Friday, August 26, 2016

Wanderings: Among Ancients in the Cedar River Watershed

Findley Lake Old Growth

Early on a Saturday morning that would later become a scorching August day in the mid-nineties, my sister and I headed for the shady refuge of the forest. Old-growth forest in the Cedar River Watershed, to be exact. The Cedar River Watershed Education Center is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit.

I've already attended one of their signature Watershed Tours and an Adventures in Forest Ecology class, and I was eager to sign up for their old-growth forest ecology class called Among Ancients. For only $15, I got to spend the entire day in the company of ancient trees, on an educational outing led by Clay Antieau, Seattle Public Utilities scientist and self-titled "plant guy" who truly has a wealth of knowledge on his subject.

After exiting I-90, we drove up Cedar Falls Road and passed the already-full parking lot at Rattlesnake Lake. This is a popular destination, for the lake itself as well as the well-known trail to Rattlesnake Ledge. Cars were already spilling out of the parking lot and lining up on the shoulders of the road. We breezed right past the adventurers strapping on backpacks and hoisting inflatable water toys, to the quiet, shaded, and nearly-empty parking lot at the Education Center.

Upon arrival, I made a beeline for the rain drums in the forest courtyard just outside the Welcome Center. These rain drums always leave me entranced. I could listen to them all day.

We checked in at the Welcome Center after listening to the drums play for a bit, and loitered around the large relief map of the Watershed as we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Our instructor gave the group an introduction to the Watershed and its history, and then we piled into the air-conditioned white vans and headed into the forest.

Our first stop was a familiar overlook high above Chester Morse Lake. This patch of forest gave us a good idea of the second-growth forest that dominates the majority of the Watershed. Like much of our region, the forest here was logged by the timber industry over the past hundred years or so. The City of Seattle gradually bought up parcels of land piece by piece from the timber companies and from the Forest Service, until they owned the entire watershed. This is a unique situation - for a municipality to own their entire watershed and have the ability to manage the land for a safe and plentiful water supply. Watershed scientists are now studying ways to restore these second-growth forests to the levels of functioning seen in old growth.

With closely-spaced western hemlock trees crowding one another out and prohibiting any plants from growing on the light-deprived forest floor, this second-growth forest lacks biodiversity and is not ideal for water quality or for wildlife habitat.

We then traveled to the Lost Creek old growth, a stand of classic lowland old growth forest 300-400 years of age complete with huge trees and a diverse plant community. We followed a trail into the woods, listening intently as our instructor pointed out and named nearly every plant we passed. He gathered us around a clump of bizarre white stalks pushing out of the duff. They looked like some kind of fungus, but were in fact mycoheterotrophic indian pipe plants - plants that lack chlorophyll and gain energy from nearby trees through an association with fungus, rather than obtaining energy through photosynthesis as all other plants do. During the course of the day, we also saw many pine sap and coralroot plants - two other mycoheterotrophs.

Indian Pipe

At the end of the trail, we settled down on a log and received an education about old growth forest - not just about the characteristics of an old growth forest, but also about tree physiology and the functions of the forest that we cannot see, like the roots from different trees meeting beneath our feet, grafting together to create a super-organism that can communicate and share nutrients from one tree to another, even over great distances. Throughout the talk, my sister and I could hear heavy items falling from high overhead, slapping through branches before hitting the forest floor with a soft thud. This went on for several minutes before a Douglas squirrel scampered into view to snack on his harvest of pinecones.

Can you spot our pinecone-throwing friend?

Our final stop was accessed via a long and bumpy road winding deep into the Watershed. We parked in a meadow of daisies and foxglove at the trailhead leading to Findley Lake. By this time, we were sweating in the sweltering heat. I drank from my Camelbak, feeling a bit flushed and heat-stressed. Forays into the Watershed involve a careful monitoring of hydration balanced against the scarce availability of porta-potties. No squatting in the bushes here - they are very serious about maintaining water quality!

As we were ready, members of the group set out on the trail to Findley Lake. My sister and I were alone for the large part of it, as we huffed and puffed up the steep and rarely- traveled trail. Thankfully it climbed through the cool shade provided by the 200 year-old silver fir trees that comprised this patch of old growth forest. What a luxury this was, to spend a Saturday out in the wilderness, on a trail that was not only uncrowded, but on which people were not allowed to travel unless participating in one of the Watershed programs. We were one of just a few dozen people to set foot here every year.

Huckleberry fields forever...

