This past May marked the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant natural disasters in U.S. history: the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. 2004 to 2008 brought another series of eruptions, but today Mt. St. Helens is quiet. Stratovolcanoes such as Mt. St. Helens generally provide some degree of warning (often in the form of earthquakes or surface deformation) before erupting. Given that Mt. St. Helens is one of the most closely monitored volcanoes in the U.S. (if not the world), the lack of activity in recent years has once again made the surrounding landscape a recreational destination.
The northeast side of Mt. St. Helens is just a few hours from our front door, accessed via a series of forest service roads that, while technically paved, are in such poor condition that one pines for the sweet rhythm of dirt washboards. Much of the land most directly affected by the 1980 eruption is protected as the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, established two years after the eruption. Camping and off-trail travel is restricted across a large swath of the monument to allow scientific study of how the landscape evolves post-eruption, with minimal human disturbance. Recently, we took a short backpacking trip to the northeast flank of the mountain, where camping is allowed, but where recurring volcanic activity has still left the landscape relatively devoid of tall vegetation. The result is spectacular views of Mt. St. Helens itself and the surrounding terrain (and, it turns out, any bright comets that happen to be gracing the skies.)
This was my third visit to the area but first in about 10 years. My previous visits had been in late summer and early fall, when the only wildflowers to speak of were some hardy stalks of late-blooming fireweed. On this visit, in early July, the grassy slopes of the lower mountain were awash in what can only be described as a riot of wildflowers. Paintbrush and penstemon dominated the scene, resulting in slopes that glowed red and purple from miles away and absolutely lit up at sunset and sunrise. It was truly one of the most spectacular wildflower displays I have ever seen!
We settled on a campsite located on a small, barren ridge of pumice and ash where we could set up for the evening without impacting the gorgeous display all around us. Shortly thereafter, a handful of mountain goats came wandering through…with a good deal less regard for the wildflowers. While this was slightly concerning at first, as mountain goats can be aggressive, they seemed to be enjoying the buffet too much to notice our presence. We watched them slowly eat their way up-slope behind our campsite for well over an hour (as we somewhat nervously heated up our cans of soup and baked beans, while hoping that they continued to find the scent of the penstemon more attractive) before they finally bedded down on a distant ridge for the evening.
On just a few hours of sleep, we hiked back out to our car the next morning and enjoyed some day hikes to the north of Mt. St. Helens over the next two days. This area provides the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the 1980 eruption. The blast reduced the elevation of Mt. St. Helens by over 1,000 feet, replacing the formerly sharp summit with a massive crater. Part of the crater has since been filled in by a lava dome extruded in the months following the eruption, and again during the eruptive sequence of 2004-2008. Another dramatic feature of the landscape is Spirit Lake. This once idyllic destination was directly in the path of the eruption on May 18, 1980. The massive landslide associated with the eruption filled in a large portion of the lake with debris, pushing the entire lake northward and raising the water level by about 200 feet, burying numerous buildings, camps, and, unfortunately, Mt. St. Helens Lodge owner Harry Truman, who had steadfastly ignored evacuation orders in the weeks leading up to the eruption. To this day, a massive raft of logs floats on the lake surface, the remains of trees uprooted in the 1980 eruption.
As a geologist, I find the landscape around Mt. St. Helens endlessly fascinating. Changes since my last visit 10 years ago were clearly visible in many places. Mt. St. Helens is the most active of the Cascade volcanoes and will certainly erupt again. Perhaps nowhere is it more clear that the current configuration of the Earth’s surface is ultimately temporary.
Today was our first 90 degree day, so I can confidently say that summer has arrived here in Central Washington. As Washington slowly begins to relax stay-at-home restrictions, the last few weekends have brought our first few forays into the mountains since early this year. We’ve deliberately avoided highly visited areas, which in Washington is basically synonymous with “trails with views”. The highlight of these excursions instead has been the wildflowers, which are currently in full bloom at elevations between about 2000 and 4000 feet. With higher elevations still buried in snow, the off-the-beaten path trails in the Cascade foothills are the sweet spot right now:
Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia) are some of the most iconic figures of the southwestern deserts. While most often associated with California and Joshua Tree National Park, a tiny portion of their range extends into our corner of southwestern Utah. Not actually a tree but rather a tall gangling species of yucca, Joshua trees are frequent companions on low-elevation hikes in the St. George area, where the Mojave Desert makes its last stand before disappearing into the higher altitude mountains and valleys of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin.
