Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Finding Refuge in Nevada

Common Ringlet at Ruby Lake NWR (Photo by Narca)

The road north brings us to another stellar oasis: Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge. Pahranagat means "valley of shining waters" in the Paiute language. Large thermal springs feed a system of wetlands, where impoundments assure water for thousands of migratory waterfowl and other wildlife. Alan and I visited the refuge once before, when two vagrants, an immature Mississippi Kite and a Zone-tailed Hawk, surprised us. The endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher nests at the northern lake.

With Rich Hoyer, we work our way along the shore of the southern lake. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom amid the shadscale, and the flowers are a magnet for insects. One butterfly is new for all of us, the Mojave Sootywing. This very small skipper, barely larger than the Western Pygmy Blues, is a saltbush specialist.

Rich Hoyer peruses the Rabbitbrush (Photo by Narca)

Imperceptibly, the warm Mojave Desert is grading into the cold Great Basin Desert. We begin to see Big Sage, the indicator plant for the Great Basin. Pahranagat's northern lake and campground are closed for repairs to the dam, so reluctantly we continue north toward a national wildlife refuge that is new for us, Ruby Lake.

First comes a lunch stop at the Silver Cafe in the old mining town of Pioche. Photos on the wall depict various atomic bombs exploding at the Nevada Test Site. It's hard to imagine that anyone close enough to take those photos lived for very long afterwards. At long last, closures due to lingering radiation at the test site have recently been announced.

Still pondering the long-overdue closures, we arrive at Ruby Lake NWR. Ruby Lake supports the largest nesting population of Canvasbacks in the western US. Like many western valleys with remnant wetlands, this valley was the site of a huge Pleistocene lake––Ancient Lake Franklin––about 12,000 years ago when the climate was wetter. Today more than 200 springs feed the refuge wetlands.

We don't have time for more than a short hike along a rushing, willow-lined stream, but the drive has been well worth the effort. The scenery of this isolated region is magnificent. The Ruby Mountains tower over a near-pristine valley. While we are here, a sudden plume of smoke announces the start of a prescribed burn in the Rubies, an effort to reduce the fuel load and reestablish the natural fire regime.

Our final campout on the road north is at Great Basin National Park. Now we've completely made the transition to this cold desert, which lies in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains. The Great Basin is exactly that––a 200,000 square-mile region of hundreds of northwest-to-southeast trending basins and ranges, all with only internal drainage. All waters eventually evaporate or sink underground; none flow to the sea.

Wheeler Peak, at over 13,000 feet, shadows the national park. A system of about 40 caves laces the park, with Lehman Cave the best known and most developed. Fractures in the bedrock were created when the mountains uplifted, and acidic groundwater flowed along those fractures and dissolved the marble to form this cave. Some of the dissolved minerals were redeposited to form the unique, very beautiful formations of this living cave.

Aspens at Upper Lehman Campground (Photo by Narca)

We ascend to high-elevation forest of conifers and aspen, with their attendant Steller's Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Townsend's Solitaires. In the dusk, the bark of aspen glows dramatically white. We fall asleep to the sound of the rushing mountain stream.

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