The Volcano Has Changed

The volcano in southwest Iceland has been erupting for 85 days more or less, and until very recently it was erupting every 7-12 minutes, flowing lava for a minute or two, then subsiding. The time between eruptions was long enough for the lava to cool on the surface and the mountain to become dark. Even yesterday, though the eruptions seemed to be a bit closer together, there were long pauses, several minutes, when the mountain went dark.

No more. Something happened. Yesterday or the day before the top of the volcano, a sort of lid over the pool of lava, fell into the lava pool, and pool seemed wider afterwards. This evening when I turned on the video feed the lava flow was steady, changing very little minute to minute, flowing all the time. This means that the flow of lava emerging from the vent must be five to twelve times the flow when the eruptions were sporadic, and it seems in the night shots I see now that much of the lower lakes of lava and pooled material are glowing red and moving.


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Razor stone…

I built this theory that during the last ice age, thousands of years, even tens of thousands of years before the accepted time of crossing the land bridge ( less than 15,000 years ago), people might have been in the Americas, living along the coast, sheltering on islands in glacial refugia away from the great carnivorous animals and near fish and marine mammals for food. Because, then, people must have been few in number, and because even in our earliest days humans knew it was healthiest to find mates not directly related to family members, I think it is fair to guess that bands of raiders went out and sought to steal people from other groups. This behavior has often been documented even in recent memory, as for example knowledge that First Peoples from way north in British Columbia sailed their great canoes south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca to capture women and slaves from Puget Sound tribes living along the shores of the strait.

Evidence exists that ancient people were tremendous seafarers, surely able to leave the sight of land for fish, for travel, and while a coastline in an ice age might have long sections bounded by cliffs of ice, I speculate travel was possible, and frequent. The structure of the ice age world revealed in the Strong Heart Series is, of course, fiction, but as true as I could make it based on the research I did. It seemed to me then, and still does, it would be a lot easier to have other people capture and steal mates from inland neighbors if you could offer something of tremendous value in exchange. In my stories, I imagined that these ancient People walked south across the Great River for razor stone – they crossed the Columbia for the obsidian available in Oregon – and then they headed toward the Bering land bridge with this razor stone to trade for wives at a meeting place somewhere midway along that land bridge.

Of course this idea contradicts accepted theory on every level – my tales took place not 12,000 years ago nearly 70,000 years ago – I suggest people could navigate their great canoes 2,000 miles along an exposed coast and survive, I argue that because of the great animals humans barely survived in out of the way and hard to reach refuges, protected by ice, by water; that humans lived and even thrived all this time along the strip of shore now buried hundreds of feet beneath a rising ocean.

This tale came to me in 2012, or the first draft did, and I thought, then, God has a sense of humor, a wicked one, and as sure as I am writing this today, at some time in the near future something will be found confirming that humans have been in the Americas far longer than 15,000, or even 20,000 or 40,000 years. It better be a damn good find because everyone with careers built the current thesis will fight to the death to protect that thesis, as even now some still fight to protect the 12,000 year “Clovis” thesis, which was debunked by the finding of a spear point in a mastodon bone in Sequim, Washington that is 13,800 years old – the oldest evidence of hunting, I think, anywhere in the Americas.

But, that razor stone, and the idea a people collected that stone for use in trade for wives with other people living far, FAR away, beyond the land bridge, was not when my story first appeared ridiculous to me, and now may be even more reasonable based on the report that obsidian – razor stone – only available in Oregon, has now been found under Lake Huron, at least 9,000 years old. The age of this find fits within current dogma about the end of the ice age, but also shows that people, even back just as the ice was melting, traded materials over thousands of miles.

We men know so little….

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Camping in the old days (1)

My dad was a serious hunter and camper. He was in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, he called them the “ski troops” but then they invaded Italy and fought all the way to Germany and war’s end without donning a ski once, and when my sister and I were little kids we were camping in the back yard all the time, using gear he had brought back from the war or a tent his father had used years earlier. When I grew older I had a best friend older than me, Doug Bysiewski, and we would go down back into the fields and forests behind our house and pitch a tent and stay over night, as often as we could, exploring, finding owl nests, poking snapping turtles, messing around the UMass dump, and of course smoking. Once when I was about 10 or 11 there was a huge rainstorm and the tiny creek beside our house which drained into a wide swamp past the corn field, where Doug and I trapped muskrats every winter, flooded, enormously, such that the swamp was flooded, too, reaching all the way to our back yard, so my dad took the little 13 foot cedar canoe his dad, the serious hunter in our family, had built in the 1920s, and Doug and I took the 12 foot Old Town we had, and we pushed off from our back yard and followed the flooded rivers all the way to the Connecticut River ten miles away, passing over fences and losing the channel, wandering through forests, beneath trees. It was a great adventure.

