Note: Here’s the deal. We’re still on vacation, up in Northwestern Montana*. But I’ve already come across so much I want to blog about that if I wait till we get home later this week, I’ll be blogging about Montana till Christmas. So I’m borrowing a page out of KanyonKris’ book and starting to blog about the vacation while still on it.
Also, just a disclaimer/heads-up: I’m on a new system, with a new version of LiveWriter, and blogging from a spot with iffy access. So if there are format issues with this post or the next one, just be patient and I’ll clean things up sometime in the next week.
*New masthead photo taken yesterday morning. I need to do a post on clouds.
Driving North on I-15 out of Utah, you pass a series of low ranges in Southern Idaho before clearing Pocatello and dropping out onto the Snake River Plain.
The plain is generally flat or gently rolling, and it lasts for a couple of hours. Sometimes it’s agricultural land, but more often just open range, or scrub and lava fields. The plain breaks for good right around Spencer, just short of the Montana border, and when it does, forests start appearing again on the mountain hillsides. Although various tree guides to the West define these forests as the same type- Rocky Mountain Montane Forest- they’re different from the ones you left behind a few hours back in the Wasatch.
Side Note: The drive from Salt Lake to Glacier NP is also fascinating hydrologically. Just shortly across the Idaho border, at Malad Summit, you leave the Salt Lake drainage basin- and hence the Great Basin- and enter the Snake River Basin, which eventually drains into the Columbia and so is part of the Pacific watershed. But at the Montana border you cross over into the Atlantic watershed, specifically Red Rock Creek, which drains into the Yellowstone and then to the Missouri, then the Mississippi and into the Gulf of Mexico. But then, just ~100 miles or so ahead, at Deer Lodge Pass (just South of Butte) you cross back into the Pacific watershed, specifically the Clark Fork, which eventually also finds its way to the Columbia. And finally, inside the park, you cross over into the Atlantic watershed one last time, specifically the Marias River, which leads- again- to the Missouri…
Our first day we drove up to Missoula and spent the night. Friday morning I did my usual family-road-trip schtick of getting up before dawn to sneak in a mtn bike ride while the family slept. I drove in the pre-dawn up to Rattlesnake Recreation Area, about 5 miles North of town, unloaded the bike and started climbing.
Tangent: I’ve previously described this family road-trip custom of riding super-early. It’s a little trickier when you’re just passing through, spending a single night. You either need to arrive in town early enough so that you can stop by a bike shop, or have really good beta- from the web or otherwise- before you arrive. Because you’ll be searching for a strange trailhead right around dawn. And you want a ride that’s fun, that’ll expose you to the local environment- whether forest, desert, or whatever- and that will give you a good workout/climb, but not be so technical that you’ll come back to your family all crabby and out-of-sorts from excessive dabbing/walking on a strange trail first thing in the morning when you’re not really awake, or worse yet, bruised from a crash. (Yes, I’ve done both.)
Given all that, Rattlesnake Rec Area was a pretty good choice. Totally non-technical, but plenty of climbing, real singletrack, nice forest, close to town and a fun, fast descent back to the trailhead.
The first big obvious difference of the forest around Missoula from the Wasatch is of course all the pines- specifically Ponderosa. Though riding through open pines isn’t terribly unusual in most of the West, it’s unheard of in the Wasatch. Ponderosas are the most common tree around Missoula, and in fact for the first hour of my ride, it was one of only 2 trees I saw, the other being Douglas Fir. That’s right- I rode for an hour and saw just 2 species of tree. And that’s the first interesting thing about the North side of the Snake River plain, is what’s not there. When you finally cross the plain and hit real mountains and forests again, you leave behind several common species of tree. Gambel Oak and Bigtooth Maple we’ve already talked about; we actually left those guys behind by the time we hit Pocatello. And in their absence, other shrubs- such as Ninebark and Rocky Mountain Maple (pic right)- seem to do well, a trend we saw several weeks ago over in the Sublett Range.
But we left behind more than that. White Fir, that ubiquitous conifer of the Wasatch, is gone. So is Blue Spruce. As a rule, species diversity in forests declines the further you go from the equator. Certainly that’s true as you go North from Arizona to Utah to Wyoming. And so it wasn’t surprising that this Montana forest had just two trees.
