July 14, 2015
On our first morning with my new pup, Valley, I pulled out my Lolo National Forest Map and looked for a scenic, but short hike. There were a lot of dashed foot trails to choose from. But I wanted a hike that took us to a lake or along a creek. I also was conscious that we didn’t know Valley’s physical abilities. She had certainly been walked at the shelter, but the pads of her feet were still soft and I had no idea how well she’d do gaining elevation. So, we needed a fairly short hike. I found the maps key and scale. My pinky nail was about the length of half a mile, and the whole finger was about three miles. The first trails going to a lake that I looked at were around two pinky lengths, or six miles to a lake. Deerlake and Arrowhead Lake were both farther than I wanted to go, but the Four Lakes Trail loop looked promising. Though the full loop would have been too far, I figured we could manage a roughly four mile hike to Cabin Lake. Plus, the close together contour lines beside the trail promised views of a sheer ridge to our left as we walked. We drove down dirt roads that looked like no one had used them all summer for a short distance to the trail head. We started down the trail and quickly came to a wooden bridge. Morgan walked easily ahead of me, but when I tried to cross with Valley, she pulled back, wary of this whole new bridge thing. I reassured her with soft words and held out a treat from my pocket. She followed me reluctantly and was rewarded with the treat and ample praise. To her displeasure, we waited on the bridge for a moment, admiring the view of Four Lakes Creek below. The trail was lined with conifer trees. Pines, spruce and fir perfumed the air. Every breath I enjoyed, appreciating the rich, clean flavor. Valley stopped frequently to sniff, and I wished my nose was as powerful as her canine super-sensor. For me, determining the tree species would be a tricky task of looking for subtle differences in the bark and needle shape. But she could distinguish them in a whiff. Pines of all varieties each smelled slightly different. Lodgepole, ponderosa, western white and whitebark each have a distinctive aroma. By raising her nose to the air she was taking in much more information than I ever could just by glancing around. Not only could she smell each plant, but also left over traces of animals that had passed by hours or days before. They didn’t even need to leave a footprint for her to know they had been there. Their chemical signal, their scent, still clung to the earth where they walked. Dogs are so good at sniffing out other animals, and their “traces” that conservationists have recently started using scat seeking dogs so that they can learn about wildlife without having to disturb the animals. Scat tells the story of an animal’s life. By analyzing it in a lab, scientists can distinguish between individual animals and learn about their immune system functioning, diet, reproductive status and what toxins it may have been exposed to. All this information that I could only learn in a lab was visible to Valley’s nose. As we walked, I often let her stop to read these invisible posts.
While Valley stopped to explore the decadent smells of the forest, I captured the sights of wildflowers and other plants. Some of them were familiar, like the fiery red paintbrush (above right). The giant red paintbrushes (Castilleja miniata) here were the most colorful I’ve ever seen. In Texas, we have a similar species called great plains paintbrush, which is paler. These wildflowers are tricky to establish in gardens because they are parasitic plants that require other roots to draw nutrients from. The forest plants are amazingly interconnected in ways we’re only beginning to understand. Threads of fungi, called mycorrhizae, that live in the roots of the plants, protecting them from damaging microorganisms and helping them to absorb more nutrients. Research by forest ecologist, Suzanne Simard, indicates that trees use mycorrhizal networks to share resources between each other according to need, especially between large “Mother Trees” and the smaller trees around them who wouldn’t survive nearly as well without the help of an established older tree. The forest beneath our feet buzzed imperceptibly with the living energy of the tree’s interconnected roots.We came to a another creek crossing, but this smaller tributary to the creek had no bridge, and was probably just seasonally flooded with snow melt. Valley was up for the new experience once again and followed Morgan across with only a slight hesitation at getting her paws wet and cold. As I crossed the creek, I admired the broad view of trickling water. Then, glancing at my feet to step onto the next stone, I noticed tiny seedlings growing directly on the wet stones. The water rose with the seasons, flowing down out of the mountains as the spring and summer sun melted the snow. Simultaneously, the spring wildflowers rose out of the ground, flowing upward as they grew by slowing transforming the water, sunlight and soil into leaves, stalks, buds, flowers and then seeds, before ebbing back down into the dirt. Each month was ornamented with different blossoms. In July, delicate white flowers, known as foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), bloomed near the creek. I also saw a flower that reminded me of the white mistflowers that bloom in fall back in Texas, but I didn’t get a picture of the leaves, so I didn’t have enough information to distinguish between several plants that had the same rounded clusters of white flowers, when I got out my wildflower field guide, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. It could also have been cow parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace, or several other flowers. (If you don’t have a field guide to wildflowers, MyWildflowers.com is a great resource that lets you search for flowers based on a variety of characteristics). Even more intriguing than the delicate wildflowers were the seafoam green pixie cup lichen (Cladonia pyxidata), growing on the fallen logs and stumps beside the trail. Like all lichens, this being was two organisms working together, symbiotically. The fungus forms the structure and stores water, minerals and nutrients, while the algae produces food through photosynthesis.
