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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Hiking Through The Illilouette: The Ideal Forest

Illilouette_Ridge.jpg
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A Sierra Nevada forest untouched by humans isn’t shady and dense. It actually looks more like a park, with meadows and trees black and scarred from lightning strikes. As part of our series “California Burning,” Capital Public Radio reporter Amy Quinton hiked deep into Yosemite Park to discover more about the composition of forests before humans starting suppressing fire.

Kate Wilkin with UC Berkeley unfolds a map before we start our backpacking journey into Yosemite.  She’s an expert in the flora and fauna of the forest where we’re headed. And she’s researching how fire affects that landscape.

“I’m really excited to be able to share the Illilouette with you,” says Wilkin. “I think it’s a really special place in California’s natural and human history.”

Lightning fires have been allowed to burn unabated in the Illilouette Creek Basin in the southeastern part of the park for nearly 40 years. Over that time, the vast 40,000 acre forest has had more than 150 fires. This is actually a reflection of California’s wildfire history, before modern times, when six million acres of forest would burn each year.

This is my very first experience in Yosemite. And Wilkin’s next remarks are a little disconcerting.

“I’m curious if anyone has any medical training?” asks Wilkin.

My first thought? Bears.

“The two safety concerns are eating your own fecal coliform and then exposure,” she says.

Ok, not bears. I’m pretty sure I can avoid the first concern, and I brought a jacket.

We’re going to hike eight miles in to an area where Wilkin is doing her research.  We start in Mono Meadow.

If someone could draw a picture of an ideal meadow, it would look just like this. It’s what you might imagine in fairy tales. Wildflowers of purple, yellow, and white dot the landscape. Trees, dead and blanched from the sun, lie on the edge of the meadow.

Wilkin explains that when fire burns through a forest and trees die, wetland plants often take their place. She says trees are like giant straws. Fewer trees mean more water is available.

Grasses, knee-high, lush and green, brush my knees as I walk through the meadow. I immediately forget that California is in a drought. I’ve never seen grasses this high in a forest.

“This area has a lot of water and then when you have such an open forest the sun is hitting the forest floor and they can really grow. It’s a perfect condition for them,” says Wilkin.

We walk beyond the meadow, through a shady forest and then arrive at an open area that takes my breath away. Lodgepole pine trees - black from fire and leafless - stick up from the ground like toothpicks.

“Here, you can feel how thin the bark is and how that probably isn’t a good insulator from heat, it’s real papery thin,” says Wilkin.

Underneath this death, is a thriving field of buckbrush and blue lupine.We walk a few miles further and set up camp near the Illilouette Creek.

The next morning Wilkin explains what we’re up against.

“So we have about five miles this morning, mostly uphill with our pack on and then we’re going to probably camp up on a ridge,” says Wilkin.

Uphill?” I ask.

“All uphill,” says Wilkin. “It’s real mild though.”

Everything seems mild to Wilkin. She easily carries 50 pounds on her back, would hike 20 miles a day fueled only by her love for the forest. As we hike, I begin to realize that nothing in this forest is uniform. The scenery and the types of trees change with each mile.

We come across huge pine trees with big black scars that race up their trunks. I stop in front of one and soon discover that fire scars excite Wilkin.

“This big tree here, it still got its crown so it’s probably not going to die, right?” I ask.

“It looks healthy. It looks fantastic,” says Wilkin.

“Really?”

“Yeah, that’s a happy tree. Fire starts to thin the trees competition and so right now this tree has more sun and more water than it had before the fire,” says Wilkin.

By the late afternoon of Day 2, we finally arrive at a stone ridge where we’ll camp for the night. Wilkin takes me off-trail to show me where she’s doing her research.

“We are here in the Illilouette Basin and I’m eight miles in and I’m standing underneath this big beautiful Jeffrey Pine, and I’m looking at it and I can see this great orange bark,” says Wilkin. “It’s so thick you could almost grab a hold of it.”

The thick bark makes it resilient to fire. We’re surrounded by a forest of these trees, some about six feet around. It feels like I’m in a park. But I can also see patches of dense smaller trees. Wilkin is a self-professed sucker for a colorful flower, and points to the forest floor.

“So I’m looking down here and I’m seeing Brewer’s Lupine, I’m seeing Squirrel Tail Elemis, and I’m seeing Rabbit brush,” says Wilkin. “I wouldn’t expect to see these things in an area that had a closed canopy.”

Wilkin says lightning fires here have struck at different times and hit areas where earlier fires have burned.

“In 1994, you had the Horizon Fire. A few years later you had the Hoover fire. The Hoover Fire was moving through the basin and hit that old fire scar, and some of it reburned, but most of it didn’t. It mostly fit together like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Wilkin.

The Illilouette is a mosaic, sculpted by lightning fires. But it takes miles to get to and is surrounded by granite, making a fire unlikely to put people at risk. Letting lightning fires burn isn’t something that can be done everywhere. But experts say to prevent the kinds of fires we don’t want, we need some help from what nature provides. 

“In my mind when I think about the natural forest here in the Illilouette the number one thing I think about is reduced fire risk,” says Wilkin. “We’re less likely to have a big catastrophic fire, so both the environment and people are much safer.

Hiking the eight miles back to the trailhead I wonder if I’ll ever see this forest again. I’m exhausted and not sure I could return. But I’m grateful that I took this journey and was able to see what the Sierra once looked like before fires were suppressed. 

Copyright 2014 Capital Public Radio