Gee Point

While browsing a map of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, I spotted what appeared to be a little used trail in a tract of the forest south of Skagit River. I quickly assessed whether it was worthy of my short list for exploration: Is it interesting and is it within cycling distance? With an affirmative yes to both criteria, I set off with my bike, Rocinante, to Gee Point.

I pedaled about eight miles south on the usually quiet Concrete-Sauk Valley Road. Only slightly rolling, this road was a good warm up for the rest of the day, which I knew would require a lot of climbing. Upon reaching the Finney Creek Road, I began a slow ascent through a mosaic of forested land—fields of stumps in recent clear cuts, thick second and third-growth stands, and occasionally a pocket of old growth forest.

view of forest area with maturing trees and recently clear cut areas

In contrast to younger forest, old-growth stands are characterized not only by large and tall living trees, but also by a complex, uneven canopy and a relatively high amount of dead standing snags and down trees. Even from a distance, the old-growth can be easy to spot once you learn to look for these signs.

view of forest with tall trees on horizon

Large trees with an uneven canopy reveal a stand of old-growth trees on the edge of a former clear cut.

Most of these old-growth trees were inaccessible from the road (perhaps the only reason they remain standing), but a few other giants were spared the chainsaw. Perhaps too dangerous to cut, or perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, or already dead, these trees stood as the last remnants of the forest that used to be.

bicycle leaning against bole of large dead tree

A few miles up the Finney Creek Road stands a giant dead Douglas-fir tree. These trees remind me that, with the exception of fire-maintained prairies and frequently flooded areas, nearly all of the Sauk and Skagit river valleys were covered with old growth trees.

Specific trees, like Sitka spruce, along Finney Creek also indicated this was often a wet place. Sitka spruce is typically found in areas with cool summers and high rainfall.

silhouette of Sitka spruce

The North Cascades, however, experience a bi-modal climate. Its cool, wet winters stand in start contrast to hot and droughty summers, and I was soon reminded of the region’s aridity even as I cycled underneath a thick canopy of needles. As the road transitioned between gravel and broken pavement, the dirt was so dry I kicked up a rooster tail of dust anytime I gained appreciable speed and each pickup truck left a cloud in their wake. (I saw about a dozen motor vehicles in this stretch of national forest. With the exception of one ATV, all were pickup trucks.)

By the time I reached FS Road 1720, I was within a few miles of Gee Point, but I still had most of the climbing ahead of me.

view of dirt road lined with thick forest

It’s a lot steeper than it looks.

The road, now completely dust and gravel but pleasantly lacking washboards, switch-backed through young, even-aged trees as it gained elevation. The terrain was changing as I climbed and signs of winter’s harshness began to appear. I crossed through an avalanche chute at least three times, which gave me an excuse to stop and catch my breath as I admired the power of snow to snap trees in half.

view of short trees caused by avalanche

Winter and springtime avalanches are a frequent occurrence in the North Cascades area, pruning any plant too tall or any too stiff to flex under their tremendous force. In summer, the brushy chutes are prime habitat for bears and I caught a glimpse of a black bear in this one.

The bright, hot sunshine and steepness of the road slowed my speed dramatically and I accumulated a sizeable escort of biting flies, but the views kept getting better, even with a slight haze from wildfire smoke.

dirt road leading toward mountain peak

To reach Gee Point though, I had to hike, so I locked Rocinante to a convenient fir tree at the end of the road and started walking. About a half mile in, I entered a beautiful, uncut forest dominated by large western hemlock and Pacific silver fir. At over 4,000 feet in elevation, which is not particularly high for the Cascades and in stark contrast to the tired burned out green of lower elevations, the forest floor had a noticeably fresh appearance.

The trail soon gained a ridge line and swung to the top of Gee Point where I was rewarded with a panoramic view.

 

The air, so calm and comfortably warm, easily could’ve induced a nap, but then I remembered that I was running low on water and time, so I reluctantly retraced my steps to the trailhead. After taking one final break to filter drinking water from Little Gee Lake, I bombed down the mountainside.

view of alpine lake and basin

On the rapid descent, I was glad to have wide 700x38cc tires to handle the rough surface and working brakes to check my speed. The ride home was quick, taking me half the time to ride back compared to riding there. When I reached home, my lower legs were caked in a fine powder. They felt worked too, but it was a good kind of tired.

Spring cycling along the North Cascades Highway

Last June, I wrote about cycling to Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway. For half the year, however, this road is closed as snow accumulation and avalanche danger, especially, become too great to keep it open. On weekends in spring, when road crews pause their work to clear snow and avalanche debris, the highway opens to bicyclists, so last Friday I took a rare opportunity to ride a car-free road. I found springtime fully fledged at low elevations in the North Cascades and winter’s legacy still holding a firm grip on the high country.

