Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Waterfall Wednesday: Hunting a Titan, the photography expedition of Giant Falls

The Kitsap Waterfall Survey as a project has gotten a lot of attention over the past couple years. But there's something a lot of people don't realize. The Kitsap Waterfall Survey is only one of many similar projects. I'm not the only waterfall hunter in the state, and there are others who seek much larger prizes than our 30-50 foot cascades.

When I began to hunt for waterfalls, I fell into acquaintance with two gentlemen who are waterfall hunters themselves. One of them, Bryan Swan, hunts for waterfalls across the entire Pacific Northwest, documenting and photographing hulking giants that dwarf anything that Kitsap has to offer. The other is named Aaron Young, and he has made it his mission to document every major fall specifically from Whatcom to King Counties. Bryan Swan helms the Northwest Waterfall Survey, while Aaron calls his project Aaron's Waterfall World. And these are just two in a vast community of close-knit people who hunt down the crashing whitewater of isolated streams.

Late in 2015 or early 2016, discussion reached my ears of attempting to reach one of the Northwest's hidden behemoths. For nearly a century, Giant Falls was marked on maps of Mount Rainier National Park. This thundering tower of water was located where the Mowich River roared over a massive volcanic cliff, careening into the valley below. And yet, despite its grandeur and relatively close proximity to one of the Park's most thoroughly traveled trails, no one could find any record, photograph, or written description of the fall. The large white streak on Google Earth was all that gave an indication of this fall's ferocity.

Bryan and Aaron had set in their minds to hunt down Giant Falls once and for all and be the first people to photograph and document it in detail. Luck was on my side, as I was invited to come along. After months of planning and late night Facebook discussions, we agreed to meet at the Mowich Lake trailhead on August 21, 2016.

The sky was clear as my Toyota truck bounced up the rough road to the lake. I pulled up to the trailhead between 8 and 9 and was soon joined by Aaron and Bryan. Within the hour, we set off on our quest. We started with a short warm-up side tangent to the west, photographing and measuring the two waterfalls located on Castle Creek just after its exit from Mowich Lake. After this, we turned back to our main goal.

As Bryan Swan states in his write-up of Giant in the Northwest Waterfall Survey, "Accessing the falls is a demanding undertaking which requires highly seasoned route finding ability." Not to mention that some portions of the trip could be downright dangerous to inexperienced adventurers. Due to this fact, I will not go into specific details about our route. But that being said, reaching Giant required several hours of bushwhacking, stream fording, rock scrambling, and all out war with the woods. The final thing that stood between us and our view of the falls was an unbelievably thick stand of Slide Alder. Finally, after grunting and shoving and thrashing our way through, we stumbled out onto a massive gravel bar and stood in awe at what was before us.

Giant Falls roaring out of its 

Dead ahead of us was a giant, the Giant. The Mowich River came howling out from around the bend in a U-shaped canyon, crashing against the wall and diving hundreds of feet into a raging plunge pool. Mist and spray buffeted us even from over 100 yards away. The trees on the river bank swayed and hissed, creating a beautiful harmony with the ever present river, the crash of rolling boulders right at our feet. The spray carried fine glacial silt with it, flocking every surface with a fine dusting of gray grit. The sound was like a runaway freight train, it's baritone bass pounding at your ears, while the constant hiss of a broken steam valve drowned out anything below a slightly raised voice.

We stayed and enjoyed the falls for an hour or two, munching on our sandwiches while taking in the spectacular display. After lunch, we all fanned out on the rocks to snap the best photos and videos we could, basking in the grandeur of the cascade. Then, after one last glance of the falls, we turned and plunged back into the woods for the long journey home. We made it back to the cars as the sun was falling low, and Mount Rainier bid farewell to me cloaked in a ruddy glare.

I've seen quite a few different falls across Washington State during my short time as a waterfall hunter, but this one is easily at the top of the list. I will never forget the gusts of wind against my face, and the glaring sun reflecting off the spray. Giant Falls will be etched in my memory for years to come, and maybe, someday, I will return to view it's ferocity once more.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Kitsap Geology: The Blakely Formation

The Kitsap Peninsula's geologic history span tens of millions of years. There's the Crescent Formation: the huge mass of 50 million year old basalt rock that forms the core of the Blue Hills southwest of Bremerton. And, although you may not know it, most of us are also familiar with the most recent geologic story, which makes up most of the peninsula’s bulk. Our homes and towns on the Peninsula are built on top of the huge pile of debris left behind by the retreating ice age glaciers which filled the Puget Lowlands up to 17,000 years ago, this is collectively known as the Vashon Shade.

But there is a third geologic story. Named for its prominence around Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island, the Blakely formation is a 40-30 million-year-old stack of sedimentary rocks, transported from the east. This occurred between the emplacement of the Crescent Formation and the deposition of the Vashon Shade.

Today, on the Kitsap Peninsula, the sight of the distant Cascade Mountains to the east accentuated by the hulking mass of Mount Rainier is a mundane one. But this view wasn’t always here. The Cascade Range is relatively young, first beginning to rise around 40 million years ago. Mount Rainier and our other fire mountains of the northwest haven’t been here for nearly that long. Average stratovolcanoes only erupt for about a million years. Thus over the past 40 million years there have been entire generations of cascade volcanoes that have erupted and then been eroded away, and the Blakely Formation is evidence of their existence.

