Past Excursions: 9/9/2020

The Trophy Mountains seen from Raft Mountain

My past is becoming more interesting to me than my future. I must be getting old.

Here’s a past excursion with Trevor and our wonderful dog-friend Purple. In July of that year, Purple was diagnosed with bone cancer, and a week following the diagnosis, her tumorous back left leg was amputated. After nine years of exploring the world on four legs, Purple had to relearn how to walk. She was able to stumble along the next day after surgery, but she fell over on her stump a few times. That was devastating to see. She had been such an athletic, graceful, strong dog, and now to see her defeated and confused made it hard to concentrate on encouraging her. But within a couple of days, on a short walk along the road with Trevor and me, she suddenly brightened, hobbled a quick circle, and gave us a look that said “I got this now, I know how to do it!”. Less than two months after her surgery, we went on an excursion into the mountains, and the day is portrayed here in this blog.

Wetlands at the foot of Raft Mountain

Onward and upward. As we usually do on hikes, we wasted too much time lingering at distractions along the early part of the trail. There’s so much to see in the subalpine wetlands and forests. So many photos to take. So many ideas to vocally sketch down in our voice recorders. The shadows are long, it’s September, we must press on. Purple knows the way.

The north face of Raft Mountain is a frequent destination for us. It’s a near-at-hand, high-elevation biodiversity extravaganza. A day trip. Specifically, this trip was all about studying Gowardia (yes, a genus named for that Goward), which are tundra-dwelling hair lichens.


Gowardia grows up high, where the wind blows strong. If you’re in the town of Clearwater on a day in winter when the arctic air blows into town, look up at Raft Mountain and imagine the Gowardia up there, without a protective blanket of snow, fully exposed to the cold on their sky-scraper, wind-funneling, peak-top notches and saddles. Winter up there is not the place and time for human survival, but Gowardia just loves it. In fact, it dies under a smothering snow layer, which is why we climb to the windiest mountain faces to find them. It’s cold already in early September up there, but up we go, with a cheerful, courageous, sure-footed, three-legged dog who knows the way.

The north face of Raft Mountain is a geology museum. There’s a lot to see among the talus rocks that are all tumbled down, dislodged from the various formations and layers. Most of Raft Mountain is a batholith, a plume of magma crystalized underground. It may not seem like it, but granite is a relatively light rock. It’s buoyant while denser rocks sink around it. For this reason, batholiths tend to form prominent peaks, like the tops of icebergs rising above the ocean surface. On their way up to meet the sky, batholiths often drag along pieces of neighbouring subterranean geological formations. And where magma meets older rock, contact metamorphism alters the substance of those neighbouring rocks.

I’m not a geologist, so I can only relate the basics here, and if I were tested on batholiths and contact metamorphism, I’m sure I wouldn’t get an A, even if I studied. But what I can say with confidence as a botanist is that some of the plants and lichens on Raft Mountain tell a geological story translated into a language in which I am fluent.

There are metalliferous/sulfide rocks as accessories to the granite core of Raft Mountain. On these rocks occur some acidophilic/sulfurophilic species such as the crust lichens Acarospora sinopica and Tremolecia atrata. I looked for the mouthful metalliferous moss Mielichhoferia mielichhoferiana, and I think it is there, but in such a sad, starved looking state that there isn’t enough for verification. Another day, another trip up to Raft, and maybe I’ll find a healthier patch. There are also some calciphilic plants up there, acidofuges (scientific false-Latin term to mean ‘running away from acid’), such as Dryas hookeriana, Hierochloe alpina, Polyblastia muscorum, and Solorina bispora. Seeing patches of both acidofuge and calcifuge species on one mountain means that very high species diversity can be expected. A large portion of the BC flora, or floras anywhere, sort out according to high-pH and low-pH environments. Having those chemical environments intertwined in a small area makes for a long species list. It’s one of the reasons why Raft Mountain is a biodiversity extravaganza.

Onward and upward, the shadows grow longer…

Beyond the geological jumble of the boulder talus, we climbed to a higher mountain cirque with its tarns (small lakes that form in the glacier-carved depression on the lee side of mountains). Now we’re on solid bedrock, and the geological story is no longer scrambled, but in cross-section to read on the rock faces above us. But it’s a language I don’t read clearly. Just a word here and a phrase there. But I think what it’s saying is that the foreign rocks associated with the batholith include volcanic rocks, gossan, and pieces of old sea-bed sediments, some more altered by metamorphic forces than others.

Those cliffs and outcrops kept us interested and delayed. Gowardia is expected higher up, and we still have a long ascent to get there. But here, below, are bryophytes of note: Grimmia crinitoleucophaea cfr., Marsupella condensata, Scapania hyperborea. Assuming it’s correctly identified (the marker “cfr.” indicates uncertainty), would it be the first ever found in Canada? The Marsupella might be a new find for interior British Columbia. And Scapania hyperborea is a surprise, the nearest reported populations occur in the Boundary Ranges near the Alaska border and way down south on the high Colorado Rockies.

And upward. It’s a risky business, to continue ascending a mountaintop while the sun is setting on a clear autumn night and when you carry no camping gear. Oh well, let’s go see the Gowardia. And finally there is some. Not as much as last time we came here to study it. The die-back worries Trevor. But there is enough for some specimen gathering for DNA analysis and morphological study. That’s Trevor’s project, but I’m helping to look for more, at least so we can finish the job and start our descent. Those long shadows…

And now Trevor’s back muscles seize up. Pain, and difficulty breathing. And the sun is now sinking below the horizon. We have a long way to go to get out of here.

Sunset, time to go!

Trevor, wheezing in pain and with badly compromised mobility, is slow to climb down outcrops, talus and boulder faces. Both parties of friends who came up with us already departed (wisely), so it’s just Trevor, Purple, and me, and between the three of us, we have only one headlamp with weak batteries. I have my smartphone for added illumination. Before we’re out of the boulder talus, it’s fully dark. And it’s still slow going, and we still have a long way to go. Once we’re off the boulder talus, there is a trail, but now that the headlamp is so dim, it’s hard to find. The phone screen isn’t much help, but it is some. Fortunately, we have Purple.

Purple proved herself heroic in previous ordeals (those are stories for other blog entries), and she doesn’t fail us tonight. “Purple, where’s the trail, show me the trail”, and she leads ahead, not so far we can’t hear or see her, but far enough to acknowledge to us that she intends to lead the way. The trail is not easy for us humans to see, but Purple “smells” the trail just as clearly at night as in the day, so it’s easy for her. But it’s not easy in these busy modern times for humans and dogs to develop the sort of relationship in which the dog understands the humans’ limitations or that there is a job to be done. But we don’t care much for modern times, and so that was the relationship we had with Purple, thanks to both her work and ours, and thanks to so much time on so many trails. It was a collaboration of almost ten years.

Purple passed away three months later. The cancer metastasized into her lungs, and there was no way back to good health or quality of life. Easing her out of life was heartbreaking, but it was done with the utmost respect and love. Purple had countless friends, and made new ones right up to the end. The day before her amputation surgery, we took her up to the Trophy Mountains, which you can see in the first photo of this blog entry. There, trailside, as she was peering into the water of a creek, Purple and I were approached by a young hiker who approached slowly, fascinated. The hiker looked up at me, her eyes big with astonishment, and said “your dog looks so wise!” Oh, my friend, you have no idea how wise. But thank you for noticing.

Purple the wise

We made it back to the truck, eventually. Cold, relieved, in pain (Trevor). Homeward with Purple for a good meal and a deep, deep rest. And now we have rich memories of the day, of the place, and of dear Purple.

Thank you for reading.

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