Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cape Alava to Ozette River, Olympic National Park, Washington

Distance: 10.6 miles (13.9 miles with full loop to Sand Point)
Elevation: 30 feet to Sea Level
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: Any Time

A bald eagle scanning the tide pools for lunch

With a full moon and the summer solstice approaching, the tides were going to be exceptionally low this past week. Thus, I took off for Lake Ozette on the Olympic Coast to hike up to the mouth of the Ozette River. The trail begins at the Ozette Campground, which can be reached by driving to the end of the Ozette-Hoko Road a few miles west of Clallam Bay of WA-112.

Lake Ozette
The 2nd largest natural lake in Washington

At the trailhead you can either head to Cape Alava or Sand Point. Stay on the right to Cape Alava, the westernmost point in the contiguous United States. It is 3.1 miles to the coast from the trailhead. The trail will follow a wooden boardwalk of cedar planks across forests of western red cedar and western hemlocks. The area gets more than 100" of rain per year, thus the soils are waterlogged and muddy. Without the boardwalk, this hike would be nearly impossible. It is amazing to think how Native Americans and early pioneers traversed across these woodlands.

The boardwalk through the cedar/hemlock forest

Approximately halfway out to Cape Alava, the forest thins and you come into open areas of grassy meadows and bogs of Labrador tea, bog laurel, and carnivorous sundews. These bogs and prairies existed prior to the arrival of homesteaders in the mid-1800's, but were expanded through burning and clearing of trees and brush by these early settlers. It has been hypothesized that Native Americans, such as the Makah people, used fire and other methods to keep these prairies open as forage for deer and to harvest berries and medicinal herbs (Labrador tea, camas roots, cranberries, crowberries, etc). But today, the trees are encroaching on them and closing them back up.

Ahlstrom's Prairie

Carnivorous sundews in Ahlstrom's Prairie

As you approach the coastline, the forest closes up once again and the forest shifts to one dominated by enormous old-growth Sitka spruce and western hemlock, with an open understory dominated by ferns and salal. Sitka spruce is a sure sign you are near the sea, since it is very salt tolerant.

An open Sitka spruce forest near the coast

Upon arriving at Cape Alava, you will see the magnificent Ozette Island about 1/2 mile offshore. Listen for the sounds of dozens of sea lions on the rocks offshore. Some amazing tidepools are available right along this stretch. Turn right and head north for the next 2.3 miles of magnificent wilderness coastline to the Ozette River across sandy beaches and rocky tidepools.

The rocky coastline near Cape Alava

Sea stacks at Cape Alava

Just up from Cape Alava, you will see a green building that is the summer staffed Ozette Ranger Station. Here, backcountry rangers patrol these very popular beaches making sure campers have their backcountry permits, bear cans, and to provide assistance for hikers in distress. Just after that you will come across an open grassy area which was the site of the ancient Ozette village of the Makah. Occupied for nearly 2,000 years, this village was buried by a landslide about 500 years ago. This allowed for the best preserved pre-European contact Indian village in the United States. It was discovered in the 1970's and excavated by archeologists. The artifacts now sit at the outstanding Makah Museum in Neah Bay. The site has been reburied and all that remains are the grassy slope visible below.

The Ozette site - an ancient Makah village buried by a mudslide 500 years ago

As you head north, you will cross a combination of sandy beaches and rocky headlands. One headland can not be rounded at high tide and even at low tide can be a challenge of slippery kelp covered rocks. But, there is a rope that climbs straight up a steep route over the headland (about a 30 foot climb) and I recommend you use it instead.

Sometimes something as simple as a spring flowing through sand to the sea can be "art"

Along the way, you can look north up to seastacks and headlands of the the Point of Arches and to Cape Flattery beyond. You can not hike up there without wading across the Ozette River, so the river is a good place to turn around. At low tide, the river is about knee deep, but it is impossible to cross during high tide.

A beautiful alcove in the headland

As you can see in this image below of the Ozette River, it isn't much of a river. But, at high tide, the seawater flows up the channel and backs up the river forming a swath of water over 10-12 feet deep. So, it is best to visit at low tide, even if you have no plans to cross it.

The Mouth of the Ozette River

If you do attempt to cross it, be prepared to take off the boots, strip off your pants, and use a hiking stick to keep your balance in the swift flow across loose sand and scattered rocks. But, once you have crossed it, nothing is stopping you from reaching Point of Arches 5 miles to the north.

A hike crossing the Ozette River

Upon your return, you can either go back the way you came to Lake Ozette (which makes for a 10.6 mile trip) or continue 3.1 miles south along the coast to Sand Point. Since I was there last, the beaches have eroded away, making it a tough rocky slippery stretch. If you do the whole loop, then it approaches 14 miles. It can be done, but only at low tide. I discussed this section in a previous hike description here:

A brave and ornery crab holding his ground

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Removal of the Elwha Dams Begins...

For years, there have been discussions, political battles, and then planning for the removal of the Elwha River dams on the Olympic Peninsula. Built in the early 1900's, these dams blocked access for one of the largest salmon producing rivers in the Pacific Northwest for up to 65 miles of prime spawning habitat. This river is one of only two in the State of Washington (the Skagit River is the other) that contains all six species of Pacific Salmon (Chinook, coho, sockeye, chum, pink, and steelhead). The once huge salmon runs of up to 400,000 returning salmon are now down to under 3,000 in the lowest 5 miles of the river below the lower dam. You can read the entire article I wrote about it in 2008 on wikipedia here, when I was the Elwha Interpretive Ranger at Olympic National Park.

File:Elwha Dam.jpg
The dam before the opening of the spillways

Well, now the time is finally upon us, after numerous delays. The contracts have been written, the plans finalized, and the beginning of the end of these old and dangerous dams is here. Last week, they shut down the hydroelectric generators. Then, they opened the flood gates and spillways to full capacity to lower the level of the lakes in preparation for the actual removal later this summer. It is an amazing site to see so much water tumbling out of Lake Aldwell and the lake already down by around 15 feet.

Normally only a trickle came out from cracks in the old river channel

The old river channel was a 100 foot deep canyon that was blocked by the concrete wall. Today, water flows through at full force from the flood gates. Soon the river will flow in its original channel at the bottom of the cliffs.

The primary spillway is quite the cascade now!

They will close public access to Elwha Dam on July 1st and access to Glines Canyon Dam on August 1st. So, if you want to see these structures before their removal, you gotta go now. Then they will begin the preparatory process for removal, with actual demolition to begin around September 15th. It will take about 2.5 years to fully remove the dams and restore the river bed to its original state.

You can see the mud and old stumps that were under the lake

You can see the old concrete coffer dam here that redirected the river during original construction in 1912

When the original Elwha Dam blew out in 1910, they had to plug the holes with tons of gravel and fill. So, today there is a large hill of rock that will need to be removed. With the lake level down, you can now see the water flowing over the top of this fill almost like a river.

It almost looks like a river again already

It is going to be fascinating to watch the removal process via the webcams that will be set up by the National Park Service and then to visit the old lakebed in 2014 to see the river flowing free once again. It will take a long time for the vegetation to reestablish itself in the muddy lakebed. But, the salmon should start up the river almost immediately after removal. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to see salmon running up the river for the first time in 100 years!

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