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).
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.
It is no secret that the Siskiyous are my favorite place in the Klamath Mountains. I have spent many days and hiked numerous miles across this region. The Bigfoot Trail travels the entire crest of the range as well.
In early August 2017, lightning ignited a series of fires first named Oak, Cedar, Clear, and Prescott. These fires later grew together and were combined into the Eclipse Complex. Over the next month, approximately 100,000 acres burned in and around the Siskiyou Wilderness. Between last October and now I have had reason to visit much of this area for work and play. What follows are some of the pictures I have taken.
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).
I have begun a collaborative mapping and inventorying project for yellow-cedar in California this summer. The species is a CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 4.3 (limited distribution) in the state, with only a handful of known locations. The majority of the stands are on the Klamath National Forest but a few are also on the Six Rivers. Over the course of the summer I will be visiting a number of these populations and collecting data on stand health, reproduction, and plant associates. I made the first stop of the summer at the Bear Peak Botanical Area.
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
Protected in 1984 and expanded in 2006, the Siskiyou Wilderness now preserves 182,802 acres of some of the most species-rich temperate coniferous forests in North America. This film is a collection of images from years of hiking and exploring this diverse landscape – dedicated to my son, Sylas Siskiyou Kauffmann.
On average, air temperatures decrease 500 times faster over altitudinal gradients than latitudinal gradients in North America (MacAuthor 1972). So, for example, traveling 150 miles north in North America approximates a decrease in temperature comparable to gaining 1600 feet of altitude. (O’Donnell 2003). This also means that altitudinal vegetation zones in the mountains of North America are 500 times narrower than latitudinal zones–what is created in this climatic scenario are the quentessential microsites. But there are other factors at play in the temperate coastal environments of the Klamath Mountains. Altitudinal generalizations are often exaggerated to the untrained eye because as one climbs skyward a stark landscape appears as ancient ultramafic and mafic rocks become more common, and restrict plant growth. This nurtures the feeling of subalpine–even below 7,000′ at a latitude of 42o N.
The northern portion of the Siskiyou Wilderness represents an area of great botanical diversity resulting from its unique geographic position (proximity to the coast and extreme vertical relief) and complex and diverse geologic composition. Chester A. Ground (1972) identified 343 species of plants in 3 square miles around the mountain my college buddies and I decided to climb in late July 2012. Just like my childhood fictional hero Sam Gribley, we escaped to a place near and dear to my heart, and–though not for an entire winter–for enough time to share space and time with the unique and diverse biota of the Klamath Mountans. We were in for a treat as the weather was cool and clear, plants were in bloom, and wildlife was active.
“Wilderness has a deceptive concreteness at first glance. The difficulty is that while the word is a noun it acts like an adjective. There is no specific material object that is wilderness. The term designates a quality ( as the ‘-ness’ suggests) that produces a certain mood or feeling in a given individual and, as a consequence, may be assigned by that person to specific place. Because of this subjectivity a universally acceptable definition of wilderness is elusive. One man’s wilderness may be another’s roadside picnic… Wilderness, in short, is so heavily freighted with meaning of a personal, symbolic, and changing kind as to resist easy definition.” —Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash, third edition; pub. Yale Univ. Press, 1967.
Siskiyou Wilderness | fall 2012
My expectations for wilderness wavers too. As I sit at home with my creature comforts I hope that others are out enjoying the majesty of the wilds–connecting with the natural world and progressing as stewards. When my turn comes to plan a wilderness adventure, destinations are chosen based on where I will find solitude. This was the original, anthropocentric idea behind wilderness–a place that would retain primeval character and guarantee solitude. I am a proponent for more people visiting wilderness (walking in under their own power) so that they might have more authentic experiences in nature, care more, and develop a closer connection to the Earth.
In the southern Siskiyou Mountains, around the headwaters of Bluff Creek, a discovery was made a few years ago that I was intrigued to see for myself. Kirk Terrill, a Forest Service Botanist, found an unusual flower on an isolated ridgeline of serpentine. In 2010 these plants were determined to be Lewisia kelloggii and, thus far, this is the only documented population in the Klamath Mountains. Elsewhere it grows sparsely in the high country of the Sierra Nevada. In the Siskiyous it grows under and among another regional rarity–lodgepole pine. Driving up the forest service road from Highway 96 toward Cedar Camp I knew these trees would be the key to finding the rare lewisia, which only blooms for a short time in early June. Upon finding the lodgepoles and the serpentine, I unsaddled and walked the stark ridgeline. Within half and hour I had succeeded in my own rare-plant treasure hunt. Read about the one that inspired my journey, written by Carol Ralph of the North Coast Chapter, Califiorina Native Plant Society, HERE. Continue reading “Southern Siskiyous or the Annularity of Rarity”
The winds were blowing across southern California and the skies were clear in the north. This unseasonal weather, cultivated by a high pressure system sitting over most of the West coast, motivated a 24 hour whirlwind into the Siskiyou Wilderness. My goal was to search for an unusual population of Alaska yellow-cedar documented and collected by Overton and Butler in 1979. I had discredited this report for several years because it did not fit within the parameters of my expectations for the species’ regional ecological amplitude–reported at a mere 3115 feet. If true, this would be over 2000 feet lower than any other regional population. In the fall I made it to the HSU Herbarium to look at the specimen and, sure enough, it was properly identified by the duo. I had to find this unusual place. The high pressure was the excuse to escape the stress of the end of 2011, get into the mountains, and attempt to find another outlier in the Siskiyou Wilderness.
During this extended period of phenomenal weather, we packed our weekend bags to rough it on the edge of the Siskiyou Wilderness. Nearly ten years ago to the day, I pursued this route to reach Clear Creek in the wilderness, a new transplant to the Klamath Region. Had I known there was a cabin en-route that I could have rented, on the top of a mountain and in a botanical area no less, I may have never properly understood the hardships that weather in northwest California could offer the winter traveler. On that particular trip I endured snow and rain for four days, alone in Bigfoot country–meeting my first Brewer spruce, Port-Orford cedar, and Darlingtonia. I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form.
However this February 2011 weekend, surrounded by friends, it was mostly sunny with a strong chance of incredible.
I did not embark on a typical backpacking trip in late June–but it wasn’t a typical spring. Snow lingered in the high country and the big miles and long trails I had come to expect in June did not present those hiking opportunities. The landscape was set short and deep for foot travel as snow pack nourished the aquifers of the Klamath Mountains. I knew I needed to start my summer in the Siskiyous because–besides that fact that they are becoming my sacred place–the range is both lower elevation and more temperate that other ranges in the Klamath Mountains to the east. This would surely allow the high country access I was yearning for.