A Plant with Teeth

My neck of the woods isn’t like the Chihuahuan Desert, where nearly everything that photosynthesizes seems like it evolved to grab, shred, tear, puncture, and stab you (just try an off trail hike at Carlsbad Caverns National Park if you want the experience and say hello to the lechuguilla while you do). Nor is my habitat like the poison-oak dominated slopes found in coastal California where a careless walk through brush can leave you itchy for weeks. No, not like that. Heck, I don’t even need to worry about ticks.

Along the Skagit River, devil’s club and a couple of species of invasive blackberry will stop you in your tracks with their numerous, stout thorns. Besides those few, the list of plants to avoid drops off fairly quickly, with a notable exception. One of the most ecologically interesting and menacing members of my plant community is a nondescript perennial that’s easy to ignore until it’s too late.

Lots of plants are fuzzy with fine hair. Some plants, like common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), utilize hairs on their leaves and stem like sunscreen and to make grazing just a little uncomfortable for herbivores. Some hair is just there, perhaps not serving a specific adaptive purpose, or not one that we know currently. But one plant in my forest, Urtica dioica or stinging nettle, has turned their hairs up to 11.

Nettle is rather inconspicuous. It has oppositely-arranged, coarsely-toothed, and heart shaped leaves. Its flowers grow in small, string-like clusters from the leaf axils and lack petals, typical for a wind pollinated plant, but what it lacks in showiness it makes up in its ability to inflict pain.

group of densely growing plants with toothed, heart-shaped leaves

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned about stinging nettle as a young teenager scrambling up a creek bank in Pennsylvania. The bank was steep and muddy. I needed just a little extra support to prevent me from sliding down. Lacking a tree to hold, I grabbed a group of herbaceous stems and immediately realized I had made a mistake. I made it up the bank, but the palms of my hands burned for the rest of the day. I was just introduced to nettle’s defense against mammalian herbivores.

Stinging nettle is equipped with tiny, but potent, stinging hairs. On the plants in my area, the hairs are particularly concentrated on the stems, flowers, petioles, and leaf undersides. Each hair is tipped with a small, fragile bulb that breaks off when contacted to expose a needle-like tip that, hardened by calcium carbonate and silica, readily injects a cocktail of chemicals into your skin. The stinging sensation is immediate and long lasting.

close-up view of underside of stinging nettle leaf showing stinging hairs, petiole, and leaf veinsclose-up view of young stinging nettle stem with many stinging hairs

Among other chemicals, the juice inside a hair contains histamine, which is an inflammatory compound (we take antihistamines to inhibit the affects of allergic reactions), and serotonin, which constricts blood vessels and acts as a neurotransmitter. In sum, it is designed to irritate.

Why the need for this defense? Nettle leaves are nutritious and high in vitamins A and C as well as protein. They would likely be a sought after commodity by deer and other browsing mammals if it weren’t for their stinging hairs.

We can neutralize the sting by drying or steaming the leaves. Steamed, the leaves taste as mild as spinach and they make a decent pesto.

 

The rash you get from poison ivy is an accident of evolution. The oily liquid, urushiol, which causes the itchy dermatitis on us doesn’t affect other North American mammals or birds. Your dog won’t get it. Deer eat the leaves. Many bird species relish poison ivy fruits for food. The stinging hairs on nettles tell a different story. They are purposefully indiscriminate against all mammals.

Plants, like all life forms, experience a wide variety of limiting factors. Stinging nettle may have evolved one way to dissuade herbivorous mammals, but the same defense doesn’t deter insects or snails. The stinging hairs don’t work on parasitic fungus or microorganisms either, nor on anything that attacks and eats its perennial rhizome. But, its stinging hairs work, quite well in fact for their evolved purpose—discouraging mammals from eating it.

Despite the pain nettle can inflict, I look forward to seeing it sprout each spring. It gives me an opportunity to reflect upon why it needs to evoke such discomfort in mammals. Stinging nettle is a plant with teeth. It fights back.

Fishers Return to North Cascades

On an uncommonly sunny day in early February, I stood in a tract of old-growth forest not far from the Suiattle River to watch a missing mammal return to the North Cascades. With the return of the fisher, this area is one step closer to whole.

