For nearly three decades, I have enjoyed jogging and now trekking five times a week from the main entrance of Carkeek Park, just north of the Holman Road QFC in North Seattle, down to Puget Sound and back, a distance of about 3½ miles.
Usually alone, much of my thinking has been of the moment and about Carkeek Park and its fast-flowing stream, Piper’s Creek, which rushes down to Puget Sound. For one thing, there is the basic physics of the stream, a combination of the viscosity of water and the force of gravity, which over thousands of years has carved the steep ravine that defines the park. When Piper’s Creek enters the ravine through a pipe at the park’s head, it is no more than a trickle. Fed by many tiny creeks and a few storm drains, it gradually grows into the formidable stream that over time has created the beach and little delta where it empties into the Sound.
There is also the constant music of the creek, sometimes light and lyrical as it rushes over and scours stones and pebbles. Most noticeable to me is the creek’s varying loudness, a function of its distance from the trail, but also the degree to which the stream is squeezed and drops rapidly. Surprisingly, at a few rare points, the stream suddenly goes loudly silent, reminding me of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
In recent years, I have found myself dwelling upon two major changes throughout the park. The first is the increasing quantity and spread of moss. More and more, the park is becoming mossified with a thick carpet of bright, light green, especially where exposed to direct sunlight. Large parts of the trunks and branches of most trees, living and dead, are now hidden under this carpet, and the stems of many small plants are covered by a layer of moss thicker than the diameter of the stems themselves.
Even more striking, large and small patches of ground, and the boulders, rocks and dirt they contain, are blanketed in thick green. For me, the park is beginning to resemble the temperate rain forest around the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula, the most magically moss-covered place I have ever seen. But what could be causing the mossification of Carkeek Park? Is it somehow related to climate change?
The Carkeek Park I first experienced about 30 years ago was also more verdant and full of life, packed with growing, living things. Towering over the ground cover — the small plants, shrubs and vines — were the alders and big-leaf maples which once dominated the ravine. Today, in marked contrast, it is hard to escape the degree to which so many of the trees are dead or dying.
Beyond the young evergreens planted along the trail in the early 1990s, the change has been dramatic. The park is now marked by patches of logs and branches, some piled high. The largest of these areas reminds me of abandoned battlefields, fields of fallen warriors and other debris of war. At many points, fallen trees point down the sides of the ravine. Others lie at right angles, bridging the creek; some rest on its bottom, creating little waterfalls. Along much of the trail are sections of trunk cut by park workers from trees that have fallen across the trail.
Why are there so many dead and dying trees in Carkeek Park? The information plaque located where the trail passes the Piper Orchard may contain part of the answer. After Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 destroyed Andrew Piper’s Pioneer Square bakery, Piper moved his extended family north and occupied cabins abandoned by loggers. My guess is that those loggers left the cabins in the late 19th century, soon after clear-cutting the ravine. Since alders that follow clear-cutting have life expectancies of about 100 years, then much of the forest still standing in the ravine has reached old age. In short, most of the largest trees of the park are naturally dying of old age. If so, a new forest, probably more evergreen, is in its early years of growth.
Hopefully, future generations of visitors will grow up and age with Carkeek Park. While I won’t be one of them, I am thankful to have enjoyed today’s mossy, aging park, and to have noted its changes.