Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Enchanted Valley

There are so many things about Olympic National Park that I find particularly endearing. As it turns out, it is one of the quietest places in North America. The weather keeps the sunshine crowd away while limiting how far outside sound can travel, the trees grow more pounds of moss than foliage – damping vibration – and the tourists stick to Hurricane Ridge and the Sol Duck hot springs on the northern fringe of the park. No chance of driving across. In the Olympic mountains, there’s no thru road.

I wasn’t in what was considered the more scenic section of the park. I know this by the following: there was no road leading to the trail head, and my hike consisted of more bear than people sightings (four to one). One was so close I could have hit him with a spoonful of apple sauce. That would be the bear, I mean. The human I could have gauged a chunk out of with said spoon. Around Marmot Lake, I came around the bend of the trail, and there was the furry, black behind towards me, the attached face in a berry bush. This was a good thing, as it gave me the advantage of time enough to back around the bend and give my approach a second try. Yet on the repeat, when I came back, both behind and bear were gone. I stood there, lost-looking, confused how an animal that weighs more than a refrigerator could disappear without making noise enough for me to notice. Then he reappeared 60 meters distant, about 20 seconds later, and looked back at me, as though to say ‘well, you might as well help yourself now that you’ve ruined my appetite.’

I stayed at that campsite only a night, since I chose to make use of the unusually clear weather to keep hiking the following day. Looking back on it, I ought to have stayed on so long as the weather allowed. I was above four thousand feet, in a bowl of a cirque, peaks all around, and small alpine lakes where a herd of elk drank each morning and dusk. But clear weather being an unusual resource on the peninsula, I crested over the pass from where one river flows, to another, the Quinault. From O’Neill Pass I could look out the mouth of the Enchanted Valley, below the peaks of the Adams range, to a band of blue, the Pacific. My first sight of the ocean since leaving Crescent City, California on July 11th.

The Enchanted Valley, when you enter it, is well worthy of its name. The Quinault River has scraped out a flood plain of smooth grass and maple groves gone gold in the autumn, sunk down at the bottom of two ridges of evergreen ramparts rising to rock above the ribbon of jade. Waves of alder trees grow like bamboo by the shores, and dead stands of them within the water where the river sucked in its gut and swung it over a hundred meters. As the last light cast fire to the peaks, I had a small blaze of my own, and boiled my dinner in the popcorn can I’ve kept since walking out Duarte’s Tavern. (I do not think I would be overestimating it if I called it the most crucial piece of equipment I own.) The campsite at the Enchanted Valley I have to myself, and bears number three and four. They seem to stay on their side and I stay on mine. Nothing but the glowering beams of the ranger station to mess with the evening’s program: sunset fade to starlight accompanied by rushing water and occasional salmon.

The ranger station within the Enchanted Valley is a beautiful monstrosity. It had been built in 1930 when the land was national forest and not yet park. It is a pretty enough, 2 ½ storey structure of hewn logs and cedar shingles that had at first been an inn, then an Air Force station during the war, then open to hikers again until 1980, when it was closed for repairs till 1985. By then, for having lasted five decades it was deemed ‘historic’ and worthy of restoration. A private group took up the cause.

Here is a direct quotation from a poster on the side of the building explaining some of the history of the chalet:

"By 1931, the two and a half story [sic] Chalet was completed. For the next several years, the Enchanted Valley and its Chalet were a featured stopping point for hikers and horse caravans. It provided shelter, a bath, cooks, good beds, and guides for anyone willing to pay the small fees. The following were the typical rates charged at the time: meals $1.00, single beds $1.50, double beds $2.00."
[there follows history of its appropriation by the park, closing to the public, and then reopening in 1985]
"Thanks to the hard work of the Olympians [the hiking club that funded restoration] the Chalet is at least for now, in stable condition and able to be used as a seasonal ranger quarters and ranger station. In addition, one corner of the first floor is open to the public as an emergency shelter."

I am sure there are plenty of people in their fifties and beyond who would prefer the adjective ‘historic’ to ‘old’ but I think the thing should have been left to rot. It’s a big wooden box, with a tilted porch (no good to sleep on, I mutter), and shuttered windows, about as inviting to laze around as a house warming party at a storage unit. Of course, the park service feels otherwise. Ironically, postcards of the Enchanted Valley show the ‘historic Chalet’ and not a bit of river or mountain, both there long before anyone thought of sticking in a tourist trap.

