10 Jul Introducing Myself to the Land
After 2, 583 miles, 38 hours of driving, 6 campsites, and one RAP Conference, I’ve made it to Idaho! I found myself in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area surrounded by landscapes so beautiful I never could have imagined them, even with 38 hours to try. I traded in the neat suburban hedges and ornamental trees of New Jersey for wild, buzzing grasslands enveloped by the lush foothills of snowcapped mountains. In my new position as Conservation Education Assistant, it was my responsibility to know the trails and present the area to visitors, but I was a stranger to the land myself. I became overwhelmed by all the new information and ecology I had to learn. Everywhere I looked there was something new and beautiful to discover. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was here to learn. a great first step was to get outside and indroduce myself to my new home. The following are notes on the first few hikes I went on to introduce myself to the land.
First, I found the closest trail to me and hiked the 6.5 mile Murdock Creek Trail. The thick scent of the Douglas Fir trees hit me as soon as I entered the forest. Murdock is a wheelchair-accessible trail with two bridged creek crossings for the first mile, and is an incredibly steep and narrow trail for the remaining 5 miles. Exhausted and panting at the top (38 hours in my car left me wildly out of shape) I was rewarded by stunning wild flowers blooming on a jagged cliff. I’m not sure if this rock formation has a name, but it looks like part of the earth is rising up to kiss the sky.
On my way back down to the trailhead, I spotted a douglas fir that shocked me; someone had made giant holes along its trunk! They were deep and oblong, arranged on the trunk like an art project. A quick search back home told me they were made by the powerful bill of a Pileated Woodpecker. I knew we had these giants back east, but I had never been so close to evidence of their existence.
My next hike was along the North Fork of the Big Wood River trail. This 7.8 mile hike of 1.246 feet elevation gain takes you into the Hemingway Boulders Wilderness area, through dense, rocky forests and sunny sagebrush meadows. The river was running high and flowing fast, a result of the unusually big winter this year. There were a lot of down trees, probably a result of the avalanches from the winter as well. Many of the dead trees were covered in a dazzlingly bright tangle of fungus and algae, Letheria vulpina or wolf lichen. I later learned the lichen’s neon, yellow-green coloring was due to a poisonous substance called vulpinic acid. Historically, the lichen was ground into a powder and used to poison predators like wolves and foxes as well as slugs and snails in gardens. Lichen is extremely sensitive to air pollution and grows super slowly. Although it can survive for thousands of years, smog filled areas and over harvesting can obliterate populations.
Further down the trail I noticed a douglas fir tree bent at the base, almost as if it was offering itself up to the rushing river. I suddenly found more like it, all bent in the same direction. They were all older trees, girthy and towering over me. I wondered how they became so twisted. What happened nearly hundreds of years ago to make them bend to the water?
The last hike I went on during my first week in the SNRA was the Fox Creek /Chocolate Gulch loop. It’s a 5 mile hike that promised a view of the Boulder Mountains and mid-summer wildflowers. After another hike through alpine forest I reached a rocky field boasting wildflowers in their brightest summer colors. One flower stood out to me most. It was a deep and bright red-orange flower that looked like a paintbrush ready for the canvas. It was a flower in the Castilleja genus, commonly known as paintbrush. The 200 species in this genus are important host plants for several moth species. They also hold tasty nectar for the hummingbird species and other pollinator insects of the Sawtooths.
On my way up a steep cliff along the Big Wood River, I spotted a little cylindrical body scurrying across the edge. It was a little ground squirrel! I’ve never seen them in Jersey but these little rodents are almost everywhere in the Sawtooths. A pair that lives near my trailer loves to chase eachother into their burrows. One even got comfortable enough to come up to me and try and bite my toe! Can you find the little guy on this cliff?
I know I still have a lot to learn about the SNRA and I think even if I had a lifetime to explore these forests I’d still find species new to me. I have another 7 months to explore and get to know the land. I’m trying not to stress about knowing all the answers during my hikes. Instead, I’m trying to keep an open mind and open heart, letting the forest lead me to my next discovery.