The directions to drive to Crabtree Lake are to just follow Crabtree Creek upstream until it stops flowing. The problem is that the approach is via a snarl of logging roads that pay no heed to topography or logic. I remember the route as straight-left-straight-left-straight but its been a few years since I have been there and all that might be left, might be right. At least there won’t be any question once you finally do get there for Crabtree Lake is a beautiful little sapphire pool enveloped by a towering emerald forest. And from the ridge behind, the glittering diamond peak of Mt. Jefferson rises above. Stand on the edge of Crabtree lake and you are surrounded by all that is the Pacific Northwest. All jewels in the crown of the Cascade ecoregion.
The Cascades extends 500 miles from southern British Columbia through the mountains of central Washington and Oregon to northern California. It is the northern part of the western mountain rim that, with the Sierras, shields the interior west from the full wrath of Pacific storms. The rainshadow that is thus cast is responsible for the high desert dryness of the Great Basin and the intermittent rains of the Palouse grasslands of the Columbia Plateau.
The rainshadow of the Cascades is felt closer to home as well. A few miles east of the mountain crest moisture is diminished to the point that Rocky Mountain plant species such as ponderosa pines and junipers, adapted to long periods of drought and frequent wildfires, are common. On the other side of the crest, the mountains are drenched by rain wrung from the clouds of Pacific storms, keeping the forest lush year-round. Some areas of the Cascades receive more than 45 feet of snowfall a year, enough to entomb a three story house with a bit left over for the chimney.
The Cascades are the volcanic crease of the continent, a line of a dozen or so snowcapped volcanic peaks that dot the verdant forestscape like a string of pearls on a woolly green scarf. The notoriety of the mountains varies from the well known to the not so. But to the people of the Northwest the mountains are the hook upon which the landscape is hung and their gaze is cast to them to check the progress of each day.
The north to south roll call of these volcanoes reads like a mountaineering romance novel: Mt. Giribaldi, Mt. Baker, Glacier Peak, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, Mt. Thielson, Mt. Shasta and finally Mt. Lassen. Each has a century and a half of written history that is part heroic, part mystic and part catastrophic. And each has a millennium or more of oral history that is woven so tightly into the traditional fabric of the Northwest that the line between faith and fact is widely blurred.
Going back several million years finds the volcanoes of the Cascades were mere bumps, just rising plumes of magma in the earth’s crust. Generated by the melting of the Farallon tectonic plate as it dove under the North American plate, the magma eventually broke through the crust and built with many eruptions the mountains we see today. The boundary between the two plates is the west coast of the Pacific Northwest which is also why the volcanoes so neatly parallel the shore. The point on the coast opposite Mt. Lassen in northern California marks an important geologic convergence. It is the southern boundary of the oceanic plate and all that is considered to be of the Northwest and the northern boundary of the San Andreas fault zone and the beginning of the Sierras and the rest of that that is Californian.
Most of the Cascade volcanoes are dormant and some are extinct but because the tectonic plates are still in motion others are active. The most well known eruption in North America was in 1980 when Mt. St. Helens blew apart and hurled a cloud of ash over all of the Northwest and west to Oklahoma and Minnesota. Before that, Mt. Lassen erupted in 1917 and Mt. St. Helen erupted twice again in the mid-19th century. Until the plates stop moving, which will happen as soon as the moon stops rising, all that is alive in the Cascade ecoregion will live with the potential of someday having an ashy cloud hang overhead.
In the year 6845 BC many people, animals and plants felt the earth move in the greatest volcanic explosion ever in the Cascade ecoregion. That is the year when 12,000 feet tall Mt. Mazama blew apart in such a thunderous and violent explosion that ash fell as far away as Alberta and Yellowstone National Park and 25 cubic miles of mountain disappeared. Another 15 cubic miles of material collapsed back into the blast crater, a hole five miles wide and almost a mile deep. Today this hole is filled with 1900 feet of water so clear that objects can be seen 300 feet below the surface. The area remains volcanically active, a new volcanic peak is rising from the rubble and has broken the surface of the lake. The new cone is called Wizard Island and the water is Crater Lake, the namesake of the National Park.
