Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ambling Around Ahquabi

Mild weather in the final days before Christmas let our family enjoy a hike in nearby Lake Ahquabi State Park.  We followed the loop trail around the lake (highlighted in Hiking Iowa) taking us through the spectrum of natural communities in the park.  Starting at the beach, where a broad view of the lake allowed us to observe a huge flock of Canada Geese standing on its frozen surface, we first walked through an upland forest dominated by mature white and red oaks.  Most of the trees forming the canopy here were approximately 100-150 years old, having regrown from timber-cutting after pioneer settlement, but scattered here and there among them  were older, larger white oak trees up to 300 years old.  Recognized by their greater girth, elephantine limbs, leaning stature, and smooth white bark (the rough bark of youth having sloughed off during the years), individuals passed over by the pioneer cutting stood out distinctively amid the smaller, younger trees around them.  Ironwood (also known as hophornbeam) trees filled the understory, their marcesent leaves clinging to slender twigs in rufous defiance of winter defoliation.

Mature forest of mostly middle-aged white oak and red oak

A 300-year old white oak patriarch

White oak (left) and red oak (right) leaves on the forest floor

Beneath the trees, the reddish-brown forest floor extended in all directions in open vegetation of sparse shrubs and scattered grasses.  Although brightly filled with colorful wildflowers in spring, today we passed only wispy clumps of dried bottlebrush grass standing between scattered shrubs of native gooseberry and ever-troublesome honeysuckle invaders.  Although shrub honeysuckles are the non-native bane of forest restorationists, their bright red pairs of fruits were admittedly pretty.

Bottlebrush grass seedhead
Honeysuckle fruits

Lichens of several species populated the bark and branches of the trees.  In the shade of the interior woods, I recognized the wrinkled, bluish-gray plates of Speckled Shield, the minty green patches of Dust Lichen, and the hieroglyphic streaks of Script Lichen (low light combined with their tiny size made photography with my point-and-shoot pocket camera difficult, so I ended up with decent shots of only the lattermost).  At the sun-drenched edge of the woods, bright orange patches of Sunburst Lichen shared treetrunks with bright gray patches of Rosette Lichen.

Gray rosette lichen and
orange sunburst lichen

Script lichen
-click to enlarge-

As we continued along the trail, we encountered small patches of snow and mud bearing the tracks of turkey and deer.

Coming to the dam forming the 100-acre lake, we crossed its spillway on an arching footbridge. A treeless shoreline provided a scenic vista of flat, frozen water rimmed by black forest.  A cacophony of cackles wafted across the expanse from the geese congregated on the far shore.

In the swampy floodplain beneath the dam and along the wet shoreline of the lake, we spied the elegant, white boles and branches of sycamore projecting eye-catchingly above the dark-limbed canopy of oaks, basswoods, and ashes.  Its stellate, platter-sized leaves covered the floor of the floodplain forest, which is brushy with thickets of dogwood and willow.

We passed through a grassy opening filled with Indiangrass and clumps of black oaks; its savanna character is a legacy of its south-facing aspect, its long-ago clearing and pasturing, and its present-day maintenance with prescribed burning by park managers.  It is thickly bordered with elm and black locust trees that would quickly colonize the opening if not held at bay by recurrent fires.  In the trail bordering the tree-lined meadow, we found a hefty, green, cross-corrugated, grapefruit-sized ball, evidense that we had walked under an Osage Orange tree, another pioneering species.  (This species was formally introduced to science with a specimen collected in 1804 by the Lewis & Clark expedition when it passed the mouth of the Osage River in western Missouri as the explorers ascended the Missouri River.)

Leaf and bark of black oak
Fruit of Osage Orange

We finished our 4-mile hike around Lake Ahquabi at the beach, where the geese were still talkatively congregated on the ice.  At a high hilltop overlooking the lake, we stopped for a family photo by the sandstone lodge originally constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and beautifully restored by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in recent years.  Filled with sunshine and shared experience, conservation and conversation, and hiking and habitat, our amble around Ahquabi was satisfyingly complete.

