Steep Trails/Chapter XIV
The pine woods on the tops of the Nevada mountains are already shining and blooming in winter snow, making a most blessedly refreshing appearance to the weary traveler down on the gray plains. During the fiery days of summer the whole of this vast region seems so perfectly possessed by the sun that the very memories of pine trees and snow are in danger of being burned away, leaving one but little more than dust and metal. But since these first winter blessings have come, the wealth and beauty of the landscapes have come fairly into view, and one is rendered capable of looking and seeing.
The grand nut harvest is over, as far as the Indians are concerned, though perhaps less than one bushel in a thousand of the whole crop has been gathered. But the squirrels and birds are still busily engaged, and by the time that Nature's ends are accomplished, every nut will doubtless have been put to use.
All of the nine Nevada conifers mentioned in my last letter are also found in California, excepting only the Rocky Mountain spruce, which I have not observed westward of the Snake Range. So greatly, however, have they been made to vary by differences of soil and climate, that most of them appear as distinct species. Without seeming in any way dwarfed or repressed in habit, they nowhere develop to anything like California dimensions. A height of fifty feet and diameter of twelve or fourteen inches would probably be found to be above the average size of those cut for lumber. On the margin of the Carson and Humboldt Sink the larger sage bushes are called "heavy timber"; and to the settlers here any tree seems large enough for saw-logs.
Mills have been built in the most accessible canyons of the higher ranges, and sufficient lumber of an inferior kind is made to supply most of the local demand. The principal lumber trees of Nevada are the white pine (Pinus flexilis), foxtail pine, and Douglas spruce, or "red pine," as it is called here. Of these the first named is most generally distributed, being found on all the higher ranges throughout the State. In botanical characters it is nearly allied to the Weymouth, or white, pine of the Eastern States, and to the sugar and mountain pines of the Sierra. In open situations it branches near the ground and tosses out long down-curving limbs all around, often gaining in this way a very strikingly picturesque habit. It is seldom found lower than nine thousand feet above the level of the sea, but from this height it pushes upward over the roughest ledges to the extreme limit of tree growth--about eleven thousand feet.
On the Hot Creek, White Pine, and Golden Gate ranges we find a still hardier and more picturesque species, called the foxtail pine, from its long dense leaf-tassels. About a foot or eighteen inches of the ends of the branches are densely packed with stiff outstanding needles, which radiate all around like an electric fox- or squirrel-tail. The needles are about an inch and a half long, slightly curved, elastic, and glossily polished, so that the sunshine sifting through them makes them burn with a fine silvery luster, while their number and elastic temper tell delightfully in the singing winds.
This tree is pre-eminently picturesque, far surpassing not only its companion species of the mountains in this respect, but also the most noted of the lowland oaks and elms. Some stand firmly erect, feathered with radiant tail tassels down to the ground, forming slender, tapering towers of shining verdure; others with two or three specialized branches pushed out at right angles to the trunk and densely clad with the tasseled sprays, take the form of beautiful ornamental crosses. Again, in the same woods you find trees that are made up of several boles united near the ground, and spreading in easy curves at the sides in a plane parallel to the axis of the mountain, with the elegant tassels hung in charming order between them the whole making a perfect harp, ranged across the main wind-lines just where they may be most effective in the grand storm harmonies. And then there is an infinite variety of arching forms, standing free or in groups, leaning away from or toward each other in curious architectural structures,--innumerable tassels drooping under the arches and radiating above them, the outside glowing in the light, masses of deep shade beneath, giving rise to effects marvelously beautiful,--while on the roughest ledges of crumbling limestone are lowly old giants, five or six feet in diameter, that have braved the storms of more than a thousand years. But, whether old or young, sheltered or exposed to the wildest gales, this tree is ever found to be irrepressibly and extravagantly picturesque, offering a richer and more varied series of forms to the artist than any other species I have yet seen.
One of the most interesting mountain excursions I have made in the State was up through a thick spicy forest of these trees to the top of the highest summit of the Troy Range, about ninety miles to the south of Hamilton. The day was full of perfect Indian-summer sunshine, calm and bracing. Jays and Clarke crows made a pleasant stir in the foothill pines and junipers; grasshoppers danced in the hazy light, and rattled on the wing in pure glee, reviving suddenly from the torpor of a frosty October night to exuberant summer joy. The squirrels were working industriously among the falling nuts; ripe willows and aspens made gorgeous masses of color on the russet hillsides and along the edges of the small streams that threaded the higher ravines; and on the smooth sloping uplands, beneath the foxtail pines and firs, the ground was covered with brown grasses, enriched with sunflowers, columbines, and larkspurs and patches of linosyris, mostly frost-nipped and gone to seed, yet making fine bits of yellow and purple in the general brown.
