A River Reigns Through It

FIRST TO THE ANKLES, then the knees, then mid-thigh: The river pushes higher and higher, its power sucking, pulling, tugging at your legs; how it wants to lie you down. Stand mid-channel and watch its water surge toward you, glassy smooth, clear, slatey-green, a river used to getting whatever it wants.

The mighty Queets, one of the biggest, undammed, wild rivers in the Lower 48, reigns supreme in its kingdom of Olympic National Park, where it muscles about 50 miles from the glaciers of Mount Olympus to the Pacific.

Wading across it in summertime when the water is lowest is a rite of passage for anyone who would hike the Queets trail, reached on the other side of the river. Any other time of year? Forget it.

For all its charisma, the Queets is a river that people who don’t fish don’t talk of much. It’s far away — four hours from Seattle, reached down a dead-end, gravel road. But to those who know it, well worth every pothole and busted tire.

The forests along its banks, protected within the park, and the river’s untamed flow make the Queets a window into a lost world, a rare landscape in the Lower 48.

Dammed, diked, drained and kept in solitary confinement, the riparian forests that keep company on their banks stripped: Such is the fate of most rivers in Puget Sound country.

Scientists call the Queets a living laboratory, one of the last, best places to see what a big, living river looks like.

As they try to revive dead and dying rivers around Puget Sound, they come here, stick their heads under the hood of the thrumming ecosystem of the Queets, trying to figure out how it all works.

“We don’t know what rivers used to be like here,” says David Montgomery, a scientist at the University of Washington who has studied rivers all over the world. In the Queets, he sees a river with lessons to teach.

“A river that is functioning in the way native ecosystems here once all functioned provides a blueprint for restoration.”

A big river left to roam at will across its floodplain, the Queets undercuts its banks and devours old-growth trees, forms side channels and pools, floods.

It’s taught scientists that the boundaries between land and water are more porous than they thought. What is forest today will be river in time, and vice versa.

Big trees that seem a forest primeval are actually jewels left on pawn by a river that will be back to claim them later.

The river’s chewing current fells big trees surely as a saw. Those logs in turn form jams in the river that armor its banks, enabling a new forest to establish and grow big trees the river will claim once more.

This is no casual relationship, but an intimate connection between river and forest. It’s a dance, between wood and water that becomes wood again. This river and its forest aren’t separate places, but interconnected, supporting one of the most diverse webs of life on Earth — including mostly healthy runs of salmon and steelhead.

But to discover that, folks have to get wet. Very, very wet.

A GREAT BATTLEMENT of silvery logs stacks against a point that juts into the river, meeting a push of water that hits hard enough to make one loose log knock rhythmically, steadily against another, shuddering with each push of the current.

The sound carries over the water, a steady knock . . . knock . . . knock. It’s disembodied, mysterious, until the log’s movement catches the eye, and solves the riddle.

“It’s the heartbeat of the river,” says Josh Latterell, a University of Washington researcher, and he’s just about right.

Latterell is part of a team from the UW trying to figure out how this ecosystem ticks, from the soils of the forest to its big trees, the gnarly logjams they become, and even the curtains of moss and lichens in the canopy.

Led by UW fisheries professor Robert Naiman, a.k.a. Dr. Queets, who has been studying the river since 1992, they are mapping log jams; climbing into the old-growth canopy; poring over aerial photo records; coring trees; gathering data from 30 research plots along the river.

Latterell, researcher Tom O’Keefe and field technician Nick Hurtado walk over the rough river cobble easily as a sidewalk, busting into the rushing current to fjord the river with the casual ease of much practice. Wading right in, boots and all, obviously staying dry is something they gave up on long ago.

They hike reach after reach, cross the river over and over, clambering over logjams, some stacked nearly two stories high, each numbered with a tiny silver tag.

With laser and tape measure, the three record the vital statistics of the jams, part of the data to figure out what happens to all this wood. How much does the river burp out to sea? How far do the pieces travel? How much racks up on the banks and stays there, to become the bones that support a new forest? How much does it entomb in its banks or on the river bottom? How much wood does the river actually capture from the forest every year?

