Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 15 miles – Time out: 3 days
Degree of Difficulty: 3 – Highest Elevation: 7,000 ft.
It’s easy to decipher the geology of many parts of the world because the record in the rocks is accessible, but not so here on the Olympic Peninsula. Here the jumbled valleys, dense forests, and thick glaciers conspire to obscure the layers of rock below. It took a century for three different geologists to uncover clues to a unifying creation theory. This is their story along with my three-day journey up the Dungeness River watershed to locate the final bit of enigmatic evidence that almost prevented the theory from being written. – The Incidental Explorer
September 22, 2015. It was the first day of autumn, but at the Dungeness River trailhead the weather was still all summery sunshine and blue sky. In addition to the pleasant weather, I was fortunate to be backpacking with two of my favorite Olympic National Park Rangers, Bruce and Donovan. Their years of roving about the Olympic Peninsula meant this duo usually knew the answers to my questions down to the minute details, but the questions I hoped to answer on this trip were big ones: namely how were the Olympic Mountains formed and who uncovered the answers?
Bruce’s plan was to explore the upper watershed of the Dungeness where we could gain enough elevation to leave the forest behind and then, there on the naked rocks, we could search for clues to the origins of the Olympics. We’d hike in a big loop – up the Dungeness River Valley Trail to where Bruce said was a well-concealed boot-path that climbed straight up the east face of the ridge. At 6,000 feet, we’d find Goat Lake where we’d camp. A thousand feet above that, we’d cross the summit of the ridge on a rough pass far above tree-line. We’d descend the west side of the ridge to Royal Basin where we’d overnight. Then we’d head back down Royal Creek to Dungeness River. Our maps? Publications, some from a century ago, documenting mineral wealth on the Olympic Peninsula.
We continued hiking upstream to the confluence of the Dungeness River and Royal Creek. A couple of miles upstream of this point, the ridge that separated these two stream valleys soared to over 7,000 feet high. Bruce had explored this region over 40 years ago on a fishing expedition to Goat Lake, and said he knew how to get us into that high country. The first explorers into the interior of the Olympic Peninsula weren’t there for the fishing, nor were they there to speculate on the mountains’ origins. All they wanted was the location of any valuable mineral deposits. Then in 1907, a young University of California graduate named Charles E. Weaver accepted a faculty position as a geologist at the University of Washington and began traipsing around the Olympic Peninsula and all over western Washington. He wasn’t trying to find gold; Weaver was wandering the wilderness mapping rock formations.
Like geologists before him, Charles E. Weaver understood that the bands of rock we now see were laid down and formed over different times in the past, but Weaver appreciated that the stratification of the rock formations could be measured chronologically and that this could be related to non-contiguous rock formations that were spread over great distances here in Washington state. He understood this decades before the current geologic time scale came into popular use. Weaver was reportedly a shy person, but very physically strong. Even later in life, he could hike much younger men “into the ground.” Weaver was frugal. When he traveled on his mapping expeditions, he ate at the cheapest restaurants and used the bus or hitched rides on logging railroads. Weaver had a long and prestigious career. He trained many future geologists at the University of Washington and is considered the father of Pacific Northwest geology. Weaver even has a mountain in Antarctica named after him.
In 1916, Weaver published a massive paper describing rock formations all over the western half of Washington state, the first of its kind. Here on the Olympic Peninsula, Weaver identified a horseshoe-shaped mass of basalt and sedimentary rock along the northeastern edge of the Peninsula. But Weaver overestimated the age of the sedimentary rock layer. He also incorrectly guessed that the thick layer of basalt was younger than the layer of sedimentary rock. Weaver was forced to speculate on geology deep under the surface of the Olympics. Finding evidence was difficult for early geologists. Much of the Peninsula wilderness is forested, or above tree line, locked in ice. With the exception of a few hiking trails, the wild interior of Olympic National Park is no more accessible today than at the end of the Ice Age.
