Thursday, September 10, 2009

Family Camping, Nitrogen Fixation and My Wallet

Alright, I better blog about our Labor Day weekend already.

I love Labor Day. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a great time of year to be outdoors, and given that it’s a 3-dayer it always seem a shame not to head out into the backcountry. But there were 2 problems I faced in planning a family-camping-weekend.

First, Labor Day is a zoo. Lots of traffic getting in/out of the valley, and heavy competition for campsites- formal or informal- at most destinations within a few hours of Salt Lake. But second, and more critically, no one else* in the Watcher Family seemed particularly psyched for a camping-road-trip. Maybe everyone was feeling overwhelmed with school and AW’s new job starting up, maybe they were still burned out from the epic Montana road-trip, maybe they were just sick of me. I don’t know, but I had the distinct sense that if I pushed a family-camping-road-trip, a Watcher Family Rebellion would ensue.

*With the notable exception of my loyal little soldier, Twin A. And the 2 of us have hatched our own adventure plans for this coming weekend.

So I backed off, a bit bummed that we’d “squander” the weekend at home, when Vicente came to my rescue.

IMG_1972 Every year Vicente’s family and several other families reserve a group site in Redman Campground up Big Cottonwood Canyon for the long weekend, and last week Vicente and his wife- let’s call her “Audrey”- invited us to join. Close to home, short drive, flush toilets, and- and this was the closer on the home-front- I’d take the Trifecta up by myself Friday night, and AW would join us for Saturday night only, giving her a night off from camping, the kids, and er… me.

There were 3 great things about this trip. First was the campground.

Great Campground

As my friends know, and you may have gleaned from reading this blog, I am a complete camping snob. Specifically, I almost always eschew* established campgrounds in favor of informal, dispersed backcountry campsites.

*”Eschew”. Love that word. Been wanting for 18 months to use it in a post.

Tangent: In fact this ability to easily informally camp on public lands is probably why I’m so rooted in the Intermountain West. In the East, you can’t do it. Great Plains? No way- it’s all private. And when you get West of the Sierra Nevada, suddenly access gets restrictive and regulated again. Only between about Reno and Denver, due to low population density and huge stretches of public lands, is informal car-camping reliably and easily feasible.

Nested Tangent: Down in Arizona and New Mexico, things get a little more complicated on Indian reservations. Someday I’ll do a tangent about how to camp without hassles on the Big Rez.

Campgrounds are for wusses. They’re filled with RV’s, generators and ATVs. Who needs ‘em? And so over the last decade+, I’ve driven past Redman CG maybe 200 times, without ever stopping in.

IMG_2000 Guess what? It’s awesome. The campground is beautifully laid out, with widely spaced sites shaded by magnificent tall Fir and Spruce. Big Cottonwood Creek runs down the middle, braiding into several streamlets, creating little islands connected by a series of fallen logs and informal trails. Our site (pic left), within the larger group site, was right on the creek. Both nights I slept out in the open under a patch of sky ringed by conifer-spires, the roar of the creek just 10 feet away lulling me to sleep.

Great People

IMG_1940 Second was the people. Vicente and Audrey have great friends, and there were well over a dozen other kids, whom the Trifecta instantly befriended. The weekend was one big play-date for them. Each day Vicente led the kids on extended hiking/exploring adventures within the campground, and by the night the kids made s’mores by the campfire and talked Pokemon to their heart’s content.

Kids log Tangent: I love listening to kids’ conversations with each other. If you’re not into children this totally won’t be your thing, but below is about a minute of fireside banter I filmed surreptitiously. From left to right is: Bird Whisperer, Twin A, Twin B, and Some Other Kid.

The guitar and singing out of sight of the camera is Audrey (I love her voice) and her friend Laurie.

Nested Tangent: When I was a kid I always thought that when I came of age and went on camping trips, we’d sit around the campfire, sing songs and play guitars. Of course, this was in the 70’s, when folks were generally a lot more hippy-skippy than they are now, and it seemed like someone was always breaking out a guitar. When I grew up I generally found myself camping either alone or with other hard-core outdoorheads who, like me, were completely a-musical and never bothered to learn how to play the guitar. Finally, at the age of 45, I’ve managed to hook up with campers who really do play the guitar and sing around the campfire. How cool is that?