Like many species of yucca, Joshua trees don’t flower every year, but instead only when temperature and rainfall conditions are favorable. We had yet to see a flowering Joshua tree in our three years in Utah, only the dry brown stalks of blooms gone by. This winter has been abnormally wet however, and in early March we started to notice large flower buds forming on a handful of Joshua trees (in the median of Interstate 15) that we drive past regularly. By the end of March, the bloom was in full swing! We decided to head into the Virgin River Gorge of extreme northwestern Arizona for a closer look.
Joshua trees produce truly massive flower stalks: 1-2″ feet long and densely packed with large, rubbery, cream to nearly yellow-colored petals. Perhaps even more impressive are the flower buds, which resemble gigantic green and purple artichokes in the days and weeks before the flowers emerge:
This year’s Joshua tree bloom wasn’t limited to Utah and Arizona. Throughout the Mojave Desert, Joshua trees have been flowering in large numbers, thanks to a series of wet and cold winter storms over the past few months. In fact, some Joshua trees in California were observed blooming as far back as last November. This fact may seem innocuous, but actually gives ecologists cause for concern given that Joshua trees are pollinated by just one insect: the yucca moth. Yucca moths are the sole species with the proper behavior and anatomy to pollinate the Joshua tree. Consequently, Joshua trees are 100% dependent on the yucca moth for reproduction and survival, while the larvae of the yucca moth are similarly dependent on the Joshua tree seeds for nutrition. For these symbiotic species to survive, the timing of the Joshua tree bloom must coincide with the life cycle of the moth. As climate change warms the southwestern deserts, there is concern that this could cease to be the case, as described in the linked article above. Joshua trees are a keystone species of the Mojave Desert, providing food and shelter for a host of other animals large and small. A decline in their populations would be devastating for the desert as a whole.
All of this is reason to work toward protecting our remaining stands of Joshua Trees, and a reminder to always be mindful and respectful when photographing sensitive species and landscapes. The “superblooms” of poppies and other wildflowers in the southwest over the past few months have highlighted the ecological damage that occurs when swarms of folks looking for their next Instagram photo descend en masse on delicate landscapes without regard for the environment.
Fortunately, many photographers are aware of the threat photography can pose to these beautiful environments and are working to combat the problem. I’m pleased to share that I have joined Nature First: The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography. The goal of Nature First is to promote responsible nature photography through adherence to seven core principles:
Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
Use discretion if sharing locations.
Know and follow rules and regulations.
Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
Actively promote and educate others about these principles
If you are a nature or landscape photographer, check them out and consider joining. Following these principles will ensure that spectacular events like Joshua tree blooms are still around for future generations of humans and yucca moths to enjoy!
Winter has arrived in the high country of Utah. Fortunately for photographers, autumn was still very much in progress when the snow started to fly. The contrast between the mid-winter wonderland and vestiges of fall color made for some great photo opportunities over the past few weeks:
Tucked away at the terminus of a winding gravel road in the Dixie National Forest near the Utah/Nevada border, Pine Park would probably be a beloved national monument or state park were it located literally anywhere other than Southern Utah. We’ve been fortunate to come across quite a few places that fit this profile: stunning, unique, reasonably accessible, and—here’s the big one—empty. Places like Zion National Park may be bursting at the seams, but vast swaths of Southern Utah remain deliciously deserted. On a warm and beautiful weekend in early May, we had Pine Park pretty much all to ourselves!
The main draw at Pine Park are the spectacular rock formations carved into the Tuff of Honeycomb Rock. Tuff is a deposit of consolidated volcanic ash combined with rock, mineral, and glass fragments that forms only in very explosive volcanic eruptions. Pine Park sits on the margin of some of the most voluminous and expansive deposits of tuff in the world. Collectively, the thousands of feet of tuff scattered across large swaths of Nevada and western Utah represent a time when, for lack of a better descriptor, all hell was breaking loose across what is now the Great Basin. The Tuff of Honeycomb Rock is just a hair under 12 million years old, and thus one of the youngest deposits from this intense and violent episode of volcanism.
While the backstory of the tuff is intriguing, the real allure is the wonderland of creamy white spires, domes, and hoodoos emerging from the otherwise nondescript juniper, ponderosa, and piñon pine forest. Weathering and erosion have sculpted a masterpiece at Pine Park. In many places, the architecture almost resembles Bryce Canyon, albeit whitewashed, and with no maintained trails (several Forest Service trails wind through this area, according to the official map, but we had difficulty following them for any more than a hundred yards past the trailhead) the many pockets of eroded tuff are truly a blast to explore.
