19 August 2017

Wilderness: An enduring resource

Three Sisters Wilderness, Cascade Range, Oregon, 2012.
Over the course of working on this blog for the last six years, I have shared thoughts and photos about the natural history of the western US. I have touched on science here and there, and tried to describe my natural history experiences in a way that educates and inspires. With “wilderness” the operative word in the title of this journal, I’ve wanted to discuss the broader meanings of the concept and offer some additional thoughts about what the idea and experience of wilderness mean to me. In short, it is past time to offer a preface to the central theme of this blog.

Wilderness refers to specific places, an idea intimately tied to space. These are areas of land (usually) or volumes of ocean that are distinguished for their intrinsic “naturalness”. That naturalness is a matter of degree as much as kind in the modern world, because every geographic place is simultaneously somewhat natural and somewhat unnatural in character.

Most of us have an intuitive sense about the difference between natural and unnatural, but what about wilderness? Is it something more than simply a natural area, perhaps a manifestation of nature in a unique state? Does it include areas where human beings infrequently reside such as rural areas or parks? In the 21st century with near total human dominance of the planet, does wilderness even exist?

The Wilderness Act of 1964, enacted to preserve specific US federal lands as wilderness, offers a starting point in terms of understanding how wilderness might refer to something more specific than simply “nature”. With preservation as a focus, the Act defined wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”.  In its quality, wilderness is meant to be “unimpaired” and in its scope it is intended to be an “enduring resource”, even if specific areas are rather limited in their geographic extent.

Joshua Tree in Death Valley National Park, 2016.
Most of the park is designated wilderness.
While the practical application of the Wilderness Act was to set aside certain land areas in the United States as wilderness, the Act also lays out wilderness as a concept. That notion did not just suddenly appear 50 years ago, but was almost certainly the evolution of many years of thought about the interaction between humans and nature stretching back to Muir and beyond. Conceptually wilderness touches on science, law, and aesthetics. On a personal level, it also embodies certain values for me, in much the same way that liberty and knowledge are cognitive and emotional guideposts which center and structure my life.

The Act’s brief definition of wilderness pivots on the presence and impact of humankind, for example, prohibiting roads or permanent structures in designated wilderness areas. The absence of human-kind and our infrastructure could be the simple criterion for wilderness. However, our activities are important too, and the Act suggests (or is at least consistent with the notion) that the predominance of natural processes distinguishes wilderness from non-wilderness areas. A farm, for instance cannot be wilderness, because the processes affecting the area’s hydrology, vegetation, and soil are all dominated by humankind.

Another way to think of wilderness, admittedly from a biologically-centered perspective, is as a collection of organisms in an ecosystem that in their composition and abundance are relatively unaltered by human activity. This definition allows for the recognition that virtually every ecosystem today has at least some non-native species present. But if species composition in an area is predominantly native (i.e., non-endemic species are a minor and unobtrusive component), we might capture some of the sense of what constitutes wilderness. Non-native species are of course natural, but they are not present outside their endemic range without human activity as a vector. By this definition, a farm fails too because its plant species are non-native, its native fauna is consequently altered by the change in vegetation, and its soil microbial community would be expected to deviate too from natural composition by farming practices.

Wilderness also evokes a sense of pristine, primitive, and pre-historic, each of these qualities being the antithesis of the presence of humankind. When nature exists in such a state, we might learn about how organisms interact in ecosystems prior to, or absent from, pressures added by human activity. In theory, such examples might be windows into how prehistoric ecosystems functioned. In reality, our influence is pervasive and even the most extensive tracks of wilderness cannot be completely regarded as independent of our activities, past and present. Wilderness areas may lack current human intervention, yet they may deviate from their prehistoric condition because they have been altered by past activities such as removal of top predators across large geographic areas.

Madrone in the Ventana Wilderness, central California, 2015.

I’m not partisan to any of these ways of considering wilderness. I think both the functional (processes) and structural (native biota) definitions have merit (and probably would usually point to the same conclusions about whether an area is wilderness or not). They highlight that humankind affects nature in different ways – from alteration of local natural processes (hydrology, productivity), to changes in regional species composition (species invasions), to diffuse but widespread impacts (climate change, chemical and light pollution). The preservation of wilderness as an “enduring resource” hinges on minimization of these impacts at a range of scales.

For the rest of this essay, I turn to an exploration of the ways in which wilderness helps articulate some of my personal values and outlook.

