Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Colors of Life at the Pine Creek Basin

Date: July 1, 2017
Place: South Warner Wilderness, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.362254, -120.243023

We had arrived at Pine Creek Basin with plenty of day time left. For a moment the idea came up to continue on to Patterson Lake but almost instantly it was struck down. We were to stay the night at the basin and use the time on our hands to relax and explore.

And so we dropped our packs by the trail and wandered off. Pappa Quail was off after a bird he'd seen flying into a group of trees ahead, the young chika went down to the creek, the elder chika walked to the shallow pond, and I looked around for flowers.
Lupine, Lupinus sp.
I didn't have to look far. The creek side was colorfully decorated with blue bells, groundsels, lupines, columbine, and others. The slope behind where we left our packs was a dazzling display of mule ears and Indian paintbrush.

The Indian paintbrush was the dominant red on the slope and on any bit of land that was a little higher and drier.
Wavyleaf Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei
On the slope near the trees bloomed some scarlet gillia, standing out in their darker than Indian paintbrush shade of red.
Scarlet Gillia, Ipomopsis aggregata
That gillia wasn't attractive only to me. In fact, it's lovely red color and deep nectaries were not at all meant for my enjoyment. Later that day Pappa Quail caught on camera the true user and steward of this pretty flower.
Rufous Hummingbird, male

There were many pine trees around the basin, and a few were growing within, grouped in small groves. And then there was this huge pine cone that seemed to be growing out of a rabbitbrush. At first I thought that it somehow got stuck there or that another hiker might have placed it there. When I approached the rabbitbrush, however, I noticed that the cone was still attached to its parent pine - a small rabbitbrush tree that produced a single, very large cone. Now that's aspiration!
Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta 
A small grove of larger pines grew on a small dome of land and rocks nestled in a curve of Pine Creek. The bird that Pappa Quail had noticed has flown in there and he followed it with his camera ready. I don't normally include people's photos in my blog posts but I think this one is showing the scale of the place, and also the remoteness of this nearly people-free wilderness.
Gone Birding
Pappa Quail was very pleased when he came back. He had spotted a pair of lazuli buntings and below is a beautiful capture of the colorful male.
Lazuli Bunting, male

When Pappa Quail returned from his birding exploration I went on a different one - to find where to creek and where does the trail continue on the other side, because it was not visible from where we were. There  was a place for camping right above where we had stopped but I wanted to see it there was any better location on the other side of the creek. 
The spillway of the basin's pond
I went down to the creek and started scouting along its bank. The elder chika tagged along and made her own suggestions. She also pointed out some more wildflowers for me.
Eaton's Daisy, Erigeron eatonii 
Plants with a tall white inflorescence towered over the shrubbery by the creek. They looked magnificent and later I found out that they have a very suitable name: the Monument Plant.
Monument Plant, Frasera speciosa
I didn't just pass them by . They deserved a closer inspection. 
Monument Plant, Frasera speciosa
There were numerous peony plants blooming by the creek and I was thrilled when I saw them because up until then I didn't get to see them in bloom. The peony has such a short bloom season that any time before when I've seen them it was already too late. 
Brown's Peony, Paeonia brownii

I found a number of suitable places to ford the creek but it took a while to find the place where the trail continued on the other side. The trail was anything but obvious for fresh spring grass and carex had grown high, rendering the trail invisible. The only things that gave it away from the south creek bank were the footprints of other hikers on the opposite shore and a small rock cairn that was raised in the middle of the field beyond the lovely yellow buttercup patch.
Pine Creek
I took my shoes off and crossed the creek. Brrrrrrr, the water was cold! The water was shallow, but the current swift. I used my poles for stability but the elder chika simply hopped across like a mountain goat.
I also took the chance to look closer at the buttercups. And I wasn't the only one interested in them :-)