The tall, stately Ponderosas and a small stream give Pine Park a high-altitude feel, but in reality it sits at just 5700 feet above sea level, plenty low and warm enough for a plethora of wildflowers to be in full bloom during our visit:
Southern Utah isn’t typically known for its wildflowers, but one particular family of plants puts on an annual show that rivals the rocks in brilliance and diversity of hues. While snow still lingers in the mountains, the lower elevations are bursting with color as a plethora of cacti are currently in bloom. For most of the year, the abundant low-growing prickly pear and hedgehog cacti hardly stand out in a landscape chock-full of sharp, spiny plants that collectively make cross-country hiking miserable. Right now though, it is hard not to take notice of these hardy plants. So electric are the colors that simply keeping ones eyes on the road is difficult given the rainbow peeking out from the desert scrub:
While the cacti may be the main event, a supporting cast of other wildflowers contribute as well:
Another autumn is upon us, and once again we find ourselves becoming familiar with the surroundings of a new home, this time in Southern Utah. Why this neck of the woods, with its famous expanses of colorful slickrock, isn’t more well known for fall color, I do not understand. Near Fish Lake is the largest single aspen colony in the world, which also happens to be the worlds heaviest known organism period.
A bit closer to home for us is the Markagunt Plateau, which reaches elevations of over 11,000 feet and contains expansive reaches of aspen that rival, and to be honest probably beat, any we experienced in Colorado. The weather has been fairly mild for the last month or so, with few storms and little wind, allowing the leaves to put on an extended show:
At first glance, Nevada’s Snake Range is just one out of the hundreds of long, skinny mountain ridges that comprise the Basin and Range Province of the western United States. Clarence Dutton, a geologist associated with John Wesley Powell’s geographic and geologic surveys of the western United States in the late 1800s, once referred to the Basin & Range as “an army of caterpillars marching toward Mexico,” referring to the seemingly interminable landscape of north/south trending mountain ranges and intervening valleys that dominate Nevada, southern California, and western Utah & Arizona.
It is the presence of one of our nation’s least visited national parks, Great Basin, in the southern portion of the range that provides the first indication that the Snake Range might be somehow unique from its brethren. And indeed it is. Rising more than 7,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, the Snake Range is home to four of the five tallest peaks in the state of Nevada, culminating in 13,065′ Wheeler Peak, the second highest point in the state. The altitude and the lush spruce, fir, and aspen forests clinging to its slopes makes the area feel suspiciously like a piece of Colorado thrust up into the middle of the Nevada deserts.
Great Basin National Park is also famous for the groves of Great Basin bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) found on rocky slopes near treeline. Currently believed to be the longest-living non-clonal organism on Earth, many of the bristlecones in the park exceed 3000 years in age. In an infamous 1964 incident, a Snake Range bristlecone felled by a researcher (the area had not yet been designated as a national park at the time) was posthumously determined to be nearly 5000 years old, which would have made it the oldest known tree on earth were it not for the fact that the tree was now quite dead. More recently however, a bristlecone estimated to be 5,065 years old was found in the White Mountains of eastern California, slightly surpassing the age of the doomed Great Basin tree.
In the final hour of my recent drive across western Utah to reach Great Basin NP, I encountered only a single other vehicle before arriving at the park entrance. The relative isolation of the park leads to perhaps its most unique attribute; Great Basin National Park is by many measures the darkest national park in the U.S., and one of the darkest locations in the country period. Sadly, my visit coincided with a full moon which, while preventing me from experiencing a light pollution-free night sky, did make for some good nightscape opportunities:
If you get sick of exploring the surface world, Great Basin also harbors a subterranean spectacle, the ornately adorned limestone cavern known as Lehman Caves. With alpine peaks, caves, ancient trees, and inky black night skies, it may seem miraculous that Great Basin remains one of the least visited national parks in the country. In 2015, Great Basin was visited by 98% fewer people than that big hole in the ground known as the Grand Canyon. Hopefully the photos on this page encourage you to stay far, far away 🙂
Driving across the southwestern United States, one could be forgiven for thinking that all deserts are the same. However, differences in elevation, temperature, topography, and precipitation make them distinct in ways that are often hard to comprehend from a fast-moving car.
For all their differences though, both the subtle and the striking, the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts share one thing in common; the most visible symbol of each is a large, majestic, and photogenic plant perfectly suited for the harsh conditions in which it evolved to inhabit.
For the Mojave Desert, that plant is the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia). Not actually a tree but rather, as the scientific name betrays, a species of Yucca, early settlers bestowed the befuddling name upon this plant after noticing that the contorted arms resembled the prophet Joshua raising his arms to the sky in prayer.
