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.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A New Found Land: Up Pine Creek at the South Warner Wilderness

Date: July 2, 2017
Place: South Warner Wilderness, Alturas, California
Coordinates: 41.35829, -120.284187
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: moderate

After our first and very successful family backpacking trip on spring 2016 to the Manzana Creek we agreed to go again, this time during the 4th of July week. Inspired by a trip I had with my friends last fall I aspired to backpack in Yosemite National Park. On the very day the lottery of the coveted wilderness permit opened I sent forth my application, but I didn't win the lottery. I moaned about being unlucky, but as it turned out, had I won the lottery it would have been useless for us now because the high Sierra is still under a thick layer of snow.
It didn't take me long to decide our plan B. A quick call to the local ranger office and the decision was made  we were going to the South Warner Wilderness at the Modoc Country.
We had visited the Modoc only once before, for 3 days during the spring break of 2014. Spring was just beginning there and the weather was somewhat challenging. Still, we had a nice discovery walk at the Modoc NWR, an interesting camping experience at the Stough Reservoir, and a lovely hike around Clear Lake. When we left the area it was with every thought of going back there when the chance came. And now the chance had come.
I selected for us the Pine Creek Basin to Patterson Lake Trail, which looked very promising on the map and from internet images I looked at. The ranger I talked with before going had told me that they expected the trail to be clear of any snow. So we packed our gear and after a day's travel and a night in Alturas we arrived at the Pine Creek Basin Trailhead.
Already at the trailhead I found lovely flowers to photograph, in between getting our packs ready and making final decisions as to what stays in the car and what goes along with us.
Sticky Starwart, Pseudostellaria jamesiana
Being there in a full family format it was a given that we'll take it easy. Our destination for the first day was Pine Creek Basin - only 2.5 miles of a mild uphill hike.
Day 1: To Pine Creek Basin. Captured by Pappa Quail's GPS. 
We started walking late in the morning. It was sunny but not too hot. Before long we plunged into a pretty conifer forest.
Pine Creek Trail, near trailhead. 
We quickly fell into the same walking pattern that we assumed at our first family backpacking trip to Manzana Creek last year: the elder chika in the lead followed closely by Pappa Quail, the younger chika dragging her feet a considerable distance behind them, and me bringing up the rear. At the pace we were going I had all the time in the world to photograph the numerous wildflowers that decorated the forest floor near the trail.
Slender Beardtongue, Penstemon gracilentus
What I didn't have was the will to kneel down for a better close up while carrying a heavy backpack. Hence, many of my photos show looked down upon flowers ...
Ballhead Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum capitatum

But before royalty I did kneel down, heavy pack and all. There were orchids along Pine Creek. Many of them. And all of the same species. 
Bog Orchid, Plantathera dilatata
We walked along Pin Creek the entire hike. Much of the time we were very close to the water and the lovely flora that bloomed in and near the water. 
Yellow Monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus
We walked at a good pace. My younger chika, who normally stops to check every stick or pine cone along the way found it difficult to stoop with the backpack on so we were making nice progress.Including my flower-appreciation pauses.
American Brooklime, Veronica americana
I met some old acquaintances along the path, and was very pleased to see them.
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa
And then, there were flowers there that I saw for the first time. Turns out that the one in the photo below grows in California in Modoc County only, and its range there is limited pretty much to the South Warner Wilderness. I didn't know that at the time, otherwise I'd make more effort to get a better image of it.
Tailed Kittentails, Synthyris missurica 
At time the trail separated from the creek and we were flanked on both sides by the trees. The forest looked healthier than those of the Sierra Nevada. Their remoteness surely helps. Perhaps they suffered less from the drought too.

Below the trees bloomed the usual forest floor crowd: false lilies, violets, blue eyes Mary, and others.
False Lily of the Valley, Maianthemum sp.
For most of them I didn't bother to kneel or even bend over - my oack was just too heavy.
Astoria Violet, Viola praemorsa 
But some could not be photographed from any distance. On one of our breaks I sat down properly and took a close up photo of the tiny Blue-eyed Mary that I wasn't sitting on.
Blue-eyed Mary, Collinsia sp.
And then - surpris!  the chikas found a tiny snow patch near the trail. My elder chika was absolutely thrilled. She had yearned for snow play for a while and was exhilirated when I told here that there was likely more snow to see at the higher elevations. Little did I know how much grief this lingering snow would bring us on the following day.
Snow Patch
I was happier to see different types of patches. Floral patches, to be exact. As the trail led us back near the creek the trees subsided and we were walking through narrow, sunny meadows, dotted and spotted with mule ear, larkspur, and other beauties.
Mule Ear and Larkspur
 These little meadows were dominated by the California Cornlily, which was just beginning to bud out. I bet that by now, a couple of weeks later, the entire area is alight with their bloom.
California Corn Lily, Veratrum californicum var. californicum
Those little meadows were a wonderful relief from the relative darkness of the forest. We probably would have lingered more in them if not for our urge to get to Pine Basin, and for the mosquitoes that plagued this pretty places.

Back in the forest for the last lag of hiking for that day. We had come across a gentleman who was hiking up to Pine Creek Basin. He was alone and he was walking at a great speed. But he did stop to chat with us as he overtook us from behind. He told us that he had grown up in the area and divulged many good ideas for future hikes at the Warners.
Sticky Currant, Ribes viscosissimum
The trail separated from the creek again, and the grade became steeper. In between the trees I caught glimpses of the lockal rocks: twisted layers of volcanic ash sediments.

And then I caught sight of something even more beautiful: a shiny emerald-colored pond way below, and a gashing creek cascading right into it. I looked up - my family were already far ahead. I Enjoyed the sight by myself and then hurried on to catch up with them. They had not noticed it on the way up but they would on our way down and out, three days later.
An emerald pond with waterfall
At the top of the steeper uphill segment we stopped again for a breather. The fellow that had overtaken us previously was now coming down. He informed us that Pine Creek Basin was just around the corner, what cheered the chikas quite a bit.
And I could tell that the area was different because the vegetation was changing. All of a sudden there were new wildflowers to see.
Sierra Bluebells, Mertensia oblongifolia
And then the creek was with us once more. There must have been a cascade along the way that we did not see because now the water was nearly level with the trail again.
The trees opened up once more and we were washed with brilliant sunshine. By now, however, we were hot and sweaty, so we sat down under a tree and enjoyed the scenery from within our shadedspot. 
California Groundsel, Senecio aronicoides
An amazing scenery was before us: a green round valley crowned by snow-capped gentle peaks, a wide creek accompanied by a network of narrow brooks marked by lush willows, open wetlands dotted by small groups of trees, and a shallow pond rimmed by rushes and wildflowers.  We had arrived Pine Creek Basin.
Pine Creek Basin
Despite the early hour of our arrival there we decided to remain there for the night as planned. We found a lovely campsite spot on the other side of the creek where we pitched our tent, and then we went exploring the Basin. Of our exploration I will write a separate post :-)

Many thanks to members of the California Native Plants Society for their help in identifying plants!