Buried in the mud, deprived of the oxygen that aids decomposition, the logs can last centuries. Naiman has found hunks of wood that were more than 1,300 years old, coughed up by the river at last.

Naiman’s interest in the Queets goes back to at least the mid-1980s. He wondered what makes fish thrive in some rivers and not others, what was the basis for the rich biodiversity of a place like the Queets? He wanted to look at the river and its riparian zone as a system, and understand it.

Migrating entirely across its valley floor every 800 to 900 years, the river revisits the forest over and over. The result is not the neat, linear bands of river, bank, and forest conjured by buffer-zone regulations and other human niceties.

What Nature makes here instead is a mosaic. Picture a forest at every stage of life, interwoven. A living legacy of the river’s journey, with pockets of old growth here, brand new stands of willow there.

The entire floodplain ultimately is just a big bank of wood for the Queets, in varying stages of growth, transit or storage.

This landscape is a guest book, with the river’s visits clearly recorded for those who can read its hand.

And while it seems a chaotic place, there is an orderly succession playing out over time.

First, jams stabilize gravel bars and riverbanks, where the young willow stands are the newest pioneers, staking claim after the river’s most recent visit. So recent, a bathtub ring of moss and mud still clings to the trunks of young trees.

In time, alders move in, shading out the willows, then spruce and hemlock.

The most productive places in the forest are terraces farthest from the river. Spared the chewing jaws of the river’s current, these terraces are crowned with old-growth trees, big enough to help the forest regenerate when the river comes roaring back.

Felled by the current and jammed in great revetments, the big trees are the only thing massive enough to stand up to the river’s push, creating nodes of stability in the chaos. In which the forest can grow once more.

No surface in this floodplain is more than 1,000 years old. The Queets sees to that.

The result of this landscape forever in flux is an ecosystem with every stage of life in play, simultaneously.

“It makes for incredible biodiversity,” Naiman says. “There is a house for everyone at one time or another.”

But it’s also easy to see, watching the Queets, how rivers and people parted ways, even in Ecotopia.

People want stability, predictability. They want the land underfoot to always be . . . underfoot.

So they try to make it so.

“We have many fossil rivers in this country,” Montgomery says, wistfully. “We lock them between levees, turn off their water with dams, shut off their sediment flow and cut down their forests. Their metabolism shuts down, the river starves.

“But the Queets is not starved. It can eat as much big forest as it wants.”

WHAT IS THAT racket?

Ah, yes. Rain on the canopy over the picnic table. So loud, talking becomes shouting as Cameron Williams, a California researcher, takes a lush wad of moss from a trash bag and unrolls it on the picnic table like a green shag rug.

He calls out the species he finds in this specimen from the tree canopy, gathered from a big leaf maple alongside the Queets. Robert Van Pelt, lead of this inquiry into the secret life of canopy plants, records the names of his beloveds in pencil on waterproof paper.

Regionally famous for his books that chronicle the dimensions of championship trees, Van Pelt, he of the BIGTREEZ license plate, will spend the next three weeks in the forest alongside the Queets.

By day, he and a troupe of hired research climbers will be in the treetops, gathering canopy mosses and lichens, and measuring and mapping the structure of some 50 trees. They range in age from young whips to monsters more than 300 years old, and include everything from vine maple to hemlock.

By night the researchers go through their samples, compiling the data into Van Pelt’s laptop, powered by a boat battery under the picnic table.

Not for sissies, this rain-forest-canopy research, which, in addition to demanding a tolerance for heights, has at least one other crucial prerequisite: You must be willing to get

wet.

“There is no such thing as bad weather,” says Van Pelt resolutely. “Only inappropriate clothing.”

That, and wet sleeping bags: Rain puddled on the roof of their wall tent weighed down the roof until it collapsed. The result: one sleeping bag awash.

It hangs from a pole over the campfire as the two examine their mosses and lichen. But it looks more smoked than dried.

For the firewood is also wet. And the matches so wet that to light the camp stove come dinnertime, Van Pelt has to blast them with a lighter to make them flame.

The campground, with its one amenity of a pit toilet-cum-slug farm, is gradually filling like a leaky basement, a puddle here, an ever-bigger puddle there. Pitch the tent on high ground or suffer the consequences.

