Tiger Beetle Safari

In looking back at my posts over the past few weeks, I realized that it has been far too long since I’ve actually talked about beetles.  Perhaps “Petals In The Bush” would be a better name for this blog!  I still have some botanical thoughts to get off my chest before the insect season starts in earnest, but until then, and in anticipation of the upcoming summer’s hunts, I offer this fun, light-hearted introduction to collecting and keeping tiger beetles by Peter Schriemer.  Pay particular attention to the method he uses to capture these elusive little creatures:

Tiger Beetles are my favorite type of beetle! Entomologist John Acorn got me hooked on these little guys. They live across the country in various habitats, so you may not need to travel far to go on a Tiger Beetle Safari of your own!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Tiger Beetle Safari“, posted with vodpod

Capturing tiger beetle adults can a little (lot) more difficult than implied by this video. Adults have excellent eyesight, and many species are extremely wary. It takes practice, patience, and lots of second chances. The collecting method shown in the video is what I refer to as the “stalk and slap” method – the beetle is slowly stalked until within net reach, and the net bag is slapped over the beetle.  This method works well enough, but it has its limitations.  If there are any gaps between the ground and the net rim, the beetle will quickly dart through them and fly away.  This is easy to prevent on sandy and soft clay substrates, as the net rim can be sealed against the ground by kneeling quickly on each side of the rim to embed it slightly and using the hands to hold up the net bag and locate the beetle.  Still, there are a few things I don’t like about this method – the beetle may hide against the inside of the rim and be difficult to locate, and once found it may be difficult to grab the beetle through the net if it is against the ground (don’t even try lifting the rim and reaching under – the beetle will zip out and be gone).  This method can also be taxing on the legs, as each attempted capture involves kneeling and standing back up (getting harder and harder for these 50+ year old knees to do).

The major limitation of the slap method, however, is that it doesn’t really work on hard, uneven surfaces. Many species are found in glades and other habitats with exposed rock substrates. In these types of habitats, the net rim simply cannot be clamped tightly enough to eliminate the gaps (not to mention the added difficulties in kneeling on these surfaces).  Because of this, I have adopted a technique that I call the “tap and swipe” method.  Here again, the beetle is stalked until within net reach (made easier with a longer handle), but rather than slapping the net bag over the beetle, the rim of the net is tapped against the ground next to the beetle and then assertively swiped sideways to catch the beetle just as it starts flying.  A quick 180° flip of the net rim closes the opening to prevent the beetle from escaping, and it is easily seen in the hanging net bag, where it can be grabbed from outside the net bag with one hand to secure it before reaching into the net bag with the other hand.  With a little practice, one eventually learns to reach down into the open net bag and grab the beetle while preventing it from flying up and out.  All of this can be done while standing, so it’s easier on the knees.

The tap method does require more knowledge about the beetle’s escape behavior in order to anticipate how quickly and in which direction the beetle will fly – some species delay take off just slightly, thus requiring a slight “pause” between the tap and the swipe. However, once their behavior is learned I have found this method to be more consistently successful than the slap method – even on soft substrates.  For species that I haven’t encountered in the field before, I use the slap method at first (if I can) until I have a feel for their escape behavior. If I can’t, I use the tap method and hope for the best!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Trees of Lake Tahoe – The Pines

The coniferous forest of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges…–John Muir, The Mountains of California (1894)

During the early 1990’s while I lived in Sacramento, I spent a lot of time exploring the nearby Sierra Nevada – my first true mountain experience after cutting my entomological teeth in my beloved Ozark Highlands.  The beauty of the Sierra is overwhelming (this should be obvious after my last several posts), and it didn’t take long for the deep, clear, blue waters of Lake Tahoe to capture my heart.  One year ago, I returned to Lake Tahoe for the first time since moving back to St. Louis in 1995.  That visit was much too short – only 3 days, but that was more than enough time to rekindle my love affair with Lake Tahoe.  My wife shared those feelings, and together we made a commitment to return to Lake Tahoe every year from then on.

And return we did.  Our primary goals last week were skiing (to invigorate the body) and relaxation (to rejuvenate the mind) – typical goals for working professionals who spend much of the year consumed by the demands of job and family.  In addition, I had another goal of my own – to learn as many of the trees and shrubs that occur in the Tahoe Basin as possible.  I hadn’t done a very good job of this during the time that I lived in California – in those earlier days of insect collecting, I was content to call a pine a pine and a fir a fir and leave it at that.  Over the years, however, I’ve become more and more interested in understanding host plant associations for the woodboring beetles that I study, and to do that I need to become a better botanist.  With a whole week to explore the Tahoe Basin during this year’s trip, I figured I should be able to gain a solid understanding of most of the trees and a good portion of the shrubs that occur in the area.  Maybe, if I was really lucky, I could actually succeed in finding and recognizing every species of conifer known from the Basin.

