Sunday, January 8, 2012


Half Dome

The Sierra Nevada dawned brightly on the western horizon as I rubbed the slumber from my eyes and stumbled out of the tent to watch the sky transition from darkness to light.  Our trip was also about to change.  Today would be our last day of exploration before we would have to drive hard for the motherland.  Today was also going to be a special day, because we were transitioning out of Mary Austin’s “Land of Little Rain” and into John Muir’s “Treasure of the Yosemite.”  For the first time in my life, I would literally follow in the footsteps of a guide whose spiritual path I have long traveled.  Like a similar pilgrimage around Walden a decade earlier, we climbed into the Sierra with hearts as open as our eyes.  If only I had weeks instead of hours….

"Waving onward in graceful compliance"
Trees! Their increasing diversity greeted us as we gained altitude and crossed the impossibly high 9,943 ft. Tioga Pass.  We stopped to look for Whitebark Pines (Pinus albicaulis), yet another large seeded species and, as if on cue, a Clark’s Nutcracker flew across our path revealing none of its secret knowledge of all the best pine nuts.  Gnarled trees atop granite monoliths splayed their branches to the mountain winds; as Muir so poetically characterized, they were “waving onward in graceful compliance.”  We descended into the park and the tree diversity continued to increase.  The variety of pines alone was astounding.  We saw Lodgepole (P. contorta ssp. murrayana), Western White (P. monticola), and Jeffrey Pine (P. jeffreyi) in the rocky subalpine, and Sugar (P. lambertiana), Ponderosa (P. ponderosa), and Grey Pine (P. sabiniana) on the lower elevation valley walls.  Red Fir (Abies magnifica) and White Fir (A. concolor) were also common and there was even a smattering of Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii).  Being from cedar country, I was excited to see immense stands of Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens), which has always been a novel tree to me.  John Muir’s discussion of the Sierra's trees can be found here.

Small examples of Black Oak (Qerucs kellogii) acorns
While we were in the subalpine, I kept complaining to Katrina about how choked the forests seemed with “dog-hair” stands of pine, which I expect was historically burned by the Native Americans to create a more open landscape that favored higher plant diversity.  Near the valley bottom I was surprised to see a large area of burned forest.  The park has started to embrace fire as a management tool.  We began to see Black Oak (Quercus kelloggii) and Canyon Live Oak (Q. chrysolepis) with increasing frequency.  Both of these species were important food resources for the Native Americans living in the valley and are more fire resistant than pine.  In the low elevation foothills outside of the park near Mariposa CA, I made my final collection of acorns from Interior Live Oak (Q. wislizenii) and Blue Oak (Q. douglasii).  

With a setting sun on the horizon, we bid adieu to Yosemite, the Sierras, and the distant landscapes that taught us so much about the wild foods of the Desert SW.  Our backs had grown accustomed to sleeping on the soil-less earth, and our skin, to the bright sun;  Our minds were full of new ideas, and our trunk was filled with acorns and salt.  We couldn’t have asked for a better winter holiday.  Leaving our last backroad and turning onto the highway, we set a course for home.  The coming months will be quiet ones for harvesting in the Pacific Northwest, but I look forward to experimenting with the many varieties of acorns that we picked on this trip and opening the larder for regular doses of the more fruitful month’s fare.
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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Death Valley

Death Valley is an elemental land made sensuous by simple combinations.  From a broad view, parched earth, scoured canyon walls, and blue sky combine to elevate the soul in an impossibly low landscape.  Crouch down for a closer look and dazzlingly small crystals of two more basic elements conspire to tickle the light and tease the tongue.  We came to Death Valley to explore its salts and quickly learned that Death Valley was a sophisticated laboratory precipitating many different combinations of elements.  Sodium borate, or borax is probably the Valley’s best known mineral, made famous by the “20 mule team” (actually 18 mules and 2 horses) that was used to haul the versatile mineral 165 miles across the Mojave Desert to the nearest railroad.  Borax is used in detergents (as a water softener), and metallurgy, and glasswork (as a hardener!).  The glass in the 200” Hale Telescope wasn’t successfully cast until the engineers tried Pyrex, which has borax in it.  Many other mineral salts, some with very colorful crystals can be seen in the Borax Museum next to the Visitor Center.  Most of the Borax in Death Valley was mined and then refined, but surface deposits of cottonball—a mixture of borax, salt, and dirt—can be seen near the Harmony Borax Works.  

