Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Aspen Part 2: Polyploidy, Bark and Whispers

I woke up this morning to a sound I haven't heard in Utah for about 2 1/2 months: rain. Normally I love to whine about rainy weather, but after 2+ months I'll take it. It's supposed to continue on/off through the long weekend, with the snow line descending possibly as low as 8,000 feet by tomorrow night. Changes are going to start happening fast.

Since I've been back in town, it's been a good week for wildlife. Here's a Moose shot from Friday morning up in Pinebrook. On the same ride I came across 2 either Coyotes or Kit Foxes (not sure) that were too fast to photograph, and I've had a couple of Porcupine close encounters in the past week as well. And separately, I may have found a new hybrid Gambel/Turbinella Oak up in Jeremy Ranch yesterday. More on that in a future post.

Back to Aspen

Aspen, like Cottonwoods, are dioecious, so plants are either male or female. And as such clones are either male or female as well. (Pando is male.) There’s some evidence (but not absolutely clear) that male clones grow bigger and faster than female clones. There’s also been the suggestion that polyploid Aspen tree/clones grow bigger trunks and leaves than standard diploid Aspen, (See this post for explanation of polyploidy in plants.) but this is even sketchier than the male/female thing. What does seem to be certain is that polyploidy is fairly common in Aspen. In one study of 18 Utah Aspen clones, 14 were found to be diploid (i.e. “normal”), 3 were triploid and 1 was tetraploid. (Diploid/”normal” for an Aspen is 38 chromosomes. Or in genetic language, n=19.)

Cloning, or specifically “suckering” also gives Aspen a weird sort of 9-lives-ish immortality; even when a stand is completely leveled- through, clear-cut, fire or avalanche- the clone is often reborn the following year, in a sea of suckers. In fact, oftentimes you’ll notice that nearly all of the trees in a given clone seem to be of similar age and size; most likely that’s because they’re from suckers that all popped up around the same time, following some significant event.

Tangent: In the Park City area, I’m pretty sure that “significant event” was clear-cutting. Most 19th-century Western mining towns laid waste to surrounding forests to fuel smelters, as I mentioned last week when talking about Pinon in Central Nevada.

Though clones can lives for millennia, individual trees aren’t terribly long-lived. The average tree in Pando is about 130 years old, and the very oldest Aspens are around 300 years old. Very old Aspen can grow up over 4 feet in diameter and over 120 feet high. The biggest Aspen I’ve seen aren’t in the Wasatch, but down South on the high plateaus and ranges (Markagunt, Aquarius, Abajos, La Sals.) (Pic left = an oldie/biggie from an isolated grove on the Paunsaugunt, bike for scale.Yes I know this bike-against-tree photo theme is getting old but what can I say? I come across a lot of big trees by myself and I need something for scale…) The real oldies lose their smooth white bark on their bottom 3 or 4 feet, and it becomes dark gray and deeply furrowed.

Another Amazing Cloning-Related Semi-Factoid: For years botanists have dinked around studying the regional differences between Aspens across North America. One fascinating aspect of this regional variation seems to be the differences between populations that reproduce primarily sexually, such as those up in Montana, and those that reproduce clonally, such as those here in Utah. And the thinking is that at least part of the reason for the variation is that the sexually-reproducing Aspen have continued to evolve and adapt, while the clonally-reproducing aspen are genetic copies of the Aspen that were around tens of thousands of years ago, with only a handful of possible sexual generations in between. If this is truly the case, it means that our Aspen here in Utah are in a sort of “evolutionary stasis”, stalled out as it were, while the wider world of sexually-reproducing Aspens moves on down the road of evolution…

The gray bark is thought to be caused by 1 of 2 things, or both. First is gnawing. Decades of animals- voles, sheep, deer- the bark to get at the cambium scars the tree, and the scars develop into deep gray furrows. The Second possibility is snow; 3-4 feet is typically how high the snow lies against the truck for much of the winter, and over century or so it might contribute to scarring.

Speaking of scarring, another unique thing most everyone knows about Aspen is how well and for how long they display carvings in their bark. Many popular trails through Aspen groves are virtual time capsules that trigger various “I wonder whatever happened…” thoughts. (“Bill loves Katie 1973”. What happened? Did Bill and Katie stay together? Did they marry? Are they still together? Alive?)

In the Wasatch, the oldest carving I’ve found is from 1936. Nearby there’s a wonderful little clearing with several carvings from 1943 and 1944. It’s a frequent resting-spot for me, and I think about the boys how were there 65 years ago, while WWII raged. What became of them? Are they still alive? Have I passed their grandchildren on the trail? On the freeway? At the mall?

