While plenty of hikers take the 2.2-mile-long trail (at milepost 161) to the lake at 6,300-foot elevation during the summer, hikers in October often go for another reason: gold.
The Western larch (mountain larch, alpine larch) defies assumptions. The unaware might assume that the trees are dying when they see the golden needles. But the sun-loving larch is a deciduous conifer, thus the shift from green to stunning gold for a few weeks and the annual dropping of its 11/2-inch-long flexible needles.
Despite the harsh winters in the North Cascades and soil not known for its kindness to seedlings, larches can stretch into the 150- to 200-foot range and create trunks in the 4- to 6-foot diameters.
Most grow from the eastern slopes of the Cascades to the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and British Columbia.
But it’s not their height or golden needles that I find most amazing; it’s that many live 500 to 1,000 years despite sensitivity to frost damage that limits their spread.
But if they survive weather and lightning (tall tree, open slopes), larches develop a fire-resistant thick cinnamon-brown scaly bark that grows grayer with age and creates deep furrows. Because they shed the lower branches, larches limit the combustible material for hungry fires.
Rapidly growing larches are among the first trees to regenerate the land after a fire, and it’s usually the tallest tree in the area.
While there are relatively few larches here (they dominate in many regions of Canada’s boreal forests), in some places larch forests are planted for its commercially viable softwood timber.
It’s close-grained, splits easily and is so strong that resistant-to-rot larch wood is used for railroad ties, telephone poles and structural construction.
Although its processed wood is water-resistant, live old-growth larches do have a problem with heart rot which, while they don’t endear themselves to loggers, they can turn into condos for cavity nesters.
Europeans and Americans have found many other uses for larch over the centuries, including house-building, pagan cremations, bonsai, cosmetics (aboriginals mixed dried pitch with grease) and larch gum for sore throats.
Look on the shelves of your local health-food store, and you might find supplements with larch gum (think honey consistency) that’s also used for pharmaceuticals, ink and food.
It seems like larches are a source of green as well as gold.
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.