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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Elwha River and Hurricane Ridge

This last weekend we went over for some camping in Olympic National Park on the Olympic Peninsula. The weather report was a wet one, and indeed in rained for the entirety of the drive and two ferry trips it took to get to the Elwha River valley where we decided to camp. Luckily, once we arrived, the rain ceased giving us a chance to set up camp and take a walk around looking at the flora and fauna before cooking dinner.

Olympic National Park contains three distinct habitat zones: the rocky coastline, the Olympic mountain range, and the lush temperate rainforest. The latter is where we were - and the amount of green everywhere is sure impressive. Trees, ferns, mosses, and lichens abound.

There were lots of snails and banana slugs about:

There was also a pair of deer out browsing, perhaps also enjoying the break in the rain:

We also saw some of the regular avian visitors to the campground: American robins, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows, Vaux's swifts, and, most excitingly, evening grosbeaks and red crossbills.

The drizzle resumed during our post-dinner campfire, and after entering the tent the night-long torrential downpour began. This gave us the opportunity to find all the less-than-waterproof portions of our tent, and the optimistic camper in me insisted it was only appropriate to be experiencing heavy rains while in the rainforest. 

Our camp site was right along the Elwha River, which is making headlines right now for its historic dam removal project aimed at revitalizing the salmon population. There were two dams on the lower Elwha River, and one of them failed to have any fish passages, which was illegal even when the dam was built in the early 20th century. The result was the 70 miles of relatively pristine river habitat protected within the National Park have been cut off to native salmon populations for the better part of 100 years. In 1992, a bill was passed saying the salmon runs had to be recovered, even if it meant taking the dams down. Years of study indicated that dam removal would be the best option for salmon recovery, and in September of 2011 the dam removal began.

This is the largest dam removal project to date in the United States and the second largest restoration effort undertaken by the National Park Service in its history (after the Everglades). It's a monumental event, and one that I hope will start a trend of dam removals in the Pacific Northwest - places like the Lower Snake River and Klamath River are ideal sites to remove dams where salmon runs would also benefit. It was inspiring to visit the Elwha amid all of this going on. One of the park rangers said, "The river is changing every day," and already there are signs that it is only becoming healthier. 

The 108-foot Elwha Dam was fully removed by March, and the lake behind it was fully drained in April. Here's what the whole structure looked like:

And here's what it looked like on Sunday, June 24th, 2012:

 On the surface it looks like a mud pit, but a recent post on the Dam Removal Blog explains how life is already encroaching on the barren sediment that covers the remains of an old forest. Sandpiper and otter tracks crisscross the mud, and seedlings of native trees are taking root on the stumps of 500 year-old cedars that have been buried under the reservoir for the last century. Very cool stuff.

Back to our trip....The weather broke again first thing on Saturday morning, just long enough to cook a delicious breakfast of bacon, eggs, and potatoes. Then, the clouds moved in and the rain continued as we decided to make our way up Hurricane Ridge. At 5200+ feet elevation, it is known for its stunning views of the interior mountains the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Those vistas were not to be enjoyed on this day! Here's what we were supposed to be looking at:

But this is what we saw:

The 17-mile drive up to the ridge was even treacherous, with the fog severely limiting visibility:

But the weather conditions didn't stop us from seeing some really cool wildlife! First stop was to look at this very tiny fawn, which must have just been born as it was still wobbly on its legs:

We also saw a couple of sooty grouse, a species I only heard while in Winthrop the weekend before:

Somehow, the wilderness seemed even larger, looming there in the unknown:

Up at the summit, feet of snow still blocked off many of the trails, and sub-alpine wildflowers were just beginning to bloom where the snow was beginning to fade away during this colder-than-average spring in the Olympics. A horned lark (208) and an American pipit foraged right along the snow line - species that prefer open habitats but which I've never seen at these elevations before.

Drenched by the time we left the summit, we decided we might as well keep exploring and stopped by Madison Falls:

There were lots of maidenhair ferns - my favorite fern species - in this part of the park along the creeks and waterfalls:

We also walked about three-quarters of a mile up the Griff Creek trail, which was narrow and wound its way up through the woods. Here's what part of the trail looked like:

Upon our return to camp, we discovered our tarp had fallen under the weight of all the rainwater, drenching our chairs and firewood. With damp clothes and a damp tent, this was the low point of the trip, but it quickly turned around when 15 minutes later the sun peaked out for the first time, and the rain stayed at bay for the rest of the evening and another enjoyable (if hard to get going) campfire.

Sunday morning it was time to pack up and start heading home, but with the weather clearer it was too tempting not to make another jaunt up Hurricane Ridge to see if we could see the views this time. It was well worth it:

 This time the vistas matched the signs:

We didn't see as many birds this time, perhaps because there were a lot more people around, but we did see this deer and these ravens that nicely posed in front of the mountainscape together:

Back home, it was a challenge to get everything clean and dry, but over a late dinner one more cool weekend wildlife moment awaited. It was almost dark, when I heard and then saw a very distressed violet-green swallow. A pair nests nearby, but they're usually roosting by this time of night, and I went outside to see what it was upset about. It was circling right around the houseboat, so I walked up the dock to see if something was on the roof. I thought it might be a Cooper's hawk, which we've seen around here a few times before, but I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw a barred owl perched right on our gutter! Before I could return with my camera to try and get a dim-light photo it had disappeared back into the trees on the bank. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't see it among the narrow strip of woods here between the marina and the road. It got me thinking about how many natural wonders lay hidden within the Olympic National Park forests - 95% of which are designated as wilderness. It didn't matter if I didn't see the mountain lions, black bears, and spotted skunks that make their home in the Elwha River Valley. Just being in the same forest with them was enough.


Vera said...

Very exciting reading and great photos!

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Sounds almost as wet there this summer as it is here!

Great photos - love the mist through the pine trees - very atmospheric



PS Glad ;-) you didn't add any more to your year-list I'm struggling to catch up...

Monika said...

Dave - I actually forgot to mark the horned lark as 208! Oops! :)

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

208!!! Dooohhhhhh as a certain yellow fellow would say



bluearth said...

I came across this while researching a trip to the peninsula and wanted to tell you that I really appreciate the way you include the foggy H. Ridge photos, and description of driving in the fog, as well as the next day's photos - that gives a better picture of what to expect - one way or the other! Happy birding & orca watching & everything else! Bluebrightly at Wordpressdotcom

Unknown said...

I was just in this same area in July 2013. I saw some of the same wildlife, but never got to see the nice clear views from Hurricane Ridge. A beautiful area.

Heide Glass said...

Wow! This I must say would be the best venue for the campers out there. The atmosphere, the scenes, the creatures and everything on it is just perfect to have a one of a kind camping experience. Though, I'm just quite worried about the snakes and bear lurking around in here but other than that, it's just perfect.