Explorer’s Log: 6/6/23

Caribou and human

First day in the Walker. A hot day in an exceedingly hot spring in another one of these recent years that have us riding up and up the climate change slope. Kabuki the dog is along with Shane and me, climbing a forested ridge after a day of meetings and filmed project first-day interviews.

We’ve reached a row of large, ridgetop Douglas firs. Those with a curve at the base where the trunk rises from its roots need close, near-sighted examination. Crouching low and looking up at the ground-facing bark where it’s sheltered from direct rainsplash, I’m delighted to see the pin lichens I’d hoped for. These are delicate, inconspicuous beings that raise their spores on stalks as high as a bug’s belly. Most lichen spores are forcibly ejected into the air, but these have spores that have instead a static cling. Their spores amass like black soot on top of the stalks, brushing off and clinging to the belly of a bug as it walks over the bark. Free transportation to get the progeny into their new homes on whatever trees the bugs travel to. Pin lichens are adapted to this world of shelter. Most of them need old trees with leaning bark surfaces because they cannot live where rain drops hit them. Other pin lichens specialize in the habitats of cliff underhangs, or the undersides of rootmounds of large, windthown trees, or the undersides of leaning snags, or the bark fissures of enormous old cottonwood trunks. Dozens of species of lichens, all of them small and seldom seen, are at home on world of old Douglas firs with that down-slope underlean. Why do these trees grow that way? Is it that they got pushed over by a sagging snowpack when they were saplings and then had to straighten up? How long does it take for a trunk to grow the girth to shelter tiny lichens from rain splash and splatter?

Botanical exploration requires getting into, as people say about other occupations of mental concentration “the zone”. On first days of these floristic inventories, especially on the year’s first fieldwork day, that zone is elusive at first. The landscape is a new one for me and the diversity of its life is at first overwhelming. The names of visually familiar but seldom seen lichens and mosses are filed away in latent parts of my memory. It takes a while to retrieve those names. My mind is on the search for those names, and simultaneously on the trajectory of our traverse. And a portion of my attention is on the perpetual visual scan for the next species to be recorded. It’s the beginning of a species inventory, and the mental graph shows a near vertical line of species added per hour of effort. It’s all kept as voice recorder entries, photographs, and specimens. And it all requires a good memory of the appearances of species, where to find them, and what their names are. I’m immersing my senses in the landscape and my mind into the zone, and also on where Kabuki (Buki for short) is, I didn’t have much attention left for noticing how hot and thirsty we all are on that waterless ridge. The thermals rising upslope have gathered a lot of heat from below.

The Cliff

Further upslope in the distance, there’s a barren cliff shining in the sun. Is that limestone? Probably not, with that waterfall flowing over the surface rather than cutting through the rock like water does to limestone. But it looks like some sort of carbonate rock. Much of our (‘our’ in the sense of Canadian) lichen and plant diversity grows only on sparsely vegetated carbonate rocks – limestone, siltstone, dolomite. A seasoned field botanist knows that the bee-line traverse to a limestone cliff will certainly pay off with amazing floristic variety. But the heat, and Buki’s thirst caught my attention eventually, and so did the time of day. And the bee-line wasn’t working out, it was just too steep. And the ridge I’d hoped would angle along on our wished-for trajectory veered off in the wrong direction. Time to turn back. Michelle and Evan, who had accompanied us for the first half of the day for the meet & greet and filmed interviews, had departed back to the road a couple hours earlier. Before we returned to the creek gully where the two parties said goodbye, Buki had disappeared. I assumed she was cooling off in the creek, but we didn’t find her there. Ten, then twenty minutes of worried calling, no dog.

Buki’s prolonged puppyhood (dogs really are puppies for three years) was training time on the forest paths near home. Those puppy disappearances are worrisome – puppyhood without an older dog’s leadership is a dangerous time. Pursued wildlife will defend itself even against a ridiculous young pup. The puppy’s nose leads the way on a half hour’s track to a moose or a bear. One kick or swipe and it’s over, or life is lived as a lame. This is her first day accompanying me on fieldwork. A good trail dog is an asset for an explorer, and I had high hopes for Buki to fill that role. I explained to Shane that she’d had no such disappearances for a long time. I was worried, imagining a moose kick or a bear swipe, and in that case not much likelihood of finding her. Twenty minutes of calling, still no dog. Until, there’s a sound…is that her? Yes, what a relief, there she is, from the direction Evan and Michelle had gone on their return to the road.

