Monday, June 29, 2009

Earn Peace on the South Olympic Coast Wilderness

I am still but a baby when it comes to hiking along Northwest Washington's coastal wilderness. This isn't like hiking in the mountains where at worst, a trail washout may detour your hike and cause delays. On the coast, you intimimately interact with the subject of your worship. The ocean fascinates you, it forms the trail that you walk on and will stop you on a scheduled whim.

I have had two recent hikes on the south coast wilderness which begins south of the Quillayute River. The "north coast wilderness" begins on the other side of the river and continues north to the Makah Reservation near Cape Flattery.

The Giant's Graveyard bathes in beautiful evening light as Jared and I head south on 3rd Beach.

Just east of La Push, the hikes start at Third Beach. It is 1.6 miles to Third Beach itself and then a series of ladders with rope help take trekkers up the steep slopes to cross over Taylor Point. The small head creates a natural barrier to human movement as it juts out into the surf. The rugged trail spends a long mile in the coastal forest, out of sight of the ocean before dropping back to a quiet cove on the south side of the head.

The trail drops to a point just adjacent to a rocky point that requires less than a four-foot tide to pass. There is a rugged overland route, up and over a 20 foot cliff and the Park Service has installed a help rope on the south slope, but one may choose to wait, With secure footsteps and a jolt of adrealene, the passage may be made in the gentle surf as long as the hiker doesn't mind getting wet to the hips.

Passing Scott's Bluff requires a steep climb with a rope help. Jared works his way up the climb above the surf.

The route option is another challenge to less experienced and physical hikers. Scott's Bluff requires a three foot tide to pass, but this statement is important. The rope is your friend. "The rope" is about a 75 foot help up an often muddy 60% slope. Even in dry weather, small seeps turn the clay slopes into mush and make uphill traction problimatic. On Wednesday, my son and I chose to avoid the rope in a driving rain by bouldering around Scott's Bluff during the lowest tide of 2009. It took us about an hour to negotiate perhaps 150 meters over slippery, slimy rocks and boulders before returning to the beach. Several times during the scramble, we vocalized that a repel down the rope probably would have been the better economic choice.

Jared makes progress on the climb.

As a warning, however, there are only a handful of campsites at Scott Creek and all of them were full on Tuesday night when you would think visitation and backcountry use would be at its lowest. Scott's Creek is just the right distance for those that start their hike late in the day We did find a small site farther back in the woods, but it was not the optimal ocean view campsite by any stretch.

Rangers will tell you that hiking on the coast will take almost twice as long as on a regular trail. Two more points south of Scott's Bluff to Toleak Point require five-foot tides or less (which is more than about 60% of the 24 hour day) From Scott's Bluff to Toleak Point, the route is a quick hour at low tide. South of the Scott Creek area is StrawberryPoint and then Toleak Point that looks a lot like its northern counter-part Sand Point (near Cape Alava on the Lake Ozette Loop) geologically speaking.

A Harbor Seal looks for food in a large tide pool at Toleak Point.

At low tide, Toleak offers great tide pools that should be enjoyed. One of my tide pool visits featured a visit from a small harbor seal as hermit crabs curiously crawled to the toes of my boots. An eagle scoped the pools for opportunity from the 60 foot rock that is Toleak Point. Wide beaches attract novice and experienced hikers at the south coasts most popular destination.

An eagle scopes the shallow waters north of Toleak Point for an easy meal.

Getting to Toleak Point is an easy 6.2 mile coast hike that is largely easy, but has challenges for those without overall fitness. Standing on the beach at Strawberry Poit or Toleak and knowing that you are in total wilderness relaxes your entire persona. The farther you get from the Quillayute River, the easier the weight on your shoulders.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Forks Logging Tour Worth the Time

Every now and then, you stumble across a bargain and you just have to brag on it. It this case, it was more a display of culture than anything else.

The Forks Logging Tour has a number of happy sponsors that want to be a part of the story.

The Forks area Chamber of Commerce must be among the most active in the region. A stop by their offices this last week revealed that they are swamped with visitors thrilled to see the sights described in Stephanie Meyers "Twilight and subsequent editions. One of the Chamber representatives told me that visitation in 2009 had already exceed 2008 and the fans from overseas were just starting to arrive.

My son Jared, our guide and other families from North Carolina and Maryland on the Forks Logging Tour.

Still trying to be relevant right next door to the Chamber office and a replica of Bella's truck is the Fork;s Logging Museum. Perhaps that story will come in another post, but a service of the Chamber and Museum is an occasional Logging tour. My son, who has become an avid fan of the History Channel's "Axmen" was was beyond excited to take this tour. All it took was a phone call to reserve the spots. The tour is free of charge! (Please see notes to follow....)

On Monday morning, at 9:00am sharp, our tour departed the Chamber parking lot and headed south. Our guide, a retired Forester from the Washington Department of Natural Resources attempted to find an active logging site, but had no luck initially. Instead, we crossed the Hoh River and pulled into the parking lot of Allen's Lumber Mill. It was described as a modest production site that has only incurred minor technology upgrades since the 1950s.

