Paonia again

2016 Elk Mountain Grand Reverse, 23rd, 8:53

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The view from my old living room. I’ve been putting this off for one reason or another for over three weeks now, but it’s time to get a report off my shoulders, as the rest of my life hasn’t come to as much of a standstill as my blogging. I’m not sure why this is so long — it just came out that way. Consider yourself warned.

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse — a 40 mile, point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, starting at midnight one day in late March each year — is expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, and extremely alluring. For better or worse, the EMGT has also taken on more importance in my life than races usually do. There are reasons for this. I used to live few miles from the start of the course, spending day after day doing the sort of low-angle skinning that is requisite training for successfully competing in the race. Kate and I started the 2014 event together, a “Grand Reverse” beginning and ending in Crested Butte due to avalanche danger, but were forced to drop with an injury only a few miles from the finish. And this year, my close friend Peter has himself been spending the winter in Gothic as a RMBL winter caretaker. As we are about as tightly matched in fitness and skill set as I can imagine, it was an obvious decision to team up once I determined I had the week free from teaching. We both very much wanted to do well.

I skied as much as work and relationships would permit all winter, honing my fitness with regular track work and a few short running races. I flew out to Grand Junction. Following a lovely but anxiety-tinged week in Paonia, Kate and I spent Thursday night in Gothic, my first time back since I left Colorado two years ago. Skiing in under shifting clouds and a bulging moon, my headlamp jumping among the ghostlike aspens, brought back a flood of memories — and an inevitable rish of sadness for a period of my life rapidly receding into the past. Stegner’s doppler effect.

We stayed up later than we should have, drinking whiskey and chatting about the very particular things only people who spend the winter in a shambolic cabin in Gothic can know. The next morning, cooking a huge breakfast and waxing our skis, we watched the weather put on a concerning pageant of wind, snow, and brief, tantalizing glimpses of blue sky. Though a storm had hit the high country Wednesday, snow totals and avalanche danger had remained low through the end of the week. However, with another system predicted to strike shortly after the race got underway on Saturday, the question of whether we’d be pointing our skis at Aspen — or anticlimactically looping around the East River valley — was going to be settled by how quickly and how hard the storm rolled in. As of 9AM the morning of the race, things weren’t looking encouraging.

Still, there was nothing to do but ski out, get our mandatory gear cleared, and pick up our packets. We skied back to the car in a white-out, but by the time we started to drive the mile or so down to Mount Crested Butte, the sky was clearing. We didn’t dare get our hopes up, but after rushing over to the pre-race meeting (already underway), another racer at the back of the crowd confirmed it for us: conditions were safe enough to send us over to Aspen.

Elated, our spirits quickly dropped again after realizing we had misread the website and entirely missed gear check. But after pleading our case to the race directors, they graciously allowed us to go through the process anyway. Then, with 10 hours until the gun would go off that evening, we were left with little to do but anxiously organize our gear, drink coffee, and eat.

After a last dose of internet and espresso at First Ascent, Kate headed back to Paonia to grab some sleep before rushing over to Aspen and meet us on our (hopefully) early morning arrival. We decided to camp out at the base lodge, and nap if possible, steeling ourselves for a long night in the mountains. We chatted race strategy, tried to manage our excitement, and visualized plunging down to Aspen in sunshine, exhausted but thrilled.

***

There was only only one catch, which was that it hadn’t stopped snowing and things looked to be getting worse. Though the weather was off our mind for most of the afternoon, we couldn’t help but overhear another team of racers furtively discussing a distressing possibility: the possibility that race might be canceled. It was hearsay, but it quickly sent our moods in a spiral, and left us feeling hollow for the next few hours. Our veggie burgers (pre-race food at slope-side pubs is tough) did little to alleviate the sudden, unwelcome tension.

Finally, at 9PM, an email came through. Due to unexpectedly severe weather and already-huge snow totals, the reverse course would be implemented after all. It was, undeniably, a punch in the gut, mitigated by the relief of finally knowing what was in store for us. The problem of how to get a ride from Crested Butte to Paonia now that Kate had left was non-trivial, but something to worry about another day. The clock ticked on, and before we knew it, it was time to get going.