The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is one of the largest North American weasels. Adult females weigh four to six pounds and measure about 30 to 36 inches long, including tail, when fully grown. Males are about 20% larger, growing upwards of 13 pounds and nearly four feet long. Despite the name, fish are not a primary prey. Instead, fishers are wolverines of the forest. Highly arboreal, cylindrical in shape, and agile in motion, they are formidable predators of rodents, rabbits, hares, grouse, and other small to medium-sized animals.

fisher running to escape a box, people standing behind it

One of the first fishers to be released on February 6. The common name, fisher, is probably a modern English language corruption of “fitch,” a Middle English term for the pelt of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), also known as the common ferret. Not coincidentally, the colonial Dutch fisse and visse as well as the French fiche and fichet, all words for the polecat, sound quite similar to fisher. (NPS Photo)

Fishers were functionally extirpated from Washington by the mid 20th century due to habitat fragmentation and, especially, unregulated trapping. Surveys in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find evidence of any viable fisher populations. As a first step to recover the species in the state, a coalition of public agencies, tribes, and private organizations released fishers in Olympic National Park from 2008-2010. This was followed by similar efforts in Gifford Pinchot National Forest and Mount Rainier National Park from 2015-2017. The North Cascades National Park Service Complex and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest began to host the fisher’s return last fall, which is how I found myself standing in the woods with about twenty other people on February 6.

Fishers prefer mature forests with a high canopy, relatively large diameter trees, and an abundance of downed trees. Dead standing trees are particularly important to fishers, as they den exclusively in tree cavities. The release site for the fishers this day seemed particularly well suited to their needs.

forest and stream

Fortunately and conveniently, healthy populations of fishers remain in British Columbia and Alberta and they serve as the source for the restoration effort. Fishers from western Canada are also genetically similar to those that used to inhabit Washington. Canadian trappers were paid to capture live, healthy animals. The Calgary Zoo temporarily housed the fishers while veterinarians evaluated their health and surgically implanted tiny radio transmitters to assist biologists in tracking them.

Twelve hours before release, these particular animals were still in Calgary. At 1 a.m., the fishers were flown to Abbotsford, British Columbia where they were picked up by biologists and driven into Washington. By early afternoon, a gang of biologists and a few interested souls like me were unloading the cargo and carrying the fishers a short distance to the release site.

Fisher release, Buck Creek Campground, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest_02062019_4

Fishers were transported in specially designed crates. Two fishers, separated by a partition, are in each crate.

view through screened hole of fisher in a box

A fisher peeks through a window toward the outside world.

people carrying wooden crates on forested path

Our group formed a semi-circle around the crates to watch the release. Conversations quieted to a whisper or died in anticipation as the crates were opened one at a time. To coax them out, a screened vent was opened at the top and a volunteer blew a puff of air into the container. I’m unsure if this was as annoying as someone blowing air into my ear, but the trick worked. The fishers shot out like a flash and bolted into the forest.

Six fishers were released that day bringing the total number currently released in the area to 24. The release efforts will continue until about 80 fishers are reintroduced to the area. Biologists will track, monitor, and study the animals to assess survival rates, identify where they go after release and where they establish home ranges, the types of foods they eat, and the diseases and parasites they suffer from.

The effort has a high chance of success. Reintroductions, however, are rarely so simple. Fishers, although not well known among the general public, are relatively non-controversial animals. They don’t evoke the same emotional reactions in people as grizzly bears or wolves, for example.

More than that, however, the forested habitats along the core and margins of the North Cascades are largely intact. Land managers needn’t take extreme, expensive, time-consuming measures to restore the ecosystem to a point where it could support fishers again. It could always support them. We just didn’t allow fishers to survive here.

Because prior generations had the foresight to protect places like North Cascades National Park and Glacier Peak Wilderness, we have the opportunity to restore fishers to land they once knew as home. Situations like these are becoming increasingly uncommon. People have fundamentally altered so much of the Earth to preclude the reintroduction of many extirpated species into their historic ranges. (There’s no substantial habitat available for bison in Iowa, for example.)

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Potential future fisher habitat along Stetattle Creek in North Cascades National Park.

As humanity’s footprint grows, undeveloped landscapes are increasingly valuable, not for the resources we can exploit within them (including supposedly non-consumptive uses like solitude), but as repositories of biodiversity and ecosystem health. To adapt an idea from Thoreau, future generations, I believe, will measure our legacy not by what we invented and consumed, not by our material wealth, but by what we can afford to let alone.

