That sweet, yet pungent aroma infuses the understory as the dry, yellowish-orange and red Maple leaves break the silence of the forest with each step I take. A gnarly twisting root, nearly a foot in height, snakes across the trail stopping me in my path.
Curious, I follow the root into the shadows of the forest. Madrona with its bleeding twisting bark stand guard as western hemlock with its’ drooping leaves camouflage my view. Ahh, but I persevere.
I stop as a sliver of light touches my cheek. I cannot see beyond her girth. The patterned bark with thick dark brown scales interspersed with spongy cork-like material, rough with age and bare of limbs extends into the heavens. Slowly I stretch my arms as if to hug this massive tree, the queen of this ecosystem as I rest my forehead on her rough skin, and close my eyes. She was at least six feet in diameter, with girdles and bulges alternating up her limbless trunk.
I wonder what stories she can tell and all that she has witnessed; her struggles since the moment her cone shattered, releasing her into the thick, nourishing litter; the birth place of trees.
The largest, are the coast Douglas firs -- not really a fir as they are a true pine -- can reach a height of over 300 feet with diameters spanning to eight feet. They can live over 500 years and some of the oldest, over 1,300 years. The thick bark makes the Douglas Fir one of the most fire-resistant species in the Pacific Northwest.
Unfortunately, the wood is one of the world’s premier timbers with board-feet yielding more than any other species in North America. The last time I saw a Douglas Fir of this size, was in eastern Oregon of the Cascades in 1979. I spent my summers living and working as a range and wildlife technician in the Cascade mountains of Washington and Oregon, conducting elk habitat research. I witnessed the destructive impacts of large clear cuts, the typical logging practice in the late 70’s and early 80’s, from the PNW to Alaska.
With one last touch of her skin, I continue my walk to the sea.
The mature forests of Douglas Fir, western red-cedar and western hemlock protect the understory of evergreens such as huckleberry and Pacific rhododendron, a rare habitat type in Washington State. Rare not because of individual species, but because of the diversity of the type of plants that are found here. These include myco-heterotrophic plants which are plants that form a symbiotic relationship with fungi such as the ghost plant. They live in peace, a harmonic relationship that has survived centuries in this great forest. Something us humans have yet been able to learn.
This unique plant community can be found in a State Park not far from Port Townsend, Washington. The 3 mile walk meanders through an understory rewarding the visitor with orchids such as the Fairy Slipper or the parasitic Pinesap.
Soon the darkness of the old growth forest opens to a glittering world of blue, as if diamonds are shooting out of the sea. The silence of the forest is replaced with the screeching of gulls, loons, and cormorants. The sandy shore is strewn with driftwood from the small to the large, including massive trunks of cedar.
Several gulls find refuge on a small spit at least until the tide changes. Sanderlings, Whimbrels and Spotted Sandpipers dip and scatter looking for invertebrates along the beach fringe.
Bald eagles, tufted puffins, black oystercatchers, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemot and murre are frequent in the summer. Unique resident and migratory waterfowl include the harlequin duck, long-tailed duck, Pacific black brant, Barrow’s goldeneye, mergansers, and three species of scoter during the fall and winter.
Steller and California sea lions, harbor seals, Dall’s and harbor porpoise are commonly seen in the summer. Although, there are some resident Orca’s that stay year-round, Orca, Minke, Gray and Humpback whales migrate through these waters from Alaska in the fall, southward to warmer waters.
I have missed the seasons -- the anticipation at the beginning and the acceptance at the end. As I gaze out at the sea, and with each inhale of the cool salty air into my lungs, rejuvenate my soul. I realize that change is a necessity in life.
Like the seasons, nature reminds us to be grateful for what we have in the now, but to look forward to the new; to embrace the challenges of change. Because isn’t that what life and death is all about?