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Circumnavigating the Olympics

The pine whites speckled the treetops like lofty snowflakes. If you don’t look up, you might miss them. Their peak in numbers, while beautiful in it’s regularity also signaled the annual failing of summer. Several weeks after they’d swarmed the tips of the Douglas firs, laying their eggs, and cruising below to sip succulent nectar from wildflowers in wayside or meadow, they began to litter the ground. By the end of September they were no longer high above but crushed, bruised, and weak, at the end of their short lepidoptran lives.

Fall insinuates itself in many ways. Sometimes it harshly slaps down on the doorstep. Occasionally we barely know when it’s been around for weeks. Pacific Northwest falls are second only to our often wonderful summers. This year the crisp air, noticed only when the sun dipped below the horizon earlier and earlier, was the signal.

Hurricane Ridge, seated 5000 some feet above the Straight of Juan de Fuca drys out rapidly when the snow melt is gone and rain doesn’t fall. Where high meadows of lush annual wildflowers had stretched on for miles, broken only by Krummholz of fir and yellow cedar, by huckleberry and mountain ash, there now sprawled tan fields. Different birds joined the residents on the ridge, northern harriers and turkey vultures riding thermals from the lowlands to carry them over the block of the Olympic Mountains south. I’d never seen western bluebirds there but a flock fluted their weak call notes hiking back from Hurricane Hill. American pipits now amassed in flocks, done breeding. Soon the Olympic marmots, the Olympic chipmunk, and all the other alpine adapted mammals would be in burrows and under feet of snow. Yet it was still sunny, clear, and warm.  A less aware creature (a person perhaps), heedless of the length of the day, might consider it still summer.

Rainforests aren’t often dusty, but it hadn’t rained since July and the iconic temperate rainforests, the Hoh and the Queets, weren’t their moist selves. Hiking up the Hoh River valley there was a curtain of dust on the well trodden trail. The tree tops were silent except for the occasional spurt from a Townsend’s warbler either holding out on departure or tempted to tough out a sullen winter in the evergreens. Multiple times I caught the chatter of others in awe of the general silence, a half concern, half disconcerted aside on the state of nature. I wasn’t worried – the resident birds were still about. A male hairy woodpecker jumped in front of me seconds later, Pacific wrens scurried about the undergrowth, a hermit thrush faced me silently from a still chartreuse spread of vine maple.

Fall has always been a time of transition, like any other time of year, yet it seems so much more prominent to me. Most assume bird migration only happens at very specific times of year.  The truth is that it’s practically always happening. While some birds are moving, others are still breeding, some simply never leave.  Surf scoters were already back on Hood Canal in small numbers from breeding further North. Sooty shearwaters streamed off Kalaloch in the hundreds of thousands, ripping through seastacks with sharp wingbeats they reminded me of many scissors cutting their way across the horizon. Yet the Northwestern crows still had blue eyed, pink mouthed fledglings hounding them.  There’s still plenty to eat for a highly intelligent and flexible corvid.

The river valleys show only hints of fall yet, still a month or so off when the mountain air doesn’t accelerate change. Alder and maple lining the bottomlands, accompanied by evergreens, the behemoth Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, are tinged yellow. These outer Olympic rivers, many over 50 miles long, are mostly untamed, continually resisting roads built for logging, washing out access deep into the primordial belly of ancient forest annually till most gave up. The upper Queets in particular seems worlds away from the activities right up to the edge of national park. A map without contours shows a blob of parkland with feelers shooting out the rivers to the coast; a satellite image shows dense forest lining steep valleys which eventually lead to the birthplaces of the largest rivers, the slowly dwindling glaciers of the tallest Olympic peaks. From space one also sees the patchwork of green and brown squares slicing to the edge of habitat spared the saw only by inaccessibility or insight, not self imposed restraint.

Seeing wilderness bordered by extreme resource extraction is challenging for an optimistic, yet realistic environmentalist. My mind pondered logging, “Stop Wild Olympics – $100 millon landgrab” signs flashing past. Maybe I’d think differently if I was one of many generations who had logged these hills and valleys. I still couldn’t convince myself that there was anything endless out there, that we could keep marching back, striking down thousand year old trees. These fast growing Douglas fir were renewable yes, but not limitless. There is an extrinsic value in beautiful places I think most human beings can come around to agreeing on. And yet, I still get questions about why we just let trees rot on the forest floor after we’ve discussed the essential and pretty nursery grounds they provide.

As the summer is dwindling, I look forward to the annual rebirth to come, when people will discover this place for the first time again. I’m easily excited about the renewal. Every year is different and while some may crouch in their cement dungeons waiting for the sky to fall, the sage try to pay attention on their own. I’m glad there are scientists out there working the numbers, giving caution, but I’m also grateful to see things change over my lifetime and on my own, not over years but from season to season. Radical changes are afoot but seasonal differences from year to year shouldn’t be immediately taken as evidence of foretold doom.  They should be enjoyed for their variety.

I circumnavigated the Olympics many times this spring and summer and will many more times in the years to come. Birds will continue to scour the coasts, the mountain tops, and the deep forests. Plants will put their broad, adaptive shoulders into the coming season, as they have for eons. In the face of adversity and concern for a impoverished natural world, it doesn’t hurt to smile a bit, even laugh, because if you didn’t all you’d have to do is cry. Go hug a damned tree or something.

If you want to see more photos from the Olympics in spring and summer 2012 check out my Flickr photos here.

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