Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On the Northwest Coast

 The word “awesome” is overused these days, no doubt, but it comes to mind repeatedly when you’re travelling through the Pacific Northwest. The first time Mount Rainier appears through the scarf of clouds that so often surrounds it, to say that it “sure looks big” doesn’t seem to catch the immensity of the thing, the dazzling blue-white surface of the glaciers, or the handsome collar of dark green subalpine fir circling its base. By the same token, when you’re watching a pod of five or ten orcas frolic just beside your boat in the shadow of San Juan Island, referring to them as “frisky” won’t quite do. Then again, as you stroll through the tangle of vegetation in the Hoh Rainforest on the west flank of the Olympic Range, which receives close to a hundred inches of rain every year, to call the scene “verdant” only hints at the impact such an environment makes.

Such experiences fill the eye and heart with expansiveness and perhaps even joy, but they also tend to empty the brain of words. “Wow,” you may say. Or you say nothing.

Hilary and I drove and hiked through such environments for ten days in early September. I had spent a good deal of time prior to the trip burning CDs to listen to in the car, but for the most part they proved to be a distraction. Though the Syrian chemical-warfare crisis was in full swing, I have to admit that the only news reports elemental enough to catch my eye were devoted to the progress of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

It was only by coincidence, but in the course of our travels we stayed in a tree house, a historic national park lodge, a retrofitted ranger cabin on the side of a hill, several campgrounds, a budget chain motel, a mom-and-pop motel, and a rustic, Native-American-operated seaside resort.

We took four ferries and a four-hour whale-watching expedition. We hiked out Dungeness Spit, which was shrouded in fog, but could find no local crabs for sale. We bought and cooked fresh clams, chatted with people who were gathering oysters on the banks of the Hood Canal, and also heard some great Alaskan fishing stories from a Portuguese sailor, now long retired, who was sitting across from us in a tiny restaurant in Hoodsport. When we told him we’d been out to see the whales, he replied, with a laugh followed by a slightly disgusted grin, “I don’t need to see whales. I’ve seen enough whales.”

We hiked out to Gray’s Bay wildlife refuge, one of the premier bird-watching hotspots on the West Coast, but the only birds we saw were flitting through the shrubs amid the blackberries as we made our way out to the mudflats. (I know—it was the wrong time of the year.)

Yet one more extraordinary sight met our eyes one gray morning on the beach. I looked out to sea beyond the rugged island stacks just off-shore and noticed a ragged line of lanky black birds with pale white underwing patches heading north in a steady stream. The wildly flapping birds stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, and the parade continued without cease throughout the forty-five minutes we stood there admiring the scene, breathing the sea air, and examining stones and broken shells on the beach. I’m sure that several hundred thousand birds flew by during the time we were there.

When I turned in our key at the office later I asked the proprietress if she knew what the birds were.
“We call them “black sea birds,’” she replied.
“Yes, but do you know the name, specifically?”
“That is their name: black sea bird.”
I suppose it might be a translation of a Quileute term, but I wasn’t satisfied. Examining out field guide later, it occurred to me that most of them were sooty shearwaters, which the guide describes as forming “flocks of hundreds of thousands.”

Less staggering to contemplate but more fun to see were the sanderlings, small white birds about the size of a cell-phone that race around on the beach on stiff legs in medium-sized flocks, running out when the waves recede and dashing back to higher ground when the surf rolls up again. Their movements are mesmerizing and also cute, and it’s fun to pick out the western sandpipers and semipalmated plovers here and there amid the pack. But when the flock takes flight, moving like a coordinated wave across the beach, turning and diving like a magic carpet made up of dazzling sparkles as they catch the evening sun, the word “awesome” once again creeps into view.

My favorite sighting, however, was of a chestnut-backed chickadee. I didn’t know such a bird existed until I saw one in a tree on the edge of our campsite at a state park on Whidbey Island. It looked just like a thousand other chickadees I’ve seen, but something was different. You guessed it: the back was a rich chestnut color. I’m not saying it was the most stunning bird I’ve ever seen, but it’s always great fun to see an old friend in a dramatically new outfit.

But back to the awesome sights—next to the enormous mass of Mount Rainier, I would set the remarkable expanse of the Olympic Range as it appears from Hurricane Ridge. The morning we were up there the valleys were shrouded in fog and the row of distant peaks, covered in snow and seemingly almost uniform in elevation, looked cold and forbidding. By way of contrast, the clumps of pearly everlasting along the trail looked especially cheerful in the gray morning light, and the black-tailed deer standing out in the meadow looked regal, like an advertisement for an insurance company. During much of our three-mile hike an unseen marmot was making a high-pitched shriek at regular intervals, which I rather enjoyed, though it made me wonder how effective a warning could be when it’s being repeated endlessly.

The fog had lifted by the time we got to the crest of the ridge, and we could easily see Vancouver Island in the distance to the north across the Straights of Juan de Fuca; the spit that forms the harbor of Port Angeles lay nearer at hand just below.

