Explorer’s Log, 6/7/2023

The Wild Upper Fraser

N.B.: The blog entry posted on 1 March 2024 is this entry’s prequel.

I arrived in the Walker pre-exhausted. It’s peak garden season, and I’d only just finished moving load after load of compost to turn it into the vegetable and grain beds one shovelful at a time, double digging, as deep as I can go, by the trench method. Weeding took a long, long time since the snow had melted, and no amount of weeding is ever enough. And no matter how much work there is to do in the garden, Buki must have at least her daily four hour quota of exercise that we disguise as fun & games (those games are fun indeed, but that’s another story). April, May, June are a tough time for a northern gardener, and then my exhausting field season commences. This is an intense lifestyle to keep a body healthy, and it’s certainly working for me. But it is exhausting.

Our cabin accommodations for the Walker study is home to two goofy, wonderful, free-range guard dogs whose rambunctious greeting Buki found so threatening, especially as they were jumping up to get to her through my truck window, that she reacted with vicious defensiveness, which in turn triggered their own vicious defensiveness. The truck door had to remain between them. But, bad timing, both of my legs, upper and lower portions, front and back, broke out in one of my notorious bouts of severe muscle cramping. I had to get out of the truck to try to work out the spasms, and I just managed to squeeze out the door, keeping the opening narrow enough that Buki couldn’t pass through to engage her fangs in a potentially dangerous dog fight.

Our host had a strange first encounter with me: agonized expression, walking stiff-legged in Frankenstein fashion, hyperventilating to send maximum oxygen into the muscles (oxygen depletion causes cramps), and trying to talk to explain what I was experiencing. All this with so much barking and leaping and pushing at the truck window from both sides that everything was in confusion. I get cramps a lot, especially when I’m so severely sleep-deprived as now. This was the second bout of these whole-leg/both-leg cramps this day. The first time was along the Morkill Road, a better place to get out easily and do the Frankenstein walk and hyperventilating to get the muscles to relax. Shane commented as I stumbled about back and forth “that looks painful”. It is. But I’m used to it.

I got a fuller explanation out, finally, as the cramps were easing after ten minutes of agony. Though it was already late in the day, the decision to get Buki back home to Edgewood, a 4.5 hour drive one-way, was unavoidable. The accommodations were already paid for and were otherwise ideal, so she had to go home, where I would have to stay overnight to return early in the morning, further sleep-deprived and cramped or not. Without much hope, I called the hotels in nearby McBride just in case there was a pet-friendly vacancy so I could take Buki home tomorrow instead. It would be so nice to get some badly needed sleep here, just down the road from the Morkill Road. “No vacancy, sorry”. And “sorry, no vacancy”. It’s tourist season. And all along the under-construction oil pipeline from Alberta that elbows its way through the southern end of the Robson Valley and onward to Vancouver, accommodations and housing are taken up aggressively by the Albertans employed on the project. Early booking for hotels and bed & breakfasts are a must. Hopeless, indeed. And I’m too desperate for a long sleep to try sleeping in the truck, and I don’t have sufficient camping gear to be comfortable.

One hot possibility left: “No rooms tonight, sorry, except the four-bedroom family suite”…”oh?”…(The price? Worth it?)…”I have a dog with me; we’re in some trouble, I’m so sleep deprived that I keep getting severe leg cramps, and I’m afraid I’ll fall asleep at the wheel on the way home to Clearwater”…”You say you have a dog? We don’t accept pets in the suite…what sort of dog?”…”She’s an Australian shepherd, she’s very clean and gentle”…”An Australian shepherd? Really? Can you please come into the office so I can meet her?”…”Certainly! We’re just down the road, we’ll be right over.” Buki put on a good show, very clean and irresistibly cute and very gentle and friendly (with people, if not always with other dogs). Bless you, Buki! Bless you, Travelodge desk attendant, for giving us the suite for the price of a single bed…Bless you!

I got a good night’s sleep. And now, the morning of the 7th, I meet Shane at the Morkill Road to resume our fieldwork before traveling tonight to return Buki home to Edgewood. Well rested, no cramps.

It’s a hot day again. And it’s spring. There’s a lot to discover, and the discoveries keep coming at a fast pace. It’s still overwhelming, trying to see every species as my eyes sweep across river shore, cobble bars, cliff faces, up and down tree trunks and shrub stems trying not to miss any of the crust lichens and little tufts of epiphytic mosses. This biodiversity treasure hunt gets easier as the project species list grows longer. The number of species to add to the list per minute goes down precipitously. But today, most of what I see is new, and must not be omitted. And while I’m trying to pay attention to the near distance, I’m still looking far-sightedly up into the mountains of the Walker Wilderness, wondering how I’ll manage to traverse so much roadless (even trailless) landscape later this summer during high-elevation botanizing season. This project continues to be intimidating.