Across the valley in the Oquirrh Mountains I came across a carving from 1928 up Ophir Canyon a few years back. But the oldest carving I’ve come across, still clear and legible, was from 1902. I found it on the Virgin Rim Trail, down on the Markagunt Plateau, in 2002. I assume (hope) it’s still there. I used to have a digital photo, and regrettably, seem to have lost/deleted it…

Tangent: I’ve never carved my initials- or anything else- in an Aspen. I never regretted doing so until 2 years ago. In August 1993 I biked the Aspen Loop trail in the Abajo Mountains West of Monticello. The trail was lined with Aspen-carvings dating back into the late 1950’s. I toyed with carving my initials, but thought, “Ah, who would ever want to see initials carved in the 90’s?” In June 2006, I finally rode the same trail again, and found myself wishing I’d carved those initials…

By the way, the white powder on the bark of Aspen (which will work as a poor-man’s sunscreen in a pinch) is comprised of dead cork cells.

Aspen are shade-intolerant, and in the Wasatch, they dominate on south-facing slopes above 7,000 feet, while PLTs (see this post for acronym definition) generally dominate North-facing slopes at similar altitudes. A wonderful place to see this is along the Mid-Mountain Trail in Park City, particularly along the stretch between The Canyons ski resort and Pinebrook. Over and over again, as it hugs the backside of the Wasatch at 8,000 feet, the trail passes from sunny, grassy, light Aspen grove to deep, dark, shaded Fir/Douglas Fir forest and back again, flickering back and forth between the two worlds.

Where aspect is less clearly defined, Aspen mixes with PLTs in the Wasatch, most often in a losing battle of succession. While Aspen are not shade-tolerant, many Wasatch PLTs- White Fir, Douglas Fir, Engelmann Spruce- are, and barring further disturbance, they’ll eventually come to dominate many Aspen glades.

The last obvious unique characteristic of Aspen I’ll mention is their sound. 4 months ago, back in canyon country, I mentioned the soft swishing/rustling of Fremont Cottonwood leaves. Aspen leaves have a the same leaf-stem architecture- narrow side-to-side, thick up & down- which causes the same pleasant rustling, but at a higher pitch, due to the smaller size and lesser thickness of Aspen leaves. This slightly higher-pitched rustling sounds almost like a chorus of soft whispers in a gentle breeze, and when you’re alone, and half-paying attention, you can almost be caught off-guard at times by the sound, as though someone is telling you something you can’t quite catch, but maybe could, if you stopped and somehow listened more closely.

Aspen are so amazing and wonderful on so many levels. Their visual and sonic beauty, their history and mystery, and their strange distortion of light and space and sense of time all combine to impart a sense of restorative wonder that for me one of the great pleasures of living by the Wasatch, and the Beauty of the World in its purest form.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Aspen Part 1: Karma, Clones and Suckers

So I’m back home, and running out of summer. And though I’ve mentioned them in passing several times, I’ve yet to blog about Aspen.

When I moved here from Colorado, in mid-summer 1995, I didn’t know a soul. My first weekend here I joined up with the Wasatch Mountain Club for a mtn bike ride around Park City. The ride was a great time, and convinced me that I’d be able to enjoy living here and make friends as well. But the thing that struck me the most from that ride was the Aspen. Endless, twisty singletrack trails winding their way through light, sunny Aspen groves.

Tangent: Joining the Wasatch Mountain Club was the single best thing I did when I moved to Utah. Though I’ve long since stopped joining them for weekly rides or weekend trips, the core of my best friends here today are people I met in or through- directly or indirectly- the club. Years ago, my friend Louis, who’s long since moved away to Portland (I still miss you buddy) commented on how many of the club members (including both of us) joined the club following a break-up or divorce, and joked that it should be renamed "The Lonely Hearts Club". He was probably right. At least 3 of my old club friends have since married other club members, and while I didn’t, the friendship and introduction to the backcountry of the Wasatch was the right tonic for my broken heart.

The Colorado Front Range has great Aspen as well, but not nearly as close to the places where most people live. The closest great singletrack through Aspen to Denver is the Colorado Trail at Kenosha Pass. A lovely trail, but a full hour+ drive from the city. Along the Wasatch Front, the aspen-lined singletracks are only 20-30 minutes away, up any of the canyons, over the hill in Pinebrook/Jeremy Ranch, or even right from Affleck Park. Over the last 13 years I’ve spent probably the better part of a thousand hours biking, hiking, skiing or camping in Aspen forests, and it’s been one of the highlights of my life here in Utah.

To a native Easterner, an Aspen forest is probably the strangest and most inviting forest they’ve ever seen; there’s nothing like it East of the Rockies. While Aspens grow across the continent, only West of Denver do they form vast, unbroken, monotypic forests. And the forests are lighter and, therefore cheerier, than any other North American forest. The lightness gives them an almost ethereal, not-of-this-world quality that pulls your mindset out of the day-to-day world and into another place for a short time, before re-emerging, refreshed, and almost “cleared”, back into the “real world”.

