Thursday, September 16, 2010

Raintree (via Trail Canyon) - 9/16/10

The Around the Bend Friends had nine hikers for this second attempt at Raintree via Trail Canyon. The reader may recall that the first attempt a few weeks ago was stifled by a thunderstorm which we encountered at the saddle / trail junction. Today, however, the weather was beautiful with clear skies even though it began a bit nippy.

Hiking up Trail Canyon, we were met with aspens which had begun to yellow with the fall weather. In trying to find out why some of the aspens in higher elevations had not begun to turn when some in the lower elevation had, this article was found. Deb Babcock's gardening column appears in the publication Steamboat Today and in September of 2008, she had this to say about leaves turning color in the fall.

Why do aspen leaves turn color in the fall? Why aren't they bright red like the leaves of maple, dogwood and oak trees?

Once our mountain temperatures start dropping at night and the days become shorter as we move into the autumn of the year, the trees begin preparing for winter. The chlorophyll in their leaves - which makes them green and helps trees absorb nutrients through a process called photosynthesis - begins to recede from the leaves into the tree trunk and roots. What is left behind is the pigment that always is present in the leaves.

The intensity of the pigment depends on the amount of iron, magnesium, phosphorus or sodium present in the tree, as well as the acidity of material in the leaves. Additionally, different kinds of trees have different levels of pigment in their leaves, which gives us the multi-colored variety of oranges, golds and yellows of an autumn forest.

The red, purple and bronze autumn leaves of area oaks, maples and dogwood are created through a process that uses the sugar trapped in leaves rather than the iron, sodium, etc. The more sugar, the brighter the reds and purples. It is the same process that gives us the red skin on apples and the purple of ripe grapes. This sugar-producing process requires sunlight, which explains why some tree leaves are two-toned - red where the sun reaches it and yellow-green where there is less sun - and why some trees have more color on one side than the other.

Some scientists think the deepest red pigments occur because of environmental issues such as drought, nutrient deficiencies, wounds and exposure to ozone rays.

While the colors are forming, the tree is recovering the last valuable nutrients from its leaves. The red pigment in leaves works as a sunscreen that protects the leaf during this brief period of nutrient recovery in the fall. If we have a wet, windy autumn, leaves may drop prematurely and could stress the tree throughout the winter.

But dropping its leaves is necessary for the health of the tree. By dropping leaves, trees protect themselves and conserve water for the long winter ahead. The large surface area of leaves is great for trapping sunlight necessary to photosynthesize, but it is susceptible to freezing and desiccation as temperatures decrease. The excellent design of a leaf causes the cells of the stem that attaches to the branch (the petiole) to become brittle in the autumn. Wind and gravity do the rest of the job to help leaves fall to the ground.

In conclusion, as at least two hikers suggested, the time of color change depends largely on the amount of sunshine that the tree is receiving during the fall season. This article also explains why a few of the aspens had tinges of red in their changing leaves. We enjoyed the color and made our way up to the saddle at a very pleasant pace.

After a small break at the saddle, we began hiking around a contour below Mummy Mountain. This portion of the trail has large views of Mummy Mountain above, Fletcher Canyon below and the mountain range, including Griffith Peak, across Kyle Canyon.

The easy incline eventually turned into a steeper climb and Fletcher Peak (as seen in the photo to the left) came into view to our right. The bristlecones began appearing and we were rounding Mummy's Toe. This final climb separated us and we arrived at the Raintree Saddle one by one. Here, we enjoyed a leisurely snack break enjoying the beauty around us in the cool air.

The descent was accomplished at a comfortable pace as well. The conversation never ceased. We passed two different horses with riders. The first horse and rider did not budge from the trail and this non- horse- person blogger got somewhat of a thrill when the horse sniffed each one of us by touching his nose to us as we squeezed by. ("Do horses smell fear?" I wondered!) At any rate, we survived and live to hike another day.

This shows the trail looking back from the Raintree area.

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