After fording the creek I verified that the trail indeed continued where I had seen the cairn. Then I went about looking for a suitable campsite. I found it in a nook behind a small land crest surrounded by some pine trees and large boulders. It was the perfect spot, and clearly well used previously as it had a fire ring of rocks, a makeshift bench of downed logs, and most importantly - a nice flat area of where to pitch a tent. It was distant enough from both creek and trail but not too far. I turned around and went to fetch the rest of my family.
I didn't hurry much, though. There were more wildflowers to appreciate on the way.
Copeland's Owl's Clover, Orthocarpus cuspidatus ssp. copelandii
And wherever there are wildflowers there would be butterflies too, flying dots of color to complement the spring festival below.
Painted Lady
Everyone eventually got together and we hoisted our packs and went down to the creek. There we all removed our shoes again, forced the creek (cries of 'oh! so cold!'), then sat down on the not very dry northern bank to dry off our feet and don our shoes again.
At the campsite I cooked some lunch and Pappa Quail pitched the tent. Then we all split once again, Pappa Quail rested a bit, and then continued on with birding, the elder chika went down to the creek to the pond to look for fish, and I went further into the basin to explore, this time taking the younger chika along.

We didn't cross the creek this time. The creek however, curved its way through the meadow and wetlands, so we met it frequently during our scouting.

There were also plenty of little brooks criss-crossing the meadow on their way to merge with Pine Creek, and other flooded or muddy areas. Our progress was slow and careful, trying not to get our shoes too wet.
Looking down to avoid the bogs we found the little flowers, hiding in the taller grass.
Toad Lily, Montia chamissoi 
I found some more bog orchids in that meadow and was just as pleased to see them as I was earlier along the trail. Orchids are royalty among wildflowers. Even the simpler of them.
Sierra Bog Orchid, Plantathera dilatata
Other flowers also grew taller than the surrounding grass and rushes. Some of them were new to me. Or at least, it was the first time I've truly noticed them.
American bistorta, Bistorta bistortoides 
But then, the shootingstars were quite familiar, and very numerous. So numerous that they made some lovely patches that stood out against the meadow's greenery.

As my younger chika and me were making our way slowly back to the campsite I noticed something bright in the grass and frowned. I got closer and to my dismay I saw that my first guess was right - it was a stray mylar balloon, probably a party escapee that got carried away in the wind and deposited out in the wilderness. Such an ugly sight! We collected it of course, and tucked it away in our trash bag. It is some years now that I avoid using mylar balloons (and even rubber ones I hardly use) for that very reason. I had explained it in words too my chikas, but now she could see for herself the downside of these things.
Party Pollution
We didn't go back to the campsite at exactly the same way. Rather, we meandered along the little brooks, circumventing and sometime crawling through groves of creek willows. They were already past their bloom, and their light, feathery seeds filled the air.
Willow, Salix sp. 
We crossed the brooks with care, trying to keep our feet dry, but also trying to stomp as little as possible. There was life everywhere and little critters were in and over the water all around.
Waiting for Gnats
At the campsite we rejoined Pappa Quail and the elder hike who came back from the pond. Pappa Quail had photographed some of our neighbors: a family of Belding ground squirrels.
Belding Ground Squirrel
And also a small dark-eyed junco who made us feel right at home in that remote wilderness.
Dark-eyed Junco

We ate dinner and as Pappa Quail and the chikas were getting ready to sleep I went out for one more round. A shorter one - just to appreciate the sunset.

By then the basin was taken over by mosquitos, so after making order at the campsite and tucking my camera away with the battery out (a lesson I learned on my backpacking trip to Mineral King last year), I too entered the tent and closed my eyes. I expected a long day on the morrow, ascending to Patterson Lake. I didn't expect the ordeal and hazard we would face on our way there, so I rested easy, bothered only by the younger chika's constant shifting in her sack. She must have had some premonition. Or simply yielded to the slight slope of the tent.


  1. beautiful pictures of beutiful flowers, birds and butterflies. If it wasn't for this baloon it was perfect :-)

    1. We took the balloon away. It is perfect now :-)