My husband and I made our way to the Olympic Peninsula when the stifling heat of the sprawling city became too much to stomach. We sought out the trail less traveled and landed on a lightly-trafficked route to a spot called Colonel Bob Peak, located just outside the bounds of Olympic National Park on the southwest edge. We picked the threads of spider webs off our faces and allowed our hiking shorts to be soaked by the dew collected on the bushes we pushed through as we trudged along, climbing from 200 feet above sea level to nearly 4,500 feet atop the peak, all in the name of a spot to ourselves.
Waiting for us there was a small, wooden folding chair which we took turns sitting on as we looked out at the views from the top of Colonel Bob Peak. A layered skyline of jagged mountain tops spread out before us in progressively lighter shades of blue the farther we looked. The sparkling waters of Lake Quinault peaked at us through the green forested ridges to the Southwest. We could just make out Mount Olympus to the north, and its glaciers floating like wispy ghosts on the distant horizon.
I wish I could tell you what sort of dewy branches soaked my hiking shorts on the overgrown trail that morning. I wish I could tell you if the morning was cold, or if there was a breeze at the top, or what wildlife we saw. Were there birds chirping in the old-growth forest? I can't recall. I know we saw some people camping below the peak at Moonshine Flats, and I know we could see the glaciers floating through the haze in the distance. I know we had the peak to ourselves and we stayed there a while, feeling small amongst giants. I know we drove home feeling exhausted and invigorated, as we nearly always do after a day spent in the mountains.
I know we had the peak to ourselves and we stayed there a while,
feeling small amongst giants.
The Bailey Mountain range rises steep and rugged from a forested valley floor, creating a wall of serrated peaks between Mount Olympus and Hurricane Ridge, far to the north of where we stood atop Colonel Bob on that summer afternoon. Mount Fairchild is the second-highest peak in the range at 6,900 feet above sea level. The Fairchild Glacier rests on the peak’s northeast face, cupped in a cirque.
Perhaps ‘rests’ isn’t the most accurate word to use here. Glaciers melt and move and flow under their own weight, picking up sediment and large chunks of rock as they go. Much of the landscape of the Olympic Peninsula has been sculpted and carved by the immense power of glaciers and ice sheets advancing and retreating throughout the Pleistocene. As the remaining glaciers continue to melt, the land beneath is revealed. New valleys, cliffy cirques, rolling mounds of rock, and sharp ridges appear etched into the terrain.
Scientific American reports that half of all mountain glaciers across the planet are expected to be gone by the year 2100.1 Likewise, the glaciers of the Olympic Peninsula are projected to be nearly melted away by the year 2070.2 Precipitation falls more as rain than snow with each passing mild winter. Pair this with summer temperatures shattering heat records of the summers before, and the glaciers’ collective fate seems to be sealed.
How do we begin to comprehend loss like this? The mountains loom large, demanding a witness. Sometimes witnessing feels like all I can do.
How do we begin to comprehend loss like this? The mountains loom large, demanding a witness.
Sometimes witnessing feels like all I can do.
When I think of Olympic National Park and its wide variety of biodiversity, I’m struck by the necessity of this place – not just for the wildlife that call the peninsula home, but for us. The movement of the glaciers have left behind stories we can read in the scenery if we pay close attention. These snow- and ice-topped mountains are a place to step outside of ourselves, to regard both destructive and restorative forces at work upon the earth.
One such restoration is happening at the Elwha River, flowing north from its headwaters in Olympic National Park to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Fairchild Glacier is one of the glaciers to feed this river, with its meltwater catching in the Elwha River drainage – the largest watershed in the park. The Elwha River was dammed in the early 1900’s to provide hydropower to the nearby town of Port Angeles.