The genus Populus is part of Saliceae, the Willow Family. It includes roughly 30 species, and is broken out into 6 groupings or sections. One of those sections is Cottonwoods. Another 4 sections are various types of Poplars, both New and Old World, and the 6th section is Aspens. Two of those Aspens are native to North America. Bigtooth Aspen, Populus grandidentata, is native to the Northeastern US and Canada. The other, Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides, our Aspen, is the most widely distributed tree in North America, ranging from Newfoundland to California, and Alaska to Guanajuato, Mexico. The two species are closely related, and do hybridize naturally where they overlap, but not as often as you might think, because they flower at different times.

Quaking Aspen (which I’ll just call “Aspen” for the rest of this post) have boring, wind-pollinated flowers, and produce huge volumes of wind-borne seeds. But the while Aspen regularly reproduces by seed back East, and even a fair amount up in Northern Idaho and Montana, it rarely does so here in Utah or Colorado. Instead around here it reproduces overwhelmingly by root-cloning.

We’ve talked about root-cloning with several plants, including Creosote and Gambel Oak, but Aspen is quite possibly the champion root-cloner of them all. In Utah huge stands are single clones, so in a sense when you ride or hike through an Aspen forest, you’re traveling inside of a single living organism. From a distance in the Fall, you can often get an idea of where one clone starts and another begins by the leaf color; trees within a given clone usually change color at the same time.(Example in pic right.)

Some of these clones are huge. The current champion, a clone named “Pando” (Latin for “I spread”) lies in the Fish Lake National Forest, a couple hundred miles South of here, at about 8,800 feet. It’s thought to be the world’s largest single organism (if you count a multi-stemmed plant clone as a single organism, which is still somewhat debatable) and includes 47,000 stems spanning 107 acres. It’s thought to be more than 80,000 years old- roughly 20 times as old as the oldest Bristlecones, which means that it was around all during the last ice age, the interglacial before that, and well into the previous ice age before that. Pando has seen the world change like you and I can hardly imagine.

Tangent: There’s a continuing debate about this whole largest-organism thing- whether a clone is a single organism, whether the roots got severed between some of the trees, or whether a clone of Giant Sequoias or some fungus in Michigan. Then there’s a whole big debate about whether Pando is the oldest living thing, with some experts claiming that it’s actually more like a million years old, while others claiming that some of the Creosote clones or even some kind of Mediterranean sea grass are older. I’m not qualified to weigh in, but here’s what I will say: Pando, and other large-scale Aspen clones like it, are really big, and really old.

Amazing Nested Tangent/Factoid: In fact, Walter Cottam, probably Utah’s most accomplished botanist in the last century, suggested that the average Utah Aspen clone is over 8,000 years old. The average. Think about that the next time you hike/bike in Aspen around here; that stand has probably been in that spot since before writing was invented, before the first pyramid was built and since before your 400X great-grandfather was farming, hunting, pot-making, or whatever people did before Law and Order was around (Christ I hate that stupid show.)

It’s thought that clones are so dominant in the West in part because roughly 10,000 years ago- at the end of the last Ice Age- the climate shifted enough to create soil conditions that were relatively poorer for Aspen seedlings. And Aspen seedlings are at a considerable disadvantage to begin with relative to “clone-seedling”, which are called “suckers.” (Is that great or what?)

A seedling of Aspen- or any angiosperm- survives its initial sprouting and rooting stages fueled only by the triploid endosperm it’s packaged with (see this post for review on creation/design of an angiosperm seed.) As soon as possible, the seedling needs to start photosynthesizing to fuel continued growth. And that seedling- the shortest thing around- is often in a tough spot on the forest floor trying to compete for sunlight with neighboring 50 or 100 foot-high giants.

A sucker on the other hand is born with a ready, fully functional root system- it doesn’t need to grow one. And that same, clonal, interconnected root network carries needed nutrients to the sucker to fuel its initial growth. Side by side, an Aspen sucker usually has a huge advantage over an Aspen seedling.

Next Up: More Cloning, Bark, Old Carvings and Good Karma

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Tale of Three Samaras... or Samara-O-Rama!

No real “tale” here actually. I just had this cool pic of 3 samaras and wanted a zinger title for it.