But forget all that, the heart of the Walker can be explored later. For now we can keep to the easy fringes, and I have to keep my concentration on what’s growing in the nearby. Here is a Plagiobryum, a new moss genus for the Robson Valley region. And close by that is the crust lichen Lecanora argentea, also a new one for the Robson Valley. Here’s Fuscopannaria cheiroloba, another new lichen for the region? I’m not sure if I remember, but I’ll be thrilled with the discovery anyway. And, WOW! There’s the spectacular lichen Pilophorus robustus, an unexpected new find for the whole Rocky Mountain system, and the furthest from the ocean of any known population. I’ve been working intensely since 2016 to explore the plants and lichens of the Robson Valley, already an astonishing amount of biodiversity fills out the regional species list, and still the new additions are coming on fast.

Pilophorus robustus

Working our way further up the Morkill Road, we make several stops to browse anything that looks especially interesting. With each short drive, Buki rides between Shane and me, at first peering through the windshield, on duty: “watch for deer, you gotta watch for creatures, there could be deer!” But soon settling down to curl up against Shane and snooze a bit while I drive. She has her own sleep deprivation problem. Motel sleeping is unfamiliar for her. It doesn’t bother me that people come and go in the night, people rising before dawn to shower and pack and be on their way to the mountains. But with so many unfamiliar noises, Buki was on vigilance duty all through the night. This does not happen at home. This isn’t the occasion for sleep. These people we can hear are not part of our pack. But also through the night, she was on be-quiet-so-Curtis-can-sleep duty. I woke a couple of times in the night and found Buki awake, alert. Coming over to check on her, she wiggles her tail stump to greet me, but also looks desperately at the door to say “We have a problem here, don’t you understand?! We gotta get outa here!”

Our main destination is a good one for such a hot day. Morkill Falls is a powerhouse of crashing water, mist, and waterfall wind. Every sizeable waterfall creates a breeze by the force of its cascade. The wind carries on downstream, cooling and humidifying, and even nutrifying (due to mineral-nutrient solutes aerosolized in the spray) all the surfaces reached by the mist. Due to these attributes, waterfall sprayzones are major centres of biodiversity, where rare and surprising species can be expected. And each sprayzone is unique, its own masterpiece with its unique suite of biodiversity specialties. Morkill Falls does not disappoint.

And the falls is certainly a thrill for Buki, who relishes the hot-day coolness, especially after the challenging access to the sprayzone, lowering ourselves down and between great rock slabs. Easy enough for two tall men with basic rock climbing skills. But not easy for a three-year old, inexperienced pup who seems to be in a state of vertigo. Shane descends, and I follow, and Buki whines and races back and forth along the trail above trying to convince us to stop this nonsense and retreat. It takes a few minutes of “be brave” encouragement, patting the part of the route that she should be able to descend fairly easily and perfectly safely. “Come on, Buki, you can do it!” Whimpering, trying, close, almost, but she backs up at the last moment. Another try, and the she backs up and runs along the trail again out of sight. Buki’s trust in me is strong, but not a hundred percent yet. I know she’ll work up the courage eventually. And she gets the chance to do so on two future visits to the falls. But today, she finds her own route down, maybe not the best route, but it worked for her, and she’s very pleased with herself. On we go to the sprayzone.

Buki, blissing

And it’s a wonderful sprayzone indeed! Here’s sweetgrass along the river shore, bathed constantly in that nutrifying mist. Any place with sweetgrass (Hierochloe) is a good place. Some cultures recognize magic where sweetgrass grows. Crust a leaf of sweetgrass, and you’ll be reminded of incense. Or for those in the know, you’ll be reminded of Polish Żubrówka vodka, each bottle of which contains a blade of the grass and its essence. It’s a good flavouring for liqueur, evoking wild places where a person can be at peace. The medieval English used sweetgrass as a strewing herb for special church occasions so that those walking ceremoniously aisle-to-altar would crush the leaves underfoot and release the holy fragrance. For some indigenous cultures, sweetgrass has the powers of blessing or of perfuming the hair and skin. In some cultures, a sweetgrass braid is more than a keepsake. It can bring both good and bad influences into a household, depending on how it is treated, whether it is respected. The ranges of two North American sweetgrass species, the ones most often used by humans, are in retreat during the ongoing advance of invasive European plants, especially Phalaris arundinacea (reed canary grass), which replaces whole river shore floras with its un-diverse self.

Sweetgrass florets

Morkill Fall’s sprayzone continues to delight: Here is Maianthemum canadense, new for the Robson Valley. And here on the rock slab where Buki, Shane and I descended to the falls, is Viola renifolia var. renifolia. This violet is out of place in the west, which is supposed to have only variety brainerdii. Has the typical variety been overlooked in various western outposts, or is this population a true loner, far separated from the core range in the eastern deciduous forests?

Viola renifolia var. renifolia

The seldom-seen cyanolichen Lempholemma radiatum is a major surprise to find here. It belongs in the tundra, not in a subboreal waterfall sprayzone. But here it is, a robust population, looking more vigorous than any I’d seen before, not that I’d seen more than two populations in the field previously. And curiously, the lobes are tomentose on the lower surface, a characteristic unknown from this species–or is this trait trying to tell me that this is not L. radiatum, but a new species to science? And growing with it: Odontoschisma francisci, a new addition to British Columbia’s liverwort flora. And so forth.