Katrina on the hunt for a glimpse of the elusive salt
Katrina and I were mostly interested in sodium chloride, a mineral that Mark Kurlansky proclaims in his book Salt, a world history to be “the only edible rock.”  The flats in Badwater Basin are coated with large crusts of salt.  Runoff from the sorrounding slopes and the valley's meager 2 inches of annual rainfall washes minerals down the steep valley walls where it is trapped in the deep basin.  Cloudless skies and scorching temperatures (often over 120 degrees F in the summer) quickly evaporate the water leaving behind a 95 percent pure salt.  We walked a trail out onto the expansive white salt flat and I caught Katrina licking the ground a few times.

Mark Bitterman, another salt enthusiast, provides some useful historical perspective on salt in his book Salted, a Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral.  He writes, “For most of human existence salt has been scarce… difficult to transport and of dramatically varying quality.  Salt was, literally, a treasure, and everyone everywhere who could make it would.  Yet salt making was a challenging, physically demanding, risky job requiring the participation of an entire community.  The salts that resulted were unique, each bearing a mineral and crystalline imprint of the elemental and human forces that wrought it.  Salt was a natural, whole food, intimately tied to a place and a way of life.”

Joseph flint knapping
I spent much of the day at a flint knapping demonstration by Joseph Moore, a retired archaeologist.  He used elk and stone tools to flake obsidian into beautiful arrow heads.  He is also an avid birder and forager with a lot of  knowledge about the regionally available plant resources (basically a great guy), so I picked his brains about Pine Nuts and Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glanulosa) beans.  Neither are in season, but it would be fun to make another trip to the Desert SW when they are. 

We then drove northwest out of the valley towards Yosemite.  The higher elevation passes were covered with Single-leaved Pinyon (Pinus monopylla) and we stopped to investigate, but none of the nuts we found were any good.  Joseph said that this was a poor productivity year, and it was too late in the year anyway.
The robust needles of Single-leaved Pinyon
These large Pine Nuts are empty

We descended into the Owen's Lake Valley and made a brief stop to collect a little salt in the fading light.  There were birds everywhere, but not enough light to see them.  We found a nice piece of desert near Bishop to set up our tent (too cold and windy for sleeping out).

Camp Bishop
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Friday, January 6, 2012


Kelso Dunes
The next day we entered the eerily empty Mohave National Preserve and climbed up the “singing sand dunes.”  The Kelso Dunes are made up of ultrafine sand that produces a low humming noise when they move.  We were pretty sure we heard them sing once.  The dunes are so steep and the sand so loose in places that it is almost impossible to climb straight up them.

A small hole in the wall
The central part of the Preserve is mountainous and we drove a very rough road around to the Hole in the Wall campground.  We explored the narrow canyon and deemed it free of bandits (they live in Wyoming with the Sundance Kid) and enjoyed a little botanizing as the desert vegetation was starting to become familiar.

In the afternoon we drove east out of California and along parts of the historic Route 66.  When we crossed into Arizona we started climbing steadily out of the desert and into high pine country.  We were trying to get to the Grand Canyon in time to see the sunset but only arrived on the snowy South Rim for the final cool hues of twilight.

Camping that night in the Kaibab National Forest was the coldest of the trip.  Even though we set up the tent to provide a little extra insulation, I had to get up and light a fire in the pre-dawn hours to warm up.  At least firewood was easier to come by than in the desert.