I’ll probably never see any of these fishers ever again. Even if the population increases to hundreds of individuals, they’ll remain reclusive neighbors. If I’m lucky, I may find a track in fresh snow or its scat on a log. But even that doesn’t matter. I’ll know they are there and I’ll know the landscape is healthier because of it. The return of the fisher represents, at least in one small way, the success of our ability to let one place—North Cascades—alone.

Hair Ice is Doped for Beauty

Late one frosty morning, I paused my walk to admire ice crystals that had grown from a small branch lying on the ground. Delicate and lacy to the extreme, the ice had a silky and well-kempt appearance. The formation was gorgeous.

silky ice, parted neatly in curls, growing out of dead wood

This was my first glimpse of hair ice, a phenomenon that originates in a surprising way.

If you live in a temperate climate that experiences hard frosts, you might be familiar needle ice. Even though it forms on frosty nights, this type of ice isn’t frost because it doesn’t condense out of the atmosphere. According Dr. James Carter of Illinois State University, it forms instead from in water in soil through ice segregation, a process when “above freezing and below freezing temperatures are juxtaposed. At the Earth’s surface this is most common in fall at night as the air cools to below freezing while the land surface stays relatively warm.” As ice forms on the soil surface, liquid water is pulled up from below through capillary action and freezes to the existing ice. This forces the ice to grow away from the freezing surface. The process stops when the temperature becomes cold enough to freeze everything up, the temperature rises above the freezing point of water and everything melts, or the soil surface becomes too dry.

Hair ice however, forms under even more specific, and perhaps unusual, circumstances. Like needle ice in soil, hair ice needs air temperatures just below freezing and a water saturated substrate. Unlike needle ice though, hair ice forms only on wood, specifically the dead and bark-free wood of broadleaf trees. Why only on dead wood?

silky looking ice growing out of dead woodsilky looking ice growing out of dead woodSee more photos of hair ice on iNaturalist

In 2015, researchers from Germany and Switzerland published a very interesting (and highly readable for a scientific paper) study titled, “Evidence for the Biological Shaping of Hair Ice.” Through repeated observations and laboratory experiments, they confirmed that the biological action of a winter-active fungus, Exidiopsis effuse, is required to enable the growth of hair ice.

Looking at the cross section of a small branch, wood rays radiate from the center of a branch like spokes on a bicycle wheel. From these rays, hair ice threads emerge and grow perpendicularly from the wood surface. The thickness of individual hair ice stalks corresponds to the diameter of the wood ray channels. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I could visualize the true scale of these cellular channels.

But this doesn’t explain how the ice maintains its shape. Threads of hair ice are extremely thin, sometimes .02 millimeters in diameter or smaller. Yet, they can grow to be 20 centimeters long (that’s 1,000 times longer than it’s thickness!) and maintain their shape for days. Normally, ice this fine couldn’t retain its shape for so long. It would recrystallize into larger crystals quickly at temperatures near freezing.

While the chemical process that preserves its fine and delicate structure is not fully understood, it seems that the ice, according to the 2015 study’s authors, is “doped” into maintaining its shape by fungi. Samples of melted hair ice contain lignin, tannins, and other compounds. Lignin cannot be digested by animals, only by fungus and some bacteria. It’s presence in the water, therefore indicates fungal activity. (We can thank fungi that forested habitats aren’t buried in dead trees.) The lignin and tannins might act as a crystallization surface for the ice and the fungi might help to initially shape the ice as it forms at the surface of the wood rays.

When researchers applied fungicide or hot water (90-95˚C) the hair ice wood for several minutes, hair ice formation was suppressed for many days. Instead of hair ice, an simple ice crust formed on the wood. This indicates that hair ice formation is somehow catalyzed by fungal activity and that high temperatures inhibit the activity of Exidiopsis effusa.

Since I first observed it, air temperatures have been too warm in my neck of the woods for hair ice to reappear. Given its ephemeral nature and remarkable delicacy, I’ll be sure to search for it once the temperature drops again. If I find it, I’ll surely be astonished by ice that was—in a sense—doped by a magic mushroom.

