A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.

Lake Chelan

If you’ve never been to Stehekin, it takes some time to get to. Lying at the head of Lake Chelan, Stehekin is only accessible on foot, by boat, or plane. I’ve traveled in and out many times over Lake Chelan in the past year and each time, it gave me time to witness the climatic, topographic, and glacial changes that make this area biologically diverse.

View from ridge looking into deep valley with lake

Upper Lake Chelan and the lower Stehekin River valley seen from a ridge above Rainbow Creek.

Lake Chelan is cleaved into the heart of the North Cascades and is one of the more spectacular places in the area, biologically and geologically. Most people who arrive in Stehekin in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area do so via ferry. When the ferry motors away from Fields Point Landing, about one third the distance from Chelan to Stehekin, it leaves a relatively dry habitat with sparse tree cover, but this can look lush compared to areas farther down lake. At the lake’s outlet, the town of Chelan receives only 11.4 inches (29 cm) of precipitation per year. It is a downright arid place.

Mountain slopes with few trees above lake

Sparse vegetation along the lower half of the lake is the result of an arid climate with hot, dry summers.

As the boat continues up lake, stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir slowly thicken. At the elevation of the lake (1,100 feet, 335 meters) however, several factors continue to limit tree growth even along the lake’s upper reaches. Fires frequently burn the slopes while bare rock and sheer walls inhibit soil formation. Summer drought is common with scant rain and hot, dry temperatures that bake the lake’s western and south facing slopes. During spring, the mountainsides are flush with water from snow melt, but in late July and August the soil will become so desiccated it rises like powder under your footsteps.

Snow covered mountain with dead standing trees

In 2015, wildfires burned large areas near Lucerne, a small village on the lake.

Mountainside with dead standing trees and snow filled gullies

With ample snow melt, water is easy to find on the mountainsides next to the lake. In mid to late summer however, many of the gullies will become completely dry.

The North Cascades are famous for prodigious snowfall and plenty still clings to the mountains at this time of year. During the last glacial maximum, nearly the whole lake basin was filled with a glacier that carved it into a land-locked, steep-walled fjord.

In its middle reaches, Lake Chelan plunges to great depths. The mountain topography on either side of the valley restricted the glaciers outward flow, but not its forward movement. The tight topographic pinch created by the mountains enhanced downward erosion by the glacier. The lake basin, averaging only a mile wide over 50 miles, was greatly over-deepened, even reaching below sea level. At its deepest point the lake is almost 1500 feet (456 meters) deep. (More info about Lake Chelan’s underwater topography.)

Diagram of lake basin. Y axis is depth in feet and and X axis is length in miles

The upper basin of Lake Chelan is its deepest and most voluminous. Near mile 16 on the horizontal axis lies a submerged glacial moraine.

Section of bathymetric map of Lake Chelan. Contour Lines in 100 foot intervals. Greatest depth 1486 feet.

The steep mountain topography continues underneath the lake.

Steep mountain above lake

Sheer cliffs plunge steeply into Lake Chelan above the deepest areas of the lake. Below the boat on which I stand, the water is over 1,000 feet deep.

The volume of the former glaciers is apparent by looking at the shape of the mountains. Where glaciers overran the mountains, the ridges and peaks are smoothed over and somewhat rounded. Mountains that were tall enough to escape complete glaciation remain craggy and jagged. Measured perpendicularly from the deepest area on the lake to the crest of nearby mountains, vertical relief can reach 9,000 feet (2,744 m) and glaciers filled most of the space in between.

Snow covered mountain peak and ridgeline

Knife-edged ridges and peaks were not completely glaciated. Glacier ice eroded lower ridges, smoothing them over.

Looking at a map of Washington before I arrived here, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the area’s diversity or its glacial story. Here, arid adapted species like sagebrush can live on hot, dry rocky outcrops just a short distance away from a cool, moist ravine with western red cedar and thimbleberry. Glaciers left their mark up and down the lake, accentuating topography even further. Lake Chelan is Washington’s inland fjord surrounded by, perhaps, the most diverse habitats in the whole North Cascades ecosystem.

