Monday, September 28, 2015

Wanderings: Blue Lake

Larches at Blue Lake

I nervously eyed the temperature display in the truck as it quickly dropped from a near-balmy 59 to a bracing 47 degrees as we climbed up Highway 20 in a cold, steady rain. My husband and I were headed home from a brief visit to the Methow Valley, and had planned to stop for the short hike up to Blue Lake, but the weather didn't appear to be cooperating. We parked at the trailhead and sorted through our things to see if we had the appropriate gear to hike safely in this weather, and ultimately decided we should be okay. With hoods pulled tightly over our heads, we splashed across the wet parking lot and headed out on the muddy trail to make the 2.2 mile ascent to Blue Lake.

Truth be told, I was actually excited to finally have an opportunity to test out the waterproof hiking pants I received as a Christmas gift from my husband last year. Yep, it's been that long since I've hiked in the rain. Thanks, drought...

We set out onto the trail, following a few sets of rain-sodden boardwalks into a dense forest of Pacific silver fir. It was a very dark forest: the trees, needles, and trunks were all dark, the earth was damp and dark... were it not for the bursts of color provided by the autumn foliage, the early portion of this hike would have been a bit dismal. Rain dripped from the boughs overhead, splattering on my nose and cheeks. Scattered along the trail and piled in drifts around tree trunks were shredded pine cones, consumed by what appeared to be a very healthy squirrel population in this forest, although we didn't see any squirrels during the hike.

There are some busy squirrels here!

The trail gently ascended through the forest, then suddenly emerged into a wide-open meadow about a mile in. After being in the darkened forest for awhile, my eyes hungrily drank in the sudden explosion of autumn colors in the meadow. It was absolutely spectacular. The open meadow also offered us a look up at our end goal: behind a stand of trees on a ridge way overhead, we could clearly identify a flat, open space into which Blue Lake was surely nestled.

We continued onward, briefly winding through the meadow before returning to the forest to resume the gradual, steady upward climb. At this point, the rain lightened and we were getting a bit warm and sweaty from the exertion, so we paused to shed a few layers, gulp some water, and catch our breath before continuing. As we climbed, the silver fir forest began to thin, allowing us astounding views of the surrounding mountains, which were dotted with red, orange, and yellow autumn hues where they weren't swathed in trailing clouds and mist.

And then we suddenly left the dim forest behind and found ourselves in this technicolor world of fall foliage. There were red huckleberry leaves and yellow larches. This was the first time I'd seen larches in person. I was very excited about the larches.

Huckleberry plants
So colorful! Look at the larches!

At this point, we began passing other hikers who were already on their way down from the lake. Doing some quick math in my head, I realized that the number of cars parked at the trailhead (just a handful) roughly corresponded with the number of descending hiking groups we were passing. We'd probably have the lake to ourselves. Perfect. The rain still fell lightly, although I didn't notice it much anymore, too enamored as I was with the gorgeous, almost-unreal scenery that surrounded us. I felt like Alice in Wonderland or something. We crossed a stream trickling across a rocky portion of the trail, and I knew we were getting close to the lake.

We rounded a corner, and there it was at last: the gleaming water of Blue Lake resolved from the misty alpine scenery. Only a glimpse of the lake could be seen from here, so we followed the trail, crossing the lake's trickling outlet stream across a narrow log bridge. The trail around the lake was carefully roped off, with signs announcing that certain areas were closed for restoration. I imagine that this trail sees a large crowd of hikers during the summer months, and they'd really done a number on the delicate vegetation here. Obediently staying away from the roped-off areas, we made our way to the small beach at the water's edge, where I stood gaping, gasping, exclaiming over the beauty that spread out before us.

Oh, the colors!!
This had to be the most gorgeous scene I'd ever encountered, made even more lovely by the knowledge that my own two feet and determined effort had brought me here. Aquamarine lake, autumnal foliage, a light rain hissing and whispering over the surface of the water, marring it with ripples. Emerging from my awestruck trance, I dug my camera from the backpack and started snapping away. We climbed up onto a large boulder for a better view. The lake spread out before us; serene, colorful, completely wonderful, and insulated into silence by the heavy clouds that had closed in all around. I tucked my camera underneath my sweatshirt in an attempt to protect it from the persistent drizzle, and we watched tiny fish jumping out of the water, listened to rocks clattering and tumbling down the steep granite mountain at the far end of the lake, perhaps knocked loose by the mountain goats that live here.