While Charles E. Weaver was mapping rock formations in the early 1900’s, there was a handful of mines on the Peninsula working small deposits of copper and gold, but there was an even more valuable mineral for which the government sent geologists searching – manganese. This mineral is crucial in making hardened steel – important for warships – and almost all the world’s supply of manganese is found outside of North America. Prior to World War I and again during World War II, when our manganese imports were threatened, the United States government was excited to find dark metallic manganese lodes in the reddish colored limestone of the Olympics. The manganese ore was intruded along the basaltic crescent that Weaver identified. Today, all the old mines are silent, but back when men were burrowing into the Olympic Mountains in search of mineral wealth, it was the Crescent manganese mine that was the most successful commercial mine on the Peninsula.
While searching the Olympic Peninsula for manganese ore, geologist Charles F. Park published a map in 1941 that clearly showed a crescent-shaped formation of basaltic rock along the northeast corner of the Olympics that he labeled “Volcanics.” According to his eulogy in the American Mineralogist, as a youth, Park left his home on the East Coast on steerage passage. Because of a chance encounter onboard he enrolled in the New Mexico School of Mines. After college, Park was hired by the U.S. Geological Survey where he traveled the world mapping valuable ore deposits in Alaska, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Africa, and finally on the Olympic Peninsula. Park explored mineral deposits in every continent except Antarctica. Park’s worldwide experience gave him valuable insights into geological conclusions, so he lamented that computer modeling and lab testing contributed to the decline in fieldwork from the new generation of geologists. Park was also a birder and cultivated rare species of cacti – a true Renaissance man.
It was a joy to be searching for clues to the origins of the Olympics with Donovan and Bruce, but hiking with Olympic National Park Rangers is different than hiking with anyone else. While Donovan had been a ranger in his youth, Bruce was still a seasonal ranger serving in the busy summer months. Together they knew National Park Service minutiae. They monitored radio communications. They spoke ranger lingo. They even measured time differently. When I said I could tell summer was over because the sun was low in the sky at noon, Bruce said it was the end of the season because all the toilet pits had been cleaned and helicopters had completed their backcountry “sewerage flights.”
When Charles Park lamented over the new generation of geologists who weren’t interested in fieldwork, he wasn’t referring to an Olympic Peninsula geologist named Rowland W. Tabor. In his youth, Tabor spent a decade climbing all over the Olympics and mapping previously unknown rock outcroppings. Tabor, like Park, was also employed by the U.S. Geological Survey. Tabor combined his energetic findings with the previous research of Weaver, Park and others, and in 1975 published the seminal book, “Geology of Olympic National Park.” In his book, Tabor explained the origins of the Olympics with the then-radical theory that the mountains were formed when landmasses floating on the Earth’s crust collided. Today, the theory of plate tectonics is generally accepted by all geologists. But, could Tabor’s application of the plate tectonics theory to the Olympic Peninsula explain a mysterious ring of very old basalt rock that had been identified in the interior of the Peninsula?
Though geologists Weaver and Park explored the Olympic Peninsula before the theory of plate tectonics was developed, they still recognized that this region was created by cataclysmic events. These early geologists mapped a massive, crescent-shaped band of rock that ran through the entire northeast of the Peninsula. Park called the formation Volcanics, and Tabor called it Peripheral Rocks.
These Peripheral Rocks were different from the inner core of the Olympics. Much of the rock of the inner core is highly deformed, set on edge, and, toward the center of the Peninsula, even metamorphosed (meaning the it was changed from one form of rock to another under intense heat and pressure). The thick sedimentary beds of the outer Peripheral Rocks are much less disrupted, and not metamorphosed at all. Under the sedimentary bands of the Peripheral Rocks is a very thick base of basalt that’s exposed along the far eastern edge of the crescent. Between the inner core and the Peripheral Rocks is an enigmatic inner ring of basaltic islands, much older than the surrounding rock from which they poke up.
