Yellowstone Backpacking and Wildfire Ecology, Part Four

Our wide variety of guided Yellowstone backpack trips explore a tremendous variety of wild Yellowstone landscapes, including recently burned areas, shady old growth forest and all stages of forest development in between!

For example, the June Northern Yellowstone Wildlife and Wildflower Extravaganza explores a varied mix of wide open meadow and open Douglas-fir woodlands with a smattering of aspen and spruce. But on our autumn northern Yellowstone trip, we get into higher terrain where areas that burned in 1988 are growing back with a lush mix of lodgepole pine, quaking aspen and Engelmann spruce.

The Lamar backcountry trek is a study in lodgepole pine ecology, with large areas of dense young forest dating back to the ’88 wildfires. The Gallatin Range trek is a splendid mix of post fire lodgepole plus old growth spruce-fir forest and old growth lodgepole, too, interspersed with spectacular wildflower meadows! The Southern Yellowstone Heart Lake Backcountry is a similar mix of post-fire and old growth woods, while our Bechler Waterfall Wonderland treks are mostly through old growth forest interspersed with huge meadows. These treks include just a tiny post wildfire area along the edge of the 1988 burns. Similarly, our Yellowstone Plateau Off-Trail backpacking adventures include minimal young post-fire forest and large areas of old growth lodgepole pine on the rhyolite plateau, interspersed with lush stream-side meadows.

In other words, each of our guided Yellowstone backpack treks is a unique trek into a tremendously varied landscape with widely varying forest types in infinitely varying stages of ecological succession, all shaped by the inexorable force of natural lightening-ignited wildfires that help to create the unmatched landscape diversity that one experiences when venturing into the wild and beautiful Yellowstone backcountry!

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Yellowstone Backpacking and Fire Ecology, Part Three

To backpack in Yellowstone is to backpack in a wild landscape that has been shaped by wildfire. Most of Yellowstone is a complex mix of forest and meadow, mostly forest. And throughout most of the park, the dominant tree is lodgepole pine. There is plenty of spruce and fir and whitebark pine, and some Douglas-fir, too, with a smattering of quaking aspen. But in most of Yellowstone, lodgepole pine rules.

On rhyolite plateau soils in much of central and southern Yellowstone, lodgepole pine forest tends to perpetuate itself indefinitely, with or without wildfire. These nutrient poor soils will support some spruce and fir, but usually only in protected pockets of rich moist soils. On alluvial soils plus those which are derived from sedimentary rocks or from the andesitic soils of the Absaroka volcanics, lodgepole pine is seral to spruce and fir. In other words, given enough time without a high intensity wildfire, the shade tolerant spruces and firs will gradually replace most of the lodgepole pines.

With the next big blaze, though, in most Yellowstone forest habitats, the lodgepoles will take over, out reproducing the other conifers in the wake of wildfire. Within a year or two of the blaze, the burned exposed mineral soils will support millions upon millions of seedlings! How does this occur, you might ask? Easily, if you are a lodgepole pine. You see, lodgepole pine produces “serotinous” cones, which remain on the tree, unopened, for many years or decades, until the flaming heat of a wildfire melts the resins which otherwise hold the cone scales closed (lodgepoles also produce non-serotinous cones that open yearly, just to cover its options for when fires don’t occur). And presto: millions of seeds fall to the forest floor creating the next stage in the ever-evolving fire dependent world of the lodgepole pine forest!

 

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Wildfire Ecology & Yellowstone Backpacking, Part Two

One misconception about wildfire is that it “damages” or “devastates” a landscape, and that the ensuing years are all about “recovery”. These are value-laden words, lacking in ecological context. In fact, natural lightening-ignited wildfire has been part of our western landscapes for many thousands of years, and phases of post-fire forest growth, from ancient forests to freshly burned landscapes and everything in between, are all part of the natural cycle.

