not what you want to see when you are leading a course. Luckily it veered away from us, and then the weather improved.

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Tree Frogs abound at Nisqually Delta!

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Such a variety of color forms.

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More colors!

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Garter snakes coiled in the trees, perhaps waiting for tree frogs.

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Next stop, Mima Mounds. In the absence of fire, Douglas firs invade the prairie.

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Journaling on the Mima Mounds.

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Getting excited about a non-native Praying Mantis.

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Allie drawing the mantid.

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Macro mantid!

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Jorge discussing birds on the prairie.

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Sunday: Mount Rainier, emerging from the orographic clouds!

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A cloud layer descends over the lower Nisqually Glacier. The group studies the ice from the lateral moraine.

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Sketching glacial formations on the Nisqually Glacier.

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Sketching on the moraine, and studying the movement and deposits of glaciers.

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The toe of the rapidly retreating Nisqually Glacier.

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In the Puget Sound region, you don’t have to travel back to the ice age to understand what glaciers are and how glaciers work. Here is the outwash stream of the Nisqually Glacier from the moraine.

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Clouds trying to lift.

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Intrepid students of natural history braving the cool weather of our approaching winter on the mountain.

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Examining a Ruffed Grouse.

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Learning to “read” the forest at Kautz Creek.

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Teaching in the grove of trees that hooked me on the natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to my mentor, Val Campbell for introducing me to this grove in 1997.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.

The remarkable Douglas fir cone mushroom, specific to, you guessed it, Douglas fir cones. We found this one beneath an old growth Douglas fir canopy in Mt. Rainier National Park.

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The group poses in the old grove low on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Thanks to Jorge Tomasevic for the photo.

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Jorge Tomasevic, photo.

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Field Sketching workshop, with Maria Coryell-Martin, at UBNA on UW campus.

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Halloween! The Natural History costume challenge.

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To the east side to escape the rain. Examining the fangs and pits on this recently deceased rattle snake, now a specimen at the Burke Museum.

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Mima Mound-like formations on Umtanum Ridge. The lithosol community is going dormant this time of year, and the cold winds of winter are returning. A far cry from the colorful palette of the spring landscape on Umtanum Ridge.

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Naturalist at work.

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The fine hairs covering the leaves of Tall Sagebrush help it resist moisture loss in this windy, dry environment.

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An aspen grove turns yellow, trees are probably all clones of each other. On the east side, Douglas fir is shade tolerant (relative to Ponderosa Pine), in the background.

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Anthocyanins show through as chlorophyll is lost.

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Peer TAs taking their job seriously, as usual! ;)

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Wolf lichen! A yellowish natural dye can be made from this lichen.

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Crabapple in fall splendor, by Umtanum Creek.

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Final trip of the fall, and perfect weather: Ebey’s Landing and Skagit flats. Jorge scanning the lagoon for waterfowl.

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Golden-crowned sparrows are in abundance as winter comes on.

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Releasing the sparrow.

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Ebey’s Landing trail along Strait of Juan de Fuca. Photo by Kathleen Ervin (student).

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TA, Jorge Tomasevic talks about gulls.

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Journaling in the prairie strip along the bluffs.

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Journaling and lunch above the Strait.

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Mount Rainier from Skagit Flats, in the setting sun. A flock of snow geese had just flown over. In the distance in this photo, you can see a flock of shorebirds, appearing as a dark smudgy line on the left flank of Rainier, just above the shoreline hill.

ENVIR 495C, Summer 2014: Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest

This post introduces and recounts the second annual offering of my unique interdisciplinary course called “Landscape Change in the Pacific Northwest”, offered through UW’s Program on the Environment, and taught entirely in the wilderness of Olympic National Park. This summer’s students have put together a beautiful blog about their experiences (including photos and personal stories), which you can access with the following link.

http://backcountryuw2014.blogspot.com/

If you are interested, here is a brief explanation of the course:

From July 12th to July 20th 2014, this year being the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and the 105th anniversary of Mount Olympus National Monument, our course headed deep into the wilderness of Olympic National Park. At over one million contiguous acres of wilderness, Olympic National Park and its surrounding USFS wilderness areas, are arguably the largest tract of contiguous, roadless wilderness area in the lower 48. Shockingly, this wilderness is only 20 miles from the rapidly growing Seattle/Tacoma metropolitan area, home to over 4.2 million people, and hotbed of ultra-modern digital technology companies. During our trip, we used the wilderness landscapes of Olympic National Park as a model to understand the ways in which the landscape of the Puget Sound region has changed in the distant (1000s of years) and recent (last 100 years) past, and what human-imposed changes to the landscape mean for our future, from ecological, psychological, and philosophical standpoints. Direct observation of the effects of climate change and fragmentation on species and ecosystems, was coupled with student-led evening discussions on a variety of student-chosen topics related to “wilderness” including:

  • native American perspectives and relationships of local tribes to the land through story telling
  • perspectives on resource use in and around the national park, largely as debated by timber-based communities
  • appropriate lifestyle, development, and settlement patterns for a rapidly growing Puget Sound region
  • wilderness management concerns for endemic species threatened by changing climate, invasive species, and historical over-harvest
  • when and whether active species management is appropriate or antithetical to the concept of “wilderness”
  • Eco-feminism and other “unheard” voices offering alternative perspectives on land conservation

Readings included classical wilderness philosophy, as well as the philosophy of modern day writers and conservationists from this region, with much of our discussion beginning in an online format prior to the start of our wilderness trip. The course was taught by Dr. Tim Billo (faculty in UW Program on the Environment) and Carter Case (recent graduate of the UW Program on the Environment).

The purpose of this blog is to share the story of our daily adventures in Olympic National Park’s wilderness, and to invite you to join in discussion of the ideas we wrestled with often deep into the night during our trip. Each of us have written about a separate day of the trip, and added our personal impressions on the value of wilderness in today’s world. To give you a general sense of the location of the terrain we are talking about, a map of our hiking route can be viewed here. Enjoy!

