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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Snow Pack

It seems, during the 31 years I have lived in or near the Olympic Peninsula, that in the fall there are always articles worrying about the year’s predicted snowfall, claims that the snow pack, which supports water supplies for lowland urban residents, will be lower this year because of increasing warmth, climate change, global warming. These fears are real, and, twice, were borne out – there have been two years when the snow pack was very very thin at the end of March, when seasonal melting generally begins. One of those years, 1991, I chose to hike the Skyline Tail in the southern Olympics, and had the snow pack been normal I’d not have made it, become lost up high. But that year there was virtually no snow.

The pattern seems to be this – there is a final warm Indian summer week or two in early to mid October and then the rains begin, which become snow up high. Several times there is enough snow to open ski areas by Thanksgiving week in the Cascades, Mt. Baker, Crystal Mountain, Stevens Pass, and, on the Olympics, there is deep snow as well.  However, then it seems, usually in the January-February time frame, that snowfall nearly ceases, and by the end of February there are, again, stories and articles predicting drought, lack of snow, lack of water, climate doom.

Then March comes. And, nearly every single March, a ton of snow falls, tons and tons,  often well into April up high, feet on feet of snow, replenishing the snow pack such that by the end of the snow season there is usually sufficient snow cover to make it through the summer. Cliff Maas wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, pointing out that the average snow pack depth and supply had not changed much over thirty years, and, from this occasional hiker’s perspective, that is correct.

Some times there is enough snow to delay opening the road out to Obstruction Point in the Olympics, which is usually plowed free by mid June, and usually before July 4th weekend. A few times the road has not been cleared until late July, and once, maybe 15 years ago, not until the first week of August. It seems that this year will be one of these “late” years, as the current snow pack is 135 percent of “normal” and with a coolish spring predicted likely to last well into the summer.

So, up high, above say 3500 feet in the Olympics, the ground and plant life is covered with snow from mid to late October all the way until June or July, and, higher still, even into August. This means that there are 90 to 120 days only when the ground is bare and exposed to sunlight, and during this incredibly short time the entire life and reproductive cycle for plants and many animals must occur – budding, flowering, seeding. There are these little tarns up high which hold little frogs, and somehow these frogs emerge from beneath the chill and snow and mate, bear eggs, the eggs hatch, tadpoles swim, and become frogs – all in three months before the next snows fall.  If you’re up there during that time – and this is the time most people get up there – it is impossible not to notice the productivity of the plant life, the flowers, the blooms, the insects and birds and marmots and mice and voles, all filled with life, energy, making the most of the short, SHORT season. I have to believe that on a per acre basis the productivity up there in the sunlight and warm winds is as high as any rain forest.

Then, after that Indian summer week of hot sun, still air, heat, and the meadows bright red with the coming cold time, it rains and, up high, snows, the ground is covered and the eight to nine month sleep begins again.

I wonder, too, does the eight to nine month snow cover essentially freeze time up high such that anything deposited up there effectively ages at one third to one quarter speed? A few years ag someone found a woven basket melted beneath snow up toward the end of Obstruction Point Road. It was dated and found to be 2700 years old.

What else might lie up there?


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Magic?

The stories that come to me fall in the category of adventure/magic realism, and I confess to treasuring those things in life that remain unexplained, mysterious, and hence magical. To me, one of the mist powerful indicators that magic might be real lies in dowsing.

Perhaps I should have written this yesterday, April 1, as my guess is most people think dowsing – finding water with a stick or using a metal rod to find underground pipes and metals – is a complete hoax.  I first heard about dowsing when I was a little boy, maybe four years old, when we were living in Shutesbury, Massachusetts, a tiny community up in the hills behind Amherst. This was back in the days when roads were repaired using a truck filled with thick oil and a bed of pebbly small gravel. The truck would roll down the road and a wagon holding pebbly small gravel would drop the gravel in a thin layer on the road surface, and behind the wagon would be pulled another tank wagon holding hot thick oil, which would be dribbled into the gravel to soak in and then harden. But this was also back in the day when most of the roads up in the hills were still dirt.

