Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Hoh Rainforest

Thirteen rivers radiate down from the slopes of the Olympic Mountains, the range along Washington's Pacific Coast on the Olympic Peninsula. Fed by a heavy snow pack high in glacier-glad peaks and more than 150 inches of rain fall, these rivers gather force as they flow toward the ocean. These rivers are the lifeblood for the pacific salmon -- coho, pink, chum, Chinook, and sockeye.

The Quinault, Queets, Hoh, and Quillayette are the four rivers that flow west from these mountains to the Pacific. The Hoh River begins at the Hoh Glacier high on Mount Olympus then flows nearly 60 miles to the ocean. You hear the river before seeing it, the great rush of water flowing through a broad, flat valley before it reaches the ocean.

The glaciers grind rock into fine "glacier flour," which turns the water a milky slate blue color.

Olympic National Park protects the oldest and largest remaining old growth temperate rain forest. Massive Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar rise high above the forest floor, reaching heights of 250 feet and 12 feet wide at the base.

Sitka spruce, Picea sitchensis
500-550 years old
These large, old trees block sunlight from reaching the forest floor. Their branches are draped in clubmoss, which in turn create microhabitats for licorice fern and other rainforest life. When one of these great trees falls it becomes a "nurse log," as it decomposes ferns, tree seedlings, and other plants take root and grow in the sunlit forest gap.

Licorice fern, Polypodium glycyrrhiza
Bigleaf maples, the most common hardwood tree in these forests, is also laden with clubmoss and is a favorite habitat of the licorice fern.

Bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum

Bigleaf maple draped in clubmoss

Licorice fern and clubmoss on bigleaf maple

The largest remaining herd of Roosevelt elk live high in the alpine meadows in summer and beneath the lowland forests in fall and winter feeding on ferns, lichens, and clubmosses. In the cool forests along the Hoh River the elk feed on sword ferns and red alder bark. Five elk rested in these "elk pastures" just off the trail, their heavy browsing on the ferns visible.

Red alder, Alnus rubra

Sword ferns, Polystichum munitum
Just off the Spruce Nature Trail a large bull elk rested near two cows. The size of his antlers and girth of his neck far outmatched two smaller "bachelor" males sitting farther down the trail. The protection of this subspecies of elk was the main reason that Olympic National Park was established in 1938.

Roosevelt elk, Cervus canadensis roosevelti
Photo by Shanti Ramachandran

The Olympic Peninsula is a natural marvel of mountain peaks, subalpine meadows, glaciers and rivers, coastal beaches and tide pools, and inland rainforest. Outside the boundaries of the Park and other protected areas, the complex natural communities are gone -- displaced by extensive logging, over fishing, dams, and other human uses. The National Parks preserve remnants of nature -- breathing, living, flowing, evolving.

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