First, wilderness exemplifies what I feel is the proper relationship between our species and the other millions of species that occupy Earth. True, as a species we need wood for timber, land for habitation, and farms for food, but the scale of that exploitation is in our hands to determine through choices about our population size and the relative care with which we use and recycle resources. Wilderness reminds us, for our own sake and the eventual destiny of other species, to step back, and to eschew overindulgence. It reminds us that our species can and should have other objectives besides complete dominance of the biosphere. While no other species exists with any specific raison d’etre inherent in its existence, our relative consciousness and awareness places us in a unique position of self-reflection and regulation, one which can be employed for our own long-term well being. On a personal level, wilderness reminds me to balance the impulses of competition and exploitation, with an ethic of limiting impact, respecting life, and eschewing waste.

John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Range, CA, 2017.

Wilderness reestablishes a proper sense of scale for us as a species. It invites us to correct the flattery we heap upon ourselves with regard to our power, influence, and importance. A marvelous, ingenious, and conquering species we are. But next to a bristlecone pine, we are but a brief acquaintance; next to a microbe that can fashion its own food in a boiling sulfur spring, we are metabolically feeble; next to the efficiency of social insects, we are a disorganized and discordant lot. In scale, no human engineering feat compares to the tidal forces that shape coastlines, or the oxygenation of the entire atmosphere by the microscopic ancestors of cyanobacteria two billion years ago. There are other organisms that run faster, swim better, endure harsher temperatures, or exhibit enviable self-sufficiency by unfurling a leaf towards the sun to make their own food. Our species is not less impressive than the other millions inhabiting Earth, but it is not more marvelous either. In wilderness we can be reminded of that humbling perspective and adjust our conscious feelings toward, and interactions with, nature accordingly.
Vine maple in the Menagerie Wilderness, OR, 2012.

Next, wilderness embodies perhaps the most fundamental aesthetic by which our artistic proclivities are enlightened. Isn’t art built in large measure from the harmonies, shapes, forms, and colors nature has already invented? Imagine the painting made by the light streaming through a vine maple growing in the forest understory, its delicate sprays of palmate leaves dancing lightly with the breeze, and leaves glowing the most vibrant green. Each such vine maple painting in each forest is transitory and unique, evoking our aesthetic wonder. Each day such forests change slightly in composition, and in a generation, a vine maple seed will start the process of painting a whole new sculpture of lignin and chlorophyll.

Wilderness invites simplicity which can be one of the most powerful expressions of art, like those embodied in the Zen aesthetic. While in nature, I’m often drawn to the complexity of a beautiful landscape – the collective view of clouds, mountains, forest, snow, and flowers – but perhaps I’m inspired even more so by the simpler patterns in nature such as a dark mineral seam coursing through the surface of granite bedrock, or a repeating pattern in nature (coupled with just a touch of random organization) in the clouds, snow, or water surface.

The inhabitants of wild places model simplicity for us too – their simplicity is one of purpose. An organism’s basic programming is only essentially to survive, grow, and reproduce. But to our good fortune, nature succeeds in accomplishing these simple purposes with great beauty. Few would find interest keenly observing a friend eating, but how we would readily watch a herbivore graze on delicate meadow plants or a predator adeptly approach its prey in perfect stillness.

Third, wilderness reminds us of renewal and impermanence. It shows us that new life and new composition inevitably follow death and decomposition. As a species, our spirits are renewed in the wild. We are re-encouraged, reinvigorated, and rejoice. Continuity of life is manifest in this cycle of renewal, not in any one organism, mountain, or river, but in the collective. Nature teaches that impermanence is the most consistent attribute of life at any scale. The closest that nature may come to impermanence may be the constancy of her change, the relentlessness with which she shapes and reshapes rocks and mountains and the ever evolving web of life. As humans, we all participate in this relentless change, and whatever barriers we might construct between each other or between our species and the rest of living earth, we are inexorably united as participants in change, in being subject to the ever-changing flow of matter and energy through nature.

Recognizing the inevitability of impermanence, wilderness helps set a sustainable pace and tempo. So much of our modern society is too frantic, too focused on the inane. True, the twists and turns of our lives are just as transitory as the flow of water through a creek or the birth and death of deciduous leaves, but how often do we mistakenly view the mundane details of our lives with a level of importance they do not merit? We can humbly dedicate the small acts of our lives towards a greater human ecosystem.

