OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Douglas Houck is on a treasure hunt in the Olympic Mountains.
With his Pentax K10 SLR digital camera slung over his shoulder, Houck has spent most weekends since June traversing the Klahhane Ridge area of Olympic National Park and the trails leading to Mount Townsend in Olympic National Forest to the east.
His self-appointed mission: to photograph as many of the varieties of alpine and subalpine wildflowers living only in the Olympic Mountains as he can find.
Off the beaten path
“There’s a lot of beautiful flowers out there,” Houck said.
“And if you’re into that sort of stuff, it’s kind of like a treasure hunt.”
Called “endemics,” the flowers are found only in the Olympic Mountains between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. They sprout from rocky crevasses and scree, many within the boundaries of Olympic National Park, Houck said.
Botanists surmise that 12 or 13 varieties of subalpine and alpine wildflowers are endemic to the Olympic Mountains, said David Giblin, collections manager of the University of Washington Herbarium at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
However, concise listings, with full-color photographs, specifically for subalpine and alpine wildflowers found in the Olympics are hard to come by, Giblin said.
This is part of the reason why Giblin has teamed up with Houck to produce a fully illustrated guide to a little more than 100 subalpine and alpine wildflowers species found in the Olympics, including as many endemics as Houck can find during his excursions into the high ridges of the North Olympic Peninsula.
Giblin contacted Houck in 2009 after seeing photos he had submitted to the UW Herbarium’s online photo gallery, which contains more than 43,000 images of at least 2,700 species of plants found in Washington.
Houck, a retired environmental engineer living in Bellingham, met Giblin in person this winter at the herbarium and got to talking about a pamphlet Giblin had produced on Mount Rainier National Park wildflowers.
He mentioned he wanted to do a similar pamphlet for the Olympic Mountains, and Houck offered his services as a photographer.
“So this year, I’m trying to find specific flowers, and it’s driving me crazy,” Houck said with a laugh.
Although numerous wildflower guides cover the entire state and focus on the Olympic Peninsula, none features the subalpine and alpine flowers of the Olympics, which is what most visitors seem to come to see, Houck and Giblin said.
“Nobody’s got one just for alpine flowers, just for the Olympics,” Houck said.
Like the guide for Mount Rainier, Giblin said, he’s designing the Olympic Mountains wildflower pamphlet to be water- and tear-resistant, and small enough to fit in the map pouch of a hiking backpack.
Rainey McKenna, a spokeswoman for Olympic National Park, said visitor centers sell books on wildflowers found in ONP, but not pamphlets designed to be taken out on a hike.
“We’re excited to hear that this is something that’s in development,” McKenna said, adding that such a pamphlet “could potentially fill a very great need.”
Houck and Giblin said they hope to have it ready within the next year, depending on how many endemics Houck is able to find and photograph.
Giblin said he couldn’t be more pleased to work with Houck.
“He’s an excellent photographer and an outstanding amateur botanist,” Giblin said.
Houck, however, was more humble about his flower-identifying skills.
“I just go and shoot stuff, and go back and say, ‘Oh, that’s what it is,’” Houck said.
Houck has been up in the high elevations of the Olympic Mountains at least six times so far this year and has found a few endemic wildflowers.
Throughout his search, Houck said, he has become particularly found of the Olympic violet, a delicate-looking endemic with purple petals and dark-veined green leaves.
He found one specimen after scrambling down a scree field off-trail on Mount Townsend.
“I stood up, looked up, and there it was, staring right at me,” Houck said.
“That’s my favorite because it’s the least I’ve seen.”
Giblin said he can understand why subalpine and alpine wildflowers are such a popular draw for hikers in the Olympic Mountains.
“I think it’s the contrast between these strikingly beautiful plants and harsh conditions under which they exist,” Giblin said.
“More than half the year they spend under the snow. They’re just tough plants.”
Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at [email protected]