Thursday, March 8, 2007

Snow, Storms, and Lions

[written March 8, 2007]

At last the snow is melting away, the recalcitrant snow, the stubborn snow, the snow which defies day after day of temperatures in the sixties. At 4000' elevation it is all microclimate. Where I live, a few dozen yards separate "The Meadow," where it has been freezing every night, from "The Cabins," where it has not dropped below forty degrees for a week or more. The Meadow slopes gently south, but too gently. The Cabins are on a steep south-facing slope.

Hence The Meadow has an unbroken expanse of snow, and in the flat places the snow is still nearly two feet deep.

Yet The Cabins have only small masses of snow here and there, mainly where conifers shed big heaps--these are ring-shaped masses; or on trails, where the flatness of the trail-bed itself is not south-facing, and the snow has been slower to melt; these are linear masses.

They say that Eskimos have fifty different words for snow. We use a couple here in the Sierra, rather imprecisely. One will hear people talk of "powder snow," or its near-opposite, Sierra Cement. These terms lack precision. To confuse the matter further, the ski areas, knowing people prefer powder to ice, will report a "base" depth of, say, ten feet, and describe conditions on the ski runs as "packed powder," when a more truthful description would be "groomed ice."

Anything west of the Sierra Crest can be counted a maritime climate, versus the continental climates found east of the crest. The influence of the ocean moderates the climate west of the crest, keeping it much warmer. Hence Blue Canyon, at 5200', very very rarely ever has temperatures below zero, while Bridgeport, at the same elevation but east of the crest, along Highway 395, drops below zero degrees many times each fall, winter, and spring.

In fact, Bridgeport once held the low temperature record for the entire United States, flat-out 56 degrees below zero. It lies in a large flat valley encircled by mountains. Cold air settles in and intensifies.

At any rate, genuine powder snow, of the sort they have in the Rockies or in Utah, is a rarity in the Sierra. We do get it from time to time, but usually when the weather people on TV are waxing poetic about powder in the Sierra, it's really the good old Sierra Cement, which is a warm and heavy and sticky snow, somewhat light and fluffy in the first hours after it falls, but let one sunny day go by and, watch out.

The recent sequence of storms laid down the wettest and heaviest of Sierra Cement here at 4000', and as so often happens, periods of real snow were punctuated by periods of what I call "snain," a mixture of snow and rain, which often looks like snow from the comfort of one's living room, but go outside and you will be getting wet.

This "snain" settles and compacts and wets whatever real snow it falls upon. Freezing temperatures, such as are likely between storms, transform this dense snowpack into a nearly monolithic mass of ice. Let a mixture of snow and snain fall for a week running and one has three feet or so of a material which will stoutly resist melting.

Yesterday afternoon I thought it a good time to burn a pile of brush I had cleared from what we call the High Trail, on a steep slope west of here. The slope is too steep for safe burning in dry conditions. But I expected to find it still partially covered in snow, and it was, so I set to work, and safely burnt the slash, a struggle to be sure, since this brush was itself still partly buried in snow, and I had some wrestling matches merely to pull it free. As the sun lowered in the west, patches of bright sunlight broke through the clouds. I walked back to The Cabins in a meditative mood, my feet sinking deeply into the linear masses of trail-snow. I paused often to admire the scene, and visited some low cliffs which offer a view east. There was sun dappling the North Fork canyon all the way up to Snow Mountain and the Royal Gorge, where the snow-clad cliffs of Wabena Point were almost hidden within light snow showers. The crest itself was lost in clouds.

Now, night-before-last my son Greg reported hearing the sounds of an animal crashing through brush immediately below the Big Cabin, and whatever it was make cat-like "yowling" sounds.

"A bobcat," I responded at once. For bobcats are common here, and they often vocalize. Once the oak leaves which litter the forest floor dry out, even a small animal sounds like a big animal. A squirrel can sound like a bear.

But then, last night, I myself heard an animal crashing through the brush below the Big Cabin, and no yowling, but one explosive almost bird-like squawk, pitched high. The brush-crashing continued to the west and then quieted.

I related this to Greg and offered a guess, that perhaps a deer made the squawk, as they do make a wide variety of sounds, which few people ever hear. Deer bellow plaintively, for instance, and deer also bark, a dry, coughing, huffing bark. They also bleat like goats, but more softly.

This morning, at dawn, I decided to walk out west and higher to visit my burn pile. As I reached one of the linear masses of trail snow, I saw mountain lion prints from last night. They had not been there yesterday. They could only be from the animal which had been crashing around below the Big Cabin.

Mountain lion prints resemble those of a large dog, but there are no claw marks. These were well-preserved, as they had been made about eight p.m., and the coolness of the night had not melted much snow.

It was interesting to note that the lion had stepped in my own tracks of the afternoon whenever it could, and if opportunity offered to get out of the snow altogether, it took it. I photographed a few of the tracks; they are probably the most exact and complete lion tracks I have ever seen. For those who have Storer and Usinger's "Sierra Nevada Natural History," (U.C. Press, Berkeley), the tracks were exactly as depicted in the Mammals section, Figure 22, on page 328 of the 1973 printing.

So, I warned my family about the lion. Often they arrive home from work and school after dark, and nowadays, with the snow and all, it is a walk of a few hundred yards from car to cabin.

I tracked the lion quite a ways west on the Old Trail. Its tracks were only visible in the linear snow masses, and even then, where it had stepped exactly into one of my own boot-tracks, they were unrecognizable. Only in those few places where it was more or less forced to step in the unbroken snow, had it done so. Two nights in a row it has come near the cabins.

It is fun to observe animal tracks, and I have seen many fox trails, many squirrel paths, and even the tracks of ground-loving quail, written in the snow lately.

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