ENVIR 280, Spring 2014, a few highlights from the rest of the quarter

Below are a selection of images to close out the spring 2014 quarter of ENVIR 280, some taken from student blogs. Thanks everyone for a great quarter of natural history!

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Tree Swallow at Nisqually Delta

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Nice close-up of fruticose lichen from a student blog.

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Bitterroot on Umtanum Ridge.

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Lazuli Bunting at Umtanum Creek, by Oli Veliz.

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Prickly Pear Cactus at Umtanum Creek.

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Common Camas at Nisqually Delta.

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Chickadee study by Mary Navarro, at Ravenna Park, based in part on her observations at a Black Capped Chickadee nest (See her photos below).

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Landscape study of Lake Crescent, by Cassie Halls.

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The Cascade Red Fox at Mt. Rainier.

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Tree frog at Nisqually Delta.

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Garter Snake at Nisqually.

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The Horned Lizard at Umtanum Ridge.

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Nisqually Landscape: Wetlands recently flooded with salt water after dike removal.

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Pollinator (a bumblebee–probably Bombus mixtus) visiting Yellow Flag Iris in Discovery Park, by Bryton Sefert.

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Half of our crew at Paradise, Mt. Rainier.

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Thompson’s Paintbrush, parasitic on the Stiff Sage Brush. Umtanum Ridge.

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Umtanum Ridge, Landscape.

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Nick Schippers sharing a Horned Lizard with his classmates, Umtanum Ridge.

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Red Naped Sapsucker, Umtanum Creek.

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Damaged Emerald Dragonfly at Nisqually delta.

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Pacific Tree Frog, Nisqually Delta.

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Chickadee at nest cavity, Ravenna Park, by Mary Navarro.

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Chickadee bringing food to nest, by Mary Navarro, in Ravenna Park.

ENVIR 280, Natural History of the Puget Sound Region–April 19-20 annual trip to Olympic National Park

We just got back from another banner trip to Olympic National Park. We left Seattle in grey, but otherwise non-rainy weather. The eastern Olympic skyline was visible from the ferry, but clouds were beginning to form on the higher peaks as a south wind whipped up the Sound.

Somehow we managed to get aboard the “training” ferry, and my ferry-board lecture kept hilariously being interrupted by the chief steward running a shipwreck training drill on the loud speaker. It was as if he was secretly watching me and interrupting me every time I opened my mouth. He even sent a new crew member over to our group to instruct us on the use of life jackets right as I was finally getting into my lesson.

On the ferry, Sunday night. Sadly, two of our 9 vans got shunted onto the next ferry at the last minute, so this is not our entire group!

On the ferry, Sunday night. Sadly, two of our 9 vans got shunted onto the next ferry at the last minute, so this is not our entire group!

We made our first stop at the Jamestown S’Klallam reservation to ponder native American relationships to natural history, and the connection of native languages to natural history knowledge. We then continued westward through the rain shadow of the Olympics, then further west and upward into more and more rainy weather. Our next stop was at the overlook for the lower of the two Elwha reservoirs. The Elwha River restoration in full swing, and red alders are actively colonizing (in some cases with a little hand from the restoration ecologists who want to prevent invasives like Scotch Broom from taking over) the deep sediments that were deposited behind the dam. Additionally, it has been amazing to see the oldgrowth stumps, a legacy of the original forest, emerging from the mud. Soon scientists will be able to document the return of salmon and the effects of marine derived nutrients in the upper reaches of the river.

Elwha overlook. Alders are colonizing the sediments that built up in the reservoir over 100 years, behind the lower of the two Elwha dams.

Elwha overlook. Alders are colonizing the sediments that built up in the reservoir over 100 years, behind the lower of the two Elwha dams.

On the shores of Lake Crescent, the cold rain really set in. At 90 inches of precipitation a year, Lake Crescent gets more than double the annual rainfall of Seattle, but is not quite a true rainforest. Just over the ridge in the slightly rainier Sol Duc drainage, one can find Sitka spruce and Selaginella growing in abundance. Nevertheless, the forests of Barnes Point may as well have been rainforests on this day, and the oldest trees there are as big and impressive as anywhere. Especially interesting is the hike up the west facing slopes of Storm King Mountain, where one finds many species that are adapted to drier micro-climates.

Before proceeding with some shots from my hike up Mount Storm King, I should also thank NatureBridge for hosting us again. We were especially thankful to be able to warm up and dry out at the end of the day by the wood stove with hot chocolate in their cozy historic lodge. This lodge is also where FDR ate breakfast on his famous tour of the Olympic Peninsula in the 1930s prior to designating the national park. It is a perfect location for our evening lecture on early naturalist/explorers of the Puget Sound Region.

Here are some pictures from our exploration of Barnes Point and Mount Storm King.

Calypso bulbosa in second growth Douglas fir forest on Barnes Point before the hike up Storm King.

Calypso bulbosa in second growth Douglas fir forest on Barnes Point before the hike up Storm King.

The rain drip pattern on the underside of a madrone.

The rain drip pattern on the underside of a madrone.

Manzanita, a species much more common in the California chaparral.

Manzanita, a species much more common in the California chaparral. Amazingly a subalpine fir grows right here too, at about 1800 ft elevation. One individual seed made its way down this rocky ridge and germinated far below the subalpine zone! Also amazing is Pacifc yew, growing in some of the driest and most exposed areas of the ridge. Clearly not solely a valley bottom species!

More twisted manzanita.

More twisted manzanita.

Fritillaria affinis, or checker lily, growing on a mossy cliff.

Fritillaria affinis, or checker lily, growing on a mossy cliff.

Trillium ovatum in a moist valley site. Note the moisture on my camera lens! Nice effect. All of us noted how much further behind Lake Crescent was phenologically compared to Seattle. Trillium ovatum dropped its petals in Seattle at least 3 weeks before this picture was taken at 900 ft. in Olympic National Park.