Buki in the Wilderness

How many times has it been pointed out to me that the backing and forthing between humans spread out on trails is a shepherd dog’s “human herding”. You might believe that if you haven’t paid attention to Australian shepherds, border collies, or other sheep and cattle herding dogs. Herding looks like this: belly to the ground, an unblinking stare at the animals, short bursts of running, then belly to the ground again. When necessary, policing the more obstinate members of the herd happens with a nip to the ankles. Good herding dogs don’t herd humans. The humans wouldn’t like the bloodied ankles or the spooky predatory staring. The human-to-human backing and forthing is not herding behavior, it’s “checking on the pack” behavior. We’re all in Buki’s pack, and it’s her job to make sure all the pack members are alright. There might even be message delivery through emotion-driven scents or body language, but humans would have a hard time understanding all that than fellow dogs (or wolves) would.

It was a learning experience for Buki as well as for me. I’m understanding her better now. And she needs to understand when it’s acceptable to check on her humans. Minutes since departure, OK, go check on the absent humans, but return quickly. Hours of absence, and a half hour return time. No, that was wrong. I don’t like to think of how far she went out solo through this unfamiliar forest landscape on her tracking mission. Other than this one demerit, Buki did well for her day on the job. And for the rest of our time together in the Walker, she was spectacular. “She’s a good pup”, said Shane.

I have learned to be at home in the wilderness. My first driver’s license in my teenage years was my ticket to the trailheads within a day’s drive from my home in sprawling Spokane. Wildlands in eastern Washington are fragments, but some, even near the city, are large enough to give an explorer enough room for a proper day-long scramble. I was fascinated with the diversity of plant life before I could drive. Plant variety is the best spice of my life. The gardens of Spokane didn’t offer the same spice as the wild variety of ferns, trees, and those annual events of flowering that I had to see and identify. I was inspired and had to learn to feel at home in the wilds. Decades later, I’m still climbing the mountains to try to see it all.

I clearly remember my first wild plant identification, not including the simple ones adults taught to me: cattail, balsamroot, ponderosa pine. Among the ponderosa pines on a steep slope above my childhood home was a wild larkspur that, in my junior high level of expertise, equaled one of those Australian blue sun orchids that I had seen pictured in a National Geographic article. A whopper of a mistake. I corrected it by the time I entered high school.

My teenage loner-botanist time on my first solo trails wasn’t entirely a great time. I was nervous about all the bears and cougars I would meet. Those imagined encounters weren’t pretty. I jangled my car keys before rounding those slope-hugging trail bends further into the shadowed forest. I had read that making noise on a trail will alert the wildlife and avoid surprise encounters. I still make noise on trails for this reason, but without the fear. Nervous as I was as a teenager, I kept going because I had to see all the species identified in Flora of the Pacific Northwest, that superb though taxonomically flawed volume of Hitchcock & Cronquist published just a year after I was born. That flora and I were both taxonomically naïve, but trying to get things right.

Hitchcock & Cronquist 1973

Now at the age of fifty, I am at home in the wilderness, at least for short times. I’m no John Muir, I still like my creature comforts, and it’s not the best thing for a project’s results to sleep rough under a tree without a means of downloading photos, pressing the plant specimens, charging devices, eating a hot meal, and being well rested for the next day’s explorations. Shane and Buki are at least as comfortable as I am in this wilderness. I’m in good company.

Back at the road, with a specimen-laden backpack, with plenty of data to document the first day’s results, a sense of relief to see that Michelle’s truck was not there. The thought of Buki’s having detected a rescue situation was on my mind since her absence. And so, once Buki reappeared, I asked her (she has her Australian shepherd’s amazing language skills, so she clearly understood) “show me friends Evan Michelle, where are friends? Show me”. She led us back to the road not as we had come, but instead following the outbound scent trail of her friends. She’s a good pup, indeed. And Evan and Michelle made it out safely.

Earlier in the day, the two halves of the party still together, we were aiming for something curious I had noticed on satellite imagery in the Morkill Valley, an hour’s drive from the Fraser River Bridge into the Rocky Mountains. Bare white marks in a forested landscape. Expecting (hoping) to find tufa seeps, those scarce-in-the-landscape seepages where mineral rich ground water is forced to the surface to unload its accumulated calcium carbonate and other minerals. The water drops its precipitates onto every surface it first touches. A porous, laminated, moss-bearing, limestone-like rock results. Large tufa seeps can be chambered with moss-grotto caves and waterfalls, and can be home to rare primroses and seldom-seen liverworts and mosses. They are habitats for specialists tolerant of a mineral environment that larger, more dominant and competitive plants, including trees and shrubs find overwhelmingly alkaline. Robust plants need nitrogen to grow new cells and tissues, but nitrogen is scarce in those seeps. Tufa seep specialists are small; being diminutive means that you can do without much nitrogen. The alkaline drippage is exactly what only they have evolved for. They have the place to themselves so long as the tufa keeps depositing.

