Explorer’s Log: Rare as a Day in June

The McGregor River view to Kakwa Park

This blog entry continues the story of the Walker Exploration, following the one posted on April 9.

June 10th. Continuing up further along the Walker Road, rounding the bend, the view turned from north to east further into the Rocky Mountains to their height, to the divide between the Pacific and Arctic drainages. And what height! The photo above doesn’t do it justice; the distance is diminished. I use only point-and-shoot camera for all my photos. I can’t heft about a bulky SLR camera during fieldwork. So I lose opportunities to capture the telephoto grandness my eyes register in landscape views like this up the McGregor River into Kakwa Park. Jaw-dropping. Literally. I gasped. I think even the most jaded indoorsman would pause and gasp at that view. In any other country, this would be a much-loved national park. But Canada wants to industrialize it, to clearcut its trees and turn it into plantations, as has happened to portions of this drainage already. Jaded indeed.

Rivershore habitats can be rich in plant species. The flood-shifted bars give newly refreshed habitat opportunities, sweeping away tangled willow and alder growth, exposing fresh sand and mud. Seeds get washed down from highland habitats through avalanche chutes to rivers. Birds transport seeds as they land in sloughs. Beavers and other furred animals on their daily journeys also carry seeds and leave them ready to germinate when the opportunity arises. As with seeds, so for spores.

Trevor calls habitats like these sand bars “petri dishes”. And that’s just how they function. They are nutrient-rich and bare, ready for colonization. Strolling along the bars, I can pick out dozens of species that have no other opportunities to grow at low elevations. And because it’s harder for me to explore high elevations than low, it’s an easy way for me to register those species as part of the Robson Valley flora. So here on the bars is the first Hedysarum I’ve seen in the region. Maybe it’s common up there on those mountain slopes. But here I find only one plant. There are moonworts, columbines, anemones, milkvetch, sweetgrass, and the seldom-seen moss Bryobrittonia longipes, including male plants with the antheridia exposed, ready to send their sperm out to meet the female plants that they hope are somewhere nearby.

Bryobrittonia longipes, males, their reproductive parts exposed and visible as the pincushion-like pads in the centres of the leaf rosettes.

This is pleasant and easy work, so long as I remember to look up once in a while to make sure I’m not obliviously stalking a grizzly bear. I wonder how many times I’ve unknowingly been in sight of a bear because I’m too focused on the plants at my feet. Fortunately, most bears are tolerant and just go about their business so long as you don’t do anything to scare them. Or they just run away at first terrifying sniff of the human scent.

Turning back into the forest, facing the slopes above the road, I’m back in the rain forest and riparian floras, where the anemones, columbines, milkvetches and such have no habitat. But another flora thrives in the filtered light, cool humid air, and in the shelter from wind, the conditions that are reversed when these rich old forests are cut down.

Scrambling up and down and along the slope contours, as best as I can do on my bandaged foot, I’m making slow but productive progress. In mature, undisturbed habitats like these I can record a lot of species without moving much. A single tree trunk, the rocks by a stream, the twigs of conifers in the nutrient rain below a giant cottonwood tree. All this can keep me recording for long stretches of time. Cliffs can keep me busy for hours, they’re so loaded with species.

As I observe and register species using my voice recorder from cliffs or other worthy habitats, I collect. Lichen specimens are placed in paper bags for rapid drying and later curation, with GPS-derived latitude-longitude data, basic habitat notes, and the date of collection written on the bag. My backpack can fill rapidly with these bags, and bags of mosses, liverworts, and plastic bags filled with vascular plants that later in the day are splayed out between the blotter sheets of a plant press. When the backpack is full, I start carrying specimen bags in totes so long as I don’t need both hands free for safe scrambling. When unable to carry more, I call an end to the exploration and return to the vehicle or tent to unload. By now, the truck’s back seats are full of specimen bags tumbling over each other. Once curated and identified (a lengthy and meticulous process involving months of microscopy and other methods), the specimens go to Vancouver, to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia.

