Trying to avoid the smoke from Cascade fires, my hiking partner and I returned to the Olympics for six days with the hope of exploring La Crosse Basin. For all but the speediest hikers, La Crosse Basin is at least a two day journey from any of three trailheads, we chose the Dosewallips trailhead. I made the permit arrangements by phone with the Olympic National Park Wilderness Information Center. Shortly before the scheduled departure time, I received a very garbled phone message about a “goat closure”, possibly affecting our intended route. The ranger who had given me the permit said nothing about a goat closure. There was no mention of a goat closure in any of the alerts on the Olympic National Park website. I was unable to return the call because the phone number was incomprehensible. My first guess ended up to a wrong number in Minnesota. When I finally reached the Wilderness Information Center, it was less than 24 hours before departure. When I pointed out it was the park’s fault that I had to change my plans at the last minute, rather than apologizing, the ranger said in a menacing tone “Well, I’ll just cancel the permit, BECAUSE YOU’RE NOT GOING IN THERE!!” The purpose of the goat closure was to kill as many mountain goats as possible from helicopters. Goats are being scapegoated for problems that have other causes and better solutions. Our tax dollars at work, costing $350,000 to $500,000 per year. I told the unfriendly ranger that I had to talk to my partner to decide what to do next and that I would call back. Well, after four calls to the Wilderness Information Center over the course of the day, no one returned my call. At 4 pm, one hour before the office closed, I still had not talked to anyone. I tried the garbled number one more time. I did not get the correct person, but it was someone in the park who had an alternate number. When the WIC answered, they wanted to know how I got the emergency number, but they agreed to change the permit. Even with this phone call, the dates on the permit were still wrong, but I had done my duty and we left two days later than previously planned and avoided the goat closure. Due to Covid, the center was not open and rangers were not tied up with people walking in the door, yet they still were unable to provide decent phone service. In addition to my complaints about customer service at the WIC, I strongly recommend that anyone who plans to spend more than five nights in Olympic National Park in one year get a Wilderness Pass. The pass is $45 and it will avoid the cost of the permits, which cost $8 per person per night.
Our trip started on the Dosewallips River Road, about five and half miles before the start of true trail. Until this trip, I had always taken the switchbacked bypass up and down around the wash-out that closed the road, but my partner showed me that there is a short-cut next to the river. It is a built trail, but will probably be washed out with the next flood. I think that the Dosewallips is the best road hike around, with impressive cliffs and a couple of nice waterfalls. We camped the first night at Big Timber camp, nice and open with big trees. After dinner, I found a few late season thimbleberries for dessert. On day two, we continued down the Dosewallips and veered left on the La Crosse Pass Trail. Up to this point, conditions on the trail were very good to excellent, but there were some downed trees on the La Crosse. Yet it was never as bad as expected, only 3 or 4 gave much trouble. The grade is not too steep and it opens up to expansive grassy meadows well before the top. This is where I saw my first bear, running downslope in front of me. We arrived at the pass about four, later than hoped. There is no trail-side water on this route, although apparently camps are possible, at least early season. Although wildflower season is mostly coming to a close, it was obvious on the way down that the wildflowers had been more abundant on the far side, with old beargrass stalks, glacier lily capsules, lupine and others. About 500 feet above the bottom, the trail gets pretty overgrown with brush and it switchbacks over and over again through the same mucky seep. Our original hope was to reach Upper Duckabush Camp, but that would have meant setting up at dusk and having dinner in the dark, so we found a decent unnamed camp about a mile short of the Upper Duckabush. The next day we headed for Hart Lake in La Crosse Basin. We found some downed trees, but as before, it wasn’t as bad as we expected. Hart Lake has five possible campsites, four within sight of the lake and one several hundred yards from the outlet with a good view of Mt. Duckabush and Mt. Steel. There is a bear wire for hanging food, but no pulleys, so a bear cord is required to hang food bags.
Sadly, the next day, the sky dawned with clouds on the surrounding peaks and by the time we left camp to explore the basin, the fog was thick and visibility was under 200 feet. When we reached La Crosse Lake, I did not even notice the lake at first, although it was only a few dozen yards away. We puttered around for a few hours, hoping the weather would clear for a scramble of the surrounding peaks. There are some nice small tarns and late season wildflowers. I found many species still in bloom, some that were long-finished elsewhere, including pink mountain heather, lava alumroot, pink and yellow monkeyflowers, magenta paintbrush, fringed grass-of-parnassus and lupines. There were also the bright red capsules of leatherleaf saxifrage and western tofieldia. Western tofieldia was in the news recently, because it is the first carnivorous plant discovered in the past twenty years. It’s not an uncommon plant, but its carnivorous nature has only recently been documented. The sticky hairs on the plant capture small bugs which the plant uses to supplement its nutrition. Pictured below are the red capsules of the tofieldia, which has lance-shaped leaves, like an iris. (the leatherleaf saxifrage has basal, oval leaves) Also pictured below is the lava alumroot with magenta paintbrush. By early afternoon, we were pretty pessimistic about the weather clearing, although slowly the fog did lift, leaving more of a view under the clouds. We spotted three bears on distant slopes and watched them move across the landscape. By day’s end, we saw three more. We got some gloomy pictures of a very beautiful lake and went back to camp to have dinner. After dinner, we explored a trail that goes steeply up from the north side of the lake. It reaches a couple of small tarns and pretty good views, although the sky was gray. At the ridge top, it apparently goes steeply down to meet the O’Neill Pass Trail, but we did not pursue it.
