Lake of the Angels -
the high country in fall
Date: September 24th 1989
We went out again this weekend, to a very hard place, but one of the best places we know about, the one we go to every year at this time. Because it's so far up into the high country, right on the margins of the zone that plants can inhabit, the seasons are not well distributed. We heard on the car's radio, while we were driving there that time is nature's way of keeping everything from happening all at once. In the high country, the march of time gets a little messed up, and you can walk from spring into fall and back, within a distance of a hundred feet or less, because the seasons are defined by the arc and angle of the sun and by the shadows of the peaks and the ridges.
On one side of a patch of berries or flowers you can see blossoms just beginning to open, on the other, the berries are ripe or even withering, and a few feet from a patch of flowers, the seed pods have begun releasing seeds in preparation for winter. Winter has already arrived in the deeper canyons: they will not see the sun again until May or even June. So you see, the seasons are not defined by the mere passage of time: it is a far more complex and wondrous thing than that.
I get the feeling that this little basin, at the foot of Mount Skokomish is close to the Geological Heart, the Active Center, of the entire region, perhaps of the entire Park. The Plate Tectonic Model of Continental drift and the formation of the landscape posits that the Olympic Peninsula is the smallest of all the Plates in the earth's crust, a pawn, perpetually pushed around by the movements of its larger neighbors, it serves as the "Whiskey Plank", the place where all the slack gets taken up. Perhaps rather than the center, it is near the cutting edge of the plate. It appears to be the junction of at least 7 distinctly different kinds of rock, and they ways they are blended and mixed create extremely unique, localized features. Just 30' to the north of our tent is a steep cliff of intensely black rock that almost looks like basalt - or even low-grade coal. It is rust steaked, almost black and yet it seems to be exploding into gravel, almost before my eyes. 15' to the south is another similar cliff, but much of this one is made from concrete gray sandstone, and it seems to be in much less hurry to turn into sand. The draw between them is filled almost level with coarse black gravel, like people used in their driveways in the suburbs of my youth, but most of it has a subtle softness, implying a succession of sedimentary and metamorphic processes at some point in its past.
We are camped at almost exactly 6000' above sea-level, and about 1000' above the timberline, but there are lots of trees here. Few of them get to live very long, because everything changes so fast up here. Looking across the basin to Mt. Stone, you can see enormous boulders, some as big as school-busses, that have fallen down the slope. Several of them were hundreds of feet higher up the slope this time last fall, and you can clearly see the holes they vacated, gaping like the mouth's of caves. Last fall I helped a friend named Stuart build a little dam at the end of a draw right above the snowfield that is providing us with water. We intended to block part of its drainage and make a little pool to soak in, figuring the black gravel bottom would make it get nice and warm: this year, the entire hillside is gone. It occurred to me that it might have been our fault that the hillside fell down, but looking at the amount of change in the rest of this valley, I really don't believe it.
From the air, this valley would look roughly fish-hook shaped, and it's less than a mile and a half deep. We are at the southeast corner, at the barb on the end of the hook, because it offers the best possible views of the sunrise and although it's hundreds and hundreds of feet of steep talus and slippery heather above the lake, it has a snowfield that feeds a quiet little stream about 2 minutes walk from camp, and its THE place few people will ever visit, and fewer still will ever foul. We didn't even try coming up here 'til after our 3rd year of climbing to the saddle that's north of the lake.
This year there are still lots of bugs in the high country: mostly ants and "Bee-Flys", the curious little flys that are painted to mimic Yellow Jacket Wasps. I'm actually rather fond of the Bee-Flys: with their big gray cartoon-character eyes and there metal-detector tongues, they seem to take a higher animal's interest in their surroundings, and altho they tickle when they are exploring my skin, they do not seem to bite. The ants up here do not bite either, but I don't let them walk on me. Can't quite trust 'em, and they're a little too distracting.
