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NATURE HAPPENINGS - July 2005


Changes in Altitude
by Damian Fagan

As the July mercury rises, so does my desire to venture up into the mountains. Driven by the “3 degrees for every 1000 feet in elevation” theory, I pack my gear for an elevational-attitude-adjustment and depart for the mountains.

The local peaks, the La Sals, offer a respite from this July heat wave. Topping out at over 12,000 feet, I know there is a whole lot of room to roam up there. Even if it is for only a day, the difference in altitude will make a profound change in my attitude.

Driving the switchbacks above Ken’s Lake, I leave the beloved desert below to bake in its own insanity. Above me forest greenery shines like a beacon of hope – hope for a cool breeze and a break from the heat.
As I pass through the transition from oak woodland to aspen grove, I feel a sense of relief. Not just from the difference in temperature, but a freeing that only the mountains can offer. Perhaps it is due to the aspen themselves, these ancient beings whose ties to the mountains predates European settlement on this continent. Though individual trees are not that old, it is the below ground connection that weaves these trunks together and roots them to the ground. Though aspen can populate areas by seed, they often regenerate through root sprouting.

The aspens are not the only plants that reproduce through suckering, but they have perfected the ability to rise above the ashes of destruction. Hormones produced by the trees inhibit the production of root sprouts. Therefore, a stand of trees often represents the same age class, as the trees are clones of their parents. But, layer in some type of disturbance – fire, avalanche, and chain saws – and those hormones are no longer inhibited sprouting. Soon, clusters of fast-growing, gray-trunked trees will rise like the proverbial Phoenix, creating another copse of relatively short-lived trees.

Still in the aspens, I reach my destination at Gold Basin. I abandon the car and proceed on foot once again transitioning from the “quakies” up into the spruce-fir. Above me lie the shattered rocks of timberline and the endless blue sky.

Along the trail I encounter other residents of this montane forests – blue grouse, woodpeckers, warblers, vireos, robins, and butterflies. I see the prints of mule deer embedded in the muddy sections of the trail. Piles of scat indicate the presence of coyote, elk and bear. Flowers interject their opinions on the weather through a profusion of color that covers the spectrum of a rainbow. In turn, these flowers are like busy diners, catering to the dietary needs of their insect and avian customers, while getting reimbursed through the process of pollination.

I pause to drink water, have a snack and watch the insect traffic. I think of an early pollination ecologist who observed the daily procession of insects as they visited particular flowers. He counted the numbers and types of species attracted to certain flowers. He must have had the patience of the mountains, for some plants, like the wild Chysanthemum, were visited by over 100 species of insects.

As the day passes, so does my heat-stressed attitude. Accompanying this change is the confection of thunderheads that have built up over the peaks. Larger than some eastern states, these clouds offer another punctuation to the summer heat that I have hoped for – rain. Of course, I also worry about the lightning often associated with these storms, so when the first peals of thunder echo throughout the basin, I decide to descend back to the vehicle. I have a very healthy respect for lightning garnered from numerous storms. Besides, as I console myself, I forgot my raincoat.

As I descend back to town soaked by a shower of rain, I feel rejuvenated. The desert heat will feel good again, not oppressive and unrelenting. From my elevated vantage I see other storms sweeping across the high plateaus and canyons. Though those rains may evaporate before they hit the ground, even just the notion of their presence is a welcomed addition to this fine July day.

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