***

The start of the race can’t help but be thrilling, even in a Reverse year. There’s a spotlight on the horn of Mount Crested Butte, a dance party at the lodge. An old-hippy-style “rite” is read to racers, and then things get underway, with 450 racers sprinting psychotically for 50 paces before settling in to march rhythmically up the slope. Miraculously, the storm had finally broken, and in its post-coital calm the moonlight broke through receding clouds.

From our brief warm-up lap, I was aware my heart rate was spiking as I attempted to hang on Peter’s heels, a predictable result of having spent just enough time at high altitude to throw my body for a loop. (Paonia, at 5600’, doesn’t really qualify, and day-trip excursions above 10,000’ tend to make you taste blood but not affect performance to the same degree.) This proved true as we jockeyed for position and jogged toward the top of the slope but I am nothing if not proud, and I didn’t ask Peter to slow down. Absolutely nailing the first transition, we blitzed off skating, only to find immediately that we had dramatically miscalculated our wax, our skis dragging and squeaking and muscles burning with effort.

Again, this had more of an effect on me than Peter, who was relishing the change in technique. We dropped off the back side of the mountain, skated some more, threw on skins, and then climbed and careened through sagebrush, somewhere in the top 10. At the entrance to Brush Creek, there was a bonfire, and some teams passed us as Peter took a leak, but with considerable effort (on my part, at least) we closed the gap. Death Pass, a narrow section of trail on a steep gully, had mostly melted out the week before, and I cringed as I nailed a series of rocks negotiating it. (Luckily, Hagans are exceedingly durable for their weight).

Crossing streams and meadows as we gradually climbed toward Friend’s Hut, I began to struggle more and more. I wasn’t eating, and despite trying to store my water against my body, it was freezing, so I wasn’t drinking much either. After deciding to pass a team moving just slightly slower than us, Peter jogged for 50 yards, and in trying to hang on to his heels, my heart rate again spiked dramatically, only gradually returning to manageable levels. This was probably the point at which we went from competing to surviving, as I was never able to summon much more than a slog from then on. Teams we had passed repassed us, and I succumbed to the tow rope. It didn’t help much. We hit the turnaround point, tantalizingly close to Star Pass and the promise of Aspen, and then descended, making turns in soft snow and then skating and double-poling with difficulty in the same, facing down oncoming traffic.

The 2016 Grand Reverse route was modified from the version Kate and I had skied, cutting straight over the summit of “unremarkable but impressively girthy” Strand Hill rather than endlessly skirting its lower slopes. This was a welcome improvement, but at our slow pace dawn still caught us before we topped out. Our Carbondale-based friend Sean and his partner were also having a rough go of it, and we traded places for a while, eventually passing them for good on a stretch of gravelly skating following the descent from Strand, easily best bit of real skiing all day.

The final three or four miles, circling back around the west side of Mount Crested Butte, were a solid dose of misery. After a getting brief second wind while skating past Sean, the return to grinding uphill on hiking trails made me acutely aware of how much I was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. We crawled along, and crawled some more. I began to take “breathers.” At long last and after many false summits, we broke back out into the ski area, and immediately faced a gradual uphill skate I only managed as an exaggerated waddle.

We descended 600 feet to finish in 23rd place and 8:53. For the only time since my very first ultramarathon, I briefly teared up, utterly beat and grateful to be done.

***

On finishing, the dilemma of how to get home immediately reared its head, and so the usual post-event comforts of rest and race analysis were postponed until the memories had begun to fade. Because of this, it’s hard pinpoint exactly how I feel about finishing (once again). I am at once disappointed in slightly underperforming my own (unreasonably high?) expectations and happy with how well we did on an off day. More than anything else, I am grateful to be able to do these things at all, and for the images the race left indelibly imprinted in my head. The mile-long chain of headlamps stretching behind us. The shimmering crest of the Elk Range in the moonlight. Dawn from 10,000′. Scarred aspens, sage, melting snow.

Next time, I’ll keep my water warmer, eat more, and respect the altitude more. It’s probably too soon to say this — and for playing chauffeur all weekend, I think I owe Kate and Sarah the same favor next year — but goddamnit, I’m going to ski to Aspen some day. I hope Peter will be there with me.