There was nothing to do in Amherst during the summer. Nothing. We kids got into trouble because what else was there to do? UMass was expanding with all these new buildings being built, a gold mine for mischief, rummaging through half built buildings, stealing smudge pots – remember them? – riding our bikes all over hell and gone, seeking excitement. We couldn’t go to work picking tobacco or cucumbers until we were 14, and when the colleges let out Amherst became a ghost town, so Doug and I camped out a lot. My dad taught us how to use an ax, build a fire, make a splint for broken bones, rig a temporary shelter, and the scoutmaster for North Amherst, a great guy, took us troops camping all the time too, on Mount Toby, where one night I woke up to find a porcupine inside the tent.

Back then, before Eastern Mountain Sports or REI, nobody did this, not really, except idiots or kids whose dads had been campers, too, and there didn’t seem to be many of them. I started using my dad’s Army mummy bag when I was 11 and used it through graduate school, it weighed a ton but was warmer than anything. He had these rubber boots, insulated, which I later used winter climbing in New Hampshire in 30 below weather and my feet stayed warm, also Army issue.

So when the summer I was 12 I was sent to this camp near Mount Monadnock to get me out of the house and home town trouble I carried with me all this old gear, because at this camp we ended the season with a two week long camping trip. It was the main and to me only attraction of the place, otherwise filled with pre-Ivy league boys from New Canaan and Shaker Heights and Greenwich, but it was actually an OK place. You could shoot a .22, which my dad had taught me well, chop wood, navigate with a map in the woods, which were all good, but every Friday we had greasy fish sticks and dead white mashed potatoes and stewed tomatoes for lunch and we had to eat it, meaning, every Friday afternoon I got sick.

Eventually the Great Day came when we embarked on our Long camping Trip, which involved an 11 hour drive from New Hampshire all the way to Baxter State Park in Maine, this in an era before the Interstate Highways had been built. We took a huge trailer with canoes and gear and packs and supplies, including the newly invented and marketed dehydrated foods by Bolton, in cardboard boxes. The latest thing, these foods. We split into two groups, and one group paddled about 40 miles of the Penobscot River near Mt. Kathadin and the other group climbed the mountain, and then we switched places. There was some kind of campsite by a bridge over the river we used as our base camp.

The first night out we didn’t make it to the site and had to camp off the road near Millinockett, Maine, hundreds of yards from a huge stinking pulp mill, this was early August, a heat wave, and all of us sweating in our bags breathing in the pulp stink while mosquitoes the size of humming birds devoured us. Remember I was in my dad’s war mummy bag, frying.

The trip was, in memory, great fun, and an adventure, but we had our issues. The river channel was blocked by log jams and we had to beat portages through thick brush for over a mile a few times to get downstream, and there were rapids a little too large for safety, and I don’t think any of the counselors, who were just college kids, knew what they were doing. On the mountain, it rained and blew, but the mountain is dramatic. One year, the second year I went to that camp before finally turning 14 and being able to work and make some money on the farms, we took a bush whack route up Kathadin, from a side with no trails, and that was something.

Back then, there were no 10 essentials, people made fires wherever, you’d find piles of tin cans everywhere you camped, few people were in the woods, and you’d see cigarette butts everywhere.

However, that first year, and the second, too, one thing nearly ruined the entire trip. It was this dehydrated food. The meat was horrible, and the noodles never got soft, everything tasted of plastic and glue, and there was never enough. The premier feature of this food was the Bolton Biscuits, which were these hard scone-shaped biscuits you’d break your teeth against. The second year I prepared for this experience. I packed a full can of Dirty Moore beef stew and I carried that, hidden, all through the trip, every day nursing along one Milky Way Bar for 10 days, and in the 10th and last day, the last night out, I broke out the can of stew and shared it with two other boys at a separate fire. The stew lasted all of four bites each. It was fantastic.

On the way back from those trips, all of us filthy, clothing horrible, we’d get outside the State Park on the way to Millinockett and the long way home and there was a Dairy Queen there and we’d stop and each of us get an enormous cone of smoothie ice cream, twirled into a peak. My God but that ice cream was good.

