Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pine-Hunting in the Laguna Mountains

SAN_HODB-exter-1 I’m in San Diego this week, at my company’s annual user conference. It’s a busy week, with work-days running from about 7AM to 10PM, and leaves little time for actually stepping outside of the hotel, much less blogging. Still, I managed to squeak in a quick and successful tree-hunt Monday that I’ll blog about in a moment. But first, let’s talk about work.

Given the length and subject matter of my posts, it may surprise you- if you don’t know me in real life- to learn that I actually do hold a steady job, and that while engaged in that job I actually manage to stay pretty focused and not go off on tangents every 90 seconds or so. Specifically I’m the head of sales for a technology research company, and manage about 30 salespeople in the US, Canada and Europe. So our user conference is a pretty busy time. We have about 1300 attendees, pretty much all of whom are existing clients whom we want to keep happy, or prospective clients whom we hope to convert into paying clients, and so the week necessitates me being “on” pretty much all the time.

Tangent: So how did an obsessive outdoorhead-amateur-botanist wind up selling hi-tech services to Fortune 500 companies? Well, it took me 40 years to figure out what I was into. This- the whole project/plant/blog thing- is my mid-life crisis. Some guys find Jesus, some guys get into golf or gambling or singlespeeding or fast cars, some guys get a second, better, prettier wife*. This is my mid-life crisis, and so far it’s been a lot of fun.

*Well, technically I did that too. But that was back in the late 90’s, before this mid-life crisis.

Public Speaking vs. Blogging

The most stressful part of the week was Wednesday morning, because it entails me kicking off one of the conference tracks, which involves speaking to an audience of a couple hundred people, which coincidentally is roughly the same number of people who read this blog daily. Strangely, I never get nervous or uneasy blogging, and I guess that’s because of the comfortable “distance” of the web, or perhaps because of my passion for the subject matter.

Oh wait, no, that’s not it. I don’t get nervous blogging because you guys don’t actually pay me anything, and you can’t fire me. It’s kind of like being Lieutenant Governor, except without the salary.

But now that I’m over the hump and back to my routine duties of glad-handing and selling, I can take a moment or two to share Monday’s tree-hunting adventure.

The Tree

A year ago I did a 2-post series about coming out for this same conference. In those posts I described how I flew in early Monday, rented a car, zipped around and located 2 new pines: Torrey Pine and Coulter Pine. And I mentioned that, successful as the day was, I was unable to successfully locate one of my original targets, the Sierra Juarez Piñon.

As long-time readers know, I am mildly (OK very much so) obsessed with piñons. I love everything about them- their form, their spacing, their smell, their nuts and the semi-arid landscapes in which they grow. But despite my passion for them, I’ve only actually seen and touched 3 species in the wild: Singleleaf and Colorado Piñon here in Utah, and the remarkable and mysterious Martinez (Blue) Piñon of Zacatecas, Mexico.

2 other piñons grow in the desert ranges of Southern California: Sierra Juarez Piñon, Pinus juarezensis, a 5-needled pine, and Parry Piñon, Pinus quadrifolia, which interestingly, usually has 4 needles. But not always. Sometimes it has 5 or 3 or even 2 or 1 needles per fascicle, all on the same tree. And because of this variability, more than 30 years ago Ron Lanner (my Pine hero, whom I blogged about in this post) “reduced” it to hybrid status, determining that it was more likely a hybrid between P. juarezensis and P. monophylla, which also grows in Southern California.

5-needles is thought to be the ancestral state for all piñons, and all pines in general. Utah has two 5-needled pines, Limber and Bristlecone, but if you want to see a 5-needled piñon without going to Mexico, Sierra Juarez Piñon is probably you’re easiest bet.

So although I had a great day out here last year, I left just a titch disappointed not to have located my target piñon. When I landed in San Diego Monday morning, I was determined to find it.

At the gate, and couple of co-workers were waiting for me to share a cab, and I politely brushed them off with a, “I’m doing my own thing.” I headed instead to the rental car shuttle, picked up a mid-sized sedan, and jumped on I-8 heading East.

Tangent: Last year I had a great cover story, built (very loosely) around a kernel of truth involving my godparents and the book, “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask.”* But unfortunately, today, a year later, several co-workers regularly read my blog (though they pretty much never comment.) So I knew I’d be outed on any cover story right quick, and decided to just be vague and loner-ish instead.

*It really was an awesome cover story. Go back and check it out.

Nested Tangent: One of my few regrets in this whole project was telling 2 coworkers (who told 2 more, etc., etc.) about it. In not keeping this blog secret from them, I’ve passed up countless rich tangents involving them. Ah well, I’ll get it right next time.

IMG_0767 Driving East out of San Diego initially wasn’t cheery. I was tired from the short night, it was hot, and the sky, although sunny, had that distinctive Southern California haze/smog. I pulled off at a soul-less La Mesa exit for a drink and a snack and thought of the sad irony of Southern California: that the spectacular scenery and climate is so limited to a tight, unaffordable coastal strip, and by necessity most folks end up living in tract houses 20-30 miles inland in hot, dry, hazy valleys.

But as I continued East, the land rose, the haze lightened, the development sputtered out and as the sky gradually transformed in a brilliant clear blue, my spirits lifted. At Alpine, I pulled off the freeway and into the ranger station, seeking beta on possible SJ Piñon locations.

After a bit of a wait, while the desk-rangerette explained camping “term-limits” policy* at length to a hard-of-hearing caller on the phone, I inquired about possible locations to locate the target pine. She looked at me as if I’d just asked where to score drugs. Clearly she had no idea, but at my prompting tracked down another woman in the office, who, while unfamiliar with the SJ Piñon, thought she knew the whereabouts of “some” piñons. This wasn’t ideal- P. monophylla also occurs in SoCal and I wasn’t nuts about a wild goose-chase to track down the same piñons I see back home, but it was the best I could learn, and so I jumped back in the rental car and continued East.