The paradox of wilderness is that it excludes humans by definition, but we of course are the product of nature too, formed by the same evolutionary forces that have shaped other millions of species over billions of years of Earth’s history. Our natural origins notwithstanding, wilderness warns us of the danger we pose to ourselves and to the rest of life. We can be destructive, violent, impetuous, and perverse, propensities which are unlikely to end all of life on Earth, but which could certainly end our own geologic tenure as a species or make continued existence a lot less pleasant for our descendents. Wilderness is threatened by our ever expanding global reach, and we stand to lose not only nature’s evolutionary treasures but the values they model for us. Let’s recognize the irreplaceable value of wilderness and preserve it as an enduring resource.

- Summer 2017. Mt. Rainier National Park, WA; John Muir Wilderness, CA; Portland OR.

Bandelier Wilderness, Bandelier National Monument, NM, 2017.

07 August 2017

John Muir Wilderness III

Mt. Humphreys, John Muir Wilderness.
Monday, 31 July 2017.

Morning, Piute Lake. Clouds 0%. Last evening’s storm and clouds have given way to a warm, calm, sunny morning. The sun, still relatively low in the sky to the east, at the left of the canyon, highlights the numerous flat granite slabs that were worn smooth by past glacial action. They are shining in the sun. In fact, the rock on which we’ve been cooking meals near the tent is one such stone, polished by past glacial scouring.

The busy cascade of water feeding into the west end of Piute Lake provides a constant backdrop of singing, but the morning melodies of birds that so often accompany camping and hiking trips, seem mostly muted here. The consistent nuisance is mosquitoes, which are out at all times of the day. Though not terribly abundant at most times, one wastes time swatting at them, trying to ensure that if they do bite, you are their last meal. One wonders how these parasitic creatures can be so numerous here. Potential victims do not seem abundant themselves, whether that is backpackers or other mammals. During the trip I have seem some marmots, a hare, and a few other small mammals, but no wildlife in abundance. I like almost all forms of life, but have a hard time appreciating the likes of mosquitoes, tapeworms, and ridiculously shaved poodles.

Meadow of shooting stars and valley to the west.
Late morning, Humphrey’s Lakes area. Clouds 15%. We climbed over Piute Pass to the west again, and this time veered in a more northerly direction into the extensive fields of granite south of Mt. Humphreys. MWS’s map indicated that numerous lakes were present in the area, mostly small, and from a little bit of a high vantage point I can already seen ten of them.

Afternoon, Piute Pass. Clouds 70%. We wandered back towards the pass through the tree-less granite fields passing more snowfields and a tiny lovely meadow that was populated with many pink blooms of shooting stars (Primula fragrans). Looping over the ridge just north of Piute Pass we found a delightful area of alpine gardens full of shrubby pines, pink mountain heath (Phyllodoce breweri), other flowers, and abundant water flowing in creeklets merrily to the east. One major creeklet is almost a stream, forming cascades and mini-waterfalls before plunging beneath a snowfield creating a snow cave! I squatted below the fragile lip of the snow cave, getting sprayed by the creek and observing again streaks of red algae in the firm snow. Also in this area we found a “peeing rock”, literally a fine stream of water shooting out two feet horizontally from a vertical rock face which had a small hole in it.

A small mountain stream plunging into a snow cave near Piute Pass.
MWS pretending to drink from the "peeing"
rock near Piute Pass.

After heading down from Piute Pass back towards camp, we rambled again off trial for a time, observing a collection of creeklets that meandered through beautiful meadows. There were more water cascades and small waterfalls. I also found a new delightful shrub (Rosaceae probably) with white petaled flowers and a lovely fragrance. Back at camp I took an exceedingly brief plunge into Piute Lake, lasting just a few seconds in the very cold water. The mosquitoes have been less bothersome today.

Evening, Piute Lake. Clouds 60%. On a rocky ledge a short distance WNW of the campsite, I discovered a small grove of quaking aspen, mixed with some pines. The plants graded in size from small shrubs to very small trees, some with their heart-shaped leaves dutifully fluttering in the evening wind. The woody stems of the plants vary in color from silver to orange and the leaf petioles are red, feeding into the green leaves. This is the highest elevation population of aspens I have seen on the trip. There are grey clouds to the east and west ends of the valley, but no rain as of yet, though I can see vertical streaks in the sky towards Owens Valley where there are probably showers. The half moon, bright in the sky to the south, is about 45 degrees above the horizon. The lake is rippling gently with the evening breeze and is a dark green color to the south, grey shimmers to the east.

