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!


  1. Lainey, I have never taken advantage of these courses, thanks for sharing! Will definitely check out! And going where there are no other people, wonderful! Sad about the research facility closing. With climate change we need it more than ever!

    1. I highly recommend their courses! There's a Forest Ecology class coming up in September, I think. That was a good one. And their Watershed Tours are fun (albeit much shorter) as well.

      It's such an odd experience, to go to the Watershed and enter a 90,000 acre tract of land where human activity is intentionally excluded, and into which people are not allowed to enter! It feels like a special privilege to get to sneak in there with a class or tour group. :)

      Thanks for reading, Jill!