Chilly Day at Hills Peak

The bright pink alpine laurel by the lake really brightened up the gloomy day. It really seems to love perching on sphagnum mounds.

Another site John Koenig and I are considering taking the Burke Herbarium folks later this month is Hills Peak at the east end of the Calapooyas. I hadn’t been there in 5 years, and John had only been there once, 9 years ago, so it was about time we checked it out. We headed up there on June 6. The day was very cold and cloudy, but it seemed appropriate for a very early-season trip. We had to pass a few snowbanks along the road, and there were more along the edges of the wetlands. We probably couldn’t have gotten up there much earlier.

Male willows are actually quite showy and are a welcome sign that spring has begun.

It was way too cold and cloudy for butterflies and bees, but we were rewarded instead with birds. A pair of spotted sandpipers were searching for food in the wetland by the lake. While I always think of sandpipers at the beach, these cool birds like mountain creeks and lakeshores.

We started the day at my favorite wetland, to the east of Hills Peak itself. It is accessed from an old bermed-off logging road. We were surprised when we almost ran into a motorcycle just as we were going to turn to park at this road. It’s rare to see anyone out in the Calapooyas until hunting season in the fall—especially on a cold Monday morning. We walked down this pumous-covered side road and stopped partway down at a small wetland filled with blooming mountain shooting stars (Dodecatheon jeffreyi), marsh marigold (Caltha leptosepala), Gorman’s buttercup (Ranunculus gormanii), and willows (Salix boothii, eastwoodiae, and sitchensis). There was even a touch of bright red from the first flowers of Suksdorf’s paintbrush (Castilleja suksdorfii). A great start to the day!

When we reached the main wetland, the edges of the lake were pink with alpine laurel (Kalmia microphylla). Not so obvious were the little cream bells of western sweetberry honeysuckle (Lonicera [caerulea] cauriana). Most of the shooting stars were still getting started, while white Macloskey’s violet (Viola macloskeyi) was in full bloom. The steep north-facing slope next to the lake still had quite a few patches of snow, and there were many snowbanks on the south side of the lake and wetland. There’ll be a lot more to see in a few weeks, including sundews (Drosera rotundifolia), which were appearing in the sphagnum after a long winter’s dormancy.

It’s always fascinating to see evidence of all the activity that’s happened under the snow over the winter. A multitude of tunnels forms an extensive network in one of the wetlands.

From there we went to the westernmost wetland and small lake. There were a few drops of rain, and the sky looked a bit threatening, but John was quite sure it wouldn’t rain for real—and he was right. There was no real rain until our drive home. Here there were many of the same species as at the first spot—lots of alpine laurel, marsh marigold, and shooting stars.

John and I were both astonished to see the remains of a tunnel running all the way across one of the hard-packed gravel roads. That little creature was one hard worker and must have had very sore feet!

John spotted a couple of really wild mushrooms that looked like someone had lost their brain! They were growing where the snow had recently melted. It looks like snow mushroom (Gyromitras gigas) or a similar species, apparently often found near rotting logs after snowmelt.

Next, we headed back to the east and parked along the road above a small wet meadow hidden in the woods but not far from the road. I hadn’t remembered it being too exciting in the past, but we thought it was worth a look. It was much more interesting and more extensive than I remembered with some little creeks tucked away at the north end I hadn’t seen before. The shooting stars were very pretty here, too, and there were a surprising number of hooked-spur violets (Viola adunca), something I don’t remember seeing so many of on past trips. I noticed some fresh trilliums at the edge of the forest. I commented to John that we had seen a lot of beautiful things but that it was odd with all the snowbanks that we hadn’t seen any snowmelt species, “like glacier lilies….” Just as these last words were leaving my mouth, I turned to see a fabulous display of glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) in the southeastern corner of the meadow. My superpower works again! I don’t know how many times I’ve “conjured up” special plants just by thinking about them.

There was a wonderful show of glacier lilies in front of a receding snowbank. I kept hoping the sun would come out to make them really glow, but it never shone for more than a couple of minutes at a time and only at the end of the day.

Gummy gooseberry (Ribes lobbii) gets its name from the glandular hairs on the fruit and elsewhere. You can already see the makings of the fruit above the flower. It makes it easy to distinguish from the similar Sierra gooseberry (R. roezlii), which has spiny fruit.

The old quarry at the north end of Hills Peak is less than a quarter of a mile away. We figured we’d take a short look around but not climb up the steep slope like I often do. John was still changing out of his rubber boots at the truck parked along the road when I reached the bottom of the talus slope. Scanning up the slope, I spotted an amazing display of western trilliums (Trillium ovatum), growing among the rocks. Should I go up there after all? I really had wanted to skip the slippery climb up, but I could not resist a photo op like that. When John arrived, I had already made my way up to where the old quarry road remained intact. It’s a steep climb, but the very young conifers reestablishing on the bottom of the slope gave me something to pull myself up with. I was surprised when minutes later, John was at my side. Even a sore knee couldn’t keep him away either! There were other interesting plants flowering in the flat area at the base of the talus, including flatseed rockcress (Boechera howellii) and three species of Ribes: gummy gooseberry (R. lobbii), sticky currant (R. viscosissimum), and swamp gooseberry (R. lacustre), but the trilliums were certainly one of the highlights of the day—or season!.

This is only a portion of the trilliums growing up in the talus at Hills Peak. They were popping up everywhere under the rocks. Most were blooming even as they were still emerging.

I really don’t know my mushrooms (but I’m sure someone looking at this can help!). It looks like a cup fungus, maybe a species of Ciboria. These were growing in the water in the last wetland we visited. Seems like spring is actually a good time to see interesting fungi!

This big talus slope has been a reliable site for pikas for many years. On my last trip back in 2016 (see Buggy Day at Hills Peak), I saw no sign of them and was worried. I poked around looking under large rocks for signs of pika activity. It was too early to look for the current year’s hay piles, but there might still be some scat. We did notice someone had eaten a number of the trillium flowers, but that seemed more like a deer delicacy than a pika’s. I will have to make a point of coming back later in the summer and spending some time watching the talus to find out what is going on. Hopefully, they still inhabit this talus slope.

We still had some time, so we made one last stop at the large wetland to the north that we’d passed on our drive up. It’s mostly pretty brushy with huckleberries and other shrubs, but there are some nice patches of shooting stars and marsh marigold and the pretty western sweetberry honeysuckle. It was great to see the snowmelt creating so much moisture running through deep channels in the wetland. Hopefully, that will fuel a good summer of flowers, even with after this extremely dry spring. All in all, it was a great day, but I am looking forward to warmer temperatures on my next trip up there!

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