We passed through endless thickets of mountain huckleberry (very tasty berries - our instructor said we could take berries out of the Watershed... as long as they were inside our bodies!) and passed a marshy tarn before emerging next to an old shingle-sided building on a hillside above Findley Lake. As we waited for the rest of the group to catch up, we learned that this site was used by the University of Washington for forest canopy research from the 1970's up until just recently, when funding for such research sadly dried up. While it operated, the facility produced groundbreaking research, including information on the fascinating root grafting we'd heard about earlier.

A short trail led to the shores of Findley Lake, a beautiful sub-alpine lake with glassy waters and shorelines untrampled by the boots of careless hikers. And it's a good thing there are only a few dozen people allowed to visit its shores every year: this lake boasts around its edges a thin fringe of russet sedge - a plant that we learned is rare to find. It was very buggy near the lake. I swatted mosquitoes away, and then a bug flew in my mouth. I instinctively went to spit it out, then stopped myself. We couldn't pee in the Watershed... but could we spit? I looked furtively around, then spit the bug onto my shirtsleeve and brushed it off. You're welcome, people of Seattle and the Eastside... I nearly ate a bug to preserve your water quality.

A bright, hot afternoon on the shore of Findley Lake. Note the russet sedge in shallow water.

Hiking back into the forest, we visited a few abandoned research sites and learned about the things discovered there. We stood amidst the forest comprised largely of silver fir and learned to gauge the average snowpack depth of the place by looking up the trunks to see where the the green lichen tufts started to grow. We gathered that they were about eight feet high on most tree trunks. Were it wintertime, we'd be buried under snow! On such a hot day, that actually didn't sound too bad.

With brains filled with new knowledge and awe, we piled back into the vans and made the long drive back to the Education Center. I finally felt free to drink all the water I wanted, knowing the bathrooms would soon be not far away!

It's fascinating to sit amidst the ancient trees and have their secrets revealed by someone who has studied and knows them inside and out. It's awe-inspiring to realize that old growth forests are impressive for more reasons than just their huge trees and diversity of plant and animal species. There is so much going on below the forest floor, beneath the thick and crusty bark of the giant trees, in the soaring green canopy overhead. The fruiting fungus, the placement of lichen and moss, the size and distribution of trees all have something to say. You gain a sense that the landscape has an intelligence of its own, a timeless knowing honed in rain, snow and sunshine, in wind and fire; an intelligence that preceded our human lives - and which will surpass us - by millennia.

Visit the Cedar River Watershed Education Center website to learn more about their programs. I highly encourage you to take advantage of these learning opportunities, with scientists who are thrilled to share their knowledge with you!

Monday, August 1, 2016

Wanderings: Sauk Mountain

If the world ends, let me be here.

Those words from Terry Tempest Williams' recent book The Hour of Land raced unbidden to my lips as I rounded the corner of the trail and gasped at the panorama spread out before me. At 5,500 feet on top of Sauk Mountain, I stood before verdant subalpine meadows, their graceful slopes descending down, down, down to the valley below; and rolling away into the infinite western horizon were the rocky Cascade Mountain peaks. A near-cloudless dome of blue sky stretched overhead, and fragrant wildflowers all around buzzed with honeybees.

Yes, if I had a to choose a place to watch the earth's last moments before being subsumed by whatever the coming apocalypse... I could choose no place better, no place closer to heaven on earth, no place with better views from which to bid farewell to everything I know.

I had not anticipated the splendor that waited at the summit as our book club hiking group navigated the winding and crater-ridden gravel road to the trailhead, stopped by the ski-chalet style pit toilet with a view, and then set out on the trail to Sauk Mountain. It was early morning and the grasses and wildflowers growing close in to the narrow dirt trail were still laden with dew.

Good morning, Sauk Mountain! Looking up at the slope we're switchbacking up... way up!

A short ways in, we stood at the base of a long green meadow sloping steeply upward toward the rocky summit. Squinting, I could see the trail switchbacking across the lush slope, and immediately realized the necessity of the switchbacks, as this mountainside was much too steep to walk straight up. You'd just about need climbing gear to attempt that endeavor.

We followed the narrow path back and forth, back and forth across the meadow as we gradually gained elevation. I had to avoid looking downhill, or my vertigo would immediately set in. With a trail this narrow on a slope this steep and exposed, I certainly didn't want to lose my balance and fall. There'd be nothing to stop me until I - or what was left of me - landed at the bottom. I was kind of regretting leaving my trekking poles in the car.

