Notes from A Backpacking Trip on the
Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in
Red Buttes Wilderness Area,
Siskiyou County, California, USA

July 26, 2009

It turns out that some old friends, Romain and Christie, live not far from here. This week they invited me to backpack with them on the wonderful Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in upcountry Red Buttes Wilderness Area just across the Oregon border in California.

From my base near Grants Pass, Red Buttes lies only 30 miles or so south as the crow flies but of course the distance traveled on the winding mountain roads leading there is a lot more, and nearly all of it is uphill. We were out four days and three nights. Here's a little of what we encountered, with my friends introducing most of it to me for the first time:


Already at our hike's trailhead plants turned up that I'd never seen. Most conspicuous was a shrubby, evergreen oak forming dense thickets about waist high around the parking area where we left the car. You can see a bush's five-inch long leaves and immature acorns at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726q1.jpg.

That's a Sadler Oak, QUERCUS SADLERIANA, an endemic shrub found only in the Klamath Mountains of extreme southwestern Oregon and extreme northwestern California. You might enjoy seeing a map showing its tiny distribution.

Sadler Oaks shun bright sunlight, preferring forest edges, and forming ground cover seldom over five or six feet high in open conifer forests. It belongs to the white oak group, so its acorns mature in only a year. Its closest near relative lives in Mexico.


It was fascinating how the vegetation changed drastically depending on geology. Sometimes we'd emerge from a cool, shadowy conifer forest and walk directly into a hot, dazzlingly bright "barren" occupied by naked rock and/or low, dense thickets, with no clear reasons for the change other than a different kind of bedrock appearing. You can see our first such barren with spotty, waist-high thickets at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726q2.jpg.

The thickets are composed of yet another bushy oak, this species needing bright sunlight. You can see this second oak species' tough, evergreen, brittle leaves and penny-size, not-quite-mature acorns at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726q3.jpg.

This is the Huckleberry Oak, QUERCUS VACCINIFOLIA, more widely distributed than the Sadler Oak, but still restricted only to extreme southwest Oregon, northern California and a tiny bit of Nevada. You might enjoy seeing a map showing its distribution.

Both the Sadler and Huckleberry Oaks provide browse for the area's abundant Black-tailed Deer as well as for Black Bear, various rodents, Blue Grouse, Mountain Quail and other birds.

Huckleberry Oaks also fall into the White Oak group, with acorns maturing in one year. Living where any rooted plant might be damaged from dislodged boulders and fire, Huckleberry oak sprouts from the root crown when its top is destroyed. When low brush extends over a large area it's referred to as chaparral. Huckleberry Oak is an important, often dominant, member of mountain chaparral, but not of chaparral at lower elevations.


Just beyond the slope mantled with Huckleberry Oak chaparral we entered cool forest again where one of the most distinctive and eye-pleasing trees I've seen appeared, a tall, slender spruce with drooping branches heavy with pendant cones. You see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726sp.jpg.

That's the Brewer or Weeping Spruce, PICEA BREWERIANA, yet another species endemic to the Klamath Mountains of southwest Oregon and northwest California. Despite the fact that typically it grows less than eight to twelve inches a year (20-30 cm) it reaches up to 130 feet tall (40 m) in height. Ecologically it specializes in ridge-top sites with very heavy winter snow, but which are dry in the summer. The tree's dangling branches enable it to shed what otherwise might be limb-breaking loads of snow and ice.

In northern western Europe Brewer Spruces are much planted because they are so beautiful, yet survive the harsh winters there.


On our first night in the highlands we camped at Echo Lake, elevation around 5450 feet (1660 m). You get an echo there because high, steep slopes rise on three sides, returning an echo if you call. On the fourth side there's a low, natural dam of jumbled rock and dirt, below which a U-shaped valley opens prettily. Echo Lake itself was circular and maybe 300 feet across. You can see Christie sitting admiring it all at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726cq.jpg.

