Monday, August 29, 2011

Pacific Northwest Day 11 - Olympic National Park

Thursday, August 11, 2011

As planned, Fort Worden was left in the dark.  Places to go. Things to do. Birds to see.

As the sun was rising, we were entering Olympic NationalPark.  Established as a National Park in 1938 and now with 95% of the land designated as Wilderness, this place is cool (neat), cool (chilly), cloudy (most of the time), and worth a visit.

After having breakfast in the parking lot of the Hurricane Visitor Center (5,200 feet above sea level) and enjoying the American Pipits landing on my car, a short walk on a nearby trail offered some great views.  After dipping on the Sooty Grouse (and the Mountain Goats seen by another fellow only minutes before), we headed off to the Hurricane Ridge Trail Head.

Like the Cassin’s Vireo, the Sooty Grouse now exists in the minds of birders more or less because scientists decided the Blue Grouse in the Rocky Mountains is too different from the Blue Grouse in the Pacific Northwest.  So, the Blue was split into the Dusky and Sooty.  I have had multiple Duskys in my day, but Sooty would be new. Hurricane Ridge is considered a super place to find them.

A 1.7 mile hike (one way) to the top, the views are breathtaking.  The Strait of Juan de Fuca opens below you to the north (image below). The Olympic Mountains are to the south (second photo).  Violet-green Swallows zip over your head.  Ravens escort you across the sub-alpine fir meadows.  Flowers are abuzz with insects looking for freebies.

The chill from the altitude combined with the sun (yes, the SUN!) coming in and out of the clouds made for some interesting hiking. There is no shade along the trail. You walk and get warm, but you are dressed in layers, right?  You shed a layer but stop to take a picture.  The sun slips behind a cloud.  You get chilled. Back on goes on the jacket.  You get warm. Strip. Chill, but walk to warm up. The sun comes back out. Really warm  now.  Warm. Chilled.  Hot.  Cold.   Three hours of that got kinda old….

Then there are the marmots.  No, not just any marmot.  Olympic Marmots.  In short, they are only found here.  No place else in the world has them.  When the glaciers were moving in and out of the region many moons ago, they did not crest the mountains; they went around them.  In a sense, the mountains became an oasis for wildlife surrounded by a sea of ice. Over time, life here evolved into unique species.  (Sorry, Michelle Bachman.  Get your facts straight.)  While marmots can be found throughout the western half of the United States in appropriate habitat, the Olympic Marmot is found only in Olympic National Park.  You have not lived until you have seen a chubby, golden rodent spread-eagled on a snowfield. 

Flowers (like the Avalanche Lily below).  Swallows. Fresh air.  Stunning world views.  I could on and on.  But, no Sooty Grouse.  

The Gray Jays on the back deck of the visitor center overlooking the Olympic Mountains were utilizing their standard protocols.  “If people are present, said people will not read the sign that says “Don’t feed the wildlife.”.  I, the vastly intelligent Gray Jay, know they will feed me any way. Hmmmm, what shall it be today?  Cheetoes or potato chips…”

I think I should also mention a simple physics issue you might want to think about when you travel.  If you open mustard in Gig Harbor (440 feet above sea level) and you don’t open it again until you are one mile above sea level, beware. The pressure inside can be immense when compared to the outside.  Just thought you should know.  (This, by the way, is exactly the kind of episode I can use in my defense when accused of packing like a girl. I always over-pack. I would pack 4 sets of pants for a 2-day trip. You never know when a physics of mustard accident will work against you.  For the record, not a drop landed on me. But, in the event that is did, I was prepared with clean pants (1, 572 pair packed for 14 days. I hired a Sherpa to carry them all.)) 

Descending the mountain was a breeze, but disappointing. It is hard to leave a place like that.  I took a quick trip through the campground.  It was noted that campsites were open all over the place (re-enforcing the regret of camping at Camp Worden).  Second, the birding was slow, but nice. The coolest bird there was clearly the Pacific Wren momma stuffing food in the screaming kid (kid-bird, not kid-human child. That is a Gary Larson comic). 

By dinnertime, we were pulling into the Peaks Brew Pub in Port Angeles. Let me be clear and honest.  This place is a disaster from a food standpoint. The menu is the sub-standard “bar food.”  The rock-bottom minimum. Nachos and chili. Frozen veggie burgers.  The basics of the basics, if that is possible.  I am not taking anything away from them. I am just telling it like it is.  When I first opened the menu, I was prepared to leave. It was that poor.

All that said, go there if you like beer!!!! They had a number of beers from other locations, plus some they brew on site.  As explained by the bartender/cook, they are expanding the beer brewing operation.  Good call on their part, if you ask me. The Mount Pleasant Porter, Trainwrecked IPA, and Wandefuca Gold Pale Ale (#1,074-1,076) were all pretty good. The Porter, especially, was outstanding. Those chocolate tones really stood out!

Hands down, one of the best beers for the trip, based on style interpretation and name originality, was the Dungeness Spit (#1,077).  I’m sure some of you know I like craft beer as much as I like crafty beer names.  A spit is a sandy point of land. The Dungeness Spit is right up the street.  Spit? Spit? Get it?  If you go to Port Angeles, consider this place. The beer won’t disappoint. 

With Sooty Grouse a bust on Hurricane Ridge, Grouse Plan B was initiated. Deer Park Road.  East of the main entrance, this road takes you to a campground at subalpine levels (Hurricane Ridge gets you to the same altitude/habitat, but you hike it).  The open stretches of the road were fun but tight. Not two lanes wide, caution had to be taken on each switchback (1.4 million by my count) as there is not much room for two vehicles.  Oh, but if your car goes careening over the edge, you shouldn’t die, as all the trees will arrest your fall.

Keep in mind that that only works if there are trees. Before long, the trees thinned out and the road, while no thinner, was significantly more intimidating.  The tree-less habitat on the switchbacks made for some harrowing driving for this flatlander.  I found it much more relaxing to simply close my eyes on each curve. Oh wait. I was driving. Nevermind.

Around the bend and voila – widlflowers and meadows.  This is the same sort of habitat that one would expect a Sooty Grouse on Hurricane Ridge.  Up the hill yet a bit more and “Pow!”, there she was not 5 feet out the driver’s window!

I fully expected her to be a Republican - more or less oblivious to the world around her.  In my past experiences with Dusky Grouse, they simply don’t care you exist. Within a second or two, they forget you are there and go about their business, even if only feet from you.  I snapped some bad photos out of excitement (wrong camera settings) but, once I got my head in the game, I realized I needed to move to change the light.  I walked maybe 50 feet, turned and realized she had completely evaporated.  Poof.  Houdini would have been proud.  Shooed along by a downbound car, my car needed to move (I was taking up the whole road).  Nevertheless, the Sooty Grouse (life bird #648) was at spitting distance. 

Excited but tired, it was easily 25 minutes down the mountain and another 40 back to the tent in Port Townsend….

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