Trillium ovatum in a moist valley site. Note the moisture on my camera lens! Nice effect. All of us noted how much further behind Lake Crescent was phenologically compared to Seattle. Trillium ovatum dropped its petals in Seattle at least 3 weeks before this picture was taken at 900 ft. in Olympic National Park.

The elusive rainbow star! Amazing find in deeper sections on the edge of Tongue Point.

The elusive rainbow star! Amazing find in deeper sections on the edge of Tongue Point.

Sunday brought better weather and our annual excursion out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca for a minus tide at Salt Creek. The tidepools did not disappoint. Nor did the Sitka spruce trees in the coastal fog belt,  as well as Fritillaria along the bluffs, and amazing seabird diversity for our bird buffs (marbled murrelet, common loon, pacific loon, harlequin ducks, pelagic cormorants, surf scoters, white-winged scoters, 1 surfbird, 1 dunlin,1 oyster catcher, and much more). Tongue Point is also amazing for geology buffs. The hard basalt, part of the Olympic basalt, resisted erosion, and juts out into the Strait. It is littered with erratic boulders from the massive Juan de Fuca ice lobe that flowed out the strait only 16000 years ago. A smaller lobe of the same ice sheet pushed its way into the Lake Crescent valley during the same period.

Here are some of our other finds and some shots of naturalists in action:

The amazing kelp copepod! Quite the camouflage.

The amazing kelp copepod! Quite the camouflage.

Kelp copepod.

Kelp copepod.

Allie with a small nudibranch. Good find!

Allie with a small nudibranch. Good find!

A giant sun star next to a timeless green anemone. We also saw the striped anemone this year in a deeper tidepool.

A giant sun star next to a timeless green anemone. We also saw the striped anemone this year in a deeper tidepool.

The modern "i-naturalist" at work

The modern “i-naturalist” at work

Cassie making observations and notes for her journal.

Cassie making observations and notes for her journal.

Blood stars are common in the eel grass higher up on Tongue Point.

Blood stars are common in the eel grass higher up on Tongue Point.

Olympus via the Valhallas, Olympic National Park, July 27 – August 3, 2013

An epic bushwhack up the South Fork of the Hoh River to the summit of Mt. Olympus, and an exploration of the rarely visited Valhalla Range

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Since working together as environmental educators in Olympic National Park in 2000, my friend Erik and I have been going on mountain adventures together. We were both drawn to the park for its wildness, its remoteness, and its complexity. That first year we both ventured out on extended off-trail wilderness traverses, and began imagining the endless possibilities for future adventures in the range. Over the years, we honed our backcountry skills, and became progressively more addicted to northwest mountaineering. It wasn’t until this year, however, spurred on by impending fatherhood (on my part) and a new baby on the way (on the part of Erik), that we finally touched the Valhallas, a remote and seldom visited cluster of peaks on the west side of the Olympics.

For us the Valhallas have always held a mystical appeal. Both of us have peered at them many times from the Olympus massif, and Erik even got tantalizing close to the range several years back on a late fall expedition looking for fishers. The Valhallas sit isolated, anchoring a long alpine ridge extending off the southwest side of Olympus, and perched above two of the grandest rainforest valleys in the Olympics, the Queets and South Fork of the Hoh. Both valleys are without more than a few miles of trails, and an approach to the Valhallas necessitates the negotiation of over 10 miles of virgin river bottom rainforest and bushwhacks up steep hillsides, terrain that remains unchanged even after early white explorers first ventured into the heart of the Olympics a little over a 100 years ago. The alternative approach to the Valhallas requires tricky route-finding down the seldom visited (and hard to see from Olympus itself) southwest face of Olympus, already a good 20 miles from the nearest trailhead by standard routes. Previous trip reports, even by experienced Olympic travelers, describe full days of pushing over and under logs in the valley bottom, followed by heinous tooth and nail scrambling through brush and trees on cliff-like, crumbly hillsides just to reach the base of the Valhallas. Attempts to find easier routes into the Valhallas have generally been defeated, thus maintaining the aura and mystique of this Nordic satellite of a range otherwise named for the Greek deities. First explored by climbers in the late 60s and early 70s, it seems only a handful of people visit the range every year at most. With this in mind, we set off on a 7 day journey, which became some of the best we have ever spent in the mountains.

July 27

I caught the ferry out of Seattle and met up with Erik in Port Townsend to divvy up gear. After stopping for Mexican food in Forks, it was 7 O’Clock in the evening when we finally started hiking. Our goal was to tick off the short section of trail at the beginning of the South Fork of the Hoh, and camp on a gravel bar for the first night. And so we embarked with heavy packs, and by dusk we were bushwhacking our way past the end of the trail, making our way across side channels of the braided river and debating whether to stay in the forest or to get out on a bar near the main channel. It was unclear where the trail ended, but in several places with washouts and blowdowns, we appreciated tiny notches that trail volunteers had cut into downed oldgrowth logs to help us negotiate the mess. Occasional flagging was also to be found, but that soon petered out, and we found ourselves crashing through brush, narrowly dodging a swarm of hornets at the base of a huge spruce, and finally negotiating a log jam to take us out to a bar near the main channel. Now fully dark, we made camp for our first night in the wilderness, in good position to make our way further up valley the next day.

Old-growth Sitka spruce in the South Fork of the Hoh.

Old-growth Sitka spruce in the South Fork of the Hoh.

