Thursday, August 27, 2009

Awesome Wife, A Bear, And Something I Never Knew About My Wife

OK I better wrap up the bear story and the hanging tangent from yesterday’s post.

So first, a little background. My spouse- aka Awesome Wife- almost never sees wildlife. Seriously. We live in Utah and I’m always seeing moose, deer, elk, porcupines, coyotes, desert bighorns, pronghorns, mountain goats and sometimes even bears or mountain lions. She never sees anything. In more than 2 decades of living in the West, she’s really never had a great wildlife sighting. Now part of this to be sure is because she doesn’t spend anywhere near the time in the Wasatch backcountry that I do, but still, she regularly hikes in the foothills, and as a family we go off on several weekend or longer backcountry and/or camping trips each year.

But if Awesome Wife is along, we don’t see wildlife. It’s as though she radiates a special Anti-Wildlife Dispersal Field that somehow telepathically repels forest creatures.

AWFieldNow I can see where in some cases (repelling hungry polar bears in the arctic for example) the AWDF would be highly beneficial. But the problem is that the Trifecta- like all young children- love animals. Here’s a quick example. Last week I blogged about our hike to Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park. IMG_1246 It was a wonderful hike, featuring stunning waterfalls, a picturesque mountain lake, lush, mossy quasi-rainforests, beautiful wildflowers and dramatic craggy peaks peeking through the clouds. But did the Trifecta care about any of that? No. The highlight of the hike- of the entire day- for them was the chipmunk- a chipmunk!- (pic right) that repeatedly tried to beg food from us and scour for dropped crumbs as we lunched by the lake.

So we really hoped that, in spite of Awesome Wife’s AWDF, we might see some more impressive wildlife in Glacier. But during the first 2 days, we saw- excepting the chipmunk- zip. Our lack of success was rubbed in the evening of the second day, when we returned to our rental cabin. The neighboring cabin was occupied by an older couple. Over the past 2 days we’d seen the husband out on the front porch of the cabin, chain-smoking and drinking beer constantly. Really- we never looked over and saw him not smoking and drinking beer. And, rather snottily, I suppose I looked down my nose at him a bit, wondering what kind of satisfying, get-in-touch with nature experience such shlubby smoker/beer-chugger types could possibly be having.

So imagine my surprise when shortly before dinner, as I was out in the driveway fiddling with my bike, the shlubby couple passed by and stopped to chat, and I found out that a) they were in fact extremely pleasant, friendly and interesting (filling me with guilt and chagrin for my earlier snotty assumptions) and that b) they had seen tons of wildlife in the park. In fact, that day- that very same day!- they had seen a grizzly, 2 black bears, and several mountain goats.

IMG_1741 How was this possible? I’m Mr. Nature! I see moose a couple of times a week (pic left from Monday-freaking-morning, upper Mill Creek), I’m attacked by coyotes, and I have a freaking nature blog, and I come to the G-D park and see nothing!

So on our last day in Montana, I returned to the cabin from my early morning Cloud-Ride and announced to the waking Trifecta that today was the day: we were going to see a bear.

Tangent: I had absolutely no reason to think or idea of how we might possibly see a bear. This was just sheer bravado, like when I know I’m really going to suffer in a big race and act all cocky and say stuff like, “I’m going to crush it!” It’s the kind of juvenile thing most guys stop doing sometime in their 20’s.

“Really?” they asked? “How do you know?” “I can feel it”, I blustered, “Today is the day!”

We’d spent the previous 2 days doing various day hikes off Going To the Sun Road, the main traffic artery through the park. IMG_1557 For our last day we decided to get off the beaten path a bit, and explore up around Bowman Lake (pic left), the park’s 3rd largest lake, which lies on the Pacific slope, to the North of Lake McDonald. Getting up there involved an hour+ of hammering our minivan on washboard roads, but we were pleased when we arrived at the lake- it’s a beautiful area. A couple of times one the way up, to distract the kids from the drive (“Are we there yet?”), I reminded them that today was the day we were going to see a bear.

Bowman Map Tangent: I highly recommend an overnighter at the Bowman Lake Campground. Bowman Lake is a lovely area, and it would be more enjoyable to spend a couple days based up there, given the extra drive in.

IMG_1525 We hiked along the Bowman Lake trail, a rolling easy trail that follows the lake’s Northern shoreline for several miles, dropping down to the shore at regular intervals. The lakewater (pic right)- like all the lakes in Glacier- is super-clear. Supposedly the reason is because the surface water temps are almost always <50F, inhibiting the growth of phytoplankton, but the water felt more like ~60F, and I would’ve ventured a dip at the end of the hike if I’d brought a spare pair of shorts*.

*There were families/kids around back at the beach by the T/H. Skinny-dipping was out.

