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Alpine Trees

Excerpted from East of the Divide by Chester Marler


Few naturalists would question the observation that subapline fir is the dominant conifer throughout the majority of the Eastern Slope’s high country. Thriving in cold, high elevation locations and tolerating a wide range of moisture conditions, they are decidedly widespread. This ubiquitous tree is not as drought resistant as whitebark pine, but is adapted to soils that may become dry by late summer. As a species they are cold hardy, and do well in areas of deep winter snowpack; their distinctive spire shape is well suited to severe snow storms and long lasting snowpacks. Whether exploring Pass No Pass near the Cascade Crest, or hiking the eastern most summits of the Entiat Mountains, they are often the most common tree encountered. Even though whitebark pine and alpine larch may dominate specific ridges or basins, the more shade tolerant subalpine fir are rarely absent. Perceived from an esthetic and emotional point of view, subalpine fir are a predominant—an elemental—component of the high country. Their shape, color, and even their aroma, give so much substance to the character of the mountain environment. Their scent alone can trigger memories of places visited long ago, bringing back patterns of nearly forgotten experiences in unexpected detail.

The role of subalpine fir not withstanding, the Cascade’s Eastern Slope has a variety of plant communities that exceeds one or two key species. Sheltered basins, even at the eastern edge of the range, often contain surprisingly moist areas, allowing mountain hemlock and Alaska yellow cedar to develop farther into the rain shadow than one might expect. Adjacent dry, warm ridges may support a combination of subalpine fir near the timberline, with Douglas fir growing slightly lower, below 6,000 feet. The diversity of habitats creates a landscape rich in contrasts.

However, from the Chelan Mountains northward there is a noticeable change in the pattern of high elevation trees: Engelmann spruce begin to appear in larger numbers in the subalpine parklands. While commonly found at mid-elevations along moist valley bottoms throughout the Eastern Slope, and frequently intermingling with subalpine fir and other trees in the high country of the Stuart and Chiwaukum Ranges 1, spruce are usually not the dominant component of the parklands south or west of the Entiat country. The transition to spruce as a principal element is pronounced in the Entiat Meadows, where its parkland is composed of large fescue meadows interspersed by groves and solitary trees of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.
While subalpine fir may be numerically the most common tree in the upper reaches of the Entiat Valley—where the Entiat Meadows begin—spruce seem to stand out, almost shouting their presence. Engelmann spruce are heavily limbed to the ground, their boughs thick with branchlets and heavy with pendant cones, giving a pronounced variation in shape and texture to the background mosaic of other trees. Early in the summer their cones are a reddish-purple, becoming tan in the late summer, quite noticeable against the full green of their needle foliage. The ground beneath a mature Engelmann is a dense mat of cones from the previous seasons of seed production. Its bark is composed of loose scales that easily flake off. A mature Engelmann is also dense enough to give good shelter against a storm, although its low lying, prickly branches can be bothersome. I have crawled under large spruce several times for an evening’s shelter, when even my low profile bivouac sack is a tight fit between the ground and its boughs.

One evening in late June, I was hiking an easy ridge that led to the summit of Martin Peak, first winding my way between scattered larch and whitebark pine, then entering open meadows as I gained elevation. My bivouac camp was next to a spruce grove at about 7,000 feet, and I had prepared a quick evening meal before leaving for the summit. I was hoping for its early evening views of the mountains across Lake Chelan. The walk was easy enough, with meadows gradually blending into weathered granite blocks no larger than a foot or two across, and solid enough to provide predictable footing. The last few hundred feet required some easy scrambling, an appropriate level of difficulty for the lateness of the day. Even though this was a pleasant early summer evening, I pulled on my pile jacket as I reached the final few yards to the summit because of a cool breeze across the ridge-top.

From the summit rocks I could see the last of a weak storm front that still covered much of the Entiat Mountains and the upper Stehekin. Martin Peak was still in sunshine, although before long, the sun would be obscured by the wall of clouds just above the horizon. I stayed as long as time allowed, looking into the deep trough of Lake Chelan, over 7,000 feet below me. The elevation difference created a drama of space, position and time. A massive valley glacier had carved the Chelan trench a thousand feet below sea level, and two thousand feet below the level of today’s lake.

Today, roughly 17,000 years after the ice began to recede, a forest has developed which extends from the lakeshore, over rocky bluffs, to just below the crest of the range. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cover the lower few thousand feet, subalpine fir, spruce and larch grow in the upper reaches. Tiny, dwarfed alpine plants survive near the summit of Martin Peak, adapted to the wind exposed, desiccating environment. Time, climatic cycles, and the complex, natural system that defines this part of the Cascades created what I was seeing. Although I needed to leave the summit because of approaching darkness, the images and thoughts I had while sitting there have never left me. They gave me an important insight into the character of the landscape. It was a beginning point for looking beyond the present moment when experiencing the Cascades—appreciating the ancient history of the range as well as understanding the inevitability of future changes.