In the Dry Lake Caldera

For this week’s first post I thought I’d share some photos I took the other day while rambling around in Flagstaff’s “Dry Lake” caldera, a large volcanic crater about three miles west of town. There’s a big ephemeral lake in the crater bottom with birds and very fine views as well as the remnants of an aspen grove that died from Sudden Aspen Decline (SAD) back in the early ’00s. I’d been in there a few years ago just tooling around but didn’t take any photographs so I have no before-after shots to share.

Dry Lake has a couple stories associated with it that I know of. The first is the big ruckus that occurred in the late 1990s after a real estate developer decided to build a golf course subdivision inside the caldera. The land was private at that time and I guess he was within his rights to do so, but Dry Lake is such a unique and valuable piece of land for other reasons than just a place to build rich white people homes that some Flagstaff locals decided to try to stop the planned subdivision. They formed a group called Friends of Dry Lake and there was a bunch of back-n-forth in the courts and the County, much of it bitter and acrimonious. I don’t know the specifics, but they were able to exert enough pressure that the developer eventually declared victory and sold the land to the Grand Canyon Trust, a deep-pocketed conservation organization based in Flagstaff. In 2001 the land was then purchased by the Forest Service as part of a land swap of some kind and Dry Lake became public land. Had Friends of Dry Lake and Grand Canyon Trust not gotten involved the caldera would today just be another exclusive high-end golf course community with little or no access to the general public.

Of course the caldera didn’t completely escape development as the following enhanced zoom looking to the north shows:

Those huge homes are inside the Flagstaff Ranch golf course community. I would imagine the views looking back into the interior of the Dry Lake caldera from those houses (if they can be called houses that is) are pretty expensive. I don’t know anyone who could afford them.

The second story – and the one that I was most interested in – has to do with the aspen growing along the interior of the south rim of the caldera. Back in 2010 I attended a fascinating talk given by a couple of Forest Service people on Sudden Aspen Decline and the Dry Lake clone was used as an example of the large-scale die-off of mature aspen on the Coconino National Forest. I wish I’d saved the handouts as I recall they had some pretty good before-and-after photographs of the clone’s demise.

Here’s a Google Earth animation I made which illustrates the near complete death of the aspen**:

The angle of the sun is different in the two satellite photos so the shadows in the forest are off, but you can clearly see where the aspen died back. See the lighter colored texture in the forest shifting back and forth? That’s the aspen giving up the ghost.

The white arrows point out the locations where I took the following four photographs. Going left to right:

So that’s kind of interesting in a morbid sort of way. Almost 100% mortality. And no regeneration at all. Zip. Nothing. It’s like the clone’s root system died so quickly that it couldn’t even try to re-sprout from below ground. The finger of blame is normally pointed at elk and deer herbivory (and they almost certainly had a hand in this), but the regenerating clone will usually keep trying to send suckers up for many years afterwards, often long enough for the natural jackstrawing of dead tree boles to start dissuading the herbivores from eating the shoots. There should at least be a few forlorn patches of young saplings growing in there among the most tangled logs. But in this case it looks like the clone was so weak that it couldn’t even manage that.

This is the same thing that happened at Coulter Ridge south of Flagstaff (see my post Tending Fire for my story on that one). It’s hard to believe, but I think Coulter’s aspen got it much worse than Dry Lake did. Despite efforts by the Forest Service to keep herbivory to a minimum using fences the Coulter clone eventually lost everything except for a couple of very sickly trees standing in the far back of the hollow that are not long for this world. Dry Lake at least has a few healthy stands of live trees left along the lake shore, giving a glimmer of hope for the future reestablishment of the grove.

This post is up over 800 words, 300 more than my self-imposed limit for these kinds of posts, so I’ll quit here. However, now that I know how to make animated GIFs from Google Earth’s timeline view — watch out!

** Hopefully you guys on mobile devices can see the two-frame animation of the aspen die-back occurring.

Puddles and Rivulets

Here in Flagstaff it’s been a very wet December and January so far with many gray, dreary days assembling themselves into long depressing chains. My home office’s walls were starting to close in like the garbage compactor scene in the original Star Wars movie so when we finally got a sunny day I exploded out of the apartment. Where to go? Seemed like it’d been a while since I’d been up on Anderson Mesa so I pointed the red rambler there to look for some snow and blue sky.

