Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dark days of Winter

It has been a while since I last posted. This is pretty much due to the fact that the field season is over. Or is it?
For being December in California, it has been unreasonably hot. These past few days we have reached record heat. Poppies are blooming on the side of the freeways! Thousands of seedlings are sprouting on the hillsides!

However, since it is winter and the growing season is over, I have been chipping away at identifying my collections. Sitting in the office with my eyes glued to the scope and Jepson Manual, I am now anxious to get back out into the field.

Office work is not all that bad, it is where one gets the opportunity to open herbarium cabinets, shuffle through specimens, "hem and haw", and occasionally identify a rare plant.

I found out this week that I collected Eriogonum breedlovei var. shevockii! Pretty cool find! Jim Shevock collected this species in the Scodies, the month and year I was born! I re-collected it 27 years later, near the site he collected it, but a little bit aways from it.

I'm about 25% of the way through my collections. I hope to get through all of it before the next field season begins. I can't wait!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Arc-sites Galore

August, 7th through the 9th, Jennifer Pilapil and I visited the Kiavah Wilderness. For being August, it was slightly on the cooler side. I was really glad the weather reports were indicating that it was would be in the mid 80s. As it turned out the weather was fantastic. Not too hot and the breeze was just right. Expect for the nighttime winds, which I am now conditioned to sleep right through. For new people, camping in the Kiavah Wilderness, it can be quite a challenge, especially if they are light sleepers. Jennifer was woken up a couple of times by the wind and various animals visiting our site in the middle of the night. Despite the wind and cold nights we had a good outdoor adventure that will be hard to forget.

Getting to the Wilderness on the first day was met by a couple of set-backs. On our way up highway 395 we would realize we were forgetting essential items, such as batteries. We thought we would find our special batteries in Inyokern, but as it turned out, we had to travel over to Ridgecrest to gather our bounty.
After many tiny stops we finally arrived in Horse Canyon and ascended the road to the 4x4 McIver's Spring road.
Jennifer was pretty impressed by the crazy long hardcore road. We finally got to the cabin and set up camp. We took a nice stroll east of the cabin and that is when I made a terrible discovery. I found a weedy species, Lactuca serriola AND TIRE TRACKS! Oh boy, OHV's are driving off trail and into the Wilderness. What a major bummer. I took photos and then we continued our stroll.
Illegal OHV tracks in the Wilderness
As we were getting pummeled by the wind, we decided to turn around and go back to camp. The rock formations are always calling me over. As we were heading back to camp I decided to checkout an interesting outcrop. That is when Jen pointed out, "it's an Arc site!" It sure was. There were mortars and some kind of interesting etching in the rock, maybe even a rock sculpture. Time to do some Native American rock research.
Jennifer and the mortar
After exploring the arc-site and walking down a wash we stumbled upon poodle-dog bush, Eriodictyon parryi. We carefully collected it and finally reached our camp. This was the first time out with my new boots. I love these boots! I had previously bought a different brand but they didn't work so well with my feet.

My favorite boots! 
Day 2
For the past couple of months I have been obsessed with hiking to a spring in the Wilderness which is off the beaten path. I found it on Google Earth and entered the coordinates in my GPS.
The hike to the spring was pretty tough. Lots of bush whacking and climbing over downed trees, as well as navigating though  a ticket of baby conifers.
I am pretty used to this type of hiking but poor Jennifer has been out of commission from hiking since she started her fancy public health job. I tried to take it slow and look for the path of least resistance, but that was pretty difficult to do. I'm so glad it was not scorching hot.
We made it to the spring and collected the few species that were there. We found Cirsium vulgar
and other species that were also at McIver's spring.

