In the spring of 2020 and 2021 my husband and I went backpacking in the Big Creek Provincial Park. We spent five and six days respectively, spanning most of the park. But we still have creeks to cross and ridges to walk on the to-do list. Something will always pull us back, and if history keeps repeating it will be a rare plant or insect that lures us back.
While most people recreating in the park are biking, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, swimming, wildlife watching or relaxing we are iNatting. With no formal definition besides one who uses iNaturalist, iNatting to me means observing nature with the intention of uploading what life you see to the citizen science website or app, iNaturalist. Last year we did more of a BioBlitz, attempting to record all species we came across. We are avid users of the site and use it to catalogue our plant/insect/fungal/animal/etc observations and connect with fellow naturalists and researchers.
I want to acknowledge the land I talk about in the post are are the traditional lands of the Tsilhqot’in, St’at’imc and Northern Secwepemc Nations.
What does iNatting look like exactly? What does that look like when backpacking? In a remote park? Well that’s the insight I hope to provide in this post along with a bit of a trip log. Often I feel that our friends and families don’t entirely understand what we are up to when away in the backcountry. While a few brave souls have joined in on the adventures (good on ya Erica) I hope to provide a glimpse for those who choose the warmth and comfort of home. I don’t blame them, this part of BC has chaotic weather, large wildlife, and challenging terrain, but the views and memories are worth it all.
Big Creek is a massive park with no road access to the park boundaries. While next time we might fork up the bucks for a float plane ride into Lorna Lake we’ve chosen the cheaper and more exhausting routes so far. Last year we survived the Relay Creek FSR road and hiked the Twin lakes trail. This year we chose to not risk our lives on that FSR and walked in through the Tyaughton Creek Trailhead and over Lorna Pass. The Tyaughton trail can be beautiful at times and at other times mentally draining. So it’s a pick your poison type of situation to get into the park by foot or wheel.
For those familiar with the area, these are the basic trip logs:
Day 1: Relay Creek FSR to Relay Creek Trail, Big Creek Trail, Camped at Teco Lake
Day 2: Cluckata Ridge, Big Creek Trail, Camped near “Airway Strip”
Day 3: Dil-Dil Plateau to Vic Lake and hiked towards Vic Mountain
Day 4: Vic Lake to Nadilla Lake, Ram Mountain, across Dil-Dil Plateau, camped at Graveyard Cabin
Day 5: Dash Mountain, Dash Plateau, Old Mine Road, Relay Creek Doubletrack/Trail, Relay Creek FSR
Day 1: Mid Tyaughton Creek Trail to Siwash Meadows
Day 2: Siwash Meadows, Lorna Lake Pass, Lorna Lake, and towards Grant Creek
Day 3: Dropped bags at Grant Creek, Dorrie Ridge, Dorrie Peak
Day 4: Dorrie Ridge
Day 5: Crossed Big Creek, Elbow Pass, Elbow Pass Mountain, Upper Tyaughton Creek Trail till after all four crossings
Day 6: Mid Tyaughton Creek Trail out to trailhead
But if you are a more visual person here is our iNat points which also includes the South Chilcotin Mountains park, and our observations there.
iNatting, what is it exactly?
When someone says they are going hiking, what do you think of? Perhaps you think of someone with poles walking along a pronounced trail with a phone or camera within reach, pausing occasionally to soak in the view or a snack break. Maybe you think of a group of hikers chatting about the recent gossip, the views, or imbecile moves of the current government.
Well what hiking while iNatting looks like to us is constantly searching for intriguing plants, perching insects, listening to bird calls or wildlife but still frequently shouting “Hey Bear”. We always have our phones, any cameras, an aspirator, multiple rulers, and bug containers all within reach. Items that we’ve added more recently include a bug net and trays for bush-sweeping/tapping. That’s on top of our backpack with all our gear and usually a walking stick too. The pace of our hiking is often drastically reduced compared to a normal hiker. We may stop every two to five feet or go long stretches before stopping. Some stops may take 30 seconds, others an hour long. With a large heavy backpack on our backs, and for one of us an eight pound camera in hand, the slow pace can be quite exhausting.
Big Creek Provincial Park
Walking through Big Creek PP means strolling through multiple ecosystems as the park is positioned just inside BC’s interior. But the Chilcotin Plateau provides a huge swath of tundra to explore and with it’s Arctic-like conditions means many disjunct populations of plants. . .but more on that later.
