A Few Little Things

Lewis and Clark were among the first non-native people to travel through this part of the world. Their journey was epic, and every kid growing up in the Pacific Northwest knows the story of how Thomas Jefferson sent them west to explore and map the western part of the continent. Instead of discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, they traversed plains, mountain ranges, rivers until they ended up at the Pacific Ocean. Both men kept journals, maps, and copious notes. They named places like the Madison and Gallatin Rivers that I drove along just a few days ago. Many things in the Northwest are named for them: Lewis County (Washington), Clark’s Fork (river in Montana), Lewis’ Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, lewisias, clarkias, and on and on and on.

Lewis was the naturalist of the pair, and I thought of him yesterday when Jon and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Swauk Forest Discovery trail near Blewett Pass. This is a self-guided nature loop for hikers that was constructed in the early 1990s, and we take care of it. It’s rare that that there’s any trail maintenance to do, so it ends up being a pleasant walk in the woods with tools. I wanted to find the Lewisia tweedyi. This is a fairly uncommon plant, occurring only on the east slopes of the central Cascades in Washington. It prefers dry rocky slopes and hidden crevices in the vicinity of ponderosa pines. For all that it grows in tough places, the flowers are lavishly showy–apricot and yellow, succulent leaves and petals. Most of the ones I found had been battered by the cold wind that has been blasting over the mountains. I like to think Meriwether Lewis would have been delighted for his name to be given to this flower. There are four other Lewisias in the Cascades, including the well-known bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva).

Rain and cool weather is normal for June. Puddles collect a froth of yellow pine pollen. When I stop to think about it, I realize that there is sex going on all over the place. The trees are in a frenzy of fertility right now. Pollen coats every surface. Since conifers are technically not flowering plants, they have a different strategy for swapping genetic material. Trees such as pines and firs bear both male and female cones. The male cones release great wafts of pollen into the air, so much that some is bound to make its way to the seeds in the female cones. No pollinating creatures like bees are needed. No blossoms, no fruit. But to ensure success, gobs of pollen are produced. For a couple of weeks in early summer, the ponderosa pine trees fill the air with yellow. The rain is good for people, since it settles the pollen. When it just blows around for days, some of us get sneezy and dopey (not to mention grumpy and sleepy and other dwarf-like states).

A rainy day is a good opportunity to practice with the crosscut saw filing system. It has to be done. As wilderness trails open up, this traditional tool has its part to play. My love and appreciation for the crosscut saw deepens as the years go by, so I always enjoy the meditative hours focused on sharpening them. Today I listened to the radio and sipped tea while pointing up the cutter teeth on a five foot felling saw. When the teeth were sharp, I set them with a hammer and hand anvil. Setting is the most nerve-wracking part of the whole job. In the photo I’m using a spider gauge to check the angle I’ve hammered in. It has to be just right so the saw doesn’t catch or drag in the cut. One of these days, I will make a drawing to show you how the saw works–it’s an elegant design. When that saw was done, I put the crew’s favorite vintage Atkins 52 into the vise to refit the rakers, touch up the cutters and set them. Then I hauled both saws over to the ranger station. John and I took them out to the horse corral where a tree had fallen. The test of a filing job is to put the teeth to wood. It appears that I did all right, but I’ll know for sure tomorrow when we get out on the trail.

So from historical travelers to flowers in windy places to tree sex and rain to trail crew technicalities and metalworking…it must be the start of another summer in the mountains.

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