At low elevations, near the town of Newhalem, the weather and vegetation reflect mature springtime conditions. Hummingbirds seek nectar from red-flowering currant, deciduous plants are nearly fully leafed-out, and the ground is snow-free.

pink flowers on shrub

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Heading east through Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the road climbs most steeply where it skirts the three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Even here, at elevations below 1000 feet, avalanches will sometimes crash across the road when winter conditions are right.

gully on mountainside

In February 2017, a large avalanche crossed the highway at this location, trapping a few dozen people on the other side for several days.

view of avalanche snow on road

An avalanche covering the road at the same place on February 25, 2018. Photo courtesy of Washington State DOT.]

After fifteen miles of riding, beyond Diablo Lake…

View of lake and mountains

…I reached the Ross Dam trailhead where the highway remained closed to cars.

gate across highway. sign reads "Active slide area proceed at your own risk" and "Stop"

Freed of the stress of close encounters with cars, cycling on car-free roads is wonderfully relaxing. Even as I remained reasonably alert for hazards and other cyclists, I was able to do stupid things I’d never try when sharing the road with motor vehicles—like riding down the centerline while recording video.

GIF of road and surrounded by mountains and trees

For me, the car-free environment also promotes stopping where anything catches my attention. Ascending higher into the mountains, I watched as the vegetation became less and less green. From a certain phenological perspective, I was moving backwards through time. By the time I reached 2,500 feet in elevation, most of the raucous birdsong of the Skagit lowlands disappeared and deciduous plants were just breaking bud.

green flowers at the end of a maple branch

Big leaf maple has already finished blooming at low elevations along the Skagit River, but it was still in full flower around 3000 feet in elevation along the highway.

Around highway mile 150, about 15 miles beyond the gate at Ross Dam and 4,000 feet above sea level, snow continuously covered the ground. It only became deeper as I pedaled farther. Just a couple of miles shy of Rainy Pass, where state road crews had halted their work for the week, snow remained five feet deep on the road.

bicycle leaning against snow bank with one lane of plowed highway

 

bicycle leaning on five-foot high snow bank

The end of the plowed road on May 4, 2018.

As it melts, the snow provides much needed water to streams and rivers in a mountainous region where summer drought is common. For many plants though, the deep snow hinders growth well into summer. On the day of my ride, temperatures hovered in the 60s˚ F, certainly well within the temperature tolerance of plants in the Cascades, but the deep snow keeps the underlying soil cold and dark. Under these conditions, most plants have to lie dormant until growing conditions improve. In the North Cascades, where snow accumulation is so deep and extensive, this set of conditions creates a perpetual spring season on the margins of the snow pack. This gives wildlife like deer and bears the opportunity to eat young and nutritious plants through July and August.

yellow-flowered lily

Yellow avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) are currently blooming in the Diablo Lake area. More commonly associated with meadows at higher elevations, these perennials have a short growing season. They begin to grow from a perennial bulb as soon, and sometimes even before, snow cover melts away to take advantage of ephemerally moist soils. By late July, the soils where this specimen grows will have become powdery dry, but at higher elevations this species will still be in flower.

new leaves at the end of small twigs in shaded forest

Late last July, long after I began to feast on blueberries at low elevations, blueberry plants in a snowy portion of Pelton Basin has just begun to leaf out. Late season berries are an important food source for bears this area.

Even during this ride into the middle elevations of the North Cascades (the highest non-volcanic peaks here top out over 9,000 feet tall), it was easy to see how snow exerts a significant influence on the landscape. The week of my ride, road crews reported nine feet of snow at Rainy Pass (el. 4,855’). In a couple of months, when tender plants like yellow avalanche lilies have withered and dried at lower elevations, I can ride up here again and find a microcosm of spring along the edge of the remaining snow.

view of snow-capped mountains and coniferous forest

Someone’s eating the berries

In low elevation areas at the foot of the North Cascades, salmonberries are quickly ripening and I have plenty of competition in the race to harvest them.

ripe salmonberrySalmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) are moderately tall shrubs with compound leaves and bright magenta flowers. The flowers later produce large, raspberry-like fruit in various shades of yellow, orange, or scarlet. According to Cascade-Olympic Natural History, the plant’s common name derives from the fruit’s ability to cut the greasiness or fishiness of salmon, not from their color. Like many sugary, wild fruits, they are relished by more than humans. Recently, other critters have beaten me to the choicest berries.

stem of plant missing its fruit

Increasingly often, I find salmonberry shrubs stripped of their ripe berries.

