Wilderness Hues

July 2nd, 2020

Climbing the mountainside, the temperature began to drop with the elevation gain. A welcomed change from the 90-plus degree heat in the Walla Walla Valley. In the truck bed lay my frame pack, stuffed to the gills with my pack tent, sleeping bag, spotting scope and scant provisions for an overnight in the wilderness. Glassing elk and locating a suitable fall campsite were the main drivers for the trip, yet these were ancillary opportunities.

A July wilderness pack trip provides an incredible sense of solitude with postcard-worthy scenery. Many of the beautiful blooms of spring and early summer in the lowlands are spent, making way for the future fruit. But higher elevations see a later flush of wildflower color.

Evergreen needles crunched lightly under foot as I softly padded from the trailhead. Exposed tree roots formed a natural staircase entrance into the Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness. The weathered wilderness sign to my left provoked a satisfied grin. The trail winds its way through a series of dark timber and mountain meadows, each boasting its own variety of color and pattern; the wildflowers clinging to the sunlit trail corridor and open spaces.

The first to grab my attention was the subalpine fleabane of the aster family. Its long stem extended a concave lavender flower head with a canary-yellow stamen into the middle of the trail, brushing my legs as I passed. A second purple beauty holding strong as a favorite of mine is the lupine family, to which belongs a variety of species found in the Wenaha. Their palmate, milky-green leaves and popsicle-stick stem of brilliant clustered blooms hummed steadily with the wing action of native pollinators.

The patchwork of meadows offered uniquely-colored ensconcing. Timber opened to a buttery rich blanket of yellow biscuitroot on the drier western slopes. The ground covered with the ornately arranged flowers clustered like a bowl of lollipops with all stems inserted toward the center.

A blanket of biscuitroot paints a vibrant floor in a mountain meadow

Yet another deep violet marvel that appears to be Venus penstemon is dashed among other species. Deeply developed flower heads remind me of catchflies, yet bees and flies are common pollinators of these flowers arranged like a series of tipped vases.  

Spurs of clearing extended into the timber displaying a sea of fiery Indian paintbrush in one meadow and a complimentary mix of fleabane, penstemon and Indian paintbrush in another.  Accents of snowy yarrow clusters poked through with the minor undertones of phlox and spring beauty. Chipmunks and songbirds chirped and scurried through the forest and ruffed grouse flushed from the recovering burns, thick with elderberry.

Stopping to glass the shaded slopes below, an alarmed elk barked its warning yet remained concealed somewhere in the dark timber. Soils softened by pocket gophers compacted underfoot, the already dried early grasses crunching with each step. Coal-black ravens and Oreo magpies drifted on the thermals, high above the deep draws, as hawks scoured the mountaintop, casting a suspicious eye upon the intruding human below.

As the sun stooped to the western horizon, I found a spot to rest on the edge of a meadow, tucked into the shelter of evergreens. With the tent erect and the air again cooling, I took a stroll out the spine of a ridge to see the sun off for another day and welcome the night.

Indian paintbrush sets the small forest alcoves ablaze

The absence of moon ushered in darkness that settled like a heavy quilt, masking all visual recognition from the human eye, save for the magnificent starlight. The atmosphere was thick and stagnant with not a breath of air. The pops and cracks of charred and sunbaked pine skeletons echoed deafeningly through the forest. I lay awake listening for the lonesome howl of a wolf and snickering softly as mule deer skirted my tent, bounding and blowing their distress as they circled downwind. The sleep that finally came was deep and restful.   

Dawn arrived as serenely as night and the cotton candy pink hints of the morning set the horizon ablaze. My pack stove hissed amid peak humidity for the day. Taking my cup to go, I sat and sipped, entranced in the aroma of a steaming cup of go-juice on the edge of an eastern-aspect meadow. The critters of night settled as the critters of day awakened and bustled. The red squirrel being one of the first and more obnoxious inhabitants to greet the day. 

With the sun climbing and coffee mug void of the succulent sunrise nectar, I collapsed my spotting scope and headed for camp. The elk had again evaded detection. With camp on my back, I followed faint deer and elk tracks back to the trailhead, marshaled out by the “good riddance” chatter of the furred and feathered occupants of the forest. The sun now high overhead, blazing atop the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and wildlife, I dropped the truck windows and left the forest to resume its routine, uninterrupted.

