Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fat, Low & Orange: Catch-Up, Corrections and Filler

IMG_6513 I’m traveling for work this week, hoping to work in part 3 of the Idaho vacation series, but having trouble carving out time. I’ve been traveling a lot lately, back down in the Acid Swamp last week, San Diego this week, and Boston next week, but hopefully I can wrap it up later this week or over the weekend.


In a comment to Part 2, KB was kind enough to alert me to a mis-ID*: my “pinedrop” was actually Spotted Coralroot, Corrallothiza maculata. There are 3 upsides** to this error. First, Pinedrop is way cool and totally worth blogging about; I’m glad I did so. Second, the Coralroot story is remarkably similar. It’s also a non-chloropyllous myco-heretroph. It’s associated with a single family of fungi, in this case, Russulaceae, which, like Rhizopogon, is mycorrhizal. So far so good.

*As I’ve mentioned previously, I welcome corrections. I make mistakes all the time. I’m not a botanist, zoologist, entomologist, zoologist, ornithologist, geologist, hydrologist, astronomer, or any kind of an expert on anything*** covered in this blog, and over 90% of the stuff I blog about is stuff I learned about the thing in question over the previous week. Though I do my best to get the facts straight, I don’t sweat it when I don’t. I have a day job. In fact I have several posts (particularly from year 1) where I have pretty major errors that I have it in my mind to go back and clean up sometime, but don’t know when I’ll get around to it.

**I am so glass-half-full it almost hurts…

***And really, I’ve never been an expert in anything- not my trade or hobbies or anything else. Yet my life has worked out just fine. If I were to start this project all over again from scratch, perhaps a better name for the blog would be “Perpetual Amateur.”****

****Blogspot url is already taken. Just snagged it over on Wordpress. You know, just in case…

Extra Detail: Something interesting about Russulaceae is its mushrooms, in which the stalk is comprised of spherical cells, unlike the stalks of most mushrooms, which are comprised of long fibers (hyphae). Because of this the stalks snap cleanly, and often with a crack, like a carrot.

Third, the error provides yet another- and this case absolutely fascinating- example of one of my pet loves in this project- convergent evolution. Pinedrop, as I mentioned in the last post, is a member of the Heath Family, Ericaceae, which in turn is a dicot (eudicot) family.

IMG_6387Coralroots (and there are over a dozen species, mostly native to the New World) belong to the Orchid family, Orchidaceae, which is a monocot family. In other words, these 2, remarkably similar-looking plants, which occur in like habitats, evolved non-chlorophyllous myco-hetermorphism completely independently. Pinedrop is more closely related to Oak or Cactus, and Coralroot more closely-related to Crabgrass or Joshua Trees, than either is related to each other. The two haven’t shared a common ancestor since probably the early Cretaceous. And yet, ~100 million years later, here are their descendants, pulling off practically the exact same schtick! Isn’t that incredible?

On the downside, I missed a great chance to blog about Orchids, something I’ve had in the back of my mind to do for over a year now. The 2 most diverse families of flowering plants are the Sunflowers (Asteraceae) and the Orchids (Orchidaceae), both of which have well over 20,000 generally accepted species. The success of, and diversity within these 2 families is stunning. I’ve said before that angiosperms long ago conquered the world, but one could almost say that Sunflowers and Orchids have conquered the world, with the rest of us just along for the ride.

IMG_03675 Sunflowers I’ve done a half-decent job with, covering many examples and the family in general. But Orchids I just haven’t gotten to yet*, somewhat to my chagrin, because Orchids are fascinating, beautiful and wondrous, with thousands of amazing MonoDicot Leaf Finestories. I’m also charmed by the wonderful symmetry of the successes of the 2 families- one monocot, one dicot- and their clear testament to the fabulous success of two fundamentally different ways of being a plant. Clearly, orchids need to be blogged about.

*I considered tackling them a year ago in Costa Rica, but felt that the trip was too quick and my sightings too spotty to a good job of it. More recently I’ve intended to blog about White Bog Orchid, Habenaria dilatata, which I believe I’ve spotted in passing a few times…

But not this week. Not in a sleep-deprived-hotel-room-cranked-out-filler-post. So I’ll wait for another day. But I can’t resist touching on just one very relevant aspect of orchids, which is that if anything, they would seem to be perhaps even better suited for, or at least more inclined toward, myco-heterotrophism, in that all orchids begin life as myco-heterotrophs.

Orchid seeds contain no endosperm*. In order to germinate, they must obtain nutrients from fungi, and so an orchid seed cannot start growing unless it lands where a suitable fungus lives. After successful germination, the orchids get along photosynthesizing and such like most other plants, which exceptions like the Coralroots.

*I explained endosperm in this post. (The post may contain a minor error, highlighted by Enel in the comments, which I haven’t yet had opportunity to recheck. The post should otherwise be pretty solid.) Interestingly, horticulturalists are able stimulate orchid seed-germination without fungi, using nutrient-rich gels. Most orchids, BTW are epiphytes; I assume they get their start from fungi growing on trees.

So Coralroots, and other adult-myco-heterotrophic orchids, can be considered almost neotenous in the sense that they retain the seedling lifestyle into adulthood.

Anyway, cool plant. I learned something from the error.


IMG_6556 I mentioned earlier that I’m in San Diego this week, here for my company’s annual user conference. I’ve been doing this conference for 9 years now, and I’ve done blog posts the last two years related to various tree-hunting adventures I’ve worked in on the side. This year’s conference, for reasons I can’t get into here, will most certainly be my last. I didn’t make it up to the mountains this time, but I made it to the beach.

Last Wednesday I spent the day in my company’s Ft. Myers, Florida office, my 3rd trip there in as many months. On neither previous trip did I ever see the ocean; it was too far, not enough time, etc. But recent events got me thinking that I’d never been to a US beach on the Gulf of Mexico, and that if I didn’t go soon, it might be the case that such a visit may not be possible again in my lifetime*. So at 6:30, when I finally wrapped things up at the office, I jumped in the rental car and headed West.

*I’m talking of course about the BP spill. Though it looks like it might be resolved, there were a few weeks where I wondered if might be uncapped for years…

IMG_6510 It was 7:30PM when I arrived at Ft. Myers beach, still warm and humid, but the sun low enough that I could walk comfortably across the beach parking lot barefoot. When I reached the sand, it was the softest I’d ever felt beneath my toes. Fine, white, almost talc-like. About 20 feet from the water the sand turned slightly damp, and hard, like pavement. I could see a couple of tracks where bicyclists had passed easily. It was unlike any sand I’d ever walked on.

