On Friday I visited a burn site about 45 min north of Edmonton on Highway 28. I went with Christina, one of my closest friends, and we brought Nikita and one of her friends, Sitka, who is owned by mutual friends of Christina and I.
We had multiple goals. First and foremost, Christina, who is an instructor, wanted to scout out the spot for a class field trip she would be taking there to study burn sites and the effects of fire.
For me, it was a nice way to get out of the city and take the dogs for a walk in a spot where no one would bitch at us.
I brought two pairs of snow shoes and convinced Christina to give them a try. I’m definitely a snow shoe convert, especially since the new ones are so great, and I like to share good gear with my friends. After the first few minutes getting used to the awkwardness of them, Christina took to the snow shoes really quickly.
We took off down a snowmobile trail, following a vague map, looking for high, low and intermediate intensity areas within the burn site.
The trail began at the high intensity area and we walked through stands of trees that had blackened bark almost all the way to the top.
I suppose they were all dead because none of them had needles, but it was strange to see naked trees still standing. I could identify poplar quite easily, but there was a tree that stumped me initially, which is unusual in Alberta. Christina guessed it was a jack pine, but I thought it might be something else. She was right.
What threw me off was how strange the tree looked without needles. I’m much less familiar with jack pine and the sandy soil of the area was covered by snow, so I was unable to place the tree in my mental image ‘data base.’
The burnt jack pines were very beautiful. They have long limbs that swirl and droop, and the cones opened in the fire (three years ago), so they spread out almost like petrified flowers.
We dawdled a bit at the beginning of the trail, discussing how to identify trees and point out to the students which trees came after the burn. It might sound easy to tell, but not everyone is well-versed in biology or has taken the time to put the bits of the puzzle together. I grew up in the woods noticing things, reading them and making inferences about what different signs meant, but not everyone was raised the same way. The point is that the shorter trees and shrubs came after the burn, at least in the high intensity areas. We also differentiated between young trees and shrubs.
As we continued on, the path forked and then forked again. We took the right-hand path at both forks, which led us to an open area and some hills. We passed some beautifully gnarled trees whose charred bark must have blown away in the wind, leaving the actual wood visible.
The exposed wood was gold or grey, polished to a shine by wind, rain and sun over the past three years. It was almost like walking through an art installation, as if someone had deliberately taken the bark from these trees, polished them and then stood them in the ground.
The snow had melted around the foot of one tree, exposing something browny-grey. I wondered if it was ash but on closer inspection saw that it was sand.
The tree also had a strange cluster of branches growing out of a larger branch.
These were little sand hills and suddenly a couple of things clicked–the abundance of jack pine and the abundance of sport vehicle tracks. I was suddenly able to overlay a picture of how the spot might have looked in the summer before the fire, sandy hills, green leaves and needles, a few sloughs. It was quite beautiful there.
We walked on a bit, trying to decipher from the map where we should walk to find the low intensity burn area. We were headed in the wrong direction but stumbled on something that pleased both of us.
It was refreshing and wonderful to see the beautiful, delicate green poking up through the snow after walking through a graveyard full of tree corpses. I was amazed at how much the green shone and glowed after nothing but black char, white snow and brown wood. The contrast was a little breath-taking and we were both overjoyed to see the new life in the presence of death. A testament to the natural cycles of renewal.
We decided to turn around and head back to take the other fork. On the way, I stopped to look at a bare trunk that had some cool patterns in it.
Christina, who is an entomologist, explained the patterns.
We were having trouble figuring out where the low intensity burn was, so I had fired up the GPS on my phone, which we compared to the printed map. From the phone we could see where we were on the map, and the map referenced the different intensity burn areas, so between the two we were able to figure out where we were in reference to where we wanted to go. I missed having my old-fashioned compass, since I learned orienteering with paper maps and compasses way before I heard of GPSs and cell phones.
We headed back to the second fork and took the left-most trail instead of the right, and after a few corners, the low intensity area appeared with a burst of green needles, looking more like a normal forest.
It was strange to read the trees and try to understand how the fire had acted. There was a very abrupt line where there was a great deal of charred, dead trees which suddenly turned into live ones with little to no damage on them. There were still small patches of char, but those got smaller and then disappeared as we moved away from the high intensity area. I imagined the fire raging where the trees were charred but not burning at all where the trees are still alive, except a few patches of fire burning where sparks fell and ignited here and there. Perhaps the area was more wet or perhaps the wind changed. It’s impossible for me to tell why the fire took the path it did, although I’d be interested to find out. I find the idea of fire patterns very intriguing. I’d love to know how the terrain affects the pattern of a burn–does a fire burn harder and faster in a valley or on a hill? What is the wind pattern that flows through a hilly area and how does that affect a fire? What made the fire rage in the area to my left and die less than a meter to the right? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. But I’m curious.
