Thursday, October 1, 2009

High Plateaux Part 2: Red Aspens and Powell Point

Note: You won’t get this post without having read Part 1 (yesterday’s post.)

Many years ago, when I was still new to Utah and my mental map of the state was still filled with big blank spaces, I spent a 3-day weekend camping and mountain biking down in the Torrey area, on the flanks of Boulder Mountain. After 2 days I had 1 day left, and got it in my head to do a ride in Red Canyon, 50 miles or so off to the Southwest. Looking at the map I saw a graded dirt road connecting Highway 24 West of Torrey with Highway 12 by Bryce, and without much thought, decided to take it.

The road gradually climbed over rolling high rangelands and then into forest. For the next 3 hours I drove on and on across a high plateau carpeted with dark forests and green open meadows, past lakes and wetlands, through a land that was the complete opposite of what I had expected on a “blank spot” of Southern Utah, like a piece of some other state plunked down between Bryce and Capitol Reef. As I drove I thought, “I need to come back here soon and check this out…” but as it turned out it was 11 years before Bird Whisperer and I made it back up.

All About The Aquarius Plateau

The Aquarius Plateau is the highest, biggest, forested plateau in North America, over 900 square miles, ranging between 10,000 and 11,000 feet high, with over 1,000 lakes. My favorite description I’ve read describes it as a “lost piece of Alaska.” I’ll add another superlative: It’s the biggest, most interesting piece of land in the state that most Utahns know next to nothing about.

IMG_2415 To truly explore the Aquarius would take weeks, which BW and I didn’t have. Over the years, though I hadn’t returned to plateau, I’d passed by and under it many, many times. Along its high Southern edge, a dramatic point stands out, marking the Southernmost extension. I’ve seen it dozens of times, from Bryce, from Highway 12, from the Cottonwood Wash road, from Escalante, and even- 2 weeks earlier- from Ellen Peak. It’s Powell Point (pic left), a narrow, 10,000+ foot high finger jutting out from the rim, flanked by spectacular orange cliffs and spires eroded out of the Claron Formation. After turning back from the Paunsaugunt South Rim, that’s where we headed next.


What Is The Deal With Red Aspens?

The route from Bryce/Ruby’s Inn junction up to Pine Lake is well-traveled. After you turn off the pavement, the road is dusty and washboarded up to the campground, and then everything changes. The road climbs steadily and steeply for several miles, working its way through the forests up onto the plateau. IMG_2437 As we climbed the forests changed from Ponderosa to Spruce, Douglas Fir and Limber Pine, but scattered throughout were Aspens. As it turned out, we’d timed the trip for the peak of Aspen colors on the plateaus, and the whole day, both over on the Paunsaugunt and now up here, we’d been treated to an amazing show of color. As we drove, I was reminded of a question that’s bugged me off and on for over a decade: why are there so many red aspens on the Southern plateaus?

IMG_2483 Most aspens turn yellow in fall. But a smaller number produce anthocyanins and turn bright red. Up in the Wasatch, red aspens- really red aspens- are fairly unusual. You see them here and there, but rarely in big numbers or pure stands. But on the Southern plateaus, red aspens are all over the place.

Side Note: I explained what anthocyanin is and does in this post from last year. You can go check it out if you’re interested; I won’t repeat the details here.

IMG_2454 Over on the Markagunt, if you’ve ever ridden the trails around Brian Head or visited Navajo Lake in the Fall, you can’t help but notice the red aspens. On the Paunsaugunt, the road down the East Fork of the Sevier is lined with frequent red stands, as is the Southern rim itself. And climbing up from Pine Lake onto the Aquarius, we were again treated to frequent blasts of red.

From a decade of trips down to these plateaus, I am absolutely convinced that red aspens are more common on the Southern plateaus than in the Wasatch. Why?

IMG_2619 Unlike Maples, significant anthocyanins in Autumn aspen leaves are the exception rather than the rule. It’s thought that the conditions most conducive to anthocyanin production are sunny days and cool- but not freezing- nights. Fair enough. But this past September has been probably the sunniest I can remember in the Wasatch, and though the high country’s had a few frosts, I can’t imagine that our nights this past month have been significantly colder than up on the high plateaus.* What else could it be?

