Thursday, July 9, 2009

Uintas Hiking, Flowers, Chipmunks and 2 Cool Things About the Remarkable Buttercup Family

At the end of May I went up to Southern Idaho for a bike race. While I was up there I thought, “Hey, this is really nice up here, I should come back with the family.” So I did, and we had a great weekend.

IMG_0192 Late last month I did a bike race in the Uintas. While I was up there- even though I was freezing wet and shivering- I managed to think, “Hey, this is really nice up here, I should come back with the family.” So Sunday, continuing along my theme of returning to attractive race venues when not racing, we did a great family hike up in the Uintas.

IMG_0186 I described the Uintas previously in this post, where I was XC skiing through Lodgepole Pine forests at around 8,000 feet. The same gently rolling topology that makes them so amenable to XC travel in Winter also makes them attractive for family hikes in Summer.

We started our hike a bit higher than I ski in the Uintas in Winter, at just over 10,000 feet at the Crystal Lake trailhead, about an hour’s drive from Salt Lake. Though only an hour’s drive, the High Uintas feel a world away.

Notch Pass Hike Route In this post I’ve included several vista/scenery shots from the hike. If you compare these with my typical Wasatch shots (such as in the previous post) you’ll notice the immediate and obvious differences in both terrain and forest cover.

Tangent: The terrain of the Uintas is worth spending a moment on. Most hikers and XC skiers are drawn to the Uintas because- like us- they appreciate the rolling, relatively mellow terrain, at least when compared to the steep slopes of the Wasatch. But I’m convinced that this mellow, rolling terrain has a hand in one of the less cheerful aspects of the range- every once in a while, people just disappear in the Uintas.

IMG_0189 Since I’ve lived in Utah, once every year or so, someone gets lost/disappears up there. Sometimes they get found a day or so later. One time their bodies were found the following Spring. And still another time, a young boy was never seen again. What’s interesting about these mishaps is that this type of thing practically never happens in the Wasatch. Oh sure, people die here- from avalanches or accidents or such. But they don’t just disappear, like they do in the Uintas.

My “theory” is the culprit is the terrain and forest cover. In the Wasatch, you’re generally hiking on a slope. You’re going up or down, and as such it’s fairly hard to get “lost.” And the sub-timberline forests of the Wasatch are pretty dense with brushy undergrowth, which minimizes the tendency to wander away off trail.

IMG_0210 But in the Uintas, you spend a lot of the time on level or rolling terrain, with lots of little ups and downs, and so you don’t always instinctively know on which slope of which mountain or valley you’re traversing. And the forest is open and inviting, with wide, walk-able space between the trees. And if a late summer snow-shower should put a couple of inches down on the ground, well, it quickly becomes non-obvious which opening in the trees is the actual trail you’re following.

Anyway, my long-winded point is that it’s a good idea to teach your kids what to do when they get lost before hiking anywhere, but especially in the Uintas.

Uinta Forests

IMG_0188 The forests up here at 10,000 – 11,000 feet are of a much different character than my regular Wasatch haunts. The Aspens have been left down a thousand feet below, as have nearly all of their shrubby, leafy associates. This forest is purely coniferous, and what’s more, it’s comprised entirely of just 3 threes: Engelmann Spruce, Subalpine Fir and Lodgepole Pine. The Spruce and Fir we know already from the back home, but together with the Lodgepole they dominate the landscape in a way they never do in the Wasatch.

And so hiking in he Uintas is an altogether different experience- a fairyland stroll through and past dark, stately groves from one stunning alpine lake to another.

IMG_0198 But down on the ground things are different as well. Up here the snows have just melted; remnant snowbanks linger in shady spots. And all across the recently thawed meadows, flowers are springing up (pic right)- yellow ones and white ones. The yellow flowers are our old friend the Glacier Lily. Over nearly 4 months we’ve followed this little guy all the way from the mouth of Dry Creek a mile from my house, clear up to just below timberline. I don’t think there’s a flower that better says, “Watching the World Wake Up” than Erythronium grandiflorum*

*Which, coincidentally, was the first flower I ever profiled in this blog.

IMG_0238 But the white flowers were something I hadn’t seen before. They’re all over the place up there right now- carpeting meadows, lining stream banks. They’re Marsh Marigolds, Caltha leptosepala. (pics left & below, right)

Unlike so many of the flowers I’ve blogged about recently, Marsh Marigold isn’t a member of the Rose family. IMG_0239 Rather it’s a member of another family that we’ve actually already bumped into several times, but which I’ve never formally introduced” The Buttercup Family, Ranunculaceae. Though less obvious in either the backcountry or the supermarket than Rosaceae, it’s a family worth knowing for a couple of reasons-one that’s really cool to botanists, and another that’s really cool to me.

