Exertions: 19 May 2019

The Hemp Creek Canyonlands looking north to the Flatirons.

Not to boast or anything, but this planet really is very beautiful.

The Hemp Creek Canyonlands are not very far from Edgewood, but we can’t see out that way from the house. The canyon views must be earned with a westward hike beginning with a boot-lacing pause at the back door and a cursory check of conditions in the garden on our way out. Thanks to Trevor’s translation of deer trails into of human trails, we can make good time across the less view-y plateau to access the very view-y canyons. Canyons in the plural: Three creeks cut into that landscape (Hemp, Philip, and Trout), tributaries combining into one main canyon. And the combined canyon in turn merges with the Clearwater Canyon further downstream, out over a greater hiking distance to an even viewy-er landscape.

Greening up

May 19 is a lush time in the Clearwater Valley. Green-up is the sudden onset of northern mass photosynthesis after the oh-so-long wait for the last snow to vanish and for the ground to warm sufficiently for the phyotosphere’s veins to start moving sap. At Edgewood, we usually watch the last snow patch melt away during the first week of May. At that time, even after many days of summerish temperatures and dry, sunny weather, our surroundings look drab. A few daffodils in the garden, and the crocuses already faded, the wild soapberry bushes blooming subtly. But not much green. The birches, cottonwoods, aspens, alders, and maples all know to keep bare as long as they can just in case the gods of winter feel like having one last, late hurrah. But then, the north decides that it’s time to declare winter officially dead. The sun is just too powerful by May 19, and the winter gods finally give up the struggle.

We watch the green-up each year breathlessly like the people in E.E.Cumming’s poem:

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

Or at least we do if we take the time. Mid may is a busy time in the garden, and the work is brutal on my body. I am not Cummings’ delicately careful hand. I swing a pickaxe. I dig out rocks, sometimes boulder-sized, from new garden beds. I yank up unwanted cottonwood roots. I extract and sift the year’s worth of compost, moving it one arduous wheelbarrow-load at a time. That compost has to be dug into the garden beds, double-mixed and fluffed up. I don’t do “no-dig gardening”. Not here, not in this climate. And there’s the endless weeding, weeding, weeding. Thanks in large part to this garden, I am wiry, healthier now at 51 than I was in my 20’s. At the end of May days, I lie down in bed with a thump and go to sleep with a fatigued grunt. A healthy body is a body that is used severely. Sedentary mollycoddling does not work.

But on occasion, I decide enough is enough and I go walking instead.

Mid-May is a sweet time in this valley, both poetically and literally. When the cottonwood trees finally open their leaves, the resinous sap that covered them in the bud peels away from them like afterbirth. The bud-resin sap saturates the spring air with volatile terpenoid compounds, which dissipate through the spring weeks, By summertime, the scent is only detected by a close sniff.

Some years ago, upon his mid-May arrival, a visiting friend from Europe paused and asked why our air is so fragrant. Thanks to this question, suddenly we were aware again of that perfume. Why is it so easy to fall into sensory complacency? Each spring I’m reminded of that question, and I’m again aware of the cottonwood scent of May. The photo below can’t deliver that scent, sadly, but the green of all those carefully unfurled new leaves is, at least to the synesthetic mind, that very same scent.

Spring exertions

And so, out we go, Purple and I. Back then, Purple, and now Kabuki, remind us of another sweetness of May. Along the trails, fur brushes up against the leaves of the semi-ubiquitous, low-growing, broad-leaved, thornless bramble species Rubus parviflorus, a.k.a., and presently more properly, Rubus nutkanus (that’s a long nomenclatural story). Or more easily: thimbleberry. Whatever you call it, that bramble bears a scented exudate that form in hair-tip glands on its young, fresh leaves. It’s delightful. No shampoo can compare. Our late-spring dogs come home from hikes in a cloud of perfume. For dogs, with their olfactory superpowers, the cottonwoods and thimbleberries must make mid-May a sensory masterpiece.

The Hemp Creek Canyon

Shortly before reaching the canyon rim, the trail goes up and down a few times, steeply crossing a few side-gullies. The steepening suggests some of the geology. The flatter terrain we’d already traversed just said over and over “Quaternary alluvium, Quaternary alluvium”. But now we see some bedrock: shale-like phyllite, and now a small, out-of-place exposure of sandstone, which is a strange thing for this valley that otherwise lacks such rock. And finally the basalt cliffs and talus where the terrain really drops off. Steep ground everywhere is where geological stories are most easily read.

Well, “easily read” for a geologist. I have very little to write about these basalts. I can only say that they are peculiar. Part of the canyon rim is formed by pillow basalts, where lava poured into a lake, causing rapid cooling with haphazard results: oddly shaped igneous clumps mixed with contact-metamorphozed mud. Some of our local basalts are very young, just thousands of years. I’m told some is very old, dated back to the Eocene/Miocene, including an exposure at Coal Creek Falls, which we admire from its rim along our route southward.