Today, the Joshua tree is considered an indicator species for the Mojave Desert, as many other inhabitants of the Mojave (two-legged, four-legged, and winged alike) depend on it for survival. The Joshua tree grows through portions of western Arizona, southeastern California, and southern Nevada, but some of the largest and healthiest stands are protected within the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park and Mojave National Preserve.
For the Sonoran Desert, the symbolic plant is the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantea). Despite the nearly ubiquitous use of the saguaro as a symbol of the American Southwest, this excruciatingly slow growing cactus actually only grows in a small portion of the Sonoran Desert extending from extreme northwestern Mexico into south-central Arizona.
Like the Joshua tree in the Mojave, the saguaro is an integral part of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. Birds such as the Gila woodpecker nest within the flesh of the cactus while the fruits and flowers provide a source of food for many other species, including humans. When the end finally comes for a saguaro (which can take well over 100 years), the flesh rots away to reveal an internal structure consisting of a series of wooden ribs, which often remain standing long after the saguaro dies:
Both the saguaro and Joshua tree face serious threats; in the long term from a climate that may change faster than they are able to migrate, and in the short term from a loss of habitat due to rapidly ballooning human populations in the desert regions that these giants inhabit.
While the snow may be falling and the vegetation dying, I am still alive and well here in Northern Colorado. This past spring, I somewhat rapidly went from working zero hours per week to working 50-70 hours per week which, as they say, “crimped my style” when it comes to photography.
We’ve had a glorious month of unseasonably warm fall weather here in Colorado and I was fortunate to get the chance to take several trips into the high country over the past few weeks to photograph fall colors. The presence of a leaf blight on many aspens in Northern Colorado (due to a fungus that took hole during our spring & early summer deluge) led to dire speculation that this season’s leaf show would be a letdown. Indeed, I did come across occasional unsightly stands of aspen with leaves that looked as though they been crisped by a torch. But many other locations appeared completely unaffected and lived up to the annual hype. Enjoy the photos!
Note: 2016 photography calendars will be available soon! Details to come…
The grand old Rocky Mountains!
Their bold and massive forms,
Like Pyramids of age,
Defy the sweeping storms!
-Enos A. Mills, 1887
A hectic few months has kept me away from the website recently but fortunately not from my camera. My recent move to Fort Collins, CO means that my new backyard playground is Rocky Mountain National Park, only an hour from my doorstep and home to some truly spectacular scenery, especially in the fall when the aspens and willows turn golden and storms begin to dust the high alpine tundra with snow.
My arrival in Fort Collins happened to coincide with the annual fall elk rut, in which bull elk gather large groups of females (called harems) together to mate. The many large grassy parks in RMNP are a popular gathering place for the elk and hundreds of people can be found lining the roads and trails skirting the meadows each evening to observe them in action. Even though I used to regularly see elk in our backyard growing up, this was a new experience for me. After an evening of watching and photographing the bull elk mate, lock antlers with other males, and toss back their heads to bugle, I can now confidently check “witness an elk rut” off my non-existent bucket list. I would share some of my photos of this unique spectacle, but in order to keep this website rated PG-13, I had better pass…
While snow starts to fall in the high Rockies in late September or early October, the weather usually remains pleasant well into October or even November. We’ve had a few storms the past few weeks that have dropped some not insignificant amounts of snow in the high country so every hike I’ve taken so far has been an exercise in scouting trails less likely to be covered in snow and ice.
Earlier this week I decided to hike to the base of the east face of Longs Peak and Chasm Lake. I was unsure if I would actually be able to make it to the lake given its 11,700 foot elevation but I had picked Chasm Lake because I had noticed that the last (and highest) mile of trail hugged a south facing slope. A south facing slope equals more direct sun and theoretically less snow. My scouting paid off; the trail was nearly snow free save for some hard packed, but easily traverse-able snow just above tree line and the final 200 yards to the lake. The final 200 yards presented a bit of a challenge: a 30 degree slope guarding the lake that was basically one gigantic ice rink. I wasn’t going to be getting up the main trail without crampons but thankfully, a series of rock ledges alongside the trail were solid and dry, providing an alternative route up the final 200 vertical feet to the lake with only a little Class 3 scrambling required. Upon finally reaching the lake, I was met by a wonderful late autumn scene and quite happy to have avoided the the colossal disappointment of hiking 4+ miles only to get turned around with only a few hundred yards to go.