It was these mysterious islands of old basalt, located somewhere between the Dungeness River and Royal Basin, that I was hoping to locate on our journey, in order to understand how Tabor could account for their existence.
Though I couldn’t see signs of another path, at Camp Handy Bruce said we’d head west and leave the Dungeness River Trail. With our backpacks, we crawled over a precariously balanced log that spanned the river and wandered through a curtain of brush and nasty thorns. Bruce’s unprotected forearms were laced with deep scratches that made his skin look like it had been flailed with a tiny whip.
I was skeptical that we were headed in the right direction until we broke free into a sunny field. Inlaid in the brown grass was a 5-foot-long arrow made of stones, pounded into the turf and pointing west to the steep ridge ahead. While Donovan calmly enjoyed a snack and Bruce treated his cuts, I speculated about the arrow. Did the message point to the trailhead to Goat Lake? Who made the arrow? But most of all I wondered if the arrow also pointed to Tabor’s inscrutable inner ring of basaltic islands?
A generation before Rowland Tabor applied the theory of colliding landmasses to explain the creation of the Olympic Peninsula, Charles Weaver theorized that the band of crescent-shaped peripheral rocks was simply a big anticline. An anticline is formed when layers of rock are laid down over time and then, due to some powerful event, the layers are squeezed until they fold like an upside down (U). Weaver theorized that another earth-shattering episode occurred and the U-shaped anticline was pushed over 45 degrees. Subsequent erosion wore the top corner off the tilted anticline.
All was good with this theory until geologists started looking closely at the ages of the inner and outer rocks of the crescent. If the Peninsula was a big anticline, then the rocks of the interior of the Olympic Mountains should be the oldest. So when fossils were discovered that indicated that some of the core rocks in the interior were younger than the shadowy ring of basaltic islands that encircled them, Weaver’s anticline theory began to unravel.
I stopped thinking about anticlines when we began to scramble upwards. The hidden boot-track up the ridge west of Camp Handy didn’t fool around with any switchbacks – we climbed 3,000 on a trail that pointed strait up the ridge. At times we were pulling ourselves up by reaching above our heads and grabbing trees and rock outcroppings. The latter were bands of sandstone and shale set on edge from the long-ago cataclysmic event that created these mountains.
Instead of the Peninsula being squeezed into a U-shaped anticline, like Charles Weaver theorized, Rowland Tabor believed that the cataclysm occurred when two landmasses (plates) floating on the Earth’s crust collided along the Pacific Coast, and one of the plates was forced under the other. This fault line is known as the Cascadia subduction zone. Thick accumulations of ocean sediments were scraped and shoved together creating the jumble of Olympic Mountain peaks. Tabor’s theory fit what field geologists had observed hiking through the mountains of the Peninsula, except for those mysterious islands of basaltic rock in the inner core of the Olympics. Where did they originate and how could they be older than the surrounding rock?
The boot path from Camp Handy to Goat Lake was so steep that it felt like we were rock climbing, not backpacking. Immediately to our left was a blown-out gulch of downed trees, precarious rocks, and sliding gravel, so we kept to the right of the trail as much as possible. Over our shoulder and across the valley of the Dungeness River, we could see Marmot Pass. I stood alone, resting and admiring the view. Far ahead of me was Bruce, who in his mid-70’s was in astoundingly good shape. Far behind me was Donovan, who stopped to look at every tree and flower. Finally, I broke through the trees and onto a steep grassy slope with a few scrubby pines. Under my feet was slate scree and course gravel. Above me I could see the top of the ridge. If Rowland Tabor was right, somewhere over that ridge should be the mysterious inner ring of dense basalt rock, and the answers to my questions on the origins of the Olympic Peninsula.
