In November 2008, I made my first trip to Papoose Lake in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. That trip inspired my first blog post which evolved into Field Notes From Plant Explorations. This first post was more about geology than plants because of the unique geologic character of the Papoose Lake Basin.
This month, almost 15 years later, I returned to Papoose Lake to conduct vegetation surveys as part of our Klamath Mountains Vegetation Mapping Project. In many ways the basin is the same but in others changes are afoot. What follows are some reflections on 15 years of blogging through the eyes of a Klamath Mountain lake basin.
In 2010, I first found this tree while backpacking through the Trinity Alps Wilderness in far northern California. Just last week, thirteen years later, my son Sylas and I returned with tools to officially measure and nominate this tree. While points fell just short of the overall champion, it is the second largest foxtail pine known and the largest of the subspecies of the Klamath foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana subsp. balfouriana).
Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir form one of the most common forest associations in the Rocky Mountains and parts of the Cascades. In California, this is one of our rarest subalpine forest vegetation alliances. These two species occur in only a few places in the state–often not even together unlike in the rest of their range. We recently visited the Russian Wilderness for a trail working trip and I became re-familiarized with these two wonderful tree species.
As a board member of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, I decided to help cook up this project because all is not well with the five-needle pines of western North America.
Five-needle pines along the Pacific Crest Trail include the sugar pine, limber pine, foxtail pine, whitebark pine, and western white pine. Crucial to the mountain ecosystems where they occur, these trees face an uncertain future, and scientists are trying to learn more.
By participating, you will help increase awareness of the changes affecting our world while improving connections to nature. Working together to document what’s happening is a positive step toward recovery.
I could not be more proud of our new book. It is, in reality, a project 10-years in the making. I first started cooking up the idea when I finished Conifer Country in 2012 based on the fact that a natural history had never been written for the Klamath Mountains. Around 2015, during a winter gathering, I proposed an outline to a group of friends and asked who wanted to help write the book with me. Justin Garwood raised his hand and the rest is now history!
In the Tertiary, beginning around 65 million years ago [Ma], a temperate forest prevailed unlike any other in Earth’s history. Referred to as the Arcto-Tertiary forest—existing on a landmass that would soon become North America, Europe, and Asia—a blending of conifers and broad-leaved trees dominated the landscape. With continental drift and climate change, the offspring of these great forests were fragmented. Over time, ice ages came and went, causing a change in flora as increasingly dry conditions became more common. The descendants of the Arcto-Tertiary forest became less extensive and more isolated. These progenitors have remained, finding refuge in the higher and cooler regions which maintained a climate more similar to that of the early Tertiary and creating, today, a strong Klamath-Appalachian Connection (see R. H. Whittaker 1961).
One of the last old-growth swamps in South Carolina.
On our summer vacation, we visited one of two remaining old-growth tracts in South Carolina. Based on what remains–a small legacy indeed–it is arguably the best and largest example of an old-growth bald cypress forest left in the world. The protected land consists of over 18,000 acres of mainly bald cypress and tupelo gum hardwood forest and swamp with approximately 1,800 acres of old-growth.
California’s deserts have always fascinated me. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I visited many areas of the Sonoran, Mojave, and Great Basin in California while teaching in Southern California. Since moving north, I have often dreamed of returning. In 2020 Backcountry Press was approached by Dr. Philip Rundel from UCLA about doing a book on California Desert Plants. This was an exciting prospect and an easy decision to make. After over a year of work (he has been working on the idea on and off for 15 years) we are excited to announce that the book is done.
For me, this book is amazing because it tells the story of one of the harshest environments on Earth. There are three distinct desert areas in California—the northwestern portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, the Mojave Desert which extends beyond the state, and the western margin of the Great Basin. A key feature of the California deserts is the dominance of infrequent rainfall in the cool winter months and general absence of rainfall and associated drought in the summer months when warm temperatures are otherwise favorable for growth. The combination of these harsh conditions nurture amazing plants with a complicated variety of adaptations.
Established in 1994, the Mojave National Preserve encompasses 1.6 million acres roughly bounded by Interstates 15 and 40. Most simply pass by this region on their way to other places (Lost Wages, Nevada for example) but it is a premier desert park. This vast and varied landscape includes dunes, dry lakebeds, granites, volcanics (domes, lava flows, and cinder cones), limestones, and sedimentary deposits which support a diverse collection of plants. The preserve includes creosote bush lowlands at 880 feet near Baker all the way up to conifer woodlands at 7,929 feet on the summit of Clark Mountain. The Mojave Wilderness is 700,000 acres of the preserve.
Within the preserve is the University of California Riverside’s Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center. The University of California’s GMDRC is dedicated to academic research and teaching and access is solely through an application approval process. This was was our basecamp. I am working on a book with Philip Rundel and Bob Patterson calledCalifornia Desert Plants (Backcountry Press, late 2022) so we came to experience, explore, photograph, and write about the regional wonders. In particular, we wanted to find trees in the desert.
I have made more posts about foxtail pines than any other trees and it is thus no secret that my favorite conifer is a five-needle pine. There are a lot of thoughts and details about five-needle pines swirling around in my world these days–for better or worse (fires and climate change)–so I figure I’ll add to the story with some updates here.
