Archive for January 2011

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Gray Wolf Trail

January 26, 2011

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


OLYMPIC PENINSULA: The Magic of Winter Nights

January 14, 2011

Snow falling on cedars at my Olympic Peninsula home

Huge snowflakes drift down from the inky sky, as if in a hazy dream, deep in the ocean at night, in a cloud of tiny, luminescent jellyfish. So much snow, an inch an hour, with school closures likely tomorrow. The snow reminds me of driving through an upstate New York blizzard on the way home from a New Year’s Eve party years ago, with snow so thick that I had to hold open the car door while driving to see the edge of the road. That night, a honking big upstate snow plow was in the ditch; we stopped our little Chevy to offer help, but he had a two-way radio.  Somehow we made it home, and the next morning I used our huge snowblower to clear the driveway and give my face a frosty beard.

A stairway into an enchanted evening

The place we live now–near sea level in the Puget Sound region of Washington State–doesn’t get much snow. Our winters are generally long, dark, and rainy. But once in a while we get a snowstorm, as was the case this week, when we got about six inches of heavy snow in an evening. It was a classic snowfall, with wondrous trillions of flakes falling fast and thick. Just the night to try out my favorite new photography technique on snow around my home.

Snowflakes illuminated by electronic flash on the camera; with a bit of orange light contributed by a high-pressure sodium streetlight

This technique is simple, and involves using an electronic flash on the camera.  I used a tripod and a high ISO and a powerful flash, and incorporated various street lights around the house to give a bit of color to some of the scenes.  These photographs are the result, and I think they show the everyday scenes around my house in a magical new way.  One of the aspects of photography that I have always loved is its ability to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.

An old bicycle in front of a massive cedar in my garden

Snow falling on a Western Red Cedar

Snowfall along the road near my home

The heavy, wet snow clings to every branch of the maples and alders

The high-pressure sodium light of the streetlamp adds interesting color to the nightscape

Photographing up into the night sky, with countless billions or trillions of snowflakes drifting toward earth

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.

For another view of the landscape at night, go to my weblog:  Yoho National Park at Night.


MICHIGAN AMISH: A Timeless Way of Life

January 5, 2011

Stopping by a farm on a snowy morning

Imagine rural America as it was in the late autumn of 1875. Horse-drawn buggies pass by, the drivers greeting passers-by with a wave. Children play in the snow outside a one-room schoolhouse. Farmers are out on the pond, cutting ice to put away for the distant summer. Eggs and quilts are for sale at a roadside farm. Men pitch in to build a new house for one that burned down …

Except it is not 1875: it is 2010, in a pastoral landscape in central Michigan where scores of Amish farms and families have established a community during the past 25 years. This is the area where my mother lives, though she is not Amish. I remember when the first families arrived and bought some old and tired farms; my mother was talking to a man who had experienced the Amish arriving in other areas, and he said something to the effect of “You are going to experience a wonderful renaissance here, as the Amish bring the worn-out soil back to life.” He was right, and I’ve watched through the years as the numbers of Amish rose and the landscape came back to life.

My photographs here were all taken on several brief late autumn and early winter drives through the Amish landscape, so they comprise just a snapshot of a different way of life. I wish I could spend time getting to know these people, but I live half a continent away and it isn’t easy to strike up a conversation between buggy and Buick.

While there, I watched three different Amish wagons, drawn by draft horses, coming across the fields from unseen ponds, each carrying a shiny load of freshly cut ice. The blocks of ice were perhaps 8″ thick, reflecting a long and cold December, and they had the slight blue-green tint hinting at their pond origin. I watched one pair of men putting the blocks into an insulated shed using big, steel ice tongs.

This brings me back to a childhood memory of my family buying ice during a circa 1960 camping trip in the Upper Peninsula. Along the waterfront in Copper Harbor, on the Keweenaw Peninsula which juts jauntily into Lake Superior, there was an old-timer selling his ice from an insulated shed. He hauled it out with tongs, and rinsed off the insulating layer of sawdust by dunking the block in a galvanized tub of lake water. My dad then put the block in our green Coleman ice chest to take back to the campground at Fort Wilkins State Park. That kind of experience has pretty much vanished in 21st century America.