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The Fire Below….

Right now, May 24, 2021, there are at least two volcanoes erupting, one in Iceland and another in the Congo. Both eruptions are big and long lasting, producing rivers of lava. The video below is the Iceland volcano, which has been erupting for a couple of weeks. To me it is astonishing to see the molten rock flowing like water, even producing waves. Even more astonishing is the realization that beneath us lie cubic miles of hot molten magma. Here in the Pacific Northwest we live beneath a line of great volcanoes, one of which exploded 40 years ago, Mount St. Helens. It seems that these great volcano areas lie along the edge of a continental plate, such that when another great plate thrusts beneath it, huge earthquakes happen. There was an earthquake here in 2001, big enough to cause damage, shake buildings, cause higher buildings to sway back and forth, and this earthquake was nowhere the size of what everyone is predicting eventually. It seems the energy of the rock thrusting beneath other rock creates friction and heat, and magma, which will burst to the surface under pressure. There are other areas, like Yellowstone, which have been called “super volcanoes” because of the size of the magma chamber beneath.

We have evidence of huge eruptions in the past, huge. We know about huge flooding of magma across thousands of square miles of land, just as we now know of enormous glacial floods in the past, not to mention asteroid strikes, some large enough to create craters fifty miles ion diameter.

So, are these two eruptions occurring now an indication of a period of greater volcanic activity? We won’t know until after it happens.

All of which to say, again, geologic time is totally different than human lifespan time-sense. Our ability to hear eye witness accounts of events is limited to, at best, 70-90 years. Then information is second-hand, then third-hand. By the time of third and fourth hand transmission memory has been lost, the stories have changed, the great event is lost in the mists of time. We humans like to erase uncomfortable history, and we do it all the time. We seem wired to forget pain, discomfort, such that we can endure it again. There is evidence that 700 to 1,000 years ago great forest fires swept the entire U.S. West, all of it, a thousand times worse than the worst fire season we have seen to date.

When I see a video like this one here I am reminded of how little we know, and how humble we should be…..

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Ancient Humans Thought Experiment (3)

I think there has been a lack of imagination about how ancient humans lived and survived. In addition to missing, until recently, the awareness that throughout human history humans have persisted through enormous climatic changes (one ice age after another), we have also imagined how ancient humans lived by comparing them to the few remaining hunter gatherer societies remaining on earth. By the time human studies and anthropology and archeology came into being as specific fields of study (no earlier than 1850 and really not until around 1900) most hunter gatherer groups had been decimated by disease, encroachment, and crowding. When I was in graduate school in 1970 some papers appeared contradicting the belief that ancient human groups spent all their time foraging for food, or hunting, frequently starving, always desperate and stressed. Studies of the Kalahari Bushmen in Africa, near the Kalahari desert in Botswana, demonstrated that in fact they lived pretty well – hunting one or two days a week, gathering foods a few days a week, and spending a lot of time socializing and telling stories. Researchers were also astonished to find that, once infant and childhood deaths were accounted for, adults lived to the same age as modern humans. So the belief was either that ancient tribes struggled always, or, perhaps, actually lived a nearly suburban life.

While it may well be that ancient tribal groups lived very much as the few remaining hunter gatherers today live, what seems to be missing is that the major difference between now and then is that back then the great animals were thriving – mammoths, mastodons, and great sloths could be found nearly everywhere, as could their predators. And what predators they were – great lions larger than modern lions, huge saber tooth cats, dire wolves standing four feet at the shoulder and weighing 200 pounds, and short face bears, carnivorous bears weighing a ton, able to run 40 miles an hour, and reaching as high as 15 feet.There were big hyenas and other carrion eaters, too. In fact, attached below, a mass grave of Neanderthals was just found destroyed by what are believed to be a pack of hyenas, yet even this article misses the main point.

Where I think the lack of imagination lies is understanding how ancient humans must have responded to these animals. Humans are small, weak, and slow, though their endurance over long distances is perhaps the best of any animal on earth, and there is even one theory stating that ancients hunted big game not by attacking that game but by running it down, harrying it again and again until it collapsed with exhaustion. Whenever a human wandered the plains or forest, he or she wandered in territory used by the great predators. Yes, groups gathered together with burning firebrands might have been able to take on a pack of dire wolves, but just as surely the wolves would have had their day. Humans had to find places that were safe from these predators, and safe for long periods of time, because years were needed to raise a child to adulthood, to grow and learn what was needed for survival – at least 13-15 years, probably longer. Every time a group moved, they were vulnerable to attack. If they chose to remain in one place, say a big cave, they needed to range far and wide for game and foods, also vulnerable to attack. Life was always risky, and dangerous, and harsh, and the most dangerous elements were the great predators.

