Posted tagged ‘olympic national park’

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST: Marmot Pass in the Olympic Mountains

July 16, 2013

Marmot_Pass-87Our tent on a ridge, with Warrior Peak and Mount Constance and the incredible starry sky in the distance

3,800′ of vertical gain. Yes, 3,800′. With a full backpack, in about 5.8 miles. It was an exhausting climb–especially the last 300 vertical feet, which had the steepest pitch. But we did it!

Yes, we knew Marmot Pass was a difficult hike, since we had done it once–23 years ago. We had vowed not to do it again, because we remembered the difficult hike, and the rainy night at Camp Misery, about 4.5 miles in. Oh, did I say Camp Misery? I meant Camp Mystery, as in: it’s mysterious why anyone would want to camp there, in a tangle of dark trees that still sport the stink of decades-ago campfires.

Marmot_Pass-254Picking Wild Strawberries at the trailhead

We arrived at the trailhead at about 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, thankful for the spider web of logging roads that gets hikers closer to the pass than would have been the case decades ago. We pulled on our hiking boots, adjusted our packs, hung the trailhead pass from the rear-view mirror, then walked over to the bulletin board to sign in, where we read the standard warnings about fire and cougars and bears. Oh my.

Marmot_Pass-259The Big Quilcene River cascades quickly from the Olympic Mountains

There were four of us on the trip, with three of us training for the steep ascent into The Enchantments in about three weeks. We started up the trail, light in heart if not in load. My pack and camera gear weighed 45 lbs., which is about 12 lbs. lighter than I will carry in The Enchantments. (Note to myself: remember to pack the Ibuprofen for that trip.)

For the first several miles, the trail parallels the raging and beautiful Big Quilcene River as it tumbles down toward Puget Sound from the steep eastern slope of the Olympics. This area is a real tangle of fallen trees, but the WTA (Washington Trails Association) volunteers recently did a great job on this section of the trail, cutting huge trees that had fallen across the trail and improving drainage with some innovative techniques.

We steadily hiked upward, accompanied by the incredibly complex song of the Pacific Wren, the incredibly off-key song of the Varied Thrush, and the incredibly haunting song of the Hermit Thrush–which may be the most beautiful birdsong I have ever heard. I stopped at a few points to photograph lichens and mosses, which are the intricate little wonders of the lush Olympic Peninsula forest that grow around the bases of immense Western Hemlocks and Douglas Firs.

Marmot_Pass-270Lungwort lichen, one part of the lungs of this moist forest

We stopped for lunch near Shelter Rock, about 2.5 miles in, where there were perhaps a dozen tents set up by a boy scout troop. Karen and I ate Dubliner Cheese, brown rice Triscuits, fresh sugar snap peas, and a handful of mixed nuts and dried Michigan cherries. All good energy foods.

We needed the energy for an even steeper and unrelenting grade that people have called Poop Out Drag. The effort was balanced by the mountain meadows here, which sweep steeply up to the crags of Buckhorn and Iron Mountains. These meadows were filled with thousands upon thousands of blossoms of brilliant reddish-orange Indian paintbrushes and bright indigo larkspurs, as well as scores of other species. Spectacular!

Marmot_Pass-283Larkspur and Indian Paintbrush wildflowers fill the lovely meadows

We reached Camp Misery, pausing only to pump water, since water availability above this point is iffy and depends upon snowmelt. Camp Mystery wasn’t as bad as I remembered, but this was a sunny day and I’ve been taking my meds. Several small groups were setting up camp along the trail, and others passed by on the way to higher campsites. This proved to be a busy weekend on the trail: we estimated that we saw several hundred people making the climb to Marmot Pass. With the Dosewallips trails access limited because of a landslide about a decade ago, hiking is concentrated here more than ever.

We resumed our trek, soon entering more beautiful meadows on the way to Marmot Pass, and passed a pudgy blonde Olympic Marmot–a species found only in The Olympics. Up and up, we finally got to Marmot Pass, and were disappointed to see that we really needed to go higher on the ridgeline. Three of us were almost devoid of energy at that point, but we shifted into what my dear wife calls “creeper gear” to make it to the top. There we were rewarded by one of the most spectacular views in this spectacular state, with rugged mountains all around, except for the look back at the valley we had just come up, with Puget Sound sprawling in front of distant Glacier Peak.

Marmot_Pass-232Trail crawling steeply to a high ridge above Marmot Pass

We set up camp with our three tents in a mountain meadow, with perhaps another ten tents around us in what one hiker passing by disdainfully called “Tent City.” We set up our tents in a pattern that I thought would make a good illuminated tent photograph after dark (I was, of course, playing the part of the always-irritating photo director!). Then we heated dinner on our camp stoves, rationing the hot drinks a bit because we didn’t have unlimited water at this location.

