Friday, September 5, 2014

Wanderings: Moss Lake Natural Area

It's a warm and languid late-summer afternoon. The humid air smells damp with mud and and fresh with the exhalations of innumerable trees. Dry, newly-fallen leaves crunch on the gravel path underfoot. No sound disturbs the stillness, save for the whisper of a breeze in the rustling alder and cottonwood leaves above.  Not a bad day to explore the Moss Lake Natural Area near Carnation, Washington.

The Moss Lake Natural Area is a 372-acre complex of wetlands and forest, and is managed by King County.  Despite its generous size, I had never heard of this Natural Area until my husband stumbled across it while searching for hikes online.  He suggested that we check it out, and of course I agreed.

Moss Lake

We set out from the parking lot and headed toward the only trailhead we could find.  It wasn't marked, but we assumed this was the way to go.  A short distance along, a small sign marked the offshoot trail to Moss Lake.  This was a very short trail.  After about 50 feet of squeezing through the narrow and overgrown trail, we emerged on the shoreline and saw this:

Moss Lake was beautiful! And so serene.  I stood watching the light breeze riffle the water's surface and send the tall grass gently swaying, and kept exclaiming in a whisper "I can't believe how QUIET it is here!"  In many natural areas, parks, and preserves, the peaceful scenery is at odds with the noise of distant traffic, airplanes overhead, or nearby homes, but such is not the case here. Complete and utter solitude.

I would have liked to explore the lake more, but the accessible shoreline was very limited, and if you stepped too close to the water, you'd find yourself sunk to your ankles in rich black mud the consistency of congealed oatmeal.  After appreciating the lake scenery for awhile, we headed back to the main trail and continued along.

The Hemlocks

For a few hundred yards, things felt very claustrophobic.  The graveled trail was wide enough, but lined on either side by solid walls of salmonberry which block your sightlines and only allow you to see the trail stretching out before and behind you.  I half expected to be ambushed at any moment by a bear lumbering out of the salmonberry hedge. Just when I was beginning to feel underwhelmed and wondered if the entire trail was this monotonous and confining, the salmonberries gave way and opened up into a truly magnificent second-growth hemlock forest.

It's gorgeous, is it not?  I remarked to my husband that these had to be the healthiest looking hemlocks I'd ever seen.  I've always had the impression that hemlocks are a bit sad and weepy; faded and droopy. The Eeyore of trees.  These however were tall and robust, with healthy green needles and a thick coating of moss on the branches which, dare I say, might rival even the famous epiphytes of Olympic National Park.

Sadly, the foray through the hemlock forest was a brief one, and as we continued, the trail returned to its previous adornment of salmonberry, cottonwood, and alder with a conifer thrown in here and there for good measure.  After a few minutes' walk, we noticed a narrow trail off to the right departing from the main trail, half-hidden under the low-hanging boughs of a hemlock and crowded on both sides by sword ferns. The hemlock had a bright orange arrow affixed to its thick bark. My husband and I looked at each other.  Was this a trail? I shrugged.  Let's check it out.

The Fairy Forest

This was a delightful path winding through a young hemlock forest. These hemlocks didn't look very healthy - in fact, they might have been dead; their bare branches boasting dripping moss instead of needles. The ground was carpeted with a thick layer of moss and dozens of varieties of delicate groundcover plants. Wilted trilliums were plentiful, their enormous leaves still bright green although their flowers were long gone. Surrounded by ethereally-illuminated greenery and with no lack of sunlit glens, it almost felt as though we had stepped into a fairy forest.  Then I saw a small house hanging from a tree limb and decided that was in fact exactly where we were.

Continually wiping spiderwebs from our bare arms, we followed the path as it gently ascended a small hill, emerging unexpectedly into a blackberry thicket.  Here, the delicate blue-green vines of native blackberry were tangled together with the thick and brutal vines of the invasive Himalayan blackberry.  Many people don't realize that the Himalayan blackberry - that ubiquitous plant most of us think of when we hear 'blackberry' - is actually a non-native species.  Our native trailing blackberry is a thin ankle-snagging vine that grows low along the ground and bears white, star-like flowers that eventually develop into tasty berries.