Tons of little conifers
Jennifer collecting in the spring
A view of the spring from afar
After we collected in the spring we explored a canyon just north of the spring and stumbled upon a pretty red Penstemon sp.  After we collected a couple of plants we decided that the rest of the canyon was too dry to carry on. Plus we were running out of time. We jumped into the truck and headed back. I decided that we had time to check out a site that I have had my eye on for a while. We ventured over there only to find that the plants were no longer flowering in the region. BUT we did find TONS of archeological site artifacts. I mean tons! It was overwhelming how many mortars we came across. If I were a Native American I too would have picked this spot to live. It was beautiful. This is a site on my list that I want to visit next spring.

Mortars galore!

Reenacting ancient motions
When the sun was setting, we headed back to camp, to make dinner and press my specimens. Upon returning to camp, the subtle light made illegal tire tracks in the spring very obvious. I was seriously shocked. How could I have walked through the spring and not notice them? I was disappointed to find them. I photo documented the destruction and continued on.

Tire tracks through the spring
Vandals! Broken Wilderness sign :(

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hot diggity!

On June 29th 2013, Kristen Forgrave, our Seeds of Success intern and I bravely endured a sizzling summer day in the field. I was a little hesitant to go out in the heat, but I had to. It was and currently is my mission to go every month in order to better understand the flora of the Kiavah Wilderness.

I was pretty sure we were not going to find anything green or in flower. Oh, how I was I wrong! Days before heading out to the Wilderness, I kept saying to Kristen, "Oh, you're going to hate your life for saying you would go to the field with me. It's going to be SO HOT!" She kept saying that she was used to the heat. Mind you, she is from Seattle and this is her first summer living in Southern California. But she was right.

Kristen has been collecting seeds for the Seeds of Success program. The mission of the Seeds of Success program at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden is to send interns and a project coordinator into the hottest of hot deserts in California, in the summer, to collect seeds for seed banking. Kristen is like your favorite pair of hiking boots. She adapted fast to the extreme weather of Southern California and she hasn't complained about anything.

We headed out early, hoping to get to the Kiavah Wilderenss before the heat turned on, but the temperature spiked into the high 80s before 8:00 a.m. By the time we reached Sage Canyon (my favorite canyon), it was already 101 at the lower elevations! We drove to the back of the canyon and the temperature dropped a couple of degrees, like two. I wanted to revisit the canyon bottom of Sage Canyon to see if some perennials were blooming. These plants have been teasing me since April. Not quite ready to bloom but would someday. As we geared up and started to hike down I kept thinking how terrible this collecting event was going to be. I was already jaded from my last trip out with Caitlin. We spent so much time on the ground and came out almost empty handed. Two weeks ago the plants were toast. But low and behold, to my surprise, the plants were on fire! Ok, not literally on fire, but blooming on fire. There were some interesting things flowering and the pollinators were going crazy.

Nice large patch of Heliotropium and Asclepius
Beautiful Heliotropium sp. flowers
We collected the Heliotropium sp. and Ascelpius sp. and continued to find more and more in this general spot. I was excited because I was able to collect specimens that I had not yet documented in the Wilderness. I let Kristen know that I was glad we were finding new taxa for my list and that I took back my statement from the previous day, about not going to have a good time in the heat.

Tall stender and crazy Castilleja sp.

It was hot and we did have to stop every few feet to drink water, sit in the shade and snack. But for the most part we collected and collected and collected.

Kristen collecting Anemopsis californica, in full bloom
Does this look like it is 97 degrees?
Patch of Leymus triticoides to the right
Show stopper. Poppies!
After playing in the dry wash for a bit we decided to collect on the dry slopes because there was a big patch of Cucurbita fortidissima. As we are climbing up the steep decomposed granitic slope, we were surprised by a little patch of poppies in full flower. They were beautiful and the only poppies I have seen in the Wilderness this year!  We made a collection and ventured on over to the stinkiest of stinky plants on earth, Cucurbita fortidissima. Kristen was appalled by the smell and didn't want anything to do with it after we collected it. By this time we decided that it was way to warm to carry on up the canyon, we were running out of water and the plants were petering out. We turned around and went back to the truck to press our specimens. I couldn't believe it, we collected seven bags full of plants. Seven bags! It took us a while to press but it was totally worth it in the shade of the giant Pinus sabiniana. 
Seven bags of plants, ready and waiting to be pressed
After we pressed the specimens we continued to collect along Sage Canyon Road on our way out. We found a patch of Marrubium vulgare and a nice population of the Death Valley Sandmat, Euphorbia vallis-mortae. 
Kristin pulling up Marrubium vulgar
Great job!
All in all, it was another fabulous trip in the Kiavah Wilderenss, despite the heat, we got in and out and collected like bandits. For our hard earned work we went to Bernardino's restaurant for tacos and cold refreshing beverages (iced tea...mmmm...mmmmm).