To make a long story short – yes, I did succeed in building a solid understanding of most of the trees that occur in Tahoe Basin, including all 11 coniferous tree species.  At this point, I have to acknowledge once again the considerable help given by a particularly knowledgeable associate at the U.S.D.A. Forest Service headquarters in South Lake Tahoe.  Without her focused insight on distinguishing characters and locations, I may not have enjoyed the same level of success.  From my discussions with her and what I had gleaned from my readings up to that point, I knew I would have to explore a range of habitats and elevations to find everything I was looking for, always with field guides and camera in pocket.  This post represents the first of a two-part treatment of the coniferous trees that occur naturally in the Tahoe Basin and covers the six species of pine¹ (family Pinaceae, genus Pinus). The second part in this series will cover the remaining conifers in other genera.

¹ Two additional species of pine – Washoe pine (Pinus washoensis) and single-leaf pinyon pine (P. monophylla) – are often treated as occurring in the Lake Tahoe area. However, they are of sporadic occurrence on the eastern slopes of Mount Rose, and thus do not occur within the Tahoe Basin proper.

In the treatments that follow, click on any of the photos to see enlarged versions for a better view of the characters discussed.

Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi)

p1020604_2p1020665_2p1020576_3This is the dominant conifer and pine species in the Tahoe Basin. It is very closely related to ponderosa pine – so much so that some authors have treated it as a variety or synonym of the latter. Here, I follow the opinion of Conifers of California by Ronald M. Lanner (1999), who notes important differences in the chemical composition of its oleoresin (containing an explosive hydrocarbon p1020586_2called normal heptane) in addition to the subtle phenotypic characteristics. At a distance, the species can be recognized by its tall, straight massive trunk and relatively long, symmetrical crown. The bark is generally reddish brown with narrow plates between deep fissures. Like other species in the hard pine subgenus, old trees cease adding height after their crown flattens out (as seen in the photo above, which at first caused me to think it might be sugar pine). This species and ponderosa pine are the only Tahoe Basin pines that bear needles in bundles of three, and their length (up to 10″) and blue-green color also help to distinguish at a distance these two species from the other Tahoe Basin pines. p1020784_2I found the beehive shaped cones of Jeffrey pine to be the most reliable character for distinguishing this species from ponderosa pine – they are more robust, more tightly constructed, and easy to handle because the prickles of open cones curve inward.

This species was the dominant pine at lake level around the entire perimeter of the lake.  It also dominated the forests I saw at Spooner Lake (elevation 7,200′), and I saw a few specimens as high as about 8,000′ elevation at Heavenly Ski Resort.  The photo at right shows this species (right) standing next to red fir, Abies magnifica (left) on the California side of Heavenly. I also found it outside Tahoe Basin on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada down to Pyramid Creek Geological Area at an elevation of about 6,200′.  At that point, ponderosa pine began to take over and dominated at lower elevations.

Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)

p1020690_2p1020643_2p1020644_2Despite the widespread occurrence of this species across the mountainous west, I knew this species was not common in the Tahoe Basin as it prefers somewhat lower elevations than Jeffrey pine. The U.S.D.A. Forest Service representative told me that I should be able to find this species in Emerald Bay State Park, and that proved to be the case. This species is so similar to Jeffrey pine that it is more useful to discuss the differences only. The photograph in Winter botany quiz #3 shows the more yellow, larger plates of the bark on mature trees that is usually cited as a distinguishing character, but I found this to be unreliable in deciding whether a large tree represented this species or Jeffrey pine.  On several occasions I made a judgment based on the bark and then had to change my mind after looking at the fallen cones underneath.  Furthermore, this character was useless for younger trees that have not yet developed the distinctive plating. Another character often cited is the shape of the crown, which in ponderosa pine is generally shorter and less symmetrical than that of Jeffrey pine and results in the branches starting higher up the trunk in mature trees. I didn’t develop any confidence in this character either. It was not until I started focusing on the fallen cones beneath each tree that I developed a consistent sense of which species was which. In contrast to the robust cones of Jeffrey pine, those of ponderosa pine were almost always slightly smaller, with a more open structure and – most obvious – were very prickly to hold due to the prickles of open cones curving outwards.  p1020663_2The photo at right shows the distinctly outward pointing prickles and more open structure of a ponderosa pine cone (left) versus the distinctly inward pointing prickles of a Jeffrey pine cone (right).

