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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Natural History on the Gray Wolf Trail

Hikers on the Gray Wolf Trail
Washington Wild recently began a summer hike series to wild places around the State. For more information, visit our web site. To register, please send us an e-mail. 

Although I have tread the trails of the Olympic Peninsula since the day my legs held my body stable, few days of my life have brought as much knowledge and wisdom about the place I’ve called home for the last 21 years as on Saturday July 14th, hiking the Lower Gray Wolf Trail with Washington Wild supporters and our guide, Tim McNulty.

Tim is a renowned poet and author of some of the most essential natural history books for the region, and has called the Olympic Peninsula home for nearly 40 years. Our hiking destination for the day was essentially in his backyard, and his knowledge of the area is reflective of such. Every turn of the trail and plant growing alongside seems to be second nature, an experience that Tim truly finds joy in sharing.

In the early hours of the day (early by standards of a college student on summer break), a collection of people from various northwest Washington locations gathered atop the pavement of a public parking lot amidst the hardly “urban” center of Sequim, WA. After a brief introduction to Tom Uniack, the Conservation Director of Washington Wild, we were casually briefed to the knowledge and experience of our guide, Tim. Tom and Tim (clearly a confusing similarity for someone terrible with names) unrolled a map on the asphalt to give us context of the area for which we were about to embark.

These forested slopes bordering the great Olympic National Park are managed as part of Olympic National Forest, by the U.S. Forest Service. Much of the great old growth in the National Forest was logged decades ago. Wilderness designations, like the Buckhorn Wilderness,  protect some of the pristine forests that survived from new roads, logging and other development. Other old-growth groves and intact forest still persist without legislative protection.. Tracing a finger on the day's hiking trail along the lower Gray Wolf river basin, Tim and Tom pointed out the areas that are currently being proposed for Wilderness designation through the Wild Olympics Campaign, where we would spend part of our hike.

Upon rolling up the map, our transition from concrete to second growth was swift. I have always taken for granted how fortunate the small communities scattered around the Olympic Peninsula are to be in such proximity to nature, but was quickly reminded of this luxury as we parked at the trailhead only minutes later.

The beginning of our hike was along an old logging road put to bed and converted to a trail in the late 1980s. It burrowed deep into the valley to access those trees so seemingly unattainable by humans. It has since grown in, save for a small trail, as have the trees whose removal it aided.

Stopping at a clearing scattered with wildflowers and grasses, Tim pointed out faint lines in the forested hillsides across the valley that indicated the periods when different stands were clear cut or fell victim to fire or windstorm. The subtle variation in the look of a coniferous forest is something I’ve never taken the time to consider. An untrained eye gazing out across the treetops sees only a solid sea of green spires stretching to the sky in uniformity, but in reality, it is a patchwork record of the area’s history.

The trail snakes along the old road a bit further before dipping down into a moist buggy section along Cat Creek, where banana slugs litter our path and moss is draped from the branches of every conifer. I relayed the tale I was told as a child about this moss actually being dragon skin - a tale my mom told me every year when we went camping about dragons that roamed the Olympic Mountains, whose skin was shed all over the trees due to fights for territory.

We found our way back up to a drier, breezy hill, where sun-kissed pine needles instantly brought the sweet smell of everything good about home. The sound of the roaring river ahead alerted the nearing of our lunch break, but just as we headed down close to the stream, Tim suggested a brief diversion to one of his favorite places, a stand of old-growth forest.

The short path off the main trail leads us into a small grove of towering elders. Everyone’s necks crane upward, trying to take in the enormity of the handful of monsters surrounding us. Their age, height, girth, and deep wrinkles in their bark command a reverence unrivaled by human creation. There’s just something about big trees. It’s something so hard to describe or relate, let alone take in. The only appropriate reaction I’ve found is silence. Silence and awe.

Ten minutes later, we are seated on logs and rocks beside the misty Gray Wolf River, enjoying the hidden flavors of food that only physical exertion in the wilderness brings out. Contemplating the river beside us, Tim is asked,

“Is there any story behind its name?”

“Not really, at least not to its origin, “ Tim responds. “But strangely it sort of fulfilled its prophecy, because the second to last gray wolf on the peninsula was shot at Cameron Creek in its upper headwaters in 1919...”  

Phoebe Reid
The last wolf on the Olympic Peninsula was killed in the 1920s, but prior to that, wolves were common in the Olympic mountains and the Gray Wolf was one of the last bastions of the iconic species. The river was undoubtedly named for their abundance, and it was only coincidence that one of the last would die beside it and commemorate their absence.

Just past our lunch site, the trees open into yet another piece of the forest’s patchwork. Here the climate feels arid and dry. The trees are spaced far from each other, so the sun has no filter before reaching our skin. Instead of the overcrowded canopy we have been hiking under, we find ourselves amidst a forest that has mostly found its resting place on the ground. The windstorm from 40-50 years ago blew over the trees like match sticks, leaving only the strongest few standing. This naturally-caused disturbance gives a glimpse into the sudden difference in temperature and composition of any disturbance, human or natural, especially that of a freshly logged stand of trees.

Soon we have reached the top of a hill, and the turnaround point of our hike. We overlook the steep river below - one of the steepest in the US - as it plunges toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The trail continues ahead less than a mile further before the river cuts it off. Prior to a flood, there was a bridge leading to trails on the other side, but now this is the end of the road.

The hike back elicits contemplation of all that we have learned. There are still occasional questions about this plant or that, but for the most part I find myself considering the opportunity we have to step foot in these places. There is absolutely nothing like hiking in the forests of the Northwest, especially those of the Olympic Mountains. I consider how lucky my generation is to be in an age when people and organizations like Washington Wild are working hard to preserve this land for future generations in years to come.

On my drive home, I pass fresh clearcuts and heavy machinery loading debris into a dump truck to be hauled away, and I can’t help but think of what a tragedy it would be for a place like the lower Gray Wolf, which is currently only designated as a National Forest, to be stripped of its beauty, its wisdom, and its patchwork of history. After an immersion into the heart of the area, alongside its supporters and disciples, the proposed wilderness designation seems only logical considering the gift of the wilderness we have been given to care for.

Phoebe Reid is an Education Intern for Washington Wild. She is currently pursuing a Geography and Environmental Studies degree at Dartmouth College and hopes to pursue a career in sustainable international development and food systems.

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