Memorial Day Traditions in the West – This Year is Tricky

By Stephanie A. Malin

“Sooner or later, Utah is going to heat up. It will be like filling a thimble with a fire hose.”
Randy Julander, the federal government’s premiere snow survey expert in Utah, discussing what’s going to happen when higher temperatures arrive and begin to melt the state’s ever-increasing snowpack.
– Utah’s Deseret News

Triple A estimates that 35 million Americans will travel this weekend, kicking off their summers with road trips, camping, picnics, or hours on the beach.  For those of us in the West, however, recent weather patterns and a late spring – perhaps the result of climate change’s global weirding effects – will make some traditional activities more challenging to execute this weekend.  Across the West, flood warnings from melting snowpack, early wildfires, high winds with dust storms, and even late-season snow require regional travelers to tinker with their Memorial Day traditions and expectations.

My husband and I are big campers.  We like to head about twenty minutes down the road to Logan Canyon, where we have a few favorite spots to set up camp and sleep in the canyon for an evening or two.  The spot we frequent the most possesses just the right mix of amenities to make camping there a treat.  A large, level area for the tent, chairs, and even parking; a sizeable fire pit with a six-foot-tall boulder that projects the fire’s glow as the sun recedes; babbling and bubbling of one of Logan River’s side streams as it runs just south of our sleeping spot; and a vista that includes looming limestone cliffs and even the occasional deer.  Yes, perfect, for us at least.  Typically, we begin camping at this spot at about this time of the year, with Utah’s cold nights giving way just enough to make it bearable to sleep outdoors.  We don’t necessarily fight the Memorial Day weekend crowds but take advantage of our teaching schedules and pounce on the spot shortly after the weekend concludes and the canyon empties out a little.

This year, though, those plans have been complicated.  In anticipation of this tradition, we recently headed into the canyon to check in on our spot, say hello to our home-away-from-home after a long, snowy, chilly winter.   However, as we pulled up, we saw that camping will not be an option, at least not this week.  The babbling, bubbling side stream had risen well beyond its banks; the fire pit was too damp to nurture a substantial fire; and the ground throughout the area – though still level and lovely – was wet and would remain too damp to allow comfortable tent camping.  Aside from our spot’s damp appearance and the rising river, the weekend will bring with it at least two days of unusually substantial rain, according to our local meteorologist, putting a final nail in the coffin of our tradition.

Camping will have to wait, it seems, and perhaps longer than a week or two.  While spring rains have been common in Utah for my six years here, the amount of rain we have gotten this spring exceeded our normal levels of precipitation, combining with quickly melting snowpack to create flood concerns in Cache and Weber Counties.  Breaking with the norm, there have been more rainy and cloudy than sunny days.  Other areas throughout the state have seen similar flood concerns and late-spring rains and even snows combine to fill their canyons and camping spots.  Though this could certainly be a fluke – an odd weather pattern that will prove to be an anomaly and nothing else – observers like Randy Julander suggest that such anomalies may become the norm in typically arid states like Utah.  In fact, scientists such as Julander suggest that climate change may be impacting weather patterns to such an extent that they have termed these shifting patterns ‘global weirding.’ Global weirding refers to increased flooding in normally arid regions, increasing intensity and duration of storms (as we see in the Midwest’s recent spate of tornadoes), increased intensity and duration of wildfires, and affected growing seasons and agricultural outcomes.

While this observation doesn’t necessarily explain our camping spot’s unseasonable appearance, when combined with other serious weather and natural events across the West, it is hard to ignore the pattern.  Fires and floods ravage Colorado’s Western Slope, wildfires have already sparked to life in Arizona, multiple sites of flooding plague Montana, and rain and even some snowstorms have doused the West Coast.   This Memorial Day weekend, as people throughout the West search for their customary camping spots and enact their traditions, it seems likely that they may encounter flood damage or even remaining snowpack.  Executing traditions, it seems, may be trickier this year for the outdoor enthusiast.  How has your weekend or early summer been impacted?

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Harbingers of Spring/Summer, National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors (GO) Day

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

Western Skunk Cabbage, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Linda Kruger

One sure sign of spring is the appearance of Western Skunk Cabbage, also known as simply Skunk Cabbage or Swamp Lantern (Lysichiton americanus in the west and Symplocarpus foetidus in the east), pushing its way up through the snow to claim the title of the earliest sentinel of spring. Skunk Cabbage, in addition to its beautiful bright yellow hood, or spathe, and large green leaves is fascinating because of its ability to melt the snow in order to make its way to the sun. For about 12-14 days in late winter it consumes oxygen as it breaks down starch stored in its roots. This process generates enough heat for the plant to maintain a temperature of 36 degrees as it melts its way through the snow.