Crowded under the vinyl canopy like ducklings under their mother’s breast, nobody ventures from under its protection as rain drills the campsite.

Latterell and Hurtado arrive, soaked to the armpits from a day kayaking the Queets in inflatable boats, scouting for logjams and climbing them, looking for identification tags.

Wet, tired, they decide to break camp and head up the road to a bunkhouse used by researchers at Kalaloch — prompting a ribbing. “What do you expect in the rainforest?” Williams — a Californian, no less — teases as they gather their tents.

“I like rain,” Latterell says. “I just hate living in it. Imagine you wake up in the morning, get dressed for work, then stand in the shower with all your clothes on. Turn off the heat, and work at your computer all day long. When you are ready for bed, don’t take your clothes off, and climb into bed. Do that five nights in a row, and tell me you love the rain.”

And off into the gathering gloom they go, headlight beams bouncing in the potholes.

Van Pelt sets to cooking dinner, nonplussed as flame ka-booms out of the camp stove jets, nowhere near the burner, reaching for his belly.

“Maybe turn off the gas?” Williams suggests.

This, Van Pelt, big-tree hunter extraordinaire, bits of moss still clinging to the sleeve of his wool sweater, decides is a good idea.

He goes mano-a-mano with the camp stove, first with a ratchet set, then with a Leatherman tool — finally in its element! — until that camp stove is purring, its blue flame the brightest thing in this rainforest camp.

Van Pelt puts on a spread like the former chef he is, steak fajitas with red and yellow peppers and onions, the aromas of onion and pan-sautéed steak mingling enticingly with wood smoke as he works the big black iron skillet.

He strokes tortillas over the flame to warm them and settles by the campfire, stoked up with a visitor’s dry wood, a dense-pack burrito in hand.

“I love camping,” Van Pelt says with deep satisfaction.

THE LAST PERSON to swing around in the canopy of Western Washington’s old-growth trees shocked the scientific community. Canopy expert Nalini Nadkarni discovered that the thick bolsters of moss on bigleaf maples in the Hoh create juicy soils on the branches beneath them. And the trees actually sprout roots into that soil, right from their branches.

This, said Nadkarni, was as unexpected as a person sprouting a thumb from the shoulder.

Van Pelt’s work, he hopes, will pick up where she left off, and take the inquiry further.

He hopes to extrapolate a first-ever measure of life in the canopy along the Queets. He won’t be surprised if the Queets turns out to host a bigger mess o’ moss per acre than anywhere else on the planet.

The Queets has proven a rich and rewarding laboratory.

Over the years, Naiman has taken hundreds of students here to observe river ecology.

UW research on the Queets has encompassed at least 14 projects ranging from how juvenile salmon use the river’s side channels in the floodplain, to microbial communities thriving in the river’s subsurface flow, all the way to the mosses in the treetops.

The results so far? Nearly two dozen peer-reviewed publications, with at least eight more in preparation, and two textbooks. About eight graduate theses were born on the river, and at least two more are in gestation for 2005. About six chapters for various books also came from the river’s laboratory.

The Naiman team’s recent field work is largely completed. Researchers are synthesizing their work and trying to turn their days on the river into scientific papers.

As Van Pelt and Williams swing up into the trees on ropes to spend their day aloft, canopy research on a sunny autumn morning looks not so bad after all.

Theirs is an office of angels, a treetop redoubt, with views of the Queets and Mount Olympus standard. And every day is spent on a new frontier.

“What is the rainforest most famous for? These epiphytes,” Van Pelt says of the canopy’s lush gardens of plants. “And yet we don’t even know what’s here. No one’s done this before. It’s a huge amount of chlorophyll we are looking at up there, but I can’t tell you anything about it.”

Except this, Van Pelt says: The relationship between the river and forest is everywhere apparent.

“Everything we are studying is growing on something the river created . . . You can see it happening, it’s just putting numbers on it, figuring out the relationships. Integrating it into a cohesive story.”

A story with a moral: To heal the sick, first get a good understanding of what healthy looks like.

“Rather than try to do restoration with only half the picture,” Naiman says, “my motivation is to understand how natural rivers and processes work.

“Then, you can see what’s missing.”