Snow algae and snow "craters" in the Humphreys Lakes area.

For my last saunter of the day, I climbed the granite rubble that slopes up at the north end of the valley to inspect the base of a small waterfall that seemed to be a constant source of sound in the valley. A ribbon of vegetation followed the water’s course down the otherwise mostly barren slope. It was populated with sedges, red paintbrushes, Achillea millefolium, Delphinium, and abundant rosaceous shrubs with prolific yellow flowers. There is a slight fragrance in the air too, perhaps due to the latter species. The sky is beginning to turn pink to the west and night will come soon.


Wenk E. 2015. Wildflowers of the high Sierra and John Muir trail. Wilderness Press, Birmingham, AL.

Granite boulders that may have been left by retreating glaciers.
More snow algae, a partially covered lake, and Mt.
Humphreys in the background.
A spike of Pedicularis sp. flowers, John Muir

06 August 2017

John Muir Wilderness II

Sunday 30 July 2017.

Muriel Lake and Mt. Humphreys in the background.
Midday, North of Goethe Lake. Clouds 15%. MWS and I crossed over Piute Pass again in the morning after camping for the night near Piute Lake. Veering off the main trail a little towards the south, we followed a remnant of another trail but were soon off the marked path. We arrived at Muriel Lake, an irregularly shaped and scenic alpine lake, with glacial rubble and red-tinted snowfields in the vicinity. A few very small icebergs were floating in the water, calved from a shelf of snow abutting the western shore.

Rounding the northern point of Muriel Lake, we proceeded south, gaining some elevation and eventually obtained a grand view of Goethe Lake, an unnamed smaller companion lake, Mt. Goethe (13,270 ft), Muriel Peak (12,937 ft), and the Goethe Glacier. The glacier, which was the original intended destination, was set in a rocky enclave, about halfway in height between Goethe Lake and the top of the rugged mountain ridge to the south (to which the Muriel and Goethe peaks contributed). Beyond the ridge to the south is the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park. Meanwhile to the north, the whole morning while hiking, tree-less Mt. Humphreys (13,992 ft) was visible, an impressive monument of sharp jagged brown rocks dressed on its side with a checkerboard of not-yet melted snow patches.
Goethe Lake (left) and Gothe Glacier (right photo at center).

Goethe Lake and its unnamed companion were stunningly beautiful, perhaps my favorite of the trip. At this season, both lakes were a mix of open water and floating ice. The unnamed lake had a brilliant patch of turquoise water towards the southern end and elsewhere the water of both lakes was a deep vibrant blue. The glacier was mostly white, and unexpectedly so to me, for I had anticipated being able to see bluish ice. In place of blue, it had some vertical streaks of dirty green that I assume are outcroppings of ice.

The whole Goethe landscape was ruled by granite and snow and beautiful lakes, sparse in life, but abundant in majesty and contrast. The afternoon of our hike, the air was warm with a cool breeze belying the assured harshness of the landscape in the dead of winter. There were still trees at our elevation (~12,000 ft), but they mostly took on a shrubby growth form. Mosses, grass, and flowers – all of short stature – were present too, but they must be subject to the realities of a short growing season.

A panorama of about 180 degrees, from Mt. Humphreys in the north to Goethe Lake and Goethe Glacier to the south.

A prominent streak of snow algae near
Lake Muriel. 
The snowfields in the wilderness have presented really attractive patterns and colors to me. Many are tinted red or pink from algae living within the hardened snow. My friend recently provided an excellent overview of this “watermelon snow” in her blog here, and you can read more about the algae here. I’ll only repeat here the main fact underlying this phenomenon – namely, that the organism responsible for the unusual streaks of color is a green alga, Chlamydomonas, which produces brilliant carotenoids (orange, yellow, and reddish pigments responsible for the color of carrots and autumn leaves). In the John Muir Wilderness, the alga was present on many of the snowfields.

My other snow observation was the pattern of regular undulations in the surface of many of the snow fields, some craters exceeding a few feet. I’m unsure how these craters form, but they seem to arise from the melting process, not from the original deposition of snow. Most of the snowfields were very firm – approaching ice – and it was relatively easy to walk across them in hiking boots.

A fortuitous granite "tent" provided some
relief from the sun.

