Whatcom County, WA
There is a 700 acre stand of old growth forest sequestered in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains about 25 miles east of Bellingham WA, and about 10 miles west of Mt. Baker at the edge of the Mt. Baker – Snoqualmie National Forest. I had long wanted to see and experience this ancient forest as it is one of the two largest such stands in the Pacific Northwest – the other being Grove of the Patriarchs in the Mt. Rainier National Park. Around here old growth forest is revered as an endangered vestige of our natural world as it once was in the same way that other revered PNW icons, the Orca and the salmon are endangered. And maybe for that reason, it is a good thing that this forest is not readily accessible to the public.
This old growth tract resides within a larger 2,300 acre parcel, currently owned in part by our county park system and is designated as a nature preserve that is technically open to the public. However, access is limited. The only access is via a system of gated and active logging roads owned by Sierra Pacific Timber company. On occasion the Whatcom Land Trust, which initially orchestrated the purchase of this tract in 1998 and holds a conservation easement on those roads, can obtain the keys to the gates. Without access to a key, it is an additional 5.7 mile hike past the locked gate just to get to the trail head.
At a recent fund raiser for the Whatcom Land Trust, a few tickets were auctioned off for a guided hike into this forest. I was fortunate enough to get one.
As I contemplated this hike, I have to admit that I was in a state both of high anticipation and no small measure of trepidation – the hike was described as a 10 mile “strenuous” climb, with ~ 2,300 foot elevation rise. (It was indeed strenuous but not quite 10 miles)
This “Canyon Lake Community Forest” is now co-owned and managed as a preserve by the Whatcom County Parks Department for the preservation and recreational maintenance and by Western Washington University which provides educational and research input to the forest. As noted above, the Whatcom Land Trust which initially orchestrated the purchase holds a conservation easement on the property to assist in maintaining its educational value and future preservation.
At one edge of this Community forest lies Canyon Lake that is a relative newcomer to the region. Geologists believe that it was formed approximately 150 years ago, when a massive landslide, probably precipitated by a 7.1 + earthquake in 1872 brought a hillside of ancient red cedar trees and sedimentary underpinning careening into the valley damming Canyon Creek. The result was a 45 acre lake backed up before Canyon Creek was able to squeeze by and continue its flow down the mountain to reach the North Fork of the Nooksack River.
From the trailhead at the north end of the lake one can take a two mile lake loop hike or continue on up the canyon and canyon walls to the old growth forest. A short way up the trail we come to a fossil of a large palm frond, taken from this area that is a remnant of the Eocene epoch (33.7 to 56 Million years ago). At that time, long before the Cascade Mountains were formed, this area was a subtropical forest and flood plain. Its vestiges are readily visible with numerous fossils encased in sandstone, shale and other sedimentary rock that forms this Chuckanut Formation and that underlies much of this region and the Cascade foothills.
I Previously described the origins of this Chuckanut formation and its plethora of fossils including a hike to Slide Mountain, where fossils now lie open to the skies, exposed by frequent slides (hence “Slide Mountain”) a few miles east of Canyon Lake. See: here, here, and here. These sedimentary based foothills have sloughed off their million year old layers and many have continued downhill and into the Nooksack River where they are currently easily accessible.
Up the trail:
As we proceeded up the mountain side we could look across the lake to the slope of the original landslide. Now we can see the scar of a more recent, although lesser slide and its slump extending nearly down to the lake.
The initial part of this trail followed an old logging road up the mountain at their typical 17% grade. This part of the trail was well maintained, meandering and switching back through second growth timber with openings of more recent undergrowth of vine maple, alder, ferns, grasses and wildflowers.
About halfway up we got a break in the vegetation and were able to see back down to the lake in the valley below.
Moving on, any open spaces not yet reforested were filled in with large runs of Goldenrod that is prevalent at lower to middle elevations.
Moving into the Ancient Forest:
This early September day was very warm and humid and as we approached the entry into the forest, I was feeling overheated and really beat. However, walking into the old growth forest from the more open, previously logged slopes, I was struck by several things.
First there was sharp dividing line of harvested forest land and old forest. Entering the old forest felt like walking into an air conditioned house on a hot day. Aside from the coolness, there was an immediate change in all levels of vegetation – no vine maple, scrub alder, or typical wildflowers as shown above. We were now above the middle elevation with a whole new set of trees with its canopy, understory and forest floor. In the cooler and moister soil, fungi, lichen and mosses were all over as were other plants that were not immediately recognized by many of us hikers. One indicator of this change in vegetation was that my cell phone became in high demand. On the way up, I had been using Seek (an iNaturalist app that can identify living things) to identify plants and everyone in the group had an interest in it. Being unfamiliar with many of these new plants they were calling me to come and ID this and that. It seemed that Seek was accessible up here on my iphone even though we had a relatively weak signal. They could not wait to get back into stronger cell coverage to download it.