A Bufflehead Meets Its Demise

On a recent ski, I was daydreaming for a moment or two, just staring down at the snow. I glanced up for a moment to see a raptor flying away from a dead snag. It didn’t fly far and landed in another dead standing tree about a hundred meters away. Through my binoculars, I saw an adult peregrine falcon staring back at me.

bird perched on tree branch

Peregrine Falcon

Moving slightly farther on my skis, I spooked a second peregrine. This one though flushed from the ground and when I looked toward its place of origin, I saw a pile of feathers. The falcons had been eating breakfast.

feathers and blood on snow near tree

The peregrines were feeding on a bird when I accidently spooked them.

Curiosity compelled me to investigate the kill. I skied over to the bird on the snow. It was a duck, a bufflehead to be specific. This duck hadn’t been dead long. Blood had yet to coagulate and the falcons had only eaten parts of the back and most of the neck.

dead bird on snow

Peregrine falcons had not been feeding long on this bufflehead when I found it.

Buffleheads are diving ducks that feed mostly on aquatic insects in freshwater environments. The Stehekin River was not far away from the scene, but the river at the location, just a mile or so downstream of High Bridge, is too small to meet the habitat requirements of this species. Buffleheads prefer deeper, more open water found on ponds, lakes, coastlines, and larger rivers.

What might the bufflehead be doing so far upriver? I suppose it could’ve been in the water, but peregrine falcons are adept aerial hunters. Buffleheads are strong flyers, yet peregrines, as the fastest animal in the world, could have overtaken the bufflehead in a spectacular stoop, a swift dive when they strike and kill the bird in the air. The bufflehead might’ve been flying up valley, migrating to a different area, when it met its demise. The cliffs above the river valley in this location would be ideal places for peregrines to perch and hunt birds from.

After a moment or two, I left the falcons to their meal after watching them perch in the trees. When I returned later in the afternoon on my way home, I revisited the scene and found only a smattering of downy feathers and blood stains on the snow.

Feathers and blood on snow with shadow of photographer.

By mid afternoon, only feathers and a few blood spots remained of the bufflehead.

This was a bad morning for the bufflehead, but a good one for the falcons.

 

 

First Flowers

Spring has officially arrived in the northern hemisphere, and southwestern facing slopes in the North Cascades, especially near Lake Chelan, are thawing quickly. This is where I seek the first herbaceous and mossy greenery of the year.

leaves and moss on rock

Green leaves and vibrant moss are a welcome sight after a snowy winter.

At the lakeshore, approximately 1100 feet (335 meters) in elevation, deep snow and relatively mild winter temperatures (daily lows for December through February average around 25˚F/-4˚C) prevent soil from freezing significantly. During late winter and early spring, sunlight directly strikes the southwestern facing slopes along the lake. Bare rock and tree trunk create heat islands that further warm the soil and melt remaining snow. The first wildflowers of the season bloom here, taking advantage of conditions that higher elevations will not experience for months. Two species are just setting blossoms now.

wildflower with umbel of yellow flowers and pinnate leaves, among other small vegetation

Wyeth biscuitroot (Lomatium ambiguum) near Stehekin Landing.

wildflower with umbel of white blossoms and pinnate leaves

Geyer’s biscuitroot (Lomatium geyeri) near Stehekin Landing.

Biscuitroot (Lomatium sp.), also called desert-parsley, is a large and widespread genus of plants in western North America. The species I found are not exclusively restricted to the rocky areas near the lake, but these individual plants have found an ideal early season microhabitat. The slopes where these plants grow are very warm, although it may not seem that way when they are dripping with snowmelt.

bright green moss, dripping with water, on side of rock

Anyplace it is exposed near upper Lake Chelan, moss is saturated with snow melt.

By the end of June, perhaps even before, these plants will be parched by low humidity and scorched by high daytime temperatures. The soil, instead of wet and clumpy, will become dust. Flowering plants in this location do their business quickly—blooming and setting seed before the soil completely desiccates and ground temperatures become too hot. They get ahead now, because conditions allow them to. Up valley and higher on the mountainsides, under the snow, other members of their respective species are waiting for their own moments in the sun. It’s only a matter of time.

