Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Idaho Vacation Part 1: Trampy Flowers, Running Bears and Glacial Moraines

I’m back. We had a wonderful vacation up in Idaho. As usual, returning home from a busy week there are about a zillion things I want to blog about and I can’t possibly get to them all, so this first post will be a bit of a hodgepodge. And since I left off last post blogging about a lake, that’s where I’ll start this week.

IMG_6244 Last Summer on our way home from Glacier National Park we spent a night in Stanley, Idaho. Before driving on home the next day, we did a hike up the ridge on the West side of Redfish Lake, through a sunny, open Lodgepole-Douglas Fir forest, with beautiful views of the deep-blue mountain lake. After the hike we stopped off at Redfish Lodge, where we swam, lay on the beach, and ate burgers in big comfy loungers, gazing at the jagged spires of the Sawtooth Mountains, before heading home. Getting back in the car AW and I asked each other: Why don’t we just come here for vacation next year?

So that’s what we did.

IMG_6235 Redfish Lake lies in the Stanley Basin at ~6,500 feet at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains. It’s about 4 ½ miles long, ¾ miles across, and nearly 400 feet deep. It’s older than Navajo Lake, but not all that old; it was formed at the end of the last ice age, when the moraine left by the retreating glacier blocked the downstream flow of the creek to the Salmon River. But we’ll come back to that in a bit.

While we were at the lodge we spent our days swimming, paddling, hiking and biking. One day we took the lodge’s boat shuttle to the far end of the lake to do some hiking. Here’s a clip from the return that gives you a feel for the surrounding terrain around the South end of the lake.

From the dock we hiked up to the tope of the small gorge where Redfish Lake Creek blasts through on its way down to fill the lake…

And then stopped by the small, aptly-named, Lily Pond for lunch. IMG_6250We looked at Water-Lilies last summer, when we checked out the lovely Fragrant Water Lily on 5-Kezar Ponds in Maine, but the water-lilies- or Pond Lilies- you see out here in the West look much different.

There are seven genera of Water-Lilies, or Nymphaeacae, in the world, of which only 2 are native to North America. Nymphaea, the genus to which The Fragrant Water Lilies of Maine belong, is one, and the other is Nuphar. IMG_6253The Redfish Pond Lilies are Nuphar lutea, Yellow Water-Lily*. The 2 genera are closely-related to each other, but their flowers very different. In the Fragrant Water-Lily the many petals of the primitive, magnolia-ish flowers are just that- petals. In the Yellow - and other Nuphar- Water-lilies, the yellow “petals” are actually the sepals. The small delicate petals are contained within (where I couldn’t get a shot without wading out into the muck.)

*Just one of several common names. Cow Lily is another, as is Spatterdock. Confusingly, some sources give the specific name as luteum.

IMG_6251 For a while Water-lilies bugged me. As we saw in last summer’s water-lily post, Nymphaeacae is very nearly one of the most basal lines of angiosperms, or more distantly related to other flowering plants than just about any other angiosperm we’ve looked at in this blog. And Water-lilies are some of the most ancient angiosperms; they’ve been around for something like 130 million years.

Extra Detail: And there’s much about them that seems “primitive” from an angiosperm perspective. The example I used in last year’s post was their Magnolia-like flowers. Here’s an even cooler one that I learned since: Their endosperm is chromosomally diploid, unlike the endosperm of almost all other types of flowering plants, whose endosperms are triploid. This characteristic has been highlighted by some researchers to suggest a sort of “missing link” status for Nymphaeacae in the evolution of Angiosperms.

I explained endosperm and the chromosomal mechanics of angiosperm reproduction way back in the “How Angiosperms Work” post 2 years ago, and if you’re not clear what endosperm is, or why a diploid endosperm is unusual or significant, rather than re-explain it all here, I’ll just point you back to that post*.

*Which, BTW, I still believe was my best and most worthwhile post in the course of this entire project. No one else thinks so, I’m pretty sure, but I guess that’s the way it is with a labor-of-love type of project such as this…

KSFTree cut[4] OK, so Water-lilies are ancient, they’re in their own group, not very closely-related to anything else. And since they’ve thrived for so long, all over the world, apparently they have a good schtick going on- growing a leaf as a floating pad seems to work well in still waters. So if that’s the case, why are all Water-lilies in this one little family? Why hasn’t water-liliness evolved over and over again, like C4 or CAM or thorns or wind-pollination or just about anything else cool in the plant world?

Floating Pondweed1 But as it turns out, the lily-pad schtick has evolved multiple times, and a great example is Floating Pondweed, Potamogeton natans, (pic right, not mine) an aquatic angiosperm that has 2-3” long floating, pad-like leaves. P. natans is common in still or slow-moving waters throughout much of Western North America. (Several other Potamotegon species also have floating leaves.) Interestingly, Pondweed is a monocot*, and as you look at it, you’ll notice the leaves are somewhat long and narrow for a “lily pad.”