Marmot_Pass-58Snowfields lingering on the slopes of Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-291Tree shadows crossing the snowfields below Warrior Peak

Marmot_Pass-64Mount Constance catching the last rays of the day

Marmot_Pass-1One of our group contemplating the dramatic view across the valley of the Upper Dungeness River

Marmot_Pass-49Unidentified distant mountains in the rugged Olympics

Marmot_Pass-66Alpenglow illuminates the sky after sunset

Then we settled into an evening of watching the sun sink below the mountains on the western horizon and feeling the air grow chillier. We got into the tents and found it was harder to get warm than we thought it might be, probably because we had used so much of our energy on the long climb. Shortly after 10:00 p.m., I unzippered the sleeping bag and tent and proceeded to take a long series of tent photographs, directing the occupants on how to better create even illumination on the tent walls. Finally, content, I let everybody drift off to sleep and went to bed myself.

Marmot_Pass-70Our three tents, with Mount Constance to the right in the distance

Karen woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and said she was cold–especially her feet. We cuddled for a long time, and finally I had the idea of giving her my down jacket, which I had been using as a pillow. We slipped her legs into the armholes and finally she got toasty warm. One side effect of the really lightweight new tents, like ours, is that they are largely made of mesh and easily let the breezes in. My estimate is that for every pound of weight that you save in using a lightweight tent, you need two additional pounds of sleeping bag and clothing. There are no free lunches in backpacking equipment.

Nature called later in the night, so I walked outside to talk to her. The Milky Way sprawled across the entire sky in a glorious show that our ancestors observed on every clear night. What a sight!

When my alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. on this slightly frosty morning, I went outside to check on photo conditions. The night wind had ceased, and I was immediately comfortable. I was the first one up in all the camps (so give me a gold star!), and I enjoyed the quiet sunrise. Two Mountain Goats walked through a camp farther along the ridge, then departed to the lower meadows. Perhaps the three dogs in that camp growled at them.

Marmot_Pass-140Our tent in morning light

Marmot_Pass-126Two Mountain Goats feeding in a high meadow

Marmot_Pass-129Looking across the morning mists of Puget Sound to Glacier Peak

Actually, this was a doggy kind of hike. I would guess that we saw about 25 dogs, mostly very well-behaved, including several in close proximity to our camp. Since this hike is completely within Olympic National Forest, dogs are allowed along the trail. Had it been across the valley in Olympic National Park, there would have been a stern ranger giving a warning or writing a ticket to each of these dog owners, and instructing each to vacate the park immediately.

I didn’t hear any barking during the night; perhaps the dogs were as tired from the hike as the humans. One adjacent camp had two little children; I would guess their ages as four and seven. These kids had hiked up a very long ways and were having a great time in the dramatic campsite with their extended family.

The next morning we enjoyed identifying wildflowers and building a snowman. Yes, Karen, you can blame yours truly for the basic construction that led to a catastrophic snowman collapse. At least my engineering didn’t result in a bridge falling, which is reason number 27 as to why I am a photographer instead of an engineer.

Marmot_Pass-141Indian Paintbrush near our tent

Marmot_Pass-179Mountain Wallflower on a high ridge

Marmot_Pass-182Davidson’s Penstemon

Marmot_Pass-240The beautiful magenta Olympic Mountain Paintbrush

Marmot_Pass-187Silky Phacelia

Marmot_Pass-215Alpine Lewisia: this was the first time I had seen this flower, which was named for Meriwether Lewis

Marmot_Pass-209Our snowman named Zeus

This was a nearly clear day, with just a very few scattered shreds of clouds. I said we should place bets on when a cloud shadow would briefly darken us, and it didn’t occur until mid-afternoon.

At noon, we shouldered our packs, now slightly lighter with less food and water, and slowly descended to the pass, stopping at several places to identify and photograph wildflowers. Then we went lower and dined with the blond Olympic Marmot we had seen the the same place the day before (though she did not appear to like our company and got up from the table and left–I’ve got to stop telling blond jokes around the PC crowd).

Marmot_Pass-234Pretty blond Olympic Marmot below its namesake pass

Marmot_Pass-280Weathered wood on an ancient tree at timberline

Marmot_Pass-221The beautiful meadows below Marmot Pass, with one tent among the krummholz

The rest of the hike out was fast and uneventful, and we reached the trailhead at 4:45 p.m. The destination had proven to live up to its reputation as one of the premier hikes in The Olympics, and made me glad that we live in the one place that hosts The Olympics every year.

