Friday, October 31, 2014

A Varied Landscape by Aaron Adamski and Christian Lipscomb

“Here we go again” was the thought that crossed my mind as I met at the UMT Motor Pool with my fellow sleep deprived and greasy Wilderness & Civilization students.  There was no chance to relive the Trixie’s bar experience on this field trip, for we were headed towards the strange lands of Idaho. 
Our instructor, Natalie Dawson, turned onto highway 12 outside of Lolo, MT.  A vehicle full of caffeine fueled college students pleaded our case to make a “quick” stop at Jerry Johnson hot springs.  With a lead foot on the gas and a sarcastic chuckle the Judge simply replied with, “no”.  Accepting the Judge’s decision we turned on the jams and took in the multitude of fall hues that streamed passed the windows like water colors.

A quick stop at Lolo Pass visitor center, and we were soon on our way again.  About 10 miles down the road we made our first stop.  The Devoto Red Cedar Grove is a pocket of old growth forest tucked away in the Clearwater National Forest.  The trees reach maturity around 500 years, while some can grow to be 3000 years old.  The gnarled bark stretches upwards far enough to make your neck ache.  The sunlight struggles to break through the thick canopy while the undergrowth remorselessly competes for it.  This area collects about 90 inches of annual precipitation, which is why this type of vegetation grows this far inland.  The orographic effect of the Bitterroot Mountains from the westerly weather patterns creates a situation that releases the moisture from the saturated clouds as they move farther east.

After collecting all of our observation data for the Devoto Grove, we packed up and hit the road.  We headed back up in elevation to the pass. Lodgepole pines were spread across the landscape at Lolo Pass.  None of them were extremely tall, and there were old scars on the land from clear cutting.  The strong orographic effect cuts the precipitation levels almost in half in a very short distance. This large drop in precipitation changed the vegetation in the area from red cedars to lodgepole pines.  After solving that mystery the Wild & Civ gang was off.

Our next area of inspection was Fort Fizzle.  On the way we drove to the Lolo complex fire and the Judge explained that this area was a cold pocket where the temperatures often drop below freezing because of the low lying area surrounded by mountains.  The majority of the vegetation in the area is ponderosa pines and cottonwoods.  The amount of precipitation at Fort Fizzle is greatly reduced, because the stingy pass wrings out the clouds and leaves no rain for the lower east side of the mountains.  The annual precipitation is 26 inches.  Ponderosa pines grow here because they prefer dry climates and have evolutionarily adapted to fire.  This low lying area that is adjacent to Lolo Creek is a prime habitat for the moisture hungry cottonwoods.  The trees were spread fairly far apart making it easy for the undergrowth to grab sunlight.  Concluding our observations we headed back to the semi-arid Missoula climate. 

Blue Mountain is a large recreation area for the local community.  Miles and miles of trails cut through the grasslands that grow into forested mountain tops.  The lack of trees makes this area a prime recreation area.  The grasses are the major vegetation in the area with a few lonely ponderosa pines scattered throughout.  The precipitation is extremely low at an average of only 16 inches, making it very difficult for larger vegetation to grow.  Thinking back to the Red Cedar Grove it is surreal to see the large change in environment over the small distance of 70 miles. 

Returning to the Motor Pool the Judge released us on parole and another eye opening field trip was in the books.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Glacier Slough and Visit with Kari Gunderson written by Claire Compton and Juno Boland, images by Claire Compton

Glacier Slough in the morning light
Nestled away just west of Highway 83 and east of Lindbergh Lake is a little place called Glacier Slough.  It’s a beautiful slough (another word for swamp or marsh) especially in the fall when the water has receded and the sun, low in the sky, illuminates multi-colored leaves of trees preparing for winter’s sleep.  Just a mile and a half of light hiking will take you there.  Along the way you’ll pass myriad landscapes: from a small meadow showcasing grasses, shrubs, bear grass, and baby pines, to a young forest closing its canopy cover and dominating its domain.  As you get closer, you’ll find the trees are getting bigger and the plants more diverse.  When the young forest had been harvested, this had been left.
A lunch break under the ponderosas

Allow me to pause a moment and explain a phenomenon that I refer to as the “ant syndrome.”  When hiking in a group of people along a trail only wide enough for one at a time, the footsteps of the person ahead of you can become hypnotizing.  You hike, but your surroundings tend to fly by as you get lost in conversation or in your own thoughts and you feel as big and important as you always do.  That being said, when your group stops and your eyes break off their love affair with the ground and all at once you see that the trees are no longer slender and uniform, but huge or dead or covered in other forms of life, then all at one moment, you shrink.  Old growth forests have the ability to take away your ego and self-importance.  Life teems around you, above you, before you, and it will after you as well.  They are awe-inspiring. 

The class admires old growth
After our hike to the Glacier Slough we drove to Condon to meet with Kari Gunderson, a forest ranger in the Mission mountains and an adjunct professor in the College of Forestry at the University of Montana. She was a fascinating woman to talk with. We sat next to her garden beside the pond as we ate lunch and introduced ourselves. She wanted to know where each of us was raised and which Wilderness area we were closest to geographically growing up. Her knowledge of the United States' Wilderness areas is very extensive and she had a personal connection with each Wilderness that we named, having worked in or travelled to many of them. Her stories about working in the field were captivating. 

Kari Gunderson chats with the group
She said she is planning on writing her memoirs and after listening to her speak for only a few hours, I cannot wait to read them. From what I gather from her anecdotes, the techniques she implements in the field are unique and effective. She approaches a situation with an open mind and her solutions to the problems she faces are so simple yet ingenious at the same time. For instance, she told our group what she would, if ever she were to encounter a mountain biker in a Wilderness area, simply inform them that she's a forest ranger and demand their front bicycle tire with the intension of returning it to them at the trailhead once they had packed their mountain bike out of the restricted area. She is full of simple yet unorthodox solutions to everyday issues regarding backcountry management. It was a pleasure to listen to her matter-of-fact and good humored way of speaking. I hope there are many more forest rangers like Kari Gunderson but whoever succeeds her when she does decide to hang her hat, has big shoes to fill.