“The parks are on the lee side of the Coast Mountains, creating a drier climate, moderated by the varied topography and location between the moderating influence of the coast and the harsher interior. The growing season is short and wind is almost always present, especially at higher elevations. “Parks Management Plan
Unfortunately, in my opinion the park is open to hunting. Most people are surprised to hear a Provincial Park allows hunting. After reading historical tales of the area, the old days included heavy hunting and cattle grazing so it’s no surprise that wildlife watching is no longer easy. So I definitely partially blame ongoing hunting for the lack of wildlife, but admittedly that’s just anecdotal. However, if we can spend roughly two weeks over the span of two summers in this area and only see two grizzly bears, two coyotes and deer then something is wrong. We see lots of moose activity via scat and tracks but all my searching with binocs has always come up short. Something fishy and concerning is going on here.
When the hiking is over for the day and the sun goes down, and the wildlife we wished we saw in the day hope now leaves us alone, we get to setting up our moth light and hope the bugs come to us! No one is getting into their sleeping bag until the moth light has been put out. I’ve talked about our mothing set up in a previous blog. Big props to Trevor for getting up in the middle of the night or in the morning to document the moth and insect diversity that are attracted to the light. And no it doesn’t seem to attract curious wildlife. . . as much as we can tell.
If you gaze at the moths above you can agree they are quite similar! But that’s the beauty of iNaturalist, the community which includes experts helps us to identify these moths. When studying these two more closely you can see the difference in pattern. I thought this was a good example of what diversity is. These moths are different genera, and probably occupy similar but slightly different niches. Even though these species aren’t vulnerable, parks are important to protect wild areas to house these small and overlooked species.
Now for a few stories highlighting a few of our iNat observations from Big Creek!
One strategy we incorporate while iNatting is searching for insects on mountain tops, with or without snow. After hiking from Vic Lake one morning through one of the toughest slogs to Nadilla Lake due to the waist/chest high shrubbery we climbed up Ram Mountain. It was hot and the climb was not for those who dislike steep boulder-filled slopes. Yuck. But it was worth it! The views were unbeatable!
Ram mountain was one of the first times we realized what hilltopping was. Hilltopping is when insects for whatever reason accumulate on prominent topographic sites, like hills and mountain tops. For instance butterflies do this when searching for mates. On peaks males become territorial in hopes of a snagging an arriving female. This strategy works for insects with wide or patchy distributions. We see many types of flies up there, and I’m skeptical that reproduction accounts for all reasons insects hilltop. We mostly use our telephoto lens to take photos of these flies, but next time a bug net might help us catch and photograph other species as well.
Below are photos of some of the highlights. The two most interesting were the Nose Bot fly, seen on Ram Mountain, and the Brook’s Bog Fly. The Bog Fly was spotted on Dorrie Peak, and is the currently the only recorded in BC on iNat, the other being spotted in the east coast of Canada (iNat and GBIF), and no records on BugGuide. Thanks to identification help from @trinaroberts, @edanko and @zdanko on iNat.
Don’t forget to look for peak-dwelling plants who have to deal with stronger winds and greater temperature variations than their valley dwelling relatives.
Disjunct Plant Populations
Within Big Creek there are a few large plateaus and interesting ridges. The Dil-Dil being the biggest plateau, but the Dash plateau is also very impressive. These flat-ish tundra-like landscapes are known as the Chilcotin Plateau Ecosection in the Management Plan. These plateaus were large lava beds which were once covered by glaciers. The temperatures on theses rolling landscapes have recorded “some of the lowest temperatures in the province”(Management Plan). The easterly systems from the coast provides rainshadow effects, but interior systems also affect this area. This interior system brings Arctic air from the north during winter months. This makes for some chaotic and unpredictable weather! Got to be prepared for all conditions!
Certain plants seem to thrive in these arctic-esque conditions and even support disjunct plant populations! Disjunct colonies occur when a populations are disconnected from the normally continuous distribution. For Example, this could be an island separated from the mainland, but since we are talking about the interior of BC the “water” is really land. For whichever reason these species are no longer naturally exchanging genetic material, and are therefore disjunct populations.
