Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Ancient Bristlecone Pines, White Mountains, California

Let's see, what was going on 4,500 years ago today. That would have been 2490 BC. That's way before the Romans and Greeks. I guess the trees we  are looking at started growing around the time of early Chinese civilization.

Of course some are just young pups, a couple of thousand years or so old. These trees have developed unique methods of adapting in order to survive for so many years. First they grow in areas of dolomite soil. Dolomite is metamorphosed limestone (Limestone, changed by heat into hard dense rock). Suffice it to say that the soil is toxic to almost all other forms of plant life, thus, no competition for sunlight and water. Second, they allow parts of the tree to die off in dry times while keeping essential parts alive. The trees look mostly dead with little or no bark and only occasional branches of greenery here and there to show that they are living. The wood seems to be impervious to the ravages of insects and weather. Solid wood, as much as 10,000 years old, lies all over the ground.

 This old fellow is one of the Patriarchs of the
The trees in this grove are "Great Basin Bristlecone Pines". The grove lies on the western slope of the White Mountains, just east of the Sierras, at 10,000 feet.

It's hard to believe that some of these trees are still living, but they are alive and well.  Scientists use a technique known as dendrochronology (roughly – tree ring dating) to determine the age of the trees. By counting the growth rings of a core sample they can accurately date the tree. Dead wood that falls to the ground in the White Mountains can survive intact for many thousands of years due to the very cold and dry climate. These growth rings vary in width depending on growing conditions. By comparing the width of the rings of fallen wood with those of still living wood they can accurately date older wood, back to 10,000 years. They have used these techniques to correct inaccuracies in Carbon 14 dating that were suspected in the 1960s and later confirmed by dendrochronology. Many archeological sites in America and Europe have now been found to be much older than originally believed.
The Bristlecone Pine grove itself is a hostile, yet beautiful, place. The steep slopes, steep enough that they are almost impossible to climb, combined with the inhospitable soil and climate have turned out to be a perfect place for these ancient trees.
One of things that struck me about the trees was the hardness of the wood. Rapping on a branch, for all the world looking dead and dried, would produce a sound like a tuned drum and resonate through the branch. I'm sure a trained musician, with a set of mallets, could play music on the branches of these trees.

You can pick up a piece of dead wood from the ground that may be 4,000, 6,000, maybe 10,000 years old and it is still as sound and solid as a piece of hardwood you might purchase at a lumber mill.
Here's a couple of youngsters surrounding one of the older trees. Occasionally we found core tags that indicated when and where a core sample had been taken, but unfortunately there was nothing to indicate the age of individual trees. We had to guess at their age.
The magnificence of the aged wood is striking. Grain colors range from the palest of tans, through rich browns and reds with occasional grey to black. The stark beauty of the rugged environment, combined with the lovely colors gives the place an almost cathedral like ambiance. I think I will need to go back some day and visit the grove during a full moon. It will be spookily beautiful I'm sure.
We arrived at the grove to hike around late morning and there were a few people hiking on some on the shorter trails on the edge of the grove. We had decided to do the longer 4 mile hike through the grove and to the area of the oldest trees.
We were fortunate to have the hike to ourselves; just us and a few thousand of our oldest boreal friends.
As you all know we tend to seek outdoor adventures wherever we go, but we also have a spiritual side and we often hike to places that are much more than just a workout and a nice view. This was just such a place.
The cold clear air, the absolute quiet, and the unusual beauty of these old trees touched our souls. I can't imagine not visiting this wonderful place anytime we travel this way again.
These Great Basin Bristlecone pines grow, almost always above 10,000 feet, in the mountains of Utah, in Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and here in the White Mountains of California. A closely related tree, the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine, grows in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico and in a small isolated grove near Flagstaff Arizona.

The name "Bristlecone" comes from the fact that the egg sized cone has a tiny spike at the end of each scale.
If you ever have the chance to see one of these groves, even though it might be a bit of work to get there, I strongly suggest you do. It is quite a feeling to put your hand on a 4,500 year old living tree.
This was not an easy hike, there was a lot of snow on the sometimes quite steep slopes, it was cold and windy, and we were at 10,000 feet, but we were well prepared with warm clothing and our crampons.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and go see the wonders of the world no matter where they are.  This one was definitely worth it.
Hug a Tree Today!