The snow and ice had the added benefit of deterring the crowds that seem to linger in the park well into the fall. The previous week I had hiked to Loch Vale in a busier section of the park and just getting to the trailhead had involved being stuffed like sardines in a park shuttle bus. Chasm Lake though I had all to myself for over an hour, save for a pair of climbers descending from Longs Peak, the highest summit in the park. The east face of Longs Peak is an imposing sight, “abrupt and precipitous for three thousand feet” according to Enos A. Mills, an early resident of the area and the driving force behind the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915. The silence was stunning, save for the occasional high-pitched “eeeeeeeee” of a pika, the intermittent roar of the wind whipping up loose snow, and the din of fallen icicles and chunks of glacial ice crashing their way to the base of the cliffs.
At eve and morning lighted
With liquid gold all around,
Thy crests and hills and valleys
Gleam bright with glory crowned.
—Enos A. Mills, 1887
It’s no secret that I love mountains. It’s also not much of a secret that the San Juan Mountains of Colorado are my favorite mountains. I love the San Juans for a number of reasons. One of them is geology. Look at a map and its easy to lump the San Juans in with the rest of the Rockies, but geologically speaking, they’re a whole different ballgame. Formed not by uplift but by some of the largest and most violent volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history (think Yellowstone only MUCH, MUCH larger…), the San Juans have a personality all their own. They are tall (12 peaks above 14,000 and 314 above 13,000), large (more than 10,000 square miles, as opposed to the long but skinny ranges that dominate the rest of Colorado), and so steep that only three ski resorts exist here.
I also love the San Juans for the solitude they can offer. 5+ hours from major metropolitan areas (*cough*Denver*cough*), escaping the crowds here is much easier than in the rest of the state’s mountains (*cough*Aspen*cough*).
As of last weekend though, my number one reason to love the San Juans is that the San Juans contain Ice Lake, which might be the most beautiful location I’ve visited on Earth to date.
Ice Lake is a glacial tarn located at 12,300 feet not too far from the mining town of Silverton. Fortunately, it’s one of the few major destinations in the San Juans that you can’t get anywhere close to with a jeep, which drastically limits the number of people that you see and the number of engines that you hear. Instead, it is accessed via a steep 3.5 mile hike from a trailhead along South Mineral Creek. It’s been on my list of places to go for several years now and my girlfriend Michelle and I recently got a chance to spend a few days in the San Juans and make the short but steep trek up to the lake. Hiking in Colorado’s high mountains in the summertime can be challenging. Near daily vicious afternoon thunderstorms make it hard to spend any appreciable time above tree line. Despite the fact that a good chunk of this hike was above treeline, we didn’t hit the trail until a little after 8am but fortunately the weather gods cooperated on this day.
While the scenery along the trail is spectacular, all is forgotten once you catch your first glimpse of Ice Lake. One look at the brilliant neon blue water and you suddenly feel as if you’ve been hiking through a prison yard for the last few hours. I’ve never seen water so vividly colored; some of the hot springs in Yellowstone are the only things that come even remotely close. The color is caused by the presence of “rock flour” in the lake, extremely fine sediment left over from the days when large glaciers scoured out Ice Lake Basin and ground the fragile volcanic rocks into a powder. These sediment particles are so small that they remain suspended in the water, scattering blue light toward the eyes of every astounded hiker and backpacker that reaches the basin.
Unlike many of the other high alpine basins in the San Juans, Ice Lake Basin is HUGE! Covering nearing five square kilometers, the basin contains several other named and unnamed lakes as well as some of the most impressive wildflower fields I have ever seen. White, red, pink, and yellow varieties of paintbrush, elephant ears, asters, and columbines blanketed the basin. Wildflower season in the lower elevations has long past but up at 12,000 the show is just reaching it’s zenith!
Interestingly, the other lakes in the basin were not nearly as brilliantly colored, but rather a more drab blue-ish green that was nevertheless spectacular, especially when the wind calmed and the waters began to reflect the ring of peaks surrounding the basin. We lucked into a day where the thunderstorms had trouble developing and so we were able to spend 5-6 hours exploring the basin, crossing fields bursting with wildflowers, and relaxing by the lakes. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the mountain goats that often frequent such basins, but we had to settle for a handful of marmots and a trio of llamas which another party had used to pack their overnight gear into the basin.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. Walking through the basin, I was reminded of Robin Williams’ famous quip about Glacier National Park: “If this isn’t God’s backyard, then he certainly lives nearby.” Apparently God has now purchased a summer home in the San Juan Mountains because the scenery here is truly second to none.
Golden Larches at Blue Lake in the North Cascades.