Tangent: Species-sparse forests- consisting of just a couple of tree-types- can either be really cool, or really boring, depending on your mood. Sometimes seeing the same darn tree or two for hours on end gets a bit old, and you start thinking about how to cut the ride short. But other times it brings on a quiet sense of order and appreciation for detail. When you can identify pretty much everything growing around you, your mind sort of settles in and you start to see little things you didn’t notice before.
Side Note: Another difference is Aspen. Though we saw plenty of Aspen later in the trip, up in and around the Flathead Valley and Glacier NP, they don’t usually seem to form the vast expanses so typical of Wasatch forests. Interestingly, when I did research for my Aspen posts last summer, one of the most intriguing things I read was that the Aspens of Montana reproduce primarily sexually, unlike ours in the Wasatch, which almost always reproduce clonally. And this difference begs the question of whether the Aspen of Montana are actually evolving faster than those in the Wasatch. Over the last 10,000 years, Aspen in the Wasatch- and most of Utah and Colorado- have effectively experienced one single, clonally-extended generation, while those in Montana have probably experienced something like 200-250 generations.
Montana’s Meanest Weed Is Way Pretty
The paucity of species extended to wildflowers. With the exception of a few Asters, I saw none of the familiar wildflowers back home, and overwhelmingly just one species of flower in bloom. But that may have less to do with latitude and diversity than it does with the flower in question: Spotted Knapweed, Centaurea maculosa (pic left).
C. maculosa is an exotic, native to Eastern Europe. It’s a member of Asteraceae, and so related to things like Dandelions and Mules Ears and Balsamroots, but belongs to a different tribe, Cynarea. In fact, the thing you’ve no doubt seen here in North America that’s much more closely-related to it is Carduus nutans, the dreaded, evil Musk Thistle.
Spotted Knapweed is a tough, tenacious invader, particularly in the Northwestern US; in Montana alone it’s invaded more than 4.5 million acres. It regularly outcompetes and displaces native ground cover due to 4 attributes: 1) It’s got an extra-efficient tap-root, giving it first dibs on groundwater. 2) Like its evil cousin, it’s a super-high seed-producer (an advantage shared to greater or lesser degree by most composites.) 3) It’s not much favored as a food source, and 4) There’s some evidence that it may be allelopathic, inhibiting the growth of adjacent plants.
Interestingly, factors 3 and 4 may be connected, as both appear to be the result of the Knapweed’s production of phytotoxic chemical, specifically a catechin.
Side Note: Catechins are a class of secondary plant metabolites. Primary plant metabolites are organic compounds associated with plant growth, development or reproduction. Secondary plant metabolites aren’t directly involved in any of that stuff, but rather perform other functions, like- for example- poisons.
The catechin produced by C. maculosa is present in both the leaves and roots. In the leaves its presence makes the foliage unpalatable to grazers. From the roots it infiltrates the soil, where it appears to cause cell death in the root tips of other plants. Exactly how it kills the cells is not completely clear, but one hypothesis is that it somehow causes a spike in calcium ions, which act as messengers in plant signaling pathways associated with stress response.
Back in Europe, Spotted Knapweed occurs in and among other ground cover and isn’t dominant. But here in North America, our plants don’t know how to deal with, and it ends up being the only wildflower around in large areas (pic above, left). Lots and lots of countermeasures- both chemical and biological- have been, and are currently, used to attempt to control it. I read that in Glacier NP, in the high meadows near Rising Sun, rangers remove it by hand when found*.
*Whether or not that’s actually the case, I saw plenty of the weed in the park below 5,000 feet, especially on the East/Atlantic side.
All About Larch
OK, back to trees. After an hour of climbing I paused at a trail junction to pee*. As I did so I looked up and around, and noticed a couple of trees that looked different. And sure enough they were. They were Western Larches, Larix occidentalis.
*Yes, that’s right- yet another botanical discovery/observation while peeing!