Another misconception is that the abundant dead trees in the wake of wildfire are a further fire hazard. They are not. In fact, the most flammable part of the forest are the needles and small twigs, not the tree boles and bigger branches that remain after the blaze. Usually, the small twigs and needles burn up, so recently burned areas are actually much less flammable than previously. The truth is that recently burned forests with lots of dead trees form what ecologists refer to as “snag habitats”, which are particularly rich in biodiversity. Dozens of vertebrates utilize the dead trees, and insect life — which forms the base of the food web — is especially abundant. Post-fire snag forests are rich forests indeed.

In addition, some folks in the U.S. Forest Service and in the timber industry have perpetrated a particularly egregious myth: that most western forests historically burned at frequent intervals and at low intensities, thus creating an open park-like forest. Therefore, the thinking goes, the woods are now overgrown due to decades of fire suppression, and the cure, of course, is to log these forests back into their “natural” condition of low tree density. This paradigm is partially true for some low elevation western ponderosa stands, particularly in the southwestern U.S., such as the Gila Wilderness. But as recent research has proven, most western forests — including those in the Yellowstone region — historically burned at mixed intensities and at intervals ranging from every 60-80 years to every 400 years or longer. So, increased density in older forests is perfectly natural. In truth, large-scale high intensity blazes — such as those which scorched Yellowstone in 1988 — have always been a perfectly natural part of the mix. So too, dense woods are a perfectly natural landscape feature in many habitats, and such forests are not in “need” of “restoration” logging by the Forest Service and the timber industry. Large-scale blazes, by the way, actually represent a small percentage of wildfires but affect a large area of the landscape.

One final myth for now: wildfire is fuel-driven, and logging the woods reduces fuels and wildfire intensity. Again, though, science says otherwise. Big wildfires are weather driven, and given a drought plus hot weather and wind, will burn through thinned or heavily logged over woods as quickly as an old growth stand. In fact, because of increased wind and sun plus left over logging slash, recent studies have proven that more often than not, logging operations actually increase fire danger and intensity. After all, the loggers want the big tree stems, not the highly flammable needles and fine twigs and dense undergrowth (which usually burn up in a wildfire). Do not believe everything you hear or read!

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Wildfire Ecology & Yellowstone Backpacking, Part One

Forests and grasslands of the western United States periodically burn. So long as there are periods of hot dry weather coupled with lightening strikes, wildfires will continue to be part of western landscapes. These ecosystems are exquisitely adapted to wildfire, and indeed, in some cases they are dependent upon periodic blazes. More on this later.

In the Southwest, and in the southern Rockies of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, the typical fire season begins in late spring and lasts until the summer monsoon begins, which is usually sometime in July. Springtime is generally dry and sunny in these highlands, but the subtropical summer monsoon usually puts a damper on the fire season. In the Southwest, August and September can be very wet, with scattered daily afternoon deluges emanating from thunderheads that build up due to the moist monsoonal flow plus convective day-time heating combined with orographic uplift. In the years when the monsoon is weak or fails to develop, the fire season can indeed last through the summer.

Further north, in our home region of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, springtime is usually cool and wet with lots of rain or snow or both. Therefore,  June and much of July are usually characterized by lush greenery punctuated by colorful blooms of wildflowers. This includes our routes on all of our guided Yellowstone backpack trips. As the spring rains recede and the summer landscape begins to dry out, the wildfire season gets going, usually peaking in August. Areas west of the Continental Divide — which are typically very wet during winter and spring — have especially dry summers. By contrast, areas on the east side usually get more summer rain, partly because these mountains are higher than most ranges to the west. This includes the mountains and plateaus in and around Yellowstone. Also, the northern edge of the monsoon tends to drift northeasterly across the Yellowstone region and out onto the plains of eastern Montana, thus missing western Montana and most of Idaho. So most years, not all, the Yellowstone highlands are quite adequately watered.

In the next installment, we’ll discuss a few of the widely held myths about wildfire in our wildland ecosystems.