Stehekin Grizzly Bear Meeting

On Feb. 28, I attended an informational meeting about the draft plan to restore grizzly bears into the North Cascades ecosystem. I believe animals and ecosystems should receive more protection and I’m largely in favor of the plan to restore grizzlies here, but I listened through the whole meeting, not speaking a word. This wasn’t a forum for debate. I wanted to hear to the perspectives of other people who think differently. There are times when it’s more insightful to listen than to speak.

I took copious notes, trying to capture the essence of what was said. Below are a few paraphrased questions and comments from local Stehekin residents. I know who made each comment, but I won’t divulge their identities. I’m sure they’d share the same opinions with anyone who asked, but the meeting was not a formal public open house where people could provide testimony that would be entered into the official record, and as such they probably didn’t expect anyone to broadcast their name and comments all over the internet.

Many of the first few questions were about bear biology and the practicalities of restoration. How did you determine 200 bears (the number of animals the plan aims to restore)? What happens if Alternative C doesn’t work? What is prime grizzly habitat? What’s the typical grizzly bear territory? Will the habitat still be suitable for these bears if the climate changes?

brown bear standing in grass

A viable population of grizzly bears may soon roam the North Cascades ecosystem. Not everyone favors the idea.

Then the comments and questions drifted into more contentious territory. Grizzly bears and endangered species are words that provoke strong emotions. Worry, loss, skepticism, and suspicion were many of the emotions local residents expressed. Bears could potentially bring more unwanted government regulation. Residents, understandably, expressed concerns about safety and loss of access to land. Few who spoke at the meeting seemed to believe the active restoration of bears is desirable.

Residents wondered about bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray. One person even read a lengthy description of a bear attack from this Facebook post. He also asked whether bears would inhibit the reopening of the upper Stehekin Valley Road, which has been a long standing issue for some local residents. The same person who read the bear attack description also expressed the opinion that humans are part of nature and the extirpation of grizzly bears across most of their former range in the Lower 48 was natural and okay.

A couple of people seemed to question the historical presence of grizzly bears in the ecosystem, a conclusion that surprised me, since the historical and archeological record confirms grizzlies were here. One person suggested that native tribes didn’t settle permanently because the mountainous terrain was rough and grizzlies could’ve been one of the factors. 

To their credit, the representatives for North Cascades National Park Service Complex and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service avoided debating any point. That would’ve been inappropriate given the context of the meeting. They did explain, however, that these lands are federal and must be managed in the national interest. Local interests, therefore, are not necessarily the most important. They also explained how this population of bears could be designated as experimental under section 10(j) of Endangered Species Act. 10(j) status would allow more flexible management of the restored grizzly population compared to a population listed strictly as threatened and endangered.

Many of the concerns boil down to a difference in worldview from my own. Many people believe bears don’t need more space, especially if their space comes at the cost to people. They exist in healthy numbers throughout much of British Columbia and Alaska. Additionally, grizzly bears are not needed in North Cascades to fulfill a missing ecosystem function. Why make the effort to restore bears?

I wrote this post not to criticize, debate, or debunk any point. I wrote it because if you’re like me, you often do not have the opportunity to hear opposing perspectives concerning wildlife conservation issues. Those of us who think wildlife and wildlife habitat should be given greater levels of protection need to carefully consider the wants and needs of other people. Sure, I can read or listen to so-called balanced news articles about the grizzly bear restoration plan, but that’s not the same as listening to your neighbors, many of whom may feel very differently about the issue.

You can comment on the draft North Cascades grizzly bear restoration plan through March 14, 2017.

The Other Wanderer

Most mammals aren’t keen to reveal themselves to people, which I understand. I don’t want to be around people much of the time either. Unless I’m very lucky or very observant (sometimes it’s both), I typically don’t see the more elusive animals that inhabit the North Cascades ecosystem. Winter, however, provides an opportunity to see the animals without actually seeing them.

In winter, animal tracks in snow reveal stories I could never read otherwise. Without tracks, I would be oblivious to the presence of most animals, so on every trip outside I look for them. On a recent ski journey, I found some tracks I did not expect to see.