IMG_6508 When I touched the water I almost laughed. Warm, almost bath-like, if it had been any hotter out it would’ve been unpleasant. I waded in and was pleased to find that the baby-soft sand continued out underwater. I waded out probably 50 feet to waist-deep, then dove in. I floated around on my back for 15 or so minutes, watching the sun grow fat, low and orange. I mused that 2 rather crappy things- an oil spill and work travel to South Florida in July- had somehow led to me experiencing this totally cool beach, which I’d otherwise likely never have sought out.

IMG_6591 Monday I was in San Diego with a few hours to kill. Again in a rental car, I pulled off I-5 on La Jolla Blvd. As I’ve mentioned previously, I was born in La Jolla (though have no memory of it) and over the years have stopped by there from time to time. I ate a sandwich overlooking the cove and the underwater park, thinking wistfully that I should’ve brought along a swimsuit, or figured out where to get some snorkel gear, or maybe even do a dive. I gawked at the Sea Lions for a bit*.

*Also worth a future post. I’m absolutely fascinated by the evolutionary paths of marine creatures with terrestrial ancestors, and especially by the apparent “in-between-ness” of pinnipeds.

IB Spectrum[4] Then I sat and stared for a bit, thinking about changes over the past year, and of those coming in the year ahead, while watching the passing flocks of pelicans*. Their flight seemed to hint at patterns I couldn’t quite catch, like whispers in the rustling of aspen leaves.

*Which I’ve mentioned in Utah, Mexico and now California. Need to do a post on them too.

I took the slow route back down to the city, IMG_6593hugging the beach. In the honky-tonk sprawl along Mission Beach, I passed a shop advertising cheap swimsuits. 10 minutes later I was walking barefoot on sand, this time beige and coarse-grained. The water was cold, probably 65F, and not especially inviting, but it may be a while before I’m on a Southern California beach again. I tucked my head and dove into my second ocean in 5 days.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Idaho Vacation Part 2: The Weird Flowers of the Lochsa Valley

20 years ago a girlfriend and I quit our jobs in Massachusetts and spent the summer traveling around the Western US and Canada looking for the best place to live.

Tangent: Leading up to the trip, we did all sorts of research, reading stuff like Places Rated Almanac and just about every “Best Places to Live” article we could get our hands on. Even today, 20 years later, I always end up clicking/browsing links to those “best Places” articles, even though I can’t stand ~99% of them. Here are my 2 big complaints:

First, most of them really go out of their way to be geographically diverse, like the editors are suiting around and saying, “OK, so we got Eugene, OR, Burlington, VT and Santa Fe, NM. We need something from the Midwest. How about Pierre, South Dakota?” So there are always like 3 or 4 places in the middle of BF nowhere and you’re like WTF? Is some poor sap really going to read this and pick up and move to freaking Pierre??

Second, they love to include outdoor towns like Bend, Oregon or Ketchum, Idaho, or Telluride, Colorado, where the 2 career choices are a) Destitute Ski Bum/Stoner/Espresso Bar Barista or b) Freaking Bazillionaire Who Buys $5M Second Homes. But the for remaining ~9X% of us who work for actual companies and have to spend less than $5M on a home, these aren’t even “Places to Live”, much less “Best Places to Live.”

And third (OK so I guess I have 3 complaints, not 2) every one of these articles includes Portland, Oregon. OK, we get it already- Portland’s a great place to live- it’s affordable, has real jobs and plenty of bike paths and organic markets and homeless shelters to assuage our Liberal Guilt. How about these articles just say, “Hey, move to Oregon already- it’s probably way better than whatever dump you live in…”

Later in the trip, we crossed back into the US from Canada, and zig-zagged our way South down the Idaho Panhandle. In doing so, we found ourselves- largely by accident- camped along the Lochsa River. Over a couple of days we camped in what I remember as being one of the most beautiful forests I’ve ever seen and hiked to the loveliest hot springs I’ve ever visited. Ever since, I’ve been meaning to get back up to the Lochsa.

But the Lochsa isn’t particularly convenient to the places I’ve lived since, and years have stretched into decades. Finally this year we planned a vacation where we could reach it. But as we drove North I was apprehensive. Sometimes places we remember so fondly for so long aren’t quite what we remember. What if it were not-so-great, and I’d dragged the family all this way North*, instead of staying around Stanley a few more days?

*The drive from Stanley to Lolo Pass takes the better part of a day. Even though they’re not all that far apart as the crow flies, central Idaho is dominated by the massive, road-less, Selway-Bitterroot and Frank Church-River Of No Return wilderness areas, necessitating circuitous, indirect routes between the Northern and Southern portions of the state. Several hours into the drive, as we inched our way through the endless road construction in Montana’s Bitteroot Valley, I heard a text beep through on my phone. Assuming it was a work-related thing, I ignored it. An hour or so later I checked my texts when we stopped at Lolo Pass. It was from AW, who, while sitting next to me at the time, had texted, “where the f**k are going??”

IMG_6350 I needn’t have worried. The forests of the Lochsa, and the hot springs we hiked to, were every bit as wonderful and lovely as I remembered. And upon our arrival, now knowing a bit about Western forests, I realized why: The Lochsa Valley is a stunning Eastward extension of the Columbian Forest.

I explained the Columbian Forest last summer when we visited Glacier National Park, and you can check out that post for the full story, but the quickie summary is that in parts of Northern Idaho, Western Montana, Southern BC & Alberta, the Northwest storm tracks carry enough precipitation far enough inland to create a forest that is in many ways more Pac-Northwest than Rocky Mountains in species and character.

CFForestMap4 Along the Lochsa, we camped and hiked amongst Western Red Cedars, Western Hemlocks, Western White Pines and Grand Firs, in addition to Lodgepoles, Douglas Firs and Ponderosas. It was reminiscent of our hike to Avalanche Lake, but extended for miles and miles.

IMG_6369 Which brings me to he first really weird* thing about Missoula, Montana, the closest sizeable “city”. Imagine if you lived in Salt Lake, and the Wasatch was there and all that, but if you drove up over Parley Summit, or OK, maybe a little further- like to Kamas- that all of a sudden, the forest and the vegetation suddenly switch and be totally different, like something from Western Washington or Oregon. Wouldn’t that be totally freaky? Well, that’s exactly the deal with Missoula. You scoot around, hiking or biking in the hills around town and it’s more or less standard Rocky Mountain stuff (with a few extras, like Western Larch higher up.) IMG_6446 But you drive just 35-40 minutes Southwest over Lolo Pass (pic left), and it’s like you pass into a whole other state. Well, OK that’s a bad example, because you actually do drive into another state- the pass sits on the border between Montana and Idaho. But the point is that for most of us in the Intermountain West, if we want to stroll amongst wet, damp, Northwesty-style Cedar-Hemlock forest, we have to drive or fly for several hundred miles. In Missoula, it’s just 40 minutes over the hill.