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Yellowstone Backpacking Food Safety, Part Two

As previously discussed, a simple backpacking menu is best, and that’s our philosophy on Big Wild Adventures guided hiking treks. Yet, because Big Wild is a commercial operation, we do bring a few carefully packaged luxuries, such as fresh produce and desserts (all prepared by our guides). So our menu for our guided hiking tours in Yellowstone and elsewhere is a relatively simple but tasty mix of fresh and dried foods that’s filling and nutritious. It is dominated by complex carbs such as whole grain pastas and a mix of dried and fresh fruits, vegetables and protein. Also, our guides shop and plan each menu with the foremost consideration of avoiding really smelly items that might attract animals. This is especially important in bear country, because once a bear successfully pilfers food from human campers, that bear will habitually get into trouble — until somebody is injured or the bear is shot by rangers, or both. Remember, “A fed bear is a dead bear”. Do not foster the demise of Yogi!

Also, pack everything in Ziploc bags (and re-use and recycle the bags after the trip!). That’s an important line of defense against escaping food odors. And don’t forget to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer prior to food preparation. This will prevent the spread of disease-causing microorganisms, which could seriously mess with someone’s digestive tract. This will also minimize the unfair blaming of Giardia protozoans for digestive difficulties. That’s because research proves that many — if not most — cases of alleged “Giardia” are actually some other microbe spread by poor sanitation! So clean your hands after you poop and before you prepare chow for your fellow hikers or dig your hands into the communal trail mix.

A few words on spoilage: If you’re hiking in the Great Smokies in July, nearly any fresh food will quickly spoil in that warm, wet climate. In fact, it is so moist and mild in the southern Appalachians that you might actually begin to decompose on the trail! So maximize dried foods. On a guided hike in Yellowstone, though, or for that matter just about anywhere in the Rocky Mountains, the humidity is low, and even after a warm day, nights cool into the 40’s or lower. So items such as cheese, carrots, peanut butter, bread and salsa will usually keep just fine (in Ziplocs!), even on a week long trek in the big wilds. But don’t forget: just because foods don’t easily spoil is no reason to tempt fate and bring things that are likely to attract bears and other animals. Give the critters a break and be careful what you buy at the supermarket!

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Yellowstone Backpacking Food Safety, Part One

Food safety on a backpack trip, in Yellowstone and elsewhere, begins with the effort to ensure that the food ends up in your digestive tract, not in that of a bear. Or, for that matter, in that of a mouse or squirrel! And this effort begins in the grocery store.

When shopping for backpacking food, remember that some foods spoil easily and others do not. Also, remember that a bear’s sense of smell is over a thousand times better than that of us lowly humans, so please, forget the bacon and other forms of fresh meat. Please walk right past the grocery store meat department and spend your shopping time pondering different brands of oatmeal, rice, pasta and energy bars. Do you really have to have fresh eggs and pancakes on a backpack trip? Are we Americans really so spoiled that we can’t forgo culinary luxuries when out in the wilds for a while? Ask yourselves why your out in wild nature to begin with! Do you wish to spend huge amounts of camp time preparing fancy (and smelly) foods, or would you rather be watching wildlife or sniffing wildflowers ? Or maybe just sitting under a tree watching the clouds go by (my personal favorite activity). Or exploring the terrain near camp. So leave highly odoriferous foods that will attract bears in the grocery store. This will also keep you from working too hard once you reach camp.

While planning and preparing a wilderness backpacking menu is beyond the scope of this missive, in following the above advice, consider how much you’ll enjoy that first icy brew and hot bison burger on a toasted bun after you leave the wilderness! And stay tuned for part two of “Yellowstone Backpacking and Food Safety”.

 

 

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Guided Backpacking and Kitchen Safety, Part Two

In the previous post we discussed the need for clients to give our guides plenty of working space in the “kitchen area”, in order to avoid burns from either hot water or the campfire. This is important on our guided Yellowstone hikes as well as our guided backpacking treks throughout the Mountain West.