Long before the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams were constructed, the Elwha River hosted a vibrant ecosystem, fed by cool, clear water of glacial melt which supported ten runs of anadromous fish, all five species of Pacific salmon included. In his book Olympic National Park, A Natural History, Tim McNulty states that historic runs of fish in the Elwha numbered as high as some 400,000 fish annually.3The fish were a key, abundant resource for the people of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe who have called, and continue to call, the riverbanks of the Elwha home.
Neither the Elwha dam, operational in 1913, or the Glines Canyon dam that followed in 1927 were built with a way for fish to pass through. The salmon and trout of the Elwha returned home to spawn only to find their river reduced to a mere five or so miles. The once plentiful gift of salmon and trout dwindled, McNulty says, to a mere 3,000 to 4,000 fish returning per year.4 The dams also blocked sediment from moving downstream, resulting in riverbank erosion that flooded homeland and sites of cultural significance for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe.
These days the river flows freely once again. Dam removal began in 2011, marking the largest dam removal project in the United States. Both dams were removed by 2014, and salmon were seen swimming past the former dam sites within weeks. The fish are a marvel of mutualism. They journey hundreds of miles, return bearing gifts, give their whole selves to the waters that sustain them. They return to where they were born, carrying marine-derived nutrients essential to the overall health of the river. The salmon die after spawning, releasing their nutrients in a ripple effect that impacts the species living within the watershed, from the inhabitants of the river itself to the birds and bears feeding off salmon carcasses, to the roots of riparian plant life tapping into soil nutrient-rich from the decomposing bodies of the fish.
It’s an unsettling feeling, to behold the renewal of the river while the glaciers who feed it are in decline. Such is the cyclical nature of life and loss. Holding both realities at once is our required commitment as we stare down a warming planet. This is how we hold on to the things we know cannot last forever: by taking care, and having the courage to not look away.
This is how we hold on to the things we know cannot last forever:
by taking care, and having the courage to not look away.
In a conversation with Krista Tippet for the podcast On Being, author and activist Terry Tempest Williams discusses the importance of learning the names of the beings around us. She says, “if we don’t know who we live amongst, there will be no one to mourn that loss.”5 Sometimes it feels too big of a task, too much to know, too much to lose. When I think of all the places I’ve been but haven’t noticed, the questions I’ve had but haven’t asked, I’m met with a sort of numbness tinged with regret, which I’ve come to recognize as a disconnect from the land I laud as home. On our hike in August of 2015, I didn’t have the vocabulary, the names to notice who I was moving amongst.
Here is what I can tell you: the glaciers of Olympic National Park are melting. 82 of the park’s glaciers have melted away completely in a time span of less than 30 years. 184 glaciers remain.6 The landscape of the Olympic Peninsula is one in flux, no matter how solid or permanent a mountain or a solid mass of ice may seem. McNulty writes, “…all places, even ones we treasure most, are but points on a continuum, brief moments in the passage of time through a changing landscape.”7 Over millions of years, glaciers carved the peaks and valleys my husband and I saw from the top of Colonel Bob on that bright August day. Their legacy – Fairchild Glacier’s legacy – will continue to be written in the steep cirque walls, the rugged ridges, and the moraines they leave behind.
What do the salmon and trout of the Elwha have to tell us about the importance of glaciers, the importance of place? We can wander the paths sculpted through the bedrock, give all of ourselves to the places we love. “This is how you hold on to something you know can’t last forever,” they whisper, scales shimmering through clear waters, “by holding the map of your pilgrimage deep in your cells and returning.”
We can take heart in the return of a thriving Elwha River. We can take the time to notice the contours of the landscape that the glaciers have left behind. After the years of work they put in, it seems like the least we can do.
When the Fairchild Glacier is gone, will you climb to the cirque it left behind, drink instant coffee, and read the story of the topography with me? The journey may be long, but it's what we do for love, for grief.