Someone a few houses down the way was trying to dig a well, and had already sunk two holes without success. One day my dad grabbed me and took me on his shoulders to the property to watch a dowser, because the guy digging the well had called in the dowser to find water, find a spot to dig the third hole. The dowser seemed ancient, and his stick was completely clear of bark and shiny, and he held it in his hands before him, a forked “Y” of a stick with the two wings of the “Y” pointing down, one wing in the palm of each up-facing hand, fingers curled around. The man walked across the property holding the stick before him, single end pointing at the sky, arms straight before him. Then the stick turned down, the up-facing end turning down toward the man carrying it, which explained to me why he was holding it so straight away from himself, to give the end room to pass his face and chest.

“Here,” he said. This is a vivid memory to me, even all these years later. I also remember my dad announcing, one day after that, with great satisfaction, that the neighbor had found water where the dowser indicated. My dad, who was a wildlife biologist, and scientist, remained fascinated all his life that there remained this thing – dowsing – which defied explanation. It still does, it seems.

The year after my freshman year in college I had a summer job in the hills of Western Massachusetts removing the brush beneath a power line right of way running from the Connecticut River to the Yankee Atomic power plant in southern Vermont. It was hard work, the summer was hot, the brush thick. There were six of us on the crew, all kids 18 or 19 years old. One day during a break one of the kids, Alan, announced he was a dowser. I said to him, remembering my four year old memory, “Prove it.” He marched off to some thick brush and cut a living branch from a willow-like small tree, Y-shaped, and he held it just as had the old dowser years before. We all watched him as he walked back and forth until the stick began to turn down, and it was easy to see he was fighting it, trying to prevent the stick from turning. But, once it started, as he moved, it kept going. By the end his face was red. I thought he might be playing a trick, so I cut a branch from the same tree, held it just as Alan had, and I started walking.

When the stick began to move it pulled toward me and then down, and, try as I might, I could not hold it back. It was unbelievable, that power. The stick was from a living bush and I was strong and I fought it, holding as tight as I could, and yet the stick kept pointing down. The force was so strong the bark surrounding the stick ripped off the stick in my hands. Peter, and Neil, two of the other guys tried it, too, but it didn’t work with them. They didn’t believe Alan or me at all when we spoke of the force.

I imagine you, too, may be rolling your eyes, as so many do. Some of you, those who have tried it and felt the power, are nodding, others may be intrigued, but I suspect most are shaking their heads.

I became a believer that day, had to, because the power of that force was astounding, unmistakable, and real. Whence came it? Some kind of charge between the water in the stick and water below? Perhaps some twisting of gravity? A mental force, perhaps?

Of course we didn’t dig out there in that rocky right of way to see if there was water there, so we never knew, then, exactly, but that force was real.

It was later, and another story, or two, that I learned what that stick was pointing toward.


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More on the stuck ship as of Sunday 3/28

I came upon this absolutely terrific video about the stuck ship in the Suez Canal. It really covers all the elements and in a very informal but informative style. The guy even uses his son as the aviation expert discussing the use of helicopters to lift containers off the ship. To my utter astonishment and delight, the helicopter discussed is the exact same model found in the story Totem I just finished – the Russian MI25. It turns out the ship ran aground near the southern end where the canal is very narrow, 300 meters wide. They had hoped to drag it free today and failed. Tomorrow the tide is highest yet (the tides there are about 6-7 feet it seems) so their best chances will be in the next couple days. I hope you enjoy this video.


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Manis Mastodon spear point

This doesn’t look like much but it is astounding. This is a piece of bone found about 40 years ago in Sequim, Washington – a mastodon skeleton was discovered when Mr. Manis was digging out a pond on his field on the Olympic Peninsula. A mastodon is sort of like an elephant but a little smaller. The little lighter thing in the middle is actually a spear point, stuck in the bone, also of mastodon bone.  There is a sweet but tiny exhibit in Sequim that displays the bones and this point and I took the picture when I visited  few weeks ago. Here’s the thing. This bone, and spear point in it, have been dated to 13,800 years old. It is one of the oldest, if not THE oldest, proven evidence of early humans in North America, right here on the Olympic Peninsula in the shadow of Olympic National Park. People used to think the great ice covered this area that long ago, but apparently not. Apparently parts of the peninsula were a refuge from the ice, and maybe the hunters who took this animal lived there.

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