The Dil-Dil plateau is a vast mostly flat portion of the park with abrupt edges in many places and multiple small ponds in wetland areas. We crossed it twice in 2020, often stopping to belly botanize, and less often stopping to wildlife watch which included a small pack of coyotes and two grizzly bears (same day, but separate instances).
The ridges adjacent or extending from the plateaus like Cluckata and Dorrie Ridges provide great exploring. This year on Dorrie Ridge we found Arctic Poppies! What a beautiful yellow flower(see the pic below)! We only found two individual plants, something we totally could have missed if taken a slightly different route.
But probably the biggest potential surprise came after we returned and started uploading our observations to iNaturalist. The purple larkspur observed on Dorrie Ridge we figured was a Sierra Larkspur, a common plant. BUT it is likely a Northern Larkspur, D. brachycentrum which would make it the first record for all of British Columbia. This Northern species is normally found in well-draining tundra in the Yukon and Alaska, and is yet to be recorded in BC. So next summer we may take another trip out here to take more photos and measurements, and perhaps get permission to collect a few specimens. Thanks to @jamie_fenneman for first raising eyebrows.
The Pygmy Gentian (seen above) was spotted in a couple locations within Big Creek, one being the Dash Plateau. But others we spotted at lower elevations. The Dash Plateau sighting was quite exciting, as I spotted on the last day of the trip and we were quiet exhausted at that point. The Dash wasn’t nearly as fruitful with plants as the Dil-Dil was so when I spotted this teeeny purple bebe it was JOYOUS!
Here are some other botanical finds on these high plateaus:
The Syrphid Hunt
In 2020 Trevor snapped a photo of a Syrphid fly, also known as Hover flies in the Siwash meadows. Thinking not much of it he moved on, we set up camp, had dinner and went out on a evening walk. Well a mama Grizzly and two cubs then waltzed along the hillside across the meadow. An experience all of us that were lucky enough to witness will never forget. So we packed up camp, and stayed in the Bear Paw cabin meadow for the night.
Well once again when we returned home and uploaded the photo to BugGuide, and the naturalist community came through. Jeff Skevington, a Research Scientists at the Canadian National Collection of Insects commented: “this is not something I have come across before.” When a top Syrphidae scientist comments this, you get pretty excited.
We waited all year to return to the area the following year (this year, 2021), still unsure of this mysterious beast. On our second to last day we found an incredible patch of flowering heather with pollinators zipping around from flower to flower to flower. We could have stayed there for multiple hours, but we only had about an hour because a massive storm system was heading our way. Dark clouds, occasional lighting, loud thunder, and rain was heading our way FAST. We only captured one insect that looked promising, and we absolutely thought we had the sucker. The photo on the right was who we thought was our guy, but it ended up being a female Eupeodes, a common genus. Perhaps the chaotic weather, perhaps we were too late in the summer, perhaps the heat dome escalated the flowering plants, or perhaps we just weren’t looking in the right spots, but we came up empty. Waaaaaa wa wa.
I want to emphasize that while the process of collecting photographs, measurements and notes of flora and fauna is part one, once these photos are uploaded and decided on a preliminary identification is decided upon, part two and the fun begins! The community of naturalists online will and can continue to engage with observations. For instance many of our insect and flower ids go through multiple people’s amateur and expert opinion. For some we get answers years later!
Below are two Click Beetles of the Family Elateridae, with their corresponding iNat discussions. Both beetles were found on Dorrie Ridge when we searched on snowpack for bug-a-boos. This is known as arthropod nival aeolian fallout, which I wrote a post about.
As you can see in the top photo, the identification is pretty straight forward. Both @fmgee and @bmathison on iNat are awesome entomologists with a special interest in Elateridae. We are incredibly grateful for their time and attention they spend looking over our photos and specimens. Perhaps one day we’ll find a bug that they realize is a newbie! Stay tuned!
In Conclusion. . .
I hope you enjoyed this post and perhaps gained an insight into how we document nature in this remote BC park, and how incredible iNaturalist is as a platform. If you found anything interesting or have a technique suggestion I’d love to hear it, feel free to comment below!
If you are a researcher interested in any of our finds within Big Creek please feel free to reach out. While it’s a slight risk for us to be advertising these mysterious observations, and potential new species, I think it’s important to share how science is continuously ongoing, and going on in our backyards. We’d love to collaborate and add data to the park, and also solve some of these mysteries!