Monday, July 15, 2013

"Astronauts of field work"

June 14th through the 16th, Caitlin Elam, Nico the field dog and I camped at McIver's Cabin for two nights. I was pretty excited about this trip because the three of us would be car camping!

Nice hiking boots Nico


My last trip into the Wilderness was a three day backpacking trip which was pretty crazy but amazing. This time I was going to live the life of luxury in the field. I packed the truck with all of my fancy camping gear; two chairs, a table, a Jepson manual, a stove, pots and pans, an ice chest full of delicious bounty and much more.

On the last trip with Travis, a Jeep drove by us on the PCT/4x4 road. Since that trip he has tried to convince me that I could get the field truck down that rugged road. Therefore, I was going to attempt another go at it. Thankfully Caitlin has had a lot of off-roading experience, from 10 years of field work on her belt.

When we reached the Wilderness we drove up Horse Canyon Road and parked the truck near the microwave tower. We ate lunch, then walked down a portion of the 4x4 road to get a feel for its terrain.
As we were preparing our lunch, Caitlin opened the ice chest and quickly noticed the delicacies in it. She then said, "you brought protein shakes too. We're like astronauts of field work."

After lunch we both agreed that the road could be conquered. Caitlin was a great help navigating us down the steep rocky road. When we reached the top of the plateau, the 4x4 road flattened out and it was smooth sailing from there. We were greeted by a thicket of healthy beaming Fremontadendron californica. It was breathtaking!

Blue skies and yellow flowers!
It was an amazing site to see all of the flannelbush in bloom. I have never seen so many in my life. As we drove down the road we stopped to check out a population of Pinus jeffreyi recruitment. The little trees looked super stressed-out due to the drought. I really hope they make it.

Caitlin, Nico and Big Mama Jeffrey Pine with its little ones
At the end of the road we reached McIver's Cabin and set up camp. I was a little in shock because two weeks ago there was a little puddle of water in McIver's spring and this time there was none. Also, the spring had been visited by cattle, there were signs of cow patties in the spring. Two weeks ago there was not a single signs of cattle at the spring. I could not believe how fast things change out there. We walked up a slope to get a view of the vista and the sun-set.

 We made it to the cabin!
Our sweet campsite

Day 2

The next day Caitlin, Nico and I rolled out of camp and headed into the Wilderness to collect plants. We ascended a peak and had one of the most amazing views of the high Sierra, Domeland Wilderness and Owen's Peak. We decided we would visit pockets of exposed soil, rock outcrops, forested drainages and climb a large rocky outcrop. As we were hiking though the wilderness it was very apparent that the peak bloom was over. A lot of the plants were completely finished and the grasshoppers and deer clearly were eating away the vegetation. I was a little saddened to find this out because the last time I was out in the wilderness, it was doing so well. However, I must face the fact, that the peak bloom is over. On a positive note, there was not a single sign of grazing in the heart of the Wilderness.

Caitlin leading the way to Boulder Canyon
We reached an interesting rock outcrop that looked to be seasonally wet. There was Selaginella on the soil and we stumbled upon a lot of obsidian "chips" at this site. I'm pretty sure this site was of some significance for Native Americans. We did find a nice population of  Lotus crassifolius, which as its common name implies, big deer vetch, was clearly mowed down by deer.

