I first visited this area in 2004 when my friend Jay and I attempted an ambitious loop starting from the Wooley Creek Trailhead, to the headwaters at Wooley Lake, back to Hancock Lake, and then laboring along the non-existent trail on Steinacher Ridge back to our car. This was the first major hike I took in the Marble Mountain Wilderness and my encounter with Pacific silver fir (Abies amabilis) around the Diamond Lake – English Peak region inspired the writing of my first book, Conifer Country.
Exploring upper Copper and Indian creeks for yellow-cedar
I have been mapping and inventorying yellow-cedar (Callitropsis nootkatensis) in California for the past four years. This process could have been much more efficient if it wasn’t for the 2018 Eclipse Complex and the 2019 Natchez Fire (more below) that virtually closed the Siskiyou Wilderness for the past two summers.
Successful surveys before this year have doubled the previously known area of this rare conifer from approximately 5 hectares in 2015 to 11 hectares by 2018. One of the largest gaps in surveys was within upper Indian and Copper creeks in the Klamath River watershed. I predicted this is where the largest stands of the species would be–little did I know how large an area I would find.
Castle Crags State Park is within the Klamath Mountains geomorphic province. The eastern Klamath Mountains are built from the oldest rock in the range with the newest to the west. This is due to the continued accretions of oceanic crust added on to the western edge of North American continent. Rocks surrounding Castle Crags are mostly of the Ordovician-aged (443–490 million year old) Trinity ultramafic sheet.
In 1883, August W. Eichler, the prominent plant taxonomist of the day, divided the plant kingdom into two groups: Cryptogams and Phanerogams. Cryptogamae are seedless and have inconspicuous reproductive structures while Phanerogamae produce seeds and have visible reproductive structures (like flowers and cones). Cryptogamae means hidden reproduction, referring to the fact that no seed is produced. Instead reproduction occurs by spores. Eichler only classified plants as cryptogams but the definition has since expanded to include, among others, mushrooms and blue-green algae. This collective group, while taxonomically incoherent because it includes species from more than one Kingdom, represents the most ancient lineages of land-dwelling species on Earth.
The coastal lowland forests receive the most annual rainfall of anywhere else in the Klamath Mountains. From the north in Oregon the Coquille, Rogue, and Illinois rivers drain southwest Oregon and the Smith River country is California’s only temperate rainforest. The rich soils, temperate year-round growing season, and high rainfall (often over 100 inches) nurture these impressive forests.
Klamath coastal lowland forests are typified by dense, closed canopies on well-developed soils (sometimes serpentines). The dominant tree species have high colonizing abilities, long life, and a wide ecological tolerances to environmental conditions, including dry summers with occasional persistent fog. These forest thrive below the snow belt on the extreme western slopes of the Siskiyou Mountains. Species like Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Port Orford-cedar (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) secure the highest place in the canopy, often approaching 300’. A second canopy forms one hundred feet below and includes species like tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) and madrone (Arbutus menziesii) where they share an understory with coastal specialists like salal (Gaultheria shallon) and evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum). With the high volumes of rain that falls each winter, banks of coastal rivers and streams are frequently disturbed and then repeatedly pioneered by red alder (Alnus rubra).
Botanizing the South Fork National Recreation Trail – Trinity County
Hell Gate highlights the lowland interior forest of the southern Klamath Mountains along the Trinity River on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The Trinity is surely one of the most spectacular rivers in the state and this hike is along a roadless stretch in the upper reaches of the south fork. The old-growth Douglas-fir/mixed evergreen forest is top-notch, especially along the north-facing sections of trail. Oak woodlands are on benches above the river, with Oregon white oak mixing with picturesque grasslands–though the lack of fire is allowing extensive conifer encroachment. Some of the largest Pacific yew I have ever seen can be found along the trail as well.
The area is dotted with private in-holdings and these beautiful old homes appear at random intervals along the trail. The trail is open to biking and—for these home-owners—OHVs. Swimming opportunities abound and solitude can be easily found, especially in the winter (there are bridges on all major stream crossings). The hike, as written and drawn in Conifer Country, is 7 miles to Smokey Creek but the National Recreation Trail extends the length of this roadless stretch of river—for a total of 15 miles from Hells Gate to Wild Mad Road. The upper reaches of this trail is part of the Bigfoot Trail.