*Don’t know what that is? Got a post on that too. Not as good as the How Angiosperms Work post, but still a passable primer. Man, it is like I have a post for everything. BTW, the monocot thing was particularly interesting to me because back when I was first noodling on Nymphaeacae- and before I knew about Pondweed- I wondered if a possible reason for (my erroneously presumed) lack of convergent lily pad evolution might be that so many aquatic or quasi-aquatic/wetland plants that grow by still waters are monocots- like rushes, sedges, cattails, etc. Could a leaf that grew from the base (monocot) rather than the edges (dicot) be less somehow suited to growing out as a floating pad? But apparently a monocot leaf manages to grow out as a pad just fine, as Pondweed shows. This BTW is the kind of crap I’m always thinking about when I’m pretending to be listening to coworkers, etc. It’s a miracle I am able to hold a steady job.

One Hot Flower

IMG_6067We saw plenty of terrestrial flowers as well. Sego Lilies abounded in open meadows, and blooming lupines and penstemmons were ubiquitous across the Lodgepole forest floor. But the clear stunner of the week was this beauty- Aquilegia formosa, Red Columbine. I mentioned this looker back 2 years ago when first blogging about Columbines, and though I’d seen it a while back in California, I’d never seen it close to home until last week. KanyonKris, IMG_6099 who visited the area a few days before us, provided detailed location/directions to a stand outside of Hailey, and later in the week I ran into several stands around Stanley. This flower, which appears only in damp, shady spots, has the elegance and form of the Colorado Columbine, but with a shocking, almost garish, color scheme such that when you spot one you find your eye drawn to it again and again. After a time you think, “I really should look at some of the other flowers around…”, but you keep sneaking glances back at the Red Columbine. It’s almost like flower-porn.

Tangent: Red Columbine almost makes me feel sorry for other flowers. You know how if you’re a woman, and you’re going to a party, you think a bit about what you’re going to wear. And so you think about the event, and who’s going to be there, IMG_6100because you want to look nice, but you don’t want to look all showy or inappropriate or whatever. So you pick out a nice outfit and you go to the party and most of the other women there are dressed more or less like you, but then this one woman shows up who’s totally taken it up a notch and it dressed totally to the nines in this killer eye-catching outfit, and suddenly you feel you way underdressed and you’re kicking yourself for not picking a snappier outfit. That’s how I imagine other flowers would feel around Red Columbine. If, you know, they could feel*.

*And if they could feel- and talk- then I imagine they’d whisper all catty-like with all the other schleppy-looking flowers about what a shameless, attention-grabbing tramp that Red Columbine is…

Yellow Columbine, A. flavescens, grows around Stanley as well, and are also lovely IMG_6306and only slightly less eye-catching. They favor similar moist, shady spots as their scarlet cousins, and where the 2 occur together they readily hybridize, with several intermediate shades often appearing in the same stand. Here’s one such hybrid clump, with soft pink sepals, along the Potato Mountain Loop, a few miles North of Stanley.

Side Note: Potato Mountain was probably my favorite ride in the Stanley area, and it is KanyonKris’ as well. The route follows 2 beautiful creeks for much of its length, and crosses a couple of lovely wide meadows. Here’s one of them:

IMG_6308 The forests around Stanley are, as I mentioned, overwhelmingly Lodgepole Pine, but the second most common tree is Douglas Fir. While Lodgepoles are rather thin and spindly, the Douglas Firs can occasionally produce a whopper, as in this shot here (pic right) also along the Potato Mountain loop.

I snuck out in the early mornings for some great mtn bike rides. Wednesday morning I started early up the Williams Creek Trail, which starts out climbing up gentle, sandy glacial moraine (to which we’ll return shortly) and then gradually works its way up into the foothills of the White Cloud Mountains, which bound the Stanley Basin to the East.


Side Note: I had an awesome Black Bear* sighting on the climb up, rounding a corner and spooking one just 15 feet ahead. Unfortunately the helmet-cam wasn’t rolling**, and by the time I drew, turned on and clicked the camera, it was a ways off. I am telling you- bears run fast (especially downhill).

Running Bear *Yup. Did a post on them too, and their evolution and natural history in North America, which you can check out here.

**I know, I know, I’m a dope. I should just run it all the time. But 99.9% of climbing footage is like watching paint dry…

I did this same ride back in the late 90’s, and had heard that a large portion of it had since burned. Sure enough, 5 miles up the trail, I entered the burn.

5 years on, there aren’t any new living trees to speak of, and in that sense the surroundings could seem a bit desolate, but the bright, sunny floor was exploding with life, with all sorts of flowers and grasses lining the small brook alongside the trail. Though actually, most of the “grasses” lining the brook weren’t grasses- they were sedges.