Early afternoon, NW of Goethe Lake. Clouds 25%. We climbed a bit higher to the top of a ridge (~12,080 ft) that separates the Goethe Basin to the east and the Wahoo Lakes basin to the west. Like Goethe Lake and its unnamed companion lake, the Wahoo Lakes have icy surfaces, not solid but broken up on the surface. I was worried about sun exposure, but found a little shade (a scarce resource in this nearly treeless alpine area) in a tent formed by two slabs of salt and pepper granite that learned against each other. The sun here is intense and the clouds are mostly to the east and north of our location, providing little relief.

We returned to the campsite in the afternoon. By late afternoon and early evening cloud cover increased to 75% as the afternoon progressed on the west side of the pass. The valley grew grey and soon thunder announced her presence. I remarked earlier in the day how I thought it would be great to have a Sierra thunderstorm, and here she was! A dozen or so lightning strikes clapped to the east and then rain and hail fell in a marvelous summer storm. The downpour was intense for a short time, sending a barrage of precipitation into Piute Lake. After no more than about an hour the storm passed, but the sun never fully returned to the valley for the day, leaving grey clouds, cool air, and wet ground for the evening. At sunset, a reddish haze appeared in the west; purple and red skies in the east.

A brief video of the storm:


Small icebergs at the edge of Muriel Lake.
USGS topographic map of part of the John Muir Wilderness (Mt. Darwin quadrangle, 2015), including some of the areas we explored on the second day of the backpacking trip (red dotted line).

05 August 2017

John Muir Wilderness I

Saturday 29 July 2017

Bog orchid and tiger lilies, John Muir
Morning, Piute Pass Trail. Clouds 1%. Backpacking trip with MWS. From the North Lake campsite in the Inyo National Forest we began the trail westward and upward towards Piute Pass in the John Muir Wilderness. The trail began through a forest of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) and pines. There was quickly a diversity of beautiful blooming species including orange tiger lilies (Lilium sp.) and spires of white bog orchids (Platanthera sp.).

After hiking for some time, we began to lose the shade of the forest to more open areas of rocky granite. The flower composition changed too with the more open terrain – now there were abundant Castilleja (paintbrushes) and salmon pink Penstemon. We stopped for lunch at the shore of the first major lake, Loch Leven (elev 10743 ft), a small tranquil alpine body of water about halfway between the trailhead and Piute Pass. There were more pines on the north side of the lake and a few shrubby willows. On the bright, treeless slopes there were yellow wallflowers and small plants with clusters of dainty white flowers bearing variable 4-6 petals each.

Whitebark pine, John Muir Wilderness.

Afternoon, Piute Lake. Clouds 3%. Continuing up the trail toward the west we found a shady soft patch of carpeted ground at the northwest end of the lake, shaded by a group of whitebark pines (Pinus albicaulis) which will be base camp for the next few days. The terrain around the south side of the lake near our camp was mostly granite slabs and boulders but the pines were present in respectable densities. Also in the landscape mix were tiny little meadows of sedges and other graminoids. The rocky ridges of grey granite forming the canyon walls were mostly unvegetated to the north and south. Both sides of the valley had patches of snow, but it was more common to the south where the sun was less direct. The moon is a quarter crescent in the east.

Piute Lake (foreground) and Loch Leven (background).

Evening, Piute Pass. Clouds 0%. After setting up camp, we walked the remaining distance up to the pass to the west to observe the sunset. The basin opened up to the west and was surprising barren upon first sight in the evening. It was devoid of trees but had numerous lakes. I initially did not think the view was as impressive as I imagined, but my feelings would change tomorrow when we would hike into the basin.

Sunset at Piute Pass (left) and nighttime view of the Milky Way from Piute Lake (right).

26 July 2017

Tree imprints at Craters of the Moon

Our last point of outdoor exploration as we looped through the Pacific Northwest this summer was Craters of the Moon National Monument in south central Idaho. The monument, a large expanse of black rugged volcanics, interrupts the otherwise dry brown Snake River plain that stretches across the southern part of the state.

A relatively short road leads through the most easily-accessible part of the monument. It is perfect for a visit of only a few hours, which it turns out was all the time we had that day, and which it also turns out was plenty of summer sun exposure in a landscape mostly devoid of shade.

We first stopped at Inferno Cone, a smooth black cinder cone. My two boys dashed up the slope and I followed a few minutes later. The mountain is a smooth cone of volcanic ejecta, mostly black with an outcrop of some reddish rock near the top. Some of the lightweight black cinders were especially iridescent. The top of the cone provided panoramic views of the volcanic monument and mountains to the west. A strong wind blew gusts of warm dry air from the south. Inferno Cone wasn’t unlike the larger Cinder Cone at Lassen National Park that I described in an earlier post.