Francis Beilder Forest

Tucked away in a section of Four Holes Swamp, a tributary of the Edisto River in South Carolina, lies a pocket of remarkable forest. Currently owned and managed by the National Audubon Society, Francis Beilder Forest protects the largest virgin bald cypress and tupelo swamp remaining in North America.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree surrounded by other treesBald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a deciduous member of the cypress family (Cupressaceae), which includes juniper, white-cedar, arborvitae, incense-cedar, Sequoia, and redwood. Like hickory trees, however, bald cypress shed their pinnate leaves each fall and grow new leaves in the spring. This characteristic inspired their common name since the trees are “bald” for at least part of the year. The species is long-lived and its wood is rot resistant. Recently, cypress logs dating back 25,000 to 50,000 years have been uncovered from sand quarries along the Pee–Dee River.

Visiting the Beilder forest is easy, requiring only the ability to traverse a level, 1.75 mile-long boardwalk. Walking into the forest, I could immediately see this was a special place.

black water swamp in winter with reflections of trees in waterBald cypress swamps experience seasonal flooding, and when I visited in mid December the forest was covered in a blanket of tea-colored water stained brown by tannins. The day was relatively warm and temperatures reached above 60˚ F. A few turtles and snakes took the opportunity to climb out of the water and sun themselves on fallen logs. My attention, however, was consistently drawn to the canopy and the craggy tops of centuries- and millennium-old bald cypress trees.

silhouette of large bald cypress treeBald cypress is one of the longest-lived trees in North America and the longest-lived tree in the eastern U.S. The oldest known tree at Beilder is nearly 1,600 years old. Along the boardwalk, you can find a 1,000-year giant, which outwardly looks healthy enough to stand another thousand years. (I asked the Audubon staff if I could see the 1,600 year-old tree and to my delight it could be found along the boardwalk. But, I won’t disclose its exact location since the staff would like to avoid making it a target for vandals.)

silhouette of large bald cypress tree

A thousand year-old giant in Francis Beilder Forest. This tree grows adjacent to the boardwalk and is identified by a sign.

At Beilder, many trees are massively trunked, resembling the silhouette of giant sequoia. Above their basal swell, they barely seem to taper until their branches splay outward in the canopy.

silhouette of large bald cypress tree; tree is surrounded by a boardwalkWhen you live to be over 1,000 years old you’re bound to acquire a scar or two. Reaching over 100 feet high, each bald cypress carries a legacy of the battles with insects, fire, and severe weather like thunderstorms, tornados, and hurricanes.

crown of large bald cypress with broken branch

Some time ago, a large branch broke off of this tree, perhaps allowing carpenter ants an easy means of entry. Larger holes in the same branch are the work of large woodpeckers like pileated woodpeckers. One hundred and fifty years ago, ivory-billed woodpeckers would’ve inhabited this place too. Could some of these woodpecker holes be from this extinct bird?

top of trunk of hollow bald cypress tree

The charcoaled interior of this large bald cypress preserves a moment in time when it was struck by lightning and burned.

Collectively and individually, these trees tell a fascinating story, if we are willing to listen. Maybe the most poignant of those, from my perspective, is loss.

I marveled at the trees at Francis Beidler, but I marveled at a fragment. Their longevity and physical proportions might only be remarkable because we’ve eradicated nearly all other bald cypress of the same size and age. Francis Beidler Forest is one of the few places where old-growth bald cypress trees still exist. According to one estimate, over 42 million acres of bald cypress forests once covered the southeastern United States, an area nearly the size of Missouri. Now, only 10,000 acres remain, equivalent to .02% of the original bald cypress forest! The rest was logged for lumber, furniture, and shingles with no forethought for future generations who may find great value (monetary or otherwise) in healthy ecosystems or for the species who depended on this habitat.

Through uncontrolled hunting and the loss of old-growth forests like bald cypress swamps, we drove the Carolina parakeet and ivory-billed woodpecker to extinction. Knowing what we consumed in the past, understanding that we continue to cause extinctions and change the climate today, can we ethically expand our footprint on Earth? How much extinction does it take before we say enough is enough?

The trees at Beilder felt the pounding of the ivory-bill and heard the calls of parakeets. Perhaps they were even enveloped by passenger pigeons, a species once so abundant in North America that their flocks extended for miles and blackened the skies. The air in this forest used to ring with the echoes of these birds. When we lose forests, we lose much more than trees.