First Cool Thing

Ranunculaceae is cool to botanists because it’s considered a “primitive” angiosperm family, in that the structure of their flowers has many traits in common with those of some of the earliest flowering plants.

Geeky Side Note: Specifically, many of the flower components- such as stamens and pistils- that are often joined or “fused” via common attachment in more “advanced” families are separately attached to the flower in Ranunculacea. Most flowers in this family display more “primitive” petal and sepal connections and structure and lack more “advanced” features such as a clear calyx or corolla. Many Buttercup family species, including Marsh Marigold, have variable number of petals and sepals.

Other Buttercup Family members we’ve already looked at include Clematis, Larkspur and Columbine.

IMG_0194 Marsh Marigold occurs throughout the Rockies, across the Northwest and clear up into Alaska. Alongside Glacier Lilies it’s almost always the first thing to pop after the snows melt. But it’s not the only Buttercup up here. When you crouch down in a Uinta meadow and start poking around, you’ll often notice that some of the Marsh Marigolds look a bit different (pic left). Their petals* are broader and fewer (usually only five.) And the leaves are different as well- not ovaloid, but deeply lobed and palmate, almost reminiscent of a wild geranium leaf.

*Psst- they’re not really “petals”, as we’ll see in a moment…

IMG_0193 In fact they’re not Marsh Marigolds at all, but White Globeflowers, Trollius albiflorus. (pic left) T. albiflorus is a close cousin of C. leptosepala, and almost always grows alongside it. But in Utah its range is far more limited. It occurs only in the Uintas; you’ll never find one in the Wasatch (so far as I know.)

Tangent: If you live in the Northeast, there’s a close relative, Yellow Globeflower, T. laxus, that looks exactly like this guy except the sepals are yellow instead of white. It’s supposedly pretty rare now, occurring in patches between Michigan and Connecticut.

Second Cool Thing

In addition to their similar appearance, blooming times and environments, Marsh Marigold and Globeflower have something else fascinating in common, which leads me to the thing about the Buttercup family that is really cool to me: they have no petals.

Marigold Underside Ranunculacea flowers are some of the most structurally interesting and unusual flowers in the Intermountain West. In particular I find fascinating the many different and ingenious ways they’re put sepals to good use. On a Marsh Marigold , you can quickly confirm this by flipping the flower upside-down; the white “petals” are sepals, corrected directly to the stem, with no “buffering” green sepals below. Western Clematis, our favorite local climbing vine in the Wasatch, does exactly the same thing. It’s 4 lavender “petals are also sepals, and it’s true petals are the diminutive little lime-green leaflets cuddling the stamens inside.

Larkspur Sideview caption Larkspur is even more interesting. The “spur” is formed by the topmost (of 5) sepal, which juts back at a 90 degree angle to the stem. Larkspur of course has both sepals and petals. The sepals are the purple “petals” you see as you ride by; the true petals are the soft white striped with lavender petals inside.

But the most structurally-interesting Buttercup around here is Columbine. Columbine SideviewI’ve blogged about this flower a couple of times already, and it’s hard not to pay attention to it in the forest, but I never really got up close and figure out how this guy was actually put together until a few weeks ago. Like Larkspur, Columbine has backward-pointing “spurs”, but it has 5 of them. But the fascinating thing about Columbine spurs is that they’re formed not by the sepals- but by the petals. And the “petals” that you see when you face the flower head-on are actually sepals. It’s as though the flower is put together ass-back-wards, and it yet it’s arguably one of the most attractive flowers anywhere.

Side Note: One of the surprises of this project for me has been just how many different ways there are to be a flower. Whenever I take the time to get down and really check out how one is put together, I almost always find something that surprises me.

IMG_0191 Before leaving the Uintas, I should mention its namesake rodent, the Uinta Chipmunk, Tamias umbrinus, which is pretty common in in high-altitude forests in the Intermountain West, and which several appearances on our hike.

I’ve only blogged about one other squirrel so far in this blog, the Red Squirrel. I mention this because in spite of similar form and lifestyles, according to recent genetic research these 2 species last shared a common ancestor somewhere around 33-35 million years ago- half as far back in time as the dinosaurs.

