Tracking Invaders from Stevens to Snoqualmie

By way of introduction, Aaron and I are Restoration Technicians employed by Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. Our work for the Greenway is primarily in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and the Issaquah Alps, surveying and controlling non-native plants such as hawkweeds, knapweeds, and tansy ragwort. These plants are among more than 200 non-native species monitored by King County, Washington Department of Natural Resources, and the U.S. Forest Service. It is a very big job in many ways, but one of the biggest aspects may be simply laying eyes and heels on square mileage.

With this in mind, Aaron and I had the privilege of being recruited by The Mountaineers from our daily projects in the front country for an 8-day backcountry expedition into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The survey was a component of the Alpine Lakes Weed Watchers, a program organized by The Mountaineers and funded by the National Forest Foundation’s Wilderness Stewardship Challenge Grant, together with generous donations from partnering organizations and agencies. Our task was to provide data about the presence of invasive species on a section of the Pacific Crest Trail, a priority recreational asset for both Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests.

IMG_1574.jpgI have logged multiple backpacking expeditions within the Appalachian Range and the Cascades, and Aaron has spent time exploring the wilderness in Jamaica and the Olympic Peninsula, but the experience before us became a trip all to itself. Armed with five maps, four shoulders sagging under 65-pound packs, two GPS units, and one fly rod, we set off from Stevens Pass for the 75-mile climb toward Snoqualmie.

Our first two days were beautiful gems: blue skies, warm sun, and no appreciable humidity. We spent one night at Mig Lake and went as far as Deception Lakes on day two.  Tipped back in a Crazy Creek chair, sipping hot coffee, and watching the Milky Way flow between towering mountain peaks, it was hard to believe we were getting paid.  On day three we excitedly encountered our first non-native, a small patch of Wall Lettuce. We continued on to Deep Lake, weathered an all-night thunderstorm, and began our fourth day in chilly but fragrant wisps of early morning fog. Seven miles later we set camp at Waptus River. Though peppered by another night of rain, we enjoyed the company of local waterfowl, two stream-darters, and a fat brown crayfish.

Day five the weather became menacing in earnest. We climbed to 5,530 feet under squalls of snow and sleet with heavy winds, and pushed an additional 8-mile descent to the Lemah Creek valley looking for shelter. The day proved to be the most physically challenging, and the most exciting for our work: northeast from Escondido Lake we discovered nearly one acre of yellow hawkweed in a rocky meadow. Fortunately, following consultation with the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Botanist a few weeks later, the species proved to be a native variety.

Snowy lakeWith three days remaining in our adventure the sky opened to a brilliant blue. Dry, and morale improving, we climbed 3,000 feet from our campsite at Lemah Creek to the Parks Lake Basin.  We awoke the following morning to an early winter preview: a quarter-inch of heavy frost lay on our tent, water in our bottles froze, and ice crept out a few feet from the lakeshore; truly an unexpected moment of alpine beauty. We concluded the trip with two sunny days cat-walking trail carved into cliff sides and scraped out of talus slopes. Smoke from a long season of forest fires filled valleys west and east, reminding us that not all wilderness scenes were as tranquil as those we’d left behind.

In total, we mapped four non-native species locations—a relatively good prognosis for nearly 8 million square feet of survey area.  GPSs holstered, Aaron and I, our legs, and our backs were unanimously pleased to see Betsy-Blue the faithful Volvo waiting where we’d left her in the Snoqualmie Pass parking area. A whir of the engine, a quick stop in North Bend, farewells in Issaquah, and the last step of the expedition found its footing.

Andrew Allison