Echo Lake, which we found teeming with water striders and Rough-skinned Newts, occupies a classic cirque (pronounced SURK). A cirque is an amphitheater-like valley head gouged out by an alpine glacier. Thousands of years ago a glacier originated where Echo Lake now pools, its ice flowing into and scouring out the valley below.

There's a whole fascinating world of glacial geology with attending specialized terms, such as "cirque." A cirque's lake is called a "tarn," while the highest cliff around the tarn often is called a headwall. The tarn's dam is the "lip." If two adjacent cirques erode toward one another from across a ridge an "arête" is formed. When three or more cirques erode toward one another, a "pyramidal peak" or "horn" is created.

More information, diagrams and pictures outlining the whole cirque phenomenon are outlined on the Wikipedia Cirque Page at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cirque.


Before leaving Echo Lake we needed water. Romain had spotted a spring up a steep slope the afternoon before, so I gathered everyone's canteens and began climbing. What a rainbow of wildflowers lived along the seepage below the spring! After clambering over hippopotamus-size boulders I found a very cold, silvery, finger-thick trickle of pure water issuing from a rock fracture inside a thicket of what's seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726mp.jpg.

Closely related to the Vine Maple found in similar habitats lower in elevation, this is the Torrey Maple, ACER GLABRUM var. TORREYI, a variety endemic to northern California. The inclusive species Acer glabrum is sometimes known as the Rock Maple because of its hard wood and is distributed from southern Alaska through much of southwestern Canada and the western US.

What a pleasure meeting this new kind of maple, and such a pretty one at that.


On our second night we camped at 5600-ft-high (1700 m) Kangaroo Springs, a broad, wildflower-graced meadow with several tiny ponds and edged with very gnarly, picturesque pines. During the day sunlight bathed the meadow with the stinging intensity experienced only at higher elevations. In late afternoon birds of several species moved onto the meadow as the high ridge to our west extended it chilling shadow eastward. One little family of birds who'd been among the surrounding pines all along now became much more active and curious about our presence. You can see one of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726nh.jpg.

That's a Red-breasted Nuthatch, SITTA CANADENSIS, only an overwintering visitor in most of the US East and central states, but a permanent resident in most of the West, and a summer visitor in adjacent Canada.

Yank-yank-yank the bird called rather monotonously, and with a more nasal quality that the White-breasted Nuthatch, which often is more common. Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller than White-breasteds (four inches long instead of five), plus you can see that Red-breasteds have a white eye-stripe, while White-breasted's don't. In general White-breasteds prefer deciduous woods while Red-breasteds prefer conifers.


Here and there across Kangaroo Spring's broad meadow foot-wide streams of black, cold water slowly flowed in channels sunken a few inches below the sod. The vertical-walled channels usually were so well hidden by tall grass and wildflowers that if you didn't watch you could step right into them. Usually the channels' wet rims were mantled with carpets of tiny, closely packed mosses, many doing the special thing you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726mn.jpg.

I think but am not sure that the moss shown belongs to the genus MNIUM. You know that mosses reproduce by spores, and that the spores are released from capsules set atop hairlike stems called setae. So, what are the rusty-colored, flat structures situated where the capsules' setae should be rooted?

Those are pinhead-size "antheridial heads." Antheridia produce male sex germs, or sperm. The idea is for sperm from antheridial heads to reach female sex germs in narrower "archegonial heads" growing elsewhere.

I've read two explanation for the antheridial heads' structure and both explanations need water in the cups. One account has raindrops hitting the heads, splashing sperm out of the cups to where female sex germs in archegonial heads await them. Another idea says that the sperm are coated with a little fat, form a very fine scum atop water in the cup, then insects wandering across the moss-carpet surface get sperm stuck on their legs and transfer them to archegonial heads.


As the sun sank I staked my tent on Kangaroo Spring's meadow. Just as I began dozing off the sound of a herbivore clipping herbage arose right outside the tent. My tent's walls are composed of see-through netting so it was easy enough even in the dim light to see standing ten feet away a Columbian Black-tailed Deer, ODOCOILEUS HEMIONUS ssp. COLUMBIANUS, looking straight at me.