This suggests to me that early humans, all the way up to the end of this last ice age and the beginning of agriculture, must have chosen to find places to live that were, to the degree possible, isolated from easy attack yet near sufficient food for survival. The only such places I can imagine would be along the shore, the seashore or a great lake, on a nearby island, separate from the mainland but with the mainland accessible for hunts, and close, too, to marine resources such as shellfish and fish. On the mainland, such a secure place would be a cave, something with a relatively narrow entrance that could be guarded with fire and spears, but the most secure places would be nearshore islands with marine resources and access to nearby mainland game.

What does this suggest? First, that it is likely that those groups of humans living inland might often have been destroyed, again and again, over thousands of years. Second, that any groups living along the seashore on nearby islands had a better chance of long term survival, but we will never know because the places they lived, the seashore and islands, have long been buried by the rising seas as there last ice melted. And, third, and to me most important, when those groups along the shore felt the need to find new resources, they followed that shore, island to island, over the centuries, and this suggests that the first long human migrations were along coasts, not the interior.

If this is the case, and I believe it is, then throughout human history, over the many times land bridges appeared with the coming of the ice, it is highly likely that humans traversed those land bridges, including the one between Eurasia and the Americas. And, if humans lived along the shore on islands, then from their very beginnings they used boats, initially hollowed out trees to make canoes, to follow that shore wherever it led.

The first real humans, it seems, were Homo Erectus, erect man, who survived nearly two million years, maybe until nearly the present, eventually either merging with later humans or dying out (I think merging is much more likely). Slightly smaller than we humans today, with a smaller brain case, Erectus used fire and has been found in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Indonesia. Some believe Erectus used canoes. Later species, or subgroups, of humans, with larger brains, also used fire and boats. But during all this time, those two million years, in addition to over 20 ice ages coming and going, until the last 10,000 to 12,000 years those humans all shared the earth with the great predators. These great and terrible animals must have been the defining control on humans, the factor that kept the human groups small, distant, often unsuccessful. Only with the end of this last ice advance, as sea levels rose and agriculture emerged, and as the great animals became extinct, did humans overrun all the earth. But, for over 99 percent of our history, if this thesis is correct, humans were restricted to those isolated places that could be considered safe – islands, maybe even glacial refuges among the sheets off ice.

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Ancient Humans Thought Experiment (2)

Humans arose during the last two million years, according to available fossil evidence, with so-called “modern humans” – that is, humans leaving behind evidence of culture, art, technology – emerging perhaps as recently as 70,000 years ago, or perhaps 200,000 years ago. Nobody is quite sure and a bitter argument is raging about the exact when and where, though nearly everyone agrees the first such “modern” people arose somewhere in Africa before migrating elsewhere.

This means that humans evolved coincident with the ice ages, that two million year period we call the Pleistocene within which ice has advanced and retreated on a roughly 100,000 year cycle, at least 20 times, with the most recent ice age having its “maximum” about 20,000 years ago before retreating until, maybe 12,000 years ago, the ice was mostly gone (except for some remaining caps in Canada and Eurasia). But, before that 20,000 year ago maximum, there were many rises and falls during the previous 80,000 years. It seems that even during the height of an ice age the summers could be hot, maybe as hot as today, just shorter, and of course the winters were colder. It also seems that the temperature could rise and fall over a very very short period, maybe as little as a year or two, certainly a decade. It seems likely that the way an ice age begins is not that somehow glaciers far in the north grow thicker and thicker and then march inexorably south to cover much of the land north of 40 degrees north; instead, a more likely cause is that the snows fail to melt one summer, then another, then another, until after 10 years the snow compresses to ice and after 100 years a thick glacier in place exists.

The earliest humans, as far as we know, did not farm, or grow crops. This invention, agriculture, started about 10,000 years ago, following the latest ice age, when a roughly 10,000 year period – the interglacial – began, when the weather stabilized for centuries of warmer weather. It may be, in fact I am sure it was, that humans during the ice time worked a form of “primitive” agriculture – using fire to clear underbrush so food plants could thrive, for example. The first human societies, whether modern or not, were hunter-gatherers, seeking game for meat and gathering nuts, fruits, edible plants, as well as foraging along the shore for shellfish and seafood, and of course fishing.