Tangent: We spent a good amount of time skipping rocks, and I’m happy to report that all of the Trifecta mastered the technique during an extended break. Now every member of the Watcher Family is an accomplished rock-skipper, with the glaring exception of Awesome Wife, whose rock-skipping abilities are, unfortunately, “awesomely” non-existent. My theory is that the AWDF affects the spin of the rocks she throws, causing them to break the water surface-tension prematurely…

All About Bears

Bears have been around for something like 20 million years, and when you compare them to other groups that have been around that long (canines, felines) it seems surprising how few species there are- only 8, worldwide. 3 of those species are native to North America and 2 of them, the American Black Bear, Ursus americanus (which is the only bear endemic to North America), and the Grizzly Bear, Ursus arctos horribilis (which is actually the North American subspecies of the wider-ranging Brown Bear), are found in Glacier National Park. But there used to be many more species, a number of which became extinct only in the last 10,000 – 15,000 years.

sfbear1 The most notable recent ursine extinction here in North America was the Short-Faced Bear, Arctodus simus, (drawing left, not mine) which roamed North America until around 12,000 – 13,000 years ago, when it became extinct along with the vast majority of the Pleistocene megafauna. A. simus stood over 5 feet high at the shoulder, and something like 10 feet when it reared up on its hind legs. Unlike a Black Bear or a Grizzly (but like a Polar Bear) it wasn’t omnivorous- it was a carnivore*. The thing must have been absolutely terrifying.

*They can tell that its diet was carnivorous by examining different nitrogen isotopes in its bones. What’s not settled though is how A. simus got it’s meat, or rather whether it was a hunter or a scavenger- or more specifically, a kleptoparasite. And if it was a hunter, it’s not clear what kind of hunter- whether an ambush hunter, like a cougar, or a run-‘em-down hunter, like a cheetah. Its long legs suggest a runner, but its mass would seem problematic for long-distance chases.

Most people who something about bears know that there are a number of differences between the Grizzlies and Black Bears, the most important of which- from a outdoorhead’s perspective- is probably behavior. Grizzlies can be more aggressive and problematic in their encounters with humans, and that’s why, when you get up into Grizzly country, people start carrying around canisters of bear spray and wearing little bells*, things not so common does in Black Bear country**.

*Quick lame joke: How can you tell Grizzly scat from Black Bear scat? Grizzly scat has little bells in it.

**In fairness, “Black Bear country” covers a huge swathe of the lower 48, while Grizzly populations in the continental US are much more localized. So it makes sense that hikers and such would be more bear-aware/concerned when visiting Grizzly habitats.

black_grizzly_bear_comparison_oep But here are 2 differences between Grizzlies and Black Bears you might not have known- one useful and one geeky. The useful difference is profile, which is helpful when seeing a bear a ways off. When a Grizzly is on all fours, the highest part of its body is its shoulders. When a Black Bear is on all fours, it’s highest part is its rump. (great diagram right, not mine) The big rump of a Black Bear is also real obvious when it’s running (though maybe not quite so obvious when it’s running toward you…)

The geeky difference is that from a natural history perspective, as one is an American original, while the other a Johnny-come-lately to North America. Grizzlies are a subspecies of Eurasian Brown Bear, and migrated to North America via the Beringian land bridge only about 100,000 years ago*. And until 13,000 years ago, they kept to the far North, in Alaska and/or North of the glacial ice sheets. It was only at the end of the ice age- and coincident with the extinction of the Short-Faced Bear- that Grizzlies showed up in the lower 48.

*Which coincidentally is right around the same time “native” Dandelions appeared in North America, presumably via the same route, as I described in this post. That land bridge was a happening place.

Side Note: This appears to be another instance of the Megafauna-Extinctions-Creating-Vacant-Niches effect that we’ve discussed previously with both Moose and Wolves. The scale of change in North American fauna during just the last ~600 or so human generations is nothing short of astounding.

But Black Bears have been in North America for, well, forever, meaning that they evolved here, apparently from an early, fox-sized ancestor-bear, Ursus minimus, that migrated here from Eurasia somewhere around 4 million years ago. BTW, here’s an odd little factoid about Black Bears: although they were (obviously) one of the few North American large carnivores not to go extinct 13,000 years ago, they were actually larger 13,000 years ago and earlier than they are today. Isn’t that interesting?

Side Note: Confusingly, there were prehistoric bears in North America way, way earlier, back around ~5 to ~18 million years ago. These bears belonged to a now extinct branch of the bear family called Hemicyoninae, which died out either before or around the time U. minimus showed up.

There was also a family called the Tremarctine bears which pre-dated U. minimus in North America by at least a million years. The Short-Faced Bear was the last North American species of this family, but the Spectacled Bear, Tremarctos ornatus, - South America’s only native bear- is descended from Tremarctine bears that migrated to that continent from here as part of the Great American Interchange, roughly ~3 million years ago.

Polar Bears, BTW, (U. maritimus) appear to be a very recent offshoot of Brown Bear, and in fact Polar and Grizzly Bears kept together in captivity have produced fertile offspring.

Though Black Bears aren’t generally as problematic for backcountry hikers as Grizzlies, they still can be dangerous, particularly those who’ve become familiar with humans, their food and their trash. Black Bears typically kill between 1 and 3 people a year in North America. They’re fast, able to sprint at up to 35MPH; you can’t outrun a bear*.

*OK, another lame bear joke: 2 guys drive up to Montana to go hiking. They get out of the car and one starts putting on running shoes. The other guy asks, “Why running shoes? Don’t you want to wear hiking boots?” The first guy answers, “This is bear country. I need to be able to run fast.” Second guy says, “Don’t be silly. There’s no way you can outrun a bear.” First guy says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I just have to outrun you.”