*Actually, the really weird thing about Missoula is that Colin Meloy, lead singer/songwriter for the Decemberists, is from there. I know I shouldn’t be judgmental, but it throws me for a loop that the mind behind this rather cosmopolitan-sounding band, who sings of sailing ships to South Australia , Greek nymphs and French Legionnaires, hails from some hick town in Western Montana. (OK, yes, I know he’s actually from Helena, and just went to school in Missoula, but really that just kind of emphasizes my point…) Yes, I know Missoula is cosmopolitan for Montana, but…

Something I’ve always thought to do when passing through Missoula is spend a few hours locating the various spots mentioned in the “Apology Song”, like the Orange Street Food Farm and the French Town Pond, and… well I guess it’s just 2 places really. But I never get around to it.

Over the next 2 days, from our campsite-base on the Lochsa, we hiked and explored through forests, along creeks, and to hot springs. The trees were lovely, as I knew from last summer up in Glacier. But as I paid more attention, I noticed that practically everything was different, and the Lochsa Valley was filled with all sorts of things completely absent on the other side of the hill, including several of the most interesting and unusual wildflowers I’ve yet come across.

Weird Flower #1 – Stamens as Petals

IMG_6422 Framing the entrance to our campsite were stands of this bloom, with its distinctive green center and super-narrow white petals. It’s False Bugbane, Trautvetteria caroliniensis, (pic left) and it’s a great example of yet another way to be a flower.

Side Note: We camped at White Sands Campground, which was our favorite of the several upper Lochsa campgrounds. It’s small, set about a mile away from the highway, and the sites (7 of them, all with river access) are too small to accommodate large RVs. Here’s a quick clip of the river from our campsite at dusk.

Jerry Johnson CG was our least favorite- treeless and hot, in full view of the highway. Wendover was our second favorite, followed by Whitehouse. Powell was also a nice campground, but dominated by obscenely-sized RVs.

False Bugbane is a member of Ranunculuceae, the Buttercup family, and you may notice the strong resemblance of the green, ovule-packed center to that of Utah Buttercup which we saw back in early June up on Flying Dog. But the narrow, visually-striking “petals” are something else entirely- they’re stamens. False Bugbane has no petals, but the stamens have assumed the function of petals, presumably visually attracting pollinators and bearing pollen-filled anthers; this guy’s stamens do double-duty.

Extra Detail: False Bugbane occurs in both Western and Eastern North America (but not in between.) In the East it’s called Carolina Bugbane. The name comes from it’s resemblance and structural similarities to- yes, that’s right- the actual real Bugbane, flowers of the genus Actaea, another member of the Buttercup family, a plant sometimes known as Baneberry. Acatea is full of cardiogenic toxins which can cause fast and serious problems if ingested. The berries are the most poisonous part of the plant (hence the name) and have killed people- especially children- who’ve eaten them. Actaea is closely related to Aconitum, the genus of our old, deadly-toxic-but-beautiful friend from last summer, Western Monkshood.

False Bugbane Closeup False Bugbane does have sepals however, 4 of them, white, which you can see highlighted in the photo below. As new flowers prepare to bloom, the stamens are completely enclosed in a sphere formed by the 4 close sepals. As they open, they liberate the much-longer stamens, which quickly eclipse them.

IMG_6376 The next morning we hiked up to Jerry Johnson hot springs, an easy hike through cathedral-like groves of Western Red Cedar, the sunlight gently filtering down to the open forest floor. The hot springs are probably the nicest I’ve visited anywhere- just as wonderful as I remembered.

Extra Detail: I explained how hot springs work in this post, which you can check out if you’re interested. IMG_6370There are several hot springs along side draws off the Lochsa, and we hiked to another- Weir Creek- the next day. Though many of the hot springs are worth visiting, Jerry Johnson- although the most popular- is probably also the best, not just for ease of access, but because the use of the area is more closely-regulated- no use after dark, no camping- which keeps trash, graffiti and abuse down to a minimum.

Weird Flower #2 – Leaves as Petals

Bunchberry3 The forest floor alongside the trail, though relatively open, supported a number of lovely blooms. Particularly interesting was this one, Bunchberry, Cornus Canadensis(pic left).

DISCLAIMER: The Bunchberry photos in this post aren’t mine*. Though I saw several blooming patches alongside the trail, all were slightly post-peak, and I kept thinking, “Oh not yet, I’ll see a better one…” which of course I never did. The photos used came from here and here.

*Lame as my photos are, they’re a (admittedly odd) point of pride for me in this whole project, the point of which isn’t just to blog about cool stuff, but to blog (and therefore learn about) the cool stuff in I come across in my life..

Bunchberry is a low forb, growing only to about 6 or 8 inches in height. But the flowers and leaves are basically the same as you might have seen on trees, specifically Sign CaptionDogwoods (family = Cornaceae.) Bunchberry is basically a teeny-shrub-sized Dogwood. But that’s not the really interesting thing about it. No, the really interesting thing about bunchberry- actually the two really interesting things- both have to do with its flowers.

Bunchberry is another flower where things are not quite what they seem. At first glance it’s a white, 4-petaled flower. But when you get down and look at it closely, you’ll notice 2 things. First, the “petals” are of very similar shape and form to the green leaves underneath. That’s because they’re not petals; they’re leaves. They second thing you’ll notice is that the little “dots” comprising the center of the “flower” are actually each little miniature flowers themselves.

Bunchberry Caption So what you’re looking at in a Bunchberry bloom isn’t a flower, but rather a “bunch” of very tiny flowers framed by 4 specially-adapted, petal-like leaves. The leaves, BTW are partially persistent (evergreen); some number endure throughout the winter. Bunchberry2 Come late summer/early Fall, the Bunchberry “flower”’s true nature is revealed as the fertilized micro-flowers each develop into their own berry, so that a single, visible, macro- “flower” appears to develop into a bunch of berries (pic right, nope not mine either), giving the plant its common name. Also BTW, the berries are edible, though each contains a large, crunchy seed.

But the teensy-miniature “micro-flowers” of the Bunchberry blossom are fascinating in their own right- they “explode”.

Each little flower has elastic petals with springy filaments cocked underneath. Attached to these filaments are tint containers holding pollen. When a visiting insect (bee, moth fly) alights on one of the petals, it flips backward, releasing the filaments, and ejecting the pollen, all within half a millisecond, making this one of the fastest known instances of motion by any plant*.

*To get it on film requires filming at ~10,000 frames/second. Here’s a link to an awesome video of a Bunchberry flower exploding.