Still reeling from the disappointment of having to leave Colorado a mere fortnight before the world’s largest Aspen forests exploded into their annual displays of color, I was determined to find some similar photo opportunities in Washington this fall. The “Aspen of the Pacific Northwest” is arguably the Western Larch. Most common in the Northern Rockies, a handful of Western Larch stands can be found east of the Cascade Crest in Washington state. Tall but unassuming for 50 weeks out of the year, and then drop-dead spectacular for two, the Western Larch looks all for the world like an evergreen, but it is decidedly deciduous. Most high-altitude Pacific Northwest forests are all evergreen, so unless seeing dead and decaying brown pine-needles pile up on the forest floor is your thing, autumn up in the high Cascades isn’t anything to get too excited about. Add larch though and it’s a different story. The yellowish-green needles of the larch go out with a bang, turning a glittering golden-yellow for just a few short weeks in the late fall before leaving the tree buck naked until the following spring.
Golden larch season in the Cascades is an event that generally attracts hordes of needle-peeping Seattleites to the mountains. My hope was that the several feet of early-season snow the mountains had received in late September would be deep enough to temper the crowds. I was wrong. The parking lot at the Blue Lake Trailhead off of Highway 20 in the Okanogan National Forest was completely full, forcing us to park alongside the highway. Fortunately, photographers are born with an innate desire to bask in late-afternoon light which meant we were headed up the trail to Blue Lake late enough that most other folks were already on their way down. One advantage to having lots of folks on the trail was that we were alerted to the presence of a solitary mountain goat scrambling along a rocky gully a few hundred feet above the trail.
The lower portion of the trail was snow-free, but by the time we reached the goat and the larch groves, it was several feet deep. The main trail was hard-packed snow and ice due to all of the foot traffic but wandering off trail trying to take pictures of the larches sans people would definitely have been easier with a pair of snowshoes. The larches were nothing short of spectacular, especially against the snowy-white backdrop. In the late afternoon sun, the color of the needles was so resplendent that you could have painstakingly coated each needle in gold leaf and not known the difference. Individual larches on mountain ridges miles away could easily be picked out, their needles back lit by the sun, shining like beacons in a sea of mountains.
A surprisingly sunny and warm October afternoon in the North Cascades is perfect for larch hunting.
Exploring off trail, gazing out at the Cascades through the larches.
Later in the evening, headed to a lower-elevation (read: warmer) camping spot, I was able to catch the very last rays of sunlight on Liberty Bell Mountain. And just in case larches and a spectacular sunset weren’t enough, the clear skies and nearly full moon were ideal conditions for some nightscapes of the North Cascades!
Sunset along the North Cascade Highway.
The constellation of Aquila sets over North Cascade peaks illuminated by the Full Moon .
Remnants of early morning fog along the Elwah River
In 1910, the Elwah River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State underwent some changes. Big changes. Power was needed to support the burgeoning timber industry in and around Port Angeles, WA. A dam would be built. A 108 foot high dam that would transform the river upstream of it from from a wild, roaring river teeming with five different species of native salmon, into a flat and placid reservoir, filled not with salmon but with sediment. With no fish ladders, these salmon would be denied access to their spawning grounds upriver by a massive concrete block known as the Elwah Dam. Within a few decades, any fish that managed to miraculously jump over the 108 foot high dam would have a second nasty surprise waiting for them just a few miles further upstream, the 210 foot high Glines Canyon Dam, built in 1927.
Sunset over the Elwah Valley from Highway 101, just west of Port Angeles, WA
Fast forward nearly a century, and big changes are occurring yet again. In just a few short months, these two barriers will have been completely and permanently removed and the Elwah River will once again flow, uninterrupted, from the permanent snowfields and glacier of the Olympic Mountains all the down to sea level and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Even now (June 2013), only a small remaining stub of Glines Canyon Dam is preventing the salmon from moving back up into their traditional spawning grounds, and nearly 24 million cubic yards of sediment trapped behind the dams from moving down to the river’s mouth. To give you a sense of just how much material that is, 24 million cubic yards would be enough to bury an American football field under so much sediment that not even seven Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other would reach the top of the pile. While numerous dams have been decommissioned and removed around the world over the past several decades, none have been as large as Elwah and Glines Canyon. Nor have any been as controversial, as indicated by the fact that Congress passed legislation to remove the dams in 1992, yet demolition did not begin until 2011.
The former site of the Elwah Dam, now occupied again by the free-flowing channel of the Elwah River
Groundwater containing dissolved iron was trapped beneath the reservoir for decades. With the reservoir gone, this water can escape and the iron rapidly oxidizes as it is exposed to oxygen in the air.