But for now, I don’t have to worry about curation and microscopy. I can just be a naturalist in an exquisite landscape, delighted at the diversity of life, and feeling completely at peace in this beautiful world (no exaggeration).

Well, there is beauty and there is beauty. Breaking out of the brush, I see another jaw-dropping view, this time much closer than telephoto distance. A limestone cliff, its ancient sediment-settled strata turned by tectonic forces from the horizontal to the perfectly vertical. At its base, a pool of clear, azure water. So clean. And why so blue?

Later I learned that although this pool and its cliff are out-of-sight and difficult to find, it is known to the locals. It has a name: The Sacred Pool. It may look shallow (testament to the purity of the water), but it is deep enough to dive into head-first. But I didn’t. I recognized its sanctity even before I learned its name. I was sweaty and fieldwork-dirty, and my foot was wrapped in a bloody bandage. A body badly lacking in purity. I didn’t want to pollute it.

The Sacred Pool

There are habitats that make a lone botanical explorer whisper aloud with no one to hear “exquisite!!” This is one. It’s a rare habitat. Cool, moist, undisturbed, alkaline cliffs, surrounded by sheltering rainforest, protected from aggressive and overdominant plants by the stony lack of soil. In conditions like these, mosses and lichens that require stillness and ecological constancy grow like the way crystals grow in the still and unchanging conditions required for every molecule gradually to fall into place. Here are Anomobryum concinnatum, Blepharostoma arachnoideum, Bryum blindii, Hymenelia epulotica and H. heteromorpha, Orthothecium chryseum and O. strictum, Timmia norvegica. These are not the species found on dry cliffs, or in rainforest understory, or along streams, and certainly not in industrialized landscapes. These are the species of a sort of ecological perfection.

It had to be in a habitat like this where Canada’s first isidiate Porina species would be found. Porinas are seldom-found lichens which contain as their photosynthetic partner a Trentepohlia species. To a lichenologist, they are delightful, maybe triggering the same part of the mind that responds to rose bouquets and boxes of chocolates. Trentepohlioid algae are distributed primarily in tropical and oceanic climates. They can impart a pinkish colour to their lichen symbioses (as with the present Porina) due to their content of carotenoid pigments (like what makes carrots orange). “Isidiate” refers to asexual reproduction by tiny fingery projections that rise from the lichen thallus surface and which break off potentially to establish a new thallus where they land. I’m not sure if this Porina has a name; it has some unique characteristics among the few isidiate Porina species known to lichenologists. I chiseled a piece of it on a flake of limestone to be able to identify it and to preserve a specimen as part of the proof of the remarkable habitat. I did so with an apology to the Sacred Pool. Chiseling a few pieces of this place was necessary for science–naturalists’ license. For now, the Porina is listed in my collection ledger as “Porina coralloidea P.James aff.”, the aff. standing for the Latin affine — related to. True P. coralloidea is a rare species known only from Europe. Perhaps this one from the Sacred Pool is new to science?

Porina aff. coralloidea

While river shore habitats like those along the McGregor rely on frequent disturbance to maintain biodiversity. This cliff and pool habitat would lose its specialist species if disturbed. A change to this habitat (the clearcutting or burning of the surrounding forest) would ruin the stillness and send it all into a small-scale but highly significant ecological collapse. The opening of the canopy would allow light in that would give the currently shade-inhibited shrubs what they need to grow rapidly and choke the cliff walls and overhang the pool. It would give the mat-forming mosses and liverworts the opportunity to smother out the less competitive lichens and smaller bryophytes. It would allow weedy species the chance to grow robustly and build up thatch that in turn would form soil where there should be none. Upslope cutting would cause erosion that would charge the surface water flow with nitrogen that would drip down the cliffs, enriching them in favour of larger plants. It would become ugly. It would lose its sanctity.

But for now, the Sacred Pool and its sacred cliffs and all its rare wonders are left alone. Let it be beautiful. Let it be.

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