*In fairness, I did notice that the frequency of red aspens diminished significantly once we were on top of the Aquarius, above 10K feet.

IMG_2462 Anthocyanin production also appears to be at least somewhat material-dependent; the intensity of color seems to be affected by the amounts of magnesium, iron, phosphorus and sodium in the tree, as well as the acidity of the leaves. So here’s my wild, completely unfounded (and probably totally wrong) question/theory: Is there something about the soils of the Southern plateaus- and specifically in the soils of the Claron formation*, that is conducive to aspens producing anthocyanins?

*Remember, the reds diminished on top of the Aquarius, where the aspens grow not out of Claron-based soils, but out of the soils derived from the volcanic rocks capping the plateau.

Anyway, that’s my (half-baked) “theory”.

Powell Point

Right where the road tops out a 4WD road branches off to the South, leading to the Powell Point trailhead.

IMG_2614 Side Note: The road, 3.6 miles to the trailhead, is rough and slow-going (pic right). If you’re camping at the trailhead (which is a really nice camping spot) then it’s worth the time and effort to 4-wheel in, but otherwise you’d be far happier riding a mountain bike over this stretch. It would also make a great trail run, or a pleasant- if long- round-trip hike.

As we approached the trailhead (and the rim) the forest changed, with Bristlecone Pines appearing everywhere. IMG_2493Most places you see Bristlecones, they’re old, wind-swept and gnarled. An exception I’ve blogged about before is over on the Paunsuagunt, especially near Red Canyon, where they grow straight and tall. Up by Powell Point they also grow straight and tall, and if anything they’re more impressive up here, where they thoroughly dominate the coniferous forest around the trailhead and the point itself (pic left). Even straight and tall, they’re still easy to pick out; their bottlebrush-looking needles give their branches a unique, full-but-skinny silhouette*.

*That’s not a very good description. But really, once you learn to pick them out, they’re a cinch to recognize from a ways off.

IMG_2503 We parked and hiked the easy ¾ mile trail out to the point. I was immediately disabused of the notion that the Paunsaugunt South rim was the end of the world. This was the end of the world. We could see from the Henry Mountains to Brian Head, and South to Navajo Mountain and beyond*. Looking down we saw sheer, eroded Claron-cliffs, higher (and more intimidating) than any we’d yet seen.

*And actually, the visibility was compromised a bit due to smoke from wildfires far to the West.

Tangent: BW un-nerved me by repeatedly throwing rocks off the rim. Though I kept him a safe distance from the edge, I still couldn’t help feel a momentary twinge of panic with each rock sailing out…

RockthrowYes, I know it’s bad form to throw rocks off cliffs. But when you’re out in the middle of nowhere with a 10-year old boy atop a ~1,000-foot sheer drop, it seems somehow cruel and unusual to deny him the pleasure.

IMG_2551 We hung out a while, then walked back, set up camp, kicked back for a bit and made dinner. After dishes, around 7PM, we headed back out to the point a second time to catch the sunset.

IMG_2572 We made it with about 3 minutes to spare. I’ve seen many beautiful sunsets- this might have been the best*. Immediately following, the orange cliffs below us practically glowed in the twilight with a weird orange light that seemed somehow their own. And as I looked back at BW, hoping he’d remember this moment when he was old and I was long gone, the same strange light lit him up.

*Again, probably in part due to the smoke.

IMG_2554 Bird Whisperer’s birth did not go smoothly. During the long labor his vital signs bounced all over the place, and he was finally delivered via C-section. We saw him for only a moment before they whisked him off, and he was gasping strangely, sucking air in short, cut-off breaths. They told us we’d see him soon.

The doctors stitched up Awesome Wife, and we repaired to her room. Time passed, and we got to wondering where our new baby was. We asked a couple more times, and were assured we’d see him shortly. Finally, after an hour or so, a nurse said I could see him, and escorted me to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). At the entrance, the NICU doctor- a small, cheerful man with a somehow elfin appearance, greeted me and directed me to BW’s bassinet, saying with a little half-laugh, “Yeah, he was hurting when he came in, but he’s doing OK now…”

Something in his tone, a sense of relief, told me that for a bit, everything had not been OK, and all of a sudden, with a bit of a start, I realized that our little man may well have been in danger, and that things maybe were touch and go for a bit.