The Hike, And 2 Things About Awesome Wife

IMG_1518 OK, so back to the hike. The trail was beautiful (pic left= Bird Whisperer on Bowman Lake Trail), the weather lovely. We stopped for lunch, hiked a bit more, skipped stones for a while, then turned around.

The Thing About Awesome Wife I Already Knew

Now here’s something you should know about Awesome Wife. You know that old saying about a horse going faster when it’s on its way back to the barn?IMG_1550 That is totally Awesome Wife hiking back to the car. We’ll be on our way out, and she’ll be strolling along, checking out birds and trees and what-not. But then we’ll turn around, and it’s like she’s on a Hiking Jihad to get back to the car- no stops, no rests, no chit-chat- she just moves. All of a sudden she’s transformed into this superhuman backcountry endurance athlete. We’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I should tell you the other thing about Awesome Wife, and unlike the first thing, this is something I never knew about her until later, that very day, when she finally shared it with me.

The Thing About Awesome Wife I Didn’t Know

For years, Awesome Wife has harbored a deep-seated fear of encountering large carnivores- specifically bears or mountain lions- in the backcountry. She’s worried on our hikes, when we’ve camped, when we’ve biked, etc. And this fear has, over the years, kept her from fully, really enjoying our camping and hiking trips as a couple, and later as a family.

I had no idea of any of this. Awesome Wife isn’t a complainer or vocal worrier; if she has a fault, it’s that she keeps concerns to herself sometimes longer than she ought to.

Tangent: I have to say, it was weird for me to find out something this significant about my spouse after so many years. How could I not have known this? What else don’t I know about Awesome Wife? Does she have a secret ex-husband? A love child by Orrin Hatch? Is she a Soviet sleeper agent, or possibly even a Republican*??

*Probably the only one I wouldn’t be able to get past…

Now it turns out that when we went up to Glacier, Awesome Wife made a decision. She decided that she wasn’t going to let a silly fear of wildlife keep her from enjoying a wonderful vacation. After all, she’d been doing backcountry trips with me for well over a decade, and never once come across a bear, a mountain lion, or even a badger. And with her newfound attitude and confidence, she’d relaxed and enjoyed our Montana hikes thoroughly.

Now, I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have a photo of the bear. But it so happens that I have 3 photos taken over the 10 minutes immediately prior to encountering the bear. We were walking through an especially pretty stretch of forest, and I thought it would be nice to get some photos of the Trifecta, so that years later, when they are in the throes of adolescence and hating their parents, I’ll be able to reminisce fondly about when they actually still didn’t mind being seen with me. Now as I mentioned a moment ago, Awesome Wife sets a blistering pace on return hikes, which you can actually see in the 3 following photos. Here she is, at the head of our pack:

Hike Photo1 Here she is a couple minutes later. A gap is opening up.

Hike Photo2 A few minutes more, and she’s really starting to drop us…

Hike Photo3 A moment or two later, she disappeared around a bend. We cleared the bend, and there she was again, marching along with the same strong pace, the same focused determination. Only now she was rapidly striding toward us, and ~40 feet behind her, standing in the trail, was the largest Black Bear I have ever seen.

The Trifecta didn’t see it. I kept walking forward at the same speed, and started speaking in a loud clear voice: “I see him. He’s not chasing you. You’re fine. Don’t run. We’re right here…” As soon as I came into view and started speaking, the bear turned and started loping away down the trail fast, rump bouncing in the air.

What had happened was this: As AW was hiking, one of her contacts lenses was bothering her a bit. She rubbed her eye. Still bugging her. Rubbed it again, Still bugging her. She rubbed it good and hard, closing both eyes for a moment and when she opened them, there, 30 feet ahead, was the HUGE bear, sitting in the trail, staring at her. She stopped, and rubbed her eyes yet again. Still there. She turned and started walking the other way.

Tangent: Now I know that this is not what one is supposed to do when encountering a bear. AW knew it too, and in fact we’d discussed it previously many times. Obviously, in the heat of the moment, she “locked up” and turned tail. But in her defense I’ll say 2 things: First it was a Big Ass Bear. (See paw-print photo, below) You can read all the books, websites and “While in Bear Country” pamphlets you want, but when you come unexpectedly face-to-face with Big Ass Bear in the woods, everything’s different.

PawPrint Second, 3 years ago, down in the Abajo Range, on a solo mtn bike ride, I did pretty much the same thing. It was small- possibly a cub- and I turned the bike around fast and headed the other way rather than poking around looking for Mama Bear. I didn’t think- I just turned around and started pedaling the other way before I was conscious of making a decision.

I quickly re-ordered our line, with me at the front and AW at the back. We continued in the same direction, sticking close together, and I instructed the Trifecta to talk loudly and clearly about whatever they liked- Pokemon, Hanna Montana, whatever. For once, their most annoying trait- talking too loudly about toys, games and pop culture while in quiet beautiful places- was exactly the right thing to do.

The only sad part of the whole encounter was that a) I wasn’t fast enough on the draw to snap a photo, and b) the Trifecta never saw the bear. In fact for a moment or two, they were convinced we were pulling their leg. But the trail back was lined with fresh paw prints, and highlighted by a massive, brand-new, still warm pile of scat (pic below), and so they were soon convinced.