False Bugbane and Bunchberry are both fascinating in that they demonstrate fundamentally different architectures and approaches to being a flower, in each case leverage alternative anatomical structures to serve the function of petals in signaling pollinators. But the third Lochsa flower in this post is weirder still.

Weird Flower #3 – No Chlorophyll

IMG_6380 On the hike back, I caught sight of a stand of low (maybe 1’ high) pinkish-reddish stalks in the shade of a Cedar grove. My heart quickened with that fun, familiar sensation of finally seeing something in the real world that I’ve seen before only in guidebooks- Pinedrops!

Pinedrop, Pterospora andromedeae, is a weird, fascinating plant. It’s a member of the Heath Family*, Ericaceae. It’s myco-heterotrophic, meaning that it’s dependent on a fungal partner for survival. Pinedrop isn’t green because it isn’t photosynthetic; it obtains its nutrients via its fungal partners.

*I noticed that its downward-pointing, bell-shaped flowers are vaguely structurally similar to those of Manzanita, another Heath family member we’ve looked at in passing. (Though I realize now I’ve never done a proper post on it, which I really ought to correct, seeing as it’s so common in mainly of the places I frequent.)

Extra Detail: P. andromedeae does contain trace amounts of chlorophyll, but at a level of something like one-millionth that of most photosynthetic plants, give or take an order of magnitude. It’s believed that this trace chlorophyll is a relict of its photosynthetic ancestry, as are the scattered scales along its stalks, thought to be vestigial leaves.

Pinedrop Expand-O Many of the details of the nature of the relationship between P. andromedeae and its fungal partners are still unclear. In fact, much about this plant is unclear. We don’t know for instance, what pollinates it (though the shape of the flowers suggests Bumblebees.) We don’t know whether it’s perennial, or long-term monocarpic. (A monocarpic plant is one that flowers, seeds and then dies.) We don’t know how often (which years) it blooms. We don’t even know for sure whether or not it reproduces vegetatively via root-cloning, which sounds like an easy enough thing to check out, but as will see in a moment, is a bit of a, er, “tangle” in the case of Pinedrop.

IMG_6387So. What do we know about Pinedrop? First and foremost, we know that it only exists in the company of one of several species of fungus of the genus Rhizopogon. A Pinedrop seed will only germinate in soil where Rhizopogon already is growing. Without Rhizopogon, a Pinedrop seed will never, ever (so far as is known) germinate. But what’s fascinating about this requirement is that the seed does not have to be in contact with the fungal hyphae*; the fungus just has to be in the soil close by**, which implies that some as yet undiscovered compound or chemical produced by or associated with the fungus acts as the germination-trigger.

*See this post and this post for basic info on fungus and its structure.

**Exactly how close I wasn’t able to find out for this post.

Extra Detail: There’s currently only one accepted species of Pinedrop. But there’s some evidence that there are distinct lineages of Pinedrops, each associated with only a single species- of subset of species- of Rhizopogon. In Western North America it may be that there two lineages of Pinedrops. In the East, things appear to be more complicated*.

*Complicating things further, some Pinedrop seeds have germinated in the lab in response to Rhizopogon species they’re not associated with in the wild.

Twins Pinedrops cut But the fungus doesn’t just stimulate the plant; it appears that the plant may also stimulate the fungus. When a Pinedrop seed does germinate, the fungus rapidly grows around the roots, soon completely covering them in hyphae, such that the roots of the plant hardly come into direct contact with the soil. Pinedrops occur in stands of fewer than a dozen stalks to over 500, but underground beneath the stalks is a tangled mess of roots and hyphae such that botanists have been unable to tell which/whether stalks are connected to one another, and whether or not a given stand is a clone. (Genetic analysis could resolve the issue. To my knowledge, as of 2002 no such analysis had been conducted.)

So the fungus encases the roots, and the plant gets its nutrients via the fungus. Is it getting them from the fungus, or through the fungus? Here’s where things get really interesting.

Rhizopogon is a mycorrhizal fungus, which we looked at previously and have a mutualistic relationship with many trees and shrubs, including Pines and Oaks. The hyphae of these fungi serve as virtual extensions of root networks, allowing the plant to access water over a much greater area than it could do with roots alone. The fungi in turn feed off of carbohydrates manufactured by photosynthesis and delivered to the roots via the plant’s vascular system. A Rhizopogon “occurrence”* is connected to the root network of a tree, specifically a Pinaceae, such as Pine or Fir.

Myco-pinedrop So the Pinedrop isn’t just connected to the fungus; it’s connected- via the fungus- to the tree. Research with radiotracing** back in the 1960s showed between trees and fungally connected Dutchman’s Pipe, Monotropa hypopithys, another non-chlorophyllous plant that is closely-related to Pinedrop, showed that material does move via these fungal networks from tree to myco-heterotroph.

*I can’t really say “body” as we discussed in this post.

**Using a radioisotope to track the movement of a substance through a natural systems (cells, tissues).

So it’s not clear what Pinedrop is taking from the tree, what it’s taking from the fungus, or what, if anything, the fungus is getting out of the deal. Pinedrop is a weird and fascinating plant with a biology and lifecycle that still leaves much to be discovered.

Extra Detail: Pinedrop also occurs in the Northeast, though much less commonly, and in a patchier distribution, from Wisconsin to the maritime provinces. In New England it occurs in just a couple of isolated locations, though historic records indicate that it was previously more widespread. There seems to be some possible correlation in the East with it range and areas that were glaciated during the most recent ice age. I haven’t found any reference to a similar glacial-distribution I the West, but I know that the floor of the Lochsa Valley- where we encountered the plant- was ice-free during the Wisconsin Glaciation.

IMG_6395 The Lochsa Valley features many other plants, such as St. Johns Wort and Ginger, that are absent on the other side of the pass. I could probably spend a summer in the valley just blogging about the wonderful things growing there. But vacation was running out, and after 2 days in the valley we packed up and headed back over the pass to Missoula.

Bonus Detail: There’s actually, according to sources I’ve read, and a helpful ranger in the Orofino office, an even better, more fantastic, more Northwesty-like example of Columbian Forest in the Idaho Panhandle, the Aquarius Natural Research Area, which lies to the Northwest of the Lochsa and North of Orofino, and which was completely unknown to botanists before the late 1960s. I’d hoped to visit the area this year, but won’t make it there before next summer, by which time I plan to have completed this project. If you find yourself in or near the Panhandle, contact the Orofino USFS office for info.

Next Up: The Second Weird Thing About Missoula.