As our tour talked in the log yard, a load was taken into the mill.

The hemlock logs are stripped of bark by this machine.

We stood just feet from Hemlock logs being stripped of bark, and cut to proper size by huge radial saws. We watched intently as pieces of lumber were created from logs and sorters graded and placed them into proper collections before their time in the kiln. It was a slow, methodical tour of yesteryear. There was no hurry. Admittedly, there were moments when I was bored, but my son was enthralled the entire time and it was good not to be rushed in such a venture.

This saw cut logs into 96" sections.

We were so close to the action that you could hear insurance agents squirm in the distance.

Finally, the log was cut into board widths by this saw.

Our guide showed great care in the story of change that turned the area logging industry to near irrelevance behind tourism and the current "Twilight" craze referring to the time of the "spotted owl". He acknowledged that Forks once stared with displeasure at tourists, but now find it as the next stage of life.

For some unknown reason, this logging site was not active.

At the same time, private timberlands are being worked like farms without the farmhouse. Our guide had a dogged determination to find and show us an active logging site. We drove east of town up the Calwah drainage to find "wood down" but nobody working at a site complete with a "yarder" and "skyline". On good information, we were driven about 15 miles northwest of Forks where a small operation was working what appeared to be a 20 acre site.

The logs were picked up and piled near the "delimber".

First, the log is roller through a cutter that removes all of the limbs from the tree.

After stripping the tree of limbs, the machine "bucked" it by cutting it into smaller lengths.

The Olympic Peninsula has a long history in the logging industry and the careful consideration of the rest of the nation has forced Forks to align itself with multiple uses of area forests. The preservation of federal lands in Olympic National Park put definate limits and the success of the industry itself began to put pressure on the available resource as it sucombs at a faster pace to far more efficient harvesting techniques. The bottom line is that fewer and fewer people are working in the Forks area timber industry. The Forks Chamber of Commerece and the Forks Timber Musuem are just reminding everyone that the community and the generations that built it had their collective roots in the harvest.

In the 25 minutes or so we were on site, we watched two truck loads depart for area mills.

The three and a half hour tour had its slow moments but in the end, I donated the Chamber a $20 bill. Still an absolute steal for a real look into an area culture and history. I may be noted for my chilly reception of the timber industry, but sometimes a little respect is due.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Off the Olympic Coast with NOAA

Along the Olympic Coast of Northwest Washington State, NOAA (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) and the ground presence of the National Park Service are inexorably connected. NOAA administers the 3,310 square mile Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary but has a minimal presence on the beaches where the National Park Service has multiple back and front country rangers on duty along the 73 miles of wilderness coast between the Quinault and Makah Nations. Park Service personnel are trained to respond to sea mammal standings as well as other reporting and education procedures.

NOAA's science craft Tatoosh often plays host to scientists and wildlife survey teams. It played host to eight coastal Park Rangers and educators for a few hours in late June.

It is this relationship that is the impetus behind NOAA hosting a group of Park Rangers for an off-shore tour this last week. The rangers and one local teacher met at NOAA’s science boat Tatoosh that is based out of La Push, Washington.

The tour began on the south side of James Island through the narrow mouth of the Quillayute River into the open ocean were conditions were akin to a lake. The only complaint was that there was an abundance of high thin clutter clouds that amounted to a slightly less than powder blue-sky day. As we rounded James Island and headed north, Mt. Olympus towered over the Olympic Peninsula towards the southeast.

Cake Island is just a few miles off shore from famous Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park.

First stop on our excursion was Cake Island which serves as a major rookery for a number of seabirds. Chief among them are Puffins and Common Murre, but also include Cormorants and Western Gulls. As we arrived, a Bald Eagle was raiding the colony and chaos was the rule of the moment. While the island is set aside as a place for the birds to call their own, peace and quiet was not to be had as the gulls raided and the Murres took flight, momentarily leaving their eggs behind and in peril.

Murres and Puffins among other species litter the water around Cake Island.

Common Murre


Next was a pair of islands to the north aptly called Sea Lion Rock and then Carroll Island. Sea Lion Rock is a low lying, surf beaten stone that has a high point just 50-75 feet above the sea and is the reign of sea lions. A few hundred yards to the north at Carroll Island, Sea Lions and bird life were abundant on the low lying shores that led to the steep cliffs several hundred feet above. In three locations, the ocean cut large caves including one that chopped through the entire island from west to east. From within the caves came the unmistakable social communication of California and Stellar Sea Lions.

Two California Sea Lions greeted us as we approached Sea Lion Rock.

Carroll Island has several caves where Sea Lions find solitude from the pounding surf of the Northern Pacific.

At one point during the tour, our captain shut off the boat’s motor on the northern side of the island and allowed the craft to drift silently first east and then south as we silently listened to and watched the private dramas that were taking place on shore.