*It’s 14 days on USFS land. The caller evidently had a problem with the limit. Do people really stay in the campsite longer than 14 days? Really? They don’t get antsy after a week or so?

Tangent: I’m always kind of stumped by Forest Service employees who aren’t at all into trees. I’m like, “OK, you work for the FOREST SERVICE. The forest is comprised of TREES. You’re not interested in them. Tell me again why you wanted to work at the FOREST SERVICE?”

On the other hand, I guess they could reply, “OK you work for a TECHNOLOGY RESEARCH COMPANY. Your company covers IT…”

IMG_0714 Past the little community of Pine Valley I exited the freeway and headed North on the Sunrise Highway, into the Laguna Mountains. I’d traveled up this same road the year before to find Coulter Pine, but turned back after climbing into a full-on Jeffrey Pine forest (pic left). But the Forest Service lady had recommended continuing onward and upward, suggesting that piñons might occur on the steep East-facing escarpment of the range. So up and up I drove, past Coulter and Jeffrey Pine and California Black Oak, into a high, cool, open forest. IMG_0718I passed the little hamlet of Laguna Mountain, ever more skeptical of finding piñons anywhere near this high, cool, wooded range. But a mile or so further, I sensed the forest thinning and opening a bit to my right/East and on impulse I pulled off on an old, potholed, single-lane road, and without losing elevation, the forest immediately opened and ended. I rounded a bend to the left and… the world fell away (pic right)

After nearly 20 years of living in the Intermountain West, I still can’t get quite get my head around the suddenness of transition between environments. Back East, where such transitions occur, they occur gradually, over day-long drives or all-day climb/hikes. But here in the West, amidst the frequent clashes of altitude, exposure and rain-shadow, such transitions happen suddenly, almost violently, in a way that both dazzles and yet somehow offends a native Easterner’s landscape sensibility all at once. The Eastern escarpment of the Laguna range falls off precipitously, changing from forest to scrubby woodland in a space of 50 feet, and then rolls down through layers of scrub, then barren desert, down, down, down to 6,000 feet below.

IMG_0750 Along the open ridge, amidst Birchleaf Mountain Mahogany (pic left) and live Scrub Oak, were set scattered, stout, small pines, with the distinctive silhouettes of piñons. I pulled over and started scrambling. Even 30 feet away it was obvious they weren’t Singleleafs. After you’ve looked at Pines for a while, the difference between 5 and 1-or 2-needled pines is almost immediately obvious. IMG_0749 There’s a brushy “fullness” of foliage to the more densely-needled pines. Picking my way through and around the scratchy shrubs and prickly pear (with an eye out for snakes) took a few moments, but I soon reached the first of the piñons. The fascicles bore needles in groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5. On my first try, I’d found a Parry Piñon.

PPinon Fascicles Over the next ½ hour I carefully picked my way to ~1/2 dozen more Piñons; all were pretty consistently 5-needled, marking them as Sierra Juarez.

SJuarez Fascicles The season was wrong for seeds, but several bore green developing cones which should be ripe come Fall. IMG_0740And eventually I was able to find and collect a few of last year’s cones on the ground below. The short, stiff needles are completely unlike those of the other 5-needled piñon I’ve visited- the Martinez Piñon- and in fact reminded me more of the short, dense, “bottle-brush” foliage of Bristlecone Pines. The fullness of foliage gives them a lush attractiveness for a piñon. We recently planted a Colorado Piñon (the only species available through local nurseries) in our yard and I found myself wishing I could’ve planted a IMG_0731 Sierra Juarez Piñon instead; it’s fine-looking tree (though it most likely wouldn’t handle a Salt Lake winter.) I enjoyed poking around along the ridge. Checking out a new pine is always fun- familiar yet new at the same time, another way of being a tree.

After I’d collected foliage and cones, I sat on a rock overlooking the desert to the East, drinking water and eating a scone. The land rolled down into the driest-looking desert imaginable, presented in a series of craggy peaks and valleys. In the far distance to the East-Northeast, a band of blue stood out- the Salton Sea.

Salton View Though I’ve passed within 40 or 50 miles of it and flown over it many times, I’ve never yet made it to the shores of this bizarre little “sea.” The Salton Sea is a saline rift lake, meaning that occupies a rift valley, which is defined as the valley formed along a geologic fault- in this case the San Andreas Fault. The lowest part of this valley is the Salton Sink, whose floor (now submerged) lies roughly 280 feet below sea level. Over the past 3 million years, the lowest reaches of the Colorado River have changed course and the location of its delta several times, eventually creating a dam of sorts that separates the valley from the Sea of Cortez. During this time the Salton Sink has alternately been both a freshwater lake and a dry empty basin repeatedly.

When Europeans arrived, the Sink was empty. But in 1905 heavy rainfall and snowmelt caused a dike to breach in the Imperial Valley. It took nearly 2 years to get the river back under control, and during that time, the Salton Sea- California’s largest lake- was formed. The sea is broad and shallow (max depth = ~50 feet), and has no outlet except for evaporation. Over the past century, its salinity has increased dramatically. Back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s the sea supported several species of introduced fish, but today, with the rising salinity, Tilapia survives, but not much else.

Broad, shallow and saline, the sea is strikingly similar to my own Great Salt Lake, and I hope to make it to its shores one of these years, both for the novelty of its waters as well as its bizarrely low altitude.