Within Tahoe Basin proper, I didn’t see any trees that I thought represented this species outside of Emerald Bay State Park, where it occurred together with Jeffrey pine in mixed stands.  At higher elevations, Jeffrey pine took over exclusively, while at lower elevations (outside Tahoe Basin, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada), ponderosa pine eventually took over.  I saw both species in the area of Pyramid Creek Geological Area (about 6,200′ elevation – the same as lake surface within Tahoe Basin).

Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)

p1020715_2p1020647_2p1020632_2If there was any pine that I most looked forward to finding on this trip, it was this one². In contrast to the straight, narrow-crowned Jeffrey pines that dominate the Tahoe Basin, mature sugar pines have a ragged quality to them that makes each one unique.  Or at least that was the feeling that I got from my readings. p1020719_2I had seen the giant cones of this tree before up around Tahoe City, but I had never before made the effort to find and recognized the tree itself – to say unequivocally “Wow, that’s a sugar pine!” The wonderfully knowledgeable U.S.D.A. Forest Service associate had told me I might be able to find it along the Vikingsholm and Rubicon Trails at Emerald Bay State Park, but better stands could be found further north along the west shore at D. L. Bliss and Sugar Pine Point (of course) State Parks.

In addition to its distinct crown – tapering, frond-like branches that arch upwards in the upper crown and droop gracefully at the tips, while spreading horizontally below – sugar pine is immediately recognizable from a distance by the long, pendulous cones (usually a foot or more in length) hanging from the branch tips. It wasn’t long into my hike on the Vikingsholm Trail before I spotted the distinctive cones on a tree down by Vikingsholm Castle. Up close, the bark of mature trees is dark reddish and narrowly fissured, similar to Jeffrey pine but not so distinctly “plated.” p1020581_2Younger trees not yet bearing cones lack such distinctive characters, but they can still be recognized by their needles in bundles of five (about 4″ in length, much shorter than Jeffrey and ponderosa pine) – which places them in the soft pine subgenus – and smooth, gray bark. There are three soft pine species in the Tahoe Basin, but the other two – western white pine and whitebark pine – are found at higher altitudes than lake level. After hiking at Emerald Bay State Park, I drove up to D. L. Bliss State Park, and even from the road the towering asymmetrical crowns were immediately recognizable.  Rising like giant monuments, these largest of pines were full of character and stood in defiant contrast to the uniformly symmetrical crowns of the Jeffrey pines and white firs (Abies concolor) that surrounded them.  I would see this species along the entire western shore – just uncommonly enough to make each new sighting a delight.  This species appears to favor the greater moisture of the western shore, as I only saw a single tree of this species while driving the eastern shore in Nevada.

² I equally looked forward to seeing whitebark pine, but I knew I would find good stands of this hauntingly beautiful species on the high peaks at Heavenly Ski Resort, where I had seen and recognized it for what it was during last year’s trip.

Western white pine (Pinus monticola)

p1020797_2p1020796_2p1020787_2I wasn’t sure I would find this species at first – my readings suggested, and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service associate confirmed, that I would need to visit higher altitudes than around the lake to find this species. I held out hope that I might see it on my final day during the trip, when we went skiing at Heavenly Ski Resort. This species is another member of the soft pine subgenus, with its needles in bundles of five and looking very similar to those of the closely related sugar pine. I learned, were I to find it, that its crown of horizontal branches would appear more tightly and neatly layered, and that the upward arching branches of the upper crown would not droop at their tips. I also learned that the cones, smaller than those of sugar pine, would cluster erectly at the tips of the branches rather than hanging pendulously. My skepticism at being able to find and recognize this tree would prove to be unfounded. As soon as I reached the upper elevations of the ski resort, the robust, mature trees of this species were immediately recognizable – the crown shape and shape of the hanging cones were unmistakable. The foliage and young bark resembles that of sugar pine, but older trees quickly develop a thick, deeply-fissured, dark, purplish-brown bark that has a checkered appearance. They’re not as tall as sugar pine, but stouter and more robust. The trunks of some of the trees I saw were as massive as the largest ponderosa pines I had seen down near Vikingsholm Castle. I saw this species at elevations above about 8,000′ on both the California and the Nevada sides of Heavenly Ski Resort.

Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta ssp. murrayana)

p1020733_2p1020582_21p1020635_2In the Jeffrey pine dominated zone around the Tahoe Basin, lodgepole pine is the second most common pine species. It is also one of the most easily recognized species due to its thin, flaky bark – light, brownish-gray in color and almost appearing orange from a distance, brown and gray mottled up close. I recognized this as something different right away when I started noticing nearly uniform stands in the wet meadow areas around the southern lake shore. It’s not as big as the Jeffrey and other pines I’ve discussed, and although the trunk is straight as in the others, the crown tends to be narrower. It has the shortest needles of any of the Tahoe Basin pines – only about 2″ – and is also the only pine in the area with its needles in bundles of two – all other Tahoe Basin pine species have needles in bundles of three (Jeffrey and ponderosa) or five (sugar, western white, and whitebark).  p1020731_2This gives the foliage a finer, more delicate appearance, as seen in the photo at right with lodgepole pine on the right and Jeffrey pine on the left.  Lodgepole pine cones are quite small, only about 2″ in length, with an open structure and distinctive dark tips that contrast strongly with the brown scale bases.

I found this species sporadically throughout the forests along the Vikingsholm and Rubicon Trails when I hiked Emerald State Park; however, the best stands were seen in the meadows along the Upper Truckee River near the city of South Lake Tahoe and while cross-country skiing around Spooner Meadow near Spooner Lake in Nevada (elevation about 7,000′). This species likes moisture and is the dominant pine in the many wet meadow areas that are found in the Tahoe Basin. The photo below was taken at Spooner Meadow and shows the stands of lodgepole pine in the meadow, with Jeffrey pine taking over on the elevated hillsides. p1020738_2I also saw this species commonly at much higher elevations (about 8,000-9,000′) at Heavenly Ski Resort, where it took on a more stunted, windswept growth form that at first made me think I was seeing whitebark pine.

The Sierra Nevada-Cascade populations of this species are assigned to subspecies murrayana, while populations in the Coastal Range and Rocky Mountains are assigned to the nominate subspecies and subspecies latifolia, respectively. The three populations lost contact with each other when their ranges shrank during the Pleistocene glaciations, resulting in subspecific divergence before expanding their ranges northward again as the ice sheets retreated. A fourth subspecies in Mendocino, bolanderi, is believed to have evolved from a soil race or ecotype of coastal lodgepole.

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis)

p1020794_2Whitebark pine is without question the most grotesquely beautiful of the Tahoe Basin pines. Growing only at the highest elevations, it develops a spectacular windswept form through endless pounding by fierce alpine winds and heavy snowpacks. Nearly pure stands of this tree were seen near the summits at 9,000-10,000′ elevation on both the California and the Nevada sides of Heavenly Ski Resort. It is usually encountered as a multistemmed plant with upswept branches and twisted, crooked trunks, a result of its unique association with Clark’s nutcrackers, who live almost exclusively on a diet of pine nuts. These birds harvest the seeds, which do not exit the cone as in most other pines, and cache them in groups of usually 3-4, relying on their memory to find their caches at a later date. p1020793_2Lanner (1999) refers to a 1990 study at Tioga Pass in the Sierra Nevada, in which it was estimated that each adult nutcracker cached an average 89,000 seeds and each juvenile about 34,000 seeds. In years when abundant seed crops are produced, the nutcrackers cache many more seeds than they or their offspring can utilize. It is these unrecovered caches that allow regeneration of whitebark pine, and the majority of trees that grow from them are members of stem clumps. Whitebark pine has no other mechanism for dispersing its seeds and is thus completely dependent upon Clark’s nutcracker for its regeneration.

p1020792_2Up close, whitebark pine needles are relatively short (usually about 2″ in length) and stout, and their bundles of five immediately distinguish this species from lodgepole pines which may grow with them and mimic their windswept form. The yellow-green needles lack the bluish cast of western white pine needles. The bark on the branches is smooth like the other soft pines but had a slightly reddish cast rather than the silvery gray color of sugar and western white pine or the flaky, orange-gray appearance of lodgepole pine.

In part two of this series, I’ll treat the remaining conifers of the Tahoe Basin, which include Abies and Tsuga in the Pinaceae and Calocedrus and Juniperus in the Cupressaceae.


Arno, S. F. 1973. Discovering Sierra Trees. Yosemite Association, Yosemite National Park, California, 89 pp. (at only $5, this is an excellent, informative book with beautiful ink drawings).