 

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.

Cross Country By Rail Continued

In my last post, I left Bellingham, WA and crossed the Cascade Mountains via Amtrak’s Empire Builder. On day two of the journey to Pittsburgh, the route and landscape would prove to be even more contrasting than the previous twenty-four hours.

Overnight the train route crossed eastern Washington and Idaho. I woke around sunrise to a foggy scene along the Kootenai River. The river along this stretch harbored few rapids that I could see, but it was brimming with muddy water. Spring and early summer is the season of high runoff in the Rockies.

river flowing through foggy valleyThe train soon left the Kootenai River and passed through the Salish Mountains to the Flathead River valley. After Whitefish, Montana we began a slow climb toward the continental divide. Along the middle fork of the Flathead River, between Glacier National Park to the north and the Great Bear Wilderness to the south, lies one of the most scenic stretches of rail on the route. Every bend provided new views of the snow-capped mountains bounding the narrow valley.

view of forested mountainsWhile I enjoyed the mountain scenery, for me the real highlight of this section was the stark contrasts in vegetation and climate. The low valleys on the west side Glacier National Park capture enough precipitation to support the growth of species also found within the wet forests Washington’s Cascades. At West Glacier I caught glimpses of the some of the eastern-most stands of western red-cedar (Thuja plicata). This species, you could say, likes it feet wet and it won’t grow where soil moisture is too low. In this part of North America, a lack of suitable habitat squeezes the red-cedars into narrower and narrower confines, and it quickly disappeared as we traveled east.

Western red-cedars wouldn’t be the only species to vanish in the next fifty miles. On the approach to the continental divide, lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) predominated. Lodgepole pine was especially abundant in areas that had experienced forest fires in the last two decades. As the train crossed the continental divide at Marias Pass (el. ~5200 feet) the forest began to disappear, partly from the elevation (treeline was only a thousand or so feet higher) and largely from increasing aridity.

Terrestrial habitats often intergrade slowly, mixing in quilted patches before one finally yields to another. At East Glacier, Montana though, the montane Rocky Mountain forest seemed to simply end where the short grass prairie began. Here is one of the most dramatic terrestrial biome shifts to be found in the United States.

rolling prairie with snow-capped mountains in backgroundLike the Cascades, the Rocky Mountains create a strong rain shadow across northwestern Montana. Browning, MT, east of the mountains, receives only half the precipitation of West Glacier. For the next thousand miles across Montana and North Dakota prairie dominated where the land was not cultivated or otherwise appropriated by people. The only trees were either planted or grew along creek and river bottoms where their roots could tap into a shallow water table.

prairie and wheat fields across north central MontanaWildlife became easier to spot on the open prairie. Through Montana the railroad took us just south of the true prairie pothole region, but many of the low-lying areas adjacent to the track held water. Every little puddle seemed to harbor a few pairs of ducks and geese. I casually spotted at least ten waterfowl species during the day. Undoubtedly more used the habitat. I just failed to see them. Small prairie dog towns, frequented by red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, occupied some of the ranching areas. I counted at least two-dozen pronghorn grazing or resting small, scattered bands.

In eastern Montana, badlands appeared in the distance and became more prominent as we approached and crossed the North Dakota state line. Parts of this area are rich with fossils and I wanted more than a little bit to poke around the hills for ancient bones.

badland bluffIn North Dakota, fracking wells became a prominent sight as the sun set.

oil wells silhouetted by the setting sunOn the morning of my third and final full day on the train I woke up somewhere in Minnesota where the prairie had long since yielded to cornfields. This was, historically, a battleground between prairie and forest. In this area, where precipitation is great enough to support tree growth, fire was the prairie’s greatest ally. Periodic burning kept the forest at bay. After American settlement, the prairie was plowed and fires suppressed. Along this ecosystem margin today, you’re more likely to see farm fields bordered by trees than a patchwork of prairie and forest.

Spring was also much less advanced in west-central Minnesota compared to the Puget Sound area where my trip began. Quaking aspen was washed with small vibrant leaves but some of the paper birches had barely broken bud.