But what we found were not tufa seeps, and we never did find any tufa in the Walker. There may be some out there, still undetected. The Rocky Mountains are just right for tufa seeps, being made mostly of highly soluble, alkaline rock types. What we did find that corresponded to those satellite image white marks are steep, oozing silts that had naturally eroded into great slope-failure gashes and bare canopy gaps. Now the satellite imagery made sense: I had noticed that there were odd-looking forested landscapes along the lower Morkill River, with repeating up-and-down topography and between all those rounded hills, a network of evenly spaced, small bare white marks and lines that did not make sense except as limestone karst, perhaps like a small-scale version of those astonishing pillar-mountain karst landscapes that have inspired hundreds of years worth of loving depiction in Chinese scroll paintings. Wishful thinking.

What we found on that first day’s traverse was a whole valley’s worth of fine, silty glacial lakebed sediments gouged with natural erosional features and steep-sided, round-topped forest hills. It has an unusual flora. How good it was to see Adoxa moschatellina, an elusive little plant, scarce in the far west. I had seen it only once before on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. A new find for the Robson Valley region, that part of the Rocky Mountain Trench where the Fraser River passes through interior rain forest on its turn west and then south through the drylands toward the coast. That’s a good start.

Adoxa moschatellina

So it’s all a lot of silt, ground down by the ice-age glaciers and then backed up behind a dam of ice for a time sufficient enough to settle out of the water into these deposits as much as three hundred feet thick. It’s a dissolvable landscape that doesn’t seem well suited for road building and clearcuts – would logging, which is planned here, turn it into a series of slumping mud pits and landslides? Would the accelerated erosion following clearcutting send so much silt downslope that the Morkill River would have a hard time carrying it all away without choking? These intact forests are doing an especially important job. Let’s leave them to it.

Disappointment at the non-tufa, non-karst landscape aside, I was pleased to find that portions of the silt had leveled and stabilized enough to bear a veneer of mosses and liverworts. Reboulia hemispherica is present, a flat liverwort looking like forked green tongues. There are little dicranelloid mosses with their characteristic short life spans. The mossy green patches included Pohlia atropurpurea, putting on a good show of its curiously stubby, red-brown spore capsules. This is a moss I don’t get to see often.

Nardia scalaris

All of these mosses and liverworts have one thing in common: a quick spore-to-spore generational turnover that is a more suitable lifestyle for erosional slopes than the years- or decades-long seed-to-seed generations of trees and shrubs. Larger, slower-growing plants just wouldn’t have time to reproduce before losing their roothold on these fast-moving slopes.

This silty habitat is indeed a world for the short-lived. Even the longer lived, creeping and branching mosses so common in forest understory or rock outcrops can’t live here. They would end up smothered under the ooze during the annual winter’s end thaw. It’s a good example of how a habitat can add non-uniformity to a landscape, and how it can bring more species into the sum of a region’s biodiversity. These little mosses and liverworts have the place all to themselves in a slippery world of permanent ground disturbance – a place of stable instability. This is the sort of landscape attribute that a botanical explorer must be aware of to characterize a flora fully. Floristic inventories are nooks & crannies work, a job for the curious.

I’ve read that fast-eroding silt habitats like these are favoured by Pseudoditrichum, a single-species genus in a single-genus family of mosses that has been documented, so far, only twice: once in Siberia, and once near Great Bear Lake in the Canadian subarctic. An extreme case of rarity. A celebrity moss that almost no one has ever seen alive. Traveling to Great Bear Lake to see the moss in its sole North American location would take me to one of the greatest mosquito landscapes on Earth, or so I’ve read about the place. That would be interesting. And that far northern lakeside landscape would be fascinating for its flora – I’ve had a taste of the floristic fascinations present in other subarctic locations further east in Canada’s far north. But it would have been nice to find Pseudoditrichum here on these silts in the Morkill Valley. Maybe it’s here, undetected. This is another habit of a successful botanical explorer – knowing some of the possibilities, knowing what to look for. Maybe we’ll find it another time.

And there is a lot of time to keep exploring, it’s only the first day. This will be a big job. The size of the unroaded landscape leaves me a bit intimidated. I’m at home in the wilderness, but it’s not wrong to be intimidated by it. It could swallow us alive if we don’t take care. Shane and I looked up from the Morkill Valley north further into the study area. Those slopes are steep and high. How to traverse them to avoid obstacle cliffs? And what would we see from the ridge tops? Even from those ridges, reached by a day’s hardworking ascent, we would see only the margins of the Walker. It’s an area of 25 km north-south and 40 km east-west. Roadless and trailless. That’s a lot of bushwhacking, and it’s steep. Intimidating. Difficult on a hot day, even harder on a cold and rainy day.

What’s to be found in all that wilderness?

Friendly hoverfly in the wilderness

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