Marmot_Pass-250Definitely not rolling stones; photographed in the Big Quilcene River near Camp Mystery

For someone thinking about hiking to Marmot Pass, the Olympic National Forest website is a good place to start. Go to Marmot Pass Trail.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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 NATIONAL PARK: Raw and Magnificent Royal Basin

September 15, 2012

Corona of the setting moon behind the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin

As evening clouds started leaking, we crawled into our tents early and listened to the staccato pelting of hard rain on taut nylon. I drifted off to sleep within minutes, as usual after a hard day of high country hiking. Later, I awoke to use the facilities (a euphamism if there ever was one), and quickly realized that the lighting was dramatic. The moon had just descended over a ridge and it was dramatically backlighting the clouds that were streaming over the ridge separating Royal Basin and Deception Basin. As a bonus, there was a corona of all the colors of the rainbow in those clouds. The contrast of the starkly black and jagged ridge with the ethereal light of moon on clouds was a reminder of what a special and elemental place this is.

Fast-moving clouds and stars above the ridge

I hadn’t hiked to Royal Basin in 22 years. Last time I was there, hiking with Karen, we had shaggy, shedding Mountain Goats come into our campsite uninvited, like party crashers, hoping to score a lick of urine-soaked soil near our tent. Yeah, it was gross, but that’s what Mountain Goats do when there are lots of humans around. They follow hikers hoping to lick the sweat off their thighs or trail after them into the woods, knowing that that’s where humans go to urinate. And why do the goats like our bodily wastes? Because they crave salt. It is apparently an addictive need for them, and these mountains don’t provide enough salt in the soil to satisfy them. The goats can get pesky, and even aggressive, when around humans. In fact, during the fall of 2010, a 370 lb. adult male in breeding craziness gored a hiker about four miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center. The hiker died after the goat’s sharp horn penetrated an artery in his thigh. Mountain Goats are not native to the Olympic Mountains, and sometimes it seems that they just don’t belong here.

On that same earlier trip we also observed a marmot murder. Marmots are territorial and can be aggressive toward each other. In this case, one marmot chased another across a subalpine meadow; the one being chased decided that its only option was to go down a steep snowfield, which ended abruptly at a tarn. The marmot hurtled down the mountain, slipped down the snowfield, and splashed into the tarn. It swam for a while, but it was unable to climb back up the steep, icy sides of the tarn. Eventually, it succumbed to the icy water and drowned. In the court of Olympic Marmot behavior, the marmicide was deemed manslaughter, and we suspect that the suspect was unrepentant. A heroic young woman fished the corpse out of the tarn so that future hikers could safely get their water here.

Warm light of sunrise bathing the cirque

Those were my most salient memories of our earlier trip to Royal Basin, but I remembered being impressed by the rugged cirque of the upper basin. What I didn’t recall was how hard the hike was, but even at 22 years older, we were able to hike the 7+ miles and 3,100′ gain with no problems, other than being dead tired by the end of the long march.

The lower trail winds through a mossy forest

The hike starts, like most hikes in the Pacific Northwest, in the deep Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock and Western Redcedar woods. Following Royal Creek, the trail eventually breaks into subalpine forest with small meadows, and after six miles arrives at Royal Lake. We briefly pondered staying at Royal Lake, but there were lots of backpackers there, wearing headnets to protect themselves against an onslaught of mosquitoes, which had hatched in hordes following the melting snow.

Beautiful Royal Lake is the destination for many of the hikers, though it doesn’t have the sublime wild terrain of the upper basin

More impressive here were the clouds of Chironomids, also known as “non-biting midges,” which danced in shafts of sunlight in swarms of thousands. Up close, these creatures look quite a lot like mosquitoes, but they don’t lust after our blood. Hiking through a swarm tickles a bit, and breathing bugs into an open mouth is a coughing and spitting experience, but otherwise these little bugs are benign and bordering on wondrous. When they are backlit by a low, late-summer sun, the effect is spectacular, like a galaxy of dancing stars. I had first seen these columns of dancing chironomids in Grand Valley in the Olympics many years ago, and had photographed them then, but this time I had the advantage of digital photography, so I could check my photographs immediately and adjust exposures accordingly. It was an unforeseen highlight of the hike.

Chironomids dancing in a shaft of sunlight

These non-biting midges are about the size and shape of mosquitoes (with whom they share the shores of Royal Lake), but these little creatures don’t have vampire tendencies

I have never before seen such a concentration of tiny, dancing insects!