IMG_0788 I returned to the car and headed back West to the ocean, the haze and my job. Soon I was busy at work, greeting clients and colleagues. 2 days later, tired and stressed, I stopped by my room quickly to grab a folder. On a whim I dug the ziplock baggie full of cones and foliage out of my suitcase, unzipped it and took a deep, piney sniff. For a moment I was back in the clear hot sky at 6,000 feet, the Salton Sea hovering far below in the distance. I closed the baggie and went back to work.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bachelor Weekend: Cat3 Racing, Treeline, Miscarriage & Altitude, Men’s Groups, Drums and More Wildflowers

Yeah. Lots of stuff in this post…

TwinB crab Friday morning I dropped Awesome Wife and Trifecta off at the airport on my way in to work. We’ll reunite mid-next week in Boston. In the meantime, they’re vacationing with family and friends on the New Jersey shore* while I’m in San Diego for a conference.

*Pic right = Twin B with fresh-caught crab and “Uncle Mike.” (Twin A in background, fishing.) Confusingly, “Uncle Mike” is not actually their uncle. Even more confusingly, they have a real “Uncle Mike”, whom they’ll also be seeing this trip. It gets even more confusing, due to complicated family relationships, adoptions and paternity histories, but I can’t explain it here, since Awesome Wife occasionally reads this blog.

Side Note Prospective Burglars: Don’t even think about. My brother Ray is house-sitting. Sort of a mixed blessing. I know the house will be secure, but when I get home I know all the neighbors will be pissed off about his pit bull barking and he and his buddies his blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd until all hours of the night.

RobertBly-sml But my flight out wasn’t until Monday AM, which meant that I was all alone for the weekend. A Bachelor Weekend. So I spent the weekend kicking back, drinking lots of beer, watching ESPN and playing video games. Saturday night I called up a few of my friends and we got together, complained about the government, talked about our feelings, and commiserated about how our wives don’t really understand us. Then we got in a circle and one of us starting beating a drum, and we…

OK, actually no, that’s not what I did. I didn’t do any of that stuff. Especially the shit with the drum.

Tangent: A friend of mine- let’s call him “OCRick”- belongs to a “Men’s Group”. In all the years I’ve known him I’ve never made fun of him for it, until last year, when he joined a second men’s group, and made the mistake of mentioning they had a drum. “A drum?” I asked. “You’re a bunch of late-middle-aged upper-middle-class white guys. What the **** do you need a drum for?”

Anyway, the men’s group thing seems to work for OCRick and that’s fine. It just never had any appeal for me, and that’s probably in part because I’m not into the whole share-your-feelings-group-therapy thing, but also because I can’t stand it when upper-middle-class generic Euromericans try to latch on to some “primitive” culture thing- like a drum- to find meaning. It’s like they’re thinking, “Man, this whole 21st-century modern existence is really bringing me down… I know! I’ll get a drum!”

Nested Tangent: About a decade ago, at the height of the dotcom era, Awesome Wife and I traveled to California for the wedding of a friend of hers who was marrying some dot-commer-hit-it-big-now-richer-than-god guy. At the reception, the wedding party- which consisted of unanimously of Americans of suburban, upper-middle-class origins- participated/performed in a series of ethnic rituals: an Apache wedding blessing, a West African commitment ceremony, some Tibetan something-or-other and a couple other things I forget. It was like this patronizing little third-world-lite tasting menu of wedding traditions. By the time they got to the Tibetan thing, it was all I could do to keep from yelling out, “Give it up already- you’re white kids from the suburbs! Just do the Chicken Dance!”

No, what I really did was pack a whole bunch of different stuff into a very short weekend: I did a bike race (road), climbed a mountain, and capped it off with a mtn bike ride. So Friday night I loaded up the 4Runner with road bike, mtn bike, daypack, camping gear, and 4 pair of footwear*.

*Road bikes shoes, mtn bike shoes, hiking boots, sandals.


Saturday I raced Chalk Creek, up by Coalville, Utah, my first real Cat3 race (80 miles). Technically it was my second, but the first was a hill-climb, which is more like a time-trial/free-for-all than a real road-race.

Tangent: Know what the best thing about racing Cat3 is? Nobody sucks. Everybody knows how to work safely in a pack, and that lowers a lot of the early-race stress.

AFO Lotoja Finish 2007 Know what the worst thing is about racing Cat3? Nobody sucks. Seriously, here’s the deal. When you’re a Cat5 racer, if you’re any good, you think, “Hey, I’m a pretty good racer…” But much of the reason you feel like a good racer is because a huge number of Cat5 racers, well, suck. They’re all over the road, they’re out-of-shape, they attack senselessly, they blow up early and get dropped. In every Cat5 race, at the 1st big climb, a large portion of the pack gets left behind, and if you can avoid falling off, you’re immediately in contention.

AFO Tour de PC Cat4 is different in that everybody’s raced before, but there are still plenty of, uh, “not great” Cat4’s. And though you have to work a little harder, and have stiffer competition for a top 10 finish, your ego and confidence are still bolstered by the significant number of “not great” racers.

But in Cat3, everybody’s a really, really good racer. Nobody is foolish or reckless or unprepared or inexperienced or overweight or out-of-shape. And so the tricks that got you far in your Cat4/5 days don’t work so well anymore. You power up a big hill, setting a blistering pace, thinking, “Well, that’ll shed a few of them…”, but then you look back at the top and they’re all still there!

Despite the more formidable competition, I did respectably. At around mile 45 Coyote Dave (who also recently upgraded) and I bridged up to a small break, and combined, we maintained the break for the remaining 35 miles, thanks in large part to our teammates in the main pack who blocked for us. I took 4th.


IMG_0630 After the race I kept driving East, up into Evanston, Wyoming, then South and up the North slope of the Uintas. I camped at 9,000 feet in a clearing up an old jeep trail, surrounded by Lodgepole Pines and wildflowers. Most of the flowers were familiar from the Wasatch, but some weren’t. This one was new to me: Silverleaf Phacelia, Phacelia hastata (pics left and right). Phacelias are weird little flowers, IMG_0628with too-long stamens sticking out every crazy which way past the petals, almost like little insect antennae. The most closely-related thing- and only other Phacelia- we’ve looked at in this blog is Scorpion Weed, which we saw back in the Spring in the desert outside of St. George, 300 miles South and 5,000 feet below.

