Table Mountain Mosaic

Jon described it as a gyre; a circling spiral. And that was exactly how we saw the birds, sweeping up and over the dry rocky meadow. Like a flock of sandpipers at the beach, they flew in perfect synchronicity and landed, settling on the ground to forage for grass seeds. As one they rose up again, circling. Everything halted as we watched in wonderment.


Earlier in the day I had seen one of these birds close up. It was hopping around on rocks as I hiked to the trail of the day. Spotting the movement, I stopped. As it fluttered up, pink flashed under the wings, and I could see that the head was gray. Could it be a Gray-crowned rosy finch (Leucosticte tephrocotis)? I eased the camera out of my pocket and snapped some photos to identify later. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds says that they nest in alpine or Arctic habitats.These could be migrants coming to winter range, or they could be Cascade birds taking advantage of a local food source. Either way, it was the first time I haveĀ  seen them.

The trail crew continues to prepare trails in the burned area for winter. Priority is given to those trails where the fire burned hottest. We have no idea what we will find, so although most of us have worked on these trails in past seasons, it’s all new. Scorched earth. Vistas opened up, topography exposed that has always been hidden by the cover of vegetation. The wind sounds different in trees that have no needles or boughs. Thinner and more lonesome. Each time I come to a place to dig a drainage dip, I stop and look up. Turn completely around to survey every tree. Some are burned through and lean precariously into their neighbors. I also check the roots, sometimes pushing against a blackened trunk to see if it moves. I want to know everything is going to stay put while I have my head down, digging.

Today I found my eyes drawn toward the bases of the trees, and the shapes of roots as they disappear into the ground. This strikes me as sculptural and elegant, as well as functional. Conifers are shallow-rooted, spreading laterally to hold on and give support to the flexible tall trees. The roots are like fingers gripping the earth, and they also intertwine underground. Trees help support each other. While I feel sorrow that this fire was so large and destructive, I am also fascinated to observe how much has been made visible. The energy of the fire has simplified the landscape.

I think what I most want to be reassured about is that the place is not dead. That life is not erased forever. Fire brought a great change, giving the appearance of devastation. But as we make our way through the woods, we see that others have been there before us. Elk and deer tracks are everywhere. Coyotes and bobcats are using the trails. Yesterday we found black bear tracks in the mushy wet ash (the photo is of a front paw, with my work glove for scale). And today we found bear tracks in a different place. Gray jays appear when we stop for a break. Ravens cruise overhead. Pikas call from their hidey-holes in the talus slopes. This afternoon I stopped in a grove of big old larches that were untouched by flames. Looked up into their stiff branches covered with golden needles and felt profound gratitude. They bear cones with tiny seeds–promise of the next generation.

There is death and change on Table Mountain. At times, it’s hard to take it all in. The implications, what this means for next year. How many logs there are to cut out–we’ve been climbing over fallen trees, our clothes and faces splotched with black by the end of the day. No cutting till next summer, when more trees have fallen. Even now, decay is creeping, breaking down the dead organic material. Nothing is wasted. When the winter snow melts, there will be grasses and wildflowers in the sun. There used to be a lot more shade. Tree seedlings like sunlight and space around them, so expect to see a flush of lodgepole pine, Douglas-fir, western larch. And the places that didn’t burn will continue as they have. It’s called a mosaic, the complex pattern of burned and unburned, mature forest and young stands.

I have the privilege of watching this process, and learning.

Black Forest

The smoke has drifted away, and there is acceptance that this place has changed. There’s been time to get used to the idea. Everyone I work with has had to grieve for Table Mountain in their own way. The memories are ours to keep, and now it’s time to explore the new reality.

The trail crew went to the Wilson Stock Driveway today. We are part of the Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) effort after the Table Mountain fire. Our task is to create appropriate drainage structures to slow erosion on trails where the fire burned with great intensity. Without living trees to hold water, the damaged soil is more exposed to snow and rain and likely to erode. Running water is no friend to trail tread in the best of circumstances. Burned areas are fragile, and we want to keep excess sediment out of streams.

So we dig. The tracks of recent rain show us the right location to dig angled ditches to divert water away. It takes a practiced eye to see this, and deft handling of the digging tool. Table Mountain is capped with basalt, so there are plenty of angular rocks to scoop out. We quickly figured out that rock or wood check dams could also help slow running water. We moved slowly, often looking up into the naked ghost trees. It’s still a treacherous place, even though the fire is out. Trees burned through at the base or higher up. Many have fallen, and many are weakened. There’s no reason to spend time under leaners hung in dead branches.

The fire burned hot here. I remember standing in Red Top Lookout almost two months ago, watching the plumes of black smoke rise into the sky. The billows increased all afternoon. I knew that if the firefighters didn’t catch it soon, they weren’t going to catch it at all. The forest on Table Mountain was high elevation subalpine fir and lodgepole pine. Fire behavior in this forest type is usually intense. The firs have branches that go all the way to the ground, and their crowns are full of black lichens. All it takes is a tiny windblown ember to turn the tree into a torch. That torch throws off more embers, and the fire moves through the tree canopy. All this fire sweeps life before it like a broom, clearing the way for a new stand of trees.

There were lodgepole pine cones on the ground. Some of them had opened and their small seeds littered the trail. I stopped to examine these and found every seed had been eaten out of the papery wings that disperse the seeds. The air was filled with the sound of nuthatches and chickadees foraging, and flocks of finches winging through the tree trunks. A black and white woodpecker (hairy?) flaked away singed bark. I heard squirrels in the distance. Surely there would also be mice and other little rodents scurrying around looking for something to eat. I heard ravens overhead. Deer, elk, and coyote tracks trailed through the soggy ash.

All is not lost. Plants will come back. In the meadows, fire had moved quickly though the dried grass and green was already showing from some of the root crowns. Lupine seed pods were pasted to the soil by hard rain, and desert parsley seeds were scattered. Wild onion bulbs were exposed by our digging. Yellow aspen leaves stuck to the mud, blown by an upcanyon breeze. A few golden larches flared against the black, remnant patches of forest that didn’t burn. From these living tree islands, new forest will come.

It looks like destruction. I loved Table Mountain the way it was, with its rolling trails winding from forest to meadow and forest again, the big basalt talus slopes, the variety of terrain. It was a great place to find wildflowers not seen anywhere else in the area. By burning away the vegetation, the fire also revealed that we have not been very good stewards of this place. I picked up some scorched beer cans but walked by broken glass bottles. Motorcycle tracks left the trail to loop through dry meadows. Tires had dug trenches. People made their own roads to hunting camps and to illegally cut firewood. The land belongs to the public, but we have not taught them to care for it. We turn a blind eye, demoralized by shrinking budgets and lack of will to stand for a greater good. We are all culpable. In the wake of superstorm Sandy, we wonder about global climate change. Why are there so many natural disasters? Why did this fire burn so hot, get so big? We are looking explanations, someone to blame, something to cling to in the midst of all this uncertainty.

I don’t know much, except to put one foot in front of the other and dig to make water go off the trail. I know I’m upright and breathing and grateful. It’s not raining, and I’m with good people. I’ll go home, take off my muddy boots, make a hot supper and go to bed. And tomorrow the sun will come up and I’ll go out there to dig some more.