At night, if you go to the cliff at the mouth of the valley, you can see the rosey sodium lights of Seattle, 50 miles off to the east, its mercury vapor suburbs stretching for many miles to the north and south, but there is a lot of air and a lot of water between us and the city, and the lights of civilization do not block out the stars, or intrude into your consciousness the way a road would. This is the First Real Spectacular Glaciated Hanging Valley in the Southeastern Olympics. In spite of how hard the trail is, this place is much too easy to get to for its own good.
Looking East at dawn, you can see all the Olympic foothills, then the ridges and all the ditches filled with water between Hood Canal and Elliot Bay, and then, after the hazy wasteland around Seattle, the layered gradations that mark the foothills and finally the Cascades. In the background looms Mount Rainier. I suspect that around Christmas, if you are on this cliff at dawn, you'll see the sun rise almost directly behind Mt. Rainier.
The Hamma Hamma River Road runs west from US 101 about 15 miles to Boulder Creek and the intersection with FSR 2466; about half the distance is paved. Fsr2466 was built by bozo loggers about 20 years ago, and until last year, it was so badly washed out at every stream crossing that you would have had to carry a mountain bike across the gorges. You used to be able to drive up the road for about half a mile, to park at the first washout, 30' wide and 12' deep. Last year they "fixed" all of the washouts, installing new versions of the same undersized culverts, and piled a huge mound of dirt and gravel at its intersection with the Hamma Hamma Road, so only heavy equipment or the truly obnoxious 4-wheelers can use it. The rumor is that they are going to sell all the timber east of Boulder Creek real soon. Last year, we drove over the berm to the lower washout, and parked our Subaru wagon. Stuart bounced his 4 X 4 Toyota HCV through it and continued all the way up to the trailhead. This year the berm was more serious, so I parked at the road. Next time I'll be more obnoxious and drive around: the road is now quite passable all the way to the trailhead.
The way the Forest Service and the road people have things set up, almost everybody walks up 2 miles or so of old overgrown roadbed. It switchbacks up the mountainside on a grade designed for the brakes of the logtrucks, not the legs of the hiker, until the Putvin Trail cuts the road at about 2600'. The Putvin Trail is tough. It is among the steepest trails in Olympic National Forest, and in many respects, it is the best. Climbing about 4000' in a bit under 4 miles does not initially sound too bad, until you consider that two miles are on the logging road and at least a mile of the remaining distance meanders thru Alpland, on very gentle slopes and level traverses.
I imagine that the route is divided into 4 stages, each about the same distance: the road to the trail, the trail thru the steep woods, climb to the alpland meadows and the climb to the lake. To this we add a fifth: the slope above the lake. Each of these sections is clearly cut off by some major change in the landscape, and 2 of them are marked by significant obstacles that serve as emotional gateways from one world to the next. The transition from the road to the trail is clearcut: a brutal series of switchbacks lead to a long, steep, occasionally exposed uphill trudge which ascends the ridge with almost no switchbacks and few proper logs to rest on.
Winding your way uphill, the steps defined by the exposed roots of closely spaced trees, you might as well be climbing stairs. The descent is somewhat more problematic, especially if its raining. Once you get thru these woods, you have to climb a 350' headwall, some of the route actually involving hands and feet rock climbing and real exposure. In a torrential spring rain or when there is snow on the ground, it is a serious obstacle.
Above this is the zone we call Blueberry Hill, in late September this hillside is one of the best patches of the purple-black high-bush black huckleberries in the known world. One of the commending features of this particular berry patch is its apparent and unfortunately total lack of bears. I do not know if this is a result of loggers making this part of the world too ugly for bears, or this valley being just too easy for hunters to get to, or the new scourge of Poachers illegally harvesting Bears for their Gallbladders and other organs, for use in $500 an ounce Oriental Impotence Remedies, but whatever the reason, bear shit is getting to be a scarce commodity in the Olympics.