I used a time exposure to capture the chaotic flight of these thousands of chironomids

Detail of a time exposure, this one capturing the rhythmic wingbeats of the insects

All good things come to an end, and here thousands of Chironomids have returned in death to fertilize the lake in which they lived as larvae

Wildflowers were late again this year, because of a heavy snowpack in the Olympics. In some years, the flowers would be shriveled and brown by the week before Labor Day, but not in this late summer. There were sky blue lupines and extensive meadows of scarlet paintbrush. Tall Cow Parsnip and Angelica were in the last stage of fowering. Arnicas and Senecios (two yellow flowers in the sunflower family) were at their peak.

Mountain Bog Gentian heralds the end of summer with its bloom

Edible Thistle is a memorable plant of Olympic subalpine meadows

Kneeling Angelica flowering in a mountain meadow

Fireweed blooming along Imperial Tarn in upper Royal Basin

Arnica blooming near our campsite

We climbed still higher beyond Royal Lake, into upper Royal Basin, which is a huge cirque of rugged mountains. We quickly set up camp on the first flat place we could fine, which was a bed of gravel sorted by a stream coming right out of a snowfield. Cold, wonderful water right next to our tents! There were five of us in the group, and we set up three tents. Two climbers had set up their tent before us, but the gravel bed easily accomodated all of us. Peaks glowed red in the setting sun, and the cirque was wild with a sense of unleashed natural forces.

The rocks tell stories of deposition in quiet seas, followed by the incredible power of volcanism as the Pacific plate slid under the North American plate. The rocks tell tales of the earth’s violence over millions of years; pillow lava along the trail was once formed by magma vents on the bottom of the ocean, now these rocks are found a mile high in the mountains in sheer cliffs. Breccia, a combination of jagged stones embedded in a lava matrix, looks like petrified geological pudding.

Breccia and snowfield along Imperial Tarn

Breccia up close, showing rough rocks embedded in a matrix that was once molten

Though the glaciers are gone, Imperial Tarn is still colored a vivid aquamarine by glacial flour that was formed by the scraping of glaciers against rock

Around us that evening, the setting sun caught spires of rock known at The Needles. High ridges surrounded us, separating us from Desolation Basin and other wild Olympic valleys. Not long ago, this was a place of glaciers, and named glaciers are still found on some topographic maps of the area. These tongues of ice shaped this high basin over thousands and thousands of years, leaving massive jumbles of rocks all over the basin. Alas, the days of glaciation are at an end; when we asked the climbers if they had crossed any glaciers, they insisted that there were no longer any glaciers here. I’m inclined to agree. We tried to make cracks across the long snowfields into crevasses, but I think we were just dreaming. There was no breaking end of the snowfield that would indicate glacial movement. So, I’m afraid we can chalk up the loss of still more glaciers to global warming. On the other hand, if we were in an era of growing glaciers, Royal Basin would be a lot less accessible.

The snowfield previously known as a glacier

An unnamed tarn in Royal Basin, with Mt. Clark and The Needles towering above

I explored the stream below this waterfall, where an American Dipper was feeding in the rapids and along the waterfall itself

The next morning, our little stream had largely dried up. During the warm day, snow melts and feeds the streams, while the chill air of night largely stops the melting. One of our group later watched the stream suddenly come to life later in the morning, and followed its progress as it trickled down the mountain.

After our gourmet breakfast of bean soup, instant coffee, and hot chocolate, we set off for a day of exploring upper Royal Basin. We climbed moraines, located hidden tarns filled with aquamarine water, photographed wildflowers, explored a tall waterfall, and enjoyed the company of perhaps 20 Olympic Marmots.

Our BPA-free water bottles colorfully catch the sunrise

The marmots were my favorite part of the day. The young of the year were adolescents at this point, and were out exploring and feeding on their own. One young marmot insisted upon eating False Hellibore–a lily that is poisonous to humans and sheep. I wanted to yell “Don’t eat that!” at the top of my lungs, but like many rebellious teens he probably would have told me to go stick my head in a burrow.

Young Olympic Marmot bending down a False Hellibore for its lunch

The marmots remind me of Teddy Bears; notice the hands built for digging burrows

Olympic Marmots are found nowhere else on earth. They were isolated from Hoary Marmots–the species found in the Cascades–by the ice age. Now these beautiful tawny-haired creatures thrive in the subalpine meadows between Royal Lake and upper Royal Basin. Their piercing cries warn each other of hikers and coyotes and bears and other nasty creatures. They spend much of the year hibernating deep underground, snug in a sedge-lined nest, and the rest of the year mating and eating. Sleep, sex, and food … not such a bad life!

Marmot at its burrow entrance above Royal Creek

These two young marmots are a bit uncertain about the photographic intruder into their lives

After hours of watching the marmots, we returned to camp and enjoyed talking about the adventures of the day during dinner. That was the night that rain came early, where I started this tale.

