30 August 2010

Alpine Ecology & Global Warming: Dr. Martha Apple's Research

Imagine professional reserch that includes trekking to and monitoring remote Alpine sites in some of Montana's most beautiful mountain ranges. That describes the work of my colleague, Dr. Martha E Apple. As an advantage of teaching with a little college, I get to know about many fascinating research projects that complement my environmental interests. On Saturday, I was happy to tag along for some field work with Professor Apple and her graduate student, Bablu Sharma (Bablu works with Martha on another research project about CO2 sequestration, ZERT or "Zero Emissions Research & Technology"). Here are Martha and Bablu at the end of the road:

From the truck we hiked a mile or so up to the summit:

This is just one of several sites that are part of Martha's work on the GLORIA project--Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (thinking up cool acronyms is crucial to scientifice research!). With monitoring sites all over the world, GLORIA is an incredibly important international effort to figure out how increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are changing climate. Here's a map of GLORIA sites around the world:

Martha likes the fact that she can look out her office window and see this site high on Mount Fleecer, south of Butte, Montana. There it is, just ahead of us:

Just below the summit, you can see from the gnarled Whitebark Pine trees what a windy place this is. The trees, like many Whitebarks across the Northern Rockies, are dying from blister rust and pine beetle attacks:

Once at the main site, we walked to each of the four quadrant (N, S, E, W) sites, laid out a grid:

And then Martha documents the plants growing within it. Later, she will enter this data into the international database and make seasonal comparisons from year-to-year to correlate climate change with vegetation shifts. There is a soil temperature recorder buried at each site as well:

Oh yeah--first rule of GLORIA fieldwork: DO NOT tangle up the grid. Martha left Bablu & I alone with it for a few minutes, and we quickly found ourselves in a game of cat's cradle:

We were chatting a lot and did not spot any big mammals (elk, mule deer, and mountain goats all live in the area), but we did see a few pikas and a lot of gray jays and other local residents. Hmmm, looks like Bear lives here too (dried, well-aged turd from last year):

Bear has been visiting recently, according to this over-turned rock on a corner of one of the grids:

Here's one of the smaller animals that was common at the site:

Although the lower elevation woodlands and prairies have dried out in the summer heat and lack of rain, it is still lush at 9,000 feet:

It was educational to be afield with a trained ecologist and botanist. Martha pointed out the Crytptogramic Crust and explained the role it plays in holding soils togehter against the forces of erosion:

She also pointed out some flower species new to me, including Spotted Saxifrage (Saxifraga bronchialis):

And Northern Gentian (Gentianella amarella probably, though it could also be one of several very similar species; Martha took a sample for a more positive identification at a later time):

The humble bees were busy trying to make the most of the last few days of summer, as this bee on a False Dandelion (Agoseris glauca):

The lupines are still in prime bloom, like this Bigleaf Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus probably -- as a botanist, Martha is the first to point out how subtle differences and easy hybridization make plant species identification very tricky). These late bloomers probably won't set seed before the frosty nights of Fall set in:

The Little-flowered Pensemon (Penstemon procerus) were also lighting up the mountainside:

Even the fungi are still thriving at this high, wet site (probably a Bolete):

With a cold front moving in, we were lucky to have some sunny moments and only a little light sleet & rain on this late-August day. As the first of September (and Labor Day!) approaches, I would not be surprised to wake some morning to a little snow in my yard back in Walkerville.


For more information, see:
GLORIA in North America: an Alpine Ecology Monitoring Network

26 August 2010

SkyWatch Friday: Montana Summer Skies, Endless Blue

The Big Sky above Butte, Montana has been very clear, from crystalline sunset (view from Walkerville, Montana):

To bright blue morning moonset (view of Mt Haggin near Anaconda, Montana; moon on ridge at center right):

On a hike along the Continental Divide between the Clark Fork and Big Hole Rivers, the bluebird sky made a good contrast with a lodgepole pine and juniper spotted of pink weathered rock:

Though summer is nearly over in the high country, you'd never know it from these blazing hot clear days (we hit 90 deg F for the first time this summer). But some morning soon, we'll awake to a heavy frost and perhaps a dusting of snow. Soon.

Scouting the Elusive Moose

When you don't want to run into a moose -- as when fishing a small meadow creek overgrown with willows -- they seem to be everywhere. And even on the casual drive or hike, it seems we "always" see one or more. Ah, but draw a hunting season tag for a bull moose, and where are they? Let's go look.