Tangent: OK, the real reason I’m including this bit about Chipmunks in an otherwise botany-geek post is simply to show off my new camera. I took this Chipmunk shot (above, right) with the 12X zoom- not bad for a little point & shoot. My old camera’s 12X zoom produced dismally grainy and blurry snaps, such as those I used in several of my birdfeeder posts last winter.

CHolster20 Nested Tangent: Oh, and this reminds me- Camera-Holster 2.0 is a total score! Fits great on the Camelback or Daypack shoulder-strap, has a huge, top-side super-sticky Velcro cover, and holds the camera so tight I can’t shake it out even with the flap open and case upside-down. (Thanks Enel!) My break-through was not buying a camera case; I bought a cell-phone case instead. Much smaller, tighter fit, better profile and more secure. Wal-Mart*, $9.99.

*Yeah, yeah, made in China, slave labor, blah, blah…

gmgs In much of Utah, the rodent that is most often mistaken for a Chipmunk is this guy, the Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel, Spermophilus lateralis (pic left, not mine). The easy way to tell the 2 apart is by looking at their faces; a Chipmunk’s stripes extend to its head, but a GM Ground Squirrel’s doesn’t. Their similar coloration patterns are almost certainly the result of convergent evolution. These 2 guys last shared a common ancestor over 30 million years ago, only slightly more recently than either shared one with the Red Squirrel. (For reference, cats and dogs last shared a common ancestor only ~20 million years ago, and we and chimpanzees shared our last only 5-7 million years ago.)

Tangent: Coincidentally on Wednesday morning I nearly ran over a Uinta Chipmunk* on my road bike. I was descending Big Cottonwood Canyon with Teammate Elliott and another teammate- “Teammate-Justin.” Elliott was in the lead and gave us a slow-down hand-signal; a fawn was crossing the road. We slowed, passed and were laughing about hitting a deer at 40 MPH, when suddenly Elliott and Justin swerved right and left, leaving me bearing down on a Chipmunk** at (probably) 25-30 MPH, It darted right, then left, then right again, all in a fraction of a second, faster than I could have activated a finger on the brake lever. One more “left” and I would’ve crushed it.

*Or maybe it was a Ground Squirrel…

**Deer, Chimpunks, Coyotes- riding these canyons is getting to be like an episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom…

Cool Teammate-Elliott Story

But the real reason I’m telling this story is what happened next. We rounded the next bend, our speed building back up over 40MPH and passed a stretch where a couple of 1” – 6” rocks/pebbles lay strewn across our lane (a frequent occurrence in the canyons, due to minor rockslides.) When cyclists are in a pack, the lead rider typically warns riders behind of such obstacles through a simple hand-signal- a finger pointed down in the case of a rock or pothole- on whichever side the obstacle lies.

TE 40MPH cut I’ve mentioned in a previous post what a phenomenally skilled and coordinated cyclist Teammate-Elliott is. As we rounded the corner, we passed between 2 sizable rocks, each roughly 6” across. And in the middle of the turn, at 40MPH, at a ~30-degree lean-angle, Elliott removed both hands from the bars, pointed downward at each simultaneously and returned his hands to the bars faster than you could say, “obstacle.” I am telling you, the guy knows what he is doing on a bicycle.

Anyway, the Uintas are cool, inviting and beautiful right now. As things heat up this week, they’d make a great day-trip for the coming weekend.


KB said...

I saw tons of Globeflowers and Marsh Marigolds in the alpine zone here in Colorado recently. I noticed (and the books confirmed) that the Globeflowers like the dry terrain while the Marsh Marigolds like it incredibly wet. They even grew out of seasonal ponds in places.

It really is cool watching summer move up in altitude - and you've done a great job of that in this blog. At some point, the alpine zooms ahead of the lower elevations and starts towards winter early. In terms of the plants, I'm not sure when that 'cross-over' time is but it has always intrigued me.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I'm too scared to take both hands off the bars at ~30 mph. Going in a straight line. Elliott is amazing.

Watcher said...

KB- Interesting, that makes sense. Many of the Marigolds were growing up straight out of little standing meltwater puddles/ponds. I've always been frustrated trying to catch the alpine 'crossover'. I can't access real alpine terrain during the week, nor every weekend, and so I visit typically at 2 or 3 week intervals. Wish I had the time to be up there more frequently.

SBJ- Yes, he is. Great guy, too.