Despite being still relatively close to civilization, the feeling of isolation at this camp was all-encompassing. Having been in the South Fork with Erik 13 years ago, I knew a bit about the valley, but I had never been past the end of the trail. I was surprised at how open the valley seemed from the river bar. In fact, in just about every way, it resembled the North Fork valley, which I have hiked many times on my way to Olympus. But here, not more than 4 miles from the trailhead, and probably only a mile beyond the end of the trail, it was as if we had passed a threshold, and we had suddenly found ourselves in a deserted valley, perhaps providing a vision of what the North Fork of the Hoh would have been like over 100 years ago prior to trail access. We were completely engulfed by a feeling of isolation which I had not felt in a long time, and certainly had never felt in a valley bottom, so many of which have trails or are close to roads. There were no signs of previous human visitation, and we had seen no one on the way in. Here we were in one of the biggest rainforest valleys of the Olympics, two tiny specks lying on a gravel bar, the only humans in this entire valley, a valley we would have to navigate on nature’s terms, without the aid of a human trail. The magnitude of this task was, unfortunately, not lost on me at all, and compounded with the safety reminder we got from Erik’s pregnant wife before heading out, I could not help but let some of my nerves get to me. What would we encounter tomorrow? The worst bushwhacking of our Olympic experience? The dangerous scrambling encountered by just about every other party on record? Would the challenge be fun or overwhelming? It was certainly easier to imagine the overwhelming scenarios. Having been in Forks only hours before, among the descendents of those who settled among these great forests, the primeval and almost oppressive nature of this valley made it easy to understand how early settlers must have felt as they made inroads into the great forests of the peninsula. To ease our minds from the enormity of the landscape, we built a small campfire by the water, and settled into the night. I slowly drifted off to sleep, but was startled awake shortly after midnight by a bright light in my face. My nerves jumped into high gear—could there really be someone else out here roaming the gravel bar at night? Within a couple seconds, I of course realized that it was the moon that had just poked up over the ridge, shining bright light right onto us. With the bright light shining down I had trouble falling into deep sleep again. Around 3 AM I noticed fog creeping up the valley, and swirling around the tops of the Sitka Spruce trees across the river, and eventually covering the moon with an eerie light. As dawn came I huddled in my now damp sleeping bag. Part of me desperately wanted to get moving and tackle the task ahead of us, but another part of me wanted to force myself to sleep a little longer to get the rest our bodies would be craving later in the trip. The latter won out.

July 28

Our leisurely wakeup time cost us the cool temps of the early morning. We began our hike just as the fog was beginning to break up. With the clouds parting, we could tell it was a bluebird day, and scorching hot at that. The heatwave and drought that had been gripping western Washington for most of the summer so far was still in full swing. We briefly worked our way into a brushy alder forest, before quickly deciding that walking on the bars would be more efficient even if we had to battle the hot sun. From the bar we could see the cliffs of Hoh peak above us, and a single peak of the Valhallas far away behind a spur ridge in the distance. Our work was cut out for us.

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This dreaded day of bushwhacking ended up being surprisingly pleasant. We ticked off miles on mostly open gravel bars with the river flowing relatively low for late July. For the whole day we felt like visitors in a forgotten Eden, the home of a kingdom of animals. Alternating between open gravel bars and moving to wide open oldgrowth Sitka Spruce forest on old river terraces when we encountered the occasional log jam, the walking was easy, flat, and pleasant. We stuck to the North side of the river all day long. We encountered frequent beaver sign and otter sign. We often walked on elk trails, and in places the scent of elk was intense. We only saw two elk that day, but there was a strong sense that they were near us, or moving just ahead of us. We encountered coyote tracks and bear tracks, and watched Harlequin Ducks rafting down the rapids. During the hottest part of the day, we lounged in the shade on grassy meadows on the river bank. Initially it was easy to negotiate places where the river channel pinched up against the north wall of the valley by using obvious elk trails. But eventually the river started entering canyons more and more often. Once we were forced quite a ways up the hillside, scrambling over timber and working our way back down to the river. We elected to cross to the south side of the river on a log, but soon were forced back across the river again on a thinner log that crossed a raging gorge at least 15 feet above the river. In retrospect we should have just stayed on the north side of the river through this section, and the entire day. I shimmied across while Erik walked it like a pro, helping me with my pack. We soon followed more elk trails which took us well above the river now, above a deep canyon with a massive landslide scarp on the south side. Soon we broke out onto the fabled mossy boulders (described as a landmark in the Olympic Climber’s Guide), which we followed down to the traditional campsite at the base of Valkyrie Creek. At this point, we were still in stunned awe of the beauty and pleasantness of the valley-bottom wilderness we had just traversed, but the sheer length of the day and heat of the sun had finally caught up with us. Our dehydrated, hungry bodies, clumsily continued onwards, while our sweat-drenched, pine-tarred, and tattered clothes looked like they’d been worn for weeks already. We worked our way back down to the river to find that last winter’s avalanche action down Valkyrie Creek had left piles of debris and multiple easy logs bridging the channels of a short braided section of river. Above and below the Valkyrie confluence the river was too narrow and too swift to ford safely so we felt lucky to have a trivial crossing, especially at the end of a tough day. We camped on the south side of the river, with alpenglow on the massive south face of Mt. Tom shining through the end of the canyon above us. Elated to be here, we vied to get an early start the next day. We had packed lots of food on this trip, and were never calorie deprived. We wolfed down a huge peanut pad Thai feast, and again built a campfire at the edge of the water as the stars came out. We finally relaxed and stopped to fully appreciate the place we were in: We had just traversed a full 10 miles of raw bushwhacking up a completely wild river lined with some of the largest Sitka Spruce in the world. Now we were at the base of the mysterious Valhallas, and approaching the rugged south side of Olympus from an angle we had only looked down upon in the past.

Upper South Fork Hoh, from our campsite. We headed up to the notch, and then right up the hillside on an elk trail.

Upper South Fork Hoh, from our campsite. We headed up to the notch, and then right up the hillside on an elk trail.

The "mossy boulders" described in Olympic Mountain Climber's Guide.

The “mossy boulders” described in Olympic Mountain Climber’s Guide.

Landslide scarp across the river. Here the S. Fork is in a canyon.

Landslide scarp across the river. Here the S. Fork is in a canyon.

