Bugs on Ice, A Quest To Find Insects in the Upper Lillooet Provincial Park

Mid August of 2020 myself and the insect-obsessed hubby went on three day backpacking trip in Southwest British Columbia with two goals. The first goal was to search for insects on the snow banks in and around the Upper Lillooet Provincial Park boundary. The second goal was to see if this route we would take would be a viable way to reach Silt Lake, located at the headwaters of the Lillooet River (at the top left corner of the map below). We smashed the first goal, the second is still debatable.

I want to note that this trip was taken on the traditional territory of the Lil’wat Nation.

Upper LILLOOET Provincial Park, British Columbia

The Upper Lillooet Provincial Park is not easy to get to. So why would we want to go there? Well throughout the summer we had been collaborating with BC Parks to bioblitz some remote parks in Southwest BC using iNaturalist, documenting what nature we observed. This park was on our “to-do” list. We managed to bushwack our way a teeny tiny bit into the park on a previous day trip near the Lillooet River, but this trip I write about today was to try and reach the most Northeast corner of the park. With a great forecast ahead with high temperatures we new this weekend was our window to maximize our bug hunting potential.

The park was established in 1997 with the mighty Lillooet River running through the northern part, fed by the Lillooet Glacier. The park is special as it protects ” old-growth forests, high alpine ridges [which] provides critical wildlife habitats within the park including resident salmonid spawning streams, summer black-tailed deer and moose habitats, grizzly and black bear habitats, mountain goat, wolverine and moose winter habitats” (Management Direction Statement). If you are as crazy as us and want to visit, it’s about 70 km past Pemberton. But maybe after finishing this trip log you’ll take to admiring from Google Earth as there are no facilities, trails within the park or even a trail to get to the boundary line. Talk about a challenge!

Route Finding

So to even get to the park boundary we had to walk through a recent logging cut, cross two large creeks (Salal Creek and an Unnamed Creek) and then bushwack up a hillside about 800 meters. The creeks were easy-ish to cross on Saturday, but higher and colder on the return trip. The route finding was a bit of a challenge. Trevor mapped out a rough route prior to the trip, but you never quite know what conditions you’ll find upon arrival. The way up was very steep, probably some of the steepest grades I encountred the whole summer. Multiple times it felt that Trevor was looking down at me. Remember we both have heavy backpacks on us – a great workout indeed. But the worst part was battling the foliage like slide alder and the slick ground which was very compacted with a wonderfully thin layer of duff on top (yes that was sarcasm). I remember trying to find the least sketchy foot placements was my main focus, and then thought put towards where to put my hands to use my arms to pull my booty upwards.

Almost near the top we found a couple grassy benches and small swampy areas which provided snack breaks and opportunities to look for bugs on the plants. But we made it up onto the ridge without any casualties. Ahh, the sound of a marmot whistle never sounded so beautiful! Once upon the ridge the landscape was mostly rocks of all different sizes, small ice blue lakes, pumice fields and snow banks. Honestly, we actually weren’t too sure there would be snow up here, so we were SO glad at what we saw before us. Our work was about to begin.

After finding an epic camp site we dropped our bags and headed out to the snow fields. We would spend the rest of the day, and most of the next zig zagging across snow banks. The MVP gear of the weekend was sunglasses, for sure. We collected insects in small containers and photographed them, releasing them thereafter.

So why the bugs on ice?

So why were we looking for insects on this snowy moon-like landscape? It’s definitely one of the weirdest naturalist activities we did in 2020, which we’ll surely continue into 2021. We first discovered insects on a snowbank at the base of Mt. Vic, and on a couple other nearby trips we noticed the abundance of insects on top of the snow. Insects of all kind! They were often still alive, they just could no longer fly away. But why?

Well the main reason is arthropod nival aeolian fallout. What a title! Here’s a breakdown:

  • Arthropod: invertebrate animals of the phylum Arthropoda (includes insects)
  • Nival: an area with perpetual snow
  • Aeolian: relating to or arising due to wind action
  • Fallout: meaning stuff falling to the ground, in our case insects

It has been well documented that insects accumulate on snowfields in high alpine environments, from the Himalayas, Mt. Rainier, Mexico, Alaska and others. The earliest records of this I saw were from 1919 in the Sierra Nevada mountains! Researcher Richard P. Papp from UC Berkeley is our pioneer, and expert on this topic (as far as I can tell). In a 1980 paper in Hawaii investigating the arthropod diversity on Hawaiian island summits he stated that “there is sufficient evidence to support the contention that nival (snow) aeolian systems are probably present wherever snow is abundant on high mountains with a history of Pleistocene glaciations.”

In the 70s Papp turned his attention to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to attempt to understand the specie composition and address other questions. Papp and whatever field crew he had sampled plots over three years in the Sierras. I can just imagine them spending hours and hours bent over picking up bugs and putting them in vials, for later analysis. They would of had to battle whatever weather was safe enough to collect, from eye-blinding sunny to “where’s the hot cocoa” chilly conditions. Ah the glorious days of field work, I miss it.

