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.