Anderson Mesa is a thirty-miles-long landform that runs roughly southeast from Flagstaff, capped by old lava flows, and broken into several distinct sub-mesas and deep cuts and canyons edging into its flat top. The portion of it near Flagstaff has ponderosa and juniper savanna atop it with many natural sinks and open meadows and parkland. I’ve rambled on it fairly extensively, but mostly during the spring and summer. During the rainy seasons and low-snow winters the place turns into a slick clay quagmire and it’s not fun to hike or mountain bike there. It was cold enough this day that I figured the ground and shallow snowpack would be deep frozen so I wasn’t too worried about that.

To my surprise the top of the mesa had turned into a funky kind of ice floe with a thin layer of crusty snow floating atop several inches of standing water. Beneath the snowpack the recent warm rains had saturated the ground, filled all the low-lying areas, and then overflowed over the rocky rim of the mesa into hundreds of rivulets and impromptu creeks. Walking along the edge of the mesa above a place called Marshall Lake I stopped to photograph the water running over the forest floor, the ice coating the grass and Gambel oaks.

I love photographing waterfalls and flowing water with my Canon. By slowing down the camera’s shutter you can turn the fast moving water into smooth, creamy fog. See my Relativity of Shutter Speed post from 2015 for some older examples of playing with shutter speed in Oak Creek Canyon. On this day I had only my old iPhone with me so no artsy waterfalls this time. The iPhone has turned into my go-to camera, mostly because it slips into my pocket easily and weighs only about one fifth of the Canon I usually carry. The pictures are pretty good too. Many of the shots I’ve been posting on this blog the past year were taken with the iPhone.

When the iPhone breaks (I just know I’m gonna drop it one of these days) I’ll probably replace it with a small form factor Canon point-n-shoot, hopefully one with a usable array of manual controls. Something rechargeable via USB and thin and light enough that it’ll fit in my hiking shirt pocket or daypack’s hip belt. I am done with camera bags and belt cases. Camera technology and image processing software has progressed in leaps and bounds with the advent of smartphone cameras so I think my days of lugging around a heavy, large camera are drawing to a close.

I dropped down through the trees, walked along a forest road for a while, then came out into the open near the far end of Marshall Lake, a shallow reed-filled pond where I’ve often hiked and mountain biked. The lake itself was frozen over but all the water overflowing from the mesa top was running into it and there looked to be several layers of ice and slushy water along the edges. I expect that with all the precipitation we’ve been getting the lakes around here will all be full to the brim come spring. That should make for fun hikes and good photography so I’m looking forward to that.

It’s funny how once you get out into an open space the camera instinctively swings around to include old San Francisco Mountain in the background of all the shots. It’s almost like a compass needle spinning ’round to point northwards. I guess it’s understandable; it’s a very fine mountain.

I’ll skip the description of the return leg of this hike as I just looped back around through the junipers for a mile or so to where I’d left the truck. The sun was getting low in the sky by then and it was getting in the shots so the pictures didn’t turn out well.

My Most Popular Post

Hey, so do you guys want to know what the most popular post on this website is?

Yeah? Okay. I’ll tell you. It’s this one, the one from December, 2015, Little Red SUV Sleeping Platform. The one where I built a sleeping platform in my truck so I could get out of the wind and cold on extended camping trips.

And it’s not just the most visited page on the site by a little, either. It’s head, shoulders, and torso above all the others. Bringing up a distant second is one of the Knoll Lake hike reports from earlier this spring. Everything else I’ve posted over the last couple of years, all the Nature writing, photography, and wildfire stuff that I enjoy writing so much about doesn’t even compare. According to Google this blog’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to host that one article and, specifically, the singular photograph I’ve reproduced above of a couple of pieces of plywood in the back of my truck.

Interesting, huh?

Can you guess why it’s so popular? Hint: It’s not because there’s been a groundswell of interest in awesome camping trips to public lands.

