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Deception Falls — November 2005

By Holly Zox

Autumn heralds the return of the Aleutian Low pressure system to the Pacific Northwest. Southwesterly winds carry moisture-laden marine air over western Washington which condenses and falls as rain over the lowlands and snow in the colder high country. Excited skiers and holiday travelers follow. This month’s walk offers travelers on US 2 a treat: a bathroom break with a bonus old growth forest nature walk.

Deception Falls nature trail begins at the rest area at milepost 56.8, about 8 miles east of Skykomish on the north side of US 2. Enter the forest behind the restrooms. The first part of the trail is barrier-free and leads to a view of the Upper Falls. Once on the trail, the roar of water drowns the highway racket. Here Deception Creek tumbles to meet the Tye River which will soon form the South Fork Skykomish River. The waters are carving the granodiorite of the Mount Stuart batholith, which has been magnetized in a way that leads some geologists to believe it came from Baja California.

The forest is classic early successional old growth following fire in the Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) Zone. The biggest, oldest trees are western redcedars (Thuja plicata) about 600 years old, survivors of a fire about 280 years ago, perhaps because they grow in moister locations. Most of the mature trees are Douglas-firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii) that sprouted after the fire. The mature Douglas-firs have now altered conditions so their shade-intolerant seedlings cannot survive. When the Douglas-firs die in another 500 years or so, the forest will be dominated by the western hemlock and, because at 1800’ elevation Deception Falls is near the upper limits of the Western Hemlock Zone, Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) now waiting in the understory. The shade-tolerant seedlings of these species should allow them to remain the climax species for generations to come, until the next disturbance and environmental conditions change again.

Also notable in the forest here is a large western white pine (Pinus monticola) that has not fallen victim to the introduced white pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola). Alternative hosts of the genus Ribes the rust needs to complete its life cycle such as stink currant (Ribes bracteosum) grow streamside in the forest, so presumably this old tree has some resistance to the rust.

Examples of different organisms enhancing the survival of one another also abound. Mushrooms, the above-ground reproductive structures of fungi are the “flowers” of the autumn forest floor. Hyphae, microscopic tubes that are the rest of the fungi extend throughout the soil and form mutual associations with plant roots called mycorrhizae. The fungi get their sugar (energy) from photosynthetic plants, and the fungi give plants access to nutrients and water from a much greater surface area.

Fungi also form associations with green algae and blue-green bacteria we call lichens. Cyanolichens, those with blue-green bacteria, like the Oregon lungwort (Lobaria oregana) seen here, are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form plants can use and are a source of nitrogen for the forest when they fall and are decomposed. The activity of decomposers is visible everywhere. Soil bacteria are key mineralizing organisms critical in nutrient cycling, converting dead organic material into inorganic nutrients plants need.

So, while the rains may have returned, and the flowers faded, the work of the forest is as fascinating as ever. Bring a picnic and stretch your legs on this easy 0.7 mile trail the next time you’re heading over Steven’s Pass. You might be so enchanted you decide to stay on the west side, cross the highway, and hike miles up Deception Creek.

Updated: July 3, 2016
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