July 29

We woke up to another bluebird day (despite a forecast for 30% chance of rain). This time we were above the fog layer, just barely. The fog bank was stalled about 100 meters below the confluence of Valkyrie Creek, and as usual it began to break up into wisps as we departed camp. Rather than head up the hillside above us (per the “standard” route), we began by working our way up the river along easy boulders and gravel.

This is the point in the trip where we deviated from previous parties into the Valhallas. We were determined not to repeat the heinous steep death-defying scrambling reported by other groups. We instead worked our way up the river, about 100 meters onwards from our campsite, towards a canyon lined with huge mossy boulders and cliffs that looked like it would be impractical to push through. Our mantra to this point in the trip was to “think like an elk.” Elk know this land. They don’t push up the steepest terrain, rather they look for easy ways around impediments, and traveling in herds of 30 or more, these 600 pound beasts have stomped in centuries-old trails. Just before reaching the pinch-point ahead, we  ducked into the woods, and surprisingly quickly located a beautiful obvious trail, switch- backing up a weakness in the hillside. It soon pushed over an easy shoulder and continued, wide and clear all the way to the next creek up the South Fork. We could not have been more pleased at how easily we had gotten where we needed to be. Only an hour out of camp, we were now headed up the next creek (incorrectly referred to as Kilkelly Creek in several previous trip reports. It should be named Geri-Freki Creek) on elk trails again, no less. At one point the trail traversed a cliffy section, and it looked almost like the trail had been blasted out of the cliff to create a ledge. Within another hour we were breaking out above treeline, on a wide elk trail through heather that then traversed easily down to the basin below the Valhallas. We couldn’t believe our luck. What stood before us was one of the most beautiful views in all of the Olympics: an idyllic basin, with tarns, wildflowers, waterfalls, polished rock, and the Geri-Freki glacier ringed by the spires of the Valhallas. Behind us was the sheer wall of Mt. Tom dropping directly into the South Fork Valley (easily one of the biggest faces in the Olympics—its existence completely unknown to me prior to this trip). Better yet, the place had absolutely no sign of humans. It was as if we were entering a wildlife sanctuary, or perhaps even the sanctuary of the Nordic gods. The trail from our previous camp to this point had been so pleasant and obvious, that I half expected to come across a trail sign—perhaps part of the god’s secret trail system!

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Breaking out into Geri-Freki Basin, still on a great elk trail.

Breaking out into Geri-Freki Basin, still on a great elk trail.

The intimidating face of Mt. Tom, from our campsite in Geri-Freki Basin.

The intimidating face of Mt. Tom, from our campsite in Geri-Freki Basin.

We hastily ate lunch and set up camp, before donning glacier gear and heading up snowfields to the base of the glacier. On the snowfields we discovered the tracks and scat of a huge herd of elk which had evidently been there recently, probably on its way over the pass above, to the Paull Creek drainage. With glacial retreat, there is a short cliffy section to negotiate, festooned with gorgeous waterfalls, before setting foot on the glacier proper. We headed up the glacier climbers left, under a small icefall, and quickly made our way up the steepish head of the glacier to Mt. Hugin, which we climbed easily via the northwest ridge. We spent a good hour or more admiring perfect views in all directions. Broad gravel bars of the Queets directly below us, Skyline Ridge to the South, the walls of Woden to the west (a tempting and solid [for the Olympics] looking climb for the future). Loki spire to the northwest, had huge blocks of snow littering the glacier at its base, which had evidently come sliding off in the hot weather. And of course, to the west was Mt. Olympus, its 3000 ft. cliffs cut by a few intimidating-looking snow ramps, and one large rib of rock in the middle, which looked equally intimidating. We knew we would be headed that way tomorrow, but we tried to focus on soaking in our magnificent perch in the Valhallas for the time being. With evening light beginning, I photographed shadows on the Geri-Freki glacier before realizing that it would be good to descend if we wanted to make dinner in daylight. As we crossed the lower glacier, ice worms were beginning to come out. We marveled at the fact that this must be one of the lowest large glaciers on the peninsula, with its terminus at only 4600 ft. This must also be an incredibly snowy place in winter, perched as it is on a western arm of Mt.Olympus one of the wettest places in North America. In the evening light we saw 5 mountain goats, 3 heading up onto the Geri Freki, and another 2 headed out towards Olympus, our route for the following day.

On the summit of Hugin.

On the summit of Hugin.

Woden across the way.

Woden across the way.

Olympus in the distance, from Hugin.

Olympus in the distance, from Hugin.

About to negotiate the cliffs below the Geri-Freki Glacier.

About to negotiate the cliffs below the Geri-Freki Glacier.

The final ridge of Hugin.

The final ridge of Hugin.

On the lower Geri-Freki Glacier

On the lower Geri-Freki Glacier

July 30

We were again greeted with another bluebird day. We eagerly anticipated our ridgewalk to Olympus, and we headed back to the elk trail of the day before, assuming it would lead us easily to the main ridge. This seemed like a good strategy at first. However our elk trail must have quickly become a goat trail, because we soon found ourselves battling our way up brushy cliffs (more annoying than dangerous) with a massive waterfall in a cleft on our left. We pushed over a very loose ridge into an adjacent basin coming off of the main divide between the Queets and South Fork. In this basin, we walked within 100 meters of a bear feeding on vegetation below the snowfields. It was not in the least bit aware or concerned about us, entirely engrossed in his feeding. We continued our way up the snowfields to the ridge, at this point hot and dehydrated from a full morning of pushing diagonally upwards to the main divide in the hot sun. In retrospect, we should have taken the snowfield above our camp directly up to the col between Geri-Freki Creek and Kilkelly Creek. The ridge leading out of that col looked to be easily walkable from where we joined the same ridge further east. At this point, we knew water would be in short supply for the hike ahead, so Erik hiked down to a small meltwater pool and graciously filled up water for both of us. This was a very good call since there was no water to be found until camp later that day.

Heading up the goat trail out of camp.

Heading up the goat trail out of camp.