If my analysis of keywords, device usage, and search locations is correct then the real reason is far more depressing and discouraging: A whole lot of people across this country are being forced out of their apartments and homes and into their cars. Young people with smartphones especially, I think. They’re looking for a way to make their cars more comfortable to sleep in and that’s why they’re coming here. Their search phrases reveal it: How to sleep in my car? Can I live in my truck? Bed in my car. Homeless and sleeping in my SUV.

Of course I can’t see the underlying reasons why more people are moving into their cars because these visitors don’t leave comments. But I’d imagine it’s all the stuff Bernie Sanders was talking about in the run-up to the presidential election last year: insanely high rent in the cities, no good jobs for regular people, crippling student loan debt, staggering inequality, divorce, hopelessness, racism, etc etc. In other words, all the chickens of decades of mean and shortsighted socio-economic policies coming home to roost.

(Okay, this’ll be the last post on my experience of running a website for a while. Next time we’ll head back out to the woods, I promise.)

Kaleidoscope

I read somewhere that in order for a blog to grow and attract readership you have to post regularly. You have to produce interesting, relevant content that people will want to read and keep coming back for. If you do this consistently then you will attract more readers, some of whom will feel compelled to comment. If you handle it right the blog will become like a quirky pub with conversations taking place not just between the site author and the readers but also between the readers too. Once you’ve got that rolling then you can post pretty much anything – even b.s. posts with only a couple of paragraphs – and you’ll still get tons of comments and page views because it’s no longer about you. It’s about the community.

Nothing like that has ever happened here and, if the past ten years of blogging are any indication, it never will. At least not if I keep doing what I’ve been doing anyway. Somehow I got stuck in a mindset where I believed I had to make every post really long and say something really profound. These posts were difficult and time consuming to write and often left me feeling emotionally exhausted. Worse, many of them didn’t receive any more page views than the shorter less substantial posts did. This was disappointing and I often wondered what the point of the whole thing was. After all, if no one bothered to read my stuff then I might as well do my writing in my personal journals and skip the WordPress thing altogether. At least the paper journals are cheap at Walmart and don’t come with Chinese comment spammers.

So with that said, I’m going to start another of my infrequent blogging projects. For the next couple of months I’m going to try really hard to post at least twice a week but hopefully more often than that. These posts will be shorter, probably no more than a few paragraphs long, and include a photograph or two. I expect topics to vary widely but stay within the realm of the outdoors, Nature, and public lands. I read a lot and I get around so I shouldn’t have a problem finding something to talk about, but if you guys want to talk about something specific let me know. If I burn out or I haven’t seen a sizeable bump in traffic as measured by my webstats package within a couple months then I’m pulling the plug on this thing. If, however, things start to turn up then I’ll reevaluate and we’ll go from there. With a little luck maybe I can get this stupid thing off of life support.

So, anyway, that’s what I’m going to do. If you’re an e-mail subscriber (text field in the sidebar) and you tire of the kaleidoscope of postings then please feel free to unsubscribe. WordPress includes an unsubscribe link in the e-mails that makes it easy. I’ll understand. If you’re not an e-mail subscriber then you might think about subscribing as that’s the best way to be notified when I post new stuff. The subscriptions are handled by WordPress.com and they don’t send spam or sell your e-mail address.

Before I close I should probably admit that yes, this is part of a quasi-New Year’s resolution thing. It was either this or cancel my home Internet service a la “kill your television.” I knew I’d miss my YouTube video subscriptions so I decided to hold off on unplugging and try jump-starting the blog instead. We’ll see how well it works.

Kana-a Lava Flow

I haven’t felt like putting together one of my usual 3,000-word mega-posts so for the final post of 2016 I’m just going to share a few pictures from a recent hike I went on out beyond Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. This area is dominated by large, steep-sided cinder cones and expanses of craggy lava flows, making for an interesting off-trail hiking experience**, something you can’t get if you go to the National Monument. The whole place was a bubbling cauldron of molten rock only about a thousand years ago so in addition to some much needed solitude I’ve been getting a field education in volcanology. The photographs in this post were taken on one of my rambles through the cone field earlier this week.