Despite our best efforts, we hadn't managed to stay very dry in the wet weather. Our wet clothes and the cold temperatures indicated that it was time to turn around and head back. As we climbed back down the boulder, we were visited by a very bold, inquisitive gray jay alighting on a small tree just an arm's length away. He sat there, feathers all soft and fluffed up, tilting his head as he sized us up. Never in my life have I encountered a bird so curious and unafraid of my presence. He flew away across the lake, and a second bird landed on the tree to take his place. He investigated us for a moment before following his friend and swooping across the lake. Jokingly, I said okay, where's number three? No sooner were the words out of my mouth than a third gray jay landed on the tree. This time, I lifted my camera and snapped a few photos of the obliging bird, who was unperturbed by my movements and the snapping camera shutter. He flew away without being replaced by another jay, so we took this as permission to leave.

Gray Jay. He was so beautiful!

With one last glance at the most beautiful lake I'd ever seen - now thickly socked in by clouds - we turned and headed back down the trail, speeding along to return to the warm, dry truck and thick slices of leftover cake that awaited us in the cooler in the backseat. Because what else would you do after a spectacular rainy day hike to a stunning alpine lake but eat a piece of cake to celebrate?

It's a good thing we arrived when we did! The lake was socked in by the time we left.

Washington State appears to be graced by several bodies of water going by the name Blue Lake, but the one we hiked was right along Highway 20, tucked just inside the eastern boundary of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Thanks to the steady, very gradual ascent and absence of switchbacks, this is an excellent trail for people like myself who struggle with uphill hikes that have any measurable elevation gain. A relatively short hike with a huge payoff... this one is a must-do! If you can manage it, hit the trails for this hike during autumn to see the amazing colors for yourself. My photos don't come close to doing them justice.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Wanderings: Adventures in Forest Ecology

 These forests each have their own ecological stories.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend an Adventures in Forest Ecology program at the Cedar River Watershed with my older sister. Led by forest ecologists Rolf Gersonde and Bill Richards, the program allowed us a rare opportunity to see up close the work being done under the Watershed's Habitat Conservation Plan to restore healthy forests, water, and wildlife habitat to this landscape historically altered and degraded by logging.

Although I was already familiar with many of the forest ecology concepts discussed during the program, it was a marvelous experience to get out in the field and see it firsthand, standing in the cool damp shade of the trees, smelling the fresh air, going off the trail to climb through the forest and getting an uncomfortable amount of conifer needles in my pants... but more about that later.

After checking in at the welcome center and making a brief visit to the rain drum installation, my sister and I loaded up with our fellow "students" into one of two large passenger vans, then set out for a half-hour long drive to the Rex River drainage along the Watershed's bumpy graveled roads.

Stop #1 - Second-Growth Forest (natural succession)

The vans drew to a stop in the middle of the road, and we hopped out and followed our instructors down a steep and squishy slope into a dim forest. This was a second growth forest, which had grown back on its own after being logged 60 years ago. The trees were mostly hemlock, all the same size and same age, closely crowded and competing for light and space. Their trunks were bare of branches, and the only green to be found here was a sparse carpeting of moss on the forest floor and the canopy of green needles high overhead - a canopy which, we learned, only allows 5% of the sunlight to actually make it to the forest floor below. Hence the lack of sunlight-thirsty vegetation here. This forest is not what you would call diverse or healthy, and does not make for good wildlife habitat, but much of the historically-logged watershed is covered in forest just like this. Rolf and Bill show us this forest as an example of what they're trying to avoid with their restoration efforts.

As we listened to the instructors speak, I briefly let my mind wander to soak in the forest around me. The air was clean and pleasantly scented with the fragrance of conifer needles. It was silent and still. There were no birds singing, no breezes whispering through the canopy. Aside from our murmuring human voices, the only discernible sound was that of the Rex River off in the distance, the soft sound of its rushing water traveling unimpeded through the forest of bare poles, bare tree trunks.

We clambered back up the bank, piled into the vans, and after a pit stop at the roadside porta-potty, we continued on to our next stop.

Stop #2 - Old Growth Forest

The graveled logging roads wound gently uphill, and my excitement heightened as increasingly large trees flashed past the windows of the van. We parked next to a large pile of decomposing cedar logs, and Bill informed us that we'd be walking into the old growth forest from here. I was glad to hear that. In my mind, old growth forests are as venerable and sacred as an old church, and it seemed more respectful and in keeping with the enormity of our surroundings to approach quietly on foot rather than with crunching tires, rumbling engine, and piercing beep-beeping backup alarm.

We followed a gravel road that was slowly being reclaimed by nature, and after a hundred yards or so,  stopped at the forest edge. Our instructors pointed us at the seemingly impenetrable tangle of greenery at the forest edge, and said this is where we're going in. There was no trail. This was going to be fun. We carefully picked our way through, and paused in a relatively open space to listen to Rolf and Bill discuss the ecology of this seven hundred year old (!) forest, one of the remnants of old growth in the Cedar River Watershed that thankfully managed to escape destruction by logging and fire for the past seven centuries.

