Ranger Diary: The Lemah Trip

DAY ONE: August 5, 2013
Topic of the Day: Return to the Burn

Fireweed in the Lemah burn
Fireweed in the Lemah burn

Recently I photocopied a small map of the Cle Elum Ranger District section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and drew the shapes of large fires from the last twenty years on it using a chunky red colored pencil. There were four red splotches: Lemah-Escondido (1000 acres, 1994); Polallie Ridge (900 acres, 2006); Lemah (800 acres, 2009); and Trail Creek (200 acres, 2012). Interesting to look at the big picture in this way as fire has been allowed to return to the wilderness as a natural process. It’s like puzzle pieces falling into place.

I feel fortunate to have been in the field observing each of these fires as they came to life, grew, decreased and finally went out. Each one was unique, occurring at their own point in space and time. The aftermath is what I find endlessly fascinating. Trail work has taken me back to these places so my colleagues and I get to witness what happens to an ecosystem after a disturbance.

The Lemah fire in 2009 started in late July and crept around on the forest floor for a month. We confined it to one side of the Pacific Crest Trail and kept an eye on it. The weather shifted significantly in late August as the fire moved to a more southerly aspect and climbed up into the old growth hemlocks. One afternoon it consumed four hundred acres in a swirling billow of smoke and roaring flames. For a few days there was excitement and general amazement. Then the fall rains came to subdue it. The fire festered and smoked until winter snows buried it.

It is a peaceful place again, the deep forest now opened to sunlight. Bark sloughs off the dead trees in curled sheaths, and naked saplings bend over the trail. Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is a pioneer plant. Its fluffy seeds land on the charred soil and take root, pushing up tall spires that sway over hikers’ heads. The flowers open in late July and early August, a prodigious flush of hot pink. The afternoon sun casts long shadows through the spikes of snags and flowers. It is a hummingbird haven. Small birds rocket through the air with zinging wings and squeaky chirps. Plenty of nectar for all! Rufous and calliope hummingbirds share this space, defending their tiny territories to raise their young. They apparently fear nothing, and zip up to a human, hovering until they figure out what this lumbering creature is. Not food, not a threat. Then they zip off again.

Fireweed colored the industrial-scale clearcuts of my childhood landscape. Watching the pink appear reminded me that the freewheeling days of summer were numbered. Before long, Mom would be bundling us in the car for the trip to town for new school shoes and tablets and pencils. Fireweed is a bittersweet flower–still summer, but a reminder of impending change.

DAY TWO: August 6, 2013
Topic of the Day: Cascades

waterfall

After a long commute through the burn, we arrive at the work site. All day we labor next to the roar of a waterfall. It’s Delate Creek, spilling over the lip of rock that holds Spectacle Lake. It thunders down, and we holler at each other to be heard. When drinking water containers are drained, we walk across the bridge to a side stream to filter more. The water-filled air is like cool breath, blessed relief on this hot day. I think to myself: this is one reason why these mountains are called the Cascades.

DAY THREE: August 7, 2013
Topic of the Day: Some Unkind Thoughts About Hemlock

chophemlock

A project log is one you walk up to and know you are going to be at that spot for awhile. It will take hours to clear from the trail. Some of the more infamous ones have names. “Remember the one that fell on the puncheon at Deep Lake?” someone will ask. Oh yeah. We remember. I’ve written about The Ogre. This week we dealt with Slabby.

Slabby fell during the winter of 2010-2011, same as The Ogre. We are only now getting around to cleaning it off the PCT. Slabby was a big western hemlock hollowed out by rot. Only the outer four inches or so was sound wood. The structure of the tree could no longer stand the strain of standing vertically, so it twisted off the stump and fell to the ground, shattering into long pieces. These shards completely blocked the trail, forcing hikers of go up and around, picking their way through the wreckage. Last year Pam and Sam and I came through to log out, but didn’t have time to cut through Slabby.

Now it was time to get the job done. I had tried single bucking some of the chunks, but the saw bound and pinched in the cuts after I got partway through. I would have to chop. While waiting for Jon to bring up the double bit axe, I chopped with the smaller single bit. “I hate hemlock,” I pronounced after the first swing.

Then realized that’s not really true. I do not hate hemlock. As a tree, it is a fine one. Western hemlock grows in warm moist environments at lower elevations. It thrives in the shade of other trees and can grow to great size. The wood is tight-grained and sound when it has not been compromised by fungal rot. What I dislike is chopping and sawing through hemlock when it crosses the trail. I don’t hate it, but recognize that I am in for a prolonged exercise and patience is required. Long ago the trail crew renamed it “hemrock” for its hardness. I have heard my brother, a logger, refer to it is “scumlock”.

