Monday, July 27, 2015

Day 1: From Driving Though The City to Prowling Through The Forest, by Nick Schippers (Student)

Led by instructor Dr. Tim Billo our class of Environment 495 students headed out to the Olympic Peninsula for Olympic National Park. We were about to embark on a 9 day journey through the back country to explore the native species and landscapes of the area and discuss the current issues regarding climate change and sustainability in American society and around the world.
Departing from the heart of downtown Seattle on the Bainbridge Ferry. A few seconds later we were treated to views of Alki Beach , the site where Seattle's first European settlers (the Denny party) disembarked in November 1851 to set up what would later become Seattle. They were greeted by the kind-hearted Chief Sealth, while the women in the party wept at the sight of what would become their home, and what was about to become a dismal, rainy winter. Arthur Denny proclaimed the place "as wild a spot as any on earth"( The oldgrowth forest of Schmitz Park rising above Alki condos is the only visible connection to the original landscape.
Entering Olympic National Park. The boundary is "clear cut", as are the bullet holes in clear defiance of the law. State DNR land is on the right and the few remaining trees are intended to serve as habitat and a jump-start to oldgrowth-like structure.

Today was our first day together as a group. After what seemed like an eternity of logistics, car travel, ferry rides, new faces, and group dynamics, (and also including a required trip to the National Park Service headquarters to meet with a ranger and pick up permits, and a stop at the interpretive center on the Jamestown S'Klallam reservation), we finally arrived at the Three Forks trail head at Deer Park. This particular trail head is 17 miles up into the forest via dirt road. On the way up the clouds soon became fog and rain as we ascended to around 5000 ft elevation in the vans and parked in a dirt lot surrounded by subalpine fir and other mountain trees. There was a small sign at the trail head that listed some of the items prohibited from the national park like weapons, campfires, and pets, and beyond this sign a small campsite. Seeing the small campsite at the trail head made me think of the history of the area. What must it have been like to be a settler here? How in the heck did the first guys make it across these mountains without using tents or matches or rain gear? It is miraculous that they survived and covered this rugged landscape without much else than a hatchet, a rifle, and a bag of flour. As we descended into the woods and for the rest of the trip these thoughts would be in my mind, how could I possibly have any ground to complain about the 50 miles of walking ahead when I had the luxury of rain gear and food all neatly bound upon my back.

Before hitting the trail, we discovered this naturally sculpted and trimmed bush, the rare (in western WA) Rocky Mountain Juniper. It is thought that this species persisted on an ice-free "island" here in Deer Park during the last ice age, dispersing downwards across what would become the San Juan Islands as ice retreated. There are now tiny remnant populations in the San Juans and Olympics, but this species is becoming exceedingly rare in western Washington. 
 One of the first things we saw as we dropped through the woods was a massive burn site. Trees were bent and toppled and I first though it was a landslide or avalanche scene but closer examination and some good information from Tim showed that it was the result of a fire. The area was far from lifeless as we found Columbine flowers and a family of Blue Grouse in the first hundred feet. Further down the trail the edge of the burn appeared and we shuffled down into the understory of a forest dominated by Douglas Fir trees. About 30 minutes in we took a layer break, hard to believe that walking down hill in the pouring rain (really wasn't raining so hard but being inside of a cloud sure felt like the same thing) would make you hot, but the 50 pound back pack and the need to control your speed on the steep downhill proved to be a great recipe for warming up in the typical Pacific Northwest weather.

Walking downwards through a large burn started by an out of control campfire in the 1980s. The extremely fire-adapted lodgepole pine is taking over some of these dry clearings. It may be that warmer drier conditions in the future will make this a lodgepole pine climax forest, and this area may provide us with a glimpse of that future. Currently the area is listed as a Douglas fir climax forest, an indication of how dry and fire prone the northeast Olympics are relative to most areas of the Puget Trough. More moist, non rain-shadow forest would typically move through a Douglas fir stage into a western hemlock climax.
The scales of Lodgepole pine cones are glued shut by a resin that only unglues itself and releases seeds in the heat of a fire. Here, we tried that experiment, burning the cone on the left, and leaving the scales glued shut on the unburned specimen to the right.

Though it was only around 5-6 o'clock it already looked like the night was creeping in with the grey skies and shade of the large trees around us it was far darker and cooler than the previous two weeks of record breaking summer temps. The reflection of heat off the pavement in Seattle made our hotter than average temperatures of upper 80s feel like they were closer to 100, and the relief of being in the forest was now sinking in as even with the heat of walking with a heavy pack the group seemed to feel more comfortable. Shortly after our layer break we found a weird plant that was characterized by it lack of colour. Known as a saprophyte this plant did not need significant sunlight to grow and lacks chlorophyll, the pigment necessary for photosynthesis. It was interesting to think about but made perfect sense that a plant here would evolve to grow without photosynthesis, the thick cover of the canopy of young evergreens, a legacy of previous fires, makes the forest floor here dark and cool and seems to promote its own microclimate.