Lempholemma radiatum, or thereabouts

Waterfalls everywhere are important for biodiversity. Black Swifts, those high fliers whose aerobatics are enjoyed only by keen-eyed birders, nest only behind waterfall cascades, where they are guaranteed protection from predators. In various parts of the world, fish species occur only in only one waterfall splash-pool. Or amphibians, like Tanzania’s Kihansi spray toad, live only in one or few sprayzones. There are waterfall-endemic ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens, and so forth. Snails, too: I challenged Shane to be the first to find a snail here in Morkill’s sprayzone. There are at least two species here in the sprayzone, one a Catinella, the other…I don’t know. Malacology is beyond my reach.

While Shane looked for snails and while Buki blissed out, I had my attention off of the lichens and plants to get the best possible photos of an unfamiliar earthworm. For decades, we’ve been told that (except for the rare and regionally endemic Palouse and Willamette giant earthworms) all earthworms in western North America, our familiar garden ones, are invasives from Europe. But more recently a few native species have been found that live in wilder habitats. This one seems not to be one of those known natives, as best as I can tell without any experience. But what is it? I’ve never seen an earthworm in a place like this, so far from lawns and gardens. Is it exotic or native? I hope to know some day.

The worm in the sprayzone

Morkill Falls, as lovely and as biodiverse as it is, appeared about 15 years ago in a power company’s proposal for hydroelectric development. The Robson Valley residents organizations and regional environmental organizations said, emphatically, no. The proposal was shelved, but development is still possible at some point. Hundreds of British Columbia’s waterfalls are threatened with diversion-type hydroelectric development, and many have already been impacted, with the result of flow loss that sometimes exceeds 80%. The diversion of water, bypassing the falls through pipes downslope to a powerhouse, diminishes the misting effect, drying the sprayzone and reducing the nutrifying and ventilating effects of the spray to a smaller area. The effects on biodiversity of these projects is of no more concern to government regulators than that due diligence is done in development applications to write formalized stock statements about biodiversity. We Canadians really excel at greenwashing.

This hot afternoon will soon turn over to evening. Time to go. Before departing for McBride and southward to Clearwater, we make a stop at the bridge over the Fraser River. There’s a beautiful sandy beach at the shore, with an eddy-pool, and outcrops that look promising to a botanist’s eye. A good place to submerge to wash off the day’s sweat. And Buki, like every dog I’ve known, loves a beach. Swimming in the eddy pool, chasing sticks, enjoying well-earned treats. And then Buki, zooming around in circles and leaping in the air just for the joy of going air-bound, goes completely bonkers: an explosive and vocal emotional outburst and a crescendo of canine ecstasy. Shane and I both just had to watch her, amazed. I’ve never seen a city-bound dog act this way, only in the wilderness with good human friends. This should be a dog’s everyday.

The outcrop is limestone, scoured into interesting shapes during high water flow. It isn’t for the bare-footed; the finely eroded tops are blade-sharp. So I submerge once more to finish cooling before putting boots back on for some outcrop exploration. Walking out of the pool, my right foot slips and my weight comes down suddenly on my left foot, which finds a submerged limestone point in the sand. It’s a bruising pain, but I shrug it off and go lie down in the sun to dry off. Later, before putting on my boots, I sit down and pull my foot up to have a look at my throbbing heel and find it’s cut deep. There’s a loose slab of flesh. Darn it! It doesn’t hurt much, but with a wound like this, intensifying pain can be expected later, pain enough to keep me from hiking effectively.

Shane and I part ways, he goes north to the cabin to wait for my return from home tomorrow. And Buki and I go on south for the long homeward drive. At least I’m well rested today, and have no cramps. A cramped and wounded foot would bring the sort of pain I’d rather not experience. Within an hour of driving, the anticipated pain comes on strong, and I’m imagining what’s happening deep in the wound as Fraser River water and sand must be lodged in there, bacteria and all. A call to the Clearwater hospital ensures me that the emergency room will be open tonight. The good work of the ER doctor and nurse gets the wound cleaned out and the dying tissues cut away. Bandaged now, I’m told to keep my weight off the wound for two weeks.

I’m back in the Walker the next day. I can hobble. Pain…whatever…it won’t last. I’m just sorry to be without Buki for the rest of the trip. This was her first “big trip”. Her first time trusted as a working trail-dog. She did an outstanding job, keeping alert for wildlife and recognizing when I’m not to be distracted. She was sad (probably devastated, considering how emotional dogs are) to see me depart again in the morning, as she always is when I have to leave her behind. But I’m sure this time it’s especially hard on her after all that she’s enjoyed these two days. She must imagine that all my departures lead me to the joys she experienced in the Walker, and she must feel punished to be denied the “big trip”. But she will return in September for the last two days of work in the Morkill and Walker Valleys. And I’ll hope she and I will return again to that beautiful wilderness in future years.

Buki in paradise

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