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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Another Experience to Tick Off

Monday I spent the day with three other members of the Native Plant Society. We left Issaquah at 8am and traveled to the Vantage area. The planned activity was to study the plants of the Sage steppe.

I am a rank beginner when it comes to this level of "botanizing" Plants are discussed but common names are not used. The taxonomy names are used. To my ear they sound incomprehensible, even though I know and use words like them daily. Having learned "buckwheat" "desert parsley" " Milk-vetch" it was difficult to be nimble with Eriogonium , Lomatium and Astragalus. Those are just the Genus names, each one has several species attached and in some places distinct sub-species.

But everyone one was nice and we each had our own area of interest. The leader of this trip was more welcoming and supportive than the previous trip I experienced. I think the smaller group was a huge plus.

The weather was perfect, overcast with almost no wind. The Columbia River and the areas surrounding it, particularly west towards the Cascades, are known for their persistent winds. Wind farms are springing up. This is the Wild Horse Project. One of the trip members told me that they have a nice visitors center. I asked her if they allowed people to ramble the property and visit the environment. She was not able to really answer that so I might have to pay a visit and find out for myself. I can imagine that they would not like people near their equipment but it does look like a way to get into this difficult area.

Our first stop was at the Quilomene Wildlife Refuge. I have never explored this area beyond the small patch we visited this day. The roads are usable only with a solid , high clearance 4WD vehicle. We climbed slope of this south facing canyon and slowly explored the plants along the way.

For me it is about appreciating the change of plants and their community in this small environment. The average plant community is dominated by rabbit brush , bitter brush and other sage plants. Hard woody and somewhat dangerous in a thorny way. Smaller plants and flowers often grow tucked inside, using shade and conserving evaporation.

When we reached a steeper bit of slope, the soil gave way to more rocky ground. The plants changed and it was here that the Snowball Cactus were everywhere. Many of them were in flower. Our leaders commented here that the flowers were more open on their previous visit, a windy sunny day. It was early and overcast so the full bloom was lacking, What I saw, however was perfectly wonderful.

At the very top of the hill we had a further change in the soil and there were more grasses and delicate greenery. Violets and Spring beauty could be found. We found a large slope of Large-headed clover. These were by far the largest blooms of this plant I have ever seen and certainly the largest numbers of them.

Three hours on this slope passed far too quickly. We drove to the end of the road at the Ginko SP Headquarters. I have not been here in some time and was thrilled to see that the facility has all new signs and everything has been cleaned up. This site is a great place to take a rest break on a long cross-state journey. You have a great look at the stunning walls above the Columbia River and learn a bit about the floods that formed the area.
The nearby Petrified Forest is another good place for a ramble. It is a large open slope and in the summer there is no shelter from the persistent sun, so arrive early. There were many very large petrified logs though none with identifying signs. I was struck by the beautiful blue streaks in this one.

We went south along the river to the foot of Sentinel Gap and explored the first of two sandy soil sites. There was an abundance of Larkspur and Brodiaea (the blue type) blooming here. There are several types of Asters as well as an abundance of Lupin. These are low growing and more unassuming than you see in the wet meadows around Mt Rainier. All perfectly understandable given the hard living conditions. High wind, low moisture a lot of sunlight and heat.

We crossed over the river and I knew that the potential highlight of the day was next. Sand and dune ecology is found here in the along the east side of the Columbia. The area I visited near Hanford, White Cliffs is a good example. I knew some of the valleys leading away from the river held dunes. All of these canyons and valleys were part of the great Bretz floods which formed the landscape of the majority of the eastern basin ~10000 years ago.

I did not expect that the stop would come so soon. We pulled over on the side of the road in a place I had passed many times. I always thought of this as a spot where truckers could have a safe place to pull off the road. I never realized that there was a "day use only" spot leading down slope nearer the river. We scrabbled through a barbed wire fence and had yet another different environment, sand on bare basalt rock.

There were many of the foundation plants but also some new delights. Here wild onion suffered to grow only three inches high. By the time they put out a bloom, their leaves were usually gone.

Narrow-leafed Phacelia grew in many places as a single stem and blossom, here I found several that produced wonderful bouquets.

The highlight of the trip, a Sand Dune Penstemon already starting to fade. The leader was at this site only five days previous and noted the flowers that were failing. A stunning bit of beauty in an area many might feel has nothing to offer.

I could have stayed out longer and kept rolling on but it was already 5:00 and we faced 2 1/2 hours drive home. It was nice to be able to watch the landscape go by, the luxury of someone else driving. I had a great talk with another member of the group and it felt like in no time we were back at REI in Issaquah. I grabbed the opportunity to go in, wearing my hiking shoes and my feet and their end of day condition to buy a new pair of hiking shoes.

I now own a pair of size 10 1/2 hiking shoes. Somehow that "1/2" makes me feel like I have REALLY big feet, not just big feet. That darned second toe on the left foot is the one to blame.

So home to post one quick photo for my 365 project. There was no way I could bring myself to puzzle over the photos and plant ID's nor to write a scintillating blog entry.

While working on my Flickr entry I felt something on my arm and there it was... A tick walking up my arm.

My first TICK. All these years of tromping about in the eastern Washington area I had never encountered a tick. Now, 48 hours later, my skin has almost stopped crawling and every wisp of hair or stray thread is not a voracious arachnid threatening to lock into a vein.


  1. You must have had a wonderful day and educational too. Your photos are fabulous and just think, thanks to you, I now know one kind of Lomatium. And also thanks to you, I am getting so interested in finding out more about the flora around here. -- Inger

  2. thank you Inger. There is so much to learn that if you can take away one new bit of something ( except ticks) every time you go out it is a great day.

    So many good books and on line resources.