6 alpine questions

A shameless plug for the Alpine Nature Day on Saturday

By Jack Souther, Cathy Conroy and Bob Brett, Whistler Naturalists

Let’s start by laying our cards on the table – the goal of this column is to whet your appetite for the Alpine Nature Day hosted by the Whistler Naturalists all day on Saturday, Sept. 21 (part of our three-day Mountain Nature Weekend; see below for more details). If you don’t already know the answers to these five questions, then come along on Saturday to learn even more. If you do know all the answers come along too – but you’ll have to lead the walks.

Why is Flute red?

Flute is the exhumed bowel of an ancient volcano – or more correctly a sub-volcanic pluton. The rock that forms the nearby summits of Whistler and Piccolo is lava that poured out of a volcanic vent and consolidated at the surface in the late Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago. The rock that forms Flute is the stuff that didn't quite make it to the surface. A close look at freshly broken rock from Flute reveals tiny crystals of pyrite (iron sulfide) which weathers to red iron oxide or rust.

Which tree can’t regenerate without a bird?

Without the help of Clark’s Nutcrackers, the whitebark pines that inhabit high elevations on our mountains couldn’t regenerate. Over many thousands of years, these two species have co-evolved so that each relies on the other. Nutcrackers collect whitebark seeds (sometimes over 100 at a time) and cache them about 2 cm under mineral soil – the ideal condition for the seeds to germinate. Using their amazing spatial memory (proven better than any graduate student’s), the birds find and eat many of the seeds the following year. Luckily for whitebark pine and future nutcrackers, some seeds remain in the soil to become new trees.

How many volcanoes are visible from the top of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains?

Mount Garibaldi, Black Tusk, Mount Fee, Mount Cayley, Powder Mountain, and Ring Mountain are all visible from the top of Whistler and Blackcomb. Between Mount Garibaldi in the south and Meager Mountain in the north more than 20 additional, but even less obvious, "young" volcanoes define our local, 100 kilometre-long, segment of the "Pacific Ring of Fire." Collectively they form the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt, a northern extension of the Cascade volcanoes of the western United States.

How can you tell which alpine tent site will be driest?

A very good time to be able to identify plants is when a rainstorm is looming and you have to choose a tent site. The best-looking sites – flat and soft – can be a trap. Peat moss, a.k.a. sphagnum, is definitely soft when it’s dry, but can hold up to 40 times its weight in water. Not such a pleasant place to sleep unless you’re in a boat. Another plant to watch out for is black alpine sedge. This plant forms a dense turf on flat, late-snowmelt sites which are perfect for camping, but only if you’re sure the weather won’t change.

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