Graf, M.  1999. Plants of the Tahoe Basin.  Flowering Plants, Trees, and Ferns.  A Photographic Guide. California Native Plant Society Press, Berkeley, 308 pp.  (another excellent resource for plants specific to the Tahoe Basin).

Lanner, R. M.  1999. Conifers of California.  Cachuma Press, Los Olivos, California, 274 pp. (the ultimate resource for conifers in California).

Peterson, P. V., and P. V. Peterson, Jr.  1975. Native Trees of the Sierra Nevada.  University of California Press, Berkeley, 147 pp. (this compact field guide was in my pocket at all times).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Winter botany quiz #3

I won’t be coy about the location of these trees, all of which were photographed within the Lake Tahoe Basin during my recent trip. A further clue: I have already alluded to these species in a previous post. Once again, comment moderation has been turned on to give everyone a fair shot, and I’ll let the quiz go for a couple days or so. I think this quiz will be easier for my North American readers than Winter botany quiz #2, but maybe still harder than Winter botany quiz #1. Anyone who can correctly identify all six species wins my undying admiration 😉

EDIT: Pedant that I am, attention to nomenclature will serve as a tie-breaker if needed.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 3 and about 10" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 3 and about 10" long.



Cones for #1 (left) and #2 (right).



HINT: Needles in bundles of 2 and about 2" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 4" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 4" long.



HINT: Needles in bundles of 5 and about 3" long.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Sand Harbor Overlook, Nevada

Lake Tahoe is fabulously beautiful from almost any perspective. There are certain places around the lake, however, whose beauty is so striking, so stunning, that one begins to believe they must have been copied from a starving artist’s painting or some inspirational poster. I have already highlighted one of these places – Emerald Bay, sitting at the lake’s southeastern corner on the California side. Emerald Bay is, in fact, the most dramatic example of the beauty that characterizes Lake Tahoe’s entire western shore – a boulder-strewn landscape sprouting rich forests of white fir, pine, and incense-cedar, massively trunked and often draped with lime-green mosses and lichens.


Nevada’s eastern shore, in contrast, has a different feel – its forests more open and dominated by Jeffrey pine due to the relatively lower amounts of rain and snow that reach the eastern shore. I do not mean to imply, however, that the eastern shore is any less beautiful than the western shore – far from it, and after a day of cross-country skiing at Spooner Lake (just below Spooner Summit, elevation 7,200′), my family and I discovered an eastern shore jewel with as much raw, overwhelming beauty as any of Lake Tahoe’s other premier scenic vantage points – Sand Harbor Overlook.


While the views from Sand Harbor Overlook may not match the grandeur of Emerald Bay, they certainly equal (and perhaps surpass) its more famous landmark in their intimacy and varied perspectives. Whether viewed from high atop the granite point that jutts out into shallow, sandy-bottomed bay, or from lake level atop one of the half-submerged granite boulders, no other vista around the lake shows off Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters better than Sand Harbor Overlook. Moreover, unlike most of scenic points around the lake, views of the vantage point itself are as dramatic as the views from it.


I suspect that during the summer months, Sand Harbor Overlook is trampled daily by an unending stream of sightseers, many of whom quickly jump out of their cars and briskly search for a spot or two from which they can take photographs before jumping back into their cars and rushing off to the next scenic spot. Such “power” sightseers rarely experience the full beauty offered by Sand Harbor Overlook – their photographs cluttered by strangers in bright clothes, and their memories of what they saw limited to an instant in time. Similar to our experience at Pyramid Creek Geological Area, we had the good fortune to experience the beauty of Sand Harbor Overlook in complete solitude – able to slowly imbibe the subtlties of scale and nuances of each vantage as we explored the area with leisure and reverence. Unmolested by strangers, our contemplations were free to meander slowly, unintruded by persistent background chatter and adolescent shouting. While I came to Lake Tahoe this winter to enjoy the skiing, I walk away with renewed awe at its extraordinary, unending beauty.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Pyramid Creek Geological Area

On the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada, Hwy 50 follows the American River Valley on its way up to Echo Summit before dropping precipitously into Lake Tahoe Basin. A few miles from the summit and 13 miles east of the quaint mountain town of Strawberry lies a spectacular gorge – born of glaciers and boasting one of California’s top ten waterfalls. During the warmer months, the small Forest Service parking lot that provides access to the gorge is constantly choked with cars, and throngs of people can be seen milling about. I have passed this place many times during the five years I lived in Sacramento, and though the crowds suggest that the area truly is spectacular, the idea of sharing a visit with so many strangers and their dogs was always out of the question. Yesterday, as daughter Madison and I drove down Hwy 50 to that very spot, I wondered what crowds we might encounter, hopeful that during this winter “off-season” we might luck out and enjoy at least some fragments of the kind of solitude that befits such a magnificent example of California wilderness.