Bruce halted and waited for Donovan while I hiked on ahead. I crested the ridge and found myself in an empty valley. Far in the distance, clouds scampered past Buckhorn Mountain. It was a timeless landscape, probably not changed much since it was carved during the Ice Age. It wasn’t that long after the ice left that humans began roaming these mountains. Olympic National Park archeologists have dated a site of human habitation in the vicinity of Slab Camp to nearly 8,000 years ago. I imagined meeting a prehistoric family. If they didn’t kill me, what questions would they want to ask of me, their fellow man, who lived so far in their future? Consequently, I thought, what questions would I ask a time-traveler from my future? In an anthology of old poems that Donovan gave to me was this beautiful answer.
TO A POET A THOUSAND YEARS HENCE
I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.
I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces,
Of metal or of masonry.
But have you wine and music still,
And statues and a bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?
How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maimonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.
Oh, friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night alone:
I was a poet, I was young.
Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.
By James Elroy Flecker
A tiny chipmunk interrupted my introspection. This creature, with its white underbelly, brownish fur, and dark and light stripes was an Olympic Chipmunk, one of several mammals that are found on the Olympic Peninsula and nowhere else in the world. This was because the Olympic Peninsula was isolated by glaciers during the Pleistocene Ice Age that began a couple of million years ago. At least six different times, vast ice sheets crept out of the north and surrounded the Olympic Mountains with a 3,500-foot-thick frozen sea. Living on the tops of the Olympic Mountains that had become remote islands of land, this little chipmunk, along with many other species of flora and fauna,\ developed into their own species.
Glaciers flowed and receded up and down the valleys of the Olympics, scraping, sculpting and altering the landscape until the great age of ice ended 15,000 years ago. You can still see the evidence of that moving ice all over the Olympic Peninsula, like in these grooves gouged into the polished rock at the base of Anderson Glacier. But the Ice Age was a blip in geological time compared to the age of the basalt of the Inner Crescent Formation for which we searched. With the exception of a tiny pinnacle of rock off the coast at the Point of Arches, Tabor said that these basalts were some of the oldest rocks on the Olympic Peninsula, created as much as 55 million years ago, back when dinosaurs had been extinct for 10 million years, which was to me an incomprehensible amount of time.
It was about 5 p.m. when I crested one final ridge and there in front of me was our destination for the night, Goat Lake. We were at 5,922 feet. The lake stood in a deep depression of dusty, brown cliffs. On the far shoreline was a floodplain where brown grasses lay dormant. In the center of it all, like a putting green in a desert golf course, were its bright green waters. I flopped down along the shore just as the warmth of the day died away with the setting sun. It was all so perfectly silent that as I turned my head, I could hear the sound of my chin stubble scraping on my rain jacket collar.
We camped beneath the shelter of Sub-Alpine Firs and watched the clouds and mist spill over the ridge as darkness settled over Goat Lake. Bruce told us this story:
“No one used to go to Goat Lake. It was kind of unknown. The Forest Service, or it might have been Fish and Game, wanted to find a lake to plant Atlantic salmon. This was the most pristine, high-elevation lake they could find in the area. Originally, there was no trail or anything here. Then fisherman found the lake in…might have been, ’69 or ’70.
“We came in in 1971. I saw big fish heads on the shore. They were just like… wow! The salmon would swim around the lake in a school. You’d look at these things, and I mean, they were huge. They patrolled around the edge of the lake. It was amazing. Anyway I cast my line out, first cast, and swish and they just took it, and all my gear was gone; And I go… Woo my God! They were that big.”
A nine-pound Atlantic salmon was caught in Goat Lake by Gregory Lepping in 1992. It stands to this day as the Washington State freshwater lake record.
We woke to cold sunshine and frozen water bottles. To warm up, I explored the shoreline of the eight-acre lake. All I found was sandstone where we camped, or shattered shale and slate on the opposite shore. There were no basaltic rocks here at Goat Lake. Where was Rowland Tabor’s elusive inner basalt ring?