Palouse Outdoors – The Ebb and Flow

Published in The Waitsburg Times, August 5th 2021

The old cliché phrase “The only thing constant in life is change” was coined by Greek philosopher Heraclitus. This epiphany struck him around 500 B.C. I assume taxes were not a thing at the time, otherwise that little tidbit would likely have been included, as folks like to claim today.

 While Heraclitus was correct, that time is like a flowing river, and you will never step into the same waters twice, there is an ebb and flow to events among the seasons and years – the past approximately 15 months presenting a solid case in point. Coronavirus continues to adapt against human immunity. Extreme heat and drought have struck once again. U.S. Society took another shot at imploding by casting the light off day on racism. Still, life goes on, and these events have calmed slightly.

Life on the homestead may be somewhat sheltered from the bigger picture of society, but notable change remains constant in our little mesocosm. And, because every organism is affected by one another and our environment, this relationship that appears chaotic on the surface works to strike a balance between positive and negative. What that balance looks like and what it means for the future is not always obvious, but tracking changes from year to year is an interesting study, particularly with wildlife – birds, bugs, and blooms being prime examples.

Typically, a handful of rufus hummingbirds visit us each spring and hang around for a week or two until the black chinned hummers swarm in and force them out. This year, however, we only had one rufus drop by and he stayed less than a week. Additionally, we only have a few black chinned hummingbirds, where we typically have more than a dozen. The hatch didn’t seem to go as planned either. Did the smoke and fire last September affect hummingbirds as they migrated south? That could explain fewer birds returning this year.

Continuing with birds, a strange, yet simultaneously familiar cry carried through the alders this spring. A familiar enough sound from the Appalachia of my youth that I didn’t actually give notice until my wife Ali asked if I had heard it – the raspy “mew” of a gray catbird. Catbirds inhabit a large range in the U.S. and southern Canada and are a permanent resident in the eastern hardwoods. Eastern Washington is the western border of their breeding range, and we were lucky enough to have a breeding pair this year.

The gray catbird

What brought the catbirds to our homestead remains a mystery, but likely factors include a combination of thick woody cover and mature trees, green peas being planted around the homestead, and the abundance of yellow grasshoppers that we’ve experienced this year. Broadleaf plants like peas attract insects with their flowers and succulent leaves. Environmental conditions may have been favorable for grasshoppers as well. And what are grasshoppers good for? Bird chicks. Teenage quail and pheasant are beginning to appear in excellent numbers, and the grasshoppers providing forage for rearing broods may have something to do with that this year.

Another exception was the presence of Bullock’s orioles. While one or two orioles always show up on the homestead, they appear transient, offering fleeting glimpses in the yard as they cruise between shrubbery. This year, however, several females remained regularly visible and hatched at least one clutch of chicks. Was it because we have increased berry and fruit-producing plants on the property? Not likely, due to another late April frost wiping out the blossoms from the majority of our fruiting plants. Their presence may tie back to the grasshoppers as an important food source, and the alders towering over the drainage along the property providing nesting habitat.

The Bullock’s oriole – Photo by Kevin Cole

The excitement of increased and varied bird activity was tempered by the extreme June heat. The hottest week of the year coincided with the fledging of many species, taking a toll on fledgling survival. One evening, a sparsely-feathered finch chick struggled to reach a low fork in the crabapple, where it hunkered in the shade behind the trunk. It sat for hours, beak agape, breathing heavily in the 115-degree heat. Many chicks left the nest, helpless to the full sun exposure that week. Nevertheless, a few pulled through and will hopefully return again next year.

Change may be constant and extreme environmental conditions expected on occasion, but when change results in a “new norm”, species – humans included – must adapt and redefine a natural balance. What change did you notice this year? Are we on the forefront of striking a new natural balance with Mother Nature? Only time will tell, but plant flowering records in the Pacific Northwest suggest an earlier bloom trend over the past 100 years. In the meantime, as we adapt to the ebb and flow, I will take a diversity of songbirds warbling around the house as a small consolation.