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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

John Muir

Although the term "American Alps" seems in common parlance to refer to areas in or near to the North Cascades National Park, we offer up here an item from what might normally be called the "Central" Cascades. But there are many who use the "North" Cascades name for everything north from Interstate 90. Indeed, there are those who go so far as to define the Columbia River as the starting line. All food for thought, and further discussion. But to the matter at hand:

Few people are aware that John Muir, possibly America's foremost connoisseur of and advocate for trees and all forms of wild beauty, visited the Snoqualmie valley in about 1890. Muir spent his life in nature's grandest “temples,” but was nonetheless quite impressed by the maple forests he found in the Snoqualmie. In one of his lesser known writings, released after his death in a collection called “Steep Trails,” he describes what he saw:

Not even in the great maple woods of Canada have I seen trees either as large or with so much striking, picturesque character. ...(They attain) a height of seventy five to a hundred feet and a diameter of four to eight feet. The trunk sends out large limbs toward its neighbors, laden with long drooping mosses beneath and rows of ferns on the upper surfaces, thus making a grand series of richly ornamented interlacing arches, with the leaves laid thick overhead, rendering the underwood spaces delightfully cool and open. Never have I seen a finer forest ceiling or a more picturesque one, while the floor, covered with tall ferns and (salmonberry) and thrown into hillocks by the bulging roots, matches it well. The largest of these maple groves that I have yet found is on the right bank of the Snoqualmie River, about a mile above the falls. The whole country hereabouts is picturesque, and interesting in many ways, and well worth a visit by tourists passing through the Sound region, as it is now accessible by rail from Seattle.”

Almost all of the rich bottomland forests seen by Muir were cleared for hop and other farms in following decades. But luckily, more old maples have survived than almost any other tree species in the Snoqualmie region, particularly in the Middle Fork Snoqualmie valley where Ice Age lakes left behind large deposits of clay. Douglas fir, the “money tree” prized by early day loggers, doesn't much like clay and thus was scarce in parts of the Middle Fork. Bigleaf maple is not so particular, and grows just fine on clay. Thus many of the clay areas in the valley were largely bypassed by early logging, since maple wasn't worth much in money terms, especially during the Depression years when much of the valley was logged.

Thanks to those quirks of geology and economics there are still a large number of impressive old maples in the Middle Fork, probably more than anywhere else in the Cascades, many of them much like those described by Muir. A number of fine old specimens can easily be seen along and near the Middle Fork road about five to seven miles in. Other notable places to see large old maples are Seattle's Seward and Discovery Parks, and King County's Three Forks Park north of North Bend. Too bad there aren't many more.

At the Mountains to Sound Greenway's Annual Dinner in December 2009, Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark signed an order designating 10,270 acres of state lands as the Middle Fork Snoqualmie Natural Resource Conservation Area. Although millions of acres of mountains have been protected in Washington, very few large low valleys have been. The setting aside of such a large chunk of the Middle Fork, a rare piece of “prime real estate,” was a remarkable act. In so doing, Goldmark protected many of these old maple woodlands, and hopefully they, or their successors, will be just as impressive a century from now as they are today. It's probably fair to say that John Muir would have approved.

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