Three views of Craters of the Moon National Monument from Inferno Cone.

Pines and shrubs near the trail to the tree imprints.
The next stop was a short trail at the southern end of the road. The trail led south through dry shrubland with occasional occurrences of five-needled pines, most of which were probably not more than 10 meters tall. At some point along the trail we entered the Monument’s wilderness, which apparently is the first wilderness area that was ever designated in any National Park Service unit in the country.

The end of the maintained trail featured some usual imprints of ancient trees – technically fossils I would assume – that were immortalized in past flows of hot lava. The tree “molds” as they were called were of two types. The first type was trunks that were encased in lava and which later decomposed, leaving a cylindrical vertical hole in the newly hardened rock. The second type was horizontal impressions of fallen logs. In the more impressive examples of this type of mold, the texture of the tree’s bark was exceptionally preserved. The patterns in the rock looked much like the bark of pines and I wonder if the species immortalized in the lava could possibly be identified by carefully comparing the prints with modern species. 

Two types of tree "molds" preserved at the Monument.
This volcanic rock looked like a skull or a turtle shell to me.

23 July 2017

Avalanche Lake

While at Glacier NP, we camped at Avalanche, where a popular but scenic trail leads from the campsite deeper into one of the mountain valleys in the park. I had hoped to gain a view of the Sperry Glacier from the vicinity of the lake, but the steep topography didn’t allow such a view from the lake basin.

Two views of Avalanche Lake: looking east towards several waterfalls (at
left) and looking west (at right).
Leaving the Avalanche campsite, the trail ascended at a mild slope along Avalanche Creek through a dense conifer forest and after a few kilometers it intersected the oblong lake at the west shore. Here the water was shallow and clear, exposing a dense underwater graveyard of logs covered with the brown ooze of the lake bed. The lake is set in a basin with steep rocky slopes to the north, east, and south. Towards the west end of the lake, the rocky slopes had remnant snow fields feeding several waterfalls and water cascades.

A graveyard of logs in the shallow western
side of Avalanche Lake.

The trail continued along the south shore of the lake with views revealing a splendid turquoise color. The formal trail ended at the southwest corner but by using makeshift log bridges and doing some shallow waling through the icy streams feeding the lake, I continued a bit beyond the trail to the eastern shore.

There were wildflowers at the lake shore - Penstemon, Clematis, asters, and Campanula – and some tiny wetlands at the edge of the forest. The beds of the icy streams were comprised of large cobbles. New snow melt tumbled from the streams sending plumes of turbulence into the otherwise tranquil waters.


Phillips HW. 2012. Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers. 2nd ed. Falcon Guides, Guilford CT.

Several flowering species at the east end of Avalanche Lake. From left: Prunella vulgaris (Lamiaceae), possibly Mimulus sp., Campanula rotundifolia (Campanulaceae). 
Two blooming asters (Asteraceae) at Avalanche Lake. Left: unknown. Right: Anaphalis
(pearly everlasting).
Rapids along Avalanche Creek.
Interesting rock in cobble bed at shore of Avalanche Lake.

22 July 2017

Glacier wildflowers

Flowers were abundant throughout Glacier, from the lower elevations at Apgar and St. Mary’s to above 6500 ft at Logan Pass.

Bear grass (a misleading common name since the species is in the lily family) was probably the most spectacular species, with dense concentrations of flowering plants covering high elevation hillslopes, especially near the Weeping Wall. This is a relatively new species to me. I first encountered it at Mt. Rainier last year. The inflorescence is an elegant spire of white flowers sitting atop a hemispherical bunch of grass-like leaves. The flowers are lightly aromatic.

Bear grass, Xerophyllum tenax. Left: aspiring inflorescences. Right: close up of flowers.

Dotted saxifrage, Saxifraga bronchialis.
Along the Highline Trail that led north from Logan Pass, there were flowers of all colors. Species along the trail included Saxifraga bronchialis, Trollis albiflorus, Myosotis sylvatica, Ribes lacustre, Zigadenus elegans and Calochortus apiculatus. In common with western Washington and Oregon, there was also blooming twinberry (Lonicera involucrata), and thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), the latter species with its large palmate leaves and showy white flowers.