Family outing: Peg, Will, Tarek, Beth, me

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Walking in the Wasatch

As we started our descent in Wyoming, I could not tear my eyes from the spectacular scenery scrolling beneath the window of our Omaha-to-Salt Lake City airliner.  A jumble of snow-capped mountain peaks in the central Wasatch Range initially filled my view but was abruptly replaced by a sharply linear front of steep, brown, west-facing slopes when we passed over their western edge and into the Salt Lake Valley.  The escarpment stretched out of sight both northward and southward, forming the western boundary of the Rocky Mountains and dramatically marking its contact with the Great Basin, a geological province of isolated mountain ranges and flat desert valleys extending across Utah into Nevada and California.

As our plane banked sharply southward and cruised parallel to the mountain front for our final approach, I was treated to a succession of spectacular aerial views: a patchwork of snow-dusted farmfields in the Logan Valley, the blue expanse of the Great Salt Lake and its tan-and turquoise mosaic of marshlands at the Jordan River Delta, and the sprawling megalopolis of Salt Lake City, its center flagged with a cluster of downtown skyscrapers.  All were backdropped by the eye-popping mountainscape of the Wasatch Front, whose look-at-me appeal continued to demand my attention from the ground as we taxied to the terminal.  "I hope we have an opportunity to hike up there," I mused as my wife Peg and I made our way to the baggage claim, catching yet another view of the mountains through a hallway picture window.

Thanksgiving break this year differed significantly from our home-in-Iowa tradition with this special trip to Salt Lake City, Utah where we shared the holiday with our son Will, his girlfriend Maureen ("Mo"), her parents Greg and Sheila ("La"), their other daughter Megan and her husband Eric (and their dog Aussie).  Having previously met Mo, we looked forward to getting to know the rest of her family for the first time.  It did not take long to discover that we shared a love of the outdoors, prompting Greg and La to take us to several of their favorite places... and some new ones.

Salt Lake City literally abuts the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains, which are laced with a network of easily accessed trails.  We hiked in City Creek Canyon, along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail between Red Butte Creek and Emigration Canyon, and on the Pipeline Trail in Mill Creek Canyon.  In addition to providing all of us with vigorous outdoor exercise in spectacular scenery, our hikes provided me with an ecological education afforded by close-up viewing of natural foothills vegetation.  

Rising between flat lowlands and high mountains, the foothills formed a rolling landscape of rounded peaks.  The trail meandered through a mosaic of grassland dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata) and thickets dominated by Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii), punctuated by steeply tilted outcrops of ancient limestone adorned with a diversity of colorful lichens and mosses.

Gambel oak
Big-tooth maple

At times we hiked through extensive acreages of oak brush consisting of short, shrubby trees.  Adapted to fire by the ability to resprout, the trees were multi-stemmed, probably from repeated episodes of burning and regrowth.  As we decended into moist ravines, I also spotted big-tooth maples (Acer grandidentatum) with a similar growth-form but quite different leaves.

I often slowed or stopped to investigate the oak brush patches more closely, searching the tangle of stems, twigs, and leaves for smaller species such as the lichens forming bright orange splashes on larger tree trunks and the galls of cynipid wasps forming subtle brown swellings on smaller twigs.

Moseying through the mosaic, I recognized bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata); although both featured three-tipped (tridentate) leaves, the hoary coating and aromatic odor of sagebrush easily distinguished it from the green, odorless bitterbrush.

At risk of falling even farther behind, I stooped to photograph a handful of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), a tawny annual grass forming extensive stands where wheatgrass and Gambel oak were absent.  Unfortunately, this invasive species is a bad actor, having overtaken vast areas of grassland in the arid West, displacing native species and ratcheting fire regimes to unnaturally high frequency with its dry, flashy fuels.

Satisfied with my overview of the vegetation, I trotted up the trail lined with the now-familiar forms of wheatgrass, bitterbrush, and sagebrush and caught up with the others in a tunnel of tall oak brush.  Together, we finished our hike and returned home for an evening of dining, talking, game-playing... and planning for another walk in the Wasatch.