Up high – that is, above the thick forests – the terrain in the Olympics is entirely different. Up high lie meadows filled with grasses and clumps of trees, or acres of broken shale and flowers, rocks and cliffs, broad basins that lie open below the sky. These areas, usually above 4000 to 5000 feet, lie beneath snow for months of the year. The first snows fall in late October to mid-November and linger until late May in the lower areas and as late as August higher. There are places where the snows fail to melt for years at a time. This means that the open meadows and streams and tarns and lakes lie open to the sun and warmth for at most five months a year, and usually much less than that. The alpine growing season is probably 100 to 140 days a year, and in that time everything has to take place – the seeding, growing, flowering, turning.
There is a little tarn on the way in to Grand Valley, just before or after the seasonal ranger tent, about the size of a bedroom, less than a foot deep, within which frogs breed, casts eggs, the eggs hatch, tadpoles form, and then the tadpoles become frogs, all within that 120 day window, all of it, such that the frogs are old enough to find a place to bury themselves and survive the long long winter. That little tarn always had frogs in it through out the 1990s and 2000s, then in about 2016 when I got back up there after a few years away at sea that tarn was barren, dry, bare earth, without frogs, but a couple of years later there water was back and so were the frogs.
It is hard to guess the biological energy that must flow up in those alpine areas, all that growing and breeding and nurturing and then dying, happening so fast. Surely the flux must equal that of a rain forest, at least during those days of high sun, warmth, and growth. But the alpine areas are fragile, too, the topsoil thin, the roots holding plants to the soil somewhat fragile. The plants and roots are strong enough to withstand the weight of the snows, and the passage of avalanches in the spring, although trees are torn free and tumbled, and in many of the meadows the marmot populations dig burrows and alter the earth and cast aside soil, such that anyone walking across such a meadow must be careful lest they step into a deep hole. The elk go high in the summer, very high, living in those basins and meadows, and they have done so as long as elk have lived in this land, returning again and again to known areas and haunts, and, being heavy animals, tracking game trails across meadows and basins, some trails wide and over the aeons pounded deep into the earth, as much as six inches or a foot.
There is evidence the first peoples who lived on the Olympic Peninsula wandered the high country as long as 7,000 years ago, and possibly much much longer. The oldest confirmed site with evidence of hunting in the Americas, a spear point embedded in a mastodon bone, was found in a Sequim prairie below the foothills of the northern Olympics, dated to 13,800 years ago. There are dozens of areas in the Park that are ancient, remote camps and sheltering places, used by human beings for hunting, wandering, gathering herbs, and it is more than likely they followed those game trails up high to get from one basin to another, further marking those trails on the earth. And, it is surely the case then that the first white explorers in the Park, in the late 19th century (though trappers may have been in there as early as there 1840s) followed those trails as well, and then, later, in the 1920s, when a trail system was conceived and developed, the higher trails surely connected together the already existing trails across basins and meadows. Even today, when you go high, you can be sure that many of the paths you follow are ancient, thousands of years old, perhaps even tens off thousands of years old.
So, while the lower elevations of the Park are dynamic, always changing, in great flux as trees fall and rivers erode banks, and landslides carry sections to valley bottoms, in the higher alpine zones, except for avalanches, there are surely areas that have not changed at all for a long long time. First of all, those areas, being covered with snow two thirds of the year, age at one third the rate of areas lower down. More importantly, though, the trails first made by game and then followed by humans were initially formed as the animals followed the path of least resistance to get from one place to another, and because the landscape does not change that much century to century, up high, neither will this trails. This means that when you are hiking up there, following a well trod path, you are probably walking the very same path followed by people who walked there before agriculture rose, even while the great ice, which filled Puget Sound but did not cover the Olympics, which stood as a bulwark holding the ice sheet from the Pacific Ocean south of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, lay in a great miles thick sheet to the east.
Posted in Olympic Peninsula Tales and tagged alpine habitat, Grand Valley, hiking, Olympic National Park by Charles Sheldon with no comments yet.