Many people living in the Puget Lowland have at least heard of the volcanic phenomena known as lahars or mudflows. Mount Rainier and the other volcanoes which dot the skyline are mantled with a blanket of permanent ice and snow. When these volcanoes erupt, the incandescent material falling upon the glaciers and snowfields melt them and create a slurry of debris which roars down valley and buries everything in its path. The deposits left behind by recent mudflows are what underlies many of the towns and cities at the foot of Mount Rainier. But just as volcanoes have been erupting in the cascades for 40 million years, lahars have been flooding the lowlands just as long.

A Lahar raging down a river valley from Mount Ruapehu in New Zealand. Photo Credit goes to Geoff Mackley (Who has some incredible Volcanic footage and photography if you look him up)

30-40 million years ago, the ancient volcanoes of the cascade range sent lahars and volcanic floods careening into the Ocean, that’s right, the Pacific Ocean. the Puget Sound didn’t exist back then, the Olympic Mountains, which are such a centerpiece of our skyline to the west didn’t rise above sea level until 10-20 million years ago, long after our story takes place. As these floods settled they formed a extremely thick stack of sandstones,siltstones, and conglomerates just off the coast, building up to several hundred meters thick under the waves. After solidifying, these rocks were folded and shoved upward, probably around the same time that the Olympics and Kitsap’s core rocks were uplifted. Finally, after being re-uplifted, the successive invasions of ice into the Puget Lowland buried the Blakely Formation in a thick layer of glacial silt and gravels. Since then erosion has exposed the formation in a couple places.

Today there are two main places where you can view the Blakely Formation on the Kitsap Peninsula proper. The first is Manchester State Park; this state park is located east of Port Orchard and requires a Discovery Pass to visit, which are 11 dollars for a day pass or 35 dollars for an annual pass. A great exposure of the Blakely formation can be seen on the shore of the park, with good exposures of more recent glacial deposits as well.

The  Blakely Formation as exposed on the Shores of Rich Passage at Manchester State Park. Photo by Micah K. 

The other place in Kitsap where you can view the Blakely Formation is probably much closer to home and convenient for most people. Driving south down Tracyton Beach road, park at the first pullout you encounter on the south at the coast (or the last on the left if driving north). From the pullout, scramble down a small embankment and you will be standing directly on top of Blakely Formation rocks. Proceeding south along the shore you will find different layers, and some amazing textbook examples of a rock formation called tafoni, which is also known as honeycomb weathering. Be sure to step gingerly and be careful around these sensitive formations so that others may enjoy them in the future! Just below the roots of a large pine tree is a layer that I have interpreted to be from a volcanic lahar, with large rocks perpetually frozen in the silty matrix that surrounds it. It is probably best to observe this outcrop at Low tide, as high tide forces you to scramble along the steep rocks.

The Blakely Formation as exposed on the shore of the Port Washington Narrows along Tracyton Beach Road. Photo by Micah K.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Reflections of 2004: Are you Prepared?

              Twelve years ago, as American kids were marveling at their new gifts they had received the day before, the earth jolted.
               Twelve years ago, as family members hugged goodbye, and planes were being boarded for the journey home. The ocean roared.
               Twelve years ago, as the rest of the world settled for a relaxing Boxing Day, the Indian Ocean Basin experienced an apocalypse.
               A section of the seabed over 800 miles long jerked to the west and upward in a titanic 9.2 magnitude earthquake that shook the countries of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and the Maldives. Massive shockwaves rocked the ground for up to 10 minutes. People were thrown to the ground, buildings collapsed, sand boiled up like water from cracks. And that wasn’t the end.
               As soon as 15 minutes following the earthquake, tsunami waves up to 80 feet high careened into the coastlines, leaving a wake of death and destruction which took the lives of over 250,000 people around the Indian Ocean coast. It is one of the deadliest natural disasters in written history. And it wasn’t just a freak event.

The 2004 tsunami crashes to shore. Photo by Wikipedia. 

               In 2010, a magnitude 8.8 earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the coast of south-central Chile. And in 2011, the northeast coast of Japan was ravaged by a 9.1 magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami which leveled entire towns. And in 2014 and 2015, Chile experienced an 8.0 earthquake which caused widespread damage each time.
               The twenty-first century is beginning to intimately introduce us to Megathrust Earthquakes. Huge events on Subduction Zones that can wreak havoc across half the planet. And while many countries around the world have experienced this cataclysm, the Cascadia Subduction Zone off our coast remains quiet.
               You’ve heard the spiel before, we’ve all read the New Yorker’s Post. So, I won’t go into the nitty gritty details of what nightmare fuel is waiting for us in our possibly near future (some seismologists put us at a 1/3 chance within the next 30 years). All I ask of you today, on the anniversary of the deadliest event of this kind is: Are you prepared? If not, here’s a couple links of how you could prepare for an earthquake in our area. Stay safe.

Ready to go.

Red Cross

FEMA Earthquake Checklist