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Olympic reading

Fanboy that I am, my latest obsession -- the Olympic peninsula -- has driven me to read books. First up was The Olympic Rain Forest: An Ecological Web by Ruth Kirk with Jerry Franklin (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1992). This is a terrific large format book with many beautiful color photos and an extremely informative exploration of the rain forests on the peninsula, which as I've mentioned before are some of the rare remaining temperate rain forests on the planet. My two recent visits to the peninsula left me with proliferating questions about the forests, and this book answered a whole lot of them.

I think the last time I wrote on this topic, after my last visit, I was still grappling with how many rain forests there are out there. This book confirms that there are four main ones, each located in a river valley on the western slopes of the Olympic mountains. The four rivers are the Bogachiel, the Hoh, the Queets, and the Quinault. The geological description of the river valleys is fascinating, as well as the sense I got of how the rivers tie the forests to the ocean. Kirk writes about how these forests produce as much biomass as any tropical rain forest, and the sheer fecundity of these areas is awesome. How is it that I was blind to this nearby wonderland until now? There's a lot more mammalian wildlife out there than I imagined, from common Pacific Northwest animals like elk, deer, black bear, cougar, bobcat, otters, chipmunks, raccoons and such to relatively exotic species such as flying squirrels, martens (which can apparently travel miles through the canopy), water shrews and snow moles. Then there are the invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds, insects, epiphytes, and fungus. The section on fungus alone was mind-blowing.

There's also a bit of human history, both of the Indian tribes who arrived on the peninsula about 12,000 years ago and of the white settlers who started really exploring the area in the 1880s. I'm curious to read more about this history as well, which I think I'll get in the book I just started, Olympic National Park: A Natural History by Tim McNulty (University of Washington Press, 2009). McNulty writes, for example, about the Seattle Press expedition of 1889, which was the most famous expedition into the heart of the Olympic mountains -- still, at that late date, terra incognita to settlers. McNulty's account of the geology of the mountains makes my brain hurt, although it's also full of fascinating details such as his description of how rivers shape the ocean floor:

As river deltas stacked higher and steeper, earthquakes regularly triggered massive collapses. Undersea landslides of sediment peeled off deltas and flowed out over the shelf onto deep ocean floors in dense riverine slurries called turbidity currents. These undersea rivers formed channels and fans across the deep ocean floor. Propelled by the density of sediment-heavy water, they flowed in some cases for hundreds of miles. The current Cascadia channel, fed by the Fraser, western Olympic and Columbia rivers, extends 1,300 miles across the Pacific Ocean basin.

"Dense riverine slurries called turbidity currents." Again, I'm getting a strong feel for how the immense downpour of rain in this area, particularly along the coast, shapes both the land and the ocean. Amazing stuff.

Meanwhile in today's Seattle Times there's an obituary that ties into all this: Carsten Lien had deep love for the Olympic Mountains. Amongst other things, Lien wrote another book that would probably be worth digging up, Olympic Battleground: The Power Politics of Timber Preservation, which the Times article describes as 'a landmark book on the forests of Olympic National Park and the fight to save them from logging.' Even more intriguing is this tidbit: 'When Mr. Lien wanted to learn how to use Microsoft Word, he taught it to himself by copying the Seattle Press edition recounting the 1889-90 Press Expedition, the first documented crossing of the Olympics, word for word. That book, "Exploring the Olympic Mountains," also brought together accounts of many other explorers' bushwhacking into the mountains he loved so well.'

Somehow I don't think my pile of books To Be Read is going to get any shorter.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 14th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
the rivers tie the forests to the ocean

I was watching a programme about Australia's Great Barrier Reef a few months ago, and the presenter made the point that the reef, the water behind it, and the rivers and forests on the Australian mainland, are all part of one big system. Cut down the trees on the land, and the dirt washed off into the lagoon kills the reef.
Apr. 15th, 2012 12:21 am (UTC)
Indeed. I think it was Cairns (in Queensland) where I saw a sign saying "where the rain forest meets the reef". At Mareeba on the plateau above Cairns there was a sign saying "where the rain forest meets the outback".

One of the things The Olympic Rain Forest briefly touches on is how trees that are carried to the ocean by the rivers play a part in the local ecosystem of the ocean as well, for example by providing habitat for certain kinds of organisms, which then attract the fish that feed on them.

One of the things I'd like to know more about is the reefs off the coast of Washington.
Apr. 15th, 2012 03:05 am (UTC)
I picked up a book at Pike Place Market that I'd be happy to lend to you -- you'll probably get to it before I do.

"The Last Wilderness" by Murray Morgan, Viking Press, 1955. Here's a helpful link from the Seattle Public Library:


We also have a photo/coffee table book called "Beneath Cold Seas" (in re your comment above)
Apr. 15th, 2012 03:14 am (UTC)
Unless I'm missing something, that library page doesn't have any information about the book -- at least not what it's about.

I gave Beneath Cold Seas to my nephew for Xmas. I only looked at the photos, but they're great. Another University of Washington Press book. Maybe I should just work my way through their catalogue.
Apr. 15th, 2012 03:21 am (UTC)
I thought I was being clever. Yes, that link has no real information. Anyway, it looks like an amusing book.
Apr. 15th, 2012 03:28 am (UTC)
Ah, I see, a "helpful" link.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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