Olympic marmot encounters: Klahhane Hiking Club sees a sight of summer
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Klahhane Hiking Club members, from left, Suki Chan, Gayle Larson, Sandra Vahsholtz, Jon Vahsholtz and Blair Nelson watch an Olympic marmot cross the trail at Hurricane Hill on Sunday. - Photo by Elston Hill
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A curious Olympic marmot takes a look at the Klahhane Club hikers on Hurricane Hill on Sunday. – Photo by Elston Hill
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Klahhane Hiking Club members meet with a little snow on Hurricane Hill during a Sunday trek to seek Olympic marmots. – Photo by Elston Hill

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OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK -- Klahhane Hiking Club members saw last weekend one of the sights of summer in the Olympic Mountains -- the Olympic marmot.

A dozen club members hiked Hurricane Hill on Sunday, the day before the summer solstice, specifically to see this unique species of marmot, which is found only in the alpine zone of the Olympics.

"Last year, my wife and I went up a number of times," said Elston Hill, who organized the hike and shot several photographs of the marmots, one of the largest rodents in the squirrel family.

"We would get up there by 7 a.m., and we would always see lots of marmots," he said.

"The beauty of it is that usually nobody gets up there before 9:30 a.m., so you have the whole mountain to yourself."

On Sunday, the group met at the Olympic National Park Visitor Center at 3002 Mount Angeles Road at 7:30 a.m. -- only to find the landscape completely fogged in, Hill said.

Sun comes out

Since marmots, which live in underground burrows, most often are seen basking in the sun, this was a bad sign, Hill said.

But by the end of the hike, the sun began to shine and the marmots ventured out.

"We had two very good marmot encounters," Hill said.

Although the Olympic marmot is a protected species, its numbers are declining, possibly due to a combination of coyotes and climate change, said Jim Kenagy, the curator of mammals at the Burke Museum, in March.

A call was issued in the spring for experienced hikers to volunteer to help the park count marmots -- or note the absence of previously documented colonies -- during several weeks in July and August.

That call was answered by 200 to 250 people, said Eleanor Kittelson, executive director of Washington's National Park Fund, which is funding the study.

The call for help was "wildly successful," she said.

"My understanding is that the park has 35 volunteers going out to do that study."

Some of those volunteers are members of the Klahhane Club, Hill said.

Jon and Sandra Vahsholtz will led a group of Klahhane backpackers for four nights in July to count marmots, he said.

Official endemic mammal

In 2009, legislation was signed that declared the Olympic marmot to be Washington state's official endemic mammal, Hill said.

The marmots leave their dens with warmer weather to feast on tender flowering plants in the mountain meadows, and bulk up for the next long winter ahead.

A marmot may double its weight over three sunny months and lose much of it during hibernation, according to information from the park at http://tinyurl.com/2497sgz.

The best time to see marmots is early morning or at dusk, Hill said, adding that they take midday naps in their burrows.

Last modified: June 23. 2010 12:01AM
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