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Tuolumne Rim 5/2
Tuolumne Rim 5/8

Spring 2015 Trip Chronicles:  Page 6

Rim Fire Tuolumne spring wildflowers

Friday late afternoon May 1 left my workplace in Newark heading for Tuolumne County areas where in August 2013 the enormous Rim Fire burned 400 square miles of the Sierra Nevada in areas of Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. During the summer of 2014 most of the roads in the burn areas were still closed except highway SR120 that one could drive on but not stop roadsides. That was primarily because of dangers of deadfall. However now spring 2015 all paved and most dirt forest roads are once again open. Fires are both destructive and beneficial to forests with trees, shrubs, and creatures dying while many annual plants benefiting from all the nutrients released into the soil and greater sunshine available with trees destroyed. In fact the seeds of many annuals with their hard seed cases seared, not only easily survive modest fires but are more likely to germinate during following winter rains.

The spur paved and dirt roads outside the western border of Yosemite are areas I know well from years of spring explorations for close-up wildflower subjects. Accordingly I knew where I wanted to go and by 10pm was parked at one of those spots along a lonely section of the Cherry Lake Road.

As dawn rose in the morning on May 2, I quickly set my gear up. Right where I parked within the blackened forest was a list of familiar flowering understory perennials and annuals. This first subject below is a silverleaf lotus, lotus argophyllus, plant that forms ground hugging mats. From a standing height looking down at the ground it looks like just another ho hum small flowered species. But up close these bright yellow flowers have a surprisingly wonderful appearance with wing petals jutting out, cute paddle-like wooly hairy leaves, and reddish buds. Selecting an aesthetic subject from among dozens of such belly plants in an area requires getting down to their height then with some patience using one's right brain aesthetic sense as a guide. Note pretty much all day wore foam knee pads, absolutely indispensible for any serious wildflower photographer getting down.

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The most common understory species in these yellow pine chaparral forests is miner's lettuce, montia foliosa, covering vast areas. Without the trees the shade loving species doesn't produce much chlorophyll with leaves and stems becoming pinkish red. Looking at the black skeleton forest at a distance are many areas with a pinkish appearance due to these plants. Another perennial shrub that grows here is the unpleasant mountain misery, chamaebatia foliolosa, that forms dense expanses. The plant with white flowers dominates where it grows, has an unpleasant fragrance, exudes a dust attracting tar that sticks on clothing and shoes, hides considerable poison oak down in its shin height canopy, and is full of spider webs. The fire however rather burned all those tarry plants away just leaving roots that apparently sprouted in the spring of 2014 but with the drought could only produce small plants. That has opened up large expanses of bare sooty soil for a great many other species. The fire also burned away all the considerable poison oak in many areas that had long inhibited my walking about. That too has root sprouted here and there but was usually so scattered I could walk around the forest without bothering to carefully look where I was going.

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One of my favorite areas over many years is the glaciated granite slab areas just east of the Hetch Hetchy Road entrance station. On a 10 scale it looked about a 3 or 4 versus usual because areas exposed to sun in droughty years tend to dry out relatively more than shadier exposures. Regardless, there were plenty of wildflower species and some dense patches. It appeared a thunderstorm had rained on the area during the previous week because water was still draining off its slopes. One species encountered was the above striking candy bright patch of rare two color pansy monkeyflower, mimulus pulchella, with some Torrey's monkeyflower, mimulus torreyi, mixed in. Worked the area about noon and by then wind was blowing making work on all but belly flowers like this impossible. The spot was down in between some slabs where runoff ran, so with my two collapsible disks as blocks, managed to run off a set of shots during a less breezy period.

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The two most striking species in these forests are snow plant which I saw few of probably due to the drought and the above deep red hued Indian pink, silene californica. In some areas it is conveniently rather common on roadside banks. I like almost every other photographer have taken lots of photographs of these species over decades. Although I have some nice photos, one of the issues with the latter has always been depth of field limits that demand one not get too close lest the long perpendicular anthers go out of focus. But with focus stack blending per above, I now have made my first ever image this close with every element in sharp focus.