Leaving the Valhallas behind in the distance. Erik is below filling water bottles.

Leaving the Valhallas behind in the distance. Erik is below filling water bottles.

We were elated to finally be walking on a broad open ridge, reminiscent of the southern Bailey Range with Olympus straight ahead. To our surprise, we passed a small bivvy site on the ridge, complete with campfire ring—was this left by early climbers in the 1970s? or Rowland Tabor on his geological forays? Or perhaps—a stretch–Edward Curtis on his early photography expedition here in the early 1900s?) As we crested an unnamed peak, we could see to our right the elysian (Rowland Tabor’s apt term for them) meadows of the upper Paull Creek drainage, traversed by an obvious wide elk trail (a tempting approach to the Valhallas from the Queets for the future?), and a perfectly blue lake perched on a shoulder above Paull Creek and the Queets, surrounded by the Paull Creek meadows. On the left side of our ridge we could see that the small unnamed glaciers and snowfields we were crossing terminated in bench like terrain, with half melted lakes perched at their toes, with steep cliffs dropping directly into the South Fork, below that. Ahead we could tell there would be some tricky sections, and it wasn’t clear whether to stay low or go high. We opted to split the difference and soon found ourselves on a cliffy shoulder, not wanting to backtrack and not wanting to go forward. This was a low point in the trip for me mentally.  We were both completely exhausted by the hot sun, still air, bright snow, complete lack of shade, and the difficult morning. On top of that, we could tell there was a definite crux coming up on our way to the Hubert Glacier, and it was not at all clear whether there would be an easy passage to Mt. Olympus the following day. I was not feeling on top of my game, and was hungry at that. A unanimous decision was made to eat, and talk things over. There was clearly an easy low route, but that would require backtracking and wasting precious time and energy. Following lunch we decided to make a quick anchor and Erik belayed me down a slushy couloir pinched in the middle by a deep moat on either side. It easily went through, and he descended my tracks off-belay, and we were off again on our traverse (looking back the high route would also have worked, perhaps better). We held our elevation, and started to diagonal down the last big snow field to a point on the map that appeared to be the least steep way through to the Hubert Glacier, and the crux of the whole trip so far. This again, was a point where we deviated from previous trip reports (Steph Abegg and Doug Ray having stayed high traversing over a rocky point and descending a much steeper snowfield to the Hubert). At this point we were astounded by the change in terrain. What had previously been moderate snowfields studded with small meadows and wildflower covered rocks, now changed to a recently deglaciated wasteland. We were now in the gravitational pull of Olympus, with its cliffs towering above us, the Hubert Glacier seemingly only a few stone’s throws away, and a rubble strewn valley deep below us, with improbably perched glacial-erratic boulders threatening us from above. We made our way out onto a sloping broad ledge, tempted to work our way down to more ledges, but instead trusted the map. Here polished rock faces arced down from above and over cliffs below. The rock was in places split by deep cracks, much like a glacier flowing over a cliff. It appeared as if the bedrock was literally peeling away from itself and forming large crevasses. We used one of these rock crevasses as a way to surmount a small polished cliff, and we ended up crawling our way awkwardly along a jagged opening until the upper edge of the crevasse was low enough that we could walk again. This proved to be the crux, because within what seemed like minutes we were making our way down an easy series of ledges, and across a few small creeks above slide alder and gullies, to about 20 feet of steep hardpan that separated us from easy snow walking to the Hubert Glacier. This hardpan was no match for Erik’s brandnew mountaineering boots and he charged across. My old boots were not gaining any edge on the hardpan (and in retrospect I must have forgotten I had trekking poles in my pack), so I downclimbed a small loose gully to where the terrain was not as steep and easily traversed out onto the snow to catch up with Erik who was sleeping under the shade of a massive boulder recently dropped by the receding Hubert Glacier.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

Erik, about to pass the crux of the trip, dropping off of the ridge connecting the Valhallas to Olympus.

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Approaching the snowfield below the Hubert Glacier, with Hubert ice cliff looming above, and the south face of Olympus above that.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

Walking the easy ridge from the Valhallas to Olympus.

This terrain was recently glaciated, but the Hubert has receded up over 50 meter high cliffs, with a 50 meter ice cliff looming above that. A conelike tongue of the glacier cascades over the cliffs and connects to this lower snowfield, or perhaps a stagnant piece of the once mighty glacier. Near where Erik napped, a huge outwash stream was spurting from under the snow and rock debris. The stream cascaded over cliffs, and down into the rocky headwaters of the South Fork of the Hoh. The area between here and our camp below the spur ridge separating the Hubert from the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus was littered with house-size boulders that had been deposited by the receding glacier or perhaps were part of the massive rock landslide that covered the upper Hubert in the mid-2000s. We easily made our way up this debris field on snow, with the intimidating Hubert ice fall above us to the right, and the sound of rushing water below us under the snow. One section of snow was audibly hollow and I moved through quickly.

Looking back along the easy ridge from camp at the base of the Hubert Glacier. The route off the ridge and over to camp seems improbable from this angle. Valhallas in the distance.

Looking back along the easy ridge from camp at the base of the Hubert Glacier. The route off the ridge and over to camp seems improbable from this angle. Valhallas in the distance.