Sunday morning I drove up to the Highline trailhead and set out to climb Mt. Agassiz.


IMG_0647I used to do a lot more hiking. Back when I lived in Colorado I hiked often, and climbed several 14,000 and 13,000 ft peaks. And my first few years in Utah I hiked frequently in the Wasatch. But in recent years, with family, biking and racing, hiking has fallen off. And that’s a shame, because so many of the really great places in the Intermountain West can really only be reached on foot, and most of the best peaks only by scrambling off-trail.

IMG_0692 I accessed the peak via the Highline trail (pic above, right), which I followed at around the 10,000-foot level until I was due South of the South-running ridge of Agassiz, at which point I left the trail and struck off North through open forests. In the Wasatch below 9,500 feet such bushwhacking would be slow and tedious, but in the Uintas at 10,000 feet the forests are open and easy to pass through (pic left). After about ¼ mile I reached the base of the ridge and started the steep scramble up.

Agassiz route map The initial slope up the ridge was stiff and tiring, but there was enough vegetation to hold scree and gravel in place, and provide occasional handholds. At about 11,000 feet the slope eased just a bit, and the trees became more widely spaced. At about 11,200 feet the trees became scattered, stunted and disappeared. Mats of krummholz persisted for another 30 vertical feet or so, and then disappeared. I’d reached treeline.

All About Treeline

IMG_0691 Treeline has always fascinated me. Forests blanket mountains seemingly endlessly, but if the land pokes up just another couple of thousand feet, suddenly the trees are eliminated. The peaks and high plateaus above treeline are some of the most beautiful places to hike anywhere, with views in all directions, but the environment is harsh and the weather fickle.

The first interesting thing about treeline is that it’s not always the same; it varies with latitude. Down in central Mexico, treeline is about 13,000 – 14,000 feet. By the time you reach the Sangre de Cristo mountains in Northern New Mexico, it’s down to 12,000 feet. In most of Northern Colorado and Utah it’s around 11,000 feet, then down to 10,000 in the Wind River range, about ½ “up” Wyoming.

IMG_0688 By Glacier National Park, it’s down to 8,000 feet, and up in Jasper it’s down to just a bit above 6,000 feet. At the southern border of the Yukon it’s down below 4,000 feet, and finally at around 67 degrees North, it gets down to sea level, meaning you’ve reached Arctic timberline.

Side Note: Treeline isn’t consistent with latitude. Moving East, it “dips” precipitously Southward as you approach Hudson Bay. Nor is the relationship between latitude and treeline linear, though it’s roughly so (about 75m/degree of latitude) between about 30 and 50 degrees North. There’s a similar relationship between treeline and latitude moving South in the Southern hemisphere.

IMG_0654 What stops the trees isn’t the thin air; if it were, treeline would always be the same altitude regardless of latitude. Rather it’s the combination of low temperatures, minimal (unfrozen) soil and high winds. It’s just too tough to make a tree “work.” And so grasses, mosses, lichens and other little things take over. At 11,800 feet I came across this clump of Spikemoss, Selaginella (species unknown) which is a lycophyte. I blogged about lycophytes this past Spring down in Costa Rica, and how they used to dominate the entire world in forests of mighty trees. Today, 300 million years later, their surviving cousins eek out a living in this harsh place where trees can’t manage to grow.

Altitude and People

But for many other creatures, the lack of air at high altitude does limit their range. One such creature is us. Everybody knows about altitude sickness, and feeling winded or light-headed when you suddenly travel from sea level to high altitude. And anyone who’s read Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” knows that above 26,000 feet is the “Death Zone”, where a human being will absolutely die should he/she remain long enough without supplemental oxygen. But there are a whole series of altitude-related health issues in between those 2 extremes.

One of the most fascinating is pregnancy and miscarriage. One of the challenges of all placental mammals is providing the fetus with sufficient oxygen; most babies are born slightly hypoxic. At altitude the placental machinery is further stressed. Over 10,000 feet, miscarriage rates go up and birth weight goes down. For much of the 20th century, miscarriage rates in Colorado’s Summit and Lake counties were nearly 20% higher than US miscarriage rates at sea level*. Above 14,000 feet, it becomes unlikely-to- impossible that a European woman will successfully carry a pregnancy to term**.

*I suspect this is no longer the case, due to improvements in prenatal care, but was unable to confirm.

** These figures apply to women who reside, or spend significant time, at these altitudes. Short visits don’t seem to have the same effects. Air travel by the way is not thought to be a danger; cabin pressures mimic altitudes of 6,000 – 8,000 feet. Although some studies have suggested higher miscarriage rates in flight attendants, such higher rates- if true- may be the result of work-related stress and exertion.

But there are women- lots of women- for whom these guidelines don’t apply. Tibetan and Andean Indian women, for example, routinely conceive and give birth at altitudes of over 13,000 feet. This is fascinating, as Tibetan and Andean peoples have lived at their altitudes for only 25,000 and 11,000 years respectively. Yet in that short time- maybe 600 – 1500 generations- they’ve evolved the capacity to reproduce at extreme altitudes. But what’s even more fascinating than the sheer short-term evolutionary feat is how they do it, and specifically, how they do it differently.

Probably the leading researcher in high-altitude human physiology over the past few decades is Cynthia Beall, Professor of Anthropology at Case Western University. Beall’s research indicates that Tibetans and Andeans overcome the physiological challenges of altitude through very different, and independently-evolved, adaptations.