What really sticks my craw is that the building still stands, but went from being thoroughly open to the public, to mostly open, to marginally open, and the park service makes it very clear what a grand favor they are doing in leaving a plywood cell on the first floor available ‘for emergency use only,’ as has been papered everywhere. The frequency with which these words are used for a fifteen by fifteen foot unfurnished shoebox of a room is about as endearing as being given a nickel by a man in a Bentley and cautioned on all the ways it can be miss-spent.

However, the park service has no way to enforce what happens at the station since it is only seasonally operated, and if I wanted I could have had a right toasty orgy. Of course it would have had limited attendance, what with scarcity of available invitees (by my tally, one), and the backdrop outside the door was far preferable for anything I could conceive of doing save developing negatives.

Ideally, it should never have been restored. Or rather, not for the use to which it has been put. Were it restored to its original purpose, well then that would be something else. The chalet is not on a road. It lies about 13 miles from the nearest access by anything wheeled. Which means to reach it you need feet of some kind, your own or a horse’s. (something else I like immensely about the park: you cannot thru-drive, but you can thru ride) The traffic to reach it would remain of the same kind, but would probably increase in number if it were reopened. That doesn’t need to be tested. Consider that the chalet opened during the Depression and didn’t close because of lack of funds, but because the air force commandeered the place in 1943. When it returned to park hands, though they did not build it, nor pay for reparations after closing it, the park is the party to have benefited from all the hoopla.

So why not reopen the place? I would gladly pay $1.50 for a bed. I might reconsider when that figure is adjusted for inflation ($19.30 in today’s dollars) but I’m stingy. There are plenty of individuals who would gladly spend that for not having the ground under their back for a night. Even more so when they just rode 13 miles on horse to get to the place. The idea has a rugged charm most Americans would find irresistible. We long for the romance of a frontier setting, and I guess that’s why the postcards show frontstage the chalet than the more deserving and photogenic landscape.

And considering those mountains, there would be city folks and college students, foreign tourists and widows alike dying to get jobs cooking meals or filling bathtubs in a place too far for even the noise of engines to reach. They would of course be fit and worthy folk, as there is no way in nor out but by the forest paths, that the chalet could never turn into anything like Yosemite Valley. There would be only non electric entertainment in the form of river, grass, bear, light, elk, and rain. There would be conversations about what is truly important – how far away the stars are, how big a fire is too big a fire, why trees talk so quietly, why didn’t the Indians get giairdia? There would perhaps be more kindness – and more listening – in all those to visit. If it were a house of people, talking, sleeping, living, breathing, laughing, sharing and honoring silence and place, then I would celebrate such a house. That is the sort of house that could be in a valley like this.

And for emergency purposes, a single room on the first floor can be left open to park rangers.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A word on salmon

That word is delicious. Another good one would be tenacious. Resilient too might fit. And depending on your viewpoint, moribund. There is no single word that I could apply to best sum my thoughts, other than mandalic, which I don’t believe is an entry to be found in the Webster’s dictionary. What I mean though, is an object that is not thoughtful or inspiring in itself but enkindles those things in the beholder, to make the witness pause in thought, to be inspired not that the item exists, but how. Perhaps even to make seers inspiring themselves, as the lines, colors, and brevity of a sand mandala transcend the painted body to become together an item of wonder. And so, mandalic I will say, though I recognize the word could be applied to all of nature, from atoms to elephants and geodes to geoducks and granite peaks and geese in flight.

A salmon swimming upstream is a dead fish. In fact, though they are spawned, hatch, and develop to fingerlings in fresh water, they will only eat as adults in salt water. Once they reenter the stream where they were hatched, there’s no return ticket. The death mechanism is so strong that they begin to decompose long before they’ve even shed their eggs, before they’ve even had a chance to starve to death.

Their bodies of course had greatly physically changed at sea for the preparation of the return, bulked up to sleeves of solid muscle before the autumn rains came to flood their home stream. An adult salmon has the diet of a body builder – pure protein – and the physique to match. They are voracious feeders. They can’t afford the slightest bit of food that was not alive and wriggling before it went into their gut. More muscle means greater ability to dodge all the obstacles of a nomadic aquatic existence - herons, ospreys, orcas, sea lions, other salmon, fishing vessels, a thousand mile migration, locating the home stream, leaping sunken logs, waterfalls, bears, spear fishers, fish ladders, dams – before breeding and dying. And of course, during those last few, they are only feeding off reserves, like cars running off fumes. Or more accurately, like steamships ripping out the railings, benches, stacks, ribbing, passengers to keep the vessel going long enough so the engine can quit and sink in home port. And yet there’s still plenty left to a dead salmon. Look at a salmon that’s had a chance to die a natural death, and it’s like looking at a prostrate athlete. Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse.