Skiing across the Enchantments

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The Enchantment Lakes region, a pair of alpine basins sandwiched by the parallel crests of the Stuart Range, is the most storied backpacking destination in Washington State. In summer and fall, despite a strict permit system for overnight trips, the crowds are equally storied: on a given weekend, it can seem like most of King County has made the 2.5 hour drive over the crest to secure a lakeside tent site. Habitat degradation, wilderness character, and basic manners are perennial concerns.

But in winter, solitude returns to the Enchantments, with heavy snowfall down to Icicle Creek at ~1300’ ASL closing road access to the popular Stuart Lake Trailhead, and a very long approach to the high basins via Snow Creek discouraging day trippers from going the other way. The majority of human visitors in the offseason are campers at Colchuck Lake, or climbers and skiers headed for aesthetic routes on menacing Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks, a relatively small area. The remainder of the classic 19-mile horseshoe remains largely abandoned to wolves and wolverines. Which is why, since I’d yet to complete the full circuit, winter seemed the best time to do it.

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Erik and I knocked it out two Saturdays past, starting at 5AM at the Snow Creek trailhead. Our full route (including the ski back to Icicle Road from Stuart Lake TH, a road run to retrieve Erik’s van, and a ski descent of the summit of Little Annapurna) was approximately 27 miles with 8500’ of gain, which we covered in a hair under 12 hours.

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Photo credit and (c) Erik.

It’s a long, remote, laborious day, and not something to underestimate: there’s unlikely to be a skin track for most of the traverse, and travel both 1) up Snow Creek as far as the lower basin (~11 miles and 5700′ above the car) 2) down from Colchuck Lake to the trailhead can be very tedious. But with efficient gear that still affords a margin of safety, it’s a doable fast-and-light tour of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most spectacular high country.

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Possibly the crux of the day: navigating steep granite slabs coated in isothermal snow on the way up to Lake Vivian. Erik demonstrates exemplary kick-turn technique.

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Our first view of the lower Enchantment Lakes basin, with Little Annapurna merging into cloud center horizon.

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Erik, with Prusik Peak arrears.

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It’s a long, long way down to Ingalls Creek.

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While I tagged Little Annapurna, Erik opted to briefly bivy above Asgard Pass. Weather was closing in, and we were both glad to have the option to continue. Unfortunately, the descent to Colchuck Lake — 2500′ of steep, fall line skiing, and usually highlight of the traverse — was an ordeal, alternating between skittery ice and breakable crust. It’d be nice to return and milk the run in friendlier snow conditions. However, given the low elevation of much of the Snow Lake Trail, waiting for a reliable corn cycle would likely mean substantially more hiking.

Modify according to your strengths and preferences — what’s most important is concluding the trip with Bratwurst and something from Icicle Brewing.

Fall trip backlog: the start of the ski season

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Jake contemplates the appropriate technique for managing frozen avalanche debris as Mt. Baker looms in the distance

Compared to last year’s grim meterological stakes, the 2015/2016 winter has been a relative bonanza for skiers in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in late fall and picking up serious steam in the final weeks of 2015, a series of cold North Pacific storms have hammered the Cascades, resulting in snow levels frequently dropping to 2000′ or below. Because of this, the *real* story of the season has been the proximity of exceptional skiing to Seattle, and frequent 4:30AM wake-ups to snag 3000′ of powder before work. But back in November, a couple of trips further afield provided profligate eye candy for my dutiful X100.

Kicking things off, Jake and I knocked out a short circumnavigation of Table Mountain in the Mt. Baker sidecountry. It’s hardly a committing undertaking, but I don’t think there’s a better short ski tour in the world. I’ve already been back to repeat it with Sarah and Kate.

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Shuksan (!)

Following that (and my trip to Nicaragua), Kate and I observed tradition to meet college friends Ben and Hannah outside Bend. We managed to skin a few laps at Mt. Bachelor, but more notably ticked another spectacular Cascadian shield volcano, the often-overlooked Paulina Peak / Newberry Crater (7985′). At 14 miles round trip, it was an excellent introduction to training for this year’s Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, which I’ll be tackling with fellow RMBL winter caretake and close friend Peter come March.