Shelter Rock near Royal Lake is made of pillow lava that was once extruded from volcanic vents beneath the ocean; the collision of plates shoved immense deposits of pillow lava up onto the continent

In contrast to the giant forces forming mountains; here a tiny stream sprayed water droplets onto a bed of moss

The next morning, we packed up and began the long hike out, stopping for a while at Royal Lake. There was a breeze at the lake, and we wondered where all the midges had gone. One of us, walking into the woods to use the facilities, discovered that the little bugs were all hunkered down on branches, waiting out the wind and hoping for steady sun so they could resume their wild mating dance.

Beautiful light on upper Royal Basin

The National Park Service closely controls the number of backpackers in Royal Basin, following an era of overuse that resulted in trampling of beautiful wildflower meadows. Our permit allowed us to stay in the upper basin, where a total of 12 people in a maximum of four groups could camp. Royal Lake could accommodate more people, and there is a ranger station there (but no ranger during our stay; we wondered if the backcountry ranger had left for college or to fight a forest fire).

The lower trail passes thimbleberries and big firs and hemlocks

Fast hikers can explore Royal Basin as a day hike of 14+ miles, which is more than I would care to do in a day. We watched two guys descending a steep snowfield near the rim of the cirque; they had come from largely snowclad Deception Basin, over the ridge, and down the snowfield. They used crampons on their boots to allow safer passage on the hard snow of morning, and used treking poles to help stabilize themselves on the steep slope. These guys were really tired after a tough hike, and still had a good seven miles to go.

Footbridge crossing the lower reaches of Royal Creek

We enjoyed chatting briefly with a group of young people who had backpacked in. They had come to Royal Basin as part of their freshman college orientation, and were uniformly enthusiastic about the experience. The Puget Sound region is so beautiful that outdoor activities like this are part of the pulse of living here.

Hemlock forest along the trail

An impressionistic view of the hemlock forest

Fireweed against a sky of delicate cirrus clouds

For more information about Royal Basin hiking go to:

Washington Trails Association Hike of the Week

Royal Basin, National Park Service

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

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 NATIONAL PARK: Sasquatch Moss at Staircase

December 1, 2011

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

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Exploring Tide Pools at Point of Arches

November 9, 2011

Sunset glow illuminating the conglomerate rocks and salt spray at Point of Arches

The first time we visited Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches in Olympic National Park, it was the Martin Luther King holiday weekend in January, 1991. The weather was unseasonably clear and cold, with no rain predicted–perfect for a winter backpacking trip. The beach was frosty and mostly deserted, though we met one melancholy couple who were enjoying a last Pacific Northwest backpacking trip before moving from Seattle to Iowa (not that there’s anything wrong with cornfields!).

Our favorite experience on that trip was exploring the tide pools of Point of Arches, where we saw Blood Stars and Aggregating Sea Anemones and Giant Green Anemones. In fact, we learned an important lesson during our last morning of tide pooling: they’re called TIDE pools for a reason. We lost track of time while I was photographing, and were late in deciding to walk back to the beach. When we came to a tidal channel that was blocking our route back, we realized that we didn’t have time to retrace our steps and look for an alternate route, and that we had to plunge through it. So, we waded nearly thigh deep through wintery saltwater in order to make it safely back. Lesson learned.

Sunflower Star and reflected light off sand ripples at lowest tide

On our 2011 Fourth of July hike to Point of Arches, we always kept the tide charts in the back of our minds. And we ended up having two of the best tide pool experiences of our naturalist lives. I’ll speak to the specific experiences in the captions, just suffice it to say that the Leather Stars, Blood Stars, chitons, crabs, sculpins, kelp, and isopods were endlessly fascinating.

Enjoy the pictures, and go tide pooling if you get a chance–especially with children. It is a fascinating glimpse into the watery world, which can seem like an alternative universe because the lifeforms are so different. Just be careful to observe the tide charts …

Hikers with a beautiful sunset backlighting the airborne sea spray

At lowest tide we climbed over rocks completely blanketed by slippery kelp; this tidal channel blocked our way from going any further, but here we were able to see a Leather Star–a sea star we had never before observed

The Ochre Sea Star comes in three major color variants, which are playing Twister on a barnacle-encrusted rock

The Sunflower Star encounters a Giant Green Anemone in a tide pool; notice how two of the star’s arms are recoiling after being stung by the anemone 

Up close and personal, the Giant Green Anemone’s mouth and tentacles look beautiful–and menacing to the creatures that are its prey. The green color comes from algae living in the tissues of the anemone. Interesting factoid: the anemone can push its stomach out through its mouth to give itself a deep-cleansing mouthwash!

