Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Monday, 22 June 2015

Walls of Stone - Of Latitude and Altitude...

From an article I wrote in 2012 for the Red Deer River Naturalist newsletter.
At the Grand Canyon, 8500 feet above sea level is a tourist walk.
As a long-time hiker of our Canadian Rockies, I couldn't help but recognize the importance of altitude in the creation of the different mountain eco-zones. I also understood(at least in theory) the correlation between altitude and latitude. Climbing up a mountain is very similar to traveling North toward the Arctic circle. The two trips that my wife and I took this past summer really brought this idea home to me and allowed me to actually experience some of the things that I have heard and read.

In mid-July we pulled our trailer West to Alberta's Kananaskis Country for our customary two weeks of camping and hiking. It had been a few years since we had a chance to be in the Rocky mountains during the peak flower season and I was savoring the experience.

The kind of signs one might see in the Montane Zone
The one thing that almost all of our hikes share is a gain of altitude and ascendant eco-zones. Low zone on the totem-pole in the Canadian Rockies is the Montane zone. This is the one that most casual visitors to Banff are familiar with. There are lots of trees -typically pine and spruce. There are also plenty of larger animals and people, with their roads, railroads, towns, resorts and campgrounds.

 As you hike up and out of the valley bottoms you notice that the kinnikinnick which carpets the understory is replaced by feather mosses and the trees are more typically Engleman Spruce, subalpine fir, white-barked pine and perhaps Lyall's larch. Also there are fewer trees and more meadows. As you gain altitude there become even less trees and the ones that you do see tend to be smaller. They often occur in groups of stunted trees huddled together known as "Krummholz".
Three Lakes Valley - entering the subalpine/alpine zone.
As you climb even higher you may enter into the alpine zone. Meadows in this zone contain no trees. Plants and flowers tend to be small and very low to the ground. Subalpine and alpine areas may contain less familiar creatures such as the pika and hoary marmot. The Clark's nutcracker replaces the gray or Canada jay of the montane forest. I always feel privileged to visit the alpine zone, but I know it is (by necessity) for a short period. The month of year and the time of day leave small windows, where I can comfortably spend time in the alpine. Whenever I am there, I make the most of it. I endeavor to take in all the sights, sounds and scents before I trudge back down the mountain.
One of the hikes we did this year(for the first time ever) was a trip up Plateau Mountain, located in the southern most part of K- Country. Unique in the Rockies, this mountain is indeed a high plateau, and its flat summit contains a large alpine area. In one area of the summit, we observed rocks arranged in polygon patterns on ground. I have never been to the arctic, but I have seen in films and books  where this same phenomena occurs as a result of the action of permafrost just under the surface of the tundra.

In Kananaskis country, tree-line is about 2300 metres or around 7500 feet above sea level. Above this altitude is the alpine zone. As one makes their way further north the tree-line becomes lower and of course it is higher the more you head south... I realized this fact, but it wasn't until a trip South to the North rim of the Grand Canyon that I ever really experienced it for myself.

In the Canadian Rockies, 8500 feet above sea level certainly isn't a tourist walk.
It was part of our first summer trip of 2012 to the beautiful Southwest United States. We were staying in the town of Kanab in Southwest Utah and one day (in late May) we drove further south into Arizona through what is typical of the desert - sand  and sandstone interspersed with pinion pine and Utah juniper. Imagine the cartoon loop through which Wile E. Coyote chases Roadrunner - this might give you the idea of the terrain, if you've never been. As the road began to climb, I noticed a sign "6500 feet above sea level". There were more trees. We began to see a forest of Ponderosa pine such as you might see in the Rocky mountain trench of Southeastern British Columbia. I saw one more sign; "7200 feet". That really got me thinking. "If I was in Alberta..."

Our first visit to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was extremely enjoyable and in the late afternoon we attended a lecture on the geology of the canyon. The speaker began by asking if any of the people there had been to Glacier National Park in Montana and most of the crowd put up their hands. Then she told us that we were all sitting atop the Colorado Plateau at an altitude of 8500 feet above sea level - higher than almost every mountain summit in Glacier. We were a thousand feet above Alberta's tree-line and yet we had a spruce forest all around us. From bottom to top, the Grand Canyon also has layered ecosystems of its own. Sonoran to Hudsonian, they are representative of those from Mexico to Canada.

A visitor from the east once told me (after a brief visit) that he personally didn't like the mountains. I was incredulous and replied that if you don't like the mountains where you are, just walk up a few hundred feet and look around at a whole different environment and if you don't like that continue on up... The ecosystems of the Rocky Mountains are the nature of Canada in microcosm; foothills and parkland, montane  and boreal , subalpine and hemi arctic, alpine and arctic - the correlation may not be exact, but it is a close enough model for this layman. Perhaps one day I will visit the Arctic and gain a better understanding of an aspect of the natural world that has fascinated me throughout my life.


  1. I've had the privilege many times to get up to the alpine area. One of the things I'll never forget is how many robins were nesting in that zone. At that time I didn't realize robins nested on the ground.

  2. That's interesting Keith. I have seen robins up there but never really thought they were predominant. They do seem to be very adaptable.