Note About Sources: Much of the Pinedrop info for this post came from the New England Plant Conservation Program’s Conservation and Research Plan for Pterospora andromedea. Much of the Bunchberry info came from the helpful website In The Garden of Paghat the Ratgirl*. A helpful source for False Bugbane was

*Hey, I didn't name it. Or her.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Idaho Vacation Part 1: Trampy Flowers, Running Bears and Glacial Moraines

I’m back. We had a wonderful vacation up in Idaho. As usual, returning home from a busy week there are about a zillion things I want to blog about and I can’t possibly get to them all, so this first post will be a bit of a hodgepodge. And since I left off last post blogging about a lake, that’s where I’ll start this week.

IMG_6244 Last Summer on our way home from Glacier National Park we spent a night in Stanley, Idaho. Before driving on home the next day, we did a hike up the ridge on the West side of Redfish Lake, through a sunny, open Lodgepole-Douglas Fir forest, with beautiful views of the deep-blue mountain lake. After the hike we stopped off at Redfish Lodge, where we swam, lay on the beach, and ate burgers in big comfy loungers, gazing at the jagged spires of the Sawtooth Mountains, before heading home. Getting back in the car AW and I asked each other: Why don’t we just come here for vacation next year?

So that’s what we did.

IMG_6235 Redfish Lake lies in the Stanley Basin at ~6,500 feet at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s about 4 ½ miles long, ¾ miles across, and nearly 400 feet deep. It’s older than Navajo Lake, but not all that old; it was formed at the end of the last ice age, when the moraine left by the retreating glacier blocked the downstream flow of the creek to the Salmon River. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

While we were at the lodge we spent our days swimming, paddling, hiking and biking. One day we took the lodge’s boat shuttle to the far end of the lake to do some hiking. Here’s a clip from the return that gives you a feel for the surrounding terrain around the South end of the lake.

From the dock we hiked up to the tope of the small gorge where Redfish Lake Creek blasts through on its way down to fill the lake…

And then stopped by the small, aptly-named, Lily Pond for lunch. IMG_6250We looked at Water-Lilies last summer, when we checked out the lovely Fragrant Water Lily on 5-Kezar Ponds in Maine, but the water-lilies- or Pond Lilies- you see out here in the West look much different.

There are seven genera of Water-Lilies, or Nymphaeacae, in the world, of which only 2 are native to North America. Nymphaea, the genus to which The Fragrant Water Lilies of Maine belong, is one, and the other is Nuphar. IMG_6253The Redfish Pond Lilies are Nuphar lutea, Yellow Water-Lily*. The 2 genera are closely-related to each other, but their flowers very different. In the Fragrant Water-Lily the many petals of the primitive, magnolia-ish flowers are just that- petals. In the Yellow - and other Nuphar- Water-lilies, the yellow “petals” are actually the sepals. The small delicate petals are contained within (where I couldn’t get a shot without wading out into the muck.)

*Just one of several common names. Cow Lily is another, as is Spatterdock. Confusingly, some sources give the specific name as luteum.

IMG_6251 For a while Water-lilies bugged me. As we saw in last summer’s water-lily post, Nymphaeacae is very nearly one of the most basal lines of angiosperms, or more distantly related to other flowering plants than just about any other angiosperm we’ve looked at in this blog. And Water-lilies are some of the most ancient angiosperms; they’ve been around for something like 130 million years.

Extra Detail: And there’s much about them that seems “primitive” from an angiosperm perspective. The example I used in last year’s post was their Magnolia-like flowers. Here’s an even cooler one that I learned since: Their endosperm is chromosomally diploid, unlike the endosperm of almost all other types of flowering plants, whose endosperms are triploid. This characteristic has been highlighted by some researchers to suggest a sort of “missing link” status for Nymphaeacae in the evolution of Angiosperms.

I explained endosperm and the chromosomal mechanics of angiosperm reproduction way back in the “How Angiosperms Work” post 2 years ago, and if you’re not clear what endosperm is, or why a diploid endosperm is unusual or significant, rather than re-explain it all here, I’ll just point you back to that post*.

*Which, BTW, I still believe was my best and most worthwhile post in the course of this entire project. No one else thinks so, I’m pretty sure, but I guess that’s the way it is with a labor-of-love type of project such as this…

KSFTree cut[4] OK, so Water-lilies are ancient, they’re in their own group, not very closely-related to anything else. And since they’ve thrived for so long, all over the world, apparently they have a good schtick going on- growing a leaf as a floating pad seems to work well in still waters. So if that’s the case, why are all Water-lilies in this one little family? Why hasn’t water-liliness evolved over and over again, like C4 or CAM or thorns or wind-pollination or just about anything else cool in the plant world?

Floating Pondweed1 But as it turns out, the lily-pad schtick has evolved multiple times, and a great example is Floating Pondweed, Potamogeton natans, (pic right, not mine) an aquatic angiosperm that has 2-3” long floating, pad-like leaves. P. natans is common in still or slow-moving waters throughout much of Western North America. (Several other Potamotegon species also have floating leaves.) Interestingly, Pondweed is a monocot*, and as you look at it, you’ll notice the leaves are somewhat long and narrow for a “lily pad.”

*Don’t know what that is? Got a post on that too. Not as good as the How Angiosperms Work post, but still a passable primer. Man, it is like I have a post for everything. BTW, the monocot thing was particularly interesting to me because back when I was first noodling on Nymphaeacae- and before I knew about Pondweed- I wondered if a possible reason for (my erroneously presumed) lack of convergent lily pad evolution might be that so many aquatic or quasi-aquatic/wetland plants that grow by still waters are monocots- like rushes, sedges, cattails, etc. Could a leaf that grew from the base (monocot) rather than the edges (dicot) be less somehow suited to growing out as a floating pad? But apparently a monocot leaf manages to grow out as a pad just fine, as Pondweed shows. This BTW is the kind of crap I’m always thinking about when I’m pretending to be listening to coworkers, etc. It’s a miracle I am able to hold a steady job.

One Hot Flower

IMG_6067We saw plenty of terrestrial flowers as well. Sego Lilies abounded in open meadows, and blooming lupines and penstemmons were ubiquitous across the Lodgepole forest floor. But the clear stunner of the week was this beauty- Aquilegia formosa, Red Columbine. I mentioned this looker back 2 years ago when first blogging about Columbines, and though I’d seen it a while back in California, I’d never seen it close to home until last week. KanyonKris, IMG_6099 who visited the area a few days before us, provided detailed location/directions to a stand outside of Hailey, and later in the week I ran into several stands around Stanley. This flower, which appears only in damp, shady spots, has the elegance and form of the Colorado Columbine, but with a shocking, almost garish, color scheme such that when you spot one you find your eye drawn to it again and again. After a time you think, “I really should look at some of the other flowers around…”, but you keep sneaking glances back at the Red Columbine. It’s almost like flower-porn.