Back in town, we decided to go out on the spit, but the highway heading out that way seemed to run smack-dab into the entry gate of a sprawling paper mill. We turned around and pulled over onto the shoulder, but as we sat by the side of the road pondering our options we noticed that several of the vehicles entering the plant weren’t being driven by mill-worker types. So we turned around again and forged ahead down a narrow road bumpy with railroad tracks and lined on either side with chain-link fence, parking lots, yawning delivery doors, semaphores, tin sheds, orange plastic cones, and men in hard hats wandering around like ants.

Sixty seconds later we emerged on the other side, unharmed, on a long, largely undeveloped split of land. We could see the coast guard station off in the distance, like the bead on a rifle. A good-sized raft of gigantic logs floated in the harbor to our right, contained within an invisible corral. We pulled off the road to watch four or five harbor seals at play, then walked to the other side to look out toward Vancouver Island.
We stopped at another small gravel lot further out along the spit only to be greeted by an amateur rowing club whose members were using it to launch their sleek, narrow vessels.

It was a calm, beautiful, light-filled evening, the kind that makes even the smallest events  interesting, and doing nothing also seems just fine. You say to yourself, “I’m getting to know Port Angeles.” There’s an oil tanker anchored a mile or so down the way—painted an immaculate and heavenly shade of dark blue. And two elderly gentlemen have puttered across the bay in their 40-foot yacht from the recreational marina to get a view of the sunset unobstructed by the wooded mountains that rise up to the south at the edge of town. 

Between the marina and the mill there’s a lumber yard covering many acres. As we drove by it on our way to the spit we could see gargantuan stacks of trees of roughly uniform dimensions, any one of which would have been a prize specimen in Minnesota. But here the piles seemed endless, and Hilary noticed that at various points there were signs, presumably to help the truckers bringing in the logs: Douglas Fir, Western Cedar, Western Hemlock. That struck me a comical for some reason, like a rudimentary taxonomy class on a very grand scale. These were the trees (along with Sitka spruce and red alder) we’d been seeing (and trying to identify)  throughout the trip
I love trees, and I don’t even mind seeing them prostrate on the bed of a fast-moving truck. We met many such trucks west of Port Angeles as we headed out toward Neah Bay and the Makah Reservation at the extreme northwestern tip of the contiguous United States. In fact, one of them went off the road at milepost 42 and backed up traffic for hours. Lucky for us, we’d taken an inland route around Crescent Lake and inadvertently bypassed the delay. We learned about the accident on the travel advisory radio station but had no idea where milepost 42 was, and were informed of its location, and our good fortune, by the woman at a drive-through espresso shack in Clallum Bay.

Neah Bay is a quiet reservation town, as far as I can tell, with a genuine fishing fleet as well as a recreational marina. The hike out to the tip of Cape Flattery is the chief draw for many tourists, and it’s certainly haunting and beautiful out there. But for me the most interesting sight to be seen was a canoe—two canoes, in fact, that are on display in the tribal museum. The larger of the two, which holds eight men, is a replica of one used by the Makah perhaps five hundred years ago to hunt whales. It’s based on a vessel that was buried in a mud-slide and only unearthed in recent times.
The idea of taking an open canoe out onto the ocean seems a bit insane to me; the thought of using it to bring down a whale even more so. But that’s how the Makah used to make their living, and they’ve been whaling again since 1995, when the courts granted them the right to harvest five whales a year for tribal use.

The rest of the museum is hardly less interesting. Most of the artifacts on display were unearthed from the same mudslide that buried the entire village of Ozette back in 1560. All told, more than 55,000 artifacts were excavated during the eleven-year dig that got going in 1970; anthropologists estimate they span a period of roughly 2,000 years of occupation.

By early afternoon we were headed up into the rainforest. Here it’s typically so wet that trees sprout from the branches of other trees, moss clings to everything, and you can see complex ecosystems developing along a few feet of bark on a fallen giant.

Along one of the short trails near the visitor’s center we met up with two middle-aged men just returning from a backpacking trip.

“How long were you out?” I asked.
“Five days.”
“Did you do a loop?”
“We made a base-camp five miles in and did day trips from there.”
“Much rain?”
“Not really. Though I’ve hiked here in December in full rain gear. The forest glistens!”
“How was it out there this time?”
“Absolutely stunning,” was the uninhibited reply.
I asked if I might take a photo.
“Don’t get too close. We’re pretty ripe.”

To me the most interesting thing in the rainforest was the herbarium-like grown that develops on the bark of trees, both upright and fallen, and the maple groves, where the leaves were starting to turn, adding a few golden speckles to the otherwise green and brown ensemble. 

If I had to chose between forest types, I’d pick the slightly drier and more open woods farther inland, on the other side of the mountains. In fact, the most awesome “woods” we visited was the famous Grove of the Patriarchs in the southeast corner of Mount Rainier National Park. It’s an easy walk in along the lovely Ohanapecosh River, with the morning sunlight streaking through the shadows of the towering evergreens. You cross a suspension foot bridge to an island where the Douglas firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars, scattered here and there amid less distinguished species, are a thousand years old. A few of them approach fifty feet in girth. Even the bark can be an object of wonder.

The water in the river is a pale, glacial blue. On the way in we spotted two dippers frolicking in a narrow lagoon at the far side of a rocky sandbar. The air was cool and the trees were tall, and the atmosphere was, well, awesome.       

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