This healthy old growth forest is the ultimate goal of restoration efforts in the Watershed, and its defining characteristics were easy to spot. First of all, there were the trees so massive it would take half a dozen people to encircle their large trunks. Then you notice that the forest is green everywhere you look; from floor to canopy, there's nothing but green. There were a variety of plants comprising a healthy understory. Trees of all sizes and ages grew here: conifers like Doug fir, hemlock and cedar as well as deciduous trees like maple and alder. There were patches of shade and sunlight. Busy birds chatted in the branches overhead, feeding on seeds and insects, and I was able to pick out the chattering of a chickadee from among the voices. We had to watch our step to avoid large mountain beaver tunnel holes dug into the thick layer of soft, wet humus underfoot. And the smells! I've never smelled such smells in any forest before, and could have happily sat there all day to suss out and attempt to identify each individual fragrance perfuming the air. This forest was alive, robust and diverse; the complete opposite of the forest we encountered on our first stop.

One of many mountain beaver holes we had to avoid stepping in.
We had to duck under this nurse log. It had an entire forest growing on it!
Oh, those old-growth Dougs...

We continued on through the dense understory to explore the forest further, climbing over logs, ducking under logs, scrambling up banks and picking careful footholds on steep slopes, dodging devil's club, fighting through salmonberry thickets and getting whacked in the face, stomach, and back with rebounding branches as the person in front of you passed through them. This is where an astonishing amount of scratchy conifer needles found their way into my pants. We paused at the edge of a wide, rocky stream and learned from Bill and Rolf about their efforts to restore marbled murrelet habitat in the Watershed forests, and were pointed to the large, wide branches found only in old growth forests upon which the murrelets lay their single egg. After rock-hopping across the stream, we passed by a seven-hundred year old cedar tree, then scrambled down a bank and rock-hopped back across the stream, clambered up a steep slope, and shortly thereafter found ourselves at the end of the road we'd walked in on.

I turned around and took a picture of what we'd just walked through. It was tough going in some places!

  My sister admiring a huge old Doug fir, and there's the stream we had to hop across.

Green everywhere. Ecologists often refer to old growth forests as "decadent"... for obvious reasons!

We made our way back to the vans, where my sister and I precariously climbed atop the pile of rotting cedar logs alongside the road to eat our lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Not a bad view from our lunch spot...

Stop #3 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological thinning)

Looking out over the thinned forest

Back in the vans, we continued in a steep ascent along the bumpy logging roads, before emerging at an elevation of 4,000 feet to a sweeping vista that literally took my breath away. We stood on the brow of a steep hill, looking across rolling hills and steep ridges, all covered in small silver fir shaped perfectly enough to be Christmas trees.

Rolf and Bill explained that this area had been logged about thirty years ago, and the silver fir had grown back as thickly as the hemlock in the first forest patch we'd seen, so the ecologists employed a restoration technique known as ecological thinning to remove many of the trees. This ensures that the young forest will have enough space for the trees to grow without having to compete with one another for sunlight, and also to ensure there is room, light and space for other plant and tree species to take root, thus giving the forest the best possible chance to grow into a stand as diverse, healthy, and suitable for wildlife as the old growth we'd just seen. Altogether, a staggering 10,000 acres of forest in the Cedar River Watershed has been ecologically thinned.

It was quiet up here, in this very open forest. I didn't hear any birds singing. The only sound was a cold, lonely wind sweeping across the remote hilltops.

It's easy to see the open spaces created by thinning the trees.

Stop #4 - Second-Growth Forest (ecological clearing)

We wound back down the steep roads and returned to the lowland forest, where we disembarked the vans and stood facing a steep mossy bank that led into another dense second-growth hemlock forest like the one we'd first seen. Our guides said, okay, the spot we're going to is up the bank there... who wants to find a route up? And with all the giddy enthusiasm of an elementary school class being let out for recess, two vanloads of grown adults fanned out and gleefully climbed up the bank, grasping tree roots and kicking toe holds into the soft humus as we went.

Emerging atop the hill, we found a dense sixty year-old second-growth hemlock forest to our right, and a large clearing to our left. In an attempt to introduce some size variation and vertical diversity into this forest, the ecologists had cleared all of the trees from an area that was about half an acre in size, I believe. This restoration technique known as ecological clearing was employed in this section of forest to see if other tree species (especially deciduous trees) would take root. All that was visible, though, was a dense sea of very young hemlock trees, standing between knee and shoulder height. Those darn hemlock are determined.

This patch of forest was fairly still and silent as well, although the croaking of a nearby frog occasionally broke the quiet. After listening to Rolf and Bill explain their work to increase diversity in this part of the forest, we made our way back down the bank and into the vans for the twenty-minute drive back to the Watershed Education Center.

