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Weaving Weasels, Ghost Elk, and Wynoochee Bowl

by Laurence Smith

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Feb 8~9, 2003

I was lucky enough to have two more days of freedom from American Urbana, so once again I packed the old Datsun with the various accoutrements and trappings that we all use to gain access to, and ski in, the beloved and quiet backcountry. I laid myself across the pile of textiles, food, nylon, and metal that filled the back seat, squashing to it all down so that my ears had a clear shot to the speakers mounted on the rear window deck, and laid the old Ramer Tours on top. I was officially packed.

I headed west again, but this time I hung a right and followed the intense green and riparian Wynoochee Valley 40 miles into the southern ramparts of the Olympic Mountains. The upper 20 miles turn into a prime example of runaway logging practices, with nauseating proof of the utter disregard for Sustained Yield that was so proudly touted in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The U.S. Forest Service allowed a select few major lumber companies to carpet-bomb these lush foothills with clearcuts during the heyday of logging in the 40s and 50s, then turned around and violated their own policies by allowing the companies to re-enter the same cutovers only 20 to 30 years later. This resulted in the cutting of immature trees that were only good for turning into chips and sending to Japan, so that the Japanese could process and create wood product items to sell back to us.

The only thing that saves this watershed is the tremendous amount of precipitation that allows the rapid growth of stabilizing plants in a very short period of time. These natural defenses have allowed the whole river system to teeter on the side of recovery, even after incredible abuses. The rain gauge at the Wynoochee Oxbow has averaged 164 inches of rain per year, making this the wettest spot at this elevation in the conterminous United States. This also results in very heavy snow cover, with the lowest-elevation subalpine and alpine meadow systems on Earth at this latitude. The subalpine zone generally starts at 2800 feet, with pure open ski bowls at 3400 feet and above. The Wynoochee Bowl, at the headwaters of the river, is an open horseshoe basin system, surrounded by basalt peaks, at an elevation of between 3000 and 5000 feet.

I parked at the winter gates near Wynoochee Falls campground, and loaded things up. This is a low snow year, as you all know, so I was able to hike nearly five miles of the total eight miles of road before hitting enough snow to put the skis on. This hike enters an area that was somehow saved from the saw, and the trees are absolutely magnificent, including some truly massive Alaska Yellow Cedar groves. My neck was getting sore from looking up at all the fine specimens, when I was omentarily startled out of my wandering thoughts with a strange movement on the road ahead. I thought for a moment that it was a snake, but it turned out to be a family of about half a dozen weasels, all weaving like little telemarkers, making some nice 8s as a unit! They finally saw me, and continued the weave, disappearing into the underbrush in curving little bursts of speed. I watched the brush move, and noticed that even the brush movement mimicked the weaving pattern! How utterly cool.

I listened to the hiss and roar of the river to my left, and was lost in thought in all the quietness. Suddenly, my heart skipped a beat as I was startled in a rush of adrenaline from the sound of crackling brush. Off to my right about fifty feet, a small herd of elk had also been startled by my invasion of their privacy, and they were clambering to the forest recesses from their comfortable beds, their nostrils spitting out geysers of steam, and their muscles rippling as they negotiated downed logs and small vertical rises with graceful ease. The little bits of fog would momentarily turn them into ghostly forms, and then they would materialize and gain color as they emerged into the clear air again.

As the road climbed above the river, I was finally able to put on skis and skins. The snow was moderately soft, and very grippy, allowing me to make good time. I could see the openings in the upper valley, and the white snow looking inviting, contrasting against the sea of dark green forests. I gained the Wynoochee Pass trailhead in mid-afternoon, and put the skis back on my pack. The travel was easy on the packed snow, and the Silver Fir forest was a welcome sight. I picked my way up little rises and over and around the butts of the trees for two miles, and finally broke into the first mini-meadow that marked my "jumping off" point to climb up to the bowl above.

Even in the driest years, the Wynoochee Bowl is lush with flowers, with water everywhere. The mushy ground stores and discharges the water like a time release capsule. The amount of moisture far exceeds the amount of moisture you would expect for the amount of collection area involved. The upper mini-cirque contains two small tarns that are, in the summer, churned to mud by elk looking for a bath. The noise of waterfalls is a friendly applause of welcome, and the air is full of oxygen. But today, the blanket of snow mutes everything, and all I could hear was my heart thumping in my ears, and an occasional hooting of a grouse.

I suddenly broke out of the forest and was treated to the sight of a perfect ski bowl, with the slope getting progressively steeper towards the top, but never more than about 30 degrees. The snow was stable, with a two inch skim of "winter corn" on top! I quickly stashed my gear, and skinned up. I was able to strip to shorts and shirt and baseball cap, and made my way to the crest in short order. I paused to soak in the view of the interior Olympic Mountains, and was able to make out the Colonel Bob massif that I had visited just days before. A couple of hawks hovered overhead, and they finally urged me to "point 'em down". I was grinning so hard that my jaw was hurting, but it didn't matter. I didn't care if I looked like a maniac, because it was just too much fun, and oh-so-fulfilling, to be in the wonderful Olympic backcountry again.

I yo-yoed until dark, and was treated to the sight of the mating of two grouse. The male would puff up like a balloon, showing off his feathers to the best advantage. The female would strut around, making little dipping motions with her head, then they would go at it in a short frenzy. I drank up my chocolate, cozied myself into my bag, and again watched the stars spin in the sky. I could see four of Jupiter's moons through the binoculars. And, just like Colonel Bob, the Staghorn Lichen just kept waving as I fell asleep.

About the Author

Larry is engaged in a clandestine affair with the Olympic Mountains. Contact Information
Olympic National Park 360-452-0330

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