Andean Woman Andeans (pic left = photo of Andean woman I pulled off the web) solve the problem in a manner not wholly dissimilar to a cheating TdF racer: they increase their red blood cell count. While this overcomes challenges of fertility and exhaustion, it is not- not unlike EPO- without disadvantages. Andean Indians living at altitude suffer rates of pulmonary hypertension significantly greater than those of lowland populations.

tibetan woman The Tibetan (pic right = photo of Tibetan woman I pulled off the web. No, I have no idea what the hell that is on her head.) adaptations are more interesting. The most basic changes appear to be increased airflow, in part due to a higher rate of resting respiration (i.e. they breathe faster.) But the really cool adaptation has to do with blood flow. When you or I go suddenly up to say 14,000 feet, our blood vessels actually constrict slightly, which amplifies shortness of breath and exhaustion. But the linings of Tibetans’ blood vessels synthesize far more Nitric Oxide* (NO) than ours do, and that NO has the effect of dilating the blood vessels, improving blood flow and minimizing the effects of altitude.

*No this isn’t “Nitrous Oxide”. Tibetans aren’t synthesizing laughing gas; that’s N2O

The Tibetan system appears more evolutionarily advanced, and that’s probably because the population’s been living at altitude more than twice as long (25,000 years vs. 11,000 years) as the Andean Indians.

Tangent: I love to highlight specific examples of evolution in this blog, but I’m particularly wowed by this one, involving as it does human beings, and occurring over such a short time-frame. Then again, you could say the same for the last couple hundred thousand or so years of human evolution in general.

IMG_0676 I noticed a several flowers on the climb, some familiar, some new. Finally, at just below 12,000 feet, I saw the last new flower: Sky Pilot, Polemonium viscosum (pic left). This distinctive lovely little flower, with its lavender petals, bright yellow anthers and tripartite stigma occurs across the Intermountain West, but only at the loftiest heights. It never sees trees or forests. It’s common above timberline in the Uintas, though I don’t recall having seen it in the Wasatch. It’s closely-related to the other Polemonium species we looked at recently, Leafy Jacob’s Ladder, though I doubt the two ever cross paths.

IMG_0672 As I scrambled toward the summit (pic right) I saw weather several miles away, both to the East, and more worryingly, the Southwest. Only a few hundred feet from the top, I moved fast, breathing hard. Above timberline it always seems as though the light somehow changes. IMG_0679The air is clearer, the sky bluer, and the real world, when you think about it, seems, well, unreal. For this reason I typically linger a bit at high-altitude summits (pic left). It’s like a brief vacation from existence in this world, stepping into one where I know I can’t stay for long, but in which everything is beautiful and different.

IMG_0680 On this day though, I didn’t linger. A few snapshots, a sign-in at the register, and a couple minutes scanning through the binoculars at possible future routes to nearby peaks and basins (pic right), and I was off. As it turned out the rain didn’t hit me till I was but a mile from the trailhead, but thunder and fast-moving clouds make one eager to get below treeline quickly.

Mountain Biking

I’d planned to mtn bike in the Uintas as well, but the foul weather drove me West to familiar terrain, and I soon myself pedaling through Pinebrook on the good old PBX loop. But the change from 10,000 foot to Uinta forest to 7,500 feet Wasatch forest was a shock. Down close to home, the forest was a dense green jungle, with things growing everywhere. In fact, many of our “standard trails” are getting a bit grown in. Time for a couple of rides with the pruning shears…

X trail July On the ride I spotted one more new late-summer flower, IMG_0549and this one’s a cinch to pick out. It’s Fireweed, Epilobium angustifolium. You only see it in late summer, often along roadsides or disturbed areas. It’s called “fire”weed not for its color, but for its habit of sprouting up in burnt areas. In fact you only see it infrequently in undisturbed areas, as it competes poorly with established vegetation.

IMG_0555 Unlike most of the flowers in the Wasatch it’s 4-petaled, and the things it’s most closely-related to around here are the also-4-petaled Evening Primroses. They’re all part of the Evening Primrose family, Onagraceae.

Tangent: Here’s something cool. Notice how amost every flower I blog about now I’m able to mention some relative or other I’ve blogged about previously? I couldn’t do that a year ago, but as I’ve learned about more and more plants, I’m able to make more of those family-tree-type connections. The world’s starting to make sense.

I finished the ride and headed home, finishing my Bachelor Weekend with that satisfied “got-my-money’s-worth” feeling. Un-packing, repacking, and some weekend work-work and preparation for the coming week made for a late night. When the alarm went off for my early AM flight to California, it seemed like my head had just barely hit the pillow.

Tangent: I was deep in a dream when the alarm went off. So deep that the beeping was integrated into my dream for a moment or two before it finally “pulled me up.” Coming out of a deep, heavy dream feels sort like surfacing after a scuba dive. You feel yourself getting pulled up, the light grows, the sounds start to change, and then- bam!- you pass a boundary and you’re in a different world, one with way too much light and noise…

Note: Special thanks to Professor Beal. I’m extremely grateful to researchers who make their research available online, where it can be accessed by motivated amateurs such as me. Thanks Cynthia!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Positive Daisies, Pants On Fire

KK RSP cutSo I know I’ve posted a ton about wildflowers this year, and in this post I’m going to post about 4 more. But I have 2 good reasons for doing so- a long-term strategic reason, and a short-term-tactical-pants-on-fire reason. (No real reason for pic right except it was during the ride I photographed Flower #1, and I thought it was a cool pic.)

The long-term-strategic reason is that one of my hopes for this blog is that when I finish this whole crazy project, I’ll have blogged about just about every wildflower and tree in Northern Utah, and that people looking for info on a particular Utah plant will land here, and hopefully gain a little bit of insight about it.

Tangent: And in fact this happens today. When I look as visitor stats, many folks land here because they’re looking for info on a particular plant or flower*. Still others regularly land here because they’re searching for “Selma Hayek” or “Hotel Sex.” Somehow I get the feeling that most of those searching on the latter phrase are not in fact looking for night-mountain-biking info

*Most don’t stay all that long, but hey that’s another story.