Stacks of cornstalks enduring a November snowstorm

When I toured the Amish landscape on a Monday, nearly every farmer’s wife had set out her wash to dry in the sub-freezing winds. Some had lines strung up on the farmhouse porch; others had lines in the yard, where blue denim overalls shared the breeze with colorful quilts.

Signs in front of the old white farmhouses proclaim what is for sale, usually with the disclaimer “No Sunday Sales.” Some will be selling brown eggs and honey; others might have quilts or deer blinds or maple syrup or freshly-baked pies. The families make plenty of time for these enterprises; after all, there aren’t umpteen hours of television per day, or 300 tweets per day, or email, or shopping for the latest fashions. These people live off the electric grid. In fact, should catastrophe hit America, we will be looking to the Amish to see what we can emulate from their self-sufficient way of life.

While driving one gravel road, I came upon a big wagon with two draft horses parked in one lane of the narrow road. Two Amish men were cutting firewood from roadside trees and loading it on the wagon. Their dog sat looking at me

A cow grazes among the cornstalks of an Amish farm, cleaning up the cornfield and fertilizing it at the same time; the red barn in the distance is probably not Amish unless recently acquired, since the Amish paint their barns white

from the other lane, blocking it, so I waited patiently for one of the men to see why I was parked there. He realized that the dog was in the way and called it. He laughed; I laughed; and we had a moment of human connection.

I saw three one-room schoolhouses in the area. Through the windows of one, I could see children praying. Later, I saw about ten children, clad entirely in black, playing in the white snow during recess outside another schoolhouse. Amish children clearly enjoy their snowball fights!

An Amish one-room schoolhouse after the children have left for the day

Had it been late spring, I would have seen the Amish children walking to school in their traditional clothes, complete with straw hats. Amish men also wear straw hats, and Amish women wear long dresses, even while working in their beautiful gardens. The ladies wear hair coverings in the summer and black bonnets in the winter. Many Amish go barefoot in warm weather.

On this trip I saw the spread of sawmills among the Amish–at least a half-dozen farms had associated sawmills. This is a good fit for the Amish, because many of the farms have woodlots where the farmers can take a sustainable harvest of hardwood oaks and maples. One woodlot was set up as a sugarbush, where each March the farmer would tap the Sugar Maples, collect the sap, and boil off the excess water to make one of the most flavorful products on earth–maple syrup.

As I sit here at my computer typing this story, I realize one of the aspects of Amish life that I envy: the Amish men spend their lives outdoors doing hard physical work. They plow fields, stack corn, milk cows, split firewood, and accomplish all the other necessary chores around a farm. These men stay in great shape from their work, while I have to jog mindlessly along a road or work out on a fitness machine as a necessary counterpoint to my digital life. I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs … or would I? Probably not.

Amish farmers stack their cornstalks in the field in this distinctive manner, creating a series of pyramids through the cornfield

The Amish life would work for many, but for me the rules of the religion would be something of a straightjacket. Creative expression does not often blend well with fundamentalism.  So here I am, living an imperfect life, but one that allows me as much flexibility and creativity as I can muster. And there they are, living satisfying lives in the shelter of a like-minded community. We are essentially different, and I love this diversity of lives that America encourages.

Horses are a daily part of Amish life; they plow the fields and pull the buggies and assist in much of the other work around these farms that harken back to an earlier time

Stacks of cornstalks after a snowstorm

Amish horses grazing in a cornfield

Buggies share the road with cars; the warning triangles on the backs of the buggies were a reluctant concession to safety

Cornstalks bending away from the wind-borne snow


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.

For another of my weblogs celebrating the rural traditions of America, go to https://leerentz.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/cades-cove-app…the-past-tense/