But what did he find? More personally, what can I learn to help us find more insects in future summers? Well higher daytime temperatures definitely helps, he found a positive relationship between max air temperatures and density of insects in his 50 plots. This makes sense, as the warmer the air temperature the more insect activity. Additionally, increased convection currents also related positively with insect density. Slightly easier to figure out in practical terms for a non-meteorologist, is that the days where the highest insect total were found occured after a one to seven day lag from high wind events. For example, in 1974 the highest fallout levels were recorded on June 29th, but high winds occurred on June 25th. What was also good to learn was as the collection season progressed a different composition of insects were found. So if we want to maximize our bug genera we would need to go out at different times throughout the summer. Makes sense, as seasonal variation occurs in most insects. Last summer we only discovered this phenomena mid way through the Canadian summer and only went bananas at the end of the summer. So it would be exciting to see what we can find in the spring to early summer.

If you want to read the full article, click here, it was a very easy read (as scientific papers go), and describes their findings on insect predation on the snowfields.

So what insects did we find?

We found ooodles! Of all kinds! Flies, bees, wasps, damselflies, weevils, any many genera of beetles. A wide diversity of genera can be found in this environment, as was noted in multiple papers I read. One paper from the Czech Republic of insects in the KrkonoŇ°e Mountains called this phenomena as an “airborne food supply” for the arthropods that live up permanently. I think this phrase is hilarious. I guess the closest thing for humans would be receiving a food drop during long backpacking trips via heli, something I’d love to experience one day!

Because we prefer to keep the insects alive, photographing them on top of a windy exposed ridge is tricky, at best. So many of the photos show Trevors photos holding the insect. This was really the only option to get the necessary photos for identification. To put any worry at ease most of these insects were pretty lethargic, or near death so minimal harm of any kind if at all occurred.

I was glad to have some confirmation after reading in Papp’s paper that “the prospects for survival of a windblown insect landing on the snow surface at alpine elevations are almost nil” (pg 125).

There is a whole area of research and interest into spiders that live in these high elevation environments. Both spiders that live up there full time and predate upon the insects trapped on snow banks, as well as spiders that balloon up using their spinnerets as “hot balloon-like” method of transportation. Spiders have been found near Mount Everest between 5500 and 6100m (18044 to 21013 ft), and are therefore among the few of the highest elevation animals in existence. Just BONKERS! While I can’t recall seeing active predation on these helpless bugs by resident spiders it’s definitely something I’ll be watching for whenever we get back up in the clouds.

Not all insects we saw were in a chilly potential coffin, we found insects on other areas than the snow. Some insects were found on the pumice and rock fields, but others were attracted to the UV light we had set up on our tent. Above are some examples.

We also didn’t only just see eight and six legged crawlies, but also a gorgeous array of wildflowers!

Seeking Silt lake

On Saturday we headed out to try and get as far down the valley, in a northwest direction (towards Stanley Peak) to see if we could possibly view the elusive Silt Lake. While we made a good distance, zig zagging across one valley, at our snack/turn around point we still couldn’t see it. DANG! Gah. I am skeptical this is a viable way to get to Silt Lake, using this upper ridge and then descending down to the lake, Trevor disagrees. We concluded using this route you’d need about two day there and back, and an additional one to perhaps enjoy the lake. If the valley bottom wasn’t so insane a bushwack then it’s doable. But we have one friend that did reach the lake, and others that say it’s potentially doable in the winter on sleds. However in the winter you wouldn’t see the lake and no plants to botanize! Nope, not for us. Who knows perhaps I’ll be writing a trip report about touching the damn lake this time next year.

Anywho, to quel our disappointment there were beautiful views and multiple patches of wildflowers to enjoy. Flowers included: Parry’s Campion, Norwegian Mugwort, Dwarf Fireweed, Subalpine Fleabane, Lewis’ Monkeyflower, Tolmie’s Saxifrage.

A sleepless night. . .

Winds had started to pick up on Sunday afternoon and continued to the evening, we but didn’t think much of it. You can see in the photos on the right the dust in the air. The photos on the left are from the early evening the day before from similar angles. These mountains are the Mount Meager massif, a group of volcanoes at the end of the Pemberton Valley. Meager is an active volcano and is a concern for the town as recent landslides and fumarole activity is concerning. To be honest it freaks me out! But this day was semi-normal as I could hear the occasional rockfall, like normal but I think the dust was worse because it would swirl around for a while in a canyon/valley thing on the right side of the mountains first, then project out into the main valley. Most likely the high temperatures were a factor. At least that’s my interpretation as I stretched/sunbathed/napped while Trevor took bug photos inside the tent.

Our last evening was memorable. Now, memorable can be a joyful or fun, or memorable in the sense that the experience was uncomfortable, anxiety inducing, exhausting, and scary. Well this last night up on this ridge was the former. A freak storm rolled in OUT OF NOWHERE. The weather report had clear to cloudy conditions for this day, as the prior days also were. We would not have camped out on an exposed mountain side above treeline knowing a wind, rain, hail and lighting were in the forecast. But that’s exactly what occurred.