Evidence of Native peoples
Selaginella covered ground. Dry Seep
Lotus crassifolius, the brightest foliage of them all
After exploring the Selaginella soil site we ventured over to the forested section of the wilderness and this was where things got a little weird. We found a large hole, with water in it, which was clearly dug by a human, but it was pretty creepy (our original thought was, Big Foot did it). Then we ventured down the wash a little more and found more of these holes. These holes had cold spring water in them. Then we found old shovels and a log trough. We took tons of pictures of the artifacts and collected a Carex at this location.
Old shovel artifact
Pine trough, for mining or cattle?
Row, row, row, your boat
We explored the drainage to its end, then decided to explore it as it forked to the north. Not much was happening botanically. I did observe those pesky perennials which continued to tease me, not yet flowering, barely budding, and needing more time. We collected the few things we found. Some were repeats for me, but hey I was willing to take anything at that point. We explored a large rock outcrop which had a Malvacious shrub growing all over it. From that point we decided to call it a day and head back to camp. Our day was nearing its end and we found our way back to the Pacific Crest Trail.

We had an amazing pasta dinner, which Chul designed for us. It was delicious! Also, it was exactly what we needed to replenish our burned calories. Unfortunately, this time of year, there are fire restrictions in the entire Sequoia National Forest boundaries, due to the danger of extreme fire conditions. This meant that we had a campfire-less night and oh boy, it got so cold at night! Thankfully our sleeping bags served us well.

Day 3

I originally wanted to explore the southern section of the Wilderness near McIver's cabin. My plans were thwarted when Caitlin and I had a serious discussion about our dismal finds. We decided we should check the highest point in the Wilderness, Skinner Peak, to see what the conditions were like there. We packed up camp and drove over to the turnout where the PCT almost meets Horse Canyon Road. Once at the turnout, we geared up and headed south along the PCT towards Skinner Peak. 

Along the PCT looking northwest
Along the PCT looking east towards Horse Canyon (road)
There was not much happening along this section of the PCT. All of the plants were crispy and past due. We did make a couple of collections, but I feel like I was 2-3 weeks too late. We hiked and hiked and hiked. And finally when we reached a point where we decided to eat (way past lunch time) we found a magnificent Hesperoyucca in bloom. 

Hesperoyucca flowers
Caitlin and the Candle
I was feeling a little funny after lunch. A headache started to form and I was a little sluggish. I thought it was strange to feel so weird, especially since the hike along the PCT was not difficult, but it was pretty warm. It was actually more than warm, it was hot. Nico was always seeking shade at any possible opportunity he could get. A little piece of me sympathized with Nico. I too wanted to curl up under a pinyon pine and take a nap until the heat passed. Unfortunately, we had to get back to our city life and purchase a car wash in Ridgecrest.

Seriously jealous of the nicely clean bathed truck
This was seriously one fun trip! Nico and Caitlin were great company and field assistants...except Nico did have him moments, but so did I. The plants were not very productive, but now I have a better understanding for how the Kiavah Wilderness works. I will forever cherish the laughs, the unique anthropogenic finds, the few plants, "camp-fire" chats, Nico's narcissism, hardcore 4x4'ing, friendly PCT hikers and dirt mustaches.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

57 pounds!

May 31st through June 2nd, I went to the field with my Advisor, Travis Columbus. We had prepared a week before going out to the field a 3 night/ 4 day backpacking adventure into the Kiavah Wilderness. Travis calculated how much water we should carry, because we were uncertain if we would find any filterable water sources in the Scodies. This it is a very, very, very dry year and it best to be safe than sorry.
Travis loaded his backpack with 14 liters and I carried in 9 liters. I should have carried in 12 liters but I did not think my back would be able to handle the weight without breaking. Travis carried something like eight pounds of food and I packed the bare minimum, enough for one person. Plus, I had all of the collecting supplies.
The night before we embarked on our adventure I had the worst time trying to sleep. I think I only got about 2-3 hours of sleep. The problem was, I was so excited to get back out to the Scodies. It was that kind of excitement kids get when they find out that they are going to Disneyland. The Scodies are kind of like my Disneyland. I get to hike around, explore, collect, and camp  What is there not to be excited about?!

