A Brief Resurrection for Death Valley

Desert Is Teeming With Wildflowers After Record Rainfall

Source of this article – Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2005.

(photos of Steve’s trip in March 2005)

By Louis SAHAGUN, Times Staff Writer

With the snowcapped Panamint Mountains in the background. Cole Fulwider wades in a lake 282 feet below sea level left by recent storms. Record rainfall has transformed the normally bone-dry desert with/lowers and pools, drawing tourists before withering heat returns.

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK — The wettest year on record here has transformed this forbidding wilderness of scruffy mountains and buckled earth into a vividly unfamiliar world of wlldflowers and reflecting pools, triggering ecological cycles not seen before on so large a scale.

Against a background of snowcapped peaks, the region’s contoured badlands and splintery rock towers are festooned with bright yellow, pink, white and deep purple blossoms spreading out in all directions. With the wildflowers have come pollinators, including sphinx moths as big as hummingbirds.

Another surprise: Badwater, usually the site of a salty pond nearly encircled by massive gray cliffs, features a lake five miles wide — and kayakers and wind surfers gliding over its white-caps.

“It’s not Death Valley at all,” visitor Wendy Cutler said. “I’m calling it Full of Life Valley.”

In some places, even the rocks are blooming. Water is forcing mineral salts to the surface, where they erupt in snow-white splotches on sulfur yellow hills.

The dazzling panoramas are drawing huge crowds of tourists, and some scientists, eager to take in the scenery before the millions of desert flowers die in the harsh summer sun. Among the visitors was First Lady Laura Bush, who vacationed here late last week and hiked more than 10 miles with an entourage of friends and Secret Service agents, park authorities said.

“It’s our best bloom in history, and the flowers are getting better by the day,” said park naturalist Charlie Callagan, who accompanied Bush on several hikes. “I’m telling folks, ‘Hey, you may not see it this good again in your lifetime.’ ”

Rainfall in this 3.3 million-acre expanse averages less than 2 inches a year. In some years, there is no rain at all.

DESERT GOLD: Isabel Graves joyously lifts her shawl over her head in afield of wildflowers covering the normally dry, vacant desert. Blooms are expected to peak in the next week or so, before the usual arid weather cycle returns.

But this rain year, which is measured from July to June, “we’ve already had 6.19 inches of rain — a record — and we’re only eight months into the season,” Callagan said.

A destructive storm in August killed two people and washed out some park roads. That was followed by the wettest period since recordkeeping began in 1911. But for the most part, “we’ve had the good kind of rain, the kind that is gentle and tends to soak into the soil,” said park ranger Alan Van Valkenburg.

All the rain has dissolved protective waxy coatings off millions of seeds that had lain dormant for years in terrain where ground-level temperatures can soar as high as 200 degrees.

Now, more than 50 varieties of wildflowers — including desert gold, notch-leaf phacelia, gravel ghost, desert star and desert fivespot — are grabbing footholds in this unforgiving desert to sprout and shine wherever water collects: alluvial fans, ravines and alongside park roads.

No one can say with certainty how great the unprecedented rainfall’s ultimate impact will be on Death Valley — the hottest, driest and lowest place in the United States. Long-term ecological shifts are unlikely, given that  summer  temperatures climb to 130 degrees in the shade. But short-term changes are underway. Though no new species have been spotted so far, the rains are likely to trigger population blips among a variety of species.

BADWATER: Robin Madgwick, left, and John Hayes go canoeing in a large lake caused by recent flooding. The area, which is mostly salt flats, is several hundred feet below sea level.

Vegetarians of all kinds — stately bighorn sheep, tiny desert shrews and bulky chuckwalla lizards — are eating more fresh greenery than they ever had in their lives. Sphinx moth caterpillars, imposing homed creatures the size of an index finger, are browsing on brown-eyed evening primrose flowers.

Birds such as the Say’s Phoebe, distinguished by its gray throat and cinnamon belly, have been feasting on insects attracted to the flowers. More seeds mean more rodents and the birds of prey, snakes, coyotes and foxes that pursue them.

The bloom is expected to peak within the next week or so, when temperatures are to hit the mid-90s. Naturalists are predicting that swarms of caterpillars and grasshoppers will follow.

“But it is important to remember,” Van Valkenburg said, “the plants will disappear once our normal patterns of heat and dryness kick in.”

Nonetheless, botanists are flocking to Death Valley and desert regions across the arid Southwest in hopes of finding plants that have taken advantage of the unusually wet weather to extend their ranges.

“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to fill in distribution gaps and, perhaps, discover new species in locations that had been regarded as botanical black holes,” said Ilene Anderson, a botanist with the California Native Plant Society. “Seeds go into hibernation in dry times. But for many species, we don’t know how long that cycle lasts.”

In the meantime, Terry Baldino, the park’s assistant chief of interpretation, has hired more employees on an emergency basis to keep up with the thousands of visitors arriving each day with the urgent question:

“Where is the best place to see wildflowers?”

Lately, he’s been directing them to a 40-mile stretch of road at the southern end of the national park between Salsberry Pass and Badwater.

A favorite pullout in that area is Ashford Mill, where grass and wildflowers have given a green and yellow tinge to usually barren landscapes. On Sunday, a stream of tourists wandered over the terrain, planting tripods on sandy slopes to photograph the historic bloom.

Steve McKinney knew something special was happening in front of the lens of his vintage cherrywood 4-by-5 camera. But he faced a nagging problem: the delicate device kept wobbling in gusts of up to 20 mph.

“Regardless, I’m going to keep shooting,” he said with a laugh. ” ‘Cause you never know. One picture might turn out.”

Other visitors included Vernon Crawford, 67, of Bakersfield, who could not help but ponder the novelty of an abundance of flowers in a place he always regarded as “nothing but death and desolation.”

“Now, it’s a Garden of Eden,” Crawford said. “The thing I marvel at is how long these seeds had to wait for a perfect rain so that they could burst into all these flaming colors.”

STORM DAMAGE: Artist Drive has been closed because offloading. The area has received more than 6 inches of rain so far this year, while it gets little or none most years.

A few yards away, Anish Desai, 30, and his wife, Kinjal, 27, stood with their arms around each other and tears in their eyes, awestruck by the vista unfolding before them. “This is pure beauty,” Kinjal said. “It’s an experience that can never be repeated.”

Los Angeles attorney Mamie Lassen, 31, put it another way:

“It’s hard not to think of these flowers as so many millions of bright yellow faces smiling back at us.”

About 40 miles to the north at Badwater, not far from places with names like Coffin Canyon and Funeral Mountains, adventurous souls enjoyed the enormous shallow lake covering the lowest point in North America.

Nothing lives in this lake. Most kayakers returned to shore encrusted with white salt.

Standing knee-deep In the brackish water, Keri French, 49, shook her head in amazement over “the sound of waves in a miniature ocean in the heart of Death Valley.”

Not far away, Dan Morache, 33, attracted attention by kite-boarding over the surface of the lake that seemed to change by the hour from calm and mirror-like to rough and murky.

“I wanted to be the first person to kite-board Death Valley,” Morache said, packing up his gear. “It feels pretty good, too. This may not happen again for another 100 years.”

Then there was Death Valley business manager Dave Rhinehart, who has found an improbable new use for his river kayaks, 282 feet below sea level.

“Once you get a quarter of a mile from shore, it starts to feel like you’re out on Lake Superior,” he said. “Then you stick a paddle in the water and discover it’s only 2 feet deep.”

“Tip over? No problem,” he said. “You simply walk home.”

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