You may remember this evening, August 16th. If you were in Northern California, especially the Bay Area, this is the evening of the crazy lighting storm that ignited hundreds of fires overnight and into the morning. In California the intense lighting storms on this night and others in August became known as the August lightning siege which ignited about 650 fires. For a little background context we had escaped to BC two weeks after the pandemic and the lockdown pandamonium started in California. It was a fantastic decision, but it meant that all we left our apartment as is with everything else we didn’t pack into our Subaru. While we were worried our tent was going to collapse from the wind, where we lived in California, was slowly being surrounded by fires. Thankfully our apartment was basically situated in the middle of San Jose, so the risk of burning was low. BUT our favorite places to explore, hike, and mushroom hunt were burning away rapidly.

Meanwhile here in BC 1,600 lighting strikes hit Southwest BC. Ya. We were on a freaking pumice mountain side FULLY EXPOSED. I woke up after an hour or two of sleep first, knowing it was pouring outside, or at least light hail. When I woke Trevor up to take the bug light down he dismissed the rain, and thought it was just pumice being picked up by the wind. HA nope. The hours normally would have been spent sleeping I was counting the seconds between lightning flashes and thunder, and staring at the tent material waiting for it to collapse which I thought was inevitable. Luckily we somehow slept in the early morning because the alarm woke us up.

Jeepers that night was CRAZINESS! As this was the last big trip of the summer I was planning to sleep in, as we are normally up very early to pack up camp and move to the next location. But our last day we only had to walk out, which would take a couple hours. So my ONE day to sleep in all summer long was no longer going to happen. With the intense rainfall that occurred during the night we knew the creeks would be rising throughout the day. So the earlier the better to cross because the un-named creek was a bit high on my thighs on the inaugural trip. You can see a photo of Trevor crossing the creek earlier in the post.

But we made it down the hillside much more successfully on the way up as we managed to find and follow a great deer trail. Crossing the creek was successful, but without Trevor’s physical support I wouldn’t have made it. If we had waited longer in the day to cross there is NO way I would have made it across, as the water would have be at or above my waist. So I was so so thankful to then easily cross Salal creek and made it to our celebratory bag of Salt and Vinegar chips awaiting our arrival in the car. Happy dance!

The third goal

I didn’t mention that we actually had a third goal. This was to collect click beetles to be sent off to a click beetle expert on Vancouver Island. Shoutout to fmgee (real name Scott) on iNaturalist who initially asked for some collection assistance, but got Trevor completely hooked on clicks while in BC. He helped us a ton with identifications, and we hope the specimens we sent him help fill any data holes in the Royal BC Museum collections. Ah, I just love the iNat community! So great!

Below are a few examples of click beetles found on this trip, and the full collection. All images below were were photographed and measured when we returned to our homebase, unlike previous images in this post.

Thank you for reading this rather length trip review and deep dive into why we found beetles on snowpack. I had a lot of fun reminiscing, and will continue to periodically write more posts on our backpacking adventures in BC. If you have any comments, feel free to write them below! Would you go on bug escapade on a high elevation snow covered ridge?

If interested, this is the full trip log I took during the trip:

  • Saturday
    • 7:04 left the car, 4 other cars parked, chilly temps, saw a buck on way in
    • Walked through the destroyed forest that was gorgeous a couple years ago. This new logging road makes the first 1.5/2 kms very easy. We excited near the confluence of the two creeks, about where the logging ends (for now).
    • Both Salal and un-named creeks were easy enough to cross but REALLY cold
    • 11:30 Up the ridge and out of the bush, hello alpine!
    • Saw: Clark’s nutcracker 12:24, Rock ptarmigan 4:18
  • Sunday
    • 6:10 ish departure for day hike
    • 9:00 Stopped for a snack lookout, turn around point. Didn’t see Silt lake, still around another valley
    • 1:20 Returned to camp to photograph bugs and a little sun bath
    • 2:10 back out again to find more bugs
    • 5 ish back for dinner and bug photos, very very windy, mountains across valley had to lots of dust kicking up
    • CRAZY wind and rain storm, then the thunder and lightning came. We didn’t get much sleep. . .
  • Monday
    • 5:00 am wake up
    • 6:18am out of camp
    • 10:00 Crossed both creeks, water substantially higher. Chloe wouldn’t have made it if the water was much higher. Water almost up to waist and some points.
    • 10: 30 ish made it to the car, and salt & vinegar chips!
Happy Bug Hunting and Backpacking Folks!

3 Comments Add yours

  1. kenneth REID says:

    Crazy weather at high altitudes are or can be very dangerous… glad YOU did it’ not me. Ken Reid

    Like

    1. Ya, the last night was quite a shocker, in many ways. Always got to respect the forces of nature!

      Like

  2. Andrea Vanloon says:

    Another great adventure! We were so worried about you the night of the storm. It turns out you were probably at more risk crossing the creek! Glad you made it!

    Like

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