WatcherApexClimb by KK The pants-on-fire reason is that I’m going to be out-of-state and/or out-of-pocket for most of the next 4 weeks. (pic left = me climbing in Park City, courtesy of KanyonKris. Again, no real reason for the photo. I’m just vain.) There’s a whole complicated itinerary for this that involves work, family, races and multiple vacations, but the net-net is that I’ll have little if any opportunities for blogging about the Wasatch over the next month. But there are a handful of late-summer flowers that are blooming like crazy right now and which I want to hit on quick before leaving town.

Tangent: I love the expression “Pants on fire.” Really? Your pants are on fire? How did that happen? I can see catching your hair or maybe even your shirt on fire, but your pants? And if your pants were on fire, why would you be running around, trying to get a lot of stuff done? Why wouldn’t you- oh I don’t know- maybe take off your pants?

Nested Tangent: Oo- this reminds me of the best take-off-your-pants-story ever. Years and years ago, OCRick was on a river trip. It was a big group, of whom OCRick only knew 1 or 2 beforehand. One of the other rafters was a very attractive young woman. One night, as they’re all sitting around the campfire, the Very Attractive Young Woman stands up very slowly, and without a word, unbuttons her jeans, and very, very slowly starts to pull them down. (OCRick- and presumably others- was thinking, “OK, hey, trip’s looking up!”) When she finally slow-motion-shimmied her pants down past her thighs, her behavior suddenly made perfect, horrible sense: there was a huge scorpion on her leg. She flicked it off non-chalantly, re-panted and sat back down.

Really, the only expression I like better than pants-on-fire is “Swing a Dead Cat”, about which I have already blogged (tangentially) about. Know what would be really crazy? If you were swinging a dead cat while your pants were on fire- then people would notice you! They’d say, “Hey check out that guy-that’s some serious multi-tasking!”

Pants on fire OK, so one more thing before we get to the flowers: at least 2 of these are so common right now that they fall squarely in the “If-You-Notice-Them-You’re-A-Retard” (IYNTYAR) category.

First Flower – The Deal With Daisies

IMG_0520 The first flower is easy- it’s a “normal”-looking, or “Positive” daisy, in contrast to the “Negative Daisies” we checked out during the Steiner100. While Positives are nowhere near as common as Negatives right now in the Wasatch, they’re still pretty common. And like the negatives, it’s not actually a “daisy” either. Well, sort of, but sort of not. What?

OK, here’s the deal with Fleabanes, Asters and Daisies. All of these flowers are part of the massive, super-cool and highly successful Sunflower family, Asteraceae. Balsamroots, Mules Ears, Arnicas, Sunflowers, Dandelions and False Dandelions, Salsifies and Blue Sailor- we keep running into this family over and over and over again. There are over 23,000 species of Asteraceae, and they’re a diverse and highly evolved family. There are 3 defining characteristics of Asteraceae, which may well account for their success.

First is their composite structure. All Asteraceae are composites of dozens- or even hundreds of individual flowers. For a full explanation, see the first of my Dandelion posts last year.

Tangent: I did a 3-part series on Dandelions way back in the first month of this blog, when nobody* read it. Which was a shame because I always thought that was one of my best series: a super-ordinary, everyday weed that turns out to be phenomenally complex and highly evolved, with a fascinating natural history.

*Seriously- nobody.

CLB Big caption Second is their characteristic of secondary pollen presentation, which means that over the life of the flower, pollen gets transferred from the anthers to some other spot/organ. The Asteraceae mechanism for this is the style that pushes its way up like a plunger, then splits and curls back on itself. In some species this presents an alternate way for (maybe different) pollinators to come in contact with pollen; in others it presents a self-pollination mechanism that becomes effective only after cross-pollination- sort of a hedge-your bets device*.

CLB Zoom caption *There’s also a potential cost to secondary pollen presentation, in that a fair amount of pollen loss seems to be involved in the transfer.

And the 3rd trait is the complex secondary chemistries of Asteraceae, including terpenes, latex and alkaloids, and which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.

It’s fascinating to compare the Sunflower family to the Rose family. IMG_0518Though Rosaceae has done far more for agriculture than Asteraceae, the latter is arguably a much more sophisticated, highly-evolved group of plants. They’re also more recent; the proto-sunflower ancestor lived somewhere around 45-50 million years ago (probably in Southeast Asia) vs. 55-60 million for the ancestral proto-rose. Asteraceae by the way have experienced their greatest success in open grasslands, which similarly came about within the last 35-45 million years (around the same timeframe as the appearance of C4 photosynthesis.) The fruits of Asteraceae are always achenes, which I explained in this post and which are well-suited to the seasonally arid conditions of most grasslands.

Tangent: This whole “highly evolved” moniker is of course way subjective and value-laden, but I don’t care. Someday I will do a post on my absolute favorite highly-vs. simply evolved example- the eyes of the Housefly and the Dragonfly.

So am I ever going to explain the “Daisy” thing already? Yes- right now.

Here’s the problem with the word “Daisy”: it’s used in 2 different ways. It’s often used as a catch-all for all/many member s of the Sunflower family. But it’s also used specifically for the Common Daisy, Bellis perennis, which is native to Europe, but which has become a common naturalized exotic in North America. The “Daisies” you buy at the flower shop are cultivars of B. perennis. Fleabanes (genus = Erigeron) and Asters (genus = Aster) are different genera within Asteraceae.

IMG_0522 The Positive Daisy pictured here is Engelmann’s Aster. It looks like a daisy though it’s (really) not. But even more confusingly, it’s not an Aster. It belongs to the genus Eucephalus, yet another genus in the amazing divers Sunflower family, and is specifically E. engelmannii. Anyway, it’s easy to pick out, looks like something you’ve seen at the florist, and if you just do what I do and call it a Positive Daisy, it’s a quick quasi-ID.

