Late last June, we drove south from Seattle, then north, circumnavigating Puget Sound. Through occasional showers, we caught glimpses of our destination, the jagged Olympics, clothed in forest and shrouded in mist. After a couple of hours, we crossed the bridge over the Hood Canal onto the Olympic Peninsula. This arm of land, surrounded by Pacific waters on three sides, forms the northwestern corner of the contiguous United States. Some of the most biodiverse forests on earth are protected within vast Olympic National Park, which encompasses about half the peninsula.
Soon we began seeing large clearcuts on the state and private timberlands outside the park. All trees had been stripped down to bare soil, even on steep slopes. Later we passed land that had been replanted to Douglas fir. All of this is common practice in the western US.
We headed toward the small town of Forks, Washington, where we had rented a cabin. Forks, which once called itself the timber capital of the world, hosts a timber museum with a chainsaw sculpture of two loggers outside, manning a crosscut saw. Now that most of the big trees outside the park have been cut, and timber harvests from the national forest have been reduced to protect endangered species, the town is relying more on tourism dollars.
The next day we drove up a narrow spur road to visit the Hoh Rain Forest, part of a temperate rain forest that’s found in only a few regions of the world. It was crowded, considering it was another chilly, rainy day, and we had to park in the overflow parking area. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, as a small herd of Roosevelt elk were browsing in the forest nearby. We watched from beneath umbrellas as eight elk, including a bull with a big rack, chomped on ferns and shrubs. Their browsing keeps the understory open and encourages herbaceous ground cover. By the late 1800s, this subspecies of elk unique to the Olympic Peninsula was almost extinct due to overhunting. After a trip to the area, President Theodore Roosevelt created a national monument in 1909 to protect the elk, building on forest reserves that President Cleveland had set aside in the late nineteenth century. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the act that created the National Park.
In full raingear, we walked on two nature trails through frequent showers and fine mist. The rain forest was magnificent – a green wonderland and naturalist’s paradise. Many of the plants there are close relatives of our northeastern flora and looked familiar, yet different. The trees – mostly Sitka spruce and western hemlock, with a few Douglas firs – towered over us, growing to 200 feet tall. Their trunks were carpeted with mosses and lichens and were 8 to 10 feet in diameter. Spike mosses hung from branches (like Spanish moss in the Southeast). The spreading limbs of big leaf maples in the understory were draped with curtains of these epiphytes, which absorb moisture and nutrients from rain and the humid air. Tree seedlings grew in rows on decaying nurse logs. Lush ground cover included lots of sword fern (similar to our Christmas fern, but larger), the smaller deer fern (which reminded me of polypody fern), Oregon oxalis (related to our common wood sorrel), vanilla leaf (named for the scent of its dried leaves), and sphagnum-like mosses. Vine maple (with leaves similar to sweetgum) was a common understory tree.
The mild coastal climate of the Olympic Peninsula creates ideal conditions for plant growth. As clouds roll in from the surrounding ocean and strike the mountains, moisture condenses. The western slopes and valleys of the Olympics get almost 12 feet (!) of rain a year and frequent fog.
Looking for a more backcountry experience, on a clear, sunny day we hiked to the South Fork of the Hoh River. To get to the trailhead, we drove about 10 miles on a dirt road through mostly clearcut lands studded with stumps and purple foxglove blossoms. After driving up a steep section of road through loose gravel in our low-clearance rental car, we reached the parking area.
The first part of the trail led through second-growth rain forest on state land. Soon the trail reached the national park wilderness boundary, and the trees shot up in height. In addition to the vegetation we had seen in the Hoh Rain Forest, we saw skunk cabbage, a cousin to our northeastern skunk cabbage, but with larger, elongated leaves; Aleutian maidenhair fern, rare in the Northeast; and devil’s club, aptly named with its thorny stem and spike of red fruit. In several places we had to climb over huge fallen trees, once almost losing the trail. With the abundant moisture, trees do not need deep roots and are easily toppled by strong winds. In openings created by these blowdowns grew delicious salmonberries, which taste like a cross between a raspberry and a blueberry. We met two women who were backpacking out. One worked for a salmon organization and pointed out young Coho salmon in a spring-fed pool. She told us five species of salmon spawn in the streams of the Olympics. We discussed the logging practices we had observed and she said regulations had improved, though clearcutting on steep slopes is still permitted and damaging mudslides have occurred during storms. Buffers are now required along important salmon streams to reduce siltation.
We descended to a level bench above the river where there were enormous Sitka spruces, and after two miles emerged onto the riverbank. The water was blue-gray, colored by silt from the glaciers of 8,000 foot Mount Olympus, the highest summit in the park, climbable only with technical rock and ice-climbing skills and equipment. Giant trees lay across the river, almost forming a dam. These trees would eventually be washed downriver into the Pacific, and be tossed up onto beaches by the surf. We had seen piles of drift logs on an Olympic beach the day before. We climbed down the steep bank to wade, but our toes quickly became numb and we didn’t stay in long. From the riverbank, we had a view of steep-sided peaks across the valley, cloaked in conifers, which make up the majority of the forest here. There was a dense growth of red alder (a fast-growing tree similar to aspen) on the floodplain directly across the river.
On the drive back to our cabin at dusk, we were hoping to see a cougar pad across the road, but the big cat remained elusive, perhaps stalking a deer in the shadows of the rain forest along the very same path we had taken.