We stopped at a live jack pine covered with needles and cones that were tightly closed. In my head I stripped the tree of needles, charred it black and opened the cones and marveled at how different the tree would look when naked, like the difference between a live person and a skeleton.
Christina studied a cone that had fallen on the ground and explained how conifers (cone-bearing plants) fertilize. I’ll share what I remember, but I may not have every detail exactly right, so I apologize if I got something incorrect!
Trees don’t have a way to directly deposit tree sperm into the tree egg (these are not correct biological terms), nor do they have pollen that is distributed by insects and birds on flowers, so they use a different mechanism.
Apparently, the male trees release an astounding amount of pollen, which contains the tree’s sperm cells. This pollen is release is such large quantities that it blows around and covers every surface (as I’m sure we’ve all experienced in the city when it gets on our clean cars). Some of these surfaces happen to be the cones, which are tightly closed like the one in the photo. At this point, there is some sort of chemical reaction between the pollen and parts of the cone. The reaction signals some sort of opening to dilate and initiates the growth of a tube from the outside into the heart of the cone where the egg cell waits. Also at that initial moment, the pollen releases two sperm cells (only two!) into this growing tube and they make their way down the tube to fertilize the egg. This process can take around a year to happen. One the egg if fertilized, a seed grows around it, or perhaps the egg waits in the seed already, and the fertilized seed hangs out in the cone until the cone opens from the heat and the seed hits the ground.
(Read more about the life cycle here.)
From then, there is a chance the seed will have the right conditions to sprout and chances that sprout will make it to a seedling and that seedling will make it to adulthood. The cycle of life for any organism is dangerous and never guaranteed. The odds and the elements are against it but if conditions are right, happy little seedlings pop up like the ones we saw. It’s possible that those seedlings will grow for the next twenty years into adult trees, if drought conditions don’t get them, or if they don’t get sick, or if the seedlings aren’t damaged. Who knows. Life is a lottery, especially in nature.
By the time we’d found the low intensity burn area, the sun was getting close to setting so we decided to finish up. Instead of following the path we came, though, we wanted to see if the path looped around and met up with the left fork, the first spot we turned right. We followed the trail and found a gate in the middle of nowhere, without a fence to attach to, and an old defunct gas well, then a path that ran directly south and turned into the track we thought it would. But first we stopped to check out the lichen on a tree branch.
The sunlight was low, that late orangey glow that makes things look really pretty, and it lit up the willows very nicely so that the tips flamed a bright red.
Christina asked how I could tell if they were willows or red-osier dog wood, and I didn’t have a great answer. The bark of dogwood is darker and I think it small white markings on the bark as well. Generally when I I identify a tree in winter, I look at a number of factors: the bark, the tips of the branches or buds, the shape the branches and the tree make, the height, where the tree is located and features of the surrounding area (wet, dry, etc), as well as other trees nearby. All this led me to identify it as willow, not to mention the very distinct red tips on the reddish-brown branches. However, I still don’t have a proper answer, and we both decided we would both look up the differences between willow and dogwood. We brought a plant identification book, but it was less detailed than I had hoped, being more of a general identification tool and less of a biological identification/classification tool.
The rest of the trail passed pretty quickly, since we were both tired and ready to get back. The dogs seemed ready as well, having tired themselves out by bouncing along in the deep snow.
Sitka even liked digging out a little bowl in the snow. I never saw what she did once she dug them, just noticed her twirling around in a circle a few times and pushing her head under the snow. Sometimes it would be nice to get into a dog’s head. By the end of the trail, Nikita stayed on the packed areas, which is how I can tell she is tired. So I know she had a good trip, too.
Once back in the car, we agreed that it was an educational and fun adventure for both of us, and Christina was convinced about the usefulness of the snow shoes.
After we were packed up, we headed back into Edmonton, dropped the dogs off to play at my house and then wrapped up our fiery Friday with a trip to Brewster’s for drinks and dinner.
Fire-y Friday was definitely a great way to finish off my week.
*NOTE: If any of the biological mechanisms I discuss in this post were incorrect, I apologize. I’m citing them from memory of high school biology, which was more than a decade ago, and from my not-always-accurate listening skills.