PoopShot The remaining hike back was uneventful, and we started the long, bone-rattling drive back to the cabin, where Awesome Wife treated herself to a big glass of wine. And then one more.

And that’s how Awesome Wife finally had a great wildlife sighting.

IMG_1594 Clean-Up Tangent: I started, but didn’t finish the vacation-related tangent in yesterday’s post. I can’t remember a harder vacation to come home from than this one. We left Whitefish the next day and drove down to Stanley, Idaho. The following day was perfect- sunny, clear, low 70’s. I biked at dawn through Lodgepoles, past open wetlands (pic right) withIMG_1598 Blue Herons (pic left) stretching their wings in the early mist. Later we hiked above Redfish Lake on a ridge through an open sunny Douglas Fir/Pine forest. For lunch we ate cheeseburgers by the beach at the lake, in the shadow of jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Range, after which we played in the IMG_1630water (pic right), stretched out on the sand, lazed/read in the deck chairs- anything we could do to procrastinate starting the long drive home. It was a wonderful day. Finally at 3:30 we packed up and headed out. Leaving a place so beautiful felt so wrong, and as we rolled over Galena Pass, through the busy little sprawl of Ketchum, Sun Valley & Hailey, and out onto the rolling volcanic plain toward Shoshone, I kept thinking how not ready I was to go back. Maybe it was the end of a great vacation, maybe it was summer wrapping up, maybe it was just a “no tickets on the fridge” thing. I don’t know.

But part of me suspects that glimpsing such beautiful, amazing places, where either I hadn’t been before (Glacier) or hadn’t been in some years (Stanley, Missoula) at the IMG_1631 very end of the summer, I was hit with the sense of time slipping by, of the thousand wonderful places I didn’t get to over the summer, and all the time I would’ve lingered longer in the places I did get to. When you really get down to it, the only thing you get in life is time, and it just seems like I burn through it faster every year.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Montana Part 4: Riding Through Clouds, And Awesome Wife Meets a Bear

OK, one more Montana post, then it’s time to admit that my vacations are over, summer is (almost) done and I have to get used to being back home and going to work every day.

Tangent: This was one of the toughest vacations I can remember to come home from. I’ll pick up this tangent again at the end of the post…

Today I want to blog about 2 more vacation-related things that really don’t really have anything at all in common except that a) they both happened on the same day, and b) they were both really cool. Plus the second one involves my wife, and I am always looking for excuses to blog about her.

Our last full day in Whitefish I woke early to mtn bike (what else is new) before the family arose. The weather had prohibited dawn rides every day except for the first day in Missoula, and so I was eager to get out. I had to think carefully about the ride; 3 days of rain probably meant some messy trails. So I picked the Big Mountain Ski area, North of town.

IMG_1501 Ski areas often have wide, mellow-grade, lawsuit-proof trails, and I thought such a trail might give me the climb I was looking for and some nice views without being a total mud-fest. It turned out to be a good choice. The trail was fine, if not great, I got in a good climb and a nice long descent. But the thing that totally and completely made the ride was the clouds.

Tangent: No, this isn’t the continuation of the first tangent- that’s coming later. And it’s not nested either. It’s just a whole other tangent.

Usually when visiting a new area, ski area trails are my last choice. They tend to be excessively tame, over-signed, and often- as a result of lift-served traffic- over-used. They’re also oftentimes not very scenic or wilderness-y, traversing chopped-down slopes and criss-crossing various roads, lifts, buildings and machinery.

For the first 3 miles, the Summit Trail up Big Mountain realized those fears. It was chopped up and re-routed and overlapped with crappy, un-scenic service roads. But after 3 miles, the trail became very scenic, a nice-quality- if tame- true singletrack that rarely intersected lifts or roads and offered fine views for another 5 miles.

IMG_1480 Being inside clouds is always cool. Sometimes, depending on where you are, you may find yourself driving or hiking through a cloud, and though it may be a bit cold and damp and spooky, it’s always a memorable experience. Being above clouds is also way cool, especially when you’re on the ground (versus in an airplane.) Looking down at the tops of clouds, you can’t help but get a “getting away with something” feeling; you’re up high in bright sunlight with clear air and hundred mile views, seeing a world concealed from the clouded valleys below.

IMG_1502 Sometimes you end up biking through clouds, maybe on the road, maybe on dirt. But the absolutely coolest- but-rarest cloud mtn bike ride is the Complete Cloud Deck Double Traverse (CCDDT), where you start below the cloud base, climb up into the clouds, then all the way through and above the cloud tops before returning back down through the deck all over again. A real, true CCDDT is both rare and wonderful, and you don’t forget it.

Tangent: Coastal readers may be thinking, “What’s the big deal? I bike up out of clouds all the time…” Not quite. You probably bike up out of marine fog, which is also way cool, but different. In a Marine Fog Climb (MFC)*, you start out in the fog, which you climb up and break out of, into the sunlight. But in CCDDT you start out in clear air, below the cloud base, with good visibility. And when you return, you break out of the bottom of the clouds while descending, a weird-but-cool converse of breaking through the tops of the clouds on the way up.

*On a vacation in Santa Barbara several years ago I did several early morning MFCs, and enjoyed them thoroughly.