What’s a Sedge?

IMG_6196 Grasses (Poaceae), Sedges (Cyperaceae) and Rushes (Juncaceae) are all families within the order Poales, sometimes called the Grass Alliance*, a group which also includes Cattails (Typhaceae) , as well as Bromeliads (Bromeliaceae) (which we saw last year down in Costa Rica) and a whole host of other things you never heard of. Poales are monocots, of course, and are thought to have originally evolved- where else?- in Gondwanaland**. If you know IMG_6177 Sedges (pic right) at all, you probably know them as wetlands “grasses” or as weeds; unlike grasses, which have played a huge role in human history (wheat, rice, corn, barley, etc.) the most significant in sedge in human history has probably been Papyrus, and the only one I can think of that any of us are likely to consume nowadays is the Water Chestnut, which is the corm of Eleocharis dulcis, a sedge native to China. (So no, it’s not a “nut”.)

*This would totally be the Best Name Ever for a band.

**Most likely Western Gondwanaland, so what is now South America or Africa.

Grasses are the most numerous of the Poales, with somewhere around ~9-10,000 species worldwide, but Sedges are the second most numerous, with ~5,500 species. They grow together, along with Rushes, and it can be hard to sort out which is which. There’s an old ditty that can help you remember: Sedges have Edges, Rushes are Round, Grasses are Hollow... or something like that.

That’s probably an oversimplification, but most of the time it’ll steer you straight. The vast majority of sedges have stems that are triangular in cross-section, while that of a rush is circular. Grass blades are usually hollow and sort of ovaloid in cross-section.

Sedge Stem ExpandO The three also have rather different flowers and “fruits” (achenes). Sedges usually flower in a spiky-looking head. And if you look real close you’ll see that each little teeny flow has 2 long stamens projecting out.

Sedge Flower ExpandO This Sedge belongs to the genus Carex, probably the most numerous and one of the most common Sedge genera around. My best suspect is Norway Sedge, C. norvegica, but it might be one of a couple other Carex species as well.

The major Poales families diverged long ago. About 110 million years ago a group branched off that would give rise to both Cattails and Bromeliads (which in turn split from one another some ~5 or so million years later). Not long after the branch that would lead to Grasses split from that which gave rise to Sedges and Rushes (which in turn split from one another roughly ~70 MYA.) It’s interesting to think about these families and where they grow today. Bromeliads are tropical, and largely epiphytic. Cattails, Rushes and Sedges stick to moist areas by or on water, and it’s thought that this was the ancestral environment of Poales. Grasses, though they’ve been around a long time, were similarly restricted in range, occurring mainly in moist and boggy areas, until around 15 MYA, when they suddenly seemed to figure out how to thrive in semi-arid conditions, giving rise to modern grasslands. Alone of the major Poales familes, Poaceae broke out, and today, well, grass is, well, everywhere, but that wasn’t the way things were for probably 80 or 90% of the time grasses have been around.

Some Geology (and some guessing)

We left the lodge Thursday morning, and I rose early* that day to sneak in one last ride, this time circling Redfish Lake**.

*BTW, even in summer in Stanley, it’s typically ~35F at dawn. By 11AM it’s >70F, so dressing for dawn mtb rides takes some care.

**If you do this loop, do it clockwise. Counterclockwise involves an extended, tiring hike-a-bike.

I mentioned earlier that Redfish Lake was formed when a glacial moraine blocked the creek’s downstream flow. This much is certain. Glacial moraines are deposits of unconsolidated glacial debris- typically rock, sand, soil and/or gravel moved along by glaciers, and which are left behind when those glaciers recede. But that’s only part of the story of the lake.

IMG_6159 The Stanley Valley features 2 sets of moraines between the jagged peaks of the Sawtooths and the White Clouds and the valley floor. The lower, “out-front” hills, like the one you start rolling up when you climb Williams Creek, are debris left from the most recent ice age, the Wisconsin Glaciation, which ended ~10,000 YA. But behind and above these Wisconsin moraines lie a higher and older set of moraines, left from the previous glaciation, and more like 100K years old. The modern Stanley Valley is a mosaic of glacial scarring and debris.

I haven’t found a detailed geological description of the lake basin, but as I biked and hike around parts of the lake on previous days, I paid attention to the surrounding terrain, rocks and soils. Here’s my best guess as to what’s what…

IMG_6123 At the (clockwise) start of the trail, in Sockeye Campground, you’re on Wisconsin- or let’s call it “tier 1” glacial moraine. The grade is mellow, the soil a coarse-grained sand, and larger rocks fairly few and far between. After about a mile, the trail starts climbing stiffly , switch-backing its way East up onto the high ridge bordering the Eastern shore. At this point, rocks- mostly coarse (high-traction) chunks of granite- are everywhere, and along the ridgeline you’re riding across them almost continuously. My guess is that this Eastern ridge is a moraine- let’s call it “tier 2” from that previous glaciation, dating back 100K years.