Speaking of campfires, we will often ask our clients to collect and break up firewood. This activity, while fun for most folks, presents a unique set of hazards. First and foremost is the danger of flying projectiles of small wood chips. Look away when breaking a branch, wear your glasses or sunglasses, and break wood in a direction where a flying wood chip will not hit another person! It is also quite possible to break a foot or sprain an ankle in the effort (jumping or stomping on a branch) to break a chunk of wood into shorter lengths. Don’t. It’s not worth it. If the tree branch won’t break without herculean effort, forget about it! It’s probably either still green or is too big for use in a cooking fire, anyway.

Other kitchen hazards: accidentally kicking dirt or moose poop into the cook pot or into the bowl of diced carrots sitting on the ground that the guide just finished cutting. All the more reason to give the guiding (cooking) staff lots of room to work! Providing a meal for a group of hungry backpackers in nearly every kind of weather imaginable is tough enough without folks traipsing through the kitchen and messing things up!

Here’s my favorite kitchen advice and story. Do not drool into the cook pot! I am serious. I am not making this up. We once had a client who was poorly socialized in a number of ways not appropriate to describe in this post. Except for the drooling part. I had measured out the water for dinner and it was nearly boiling when “The Drooling Physicist” (yes, he was a learned man of science) for some reason decided to lift the lid off the cook pot — obviously when I wasn’t looking — to see what was inside (hot water). At that exact moment, I turned around and to my utter dismay watched this fellow accidentally unleash a long filament of drool, which for a brief moment connected the inside of his mouth with the contents of the cooking pot! And yes, for this and numerous other reasons, this fellow is blacklisted.

Of course, I had to clean out the pot and start from scratch. Be assured, though, that such behavior is the exception, not the rule. But it is yet another reason to stay out of the kitchen and give us plenty of space to safely work!

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Guided Backpacking and Kitchen Safety, Part One

One of the most under-appreciated hazards of wilderness backpacking, including on our guided Yellowstone backpacking trips, is the food preparation area, or the back-country “Kitchen”. This kitchen is a mobile one, consisting of pots and pans plus a grill or camp stove or both, carried by the guide in order to make sure that his pack isn’t too light and comfortable.

On most of our treks, campfires are allowed, and we at Big Wild do most of our cooking on fires, where the guide sets up a grill for efficient cooking over the flames. However, at some of the Yellowstone campsites, fires are prohibited, and that is also the case with most of our desert trip routes in the colorful canyon country of southern Utah. In these situations, our guides do the cooking on lightweight stoves that run on “white gas”. Regardless of the cooking method, though, the kitchen area is hazardous, and we need our clients to stay out of it until the guide calls you for chow!

Why is the kitchen area hazardous, you might ask? Simply put, fire and boiling water provide plenty of opportunities for accidental burns. Remember, you’re out in the wilderness and the ground is uneven. There are rocks and tree roots poking up out of the ground. At the end of the day most folks are tired, and therefore their sense of balance is sub-par. It definitely is a detriment to the guide’s disposition if a client kicks over the carefully measured pot of water, dousing the fire and perhaps burning oneself. We also realize that the possibility of a client falling into the fire is real, though that’s never happened on one of our treks! So again, give the guide plenty of working space! Here at Big Wild it is company policy to avoid severely burned clients. Please help us to maintain that portion of our overall very clean safety record! In the next installment, we will discuss a few less obvious hazards of the wilderness kitchen.

 

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Guided Backpacking and Venomous Snakes, Part 2

First and foremost, do not handle rattlesnakes! What seems like common sense obviously isn’t,  judging by the behavior of some young males (see previous blog post for more on this) who skew the statistics upward in the annual tally of snakebite victims in the United States. In the previous post, I discussed the Darwinian implications of mixing young male humans with rattlesnakes and beer.