Controversy aside, it is not often that one gets the opportunity to walk along the bottom of a reservoir without fear of drowning. As removal of the two dams enters its final stages, there exists a fantastic opportunity to watch an entire ecosystem attempt to return to its natural state. I visited the Elwah River valley on a cloudy, yet pleasant by Olympic Peninsula standards, weekend in May to see the effects of dam removal first hand. My first stop was the former site of Lake Aldwell, the narrow, yet shallow reservoir, 4 km long and 30 meters deep, that once existed behind the Elwah Dam. Lake Aldwell was the lower of two reservoirs on the Elwah (the other being Lake Mills behind Glines Canyon Dam), just five miles upstream from where the river ends its 45-mile long journey from the mountains to the sea. It was also the first to be drained, in 2011, and consequently has already had an entire growing season to begin recovering from over a century of submersion. Assisted by planting efforts, so far, “recovery” consists of some small alders, grasses, and a handful of wildflowers that have taken root in the layers of extremely fine grained sediment that accumulated on the bottom of the reservoir from 1910 to 2011.
Prior to the construction of the dams, the Elwah River valley contained spectacular old growth forests, the proof of which can once again be seen today. It is is the stumps of these gargantuan trees that are perhaps the most impressive sight at Lake Aldwell. Giant cedar stumps, the result of early 20th century loggers who were understandably eager to harvest the enormous trees on land slated for inundation, have been exposed as the river rapidly washes away the layer-cake of sediment that piled up at the bottom of Lake Aldwell. The size of the stumps are humbling and they are shockingly well preserved; many of them still contain the deep, horizontal notches cut for logger’s springboards, some so fresh in their appearance that it’s hard to believe that they weren’t felled just a few years ago, a testament to the preservation power of the meters of silt and dozens of meters of water that covered them for a century.
Giant Cedar stumps on the floor of Lake Aldwell. The former level of the reservoir can be clearly seen on the far bank.
Century old stumps are joined by new vegetation just beginning to take root in the lakebed sediments.
A stump that has been only partially exhumed from the sediment, with the six-foot tall photographer for scale.
The most powerful location from which to contemplate the restoration of the river is undoubtedly the site of the former Lake Mills. Unlike Lake Aldwell which is located right along US Hwy 101, Lake Mills requires a little bit of effort to get to. Located within the confines of Olympic National Park, the head of the now drained reservoir is reached only by driving up a narrow, one lane dirt road that winds through the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula several hundred feet above the course of the Elwah. Near the end of this road, a narrow footpath leads down to what was once the lake’s edge.
Being the uppermost of the two reservoirs, Lake Mills was where nearly a centuries worth of sediment accrued, scoured out of the Olympic Mountains just as it had been for thousands of years, by storm after storm after storm blowing in off the Pacific, dousing the mountains in rain, and sweeping the sediment into rivulets, tributary creeks and streams, and eventually the cold, swift, and turbulent Elwah. Once Glines Canyon Dam was built in 1927, the whole system just shut off. Vast quantities of silt, sand, and gravel sediment that would normally create a delta at the mouth of the river began creating a delta in Lake Mills instead.
Immediately upon breaking out of the trees, one is taken aback by the sense that something drastic has happened here. Over a thousand vertical feet of dense, dark green, damp forest immediately transitions to a landscape that looks like it belongs on Mercury or the Moon rather than the lush Olympic Peninsula. One is greeted by a staircase of spectacular gravel terraces leading down to the river’s edge, terraces cut by a river eager to make up for 100 years of lost time. The river’s path is changing on a near daily basis as it cuts down through the canyons of sediment. The only sound that accompanies the roar of the river is the constant and somewhat unsettling sound of miniature rockfalls breaking loose and sending pebbles, cobbles, and sometimes boulders scurrying down slope, the sounds of a landscape still changing by the minute as the river tries to re-establish its old course through the valley.
Terraces carved out of delta sediments by the resurrected Elwah River as it runs through the valley formerly occupied by Lake Mills.
The erosive power of the Elwah can be seen just by observing its color as it runs through its former delta. When the river first exits the confining gorge of Rica Canyon and explodes out into the wide valley once occupied by Lake Mills, it shines with a brilliant aquamarine color, almost tropical in its hue, due to the presence of extremely fine grained sediment suspended in the river. The river does not retain this color for long though. For decades, any coarse sediment brought here by the river would be abruptly dropped at the entrance to Lake Mills, as the energy level of the river dropped precipitously entering the tranquil reservoir. Now, with the reservoir gone, all that sediment is there for the taking and the river quickly takes full advantage. Just a few hundred yards later, the river has turned the color of a late-afternoon summer thunderstorm, a deep and foreboding dark gray, as the Elwah picks up coarse sediment and begins moving it downstream where it naturally belongs.