Vosnesensky’s Isopod is a creature up to two inches long that looks like it might be a bedbug infesting the waterbed of a mermaid

The Blood Star is a small and stiff sea star that is a vivid scarlet

Velvety Red Sponge

Eye candy for those who love magenta and purple, this intricate seaweed defied my attempts to identify it

Purple Encrusting Sponge spreading over rough rock and exposed at low tide, with an Ochre Sea Star creating the foreground texture

Kelp completely covered many intertidal rocks; its color is a yellowish-brown, and here the slippery, shiny surface is reflecting the blue sky

Black Katy Chiton on a rough rock encrusted with other organisms

Blood Star with Giant Green Anemones

This Giant Green Anemone withdrew its tentacles as the tide went ever lower, leaving a ring of tracks around itself

Looking out from one of the sea caves–created by the pounding surf–at Point of Arches

In contrast to the soaring beauty of the wilderness beach; here is evidence that we are all connected to nature in rather mundane ways. This is one of three toilets the National Park Service provides for campers. And given the number of campers here on any nice weekend, I’m glad they provide the “facilities,” such as they are.

Our campfire on the beach at twilight, with the rocky sea stacks of Point of Arches marching out into the great Pacific

When the tide starts rushing in–as in this photograph–I look for a safe return route to the beach

Surfgrass waves gently back and forth with the surging and receding waves

This is a typical view of the exposed rocks as the tide starts to come in

A classic low tide view of Point of Arches, with the sea stacks reflected on the wet beach sand

And now for something a bit different: at sunset several people gathered on the beach to discuss this phenomenon. Some jokingly wondered if it was a UFO or if North Korea had launched an ICBM. Alas, the truth was that this slow moving trail was the contrail of a passenger jet coming over the horizon at the perfect time to be backlit by the setting sun.

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guess that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead. For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach and view my other two blog entries about Point of Arches at The Peregrine and the Pirate and Crab Chaos and Human Creativity.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Crab Chaos and Human Creativity

July 28, 2011

The coil

Nature is rarely orderly and tidy–and to a naturalist, that is part of its charm. On the other hand, an artist can sometimes use natural materials to bring order to that chaos, with marvelous results.

As we walked down sandy Shi Shi Beach among the beached seaweed, swarming sand fleas, a dead and stinking sea lion, and a zillion crab carcasses, two National Park Service rangers greeted us.

Crab parts on the Shi Shi Beach, with the dramatic sea stacks of Point of Arches in the distance

One said “Everyone is asking about all the crabs along the beach. They aren’t actually dead bodies; they are the molted shells of crabs that have outgrown their old bodies and discarded them.”

Dungeness Crab parts rolling in and out with the waves 

So it wasn’t mass suicide or a toxic oil spill or global warming that killed a million crabs. In fact, it was just an ordinary yearly molt that we were privileged to see, and the crabs of the deep were still alive and enjoying a growth spurt as they muscled their way out of their old exoskeletons and ate their way into new and larger clothes. Meanwhile, the discarded crab parts moved gently in and out with the waves in a spectacular jumble that left every beach visitor wondering–until they learned the truth,

I had thought about putting a few of these crab carapaces into an arrangement to photograph, but someone with grander ambitions and more time beat me to the punch. On our way back up the beach, we encountered a spiral of crab backs (known as “carapaces”) that looked at first like a giant ship’s rope that someone had neatly coiled. When I walked up to it, I stared in utter amazement and surprise at the fleeting work of art that someone had created. Executed with technical perfection and a fine artistic vision, the crab spiral celebrated nature, yet it did so within the very human needs for order and art. Line, texture, and repetition of forms were among the artistic elements employed. The crab spiral was an ephemeral masterpiece by an unknown artist!

The crab spiral as we found it, left by an unknown artist

Detail of the arrangement of crab carapaces

It would have taken the artist hours and hours of exacting work to create this ephemeral work; notice how uniform the crab backs are in size and shape

The setting, with Point of Arches distant

Karen Rentz repeated this backpacking trip two weeks later, and found that the Crab Spiral was no more. High tides had claimed it. Nature’s love of chaos beat back the human need for order, but I got the photographs that illustrate what the human imagination is capable of, even on a remote wilderness beach.

For those interested in the intersection of nature and art, the acknowledged master is artist Andy Goldsworthy. You can see an excellent selection of his work at Andy Goldsworthy.

With the careful placement of these barnacles growing naturally on a molted crab shell, nature looks to be playing the trickster!

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guess that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead.For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach.

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

SHI SHI BEACH: The Peregrine and the Pirate

July 25, 2011

Bald Eagle turning in flight to make a raid on a Peregrine Falcon’s kill

When humans don’t behave by human standards, we call it criminal. When wildlife doesn’t behave according to human standards, we call it fascinating–especially when the behavior involves two iconic species once categorized as endangered. The wild piracy portrayed here occurred on Shi Shi Beach along the Pacific Ocean, in Olympic National Park.

Nervous gulls take to the air from their resting and bathing site at the mouth of Willoughby Creek along Shi Shi Beach

As we crossed Willoughby Creek along the sandy shores of Shi Shi Beach, vacationing biologist Mike Layes greeted us and pointed out a Peregrine Falcon about 100 feet away, perched atop a dead gull on the beach. Mike had been camping, and said he had seen the falcon make several kills where the stream meets the Pacific Ocean.The falcon looked briefly at us, then resumed plucking bright white feathers from the gull it had just killed.

Peregrine Falcon feeding on gull

The mouth of Willoughby Creek is a gathering place for gulls, who drink from and bathe in its waters and seek protection in numbers of its own kind. In fact, when we were hiking down the beach, looking for a place we could get water, I had mentioned to Karen that the gathering of gulls ahead looked like it could be at a source of fresh water. Turned out, it was.

Gulls gathered at the mouth of Willoughby Creek

The gathering of gulls didn’t provide safety in numbers in this instance. Mike said the falcon dove fast and hard on the gulls, scattering them and giving it an opportunity to take one down. The strange thing was, once the falcon began defeathering and devouring the dead gull, other gulls landed and settled back into their routines–just twenty five feet away! Maybe they figured that the victim had it coming. More likely, they had seen it all before and figured they were safe as long as the predator was occupied with lunch.

Peregrine with a gull feather in its beak

The falcon sees the Bald Eagle targeting his prey

The falcon dug into its meal, holding down the carcass with its talons as it tugged on the meat. Suddenly it became alert and looked south. In the distance, from the sea stacks of Point of Arches, we saw a distant Bald Eagle heading straight toward us. The falcon instantly took to the air, like a fighter pilot taking off to intercept an enemy bomber. The eagle closed the distance quickly, and withstood the missiles of hate that the falcon aimed its way. Then the eagle wheeled in the sky above us, and descended toward the falcon’s gull carcass. It missed the first time, but on the second swoop it adeptly grabbed the carcass in its talons, on the fly, and began slowly gaining altitude. We watched as the enraged Peregrine Falcon buzzed it with all the skill of a Top Gun. Alas, all to no avail as the eagle flew with its pirated treasure back to the sea stacks at Point of Arches.

Bald Eagle with its eyes fixed on the falcon’s prey

Bald Eagle with dead gull in its talons, being buzzed by an angry Peregrine Falcon

During his day on the beach, the biologist had seen this battle scenario repeated three times. We went back the next day and the next, and sat and waited for another display of aerial combat. Alas, it was not to be. Apparently the falcon decided that three strikes and he was out.

You can view a video of the event on YouTube at: The Peregrine and the Pirate.

Peregrine Falcon headed back to the sea stacks at Point of Arches

We did see the falcon once more; it came to quietly drink from Willoughby Creek, high on the beach, as we and others watched it from about 100 feet away.

We saw Brown Pelicans and Black Oystercatchers along the shore, and Wilson’s Warblers and a Hermit Thrush in our campsite, but the alpha experience was watching a professional pirate at work, skillfully turning the falcon’s ability to hunt to its own advantage. Arrrgggh!

Feathers plucked from the gull by the Peregrine Falcon, now floating at the edge of Willoughby Creek

Shi Shi Beach is a wilderness beach within Olympic National Park. It stretches over two miles in a gentle, sandy crescent, ending at the dramatic rocky sea stacks and arches of Point of Arches. We backpacked along the beach, and on this Fourth of July weekend we guessed that there were 60 tents sharing the beach and the adjacent forest. Hikers need to be aware of the tides, which can have an amplitude of over ten feet and can affect hiking and tide pool exploration schedules at Point of Arches. Hard-sided food containers are required for backpackers (to keep away marauding Raccoons), as is a wilderness permit from the National Park Service and a recreational permit from the Makah Indian Reservation. Parking for backpackers is $10 per day at a private residence near the trailhead. For more information about Shi Shi Beach and Point of Arches, go to Olympic National Park: Shi Shi Beach.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Rime Ice on Hurricane Ridge

April 19, 2011

Karen Rentz snowshoeing through a forest of trees coated with rime ice

Avalanche danger was in the orange to red zone–a high probability of snowy terror and a warning to watch for unattended snowpacks and to be prepared to take action if there were suddenly loud sounds. Terror indeed!