If you haven’t visited a NICU, it can be unnerving. It’s where newborns in the roughest shape go, and is filled with small plexiglass bassinets holding very small babies, often premature, most with various tubes in them, many with bandages. But in the center was one baby who seemed bigger and healthier than the rest. Lying under the warming lamp, clad only in a diaper, sleeping easily, Bird Whisperer’s golden hair* seemed to capture the yellow-orange light of the lamp and make it his own. And as I got my first long look at my son it seemed that he somehow glowed with the light of life itself, a light that made everything else dim and faint and gray in comparison.

*Baby-blond, since faded to a light brown.

BW pp 10 years later, looking back at BW in the twilight on Powell Point, he seemed to glow with that same light, with a strength and force of life that filled me with hope and pride and joy all at once, that made the troubles and worries of the world seem trifling and inconsequential. I think he’ll do just fine on his journey. I’ll be here when he gets back.


Ygduf said...

OK. You might not get a lot of comments, but you do have some faithful readers out here.

As I'm coming to an age where I am starting to think about family, future, etc... (30!) the science content of your blog is being totally drowned out by the family content.

I'm simultaneously jealous that I did not have a relationship with my father which would have resulted in these types of adventures, and that I don't have children of my own to take and show the world.

So, keep it up. And how about planning a road-cycling tour of Utah for readers like me who want to see actual wilderness?

Aaron said...

The rock throwing police will be contacting you shortly. Don't worry, it's only a $60 fine.

Having my son in the NICU for about a month broke me down like nothing else. Not only having him there, but also meeting the parents of my son's neighbors, many of whom would have traded places with us in a heartbeat. If nothing else, the experience makes you appreciate the good times even more, which you did a good job of describing.

KanyonKris said...

You're getting soft and sentimental in your old age. ;-)

Good post and well-expressed father-son moment.

Carrie said...

Nice post. Thank you.

KristenT said...

My nephew spent about a week in the NICU-- which was not in the hospital he was born in, so mere hours old, he got to take an ambulance ride.

Nothing scares a family more than a newborn taking an ambulance ride... although close second was seeing him in the NICU.

He still has some underlying health issues (extreme anemia, for one), but he's doing better every day.

Sounds like you and your kids have a great relationship-- maybe they won't go through that period of hating you that most teens go through! :)

Phil O. said...

So THAT'S where that rock came from! Ow!

Great post.

Watcher said...

Ygduf- you’ve got plenty of time. I didn’t have kids till I was 35, and I think I’m a better parent than I would’ve been 10 years earlier.

Aaron- I can’t imagine the anguish of a month in the NICU. I don’t know your family, but I’m hoping/assuming he’s fine now.

KristenT- What a rough start for a little guy. I wish your family the best and hope your nephew continues to improve.

Yes, it’d be nice if they just skipped the whole “hating us” phase, but given the grief I gave my own parents, I suspect my karmic payback is coming…

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

From a consistently high plateau you have really reached the peaks with these last two posts. They really meant a lot to me, thankyou.

I'm 35 and my son is 3 months old. When he was born he was fine, but his mum was very ill for a few days.

This post really connected with me. and it made me think back to when I sat holding him through the night in the hospital, when he was just a few hours old, waiting for him mum to come back from theatre. (She's fine now). It just brought it all straight back to me.

One of the things I'm most looking forward to about fatherhood is times like this. Superb.

Watcher said...

P65- Glad to hear Mom has recovered, and thanks for the kind comment. You guys have so many great times to look forward to.

Anonymous said...

Good (sniff, sniff) post. I love my sweet Nate. Elizabeth

Lucy said...

Ooh, nice half-baked theory on Claron Fm. fertile alluvial soils promoting red fall color. I think it is worth a government study.

Usually I learn something and get a laugh out of your posts, but this one drew a tear, and I'm not even a mother! Good post.