Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was a 2,000 mile overland route from Missouri to the Oregon Territory, ending in Oregon City (modern day Portland). This was the main migration route from 1841 to 1969 for people looking for riches and a new life. After 1861the railroad provided an easier path to the Pacific Northwest, and use of the arduous wagon route began to wane.

We traveled part of the Oregon Trail while exploring Oregon for this first time, making our own discoveries of the natural riches of this state. Our journey started at the end of the Trail in Portland, visiting our good friend Rosemary. She walked us through the tranquil 5+ acre Portland Japanese Garden, interweaving her impressions and interpretations of the five gardens.
A short walk down the hill from the Japanese Garden are the Portland Rose Gardens. As you step down into the gardens, 10,000 rose plantings and more than 550 varieties stretch out before you. Each rose bush radiant with a different color and fragrance.
A few roses
Portland Rose Gardens

Leaving behind the well-tended gardens, we headed west along the Columbia River Gorge. This vast river begins in northern Idaho and southern British Columbia, slices through the Cascade Mountain Range, and makes its final run through the 80-mile gorge before reaching the Pacific Ocean. The Columbia River must serve many uses, including power generation, not all compatible or complimentary. Much of the gorge is a National Scenic Area, with miles of trails, more than 77 waterfalls, great vistas, and amazing windsurfing (we watched in awe from shore).

Columbia River Gorge

620-foot Multnomah Falls
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

The next day, after a much too short of a visit, Rosemary sent us on our way down the Oregon Trail (Route 26), past the 11,000+ foot volcanic Mt. Hood, with stops at Smith Rock State Park in Terrebonne and Newbury National Volcanic Monument, before ending the day at Crater Lake National Park. This route through the Oregon High Desert was amazing for its diversity and the completely unexpected natural places tucked off the main road, and worthy of many more hours (or days) of exploration.

Smith Rock State Park is off the beaten path and without the tip from Rosemary we would have missed this little gem. Tucked along the Crooked River, Smith Rock is apparently known far and wide by rock climbers. We stopped for lunch; the picnic area offering excellent views of the rock faces and winding river below.

Smith Rock State Park

Our next stop at Lava Lands and the Newbury Volcanic National Monument left us completely dazed, so unexpected that it was. With our final destination still hours away we had little time to absorb the new Visitor's Center, before venturing onto the Trail of the Molten Land. This trail winds through part of a 7,000 year old lava flow from Lava Butte, a cinder cone (formed when fragments of lava erupt and fall as cinders around the vent) that rises up amid the black jumble of lava. A few hardy plants had taken hold among the red and black lava, which looked like deeply plowed soil churned up by giant tractors.

Lava Lands

Red and black pumice at Lava Lands

Life among the lava

Each stop along our drive left us wide-eyed as we tried to absorb the immense forces of nature that created these wondrous places. As we reached the rim of Crater Lake we sucked in our breath one more time as the caldera opened out before us. At nearly 2,000 feet deep the intense blue water contrasts sharply with the rock walls and ragged rim.

Wizard Island in Crater Lake

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicualis) on the rim, Crater Lake

Reflections from the rim, Crater Lake

The Phantom Ship, Crater Lake

The Pinnacles, Crater Lake National Park

We watched the sun set below Crater Lake amidst a haze of smoke from forest fires burning thousands of acres to the north and west. We ended our day-long journey along our "Oregon Trail" below the rim of Crater Lake tucked into a cabin at Mazama Village, named after the great Mount Mazama which last erupted only 7,700 years ago.

Sunset at Crater Lake

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Alpine Meadow

I imagine that many people visit Mount Rainier National Park to see the mountain. At 14,411, Mount Rainier towers above all other neighboring peaks in this part of the Cascade Range in southern Washington. Like Mount St. Helen's, which lies to the southwest, Rainier is volcanic, and will erupt sometime in the future. Unexpected mudflows can happen anytime, so they warn in the park brochure.

Even novice hikers can come close to the high peak. A relatively easy hike brings you to 6,800 feet, well short of the peak and the glaciers, but close enough to pick up snow from an ice field. After the initial awe of the rugged, glacier-glad peak, the beauty of the alpine meadow comes into focus.

Twenty miles of trails, some paved to allow handicap access, lead from the Paradise Visitor's Center through the alpine meadow to grand vistas. Signs border the trail telling hikers to stay on the trail and off the fragile meadow, this because over time careless or uninformed visitors have hiked off trail trampling the fragile alpine community.

Skyline Trail
Golden-mantled ground squirrels are common companions on the busier trails. The squirrels that appear friendly are likely fed by people, another common sin of visitors. This rodent looks like a chipmunk, but lacks facial stripes.

Golden-mantled ground squirrel, Spermophilus lateralis

The trails are well-marked and offer close-ups of meadow plants and animals, especially the trails that see fewer hikers. The windy paths that zigzag across the alpine meadow were my favorite.

Golden Gate Trail
Another meadow denizen, the hoary marmot, was busy fattening up for winter. They will soon go into hibernation, sleeping away the winter in their burrows buried under deep snow pack.

Hoary marmot, Marmota caligata

The marmot is slightly larger than our eastern woodchuck, but behaves the same way. They happily munch on grass and flowers in the alpine meadow, but scurry back to their burrow if danger gets too close. Sensing harm they give a high-pitched whistle, which we heard as we hiked. This earns them the nickname "whistle-pig."

Hoary marmot, at one entrance to its burrow, wary of our passing.

The alpine meadow is said to be spectacular in mid-July when many of the meadow plants are flowering. We visited a few days ago in mid-September, the vivid fall colors striking under a high mountain blue sky.

Pausing along the path to absorb the vistas and catch a breath gives time to kneel down and notice the colors and forms of alpine meadow plants.

Huckleberry and blueberry turn the hillsides red.

Small flowering plants gone to seed
tucked into dense mats of red heather.

Western anemone or pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis) gone to seed

Mountain Gentian, Gentiana calycosa

Scarlet paintbrush, Castillega miniata

Stream flowing through the alpine meadow

The sun sets on our day spent exploring the meadow and the mountain.

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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