Winds in the Wilderness: Horses, Hemlocks, and Huckleberries

Our last research outing of the 2013 summer season was a big success,  1003394_10150340025519978_128546756_nthanks to all the helping hands!  Volunteers from north Idaho’s Backcountry Horsemen organization assisted intensive preparations for survey efforts along the Wellington and Beetop Mountain peaks and their accompanying ridge lines.  The days leading up to our departure, supplies were readied, hauled, cached, unpacked/repacked, and cached again due to the determination of committed volunteers and resource planners.

1231505_10150340025834978_1813082859_nOn Monday, September 12, FSPW and USFS research teams met with members of the Backcountry Horseman crew to gather gear for the pack team to haul miles in to camp, which USFS teams had scouted and marked the week previous.  This time of year, along the 120 trail north of the Clark Fork delta, water is scarce.  Our 4-day research objectives, under drying conditions and an untimely warming trend, required the we be supplied with 45 gallons of water to maintain proper hydration and sanitation at camp and the field.

Our first duty was undergoing a brief lesson in Horse Behavior and Trail Etiquette for Pack Stock.  As most trail recreators know, the trend these days is an effort to keep our public lands operating under a multiple-use principle, which means that all types of recreational usage be given equitable amounts of land space to perform these interests.  Sometimes that means designating certain land areas for explicit use, as land conditions favor such activities, but most of the time we receive the largest benefits by opening up trails to as many uses at one time as possible.  It follows then, that an understanding of other trail users’ needs helps to improve everyone’s all-around enjoyment of such areas.  Horses do best when given a few special courtesies, without these, a serious accident could occur, for the horse as well as its human companions.  So remember hikers and bikers, stay on the downhill side of the trail when allowing pack stock to pass you, you are pretty intimidating lurking above their eye level!  And if you encounter live stock on the trail, a few soft spoken words will reassure them that you are a human animal, and likely not a threat.

The next day we awoke early to allow for maximum possibilities in our survey distances.   A quick breakfast on the ridge revealed to us the weather schema for the day:  at 6:45 AM,1235931_10150340025674978_34219791_nwashing our dishes and filling our water, we were already shedding clothing layers.  Miles later down the trail we broke out into three small teams to scurry across the hillsides and locate the presence and condition of the whitebark pine trees across the area’s populations.  These locations had been identified in the office using satellite imagery as having high potential for whitebark pine population occurance.  While en route, we chanced to break on a small, steep sided saddled.  Above us towarded alpine hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana, a species that has been identified in the Couer De’Alene section of the IPNF, but one that has not been recorded as having been established in our neck of the woods since the recession of the last glacial event!  The excited Botanists buzzed about happily, acquiring photographs and coordinates, and a new mapping project was born.  Its always a new day in the woods !!!

Day three came, and we were off to an early start again, once more racing the impending afternoon heat.  We hiked a ridge west of Beetop and east of Cougar Mountain.  It was a successful hunt for older whitebark pine trees, sapling size and 1238366_10150339724459978_888168327_nabove.   This was important, because data regarding blister rust infection is more accurate from trees in the population that have been established for twenty years or longer.  These older trees have had sufficient time to be exposed to and show symptomatic signs of rust infestation then seedlings or younger saplings.  Furthermore, the whitebark pine we identified showed a similar distribution pattern as that which we have come to expect after analyzing these historic ecosystems over the summer.  Spacing between these individuals is wide, as they prefer open grown environments, so a climax community of whitebark pine can stretch out quite aways along ridges and hot, dry slopes, with mature individuals often 300 feet apart or more.  With all that ground to cover, it was nice to be a seven-member crew out in the field!

Day four required some adjustments to our itinerary.  The absence of one horseman and his horse meant more help was need by us to haul out our gear.  Our team divided into three teams once more:  a survey crew, a sherpa crew, and a one member crew to assist the horseman in packing and leading out the animals.  The new plan was carried out without any glitches, and we arrived back into Sandpoint ahead of schedule, with horses, huckleberries, and hemlock data in tow.

It was an ambitious research schedule this summer, and the cooperative tasks achieved amongst community organizations have been an impressive feat.  I hope that all of FSPW’s volunteers are amazed at the amount of time and assistance they have provided in the Lightening Creek Treasured Landscapes restoration project to date.  Because the numbers of miles we have traversed and hours we have expended are proof  of your commitment and endurance!  Those numbers and charts will be summarized shortly for inclusion in the following Winds in the Wilderness.




Oh yeah, that leaves the huckleberries!!!  Well, at 5500-6000 feet above the Clark Fork delta, there are still plenty of pies to be pickin’…  Unless Fred Gaudet or John Harbuck have gone back up there since the trip….  But don’t worry, those guys are only interested in huckleberries marble-sized or bigger (which may account for 50% of this years forest crop!).  Our forests are not only ecologically important, they are also delicious!












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