Cormorants dominante the landscape adjacent to Carroll Island.

The northwest side of Carroll Island had this population of Stellar and California Sea Lions. The island is used generally as a retreat for males after the breeding season, but on this day, females and pups were also spotted and stirred a scientific inquiry thaty may have to be updated.

The tour was derailed as we began to head north for potentially 30 minutes take a close look at Ozette Island off the western most point of Washington State near Cape Alava. In transit, our captain came over the speaker and said that a whale had been sighted. Sure enough, a Humpback was fishing a current and the boat captain began playing a game of hide and seek with the massive fisher. Based on experience and guesswork, our guide would move the boat to a spot where the whale would probably surface and then turn off the engine.

The tail of a Humpback whale is usually a signal that the whale is going into a dive that will last for five to seven minutes. Wait patiently, he will most likely return to the surface is the same general area.

Time after time, this strategy was rewarded with the preceding “blow” and then surfacing of the whale. While we never witnessed a full breech (the whale jumping completely out of the water), the estimated 55 foot whale consistently provided us with many sightings.

The most we saw of a humpback whale that we kept company off of the Olympic Coast on a Tuesday in late June.

After the trip, I thought about my limited role as a Park Ranger for the National Park Service and how it relates to NOAA and the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. I now have more of an affliction to the wildlife that lies just off the beaches where I educate visitors and patrol on a daily basis. The partnership is now in sharp focus.

The Statues of La Push

I had to post this photo that really didn't work with any other stories and themes of this blog. It does illustrate wild coast atmosphere of Washington's Olympic Coastline.

Two eagles pose for photos on Tuesday morning in the Quillayute village of La Push.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cape Alava Calls Many to the Far West

The view from my campsite at Cape Alava as a fog rolls in.

The farthest point on the west coast (outside of Alaska) is a draw like no other in Olympic National Park. Cape Alava is just west of Lake Ozette (third largest freshwater lake in Washington State) and is apart of a 78 mile strip of west coast largely protected as designated wilderness.

The area is so popular that you actually need reservations to camp there. Most days, there is space, but holiday weekends are packed. Cape Alava is just a three mile hike over a beautiful boardwalk between Lake Ozette and the cape.

After my shift, I drove from Forks north to Callam Bay on State Route 112 and then turned south and west on a slow road to Lake Ozette. In all, the trip was just over a long hour. A quick hike of 3.2 miles to the coast resulted in a late arrival to Cape Alava. Even on a Tuesday evening, in early June, near every available site was occupied. I did find a camping spot on the bench just above the beach, but I was less than 100 feet from two other campsites. It was a pretty shady wilderness experience and I found it hard to imagine where people camp when the area is fully occupied with the full number of 86 campers. On this night, there was only about 35 on paper.

One of the most amazing pieces of trail anywhere exists at Cape Alava and Sand Point. Nearly six miles of cedar plank walkway is constructed to prevent resource damage.

The wild coast has had a long history of wildlife interactions. In the interior of Olympic National Park, it is the black bears that both fascinate and serve as a challenge to visitor. Backcountry users are required to secure food and scented items from wildlife. On the coast however, ARFCs (Animal Resistant Food Containers) are required and the traditional practice of hanging food prohibited. The change is a result of inconsistent skill levels by visitors which made raccoons, not necessarily bears continue to find human food attractive even with modest success.

Park Service rangers have documented raccoons playing with the lid of the ARFC as if they are figuring out the new system, but have yet to master the two screws used secure the container. In the long run, wildlife incidents are are becoming rare and the required use of AFRCs are spreading to the higher elevations of the park where damage to the few trees above 3500 feet is apparent..

Upon leaving the boardwalk trail at the beach, it wasn't five minutes before I had a close encounter with the main nemesis of campers in the area. I approached a tree that extended into the shallow surf and a raccoon who was working something in the water. He/she scuttled away up the beach toward the trees before I could even turn my camera in the correct direction.

In the evening, I headed north across the Ozette Reservation which echoed ghosts of the past including the dilapidated ranger station.

Looking north from Cape Alava and the Ozette Reservation towards Cape Flattery, Shi Shi Beach and the Poitn of Arches area.

After a restful night, I headed south towards Sand Point during a solid low tide. My route across the rocky surface included many mid-level tide pools. It was important to watch my step for nearly every one of them could have been fatal to some form of life in this incredibly diverse habitat.

After two hours of wandering south, I reached Sand Point and found the availability of campsites much more to my pleasure. There was more space and vegetation in between the more numerous sites, but there would not be time to make use of them on this particular trip. I headed northeast again back towards my vehicle on one of the most unique trails found anywhere and finished up a nine mile loop.

Sunset on Cape Alava.

Keep checking in because I have more experiences to document.

An update on the Spotted Owl
Two hikes to Toleak Point on the Olympic South Wilderness Coast
The Forks Logging Museum Tour of a mill and logging sites
A trip off-shore into the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary
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