October at Staircase in Olympic National Park

The pleasant white noise of water running over rocks in the North Fork Skokomish River blends with the occasional warning clicks of a concerned Pacific Wren and the wind rushing through the needles and leaves of conifers and maples. Low angle sunlight occasionally shines through the brilliant orange leaves of Bigleaf Maples along the river’s edge. A family of American Dippers walks underwater through the rapids, searching for insect larvae. A cousin of the robin, the Varied Thrush, has migrated in for the winter and individuals are foraging through the mossy forest.

Each time I come to Staircase, named for an actual wooden staircase that a military expedition built to climb over rugged nearby cliffs, I am enchanted by the exotic lifeforms that populate this rainforest. There are the Icicle Mosses that drape the limbs of maples and dead conifers so thickly that I wonder how the branches can support the weight of this wet mass of moss.

There are Dog Vomit Slime Molds that we encounter in the woods. These are neither plant nor animal and normally live their lives as single cells, but when something triggers them, these cells come together to act as a larger organism that actually oozes through the forest in a search for food.

There is the Methuselah’s Beard, the longest lichen in the world, hanging like Spanish Moss from the limbs of riverside maples and firs. It is the Methuselah’s Beard that attracts me to frequently return to Staircase. There is one special Bigleaf Maple that the lichen has enjoyed living on for years, to the point that much of the tree looks decorated in fake spider webs for Halloween. I thought I was the only photographer attracted to this tree, but it turns out there are many others; on one recent trip two photographers came by while I was photographing and said that they make pilgrimages to photograph this tree every autumn. This lichen species is extremely sensitive to air pollution and is used by scientists as an indicator of poor quality air; it has been declining across much of its range around the world for this very reason. But at this location on the Olympic Peninsula, bathed in moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean, the air is clean and wonderful. The lichen thinks so as well, and looks to be content living here.

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OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

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.

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