Hummingbirds also signal the arrival of spring when they return from their winter homes in Panama and southern Mexico and fly around in search of hummingbird feeders and colorful hanging fuchsia baskets that keep them nourished until the wildflowers burst with blossoms. Arctic terns also have returned, flying in from Southern South America and Antarctica, making the longest migration of any bird or animal, traveling over 12,000 miles to nesting sites in Alaska. In Juneau, about 80 terns gather near Mendenhall Lake and will stay in the area until they fly south again in mid-August. They can be seen through binoculars from the shore and through spotting scopes from the Tongass National Forest Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. Looking through spotting scopes from the visitor center or from locations on Douglas Island or downtown Juneau we also watch bears that have come out of hibernation and mountain goats and their kids making their way into the lower elevations in search of tender spring vegetation.

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Fiddlehead Ferns, Douglas Island, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Local human residents also venture out in search of spring greens, especially the tender, succulent curled heads of the fiddlehead ferns that are so yummy sautéed in butter or added to a salad. We also see the lowest tides of the year, providing an opportunity to explore what the winter storms have deposited on local beaches and tide flats.

Spring, with summer hot on its heels, has arrived. The Carnival Spirit, the first cruise ship of the year, with many more to follow in its wake, arrived on Friday May 6 bringing 2,000 visitors into our community. Close to a million visitors will arrive by ship over the next four months. The 2011 cruise season will end when the Century, the final ship of the year, sets sail at 8:30 PM on September 24. Between now and then visitors rule downtown Juneau and frequent many of our trails and favorite places we go to enjoy good weather. On clear days they seem to own the skies as well, with helicopters and float planes a constant presence overhead. The helicopters flying visitors up and around the Juneau Icefield are known around town as the “mosquito fleet” for the buzzing sound they make overhead, often five or six in a row, as they fly from their pad near the airport up and over the Mendenhall Glacier.

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Cruise Ship, Juneau, Alaska :: (c) 2011 Jeff Gnass

Three ships arrived on Wednesday May 11 and they made their presence known long before they docked. You didn’t have to see them to know they were arriving and you didn’t have to open your eyes and look out the window to know the fog was thick. In fact, when I did look out I couldn’t see the ships through the fog, and they couldn’t see each other. As a result, starting at the tender hour of 4:00 A.M. , they began sounding their fog horns every five minutes, blanketing the town with a loud noise that reverberated from the mountains behind the city across to the mountains on Douglas Island where I live and back again. It was like having an obnoxious alarm clock that went off every five minutes and no way to turn it off! Finally the ships docked safely, their horns silenced and the fog lifted to disclose a beautiful sunny day to be enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Spring events trip over each other as we transition from winter to summer. There is the Juneau Audubon Society bird watching cruise to Berners Bay, just north of Juneau, in April. We barely have time to catch our breath after the week-long Alaska Folk Festival in Juneau, also in April, when Juneau Jazz and Classics begins its three week run of jazz, blues, and classical music concerts. There are free concerts at lunch time in the State Office Building and free and reasonably priced evening concerts at a variety of venues around town, including local churches, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center and the Centennial Hall convention center. Guest artists (always an amazing line-up) also perform for students in area schools and teach workshops while they are in town. Juneau Jazz and Classics also sponsors a free Saturday of fun and music at the University of Alaska’s Auke Lake Campus. This year the event was on May 14, 2011. The Second Annual Maritime Festival was happening in downtown Juneau on the same day. (It was an amazingly beautiful day!) The Southeast Master Gardeners Association held their Annual Plant Sale May 7, the same morning that brave runners dashed across the mudflats between Douglas Island and the Juneau airport in the Spring Tide Scramble, sponsored by Southeast Road Runners.

Farther north the Nenana Ice Classic has come to an end for another year with the ice going out on the Tanana River on May 4, 2011 at 4:24 PM. As their reward for guessing the date and time of the breakup 22 winners will split the $338,062 purse and enjoy the celebrity of being this year’s winners.

Looking into the future, Saturday June 4 is National Trails Day. This day celebrates America’s 200,000 miles of trails, and the boundless energy of trail supporters and volunteers. The American Hiking Society and sponsors Backpacker Magazine, Columbia, Eastern Mountain Sports, Fetzer, Merrell, The North Face and partners REI and American Park Network are hosting over two thousand events around the country. The 2011 theme is Made With All Natural Ingredients. The American Hiking Society encourages everyone to get outdoors and to invite someone new to the outdoors to come along. For more information or to find an event near you go to www.AmericanHiking.org.

June 11 is National Get Outdoors (GO) Day celebrating America’s Great Outdoors and encouraging kids and their families to explore the outdoors together. Lead by the USDA Forest Service and the American Recreation Coalition this effort builds partnerships between public and private sector interests. The focus of GO day is to influence Americans, especially youth, to participate in outdoor activities and to make outdoor recreation a part of healthy lifestyles. For more information about GO Day events go to www.nationalgetoutdoorsday.org.

How will YOU celebrate National Trails Day and National Get Outdoors Day?