There was a little sunshine early the next day, but by the time we were ready to leave, it was gray again. We were going to go over O’Neill Pass, down the O’Neill Pass trail and then over Anderson Pass to camp at La Crosse Camp. We worried about downed logs, but as before, it was better than expected. The real problem with this trail is it hasn’t been brushed in at least ten years and in places, the uphill side on steep slopes is so overgrown, the brush is pushing people off the trail. Most Olympic National Park trails are well-maintained, but this one is slowly being ruined by neglect.
Our final day on the trail retraced our route in back along the Dosewallips. We saw more people while walking out than we had seen in the previous five days. Perhaps the end of the goat closure caused a surge in visitors.
We saw nine bears in six days. Most were at considerable distance, but the last one was in front of us on the trail a hundred feet away when we saw him. There was no possibility of detouring around at this spot, so we patiently waited while he munched his way through the landscape. He was too busy stuffing his face to take a look at us. Seen one hiker, you’ve seen them all was his attitude. Berry season is at its peak and we stuffed ourselves as well. Blueberries and huckleberries are very nutritious; especially high in antioxidants, vitamins C and K and manganese, but they are not high in calories. As someone who may pick as many as fifteen quarts of blueberries in a season to put in my freezer , I’ve often wondered how bears can get fat on blueberries. Here is the math:
The average wild blueberry weights 0.3 grams. Under the best case scenario, in good years, bears can consume 30,000 berries a day, according to the research. This works out to be 9 kilograms of berries a day or 15 quarts. I can pick one quart of wild blueberries per hour, which means that bears, if they eat all day, are not more efficient than I am harvesting berries. 100 grams of blueberries contain 57 kcal, 9000 grams (9 kg) contain 5130 kcal. Bears swallow their berries whole and anyone who has seen bear scat filled with blueberries knows that part of the nutritional content of the berries has passed through unabsorbed. I have not been able to find a calculation of the caloric needs of an active bear, which necessarily depends on the weight of the bear, but I did find a claim that hibernating bears can burn up to 4000 kcal per day. That represents a surplus of 1130 kcal per day. It takes an excess of 3500 kcal to gain one pound of fat. That would work out to a maximum weight gain of 2.25 pounds per week. Berry season is short, so assuming three weeks of eating berries, that would mean a gain of no more than eight pounds. But hibernating bears lose 15 to 30% of their weight over the winter and females with cubs up to 40%. So, an average size 220 pound male bear would lose 33 to 66 pounds over the winter. A 550 pound bear loses as much as 100 pounds in a season. A 550 pound, six foot human mail requires 6000 calories per day to maintain that weight. Assuming a similar caloric requirement for bears means that a 550 pound bear would be slowly losing weight consuming berries because 9 kilograms of berries contains only 5130 calories. Mind you, 30,000 berries a day is a best case scenario, not an average quantity. Bears obviously gain some nutritional benefit from eating berries, I just don’t see how they can get fat on berries. Catching live salmon or eating dead salmon washed up on river banks after spawning would be a better option for weight gain. Bears are scavengers, after all.
Not that bears don’t have some metabolic tricks up their sleeve. Hibernating bears do not urinate. Bears reuse urea that would normally be excreted in urine to make amino acids to support their metabolic needs and to build lean body mass. A bear that awakes in the spring is not only thinner, but it has more muscle. The perfect weight loss regime: eat everything in sight in the fall, sleep it off and wake up more physically fit in the spring. Pregnant female bears not only have cubs in the den, but lactate and nurse their cubs without eating or drinking. In fact, bears do not begin eating again for up to three weeks after leaving their dens. Polar bears exhibit a similar behavior pattern, they do not eat or drink in summer when their preferred food, seals, cannot be hunted on the ice. This metabolic feat of bears is of great interest to science for many reasons, not only for obesity, but also for many other conditions ranging from kidney disease to osteoporosis to muscle loss after prolonged bed rest. For more detailed information see: https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(12)62341-6/pdf