I am slowly learning about some of the shortfalls my training as a western scientist has had on my ability to interpret vegetation communities of the Klamath Mountains. What I am learning, that was never properly taught in my schooling, is that everything we see today in the Klamath Mountains was affected, to some degree, by long-term human habitation over the past ~9,000 years. For example, up north in British Columbia’s coastal temperate rainforest Fisher et al. (2019) found that the plant communities around village sites had different plant assemblages than control sites and were dominated by plants with higher nutrient requirements and a cultural significance. Consider this next time you look at an oak woodland on a river bench
Another major misconception taught in western science is the description of the assumed wild and wilderness as absent of human impact–when this is far from the truth. Much of what we have designated as wilderness was sculpted by Native People’s stewardship. For example, numerous travel routes were maintained for securing basketry, medicine, food resources, or reaching ceremonial sites (see map below).
I am excited to announce we are approaching the publication of a book 5 years in the making. As the co-editor and author of several of the chapters I am more excited for this book than any other I have written or published. To launch the approach to publication, we are offering a winter webinar series where chapter authors will present some of the highlights from their work.
In the Klamath Mountains, as in the remainder of its range in North America, whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a true summit tree that survive in only the highest subalpine conditions. Regionally, they define the extreme limits of the timber line (7,000’- 9,000’) on localized mountain tops, or sky islands, where they consummate an aesthetic splendor that rivals the finest subalpine scenery of the West. Scraggly branches splay about in the windward direction—where often just as many are dead as alive. Trees are scrupulously scattered across the landscape and thus sculpted specifically by the meager conditions offered. Centuries of slow growth are in strict compliance with the rigorous demands of sun, soil, water, and wind. On select summits a deep-time aptitude for life is exhibited through a multitude of charismatic individual forms.
I recently came upon resource created in 1907 during a trans-Klamath adventure to explore the region and document its plants. Willis Jepson’s Siskiyou Expedition began in Yreka on July 1st and ended back in Etna on July 25th. Over that time the expedition team traveled from the eastern Klamath to the coast—and back again—using a combination of routes including poorly developed roads, the Kelsey Trail, river corridors, and portage boats guided by Karuk men. I encourage you to read more of Jepson’s journal and his colorful descriptions of the plants and places along the way. The journal offers an ecologist’s view, 110 years back, to a northwest California vastly different than today.
“Whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest of gales, this tree is ever found irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque and offers a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other conifer I know of.”
The following excerpt is from my book Conifer Country. I was inspired to publish it here after a recent trip with my son to visit and measure the Klamath Mountain champion foxtail pine. After this trip, the foxtail pine is his favorite tree species too 🙂
California’s endemic foxtail pines have established two esoteric populations abscinded by nearly 500 miles of rolling mountains and deep valleys. The species was first described by John Jeffrey near Mount Shasta in 1852 , which was most likely a population near Mount Eddy or in the Scott Mountains. Later, this species was discovered in the high elevations (9,000’-12,000’) of the southern Sierra Nevada. The ecological context of Klamath foxtail pines in the Klamath Mountains differs drastically from that in the Sierra Nevada due to the divergence of these populations in the mid-Pleistocene. Though separated over one million years ago, both subspecies exhibit a radiance and individuality for which I honor them as my favorite conifer.
With separation in space and time, divergence—including cone orientation, seed character, crown form, foliage, and even chemistry—has occurred between the two subspecies. Another reason for these variations are genetic bottlenecks that have been promulgated by spatially restricted microsite adaptations, particularly in the Klamath Mountains . Northern foxtail pines (var. balfouriana) are isolated on sky islands—local mountain tops and ridgelines—from 6,500’ to 9,000’ in the eastern half of the Klamath Mountains. By my count there are 16 isolated sub-populations each consisting of one to several isolated mountain-top populations, except in the Trinity Alps where they are locally common in the more contiguous high elevations. On these sites, proper geologic, topographic, and climatic conditions have offered synergistic alliances with shade-tolerant and faster-growing firs and hemlocks.
The slow movement of water through a fen builds, over long periods of time, to the formation of peatlands. The formation of peatlands requires a combination of processes that most commonly occur in flat areas in both tropical and boreal regions. Because of variable topography, geology, and even water chemistry in the mountains, peatlands are generally rare.
In temperate mountains, rare peatlands form over mellennia if perennial soil saturation, low mineral soil deposition, erosion rates, and net storage of soil carbon resulting from plant productivity complement each other perfectly. In arctic and alpine environments, the formation of peat is often associated with peat moss (Sphagnum spp.). In the temperate regions peatlands are usually dominated and formed by sedges (Carex spp.).
I have been fascinated for a long time with the conifers of the Klamath Mountains. While there are many places across the region that have a high density of conifer species, one of the hotspots is in the Russian Wilderness in an area known as the Miracle Mile. It has a long, storied history of discovery, research, conservation, and recreation.
If you visit, tread lightly and leave no trace. Day hiking is the best way to see it and preserve the unique natural features of the area. What follows is a summary of my presentation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I learned about this project in 2014 and have been following it closely ever since. In late April, 2020 my friends Justin Garwood, Ken Lindke, and Mike Van Hattem (with other co-authors) published the first definitive paper on glaciers in the Klamath Mountains. While the news is bleak, their diligent research documents the changes in the Klamath for hundreds of years through the eyes of the highest peaks and watersheds in the range. Please enjoy the summary that follows.