In the Fullness of Time

This blog will focus on my fall sabbatical, and the ecology, evolution, and conservation of endangered and rare species in the Death Valley / Owens Valley area of California. Two taxa that I am particularly interested in are the Inyo Mountain salamander, and desert pupfish in the genus Cyprinodon. I plan on exploring not only the science of these species (and others), but also their beauty.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Andrews Forest #1

Weather report for the Andrews Experimental Forest, western slope of the Oregon Cascades, November 7th through 9th: mist, fog, drizzle, sprinkles, light showers, steady rain, downpours, wet snow at the higher elevations, temperatures in the 30s. The old-growth forest, mostly a mix of Douglas-fir, western red cedar, and western hemlock, stands shrouded in mist, wreathed in thick tendrils of gray fog, like a scene from some sixteenth-century Chinese landscape painting. The crowns of the trees, some more than 25 stories high, drift in and out of the clouds, and the views up valley are restricted and intimate.  Even when the skies are not spitting rain, the trees are - an almost constant shower drifting down from the foliage, which on some of the largest trees doesn’t begin until 150 feet off the ground.  The streams fill with runoff, and everywhere there is the sound of rushing water.
I clothe myself in layers of polypropylene, finish with rubber boots, rain pants and jacket, then throw a waterproof cover over my pack.  I walk up the Lookout Creek trail through magnificent old growth forest, flipping rocks (a few), lifting slabs of bark (many), rolling small sections of logs (many), poking through moss-covered debris in my search for salamanders. At the start of my hike the rain is light but steady - typical late-autumn weather for the Andrews, which normally receives more precipitation in November (14 inches on average) than during any other month of the year. And after two months of the desert’s heat and aridity, I welcome the moist coolness, the fresh, conifer-laden scent that comes with each breath. I welcome, too, the moss-covered logs, the huge trees, the yellow drift of bigleaf maple leaves, the touch of rain on my face, the calls of the forest birds slipping through the dark, dripping understory  – Brown Creepers, Varied Thrushes, Winter Wrens. Still, I feel a bit like an awkward tourist here; the ambience of this landscape offers such a contrast to where I was working just a few days ago – Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, in the transition zone between the Mojave and Great Basin deserts. There, the skies rained light instead of water, early November temperatures pushed ninety instead of forty, and the views extended for fifty miles through glorious, unobstructed, arid space.  Mosses and ferns were scarce and senescent refugees, hiding out in small, north-facing niches, a giant leather-leaf ash might hit thirty feet, and no self-respecting Winter Wren would ever grace Ash Meadow’s mesquite thickets.  If “variety is the spice of life,” then my days at the Andrews are flavored with habanero peppers….
Lookout Creek
The rain builds as I work uphill, transitioning from “light but steady” to “continuous and heavy.” Rivulets course down deadfall logs, spill off broken branches, track steep sections of the trail. The understory is a soggy carpet of Oregon grape, sword fern, mosses, and foam flower, the ground littered with twigs and bits of moss and lichen that have fallen with the rain. Fungal fruiting bodies are everywhere, pushing up through the thick duff, drawn into light by the third day of this storm. I give up on my salamander project and climb steadily, in hopes of staying warm, not yet ready to retreat.  My breath steams, my nose is another runnel. Slowly, inexorably, my old rain jacket begins to leak at the seams, and I can feel the damp spreading across my shoulders and down my arms.  It is great weather for ducks and salamanders, if not for humans, and when I see the first slushy snow on the trail, I turn toward the car. Enough; I am not interested in hypothermia. Today the salamanders can wait, much as they always have.
Old growth forest, Lookout Creek Trail

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