At 6,200 feet elevation, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, and unbeknown to me this USDA Recreation Site is officially closed during the winter months. The parking lot gates were locked, and there was not a car nor a person to be seen anywhere in the vicinity. That did not deter us – despite the many “No Parking” signs along each side of the highway – necessary during the summer months to prevent the throngs from creating chaos – we found a small turnoff in which we were able to tuck away the car and begin our little adventure to see Pyramid Creek Geological Area and its main attractions – Horsetail Falls and Cascade Vista. The gorge – named for the creek that originates at the base of the falls – was formed during the same late Pleistocene glaciations that formed Emerald Bay in Lake Tahoe. Vertical cliffs of granite tower above the U-shaped gorge, whose smooth granite domes remain littered with glacial scree (boulders and smaller rocks of assorted sizes). We lost the trail almost immediately due to snow, but since we knew we could not get lost (with a mountain on each side of us) we decided to bushwhack as far as we could. It was rough going, and with a hiking partner only 4′ in height the deep snow was a formidable obstacle. Still, we soldiered on, zigzagging from this granite exposure to that, testing (and often sinking) into the snow-covered plains between them, and splashing along the many meltwater streams that were gushing on this warm, early-spring day, until finally we could go no further. We were still a quarter mile from the falls (only a 1.25-miles hike from the trailhead if one uses the established trail), yet still the view was mesmerizing! As a father, I should probably be glad we did not make it all the way to the falls, as a number of people have been killed over the years when they got too close to the edge of the constantly wet rocks. On the way back, we spotted some granite exposures that we hadn’t seen earlier that suggested we might be able to get all the way up next to the Cascade Vista, and in this we were successful. We scrambled over the rocks and snow, ever careful but proud for giving the effort, before retracing our tracks back to a clear shot out of the gorge.

Words cannot express the overwhelming beauty of the landscape we explored, the joy in doing so without ever encountering another human being and the expansive feeling of solitude that that allows, and the exhausted satisfaction that results from hiking over rough, snowy terrain for more than 5 hours. Daughter Madison did great, and I almost had to rip her from the area she was having so much fun. She asked question after question as I showed her cracks in the rocks and explained the carving actions of water over the millennia, how water can create such a landscape. “Water always wins,” I told her. My botanizing trip to Emerald Bay two days before had also prepared me well for this trip, as I was able to recognize every single woody plant I encountered in the gorge (the mosses and ferns will have to wait for another day).

Of the many photographs I took during the day, I share with you here some of my favorites:


Jeffrey pine and white fir soften the stark, towering granite walls


Evidence of glacial carvings can be seen in the American River valley below.


A small waterfall flanked by Jeffrey pine and Sierra juniper previews what is still to come.


Another view south into the American River valley from a little higher up.


Horsetail Falls is gushing from the snowmelt.


A distant view of Horsetail Falls.


Looking down on the Cascade Vista and the American River valley.


A distant view of Horsetail Falls from the Cascade Vista.


Pyramid Creek sheets in a continuous cascade over the granite bedrock.


Deep snow was a continuous obstacle for myself, and for 4'-tall Madison.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Emerald Bay State Park – Vikingsholm and Rubicon Trails

