Elwha Reservoir 2018

Nowhere have I been so overwhelmed by the transformative, vibrant power of nature as on the Elwha river. The transformation that occurs every season since the removal of the two dams on this is mind-blowing (also road- bridge- and campground-blowing, with the river restored to unfettered flood patterns).

In this place, too, shines the strength of restoration management, as the plants brought in to supplement the natural regeneration of this area take hold and promote others to grow. The riverbank lupine shown below has improved soil quality for a variety of species that follow it–much as other nitrogen-fixing species have done on Mount St Helens. Planted woody shrubs and conifers also claim space, even the ones that die in turn enriching the soil. It’s also fantastic to see the effects of microclimates–such as the small hollows near decades-old logs where seedlings are sheltered from the wind and sun–and straight, thin rows of cottonwoods where three years ago the water pooled for just long enough for the seeds to germinate and put down their roots.

I stand in awe here.

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Reservoir Time

One of my favorite things about living in Washington is getting to watch the progression of the Elwha reservoirs as the vegetation and wildlife re-establish more each year. Pictured above is the former Lake Mills in the summers of 2013 (top left), 2015 (bottom left) and 2018 (on the right).

The dams on the Elwha were removed between 2011 and 2013, and I spent the summers of 2013 and 2015 studying the plant communities that colonized the drained reservoirs. Although recent floods have closed the road to public vehicles, you can still bike or hike in to see Lake Mills. I’ve actually been there three time this summer–once hiking in from the Madison Falls parking lot, once on a Park Service organized volunteers’ event, and once hiking down 5000 feet from Hurricane Ridge. I also made additional trips out to Aldwell reservoir and the Elwha delta, both of which are more easily accessible. I’ll post more pictures from those trips as soon as I stop hiking long enough to go through all of them!

First Look

I’m spending this summer at a place I consider to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, the Olympic National Park in Washington state. Even more exciting, the work I am doing here is completely my own: I’m conducting field research for the senior thesis I will write next year. The place I am working is undergoing a major change: two large dams on the Elwha River are being deconstructed, and areas that have been submerged for almost a hundred years are now open for plants to colonize and grow. For my research I will be exploring the regenerating site, and picking apart how these plant communities are affected by different soil types, surrounding areas, water availability, and more.

I first began to investigate this project as an option for my thesis in mid-November, and the more I learned about it, the more interested I became. By the beginning of the year I had convinced one of my professors to advise me on the project, and began to contact people working at the site. I turned in a formal proposal for funding in March, and in May I spent three weeks writing a paper reviewing the relevant scientific theory and related studies. I have spent more time than I can track pouring over maps, anxiously coordinating logistics from outside the country, scanning through published papers and books, and thinking intently about my question and project design.

And today, for the first time, I got to see my project site. Two newly opened river valleys just beginning to be populated by grasses, flowers, and young trees. What words can possibly encompass the beauty of that first sight? It took my breath away.

The northern section of former Lake Aldwell. All of the bright green is new growth.
The northern section of former Lake Aldwell. All of the bright green is new growth.
Some of the grasses are quite tall already
Some of the grasses are quite tall already
The remnants of the dam blocking Lake Mills
The remnants of the dam blocking Lake Mills
Approximately one-third of the former Lake Mills area. My pictures do not begin to capture how large and deep these areas are.
Approximately one-third of the former Lake Mills area. My pictures do not begin to capture how large and deep these areas are.

Tree of Life

Today we cut down a palm tree. That’s right: we cut down an entire tree. And I don’t mean a little scrawny sapling-could-be-an-overgrown-house-plant either. I mean a full thirty to forty foot palm tree.

And why did we chop down this tree? To look for bugs. In fact, to look for parasites living inside of a particular insect, in a day-long project that scaled from very large, to microscopically small. Along the way, we discovered a huge range of animals that called this palm home, including insects, spiders, caterpillars, scorpions, lizards, and at least four species of ants. It’s one thing to sit through a lecture on how much diversity there is in the tropics, it’s quite different to go out and find that diversity yourself by cutting down a single tree. It was truly fantastic.

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Profoundly Arnold

For one of the early lectures of our parasitology course, our professor set out to discuss something that he called one of the most profound and useful concepts in epidemiology: Arnold. He wrote it large on the blackboard as R0 (spoken as r-naught) but his British accent turned it unerringly into plain Arnold.

I began to think of Arnold as a quiet, middle-aged individual, wandering around oblivious to the hordes of scientists swarming like paparazzi. We estimated Arnold, more concerned with his general ratio than any particular measurements. We discussed what would happen if Arnold was greater than one (the disease spreads through a host population) or less than one (the disease dies out), and I pictured Arnold sitting down in his living room, going through his baby photos, while that gaggle of scientists peered in through the windows. We took notes on Arnold’s personal preferences, discussing how Arnold could be impacted by environmental factors such as temperature. We even wrote down equations to take a closer look at Arnold, not leaving him much privacy at all. Eventually the lecture moved on to particular disease traits and population growth curves, but underlying everything we discussed was this profound idea of the basic concept of Arnold.

OMG SLOTHS!

Yesterday, I stayed late in the forest finishing up fieldwork with three other students and our professor. While the last student, was finishing her project, a group of people came by. They were releasing rescued sloths!

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One of the two-toed sloths had a baby with her.

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We got to watch them climb up the trees, one at a time. Between us we took hundreds of pictures. And then we got to hold one of the sloths! It was such an amazing experience.

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I felt so unbelievably lucky to get this experience–and we were all so glad her work took that long!

Mini-lecture of the day: cloud forests

We went to a highland tropical forest today. When I say highland forests (that is, a forest up on a mountain) perhaps you imagine somewhere dry and cold, with packed soil and sparse vegetation.

Try again. Think wet–clouds of mist that frequently condense into rain. Think warm enough to wander around in a t-shirt. Think mud, sucking at your boots and splashing onto your clothes. And think green–trees, palms, vines, epiphytes, ferns, mosses–everywhere you look. Got it?

This was much more of an experiential learning trip, so think about following along with our group. There’s twenty one of us, including our professor and two TA’s, and we’re all ready with our hiking boots and backpacks. The trail is our version of fun: steep climbs up, steep drops/slides down, with lots of cool things to look at along the way. At one point a green railing has been added to the slide of the trail to make the steps easier, but much of it has fallen sideways or slid with the mud, so we’re holding onto it as we go, and occasionally swinging under or climbing over it. There’s lots of laughter, and a few slips, and mud all over the place, and it’s fantastic.

We can’t help commenting to each other: “we could be sitting in a lecture hall right now!”

At the same time, we did learn a fair bit. We saw flowers, commonly called “hot lips” because of their shape and bright red color, which are in the Rubiacaea family (so is coffee). We saw thick, woody lianas and thin green vines. And now, when we hear about how cloud forests are areas where mist condenses into clean water that trickles down to other areas of the forest, or about the extremely high biodiversity in the cloud forests, we know what that actually means. We’ve seen it, we’ve smelt it, we’ve touched it. Cloud forests have a meaning to us, one that leaps off the page, and across our path.