After the BlueBerry Hill episode, which can reasonably be expected to consume half of the time it takes to get from the headwall to the Lake, if not the whole trip from the car to the lake, the trail enters Classic Olympic Alpland, and winds its way thru a hanging garden, across several slow-moving streams and between several small ponds filled with frogs and tadpoles, surrounded by lush mossy meadows. Alpland ends abruptly at another headwall, this one made almost entirely of dirt and because it is covered with beargrass, lupine, and other sorts of Marmot food, can be a serious ankle biter. The route switchbacks up this slope, which is an ecstatic glissade in the spring, and finally enters the "Valley of Heaven" in which resides the "Lake of the Angels".
When we first started coming up here, it was not in the books. It was a place not spoken. Someone brought you to a place like this, and shared it with you. In those days, this whole basin was in the National forest, but now it's become part of the Park. The Park boundary is down in Alpland, where you cross Whitehorse Creek. There is a rumor that next summer there will be a Ranger Station up here, like the one at Glacier Meadows on Olympus. It makes sense to me: the place probably needs to be protected from the savage hoards, and I'd certainly give A LOT to get to spend a whole summer up here, if I were the lucky Ranger in question, but it will definitely cheapen the place. We gotten used to seeing people there, and for the past few years we have rarely had the place to ourselves for more than a day, but this year, after delights of the basin got written up in SignPost Magazine, the number of people who chose to visit Lake of the Angels went up by something like an order of magnitude, and the feeling of utter solitude it used to offer, is history, at least on perfect sunny weekends.
There used to be lots of mountain goats up here, too. They were quite a nuisance, tearing up the meadow in their craving for hiker-piss. There were no signs to explain to people that the goats would dig enormous gravelpits in the course of mining the meadow for every molecule of pee-salt left on the ground, and directing them to pee on big rocks or in the old firepits the uninitiated leave in the meadow. It seems that quite a few goats were airlifted out last year and the meadow around the lake seems to be a little less shredded, but there are still at least 4 of them living up on the side of Mt. Stone. We meet hunters on the trail every fall, both gun hunters and bow hunters, and so far we have not met any who are drunk or disorderly, but so far, we haven't seen anyone get anything.
This year, in our highest-ever camp, we saw the haystacks and drying racks of rodents. Many of the high-country's smaller residents do not really hibernate. They do slow down a little, but they do not fall asleep, and as a result, they must consume a lot of food to support their metabolic activity and heat their caves. So this time every year, they cut down the Lupine and Wild Onions and dandelions and various other plants, after the flowers are gone, but before the seeds have turned black: right at the peak of their energy storage. They arrange them in the sun to dry, in neat, orderly piles, and when they are sure the crops are dry enough that they will not turn into compost in their burrows, they haul them below ground.
Summer is history up here at 6000'! Every day, the line the sun can't quite reach marches higher and higher up the north sides of the ridges. You can see it on the leaves of the plants: the dew of the morning never evaporates. I think this is the signal that tells them it's really over. The critters are busy too, shredding fir cones and chopping down the Lupine. The deer and the Elk have left the High Country for the Winter.
On last weekend's hike we descended about halfway to Lake Mills, and we came upon several paces where sizeable herds had recently bedded down. Some folks we saw on the trail, who carrying binoculars and a crude clarinet-style Elk Caller claimed to have seen 2 4-point Bucks, and we saw similar critters on the road up to the ridge, but most of the grass in the meadows has turned brown now, and I suspect that its the quality of the food that has driven them down the mountain. Now, this is Marmot country, and because Marmots are sloppy animals, we aren't seeing the orderly little haystacks we saw last weekend.
Like 14# to 20# Prairie Dogs, Marmots dig their holes along hillsides between 4000' and 5500', sometimes right in the middle of the trail. They hibernate for most of the winter and emerge in the springtime with their aft sections bleached almost silver from the excrement with which they foul there nests. When I see them, bleached and disheveled, I cant help imagining they are actually propelled out into the Spring by the force of their digestive systems acting against the bottom end of the cave and the back end of the marmot.