I had attempted to hike the Eagle Falls Trail two days ago, but deep snow stopped us just below the Upper Falls before reaching the lake. I had noticed, however, that the lower elevations on the west shore of Emerald Bay looked fairly free of snow, and a conversation the following morning with an extraordinarily helpful staff member at the USDA Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit headquarters in South Lake Tahoe confirmed that the entire Vikingsholm Trail in Emerald Bay State Park and much of the Rubicon Trail in Emerald Bay State Park and D. L. Bliss State Park immediately to the north should be passable. My objectives were two-fold – hiking and botanizing. I wanted to get in at least 6 miles, and up to 10 would be even better; and I also wanted to locate and identify as many of the woody plants known from the area as possible. I probed the incredibly helpful USDA representative about the subtleties of distinguishing ponderosa pine from the ubiquitous but very similar Jeffrey’s pine, where I might see magnificently mature specimens of sugar pine and the grotesquely beautiful Sierra juniper, how to recognize the moisture loving lodgepole pine, and the slim chance of seeing western white pine due to its preference for higher altitudes. I commented about how I looked forward to seeing stately red firs and wind-swept whitebark pine when I went skiing later in the week – maybe I would be fortunate enough to find western white pine amongst them. I purchased three books: Conifers of California by Ronald Lanner, Discovering Sierra Trees by Stephen Arno, Plants of the Tahoe Basin by Michael Graf and National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated Map™ for Lake Tahoe Basin (my souvenirs for the trip), thanked the wonderfully knowledgeable USDA representative for her help, and bolted up to Emerald Bay. On an extraordinarly warm and delightful mountain day in spring, I hiked down the Vikingsholm Trail to Vikingsholm Castle, stopping frequently to sample and photograph plants, then hiked the Rubicon Trail all the way to Emerald Point at the mouth of Emerald Bay. I hopped on rocks out into the point until I could not go any further and turned around to admire a view that few people have experienced by foot. I lost the trail along the way due to snow, but I did not get lost – I could not get lost with a lake on one side of me and a mountain on the other. Going beyond Emerald Point the snow got too deep – a few steps where I sunk up to my hip confirmed that further passage without snow shoes would be impossible. I bushwhacked back until I found the trail and chose alternate paths the rest of the way. By the time I returned to my car, I had hiked 7 miles in 5½ hours (yes, I’m pokey), encountered only a handful of people (all within a quarter mile of the parking lot) and taken 110 photographs. I share seven of them with you here:

East shore (lateral glacial morraine) of Emerald Bay from Vikingsholm Trail.  Heavenly Ski Resort and the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe can be seen in the distance.

East shore (lateral glacial morraine) of Emerald Bay from Vikingsholm Trail. Heavenly Ski Resort and the southeast shore of Lake Tahoe can be seen in the distance.

Mt. Tallac (L) and Maggie's Peaks (R) from Vikingsholm Trail

Mt. Tallac (L) and Maggie's Peaks (R) from Vikingsholm Trail

Fannette Island from Vikingsholm Castle

Fannette Island from Vikingsholm Castle

Emerald Point from the west shore of Emerald Bay

Emerald Point from the west shore of Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay and Maggie's Peaks (L) from Emerald Point

Emerald Bay and Maggie's Peaks (L) from Emerald Point

West shore of Emerald Bay from Emerald Point

West shore of Emerald Bay from Emerald Point

Zoom view of Emerald Bay from Emerald Point

Zoom view of Emerald Bay from Emerald Point

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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Born of glaciers

Three months of camp life on Lake Tahoe would restore an Egyptian mummy to his pristine vigor, and give him an appetite like an alligator.–Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)

p1020578_2 When Mark Twain first laid eyes upon Lake Tahoe in 1861, he thought it “must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.” More than a century and a half later, that opinion is still shared by another Missouri boy, and though I would gladly welcome three months of camp life over one week at a ski resort, I nevertheless remain confident that my vigor will be fully restored by the time I return to work next Monday. The journey that began some days ago in the foothills of my beloved, ancient Ozark Highlands has today taken me to one of the youngest of landscapes to grace Lake Tahoe – Emerald Bay. I have written previously about Lake Tahoe (one year ago almost to the day) in a post that also featured photos of Emerald Bay and its only island, the iconic Fannette Island. p1020596_2 The Tahoe Basin itself is a relatively young landscape, forming within the last 5-10 million years as the basin floor dropped between two uplifted blocks. Volcanic flows in the valley on the north side of the present lake dammed the valley to form the lake, whose level has fluctuated drastically over time during the past 2 million years as Pleistocene glaciations have repeatedly damned the Truckee River that drains the lake into the lowlands of Nevada. At maximum, the level of the lake approached 7,000 feet in elevation – nearly 800 feet higher than today. p1020577_2 It was the last of these glacial events – near the end of the Pleistocene just 10,000 years ago – that gave birth to Emerald Bay. Unlike the “ice sheets” that spread out across much of the continent, the ice age here manifested itself as individual glaciers that formed at the highest elevations and carved out individual valleys as their crushing weight ground them inexorably downward. The elongated shape characteristic of such glacial valleys is seen not only in Emerald Bay, but in the adjacent Fallen Leaf Lake and Donner Lake in the north as well. John Muir alludes to this glacial birth in a description of Emerald Bay that he wrote in his private journal in 1888:

Emerald Bay is about two miles long. Its mouth is nearly closed by a terminal moraine; the sides are formed by lateral moraines. The left lateral is very striking, well formed, three or four hundred feet high where it joins the shoulder of the mountain, timbered with pine and spruce¹ sparsely on the grayish slopes.