Day 1

I picked up the field vehicle and Travis, bright and early on Friday. The first thing Travis says is, "my pack originally weighed 64 pounds, so I got it down to 57 pounds." Whoa! Seriously! I thought my pack was heavy! Come to find out, Travis also had a difficult time getting sleep too. He was just as excited to get outdoors and try out his new backpacking gear.

The drive up highway 395 was was smooth sailing. We drove up Sage Canyon and parked at the end of the canyon. We geared up, put our boots on and placed our heavy packs on our backs. We then cross-county hiked up the decomposed granitic slopes of the canyon in search of plants.

Can you see the truck? Center of picture, at base of slope, in front of trees
The first couple of minutes of the climb were pretty rough, I had to adjust myself to the heavy weight.  After awhile, the hike uphill was not bad. Travis navigated the terrain and I followed in his tracks. These hillsides were producing lots of Eriogonum. It was obvious that the hillsides get covered with these 3-4 species of Eriogonum in a good rain year. As we were hiking up the hillside, Travis exclaimed that he found a skull. It was awesome! We think it was a mountain lion skull.
Skull of a former Scodie resident
At noon we reached a ridge-top and ate lunch. Travis nodded off and I wandered off to explore a giant rock outcrop. Not too much was happening in the outcrop, but when I ventured back to our lunch site Travis was gone. He went to explore the west facing slopes of the adjacent canyon. He came back and said he observed many things flowering. We made our first major collecting efforts at this site and then carried on uphill in search of the plateau.

I love the rock formations here!
The view looking southeast down Sage Canyon
We reached another ridge after climbing uphill a little way and found some beautiful white Keckiella blooming at the base of large boulders and also a large pink cobwebby Circium. The Cicium was being visited by a couple of hummingbirds. At this collecting site Travis and I sat down to press our collections. It was a gorgeous spot to sit and press the spiny Circium.

Hey there Keck!
Travis pressing

After pressing the specimens we headed yet again, uphill. As we were going up, Travis noticed that we were hot-on fresh bear tracks. The bear tracks were huge! Fortunately, we didn't get a glimpse of the massive animal. We eventually reached a drainage that had signs of being cooler and wet. Juncus, Carex and Salix were there as well as Potentilla, Stachys, and Rumex.  This spot was a treasure trove. We were losing day-light and Travis suggested we comeback to the spot in the morning to collect. We agreed and headed upslope a bit and found the perfect camping spot.

Probably one of the best places I have spent the night. Such an amazing view of the valley below
We set up camp, ate dinner, I pressed the remaining specimens while Travis set-up his tricked-out sleeping arrangement on the ground. I jumped in my hammock, kicked of my boots and it was lights out.

Day 2

In the morning we headed down to the amazing treasure trove drainage. The Fremontadendron were beaming in full flower and the drainage looked even better in the morning light.

Good Morning, Travis and Erika!
As we were exploring the drainage Travis was telling me about rattlesnakes and their behaviors. Right then he says calmly and cooly, "oh look, a rattlesnake." I'm thinking in my head, "WHAT? WHERE! WHAT!" He motioned for to me go around him to get a good look at it. Travis then said, "Wow, that is one of the largest ones I have seen." He then proceeds with, "Get a picture of it." I gather my cool (I didn't freak out) and my camera and begin to snap away. The rattlesnake was really large and it wasn't even bothered by us. It was just taking its morning stroll through the wash. What a beauty. 

4 ft. long Panamint rattlesnake, Crotalus stephensi
Rattlesnake land
After collecting a ton of different species in the drainage we went back up to our camp, pressed, packed-up camp and continued our hike uphill. We were getting close to the plateau and collected in very neat rock outcrops as we ascended the hillsides. One particular rock outcrop was striking, patches of Mimulus and Phacelia were protected by these large boulders.