Larches are that epitome of weirdness in the world of conifers- a deciduous PLT. In fact many of us use the words “conifer” and “evergreen” almost interchangeably. But just as there are evergreen angiosperms, there are deciduous conifers, most of them Larches, and Larches are the only deciduous conifers in North America. We’ve looked at Larches before, last summer in Maine, when I saw them around the Mud Pond, and again, fleetingly, from the train window last October*, en route from Prague to Vienna.
*Which is, regrettably, the only time I’ve seen Larches changing color. Those would have been European Larch, L. decidua, which has supposedly also been introduced and subsequently escaped/naturalized in the Northeastern US.
The Larches in Maine are Tamaracks, L. laricina, far and away the most widespread and common North American Larch, extending from Maine, clear across the Canadian Boreal Forest and into the Alaskan interior. But there are 2 other North American Larch species.
These Larches occur only in the Northwest- the Cascades and Northern (but not really Northern) Rockies. They’re almost like outliers of the Tamarack domain, and when I looked at the range maps, I assumed that Western Larch was an isolated population of Tamaracks that became a new species.
But when I checked out the research* on North American Larches, I was surprised to find out that the opposite seems to be the case. Western Larch shows a much more diverse gene pool than Tamarack, which appears to have gone through some recent genetic bottleneck (presumably due to recent, repeated glaciations of its range.) If anything, Tamarack is likely to be the (wildly successful) offshoot of Western Larch!
*If you follow the link and actually read the paper, the story of Eurasian Larches is way fascinating. If you’re a plant-geek, anyway.
In the West, Larches don’t occur any further South than central Idaho. In a sense, they’re almost a “Boreal extension” into the Rockies, a hint of the cold, endless forest beyond.
Side Note: The other species is Subalpine Larch, L. lyalli, which occurs in Glacier NP, but which I didn’t see/ID this trip.
Larch needles are lighter-colored than most other conifers, giving them a comparatively light green, almost cheerful, aspect. They’re attached to the tree in little, flaring bundles of 10-20 needles, which makes them easy to ID up close (pic left). The needles are also short, and together with their unusually twig-attachment architecture, this gives them a relatively “scraggly” silhouette when compared with adjacent Pines or PLTs. Larches are shade- intolerant, love direct sun, and given the right conditions, can quickly outgrow surrounding pines, firs and Douglas Firs. Unlike Tamaracks, which almost never reach 100’, Western Larches can grow over 200’ in height (pic right, Bird Whisperer for scale.)
The Singletrack Not Taken
After another 20 minutes of climbing (and a cool but ultimately dead-end side-trail* exploration) I reached an overlook to the North, framed by this stunning stand of Larch (pic left). Beyond, the trail continued, dipping down a bit. It looked mysterious, twisty, smooth and inviting, the ultimate promise of fine, new singletrack ahead(pic right). But I was out of time. The family would be waking, and we had places to go, things to do. I always hate this moment. Looking ahead at new, untraveled trail, in a place where it might well be years- or never- before I return with time and opportunity to explore further, to see what’s around the next bend. This is what I both love and hate about the West: a thousand unexplored trails, and no matter how many you manage to explore, there’ll always be a thousand more. You can spend your life exploring this part of the world, and yet never really know it.
*Aren’t those the weirdest? You’re in a strange place, riding along, you find an obvious, well-traveled side trail and decide to follow it. Over the next mile or so it gets fainter and fainter, and eventually disappears altogether. What happened? Where did it go? Why are all these other bikers following it? Are they all just clueless out-of-towners like me?
I made it back in time to catch the hotel continental breakfast with Awesome Wife and the Trifecta. As we munched on scrambled eggs, cocoa puffs and do-it-yourself waffles*, I mused about how though we’d “lost” a few tree species on our trip North, we’d gained at least 1 new one. I didn’t yet appreciate how weird things would get as we continued North.
*Don’t those hotel/motel continental breakfasts have the oddest food combinations? I always think about European tourists coming down from their rooms in the morning, checking out these weird breakfast buffets, and thinking, “OK that’s it. These Americans are totally whacked. It is utterly beyond me how a people that eats so poorly managed to put a man on the moon.”
Next Up: The Fantabulous Columbian Forest