Aquilegia flavescens, a yellow-flowered columbine, was an exciting find at Glacier. I’ve long been familiar with the red-flowered sister species, A. formosa, which can be found frequently in a variety of habitats in the Pacific states. A. flavescens has a very similar flower shape to its sister species, nodding flowers and with spurs that protrude at the back of the flower. It is also found in some locations in British Columbia, Washington and Canada.  

Columbines. Left: Aquilegia flavescens at Glacier NP, July 2017. Upper right: A. formosa at
Mary's Peak in central OR, July 2010. Lower right: A. formosa from Big Sur, CA, July 2015.


Phillips HW. 2012. Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers 2nd ed. Falcon Guides, Guilford, CT.

Turner M, Gustafson P. 2006. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest. Timber Press, Inc., Portland, OR.

Other wildflower species at Glacier NP. From left: Rubus parviflorus, Calochortus apiculatus, and possibly Anemone sp.
Zigadenus elegans, commonly known as "showy death camas", a common
name apparently obtained because the plant is poisonous.
Possibly Myosotis sylvatica.

19 July 2017

End of an (ice) age

Jackson Glacier at Glacier National Park.
Several National Parks, including Redwood, the Grand Canyon, and Glacier are named after their most iconic feature. They were established with an eye to the future to protect unique or superlative biological and geological features. In protecting a park’s namesake, whether that is old-growth redwoods or a pristine snowy peak, a whole ecosystem and its diverse components can also be protected from exploitation or excessive degradation. But at Glacier, the glaciers are disappearing.

A glacier is essentially a perennial slow-moving river of ice, formed from the long-term compaction of snow, flowing slowly down a mountainside. The weight of the glacier gradually propels it downslope, while its mass is renewed by new annual snowfall. Technically “official” glaciers have a minimum size of 25 acres. Glaciers are fantastic geologic agents: they carved out Puget Sound in Washington and the stunning Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada for example.  

About a century and a half ago, there were estimated to be nearly 150 glaciers present in Glacier National Park. But by 2015, that number had declined to only 26. The trends at Glacier in northwest Montana track patterns elsewhere: glaciers are shrinking and snowpack is declining. Data from several benchmark glaciers in the northwestern US show mass loss of glacial ice over the last four decades. In the uneven distribution of climate change impacts across the globe, high latitude (particularly Arctic) and alpine regions appear to be warming to a greater degree than other regions.

Left: Map of some of the named glaciers in Glacier National Park and the adjacent Flathead National Forest. Right: Change in the area occupied by Chaney Glacier between 1966 and 2015. Map and figure from USGS.

Change in the Clements Glacier at Glacier NP.
Images from USGS Repeat Photography Gallery.

Glacial growth and retreat is a natural geologic cycle. Currently, the Earth is in an interglacial period, at the warm peak of an alternating cycle of cooling and warming that has alternated periodically over the last 2.6 million years. About 10,000 years ago the last major glacial period ended and the glaciers that covered much of the land in the northern hemisphere melted and retreated, sending sea-levels hundreds of feet higher.

So is the loss of glaciers today part of a normal cycle? Probably not, because today’s rate of atmospheric CO2 increase (due to human production of greenhouse gases) is unprecedented in recent geologic history. A global increase of 1 to 2°C that may have occurred over centuries or millennia in the past is now on our doorstep in a matter of decades. And because large-scale biological and geological processes can temporally lag the events that drive them, we have probably locked in additional warming for years even were we to cease all additional greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow.

The glaciers and snowfields of Glacier National Park provide the source waters for rivers that flow to the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Hudson Bay. The park straddles the continental divide, the cross-roads of the watersheds that collectively cover most of North America. Glacial melt is a particularly important source of water to mountain ecosystems in the late summer when the non-glacial snowfields have already melted.

Long-term change in snowpack throughout the western United States. Red circles indicate areas
 with snow decline. Image from EPA.

Change in the size of the Grinnell Glacier at Glacier NP.
Images from USGS Repeat Photography Gallery.
Driving through the park this month, I saw the lingering snowfields of the higher peaks, with perhaps a glacier or two tucked into the mountains. The melting water fed rapidly flowing streams, waterfalls, and lakes. The only glacier I definitively saw was Jackson Glacier from a viewpoint along the “Going-to-the-Sun” road. Views of other glaciers required more committed backcountry hikes that I didn’t have the time for on the trip.