Taking up a position on a bluff above a small creek, just where the creek breaks out of the timber and flows through a broad willow bottom, I tried out my moose calling skills: "Here moose, here moose!" Actually, you kind of grunt and groan into a rolled up cone of cardboard. Right off, a cow & calf elk jumped up from their bed in the willows, took one look at MollyTheDog & I, and beat a hasty retreat back into the brush. These two buck pronghorn antelope, on the other hand, came in at a dead run from nearly a mile away, halting about 200 yards out:

Maybe I need to polish my moose calling skills. Hiking upstream along the grassy meadows along the creek, I began to find moose sign. Well, sometimes you get the moose.... And sometimes you get the moose dung:

Now, this is encouraging. A shed moose antler, on its way to being recycled by gnawing squirrels, mice, and porcupines:

Hmmm.... Maybe I need a decoy? MollyTheDog, one shed antler, and a roll of duct-tape (MTD is thinking this is NOT a good idea):

No moose this morning, but there are some flowers about. Monkeyflowers, both Lewis's (Mimulus lewisii) and Yellow (M. guttatus) growing along the stream:

And a favorite of mine, Fringed Grass-of-Parnassus (Parnassia fimbriata), named after Apollo's mountain where the Muses frolicked. Do you think these are the Muses on the flowers? Kind of creepy looking Muses, I'd say:

No moose perhaps, but maybe there's a buffalo around. Lots of Buffaloberry (Shepherdia canadensis) at any rate. By the way, they look a lot nicer than they taste, although Indians whipped them with water and ate the froathy treat:

Today, you could spend weeks in this area of the Pintler Mountain Range/Beaverhead National Forest and never see a soul. A century or so ago, however, it was a hopping place, buzzing with placer miners and loggers. You can hardly take a step, it seems, without tripping over some old cabin. Some are right along the road:

Some are rotting back into the soil beneath the trees:

And others are in little prairie opening in remote places far from any current road:

By late morning, temperatures were  pushing 90 degrees. Here we are in late August and having the warmest weather of the entire summer. You can feel the heat in this hazy view of Saddle Mountain (East & West Goat Peaks; the white area in the lower left of the photo are "chalk bluffs," perhaps deposited millions of years ago by volcanoes far west of here):

Time to head home & quaff a pint at the Quarry Brewpub.

25 August 2010

A Portland, Oregon, Experience

Mrs Rover & I, with daughter Emily, drove a load of furniture to the Portland OR/Vancouver WA area last week to help Emily & Evan get settled into their new apartment. It was an exhausting few days, with obligatory trips to IKEA, GoodWill, and a friendly local furniture dealer. Moved a bed, two dressers, and many boxes; bought locally a kitchen table, chairs, and assorted furnishings. And moved them all up to the 3rd floor apartment.We did well.

On a morning walk, we discovered something strange: people with purple hands! Was this some sort of local cult? Or perhaps enthusiastic voters in some sort of election?:

Let's look more closely. What is Emily doing?:

YES, blackberry picking!:

I grew up in a blackberry picking family in the Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Rare was the year when Grandma did not can 40 or 50 quarts in addition to the many quarts we ate fresh in pies and on cereal, and those that went into Gram's wine-making crock. The Portland area has blackberries in superabundance, and so it seemed odd that no one else was picking them and passersby on the trail looked at us like we were foraging hillbillies. Well, if the corn-cob pipe fits...

We also explored Portland a bit, and I dropped into The Hair Lair at 3332 SW Corbett Avenue for a rare store-bought hair cut. Here are the stylists, Joe & Becky [note: Joe McKee was my student some years ago, and is one of the few people I would ever trust to cut my hair]:

And here's a pic of Joe & ER, post haircut (Hey Joe, don't bring scissors & a blow dryer to a gun fight):

This week it was back to the world: classes began Monday along with the bread & circuses of college politics.

16 August 2010

Bushwhacking, Peakbaggin, and Wilderness: Sullivan Creek to Mt Howe, August snow

As time goes by, my friends' health deteriorates or they seem to be increasingly busy with work or other distractions. And so I do more and more solo trips, especially when it comes to backpacking and peak bagging. At age 55, I'm glad I can still do this. Though I joke with Mrs Rover that someday I'll probably end up in a grizzly bear turd, she doesn't seem to find that a bit funny. I suppose I should advertise:
      TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to
      become one with the natural world. Apply in person.
You know, something like the philosophical gorilla's want ad from Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael.

For what might be my last (and only the second) backpacking trip of the season, I chose Sullivan Creek to Mt Howe. It's part a chain of mountain peaks that stands along the Continental Divide just west of my home in Walkerville/Butte Montana. Getting an early start, dewy spider webs caught the rising sun:

Sullivan Basin is a lovely, seldom visited spot at the edge of the Pintler Wilderness. Seldom visited because: it's 11.5 miles of bad road to get there; there is no trailhead; and there is no formal trail. I'm not sure why so many otherwise seasoned hikers and confident outdoorspeople only consider the trails on a map when they plan a trip, but that's how it is. The harsh and dry climate make for open woods, particularly as you approach the Alpine Zone. Having read notes in the peak jar on Mt Howe, it seems that virtually every other peak bagger has come up the west side from Seymour Creek or along the ridge from Mt Evans.

