Road Scholar Program: Day 1

Since our move to Washington State, we’ve done most of our exploring along the coast, between northern Washington and San Francisco. Now that summer is over, we decided to head east over the Cascade Mountains. This is not a trip for summer, as the temperatures east of the Cascades are often in the 90s, sometimes even more than 100. We signed up for the Road Scholar (formerly ElderHostel) class called Nature at Work in the North Cascades, Northwest History in Story and Song, and Life in Methow Valley.

(Click on any photo to see a larger version.)

This morning we set out on our trip over the Cascade Loop:

Cascades Loop map

We decided we’d take the northern route out today and the southern route on our way back home. Highway 20 goes through the North Cascades in an area often referred to as the North American Alps. You can see the pointed, rocky mountaintop typical of this area in the photo at the top of this post.

Our destination was Sun Mountain Lodge, a resort on 3,000 acres with miles of hiking trails, on the outskirts of Winthrop, Washington. This area is known as the Methow Valley. Methow is pronounced MET-how. The river and its surrounding valley take their name from the Native Americans who originally traveled the land fishing, hunting, and gathering wild foods such as berries and roots.

The program began in mid-afternoon with a lecture entitled “How Nature Works” by Dana, a local botanist. His focus was on how plants convert energy from the sun into food. After his talk he lead us on a nature walk on one of the trails closest to the lodge. He showed us how to use a botanist’s loupe (small magnifying glass) to look closely at flowers, leaves, and seeds.

My big discovery on this walk was quaking aspens, which I had never seen and heard before. Or at least I’m not aware of having seen them before. According to my book about plants of the Pacific Northwest, aspens cover New England, where I grew up, but I don’t remember them. Perhaps I lived in an area that wasn’t high enough for them. Because aspens like cool weather, they are usually found at elevations between 5,000 and 12,000 feet (1,500–3,700 m).

The flat leaves of these aspen trees, Populus tremuloides, shake or quiver in the slightest breeze in an effort to take in as much carbon dioxide and to expel as much oxygen as possible. This behavior has given the trees the name quaking or trembling aspens.

If, like me, you’ve never seen and heard quaking aspens, here’s a short video for you (it really is short, just 17 seconds; be sure to turn up the volume on the video player so you can hear the quaking):

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