The large vine of a Himalayan blackberry lying atop a bed of native trailing blackberry vines.

Also, surprisingly, we found several lilac plants blooming in the blackberry thicket. I'm not sure how they got there, as I don't believe they grow wild here... but the flowers smelled nice!

After a few minutes of berry picking (and eating!) we decided to turn around and headed back down the trail through the fairy woods, fingers stained red with blackberry juice.  We rejoined the main trail and continued on our way.  After a few more minutes of walking, we ventured through a cottonwood forest and ascended small hill, where the trail forked.  One trail was marked with the word 'Loop' and a pair of googly eyes stuck to an alder trunk.  The other trail wasn't marked.  Without a trail map and with no idea of where we were going, we decided to call it a day and headed back toward the parking area, with another brief stop by the lake on our way out.

Historical Disturbances

Sometimes, I think I've missed my calling.  Okay, I always think I've missed my calling, but I sometimes think I should have been an environmental historian.  I'm not sure if that's even 'a thing,' but it really should be.  During the course of any given hike, my eyes eagerly scan the scenery around me, looking for evidence of historical disturbances.  Like the rest of the Snoqualmie Valley region, the forest near Moss Lake was logged earlier in the 20th century, and what stands there now is a robust second-growth forest that speaks to the astounding capability of nature to restore itself from utter devastation. On this particular day, I found two remarkable pieces of evidence left behind a century ago during clearcutting - ghosts of the venerable old-growth forest that once dominated the landscape. 

Along the fairy trail (I have no idea what it is actually called, so I'll just go with that), we spotted an eight-foot tall cedar stump, charred from a lightning strike or long-ago forest fire, and which still bore a characteristic rectangular notch in its flesh.  This notch is where the loggers inserted a springboard, upon which they would stand as they sawed the mighty tree down, and was clear evidence that this landscape had been disturbed by humans.

Toward the end of our wanderings along the main trail, I happened to notice a large mound off to the left, out of which grew a sizeable hemlock tree.  Interested, I took a closer look. Upon recognizing the familiar bright red color, the spongy softness of decaying wood, and the vertical ridges along the sides of the mound, I felt my mouth fall open.  That dinner-table sized mound was an old stump.  A cedar stump.  Holy moly, this had once been a huge tree! 

 Now, I'm about average height - 5'6" or so - and had it not been for the hemlock growing from its center, I could have sprawled out spread-eagle on the flat surface of the stump, and my hands and feet probably wouldn't have reached the edges. Absolutely massive.  I stood back and squinted into the sky, trying to picture the towering old-growth cedar tree that once held court here. At the same time, I scowled at the loggers who had wiped the landscape clean of such awesome trees, leaving future generations (hello!) bereft of the experience of seeing them. The tree had probably been carted off to the mill and turned into lumber.  Where was the tree now? Was it a house, bridge, or barn? Did it still tower over the landscape in another form, somewhere far from here? All I know is that it once stood here and cast a magnificent shadow over the place where I now stood, in the Moss Lake Natural Area.


All in all, we probably hiked (walked) about two miles. If you're looking for a place to really go hiking - a place where you can work up a sweat for several miles and be rewarded with a stunning destination at the end - then I wouldn't recommend Moss Lake.  However, if you live in the area and are looking for a place to spend time in the outdoors, get some fresh air, enjoy a nature walk, or poke around in the forest, then this place might fit the bill.

The real downsides to the Moss Lake Natural Area are that the trails are few and poorly marked, and according to this trail map (which was nowhere to be found at the actual Natural Area) the two loop trails leave the property, with one of them "looping" back to the entrance road far from the trailhead in the parking lot.  

As you can see from my experience, there are plenty of things to see at Moss Lake - just not much hiking to do. And really, regardless of the place you go, there will always be plenty of things to see in nature.  You just have to look for them.

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