I am highlighting three species below that I found on our hike. One that is a regional endemic, one that reaches it coastal range extension here, and a third that is found across the northern hemisphere. These selections highlight the regional diversity with a biogeographical perspective.
Green plants are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize—making sugar from water and carbon dioxide. The world of heterotrophic plants is complicated but all have moved away from total energy production from photosynthesis toward obtaining organic carbon either directly from other living beings or through a parasitic relationship with a fungus. Heterotrophic plants include directly parasitic and mycotrophic forms. The conifer forests of the western United States nurture an exceptional diversity of heterotrophic plants.
One-third of manzanita species are facultative seeders. These are species that regenerate post-fire by both seed and burl resprouting. The remainder are obligate seeders that lose their entire adult population in a fire and depend on a seed bank for regeneration. Obligate seeding is the current model in manzanita evolution.
To understand why, consider the climatic dynamics over thousands, or tens of thousands of years or more. In the case of the resprouting species, particular individuals can live for centuries, resprouting over and over, cloning new individuals as the burls expand with each fire cycle. But in that population, the rate of genetic change is limited, because most individuals live a long time by way of asexual reproduction. This suggests that populations may be unable to respond to rapid climatic changes that might occur in only hundreds of years. The obligate seeders, on the other hand, lose all adults in stand-replacing fires and new post-fire generations have to establish from more genetically diverse seeds. Those populations consequently have greater flexibility to shift and adjust as circumstances require; traits that might have been rare and less important in older generations can emerge through natural selection and become critical in the newer generations within the lifetime of resprouting manzanitas.
Much of this area burned in the summer of 2015. While evidence of the fires were everywhere, there are many signs of the next generation of plants returning to the landscape. This was particularly true on some of the south-facing slopes above Philpot Campground where two species of manzanitas were exploring different reproductive regimes– both obligate & facultative seeding.
Select Forest Pathogens of California’s Klamath Mountains
Forest Pathogens often go unnoticed while exploring, but offer an exceptional window into the intricacies of forest ecology when better understood. I created the free document linked below in 2011 while in Grad School at Humboldt State. Forest Pathology was one of the more interesting classes I took while turning Conifer Country into my thesis for a Master’s Degree in Biology. Most of the information for this document was taken from Terry Henkel’s lecture notes as well as from internet and book sources–all cited within the document. I was recently reminded of this creation because of the October weather that has dropped unprecedented amounts of rain and nurtured fungal growth across Northwest California.
I recently started a citizen science project with 5 classes of high school biology students from Fortuna, California. The plan is to combine their observation skills with the technology offered by iNaturalist. Each month they will visit Rohner Park and record data on a chosen spot in the forest–looking for plants and animals as well as changes in canopy and ground cover. As they become more proficient in species ID, students will also upload observations to our iNatural Project ultimately creating a field guide to their local forest. We all know how much I like field guides…
My plan, over future visits to wilderness areas, is to start similar citizen science projects. The first attempt at this wide-ranging project began this week on a visit to the Bear Peak Botanical Area on the Klamath National Forest. I originally wrote about this area in my book Conifer Country because it is unique in many ways, including the populations of yellow-cedar found here. This species in common further north, but quite rare in California.
For me it is a time of rejuvenation and also my favorite season. With the shift of the California Current, rains begin to fall in California after a summer of drought. The high country along the Pacific Slope finds snow returning. While we retreat inside our homes, native plants and animals must adjust to the changes. Some birds migrate, mammals might hibernate, and some plants shed their leaves and “hibernate” for winter in their own way.
What follows is a journey across the Pacific Slope to four favorite fall hikes–excellent for colorful foliage. I’ve also included some of the plant species that will be found.
San Gabriel River National Monument
Blackrock-High Rock Desert National Conservation Area
I was recently asked by KHSU, here in Humboldt County, to write a two minute script for their Sound Ecology series. I chose to write about the conifers of the Klamath Mountains. I hope you enjoy this piece and are planning your next adventure into this botanical wonderland.
Here are the activities I will be a part of in the coming months, please join me!