The contrast between the 3 is kind of cool. The top one is from a Sugar Maple, Acer sacharrum, plucked from in my office park at work. The second is from a Bigtooth Maple stand, Acer Grandidentatum, along the Shoreline Trail that I picked while riding yesterday morning. And the third/bottom is from a Box Elder, Acer negundo, growing along Emigration Creek a couple hundred yards from my house. The Box Elder is my favorite; it’s got that cool, deltoid, swept-back-wing-Stealth-Fighterish look to it…

What all 3 trees had in common is this: they are chock-loaded with samaras. They’ve been cranking it up all summer long, photosynthesizing like mad and prepping thousands upon thousands of samaras for their upcoming helicopter flights, betting that some teensy-weensy number end their flight in a safe patch of shady, damp soil, to carry on the 70 million year story of Maples.

Side Note: There's also a ton of variation amongst samaras of the same species. In the pic left the samara on the left is from a Bigtooth Maple up by Jeremy Ranch, around 7,500 feet. The samara on the right is the Bigtooth Maple samara I plucked along Shoreline trail, at about 5,000 feet.

Maples aren’t the only ones gearing up in the foothills. The Gambel Oak stands are chock-full of acorns (pic right), about 3 to 4 weeks away from turning nut-brown, the sign that screams like a Chuck-O-Rama buffet sign to corvids and rodents for miles around, igniting a collecting and caching frenzy, betting on some tiny portion of those cached acorns being forgotten, overlooked, or un-needed by their collectors, to possibly start up a new stand.

The contrast between the seeding strategies of Oak and Maple is cool because it's exactly the same contrast we saw when we looked at Bird Pines and Wind Pines. One invests in a high-value, high-cost seed, which it's evolved over millions of years in tandem with a cohort of specialized dispersal agents. The other trusts to the same wind that pollinated it, pumping out as many light, low-cost, aerodynamic seeds as possible.

Tangent: I’ve never actually been to a Chuck-O-Rama, but I just love the name. If I ever open my own business, I’m putting “o-rama” on the end of it.

It’s show-time for these guys. The whole living year of these trees is built around this preparation, this lead-up, this arming up, in hopes of kicking off the next generation.

We like to think that our lives are fuller, more meaningful, more important, and have greater purpose than the lives of other living things. But if there’s something more lasting and worthwhile I’ll create than the Trifecta, it ain’t obvious.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tahoe Trees: I Have A Crush On Sierra Forests

So the greatest thing about crossing the Great Basin is when you finally get to the other side, there’s another cool, forested world to explore, but this one’s completely different from the forests of the Wasatch.

The forests of the Sierra Nevada are arguably the most pleasant, appealing coniferous forests in the world. Open, with towering trees, minimal underbrush, lots of shade, virtually no bugs and perfect summer temps. It’s hard to spend even a day or two hiking or biking around these forests and not fall a little bit in love with the Sierra.

Unlike the Wasatch, with its extensive stretches of Aspen up high, and Oak & Maple lower down. The Sierra forest is overwhelmingly coniferous. And the mix of PLTs (see this post for acronym explanation) is way, way different.

To begin with, there are no Douglas Firs and no Spruces. California has great representatives of each of these genera, but they’re creatures of the coastal forests, unable to handle the tough Sierra winters. Coastal Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga mensziesii menziesii, which we talked about briefly when looking at its Utah cousin, is all over Northwestern California, but is too easily damaged by frost to survive in the Sierras. And Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir, which appears capable of handling Sierra winters, has never made it across the Great Basin.

Similarly, Sitka Spruce, a common and very successful Northwest tree from California to Alaska, does well on the coast but can’t handle a Sierra Winter either. Engelmann Spruce could, and though, like Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir, it’s mainly confined to the Eastern shore of the Basin, several groves have been found in the Siskiyou and Shasta counties far to the North. Perhaps given enough time, Picea Engelmannii might one day colonize the Sierra.

Firs, however, are very much present. White Fir (I just want to say that that post had like the Best Tangent Ever...) especially thrives in the Sierra (even more so in the last century due to fire suppression, and it’s the most familiar-looking tree to any visiting Wasatch tree-lover. But the White Fir is a bit different here, slightly longer needled, and depending on what source you go by, either a distinct variety, Abies concolor iowiana, or a separate species, Abies iowiana. Anyway, it looks pretty much the same to me as the White Fir back home.

There’s no Subalpine Fir in the Sierra (though curiously, like Engelmann Spruce, it pops up in isolated groves in the Salmon and Marble mountains far to the North and West) but the absence is more than made up for with the gorgeous Red Fir, Abies magnifica. (pic left, Twins A&B for scale) This is beautiful tree, with dark, chocolatey-reddish bark, often moss-covered on the side away from the sun, and fat, upright, always-out-of-reach cones (pic right). It grows quickly to impressive height and girth. On the West side of the lake in particular, it really seems to dominate the forest in almost pure stands between 7,000 and 8,500 feet.