Second, don’t be paranoid, but do be vigilant. Be aware of weather conditions. Rattlesnakes are cold blooded reptiles, so in the morning after a cold night, expect them to be out soaking up the sun like it’s spring break at Fort Lauderdale (Unlike humans, though, snakes don’t get skin cancer). On a hot afternoon, expect them anywhere, but especially in the shade, behind rocks or in the brush. And you can even find them in the water! Which leads me to rule number three: Don’t step where you cannot see. Sure, you’re in the desert and much of the ground is open with sparse vegetation. But canyon bottoms along desert streams can be jungle-like, so sometimes you need to seriously concentrate on where you step.

Rule number four is also common sense. We upright hominids love to climb around on rocks (be careful!), especially in the colorful sandstone wilds of Utah’s canyon country. Simply put, do not reach and put your hands where you cannot see! A disproportionate number of snakebites occur on the hands and arms. So look before you reach!

By the way, in the United States fatal snakebites are extremely rare. Small children and the elderly are at particular risk of succumbing to snake venom. But overall death-rates are under 2% (which is little consolation if you happen to be in that 2%). More often than not, though it won’t kill you, a snakebite will earn you a new nickname, such as “lefty” or “goofy” or “six fingers”. It may not kill you, but it sure can mess you up.  So be alert. Don’t be paranoid, be observant. Leave the snake alone and it will in all likelihood leave you alone. Wondering through the desert on a guided backpack trip is a wonderful way to spend a week — and with just a bit of care, it’s also a remarkably safe way to enrich your life in a beautiful wilderness environment.

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Guided Backpacking and Venomous Snakes, Part 1

Arizona is the cradle of rattlesnake evolution, with more species of this pit viper than anywhere else. The southeastern U.S. is also rich venomous snake country, because you can add water moccasins, copperheads and eastern coral snakes to the rich rattlesnake mix. We’ve never encountered a rattler on any of our guided Yellowstone hikes, mainly because rattlesnakes inhabit just a tiny portion of the park along the lower Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, near the small town of Gardiner, at Yellowstone’s North Entrance. Yet there are rattlers on our guided backpacking trips in Utah and New Mexico. Compared with Arizona, though, venomous snake species diversity in these areas is relatively low. And we rarely encounter them. Most of our trip routes in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, by the way, are too high in elevation for most rattlesnakes, and we usually run these Gila treks too early in the season for there to be much snake activity of any kind.

That said, even in the Utah canyon country, rattlesnakes are rarely a problem. In 40 years of guiding, we’ve never had a snakebite. A couple of close calls, sure, but really, if you give the snake half a chance, it will back off, not wanting to waste its venom on the likes of you. After all, there might be a nice juicy cottontail hoppin’ down the bunny trail, just around the bend! That’s why snakebites are rare. Humans are too big to digest. They probably taste bad, too, oozing chemical essences emanating from a diet that primarily consists of Big Macs, ding dongs, Cheetos and corn dogs. Of course, I cannot cite scientific studies that would back up this theory, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. What is indisputable is this: millions upon millions of two-legged hominids inhabit rattlesnake country, many of them not too bright (the humans, not the snakes), and yet snakebites remain remarkably rare.

With this exception: the incidence of snakebite is disproportionately high among young male humans under the age of 30. “Hey guys, watch this!” or “Hold my beer” are often the final words one hears immediately preceding snakebite. That’s because — and this is proven science — the frontal lobe (the part of the brain that is in charge of risk assessment) of the male human brain (such as it is) is not fully developed until nearly three decades of life have passed. That provides plenty of time for natural selection to work its magic, and handling rattlesnakes is a great way for Darwinian truths to prevail. On the other hand, for those with better functioning craniums (ie. females and some older males), there are some simple common sense precautions that will in all likelihood keep you safe from rattlesnakes on our guided wilderness backpacking trips. Stay tuned!

 

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