Pinus Longaeva
The oldest living entity on Planet Earth

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Bishop California - More Sierra Hiking

Ahh! Nothing like clear, crisp, mountain air and a spectacular sunrise to get the blood moving in the morning. This felt like a good day to hit the coffee shops in Bishop then do some exploring
The town of Bishop is a delight and we spent some time perusing the local stores and coffee shops.
Like so many western mountain towns we found murals.
East of our campground, toward Bishop, we found the "Buttermilks", an area of pale rocky outcroppings of weird and unusual shapes. The lower altitude (around 6,000 feet) means there is little or no snow here.
Always on the lookout for local fauna we spotted a rattlesnake crossing the road.
The noisy end of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. The rattles are made of a hard material similar to fingernails but much thicker and more brittle. The snake adds a rattle each time it sheds it's skin, once or twice a year.
We spent an hour or two touring the area in the truck, but it was really the high peaks that called to us. We heard in town that South Lake Road my have just opened for the season so we took off back up to the National Forest to check it out. The road was fully open to within a mile or so of the lake and a single lane with occasional pullouts was plowed through the last mile to the lake.
The view of Bishop Pass from the road in to South Lake.
South lake was still well and truly frozen.
For some reason the upstream side of South Lake Dam is covered with wood planking. The only reason I can think of is to prevent scoring of the dam face by ice. We're thinking it would be nice to come back here in the summer sometime when the lakes are free. Note that the lake level here is also drawn down in anticipation of the spring snow melt which is expected to be quite high this year.

The oldest living trees on the planet reside in a small area of the White Mountains just east of us.  The Ancient Bristlecone Pines are our destination tomorrow.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Sierra Hiking

After a day or so of sitting around the campground sucking up the natural beauty of the Sierras from afar we decided it was time to get up close and personal. 
Our first adveture was to Sabrina Lake (pronounced  - sa brine′ ah) for a hike along the lake shore.  Sabrina Lake is at about 10,000 feet and was just starting to open up.  The lake level was very low in anticipation of the spring snow melt.

Having used up all that energy we refreshed ourselves with some of the Sabrina Cafe's coffee and their famous Chocolate Brownie Pie.
Red Headed Woodpecker on Aspen
The next morning we were up with the birds for a trip  to another 10,000 foot lake, but this time we would have to hike to it.  The hike to Grassy Lake would be difficult because the snow pack was still significant above around 8,500 feet but we were well prepared and decided to give it a shot.

Mountain Bluebird
  The lower section of the trail was more or less flat and clear of snow.  The aspens were on the verge of budding and a general feel of spring was in the air.
Looking into the John Muir Wilderness area
 As expected we hit snow as soon as we started to ascend, but along with the snow came spectacular views of the Eastern Sierras and The John Muir Wilderness.  John Muir is a federally protected wilderness area, free of roads, verhicles, and construction of any type.
 We donned our gaiters, crampons, and trekking poles and pushed on, finally making it to the lake after about 3½ hours.
It was well worth it.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Hiking the Fins, Utah

Fins, in the world of stone, are tall narrow ridges of stone, usually red sandstone. The arches in Arches National Park are fins that have eroded through in the lower section to form the arch. The Hoodoos, or
towers, of Bryce Canyon National Park are fins that have eroded away leaving sections of the fin standing alone. From our campsite in Paria Canyon we could see a series of fins high above us to the west. We wanted to explore them up close. This kind of hiking, known as bushwacking, is difficult and you need to keep track of where you are because once you are out there the desert all looks alike. Fortunately for us on this hike we were at the edge of a large valley and keeping track of where we were would be pretty easy from any high point. We also had our maps, compass and GPS with us.

Of course we had our "flower picture taking camera" that goes everywhere with us.
Here's a picture of the fins from our campsite. The fins are in the upper left corner and some of the weirder formations we saw are in the upper right corner. The hike didn't look like much when we started and it was only several hundred feet up to the fins.
However, we often found ourselves confronted with walls like this. Oops!
Turn around and find another way.
Route finding in this kind of terrain is always difficult because everything is always much bigger, or farther away, than you thought it was going to be. It took us about an hour to get up into the red rocks.
Once there it was pretty easy to find our destination.
These fins are made of sandstone, probably Navajo or Entrada type.  Sandstone is essentially sand that has been compressed by tons of pressure, over millions of years, until it is rock. These particular
rocks are made of red sandstone. The red color comes from iron that was mixed in with the original sand and oxidized over time, much like rust.  The texture of sandstone can vary from hard and smooth, like this, to the very crumbly, rough, and light colored stone like we saw in Cathedral Wash.
Just as we got up near the fins area, we found this bed of fossil clams.  We immediately went looking for some fossil butter and fossil cocktail sauce.
Here's what the inside of a fossilized clam looks like. Notice that it is still trapped in the rock and either it was just the bottom or at some point the top got broken away.
Here's one we found free of the base rock, and whole.
 This was an inland sea many eons ago.
Sage Lizard.
Exploring the fins was great fun, we saw lots of interesting formations, and got some great views.

Tomorrow we leave for Lake Powell for a couple of days before heading to California.