White-tailed ptarmigan are at home almost anywhere in the Kootenays

Out There: Tales from trips on summer trails

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Many of us have sometimes come back from an outing having memories of some spectacular, unusual or rare event. In many cases, that event takes place a bit more often than we immediately perceive it does because we are not out there to witness it. So, in some ways it is, to use a rather trite or unsuitable phrase, “business as usual”. The summer season marks time with life’s events of which we catch only rare glimpses, which, then become special memories.

Standing at the edge of Bridal Lake in Kootenay Pass, I was watching a small sandpiper flit back and forth across the lake. There were several flitting about. Often they would follow each other, flying so close to the water’s surface that their wingtips appeared to almost touch the lake’s surface.

While watching this sandpiper air show, one flitted over the lake to the nearby shore, but instead of landing on the shore I spotted it hovering, something I had never witnessed sandpipers doing. The next part of its maneuver was also something I had never seen before. After hovering for a few seconds, the sandpiper abruptly made an almost clumsy landing on a bare twig at the top of a short leafless conifer. It repeated this several times. The hovering, as only I can figure, must have been some kind of pre-landing preparation specified in case landing should be on a bare twig. I am not finding a legitimate reason for it landing on the twig, other than for a better view. I have seen herons, our largest “sandpipers”, land in trees. Their toes are really too long for that. Sandpipers’ toes are similarly long and, I would say, more adapted for landing on beaches and floating vegetation than for limb-landing. Chickadees, who are tree lovers (perching birds), have, comparatively speaking, very short toes. A photo of sandpiper toes wrapped around a twig would be quite interesting. We haven’t seen it all! How much have we actually seen or really know?

The flat walk around Bridal Lake is quite enjoyable, especially when high temperatures reign in the lower valley bottoms. There are two hiking/walking trails nearby, one to the south and one to the north of the highway. The more shady one to the south will still have lots of flowers around seeps and little brooks, and frequent animal appearances.

Haystack Lakes Trail is a favorite hike with some; however, so far I have been there only once this season. Now, Sphinx Mountain I have been able to hike three times so far, and each trip was special and unique. One of those times, it was my privilege to tent overnight on the top and get an introduction to its “night life”. In the evening, I would say it was very quiet as the sun set over Kokanee Glacier. It was very peaceful. In the night, under a near full moon, my new tent, flapping in the steady breeze, kept me from hearing much in the way of night sounds except for some distant thundering. Even under the near full moon the distant mountains were dimly outlined darkness.

Morning did come. That was when I heard some clucking and whistle-like sounds around the tent. I didn’t see the source, but it must have come from a ptarmigan, which I saw two of, not far from the tent. One was making its way slowly over the bare dirt, rocks and ground cover, herding three chicks ahead of it, which, along the way, pecked here and there at a leaf or insect. Even adult ptarmigan, in mountain landscapes, are hard to spot unless they move. And, I only spotted the young after realizing this ptarmigan could have a family with it. They are so camouflaged.

The trail to the top of Sphinx is a stiff, shortish hike compared to the hike along Parker Ridge to Parker Peak in Idaho. The route to the Sphinx trailhead is about an hour’s hike along a deactivated road taking off from Gray Creek Pass road. Then it is perhaps a two- or three-hour hike to the top, which is a bit over 8,300 feet in altitude. No rock scrambling, just putting one foot ahead of the other. In midsummer, the flowers and the view are spectacular, but it also makes a nice late summer hike or campout. Now, let’s check out some more high country.

Silene is the “clan” name of one personality you might chance to meet on some high-country ridge or slope. Silene is the first name in the two-name Latin identification for plants more commonly called catchfly, wild pink, silene and campion. They are all kind of similar. The plants have a tube-like structure that encloses the bottom portion of the petals while the upper part of the flower flares out from the top opening of the “tube”. A favorite campion of hikers is the pink-flowered, low-growing, moss campion. Some of the campions have a very enlarged tube and, hence, the very delightful name of “bladder” campion. This is where the tale continues.

This large, now bulbous tube, which is no longer a tube after the petals are gone, may be pale green with dark green or even brownish purple ribs. It reminds me of wild cucumber seed pods except the campion “bladder” is much smaller. Now, it is thought that the bladder part of bladder campion becomes a “greenhouse” for the developing seeds to reach maturity in an otherwise short season and harsh mountain climate.

There is a surprising amount of plant and animal life and ways to be found on those seemingly bare mountain slopes, tops and ridges (and lower down, too). Just because the spring and early summer seasons are behind us doesn’t mean that it is now boring out there. It is that only if you make it. Now the season, even though there are still lots of flowers, is changing from coloured flowers to coloured leaves and other aspects of summer’s productivity. Easy access to cooler temperatures, while warm temperatures still reign in the valleys, and the high country can be made in Kootenay Pass on trails to the north and south of the highway by Bridal Lake. An endless array of personalities awaits your visit and your attention!

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.



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