While the dams may be gone, and the fish have already shown signs of returning, the story of the Elwah is, in reality, just beginning. All the effects, both positive and negative, of such a large scale experiment won’t be known for many decades. I encourage you to go see it for yourself; as I mentioned earlier, opportunities to experience a landscape changing at such a rapid rate are rare, much less one in as spectacular of a setting as the Elwah River.
More information about the Elwah River Restoration project can be found here. To get a better idea of the changes that have occurred so far, I strongly recommend checking out slideshows and time-lapse videos made from a series of webcams that have been monitoring the progress here.
Did you know that Monterey Jack cheese takes it’s name from the city where it was first made by Spanish settlers and then later first commercially marketed by a Scottish immigrant? Neither did I. That is, until I came across a lovely, if somewhat small and water-logged (and apparently created on a home inkjet printer…) interpretive sign informing me of that fact on a recent hike to the top of the peak that now bear’s Jacks’ name:
Located just outside of Monterey, CA, Jacks Peak is the highest point in Monterey County topping out at a whopping 1,068 feet above sea level. The sign left me curious, and wanting to learn more about this mysterious Jacks fellow and his delicious cheese. After much additional research, I am now able to present you with the following information:
1. There is actually a fair bit of ongoing, spirited debate over who exactly should be credited with first making “Monterey jack” cheese. And Julius Caesar is involved…somehow.
2. According to the Monterey County Historical Society, Monterey jack is one of just four varieties of cheese to have been invented (created? first made? can one really “invent” cheese?) in the United States. In other words, while the U.S. may be top dawg at spitting out fancy new electronic devices that start with a lower case “i”, we are seriously lacking when it comes to new innovation in the field of dairy products.
3. Due to it’s creamy texture, Monterey Jack is excellent for making grilled cheese sandwiches.
I probably could have kept this list going for a while but reading page after page about cheese made me hungry. Lacking any authentic Monterey jack, I instead “settled” for a large hunk of Tillamook aged medium white cheddar, a piece of cheese that was so tasty I seriously considering including a picture of it right after this period. In fact, I still am considering it.
Monterey is also famous for a number of other attractions, nearly all of which, sadly, have little or nothing to do with the cheese that so admirably and bears the city’s name. Most of them do, however, involve the ocean in some way or another which is a pretty good consolation prize if you ask me.
Fort Ord Dunes State Park is one of the newer such attractions. Not new in the sense that the beach or the dunes itself are new (they’re quite old actually) but new in the sense that the land it occupies was for many years part of the Fort Ord U.S. Army post. In 1994, the Fort was closed and since then much of the land has been reclaimed and opened to recreational use. Over 10,000 acres were set aside by President Obama as Fort Ord National Monument 2012. A small strip of the beach and adjacent dunes just north of Monterey became Fort Ord Dunes State Park (pictured above) in 2009.
Clear on the other side of town is Point Lobos State Reserve, also part of the California State Park System. The scenery at Point Lobos is breathtaking to put it mildly. In slightly more concrete terms, it was WELL worth the drive back into town to withdraw some cash so we could pay pay the cash-only $10 entry fee to the park. Now, you can also park on the highway and walk in for free but in my humble opinion, $10 is a small price to pay to keep one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline in the world preserved for all to see. Like the nearby, and arguably more famous, 17-mile-drive and Pebble Beach area, the Point Lobos reserve protects rugged and rocky stretches of coastline, sheltered coves home to seals, sea lions, and sea otters, and one of the last remaining stands of Monterey cypress. What you won’t find here though is multi-million dollar mansions and immaculately manicured golf courses dotting the coast which in my view improves the scenery to a level that is beyond my ability to communicate via words.
Last but not least is Carmel Beach, located in the small hamlet of Carmel, which is distinctive in that it eschews street lamps and prohibits the wearing of shoes with heels higher than two inches. It is also one of the few towns in the U.S. to forgo street numbers. While you mull on that for a bit, take note that Carmel Beach is oriented almost directly towards the late afternoon sun, making it an ideal location to spend the end of your day watching our local nuclear fusion reactor dip below the apparent horizon of the Earth (that’s a more astronomically correct way of saying “sunset”). Note also that you won’t be alone. No matter though, just bring a blanket, a box of crackers, and some cheese and enjoy the show!
The wheat fields are bare, the homework is piling up, and the freshmen have stopped doing their daily Core reading. This combination of seemingly disparate events can mean only one thing: Fall has arrived in Walla Walla. This is not a bad thing in its own right, but sadly it means that the Sun will soon be disappearing behind the annual onslaught of clouds, mist, fog, and general dreariness that are the months of November-April here in eastern Washington. A few pictures from the past few weeks: