Mushrooms and moss at Mount Rainier

Rainy Day Musings in Cascadia

Evergreen Escapes naturalist guide, Justin Roberts, gives his take on embracing the rain in the Pacific Northwest!

The Pacific Northwest and its encompassing landscapes are well known for a sodden climate where slugs mingle freely with the mythical Sasquatch. Locals prep for the wet winters by concealing beards and fleece under their rain-gear, or flannel if they’re dressing up.

When you live here long enough, you learn that the rainy season is the yin to the summer’s yang. The winter rains represent a time to curl up at home or a cozy coffee shop and catch up on that pile of books you were ignoring all summer. But while the blustery rains present a perfect chance to look inward and reflect, winter can also be an invigorating time to go outside and feel humbled. Whether venturing into the surrounding National Parks, or sticking to the city limits, there is a trove of natural wonders waiting in Cascadia.

So if it’s your day to go out and explore, but the weather report is frowning at you like your obstinately gloomy housecat, frown no more; there’s beauty in the parks waiting to be appreciated! Here are some tips for embracing the rain on an outdoor adventure around the Pacific Northwest:

1. Look Closer

One of Cascadia’s best kept secrets lies in the tiny landscapes of moss, lichen, and fungi that adorn most surfaces west of the Cascade Crest.  The Olympic National Park for example includes about 13,200 distinct species of mosses and lichens.  It is also one of the world centers of mushroom diversity with over 3000 species of large fruiting mushrooms. All of these species flourish in the abundant rainfall delivered by the warm rivers of rain that sail in from the Pacific Ocean.

Fruticose Lichen near the Big Four Ice Caves in the Washington Cascades
Fruticose Lichen near the Big Four Ice Caves in the Washington Cascades. Photo by Justin Roberts.

Lichens are pioneer species that can colonize bare rock or wood and create new soil and fertility.  They represent a symbiotic union between fungi, algae, and sometimes cyanobacteria.  Lichens are like mushrooms that became farmers, though instead of learning it culturally like people, they “learned” it evolutionarily.  The fungi provide a structure which is inhabited by photosynthesizing algae or cyanobacteria. Sometimes this even allows the lichen to pull nitrogen from the air and make it usable to plants – in effect providing a dose of fertilizer to the forest floor. How generous!

Mushrooms and moss at Mount Rainier
Mushrooms and moss at Mount Rainier. Photo by Justin Roberts.

Mushrooms are an incredible form of life. Though they seem plant-like in their choice of home and lack of mobility, they are actually more closely related to animals than plants.  Some mycorrhizal fungi form an underground network of tiny fungal hairs that connect to plant roots and enable plants to exchange nutrients and information about invading insects or disease.  They create a social network of roots and fungal hairs that is essential for many young trees if they are to survive the competitive forest environment.

 

2. See the Large in the Small

Forms in nature seem to replicate themselves at different scales. As your perspective shifts, you begin to see the connections. Trees decorating the hills above a subalpine lake become moss on a rock over a small pool.  Log jams in rushing torrents become leaf jams in bubbling rivulets, etc.

Moss on a rock in the glacial-fed Hoh River valley
Moss on a rock in the glacial-fed Hoh River valley. Photo by Justin Roberts.

Slow your pace.  The rainy forests of the Pacific Northwest are so lush with life that you see more the less you move.  Take a few minutes to really explore the details of where you’re standing.  You may find yourself marveling at the drama of the tiny landscapes before you.

Big Leaf Maple leaves jammed in the runoff during a big rain. Frink Park, Seattle
Big Leaf Maple leaves jammed in the runoff during a big rain. Frink Park, Seattle. Photo by Justin Roberts.

 

Old Log Frink Park, Seattle
Old Log Frink Park, Seattle. Photo by Justin Roberts.

3. Seek-Out Water-Loving Wildlife

There’s something special about joining a bird as it flits or floats about on a rainy day, perfectly suited to such seemingly inhospitable environs.  It makes you keenly aware of your own shortcomings if you were left to survive with only your bare skin for protection from the elements.  Most birds have preen glands near their tail feathers that supply them with a continual supply of wax which they carefully apply to all of their feathers to maintain water resistance.  They also produce a special type of down which continually disintegrates into a waterproof powder that coats their feathers. Birds are also really pretty, which is good enough for me.

Mallard happily perusing Lake Crescent in the rain, Olympic National Park
Mallard happily perusing Lake Crescent in the rain, Olympic National Park. Photo by Justin Roberts.

 

Great Blue Heron strolling in search of fish. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Great Blue Heron strolling in search of fish. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Justin Roberts

The best part of spending a day with water drops on your forehead and your hands clumsily frigid?  The wonders of civilization put squarely back into perspective!  Hot food and a nice seasonal craft beer become revelatory after a day out marveling at the tenacity of ducks and moss.  I recommend grabbing a hot bowl of pho followed by a visit to one of the Pacific Northwest’s innumerable micro-breweries.  Enjoy!

 

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