My first adventure in the Klamath Mountains was in February 2003, several weeks after moving to Humboldt County. Here is an excerpt from the introduction of Conifer Countryabout that trip:
After poring over maps, studying the ridges, passes, and creeks, I filled my backpack with winter gear, food, and a copy of David Rains Wallace’s The Klamath Knot. The adventure was on….The next four days found me spending time staying warm, staying dry, differentiating between the conifers, and reading and re-reading The Klamath Knot. The Knot is a “Klamath cult classic” that weaves the myth of giants with the mysterious quality of ancient forest evolution—surely this was the perfect companion for my first trip in the Siskiyous.
I fell in love with the mountains that fateful February week, deep in the Siskiyous. I read and re-read The Klamath Knot as the rains poured down on me, the nearby creeks swelled, and the mountain passes accumulated snow. I gained a deeper respect and understanding for this wild place too—because of David’s mountain tales that wove natural history and evolution into a place-based book.
Today, it is with great fortune and excitement that I announce to my noble readers that my publishing company, Backcountry Press, is releasing a book by David Rains Wallace. Articulate Earth is a collection of 23 essays written over 30 years of Wallace’s career. The essays explore our relationship with nature—particularly that of the West—in its literary, scientific, and political dimensions. Please support independent publishing by picking up this book from our website or visiting your local independent bookstore—and then referring this book to friends.
In 1964 Congress passed The Wilderness Act in a nearly unanimous vote. Though the idea of wilderness was nothing new, its legalized preservation was. The act was meant to acknowledge and define the immediate and lasting benefits of protecting wild places—stating that land shall be set aside for “preservation and protection…so as to remain untrammeled…to retain primeval character…to only be affected by forces of nature…and to guarantee solitude…devoted to un-mechanized public purposes.” I quickly discovered these places were for me—a freedom-loving environmentalist who enjoys unconfined primeval recreation.
Since first exploring the Siskiyou Wilderness in February of 2003, I became convinced that the Klamath Mountain wilderness areas contain some of the wildest and most rugged terrain in the contiguous United States. This is country that is often so steep, and thus spatially isolated, that there are places that have rarely–if ever–been visited by humans. The Klamath Mountains also hold one of the most species-rich temperate forest in North America–with nearly 3,500 taxa documented. The diversity is due to many factors, but in essence it represents a means to appreciate the wildness that has maintained across the numerous sub-ranges in the region. The variable topography, relatively stable climate, and varied soil types have offered (and continue to do so) a refuge for plants to persist or speciate. This is a phenomenon which I am cautiously optimistic will persist into the future, even as climates rapidly change to to human activity–I also beleive this to be true do to the wilderness that is preserved that will help to promote biodiversity. September 3rd, 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act – wilderness is a part of me as are these mountains.
There are celebrated regions of the Klamath Mountain–preserved and maintained for our enjoyment as monuments or wilderness–and there are others with little or no designation beyond National Forest land. How does the outdoor enthusiast find these little-known places? In the case of the isolated botanical areas of the Scott Mountain Crest, the main route in and out is on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Dancing with raindrops from car to porch on any number of oft-spectacular Humboldt Bay days, I was hungry for a lunch date. As I shook my hands dry, the push of a bell initiated the shuffle of feet, a crack of the door—and soon after—a long, sincere, chuckle. The opening door revealed a smile to go with the laughter. It was the same way every time, and I always loved it. John’s spirit was contagious and he always brightened my day.
In the late 1960’s, after arriving at Humboldt State University as a new professor, John O. Sawyer received a letter in the mail from G. Ledyard Stebbins. Stebbins, widely regarded as one of America’s leading evolutionary biologists but also a lover of rare plants, suggested to John that he needed to visit a remote place in the Klamath Mountains known as Blake’s Fork. Here, he said, John might help verify a report for one of California’s rarest conifers–the Engelmann spruce. Stebbins hoped John could record his findings in a new database called the Inventory of Rare and Endangered Vascular Plants of California organized by the California Native Plant Society. With conifers calling, John and his friend and co-worker Dale Thornburgh went on a journey that would change our understanding of conifer distributions, plant associations, and wilderness in California.