But the biggest difference between the PLTs of the Wasatch and those of the Sierra is all the PINES. Real pines, tall pines, everywhere you go. There are 5 species you commonly come across, two 3-needled, two 5-needled and one 2-needled.

The two 3-needled species, Ponderosa, and the closely-related Jeffrey Pine, Pinus jeffreyii, are the first trees one encounters climbing out of Reno to the West. Ponderosa of course occurs in lots of places in Utah outside of the Wasatch, but Jeffrey Pine occurs only in California, Oregon, and Northern Baja. The two look similar, but Jeffrey has way bigger cones, with the prickles turned downward so that they’re usually easier to pick up. Jeffrey bark usually also has a distinctive vanilla smell, but Ponderosas (pic right of big one with bike for scale) occasionally do as well (including a few of the old relics down on Little Creek Mountain.)

Tangent: There is a third 3-needle pine, super-rare, that occurs just outside of the Tahoe Basin in the Galena Creek area on the Northeastern flank of Mount Rode. It’s Washoe Pine, Pinus washoensis. It’s very hard to distinguish from Ponderosa, but the surest way is the cones, which are basically like little Jeffrey cones- easy to pick up, but Ponderosa-sized. Washoe Pine exists only here and in a couple of other scattered locations, most notably the Warner Mountains far to the North in Modoc County. Last year, following a bit of detective work and cold calls to several rangers, the family and I located Washoe Pine and collected cones on Mt. Rose. For the past 60 or 70 years, botanists have been arguing whether P. washoensis is in fact a distinct species, a hybrid of Jeffrey and Ponderosa, or simply a variety of Ponderosa. At any rate, it’s easy enough to find, so I’ve included the map here.

The two 5-needled pines in Tahoe are Sugar Pine and Western White Pine, and unlike the two 3-needled pines, they almost never seem to occur together.

Sugar Pine, Pinus lambertiana, prefers slightly lower altitudes. It’s common on the shores and in the towns ringing the lake, but I’ve never seen one over 7,000 feet. Sugar Pine is the world’s tallest pine, and has the largest cones of any conifer. It is simply magnificent- one of my favorite trees anywhere, and the forests of the Wasatch are poorer for having nothing like it. It’s native only to California and Oregon.

Western White Pine, Pinus monticola, (pic left, bike for scale) is closely-related to Eastern White Pine, which we saw last month back East, and looks very similar in cone, needle and bark, though both trees and cones here reach greater size than anything I saw in New England. Unlike Sugar Pine, Western White Pine is native to the Rockies (and is the state tree of Idaho) but only farther North, never making it down as far at Utah.

If you find a 2-needled pine around Tahoe, it’s Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta, (pic left, bike for scale- OK this theme is getting old. Let's try a "pure stand" shot, right) and this is another common pine in Utah. Not in the Wasatch, but it’s super-common in the nearby Uintas. But the Lodgepoles in Tahoe, which seem to thrive mainly above 8,000 feet, often grow taller, bigger and fatter than any I’ve seen in the Uintas.

After months of looking for, and wondering/noodling about the oh-so-rare pines of the Wasatch, the explosion of pines in the Sierra was a welcome change, and even without the lake, they would have made the trip for me. But there are 2 other Sierra trees I came across last week worth mentioning.

The first is a Hemlock. Last month in Maine I talked about Eastern Hemlock. Back in June we saw Western Hemlock out by Mendocino. And in Tahoe this past week I mtn biked through a great stand of Mountain Hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana. That makes 3 of the 4 native U.S. Hemlocks I’ve seen in a single summer. (Man, this summer is turning out great!) Mountain Hemlock is markedly different from Western or Eastern Hemlock. The needles are square in cross-section, like a Spruce, and unlike other Hemlocks. And they grow out of the twig in all directions- again like a Spruce, rather than in 2 flat planar sprays, like Western or Eastern Hemlock. And finally the cones, while a modest 1-2” long, are massive by Hemlock standards. Mountain Hemlock confounded 19th century botanists, who suspected it to be a Hemlock-Spruce hybrid, and John Muir himself referred to the tree as “Hemlock-Spruce.” But a Hemlock it is, and – though not a terribly common Sierra PLT- a fine-looking Hemlock at that.

The final Sierra PLT I’ll mention is by far the most alien to an observer familiar with forests of the Rockies or the East: Incense Cedar, Calocedrus decurrens.(pic left, Twin A for scale) This tree has deeply-furrowed, peeling, almost papery bark, and scale-like needles that are more like those of a Juniper than those of any other PLT. In fact it’s somewhat reminiscent of, and often mistaken for, the Giant Sequoia, Sequoiadendron giganteum.