Just as the map promised, we saw steep peaks to our left as we began to go up a gradual incline. Now I could see why the contour lines were so close together! The sheer rock face towered above us as we emerged out of the thick, dense woods of the lower elevation and into the open, subalpine forest of tall pines. This new terrain had a very different plant community. It was brighter and more airy. We could see farther around us as we walked up switchback after long switchback. Suddenly, a bright flash of flame darted across out path, airborne. It landed not far from us, on a dead limb, then perched, looking at us curiously. The beautiful bird was like nothing I’d ever seen before. With it’s bright red head and sunny yellow body, it looked like it belonged in a South American jungle, not a northern pine forest. Since I didn’t know the bird’s name, Morgan dubbed it the “flame-tipped sprotinger.” Though this wasn’t really the name it cemented the bird in our memories. Later, I looked in the Sibley Bird Guide and found out he was a Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) in full breeding color. His tropical appearance boasts of a winter migration to Central America, as far south as Costa Rica for some individuals. Perhaps on this tropical winter vacation he consumes the insects or fruits that supply the unusual rhodoxanthin pigment for his rare red crown plumage. Other members of the tanager genus use an entirely different type of pigment called 4-oxo-carotenoid to produce their bright red feathers.The western tanager wasn’t the only fiery species up in the pine forest. As we continued up countless switchbacks, I spotted fireweed! If I had to pick a favorite wildflower, I think fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium) would be it, because it is one of the first flowers to colonize areas that have been burned by wildfires. Fireweed’s pioneer spirit, aka it’s vigorously spreading rhizomes, helps keep soil from eroding off bare earth. I didn’t know it at the time, but aside from appreciating the beauty of fireweed, we also could have enjoyed it as a snack! Fireweed is completely edible, though it tastes better when it is young and tender. It also boasts a vast array of medicinal uses, including as a tea for upset stomachs or urinary problems.
Under the tall pines, berry bushes and shrubs almost as tall as I was lined the trail. Unfamiliar black and red berries caught my eye, but I had no idea how to identify them. With so many berries around, and such concealing shrubby understory cover, Morgan and I began to wonder if we might encounter a bear, and worried about our unfamiliar pup. But the only thing even reminiscent of a bear we saw was bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax). The enormous plant hadn’t quite blossomed into it’s full puffy white paw, but some white tips teased out of the green buds on the stalk that was almost as tall as me. I wouldn’t have been able to identify this unblossomed icon of the northwestern forests, without the vivid memories from my childhood of fields of fluffy white, fully blossomed plants, which had towered as tall as my Dad, in the mountain meadows of Glacier National Park. (Thanks for the great experience, Dad!)We noticed Valley, with her tender shelter/kennel paws, was starting to walk a bit gingerly. We continued walking a little farther, wondering when the switchbacks would end and we’d be on the final mostly straight stretch to the lake. We checked our map again. Could it be that the distance ahead of us was farther than we anticipated? I wanted to see the mountain lake, especially since in would have a backdrop and probably a stunning of the other side of steep rock face we had seen earlier. But I didn’t want to wear Valley out to the point of hurting her paws and creating a bad experience. Her paws seemed more pink then before and more tender, when I examined them. So, we decided to turn back early, we’d hiked enough and had a great time. In the future, we knew we’d have plenty of time to take Valley on longer hikes in Montana’s gorgeous forests.