By emitting so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in such a short time, we may be ushering in an era of unprecedented warming across the planet that may affect everything from species distributions to ocean acidification and sea-level rise. The threats to glaciers are a global phenomenon, requiring global action to address. More locally, at Glacier NP and other alpine ecosystems, it remains to be seen how the loss of glaciers will affect ecosystem processes over the coming centuries.   


Glacier National Park website

National Snow and Ice Data Center. 2017. All About Glaciers.

US Geological Survey. Retreat of Glaciers in Glacier National Park

US Geological Survey. Repeat Photography Gallery.

Snowfield and Bird Woman Falls as seen from the
"Going-to-the-Sun" road at Glacier National Park.

16 July 2017

Wildlife at the continental divide

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (males).
While national parks are often treasures of biodiversity, I saw more large animal species at Glacier NP this month than any other park in the western US that I’ve visited to date. The first wildlife encounters were at Logan Pass early on the first day of hiking. Logan Pass is along the “Going to the Sun Road” that crosses Glacier National Park from the southwest to east side of the park. Here the Continental Divide is at an elevation of over 6000 ft separating watersheds draining to the Pacific from rivers that are eventually bound for Hudson Bay or the Gulf of Mexico. Leading up to Logan Pass from the southwest, the Sun road is narrow and winding with rocky cliffs looming above.

At Logan Pass we had barely started along the Highline trail when we encountered the first species of large animals: a group of 11 Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep grazing in a meadow dotted with yellow glacier lilies. Their thick corrugated horns curve backwards, down, and then point forward, forming a nearly complete circle on either sides of their heads. The animals leisurely grazed on the short plants and occasionally lightly tousled with each other.

Not much farther along the Highline trail the next species encountered was the snow white mountain goat. The first animal was perched on a rock near and above the trail, unnerved by the hikers passing by. It was probably well accustomed to the crowds at what seemed to be a very popular park trial. Further north, a second goat approached me from behind through the shrubs, as I was intently photographing small flowers on the upslope-side of the trail. When I turned because of the sound, there was the goat at a distance of no more than 10 feet from where I was standing. I froze in place while it scampered a bit along the trail and then disappeared.

As per park rules, one is supposed to remain a certain distance from wildlife, not approach these large animals, and of course not feed them. These are all very understandable for both human safety and wilderness considerations alike, but unfortunately, the distance rule isn’t always the easiest to comply with. One faces a conundrum when an animal parks it close to a trail that one has intended to hike. Worse, some animals simply ignore the park rules completely as when they approach a plant enthusiast minding his own business taking photos of the charismatic flora. There was also the chipmunk that scurried to within a foot of where I was sitting in sand by the edge of a lake hoping to get a handout.

The Highland Trail left a good impression as far was wildlife was concerned so I returned to Logan Pass in the early morning of our final day at Glacier with the hope of seeing a goat again (from a safer distance). The sun rose coloring the clouds to the east in pink and then in yellow. Only a few cars and people were present in the large parking lot next to the visitor center, a significant change from the visit two days prior during mid-day.

It turns out that I didn’t see a mountain goat that day, but the bighorn sheep, 11 in number again, entered the parking lot soon after I parked the car. With their noses down they were apparently looking for something delicious in this barren landscape of asphalt. A pair of animals would occasionally abut horns, sending a knocking sound through the area, or a few would intermittently dash a few meters as they otherwise casually wandered about the parking lot. At one point, a small group of sheep quickly assembled and pointed their noses to the ground upon suspecting that a fellow had found something interesting in the terrain of the parking lot.

Black bear at Glacier National Park.
The other exciting observation, because I’ve only seen them a few times in my life in the wild, was that of the black bear. Glacier has both black and grizzly bears. On the first day, farther along the Sun road en route to the east end of the park, we joined a spontaneous crowd that had gathered to observe a large black bear and several cubs walking in the distance on the mountainside through shrubs. Mom was deep black; the cubs were brown. The telephoto lens was key to getting any decent photographs of these animals, though none of my shots turned out too great.

The other mammals I observed in the park over our short visit were deer, chipmunks, shaggy marmots, and many ground squirrels, the latter busily scurrying about like seemingly all squirrels do everywhere.

I don’t normally encounter so many large mammals on my hiking or backpacking excursions, either because of circumstance, being accompanied on hikes by my less-than-quiet kids, or potentially because of the increasing rarity of large animals in natural ecosystems. Nevertheless, Glacier didn’t disappoint in this regard. 

Adult black bear and cubs, Glacier National Park.