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.

 

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.

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.

In the Salt Marsh

Along the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, from Newfoundland to Florida, you can find a special habitat—the Spartina salt marsh. A transition zone between the land and the sea, this is a challenging place to live for many organisms. I found myself with some spare time while visiting family in South Carolina, so of course I couldn’t resist exploring a nearby salt marsh, one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. This habitat produces more biomass per meter than almost any other biome. Only tropical rainforests are more productive.

brown grass in salt marsh meadow

A typical salt marsh scene in winter: golden-colored cordgrass.

I reached the marsh near low tide, which exposed soggy ditches and mud flats. The mud was soupy in places, sucking at my boots.

Looking down on boots in soupy, dark brown mud.

Oysters clung together in the lowest reaches of the tidal flats and ditches. The tips of their shells may be fragile, but they are also extremely sharp, as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel. I don’t know whether the shell’s sharpness is an accident of evolution or an adaptation to protect them from predators like drums, rays, and clumsy humans like me. I do know that I’ll never forget the first time I tried to walk over a few oysters while only wearing flip flops. Trust me, it’s not a pleasant experience.

oyster shell with sunlight passing through translucent upper portion of shell.

The edges of many oyster shells are thin and fragile, but also very sharp.

Walking was easier where vegetation was firmly established. On the U.S. Atlantic coast, most salt marshes are dominated by Spartina grasses. There are several species of Spartina, but the most abundant is salt marsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora). Cordgrass thrives in this habitat, despite the harsh conditions—flooded twice-daily by tides, exposed to high salinity, and mired in anoxic (oxygen-free or oxygen-limited) mud.

golden brown grass, trees seen on horizon

Salt marsh cordgrass is the most abundant and ecologically important plant in East Coast salt marshes.

Most flowering plants have a fairly low tolerance for salt, but the cordgrass is watered by the ocean twice a day. Cordgrass meets the salty challenge by sequestering salt in its shoots and excreting the salt through glands in its leaves. The grass deals with the challenge of low oxygen levels in the deep mud by exchanging gases from roots in the upper few centimeters of mud to those underneath. Few plants have these dual abilities, which is the reason cord grass so thoroughly dominates salt marshes. Once you learn to identify salt marsh cordgrass, you can easily and accurately judge the average level of high tide, since cordgrass is usually limited to areas that receive substantial flooding with each high tide.

brown grass of salt marsh, taller rushes on left of photo, trees on horizon

The transition between the low marsh to the high marsh is marked by plants other than salt marsh cordgrass. The high marsh lies above the typical high tide line. Plants like black needlerush (Juncus roemerianus), salt meadow hay (Spartina patens), salt grass (Distichlis sp.), and saltwort (Salicornia sp.) begin to compete with cord grass where tidal flooding is less frequent. Needlerush is the taller plant on the left of the photo.

pinkish, segmented stem of saltwort

Saltwort is a noticeable member of the mid to high marsh community.

Unlike salt marsh cord grass, saltwort tolerates high salt levels through its ability to retain water in its stems, but it cannot withstand the same level of submersion that cordgrass can. Saltwort always captures my attention though, not only because it is a pretty plant, but because it is tasty. Late December is not a choice time for nibbling on saltwort stems. Few were even standing, but the sight of them reminded me of their pleasing salty bite. (I’ve also pickled saltwort using a recipe I found in a Euell Gibbons book. It tasted surprisingly good.)

Before leaving the marsh, I took some time to watch birds out on the lower fringes of the exposed mud. A casual scan through binoculars revealed over a hundred semipalmated plovers. On the edge of the marsh, these birds work to survive the winter before returning north to their breeding grounds from Newfoundland and Labrador west to Alaska.They were also finding a few more invertebrates than I was.

shorebird pulling a worm out of mud with its bill

Worms are yummy for plovers.

My urge to get a little closer to the exposed mudflats brought me to the edge of the cord grass where the mud was very soft. While plovers were pulling invertebrates out of the mud, I was having some difficultly extracting my boots from the mud. Salt marshes are challenging places to live and, if you’re human, difficult places to travel.

looking down on very muddy pants and footware

Salt marsh trekking is dirty business.