Vicente and Audrey are a Mixed-Euro-Couple (Spaniard , American) and several of their friends are also either Euro or Mixed-Euro couples. In particular, there were a bunch of Swiss and Swiss-Americans in our group. And here’s the thing about Swiss campers: they do nothing half-assed. In the morning, when I’d be breaking out oatmeal and pop-tarts for the Trifecta, they’d be whipping out home-made braided breads and jams and cooking up blueberry-oatmeal pancakes, all of which they happily shared. And speaking of food, best of all was dinner. Vicente actually made wood-fired Paella, just like back home in Catalonia. Check this out:

Paella Tangent: I realize that I’ve been going on and on about Vicente lately- great guy, great rider, speaks 4 languages fluently, PhD molecular biologist/AIDs researcher, outstanding cook- it’s starting to sound like a man-crush or something. So to balance things out a bit, I’ll share this little critical nugget about him: He crashes. A lot. In the ~dozen rides we’ve done together over the past month, I’m pretty sure he’s crashed at least once on every single ride.

Collage In fairness, the guy descends like a bat out of hell.

IMG_1974And third was location and flora. We camped at 8,500 feet among tall, well-watered Engelmann Spruce and Subalpine Fir- Wasatch PLT forest at its finest. Saturday morning the “Camp Ladies” minded the Trifecta* while Vicente, Cool Swiss Guy#1, and I went for a mtn/road bike ride, looping up Guardsmen to Scotts Pass, Wasatch Crest, down Mill D North and back up the road. IMG_1976 We pedaled up through deep, dark Engelmann Spruce on the way up, past scattered Limber Pines and light, airy Aspen groves (pic right) along the Crest, and then down, down Mill D, till we bottomed out amidst Douglas Fir, Gambel Oak and Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany, before pedaling our way back up the road by creek-side Blue Spruce and planted stands of Ponderosas. It was a tree-hugging mtn biker’s fantasy ride.

*Since I was effectively a “single dad” until AW joined us that evening.

**With a single known exception, Ponderosa- nor any pine other than Limber- doesn’t occur naturally in the Wasatch. The stands across from The Spruces parking lot were planted back in the 30’s or 40’s. See this post for details.

But today’s post isn’t about any of those trees.

IMG_1977 Back at the campground, our site was, as I mentioned, right be the creek. And it was a fairly private site, accessed by a short, narrow path winding through an ~8 feet wall of shrees* (pic left). And on about my 10th or so trip back and forth through the shree-wall, it occurred to me that I didn’t recognize the shrees in question. So a little later I retrieved my trusty tree guide from the car, thumbed through it for a few minutes and ID’d it.

*I defined the term “shree” in… oh right, the post I pulled. Oh well, here it is again: too big for a shrub, too small for a tree.

Tangent: There are 4 things you should never leave the house without: wallet, keys, phone and tree guide.

Nested Tangent: Oo- speaking of wallet, that totally reminds me- I’ve been dying to tangent about this for months. Know what the best quality-of-life change is I’ve made in the last year? You’ll never guess. Here it is: I shrunk my wallet. I pulled out all the library cards (left in dresser, pull out when I actually go to the library), video rental cards (seriously- who rents videos anymore?), AAA card (left in vehicle, where I would actually need it), photos of kids/wife (I’m not going to forget I’m married/have kids over the course of an 8-hour workday), coffee/latte punch-cards (remember- I stopped drinking espresso drinks, and really, was it ever worth dragging that stupid card around so I could get a free latte once every other month?) and free-sandwich, get-your-10th-one-free cards (It took me 40 years to figure this out: any place that has a frequent sandwich-card program? Their sandwiches suck.)

Wallets So now look at my wallet. It contains only a driver’s license, insurance card, 2 credit cards, ATM card, UCA racing license, and a few folded-in-half bills. That’s it. It’s a low-footprint thing of simplistic beauty. I’m happy, my pants are happy, and my butt-cheek’s happy.

In a couple of traveling posts (New England, Montana) I’ve mentioned Birches, though I’ve yet to do a full post on them. Birches are part of a broader Birch family, Betulaceae, which includes not only Birches, but also Hornbeams, Hazels and Alders. After Birches, Alders (genus = Alnus) are the most speciose genus in the family, with somewhere between 25 and 35 species* circling the Northern Hemisphere, with just a single species making it down to South America.

*Like so many plant genera we’ve looked at, the exact number of species is debatable. Alnus is rife with all sorts of polyploids and hybrids, making it tricky to figure out just what is a species.

IMG_1981 Just one of these species occurs in Utah, generally along streams and rivers in riparian zones*. It’s Thin-Leaf Alder, Alnus intricata, (leaf pic, left)also known as Mountain Alder.

