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Every day I take my dogs into the hills just south of Puget Sound in Washington State. The walk begins as a logging road, recently re-graded. A couple of years ago the state harvested the trees on a few hundred acres of this land. It had been mixed second growth forest, which means that many of the trees were still wild, tracing their lineage to the ancient giants that stood here before them, as opposed to being the product of a nursery.

For several weeks, after a catastrophic rainstorm deluged these hills with a couple of dozen inches of rain in twelve hours or so, this gravel logging road became a detour for local traffic. The culvert further down the paved road below was swallowed up, along with the road above it, and sent down stream by an event that was truly spectacular.

The state has some of the most protective logging practices. Private properties are cut corner to corner, excepting small buffers for creeks and wetlands, and those are sometimes mitigated away in favor of development. If you have never seen hundreds of acres of forest felled and logged, you have really missed witnessing a startling incidence of human impact on the ecology of the planet.

The dogs and I adventure further up into these hills than most, and the regularity of my visits, puts me in possession of a collection of daily impressions that span four years.

In the summer this is a splendid walk that alternately offers you the shady fragrance of the forest, and the blistering heat of the sun baked clearcut. Now, in the fall, it is less and less likely I will see anyone at all. The sheets of rain will drench us, the winds will rattle the tall trees above us, and the waters of the swollen creeks will rise around us as they continue to carve their way out of the hills and into the mudflats at the edge of Puget Sound.

There is a stream that flows out of these hills, it is a bit smaller than and runs parallel to, the larger stream that had its way with the road that day. It was one year after the cutting had been done. The rain fell mercilessly onto these already heavy soils.

Where snow had been the day before, great rivers of water flowed. Far up this stream, that quietly made its way through a mantle of green, an entire hillside, held by the juvenile roots of a young stand of nursery seedlings, liquefied.

I have spent many afternoons sitting at the top of the upper rim of the great crater created by this event, imagining what it must have been like to see an entire hillside slide away. The sloshing material rose up the opposite side of the drainage to improbable heights, leaving young trees complete from their growing tip to their deepest root, collected in chaotic groups beneath the great sap yielding scars on the Douglas fir that stood firm against the onslaught.

These early moments of this event- an event that would soon stretch itself out over miles- blocked the usual route of this normally gentle spill, retaining energy of incredible potential. The threat that grew impossibly in this narrow ravine would rend a wide new course down the once peaceful channel.

Among the curious features that were left in the wake of this torrent, are the massive boulders weighing tens of thousands of pounds that predictably ended up at the center of the new watercourse. It would be hard for me to over estimate the number of trees and tons of gravel that wound up tangled in the waters that day.

Whole big leaf maples as tall as sixty feet stood firmly in the hillsides for decades, uprooted entirely, and sloughed down into the roiling chasm. Some of these trees have re-rooted themselves since, and leafed out again this summer, demanding their second chance at living. In this climate, trees often survive events that would have killed them in a region with less rain.

There are revelations as you climb up through the newly carved halls. Colorful clay soils reveal their depth and contour, deep pools harbor small wild fish, and trails where black bears scramble disappear up onto the ridge. There is just enough wilderness left here to glimpse the ancient spirit of the world.

Originally posted to epjmcginley on Wed Oct 28, 2009 at 10:53 PM PDT.

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