Second Flower- IYNTYAR

IMG_0535 The second flower is absolutely IYNTYAR. Seriously, this thing is blooming all over. It’s especially common on open ski slopes around Park City and the Canyons right now, but it’s also super-common in Aspen forests as well. It’s Western Bistort, Polygonum bistortoides, (pics left and below, right) and it also has a composite florescence, but it’s only distantly-related to the Asteraceae. Rather it’s part of the Knotweed Family, Polygonaceae, which is the same family to which the Buckwheats- including Sulphurflower Buckwheat- belong.

IMG_0533 Western Bistort is a late-bloomer ranging all across the Western US and Canada. Further North is the closely-related Arctic Bistort, P. viviparum, which is interesting in that nearly all of its reproduction is asexual, a possible response to a harsher growing environment. Western Bistort- so far as has been observed- reproduces only sexually.

Tangent: When I am KJI-SLC, I’m passing a law (decree, really) that says that any Utah resident who can’t ID Western Bistort has to be deported from the state to live in New Jersey.

Third Flower – Really Super-Cool

IMG_0569 The 3rd flower is also super-common, but it’s not really IYNTYAR because it looks kinda-like some other stuff. It’s Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium (pic left). And in truth I’ve been seeing this guy around forever, and only recently got around to ID-ing it because, well, it looks so much like so many other things. At first glance it looks like a miniaturized version of Cow Parsnip, or kinda—sorta Queen Anne’s Lace. Both of those are members of the Carrot/Parsely family, Apiaceae, which is characterized by broad, disk-only composite flowers. And so I naturally assumed this guy was part of the same family, with the same structure flowers.

IMG_0592 Side Note: Cow Parsnip (pic right) is all over and in full bloom now, especially near watercourses, but throughout the Aspen understory around 7,500 – 8,500 feet as well.

Only it’s not. It’s yet another member of Asteraceae that just looks like the Apiaceae. CY Big caption And in fact- and here’s the cool part- the flowers aren’t actually disk-only composites. When you get up close and check them out, each one of those is little teensy flowers is actually a separate composite flower, with its own disk and ray flowers! It’s like a composite of composites! So this little, unassuming carrot-y looking thing I’ve been pedaling by for months is like the most hierarchically sophisticated flower around. Wow!

CY Zoom caption Tangent: There’s a moral here: Check stuff out. That’s it. Don’t just pedal by and say, Ah, I’m busy, it’s just some weed or whatever. Every plant has a cool story to tell.

Side Note: The Cutleaf Balsamroot zoom was from a photo taken with my old camera (Canon PowerShot 450) back in May. The Yarrow zoom was with the new camera (Canon PowerShot SD780IS). This thing takes awesome close-ups.

Fourth Flower – Way Freaky

I saved the best flower for last, but I’ve cheated. For some reason, though I saw plenty of it during the Steiner100 last weekend, I haven’t yet gotten a pic of this guy; I lifted this one (below, left) off of a Penn State botany site. But it’s blooming now and by the time I get up high again it may be gone, so hey, cut me some slack.

cone1 When you look at this thing, it’s not even immediately clear that it’s a flower, and when you realize that it is, you wonder if it’s dying or damaged. But it’s not- it’s in full bloom. It’s Western Coneflower, Rudbeckia occidentalis, and remarkably, it’s yet another Asteraceae. Coneflowers- and there are dozens of species- all sport the trademark cone-shaped heads. The most familiar Coneflower for most of us is the Black-Eyed Susan, R. hirta. But what makes R. occidentalis so remarkable is that it has no ray flowers (what you’d think of as petals.) The flower is a disk-only composite, like what you typically see in the Carrot/Parsley family, and yet it’s part of the Sunflower family.

There are a couple other species of ray-less Coneflower species, and they’re very closely-related to R. occidentalis, suggested that ray-less-ness evolved just once in the Rudbeckia. In any case, it’s yet another independently-evolved way of being a disk-only composite.

OK, that gives you a few flowers to check out while I’m away. I really don’t know how often or on what topics I’ll be blogging over the next few weeks. Work rants, airplane rants, vacation stuff, who knows? I’ll be in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Idaho and maybe even Alberta over the coming weeks, with a couple of pit-stops back in Utah along the way. So be patient, and I’ll see what I can come up with.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Steiner100 Part 2: Mallows, Gilia and Rattlers

The mid-mountain trail between the Canyons and Park City is one of my favorite parts of the Steiner100, and the flowers have changed a lot since I rode it 2 weeks earlier.

Wheres IanSticky Geranium, Richardson’s Geranium and Leafy Jacob’s Ladder now dominate the understory. IMG_0453 There’s also a newcomer- Mountain Globemallow, Iliamna rivularis (pics right, left). I like this guy because it’s both attractive and a bit unusual. It’s never super-common, but occurs in isolated patches through the Aspen forest. And it’s not IMG_0454particularly closely-related to anything else around it. The closest thing we’ve looked at to it is our old friend Desert Globemallow, back down in St. George. Mountain Globemallow seems like its mountain cousin, adapted for a cooler, wetter world.

IMG_0268 Side Note: There’s another flower that looks a lot like this that’s been blooming for about 2 weeks about a thousand feet lower, down around Jeremy Ranch, and for about a week I thought it was the same thing. But it’s not- it’s Rocky Mountain Checkermallow, or Salt-Spring Checkermallow, Sidalcea neomexicana (pic right). It’s another close cousin, and at first glance it’ll fool, you, but the stamens are way different.

Down To Six

When Mid-Mountain trail spat us out in Park City, we lost one more of our group. The remaining 6 of us turned upward, Westward and homeward in the late afternoon heat as we began the long, seemingly endless climb up onto the Wasatch Crest.