A young forest, recovering from fire, that has just gone through its "competitive exclusion" phase. The stems that lost the battle for light, litter the forest floor. 

It is in these young forests with closed canopies that you often find saprophytic species such as the Candystripe or candy cane flower (Allotropa virgata). Saprophytes lack chlorophyll and usually derive energy from decomposing plant matter. These plants are more technically called mycoheterotrophs, since fungi are also saprophytes. Mycoheterotrophs are actually parasitizing the fungi, which are the decomposers that make the sugars and nutrients available. 

Dull Oregon Grape was abundant in open burned areas. It is already developing fall colors.

The iconic banana slug came out as we descended into wetter forest in the Tsuga heterophylla climax zone. The wet weather helped too.
 After a couple hours of hiking we finally made it through the first few miles and descended at least 1000 feet into the Three Forks Campsite. This first campsite was  good size and was accompanied with an old shelter that was built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) a program launched under Franklin D Roosevelt in the early 1930s to keep young people working. The shelter was built entirely of trees that were cleared from the campsite and was still in good shape. Once we got our tents set up and got some grub in us we began our group discussion lead by Eva. We talked about the Native American relationship to "wilderness" and the role that Native Americans might play in the future of national parks. It was a tough discussion in that reservations were created to try and retain Native American culture and way of life but removing them from land that became the national parks effectively ruined their culture and way of life. Trying to restore or give that back to them now and in this day and age is a day late and a dollar short of what is needed, if it would even be possible or desirable. It is hard to try and repair the past and Tim asked us to think of the significance of national parks and preserving wilderness for the future, what does it mean, why is it even important at all?

Eva Barth leads an excellent discussion on Native Americans and wilderness concepts.

Discussion lasts into the night, and Shane Kelly explains his research interest in nature-based experiential education. 

We had the opportunity throughout the trip to think on the relevance of wilderness in modern society and the importance of it to ourselves personally. Overall I think wilderness within the national park is of immeasurable importance. Seeing what we saw on this trip it became clear that without an environment such as wilderness where the impact of man is negligible on the surface it is impossible to see where we have come from and where we are going. What I mean here is that wilderness is like the control in a science experiment. Being in the Anthropocene we as humans are now affecting every aspect of our surroundings and wilderness can be used as a metric for this. For example the glaciers all throughout Olympic National Park are receding due to man made climate change. Looking at historical pictures from 100 or 50 or even 10-20 years ago you can see just how far these miraculous ice sheets that have been present for thousands of years are shrinking away. And it is not minuscule, it is huge, most of the glaciers we saw have lost significantly more than half their mass in the last 50 years. These are glaciers that were over 1000 feet thick in some places. Without wilderness out here as an environment we would not be able to see and compare our effects on the environment, this type of landscape gives us a very tangible way to look at our surroundings and recognize the changes that are and will be occurring.

Personally wilderness to me is an escape. It is something that brings back vivid memories of my child hood and of the things I value individually. I have a strong connection to nature and love the outdoors and so getting a chance to go into the wilderness and spend 9 days exploring it was a great opportunity for me to recharge and refocus. With the hectic nature of the city and school and family issues, wilderness is for me a place where I can stop and put everything aside and focus. It is somewhere were I can be calm and quiet and alone. It allows you to step aside and set things down and look out and see everything in front of you for exactly what it is. There are no short cuts, no cheap skate ways out, there is in fact nothing. Nothing but pure black and white honesty. The laws of the land are in control and you as a person are left with only the view in front of your eyes and the whole and honest truth of who you are as a person. Whether that be good or bad or anything in between, wilderness is a place where everything is on the table, you don't get to hide. This for me is something I love, I love being honest with myself and seeing where I am weak, seeing where I can improve, and seeing what it is that drives me to do better and then taking a deep breath and tapping into those things. One of the most important things in visiting a place like Olympic National Park is taking the time to breath. Taking a deep breath of the air that is there, it is still pure, it is still clean enough to tell the difference between what was and what is. Breathing this air I feel at peace. The smell of the mountains and the evergreens and the nearby streams have a taste like the cleanest water on earth. As my lungs fill with this air I find my peace, I find that all I really need is just a breath of fresh air.

By Nick Schippers, UW Environmental Studies