The day was comfortable (35˚F/2˚C) and sunny. The snow was reasonable firm. I parked Large Marge at the end of plowed section of road and skied up valley. Skiing wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t a slog either. With long sleeves, I felt overdressed in bright sun, so I paused frequently to cool down and enjoy the view.

River running through snowy forest.

Pillows of snow sat on rocks in Stehekin River downstream of High Bridge in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area.

I found High Bridge, which is the boundary between the national recreation area and the national park, buried under several feet of snow.

cabin in deep snow

The NPS cabin at High Bridge was mostly buried by snow.

outhouse buried in snow

Good thing I didn’t have to use a toilet, because this outhouse at High Bridge wasn’t accessible.

Up to this point, I had seen or heard little evidence of animals. Douglas squirrels were active because I found bracts from Douglas-fir cones scattered under a couple of trees. Red-breasted nuthatches occasionally called from the tree tops (this species is one of the most common in the Stehekin Valley in the winter; at least one of the most vocal.) There was no sign of large or even medium sized mammals.

The snowy road offered a convenient path so I followed it up valley, especially since the avalanche forecast was high and I didn’t want to risk getting caught in any slide. About a mile from High Bridge, I noticed a set of faint, but fairly large tracks in the snow.

wolverine tracks in snow next to ski pole

The set of tracks I found. What animal made them?

The tracks were fairly large, although I lacked measuring tape to get accurate measurements. My first thought was “mountain lion,” but then logic started to creep in (thanks Spock). Mountain lions eat many animals, but prey probably isn’t abundant enough in the mid to upper Stehekin River valley at this time of the year to sustain a mountain lion. I saw no deer tracks, even though deer are common in the lower valley now. Other characteristics of the tracks eliminated mountain lion as the source.

  • The tracks weren’t the right size or shape.
  • Their pattern, or gait, was a 3 x 4 lope.
  • Claws marks registered with almost every track.
  • The tracks rarely broke through the snow’s surface crust. This animal, despite its size, could float on the snow.
  • Fur marks often registered around the toes.
  • Most importantly, this animal had five toes.

This was a wolverine.

wolverine track in snow next to basket on bottom of ski pole.

This fairly distinct wolverine track clearly shows the animal’s five toes. The basket on the ski pole is 7.5 x 7 cm.

The track pattern indicated it was walking in some places, but loping most of the time.

Wolverine tracks in snow.

Wolverine tracks in snow. Each set of three, starting from the bottom, represents a one lope made by the animal.

Wolverines are the largest members of the weasel family and occupy huge home ranges. The tracks were fresh, their crispness suggested they were made early in the morning or overnight. If they had been made the day before, the warm sun would’ve obscured some of their finer details.

What might it eat in this habitat? Perhaps one of the squirrels or hares out and about.

scales from Douglas-fir cone scattered on snow

A Douglas squirrel had recently torn apart a Douglas-fir cone on this pile of snow.

Snowshoe hare tracks in snow next to ski

Snowshoe hares were also moving about the forest.

At Tumwater Bridge, the wolverine continued across right next to tracks of a marten, a smaller more arboreal member of the weasel family.

wolverine tracks (bottom) next to smaller marten tracks. Tip of ski at bottom center.

Wolverine tracks (bottom) run parallel to marten tracks.

The day was waning at this point, so I turned around and left the wolverine and its tracks behind.

Last year, a large male was trapped and radio collared at Easy Pass by the U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. This is almost 20 kilometers due north of the tracks I found. Could it have been the same one?

Maybe, maybe not. Wolverines occupy huge territories and are rare in this area. I was lucky to stumble upon this set of tracks before they disappeared in overnight rain. That day, I was probably the only human in the south unit of North Cascades National Park, but I certainly wasn’t the only mammal prone to wander.

Read more about on the wolverine’s status in Washington.

More Snow? Yes, More Snow.

Yesterday, I wrote about a ski trip in Stehekin Valley’s ample snow. Since I took that trip a few days ago, more snow has fallen. A lot more.

This was the scene I woke to yesterday.