On the way back, my long-held hope of seeing wildlife on this tour was fulfilled when we encountered three enormous bull elk on the quiet, shaded road. One darted in front of the van and turned to look at us from the safety of the forest cover. His clear, inquisitive gaze belied an intelligence behind those shining, beautiful brown eyes. I snapped a photo.

Can you spot the elk bum?

Hmmm. Perhaps the next class I sign up for should be Remedial Wildlife Photography...

Visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center website for more information on tours, programs, and other activities.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Musings: Environmental Issues and Reasons to Care

Lainey Piland photo

How do we get people to care? This is an enduring challenge in regard to environmental issues and the central question of an excellent article I came across today.

The Messengers, an article published in the current issue of Pacific Standard Magazine, explores messaging in relation to environmental issues, and how that messaging either inspires action or sinks us into a defeated state of depression. Do we focus on hope, or do we take a chance on forcing people to face grief over what's lost and cross our fingers that they'll be propelled forward into action rather than down into defeat? The need for hope seems like a no-brainer, but this article suggests that both tactics - including grief - may actually be necessary.
What we might do and what we might change, were we to stop hiding from grief and instead face the profoundly painful, profoundly beautiful truth of all that we’re losing.
The subject of this article is artist and photographer Chris Jordan. I'm sure most of us have seen his work: the devastating photos of deceased Laysan albatrosses on Midway Island; bellies filled with deadly plastic. These photos reveal a terrible consequence of our throwaway society in their depiction of decomposing albatross bodies, with the plastic that killed them still intact and just as brightly colored as it was when we threw it into the trash, never expecting that it would one day kill a beautiful bird on a remote island in the Pacific.

I remember the first time I saw Jordan's albatross photos. It was several years ago, and I was sitting hunched over my wheezing old laptop, probably procrastinating on finishing a paper for school. Those gut-wrenching photos loaded slowly on the screen, revealing horrifying images that I didn't want to see, but couldn't help scrolling through. I went through a range of emotions: shock, then nausea, horror, anger, guilt and sadness. I felt defeated. All of those birds were dead, all of that plastic was floating in the faraway ocean - what could I do about it? I closed the photos, blocked the grief from my awareness, and probably got to work on that paper.

After seeing those photos - which really were my initial introduction to the Laysan albatross - did I do anything? Did I take any action to address that problem? Nope.

In that situation, grief and horror in the absence of hope was paralyzing for me. But I also wonder whether my lack of proximity, my lack of familiarity with Midway Island, with the Laysan albatross, also contributed to my lack of action. What if, rather than occurring in a far-flung place I'd never seen, there were birds scattered dead in my backyard or in my favorite park down the street; their bare skeletons forming a cage around a pile of colorful plastic that had caused them a slow and painful death? Would I have done something then? Absolutely.

So what's the difference between the albatrosses and my backyard birds? One of my college professors said something that will stick with me for the rest of my life: People care about what they know. Unless people can find a personal connection to an issue, they are unlikely to care enough about it to take action. Sure, I was incredibly sad about the albatrosses. But I wasn't familiar with them, didn't really know anything about them, had never seen one in person, and as a result, had no real connection to them that pushed me beyond grief into action.

Barn swallow nestlings in the rafters above my horse's stall. I'm well acquainted with these dear birds!

Chris Jordan's work with the Laysan albatross has evolved since those initial gut-wrenching photos. Rather than only depicting their terrible deaths, he also introduces us to the albatross in life, with photos of beautiful albatross pairs mated for life, a parent watching over a newly-hatched chick, a juvenile albatross testing its wings on those ocean breezes for the first time. These photos show moments of intimacy and hope that help us connect with the albatross, and make those photos of death - a death that we humans collectively caused - even more difficult to look at. But perhaps now we feel a connection, a sense of responsibility that propels us beyond guilt and grief to a place where we can actually do something about the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.
It's an interesting and critical topic to ponder. How do we get people to care about environmental issues, many of which are so enormous and complicated that we don't even know where to begin? I think it all comes back to the idea that people care about what they know. That is the premise behind my writing on this blog, and the reason I started it in the first place. To start here at home, working within my (admittedly small) sphere of influence to encourage people to get outside and explore the wonders of nature here in the Pacific Northwest, to develop a connection with this place and the wildlife with which we share it that goes beyond casual appreciation of cute animals, mountains, forests and ocean. To make people understand the myriad environmental issues which threaten this place we call home, and how their own individual actions can either improve or worsen those issues. To bring these seemingly distant environmental issues right back home and give us all a reason to care... and hopefully turn that caring into action.

Check out the Environmental Issues and Going Green pages of this blog for more information on these problems and solutions, respectively.

The sassy Anna's hummingbird that likes to scold everyone from the vine maple outside my window.

Related posts:

Nature Nerd Wednesdays - Earth Day Edition

Reasons to Care