Sunday, October 6, 2013

Musings: In Search of Old Growth

Everyone has a favorite posession that has been in their lives so long that it feels like a beloved old friend, carrying with it numerous memories of years past.  Being somewhat of a sentimental person, I have a few posessions like this, but the only ones that currently receive much use are my old comfy-as-a-couch Doc Marten boots, which have been my faithful hiking partners for years.  Sturdy and slightly misshapen, these boots have my footprints permanently embedded in them, and carry with them traces of the places we've been together over a period of time that spans half my life.  In their younger (and better-looking!) days, these boots accompanied me through the hallways at school, marched through muddy fields at horse shows, traversed the Las Vegas strip, got lost in a few corn mazes, and in recent years, have hiked in the Redmond Watershed Preserve, San Juan Island, the Oregon coast, Eastern Washington, Saint Edward State Park, and completed several hikes to the Big Four Ice caves.  It wasn't until just recently, however, that these trusty old boots stepped onto the ancient soil of an old-growth forest.

On a recent trip to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, my husband, beloved boots, and I enjoyed the experience of hiking in an ancient, decadent, and somewhat mystical old-growth forest on our hike to the Falls Creek waterfall (which you may have read about in the Nature Nerd Wednesday post a few weeks ago). I love hiking in old-growth forests. And driving through them.  In fact, I probably wore my poor husband's nerves nearly to the breaking point as we drove through the National Forest and I gasped and pointed out the window every few miles: "WOW! Look at that huge tree!" or "Oh my gosh, that's so COOL!". I'm lucky that he puts up with me and enjoys these little adventures as much as I do. At least I think he does... 

Old-growth forests used to cover much of Washington State, but sadly, only a few fragmented stands still remain. The fortunate patches that managed to escape the lumbermill offer beautiful scenery and, if you're paying attention to your surroundings, a completely unique hiking experience that will foster feelings of reverence and respect for the old forest that grow with each step.

Here is the first old growth tree we found on the hike: a towering Doug Fir

Identifying an old-growth tree is fairly simple.  Not all old-growth trees are massive in diameter and towering in height, but they all will have thick, gnarled bark, and like the photo on the left above, you may find ash or charcoal--the remnants of forest fires over the centuries.
This dead tree has provided a buffet of insects for woodpeckers.

 An example of the "decadence" of these forests, as ecologists say: young Doug Fir trees growing from a nurse log.  The massive trees in these forests eventually topple over from wind, lightning, or decay, returning their nutrients to the earth and feeding the future generations of trees that will grow up in their place.

You know you're in an old-growth forest when there is an absurd number of downed trees littering the ground. You'll also notice that the forest floor is very open due to the lack of vegetation growth, as the canopy of tall trees block out too much sunlight for plants to grow on the forest floor. Old-growth forests are almost completely comprised of coniferous trees, as deciduous maples, cottonwoods, and alders tend to die off early in the forest's lifespan and cannot successfully compete for sunlight against the hardier conifers.

As we hiked, my mind dwelt on the thought that this forest has endured the elements since before the days of Columbus, and although the trees are protected from the axe, they now face a grave and pervasive threat in the form of climate change. It is hard to say how much longer these stately forests will remain, but in the face of a warming climate and changing precipitation and weather patterns, they will eventually succumb to these conditions which they are not adapted to survive in. 

I think that everyone should try to hike in an old-growth forest at least once in their lives. It is a unique and enduring experience that you will not soon forget. There is the lovely scenery, huge trees, and intoxicatingly fresh air, but there is also the feeling that you get.  In the presence of these ancient trees, you almost have an eerie sense that you've stepped into a place where time has stopped.  These forests have carried on in the same way for centuries while the outside world has changed so dramatically, and the serenity of this steadfast cycle of life pervades the forest. There is a comforting feeling of continuity in that these trees will continue to grow, topple over, decay, and regrow for as long as they are able without the interference of humans.   
Although I was taking photos like an old-growth forest paparazzi and at the same time thinking of the environmental challenges threatening the forest, there were still plenty of quiet moments that allowed me to enjoy the magnitude of the scenery around me. The Falls Creek hike was the first time that I've hiked in an old-growth forest with the knowledge to see and appreciate the intricacies in the ecology of the forest around me, and it was an awesome and inspiring experience.  I even have the dirt on my boots to prove it.
Standing among giants.  Thanks to my hubby for photographing this moment for me!

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