 

Bears, of course, will eat salmonberries, but most of the berries I’ve seen have been plucked a bit too delicately to be the work of a bear. Bright red or yellow berries aren’t just an advertisement for mammals. They attract birds as well. Cedar waxwings, in particular, are pronounced frugivores and I recently watched a few in the act of stripping a salmonberry shrub clean.

I’ll gladly yield the fruit to these birds, since they’re doing the legwork (or is it wing-work?) to disperse the seeds. In the waxwing’s digestive tract, the seeds are carried far and wide, and if the seed is extremely lucky the bird will deposit it in a moist, sunny spot with rich soil.

More than waxwings influence this plant’s reproduction, however. Earlier this spring, I watched many rufous hummingbirds visit its large magenta flowers.

magenta colored flower with five petals

The salmonberry flower.

Salmonberry blooms relatively early in the spring (I found it in full bloom in mid April this year), a time when few other hummingbird flowers are present. Salmonberry plants aren’t exclusively pollinated by hummingbirds, but I watched hummingbirds frequently visit more than one patch of salmonberry blossoms this spring, so it may be an important early source of nectar for them.

In blossom and in fruit, salmonberry is tied to birds. Have you noticed similar connections in your local ecosystem?

Flower, You Stink

Throughout much of temperate North America, late spring and early summer is a wonderful time to enjoy wildflowers. I like looking at plants for many reasons, but recently I’ve begun to think more carefully about their smell. I’ve been sniffing plenty of flowers lately, and not all are pleasant.

Most flowers that we notice need a pollinator, but pollinators aren’t volunteering their services. They seek a reward for the effort to help the plant complete its reproductive cycle. Most of the time, the reward comes in the form of pollen or nectar or both (although there are some amazing examples of plants deceiving their pollinators). Other than visual cues, scent is one noticeable way flowers advertise their wares. Ever smell a wild rose, for example? They are sweetly fragrant, even from a few meters away, and are popular with bees and butterflies, who seek out their pollen and nectar and pollinate the plant in the process.

two rose flowers with pink petals

Rosa nutkana, the Nootka rose.

I’ve sampled the perfumes of many plants recently, giving me a tangible way to understand their different reproductive strategies. The scent of flowers, not surprisingly, ranges from non-existent to downright stinky.

Lupine, another plant popular with butterflies and bumblebees, is very odorous, smelling sweetly florid and very noticeable while walking through a meadow. The same goes for snowbrush ceanothus (Ceanothus velutinus), whose flowers attract a wide variety of insects.

cluster of white ceanothus flowers at the end of a twig

Ceanothus velutinus, commonly called snowbrush ceanothus.

Hawthorns (Crataegus sp.) and black cherry (Prunus serotina) are faintly malodorous, at least to my nose. Consequently, they attract a different suite of pollinators than roses even though they are in the same family (Rosaceae). Bees visit these plants but so do lots of flies.

flowers, Prunus serotina, Moraine State Park_05182017To increase the skink level another notch, take a whiff of mountain-ash (Sorbus sp.) or yarrow (Achillea millifolium). Mountain-ash and yarrow are in different plant families, Roseaceae and Asteraceae respectively, but they share one trait: their flowers smell like shit.

flowers, Sorbus scopulina

The first time I discovered the scent of mountain-ash, I thought I had stepped on a dog turd.

fly on cluster of white flowers

Yarrow is surprisingly stinky, which would explain why flies that you’d find on scat also visit this plant’s flowers.

Why smell like animal scat? Not all insects seek the same odors. Many species of flies, as we know, are attracted to carrion or scat. Flowers that mimic these odors are often seeking pollination from flies. From the plant’s perspective, it doesn’t matter what insect provides the pollination as long as the work of pollination gets done.

There’s sweet, there’s stinky, and then there’s unscented. I couldn’t detect the any scent from wild ginger (Asarum caudatum) flowers, but the plant was very odorous and smelled, well, like ginger. Its flowers hide on the ground, but this plant may be self-pollinated more often than not.

maroon colored flower among fallen leaves

Asarum caudatum, wild ginger, flowers hide on the forest floor.

Orange honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa), from my limited observations, is pollinated exclusively by hummingbirds. The bright red-orange flowers are striking and easy to see, but have no scent, at least none that I could discern. Hummingbirds have little to no sense of smell. If your flowers, like the wild ginger’s, are mostly self pollinated or your pollinators can’t smell you, then there’s no need to expend energy producing scent.

When we walk into or even near a floral shop, the air smells strongly of perfume, an odor most of us would describe as florid. In nature though, the perfume of flowers is extremely varied. They smell fruity, sugary, stinky, rotten, inodorous, and everything in between. Flowers, in my opinion, are nature’s most conspicuous display of sex and scent is a technique plants use to get what they need—pollination—to reproduce.