Tangent: Red Columbine almost makes me feel sorry for other flowers. You know how if you’re a woman, and you’re going to a party, you think a bit about what you’re going to wear. And so you think about the event, and who’s going to be there, IMG_6100because you want to look nice, but you don’t want to look all showy or inappropriate or whatever. So you pick out a nice outfit and you go to the party and most of the other women there are dressed more or less like you, but then this one woman shows up who’s totally taken it up a notch and it dressed totally to the nines in this killer eye-catching outfit, and suddenly you feel you way underdressed and you’re kicking yourself for not picking a snappier outfit. That’s how I imagine other flowers would feel around Red Columbine. If, you know, they could feel*.

*And if they could feel- and talk- then I imagine they’d whisper all catty-like with all the other schleppy-looking flowers about what a shameless, attention-grabbing tramp that Red Columbine is…

Yellow Columbine, A. flavescens, grows around Stanley as well, and are also lovely IMG_6306and only slightly less eye-catching. They favor similar moist, shady spots as their scarlet cousins, and where the 2 occur together they readily hybridize, with several intermediate shades often appearing in the same stand. Here’s one such hybrid clump, with soft pink sepals, along the Potato Mountain Loop, a few miles North of Stanley.

Side Note: Potato Mountain was probably my favorite ride in the Stanley area, and it is KanyonKris’ as well. The route follows 2 beautiful creeks for much of its length, and crosses a couple of lovely wide meadows. Here’s one of them:

IMG_6308 The forests around Stanley are, as I mentioned, overwhelmingly Lodgepole Pine, but the second most common tree is Douglas Fir. While Lodgepoles are rather thin and spindly, the Douglas Firs can occasionally produce a whopper, as in this shot here (pic right) also along the Potato Mountain loop.

I snuck out in the early mornings for some great mtn bike rides. Wednesday morning I started early up the Williams Creek Trail, which starts out climbing up gentle, sandy glacial moraine (to which we’ll return shortly) and then gradually works its way up into the foothills of the White Cloud Mountains, which bound the Stanley Basin to the East.


Side Note: I had an awesome Black Bear* sighting on the climb up, rounding a corner and spooking one just 15 feet ahead. Unfortunately the helmet-cam wasn’t rolling**, and by the time I drew, turned on and clicked the camera, it was a ways off. I am telling you- bears run fast (especially downhill).

Running Bear *Yup. Did a post on them too, and their evolution and natural history in North America, which you can check out here.

**I know, I know, I’m a dope. I should just run it all the time. But 99.9% of climbing footage is like watching paint dry…

I did this same ride back in the late 90’s, and had heard that a large portion of it had since burned. Sure enough, 5 miles up the trail, I entered the burn.

5 years on, there aren’t any new living trees to speak of, and in that sense the surroundings could seem a bit desolate, but the bright, sunny floor was exploding with life, with all sorts of flowers and grasses lining the small brook alongside the trail. Though actually, most of the “grasses” lining the brook weren’t grasses- they were sedges.

What’s a Sedge?

IMG_6196 Grasses (Poaceae), Sedges (Cyperaceae) and Rushes (Juncaceae) are all families within the order Poales, sometimes called the Grass Alliance*, a group which also includes Cattails (Typhaceae) , as well as Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) (which we saw last year down in Costa Rica) and a whole host of other things you never heard of. Poales are monocots, of course, and are thought to have originally evolved- where else?- in Gondwanaland**. If you know IMG_6177 Sedges (pic right) at all, you probably know them as wetlands “grasses” or as weeds; unlike grasses, which have played a huge role in human history (wheat, rice, corn, barley, etc.) the most significant in sedge in human history has probably been Papyrus, and the only one I can think of that any of us are likely to consume nowadays is the Water Chestnut, which is the corm of Eleocharis dulcis, a sedge native to China. (So no, it’s not a “nut”.)

*This would totally be the Best Name Ever for a band.

**Most likely Western Gondwanaland, so what is now South America or Africa.

Grasses are the most numerous of the Poales, with somewhere around ~9-10,000 species worldwide, but Sedges are the second most numerous, with ~5,500 species. They grow together, along with Rushes, and it can be hard to sort out which is which. There’s an old ditty that can help you remember: Sedges have Edges, Rushes are Round, Grasses are Hollow... or something like that.

That’s probably an oversimplification, but most of the time it’ll steer you straight. The vast majority of sedges have stems that are triangular in cross-section, while that of a rush is circular. Grass blades are usually hollow and sort of ovaloid in cross-section.

Sedge Stem ExpandO The three also have rather different flowers and “fruits” (achenes). Sedges usually flower in a spiky-looking head. And if you look real close you’ll see that each little teeny flow has 2 long stamens projecting out.

Sedge Flower ExpandO This Sedge belongs to the genus Carex, probably the most numerous and one of the most common Sedge genera around. My best suspect is Norway Sedge, C. norvegica, but it might be one of a couple other Carex species as well.

The major Poales families diverged long ago. About 110 million years ago a group branched off that would give rise to both Cattails and Bromeliads (which in turn split from one another some ~5 or so million years later). Not long after the branch that would lead to Grasses split from that which gave rise to Sedges and Rushes (which in turn split from one another roughly ~70 MYA.) It’s interesting to think about these families and where they grow today. Bromeliads are tropical, and largely epiphytic. Cattails, Rushes and Sedges stick to moist areas by or on water, and it’s thought that this was the ancestral environment of Poales. Grasses, though they’ve been around a long time, were similarly restricted in range, occurring mainly in moist and boggy areas, until around 15 MYA, when they suddenly seemed to figure out how to thrive in semi-arid conditions, giving rise to modern grasslands. Alone of the major Poales familes, Poaceae broke out, and today, well, grass is, well, everywhere, but that wasn’t the way things were for probably 80 or 90% of the time grasses have been around.

Some Geology (and some guessing)

We left the lodge Thursday morning, and I rose early* that day to sneak in one last ride, this time circling Redfish Lake**.

*BTW, even in summer in Stanley, it’s typically ~35F at dawn. By 11AM it’s >70F, so dressing for dawn mtb rides takes some care.

**If you do this loop, do it clockwise. Counterclockwise involves an extended, tiring hike-a-bike.

I mentioned earlier that Redfish Lake was formed when a glacial moraine blocked the creek’s downstream flow. This much is certain. Glacial moraines are deposits of unconsolidated glacial debris- typically rock, sand, soil and/or gravel moved along by glaciers, and which are left behind when those glaciers recede. But that’s only part of the story of the lake.