Deep snow outside of home

And, snow was slowly enveloping the neighbor’s house.

deep snow covering home

This is nothing abnormal for the region, and in many way’s it is expected. In winter, the jet stream over Alaska and Canada shifts south over the Pacific Ocean. Air masses traveling across the Pacific at this time of the year are “immodestly moistened,” as Daniel Matthews describes in Cascade-Olympic Natural History, bringing heavy precipitation to Washington, Oregon and California. The Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada are effective moisture traps for these storms. When storms encounter the mountains, the air rises and cools causing it to precipitate its moisture. The Stehekin Valley in Lake Chelan National Recreation lies east of the Cascade Crest, so the area experiences drier weather than the wetter Skagit River valley to the west. However, the valley is not far enough east to experience the Cascades’ full rain shadow, hence the ample snowfall recently.

In my estimation, at least three feet (approximately 50-100 cm) of snow has accumulated over the past five days, much of it falling in the last 24 hours. Higher elevations certainly gained more. I was curious to know the exact snow depth near my house, which lies at a modest 1100 feet (335 meters). After the snowfall abated yesterday afternoon I got out the snow shovel prepared to dig in.

I chose to measure the snow out in a small meadow away from the influence of trees, but getting there took some effort. The first few feet of snow was very soft. The base to stand on, if you could call it that, was well under the surface.

After floundering my way into the meadow, I started digging…

snow shovel in deep snow

and digging…

snow shovel in deep snow

…and digging and digging until I reached the soil.

snow shovel in deep snow

The pit was over 65 inches (166 cm) deep!

Snow shovel in deep snow next to measuring tape. Tape is 65 inches long.

measuring tape in snow. Numbers at top of snow level read 65 inches or 166 centimeters.

Long time residents describe winters with lots of snow and occasional rain too. Rain compacts the snow, increasing its density but decreasing its depth. This winter, I’m told, is a bit of an exception with lots of snow, but without temperatures warm enough for the occasional rain storm.

Winter snowfall is essential to the well being of millions of people across the West, especially farmers who cannot depend on summer rain to sustain crops. Snowmelt in rivers quenches the thirst of residents in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and many, many other places. It’s a reservoir, slowly releasing its water in spring and summer when it is needed most.

Climate models indicate changing weather patterns will come to the West as temperatures rise. The North Cascades region won’t be without snow, but changes will be felt, and in a lot of ways the region is already experiencing them. More rain will fall and less snow will collect on the mountains. At first this may seem insignificant. However, this will change the timing and duration of peak stream flows. Currently, stream discharges peak in the spring and early summer when snowmelt is heaviest. The pattern seems to be shifting toward more frequent peak flows in spring and fall. Rain on snow events can cause heavy flooding, damaging roads and homes. (Stehekin River has experienced three 100 year floods since 1995.) Warmer springs temperatures melt snow faster, affecting sensitive habitats like montane wetlands, places that harbor sensitive species like the Cascades frog. Soils dry faster without snow too, increasing the risk of wildfire.

Snow is often viewed as an annoyance or danger, delaying and restricting travel, but it is a key component of ecosystems where it occurs. Snow on mountains is a water tower, one we can’t afford to lose. (It’s also a lot of fun to play in.)

Person standing in deep snow pit. Pit is 65 inches deep.

(I’m really not that short, am I?)

Let It Snow

After three months of aimless wandering, I’m back in Stehekin and, well, there’s a lot of snow.

snow covered trees under overcast sky

Stehekin and Lake Chelan National Recreation Area lie just east of the Cascade Crest, but well within the Cascade Mountains. When moisture-laden winter storms move east from the Pacific Ocean over the Cascades, they dump prodigious amounts of snow. Stehekin averages 120 inches of snowfall each winter. In 1996, 298 inches of snow fell, almost 25 feet. Although I don’t know how much snow has fallen so far this winter, it’s not a trivial amount.

Earlier this week, I was eager to explore the snow-shrouded landscape, so I strapped some skis on to Large Marge and headed out.

No, not that Large Marge. This Large Marge, my fat tire bike.

fat tire bike with skis strapped horizontally on it

Two tools of winter exploration: Large Marge and cross-country skis.