The deer leaped backward but ran only a few feet away, turned around, looked at me, then returned to his earlier spot and began munching again. This happened several times. The deer walked all around the tent, enabling me to take the dimly-lit picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726md.jpg.

The critter took a poop not twenty feet away, so I can report that for the deer shown in the picture pooping is done dog-like, spreading the back legs and dropping the rear end halfway down, and looking around nonchalantly, almost debonairly.

How do Black-tailed Deer differ from White-tailed Deer?

Black-tailed Deer carry their black-tipped tails drooped while White-tails, at least in flight, keep their white tails uplifted. Black-tailed Deer are a kind of mule deer so they run with a series of stiff-legged jumps during which all four feet come off the ground together, while the White-tail runs more like a horse. Black-tails have larger ears, while White-tails have larger tails. Black-tail antlers normally are smaller than those of White-tails, typically branching to form only two equal forks, while White-tails antlers are forward-curving and may bear several points, or tines, branching from the main beam.


Few times in my life have I been awakened by an odor, but that night in Kangaroo Spring's meadow that was the case. Deep in the night I awoke immersed in the odor of bile. It was an odor as oily, dark and penetrating as you can imagine. My first thought was that someone or something had pooped right beside my head there at the tent's opening but then I realized that the odor wasn't of feces, but of pure bile. If you've ever smelled the gallbladder from a chicken being dismembered, that's the odor, just much stronger and oilier. My next thought was that a mustelid mammal such as a weasel or a mink must have passed by my head, but then I remembered that the odor of the few musetlids I've smelled was skunky, not at all like oily bile.

The next morning, the sickening odor long faded, I told my friends about the experience.

"That's what they say Bigfoot smells like," Romain said, "and we're in the very center of Bigfoot territory."

I hadn't thought about that. And it's true that down below in Happy Camp, California they've erected a huge, hairy semblance of Bigfoot to honor the fact.

So until someone comes up with a better idea, that's my own Bigfoot story.

Wikipedia's Bigfoot Page, with that famous photo, is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bigfoot


The trail passed through lots of mountain-slope chaparral and I was amazed at the sheer numbers of Fox Sparrows, PASSERELLA ILIACA, who nested there. And they were Fox Sparrows very unlike those seen in the East. You can see one that many of you will doubt is a Fox at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726fx.jpg.

Romain, very familiar with Fox Sparrows in this area, says that what's in the photo is the "California" or "thick-billed" subspecies, Passerella iliaca ssp. stephensi. During winter, coastal races ("sooty group") invade the lowlands in this area.

At Kangaroo Springs at dusk I walked over to a campfire spot and dropped a piece of white paper onto some old ashes. Half a second after the paper left my hand a bird streaked between the ashes and my hand still in the air. It was a Fox Sparrow who landed in a nearby bush and looked at me. A minute later the bird flew back and landed in dust previous campers had created walking around the campfire.

From about 20 feet away I began snapping pictures as the bird sang and scratched in the dust like a chicken. I approached closer and the bird continued scratching and singing. Closer, and more scratching, closer and closer, and more singing. You can see the bird in very dim light, from ten feet at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726fy.jpg.

Fox Sparrows mostly overwinter in the US Southeast and southwest, breed throughout most of Canada, Alaska and much of the US Northwest, plus they're permanent residents here in the coastal Northwest.


The Pacific Crest Trail is about 2600 miles long (4180 km) with Mexico on one end and Canada on the other, passing through California, Oregon and Washington. It climbs nearly 60 major mountain passes, descends into 19 major canyons, and passes more than 1000 lakes and tarns. It traverses three national monuments, seven national parks, 24 national forests and 33 wilderness areas. And fewer people have thru-hiked the PCT than have climbed Mt. Everest!

What I saw of it is very similar to the Appalachian Trail, though more rugged and picturesque, and with about the same number of hikers, which is pretty low. On a typical day you might meet two or three individuals or groups, and it's a pleasure hearing what the folks have seen, where they're coming from and where they're going.