The ice age warm time between ice advances before the warm time we are now in occurred about 120,000 years ago. It was called the Eemian, and lasted 10,000 years. The average temperature during that interglacial was apparently warmer than even today’s warmer days, maybe as much as one or two degrees Celsius warmer, and the sea level back then was as much as 20-50 feet higher than the sea level is today. During the over 20 previous ice advances during the Pleistocene, land bridges appeared as sea levels dropped because of all the fresh water locked in ice. Sea levels dropped as much as 330 feet from sea levels today, and during the entire ice period, as the ice advanced and retreated, so did sea levels vary.

All of this serves to show that there were short periods of generally stable warm climate conditions called interglacials that lasted between 5,000 and 15,000 years (generally) with the warm period before the one we are now in – and approaching the end of according to the glacial record – happening over 100,000 years ago, maybe before the appearance of so called “modern” humans. This means that for most of human history, in fact for all of it, we lived and evolved during periods of great changes in climate, huge changes, some times happening within a year or two, and certainly within one or two lifetimes. These changes in temperature, weather, sea level, storm intensity all surely greatly influenced behavior patterns of prey animals and the location of edible plants. Along the seashore, the tide lines would rise, and fall, some times greatly, and all these changes would alter the locations and behavior of seafood clusters.

Of course, we humans have incredibly short memory spans. Who among us knows, for example, what our grandparents or great grandparents did every day to live? These days many people remember winters when the snow was much deeper, when they were children, though maybe that was because they were half their adult height. When I was a kid in the 1950s I remember vivid stories and memories of the Great Depression, seeing older men and women still carefully saving and pressing flat tin cans for reuse. Most people alive back then knew of times when electricity was scarce, even unavailable. A life without electricity today would seem unimaginable for most people alive in developed economies. Yet, a century ago, 1921, electricity was still not available for over half the U.S. population. The point here is that huge change is happening all the time these days and we forget about the change as time passes, and especially as those who lived in such different times pass on, because then instead of hearing directly from an eyewitness we hear from someone who was told by someone, and this must be the case for almost anything that happened more than 60 or 70 years ago. And, beyond that, say, back to the Civil War, the people alive then are now our great or great-great or even great-great-great grandparents, myths of imagination and memory.

So, even though during most of our history the climate has changed greatly and often, any changes occurring over, say, a century and surely over two or three centuries would not be seen in the immediate life of anyone living, not really, such that then there would be legends of warmer times, or colder times, almost myths, lost in the haze of memory and history. And this means that we humans think that what has been happening in our most recent memory – a year or several years – is what has and will always happen. We are, if nothing else, adaptive, and so we adapt, and as the climate changes, we adapt or die. We need to find new hunting grounds, or new edibles. We need to move the village because the sea now floods our shelter. The great herds upon which we depend have suddenly wandered away over newly exposed land that rose from the sea (though in fact the land emerged from the falling sea).

All of which to say, even though the climate has changed always (but changed much less during the warm times between glacial advances and retreats), within the lifetime of one person, much of the change, maybe all of it, would be impossible to see, and big changes over, say, four generations would soon be considered exaggeration or myth. What is true, though, is that the changes taking place force adaptation, learning, adjustment, flexibility, and this was surely the case everywhere on earth, even those places near the equator far from the advancing ice, because they, too, would be changing as well.

I think it was the ice ages that had much to do with making us human, maybe as much as the control of fire for the ability to build culture and learning with stories. These days many if not most among us think we face a climate crisis. What many if not most of us fail to realize is that the human condition is exactly one of adapting to climate crises, and it has always been so.

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Ancient Humans Thought Experiment (1)

It seems we now have fossil evidence of at least 6500 individuals from ancient times; that is, older than, say, 10,000 years, and much of this evidence has appeared in the last 20 to 30 years. There is today a revolution taking place in the study of human origins. New technologies, new methods of dating, the ability to retrieve DNA from ancient bones and even from the dirt over which ancient people lived, is announced on a monthly basis, and as the new finds are reported new theories arise, are defended, some times accepted. We know today that there were several different types of ancient humans coexisting together and that these different types interbred and produced offspring. We know, for example, that many of us contain Neanderthal DNA, or Denisovian DNA. Yet, while the fossil record may reflect 6500 individuals, there are only about 200 fossil skulls that have been found, which suggests that, given all the effort and energy expended searching for human origins, the evidence is still very sparse.