Hemlock is hard wood. It will not break. You have to chop or saw through every last inch. Hemlock cuts you no slack. You’re in for it, so go ahead and complain as you swing and hit again and again.

When you finally sever the chunk, you have earned that short burst of satisfaction that comes before turning to the next slab that needs to be removed. There was a sense of gratification, pride even, when we finally got Slabby off the trail, including the the long stringy pieces of rotten wood.

DAY FOUR: August 8, 2013
Topic of the Day: Drought

chimney

It was spooky. A trip to Lemah Meadow without being rained on or being eaten alive by bugs? I mentioned this to Jon, and he agreed that it was probably a first in trail crew history. Sure, the meadow was wet with dew in the mornings, and there were moments with the mosquitoes and flies. But we easily recalled other trips filled with far more misfortune than this one. The time we never took off our headnets except to shovel in dinner. The time mice got into the foodboxes. The time mice launched themselves at Jon’s tent and slithered down the nylon walls with their little claws scraping all the way down. The numerous wet pack-outs.

I made time to walk around the meadow, noticing the encroaching trees. The interesting bog plants. The fire-scarred cedar snags down at one end. The magnificent view of Chimney Rock and Summit Chief. That glacier up there is melting just as sure as the meadow is filling in with trees.

Changes.

Hiking out, I noticed that much of the some of the vegetation around Pete Lake appeared much more parched than it had three days earlier when we walked in.

drought

Thimbleberries love damp lowlands, yet here they are giving up where the sun has been beating on them strongly. The soft green leaves turn brown and papery, curling at the edges. The trail is pounded to dust by hundreds of feet. The woods are dry, even on the Cascade crest. This area has been traditionally thought of as wet and green. The asbestos forest, unable to burn. Yet I know from my map of wilderness fires that it does burn when conditions are right.

When I get to the truck, my uniform shirt is completely soaked with sweat. I’ve been drinking water all day, yet there is an unrelenting drought in my throat.
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Now I have been home for over twenty-four hours, rehydrating and doing laundry. In the afternoons cumulus clouds pile up over the mountains and the sky flashes and rumbles after dark. Rain pelts down out of thunderheads, watering my garden. Tomorrow I go look for fires.

Not Really Goats

Looking up from the bright huckleberry brush below Silver Peak, I see them coming around the ledge. Who knows, maybe they heard the trail crew banging on rocks on the Pacific Crest Trail. Curious, maybe they wanted to see for themselves what the silly hairless apes were doing down there. They saw and were not impressed, because they kept ambling along the cliffs and disappeared.

It’s always good to see them–mountain goats in the mountains. Oreamnos americanus is not really a goat. It’s closest relatives are four Asian rupicaprids and the chamois of Europe. They are all rock climbers, superbly adapted to mountainous habitat. Almost anything there is to know about mountain goats is outlined in Douglas Chadwick’s book A Beast the Color of Winter (which I might re-read, with winter bringing the time for such indoor explorations).

Anyway, between the unexpected sunshine, still-bright colors, getting good work done with a good crew, and seeing goats–it was an excellent day in the woods.

The Chikamin Traverse

For years it’s been a line on the map–the stretch of the Pacific Crest trail that goes north from Ridge Lake to Spectacle Divide. Ten scenic miles that I’ve never hiked. This has been my year, and here are the photos to show for it:

Day 1: Fragrant lupines blooming above 5000 feet.
Day 2: Morning light on Alaska Lake.
Day 2: Looking down Gold Creek valley. Glaciers shaped this landscape.
Day 2: Joe Lake, with Huckleberry Mountain and Chikamin Peak.
Day 2: Subalpine garden at Huckleberry Saddle.
Day 2: Climbing up across Chikamin Ridge behind Pam and Sam. The rocks are really interesting. Sedimentary–former seabeds; microcontinents that smashed into the North American plate and rose up as the Cascades.
Day 2: Approaching Watson Pass. Hoary marmots were basking on rocks and poking heads up out of burrows….they were not concerned with us till we flipped a few larger rocks off the trail. Sorry, marmots.
Day 2: The descent to Park Lakes and camp.
Day 3: Drizzle. Ain’t getting dressed for work till I’ve had hot mocha.
Day 3: Climbing to Spectacle Divide, then dropping down to the lake. Drizzle begins to clear. Can see where the Lemah Fire of 2009 burned in the foreground, and the 1994 Escondido Fire in the background.
Day 3: We’re gonna need a bigger saw. And a ladder. Better yet, boom powder.
Day 3: Fireweed in the 2009 burn. So interesting to see the changes. This was a dense silver fir and hemlock forest. Could be a great place to pick huckleberries in a few years.
Day 4: Spent the night along the South Fork of Lemah Creek and the next morning hacked away on some logs. Didn’t finish, so will have to go back. Packed up to hike out. Did not weigh this, afraid to know how heavy.