Nested Tangent: Fog is of course also way cool, and WirePeakInversionView4totally worth a post or two (or more) of its own. There are actually several different types of fog, including marine fog, radiation fog (forms at night, as the land radiates heat built up during the day) and inversion fog (pic right), which I blogged about last winter. Coolest, weirdest- and perhaps most dangerous- of all are the dreaded ice fogs of the Arctic and Antarctic.

The Ride

The Summit trail starts up at 5,000 feet. The sky was filled with the low, still clouds that linger the morning after a big storm front has moved through. From the parking lot I could see that the cloud base was well below the summit, and I wondered if the view would be socked in. I started climbing.

As I wound my way up across ski slopes and service roads, the cloud base loomed closer. Soon the air grew cold and damp. The tops of the Lodgepoles were obscured in mist, and a few moments later, at around 5,800 feet, I was enveloped in cloud. I thought about how mysterious and otherworldly it always feels inside of a cloud.

Cloud BaseI thought about how beautiful the PLTs looked shrouded in fog. But mostly what I thought was the bottoms of clouds, and why, in a given area, they’re so darn flat. Seriously, why does cloud just appear at a certain level as you climb up? Why aren’t clouds just floating around at all different levels- some high, some low, some in between? Why is the cloud base in a given area at a given day/time so freaking uniform?

But before we can understand why clouds sit where they do, we have to understand just exactly what a cloud is.

All About Clouds

I conducted an experiment for this post*. I asked 4 coworkers- all smart people**- to tell me what a cloud was made of. All said “water vapor”, which is not the case. Water vapor is water (H2O) in gaseous form. It’s all around us all the time, and the concentration of it in the air is defined as humidity.

*Because even though I have absolutely no scientific background, experience or qualifications, sometimes I like to make pretend.

*The first 2 were Matt and Sid, both of whom I’ve blogged about previously. And the other 2 were IT guys, so you know they’re wicked smart.

Clouds- the big white fluffy things that you see up in the sky- are liquid water, in the form of droplets. Notice that I didn’t say “drops”- I said “dropLETS.” What’s the difference? Size, mainly. A typical raindrop has a diameter of about 2 millimeters. A typical water droplet has a diameter of 20 microns- 1/100th that of a raindrop.

Drop DropletBecause they’re so small, droplets are held aloft by updrafts of warmer air rising from the surface. Water droplets form around a nucleating particle, typically a micron or less in diameter, that can be anything from pollen to dust to pollutants from exhaust or fires. As more and more droplets form, they tend to clump together into larger droplets, and eventually raindrops, which can no longer be supported by the updrafts and fall to Earth, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Side Note: This “nucleation-aggregation” process is pretty much the same deal by which snowflakes form, and which I detailed in this post.

OK, so why does the water vapor condense into liquid, and why does it do so at a particular altitude? Because that altitude- the bottom of the clouds- is the altitude at which the dew point occurs on that given day, at that given hour.

What’s Dew Point?

The dew point is the temperature at or below which water vapor condenses into liquid*. This temperature is dependent on humidity, so on a humid day (>50% humidity) the dew point might be in the high 60s F, while on a dry day (<30% humidity) it might be down in the 40s F. (When the dew point temp falls below freezing it’s called the frost point.)

*Actually, this statement is pretty kiddie-simplistic, as- for that matter- is this whole explanation. In the real world water vapor is condensing into droplets, and droplets are evaporating into vapor, constantly. The dew point is really the point at which condensation of vapor out-paces evaporation of droplets. You don’t really need to know this- I just stuck it in as a CYA in case some weather-geek stumbles across this post.

DP Sample Graph Dew point can be calculated (sample graph right, not mine) through an equation which I am not going to reproduce here because a) it’s way complicated and you don’t really care, and b) I can’t figure out how to type those Greek letters on my keyboard. But here’s an approximation that’s good enough for hacks like me:

Dew Point Temperature = Dry Bulb Temperature* – ((100 – Relative Humidity)/5)

*Dry Blub Temperature = air temp with no exposure to radiation or moisture.

Anyway, as you go up, the air gets colder, and when you get high/cold enough to hit the dew point, clouds start to form. In the absence of strong winds, storms, or other violent weather, that altitude will be pretty uniform in a given area, and that’s why the cloud base (bottom) is so flat.

Cloud Structure I climbed up through the mist. For me riding in a cloud seems to distort not only distance, but also time, and Cloud Inside I found myself glancing repeatedly down at my watch and/or bike computer to re-orient myself time-wise. The forest thinned and opened up, with scattered stands of trees punctuating the open slopes. I passed close to one tree, a pine, and absent-mindedly expected to confirm it as yet another Lodgepole, but it wasn’t. It was 5-needled.

IMG_1496 Botany-Tangent*: It was Whitebark Pine, Pinus albicaulis, and this was my first sighting of it*. A new pine! Whitebark actually isn’t all that unusual in the West; it occurs widely in the Northern Rockies, in the Sierra, and in several ranges across Nevada. It just doesn’t occur in Utah.

*Technically, I’m sure it wasn’t my first sighting- it was the first sighting I recognized. I know that I was in and among Whitebarks in the Ruby Mountains (Nevada) for 3 days several years ago on a backpack, but that was back when I was still plant-blind.