-Hannah Geise, January 2023
1 Chelsea Harvey, “Half of All Mountain Glaciers Are Expected to Disappear by 2100,” Scientific American, 2023, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/half-of-all-mountain-glaciers-are-expected-to-disappear-by-2100/#. 2 Andrew G. Fountain et al., “Glaciers of the Olympic Mountains, Washington—the Past and Future 100 Years,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface 127, no. 4 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1029/2022jf006670. 3 Tim McNulty, “The Lives of Olympic Rivers,” in Olympic National Park: A Natural History (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2018), pp. 124-148. 4 McNulty. Olympic National Park, 145. 5 Tippet, Krista, host, “Terry Tempest Williams – The Vitality of the Struggle.” On Being (podcast), February 3, 2011, accessed December 17, 2022, https://onbeing.org/programs/terry-tempest-williams-the-vitality-of-the-struggle/ 6 “Terminus: A Glacier Memorial Project,” National Park Service, December 7, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/olym/terminus.htm. 7 McNulty, Olympic National Park, 8.
“Elwha River Restoration.” National Park Service, August 2, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/elwha-ecosystem-restoration.htm.
Fodor, James, host, “Episode 129: Glaciers, Ice, and Groundwater.” The Science of Everything (podcast), June 30, 2022, accessed December 13, 2022. https://www.thescienceofeverything.net/e/episode-129-glaciers-ice-and-groundwater/
Fountain, Andrew G., Christina Gray, Bryce Glenn, Brian Menounos, Justin Pflug, and Jon L. Riedel. “Glaciers of the Olympic Mountains, Washington—the Past and Future 100 Years.” Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface 127, no. 4 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1029/2022jf006670.
Harvey, Chelsea. “Half of All Mountain Glaciers Are Expected to Disappear by 2100.” Scientific American, 2023. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/half-of-all-mountain-glaciers-are-expected-to-disappear-by-2100/#.
“History of the Elwha.” National Park Service, October 2, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/olym/learn/nature/history-of-the-elwha.htm.
“Glaciers Monitoring.” National Park Service, n.d. Accessed December 2022.
McNulty, Tim. “The Lives of Olympic Rivers.” Chapter. In Olympic National Park: A Natural History, 124–48. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2018.
Pelto, Mauri. “Fairchild Glacier Breakup and Retreat, Elwha River Dam Removal, Washington.” From a Glacier's Perspective, March 4, 2010. https://blogs.agu.org/fromaglaciersperspective/2010/03/04/fairchild-glacier-breakup-and-retreat-elwha-river-olympic-washington/.
“Terminus: A Glacier Memorial Project,” National Park Service, December 7, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/olym/terminus.htm.
Tippet, Krista, host, “Terry Tempest Williams – The Vitality of the Struggle.” On Being (podcast), February 3, 2011, accessed December 14, 2022, https://onbeing.org/programs/terry-tempest-williams-the-vitality-of-the-struggle/
Meet the Artist: Hannah Geise
Hannah Geise was born and raised in the greater Seattle area, and spent most of her childhood camping, hiking, skiing, or playing outside in the mud. Her writing ponders her memories of a youth spent outdoors, aiming to join reminiscence with present attention to the natural world around her wherever she goes. She currently lives in Utah with her husband, two fluffy Australian Shepherd mixes, and a tailless cat. More of Hannah’s work can be found on her Instagram @hannahgeisewrites.
More about Fairchild Glacier
Fairchild Glacier is a small cirque glacier on the Northeast slope of Mt. Fairchild. The mountain and its associated glacier were named after pilot William R. Fairchild (1926–1969), who flew hundreds of photographic flights to support scientific studies of glaciers in the Olympic Mountains for the U. S. Geological Survey and U.S. National Park Service.
The glacier's meltwaters feed into the Elwha River, flowing north past the remains of two historic dams to join the Strait of Juan de Fuca at the edge of the Lower Elwha Klallam Reservation. The Elwha River is extremely culturally significant and you can learn more about the momentous dam removal project, a cooperation between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and Olympic National Park, here and here.