IMG_6159 The Stanley Valley features 2 sets of moraines between the jagged peaks of the Sawtooths and the White Clouds and the valley floor. The lower, “out-front” hills, like the one you start rolling up when you climb Williams Creek, are debris left from the most recent ice age, the Wisconsin Glaciation, which ended ~10,000 YA. But behind and above these Wisconsin moraines lie a higher and older set of moraines, left from the previous glaciation, and more like 100K years old. The modern Stanley Valley is a mosaic of glacial scarring and debris.

I haven’t found a detailed geological description of the lake basin, but as I biked and hike around parts of the lake on previous days, I paid attention to the surrounding terrain, rocks and soils. Here’s my best guess as to what’s what…

IMG_6123 At the (clockwise) start of the trail, in Sockeye Campground, you’re on Wisconsin- or let’s call it “tier 1” glacial moraine. The grade is mellow, the soil a coarse-grained sand, and larger rocks fairly few and far between. After about a mile, the trail starts climbing stiffly , switch-backing its way East up onto the high ridge bordering the Eastern shore. At this point, rocks- mostly coarse (high-traction) chunks of granite- are everywhere, and along the ridgeline you’re riding across them almost continuously. My guess is that this Eastern ridge is a moraine- let’s call it “tier 2” from that previous glaciation, dating back 100K years.

Redfish Lake Geo Route Map As you descend back to the shoreline following the trail South, the soil and rock are the same, and I’m thinking it’s still tier 2 all the way to the lake’s Southern end, where the trail crosses the creek and the mouth of a the broad glacially-scoured valley.

Turning North and up, the trail climbs up onto the West ridge, and here again, all seems rocky and solidly tier 2. But here’s the interesting thing: On the way up to the ridge, the soil becomes- for a while- sandy, and relatively rock-free*, as it switchbacks its way up onto the ridge, and I wonder if this portion of the trail actually traverses tier 1 moraine laid down over the existing tier 2 moraine by the Wisconsin glaciers?

*Which is what makes this ride so much better going clockwise…

The trails rolls down along the spine of the ridge, offering spectacular views of the lake, almost too brilliant and deep blue and pure to be quite real in the bright sunshine, like something out of a dream.

Eventually, several hundred feet below, and less than a mile from the ending trailhead, the trail crosses back onto sandy tier 1 moraine, which it follows down to pavement. It’s a beautiful, if challenging, ride, and it’s even more wondrous as you think about what may have happened to make this place what it is over the past several dozen millennia.

Back at the cabin, we packed up the minivan*. The Stanley Basin in summer is about as close to heaven as it gets in the American West, and we all agreed to return again next summer.

*AW has a new minivan, which is awesome, and will be the subject of a future tangent. Oh sure, you are smirking and acting all cool because I like minivans, but that is only because you are young and naïve and do not yet understand that which is Truly Way Cool In The World, which minivans most certainly are, and about which I will set you straight in said tangent.

Packed and ready, we got in the van and headed out. But not for home. We continued North.

Next Up: The First Of Two Really Weird Things About Missoula, Montana

Note About Sources: Evolutionary and Phylogenetic info about Poales came mainly from Gondwanan Evolution of the Grass Alliance of Families (Poales), Kare Bremer, 2002. As always I used several guides/keys for the plant info, the most helpful of which was Plants of the Rocky Mountains, by Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon and Jim Pojar. Much of the geological info on the Stanley Valley came from the Roadside Geology of Idaho*, by David Alt and Donald Hyndman.

*You’ve probably seen the “Roadside Geology of ….” series of books around in bookstores. Something you should know about them is that they’re authored by a number of different geologists, and so vary considerably in tone, quality, and- frankly- readability. The Idaho edition is outstanding.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bachelor Weekend Part 3: The Strangest Lake

I had one more stop I wanted to make on the way home, so Sunday I was up with Sun and soon rolling down off the Kaibab. Then North into Utah and through Kanab.

Side Note: I stopped in Kanab for gas, and stood outside for a moment checking email on my phone. As I did, I swatted away several Cedar Gnats, thereby disproving my “rule” about them not showing up in town, or else indicating the presence of Junipers within a few hundred feet of town…

Back at Long Valley Junction, I crossed back into the Great Basin, then immediately turned West, following Duck Creek- a tributary of the Sevier River- up onto the densely forested Markagunt Plateau.

IMG_5913 I’ve been referencing the Markagunt now and again for about the past year and a half on this blog. It’s the 3rd and last (for me anyway) of the great Southern plateaus, formed out of the same tilted/faulted ancient lakebed process* that formed its sister plateaus, the Paunsaugunt and Aquarius. On the East side it’s bounded by the Sevier Fault, which separates it from the Paunsaugunt, and on the West by our old friend, the Hurricane Fault, which separates it from the Basin and Range province, and which in fact marks the Western end of the Colorado Plateau. Though similar in many ways to its sisters (flora, hoodoos, spectacular orange cliffs) it’s different in others. For one thing it’s a good bit higher than the Paunsaugunt, and so supports large swathes of Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir that you don’t see on the lower plateau.

*A process which I explained in this post.

Side Note: Another, related, difference is the huge expanses of Spruce-Fir forest which have been decimated by Bark Beetles over the last couple of decades. I’ve blogged about Bark Beetles (Mountain Pine Beetles, Dendroctonus ponderosae) before- over on the Paunsaugunt in fact- but their depredations are far more obvious on the Markagunt. Bark Beetles have caused large-scale Pine and PLT kills all over Western North America*, but the devastation on the Markagunt is the worst I’ve seen in Utah.

*I read a few years back (can’t recall the source) that they’ve taken out a chunk of Lodgepole forest up in BC about the size of Rhode Island.

IMG_5920 And geologically, it’s strewn with evidence of recent volcanic activity, much of it within the last 2,000 years, and you can actually see much of this evidence just driving along the highway, in the form of small lava fields, which look like broken up asphalt parking lots interspersed amongst the aspens and PLTs.

Extra Detail: The past volcanism on the Markagunt is actually more complex than meets the eye. On the higher reaches of the plateau- up around Sydney Peaks above Brian Head for example- the Claron formation is capped by volcanic rock layers dating back over 20 million years (Miocene). In other areas the plateau is capped by much more recent eruptions, only a couple of million years old (Quarternary). These older eruptions produced rock layers thousands of feet thick in places, and constitute a major structural component of the plateau.

But the lava you see on the plateau- the “busted-up parking lots”- is something altogether different. These flows are the result of much more recent eruptions, only within the last 2,000 years, and it is this series of eruptions that will play a starring role in this post.

I love mountain streams, and Duck Creek is a charmer. Here’s a clip from a roadside pullout at around 8,000 feet. (Remember this stream. It will turn out to be important later on in the post.)