For over a hundred miles south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the route followed the Mississippi River where tall bluffs bordered the river valley…

wide river with tall bluffs in background…and the floodplain forest drowned in water.

flooded marsh bordered by forestThe train crossed the Mississippi one final time at La Crosse, WI. Heading upland into central Wisconsin, jack pine (Pinus banksiana) appeared on sandy soil. This species is essentially the eastern equivalent of lodgepole pine and the two hybridize where their ranges overlap. Like it’s western sibling, jack pine is well adapted to fire, often holding serotinous cones on its branches for years before fire melts the cones’ resin and releases its seeds.

forest and rolling hills

You’ll have to take my word for it: Those are jack pines in the middle ground.

East of Madison, the landscape quickly became suburbanized then urbanized as we approached Milwaukee. We never seemed far from Lake Michigan, but I only caught a couple of glimpses of the great lake.

I transferred trains in Chicago for the final leg of the journey to Pittsburgh. Through Gary, Indiana, the land remained very urban with the exception of the forested dunes on the inland side of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Night hid most of Indiana and all of Ohio. After a rough night of sleep, I arrived in Pittsburgh at 5 a.m.

There’s a lot of sitting on a railroad trip from Puget Sound in Washington to Pittsburgh and I felt very antsy, so I capped off my first day in town with a fifty-mile bike ride on the Great Allegheny Passage. The exercise and change of pace was welcome, but so was watching the landscape through the train window.

Cross Country By Rail Day One

Since I live across the continent from most of my family, I’m obliged to return east periodically. During my time in Alaska I flew almost exclusively on this migration, primarily because it was the most expedient way to get to where I needed to go. If I have the time though, I’d rather travel by other means. With some time to spare before my summer job at North Cascades National Park begins, I traveled by train from Bellingham, WA to Pittsburgh, PA.

I’m not a train fanatic, but the railroad allows me see a good deal of the landscape and perhaps some wildlife without the risks involved with highway driving. On the train, I could sit in my seat and gaze eagerly out the window to watch the landscape pass by. My first wildlife sighting began even before I stepped onboard.

While waiting for the train in Bellingham, I watched a crow land in a parking lot with something large in its bill. This was nothing unusual as crows are fond of scavenging garbage, but as soon as the crow landed I noticed its prize was moving. I hurriedly yanked my binoculars out of my daypack to get a better look.

The crow had caught and was killing a semi-neonate cottontail rabbit. After it dispatched and partly consumed its prey, the crow returned to catch and kill another kit. With more than it could eat, the crow cached pieces of the rabbits in nearby trees and shrubs. It was a fairly gruesome death for the rabbits, but crows gotta eat too.

view through fence of crow

Life and death struggles happen even in city parking lots.

Once onboard the train and traveling from Bellingham to Seattle, I witnessed no more battles between predator and prey. The rest of the ride, in fact, was quite pleasant. The Cascade route provided plenty of views of Puget Sound, where many birds lounged and fished in the water near shore. I enjoyed glimpses of birds like blue herons, cormorants, gulls, more crows, and brant.

view of water with clouds and boulder in middle foreground

Puget Sound is a glacially carved trough. The boulder in the middle foreground is likely a glacial erratic.

Where I couldn’t see the water, the route often passed through rich farmland where large rivers like the Skagit and Snohomish have deposited broad floodplains.

Fallow farm fields and farmhouseAfter transferring to the Empire Builder in Seattle, my route reversed north before it turned east up the Snohomish and Skykomish rivers valleys toward the Cascade Mountains, which were quite showy under clear skies.

Farmland with view of tall snowcapped mountains in backgroundThis section of rail, besides letting me enjoy scenes of lush forest, provided a conspicuous example of habitat changes due to climate, particularly the Cascades’ rain shadow effect. When moisture-laden storms from the Pacific reach the Cascades, the rising air cools and drops a considerable amount of its moisture on the west side of the mountains. Far less remains to wet the mountains’ eastern slopes.

Skykomish, WA at 900 feet in elevation, for example, receives a whopping 91 inches of precipitation per year. The forests of this valley, except where recently clear-cut, are lush and thick and moss hangs prominently from stout big leaf maple branches.

Forests on snow-covered mountainside

Lush forest cloak the western slopes of the Cascades.

 

Around 2900 feet in elevation, the train entered an eight-mile long tunnel and passed underneath the Cascade crest. When the train exited the tunnel on the east side of the Cascades, the forest was noticeably different. Trees were sparser and included a higher proportion of drought tolerant species like ponderosa pine.