A prime reason to make the 150 mile trip was to photograph lupine species because it is our lupines that most react as though on steroids after any fires. And my interest was with two species, the blue and white hued sky lupine, lupinus nanus, and our most colorful lupine, the yellow, magenta, and red hued harlequin lupine, lupinus stiversii. The low elevation sky lupine is found in many areas of the state and is quite variable in form. Locally in the San Francisco Bay Area, these lupines are smaller both in height and petal sizes with much less impact of blueness on a landscape. However this Sierra form at its upper elevation limits is exceptionally blue, wonderfully fragrant, and more sizeable. In the Tuolumne Canyon it tends to form dense patches on some well-watered benches that before the fire tended to be hidden from view. After the fire, with just black skeleton trunks left, one can now see many of these patches down off the roadsides. The harlequins are less common, found about ridgelines and rocky areas. Being a lower pine belt species, their larger more robust branching form is better adapted for elevations with occasional spring storms. In a few places the two species mix and that is what I sought.

At sunrise Saturday had indeed found sizeable patches near my overnight parking spot thus took a couple modest stitch panel sets in skylight shade before the sun shined into the areas making them too contrasty. There had also been a breeze all night that waned slightly by sunrise making any camera work slow as I waited for lulls between focus stack sets. In the end spent more time exploring forest areas sizing up tripod positions than actually shooting. So hoped to work the best subjects near sunset IF the breeze slacked enough. About 4pm in the afternoon it was still rather breezy though not as strong as at mid day, an optimistic trend. Our Central Valley air mass expands during the heat of sunny days pushing air up surrounding mountain canyons. As the sun lowers and temperatures drop the phenomenon reverses. I gambled on patiently waiting out the next 3 plus hours. Thus drove around making the most of that part of the day exploring.

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One interesting flower I found was at the 4800 foot elevation on the Hetch Hetchy Road where it crosses a stream on a small bridge. On the southwest upstream side of the bridge were dozens of giant trillium, trillium chloropetalum, per image above.

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As soon as the lowering sun was all shadows on the first of three subjects, went to work. By 7:30 pm the breeze had indeed waned to near dead air. However needing to work quickly, I didn't bother to use my robotic head and later at home found the first subject was a loss. The last frame of a 2x2 panel set was too low to stitch, an example of how success with multi row column stitch sets is risky if performed manually because it is much too easy to wander off with a sequence of repositions. Then drove a couple miles and immediately made this above 2x2 panel image in skylight shadows of the two lupine species with my 60mm Sigma f2.8 DN that required 32 individual shots. The sky lupine in this patch were freshly risen with few stems yet gone to seed. That is when their color is a most saturated blue and without unaesthetic off-hue wilted going to seed flowers at the bottom of racemes. The few flowers that have been pollinated have changed petals to a purple. The harlequin flowers that have been pollinated turn their magenta petals to red.

With light getting dim moved to my last subject nearby and managed to take this second image at page top, another 2x2 panel that required 31 individual images or 7 to 8 shots per frame. Easily the best capture of the two species I've ever made. The flowers were on a slight slope with my position in a small drainage channel. The large palmately compound leaves are harlequin which has a branching stem form while the sky leaves are smaller, narrow, and usually out of view below flowers. At frame top are two fallen Rim Fire blackened yellow pine trunks. At the top right corner is a root sprouting canyon live oak and beside white flowers of a mountain misery plant. The vertical slice shows its wonderful detail.

snow on spring wildflowers

The following Friday I returned to the same Tuolumne areas after a cold spring storm had moved through the Sierra that would linger into this following day keeping a solid cloud deck over the range. The clouds would provide diffuse lighting allowing shooting forest understories all day. On the drive out Thursday evening, it was still raining hard in Central Valley areas along SR120. It appeared there had been considerable precipitation where I pulled over to sleep in the Forester at about 3000 feet above the South Fork of the Tuolumne River as soil had been washed across the side of the road. Temperatures had dropped to 40F degrees indicating there would be snow at 4500 feet where I expected to work. Some wildflower species were likely to be aesthetically damaged by all the rain and I would learn what a layer of snow does.