In all, 33 miles in four days. Moved a lot of rocks, cut some brush and logs. Made copious notes about the work left to do. Started at 3200 feet in elevation, climbed up to 5700 feet, and ended up at 3000 feet. Assisted a backpacker by rigging a litter to carry out her exhausted Labrador retriever the last couple of miles. Re-entered civilization at around 8 PM last night. Had been fantasizing about food and baths for hours.

There’s a tinge of autumn in the high country. A flush of red in the low huckleberries, the gathering of small birds, cold nights. The full moon rises, the season changes.

Pacific Crest

The snow rangers had plans today, and the weather blew them apart. Instead of attending a long distance cross country ski race, we found ourselves contending with strong winds, blowing snow, wind chill. The ski event was cancelled, which was a good call on the part of the cooperating ski area and event organizers. The avalanche danger was considerable to high on all slopes in the central Cascades.

Instead there was snowmobiling to place some signs and patrol several routes. Our riding took us to Meadow Pass, right on the divide between east and west. The wind was charging over the mountains, whisking the snow into powdery drifts. The words “into the teeth of the storm” kept running through my mind. That’s what the wind feels like as it chews through the layers of clothing and nibbles on any exposed skin. Wind-driven ice crystals sting and bite like millions of snowy little piranhas.

I stopped where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road. Many times I have hiked down out of the clearcut with a chainsaw and into the old growth hemlocks. Sometimes this road is the end of the hike, or the beginning. That’s summertime, and trail work. This is winter. This is what that place looks like with seven feet of snow. In any season, these old trees have presence and character. I am sure that if I listened carefully enough I could hear their slow stories of wind and other phenomena.

Riding down, loading the snow machines, heading back to town. As soon as I walk into the house, I start filling the clawfoot tub with hot water. A long soak warms my bones and relaxes muscles. Then I can face making a savory warm meal and doing the rest of the evening chores.

Air in motion thumps the house tonight, and I hear the rattle of ice pellets on the chimney. The bells on the eaves jangle and ding. My cheeks burn with the memory of cold.

Same Stuff

Same stuff, different day. Bigger log. Rick pops up like a gopher from his side of the silver fir as I snap the picture. We’re back on the PCT, chewing our way north. A gray jay lands in a nearby tree, cocking its head as Pam hands out M&Ms. It picks up a wood chip from our ax chopping and takes it up to a limb. Sorry buddy, not food.

Hot, even in the deep hemlock woods. Feels like fire weather. Driving back this evening, sky to the south is hazy with smoke from fires in Oregon. A moon just over half rises.

Handcrafted Artisan-made Trail

Readers, remember the log jumble on the Pacific Crest Trail? Here’s the crew walking out on Thursday after we completed log removal and reconstruction. We did the work with gear we carried up on our backs. No trailers, no equipment on tracks. No fussy rigging or cables. Chainsaw, hand tools, a bunch of dirt-grubbing trail hippies, and a secret ingredient. Also time, but this crew restored the trail with amazing enthusiasm.

I recently said to someone that it’s a privilege to work on the PCT. I thought about that statement some more, and it’s true for me. The Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail is world famous. The idea for a trail from Mexico to Canada was conceived in the 1930s, and it took decades to construct. The trail is 2638 miles long, and can claim the most elevation gain of any of the National Scenic Trails. The part of the trail that goes north through this district was built in the early 1970s. It was laid out to maximize scenery, not for long-term maintainability. Keeping the PCT open is a challenge some years, with avalanches, rockslides, and stream crossings, not to mention old-growth trees falling down across it. Last week we worked on the first mile and a half north of Snoqualmie Pass. If we find big piles of logs further into the backcountry, logistics are going to get interesting.

The PCT is open to hikers and equestrians. And that’s how we work on it, on foot or horseback. This part of the Cascades is not prime horse country, so we mostly hike. That’s where the handcrafted business comes in. The PCT was constructed to a higher standard than many trails. It’s a little wider, follows a grade no greater than 10%, and some of the original switchbacks and crib walls are a testament to the trail builder’s art. The PCT deserves the extra effort to maintain standards. No shortcuts. Once the logs were out of the way, we filled in the holes left by toppled rootwads, excavated the backslope, cleared debris. All by hand, using skills that trail crews have been practicing for decades. There was plenty of cooperation, puns, laughter and fun.

Only about 78 miles left for us to maintain!

Uncurling

The latest shape my eyes are in love with. The deer ferns (Blechnum spicant) are in various stages of unfolding, and I have opportunity to observe most of them as I commute up and down the Pacific Crest Trail with the chainsaw over my shoulder. We’ve been working on that big pile of logs–a puzzle to unravel.