I followed Highway 14 up alongside Duck Creek to the turn-off for Navajo Lake, IMG_5902then veered off and down to the Cascade Falls trailhead, along the top of the pink cliffs, marking the edge of the high Plateau. The Virgin River Rim Trail (VRRT) passes here, following the top of the Pink Cliffs (Claron Formation.) I parked here, and started pedaling West and up the VRRT.

The altitude is higher here than yesterday’s ride, about 8,800 feet at the trailhead, and over a couple of miles the trail climbs up to just under 10,000 feet. The forest along the rim is fairly-open Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir mixed with stands of Aspen. Here’s what a typical stretch looks like:

My ride plan was to follow the VRRT West and up along the rim, then down around Navajo Lake and back, which would given me great forest singletrack, some wonderful views to the South, and a close-up view of the lake.

All About Navajo Lake

IMG_5918 Large, natural freshwater lakes are fairly uncommon in the Southwest, and so always worth checking out. But Navajo Lake is particularly interesting. First off, to be clear, it is not entirely natural, but is- like Fish Lake (which Bird Whisperer and I visited last Fall) a natural lake which has been subsequently “enhanced” so as to increase and stabilize the water level. But there was a nice lake there before people messed with it as well.

The lake, which at just over 9,000 feet lies just North of and below the high plateau rim is only 900 years old, and was formed as a result of the most recent series of eruptions, one of which released a lava flow that blocked the downstream/Eastern end of the stream that formerly ran through the valley, backing it up and creating the lake.

Navajo Lake Ride Map Here’s a video that shows everything. Now I know that I show a lot of helmet-cam video and that some of it gets repetitive, and a number of readers, er, blow it off. But this one you need to watch, because in one 3 minute clip, it shows all the geography- and most of the geology I’m describing in this post. What happens is this:

The video starts with me riding open forest alongside the rim at ~10,000 feet. Then, at about 0:30, I dismount, and walk out onto the point. I pan right and left, taking in the sweep of the Pink Cliffs, as well as straight down, giving you a feel for the height and exposure of the point.

VR Zoom Below me, the forested green terrace rolling off into the foreground is the Kolob terrace, which is composed of Cretaceous (65M – 125M years old) rock. In the distance, at about 1:04 (as I raise my camera to snap a photo) you can see Zion Canyon, composed of Jurassic Navajo (~175M years old) sandstone. So get this: we standing on tertiary rock (Claron formation), looking across Cretaceous rock (Kolob Terrace) to Jurassic rock (Zion Canyon). We are looking across about 120 million years of rock!

But wait- the best is yet to come! I return to the bike, remount, and start descending Northward. At 2:31, dead ahead through the trees, you see it- Navajo Lake, 1,000 feet below me.

Side Note: Yes, I know I post a lot of helmet-cam footage. But seriously, do you know anybody who gets more great science out of a helmet-cam clip?

OK, so down, down I went, to and around the upper end of the lake. Here’s what the ride looked like along the North shore of the lake, moving East.

Eventually the trail reaches the Eastern end of the lake and passes over the (now enhanced) lava dam. In this clip I’m riding the Navajo Lake Loop Trail through the lava, and in doing so, riding over rocks less than 1,000 years old.

Botanical Side Note: The white blooms you see in the video are Elderberry (the big bushes) and Columbine. Up close, IMG_5925these Columbines- which seem to be getting along in the middle of a lava field just fine thank you very much- have light pink sepals. I’m always interested to notice how the color of Columbine sepals varies by locale. Not Red Columbine or Yellow Columbine- those are different species, and have totally different color schemes. I’m talking about Colorado Columbine, Aquilegia coerulea.

IMG_5926 When I lived in the Colorado Front Range, Columbines seemed to almost always have light blue sepals. Here in the Wasatch of Northern Utah, they’re almost always white. But the Navajo Lake Columbines all had light pink sepals. The only other place I remember seeing so many pink Columbines is in the Medicine Bow Range of Southern Wyoming.

I rounded the Eastern End of the lake, re-entered the forest, crossed the road, climbed back up to the Rim, and retraced my path back to the trailhead. But here’s what I didn’t do: I never crossed an outlet stream.

Navajo Lake has no obvious visible outlet. And yet it’s not stagnant or brackish; the water’s fresh. How and where does it drain?

Cascade Falls captionBack at the trailhead, another trail leads a short way to Cascade Falls. The Falls, which lie ~1,000 feet below and just South of the Virgin River Rim, burst forth from a hole in the cliff, and are fed by underground lava tubes and fissures that drain Navajo Lake. The Falls are the source of the North Fork of the Virgin River, which subsequently joins with the Virgin, then the Colorado, and eventually the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean.

So there’s something really interesting here. Despite lying North- and on the Great Basin “side” of the Virgin River Rim, the lake is actually part of the Pacific Watershed. Isn’t that freaky?

Not so fast- it’s even freakier. The thing is, not all of the lake’s water drains out through Cascade Falls. Only about 40% of it does. So where does the remaining 60% go?

IMG_5898 It drains into that pretty little stream we drove alongside to get here- Duck Creek*. When we were looking at the creek earlier, we were looking at water that had worked its way over a mile underground through lava tubes before surfacing in the creek. So Navajo Lake is part of the Pacific Watershed, but it’s also part of the Great Basin. It’s both and neither, a hydrological never-never-land.

*How do scientists figure this kind of stuff out? With dyes, apparently.

Navajo Drainage If you drop a cup of water into almost any lake, pond or stream in the world, you know where it will end up. That portion which doesn’t evaporate, get siphoned off, or seep down into an aquifer will eventually end up somewhere- an ocean or an inland playa/saline lake, and you can follow a map and see where that somewhere is. But Navajo Lake is different. The path of every drop of its water is uncertain, and depending on chance, timing, currents and weather, it could wind up in the Pacific Ocean or in the weird desert shallows of Sevier Lake. When you look at Navajo Lake, you’re looking at uncertainty and possibility, something radically different from the relative hydrological determinism of the ordinary world.

After 2 ½ days of riding and exploring, tired but content, I felt I’d gotten my money’s worth out of my Bachelor Weekend. I loaded up the Watchermobile and continued on the highway West, up and over, then down off the Colorado Plateau and into the Great Basin. Down below, as I approached Cedar City through the jumbled canyon marking the Hurricane Fault, it was hot, and I briefly pulled out alongside Coal Creek. In the late afternoon sun I splashed my face and head in the softly flowing water before the long drive home.

Note About Sources: Most of the hydrological info in this post regarding Navajo Lake came from This Land: A Guide to Western National Forests, by Robert Mohlenbrock.

Note About Me: The Watcher Family will be on vacation* up North for a bit, and I’ll be taking a break from posting for about a week and a half.

*Yes, Ray is staying at the house, and I swear he’s getting just meaner and angrier than ever. Don’t even think about it.