There is another debate that occurs, as well, concerning when these ancient humans became “modern,” whatever that means. It seems that some versions of ancient humans were as large as humans today, with a brain case as large or larger than today, extending back at least 600,000 years. Yet evidence for modern behavior – burial of the dead, artwork, sculpture, sophisticated tool kits and technology – is generally agreed to only extend back into the past 70,000 years, although sites in Africa much older show red ochre as a possible decoration. This raises the question – what happened, then, that enabled humans to develop culture, technology, community as we understand it today; what was the incident or event that caused a being with a certain brain size and structure to suddenly begin leaving behind evidence of myth, dreams, narrative, and history?

It is agreed that hominids arose in Africa, and extended from Africa to the rest of the world, maybe in a couple of migrations, the first being Homo Erectus almost two million years ago and a latter migration much later about the same time as modern humans appeared. But the evidence is contested. Some argue the first modern humans were found in northeast Africa, others say the Middle East, there is even a find in eastern China that may be older still. There seems to be general agreement that humans crossed the sea to reach Australia 80,000 years ago, and it is also generally accepted that the western hemisphere, North and South America, was empty of hominids until the end of the most recent ice age when some humans crossed the Bering Land bridge and entered North America, either along the coast or inland once some ice had melted. There are disagreements about this, of course, with some arguing humans made it to the Americas about 14,000 years ago and others arguing humans arrived much earlier. There is a site in the Yukon, Old Crow, that may be 24,000 years old. A few argue that humans came to the Americas far earlier than that. However, there are hardly any archeological finds older than 14,000 years to support such an argument.

For decades the belief was that humans crossed the Land Bridge, then waited for a channel to melt in the two great ice sheets covering Canada, then raced south to fill the continent, killing all the great animals on the way. More recently another argument has emerged, arguing that humans first made it to the Americas by traveling the coast in boats or canoes, beach to beach or island to island, living off the marine resources and bypassing those places where the ice sheets met the sea. One big challenge with this thesis is that during the ice ages the sea level was as much as 330 feet below present day sea level, meaning any coastal communities or evidence lies buried beneath tons of water. The beach scene pictured above, Olympic National Park in northwestern Washington State, which is probably what that ancient shore looked like tens of thousands of years ago, was, back during the ice time, on a slope hundreds of feet above the beach below it.

We now know that ancient humans were capable of using boats or canoes and fishing offshore, and moving island to island. In Timor evidence of tuna fishing was found, 40,000 years old, and to catch such tuna one needs to travel beyond the sight of land.

Two factors seem to be missing from all these arguments, at least in the research I have done. The first applies to the animals among which these humans lived, and how their presence and behavior might have influenced human decisions and choices as to places to shelter. The second concerns the relationship between human behavior and movement and the frequent ice ages that swept across the top half of the world – one every 100,000 years for at least two million years.

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Trails in the Olympics (2)

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.

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Trails in the Olympics (1)

Trails in the Olympics

There are, roughly, 900 miles of trails in the million-acre Olympic Peninsula National Park and adjacent wilderness areas. Anyone who hikes there immediately sees the work it takes to keep the trails clear, at least in the forested valleys and slopes. The whole system – rivers, slopes, forests – is incredibly dynamic. There are floods, landslides, fires, avalanches, windstorms, and even occasional earthquakes. The huge trees – Douglas firs, cedars, spruces – have root systems that tend to spread out rather than dig deep into the earth, wide circular spreads of roots just a few feet beneath the soil (which is mostly dirt mixed in with rocks and the limbs of former trees) and after it rains for weeks during the rainy season the soil becomes sodden and slurry-like, and then when the wind blows the trees topple, pulling up a big root ball of roots, dirt and rocks, leaving a hole, and often occurring in groups of blown down trees, for when one goes, so do the others behind it.

All of which to say that every year, on nearly every trail, some trees fall across the trail, water gullies erode the trail, and sections of the trail disappear. This is even worse along the rivers, which themselves are dynamic, sweeping back and forth against steep banks, and then an entire quarter mile of trail can vanish into the river, requiring an entirely new trail to be built further away.

