Forests and Rivers


Old growth, Howard Creek.
Photo by Mark Lawler.

"Ours was once a forested planet" - particularly this part of it, which, fortunately, is still mostly that way. The scale and richness of forests is what sets the Cascades apart from other mountains. Many mountain ranges have higher or more spectacular peaks but none, excepting perhaps the Olympics, have more spectacular forests. The west side Cascade forests are part of the great arc of temperate rainforest which until recently stretched from the north California coast all the way to Prince William Sound in Alaska.

The magnificent forests of the west side of the Cascades can be roughly divided into the western hemlock, silver fir and mountain hemlock zones. These divisions are somewhat arbitrary and depend not only on elevation but on soils and slope aspect and exposure. Some cool, shaded, north facing areas will have high elevation species despite being as low as 2000 feet, while sunny, well drained southwest facing slopes may support lowland species at elevations of 4000 feet or higher.

The lowest of the westside forest zones is the western hemlock zone, named for the theoretical climax tree species which, though abundant, may or may not be present in any particular place. These are the classic "cathedral forests," usually found below 3000 feet, although growing higher in favorable locales. In older, undisturbed old growth forests, the size and character of the trees, along with the richness of mosses and lichens, never fails to impress. Although there is no one single, agreed upon definition of "old growth," it is generally taken to mean an old forest that has never been logged. Ancient forests have a certain something about them - more than just the large trees or the profusion of mosses - that strikes a chord deep inside. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that humans have lived among such settings for 99 percent of the time we have been on this planet. Whatever it is, you know it when you see it, and old growth forests look the way forests should look.

Upper N Fk Skykomish old growth.
Photo by Mark Lawler.

In the western Alpine Lakes region, Douglas fir is the most impressive tree. Favoring well drained south and west slopes and prevalent below 3000 feet, some Douglas firs reach 250 feet in height and 8 feet or more in diameter. Old growth Douglas fir has been called the finest lumber tree in the world, with strong, decay resistant wood. It has always been the most prized species of the Cascades. Consequently, old growth Douglas fir forests are scarce these days, but they do survive in a number of isolated areas in the Alpine Lakes region. These forests tend to be comparatively brush-free and most often have the classic "cathedral" look so appreciated by forest admirers.

High elevation old growth, Johnson Ridge.
Photo by Rick McGuire.

If Douglas fir is the king of the Cascade forests then western red cedar is the queen, its graceful, feminine beauty a nice counterpoint to Douglas fir. Specimens as large as 14 feet in diameter can still be found in places on the west side of the Alpine Lakes, often with multiple, "picklefork" tops. Completing the "big three" is western hemlock. Although seldom attaining the individual size or splendor of Douglas fir or cedar, it makes up for it with ubiquity, and can be found throughout most forests except near timberline.

Above the western hemlock zone is the silver fir zone, occupying most westside mountain slopes between 2500 and 4000 to 4500 feet. Snow tolerant silver fir and western hemlock predominate in these forests, which comprise most of the remaining acreage of old growth in the Alpine Lakes region as well as the rest of the Cascades. Noble fir can be found is some areas, reaching the northern limit of its range here. These forests often have a dark, mysterious air, especially on spring days when clouds brush the treetops and varied thrushes sound their melancholy note.

The subalpine, or mountain hemlock zone, occurs between elevations of 4000 to 4500 feet and 5500 feet on west side slopes. Mountain hemlocks can often attain surprising size in these snowy, upper forests, often forming forested "islands" interspersed with heather and flower meadows, accompanied by subalpine fir in areas toward the east. Alaska cedars can also be found in these high forests, and can live up to 1500 years.

Natural second growth forest, North Fork Skykomish.
Photo by Kevin Geraghty.

Deciduous trees also form part of Alpine Lakes forests. Red alder is a pioneer tree well known for its ability to colonize tough sites, and thanks to fungi living in its roots, fix nitrogen from the air and restore degraded habitats. Any road not driven on regularly will usually be taken over by alder in a year or two. Black cottonwood grows profusely at lower elevations and in river bottoms, sometimes reaching 175 feet in height. Bigleaf maple is perhaps the most impressive of all the deciduous trees, with large, spreading, moss-draped, "Robin Hood" specimens present in some lower forests. Other species can also be found, mostly confined to western lowlands, including bitter cherry, Pacific crabapple, Pacific dogwood, and hazelnut. A few manzanita and madrona can be found on rocky, sunny exposures at the western extremity of the region, with a handful of Garry oaks just west of Mt. Si in the town of North Bend. Sitka spruce is abundant on the claybeds of the lower Middle Fork Snoqualmie but scarce elsewhere, and western white and lodgepole pines are found throughout the Alpine Lakes region in small numbers.

