While reading through the latest Douglasia, the journal of the Washington Native Plant Society, I learned that our very own neighborhood canyon is an official preserve! We posted about the canyon before when it was just a proposal. Thanks to Joe Arnett and all the hard work from the WA Natural Heritage Program (and others), Peter Goldmark signed Order 201211 on April 25, 2012 to designate the canyon as a 1,060 acre preserve. The land transfers are not finalized, but things are looking good!
I think most of those that live in Northport are aware of the unique beauty of the canyon. But everyone should still watch this excellent (but low video quality) talk by Joe Arnett during a DNR public hearing:
It is the beginning of May, and I’m bundled up in three layers of shirts under a winter jacket. My hair is tucked under a thick, wool cap, my feet fit snugly into mismatched black snow boots, and I am still struggling to free my fingers from a warm pair of gloves. Our car has the heat blasting, the radio blaring, and thermoses of half-consumed hot coffee lodged in every cup holder. Through the window, I stare at a mountainside blanketed in snow, firs poking up from the ground like candles in a cake. It is the beginning of May, and I am about to see my first moose.
Our caravan’s main purpose is not, in fact, moose-spotting. As part of a field ecology course at Washington State University, we are characterizing community types throughout Washington, mainly by examining vegetation. As a graduate student who studies plant invasion, I will be the first to admit that plants are awesome and often underappreciated members of an ecosystem. However, I will also confess that as we pull over and my advisor points animatedly to the open patch on the other side of the road, no one is gawking at the trees.
These Moose were Made for Walking (and Swimming!)
Our moose is female. She is smaller than a male bull, and lacks his characteristic antlers, which can span up to 6 feet. I later learn that the number of points per antler depends on health and age; after approximately five years, the forked antlers of young males develop into the palmate spread associated with the species. She watches us cautiously for a few moments before returning to forging. Tall shrubs, grasses, and pinecones are all on the menu until food becomes more plentiful. Her strong hooves can also scrape snow from the ground, exposing moss and lichen for consumption.
The Breakdown: Horns vs Antlers
Family Bovidae (Bovids)
Family Cervidae (Deer Family)
Often found on males and females
Only found on males (except caribou)
Though her hooves are helpful for finding food, they serve many other functions as well. On land they act as snowshoes, allowing her to navigate even soft snow, and in the water they transform into effective paddles—moose can swim for several miles at a time and even be completely submerged for up to 30 seconds. Our moose moves leisurely now, but, if prompted, she could reach a top speed of 35 miles per hour. As my friend Angela pulls out her camera, another student excitedly exclaims, “I think there’s another one!”
Another moose sighting likely signifies one thing: a calf. Excluding cows and their calves, moose are solitary creatures, who come together only to mate in September and October. Females are attracted to a male bull’s loud bellowing, and competing males may clash with antlers. Females give birth to a single calf (or rarely twins) when spring arrives. Indeed, our group spots a gangly young moose half-hidden behind a tree. She is even more wary than her mother, and has yet to reach her full size of between 600 and 800 pounds. Mother and daughter will stay together until the next mating season, when yearlings are often chased off so that another baby can be born.
Do Not Mess with a Moose
Our discovery is undeniably exhilarating; however, the presence of a mother and her calf warrants extra caution. Moose can be aggressive, especially if a mother feels her calf is threatened. Our group remains on the other side of the road, making sure to give the pair enough space. Other tips for a safe moose encounter like ours include:
- Avoiding hiking and camping with dogs in moose country (moose have been known to attack dogs due to their resemblance to wolves)
- Yielding to moose on the road while driving (attempting to move the moose may provoke it)
- Never feeding a moose
- Watching for signs of aggression (stomping, swinging head, raised hair on shoulders, ears flattened)
- Running if under attack (unlike predators such as cougars, moose are unlikely to chase you far, and you can move around obstacles faster)
- If knocked down, curling up, covering your head, and staying still is best until moose moves on (movement can trigger another attack)
- Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. (2006). Horns and antlers. Retrieved from http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/topics/mammal_anatomy/horns_and_antlers.html.
- National Geographic Society. (2011). Moose. Retrieved from http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/moose/.
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. (2011). Living with wildlife. Retrieved from http://wdfw.wa.gov/living/moose.html.
During the day I study photosynthesis. I spend long hours poking and prodding plants to understand how it is that they are able to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make it into something more chemically useful. The basic equation for photosynthesis is simple. Energy from the sun is used to split water and the resulting energy is used to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and biomass. Water is split in half releasing oxygen, and we have air to breath, wood to build with, and even gas for our cars. When I walk outside in even a bitter winter, my face is warmed when the sun shines. When the sun drops, the story changes and in winter months in the inland northwest, survival depends on finding alternative heat.