We met a twelve-year old who backpacked barefooted, and we passed three separate groups who had started in Mexico and now were heading toward Canada. We just missed a fellow wearing moccasins and buckskin, leading a mule carrying his gear. We also crossed paths with Scott Williamson, who holds the speed record for hiking the entire distance unsupported.

Scott was amazingly pumped up, laughing with a friend and walking very fast. Recently someone who had support (mainly food waiting at spots along the way) had broken his record and now Scott was trying to beat that record, unsupported. Scott's interview with CBS's Sunday Morning TV program is at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/21/sunday/main2381279.shtml.

The Pacific Crest Trail's homepage is at http://www.pcta.org/.


Usually we took crystal-clear, sweet-tasting and brain-numbingly cold water directly from springs. However, one day we ran out of this good water and that's when I was glad that Romain and Christie carried a water filter. You can see Christie filtering water from a shallow pit holding Rough-skinned Newts at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726fi.jpg.

The filter didn't weigh much and it took only about ten minutes to filter water for all our canteens. As our infrastructure collapses more and more, and global-warming disasters grow ever more violent, it will become ever more advisable for us to have water filters handy.

Just Google "camping water filters" and you'll see pages and pages of links to these life-saving products. In cost they range from about $40 to $100 and much more. Be sure to get one with a filter that can be easily replaced.


Lying upside down atop the black pool of water Christie filtered the water from was the butterfly at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726ch.jpg.

In exotic environments you hope for exotic species and though this butterfly looked a lot like the Edith's Checkerspot introduced here a while back, still seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/echecker.htm it looked different enough to photograph.

Bea in Ontario and I agree that it's the very closely related Northern Checkerspot, CHLOSYNE PALLA, found in much of northwestern US and adjacent Canada. Older books sometime call it the Rockslide Checkerspot, Charidryas damoetas.

Change elevation and plants and animals change, too...

By the way, the floating checkerspot turned out still to be alive. I removed him to a blade of grass and left him drying in the sun.


We were in the Red Buttes Wilderness Area, and those red buttes were red -- actually reddish orange -- because the rock of which they are composed, known as PERIDOTITE, contains high concentrations of iron and magnesium. When those minerals combine with oxygen in the air they turn reddish orange. You could say accurately that the rocks "rust," and that's why they are rusty colored.

On our last day out as we descended to our next camp at Towhead Lake I snapped the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726pt.jpg.

Two things to notice there are how limited the vegetation is on the red-orange peridotite of which most of the mountain is composed, and how trees suddenly appear on the white below the peridotite. That white outcrop is composed of marble, limestone, and intermediate limy-rock states, marble being metamorphosed limestone,

The picture shows Kangaroo Mountain and books say that the peridotite making up both Kangaroo Mountain and the Red Buttes probably originated as molten magma deposited on the floor of an ancient ocean. Several hundred million years ago our marble/limestone was that ocean floor, a carbonate-rich marl like many ocean floors, which eventually solidified into limestone and now at least some of it has metamorphosed into marble.

Beside my tent at Towhead Lake I photographed a broken-open peridotite stone with a "rusted," red- orange exterior and slate-gray interior, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726pu.jpg.

Peridotite is worth knowing because it's THE dominant rock of the upper 250 miles (400 kms) of the Earth's mantle. We don't hear much about peridotite because typically it's buried beneath other rock types. That would be the case here, too, were it not for this area's rambunctious geological history, too complex to go into here.

In general, peridotite is a coarse-grained, igneous rock consisting mostly of the minerals olivine and pyroxene. Because it contains less than 45% silica, it's said to be "ultramafic." As we've seen, it's high in magnesium and iron. When peridotite occurs at the Earth's surface we know that either it has been carried up from the Earth's mantle during mountain- building processes, or else it's crystallized from magmas forming dikes, sills or other features associated with vulcanism.