At the top of the switchbacks looking down. The parking area is visible left-center.

Thankfully there were many other sights to capture my attention and keep my mind off my fear of falling. And of course I'm talking about the wildflowers. There were wildflowers everywhere! I felt like I was strolling through someone's private garden as I brushed past purple penstemon and lupine, red paintbrush and columbine and yellow tigerlilies and daisy-like flowers, all being tended by bees and butterflies.

The climb passed quickly with the lush scenery and good company, and before long we left the meadow slope and wound around the backside of Sauk Mountain, where that heart-achingly beautiful view left me startled and speechless, save for those few words. 

If the world ends, let me be here.

After milling around and soaking in the view, we followed the trail to what appeared to be a campsite overlooking the alpine turquoise waters of Sauk Lake far below. By this time, the temperatures were rising quickly, and as the trail led us through a rocky, heather-dotted landscape toward the summit, I marveled at the fact that there was still snow up here. The few remaining patches were soft and melting quickly, and we had to carefully discern whether the snow was safe to walk on before continuing.

After pushing up a brief steep slope and clambering over rocks, we stood on the summit of Sauk Mountain and were once again stunned by the scene before us. Here on this high vantage point, we had 360-degree views of Cascade Mountains. We spotted Glacier Peak, Mount Pilchuck, the white top of Rainier, and looming large to the north was the perfect cone of Mount Baker. The turquoise ribbon of the Sauk River wound through the valley below, and to the west the fertile Skagit Valley farmlands ran flat and smooth toward Puget Sound somewhere out in the haze. Not to be forgotten were the Olympic Mountains, just barely visible on the far western horizon.

Mount Baker
Looking out toward the Skagit Valley
Glacier Peak

The view was tremendous. I could have sat there all day. My sister asked if I thought these views were better than those from the top of Mount Si. Feeling guilty for betraying my home valley, I shook my head and said these views beat Mount Si by a mile. Hands down. Although we didn't work as hard for these views as we did for the views from Mount Si, I was still going to revel in them, while feeling thankful that most of the elevation gain to the 5,500ft summit of Sauk Mountain occurs on the drive in, which only leaves the hikers with 1,200 feet of gain to tackle on foot!

We settled onto the still-cool rocks at the summit and swatted mosquitoes and ate lunch while discussing the novel we'd read for book club. As the conversation wound down, the mosquito bites became more numerous and the crowds increased, we decided to head back down the trail and reluctantly bade farewell to one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen.

On the way back down, I stopped to take a photograph of a metal tag driven into the ground that we'd noticed on the way up. I wanted a picture to reference so that I could look it up when I got back home. The tag was stamped with the words "National Park Service Science" and "NPS Cascades Butterfly Project Section C". After doing some research, I found that we'd been hiking through a study area for the Cascades Butterfly Project, which monitors butterflies in six protected areas in the Cascade Mountains, to study how climate change is affecting mountain ecosystems.

The most exciting part about the Cascades Butterfly Project was the opportunity for anyone to participate. Hikers who photograph butterflies in the study areas can upload their pictures to the project's photo inventory via the Butterflies and Moths of North America site. I happened to take photos of two different butterfly species during the hike, so I uploaded them to the site where they'll be identified by a project coordinator and the sightings added to the project database. And just like that, I became a citizen scientist.

These are the photos I submitted. They are terrible photos, really... but I expect there's enough detail there for the butterfly experts to make an identification. And despite the poor quality of the photos, I felt that in some way I'd helped the cause. That I had contributed to the greater good of a place threatened by climate change - that I had in some small and insignificant way given a gift to a place worthy of spending one's last moments. That perhaps I've helped those who are working to save this place from the inferno of climate change - the slow-smoldering apocalypse I feel ever more certain I'll be witnessing within my lifetime. But perhaps hope can be carried on delicate butterfly wings.

If the world ends, let me be here.

If you go: be aware that the gravel road to the trailhead is steep and cratered with enormous potholes and trenches. There were some regular cars that made it up to the parking lot, but I'd recommend a vehicle with higher ground clearance to avoid any damage to your car. Take it easy and watch for oncoming traffic. Also bring the bug spray! I came home with a dozen or so mosquito bites even though I did use a (natural and apparently ineffective) bug spray. Also, stay on the trail. There are many places where people have taken shortcuts through the switchbacks, which has eroded the trail and made an already-narrow trail on a steep hillside even narrower.