As I climbed three, four, five thousand feet in elevation, the new plants that grew up around me were long-lost friends I haven’t seen since last summer.
This past weekend I took a long hike in the North Cascade Mountains on a trail I’d done three times before and I was reminded how there is something special about returning somewhere time and time again.
The first time I had hiked this and other subalpine trails in the North Cascades a few years ago, I brought home photos and memories of the new plants I encountered. I leafed through Wildflowers of Washington and Natural History of the Pacific Northwest Mountains to learn their names and their home and families. Now back in their summer home, I could greet them by name: shrubby penstemon, bracted lousewort, white rhododendron, arnica, western anemone. I’m grateful I’ve taken the time to learn their names, their leaves and flowers like a familiar face in a crowd.
It had been more than a year since I had seen these flowers. Most of these species only grow at certain high elevations and this was my first time up over 6,000 feet this year. It had been more than two years since I had been to this same meadow in summer. I had been looking forward to fields of lupine, the purple withering to brown at the lower elevation where I lived more than a month and a half before but had forgotten the diversity that thrived at these elevations. Aware of the fragility of subalpine meadows I resisted the urge to have my own Sound of Music moment and took a few minutes just sitting on the trail among the flowers instead of frolicking on their delicate roots.
The trail rises steadily from 1,100 feet in elevation until the pass and meadows at 6,900. Different plant communities thrive at different elevations, learning through generation what adaptations they need to survive the different amounts of sunlight and water, temperature, and snowpack.
Desert parsley, snowbrush, and ocean spray thrived at the hotter lowland forests of ponderosa pine, and while I love the sweet vanilla smell of pines in the summer sun, I’m not really a hot weather person. When eventually I turned a corner on the trail to a high north-facing slope, I entered a different world, and it was like coming home. There was the pink heather, the friendly lavender petals of spreading phlox, the dark purple Cusick’s speedwell. Here I had reached the subalpine life zone, where short stubby subalpine fir tolerate many days of freezing temperatures and the plants in generally are short and stocky to best survive this land of wind, cold, and snow.
If you’re a plant who has chosen to live at 5-6,000 feet in these mountains, you have to make do with a short growing season, where the time between the last snow melting and the first frost can sometimes be measured in weeks not months. But late July to early September is the time to be alive at that elevation, meadows bursting with energy, an orgy of color and diversity. Purple lupine, red paintbrush, white sandwort, and a tall yellow flower I was not yet familiar with (butterweed? groundsel?). Bees and flies drone as they stop at the specific flower that had co-evolved to attract pollinating insects. There were butterflies and yes, mosquitoes, too adding life to the meadow.
The last time I was on this trail had been in mid October, and I hiked down after a night of 15F temperatures that froze the water inside my tent. Then, plants were already turning brown to hibernate for the winter, huckleberry bushes orange and red, with a few purple berries still hanging under the leaves. Bigleaf maps had turned the lower reaches of the trail bright yellow where high up at the pass, it was the golden orange of subalpine larches that shouted “October!” The season going out in its last fiery outburst. The plants showcasing their different personalities before becoming quiet for the long winter months. A dusting of snow in October turned the panorama of peaks into a painting, while back here in July I had to skirt the last big patch of last winter’s snow to finish up the highest portion of the hike.
There was much for me to still learn about the ecosystem and neighborhoods of plants. How did they interact? Which were long-lost cousins? This trip I saw a few new plants I didn’t yet know on sight and paused often to take photos.
I’ll now have a few new friends to greet on my next hike.