is a province that bears the scars of youth, its jagged mountain
ranges taunting the levelling effects of geological time.
zone in Strathcona Provincial Park
Rising from lush coastal estuaries and river valleys, the mountain
slopes support forests of conifers. But there is a point at which
the trees become smaller, and more scattered. Yet further up the
slopes, the trees are reduced to shrubby mats called krummholz.
And beyond that, there are no trees to be found.
of this treeline, as it is called, is a complex one. It is not a
simple matter of elevation; trees can live at high elevations. The
colder temperatures of higher altitudes play a part, shortening
the growing season so that tree seeds cannot successfully germinate.
But even in warmer alpine areas in southern B.C., the trees are
kept in check. In some cases, it is warm winds that draw life-sustaining
moisture out of the exposed branches. Only the shrubby krummholz
trees, covered in insulating snow, survive.
The snow is
sometimes an enemy, too. Heavy snowpacks in the wet coastal ranges
linger long into the growing season, preventing new trees from becoming
established. This is perhaps one reason why Vancouver Island's alpine
areas are lower in elevation than the norm. Treelines
are not hard lines. They are affected by sheltered pockets, and
tend to be higher on south facing than north facing slopes. They
also change over time, affected by climate change.
trees are unable to grow, there is still a brief but wondrous flurry
of life above the treeline. Plants which have adapted themselves
to the austere conditions of the alpine regions live their lives
in a brief window of summer.
Before the snow is completely gone, green shoots appear, the first
act in a floral display that is as dazzling in its beauty as it
is brief in its glory.
late July, snowmelt permitting, these alpine areas become wildflower
meadows. Patches of blue lupine join white valerian and yellow arnica
among the ground-hugging heathers. The vermilion or red "flowers"
of the Indian paintbrush are a ruse; but they serve well to attract
pollinating hummingbirds to the true flowers hidden at their bases.
Lacy phacelias grow in moist crevices, and mounds of moss campion
carpet the rocks.
Plants are not
the only inhabitants of these alpine zones. Industrious pikas collect
stores of grasses to take into their rocky burrows. The small rodents
spend much of their lives in hibernation. Their larger relatives,
the marmots, are closely related to the groundhog. The Hoary Marmot
(Marmota caligata) can be found in alpine regions throughout the
province, and it often gives away its common name, Whistler. This
species is replaced on Vancouver Island by the critically endangered
Vancouver Island Marmot.
is home to the Mountain Goat, Oreamnos americanus. Actually not
a goat at all, but more closely related to the antelopes, the Mountain
Goat is found at treeline or above throughout much of British Columbia,
but does not occur on Vancouver Island or Haida Gwaii, formerly the Queen Charlottes.
In many ways,
the habitat above the treeline resembles the northern tundra, and
some of the same bird species are found in both. British Columbia
is home to all three world species of ptarmigan, members of the
grouse family uniquely adapted to life in the cold. They change
their plumage seasonally, from mottled browns during the hide-among-the-rocks
summer, to white in the vanish-in-the-snow winter. All three species
are alike in having feathered feet, which are partly for warmth,
but also for easier walking in soft snow.
The Willow Ptarmigan
(Lagopus lagopus) is widespread through the western half of British
Columbia, spending the summers at or above the treeline, and the
winters at lower elevations. Rock Ptarmigans (L. mutus) are most
abundant in the far northwestern corner of the province, and are
less frequently encountered elsewhere. The White-tailed Ptarmigan
(L. leucurus) is the most widespread of the three species, and also
is found at the highest elevations. It is the only ptarmigan found
on Vancouver Island.
During the whirlwind
alpine summer, Horned Larks (Erempohila alpestris) and American
Pipits (Anthus spinoletta) arrive to raise families on the open
slopes. Gray-crowned Rosy Finches (Leucosticte tephrocotis) may
also be seen.
The summer season
in the alpine extends until the first snows of autumn. The wildflowers
should have set seed for next year, and die back to their roots.
Most of the birds will fly into warmer valley bottoms, or further
south. Ptarmigan spend much of their time under an insulating blanket
of snow. Small mammals use a variety of tactics. Some enter the
long sleep and slow metabolism of hibernation. Others rely on food
stored in their burrows. And except for the wind, the alpine regions
are silent again for another winter.