Into the woods

Read Part 1 of the series here.

ARLINGTON — About the time William the Conqueror was invading England in 1066, some of the trees in Walter Briggs’ forest were already sucking energy from the moist soil surrounding what today are a couple of lakes.

Some of those trees are still alive, behemoths that are 10 feet or more in diameter.

And a couple hundred feet below the spruce- and hemlock-needle canopy, tiny seedlings poke their heads out of the duff awaiting their turn to become giants hundreds of years from now. That probably won’t happen until their towering neighbors fall to let more sunshine bathe the forest floor.

Circumstance will dictate whether that will happen.

Will there be fire or flood? Will a slide from the steep mountain terrain crush the young trees? Or will one of the existing giants fall in a windstorm and bury those saplings patiently waiting below?

Nobody knows. Not even Briggs, who knows this patch of land like nobody else.

It’s called the Walter R. Briggs Old Growth Forest Area, but it really isn’t his. It belongs to the U.S. Navy and thus all of us. The sight of the ancient trees is inspiring, but the forest is on a military reservation and not accessible to the general public.

And it would not exist today if Briggs, the West Coast naval forester, had not by force of personality pushed the highest authorities at the Pentagon to save it from being mowed down.

The forest is located on 275 acres surrounding Upper and Lower Twin Lakes and Cub Creek, on the Jim Creek Naval Radio Station land about 10 miles east of Arlington. The radio station is an important communication hub for U.S. submarines in the Pacific.

It’s situated in a lush, temperate rain forest at about 780 feet of elevation in the Cascade foothills. Access to some of the most spectacular areas is either by trail along the shore of one of the lakes, and then navigating the tricky steps of a beaver dam, or via a canoe launched at a recreation site for military families on Upper Twin Lake.

There are no trails throughout most of the forest. Getting there means finding a way through thick tangles of salmon berry bushes, tall grass, huckleberry, Indian plum, cottonwoods and vine maple. In the wet season, there are muddy streams to cross and the perennial lakeside bogs are deeper. Routes are often dictated by finding ways around huge deadfalls.

Once there, the forest is a glimpse into the past at an old-growth Pacific Northwest forest, just a few miles from civilization.

“There’s a nice botanical and structural diversity,” Briggs said.

There’s thick moss everywhere. You can’t miss the ferns, tiny mushrooms, flowering blossoms and the occasional western yew sticking out from the forest duff. Some of the terrain is steep, some marshy. There are thick tangles of brush and downed trees almost everywhere.

At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, Briggs is a nimble man who navigates the brambles and fallen logs with catlike grace and speed.

“Sometimes you’ll be climbing over that stuff and you will find yourself 5 or 10 feet off the ground, walking along a blown-down tree,” said Briggs, who is never hesitant to show off the forest to Navy brass, and high-ranking federal or state politicians.

Over the last couple of decades, plenty of them have come to this isolated forest, getting their shoes muddy and pant legs damp.

Briggs is always prepared. Like a logger, he wears metal-spiked shoes for good footing and oiled-canvas pants to deter moisture and fend off slaps from the ever-present thorny brush.

The effort of going there becomes worth it when the berry bushes are pushed aside and one comes face-to-face with a gigantic cedar, Sitka spruce, hemlock or Douglas fir.

Visitors learn a lot, and Briggs is not shy about teaching as often and to as many as will come.

“Well, there are trees out there that are twice as big as your arm span,” Briggs said. “So if you put your fingertips in one corner of the room and your arms down the wall and leapfrog that again, that’s how big the trees are.”

Some of the trees are 1,400 years old. Briggs estimates the age based on samples of wood he’s taken from old stumps and deadfalls.

Click here for more photos from the Walter R. Briggs Old Growth Forest Area.

It’s an isolated place with only the sounds of an occasional airliner overhead or a chain saw buzzing from some distant ridge to interrupt Briggs’ lessons and the natural sounds of the forest.

There’s green in the brush and canopy. There are the inviting textures of the various tree giants.

A visitor can “feel that deeply fissured bark on the old-growth Douglas firs and the stringy bark on the cedars and the platy bark on the Sitka spruce,” Briggs said. “They could feel different foliage, the prickly spruce and the cones. And they could taste the high-bush blueberries, huckleberries and thimbleberry and salmon berry.”

Or one could just sit on a log and listen to the nearby symphony that is the forest.

