by Nancy Diaz
Channel Islands Restoration held our highly anticipated White Mountains Educational trip during the 4th of July holiday weekend. At first, I was reluctant to go because I’d have to give up the typical barbecue and firework events that help us celebrate our nation’s freedom and independence. But the White Mountains were calling to me and I was happy to set out on this adventure with my CIR family.
We stayed at the Crooked Creek Station, a facility of the White Mountains Research Center, a UC Natural Reserve research station run by UCLA, at an elevation of 10,150 feet. This collection of buildings felt alive despite how removed it was from the rest of the world.
Each morning, the common areas were buzzing with our group and researchers gearing up for the day. Our hosts, Aaron and Tim, cooked up hearty breakfasts and set out lunch options for everyone to grab and go. Each evening, everyone returned to share stories and compare notes over another incredible meal provided by the cooks before retreating to the dorm-style accommodations.
As we set out each day with our anticipation and sack lunch, we caravanned to various destinations throughout the White Mountains to learn from several knowledgeable guides. As one of the foremost experts on the formation of California, geologist Dr. Tanya Atwater was an incredible and captivating guide. She shared about the formations of the California mountains and even showed us evidence of the seafloor that had been uplifted as the mountains formed. Her passion for geology was infectious, and I absolutely loved her expressed glee when we all felt the magnitude 7.1 earthquake that centered in the Mojave Desert near Ridgecrest, CA on July 5th. It interrupted the Rock Art presentation of David M. Lee, author of Rock Art East of the Range of Light. Without missing a step though, he continued sharing his interpretation of Native American petroglyphs in and around Owen’s Valley.
Steve Junak, the recently retired Herbarium Curator for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and one of the most renowned botanists in our area, led hikes to explore the unique plant life that was specially adapted to grow in the harsh conditions of the White Mountains. Each day he introduced us to the rare and endemic plants of the area, drawing on what must be just a fraction of his total botanical knowledge. As someone who is lucky to live in an area with mild temperatures year-round, I was amazed how life has adapted to the biting winds and extreme cold of harsh winters in the high altitude of the White Mountains. The evidence of unique adaptations was at work wherever I looked. From the White Mountains buckwheat (Eriogonum gracilipes) huddled among the rocks for shelter, to the longest-living (non-clonal) species in the world, bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva), which stood tall and defiant against the harsh conditions, yet showed the wear of millennia in their gnarled branches. I loved the motto of the bristlecone pine tree, “Grow slow; Grow old.”
Our birding expeditions were led by Santiago Escruceria, an Outdoor Education Manager in California and the Republic of Columbia. He led a birding tour around the area of the Station and gave a presentation on the history of the imperiled Mono Lake. The group welcomed his expertise of birds, the night sky, and his candid humor that kept us entertained and interested.
Life in the White Mountains exceeded my expectations. From the daily hiking opportunities to the casual evening get-togethers, I was thankful I had the opportunity to be with an amazing group of people. We enjoyed the musical talents of CIR Board Member, Phil White and his guitar, CIR Members Julie Wood with her recorder, and Harvard and Helen Horiuchi with their ukuleles.
Before we arrived at the station, Tanya told me a story of Campito, the legendary stallion of the White Mountains. Back in the mid-1990s, this wild stallion was caught by a cowboy and taken to a ranch to break and train him. But Campito, with his wild strength, escaped the clutches of the cowboy and disappeared into the wilderness of the White Mountains. Despite the adversity of the high altitude and harsh winters, Campito adapted and persevered, and to this day he still roams the mountains, wild and free. At first I took this story to be a fun myth – a story that had been exaggerated throughout the years. But driving between destinations on our last full day in the mountains we saw a dark shadow in the distance, just a smudge against the pale green landscape – but unmistakably an unbridled horse placidly grazing the short grass. It was unmistakably Campito. His presence was poetic, as he seemed to embody the tenacious, wild, and free nature of life in the White Mountains. Our sighting of this near-mythological creature cemented the feeling that this was indeed a magical place, an ageless and ancient world – overlooking, yet far removed from the busy highways and cities that surrounded it.
When we finally descended the winding mountain road, each of us brought down learned lessons of the beautiful and diverse world in which we live, but also lessons learned about ourselves. For me, the main lesson I learned was that I couldn’t see it all in such a short period of time. I vow to return to learn more about life in the White Mountains.