Mixed forest, Middle Fork Snoqualmie.
Photo by Kevin Geraghty.

One other type of westside forest deserves mention, the maturing older second growth forests growing in many low valleys such as the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt. These forests were never replanted and grew back naturally following early day railroad logging. They grow on the lowest and most species-rich and productive sites, which is why they were the first to be logged. Most of these areas now support mixed natural forests with many trees 3 feet in diameter and 150 feet tall. They appear quite natural, and if left alone will continue progressing to old growth. Six-thousand acres of these forests were protected within the Wild Sky Wilderness in 2008, and ALPS hopes to include more such areas in future expansions of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Timberline generally occurs around 5500 feet on the cool moist west side, and as high as 7000 feet to the east where summers are warmer. Rugged beauty characterizes the alpine zone on both sides of the range, with rock peaks providing a backdrop for mountain meadows and lakes. Where the high western front of the range catches every cloud, heather meadows predominate. Low-growing heathers and dwarf berry bushes blend with islands of mountain hemlocks to form scenic parklands, often interspersed with small grassy areas and tarns. A little farther east, where it is just a bit sunnier, "grass/forb" meadows are abundant. These are the classic, emerald green "flower" meadows so attractive to hikers. A profusion of herbaceous plants grows in these meadows, with anemones, lupines, mountain bistort, Indian paintbrush, and the magnificent tiger lily competing for space. One of the most common plants is Sitka valerian, the wonderful pungent odor of which fills the air on warm days. These meadows are the scene of intense activity by pollinating insects such as bumblebees and an abundance of syrphid, or "hover" flies. These small yellow-and-black flies are often mistaken for bees or wasps, but they neither bite nor sting. Their name comes from their tendency to hover perfectly still, their wings producing a high-pitched whine. They will often land harmlessly on an arm or leg (don't swat them!) and are the most important pollinators in the Cascades.

Old growth Ponderosa Pine, Natapoc Ridge.
Photo by Kevin Geraghty.

Eastside forests can also be divided into life zones, but great differences in slope aspect and soil moisture make boundaries between them much less distinct. Lowest is the ponderosa pine zone. Although little of the stately, open and grassy "yellowbelly" pine forest remains in a natural state, some areas, particularly on south facing slopes, retain some of that look. Douglas fir is abundant, with many older eastside specimens growing quite large and picturesque. Farther up one encounters the grand fir zone, with the subalpine fir zone still higher. Engelmann spruce is common in high valley bottoms, and whitebark pines, an important wildlife food source, and often large and wide-spreading, can be found at high elevation.. Perhaps the most distinctive eastside tree is the alpine larch, which forms delightfully open, flower filled forests with gnarled old trees of great individual character. Alpine larch forests are a wonderful sight in late September when their dying needles turn luminous gold in the sunlight.

North Fork Skykomish River.
Photo by Conway Leovy.

Rivers and Waters

The major watersheds of the Alpine Lakes divide the area rather neatly into northwest (Skykomish,) southwest (Snoqualmie,) northeast (Wenatchee,) and southeast (Yakima,) quadrants. The Skykomish and Wenatchee are popular with rafters and kayakers. The Skykomish is a premier salmon and anadromous fish spawning river, while Snoqualmie falls blocks access to all three forks of the Snoqualmie. Some salmon spawn in the Wenatchee and Yakima rivers, but both rivers, especially the Yakima, suffer from excessive water withdrawals for agriculture and sprawl development. Salmon must also run a gauntlet of dams to reach both eastside rivers.

Native cutthroat live in many of the rivers and streams, while many lakes (almost all of which were naturally without fish,) are stocked with rainbow, cutthroat or golden trout, or chars such as eastern brook or lake trout. Many lakes now have naturally reproducing fish populations, which have been established at the expense of native amphibians. Low power hydroelectric projects are a growing threat to many of the smaller streams and creeks, with developers taking advantage of mandated purchasing of the power they produce to turn a profit at taxpayers' expense.