Writers on the Range: A wild river usually claims right of way
Ryan Summerlin February 23, 2014
Deep in the rugged wilderness of Washington’s Olympic National Park, the East Fork Quinault River, swollen by this winter’s floods, has nearly reached the doorstep of a historic building. Photographs taken in January show the river a mere 18 inches from the north wall of the Enchanted Valley Chalet.
The iconic, three-story log building was constructed in the early 1930s, before the creation of the park, by the Olympic Chalet Co. It was part of a system of commercial lodges and shelter camps proposed for Olympic National Forest. It was also part of a plan championed by local business interests to construct a highway up the Quinault River and across the Olympic Mountains. Aggressive development schemes such as these were a significant factor driving the creation of Olympic National Park.
But now, the next big flood, or the one after that, could undermine the chalet and wash it away. The Quinault is among the wildest of Olympic’s rivers. Throughout the four decades I’ve hiked, camped and worked alongside it, it has eroded its banks relentlessly, taking out sections of old-growth forest, roads, trails, culverts and bridges overnight. The couple of hundred inches of precipitation that are visited upon its headwaters each year have left the Quinault River with a voracious appetite.
Winter floods in 2004 and 2007 sent the river calling within feet of the chalet. Back then, park crews helicoptered in, winched and cabled trees and succeeded in shifting the channel away from the chalet — but only temporarily.
Like all wild rivers, the Quinault has its own priorities, set by geomorphology, Pacific storm fronts and a shifting climate. It may not be this year or the next one, but the fate of Enchanted Valley Chalet appears to be sealed.
There’s no question that the three-story lodge in a valley of waterfalls is scenic and well loved. My memories of the chalet go back to the 1970s, when it served as a free backcountry hotel for hikers. In the ’80s, it offered welcome respite from rain and snow for early-season trail crews as we cleared trails in the upper valley. And I confess to some wistfulness when I think that the old chalet’s days are nearly done.
But destruction and renewal are an old story in the Olympic Mountains. Studies conducted on the nearby Queets River found old-growth forests growing on the floodplain atop even older logjams that were felled and deposited by the river centuries earlier. There is evidence that the Queets River has entirely shifted from north to south valley walls over the centuries.
Somehow, the rich biological diversity and beauty we experience in the wilderness valleys of Olympic National Park evolved among these dynamic conditions, perhaps even because of them. Add windstorms, wildfires, avalanches, and glacier advances and retreats, and we have a landscape sculpted and polished by natural disturbance. To me, these processes lie at the heart of the wild majesty that is Olympic National Park. The designation of 95 percent of the park as wilderness 25 years ago expressed an increased understanding of these processes and a desire to allow natural rather than human forces to continue to shape and renew the land.
For many, though, the old lodge defines the valley. It is a registered national historic property, and some have called for the Park Service to take extraordinary measures to save it. Website forums are abuzz, and letters and emails are flying off to both Washingtons. But I am afraid that the suggested fixes — whether they involve moving the structure to another spot on the unconsolidated floodplain, armoring the river bank with logs or rocks, or attempting to re-channel the mighty Quinault River itself — are all destined to fail.
The Enchanted Valley Chalet is an artifact of an earlier time in Western history, when parks and natural areas were the “pleasuring grounds” of urban elites who could afford catered pack trips and rustic hunting lodges. We’ve come to a more egalitarian view of our public wildlands since then. We’ve come to value our wilderness national parks for the gems of biodiversity, beauty and natural process that they have always been.
I don’t know what the Park Service will decide after it assesses its options for the Enchanted Valley Chalet. I know there aren’t many ways to go, since the Wilderness Act trumps historic preservation in wilderness. I just hope that agency managers will respect the natural processes they are charged to protect and take to heart the dictates of the Wilderness Act.
There is a time when humility joins with common sense to let nature take its course. That time has come for the old chalet.
Tim McNulty is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a poet, conservationist and author of Olympic National Park: A Natural History. He lives in Sequim, Washington.
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