After the tour of the museum, we took a walk through the forest, past sizable cedars with old growth and abundant sword ferns. Higgs told how, a few years ago, crews operating the transmitter reported seeing pikas — those rabbit-like inhabitants of high alpine meadows — in a low valley. “Nobody believed them,” she said.
Higgs was surprised by what she found. “Certainly, they were right. It was in a place no one expected: an old gravel quarry,” Higgs said excitedly, clearly excited about the menagerie of critters that reside on this semi-secret military installation. Pikas like to build their nests in alpine talus gravel and boulder fields that protect them from heat exposure. Although pikas in the Cascades prefer to live above 5,000 feet in elevation, Jim Creek’s pikas seemed quite happy at about 800 feet above sea level in the transmitter valley, which mimics their mountain habitat sufficiently.
On our walk, not far from the recreation center, we passed several massive red cedar groves covered in moss and reached a fast-flowing stream, a small tributary that flows into Jim Creek. We paused at a small walkway, which the Navy recently placed after removing a culvert there. Higgs said most of the creeks that emerge from the surrounding mountains are too steep to provide a habitat for salmon or trout, but biologists found a robust population of pink salmon in Jim Creek’s main stem last year.
Higgs said fish biologists were surprised to find so much pink salmon this far up. “It was such a big spawning year that they pushed to the tributaries here,” she said.
Those fish are protected under a management plan prepared by the Navy in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Higgs said. The only permitted fishing at the Jim Creek facility is at Twin Lakes, which is stocked with sterile rainbow trout for visitors.
As we walk back to the reception office, Loverink tells me that he has often taken his kids to the lake for fishing and hopes to do more this summer.
“They grow up there and they taste good,” he said, showing that grin one last time before I’m escorted to the security gate.
I leave the welcome committee and its quirky characters straight out of a Netflix sitcom: the wisecracking military commander, the slightly serious wildlife biologist, the merry recreation director. As I drive the winding road to Arlington in the shadow of the Cascades, it comes to my mind that Jim Creek is a quintessentially Pacific Northwest-esque place.
Where else can you find cutting edge technology used for a clandestine, deadly purpose in such an idyllic place? Cascadia, with its humid rainforests to the west and its dusty hills of sagebrush to the east, has long been home to the tools of destruction – be it the Trident nuclear submarines at Bangor or Hanford’s plutonium.
So I suppose if you’re going to build a device that can send the order to kill millions of people, you might as well use the land it’s on to protect pikas and pink salmon. Make it a place to play Frisbee or listen to the questioning, urgent chirps of the marbled murrelet, another mysterious creature who calls Jim Creek home.