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Swan Creek Ravine in Pierce County—April 2003

This month we visit a ravine in Pierce County formed by Swan Creek as it drains north along the east edge of Tacoma to empty into the Puyallup River. The steep terrain of this ravine, like others throughout our region, has resisted development and, though logged nearly a century ago, regenerated itself in native vegetation disturbed only by natural processes.

The plants mentioned here are from a list of over 85 species made in February. You will see many more, including those members of the lily, orchid and other families that make a spring walk so enchanting.

Directions: Get there by taking Exit 135 off I-5 toward Puyallup SR-167. If coming from the north, turn left before the first light and avoid the left lane as you pass under the freeway (it re-enters I-5 northbound). Turn left at the light and join those coming from the south. Proceed along Bay Street past the Indian Center and Casino. Just past the cemetery come to a light where you take the middle of three options into Pioneer Way. From this point drive 0.7 miles past several buildings on the right, including "Clay Arts" and "Barkers Barn," then just beyond a long picket fence turn right into the unmarked, unpaved driveway of Swan Creek Park. The park has neither restrooms nor potable water.

Walk south on the gravel path over a low rise, and overlook the broad curving pond where Swan Creek has been shaped to ensure a year-round resting area for spawning salmon. Both coho and chum salmon use this stream. Expect to see waterfowl here, too. As the path continues upstream toward the forest, native trees and shrubs, cottonwoods, alders and maples above salmonberry, elderberries, and redstem dogwood begin to displace those other species we've come to expect in disturbed areas. On the embankment to the left above an old concrete foundation, a Pacific yew spreads its deep green, irregular branches. At 0.2 miles from the parking lot, the path rises to the top of an earthen dam or dike and a footbridge crosses the creek. Below the bridge an earlier concrete dam has been breached to allow the fish to pass.

Botanizing begins in earnest here by the tile mural erected by local school students to celebrate the life of the stream. To the right is the first great sea of waterleaf under the salmonberry, nine-bark, and elderberry. To the left along the trail stinging nettle and bigleaf avens grow among fringecup and piggy-back. The trail now follows the route and grade of the stream, varying up and down to pass over and around the remains of old mudslides that have shaped the ravine. Some of the slides have formed shelf-like areas of impounded water hosting skunk cabbage and lady fern. Others remain as saturated seeps with wood fern, devil's club, elderberry, and slough sedge.

The canopy above is deciduous trees, alder and maple. The older maples have developed long branches arching out over the stream to reach the open area of light. The alders, having grown straight up, are leaning out where the down-slope movement of the hillside tips them over. Both provide a stage for the epiphytic liverworts and licorice ferns that are the foliage of the woods in winter.

At about 0.7 miles, the trail drops down to the edge of the creek and is punctuated by a series of steel hoops embedded in the ground. These are the remains of a wood stave water pipe, part of a historic water system. From here the trail climbs a series of steps and switchbacks. Leaving the riparian zone, it enters a steeper, drier, hillside of conifer forest. The way up is lined with maidenhair fern in the well-drained soil on the nearly vertical cutbank of the trail. Just below the rim of the ravine, about 300 feet above the parking area, the trail traverses the sidehill for a quarter mile before descending again to the stream. In this upper stretch young Douglas fir, redcedar, and a few hemlock form the canopy over a shrub layer of low Oregon grape, salal, snowberry, and evergreen huckleberry, punctuated with oceanspray, hazelnut, wood rose, and Oregon box. Orange huckleberry is seen here and along the trail edges are wild ginger and evergreen violets.

This is also the place to watch for a chance sighting of Torrey's peavine, Lathyrus torreyi. This rare denizen of conifer woods, listed as "threatened," is known in Washington from this and one other area in Pierce County. It grows less than a foot high and spreads its leaflets over an area the size of your hand. Lacking tendrils, it does not climb over, but is often dominated by its neighbors. Gazing directly at the pale blue-lilac flowers may cause hearts to break. To know more about it or be sure of seeing it, join the effort to pull the invasive weeds that threaten to overwhelm its habitat. Weed pulls are currently scheduled for May 22 and June 17, 2003. Contact Mary Fries, 253-272-9192 or Mary Sue Gee, 253-531-5767 for particulars. Conservation work is a way of becoming Native to this place.

As the trail descends again to the stream, the salal gives way to sword fern as the main ground cover. The conifer canopy continues and as the stream has climbed about 200 feet above our starting point; elderberry and salmonberry have been replaced by vine maple as the understory shrub. The trail continues to about 1.6 miles from the parking lot and then climbs steeply to the rim. We retrace our path, saving that upper park area for another day.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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