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.