Colorado Pinyon silhouette
Gambel Oak leaf (Quercus gambelii)
We went back to the South Rim to watch the sunrise and then hiked along the rim and watched the Mt. Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Western Scrub Jays flit about the Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis), Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and occasional Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii).  I saw some acorn caps, but all the acorns must have already been stowed away by the animals.  We went to a talk about the Tusayan Ruin in the park, and after some correspondence about Pueblo acorn use learned from Park Archeologist Ian Hough that “the Gamble oaks found in the park do not produce the type and quantity of acorns found in California or east of the Mississippi, where mortar and pestle technology was much more developed. But acorns and many other wild plant foods were processed and eaten here at Grand Canyon and accounts for various other forms of grinding tools that we find.”  The Pueblo that inhabited the ruin site 800 years ago relied more heavily on maize, beans, and squash.
Colorado Pinyon (Pinus edulis) needles in bunches of two

We found the ruins fascinating and learned that the nearby Wupatki National Monument managed several more ruins, so we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring them.  Nobody knows for certain why the settlements were abandoned, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they ran out of firewood.

Our next stop was Death Valley which was several hundred miles away, so we tried to get some of the driving out of the way that night and camped in the desert near Chloride AZ.  The next day we took much needed baths in Lake Mead, and pressed on to Death Valley for some more salt reconnaissance. Pin It submit to reddit

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Joshua Tree

Quilted Sunrise
Our Camp next to Little Box Canyon
The sunrise this morning was exquisite.  The sky was quilted with pink and orange which gave the bare canyon walls a warm glow.  We packed up early and drove the few remaining miles to Joshua tree.  Katrina went for a run and I explored the park a little on my own.  The Live Oak picnic area caught my attention and I was surprised to find a full sized oak in such an arid park.  I am uncertain exactly what kind of oak it was, perhaps a Shrub Live Oak (Quercus turbinella) hybrid with Valley Oak (Q. lobata).  The leaves had pointy tipped lobes and the acorns were an even tan color, lacked any fuzz, and were 30-40 mm long and 14-18 mm wide.  The acorn caps were in clusters and had warty tops with short felted hairs.  The Barker Dam area has a number of Shrub Live Oaks, but they had already dropped all of their acorns, were much scrubbier, and didn’t have lobed leaves.  We also encountered Single Leaved Pinyon (Pinus monophylla), which is a scrubby little pine tree with robust needles in clusters of… 1.  I never knew there were any one needled pines.  We played around on the rocks, photographed the shapely boulders, and jealously watched climbers (I wish I had brought my climbing shoes).

Shrub Live Oak hybrid (Quercus turbinella x lobata)

Shrub Live Oak hybrid (Quercus turbinella x lobata) acorns

Katrina in her element(s)

We wanted to find a quieter place to camp, so we left the park before sunset and drove north towards the Mojave National Preserve.  Just after the sunset we past the expansive salt flats at Bristol Lake and stopped to collect a few of the massive salt crusts.  You can see Katrina was pretty happy about it.  We continued east a little further until we found another flat chunk of desert to tie up our horse and poke at the fire while our can of beans cooked.
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Monday, January 2, 2012

The Salton Sea

Female Phainopepla
We got up with the sun this morning and drove over to the Yaqui Well to get a little desert birding in before heading to the Salton Sea.  As we climbed back into the mountains we spotted a group of Borrego, or Big Horn Sheep cruising along the rocky terrain and got a good look at them before they passed out of sight.  They are magnificent animals!  At Yaqui Well we spotted several Phainopeplas, and went for a short hike through bizarre plants like Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) and Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus).


Barrel Cactus
Katrina was antsy to hunt for some wild edible minerals (and the birding wasn’t all that good in the desert), so we drove east to the Salton Sea where we were immediately greeted by an abundance of both salt and birds.  If it wasn’t 60 degrees out, I would have thought that the shores were lined with snow that had drifted into all the low spots, such was the color and abundance of salt.  We learned that the Salton Sea is much saltier than Ocean Water, and as the irrigation waters that feed the lake evaporate, the salinity continues to rise.  Apparently this is a conservation concern because some of the fish that live in the lake will soon be unable to tolerate the brine.  The Salton Sea is of major importance to migratory waterfowl, which rely on the abundance of fish.  The signs that informed us of this conservation pickle were kind of amusing because they insinuated that something could be done.  Katrina and I had a fun time imagining solutions to the evaporation problem and ultimately decided that the government should pay Katrina to remove salt from the water.  Ironically, the Salton Sea (California’s biggest lake) was formed in 1905 by an irrigation accident which diverted the entire flow of the Colorado River into the -227 foot below sea level basin for 18 months.  The Salton Sea isn’t without precedence though as Native American narratives tell of a time when an even larger lake filled the valley.

