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.
The heart of the Russian Wilderness and the Miracle Mile, with Russian Peak to the far left. This spiney ridge separates Sugar Creek (left) from Duck Creek (right).
Ecological amplitude is the range of habitats, often dependent on and defined by elevation, within which a certain species has the ability to survive. In the Klamath Mountains there are two species of pines that define the highest elevations–growing at or near the summits of peaks from ~7500′ to 9000′ (The Klamath Mountains get no higher). Foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) inhabit our sky islands where they are the crowning jewels of this coniferous wonderland.
Jeffrey Kane ponders the approach to Box Camp Mountain from the Pacific Crest Trail.
Our adventure began in the heavy rain of late June. We waved farewell to Allison from the Canyon Creek Trailhead to walk the Bigfoot Trail–in search of wild plants and places–for two weeks. As we climbed into the Trinity Alps it was doubtful we would be able to hike very far because of heavy snow and high water. On our second day, as the rain cleared, we approached the dangerously swift Stuarts Fork and were, for a moment, stopped by Mountains and Water.
Wet weather, heavy snow at the passes, and swift creek crossing typified the first week of hiking through the Trinity Alps, Russian Wilderness, and Marble Mountains. Bottom left is the crossing of Stuarts Fork in the Alps–without that log, the trip would not have happened.
It has been several years since my last visit to Wooley Creek. This was far too long. The Salmon River Country is magical and I was fortunate enough to find some magic this wet northern California weekend when I spent the night along one of my favorite California creeks (Check out Gambolin’ Man’s take on my other favorites). Wooley creek roared as it funneled past the trail and my camp–draining hundreds of square miles of Marble Mountain Wilderness. It would soon enter the Salmon River, briefly, before merging with the mighty Klamath River on its way to the Pacific Ocean. It felt like spring as flowers and bud were popping in the wet (and mildly warm) conditions. The mixed-evergreen forests of the Klamath Mountains are waking up.
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.
Allison braves the cold winds to revel in a sunset over the Pacific Ocean with views to the Siskiyou Wilderness.
Situated on the border of two major rock types, Myrtle Creek Botanical Area is floristically challenging as well as aesthetically arousing due to this unique geological architecture. Along the western slopes of the Myrtle Creek drainage, the North Coast Range meets the Klamath Mountains against an ancient island-arc accretion known as the Josephine Ophiolite. Plant communities are often defined by rock type, and this juncture creates unique plant assemblages. It is a place where complex rock interacts–nutrient rich soils of Coast Range meets the nutrient poor serpentines of the Josephine Ophiolite. It is also a place where ample rain falls, often in the amount of 100 inches per year. Because of these complex abiotic interactions, plants touch roots with plants in associations that almost never occur. For example, redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) grow with pitcher plants (Darlingtonia californica) and western redcedars (Thuja plicata) with knobcone pines (Pinus attenuata).
Historically, the drainage saw major mining operations transform the landscape when placer mining (panning) in the late 1800’s gave way to the more destructive–and potentially more lucrative–hydraulic mining during the early 1900’s. Eventually, all the accessible gold was removed and as the miners left the landscape, it slowly recovered. Today, all that remains from the operations is a major sluice where the trail begins, a ditch upon which the trail is built as well as several old shafts that are fenced in for protection.
The plants have returned and, with a few exceptions, are flourishing. The wildflowers begin in mid-March and continue into early June. Orchids, trilliums, azaleas, rhododendrons, mustards, buttercups, sorrels, wood roses, huckleberry, and more create a rare botanical legacy of unique associations–ready for exploration and self-discovery. Located within the Smith River National Recreation Area, the trail has interpretive signs to aid your discoveries along the 1+ miles to the creek.
Map to Myrtle Creek Botanical Area in the Six Rivers National Forest.
Brook wakerobin (Pseudotrillium rivale)
Darlingtonia californica (by Allison Poklemba)
Pictured above is California pitcher plant (Darlingtonia californica) growing on serpentine, which is not unusual in Del Norte County. What is unusual is that along Myrtle Creek it associates with salal (Gaultheria shallon) which is in the picture and growing just above–casting shade–is a redwood tree.
North Coast CNPS Page for Myrtle Creek Botanical Area
DATE: 4/24/2014 4:18:08 PM
You said: “… a ditch upon which the trail is built…” This was no ditch, but a carefully constructed Chinese Footpath – the kind a person would see in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, or other Asian rainforest areas. In addition to a mining camp was a Chinese labor camp. They built the footpath – which used to extend from near the falls to what is now hwy 199. I have taken several Vietnam Veterans on this trail, and they are all amazed at the similarity between this “ditch” (as you call it) and trails they saw while in Vietnam. These Chinese trails are noted by drainage area on the ‘mountain’ side of the trail, and a berm on the “creek” side of the trail. This construction helps keep the trail intact despite wet weather. Unfortunately, after over 150 years, there have been some serious mudslides along the creek that covered portions of the footpath – making it very difficult to get to the falls. There are still gold mining claims along the creek, and in the past, these mining claims have been protected with rifles. But not any more. I love this creek, have hiked it for 40 years, and treasure the botanical life. But a well-maintained trail would be nice. I would love to be able to hike to the falls again on a real trail.
Sue- Thanks for the comment. Sounds like you have a great understanding and appreciation for this wonderful creek canyon. I am sorry if I offended you by calling it a ditch, I know better now! -Michael
I have been preparing for a presentation at the Northern California Symposium of Botanists in January. The title of the talk is “Climate Change and the High Elevation Conifers of the Klamath Mountains” which is based on a literature review I wrote last year.
As I was digging through old pictures preparing for the talk and I came across video I shot this summer but had forgotten about–so I processed it. What follows is a 10 minute exploration of three foxtail pine groves in the Klamath Mountains.
Changing climates have perpetuated shifts in the biogeographic distribution of flora and fauna across landscapes for millennia. It is therefore important to consider how future environmental changes may affect the survival of species—both globally and regionally. The conifers of the Klamath Mountains are harbingers of change. Botanical diversity has been fostered in this ancient meeting ground as climatic conditions have shifted throughout the Cenozoic. The video explores several rare, spatially restricted, high elevation microsites of the Klamath Mountains where relict foxtail pine (Pinus balfouriana) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) still survive today.
Surely one of the most beautiful rivers in the state of California, this wild and untraveled stretch of the South Fork Trinity River is a special place to visit. South Fork Road ends 11 miles from where it begins at the junction of the South Fork and Main Fork, and for over 10 miles, runs wild and free from human disturbance–upstream to the isolated hamlet of Hyampom. The entire South Fork of the Trinity River is designated as wild and scenic, but the Hell’s Half Acre section is the epitome of this wild and scenic designation.
With the end of the school year in site, my calcifuge tendencies had me running to the hills. Ever since our winter trip to Hawaii I have been pondering the Ericaceae family, gaining a new found love for this diverse group of plants. I also knew that they, like me, had a propensity to ‘flee from chalk’ so to speak. Ericaceous plants generally prefer, if not acidic soil, a harsh medium on which to grow. Could this familial disposition–to thrive in the presence of harsh soil–be due to the extant members of this tribe having evolved from a common ancestor? I thought I must visit one of the oldest members of the family and get to know where they grew and what they knew or could share. Though I have been hearing the call of the Kalmiopsis for many years, I had failed to yet make the trek into this remote country. With snow lingering this spring, keeping me from my typical high Siskiyou destinations, the time was right for Oregon’s second largest wilderness. The lower elevation wilderness is so named after a relict plant Lilla and John Leach discovered here in 1930. Continue reading →