Trail maintenance is damn hard work. It requires engineering, the movement of heavy rocks, the cutting and moving of huge trees, constructing rock dams against which earth is then placed for a tread path, the use of plastic pipes to channel water beneath a trail section, placement of stone channels to guide the runoff, and a host of other efforts. I’ve gone out with work parties a few times myself, and it’s damn hard work, harder than backpacking, and most hikers aren’t even aware of the hours of painstaking work someone has done to leave a trail that is walkable. If you hike in these forests, you are likely to see a Park or more likely a volunteer trail maintenance crew, some times way deep into the back country, with hard hats, chain saws, axes, shovels, mallets, often horses to carry their gear, often camping out for several days, working on a section. This is in addition to the annual cruises somebody does every spring, everywhere, cutting free those trunks that have fallen across the trail. Lots of trees fall. The Park Service has a trail report system, and in the spring the first hikers who go in to the trails, especially on the western side of the park, where it is wetter, report 60, 80, 120 trees down across a trail which might be 10 or 20 miles in length.

Once you first notice the amount of work taken to keep a trail clear, you always see it – the butt ends of sawn through logs that fell across the trail, the sections tossed off into the understory beside the trail, the amount of rock and soil work to keep the trail path level and firm. Without all this work, there are trails in this system that would literally vanish within five to ten years, covered with fallen trees, washed away, grown over. Moving through the lowlands, beside the rivers, or along the slopes, at times can be relatively easy, because the understory can be rather open, especially higher, or down on the river bottoms where the trees are huge and don’t fall that often. But there are other areas, many, that are virtually impassable, either because they are so steep and rocky, or because they are so thick with growth.

The first time I ever walked into the Duckabush, back in 1991, I followed the trail over Little Hump to a lowland, which paralleled the river before climbing steeply to Big Hump, and in that area there was a huge blow down, probably from that ferocious windstorm from December 1990 that blew out the floating bridges, and it took me half an hour to find the trail on the other side. I bet there were 100 trees down. Now, almost 30 years later, I can still see evidence of that blow down, but not easily. A couple years ago I dragged my brother in law with me to the South Fork of the Hoh, having this bright idea we’d go on past the trail end and work up the river to the Valhallahs and the high country there. We got to the trail end fine, it was a lovely hike, but bush whacking beyond was impossible. Impossible, at least for the two of us, admittedly near geezers, because the growth was impassably thick. We were there in May, and the river was high with snowmelt, and we thought, maybe in August, when the water drops, people can work along the river bars far upstream, avoiding the brash and thickets on the shore.

It’s easy to see why the first pioneers who came out to this country thought that nobody ever went into the interior of the mountains. Trying to move through the blown down trees and thick brush with heavy gear and horses would be almost impossible. It took the Press Expedition nearly six months to traverse the Park north to south in 1893, a distance of less than 60 miles. About a decade ago I drove by Camp Parsons, the famous Boy Scout Camp on the Hood Canal which has been sending troops of boys into the Olympics since as early as the 1920s. Our across the street neighbor in Ballard, who died at 94 about five years ago, Frank, went to Camp Parsons in the 1930s, and he hiked all through the park on the trails then, many the same as we hike today, and he later climbed Mt. Rainier 40 times.  I wanted to see this camp, and there it was, and someone who worked there, as old as me, told me with authority that the Indians never went into the interior of the Park.  He was, and is, dead wrong, of course, native people have been going all through that country for thousands of years, but I think it might have been as hard for them to work through the lowlands as it was for the first pioneers a century and more ago, except for the simple fact that once the light bulb goes on and you start following elk tails, everything becomes easy. Elk know better than anyone how to find a way through the thickets, how to avoid the gullies that draw you in then drop you into steep dangerous falls, how to turn away from the cliff ahead.

I have another theory as to how the First Peoples traveled in the Park, and how old some of the trails really are, but that is another discussion.

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Sweeping rivers…

When the two dams on the Elwha River were removed in 2011 and 2012 – the largest dam removal project to date in the United States – the areas behind the dams which had been under water became exposed. Millions of tons of silt washed downstream to the ocean, the Strait of Juan de Fuca. A couple years after that, the river channel shifted and shifted again, twice cutting the access road leading south from Route 101 a few miles to campgrounds, maintenance sheds, and dirt roads to trailheads. The picture above is taken at the road end looking across to where the road once ran.

The Elwha River runs through some amazing canyons, and a couple narrow defiles within which the dams were built more than a century ago to provide power to local lumber mills and Port Angeles. Now, with the dams gone, you can go to a walkway and overlook where the dams were. The narrow gorges thunder with current.