Even stately Mt. Rainier is not the unchanged giant that our human perspective suggests. Seventy five thousand years ago it was more than 16,000 feet high, 2000 feet higher than it is today. Six thousands years ago the mountain erupted and was reduced to a cut-off cone not quite 14,000 feet high with a lake in its summit caldera. Reconstruction of the mountain began 2500 years ago with a dome of lava rising from its summit to its present 14,410 elevation. Today it is the signature mountain of the Cascades, cloaked with 26 glaciers that cover more than 40 square miles of mountainside. If the spirits of the Cascades live anywhere in the Northwest it is on the lofty crown of Mt. Rainier.
Surrounding the slopes of the Cascade mountains like a rough green skirt are perhaps the most magnificent conifer forests in the world. Twenty species of evergreens grow here, a gathering of such diversity that it compares with no other place. The weight of that living is twice that found in the storied tropical rainforest and if creatures of the soil are included in the tally the shear diversity of species present in these forests equals or exceeds that found anywhere else. If you know where to look it is not hard to find cedars a thousand years old and eight feet across in groves gothic in dimension.
Finding these groves is becoming increasingly difficult for now only remnants remain in isolated pockets far from the down valley mills. What was once a continuous cloth of trees is now moth eaten with great saw chewed holes tattering the woody fabric. This is because the Cascade ecoregion is timber country, the primary supplier for the country’s demand for wood products. It is the best tree growing environment in the world. Some Douglas-firs, the primary timber tree of the area, can grow to have trunks three feet wide in less than 40 years. With proper management and without greed these forests can continue to supply the raw materials for the building industry. Unfortunately, the most ancient and the most treasured of these forests, the old-growth forests, are also the forests most threatened by the sawyer’s blade.
I once brought 80 examples of green paint, supplied by the local hardware store into an old-growth forest. I wanted to find words other than “green” to describe what I saw. Sunlight on a hemlock bough is part Spring Eve, part Ripe Banana (a green ripe banana?) and part Grassy Knoll ( do conspiracy buffs paint their houses Grassy Knoll?). Shaded hemlock is more a combination Pea Pod, Park Place and Baton Rouge. The moss at my feet is definitely Wild Lime and the huckleberry overhead is Filthy Rich (shaded huckleberry is Persnickety). And the mossy trunks that rose above me are somewhere between Shallow Water and Lily Pad.
As I held the samples up to the forest I could easily find examples of each color but what I thought would be a comprehensive set of shades was lacking when compared to the real kingdom of green. Where were the deep forest greens that should be called Shaded Bough, Hemlock or Serenity? And where were the rich leafy greens like Lily Leaf, Big Leaf Maple or Summer’s Day? Of all the colors before me only Forest Preserve and Silver Pine had any connection to the forest. I think the namers of paint need to spend a little more time in this world of green and not the Lime Sherbert, Pistachio and Ocean Breeze world of Seaside Shanty, Diamond Head and Lime Tart. I think they, like we all do, need to spend a little more time in the forest.
Time spent in an ecoregion so rich can be frustrating if it is animals you are seeking. Many are shy and retiring so you can expect to see few on a single visit. With repeated trips though the list of wildlife encountered can be impressive. The old-growth forest is home to the most primitive rodent in the world, the aplodontia, a beaver-sized animal that riddles hillsides with burrows and stores plant food underground for the long winter much like beavers store it underwater. Old-growth forests also harbor mountain goats, mountain lions, bobcats, lynx, black bears, brown bears, elk, otters, deer, martens, fishers, weasels, eagles, owls, songbirds, salamanders, salmon and bizarre insects adapted to the cool moist habitat.
The air in an old-growth forest is like no other I have ever known. It is the breath of fertility, the sigh of potency, like the air pressed between young lovers on a warm summer’s evening. It is the air caught in an old church, breathed in devotion, solemn and respectful. With each step taken the ground groans with growth and the vapors of decay. It is a place where you fear if you pause too long you too might be overgrown by all that creeps, sprawls and spreads. It is a forest in which you cannot help but lift your head and point your eyes to the treetops. It is where the songs of warblers and flycatchers tumble down upon you like rain but are so high in the canopy that to try to get a glimpse of these tiny birds you might as well be looking for angels in the clouds.
Diane Ackerman writes “There is a furnace in our cells and when we breathe we pass the world through our bodies, brew it lightly and turn it loose again, gently altered for having known us.” Such is the case in an ancient grove of trees. The furnace there is spiritual but it burns none the less in all of us. How do I know? I know because I have many times been lightly brewed and turned loose again when I have entered such a grove. And I know I have been gently altered, gently bettered for having been there.