Tangent: Regrettably, our trip did not include any Giant Sequoias. These amazing giants grow in only 75 groves along the West slope of the Sierra. Although the Northernmost of these 75 groves lies a mere 50 miles from Lake Tahoe as the Corvid flies, it’s an twisty ~135 road miles to reach it from Tahoe Vista- too long a day-trip for the Trifecta

Nested Tangent: Speaking of Corvids, I've never seen so many Stellers Jays anywhere as I did around Tahoe. Those birds are everywhere with their signature squawk...

Return-to-Main-Tangent: As a consolation, here's a pic of me by a Giant Sequoia further South back in February, when I was visiting my brother (Let's-Call-Him-Phil) while he was still living near Fresno.

Incense Cedar is almost never found above 7,000 feet, and in the Tahoe Basin it’s found, like Sugar Pine, down close to the lake and in the communities ringing the shore. The backyard of our rental home had several wonderful specimens. Incense cedar has fire-resistant bark (like Giant Sequoia) and fairly rot-resistant wood. And even if you’ve never been anywhere near the Sierra, you’ve undoubtedly touched its wood thousands of times; Incense Cedar wood is the wood most commonly used for pencils, because it’s soft and sharpens easily without splintering.

Incense Cedar is also interesting to tree-geeks because, like Douglas Fir, it’s another example of a tree named wrong.

There are no true cedars in the Western Hemisphere. True Cedars are a trees belonging to the genus Cedrus, found across Eurasia. When early botanist-explorers found Incense Cedar (and Western Red Cedar in the Northwest, and Northern Whitecedar back East) they’d never come across anything quite like it, so they named it after the trees most similar to it that they were familiar with: old world cedars.

But Incense Cedar (pic left = needles in hand) belongs to the genus Calocedrus, which contains just 2 other species: one in China and one in Taiwan. (Both have long been popular wood for coffins, and are nowadays somewhat rare as a result.) Incense Cedar is alien but elegant- it stands firmly outside of Pinaceae, the Pine family, a fundamentally different way of being a PLT.

One last odd factoid about Incense Cedar: it pollinates right around New Year’s, causing hay-fever-like symptoms in allergic residents and visitors alike in the dead of winter.

We drove home in one long day, following the path of the Humboldt River along I-80 for most of the way. After the foothills outside of Reno, we didn’t pass another non-planted roadside tree for 340 miles, till we passed through a woodland Utah Juniper and Singleleaf Pinon while crossing the Pequop range, East of Wells, NV.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Fantabulous Hydrology of Truckee River Basin

The Truckee Basin, and specifically the Tahoe Basin- which is part of the Greater Truckee Basin- is wonderful in so many ways. First, it is just such a relief to arrive in Tahoe after crossing Western Nevada. After a couple hundred parched, windswept, treeless miles, the tall pines and firs of the Sierra are a welcome sight.

The Western Shore

But second, it is in many ways, the opposite shore of the Great Basin. We talked about how the GSL Basin, and the Wasatch specifically, really represented the Eastern “shore" of the Basin, with a flora that is a superset of the standard BGB (See this post for all the "*GB" acronym explanations) flora, and that ends within a range or two to the West. The Truckee Basin is in the same sense, the "Western Shore" of the Basin, but in a much more sudden and dramatic way. The HGB ends at the Western edge of the Truckee Basin, at Donner Summit, the PGB ends in the Western suburbs of Reno, and the BGB ends spectacularly in the same Sierra foothills, as Ponderosa, and closely-related Jeffrey Pine, carpet the slopes. The distinctive Sierra flora of the Truckee Basin ends immediately; Jeffrey Pines and Red Firs and Incense Cedar don’t even make it a single range to the East.

The hydrology of the Truckee is remarkably analogous to the GSL Basin. Lake Tahoe, a 6,000 foot high, large (12 x 22 miles) stunning freshwater lake straddling 2 states (California and Nevada) drains via the Truckee River into brackish Pyramid Lake (pic right) from which water only escapes via seepage or evaporation. In the GSL Basin, Bear Lake, a 6,000 foot high, large (8 x 20 miles) freshwater lake straddling 2 states (Utah and Idaho) drains via the Bear River into the Great Salt Lake, from which water only escapes via seepage or evaporation.

To be sure, there are significant differences, especially in the eventual “sinks” of each basin. Pyramid Lake, though brackish, is only 1/6 as salty as seawater (compared to GSL, which is 3 times as salty as seawater) and therefore supports several species of fish. It’s also a lot deeper: 350 ft. vs. 40 ft. for GSL. But the analogy holds: Each basin is part of the Great Basin, yet bounded by Pacific watershed on its far side. Each basin supports a flora that is distinctive from and richer than the BGB flora only a few dozen miles away.

