March Second

The Dismal Swamp, looking toward the Grouse Creek Notch

For our first walk today, Buki and I explored the Dismal Swamp. These are fine days for walking in the wilds. After a month of thawing temperatures and a condensed, re-frozen snowpack, we can now walk freely anywhere without our feet punching through. No need for snowshoes. We could waltz through the valley on days like this.

A few nights ago around midnight, I took Buki out for a quick pee. Quick was the intention. But after she did her duty, she aimed at the North Crossing (which looks north into the Dismal Swamp) and looked back at me to make it perfectly clear that she had super-urgent business on the trail west across the pond and into the forest. This despite the day having been a busy one. I’d already given her five walks (two of them rather long), two rounds of frisbee catching, a ski outing, a few rounds of can’t-have-the-stick, visits with friends, and some silly indoor games, but she still wanted more. That’s life with an Australian shepherd. Dynamos, so full of life!

Buki is currently a few pounds overweight (too many treats), and needs to slim down before our veterinarian appointment on March 12. So I, though tired, obliged for a sixth walk. What she was thinking, though, was that it’s just so, so good to be able to run freely anywhere on this hard snow that it’s unbearable to just lie around indoors on a night like this. And so she turned right at the four-way trail intersection and led me north to explore the Midnight Marsh (appropriately for that time of night). The snowshoe hares had been there before us.

Now on this morning’s walk, enjoying the freedom of a hard snowpack, we walked down from the North Causeway, across the frozen pond (minding the notorious thin ice over the springs), and beyond into the Dismal Swamp. Trevor suspected that the hot, dry summers of 2021–2023 might be causing mortality in the small population of hybrid spruce Picea x albertiana (the white spruce-black spruce cross) that is scattered around the swamp. As far as we’ve seen, there are no true black spruce (Picea mariana) here in the Clearwater Valley, though it’s common in the next drainages east and north. But the presence of its hybrid with white spruce (Picea glauca) suggests it might have occupied the valley not so long ago. Picea x albertiana likes an intermediate setting. It’s very good at averaging out the divergent preferences of its parent species. The Dismal Swamp is a bit iffy as habitat for P. x albertiana here at the southern margin of its range. It’s much more common further north, in colder climates. It usually forms as an encircling stand around cold-site fens and bogs, not in the middles of swamps.

Picea x albertiana, and on the left, a Thuja snag decades old since death.

Sadly, Trevor’s prediction came true. Most of the hybrid is either already dead and devoid of needles, or badly yellowed and quickly defoliating. The impossible heat wave of late June 2021 must have been hard to survive for these cold-loving trees. The official high recorded on the climate station on the (cooler) west side of the pond during that “heat dome” event was 42.7 C (109 degrees F)–Las Vegas temperatures, not Canadian mountain temperatures. Our previous all-time high was less than 100 F. The heat dome scorched the trees. In the following weeks, on all sorts of plant species, there were dead, burned-looking leaves in the canopy and understory. Climate change galore! A massacre.

Too much death

In a half hour of wandering around the Dismal Swamp, I saw no healthy Picea x albertiana. Farewell, hybrid spruce. The white spruces mostly looked OK, they’re somewhat more heat tolerant. But they’re not really made for growing in such a wetland as the Dismal Swamp. They stay off to the sides where the ground is a bit higher. And one by one, though at a slower pace than this Dismal Swamp stand of P. x albertiana, the white spruces, plus Engelman spruces, a higher-elevation species, have been dying at a higher rate since the terrible drought of 2003 and subsequent dry/hot years. They’ve been falling, one here, and one there, a few more during the next big wind gust. Their piled up logs cross each other all over the forest understory. The same goes for their hybrid (Picea x darwyniana, named for our ecologist/conservationist friend Darwyn Coxson, whose climate station recorded our all-time high). Pines, too, and aspens. The nearby forest canopy is looking rather bald.


The Dismal Swamp this morning was full of tracks. So much animal life! Buki was enraptured. Hares, fox, squirrel, grouse…and weasels, as in the photo above. Maybe all the animals feel as Buki and I do, like waltzing across the hardened snow. How about that long-slide track in the photos above? What happened there? Bounce-bounce-sliiiiiiide-hop-hop? Mustelid joie de vivre? Joie de la neige?

Stoneflies, female & male

For our second walk of today, Buki and I chose “north” from the end of the driveway onto the road. Buki understands “north” and “south”, at least in the context of this one intersection. She answers the question “Do you want to go north? Or did you want to go south? Show me.” by turning in the affirmative direction then waiting for me to say “OK, let’s go”. But this time it was my choice because I had to take the camera up north to the Battle Mountain Bridge, where a few days ago we saw the first stone flies. I wanted to photograph them.

We’ve now seen three signs of spring: The crows returned a few days ago, two Canada geese flew over Edgewood today, and our earliest stonefly species has begun to emerge from the creeks. The two in the photo above are, I’m assuming, the female and male of the same species since these two sizes were intermixed and intermingling all over the snow on the bridge. The male in the photo didn’t seem to be in the mood for mingling with the female, though. Just after I took the photo, he ran away from her as fast as his short legs would carry him. Or maybe he just wanted to get away from me?

A curious dead thing

As always (or usually), I was glad to be accompanied by the ravens Ravena & Rowan on this walk. I’d already fed them (and the gray jays), but they still came along with Buki & me all the way to the bridge. I’m sure they like us for more than just the handouts. This time I was particularly glad to see them alive because there was something on the railing of the bridge that looked like a piece of dead raven (or crow). People shoot ravens. One old local, the most old-timey of all the old-timers I’ve ever met, used to shot them on sight. “Ravens are taking over the world!” he used to say, according to Trevor. Some less old-timey locals still threaten to shoot dead any raven guilty of harassing their chickens. Ravena is now 12 years old (refer to a past blog post if you want to find out how we know that). I’m glad she’s made it this far without anyone shooting her.

Too much death.

Tonight, past dark, for our fourth super-urgent walk of the day, Buki and I went back out yet again over the North Crossing, in a blizzard. It’s a strong north wind (by our standards) and heavy snow that’s piling up and drifting. It’s been going for 3.5 hours, though the forecast was only for a chance of flurries. Walking along dressed heavily in my thermal layers and heavy coats, wishing Buki would hurry up and be ready to return to the house, I was following her, grumpy, hunched, face down, arms against my front, and shoulders up, trying to keep my body heat in. We reached the middle of the crossing, where the wind is most free to blow fast. I wasn’t enjoying the feel of the frigid air or the snow pecking at my face.

But then I thought I would try something else: I unzipped my two coat layers, straightened my back, reached my arms out and spread my fingers, opened my eyes and mouth wide, and faced the blowing snow head-on.

So much life!

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