¹ Actually firs, of the genus Abies.

Upper Eagle Falls from Eagle Lake - part of a ''glacial staircase'' above Emerald Bay

Upper Eagle Falls from Eagle Lake - part of a

Unfortunately, the very existence of Lake Tahoe is under threat. While the mountain building processes that created the Sierra Nevada have ceased for now, the erosive forces caused by weathering continue unabated. The Sierra Nevada range is being gradually worn down, and Lake Tahoe is filling with sediment at an average rate of about 1/10th of a millimeter per year. At this rate, Lake Tahoe will become a meadow in just over 3 million years.[/humor]

Lake Tahoe facts:

  • It is 22 miles long, 12 miles wide, and holds about 40 trillion gallons of water – enough to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 14.5 inches!
  • Maximum elevation of the lake surface is about 6,229 feet above sea level.
  • The lake is drained by the Truckee River, one of a few rivers that run inland to the desert rather than towards the ocean.
  • It is the third deepest lake in North America, with an average depth of 989 feet. However, the deepest point is about 1,645 feet.  It is the largest lake in North America above 600 feet elevation.
  • Surface temperatures can reach as high as 75°F in summer, but at depths below 600 feet the water remains a constant 40°F.
  • Lake Tahoe does not freeze over, although Emerald Bay has formed complete ice cover at least three times during the 20th Century and partial cover in more years.

More Lake Tahoe facts can be found at the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit FAQ site and at Tahoe Topics and FAQ’s, by David C. Antonucci (2004).

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae

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A journey through time


East Humbolt Range, northeastern Nevada

During the past two days, my family and I made the long drive from St. Louis, Missouri to Lake Tahoe, California to enjoy a week of skiing (both alpine and cross-country), snow-shoeing, hiking (at lower elevations), and decompression.  At 1,990 miles, it’s not a drive for the pampered or easily bored (and for those with children, thank goodness for in-car DVD players). Yet, for those willing to explore the little seen wonders of a landscape that most people see only from 30,000 feet, driving cross-country can be a richly rewarding experience.  I have traveled through many parts of the U.S., but this was my first time experiencing the “northern route” between Missouri and California along I-80.  Along the way, I saw:

  • Massive flocks of snow geese roosting in wetlands along the Platte River Valley, rising up at morning’s light in swirling clouds and stringing across the sky in vast, intersecting “V”s as they begin another day on their journey northward.
  • Sandhill cranes in the Nebraska Sand Hills, dropping down from the sky like miniature parachutes as they congregated in fallow corn fields to feed amongst the stubble.
  • The vast, high, arid, lonely expanses of the Wyoming Basin, transitioning from mixed-grass prairie in the east to sagebrush steppe in the west.
  • The stunningly spectacular descent down the western escarpment of the Wasatch Range, where the eastern edge of the Great Basin laps against the western edge of the Rocky Mountains.  (Nightfall unfortunately deprived me of my chance to see the vast Great Salt Lake and the even more expansive stretches of its associated salt flats.)
  • The magnificent Great Basin landscape and its alternating basin and range theme – its broad basins of salt lakes, marshes and mud flats interrupted at regular intervals by craggy, north to south mountain ranges formed as a result of strike-slip faulting during the past 30-50 million years as the thin Basin crust continues to crack and stretch even thinner.
  • The dramatic eastern face of the Sierra Nevada Range, its snow-capped peaks rising massively as a single granite block at the western edge of the Great Basin, and the equally dramatic, tortuous climb up to Spooner Pass at 7,200′ elevation before the 1,000′ drop down into the majestic Lake Tahoe Basin.

Driving across such a vast expanse of North America, especially in the west with its endless vistas and majestic landscapes, invites contemplation about earth and time.  Starting out in the foothills of my beloved Ozark Highlands – born before life itself and weathered for a billion and a half years, driving through the upstart Rocky Mountains – mere babies at only 50-100 million years of age, and finally arriving at the truly young Lake Tahoe – whose mere few million years of age make it a mere infant in geological time, I realized that the vastness of these landscapes, and of the countless tectonic, erosional and sedimentary episodes that shaped them, is surpassed only by the vastness of the time it took to create them.  For those willing to make the investment, driving through these landscapes is more than a trip across the country – it is a journey through time.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2009

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