I cycled on an icy, freshly plowed road to the Stehekin landing strip to ski the Stehekin River Trail, which parallels the Stehekin River downstream to Lake Chelan. It’s a pleasant hike in summer when the trail is easy to follow. The snow changed this familiar trail greatly. Where thick snow obscured the exact route I had to watch gaps in the vegetation carefully to stay on the trail.

deep snow and trees

Where’s the trail?

I needn’t worry about getting lost though. The trail is bordered by Stehekin River one on side and 8,000 ft. tall mountains on the other. I only had to stay in between. The trail has no significant elevation gain, but traverses some tricky spots for someone like me who sucks at skiing.

small open water channel next to steep slope

Caption: Short, steep bluffs next to the river’s side channels were difficult to negotiate on narrow skis. I often side-stepped up and down these places instead of risking a fall into open water.

The scenery was worth the effort, however.

River and snow covered trees

Stehekin River.

Animal tracking is always on my mind when there’s snow. The snow records much about an animal’s behavior as it moves through the landscape. The deep snow of the Cascade Mountains present a very difficult challenge for large and medium-sized animals, however. If you’re not a small mammal that can live under the snow or in the trees, then you either hibernate or abandon the high country and migrate to areas with less snow pack.

Partly because of lots of fresh snow and partly because most animals are either under the snow or in a different area altogether I didn’t see many animal tracks. A few Douglas squirrels were out and barked a warning when I skied under their tree, but there were few fresh signs of large animals on the upper half of the trail in the deep, soft snow.

Where the trail passed under a thick canopy of Douglas-fir and grand fir, I found the skiing easier. Tall conifers intercept a lot snow before it falls to the ground. When it does fall, it often does in large clumps that compact quickly on the ground. In these areas, deer and elk often “yard-up” to avoid getting mired in the deeper snow of open areas. Might I find deer and elk sign here?

ski tracks through forest

I encountered little fresh powder where conifer trees grew thickly. These areas are often preferred places for deer and elk to travel and rest. In open areas, my feet plowed through at least 20 centimeters of newly fallen snow, making travel more difficult.

On the river’s floodplain, under a tall Douglas-fir, I found a depression where barely an inch of snow covered the ground. Elk tracks radiated away from it, and a few pellets of elk scat lay within it. Evidently, this was a frequently used resting place for at least one elk.

depression in snow from resting elk

An elk had repeatedly used this bed to rest. For scale, the Douglas-fir trunk is larger than one meter in diameter.

Shortly afterward, my approach spooked an elk away from the fallen branch it was feeding on.

conifer twig clipped by browsing elk

Twigs nibbled by members of the deer family have ragged edges. An elk recently nipped the end of this Douglas-fir twig.

I only caught a glimpse of the elk, but it was a bull with sizable antlers. Carrying antlers into late winter seems counterintuitive and a waste of calories. Those antlers weigh a lot, and it can’t be cheap, energetically speaking, to keep them on your head. Shouldn’t this animal have shed its antlers by now?

Unlike deer and moose, who shed their antlers in early winter, elk often keep their antlers until spring. Different selection pressures may have controlled the timing of antler shedding. Antlers can be used for defense, but they are most often used to maintain dominance. This is especially important during the fall rut. For elk, antlers may be needed to help maintain dominance in the winter as well when access to food is limited. Deer and moose tend to overwinter in small groups or solo where competition with fellow moose or deer for browse may not be an issue. Elk, in contrast, overwinter in larger herds where antlers may be needed to maintain dominance; not for access to females of course, but for access to food.

That elk appeared to be alone, but as I approached the end of the trail near the lake, I skied past two deer, at least one of which was a buck, sans antlers.

mule deer looking at camera through fallen trees

The Stehekin River Trail ends at Weaver Point where the National Park Service maintains a boat-in/hike-in campground. Snow reduced visibility in the dim afternoon light, but the scene was gorgeous.

snow covered mud flats and steep mountainside

Lake Chelan seen from Weaver Point.

Seeing the land blanketed in a meter of snow gives it a very different appearance. It was almost as if I was exploring the area for the first time. In a way, I was. Winter in the Stehekin Valley is wholly different than summer.