While prospecting, I stumbled across the trunk of this 5-inch diameter, Sub-Alpine Fir. Knuckleheads had sawed it down, counted the rings, and wrote 120 years on the trunk. This Christmas-tree-size fir began growing when roads were filled with horses and buggies and the airplane was just a dream. The age of this little tree wasn’t in the same league as the basaltic islands for which I was searching, but here at 6,000 feet, on the cold, rocky shore of Goat Lake, living for over a century seemed like quite an achievement to me.
We struck camp and began searching for the trail to the pass, a thousand feet above Goat Lake, that would lead us down into Royal Basin. We swung around the southwest side of the lake, and then we found a track in the soft gravel that climbed to the north. By now we were high above tree line. Here on the lee side of the ridge, in this rain shadow, it was all sandstone and dust. We passed a gnarled stump, uprooted long ago and bleached bone-white. The gravel slid and crunched under our boots as we took slow, deliberate steps. Approaching the top of the exposed crest, the dry wind began to howl and the temperature began to drop.
Bruce set a blistering pace while Donovan, pausing to admire the views, brought up the rear. High above Goat Lake the ridge was still all sedimentary rocks. One of the concepts I found most amazing from Rowland Tabor’s work was that of floating sedimentary rocks! Tabor said:
“…The thick mass of mostly sedimentary rock from the continent was jammed up against and under the edge of the basalt, which in turn was jammed against the continent. When movement of the ocean floor ceased, the sedimentary rock began to rise because the sandstone and shales are lighter than the oceanic crust beneath. …The rocks bobbed up like a cork. This last episode of bobbing, accompanied by additional disruption of beds and faulting, raised the rocks in a domelike fashion to produce the height of land we call the Olympic Mountains.”
At the 7,000-foot summit of the ridge, the gravelly surface of the trail changed to layers of rounded boulders. We leaned forward as the wind howled against us, and we trudged through the canyon. I kept my head down, careful not to twist my ankle as I hopped from boulder to boulder. I was tired after the leg-burning climb from the shores of Goat Lake. The boulders all around me were green and brown-colored, smooth and uniform in size, about the size of large beach balls. I bent down and picked up a dark-green pebble. The rock was so dense that I couldn’t discern any crystalline make-up with my naked eye. My head snapped up. This was basalt!
The vertical wall of the cliff to my right was made up of layers of rounded basalt boulders, stacked on edge. This wasn’t shale or sandstone; it was pillow lava. This pillow lava formed when millions of years ago, basalt erupted on the seafloor and softly flowed down into the concavities adjacent to older pillows. Later, a geological event occurred that tilted the whole business up on its edge, and then the pillows eroded off. I stood on a table of rock and smiled as Donovan snapped my photo. We had found Tabor’s basaltic island.
How did the plate tectonics theory account for the mysterious inner ring of basaltic islands? Rowland Tabor, with amazing insight, theorized that as much as 55 million years ago, a massive dome of lava that was sitting off the seacoast, buried under thick layers of continental-shelf sediments, began to move. The movement occurred because the plate along the ocean floor began to grind underneath the continental plate, dragging the basaltic dome with it. The dome collided with the continent and was tilted on its edge. Sedimentary rocks that surrounded the basaltic dome were folded and sliced and shoved under the edge of the dome. Finally, when the movement ceased, the lighter sedimentary rocks bobbed up like corks, taking with them massive hunks of basalt that had separated from the edge of the lava dome.
The wind was howling and blowing grit into our faces. It was time to leave the ridge-top and find our way down to Royal Basin. A few dozen yards in front of me, our rocky path ended on a lip of rock where Donovan peered over the edge. He whirled around and grinned at me. No problem finding the trail down, Donovan said. I looked over the edge. It was a treeless chute covered with loose scree the size of grapefruit. The chute dropped away so steeply that I bet I could have tobogganed all 2,500 feet to the bottom on a slab of concrete.
With a wild whoop Bruce leaped past us. He was half running and half skiing down the scree-slope. “You’re a crazy man!” I shouted to him, but by then he was long-gone, already a thousand feet below me.