Tangent: Our Park City drop-off was none other than Fast Jimmy, on whom the heat had taken a bit of a toll. But this is a great time to mention that FJ has had a busy cycling season, that’s been reflected in his waistline. Since our White Rim adventure- just 6 weeks ago- FJ has lost 15 lbs! Go Fast Jimmy!

FJ Slimdown When we finally crested Puke Hill at 9,600 feet, we re-grouped and caught our breath. IMG_0472 The flowers here were great as well, and what was particularly interesting was that much of the Scarlet Gilia up here was a light pinkish white. I’ve blogged about Scarlet Gilia a number of times; it’s beautiful, common and easy to ID. But one of the most fascinating things about this guy is that the flowers on individual plants and groups of plants actually lighten in color later in the season, and apparently they do so in response to a pollinator shift. Early in the summer, Gilia’s primary pollinators are Hummingbirds. But as the summer progresses, IMG_0473the Hummingbirds move on, and the plant relies more on the remarkably-convergently-evolved (and equally-long-proboscised*) Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Hawkmoths, who of course have a completely and radically different system of color vision than birds, prefer lighter-flowered colors, and the color shift of the flowers appears optimized to attract their attention.

*Can I make a word out of that?

IMG_0471Side Note: Unfortunately, despite the fact that the lovely, light=pink “Scarlet” Gilia were everywhere along the Crest, I only snapped this one, blurry, while-rolling, photo (right). What can I say- by mile 80-something it gets harder to make photo stops.

IMG_0474 Racing along the crest is always thrilling, but doing so in the early evening feels like chasing the sun back into the Salt Lake Valley. The miles rolled by, and even after 80 miles we felt fast and confident, threading our way smoothly down “the Spine”, past Desolation Lake and back toward Mill Creek.

IMG_0475 There’s a point along this stretch where you can look off into the distance and see the Great Salt Lake, and the salt flats beyond. In the late afternoon it’s obscured in a white-hot summer haze, a reminder of the 100+F temps in the valley below. After all these years, this is still my favorite view of the valley, and it makes me think how all of the streams and springs that feed the green lushness around me will eventually finish their journey, just 30 miles away and 5,000 feet below: evaporating on a white-hot playa, under scorching desert sun. It’s the weird combination of beauty and harshness that is the Wasatch Front, wrapped up in a single picture.

Down, down, down into Mill Creek Canyon, through Spruce and Fir, past Fitweed and Flax, we sped through meadows and forests till we popped out at the IMG_0477Big Water trailhead and bombed down 3 miles of twisty asphalt before jumping on Pipeline trail. Almost 4 weeks ago I blogged about this stretch of Pipeline, mentioning the tall grasses brushing against my shins. On Saturday they brushed my arms. The evening air had started to pool in the draws, giving us momentary respites from the heavy hot air of the day. (Another blurry pic- sorry- along Pipeline, left) We were almost home.

Brush With Danger!

But at the top of Rattlesnake Gulch, our exit down to the pavement, I looked at my computer and did some quick math. I would finish a couple of miles short of a full century, and I talked one of our remaining group- young “Ian”- into pedaling out to the Mill Creek overlook and back for an extra couple of miles.

Ian MC On the way back, pedaling quickly, I spied a Gopher snake crossing the trail. In a hurry, and calculating that I’d miss it, I kept rolling.

Venom1Only… it wasn’t a Gopher Snake. As it crossed the trail it quickly coiled and rattled, as I passed it by less than a foot at 12-15 MPH. My heart skipped a beat, but he didn’t strike. I yelled back at Ian, but it was too late- he’d already rolled past as well, only realizing it presence when alongside it.

Venom2 Utah has 7 species or subspecies of Rattlesnake. The one I blogged about last year, down by the Dirty Devil, was a Midget Faded Rattler, Crotalus viridis concolor. Down around St. George, you could conceivable get bit by 1 of 4 different species of Rattler. But up here along the Wasatch Front, we have just one- the Great Basin Rattlesnake- C. viridis lutosus. C.v. lutosus isn’t at all unusual; if you hike or bike often enough in the Wasatch between 5,000 and 9,000 feet you’re eventually going to cross paths with one*.

*And I suppose if really often enough, get bit, eventually…

IMG_0479 All Rattlesnakes are venomous, and inject venom through frontal, hinged, hollow fangs. The venom is a modified saliva, and consists of 2 principal components: neurotoxin and hemotoxin. Neurotoxins act on nerves and cause pain and paralysis. In other snakes, such as Coral Snakes, whose venom is primarily neurotoxic, bites can lead to death through paralysis and respiratory failure. But the neurotoxic component in Rattlers isn’t that powerful. Rather the more problematic component is usually the hemotoxin, which disrupts blood-clotting, destroys capillaries and muscle tissue, and clogs the lymphatic system with dead cells. Although Rattlesnake bites are rarely fatal, permanent scarring muscle damage and even loss of limbs are not uncommon.

Tangent: Rattlesnake bite is the probably the one backcountry potential mishap for which I don’t have a good plan. The standard advice is Seek Medical Attention. That’s less-than-satisfying advice in the desert canyons of Southern Utah, where cell service is non-existent, and return to one’s vehicle can take a full day+ when healthy… The various snakebite kits are generally considered worthless at best, harmful at worst. If any reader has a plan or product they can recommend (and have used) I’d love to hear about it.

IMG_0478 The 6 of us regrouped down at the bottom of Rattlesnake Gulch* and rolled home along Wasatch Drive. It was a great Steiner100, the best yet. But don’t take it from me; take it from Aurora Coryalis and Hunky Neighbor:**

*Yes, it’s really called “Rattlesnake Gulch.” Talk about a place where one ought to be careful of Rattlers…

**Any SLC locals know what the deal is with that garage?