Surprisingly we set up camp at the pedestrian hour of 5 PM having moved quickly from the despair of midday, and threaded the needle through the crux transition to the Hubert.  We now relaxed in another truly magnificent campsite. The Hubert glacier spread out above us, sitting above massive rock cliffs, with ice cliffs above that, and a view down the upper canyon of the South Fork of the Hoh, a Mordor-like jumble of rock debris and roaring glacial torrent, with the Shangri-La of the Valhallas shining white and pure at the end of the ridge in the distance. Looking back at the crux of the traverse we had just done, it appeared completely improbable, and that we had definitely threaded a needle through some dicey terrain. The cliffs below our ledge system were dark polished rock, streaked with rust from iron deposits, and appeared to be overhung in some places. Above, erratic boulders appeared to be ready to tumble at any moment. In reality, the way through had been surprisingly safe and easy. As the evening wore on, we began to settle into this place, perhaps the most isolated of all the places we had been so far on the trip. Despite its raw, rugged beauty, there were flowers along the streams—yellow monkey flowers–and a pair of pipits flitted about on the glacier and snow fields, perfectly at home here. As the ice froze up in the late evening, showers of rocks continuously rumbled over the cliffs, and bounced down the ice tongue, littering the snowfield below. (I briefly looke for ice worms at dusk, and was unable to find any, suggesting that this lower snowfield has lost its status as a true glacier). We were treated to some alpenglow on the reddish cliffs above, and then forced ourselves to get into bed, eagerly anticipating the climb the next day.

July 31

We attempted to get up at first light, and narrowly succeeded leaving camp around sunrise. A series of easy steps and benches linked together to take us to the crest of the spur ridge coming off of Olympus, and separating the Hubert Glacier from another large unnamed glacier. We quickly made our way over ledges and ramps onto this unnamed glacier and traversed below the discarded rubble of an intimidating ice fall looming above us. Looking west, he Valhallas were now bathed in full light, but we were still in the cool shade of morning. We began up a steep snow ramp that would take us all the way to Snow Dome in a rising traverse across the south face of Olympus. Another magnificent and classic high route, we were surprised at how straightforward it was. In our conscious effort to keep moving we were unable to do much natural history documentation. I inadvertently blew by without photographing what I think was the only alpine azalea I’ve ever seen in the Olympics (it was not Douglasia), although experienced botanists probably know of other place to find this plant. As we made good progress up 30 degree snow towards the now disappearing shade, we were greeted by a flock of 5 rosy finches that foraged without care around us on the snow. At this point the sun also broke over the ridge behind us near Middle Peak. We were now being warmed by the light of day, and would soon find ourselves overheating as we had in previous days.

Heading up the ramp system on the South Face of Olympus. Valhallas and yesterday's ridge walk in the distance.

Heading up the ramp system on the South Face of Olympus. Valhallas and yesterday’s ridge walk in the distance.

Satellite peaks of Olympus (Athena and her owl), above the Hoh Glacier in the distance. Hubert Glacier below, in the distance, with the spur ridge which divides the South Face of Olympus.

Satellite peaks of Olympus (Athena and her owl), above the Hoh Glacier in the distance. Hubert Glacier below, in the distance, with the spur ridge which divides the South Face of Olympus.

Heading up the ramp system.

Heading up the ramp system.

Sunrise from the ramp system.

Sunrise from the ramp system.

Yesterday's terrain again, from the ramp system.

Yesterday’s terrain again, from the ramp system.

Further up the ramps, before the terrain became more moderate.

Further up the ramps, before the terrain became more moderate.

Walking quickly below the ice fall on the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus.

Walking quickly below the ice fall on the unnamed glacier on the west side of the South Face of Olympus.

Again, moving quickly. The beginning of the ramp system can be seen on the left.

Again, moving quickly. The beginning of the ramp system can be seen on the left.

We took the wide moderate ramp heading left. Kyle Miller and Jason Hummel ascended and descended the small couloir above and at the right end of our ramp. The route we took is an obvious moderate route visible on topo maps.

We took the wide moderate ramp heading left. Kyle Miller and Jason Hummel ascended and descended the small couloir above and at the right end of our ramp. The route we took is an obvious moderate route visible on topo maps.

Within a few hours we were cresting Snowdome. We lingered on the shoulder above the White Glacier briefly pondering the route down to the White and across to the Lakes of the Gods (our original plan). The route down to the White looked heinous, and the route across to the only partially melted Lakes of the Gods looked like a slog. Interestingly, the western edge of the White appears to be retreating rapidly, and a new series of large lakes are forming there. Erik had not summitted West Peak before (despite having previously explored other summits on the massif), and thus an easy decision was made to head to the West Peak for some climbing and perhaps a traverse to the upper Hoh Glacier. Once on SnowDome, the sun had already been warming this aspect for hours, and we were wading our way through infirm 6 inch slush. With all the snowbridges on the the 4th of July route melted out for the season, we were forced down to the climber’s trail and onto the upper Blue, where we suddenly met the first people we had seen thusfar on our journey. Following them were a group of Boy Scouts. Back on familiar terrain and in the company of others, the aura of our grand adventure suddenly took on a completely different feel. It became hard to re-capture that sense of wilderness and adventure after this moment, although we were certainly pleased to be where we were. On the one hand, it was pleasing to be able to relax and re-visit places that were familiar to us, without the mental exertion of wondering what lay around the corner, but from this point on, the trip began to take on a feeling of “denouement” knowing that we had passed through the cruxes and that there would be no unfamiliar terrain ahead. It is crazy to think this way, knowing that even the standard routes on Olympus are still some of the most remote in the lower 48, and that the glaciers on Olympus constitute one of the largest contiguous ice-fields in the lower 48, but it serves to illustrate the immensity of the terrain we had spent the last 4 days traveling through.

A spire above the White Glacier, on the ridge separating Snow Dome from the White Glacier and Mt. Tom. This is near where the ramp system off the South Face of Olympus connects with Snow Dome.

A spire above the White Glacier, on the ridge separating Snow Dome from the White Glacier and Mt. Tom. This is near where the ramp system off the South Face of Olympus connects with Snow Dome.

Mount Tom, and the desolate basin below Olympus, as we entered the ramp system up the South Face of Olympus.

Mount Tom, and the desolate basin below Olympus, as we entered the ramp system up the South Face of Olympus.

Taking a break at the top of the ramp system; about to transition to Snow Dome.

Taking a break at the top of the ramp system; about to transition to Snow Dome.

First view of West Peak from Snow Dome.

First view of West Peak from Snow Dome.