The biodiversity of this forest was astounding. I had read about it before the hike and here it was in my face. Below is a paragraph from a manual directed at visitors to this forest written by faculty at Huxley College of the Environment at WWU that illustrated this:
Old growth forests are more than just trees. Complex, symbiotic relationships developed over centuries between the organisms present in old growth forest ecosystems. Lichen in the forest canopy pull nitrogen from the air which is washed down to the soil and used by the forest’s vegetation. Symbiotic fungi attached to roots supply plants and tree with water and nutrients and in return take carbohydrates. Animals eat vegetation and help spread seeds across the forest.
This was followed by an apt quote from John Muir:
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.john Muir
Another interesting note is that these Pacific Northwest temperate old growth forests have the largest amount of biomass (the weight and density of living organisms) of any forest on Earth. I found this both interesting and surprising. This is another excellent reason for preserving these forests.
After eating lunch along the Old Forest trail, it was time go for the last leg of the hike, another mile up to the canyon rim. Since I wanted to conserve some energy for the trip back down the mountain I opted, rather than to keep going up, to stay in the forest, to explore it and to photograph these glorious flora. The fellow hikers would come back by on their way down to collect me. This was a good decision to stay as I found so many neat things that I otherwise would not have seen. And as it turned out the day was too cloudy to see the surrounding mountain tops from the canyon rim. As it was I logged 22,780 + steps and 8.1 miles according to my iphone. That was enough for these old bones.
After everyone else moved on, I explored the area up and down the trail through this ancient forest. The only sounds I heard were the caws of some distant ravens and a Douglas Squirrel. Dougy came to check out this intruder who had ensconced himself into his private space (see photo to the right). After exploring for a while, I had settled into a comfy padded resting place made up of a mossy pad with soft mossy log headrest. I was comfortable, cool and had a front row seat to this beautiful ancient forest. Some of the tree photos below are from this supine perch looking into the canopy of this enchanting forest.
The forest trees themselves also differed from those at lower elevations. In particular the old growth species comprised Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana ), Alaska Yellow Cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis), and Pacific Silver fir (Ambes amabilis). Although this particular grove of old growth trees is thought to be older than most in the PNW, they are not giants as one might expect even though many have been growing for up to 800 or a 1,000 years. By comparison, those south of here in the Mt. Rainier National Park are younger but much larger. The difference is that those to the south live at about 2,200 feet elevation whereas these live in the neighborhood of 4,000 plus feet where they are buried in snow for at least 6 months of the year.
One interesting example of these stunted size of these old trees is the case of the Pacific Silver Fir. In the understory, it often just bides its time for years until one of the surrounding larger trees comes down and opens it up the sun. With this new light, the Silver Fir takes off and grows rapidly. Right is a sample round cut from a Silver Fir: This sample of less that 4” diameter is some 240 years old!
That this grove of ancient forest has persisted and survived as long as it has is attributed to the fact that it sits high on a north facing slope which preserves snowpack for 6 months or more of the year. This elevation and position facilitates retention of ground moisture and exposes it to less direct sun. This high north facing position then is thought to have protected it from at least three forest fires that have burned surrounding areas over recent centuries.
Alaska Yellow Cedar (aka Alaska Cedar, yellow cypress, yellow cedar) too likes moist sites and grows from the coastal PNW to the timberline in the Cascades. It is the longest living tree in our region, with a lifespan of up to 1,500 years. It is a fairly slow growing tree which is good for me as I have three of these in my yard.
The Hemlock is an important tree to this forest as well and has been so recognized for a long time. The genus name of Hemlock, Tsuga comes from the Japanese terms for tree and mother, which I believe speaks well for this tree and its position in the forest. It can live up to 1,400 years.
The Mountain Hemlock’s wood is deemed somewhat inferior (susceptible to rot and insect attack) to its larger cousin, the Western Hemlock (our State Tree) which generally grows at lower elevations also making it more readily available for harvesting. This fact probably accounts for the “mountain” species being logged less which has probably saved some such forest stands. The mountain Hemlock is used often as an ornamental as it is slow growing and indeed, I have one of these in my yard.
One final observation from this forest wonderland is that its environment is a great host for a large selection of fungi, many of which are highly beneficial to the other forest constituents. However, the lead photo shows one of the more destructive fungi, (Heterobasidion annosum) that saps nutrients from the the trees such as the Mountain Hemlock shown there. Below are a few of the many others that I observed there.
Finally as we ambled our way down the mountain I was able to see some other features that I had missed on the way up. One was a outcropping of some of the underlying Chuckanut Sandstone and other sedimentary layers supporting this forest. As is evident, this deposit is crumbly with stratified layers. This is the sort of shakey support that must have given way during the earthquake that created Canyon Lake and the more recent slide shown previously.
After eight hours on the trail, with my head full of wonder and my cameras full of photos, I considered this a successful trip. And I was happy that I had finally made the trip and also happy that l did not have to think of doing it again. I have now scratched Canyon Lake Community Forest from my bucket list.