We spent Thanksgiving break at a cabin with no running water. We limited the generator to a few hours in the evening to play games and clean up from dinner. The cabin was heated entirely by a single wood-burning stove. Although I was grateful for my zero-degree sleeping-bag, this single stove spared me the seven degree weather outside the cabin. As I looked at the glowing logs in the darkness I thought about how I was watching photosynthesis in reverse. The oxygen in the air, once released from water by plants, was now being used to fuel the combustion of wood producing carbon dioxide. This combustion released heat that in essence came originally from the sun. So even in a dark winter, my face was being warmed as if I walked through a field in noon-day.
Releasing the sun from a hunk of wood can be hard or it can be easy. Gasoline and a lighter do the trick, but some of us prefer a more ancient approach. When making a friction fire you must remember that you are doing photosynthesis in reverse. You have to have biomass (the carbon in the piece of wood you are using), oxygen, and a lot of heat to get things started. Instead of fixing carbon dioxide, you are releasing it. Instead of releasing oxygen, you are consuming it. Keep these things in mind and you are sure not to freeze too bad this winter.
What is an ecoregion?
Imagine an area of land, say, your backyard or your neighborhood, and strip all life away from it. Remove all plants and animals; all the squirrels, trees, and insects, until all that is left is a barren landscape of rock and water. This area now contains no life. However, the potential for life still remains. The assemblages of plants and animals that could survive and reproduce in the area are very specific and predictable by factors that you can measure. By compiling a list of physical features such as elevation, latitude, rock type, and continental position you can get an understanding of the area’s facilities and abiotic (non-living) resources, and thus an idea of the plant and animal communities that it may host. This exercise roughly describes what is known as an ecological region, or ecoregion.
The exact definition of an ecoregion is a little fuzzy because different organizations define them and use them in slightly different ways. Generally, though, ecoregions describe the composition and patterns of how plants and animals are distributed across particular landscapes based on factors such as climate, landform, soil, and hydrology.
The ecoregion in which Silvercrown Mountain Outdoor School is located is called the Canadian Rockies ecoregion. This ecoregion will be the focus of all other articles you can read on this website. The Canadian Rockies ecoregion is characterized largely by the features of the Selkirk Mountains, the Columbia River, and the Pend Oreille River.
Moderate mountains and large valleys stretch across our ecoregion. The Selkirks are often described as the western foothills of the Rockies, but their geologic origins are actually completely separate. Like many of the northern mountains, however, their once-sharp ridges were tamed by millions of years of glaciation. The many lakes, bogs, and U-shaped valleys we see today are a result of the ebb and flow of moving ice that carved and eroded the ancient landscape.
Although there were vast glaciers in the past, the present climate is much different. The summers are dry and hot, often peaking in the high 90’s (F). The winters are cold and can drop below 0 degrees F. Annual precipitation averages between 24-34 inches, but can range from 18 inches on the western side to more than 80 inches on the eastern side of the region. The majority of the ground water, however, comes from melting snow in the spring, as significant snowpack can accumulate in higher elevations. The climate creates four very distinct seasons; hot and sunny summers, moderate and moist falls, cold and snowy winters, and wet and lush springs.
Plant communities in the region are greatly influenced by precipitation, temperature, and elevation. Coniferous forests characterize the majority of the area. Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine occur at lower elevations; Grand Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar occupy the mid-montane elevations; and Subalpine Fir-Engelmann Spruce forests occur at higher elevations. Open grasslands, dominated by Green Fescue, Idaho Fescue, or Rough Fescue, are common along the foothills and on south-facing slopes at higher elevations. There are also many other plant species that can only be found in our ecoregion, or are very rare in other parts of Washington. This is due to the unique limestone rock formations found here, which have slowly eroded and become a distinctive component of the soils.
The vegetation of this ecoregion provides habitat for many animal species. Nearly all of the mammals native to the area are still present today, including Moose, Wolves, Lynx, Wolverines and the extremely rare Mountain Caribou. Grizzly Bears also frequent the region, making this one of only five areas in the lower 48 states. Diverse bird populations occur due to the many lakes, ponds, and rivers of the ecoregion. Golden and Bald Eagles can often be found along rivers, as well as Osprey. Boreal and Great Gray Owls abound, as well as Red-necked Grebes, rails, Three-toed Woodpeckers, numerous species of Chickadees, Kinglets, and Warblers, and many others. The waters of this ecoregion are also host to a diverse group of animals, including Burbot, river otters, muskrats, Mountain Whitefish, and Bull Trout. Some locations are home to White Sturgeon, which can grow over eight feet in length.
The Canadian Rockies Ecoregion of Washington is some of the wildest country in the state. Huge rivers, accessible mountain peaks, and large valleys characterize the landscape. The climate is a mixture of maritime and continental conditions, which results in four distinct seasons. The plant communities are diverse; these range from boreal terrain at high elevations to xeric Ponderosa Pine at low elevations, and even include moist western red-cedar forests sharing many species with the costal Washington communities. Animal diversity is just as rich, as the region hosts some of the only remaining grizzly bear and mountain caribou populations in the United States. The Canadian Rocky Mountain ecoregion offers excellent opportunities to learn about a beautifully unique part of Washington state, and to experience the grandeur of the local wilderness.