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Sunrise came dimly with a thick layer of clouds on Friday May 8. On slopes above the Middle Fork of the Tuolumne River, expanses of a tall yellow flower species grew I've yet to identify. Used flash up against the gray sky for above image. Driving over roads I'd worked the previous Saturday showed at least some snow had fallen as low as 4000 feet and that had flattened areas of miniature lupine. Many other species that just received rain were soggy and drooping as expected. Above 4000 feet with temperature 32F, the wet snow increasingly covered vegetation areas though none had accumulated on rocks, soil, and roads. In the distance could see areas above 4500 feet covered in solid snow and above 5000 feet trees were fully coated. There would be no wildflower subjects worth imaging until plants without snow had a chance to straighten out so drove SR120 into Yosemite National Park where it was snowing moderately. Snow plows were clearing roads above 5500 feet and Crane Flat at 6000 feet showed over half a foot roadside. Drove down to Yosemite Valley at 4100 feet where snow turned to a cold rain and tall cliffs were hidden in cloud fog. About 30% of Pacific dogwood trees were at peak bloom with their large white blossoms. By late morning the precipitation had stopped and sun began poking out here and there, making light more interesting, and tempertures had risen to upper 30s. Drove about, taking a few unimpressive images over the morning hours. Lots of cars were increasingly zooming around the valley loop road by then and that gave me more reason to escape.

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About noon drove back on SR120 west out of the park to a favorite area along Hetch Hetchy Road that still had patches of snow. Although the area likely had several inches earlier with temperatures now in low 40s, most quickly melted so everywhere was wet with melted runoff. Thicker solid clouds without any blue sky pockets moved in for the rest of the day and often the cloud deck was right at ground level making landscapes foggy. Plants by midday had a few hours to straighten back out some but per photo above were still a mess with stems and flowers floundering out in all manner of unnatural positions.

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Above image at a familiar roadside granite bedrock area found dozens of these canyon dudleya, dudlyea cymosa, perennial succulents growing in a vertical cracks, always a favorite of photographers. These hardy plants safely protected in their rock homes didn't have to worry about a little weather ruining their day.

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Walking out onto an area of granite bedrock with still patchy snow on vegetation, found areas of dense wildflowers that had been covered by a few inches of snow that were still matted down flat. I noticed where the melting snow was thin over flowers, interesting distorted colored patterns formed. The poor little spring wildflowers were not designed to bear layers of snow. Above image miniature lupine, lupinus bicolor, dense flower owl's clover, brome, and yellow pincushion.

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Some flowers were pushed up unnaturally against objects like this blue dicks, dichelostemma capitatum, with a gracefully curving stem up huddled against a granite boulder. One flower I knew wasn't going to bob in the breeze.

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This next image above is snow flattened miniature lupine with some translucent ice areas distoring the colors beneath. Later on the computer wished I'd put both my extension tubes on to take a closeup even closer to that ice. The 4500 foot elevation this species was growing at is about as high as it can be found, and that is also about the lower limit of spring snows it obviously doesn't cope well with.

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And here in stunning naturally saturated color contrasting with white granular snow were the two lupine species in that area plus brome, all squeezed together by a weight of snow. The more robust harlequin lupine can withstand some level of snow and indeed numbers of plants were sticking up through the snow though not a few lied down for a nap. Do you see the little fly?

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Along a stretch of the Hetch Hetchy Road road cut during May are vertical faces of wet mossy lichen covered seeps. One species that had few blooming plants the week before now had many. Magenta hued, mountain pride penstemon, penstemon newberryi, is widespread across Sierra Nevada elevations. The penstemon is also one of the earlier species to bloom with this site near its lower limits. Notice how the stems are also magenta. Another name for this group of penstemon species is "beard tongue" for obvious reasons.

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Also growing along the seeping road cuts are Pacific sedum, sedum spathulifolium, perennial succulents with their joyful plastic smooth candy corn hued stems, flowers, and beautiful cyan blue green hued bassal leaf rossettes. Usually flower stems point up into the air while this one lay downward against the moss conveniently for this photographer. Atop a leaf in the vertical slice view, one can see 3 tiny mites.

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The final image of the day was this 2x2 panel intimate blackened fire landscape with harlequin lupine, silverleaf lotus, blue dicks, tomcat clover, blow wives, bedstraw, telegraph weed, black oak, and a baby manzanita. Both the latter two root sprouted.

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