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The Three Sisters from Bachelor’s Cinder Cone.

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Kate, Stringer, and central Oregon’s Cascade Crest on a cloudless western horizon.

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Newberry Crater from Paulina Peak.

We closed out 2015 with a trip to visit Kate’s parents in Colorado over the winter holidays, and were treated to a week of gorgeous skiing in the Gore Range and the Sawatch Range, confirming that yes, aspens and thin air and still make my heart ache nostalgic.

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The Williams Fork Range from the foothills of the Gores.

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Best dinner in Leadville.

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Celebrating an early New Years.

All of which is old news, but in the midst of a frantic few months, something worth pausing to reflect on. And be thankful for. Why else have a blog?

Nicaragua and the Interoceanic Grand Canal

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Nicaragua’s plant and animal communities are perhaps the least-well studied in Central America. One symptom of this knowledge gap is that birds are poorly represented as natural history museum specimens, and mostly absent from North American collections. There is, however, one notable exception: my home institution, the Burke Museum. As a result of this quirk of history (itself the result of fieldwork by UW graduate student D.A. Banin in the 90s), the Burke’s Zoology department is once again considering field work in Nicaragua, this time with collaborators at the Universidad Centroamericana.

Our future research in Nicaragua (which I’ll say more about later) has mostly been spearheaded by my colleague, the indefatigable Rebecca Harris. But as Rebecca was in Germany at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies for the past quarter, I was lucky enough to briefly visit the country in November, and meet our collaborators in her stead.

The proximate reason for my trip was to participate in the 2nd Annual Taller Internacional Sobre El Canal Interoceánico Por Nicaragua — the 2nd Annual Workshop on Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal. Held in Managua, the goal of this year’s workshop was to assemble a cadre of local and international experts in biodiversity, geology, engineering, economics, and sociology to rigorously review the environmental and social impact statement prepared by a UK contractor for the Nicaraguan government on its ambitious proposal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a major canal through the country. This quixotic venture is only the most recent in a series of over 80 proposals of trans-isthmus canals through Nicaragua, dating back to at least 1581. (Other than Panama, Nicaragua presents the only major gap in the American Cordillera amenable to excavation, and is a particularly appealing site for a canal the navigable San Juan River feeds to a major lake with shores only 12 miles from the Pacific.)

The Sandanista government’s rhetoric is revolutionary, but the economic benefits of the canal are far from clear, and there has been considerable opposition from academics and los campesinos, both in the predominately mestizo communities on the Pacific Coast and Afro-Caribbean / indigenous communities along the Atlantic. It’s emphatically not my place to offer an opinion on whether Nicaragua should or should not construct the canal (which would be the largest excavation project in human history), but the workshop’s consensus was that considerably more study was needed to determine whether the project’s benefits would offset its substantial ecological, economic, and social costs.

It was my second trip to Nicaragua, and my first to Managua, a fascinating, complex city usually overshadowed on tourist itineraries by its showier sister, Grenada. I was not exempt to Grenada’s charms, however, and following the conclusion of the workshop on Friday, left the capital with Jorge Huete-Perez (UWBM collaborator, head of the Centro de Biología Molecular at UCA, and workshop organizer), UCA hydrologist Katherine Vammen, and fellow Seattleite workshop attendees Lindsey Whitlow and Wes Lauer (Seattle University professors; UCA and SU have a sister-university relationship).

We drove two hours south to the shore and gazed at the surreal beauty of Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), with Isla Ometepe’s twin volcanoes painted against the horizon. Following a meal in a 16th-century hotel, we toured Granada’s “Isletas,” an archipelago of tiny islets formed by the spray of nearby Volcán Mombacho in some long-ago eruption. It was dusk, and cormorants, egrets, and kingfishers flew in front of our boat as we cruised the great Lake’s northeast corner, clouds clinging raggedly to the surrounding mountains.

24 hours later, I was back in Seattle, already looking forward to a longer visit in the months to come.

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Lago Cocibolca and Isla Ometepe.

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Las Isletas.

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Volcán Mombacho.

