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Swakane Canyon

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Close to 20,000 acres burned in 2010 in the Swakane Canyon Fire, burning nearby Burch Mountain too.

Hiking up from the valley bottom of Swakane Canyon, the damage is evident. Not only have many trees died, but there is also a plethora of weeds that have been enjoying this spring's wet weather and are waist high.

Though it may look like something you would want in your garden- like a yellow snapdragon- this is a weed introduced from the Mediterranean in the mid 1800's and since then has spread. Dalmation toadflax, Linaria dalmatica is voracious, even spreading uphill due to its rhizomotous roots- a single plant may also produce over 500,000 seeds. It is also well adapted to dry, disturbed areas like those in eastern Washington after fire, and can be seen in bloom now on roadsides and foothills as well as Swakane Canyon.

Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, an introduced annual grass present almost everywhere- but especially dominant in dry areas. It is also called downy brome. It is the grass you will usually find jabbing you through your socks if you walk through it when the seeds are ripe.

One of the major problems with fire, is not necessarily the fire itself, it is the non-native species that sprout up in its wake. Many of them are annuals- who suck up all the water and extra nutrients in spring- often outcompeting native seedlings, only to set seed, dry out, and die by midsummer. This makes for great flamable fuel for another fire, and thereby begins a downward spiral for the entire ecosystem with repeated fires, more weeds, and less native plants.

Between the dalmation toadflax, cheatgrass, knapweed, and this plant- tall tumblemustard- Sisymbrium altissimum, much of this hike is dominated by weeds and more weeds.

But it did get me to thinking about roads as fire breaks for rare plants. Though disturbance and roads are mostly thought of as a bad thing for the environment, along the way many of the perennial natives who survived the fire were right along the road and bank- while further from the road there were less natives.

The road created a break in the fuel for the fire, and temperatures were probably less intense allowing for plants to resprout from living roots.

Thompson's clover, Trifolium thompsonii, a rare plant that grows only in Chelan and Douglas Counties is one of those perennial plant that seems to have survived better along the road, and was one of the first flowers I saw along the road that serves as a trail. There are many native clovers, as well as the type that are in your lawn. Distinguishing features of Thompson's clover are the very large heads with often 100 individual flowers in them, and it typically has five leaves (not 4 or 3).

Yellow white delphinium, Delphinium xantholeucum, is another Central Washington endemic. I've really only seen this species around Entiat- though its range is supposed to extend into Douglas County and south to Kittatas and even part of King County.

And yet another plant found in only our neck of the woods- Leiberg's milkvetch, Astragalus leibergii was still in bloom due to cool wet spring we have been having. In the pea family and related to Lupines, this white flowered Astragalus has a grace all its own.

So although Swakane Canyon has some serious weed issues, there are still some botanical gems out there well worth the hike for me as well as the spectacular views. I also noticed along the way there were quite a few shrubs- this one a mock orange- that are resprouting from their surviving roots. Hopefully the native perennials will start to come back and in a couple years should recover somewhat, that is if it doesn't burn again.

I recommend this hike for anyone who would like to see some unusual natives and good views- though now is the time to do it while things are still in bloom. The road itself just goes on and on- winding uphill onto the ridge, and with few trees is pretty sunny and really cooks midday during in summer. Be sure to bring enough water with you.

More info on this hike: This Spot Has It All! Wenatchee World Hike of the Week

WTA Hiking Guide: Swakane Canyon