Most of the blueberries are gone too, and there are lots of piles of blueberry scat along the trail. It looks like whoever left it had teeth made for chopping, not for chewing, and a gut that was very poorly suited to digesting unchewed blueberries. This time of year, Bearshit looks like something you would filter and make into jam or jelly, all chewed to a purple pulp. This stuff is different, and answers a long-standing question I've had about how the berries propagate: some of them pass intact through the gut of the beast, and start growing in a rich pile crushed berries and other stuff (or else this critter was simply a glutton who was wasting a lot of berries, all of which will get washed away in the rain.)
The smaller critters have been haying, too. You can see all sorts of vegetation decorating the doorways of their nests. This works out very nicely for some of the plants, especially for the Olympic Onions. These Wild Onion plants are about the size of domestic chives and have beautiful, twisted leaves. They grow a single tall shaft with a globe on top made from many small flower-clusters, like a garlic.
Earlier in the cycle, there were fragrant flowers, which were replaced by delicious green fruit-like swellings that eventually ripen into seed. Now, in its final phase, the Onion looks a bit like a dandelion, only each of the dandelion's branching filaments has become the intersection of two panels of thin translucent cellulose, brownish-white like dried flower-petals. Each one is a small trumpet shaped seed holder. These upward pointing "dried flowers" are arranged in groups of threes and fives, perhaps 20 to a plant, and eventually, each of them opens and rČeleases one small black seed. To harvest the green, food-stage seed pods, at their maximum sugar content, the Rodents chop off the central stalk near the top, and leave it to cure in the sum. Because not all the pods ripen at once, a maximally ripe cluster will have some seed pods that are truly ripe, mixed with the pods that are merely perfect food stage. Dragging the clusters across the rough terrain to their caves distributes all the seeds that are ripe. We might call this system good resource management, but the metaphor does not really apply to things that simply cannot work any other way.
I have been wracking my brain a lot this year for solutions to two basic resource management problems: the need for high-altitude greenhouses and the need for a source of supply for old-growth ground cover.
Both are desperately needed. Repairs on and around hiking trails, revegetation of burns and restoration of campsites and abandoned roads and other man-made damage all require importing substantial quantities of "old-growth" ground cover plants. Low elevation old-growth ground cover is actually readily available, the problem is simply bridging the gap in the supply chain. A Road-building operation involves destroying all of the plants that live in its path. Could these plants be simply picked up and relocated, abundant revegatation materials would be readily available. Logging operations are currently based on extensive road-building and obviously, making ground-cover relocation (and the survival of the relocated plants) a specified requirement would increase the cost of the building road, but the mechanism for financing such an operation is already in place. Currently, the Forest Service's engineers design and budget all the logging roads, and all budgeted road-building expenses are totally deductable from the price that logging operations pay the Forest Service for the timber they extract, as "essential K-V" (Knudsen-Vandenburg monies, supposedly used to cover the cost of reforestation). This means it does not need to cost the logging company any money at all to initiate a program of harvesting "old-growth ground cover". And in fact, a few companies could become fairly profitable simply selling these plants to the Park Service. I am imagining a very simple system whereby a different kind of forestry labor is employed, prior to the big demolition act, men with shovels carefully excavate and remove the topsoil and groundcover, and then inventory it and transport it to a nursery environment.
The high altitude greenhouse is a much more difficult problem to deal with because suitable real estate for the job pretty much does not exist. Land is either already covered with appropriate vegetation, it cannot support plant-life in forms higher than Lichens, or it has somehow already been defoliated by the activities of people. This leaves few places to locate nurseries. In high impact areas, the easy to reach places like Hurricane Ridge, which are frequented by uncivilized hoards, the obvious and proper solution is pavement. The vegetation the previously occupied the area to be paved needs to be relocated to heal trampled areas. In some fragile meadows, the message of the pavement needs to be reinforced by the installation of fenceposts and possibly even Razor-Wire.
©Joe Breskin September 1989 written at Lake of the Angels.