Squirrels and Truffles

The forest is blooming with fungus in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. Mushrooms are easy to find on the forest floor, but the mere presence of a few mushrooms does not reflect the abundance of fungus working under the soil, nor their importance.

On most of my recent hikes I’ve stumbled upon small excavations in the soil. Typically, the depressions are a few inches across and deep. Even though I haven’t witnessed the excavation in progress, just the end result, I suspect these are made by rodents searching for fungus in the soil. On the Lake Shore Trail, south of Stehekin, I found clue to support my hypothesis.

small hole in soil with fungus at bottom

The small depression next to the tip of my shoe contains a truffle.

Inside the hole was a truffle. Truffles are mychhorizal fungi. They do not photosynthesize, but these fungi are not parasites. They live in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots. Trees provide the fungi with sugar and the fungi provide trees with water and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen.

truffle in hand

This is the truffle at the end of the excavation. Over 350 truffle species in 50 genera inhabit the Pacific Northwest.

Truffles are highly sought after by fungal connoisseurs, human and rodent alike. They are especially important to flying squirrels, but rodents like flying squirrels are equally important to truffles. Unlike your typical toadstool, these underground fungus have no spore dispersal mechanism. They need animals to dig them up to spread their spores.

squirrel on tree

Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus), USFWS photo.

Flying squirrels, in particular, love truffles. Under the cover of darkness, flying squirrels find truffles by their odor, unearth them, and greedily devour them. Truffle spores are then distributed randomly and effectively in squirrel scat. For reasons unknown, my truffle was not harvested. Small rodents that eat truffles are preferred prey of owls and weasels. Was the excavator of this truffle snatched up by a unseen predator?

I don’t know the end to this particular story, but this is evidence of more than a rodent and hole. It symbolizes how predators need rodents; how rodents need fungi for food and trees for shelter; how trees need fungi for nutrients; how fungi need trees for sugars and rodents for dispersal. The tiny hole I found is more than superficial. It leads to a world of interdependence.

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For more info on flying squirrels and truffles, check out Squirrels Cannot Live by Truffles Alone and Ties that Bind: Pacific Northwest Truffles, Trees, and Animals in Symbiosis.

The Best Thing You’ll Read About Bark Today (If You Don’t Read Anything Else about Bark)

Black bear claw marks on quaking aspen, Beaver Ponds Trail.JPG

This post is about bark.

I know what you’re thinking. “Bark—an enthralling topic!” I couldn’t agree more, but bark is often overlooked and ignored by most people. Yet bark records many events in a tree’s history.

Thin and smooth barked trees like quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) are especially good at recording animal sign. Aspen is the most widely distributed native tree in North America. Its bark becomes thick and furrowed only on old trees, and usually only near the ground. Most of the time aspen bark is smooth, colored white to gray (even greenish on young trees) with dark chevrons where self-pruned branches fell to the ground.

Since aspen bark is thin-skinned, it’s easily scarred. Along hiking trails, you’ll commonly find names and initials carved into it. (Don’t do this. No one cares if you were there with your “true love,” who you probably dumped the week after, and it opens the tree to possible infection.) Aspen bark records more than human impulses though. In bear country, you can often find evidence of bears climbing the trees.

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Black bears have five toes each equipped with claws superbly designed for climbing. Scars on trees from climbing bears usually come in sets of five.

Black bears are particularly adept at climbing trees. Their strength and relatively short, sharply curved claws help them gain purchase even on smooth barked trees like aspen. If I’m in an area where black bears live, I almost always look for bear claw marks on aspen. In the Stehekin Valley, bear claw marks are easily seen on aspen along the Stehekin River Trail and Agnes Gorge Trail.

The claw marks represent a moment in time. Under what circumstances were they made? Was a bear startled by a person? Another bear? Was it simply playing or exploring? Black bears are omnivorous, but I have read no records or seen any signs of them eating any part of aspen trees, so they probably weren’t climbing the tree for food. In the eastern U.S. though, black bears often climb another smooth barked tree, American beech (Fagus grandifolia), to feast on beechnuts.

The next time you find an aspen, take a closer look at its bark. Bark isn’t as static as its outward appearance suggests. You might find a story there.

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