Yet it would be a petty conceit to think I'm the only person that visits this place. Therefore it was no surprise to find a recently established campsite near the old logging road that marks my private "trailhead:"

Years ago, outfitters with horses built what has become a faint trail into Sullivan Basin, and each year the old blazes that marked the trail fade a bit more:

But what's this? Some pilgrim has marked new blazes:

And freshened up that old trail by using a chainsaw to cut away deadfall:

A few miles up the drainage (about half-way to my destination in the cirque), they have established a very nice campsite with a most impressive woodpile. My guess is that some hopeful pilgrim plans to hunt elk during the archery season and perhaps kill one of the trophy bulls that inhabit this place:

Passing above this pilgrim's camp, I broke out into the lush open meadows that define the upper basin:

Mountain goat fur, shed from the heavy winter coat they wear nine months of the year, decorated the little alpine larch trees:

And provided a good scent for MollyTheDog (MTD):

It's a harsh area where geological and biological forces strike a precarious balance. Sometimes life loses ground as torrents of snow melt erode gullies in the mountainside:

At other times, avalanches tear down the slopes, snapping trees (the lower six feet or so of their trunks held rigid by snowpack) like toothpicks:

Trees that stand too high above their neighbors become a target for and are often killed by lightning:

If they're lucky, the lightning merely prunes away the higher branches while the trunk grows ever stouter (sounds like a lesson in the Yin-Yang of Tao):

My campsite was at 9,000 feet in elevation at the base of Mount Howe (I'm not sure who it was named after; shown center left in this photo, the ridge capped with snow):

Tent up, a bit of wood gathering, and it was tea time (Underground Blogger will be happy to note I am wearing a heavy wool shirt and long pants on an August afternoon!):

Did I mention there was a chill in the air? Sure enough, next morning, we woke to a little snow squall (view from the tent door):

After a bit of effort to start the breakfast fire with wet wood and gusting winds, I decided to hike around the basin playing wait & see with the weather. If it cleared, I would hike to the peak of Mt Howe. If it didn't, I'd pack for home. It did clear a bit. The mountain goats came out to feed on a slope high above me:

Hoary marmots (well camouflaged!) scrambled over the scree:

And in this veritable rock garden wildflowers bloomed galore, including Mountain Penstemon (Penstemon montanus):

Mountain Townsendia (Townsendia montana):

Elk Thistle (Cirsium scariosum):

Arctic Gentian (Gentiana algida):

an Alpine species of Harebell (Campanula sp):

Weakstem Stonecrop (Sedum debile):

and a ubiquitous flower in this region, the tiny blooms of Moss Campion (Silene acaulis):

The sky began to clear in fits & starts, with occasional glimpses of the peak. We were mid-way up the slope anyway, so it was time to get into scree-hopping mode. This was made a bit treacherous by the black lichen, which is VERY slick when wet. Luckily it tends to grow in the more-or-less level areas, and not on the steeper rocks:

With the exhuberance of youth, MTD gets a little TOO frisky sliding down the snowfields, somtimes clawing her way to a stop just before the rocky scree:

After a moment, her tracks in the old snow turned pink from the "watermelon snow" algae:

As we reached the summit, I took a moment to make a note in the peak jar (no one else has left a note this year), eat a snack, and take a quick snapshot of MTD with Saddle Mountain (East & West Goat Peaks) in the background:

The sky began to close in again and it was getting difficult to see the route down. Time to go:

 A bit of sleet followed me to camp but after a sound nap I woke to sunny skies. I took a walk around the meadow while MTD guarded the pudding pot (instant pudding with powdered milk):

A humble bee ventured out to gather nectar from the Pink Mountain Heather (Phyllodoce empetriformus):

The Pink Heather overshadowed the low growing and somewhat scarcer Four-angled Mountain Heather (Cassiope tetragona):

Coiled Lousewort (Pedicularis contorta) grew in large patches:

And the Whitebark Pines (Pinus albicaulis) looked ready for Christmas with their brilliant red blossoms:

While lounging and eating supper, I was amazed to see a Long-toed Salamander (Ambystoma macrodactylum) crawl under a rotting log (probably looking for tasty ants). One just doesn't expect to see an amphibian in this environment:

A good night's rest and it was time to head home. Were it not for An Ri Ra, Butte's Irish music festival, I would have been tempted to stay another night.