Signs of Fall 2: Hiking in the Olympics

The continuing signs of fall have to include our end-of-summer vacation to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. We stayed out on the peninsula for five days and got to spend time in all three of the major ecological zones: the mountains, the temperate rain forests, and the coastlines.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The Olympic Mountains are part of the Pacific Coast Range. They are very young mountains that formed in the last ten or twenty million years. Their sharp edges and jagged peaks directly reflect this relatively short time of exposure to the erosional forces of wind and rain. These mountains, unlike the nearby Cascades, are not volcanic in origin but instead are made up of basalt of the ocean floor crust and seamounts and a variety of sedimentary rocks that have all been pushed upward by the collision of the ancient offshore Farallon tectonic plate (of which the Juan de Fuca Plate (mentioned below) is a modern day remnant) as it crashed into and subsided beneath the North American plate. Rock faces along the hiking trail along Hurricane Ridge show the power of this collision in their nearly vertical alignments of the rock strata. The Olympic Mountains are great pieces of the ocean floor stood up high on end. The Olympics have been repeatedly carved by glaciers into broad, U-shaped valleys. Mount Olympus, the highest peak of the range at 7969 feet, still has eight glaciers that are renewed by the heavy, annual snowfall.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The impacts of the tectonic plates that formed these mountains, though, are not all in past geological times. The fault system generated by the continuing collision and subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate with the North American Plate has generated an extremely active fault system called the Cascadian Fault. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 was caused by the stresses and movements in this fault and many geologists feel that substantial (or maybe just frequent) earthquakes might also be generated from it. A recent article in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schultz (“The Really Big One,” July 20, 2015) talked about the potential of these Cascadian Fault earthquakes to devastate the coastal Northwest and generate massive tsunamis. Although there have been a number of articles since that have been quite critical of the extreme scenario outlined in the New Yorker article, the fact remains that a significant seismic threat exists in this area.

The Olympics form a rain barrier against the winds blowing in from the northern Pacific Ocean. The western slopes catch the rising ocean winds and via adiabatic cooling draw significant amounts of rainfall from them. These western coastal sites of the Olympics have the wettest climates found in the lower forty-eight states. As a consequence of this rain deposition the eastern sides of these mountains receive relatively little rainfall and actually, to me, very closely resemble the dry mountains habitats of the southern and central Rockies.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The Hurricane Ridge Trail is very popular in the summer and it was not surprising that we could not park in the trail head parking area. We drove back down the road to the first overflow area, though, and found a spot. The walk up from the overflow parking lot wound through a dense, dry forest of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa) and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). Many of the branches of these trees were covered with abundant, hanging lichens (old man’s beard (Usnea lonngissima) and speckled horsehair (Bryoria lucescens)).

There were a number of picnic tables scattered about in clearings between the trees, and each table seemed to have its own resident mule deer (Odecoileus hemionus columbianus) (also called, with good reason, “black-tailed deer”) and mini-flock of gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis). Unfortunately, we saw a number of people hand-feeding the deer in spite of the very prominent signs that prohibited this activity. These deer have to spend their summers actively feeding on nutritious foods so that they can lay down sufficient fat reserves to sustain them through the very harsh winters. The junk food diets will make it very hard for these animals to make it through to the next spring. I’ll talk more about this later.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We crossed the trail parking lot and stepped onto the path that goes up to Hurricane Hill. The trail has a hard, paved surface that follows the crest of Hurricane Ridge. It is 1.5 miles long (3 miles round trip), and we start at about 5100’ elevation and will climb another 650’ to the top of the hill. The trail is broad and safe feeling, but there are steep drop-offs and long views to the sides out over the surrounding canyons.

A pair of golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) soar high above us (later to return in a low altitude swoop along the west side of the trail). Four ravens (Corvus corax) fly busily up and over the trail bothering and fussing at each other while continuously probing in the surrounding dry brush for food. Black capped chickadees ((Parus atricapillus) (that look just like the ones that scold me at my bird feeders every morning at home!) chitter and explore the labyrinths of the branches of the scattered shrubs. A sharp-shined hawk (Accipter striatus) (another old friend from home!) streaks across the trail and disappears into a now silent thicket, and far ahead an Olympic marmot (Marmota olympus) stands up in its burrow high in the curve of nearby canyon rim and screeches in such a loud, hawk-like call that initially everyone looks up to see the passing hawk. We can see the shadow of the marmot through our binoculars.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

The sky is intensely blue, and the sun is full and unshaded on the trail (and the hikers). Temperatures are up in the 80’s, but the dry air and continuous wind makes perspiration a very effective cooling mechanism. Our water bottles are emptied quickly, though.

The last quarter mile of the trail represents most of the 650’ of the climb up onto Hurricane Hill. I decide to skip the knee jarring of the descent and turn back toward the trail head while Deborah, Marian, Joe and Marlee continue on. Up from the top of the hill they can see Mt Baker over in the Cascades to the east, Vancouver Island to the north, The Olympics to the west, and, on a clear day, Mount Rainier to the south.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We meet back up at one of the picnic tables near the overflow parking area. Sandwiches and apples (and lots of water!) taste really good, and it is nice to be in the shade of fir and hemlock trees. The mule deer and gray jays press in around us, but we don’t give them anything but some attention and some verbal advice. A dark, Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglesi) and several chipmunks (species not determined) visit us at our picnic table, too. They all seem to expect handouts from our trail mix sacks and sandwich bags. The trail guide cautions that the rodents along this trail are extremely abundant and often extremely bold. You need to keep your lunch and snacks either well covered or directly in sight to prevent theft and pillaging! Several dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) also hop onto the table to check us out. They all go away unfed.

The people at the table next to us are shoveling nacho flavored doritos into their deer. The deer has a bloated stomach and back legs that are covered with sticky feces from diarrhea and a swarm of flies. The deer is voraciously eating the chips (and then some popcorn and then some bread crusts). It looks awful.

Photo by D. Sillman

Photo by D. Sillman

We pack up and drive a narrow, unpaved (and terrifying!) road to Obstruction Point and head out along a dry, alpine ridge and valley to an incredible overlook out across the western slopes of the Olympics. We do another 4 miles of so in an in-and-out hike and then head back to our cabin for a soak in the hot tub and some fresh fish for dinner.

Next week: the temperate rain forests!

 

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