This particular stream fed into one of the fish hatcheries run by the state of Washington. The state maintains 51 hatcheries, raising 16 species of fish – all game fish, not all native – and 5 species of salmon. They are usually set up where there is a fresh supply of clean, cold, well-oxygenated water. If the hatchery is raising any of the salmonids – that is salmon or trout – then it is always located by one, typically a stream the fish have historically frequented. The hatchery is set up with two dams bookending a large, rectangular pool. As the salmon swam up the fish ladder at the downstream dam, they enter the pool to find a gate blocking their passage at the upstream dam. They have entered the dark alleyway of the fish and wildlife service, which means if they want to reproduce, they’d better get randy here and drop their eggs. Once the fish get their funereal orgy done – and that’s honestly what it looks like, a zombie orgy – their bodies are scooped out – supposedly to prevent the spread of disease – and the eggs are vacuumed up to a holding tank to be meted out in growing beds where they will spend 6 months to a year growing big enough to get out to the ocean themselves.

It’s a clever system. Knowing the homing mechanism of an adult ensures that it will return to the same waters where it was an egg, the fish and wildlife service has exploited the drive to increase the number of successful fertilizations, hatchings, and formative stages from 10% in wild fish to better than 50%. The young, raised in tanks of water taken from this stream, when released to the wild will return to this same stream to breed and replenish the supply of salmon once more. A self-refueling, closed-loop. The benefit is obvious, more salmon.

More salmon means more food for everything that eats salmon. It means too more ocean nutrients that come to upstream ecosystems. So beneficiaries of the hatchery system include everything from orcas to ospreys and fishermen to alder trees. Too, fish and wildlife knows that fish need pure, clean water to thrive, and Washington has some impressive history regarding water purity, though not necessarily accessibility. Not bad for a porpoise and a woodland to get the big end of the stick thanks to politics and stewardship.

However, something about this particular hatchery rubbed me the wrong way. A net hung about ten feet off the water and a fence ran around the border, I suppose to detract people from gathering any, though by this point their meat is turning rank. You can even smell the stench from above water. This is the release of ocean nutrients that will feed bacteria that will feed amphipods and other freshwater invertebrates that will feed young fry. Smells about like you would expect a vat of rotting fish-water would smell. But that’s not what bothered me. That would happen anyway. Nor did the net or the fence get me in a huff. Those actually are the removal of obstacles, one less thing for salmon to worry about. What got me was the gate at the upstream end.

A barred gate separated the tank from the vacuum machine – at rest I suppose – and then about a 16 foot long run of shallow water – maybe 15 inches – to another gate of the same construction and then the stream, natural, beyond. So clean water is flowing freely from upstream, releasing all the sweet odor of water space where no fish has yet met its end in orgasm, around the raving the mouths of desperate fish. Standing by the hatchery pool, I would hear the boil of too many fish in too small a place accented by the thunk of scales on steel as they rammed from underwater to keep going, everything in the body saying ‘not here.’ Again the sound would be shot with an excited clang as an anxious, not dead-enough individual leaps to clear the gate and body slams the bars, not having jumped quite high enough.

Sometimes, though, they do. There to be confronted with a run of water too short and too shallow to clear the final gate. A dozen cadaverous fish from the thousand in the pool behind now waited to die behind the bars. These were the toughest, most resolute, most daring fish that after dealing with all the other things that mean death to the migratory on the way out and then all over again in the reverse order on the way back, plus a few new ones, were defeated in the final measure by a 4 by 6 foot section of grate, denied the final yards, or inches, to the final - and only - resting place.

I want to be clear. In this matter I am not an environmentalist. I am a sentimentalist. Fish and wildlife insists that hatcheries are a necessity to maintain the salmon population, and they have certainly done good things. Clean water, healthy marine mammal populations in the sound, seals as far south as Olympia, orcas off Seattle’s warves, and Washington, unlike California, still has both a commercial and a sport fishing industry. (Though I would point out that the position of supposed need is only due to the recklessness at which fish have been harvested in the past and how they have traditionally had their habitat treated – a telling point, more than 40% of historical salmon habitat in Washington is still inaccessible due to dams lacking fish ladders.) And yes, if the goal of the species is to procreate, then the hatcheries are the best ally the salmon ever had as fertility and juvenile mortality rates go.

But dammit, a fish that can swim thru thousands of miles of ocean and then as far as thru 900 miles of freshwater while climbing as high as 7000 feet up to the creeks of the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho has a greater ration of my respect. I took my boots off and waded into the hatchery creek, took out the gate, and lay it on the grass. The last dozen fish could find their graves further upstream. I am not being thrifty here, or civic minded, or even "green." A fish that determined deserves to die where it wants.