The main event has been on the calendar for the past eight years. I have heard stories from friends who have actually traveled around the world to see the phenomenon–and from that alone I knew if there was and eclipse practically in our backyard, we needed to go. We selected a spot in the heart of the Ochoco National Forest and literally on the edge of the Mill Creek Wilderness in a meadow complex. The Mill Creek Wilderness Twin Pillars Trail was our hiking destination the day before the eclipse event. The wilderness protects a harsh environment typified by ancient lava flows, fire-prone conifer forests, and the Mill Creek Drainage itself. We found wonderful views across central Oregon and a fire-scared landscape on our way to the Twin Pillars. In addition, western larch (Larix occidentalis), was the conifer highlight on this adventure.
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.
Santa Rosa Island Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana ssp. insularis)
The first time Santa Rosa Island landed on my plant exploring radar screen was when I learned about the Torrey pine some time in the early 2000s. I had never even seen this tree until I took a trip to Torrey Pines State Reserve north of San Diego in early 2012. It is the rarest pine in North America with several thousand “mature” trees on both the mainland and island. My bucket list for understanding the ecology of this species is complete now that I have visited the island.
As mentioned in an early post, pigs were first introduced on Santa Rosa in the mid 1800s. By 1888 it is estimated, based on historical records, that there were only 100 Torrey pines on the island. Today, all herbivorous megafauna have been removed (minus 5 sterile horses from the old ranch) and the Torrey pine are thriving–with an estimated 12,300 trees–one-quarter of which are saplings!
Researchers debate the arrival time of the Santa Rosa Torrey pine, estimating anywhere from 6,000 to over 1 million years. Disagreement also exists as to whether these two population represent subspecies or varieties of each other. Some argue the two populations are genetically different enough to be considered a subspecies, others prefer distinction at the variety level. Regardless, it is a beautiful species and well worth seeing in the wild.
Santa Rosa Island
After a two hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor that included sightings of gray and killer whales, passengers disembarked onto a newly-built pier and subjacent white sand beaches. We had arrived. Once unloaded, the park ranger offered an orientation rejoicing in our good fortunes. The high winds and thick fog which had typified the previous few weeks had now subsided. The forecast for the coming days included sun, low winds, and perfect temperatures.
Fog and wind are omnipresent on Santa Rosa Island and play a major role in shaping the landscape. Any plants with a propensity for upward growth are restricted to canyons, particularly north sloping ones. Here they find refuge from the wind and often more available moisture provided by the meager 15-20 inches of annual rain. However near the highest island peaks–like Black Mountain at 1,300 feet plants have adapted to wind and fog in different ways.
Channel Islands National Park
In 1998 I first visited the Channel Islands. This was early in my naturalist career but I was struck, none-the-less, by the beauty and isolation I found on Santa Cruz Island. On that trip I first saw the endemic island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis) and began to develop an understanding and interest in island biogeography. Twenty years later this experience brought me to Santa Rosa Island–in major part to see the Torrey pine grove–but also for the opportunity to explore one of the least visited places in Southern California.
Santa Rosa Island is separated from the mainland by over 25 miles of water. The next closest landmass is San Miguel, which is now isolated from Santa Rosa by three miles of water. Isolation has nurtured endemism on both a localized island level as well as on a unifying level between islands. Combined, all the Channel Islands are home to 150 species of unique plants and animals. Santa Rosa hosts 46 of those, including six endemic plants that grow nowhere else.
Hot springs and tall trees, all hidden in a remote area of Mendocino County. This was the family destination for a pre-Thanksgiving celebration. Most or our time was spent at Orr Hotsprings but an day-hiking excursion treated us with a fabulous adventure in an isolated redwood grove at Montgomery Woods State Natural Reserve.
The hike was punctuated with firsts: my son’s first multi-mile hike and my my first albino redwood. The park previously held the tallest recorded redwood — at 367.5-foot it was once declared the world’s tallest. While the Montgomery tree is still alive, the new record is in Humboldt County. Other exciting finds in the park included an excellent expanse of giant chain ferns in a lowland basin along the trail. Read more about Montgomery Woods from Save the Redwoods League.
Citizen Science in the Siskiyous
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.
Northern California’s Coast Range
Mount Linn–also called South Yolla Bolly Mountain–is the highest point in the Coast Range of northern California. It is located to the west of Corning but the area might as well be a world away from the population centers of the state; it is rarely noticed by travelers as they drive Interstate 5. Once off the interstate, scenic forest service roads still take nearly 2 hours to wind to the trailhead. I revisited this fine mountain in July of 2016 to set up a photo-monitoring plot along the Bigfoot Trail and took the time to also map the vegetation on the mountain–particularly the grove of foxtail pines near the summit. This is one of the smallest (12 acres) and most isolated groves for the entire species and one that I am very much concerned about due to climate change. Shasta firs are encroaching upon the trees as snowpack declines and temperatures warm. I was happy to see the trees doing well and many young foxtails sprouting up–just not as many as there are young firs.
How do you go about choosing a hike?
I have used various approaches which always involve careful map study, perusing the pages of hiking guides, and most importantly for me—studying field guides. As I get older, choosing a hiking destination is becoming more critical, with so much to see and even more to learn.
Over time, I have gone about choosing a hike based more as a destination for discovery before any other factor. I think I first caught the hiking-for-natural-discovery bug while selecting a backpacking route exclusively to see condors in the Sespe Wilderness of southern California. When I moved to Humboldt in 2002, I graduated from bird destinations to plant exploring as I began searching out rare and unusual conifer species in our local mountains. This regular wilderness sideline blossomed into a Master’s Degree from Humboldt State University when I published my first book Conifer Country: A natural history and hiking guide to the conifers of northwest California in 2012. For 10 years I hiked to find and understand trees. These trees, and the places they grow, helped me develop a deeper passion for place and an understanding of the unique natural history of northwest California.
Plant Exploring in the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument
Wednesday, May 11, 2016 @7:30 p.m. at the Arcata Masonic Lodge
From the California Native Plant Society North Coast Chapter:
Explorer, writer, and educator Michael Kauffmann will lead us on a journey into the Transverse Ranges of southern California to explore the world of what John Muir called the steepest mountains in which he ever hiked. Michael’s explorations began because of a Bigcone Douglas-fir mapping and monitoring project he is leading in conjunction with California Native Plant Society, but these studies have allowed him to make more discoveries–from one of the world’s largest oaks to the most isolated grove of Sierra junipers in the world. Michael will take us on a photographic journey from the mountain tops to the river canyons across one of the nation’s newest national monuments.