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Typical colonial architecture in Granada, established in 1524.

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Las Isletas, mapped.

Fall trip backlog: The Brothers (6842′)

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My office at the University of Washington is on the fifth floor of a grim 1970s-vintage brick and mortar tower. But on clear days, when I stand up from my desk, I can see the skyline of the Olympic Mountains towering above bungalows and strip malls and the interstate. Specifically, I can see the eye-grabbing twin summits of The Brothers (6842′).

In mid-October, newly healed from a bout of achilles tendinitis and fresh off two week-long field trips to Mount Rainier as teaching assistant, I was aching for one last long run in the high country before the snow flew. My frequent partner Richard felt similarly, and suggested we make the trip across the Sound to tag the Brothers’ south summit.

I didn’t take much convincing, and before long, we were parking his van at the trailhead, less than 1000′ above sea level. For some reason, despite first-hand experience with 2014-2015’s depressing winter, we expected snow in the route’s defining couloir, the Hourglass. Alas, though both of us were hauling crampons and ice axes, we were met only with loose scree, eventually scrambling to the summit amidst an intermittent hail of golf-ball sized rocks.

Nonetheless, topping out, it was hard to imagine there was a more worthy lookout in all of Western Washington. Cumulus clouds and blue sky were interleaving in flag-like, patriotic stripes, and the rest of the Olympic Penninsula was putting on a striptease of mist, crag, and forest. We ate jerky and gummy bears, and started running downhill.

Lunch was on our mind.

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Fall trip backlog: Copper Ridge / Chilliwack River Loop

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Mount Ruth (7115′), looking bony.

Back in September, when Washington had more than four hours of light each day and the academic quarter had yet to suck me into its vortex of responsibilities, Kate and I stole away for a two-day lap on the über-classic Copper Ridge / Chilliwack River loop. The 34-mile circuit was my introduction to the grandeur of the North Cascades five years ago, and we were treated to similar conditions: a day of rain, and a day of cool temperatures and astounding clarity.

I’ve yet to knock the sucker out in a single push, and while I’m sure I’ll do it someday, the plethora of appealing overnight sites on the route and general pleasure of briefly living in such grand country urge a more leisurely pace anyway. In fact, I’ll argue there’s no finer short backpacking route for scenery in the lower 48. Feel free to argue that point in the comments.

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This photo does not do them justice, but we hit peak vine maple at lower elevations dead on.

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Most parties hike the loop clockwise, to avoid a >4K’ climb from the Chilliwack to Copper Ridge, but we opted for the reverse, both to maximize canopy cover on the first, rainy day, and to better soak in views of Shuksan and Baker from the ridge.

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Blue raspberry water abounds en route. Earlier in the season, the Chilliwack is thick with blood-red sockeye and a marvel to behold.

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Copper Lake.

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Mt. Redoubt and friends: exceedingly remote climbing objectives.

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Shuksan, Baker, and miles of tundra walking on the eponymous Ridge.

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Closing out the [racing] season

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.38.15 PMPhoto credit and (c) Ross Comer

Fall is typically the low point in my seasonal flux of training effort. This year, it seems to the low point in my seasonal flux of blogging effort as well. But now that snow is falling and I’ve developed a backlog of photos from more interesting trips to report on, I thought I’d jot something down about the last three races of the year.

  • In late August, I headed home to Vermont for my hometown hillclimb, the Race to the Top of Vermont. Despite having substantially less preparation going into the event than I did in 2014, I managed a 15 second PR, finishing in 2nd place in 36:30.
  • Bailing on a fall 100, I signed up for the Crystal Mountain Skymarathon as a consolation prize, and then spent three weeks nursing a nasty bout of achilles tendinitis and barely running. By race day, it had improved some, and I stubbornly decided to go for it (said every runner, ever). The tendon held up, sorta, but running substantially harder than I had the fitness for brought on massive cramping around mile 20. I ended up jog-walking the last 6 miles to cross the line 6th place in 4:30.
  • After thus reaggravating my tendon and being forced to take a few weeks completely off from running, I managed to heal up and start getting out casually again. A couple of weeks later, I was sufficiently motivated to jump into the final Cougar Mountain Trail Series race of the year, running to 4th in :51:39 in the 7.6 miler.