“They would hear the wind and they would hear the birds. If a bear were walking through the brush nearby, you’d hear the breaking twigs.”

Briggs has done that.

“I’ve found their steaming scat, so you know they’re only about 50 or 75 feet away and you can hear them up there breaking the salmon berries as they go through it. And they’re eating berries as they go,” he said.

There are birds calling from the lakes and the sound of their wings beating.

“I was out there with Admiral (Len) Herring and a bald eagle came from behind us and splashed 35 or 40 feet from the canoe and grabbed a fish, took off and flew into a tree,” he said.

Rear Adm. Herring, former commander of Navy Region Northwest, “just turned around grinning and looked at me,” Briggs said.

There was the “whoosh of the air of those wings as it came down low to grab that fish,” Briggs said. It was “like an airplane with the engine turned off.”

A person could walk up to an ancient tree, and maybe with some help around natural obstacles and thick, tangled roots, walk all the way around, only then grasping the effort it takes and the tree’s size.

“Or you could just walk up to one and say, ‘Here, give it a hug.’ They’d say, ‘I can’t get my arms around it.’

“I’d say, ‘That’s right, because it’s about 35 feet around.’ “

Behind the story: Remarkable man, remarkable forest

Jim Haley: For several years before I retired, Herald photographer Dan Bates and I contemplated writing about and photographing a section of old-growth forest.

We wanted to discover what was there on top of and beneath the duff.

Little things. Beautiful things. Unusual things. Things that a lot of folks might never see or pay attention to even if they have the opportunity to be there.

It was a project that would require a lot of time because we wanted to experience the forest during various seasons. That meant repeated trips to the selected site. While I was working, the time became a luxury we just couldn’t afford. Dan went on his assignments. I went on mine.

When my daily grind stopped, we were able to set aside days for several forays. But where?

I remembered a remarkable man I once met whose single-handed efforts preserved scores of acres of old-growth trees. The site is close, just outside Arlington. But it was on a military reservation. We would need the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and the man who saved the trees, West Coast Navy forester Walter Briggs.

Briggs gave us a half-dozen days over two years, repeatedly guiding us into a majestic forest located in rugged terrain surrounding a couple of lakes.

Some days were cold or hot. Others wet — knee-depth wet. We traveled by foot and canoe.

Dan packed pounds of heavy lights, cameras, tripods and special lenses to take a close look at the forest and what it contains.

Some of what we found, and what Dan photographed, appears today.

Jim Haley, 70, of Edmonds, worked for The Daily Herald for 42 years before he retired in 2008.

Dan Bates: When I was growing up in Oakridge, Oregon, in the 1950s and ’60s, most of the ancient forests were already gone. Still, I loved the mountains surrounding the little town, even if many bore a patchwork quilt pattern of sun-bleached green and brown logging units. Logging was what fed everyone in our town, including the banker, the baker and the shoemaker, which was my dad. Well, he didn’t make shoes, but he owned the only shoe store in town.

My best friends’ parents either worked in one of the sawmills or in the woods. If you worked in the woods, you were a logger. If you worked in the woods for 10 years, and never had your back broken, you were a very lucky logger, or the camp cook. There was nothing easy about working in the sawmill, either. There were life-altering injuries. Fast-moving log handling and cutting machinery is scary-looking even when it’s turned off. But usually, the mill workers only lost fingers.

When I came to the point in high school that I was required to write a conservation essay, I realized I was conflicted. I actually believed we shouldn’t clear cut so many mountainsides and that any further logging of old growth everywhere should be stopped completely before it was all gone. This opinion, I realized, was not something I could share with my girlfriend’s father or anybody else in town. I was compelled to write my best 1965 essay without a single mention of foul logging practices.

Since then, I have always wanted to spend some time photographing a worthy old growth forest story. I wanted to do this story because Walter Briggs didn’t give up on this relatively small patch of old growth when he found out the timber was already sold and scheduled to be logged.

I thought, if I could find and photograph a few things of beauty in the forest he saved, it might help reveal the true value of what Forester Briggs did. At first, the giant trees captured and held my attention, but it didn’t take long to realize that much of the beauty existed far below the treetops. Tiny things. Bugs, and itsy bitsy flowers, barely visible to the human eye. Living in the deep moss and humus beneath what’s left of an ancient forest are other worlds. You’ll need a more powerful macro lens, I told myself.

Dan Bates, 64, of Marysville, has been a staff photographer for The Herald since 1984.

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