A giant Western Hemlock in the mossy forest along the Gray Wolf Trail
What are the chances of seeing a Gray Wolf while hiking the Gray Wolf Trail? Zip, actually. Wolves once roamed the Olympic Mountains, but every last one was hunted down and exterminated early in the last century; leaving just the romantic name, Gray Wolf River. Perhaps someday Gray Wolves will be reintroduced, but the last time that notion was floated, in the early 90s, posses of yahoos showed up at the public hearings and catcalled and ridiculed the public officials who proposed it. Threats were made and the project quietly disappeared. The yahoos won. Maybe next time it will turn out better … or not.
This isn’t the prettiest of trails. It starts by following a decommissioned logging road that is quietly returning to some semblance of nature, though it is still bumpy with dozer piles and gouges, then enters the Buckhorn Wilderness and descends through the forest to the river. Near the river, a windstorm raged through the forest sometime in the last decades, knocking down hundreds of trees and making the woods look like the old childhood game of Pick-up Sticks. Except Bigfoot decided not to play and left the sticks for the trail crew to chew through.
The river itself has been on a tear in recent years. It ripped out a high bridge during an Olympic-level deluge some years ago, which blocked a trail to the high country. And even in the last month, it tore out a section of trail during a rainstorm that brought eight inches of rain to our home near the Olympics.
During the last big rainstorm, the river rose and tore these trees from the riverbank; note the torn up roots and gouged bark
This river, like all the torrents that flow down from the high Olympics, chews away at its banks, as if it hates to color within the lines. Outside the lines, it piles rocks and topples streambank trees before making a temporary retreat. When the riverbed fills with stones and gravel, the water will suddenly dash off through the forest and cut its own new path. Fortunately, this happens rarely in human time; but in geologic time the river travels down out of the mountains like a writhing snake, back and forth across the basin.
Most of the trees in the river basin were relatively young, or had been knocked down. We saw several immense Western Hemlocks that have long stood defiantly against the river, and are now centuries old. As with all the rainy forests in our dank part of the globe, mosses and lichens and fungi and ferns thrive everywhere. Look closely, and the forest floor can look as if aliens landed and are oozing through the wet landscape. Speaking of oozing, this is also the land of giant slugs, though it was too cold for them to be sliming through the forest during our hike.
The Bird’s Nest Fungus is one of the stranger life forms in the forest. The little “eggs” in the cup are containers for spores; these eggs leap out of the nest when hit by a raindrop falling at just the right angle. This sends the eggs flying through the air, each attached to a little rope, and when the rope strikes a twig, the attached egg is carried ’round and ’round the twig like a tetherball. It sits there, waiting for the weather to dry out. When the sun comes out, the eggs break open and the spores are released to the wind. There is even a technical name for this method of spreading spores; the “nests” are known as splash cups. How’s that for a bedtime story!
The streams here are home to a terrible predator, at least if one is small. The Pacific Giant Salamander grows up to a foot long. In his excellent book, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Daniel Mathews says “In small mountain streams it is the dominant predator, outweighing all salmon and trout put together.” And I bet it doesn’t taste as good. Unfortunately, we’ve never seen one, but it would be a great candidate for my museum Hall of Weird Olympic Life Forms.
Some of the eggs splashed outside the nest but didn’t wander far from home
While walking the trail, I had an inkling that this would be the day we would finally see a Cougar. Alas, if one was there, it was a silent sentinel, quietly watching from the mysterious forest. Two weeks ago, a Cougar was seen several blocks from our home on Fawn Lake, but we missed that one. Someday, we’ll see one, when we least expect it …
The soothing mists floating through the tall trees of Olympic National Forest, viewed from the Gray Wolf Trail
I spent a lot of time photographing small stuff on the ground, as well as the trees. I even wrenched my leg when I was perched on two fallen logs with my tripod, trying to get a good angle on a mossy tree. My left foot broke through a rotten log, toppling me and my tripod like a fat hemlock slammed down by fierce winds coming off the Pacific. I thought my stump was splintered, based on the immediate pain. But the pain subsided and I climbed back up on the log again and got the photo (though the leg hurts too much to go jogging this week). Karen was getting cold while waiting for me, and it was getting late, so we walked up out of the river basin and into the clouds, arriving back at the trailhead at 4:45 p.m.
This Western Red Cedar, draped in epiphytic mosses, was my visual target when I collapsed suddenly into a rotten log, then toppled to the ground. I think the trees were making me feel what they feel when the chain saws snarl.
A tiny trail leads into the forest so that we can worship at the base of the tallest trees like the Druids we are
This dead cedar has endured fire, as evidenced by the hollowed out center and extensive black charcoal; perhaps it was hit by lightning long ago, or perhaps a wildfire raged through this forest
Playing Pick-up Sticks with Bigfoot
Another REALLY weird life form: the Fairy Barf lichen, which looks like little blown chunks against a bile green background
Mosses in bewildering diversity drape logs and rocks throughout the forest
Here the famished Gray Wolf River devoured a stretch of the trail
Red Alders thrive along the start of the trail, where clearcuts removed the ancient, original forest several decades ago
Still another really weird life form: Witches’ Butter. This gelatinous fungus appears after rain, which could be any ol’ time in the Olympics. Witches’ Butter has a slimy texture and some claim it is edible, but tasteless. Perhaps it appeals to witches, along with fly wings and salamander gills. By the way, the vertical line in the photograph was made by a beetle tunneling under the bark, devouring wood.
Sword Ferns thrive in the damp Olympic forests
Red Alders in the moist air of the Olympic highlands
For more information about Olympic National Forest, go to the Olympic National Forest website
To read some of my prior stories from Olympic National Forest, go to:
Harlequin Ducks, Sol Duc, and Tubal Cain
To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com
To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website