In other running-related news, I published an essay in High Country News back in October, in response to an op-ed claiming trail runners were “missing the point.” It’s available here.

Trans-Kalmiopsis

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Southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness is the 180,000-acre, “big-W” core of a half-million total roadless acres. This region is (arguably) the wildest and most biodiverse landscape in Oregon, and the largest chunk of undisturbed habitat between the Olympics and Baja California on the Pacific Coast.

It’s also a difficult place to love. The Kalmiopsis is comprised of low elevation mountains lacking much in the way of geologic or aesthetic elegance, and is prone to extremes of weather and climate. It’s filled with scratchy, poisonous brush, scorpions, and snakes. It has a reputation for violent outlaw prospectors, solitary 19th-century holdovers convinced the crystalline waters of the Chetco will cough up enough gold to make their fortunes. On top of this, the Kalmiopsis was almost entirely burned over in 2002’s then-unprecedented Biscuit Fire, making an already somewhat unlovely landscape harsher on the eyes.

Yet the Kalmiopsis took hold of my imagination, and Kate’s. Our first trip here in 2013 only highlighted its paradoxical appeal. There are few places I’ve been that have made me feel as uneasy starting a trip, 20 miles down a heinous forest service road lined with shotgun casings. Or places where backpacking felt as much like tropical fieldwork, replete with heat, thorns, and pit vipers. But there is also nowhere else I’ve been in the US that can replicate its particular brand of solitude: a solitude rooted not in austere rock and ice but in living things piled on living things, a vibrant ecosystem utterly indifferent to your existence.

Part of the reason solitude in the Kalmiopsis is so total (beyond its discomforts) is the complete abandonment of a once-extensive trail network following “the fire.” Over a decade out, regrowth has swallowed nearly everything. As southwest Oregon is already the largest but least-funded unit of the US Forest Service’s PNW region, maintaining trails in a poorly-visited, scabby-looking burn zone has not been a high priority.

Which is where the Siskiyou Mountain Club stepped in, in 2010. Founded by Gabe Howe and Jill Stokes, the SMC’s specialty is primitive backcountry trails in Southern Oregon; restoring lost routes in the Kalmiopsis its labor of love. Two weeks ago, we joined Gabe, Jill, and their longtime volunteer Tom on a three-day backpacking trip crossing the Kalmiopsis from east to west. The route, beginning at the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead above the Illinois River Valley and ending at the Vulcan Lake Trailhead above Brookings, OR on the coast, is 26 hard but manageable miles. Bring a map and good notes, and be prepared for steep, rocky trails.

Kate’s writing about the place for work, so I’ll let her extensive research and narrative notes speak for themselves when published. I’ll only say it was a blast to get to see this fantastic trail in the good company of those who made it a possibility, and share in their enthusiasm for an oft-ignored place. There’s a lot of the greater Kalmiopsis region that remains vulnerable to mining, road-building, and logging, but little momentum towards permanent protection. The SMC makes a strong argument the best way to change hearts and minds can be with clippers and Pulaski.

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Looking south towards the origin of the Biscuit fire. The route’s early miles are the bleakest.

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Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) is widespread in the Sierra Nevada, but occurs in SW Oregon mainly as a serpentine soil specialist. Serpentine soils (seen here) are a difficult substrate for plants, thanks to their low calcium to magnesium ratio, lack of common nutrients, and high concentrations of nickel and chromium. Their widespread presence in the Kalmiopsis (and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains more generally) is a major reason for the region’s outstanding botanical diversity.

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The California Cobra Lily, Darlingtonia californica.

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Dawn from our first camp on the banks of the Chetco.

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Box Canyon mostly escaped the blaze and retains its verdure, a heavenly oasis after a hot and exposed climb over the ridge from the Chetco drainage.

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The trail’s latter miles seemed to have burned with the lowest intensity.

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Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus).

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Jill, the legendary “Barefoot” Brad Camden (our shuttle driver), and Tom, at the trail’s end.