*Which I blogged about in… Oh right. The post I pulled. Don’t worry, I promise to do this only 5 or 6 more times before I get it out of my system…

Thin-Leaf Alder has a fascinating range. It occurs throughout the Northern hemisphere (broken into 6 subspecies. Ours here in Utah is actually A. intricata ssp. tenuifolia) and yet its distribution is curiously patchy. Though it’s common in many canyons throughout Northern Utah, it’s often abundant in one canyon, and then completely absent in the next canyon over.

It does well along watercourses, in large part because alders are nitrogen-fixers.

This Part Is Geeky But Important, So Pay Attention

Nitrogen-fixers are important because nitrogen is an essential element in much of the “stuff” of all living things, such as nucleotides in DNA, and the amino acids that comprise proteins. We animals of course get our essential nitrogen from the plant-stuffs we eat (either directly, or indirectly, when we eat other animals.) But plants lack a mechanism for pulling nitrogen out of the air*, and instead obtain it from the soils in which they grow.

gases-in-atemosphere *Our atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% other gases. Unless you live in my neighborhood, in which case it is about 20% bloviating selfish right-wing bad karma. Oo- another great snarky pulled-post reference! Haha- this is fun!

But without fresh “injections” of nitrogen, soils become rapidly depleted and poor for growing. Fortunately a number of plants have evolved symbiotic relationships with bacteria that are able to “fix” nitrogen from the air into ammonia (NH3) in the soil, where it can be utilized by growing plants. Plants that host such bacteria in their root-nodules include many common rotational crops such as alfalfa, peanuts, clover and soybeans. Here in the Wasatch, common wild nitrogen-fixers include Lupines, Mountain Mahogany and Bitterbrush in addition to Thin-Leaf Alder.

This Part Is Really Cool

Streamside soils are often nitrogen-starved, so Thin-Leaf Alder (pic right) benefits the whole forest by improving the overall soil quality along watercourses. And what’s interesting is that Alders (of multiple species) may have played a critical role in the re-vegetation of post-glacial North America. Across huge swathes of the continent, the first real trees to follow the glaciers northward were Birches and Alders*, with the latter enriching the nitrogen-poor, newly-exposed soils for the forests and prairies to follow.

*Maybe Willows, too. Think I read it somewhere, but can’t remember the source to confirm right now…IMG_1980

Alders, BTW are apparently unusually adept at getting a toehold in the highly-acidic understories of coniferous forests. Those by our campsite were thriving in the Spruce-Fir forest, and Red Alder, A. rubra, is a common and pesky weed in Pine plantations.

So Alders are important, cool, and well worth being able to recognize. But- like I always do in these run-on posts- I’ve saved the most fascinating little nugget for last.

Alders, like Cottonwoods, Aspens, Oaks, Maples and Birches, are wind-pollinated. Although all angiosperms are believed to be descended from a common agent (probably insect)-pollinated ancestor, all of these trees have, over the course of their evolution, opportunistically “reverted” to wind-pollination. Only, sometimes, every once in a while, Alders aren’t pollinated wind, but are pollinated by bees instead.

But they’re not like Willows, which have apparently double-reverted over to (mainly) agent-pollination. Alders are definitely wind-pollinated, except for when they’re not, and that’s what’s so cool about them. They’re an “in-between” glimpse of pollination strategies, an action snapshot of how evolution works and bends and alters pollination strategies and mechanisms through the ages. Which is totally way cool.

Like I said, don’t ever leave the house without your tree guide. And chuck the latte punch-card already.


maggie said...

I'm never quite sure what to say when I finish reading one of your blog posts. I would applaud, but I'm uncertain how to accomplish such a thing in writing. Your writing is breathless, absurd, deranged and fascinating.

Sally said...

Love it-- especially the video and the wallet tangent. You continue to amaze. Glad you were able to get away.

Alder, though... Over here we have what I call Alnus tenuifolia; the Plants Database calls it, I kid you not, "Alnus incana (L.) Moench ssp. tenuifolia (Nutt.) Breitung", but... whatever. I swear, it's getting so common names are more useful! Thinleaf Alder-- perfect (and it works)!

(Tangent: Yesterday I mentioned Geum (rossii, we were in the alpine). Fella I was talking to came back with Acomastylis... oh yeah, that's right... always good to be reminded how outdated you are! Then he proceeded to tell me, Watcher-like, something I never knew about the plant! [grin])

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I used to espouse the skinny wallet philosophy but somehow lost my way. Until now.