Donovan and I carefully picked our way down the precipitous slope and found Bruce napping on the mossy ground. We set up camp for the night at the Royal Basin. There was nobody around, so we pitched our tents on the dry wooden platform at the seasonal ranger station. All was still as twilight descended, but I imagined how the ground must have shook when those massive plates collided and created the Olympic Peninsula. I was glad that the ground underneath me was stable, or so I thought. Six days later a 1.6 magnitude earthquake was recorded near Forks, just north of us. It was a tiny tremor, noticed only by seismologists, but it showed those colliding plates haven’t stopped moving after all.
Tiny tremors aren’t unusual on the Olympic Peninsula. In the six-month period between September 2015 and March 2016 there were 23 recorded earthquakes on the Peninsula, all small enough to go undetected, except by sensitive seismology equipment. But according to seismologists, tiny tremors are not only what’s in store for us in our geological future. Does the lack of big earthquakes on the Peninsula indicate that the Cascadia subduction zone is a coiled spring ready to release? In a recent New Yorker article that caused a sensation in the Pacific Northwest, a rupture of the Cascadia subduction zone was detailed.
“When the next, very big earthquake hits, the northwest edge of the continent, from California to Canada and the continental shelf to the Cascades, will drop by as much as six feet and rebound thirty to a hundred feet to the west…a seven-hundred-mile liquid will reach the Northwest coast, on average, fifteen minutes after the earthquake begins. By the time the shaking has ceased and the tsunami has receded, the region will be unrecognizable.”
We hiked through beautiful Arrowhead Meadow on the way to upper Royal Basin. It felt so peaceful and so permanent. But then I thought of what the world must have been like as plates collided and mountains were folded and formed. It seemed like those ancient times of crustal instability could never reoccur and that traumatic geological history, like that which formed the basalt ring here on the Olympic Peninsula, was long in our past. At least that’s what I prayed.
Bruce, Donovan and I reached Upper Royal Basin where we found more exposed basalt poking up through the sedimentary rock. The basaltic islands were just where Rowland Tabor said they would be. Thanks to the observations of the early geologists like Weaver and Park, and to the development of the theory of plate tectonics, Tabor’s theory of how these basaltic islands were created made sense. But why should we care about this geological puzzle? The obvious reason is that by understanding how our region was formed scientists can better understand how earthquakes occur. The better we understand about our home here on the edge of the Cascadia subduction zone, the better we can prepare for what is inevitable – a destructive earthquake in our region’s future. And the final reason is that with understanding comes the possibility that someday we will be able to predict earthquakes before they occur, and save tens of thousands or perhaps even millions of lives. – The End.
I enjoyed learning about Olympic Peninsula geology while writing this story, and I would like to thank my sources: The information on Charles Weaver was from Brief History of Cenozoic Marine Biostratigraphy of the Pacific Northwest by Warren O. Addicott, published 1981, by the Geologic Society of America, and the massive, 357-page paper that Weaver himself wrote, The Tertiary Formations of Western Washington, published in 1916 by the Washington Geological Survey. The information on Charles Park was from Memorial of Charles F. Park, Jr., by Conrad B. Krauskopf, published by American Mineralogist in 1992 and from Park’s own publication, Manganese Resources of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington, published by the United States Department of Interior in 1941. The information on the theory of plate tectonics and how the Olympic Peninsula was formed was from the very readable Geology of Olympic National Park, by Rowland W. Tabor, published by the University of Washington Press in 1975. The frightening quote on a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake is from the article, “The Really Big One,” By Kathryn Schultz, published in The New Yorker in July 2015
I’d like to thank the very talented Per Berg for all his whimsical drawings and maps. I enjoy working with Per and his art always makes me smile. Finally, I’d like to thank my adventuresome friends, Olympic National Park rangers, Bruce and Donovan. The places you guys show me are always spectacular and filled with mystery, but reading cowboy poetry together, under a million stars up at Goat Lake, is a moment I’ll treasure. – The Incidental Explorer.
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