Now mid-afternoon, we hastily ate lunch, and geared up for the climb of West Peak. We worked our way around the low trail on the backside of the false summit and into the col below West Peak. After kicking up the final steep snow wall, Erik led out on the south ledges route, where we belayed each other to the summit. The trickiest part of this route is the transition from snow to the summit block, which involves climbing into a moat (which varies in size depending on the year), and this year clambering over an exposed fin of snow leading out of the moat to the start of the ledges. Once near the summit, you’ve got to love the exposure on the final move, as you swing around a corner directly over the south face of Olympus and the South Fork of the Hoh drainage for one last time, with thousands of feet of air below your feet! With 1 long 30 m rap (it was a good thing we carried the 60 m rope) we were back on the snow above the moat, and retracing our steps to our packs. By this point the sun had taken its toll on us. Out of water, and with thunder heads building around us, we decided it was time to “call it a day.” Earlier we had contemplated climbing Middle Peak and heading to Camp Pan, one of my favorite places on Olympus, but now it was clear we needed to rein things in. We made our way down the Upper Blue, through Crystal Pass, and back out onto SnowDome to the comfortable campsites of Panic Peak where we could chill out on dry rock and linger for one last night of alpine splendor.

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Erik leading the south ledges route on West Peak.

Erik leading the south ledges route on West Peak.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

Crevasse on the upper Blue Glacier.

As we crossed SnowDome towards Panic Peak, with sunlight waning, we were surprised to see a tiny lone figure half a mile ahead in the distance moving towards us. It turned out to be Olympic legend, Dave Skinner. Dave brought new meaning to light and fast hiking. Clad only in climbing boots and shorts, and a small day pack with only a water bottle and T shirt in side, and 1 m long ice axe to boot, he was striding out for his evening climb from the Snow Dome hut. We stopped and chatted, and he explained some of the great routes he has done to and from the Snow Dome Hut, solo in nothing but the same outfit he was currently wearing. He had once come up our route out of the South Fork, but stayed north of the river the whole way, completely avoiding the Valhallas, and somehow making his way through what looked to be a green hell of slide alder at the base of Mt. Tom’s cliffs. He simply recalled it being “brush.” He also recalled another hike over to Athena’s Owl from Snow Dome, a big day in and of itself for most people. From the summit he saw the Valhallas in the distance and said “what the hell, I may as well go for it.” Somehow he tagged the summit of Woden, and made his way back to SnowDome all in a day, solo. I guess there are some merits to the light and fast style. Needless to say, we felt humbled. We continued on to Panic Peak while Dave summited West Peak and was back to his hut by the time we had finished dinner. He trotted to the top of Panic Peak with us for a spectacular sun set and more tales of SnowDome lore. Meanwhile clouds above Olympus threatened rain. On the way down, he said he was glad we joined him for sunset, and said “If you hadn’t come up to the top I would have had to have kick your asses. Watching the sunset from the top of Panic Peak is not optional!” That’s the kind of character Skinner is, and SnowDome is clearly the center of his universe; Olympus is in his blood. He is currently restoring the snow dome hut, of his own volition as research funding is dry and it will cost the park service doesn’t have the money to remove it (so also not an option). You can contribute to the cause via “Friends of Snow Dome.” Your contribution also includes the collection and removal of years of research garbage that is currently melting out of the glaciers. He welcomes volunteer help with this.

Dave Skinner exemplifying "light and fast" technique.

Dave Skinner exemplifying “light and fast” technique.

Alpenglow on Snow Dome.

Alpenglow on Snow Dome.

Skinner takes in sunset on Panic Peak.

Skinner takes in sunset on Panic Peak.

August 1

By now we were well and truly into the denouement of our trip. Traversing below the always spectacular Blue Glacier ice fall and the slushy blue ice of the lower Blue Glacier, we were leaving a place we have come to know and love over the years, not knowing when we might be back. On the moraine we paused to snap photos and marveled at the diversity of stunted trees all growing together in a cluster: Doug Fir, White Bark Pine, Yellow Cedar, Western Hemlock, Mountain Hemlock, Subalpine Fir, and Silver Fir—all within 100 meters of each other. We chatted with friendly rangers on the way through, and passed Mountain Man Doug in charge of a student group on our way down to Elk Lake, where we partook in a cathartic and ritualistic swim in its warm waters, washing away a week’s worth of grime, and soothing our aching backpacking muscles. I quickly changed into shorts for the rest of the trail hike down to Lewis Meadow, only to be stung by hornets within minutes of the change. Go figure. Narrowly avoiding another hornet’s nest, we did our best to find a secluded campsite on the gravel bar above Lewis Meadows, as it appeared some rain was settling in for the first time on our trip.

The lower Blue Glacier from the Blue Glacier moraine, a classic view of Olympus. This river of ice has receded drastically in depth even in the 10 years I have known it. This is one of the lowest elevation glaciers in the Lower 48, and also one of the largest. It resembles the valley glaciers of the greater ranges of the world.

The lower Blue Glacier from the Blue Glacier moraine, a classic view of Olympus. This river of ice has receded drastically in depth even in the 10 years I have known it. This is one of the lowest elevation glaciers in the Lower 48, and also one of the largest. It resembles the valley glaciers of the greater ranges of the world.

On the Lower Blue Glacier.

On the Lower Blue Glacier.

Melt water streams running across the surface. Looking up to Glacier Pass, the passage to the Hoh Glacier.

Melt water streams running across the surface. Looking up to Glacier Pass, the passage to the Hoh Glacier.

Classic view from the High Hoh Bridge.

Classic view from the High Hoh Bridge.

August 2

We hiked out the last day in misty overcast, passing an international variety of visitors on the trail. My wonderful wife picked us up as we people-watched the hundreds of tourists at the visitor center. We shuttled Erik back to his car at the South Fork Trailhead while she and I embarked on a 3 day trip to Toleak Point on the wilderness coast (I was pretty much hobbling along behind her amazingly energetic pregnant self at this point) .