IMG_1513 It looks a lot like Limber Pine, and the 2 can be tough to tell apart. The bark is slightly different, and there are a few other geeky little differences, but cones are the best ID tool. Whitebark cones look different, and they don’t fall from the tree; rather they’re picked apart by nut-seeking Corvids, particularly Clark’s Nutcracker. When no cones are present, you can hunt around on the ground underneath for old, fallen cones. If you find them, it’s probably a Limber Pine.

IMG_1514 Whitebark Pine is completely dependent on corvids (and overwhelmingly Clark’s Nutcracker) for reproduction and the 2 share a fascinating history. As the American West’s most highly evolved Bird Pine and Pine Bird, their story is one of the best examples of co-evolution around. (A tale which I related in this post last year if you’re interested.)

*Because you didn’t really think I was going to make it through a whole post without going off about some plant or other, did you?

More Whitebarks appeared, and… Oh, wait a minute.

TIMEOUT: OK, I just realized- I’m sucking up the whole post (and running out of time) with the Cloud-Ride. OK sorry- the Awesome Wife-Meets-A-Bear story will have to wait till the next post. I’m sorry. Really. I never think these posts are going to run on as long as they do.

OK, back to the ride. Where was I? Oh yeah- the cool, breaking-out-of the clouds-science-meets-happy-karma part.

IMG_1483 More Whitebarks appeared, and the sky started to lighten (pic left); I was approaching the cloud top. At around 6,400 feet I entered a weird sunlight netherworld of blue sky above and sun-yellowed mist all around me, which I pedaled through for another ¼ mile before breaking out into full sunlight. After 3 days of clouds, fog and rain, the direct unbroken morning sunlight was almost painful; as I pedaled I squinted, grimaced and squirmed for a moment like some nocturnal creature dragged out into the light of day.

Cloud Top Updrafts raise the water droplets until the warm air cools to a point where it no longer rises strongly enough to support the weight of the water. But updrafts and invections aren’t uniform, and for this reason, the tops of clouds are generally much less even than the bottoms. The tops of clouds, BTW, are where actual raindrops (or snowflakes) form.

Side Note: I’ve wondered for this reason if the air inside of a cloud shouldn’t feel damper/colder/wetter shortly before the top, but if it does I haven’t noticed.

IMG_1507 My eyes finally adjusted, and I rode the last couple of gently-climbing miles to the summit feeling warm and happy in the bright sun. At the top I lingered for a few minutes, looking around in all directions, but my eyes were most often drawn to the East and North, to the Lewis Overthrust, to the park, to the high, jagged peaks rising above the sea of clouds, toward Canada and the unknown Northern lands beyond.

I turned around and began the long descent back down into the clouds.

Next Up: OK, I’m really going to tell the bear story next… And I’ll finish that first tangent, too.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Montana Part 3: Flowerpalooza

Note: This is a technical post. Lots of botany/floral info, no biking stuff or funny tangents. So if wildflowers aren’t your thing, you might skip this one and check out Friday’s post if you missed it or check back tomorrow*.

*Or whenever I get around to the next post, which will include biking through clouds and Awesome Wife’s run-in with a bear. Unless I get distracted by another topic.

Tangent: So why do I do posts like this? So that I force myself to identify, learn about and remember what I saw. Seriously, that’s why I do them. If I can make the post entertaining along the way I try to do so, but if not, I just hammer out the post while the images (visual, sonic, olfactory) are still fresh in my mind.

The Post

I hesitated to do this post. I’ve been at this project for almost a year and a half and see haven’t blogged about anywhere near all of the wildflowers in the Wasatch. Then we go up to Glacier and a whole mess of other wildflowers are blooming all over the place. How can I cover them all in one post?

Tangent: I really believe you could go up to Glacier for a 3 or 4-day vacation, anytime between July 1 and September 1, and just do wildflowers. No biking, no serious hiking, no birding, no wildlife or waterfalls or glaciers or lakes- just wildflowers, and have an awesome and totally fulfilling vacation. That’s how great they are.

I can’t of course, but I wanted to convey at least a bit of the floral awesome-ness of Northwest Montana, so I’ve picked out a few flowers to highlight in this post. I’ve picked them because either they’re different than anything we’ve looked at here in the Wasatch, or because they have some connection, link to, or relationship with something we’ve looked at or will look at here in Utah.

Foamflower On our hike up to Avalanche Lake through the Cedar-Hemlock forest we noticed many familiar flowers, but several newbies as well. Probably the most common understory flower was this guy, Foamflower, Tiarella trifoliaya (pic left). It does well in deep, moist shady spots. They’re easy to spot even when not blooming because of their distinctive, toothed maple-like leaves (reminiscent of Rocky Mountain Maple.) The “foam” by the way supposedly comes from their appearance in large numbers across the forest floor (but I didn’t really get it.) It’s sometimes also called Laceflower, which is probably a better name. Though I don’t have a good close-up shot, the 5 stamens extend way past the petals, giving the flowers a distinctly “lacy” look.

