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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
For more information about Olympic National Forest, go to the Olympic National Forest website
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