I just purged Boise Co-Op membership card (don't live there anymore), Marriott Rewards card and Hertz #1 Club Gold card (I haven't traveled for business in the 11 months since I started my current job), Subway card (for reasons you stated), and business card for the guy at Fidelity that rolled over my 401k (never called him since and don't plan to).

My butt and back are already happier.

Watcher said...

Maggie- Yours is my favorite comment ever in the 18-month course of this project. I just may have to make "Breathless, absurd, deranged and fascinating" my new tagline. Thank you.

Sally I just checked again- I was wrong- our subsepcies is tenufolia as well (I'll fix it in a few). I think I skimmed the list fast, and just liked the word "oblongifolia." Speaking of which, alders strike me sort of like serviceberries- nobody agrees on what's a species, everything hybridizes, and they're a bear to tell apart. BTW we have some interesting oaks like that scattered across Southern UT- Q. undulata- that I keep running into and will have to blog about sometime.

SBJ- Ahh, finally! It took 250 tries, but I finally managed to come up with a post that actually improved someone's quality of life! Glad I was able to inspire you, and make sure to pass the word- slimming wallets is a huge benefit that should be evangelized to all mankind.

Huw said...

Dear Watcher,

Maggie said it far more eloquently than I can, but thanks for your excellent blog posts. They're always interesting and somehow inspiring.

My one question is - how do you find the energy to go dawn riding, fit in a day's work, and then be a family man? I could just manage two but three seem superhuman!

KanyonKris said...

The wallet tangent made me laugh out loud - good one! My neighbor is big on the money clip - the ultimate light wallet - just some cash and a few cards clipped together.

I like that Indigo Girls song. Yes, she has a good voice. Guitars and camping are an excellent combo.

What kids talk about food? It's funny, the topics kids land on.

Christopher Taylor said...

Ours here in Utah is actually A. intricata oblongifolia...

(For my nerdy moment) I'm afraid you can't do this with botanical names - you have to write Alnus intricata ssp. oblongifolia. Because you can have subspecies, varieties or forms in botany, you need to indicate which of these the subspecific name you're using is.

Watcher said...

Sarangkot- Thanks! As to your question, I get asked that (in the real world) all the time. I don’t have a pat answer, other than I pretty much never watch TV (No, I’m not one of those kill-your-television-fanatics, I just never have time.) Maybe someday I’ll do a post on the whole life-time-management thing. But the other thing to keep in mind is that I really enjoy dawn riding. It’s my favorite part of the day, and when I go to bed the night before I’m looking forward to it.

KKris- So SBJ and Coworker-Sid have already joined my wallet-thinning movement, and already it had Completely Changed Their Lives. Join us!

Christopher- Thanks for sharing piping up. I never was clear on all the v., ssp., stuff, so I appreciate the heads-up and have made the correction... BTW, what do you have in your wallet?

Christopher Taylor said...

What do I have in my wallet? Everything that will fit. I'm not good at throwing things away.

Unknown said...

Not at all related to your post, but I saw a crazy plant/flower up in American Fork Canyon and wondered if you know what it is. Can't attach pics to the comments... can I email?

Watcher said...

Laurel- Sure, email the pic to (removing the caps) and I'll be happy to peek at it. I'll be off-line most of the weekend, so it may be early next week before I see it...

Anonymous said...

Hi. I have a blog at where I feature people's posts about camping, and I would like to send my readers your way. Of course I would give you credit for quotes and would link back to your site.

Thanks for considering this,

Jean B. in SC

Watcher said...

Jean- sure, feel free to mention/ include this post. I post about camping trips fairly often, either with family, friends or solo, and you're welcome to link to any of them anytime. Thanks for the comment and the link.

dug said...

i threw away my wallet 3 years ago and replaced it with a small cigarette case in which i put drivers license, two credit cards, and costco card.

why do you carry your racing license? do you not go to the library more often than you race?

Watcher said...

Dug- 3 reasons: 1) yes, I race more often than I go to the library, at least in summer. 2) library will let you check out books with ID if you forget your card, but race-workers won’t let you register without license, and 3) library card is a thick plastic credit-card thing, while race license is just a thin strip of paper.

KB said...

I just saw a PBS special about Mt. St. Helens after the eruption. Pocket gophers survived by staying underground. And, lupines flourished very soon after the eruption due in part to their "nitrogen fixing" bacterial partners. So, I came here to learn more about nitrogen fixing... Thanks!

It's a really cool show about the volcano (although I'm only halfway through it so far).