Lake Tahoe, our vacation destination this week (pic right- Twins A&B on beach), was formed by a 2-part geologic process. First, about 2 million years ago, an event known as block faulting, in which large sections of the Earth’s crust move up or down, lowered the Tahoe Basin. Subsequently, eruptions from Ancient Mount Pluto created a dam in the North End of the basin, leading to the creation of the lake. (Modern-day Northstar ski resort sits astride the Northern and Western flanks of Mount Pluto.)

Anybody who’s visited Lake Tahoe knows how remarkable and beautiful it is. But what most people don’t know is just how close it is to being endorheic, that is having no outlet, in the same way as Pyramid or Great Salt Lakes. Tahoe is a massive lake; it’s not only big, but deep, with a max depth of over 1,600 feet, creating a water volume of more than 150 cubic kilometers. Think about that. That is a serious, serious amount of water.

But the lake, which is fed by more than 60 streams, has only one single outlet: the not very big, not particularly deep, Truckee River. This means that it takes the lake an astounding 650 years to “flush’, that is completely empty and refill with “fresh” water. In times of extreme drought, the Truckee has dried up at its Tahoe source; when it does so, the Tahoe is a closed Basin. Given this painstakingly slow refresh rate, the clarity of Tahoe’s waters is even more impressive, given the extensive shoreline development and traffic, and in fact the clarity is decreasing by several inches per year.

I think about Tahoe sometime at home, on those mornings when I indulge in the vice of soaking in the hot tub with a cup of coffee. If I spill the coffee in the tub (hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a matter of time) then I’m looking at the tedious, and environmentally odious, hour+ long drain/refill process.

But if I spill that coffee in Lake Tahoe, it’ll be there for 650 years before it’s cleaned out.

Which, coincidentally, is almost the same amount of time it will take for tonight’s broadcast of “Law & Order” (Christ, I hate that stupid show) to reach the Pleiades.

The amazing bottom line of Tahoe’s hydrology is this: if the climate got just a titch hotter and drier, Tahoe would change from a crystal-clear freshwater mountain lake, so a brackish, endorheic, Pyramid-lake-like evaporative basin.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hydrology Road Trip Part 3: Basin After Basin

Basin #6: White River Valley

From Ely we continued West on US50 up over Robinson and come down into Jakes Valley, a non-descript, sage-filled, Central Nevada valley. But here’s the weird thing about Jakes Valley- it’s not entirely clear that it’s part of the Great Basin. It drains South via Jakes Wash into the White River Valley, where it links up with (yes that’s right) the White River. The White runs due South through Hiko, Alamo and down to Lower Pahranagat Lake. South of the Lake, a Pahranagat Wash continues all the way down to the Muddy River, past Moapa (not far from my Mormon Mountains fiasco, back in May...) and Lake Mead. But Pahranagat Wash is permanently dry, so White River Valley is generally considered part of the Great Basin. But with just a titch more rainfall (and a bit less irrigation pull-down?) the White River Valley- and Jakeys with it- would be part of the Colorado drainage.

The White River is pretty much the only river in Southeastern Nevada and is home to 6 species of endemic fish. After Little Antelope Summit the highway drops into…

Basin #7: Newark Valley

Another small drainage basin, roughly 20 miles across by 60 miles North-South. The road bends around the South end of the Diamond Mountain, crests Pinto Summit, and drops into…

Basin #8: Diamond Valley

Diamond Valley, 12 x 45 miles, is home to Eureka, the first town since Ely. An old mining town, Eureka is pleasantly free of the McDonald’s and Motel 6s that are starting to encircle Ely. It lies in the upper/Southern end of the valley, which drains North into an alkali flat. A dozen miles West of Eureka, US50 passes through “Devil’s Gate” and enters…

Basin #9: Antelope Valley

Is this a basin by itself, or does it link into Diamond or Monitor valleys? Can’t tell for sure. It’s small, and fairly unremarkable, tucked between the Monitor, Antelope, and (wonderfully named) Mountain Boy Ranges. Arrow-straight at this point, US 50 passes the North end of the Monitor Range and enters:

Basin #10: Monitor Valley

Monitor Valley, a long (10 x 70 miles) valley separating the Toquima and Monitor ranges, is notable for (at least) 2 things. First, just 13 miles South of the highway, in the middle of the valley,lies the exact geographic center of Nevada. That’s right- 10 basins and we’re only halfway across Nevada. Second, it’s home to Diana’s Punch Bowl, an interesting geologic oddity that’s on my list of places-to-visit. Past Hickson Summit (and Hickison Petroglyph Site) we descended into Big Smoky Valley.