In warmer valleys below, two swordfern species in the genus Polystichum are abundant, but at our hike's higher elevation I didn't see a single one of those. In fact, ferns were conspicuously absent all along our trail -- until the last day, at Towhead Lake. Towhead Lake is a pretty, swimable tarn set among towering red cliffs and elephantine boulders of peridotite. There quite commonly we saw a stiff, frilly, curiously upwardly arching species of fern, always closely associated with peridotite, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726fn.jpg.

I'd never seen this species but when I examined its spore-producing fruitdots, or sori, on its fronds' undersurfaces the sori were very familiar, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726fo.jpg.

The sori are covered with membranous "indusia" attached to the frond by their centers, umbrellalike. This is exactly the way swordfern sori look, and it turns out that this is yet another member of the swordfern genus Polystichum. It's the Shasta Fern, also called Lemmon's Holly Fern, POLYSTICHUM LEMMONII.

This fern specializes in high-elevation serpentine outcrops (serpentine is closely associated with peridotite) and is distributed from British Columbia south into California, east to Idaho.


Upon leaving the wilderness area, first we passed by my friends' home. They'd told me that beneath the plastic sheet covering one of their compost heaps usually a racer (snake) hung out, so we went to check him out. You can see the little snake at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726ra.jpg.

That's a young Western Yellow-bellied Racer, COLUBER CONSTRICTOR ssp. MORMON. In earlier Newsletters we've seen other subspecies, and already noted that several subspecies who vary considerably in coloration are recognized; my old Audubon guide lists eleven for North America. Racers occur from the US East Coast all the way to the Pacific, though not in much of the desert Southwest and the north-central states. Oregon's Yellow-bellied subspecies can be found from southern British Columbia to Mexico's Baja California, east to southwestern Montana and western Colorado.


My friends' farm is off-grid, except for their phone connection. You can see their hot-water installation with garden and greenhouse beyond (shower hidden) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726e5.jpg.

Combining output from solar cells and a hydroelectric setup, they produce enough electricity to serve three or four households. You can see me standing next to their solar panel array at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726e6.jpg.

The energy control center in a nearby shed is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090726e7.jpg.

In that picture the batteries are at the lower left. The white box with a green band across it at the top left is the inverter, which converts DC current to AC used by typical household appliances and computers. The next two boxes in the picture's center are voltage regulators, and the large thing at the top, right is part of the voltage regulation set-up, which converts electricity to heat when the voltage rises too high. At the bottom right is a super-efficient freezer.

If you see the sense in all this, Google "off grid" or go to the Off-Grid Website at http://www.off-grid.net/.


Romain and Christie were about my age, knew Nature as well as I, and were as passionate about protecting Life on Earth as I. Being with them supported one of my core beliefs: That the more one knows about Life on Earth, the more you care about it, and caring translates to sustainable behavior. Or:

environmental education -->
caring about Life on Earth --> sustainable behavior

Our backpacking took place in California where this week the Legislature came up with a plan for keeping the state from bankruptcy. With its first priority being "no new taxes," the plan accomplishes its goal by cutting services. Education of all kinds suffers disproportionately.

I have visited countries where education was not adequately funded. There one sees the opposite of the above formula at work:

bad schools --> disrespect for institutions --> unsustainable behavior

By "unsustainable behavior" I mean such national calamities as civil wars and the collapse of infrastructure, as well as societal problems like high levels of alcoholism and drug use, family violence, and of course environmental destruction, which is the most serious and damning of all human behaviors.

History suggests that our society, after enjoying its period of greatness, now must withdraw into seedy, pathetic helplessness as other more vigorous peoples take our place. And just look at those diligent young Chinese and Indian students!

On the other hand, as the Sixth Miracle of Nature enables us humans to overcome our genetic programming, the same Miracle invites us to rationally reconstitute our society this way:

more education --> greater caring at all levels --> sustainable behavior

They say that as Calfornia goes, so goes the rest of the US. If that is true, only a miracle -- the Sixth Miracle of Nature -- can save us from an ignoble, self-inflicted future.


Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,