IMG_1257 When we arrived at the lake the forest opened up by the shoreline, and numbers of less shade-tolerant flowers appeared, including numerous asters and daises similar to those we see back home. But the most unique and remarkable-looking flower is this fellow. It’s Self-Heal, Prunella vulgaris. This is an odd one. The flowers are born in clusters/clumps atop a small stalk. Self-Heal is a member of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae, and so is related to things like Basil, Thyme and Oregano. The flowers have 5 petals which are fused into 2 lips; the top lip is the “hood”, and the bottom lip 3-lobed. Like all members of the Mint Family, the flower cluster looks like a single cluster but is actually 2 separate clusters crowded together.

Self-Heal’s name refers to its medicinal properties. It’s been used to treat everything from rashes to diarrhea to bruises, and clinically demonstrated to possess antiseptic and antibacterial capability.

IMG_1258 It looks weird, it’s great medicine, but the thing that initially stymied me about it was its origin. Several sources describe it as a European exotic, while others list it as a North American native. What gives? Prunella includes 7 species, of which vulgaris is the only one found in the New World. Its presence here seems to pre-date European settlement (Native Americans used it medicinally) but by how long is unclear.

Side Note: I wonder if it’s a “recent” Pre-Columbian import/migration, like “native” Dandelions in North America (~100 KYA) or Cacti in North Africa (~3-5 KYA). Just a thought…

IMG_1346 Our 2nd day in the park the weather was still foul, but we took our chances and drove up to Logan Pass At 8,000 feet, the pass is just a smidgen below tree-line, and features wildflower-filled meadows interspersed with stands of shrubby conifers and mats of krummholz. Clouds blew in and out, the temp hovered in the low 40’sF. While Awesome Wife and the Trifecta huddled in the visitor’s center I ran around the paths threading the meadows, checking out flowers.

IMG_1368 One of the most eye-catching flowers up at the Pass was Explorer’s Gentian, Gentiana calycosa. This flower occurs in Utah as well, though I’ve yet to spot it here. There are over 1,100 species of Gentians worldwide*, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. Most Gentian species in Europe and North America are blue. In other parts of the world red or white-flowered species are more common.

*According to the Gentian Research Project. Other sources gave different/ lesser numbers.

Side Note: At least one white-flowered species, Alpine Gentian, G. newberryi, occurs here in Utah. It often hybridizes with G. calycosa, and when it does so produces blue flowers.

Gentian CLoseup Gentians flowers are always tubular, with 5 fused* petals and 5 fused sepals**. If you look down inside the tube you can see the 5 stamens and a split, 2-part stigma. Gentians (mainly the roots) has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes in both the Old World and New for a wide range of ailments, but mostly gastro-intestinal things. But in excessive quantities it can cause nausea and vomiting.

*At the base, but not all the way up.

**Almost always. A few species have some number other than 5 sepals, but always between 4 and 7.

IMG_1472 Probably the best-known (or at least most bally-hooed) flower in the park is Beargrass, Xerophyllum tenax, (pic right & below, left) which blooms in July and August and is easy to spot/ID. The white flowers are borne in clusters atop large stalks up to 4 feet tall. The blooms are unpredictable; an individual plant blooms only once every 5-7 years. We lucked out and caught this blooming hillside just West of Logan Pass. I also saw large numbers of post-bloomers when biking in Big Mountain Ski Resort later in the week.

IMG_1471Contrary to folklore, bears don’t eat Beargrass, but other animals do. Elk go for the flowers; Mountain Goats eat the leaves/blades. IMG_1515Speaking of blades, when you first see the stalk, you may wonder why it’s called a grass. You have to look down at the base, at the leaves, which look like a big clump of long grass (pic right).

Side Note: The stalk BTW, when not flowering, looks kind of like a Horsetail. We haven’t talked about Horsetails (family = Equisetaceae) before, but they’re considered a “living fossil”, with just a single present-day genus still remaining of a once numerous and diverse family. IMG_1533 Back in the Devonian, all sorts horsetails, along with Ferns and Lycophytes, dominated terrestrial vegetation. Horsetails produce spores, not seeds, and reproduce via the same alternating haploid-diploid, gametophyte-sporophyte generation strategy as mosses and ferns. Common Horsetail, Equisetum arvense, is common in the park around streams and by lakes. Here’s one (pic left) we spotted along the shore of Bowman Lake.

What Is Bear”grass” Anyway?

BG Zoom So is Beargrass a “grass”? Not quite, but close. It’s not a member of the grass family, Poaceae, but it is a monocot, so like grass, the leaves/blades grow from the base, not from the tip. It’s actually a member of the Lily family, Liliaceae*, and this becomes apparent if you look closely at the flowers. Each has six petals (monocots have petals almost always in multiples of 3) and examine them carefully you’ll see that 3 of the petals are actually sepals, just like our old friend the Glacier Lily**, and for that matter all Lilies.

*More recently, some botanists have stuck it in a new, closely-related family, Melanthisceae.

**I keep coming back to that flower again and again. It was the very first flower I profiled in this blog, and through sheer dumb luck it was a wonderful choice.

IMG_1325 Another common flower both high up and lower down was this tall, green, flowering stalk (pic left). The flowers are 6-petaled (pic below, right), suggesting a monocot, and the leaves look familiar too. The whole thing looks like a almost like a cornstalk. And of course that’s where we’ve seen it- its Green False Hellebore, Veratrum viride, a close relative of the deadly Corn Lily we looked at here in the Wasatch a couple weeks back. GF Hellebore shares all of Corn Lily’s nasty, toxic properties- don’t mess with it. And it looks remarkably like Corn Lily, with the obvious exception of flower color.