Sparsely snow covered mountain

Many mountainsides east of the Cascade crest are noticeably drier and less forested than equivalent areas to the west.

As the train descended the Wenatchee River valley to the Columbia River, the climate became drier and drier. Soon enough, sagebrush and bitterbrush mixed with widely scattered trees as we approached Wenatchee around sunset. About 780 feet in elevation, Wenatchee receives only 11 inches of annual precipitation. Along the Columbia River, as night fell, the route crossed a dramatically drier environment compared to the lush forests not far to the west. I could see few trees except those planted by people.

Darkness concealed central and eastern Washington’s landscape, which I knew would happen but was still disappointing because I missed viewing any of the unique and spectacular channeled scablands. I went to bed looking forward to more sightseeing.

In a future post, I’ll describe days two and three on the train where the land continued to offer more reasons to be glued to the window.

A January Bear

It was late January, but I enjoyed nearly perfect hiking weather in Big Bend National Park. The sky was clear, the wind was calm, and the temperatures hovered in the hiking Goldilocks range (for me, that’s the low 60˚s F). I had spotted a few piles of bear scat earlier that day, but all were dry and desiccated. Then in the late afternoon, I found one particularly fresh pile of crap.

This scat was soft and pliable and hadn’t been exposed to the dry desert air for very long. (I poked it with a stick to gain a very scientific measure of its age.) Was there a bear nearby? I hoped to find out.

The previous day, I stopped in the Chisos Basin Visitor Center to purchase a book to help me search for the park’s endemic oaks. A map on the visitor center wall was marked with sticky notes identifying when and where people had spotted black bears. At least a dozen had been seen over the past two weeks. I made a mental note to watch carefully for bear sign. Maybe, just maybe, I would be lucky enough to see one for myself.

Mountain rising above pine and juniper forest

The pinyon-oak-juniper habitat near Emory Peak (center) is preferred habitat for Big Bend’s black bears.

Although I spent considerable time searching for the endemic oaks (and found at least a couple, plus some species rarely found in the U.S.), bears were never far from my mind. Backcountry campsites all had bear-resistant food storage boxes, and signs clearly informed people that bears will take your unattended pack.

metal sign. Text says, "Bear Country Do Not Leave Back Packs Unattended"

Occasionally, I’d find old piles of bear scat or a marking tree.

scratch marks on bark of tree

Black bears used this Arizona cypress (Hesperocyparis arizonica) near Boot Spring as a marking tree.

No long after I photographed the marking tree, I stumbled on the aforementioned scat. Its freshness caught my attention, but it wasn’t steaming so I couldn’t be sure if a bear was close or not. I only knew it was there earlier in the day. As I proceeded up the trail, motivated to pick up my pace and return to the campground before dark, two hikers traveling in the opposite direction told me they had just seen a bear not far from the trail. This was their first wild black bear sighting, and they spoke excitedly about their experience. I thanked them for the info and continued on, now even more alert.

The hikers said the bear was near a switchback in the trail, not far from a backcountry campsite. I slowed my pace as I approached that location, not wanting to startle the animal. A moment later, through some thick vegetation, I heard cracking branches and there it was—a black bear.

black bear ears seen through thick vegetation

My soon-to-be award winning wildlife photo of a black bear in Big Bend National Park. Move over Tom Mangelsen.

What would a bear be doing out in January? Since bears are omnivorous and eat a wide variety of food, their scat reveals a world of information about where they’ve been and what they’ve been up to. The fresh bear scat I found 10 minutes before, like the older scat on the trails, was filled with fragments of pinyon nuts and shells. Pine nuts are exceptionally nutritious, containing almost 700 calories per 100 grams. The pinyons pines in the Chisos Mountains seemed to have produced a sizable cone crop in 2016, one which helped sustain the bears into mid winter.

pile of black bear scat in grass

Pinyon pine nut shells and fragments fill this fresh pile of bear scat. I found this scat just moments before seeing an active bear.

The density of the shrubs made it difficult for me to se exactly what the actual bear was doing, but it appeared to have its nose to the ground and it wasn’t moving far. Perhaps it was still feeding on pine nuts.

pine cones on the ground

These Mexican pinyon pine (Pinus cembroides) cones still hold their fatty nuts.