Anyway, if you drive north from Flagstaff on highway 89 towards Page, turn off at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and drive straight on through the Monument you’ll end up back on Forest Service land. Like most (all?) National Park Service areas, Sunset Crater is a fee area. If you’re planning to use any of the Monument facilities or trails then you’re definitely supposed to pay the entrance fee. However it’s not clear if you need to pay if you’re just scooting through on the way to USFS land. For me the issue has always been moot as I tend to go through early in the morning before the Monument opens for business, the entrance booth shuttered and the road clear. The one time I stopped at the visitor center to ask about paying the fee the lone Park Service employee who was there emptying the trash cans (a custodian) shrugged and said he didn’t know.

(It was super cold on this hike and you can see the tip of my gloved finger in the lower left corner of the above shot.)

After you leave the Monument you drive a couple more miles and there is a Forest Service picnic area called Painted Desert Vista where there is day-use parking. From there you can hike west into Strawberry Crater Wilderness (highly recommended if you haven’t been to that Wilderness yet) or go east into the remote northeast corner of the Coconino National Forest and the cone field.

Just to the east of the highway is the Kana-a Lava Flow, a surreal landscape of black cinders, half buried lava outcrops, ponderosa pine, and skunkbush sumac. Like the much more dramatic Bonito flow to the west (inside the Monument), Kana-a erupted from Sunset Crater about 1,000 years ago and stretches for some four miles to the northeast, following a narrow valley. If you hike in from Painted Desert Vista you’ll cross the middle of the flow. It’s only about 300 yards wide at that point and not so terribly rough so it’s relatively easy to get across and into the cone field if that that’s what you want to do.

Within the boundaries of the lava flow the trees were never logged so the ponderosa pine there are growing in a more or less natural arrangement in accord with the conditions. I doubt there has ever been much cattle grazing (no grass to speak of) and wildfires wouldn’t tend to spread far due to the wide expanses of barren gravel acting as natural fuel breaks so the effects of 20th century fire suppression has probably been minimal. So in a lot of ways this place is an example of self-willed land persisting outside officially designated Wilderness due to its very uselessness. I like that. I like it a lot.

At the upper end of the lava flow where it’s a little higher and moister the ponderosa pine have established themselves in a sort of rock and gravel refuge. You can see some of them in the following two shots:

Note the large stature, the flattened crowns on several, and the yellow bark, all indicators of old-growth ponderosa. This is first-growth forest, probably been persisting here for several hundred years after the soil became fertile enough to support them following the last of the Sunset Crater eruptions. These fine old-growth trees are still here today simply because back when they were logging this area the lava flow made it difficult to build roads and it was uneconomical to harvest them.

Outside the lava flow where logging had most definitely gone on the structure of the forest was different, skewing heavily towards younger, smaller stature trees.

That rock formation was rather interesting. On the opposite side it looked like this:

When I first saw it I thought it might’ve been artificially constructed, but after further study I decided it was probably natural. Strange looking, but natural.

Speaking of strange, check this out:

At first I thought it was a lava outcrop encrusted with calcite crystals, but it turned out to be rime ice.

Odd thing was, it was the only feature there that had ice crystals on it. Everything else was ice free despite the very cold temperature. So I dunno. Something strange going on. I wish I’d had my Canon with me as the iPhone didn’t do a very good job capturing the details in the ice.

On the way out I looped around to check out some of the big views from a couple of the juniper-clad cones to the east and south:

Wow! That is what they used to call a scenic climax, the spectacular reward that comes after a long, hard climb to an overlook or mountaintop. These cones aren’t particularly tall, but if you climb a couple of them you can rack up the elevation gain pretty fast. On this hike I got in almost 2,000 feet, which is roughly the equivalent of climbing mean old Mt. Elden near Flagstaff. I was beat by the time I got back to my truck after some ten miles of rambling.

Well, that about sums it up for this year. See you all on the flip side.


** When hiking in places like this it’s very important to abide by the Leave No Trace ethic, specifically the second principle of Travel and camp on durable surfaces. In the context of this place that means walking on rock and hard packed gravel whenever you can, not trampling the fragile and slow-growing vegetation or climbing on soft cinder slopes where erosion could get a foothold in your tracks. Your aim should be to pass through like a ghost, not even leaving footprints.