Why Would A Flower Be Green?

Green flowers can at first seem a bit of a head-scratcher. Most flowers are brightly colored to attract pollinators, so a green flower seems counterintuitive. Of course with wind-pollinated plants, a green flower makes perfect sense. But Veratrum- both viride and californicum- are agent-pollinated, by bees, moths, flies and butterflies. So why no bright colors?

IMG_1326 In fact there are plenty of green, agent-pollinated flowers. Many use scent to attract pollinators. And it may be (conjecture alert) that what appears to be green to us may look quite different to an insect or bird that’s able to see frequencies (UV for example) that we can’t. And some flowers are even pollinated by bats, who only “see” their target ultrasonically.

*Although I think some pollinating bats locate flowers by smell. Didn’t have time to confirm/research for this post.

GF Hellebore, BTW, occurs in both Western and Eastern North America, unlike Corn Lily, which is found only in the West.

IMG_1385 In the afternoon we descended from Logan Pass over to the East slope of the park, where we hiked along St. Mary Lake (pic left). The flower mix here was different but just as beautiful as the West side. One of the most common flowers was Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia. Harebell is a member of the Bellflower Family, Campanulaceae, which we haven’t looked at previously. IMG_1412The flowers have 5 united petals and hang downwards, sort of like giant Bluebells* (Mertensia ciliata.) Confusingly, the leaves look like tufts of grass (like Beargrass, above) but Campanula is neither a grass nor even a monocot. It’s a dicot, and if you break off a leaf/blade tip, milky-white sap will ooze out.

*Confusingly, Harebell is called Bluebell in the UK.

IMG_1408 Here’s something else interesting about Harebell. It has a wide distribution, occurring across North America and Europe, but across that distribution seems to be diverging into different polyploid races. On continental Europe Harebell is chromosomally diploid, with 34 chromosomes, but in Britain and Ireland populations are generally either tetraploid (68 chromosomes) or hexaploid (102 chromosomes.) In Norway, both diploid and tetraploid populations exist.

Longtime readers may recall a similar story I told over a year ago, about Creosote here in the American Southwest, and its diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid races across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts respectively. Both might possibly be examples of regional polyploid populations at an early stage of possible future speciation.

Side Note: Frustratingly, I was unable to determine the ploidy of North American Harebell populations in time for this post. I know the research has been done and that the chromosome numbers are known… Just can’t find a free-online copy of the paper…

IMG_1626 Also on the East side we saw plenty of Lupines (pic left). Lupines are of course common here in the Wasatch, though I haven’t blogged all that much about them, probably because, with 600+ species, they can be tough to tell apart. But as you get to know Lupines, some subtle differences start to become apparent.

IMG_1657 The Lupines on our hike along St. Mary Lake looked just like Silver Lupine, Lupinus argenteus, a common Lupine in Utah (pic right). But if you check out the backside of the banner* on the each flower, you’ll notice a difference: while the back of the Silver Lupine banner is smooth, the banner-backside of these Lupines were covered with fine hairs, identifying them as Silky Lupine, Lupinus sericeus.

Lupine Banners This is one of those subtle species-differences you can’t catch on a “ride-by”; sometimes you have to get down on hands and knees to figure a flower out…

*Lupines have the banner-keel architecture common throughout the Pea Family, and which I explained in this post.

IMG_1655 Tangent: While I’m talking about Lupines, here’s something fairly important you should know, particularly if you have kids and take them out in the backcountry. Lupines are somewhat poisonous and can actually kill livestock. But the nasty part is that their pea-pods (pic right, taken Friday AM up above Jeremy Ranch) , which are starting to look “ripe” now here in the Wasatch, look like the kind of pea-pods you eat buy at the supermarket, and supposedly there have been instances of kids getting poisoned by eating them.

IMG_1413 OK, one more flower, then I’m calling it a post. High and low in and around Glacier was this unimposing yellow flower, Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. Goldenrod is a member of Asteraceae, the Sunflower family, and so is related to a whole bunch of flowers we’ve looked at in this blog, including Dandelions, Balsamroots and Sunflowers, though it’s far less impressive than any of them. So why include it in this post? Because in addition to being super-common in Northwest Montana, there are 2 real interesting things about it.

IMG_1414 First, it’s an exotic weed. Not here in the US- but across Eurasia. That’s right- over the last year+ I’ve blogged about countless weeds and exotics that have made their way from Eurasia to, and thrived in, North America, from Dandelions to Musk Thistle to Field Bindweed to Chicory to Spotted Knapweed. But Canada Goldenrod is North America’s revenge. It’s a common and widespread roadside and meadow weed across Europe, and is a huge problem in China, where it’s been blamed for the extinctions of several native plants.

Second, it’s also native to Utah, and when I returned home and over the weekend started riding the old familiar trails that I’d been away from for much of the past 3 weeks, I saw that it had blossomed during my travels, almost following me home as it were, and is now blooming all over the place between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. And in fact it’s just one of a whole slew of late-summer-blooming yellow Wasatch wildflowers, about which I’ll blog in the coming week.

Next Up: Riding Through Clouds, and Awesome Wife Meets a Bear