Still, it had been a long winter, with a lot of dangerous weekends in the mountains. We had the special kind of cabin fever that comes only from months of rainy winter Puget Sound weather, when we either turn into lethargic slugs or go screaming madly into the rain.

Weather forecasters back in early autumn predicted a La Niña winter, which would bring colder and wetter conditions to the Pacific Northwest.  Nature obliged. Our rain gauge for 2011, so far, was over 20 inches and the snowpack in the mountains was getting thicker by the day. The problem was that there had been alternate patterns of sun, rain, and extreme cold in the mountains, which caused the layers of the snowpack to be unstable (think of a layer cake with the top layer, lubricated by a thin layer of Cool Whip and Jello, avalanching onto the floor in a ’60s sitcom). The avalanche danger everywhere in the mountains was extremely high, weekend after weekend.

We finally decided to head for Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, avalanche danger be damned! Hurricane Ridge is known for treacherous weather and deep snow, so we checked out the forecast, the webcam, and the avalanche danger web sites, and decided that we would be OK if we were careful. The drive to the ridge is about 140 miles from our home, so we left early in the morning, carrying tire chains and extra food and warm clothing.

There was no snow in Port Angeles, gateway to the Olympics, but as we headed up the road, we encountered the first snowbanks and it gradually got thicker as we rose in elevation. Finally, we turned the corner onto Hurricane

Rime ice on the subalpine trees, viewed through icicles on the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center 

Ridge, and saw what we had specifically hoped to see: rime ice coating all the conifer trees, making each tree look like it had been created in a fantasy workshop.

Our northwestern conifers are adapted to winters where the accumulated snow seemingly gets as hard and heavy as concrete. The shape of our subalpine firs and spruces, for example, is tall and slender. Longer branches would break off in the heavy snow, so these species have short branches.

Rime ice is a special kind of ice that forms at windy, high elevations. Water droplets in the atmosphere, at temperatures between -4 and +14°F, become supercooled, staying in liquid form until hurtled against an object. Upon striking that object, the supercooled water suddenly freezes solid. The result?  Danger, in the case of an airplane.  Beauty, in the case of a subalpine forest.

Rime ice on a weather and radio station; note how the ice crystals grow in straight lines out from the metal of the structure and into the prevailing winds

We had never examined rime ice close up before, and we found that it has a distinct pattern. It grows outward from say, a branch, in a long structure that resembles an opaque crystal (I’m not sure if it technically would be considered a crystal). These linear structures can be over a foot long, and face into the wind. As long as the wind carries supercooled water and as long as the wind comes from the same direction, the formations grow outward in a straight line.

Yet rime ice is not soft like snow, despite its fantasyland appearance. It is hard to the touch; when we tapped it with ski poles, it made a rapping sound rather than collapsing like snow would do. And rime ice only occurred at the places along the ridge where wind would funnel. In the forest just below the open ridge, there was no rime ice (and little snow) on the trees. Interesting stuff indeed!

Looking downslope from Hurricane Ridge: the higher trees are entirely coated with rime ice, while the slightly lower trees have much less ice

Karen and I snowshoed through the rime ice forest along the ridge, taking care to avoid cornices at the tops of cliffs and to avoid steep, avalanche-prone slopes. All the alpine skiers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and even a woman in high heels were having a good time on Hurricane Ridge. Well, except, perhaps, for the woman coming down off the slope borne by a snowmobile, whose leg was in a splint.  Perhaps she later sought help from Dr. Gouge, an orthopaedic surgeon from Port Angeles who had a sign advertising his services on the side of a van parked at Hurricane Ridge.

The snow depth gauge on Hurricane Ridge measured 14 feet of snow

Olympic National Park is among the few national parks with an alpine ski area; a rope tow leads to the ridge

Note the record snowfall and the accumulated snow this winter (much more has fallen since)

Snow level rising on the windows of the Visitor Center

Tall, thin conifers are the rule here; a tree with a lot of wide branches would pick up too heavy a snow load, and branches would break

Karen Rentz snowshoeing into the rime ice forest

Rime ice coated the structure of this walkway window outside the Visitor Center

Another view showing thick accumulation of rime ice

Young men marveling at and photographing the rime ice

Looking north from Hurricane Ridge toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island in the distance

Wave shape of a cornice atop a cliff on Hurricane Ridge

A pair of conifers covered with ice

Lone tree coated with ice; with a view of the Olympic Range

Cauliflower trees

For more information about Olympic National Park, go to:  http://www.nps.gov/Olym/index.htm

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