The Olympic mountains are drained by a series of rivers that flow in all directions from a high central point deep in the park – north, east, south, west. None of the rivers is more than 45-50 miles long.  They drain the snow-covered marine-influenced slopes of the Olympics, which lie within sight of the Pacific Ocean. The rivers are active, flow year round, even during the summer drought, and often flood with rain and snow melt. The channels are many, deep, and swing from side to side through the narrow valley bottoms, shifting course all the time. There are sections on all the rivers where the river bottom land is generally flat and anywhere from two hundred yards to a half mile wide, at least on the lower sections below the alpine meadows and steep upper canyons.  This river bottom, especially on the western slopes of the mountains in the rain shadow, is filled with huge spruce and cedar trees, enormous, many over 500 years old.

The first years I was near the Olympics I often hiked along the Gray Wolf River, which drains the northwest area and a narrow valley. From year to year there were huge changes. The current would swing against one steep side bank, undercut it, sweep away the trail, topple trees, then swing back toward the other side, carrying the trees downstream to pile up and be filled with rocks and debris. The amount of trail maintenance needed throughout the park is enormous. The landscape is dynamic and always changing. There was a bridge crossing the Graywolf about four miles in from the trailhead which washed away about 20 years ago. It has never been replaced. Now, to get to the upper Graywolf area, you need to park at Slab Camp or Deer Park and first go downhill.

I noticed that when the Graywolf changed course it would reveal white ancient trees beneath rocks, logjams covered with debris from floods decades, even centuries before, and it struck me that the river probably sweeps back and forth throughout the valley bottom over the years such that every square foot of the valley bottom is at one point or another swept away, then re-emerges when the current goes elsewhere. In the wider valleys, the Bogachiel for example, you walk through three or four deep sub-channels before reaching the river proper, channels made during earlier channel sweeps and now left high and dry. The channel will sweep back again, back and forth, over the years and centuries, changing all, lowering the valley bed, bit by bit. If you hike the North Branch of the Quinault you go through river bottoms, as on the Queets, where you know you are crossing an earlier channel but now there are huge trees in that channel.

And this led me to a speculation – if it is true, as it seems to me, that these rivers fully sweep their valley bottoms over time, the maximum age of the trees found in those valley bottoms will be roughly the period of a full sweeping. This leads me to guess that it takes between 500 and 800 years for one of these rivers to fully sweep its course, and suggests that perhaps the reason we don’t find trees older than 800 years is not because such trees cannot live that long, but because the water gets them first. I’ll bet, too, that the first people here camped on the river valleys, maybe for thousands of years, but their villages, and evidence, was washed away, too.

Well, the river took the road into the Elwha and Elwha upper dam and the ranger complex and the Whiskey Bend parking lot road after the dams were removed, cutting the road twice against the eastern bank and isolating about a half mile of old road and a former campground. Now that road ends, with signs, and a side trail has been built to walk beyond the changed course, which undercuts the eastern bank. There have been arguments and talks about whether and how to repair the road for years. It will be horribly expensive and difficult, and as of yet nothing has been done. The road ends, you must park, and then you walk the old road three quarters of a mile to where the river has cut away. Beyond, back on the road above the second cutting, lie miles of unused road, pavement beginning to come apart, nice buildings that are no longer used, and a sense of some kind of abandonment. It is both beautiful and a little eerie. It used to be you could drive to the Whiskey Bend parking lot before hiking into the park, it was a major trailhead. Now you need to walk over 8 miles to get there. Another trailhead, to Olympic Hot Springs and Appleton Pass, and a crossover to the Sol Duc area, is similarly now miles distant.

On the eastern side of the Park, the Dosewallips road once led through a narrow canyon to a large campground and ranger station. This road, maybe 15 years ago, fell into disuse, the roadbed shifted in rains, and it has been closed for years, as has that ranger station – another formerly popular and easy access to the park interior now gone. To the south, the road to Enchanted Valley, and Graves Creek, has been undercut by the river a few times, and closed, but repaired.

It is a constant battle, always changing, dynamic, powerful. Those rivers are not long, not large, but they are intent, you know? Here we have a National Park set aside to be natural, and so it naturally changes to overcome and alter our efforts to build and maintain roads and trails, and yet these Parks are for use by the public, so they need access. A conflict, inherent in the situation, is always present.

Those rivers don’t know that, though. They’re just sweeping that river bottom, back and forth.

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