Black bears in the Chisos Mountains rely heavily on habitats with pinyon, oak, juniper, and grassy talus slopes, although male bears will make more frequent use of low elevation areas. Even so, this was January 26. Shouldn’t the bear be inside a den?

Black bears in more northernly locations hibernate well before January. However, bears in Big Bend don’t typically enter their dens until late January or February, and when they do many don’t seem to fully enter hibernation. Male bears, especially, are more likely to remain active. Pregnant females in Big Bend, like other bear populations in North America, have the longest average denning period, beginning in mid to late December and ending in late April.

This winter activity isn’t unique to Big Bend’s bears. Black bears in Florida have similar winter dormancy patterns. Mild weather and the prospect of food, especially, can keep bears active for longer time spans. After all, bears are avoiding winter famine more than winter weather when they hibernate. The bear I saw probably wasn’t doing anything abnormal for a Big Bend black bear. It was just another bear doing bear things like eating and shitting in the woods.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

Old growth forests in the eastern U.S were formidable barriers to colonization, places to be subdued and civilized, to fuel industrialization, not preserved. Today, we view old growth forests differently. They give refuge to rare species, support diverse ecological communities, and often provide the conditions necessary for trees to attain their maximum size and age. While visiting Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in the Nantahala National Forest, I thought about why these forests remain so important despite the some negative changes they’ve recently undergone.

Prior to European colonization, forests in the eastern U.S. formed a mosaic of complex habitats, owing to natural disturbance regimes and the influences of American Indian nations. An unbroken old growth canopy stretching for the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River is mythical and never existed. Lightning-caused fires, human-caused fires, tornadoes, ice storms, hurricanes, and insects imparted constant change. Some forests were likely disturbed every few decades at minimum, while others grew undisturbed for hundreds of years.

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is one of those places that grew relatively undisturbed. It is a pocket of old growth tucked away in the rugged mountains of western North Carolina. While many impressive trees grow here, the most impressive and largest trees are Liriodendron tulipifera, the tulip tree. Also known as tulip-poplar or yellow-poplar, tulip trees grow fast and tall (the tallest individual tree in the eastern U.S. is currently a tulip tree) and are easy to identify in summer because of their distinctively-shaped leaves.

No live leaves hung from the tulip trees on the overcast, early January day when I visited, but this allowed me to contemplate the trees’ full scale. The tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer are the largest of the species that I’ve ever seen. Many exceed 15 feet in circumference at chest height, approach 150 feet tall, and are several hundred years old.

person standing at base of large tree

I was impressed by complex crowns of the largest trees. Most trees in the eastern U.S. today don’t attain such large, complex crowns. They simply aren’t allowed to grow long enough. Many of the crowns were scarred and broken by centuries of battles with wind, ice, and other forces that try to break the tree down.

crown of large tulip tree

Since tulip poplars are intolerant of shade, the largest tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer likely sprouted and began to dominate the canopy after a major disturbance, like a fire or tornado, swept through the area several hundred years ago. The now towering tulip trees effectively shade the understory, suppressing the germination and growth of their offspring. Instead of young tulip trees, the understory of the forest was filled with more shade tolerant species like sugar maple and American beech. In a couple of hundred years future visitors may see giant sugar maples growing over the decaying remnants of tulip poplars.

Despite the beauty and stateliness of the trees at Joyce Kilmer, this isn’t forest primeval. No such thing exists in the eastern U.S. Evidence of significant, human-caused changes are easy to find here. Until recently, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest contained many large eastern hemlock trees. Now, however, almost every hemlock tree in the grove has been killed by hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native, invasive insect that basically sucks starch out of the hemlock. I found only a handful of live hemlocks in the grove, and none were particularly large.

dead hemlock trees

These hemlocks were killed by hemlock woolly adelgid.

Disturbed, young forests are easy to find. Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is different. It represents the forests which used to exist and provides examples of the threats forests face today. The tulip trees at Joyce Kilmer are massive, dwarfing almost everything there, especially me. I walked under the trees in wonder even though this place is very changed. I can’t pretend this is the same forest with the same species composition as it was even a hundred years ago. Among other changes, the hemlocks are dead or dying, American chestnuts are functionally extinct, and passenger pigeons no longer darken the skies. Still, I don’t want to demean this place as less special because it’s not what it once was. On the contrary, it is more special because forests like this are so rare.

person standing at base of large tree