OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

Hiking and photographing in autumn along the North Fork Skokomish River of Olympic National Park, where draping Usnea Lichens and Bull Trout provided beautiful details under Bigleaf Maples and giant cedars.

Usnea lichen drips from a Bigleaf Maple like the Spanish Moss of the American South, though it is completely unrelated (and Spanish Moss itself is a flowering plant related to pineapple, and has nothing to do with moss). Perhaps I should call this lichen “Sasquatch Moss!” The golden color in the background comes from autumn maple leaves, thrown out of focus by focusing on the nearby lichen. 

Autumn in the Pacific Northwest has never seemed as glorious as those Upper Peninsula or Vermont or Adirondack or Colorado autumns that I knew and loved earlier in my life. The trees don’t glow as brightly and the days don’t feel as sprightly and brisk. On the other hand–and there are always other hands with me–autumn in the northwest has its own magic of spawning salmon and dripping moss and golden Bigleaf Maples and scarlet huckleberries.

In search of the special qualities of a northwest autumn, I went hiking on four October days at Staircase, in Olympic National Park. Staircase is located on the southwestern part of the national park and, at about an hour away, is the closest access to where I live. Staircase is known for its Elk herd and for its rocky trail along the steep course of the North Fork Skokomish River, which tumbles joyfully from the Olympic Mountains. At Staircase there is a ranger station and a campground, and other routes along the river to explore.

Footbridge across Elk Creek, along the Shady Lane Trail; everything on the Olympic Peninsula eventually gets covered with moss

Alas, I don’t recall any staircases: it turns out that the area was named for the extremely steep trail that an early explorer built, and is now applied to the Staircase Rapids along the steeply pitched river.

These photographs represent those four lovely October days–a time when I desired to be nowhere else on earth.

Elk Creek winds through a forest of Bigleaf Maples near the point where it flows into the North Fork Skokomish River

A split view of the Skokomish, with the photographer in waders on a cold and colorful autumn day

Huge Bull Trout (close to 30″ long), a threatened species that migrates up the Skokomish from Lake Cushman every October to breed–much like a salmon swimming upstream

Bull Trout with fiery reflections of autumn leaves

I walked out over the Skokomish on these 3′ diameter fallen trunks, and could see skittish Bull Trout in the shadows cast by the logs

Reflections of Douglas Fir trunks and autumn Bigleaf Maples on the North Fork Skokomish River

The most vivid mushroom I’ve ever seen: a coral mushroom that goes by its scientific name of Ramaria araiospora var. rubella

I have a photograph of my mother and I standing in front of this giant cedar 20 years ago, when it was still standing; it fell a few years ago

The Usnea lichens I photographed are on this tree, with limbs hanging out over the river. For the impressionistic photos I got, with the golden background, I estimated that there were approximately four hours per year when the light would do what I wanted it to do.  I figured it out by my third day, and on my fourth day of photography, I got exactly what I wanted (represented by the first picture of this blog post and by the photos immediately below).

I have come to love a style of impressionistic photography that I have returned to often over the last few years, in which a few objects are in sharp focus against a wash of beautiful color created by distant plants (or shadows, or whatever) that are out of focus.  It lends a dreamlike feeling that works really well with an exotic subject like these strange lichens.

And here is a photograph that puts the lichens into their context, where they drip off maple branches. Usnea grows in northern regions around the world, and is noted for its sensitivity to air pollution–it dies even where pollution levels are relatively low (Olympic National Park has some of the cleanest air in America, so the lichen can grow long and prosper). For more information about Usnea, go to Usnea Lichen.

Sun catches ripples on the North Fork Skokomish, with scattered Bigleaf Maple leaves on the river bottom

A springboard notch, where loggers once inserted a board into the tree trunk so they could saw the tree at an appropriate height using an old-fashioned hand-powered, two-man “misery whip”

Moss forms over Bigleaf Maple roots exposed by the scouring action of Elk Creek

And a final look at the lovely river and its autumn maples

For further information about visiting Staircase, go to Staircase in Olympic National Park. This is important, as the road is closed to vehicle traffic during the winter.

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

YOHO NATIONAL PARK: Fairy Barf and Squirrel Love

Natural history details observed in the Lake O’Hara area of Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies, including Red Squirrel sex, Fairy Barf lichen, and Map Lichen.

“It’s all in the details.” We say that about contracts, and it is true in nature as well. The grand landscapes are stunning in Yoho National Park, but the details of the landscape are often entertaining and visually fascinating. Here are a few stories and pictures showing some of those wonderful details from hikes that I and my companions took in the Lake O’Hara area.

We had hoped to see one of three species of ptarmigan on our hikes, but we struck out. On our last day in Yoho, we talked about not seeing ptarmigans, and I said we were more likely to see a grouse along the forested, lower elevation trail we were hiking. Within a couple of minutes, I looked up the trail and there was a Spruce Grouse standing right in the trail! It was a male, painted with bright red eye shadow. This species is also known as “fool hen,” because it is rather oblivious to the presence of people. We pointed cameras at it for nearly ten minutes at close range, and the grouse showed little nervousness about us.