The top of Coal Creek Falls

I didn’t plan on coming this way. Or this far. But we continue southward past the falls, lowering ourselves down a grade, a broad passage between cliffs, a very good way down.

I had never visited this span of cliffs south of the falls. I was already familiar with the spectacular row of hoodoos (rock pinnacles) and pillow-basalt cliffs on the opposing side of the canyon, and so I’d expected more hoodoos on this side. There are a few. But the canyon rim here is mostly a long, sheer wall of something I don’t understand. There are bits of pillowish basalt in it. But it’s mostly like some sort of pyroclastic deposit. While the rest of the basalt cliffs in this part of the canyon are sloped a bit, or complexly incised, why is this cliff so straight and so perfectly vertical? I need a geologist. Where’s Cathie Hickson when you need her?

The cliff is pockmarked with little caves, each with signs of packrat occupancy. A well-traveled animal trail skirts the base, like a sidewalk straight-edging the base of a skyscraper.

And there’s an animal bed in a shallow recess at the cliff base, a place especially interesting to Purple. Conifer twigs and leaves are stacked up as a mattress. This doesn’t look to me like a packrat’s handiwork. The twigs seem too large for an animal that size to carry or to find comfortable for bedding. Are we imposing on a bear’s bedroom?

At a few small spots on this cliff are deposits of some strange white crystalline substance (salts, I guess) settling out of the cracks and holes in the cliff. There’s a green, single-celled alga growing over the relatively stable portions of these deposits. Is this the sole habitat for this alga? I’ve seen similar (salt?) deposits at the bases of other basalt cliffs in the Clearwater Valley, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything similar anywhere else. Is this a local geological specialty, with its own specialty alga?

A hoodoo

The cliff, now all pillow basalts again, with hoodoos, continued southward, but Purple and I did not. It was time to go home. I hate backtracking. It’s defeating to retreat along the same route. Round trips are better: you spend the whole walk going forward, exploring. I found a broad cleavage in the cliff with hoodoo sentries on either side. It looked easy enough for a steep ascent back up to the plateau and homeward. We could make a sort of loop that way, and then return home by a more southerly trail.

Up we went, no trouble for Purple. She had great vertical abilities. She knew how to climb step-ladders, so a cliff-gap ascent was nothing to her. Purple, just like all my dog friends have always done, ascended far quicker than I could and then stood directly above me looking down from the cliff top. Not to the side, always directly above, from where a loosened stone could fall on my head. My human friends are not allowed to do that.

And so up I went, steeper and steeper, foothold by foothold. To help keep my balance and to catch myself in case a foot should slip, I pulled my way up by handgrips on the few sturdy shrubs and bunchgrasses. An experienced field botanist knows which species will hold and which will break or pull up by the roots. I’ve had plenty of contract work in canyons like this, I’m used to these sorts of ascents. So far so good, no serious accidents in my 30 year career.

But I misjudged slightly this time.

This cliff cleavage kept steepening. Within the last few meters to the level top, I was running out of choices of where to put my feet. The foot-holding soft sediments were all below, and now it was all hard but crumbly basalt. It may seems counterintuitive, but hikers who explore tilted terrain know that ascending is easier than descending, and it is safer to go up than down. On the descent, gravity-driven momentum makes the legs and feet work harder in order to prevent out-of-control falls. You need to know where to put your feet, and you need thighs sturdy enough and knees strong enough to catch yourself with each step, to stop the momentum each time in order to avoid the accumulation of speed.

We all know situations where we reach a point of no return. The point where you cannot turn back because you have too little fuel, or food, or time to return to your starting point, so you must continue on to the destination. It’s do or die.

On a steep ascent like this, there are not one, but two points of no return to remember: first, the point at which descending becomes more dangerous than the continued ascent, and second, the point at which it becomes impossible to ascend further. You don’t want to be caught between the first and the second, and you may not quite know how much further you can go before you reach the second point. Cats know this conundrum when they climb a tree. It’s easier to go up than it is to go down. So they keep going up, and the higher they go, the more convinced they are that they can’t get down again. So they keep climbing until they can’t go any further. And then they cling there up in the branches, meowing pitifully.

I realized, a bit too late, that I had already passed the first point of no return. I shouldn’t have done this. The cliff gap steepened at the very end, more than I anticipated, but I couldn’t ease myself down without gaining speed enough to start a bruising tumble to the bottom. I had run out of stable hand-grips and sure footholds. Pillow basalts are crumbly. A fractured hand-grip and a sudden transfer of my weight to my feet could send me sliding and rolling down again. Purple was just a few feet away looking down at me wondering why I was having trouble doing what was, for her, so easy. This is no place for a bipedal ape!

This is also not the place or time for hesitant planning. The brain is not the tool to use here. The body must do all the thinking. Its the moment for do-it-don’t-think-go-hop-hup-up-foot-here-foot-there-there-is-a-toe-hold-two-more-hops-go-go-DONE!

Whew! Look, it’s spring, and nothing is broken. Hi Purple. Let’s go home.

Thanks to Quentin Cronk for the explanation of what makes cottonwoods smell so sweet.

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