At a height of about ninety-five hundred feet we passed through a magnificent grove of aspens, about a hundred acres in extent, through which the mellow sunshine sifted in ravishing splendor, showing every leaf to be as beautiful in color as the wing of a butterfly, and making them tell gloriously against the evergreens. These extensive groves of aspen are a marked feature of the Nevada woods. Some of the lower mountains are covered with them, giving rise to remarkably beautiful masses of pale, translucent green in spring and summer, yellow and orange in autumn, while in winter, after every leaf has fallen, the white bark of the boles and branches seen in mass seems like a cloud of mist that has settled close down on the mountain, conforming to all its hollows and ridges like a mantle, yet roughened on the surface with innumerable ascending spires.
Just above the aspens we entered a fine, close growth of foxtail pine, the tallest and most evenly planted I had yet seen. It extended along a waving ridge tending north and south and down both sides with but little interruption for a distance of about five miles. The trees were mostly straight in the bole, and their shade covered the ground in the densest places, leaving only small openings to the sun. A few of the tallest specimens measured over eighty feet, with a diameter of eighteen inches; but many of the younger trees, growing in tufts, were nearly fifty feet high, with a diameter of only five or six inches, while their slender shafts were hidden from top to bottom by a close, fringy growth of tasseled branchlets. A few white pines and balsam firs occur here and there, mostly around the edges of sunny openings, where they enrich the air with their rosiny fragrance, and bring out the peculiar beauties of the predominating foxtails by contrast.
Birds find grateful homes here--grouse, chickadees, and linnets, of which we saw large flocks that had a delightfully enlivening effect. But the woodpeckers are remarkably rare. Thus far I have noticed only one species, the golden-winged; and but few of the streams are large enough or long enough to attract the blessed ousel, so common in the Sierra.
On Wheeler's Peak, the dominating summit of the Snake Mountains, I found all the conifers I had seen on the other ranges of the State, excepting the foxtail pine, which I have not observed further east than the White Pine range, but in its stead the beautiful Rocky Mountain spruce. First, as in the other ranges, we find the juniper and nut pine; then, higher, the white pine and balsam fir; then the Douglas spruce and this new Rocky Mountain spruce, which is common eastward from here, though this range is, as far as I have observed, its western limit. It is one of the largest and most important of Nevada conifers, attaining a height of from sixty to eighty feet and a diameter of nearly two feet, while now and then an exceptional specimen may be found in shady dells a hundred feet high or more.
The foliage is bright yellowish and bluish green, according to exposure and age, growing all around the branchlets, though inclined to turn upward from the undersides, like that of the plushy firs of California, making remarkably handsome fernlike plumes. While yet only mere saplings five or six inches thick at the ground, they measure fifty or sixty feet in height and are beautifully clothed with broad, level, fronded plumes down to the base, preserving a strict arrowy outline, though a few of the larger branches shoot out in free exuberance, relieving the spire from any unpicturesque stiffness of aspect, while the conical summit is crowded with thousands of rich brown cones to complete its beauty.
We made the ascent of the peak just after the first storm had whitened its summit and brightened the atmosphere. The foot-slopes are like those of the Troy range, only more evenly clad with grasses. After tracing a long, rugged ridge of exceedingly hard quartzite, said to be veined here and there with gold, we came to the North Dome, a noble summit rising about a thousand feet above the timberline, its slopes heavily tree-clad all around, but most perfectly on the north. Here the Rocky Mountain spruce forms the bulk of the forest. The cones were ripe; most of them had shed their winged seeds, and the shell-like scales were conspicuously spread, making rich masses of brown from the tops of the fertile trees down halfway to the ground, cone touching cone in lavish clusters. A single branch that might be carried in the hand would be found to bear a hundred or more.
Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue.
The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.
Around the dome and well up toward the summit of the main peak, the snow-shed was well marked with tracks of the mule deer and the pretty stitching and embroidery of field mice, squirrels, and grouse; and on the way back to camp I came across a strange track, somewhat like that of a small bear, but more spreading at the toes. It proved to be that of a wolverine. In my conversations with hunters, both Indians and white men assure me that there are no bears in Nevada, notwithstanding the abundance of pine-nuts, of which they are so fond, and the accessibility of these basin ranges from their favorite haunts in the Sierra Nevada and Wahsatch Mountains. The mule deer, antelope, wild sheep, wolverine, and two species of wolves are all of the larger animals that I have seen or heard of in the State.