Tangent: Hickison Petroglyph site is a great example of the bad and good aspect of Central Nevada. Like so many Nevada spots, it’s interesting, pleasant, and worth a stop- if you’re passing by. But it’s not worth a 6 or 7 hour drive just to come see it. That’s bad because it makes it unlikely that you’ll visit the spot, but good because if you do, you’ll have it to yourself. And that’s pretty much the deal with all of Central Nevada.

Basin #11: Big Smoky Valley

Big Smoky Valley has another good-if-you’re-passing-through spots: Spencer Hot Springs. Nice pool, free, good camping nearby, and an awesome view of the Toiyabes.

The Toiyabes are a spectacular range, some 120 miles long. With several 10K+ peaks, it rivals the Rubies and the Snakes as the crowning jewel of Nevada. But the forest cover of the Toiyabes is much sparser and scrappier than in either of its rivals ranges, and the reason is that it lies a couple hundred miles further West, deep in the rain-shadow of the Sierras.

The highway climbs over the very Northern end, and descends through Austin- first town since Eureka and last till Fallon before dropping into the Reese River Valley.

Basin #12: Humboldt

The Reese River (a creek, really) crawls North for nearly a hundred miles before joining the Humboldt River at Battle Mountain. The Humboldt is Nevada’s longest/biggest River, 300 miles long crossing almost the entire Northern half of the state. The Humboldt Basin is the largest drainage basin in Nevada, draining an area of nearly 17,000 square miles, or roughly 15% of all the land in Nevada. (For reference, the GSL Basin drains about 21,000 square miles.)

Nearly our entire trip home from Tahoe, at the end of this week, will be in this basin, as we take the fast-but-boring route home along I-80 (like normal people.)

Basin #13: Edwards Creek Valley

We cross into this one at New Pass Summit. It’s another small basin, maybe a dozen miles across, by 30 miles long. But here’s the thing about Edwards Creek Valley. As you drive down it, look to the Left/Southeast. The range you’re looking at is the Desatoya range. And this is the last appealing range until the Sierras. Cranking your head to the left at 75mph, you see a high, green, partially forested range- the last such sight for a couple of hundred miles.

We’re now deep in the Sierra rain shadow, and at the same time, we’re going down. Where the Basin ranged from 6,000 to 8,000 feet on most of our drive between Ely and Austin, it now descends to 4,000 – 5,000 feet. After the Desatoyas, we won’t see another (non-planted) tree until the West side of Reno. Driving from here to Reno makes the stretch between Ely and Austin look positively green and lush in comparison.

The Desatoyas are just a hair under 10,000 feet high, and have extensive woodland of Pinon and Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany. The range has 11 perennial streams, 2 of which support native Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. In short, it sounds like a charming range, but not nearly as high or dramatic as the nearby Toiyabes. So bottom line: it probably rarely gets visited. But starting now, it’s on my list. I don’t know when, but I’m climbing Desatoya Peak.

Basin #14: Dixie Valley

Dry, low, this small basin is mostly owned by the US Navy. The navy does nuches of test/training flights ere, and bought the valley to minimize complaints from landowners.

Basin #15: Carson

We enter this basin and immediately see Sand Mountain on our Right/North. Sand Mountain, a 600 foot high, 2 mile long sand dune, lies on the edge of ancient Lake Lahontan, and consists of windblown sands from the Walker River delta. Sand Mountain is cool for 2 things:

First, it is one of only 4 “Singing Sand Dunes” in North America, and one of only 35 worldwide. Singing sand dunes emit a booming or roaring sound of up to 100 decibels, triggered either by wind, or by someone walking near the crest of the dune. All singing sand dunes seem to have the following 3 characteristics in common: sand grains between 0.1mm and 0.5mm in diameter, the sand contains silica, and the sand is of a specific humidity.

Tangent: Someday, I'll do a post just about sand dunes. There are so many great sand dune sites within a day's drive of Salt Lake: Sand Mountain, Great Sand Dune National Monument in CO, Little Sahara and Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah, Bruneau Sadn Dunes up in UD. Coolest thing I've done on a sand dune = ski (pic w/tracks right.)

Second, this tiny little 2-mile long universe hosts an endemic- the Sand Mountain Blue Butterfly, Euphilotes pallescens arenamontana, which lives nowhere else in the world, except on and immediately around this singing dune.

This whole basin drains into the Carson River, which terminates in the Carson Sink, south of Carson City. Fallon, the largest town we passed through since leaving Salt Lake, sits in the Eastern end of this basin. ~30 some-odd miles later, we pass into the final basin of our journey, and the basin of our ultimate destination, the Truckee Basin.

Wow. 16 basins, each with its own mountains and mysteries, each worth a couple of weeks of exploration, all passed by in 2 quick days. But this last basin we’ll spend a week in. And it is utterly fantabulous, both hydrologically and botanically.