Redfish Lake Geo Route Map As you descend back to the shoreline following the trail South, the soil and rock are the same, and I’m thinking it’s still tier 2 all the way to the lake’s Southern end, where the trail crosses the creek and the mouth of a the broad glacially-scoured valley.

Turning North and up, the trail climbs up onto the West ridge, and here again, all seems rocky and solidly tier 2. But here’s the interesting thing: On the way up to the ridge, the soil becomes- for a while- sandy, and relatively rock-free*, as it switchbacks its way up onto the ridge, and I wonder if this portion of the trail actually traverses tier 1 moraine laid down over the existing tier 2 moraine by the Wisconsin glaciers?

*Which is what makes this ride so much better going clockwise…

The trails rolls down along the spine of the ridge, offering spectacular views of the lake, almost too brilliant and deep blue and pure to be quite real in the bright sunshine, like something out of a dream.

Eventually, several hundred feet below, and less than a mile from the ending trailhead, the trail crosses back onto sandy tier 1 moraine, which it follows down to pavement. It’s a beautiful, if challenging, ride, and it’s even more wondrous as you think about what may have happened to make this place what it is over the past several dozen millennia.

Back at the cabin, we packed up the minivan*. The Stanley Basin in summer is about as close to heaven as it gets in the American West, and we all agreed to return again next summer.

*AW has a new minivan, which is awesome, and will be the subject of a future tangent. Oh sure, you are smirking and acting all cool because I like minivans, but that is only because you are young and naïve and do not yet understand that which is Truly Way Cool In The World, which minivans most certainly are, and about which I will set you straight in said tangent.

Packed and ready, we got in the van and headed out. But not for home. We continued North.

Next Up: The First Of Two Really Weird Things About Missoula, Montana

Note About Sources: Evolutionary and Phylogenetic info about Poales came mainly from Gondwanan Evolution of the Grass Alliance of Families (Poales), Kare Bremer, 2002. As always I used several guides/keys for the plant info, the most helpful of which was Plants of the Rocky Mountains, by Linda Kershaw, Andy MacKinnon and Jim Pojar. Much of the geological info on the Stanley Valley came from the Roadside Geology of Idaho*, by David Alt and Donald Hyndman.

*You’ve probably seen the “Roadside Geology of ….” series of books around in bookstores. Something you should know about them is that they’re authored by a number of different geologists, and so vary considerably in tone, quality, and- frankly- readability. The Idaho edition is outstanding.


Marissa Buschow said...

Oh no, you went to Idaho?? I could've told you about an AWESOME bird banding place to visit (where I worked a couple autumns ago). Dang! Glad you enjoyed yourself, anyway.

KanyonKris said...

A post packed with goodness.

Loved the Red Columbine = tramp commentary. AW probably likes that instead of gawking at other women, you're gawking at flowers. (I saw you looking left and right in the helmet cam video checking out the flowers in the meadow.)

I just have to laugh when it was clear (after talking to you) that although I had set out to make our Redfish Lake ride easier, I actually made it harder than if we'd done the full loop CW.

I know you have sales skills, but if you can convince people that minivans are not just cool, but way cool, you could be making a LOT more money. We like our minivan, it's been a great family vehicle (even though my wife complained "I don't want to be a nerdy minivan mom"), but it aint sexy.

Enel said...

Minivans rule.

Most folks that don't drive them have image issues IMO.

When you have more than four kids, real vans rule more.

Watcher said...

marissa- tell me anyway! We'll definitely be returning to Idaho many, many times...

KKris- I dunno. You can ask AW next time you see her. I suspect she wouldn't mind if I dropped one or more of my various hobbies (bike-racing, pine-cone-collecting, etc.) but she's too nice to say so.

Enel- If had >4 kids, liquor would probably rule more...

Marissa Buschow said...

It's the Idaho Bird Observatory, just north of Boise. It's literally on the edge of where big coniferous forest meets scrubby desert. If you go anytime during August to October, there will be a small crew of bird & raptor & owl banders camping out there, doing their thing every day, and they're always happy to have people visit or even camp out for awhile.
My photos of a season there:
Official site:
I know you have at least one bird-obsessed kid - just let somebody know, and he'll be adopted for the day!

Watcher said...

Marissa- sounds (and looks) very cool. Thanks for the beta and the photos, I appreciate it.


Lucy said...

That Red Columbine was gorgeous! I might have to convince Drew to go to the Stanley Basin to check out the geology too. He will surely go if I show him your helmet cam videos of the trails. Sweet.