Probably my favorite rock so far
Collecting at the base of the giant rock

We were nearing the plateau and our packs were getting lighter from drinking our water rations. And all of a sudden it happened. We were walking on F...L...A...T ground! I couldn't believe it, it took us a day and a half to reach the plateay and it was covered by a thigh-high scrubby thick stand of Ceanothus. Is was clear that the plateau experienced a massive wildfire in the late 1990s and the major plant to take over after the fire was this Ceanothus. Fortunately for us, the Ceanothus was not armed with thorns. 

Flat Ground! On the plateau. Post-fire succession 
Once we reached the plateau we headed over to a grove of trees because we could see the Pacific Crest Trail near it. Also, we needed a place to rest in the shade to eat lunch. We reached our pit-stop (which was littered with toilet-paper from PCT hikers), sat in the dirt and reluctantly chewed on a Cliff Bar. As we sat there we saw a couple of PCT hikers go by without them noticing us. At this site there were tons, maybe thousands of Allium in the drainage. It was amazing. I have never seen so many Allium.

Toiletpaper land to the right. Allium land in the wash
After we felt rested and hydrated we picked up the collecting tools and began to collect. All of a sudden Travis and I heard a motor coming up the trail. I knew for a fact that ATV's can access the 4x4 trail which is also the PCT and I also knew that larger vehicles could not make it up the road, because I tried once. As the motor was getting closer I thought nothing of it. Then the vehicle came into sight. It was a Jeep liberty of some sort. A Jeep liberty! Travis looked over at me and said, "I thought you said vehicles couldn't get up here?" I was shocked and then I went into denial. Thankfully Travis was a great sport about the fact that we hiked our tails off when we could have drove up. However, it was better that we did hike because we stumbled upon all sorts of neat habitats and plants.

Interesting geology near McIver's Cabin
We rounded up our collecting for the day in an oak grove and headed down the PCT to McIver's cabin. Adjacent to the cabin is McIver's Spring. There was a little puddle of water in the spring, but not much. We explored the spring and rock out-crops near the cabin and took note of the plants we were going to collect in the morning. We set up camp near the cabin, ate dinner and knocked out at twilight.

McIver's Cabin

Day 3

In the morning the birds were chirping and a deer visited the spring. We made tons of collections in the spring. We were also visited by a PCT hiker who was on his way to Canada. I could not believe how many grasses, sedges, and rushes were in the spring. Thankfully I was with Travis, a Poaceae expert! If he was not there I would missed the grass diversity. He was the major contribution to my success on this trip. After rounding up the collecting in the spring we hiked up a peak near the cabin and explored it. We found a mining claim, which must have been McIver's mine. Not much was happening botanically on the peak but as we descended the peak along drainage we did find quite a bit of interesting plants. We decided it was time to head back to the truck down a steep long hike in Sage Canyon. Travis lead the way and we followed a narrow steep slot canyon. It was a very interesting hike out, but also a bit scary due to some spots being a little "sketchy". We found an amazing seep coming out from the side of the canyon wall. Then we stumbled up little pools of water, some 2-3 feet deep, with water trickling. It was spectacular, we found Typha at this location. Next year I will need to dedicate more time to this spot.

Pool of fresh spring water in Sage Canyon
Travis leading the way out
The trek out of the canyon was a little strenuous but overall not too difficult. We made it back to the truck before the sun went down and drove out of Sage Canyon. We were super hungry and headed over to Ridgecrest for a late dinner. Our original intention was to eat at Del Taco since it was almost 9:00 p.m. on a Sunday, but a steak house was open and we mistakenly made a terrible decision to eat there. Thankfully the ice-tea was superb. However, the food not so much. We would have been more satisfied eating at Del Taco. Now I know better.

Back at the truck before twilight
It was an intense and fun three-day backpacking trip. We made over a hundred collections and explored interesting territory in the Kiavah wilderness. Travis was a fantastic field assistant and a great field companion. We got a lot of work accomplished and found interesting plants. I cannot wait to key those grasses ;)