American Avocet
Salton Sea Sunset
The birding was exceptional.  Highlights included Sand Hill Cranes, White Faced Ibis, White Pelicans, American Avocets, Eared Grebes, Roadrunners, Abert’s Towhee, ducks of every description, and thousands of Ross’s Geese.  Our shadows stretched eastward before we packed away the binoculars and started driving north towards Joshua Tree National Park.  We took a shortcut on Box Canyon Road through the Mecca Hills and laid out our sleeping bags next to the Little Box Canyon trail for another wonderful night under the stars. 
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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Palomar and Beyond- a nutty day

Canyon Live Oak acorns and caps (Quercus chrysolepis)
Acorns from Tan Oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus) & Canyon Live Oak
California Black Oak acorns (Quercus kelloggii)
Interior Live Oak acorns (possibly a hybrid Q. wislizenii x kelloggii)
The real acorn mother load came today when we were traveling up to the Palomar Observatory.  As we rapidly gained elevation the forests quickly transitioned from Coastal Sage Scrub to Lower and Upper Chaparral communities.  At the summit there were even conifers such as White Fir (Abies concolor) and Incense Cedar (Calocedrus decurrens) amongst patches of snow.  The biggest surprise for me was seeing Bigcone Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga macrocarpa), which as the name implies, has a large cone (about twice the size of a normal Douglas Fir), but otherwise looks the same.  While rounding a corner in the midst of the Canyon Live Oak (Quercus chrysolepis) forests I noticed acorns strewn across the road and quickly yanked the car into a pull off.  The acorns were huge!  The largest were 45 mm long and 20 mm wide and they had a rich even brown color and a waxy smooth finish except for the bluntly rounded tip which had a fuzzy white coating.  There was another type of acorn that was also very large but was shorter and wider, perhaps Tan Oak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), but I couldn’t find any leaves or caps.  We quickly collected about 2 gallons of acorns just on the road shoulder.  When we arrived at the observatory we saw some very large Canyon Live Oaks, but the acorns were slightly smaller.  Planted along the path to the Hale Telescope were several Black Oaks (Quercus kelloggii) that despite heavy loads of Broadleaf Mistletoe (Phoradendron macrophyllum), were producing good crops of acorns that were 28-35 mm long and 18-23 mm wide.*  Time was slipping away all too quickly but we hastily collected a gallon to experiment with.  Black Oak was one of the preferred acorns varieties by the Kumeyaay and the Luiseno, who may have relied on acorns for nearly half of their diet (see here and here for ethnobotanical information).  Just a few steps closer to the Hale Telescope we encountered yet another oak species, Interior Live Oak (Quercus wislizenii), which was still dropping acorns.  I collected a quick half gallon to experiment with.  The acorns were 30-35 mm long and 13-15 mm wide.*  One of the trees had well developed lobes and I think was a hybrid with Q. kelloggii.  There wasn’t much to see when we finally made it to the massive 200” Hale Telescope since it was still light out, but I spotted a Western Blue Bird with Katrina’s 1.5” binoculars.  Her binoculars also proved useful for the rest of the trip for watching the moons of Jupiter.

Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)
Coastal Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorn
From there we drove down the mountain and towards Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  Along the way we encountered some beautiful savannah grown Coastal Live Oaks (Quercus agrifolia) that were still dropping acorns.  These acorns were long (40-45 mm) and slender (12-15 mm) with striations.*  I only had time to collect a cup full because we wanted to find a camp before dark.  Our small scenic road merged with route 79 and then 78 as we continued to drop elevation.  A constant stream of RV’s towing ATV’s met us going the other direction.  Apparently, the week between Christmas and New Years is the high season for many desert parks and recreation areas.  By the time we found a level section of desert to throw out our bedrolls the sun had already set.

*Note:  all measurements were taken from acorns that we collected, which were systematically collected for their average to large size.

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