Male Spruce Grouse in the spruce-fir forest of Yoho

The day before our grouse experience, we were hiking on the Opabin Plateau, which is a glacial hanging valley populated with Wolverines, Grizzly Bears, and Zen Buddhists–of which we observed only the latter on our two day trips into this valley. But what interested me? Squirrel sex! A lady Red Squirrel sat

Cute Red Squirrel eating seeds from a cone

demurely on a conifer branch, nibbling at a cone and allowing us to approach close enough to get some nice pictures. She was lovely. Then another squirrel appeared, and began chasing our lady ’round and ’round, up and down and around tree trunks, and dashing over the mossy forest floor. Finally he caught her and they mated. Then another chase. Then he caught her again; this time

Whispering into her ear, while she nibbles on a fir cone

she picked up and gnawed on a Douglas Fir cone while mating, as if bored with the whole act. Then another chase. And another mating. She chewed some more on her cone. My female hiking companions finally got tired of watching animal porn; and from then on they refused to point out any more squirrels to me!

Rated R for implied sexuality

I hadn’t realized that fairies lived in Yoho National Park, but we saw evidence of them all the time. Along the trails were little patches of puke, where fairies who nipped a bit too much on the ambrosia of the Canadian Rockies spilled their guts on the morning after. Actually, these patches of puke are Fairy Barf lichens, with plenty of tiny chunks against a bilious green background.

Fairy Barf lichen, Icmadophila ericetorum

We had seen enough lakes at Yoho to realize that nearly every medium sized lake and tarn contained a resident Barrow’s Goldeneye. These ducks spend the waning autumn days at these subalpine lakes, constantly diving for aquatic

Female Barrow’s Goldeneye on a turquoise lake

insects. In the clear mountain lakes, I could watch the goldeneyes as they swam underwater. In fact, the first time I saw one from above, I could follow its trail underwater by the cloud of silt it stirred up as it swam along the bottom. These ducks were only going to enjoy their Canadian Rockies vacations for a short time, since ice would soon seal all of the lakes and tarns; then they would have to fly to their wintering grounds to the south.

Barrow’s Goldeneye caught in the act of diving

Swimming underwater in a clear lake; the goldeneye uses both its feet and its wings during a dive

Popping to the surface

Faint trails in the bottom of the lake, which I believe were made by diving Barrow’s Goldeneyes

A couple of little birds love this high country; two come to mind. The American Pipit enjoys Canada as much as this American, and spends its time searching for food on the rocky shores of mountain lakes. The American Dipper walks underwater along mountain streams and lakes.

American Pipit, which constantly wags its tail up and down while searching the shores of a mountain lake for insects and plant seeds, in nonbreeding plumage

Juvenile American Dipper resting between underwater sessions of searching a stream for aquatic insects; the dipper is named for its habit of constantly dipping up and down by flexing its legs

An American Dipper who really didn’t want its picture taken, hightailing it away from me

Male Fairies in these woods have a poor sense of direction, and would be too embarrassed to ask a mere human for directions, so they’ve created an elaborate system of maps. I didn’t fully understand the maps, but I’m not supposed to, as I am not a Fairy .

Map lichen showing Fairy trails

A more colorful Map Lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum

When we visited Yoho, the wildflowers were essentially done for the year. But seed heads of several species could still be found before the falling of autumn snows covered them for the winter. This included the Western Anemone, which is also known as “Hippie Stick” and “Towhead Baby,” and which has a prominent crown of feathery seeds that reminds humans of hair.

“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen” (lyric from the musical, Hair)

When we ventured above timberline, we would see rodents that looked like oversized chipmunks, except that the face is not striped like chipmunks. These Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels live in burrows under rocks in the high country, and have learned that humans sometimes leave behind bits of crackers and cheese and nuts–or that these big creatures will sometimes hand them free food, often with strange chuckling sounds coming from their upturned mouths.

Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel hoping for a handout

We didn’t see any large browsing animals in Yoho, though Elk and Moose are found in the park. The closest we came was seeing this track in the snow, several miles from Lake O’Hara. The details are obscured by the snow, so I cannot say for sure if if was an Elk or a Moose.

Elk or Moose track in the snow, showing dewclaw marks (at the top) which are shown when the large mammal is trotting or running

Below is a gallery of lichen photographs. I don’t recall ever being in a place so rich with lichen diversity. It takes patience to look close and photograph these miniature designs, which consist of a cooperative combination of fungus and algae. I am not an expert at identification of lichens, so if anyone out there in blogland knows more than I do, feel free to identify some of these by genus and species or to correct me.

Goblet Lichens, with the rims of the goblets ringed with tiny ice crystals, reminding me a bit of margaritas

Identification anyone?

Stereocaulon tomentosum

I believe that the taller lichen behind is Cladonia gracilis ssp turbinata

Peltigera neopolydactyla

Identification anyone?

Peltigera sp.

A semi-aquatic lichen photographed on the rocks ringing one of the Morning Glory Lakes; identification anyone?

Finally, we saw a variety of mushrooms on this trip. Rather than try to identify these, I’ll just show them to you for your interest; I especially liked the combination of mushrooms and snow.

This Seattle Mountaineers photography trip into the Canadian Rockies was ably led by Linda Moore. Yoho National Park is, in my opinion, the most beautiful place in the Canadian Rockies and perhaps in all of North America. For more information about Yoho National Park, go to the Parks Canada web site.

For other entries in my weblog about Yoho National Park, go to Ice, Wolverine,  Early Snow,  Night at Yoho, and Elizabeth Parker Hut.

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.