Publication: Exploring the evolutionary history of a “supertramp” species

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Photo credit and (c) Jack Dumbacher

Scientists often assume species living on oceanic islands have strong dispersal ability, surmising that colonizing these isolated, far-flung land masses in the first place would have required the ability to travel vast distances. Oceanic islands are also often known for their endemic species — organisms that are found nowhere else. Taken together, these two statements constitute a famous paradox in the field of island biogeography, a scientific discipline focused on studying the distributions of island organisms. The paradox goes: If island species are able to cover the great distances required to colonize their homes, shouldn’t this ability also maintain sufficient gene flow (the process of migrants from one population interbreeding with another, which tends to make both more similar) to outweigh the processes of evolution that give rise to unique, endemic species?

In a paper my coauthors (Dr. Sarah Schaack and Dr. Jack Dumbacher) and I published this month in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, we investigated this paradox by examining patterns of genetic variation in a small songbird distributed on offshore islands in Papua New Guinea, the Louisiade White-eye (Zosterops griseotinctus). The Louisiade White-eye is a member of a family of birds (the White-eyes; Zosteropidae) known for their rapid speciation, with a large number of islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans featuring an endemic species. But unusual for the White-eyes as a whole, the Louisiade White-eye is what Jared Diamond termed a “supertramp species:” an organism highly specialized for overwater dispersal.

Diamond’s concept of a supertramp draws mainly on patterns of distribution in South Pacific birds he observed during his extensive fieldwork in the region. Noting that some species were only found on low-lying, resource poor islands, and never on adjacent larger, higher-elevation islands, he hypothesized supertramps were skilled colonists and ecological generalists that competed poorly against more specialized species in richer habitats. He holds that the dispersal ability of supertramps is also an asset in providing the ability to move on to new habitat when resources were overexploited or otherwise became insufficient, and in escaping disturbances from cyclones, sea level rise, and volcanic eruptions. Intriguingly, in the few rare exceptions where supertramps were found on higher-elevation islands, there was evidence of shifts in their ecological niche towards more specialization.

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The Louisiade White-eye, Zosterops griseotinctus, with its family’s eponymous eye-ring.

If this change is accompanied by a reduction in dispersal, it might help explain the famous paradox mentioned above. Imagine a scenario in which a supertramp species arrives at a decently-sized, higher-elevation island lacking the kind of competitor species that have previously kept it to lower, smaller islands. On this new island, size and height mean disturbance is less prevalent and resource levels are less prone to catastrophic crashes. Dispersal ability therefore is less advantageous, and more individuals stay put and breed exclusively on their new home. As they more sedentary, gene flow is reduced to the point that populations are sufficiently isolated for long enough that processes such as natural selection and genetic drift become new species.

In our study, we examined the plausibility of this scenario using on a large number of samples of Louisiade White-eye tissue my coauthor Jack Dumbacher and his team collected via sailboat in 2009 and 2011. Jack focused on sampling small, coral atolls that had previously been overlooked by scientists. To represent the rare larger, taller islands where no collections had been made for nearly a century, we sampled tissues from toe-pads on specimens housed the American Museum of Natural History, originating from the seminal Whitney South Seas Expedition. Using a special technique known as ‘ancient’ DNA extraction, we were able to obtain DNA sequence from birds shot in the 1920s, perhaps the greatest “oh-shit-science-is-cool” moment of the research project. Coupled with sequenced DNA from the modern samples, we ran analyses to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of the different island populations of the Louisiade White-eye (building a phylogeny), and assessed relative levels of divergence.

We were particularly interested in learning 1) whether there was genetic evidence for the supertramp idea, e.g., a signature of significant interbreeding among different island populations; and 2) whether there was genetic evidence for the loss-of-dispersal-ability explanation for the ‘famous paradox’, which would show significant divergence on the few high-elevation islands in our sampling. While our data lacked the resolution to come to unequivocal conclusions, our results provide preliminary support for both these hypotheses, which, of course, only lead to more questions. How frequently are migrants exchanged between populations, and where do they go? How do shifts in dispersal ability occur?

It’s been a lot to chew on as I ponder future research and my dissertation, but in the mean time, you can read more of our conclusions and questions in the publication either online or as a PDF.

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