These ferns are growing on the edge of a turnpike over a swampy area. Deer ferns have infertile leaves that radiate out from the center of a clump, and lie fairly flat to the ground. The fertile fronds come up from the center and stand erect. The spores will be released from these later in the season. This year’s leaves are a fresh yellow-green, contrasting with last year’s darker evergreen leaves. I could happily plop down on the trail and gaze at the opening spirals and spreading triangles, while water trickles and thrush song bounces in the tops of the sheltering conifers. I could ignore roar of the traffic from Interstate 90. Sometimes the trail crew imagines it’s a big waterfall, or the ocean. All those people in cars and trucks, oblivious to the green magic unfolding right here in front of my eyes.

Boomer!

Not much going on at the Visitor Center this afternoon, so I ventured out into the drizzle to go for a hike on the Pacific Crest Trail south of Snoqualmie Pass. Summer means sun and warmth in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere, but it means marine air over the Cascade Crest. It’s like being enveloped in soggy gray flannel. Many visitors come to the Forest Service seeking advice on where to escape the damp, but the most intrepid of them go on up to the crest anyway.

It was warm hiking in my raincoat. I indulged in some boot drainage as I climbed, kicking ditches along the outside of the trail so water could drain. Eventually the muck will dry out. It was grand to see all the flowers blooming in spite of the clouds–red heather, yellow arnica, orange paintbrush, and lots of white bunchberry. White-crowned sparrows sang, and fledgling robins hopped in front of me. The climb topped out at Beaver Lake, a shallow pond in a depression. More of a swamp. I looked for, and found, boomer holes.

Beaver Lake is named for Aplodontia rufa or Mountain beaver, one of the Northwest’s most unique mammals. They are not really beavers, and not always montane. Another name is “boomer”, supposedly after a sound they are reputed to make. They are maligned as one of the most primitive rodents, and are notorious for hosting the biggest flea in the world. They are thought to be quite cranky, and if you called me primitive I’d be cranky too. Poor Boomer, just trying to make a living in a harsh world! They are enthusiastic burrowers in damp places, and spend much of their lives underground. They have tiny eyes and are active at night. Like pikas, they cut and gather vegetation which they pile to dry like little haystacks. These piles are later transferred to burrows.

The trail crew is particularly interested in these animals because of their propensity for making holes in trails, which they have persistently done around Beaver Lake. Boomer holes are big enough to catch a horse’s hoof or a human foot. Not safe! We stuff rocks into them, and of course Boomer chucks them out. It’s a never-ending dance.

Actually not much is known about mountain beavers in the Cascades, especially east of the crest. No one has studied their range, as far as I know. The trail crew has found holes along Standup Creek in the Teanaway, which is further east than our district wildlife biologist had known about.

Boomer has been behaving himself on this part of the PCT. No holes to fill in, so I turned around and hiked back.

Happy Independence Day.

From the Archives

I was looking for something in the flatfile and came across this drawing. It was drawn from a plant I collected in 2003, while working on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was heading north from Tacoma Pass, which crosses the Cascades at about 3500 feet in elevation. Directly to the west is the Cedar River watershed, which serves the city of Seattle. The pass itself is a dark place of towering conifers, but the trail north leads through clearcuts of industrial magnitude. When my eyes are offended by the excess of logging, I have learned to look down. There, near my feet, are signs of persistent returning life. Butchered vine maple stobs sprout like many-headed hydras, and thousands of silver fir and hemlock seedlings spread like green fuzz. I noticed a clump of basal leaves with delicate white flowers. It’s not often that I see wildflowers that are new to me, so this was a special day. There were clumps all along the rocky exposed trail. I had no idea what it was, but it reminded me of the campanulas I grow in my garden. When I showed the district botanist, she identified it as Campanula scouleri, Scouler’s bluebell. By the next morning, the white flower had taken on a bluish tint. I pressed it and mounted it in my trail herbarium. The following winter I had time to examine it closely and make the drawing.

My all-time favorite field guide to wildflowers is Washington Wildflowers, published by the Seattle Audubon Society in 1974. It is now out of print. My copy is inscribed with my name and the date 1978. The photo on the cover is nearly worn off, and the pages are falling out. I have other field guides, but I return to this one because it is so complete and is arranged taxonomically. I can usually determine the family of a plant, so turning to that part of the book usually leads me to what I am looking for.

According to this book, there are six Campanulas found in Washington. The one I see most often is the Round-leaved bluebell. It grows in rocky meadows, and is a harbinger of September. Another grows only in the Olympics and still another is from the North Cascades, so I am unlikely to see those without traveling away from my home range. But that leaves two more for me to discover. May I be in the right place at the right time to see Parry’s bluebell and the Rough bluebell! Something to look forward to…