north of the black rock

North Black Rock Range, above Summit Lake (photo by stephanie)

North Black Rock Range, above Summit Lake
(photo by stephanie)

All life as we know it follows water. And water, bending to gravity, temperature and layers of impermeability, tends to follow the path of least resistance—that is, it flows from high to low, along whichever route best facilitates its descent. So it follows that, in order to follow life through the height of a high-desert summer, one would do well to start heading uphill, up the valleys, the canyons, the verdant gulches toward their source.

The first thing I notice upon entering the North Black Rock Range Wilderness is not the plenitude of plant life—though this is wondrously, overwhelmingly apparent—but rather the lack of a specific variety: weeds. The tawny nodding stalks of cheatgrass and skeletal mustard and squat halogeton are conspicuously absent here, at least at present. Instead the sloping hills of slate and tuff sport a fringed pile of fescue, low sage, paintbrush, lupine and bitterbrush the ochre hue of summer. The valleys teem with aspens and willows, wild rose and serviceberry, irises, gilia, gooseberry, currant. It is an unexpected joy to turn eyes onto this arid land and see not amber waves of invasive grain but a native mosaic of forbs, shrubs and perennial grasses spread across the yawning expanse. It is an uncommon delight to glimpse riparian habitat free of pocks and hummocks, cowpies and studpiles. Clumps of mountain mahogany cling to barren outcroppings. Strips of monkeyflower, yarrow and cornlily line the many creeks. Mosses pad the interstices between plants and raise microcosmic islands in the volcanic loam. The place feels like paradise: unspoiled, unpeopled, remote, almost a figment of the imagination.

Even in drought, water courses through this 30,647-acre wilderness like an intravenous line, supplying in drips, seeps and rills that indispensable serum to creatures far and wide. Bighorn sheep, pronghorn, mule deer, badger, coyote, bobcat and mountain lion range here, from the 4,800-foot “lowlands” to the 8,400-foot peaks. Sage grouse and quail are plentiful, as are magpies, hummingbirds, warblers, woodpeckers, flycatchers and vireos. Ridge-perched turkey vultures welcome the sun with wings spread wide, kettling en masse in the late-morning warmth; harriers and falcons strafe the boundless steppe. In the loaming nighthawks swarm the sky, barking and swooping after mayflies, stoneflies, dragonflies, damselflies, moths. They’re soon followed by long-eared myotis bats and short-eared owls, soundless under a cloud-wreathed moon. Lahontan cutthroat trout, one of the largest trout species in North America, spawn in these creeks and roil the waters of nearby Summit Lake, elevation 5,836. There osprey attend to them, as do hungry Northern Paiute. Amid all this bustle, tucked into the shaded glens under wide-leaved geraniums and lush sedges, fragrant mushrooms swell to decidedly un-desert-like proportions. That they exist at all in these narrow microclimates is a marvel to behold.

The North Black Rock Range Wilderness is perhaps the most stupendous, incongruous, far-removed and thus replete portion of the ten-Wilderness system associated with our NCA.  Water abounds here year-round—for now—and the flora and fauna reflect that, are reflected in it, a duality immemorial yet fragile, a balance struck and held edgewise on a mirrored pane.

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