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December 03, 2003
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ALONG THE WAY: Death Valley

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Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park... ''I want to welcome you all here to Death Valley National Park. My name is Alan Van Volkenburg and today we're going to head into Titus Canyon. Into the narrows of the canyon to learn about the desert plants...''

Death Valley National Park is not a place where you normally think about 'Life'. Instead most people conger up images of places like Badwater, the Devils golf course, and Dante's view. Great expanses of apparent nothingness. So what could a visitor expect to see and learn on a Ranger-lead plant hike?

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''Well I mean it's the survival aspect. I mean Death Valley, it's named that because pioneers that were stuck down here in 1849 thought they were going to die, but they survived. And I think that's the big story of Death Valley, how things can survive the extremes that nature's dealt out here. The extremes of heat, the extremes of dryness...The fact that anything could survive here alone is kind of the amazing bit of Death Valley National Park.''

Although there are many other places within the Park where you can find a large diversity of plants, you might want to hike Titus Canyon for the same reasons that plants thrive there.

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''Living in the canyon here it's a big advantage for plants. Because, well you notice the difference when you walked in here? Not so hot. In the summertime that's really important. It's still pretty hot down here, but it's out of the direct sunlight. So it helps these plants conserve moisture a bit more. Plus being down in the canyon bottom down here there's a little extra moisture in this gravel. Plants can take advantage of that.''

It will come as no surprise to any of the hikers that heat and the lack of water are two of the biggest challenges to any plant in Death Valley, and Alan wastes no time in helping them understand how certain plants deal with those challenges.

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''The problem with leaves is leaves are ways that plants breath. They actually have little openings on the surface of those leaves called stomata. Little pores. And through those little pores the plant actually releases oxygen and takes in carbon dioxide. Well, let me show you here. See what happens? When I breathe out... onto my glasses... it steams it up because I'm losing moisture when I do that. These plants, when they open up those little stomata, they can lose moisture through that. So a large leaf, the plant could really dry itself out through all those little holes on the surface of that leaf. So most of them just get rid of the leaf all together and find other ways to conserve that water.''

Throughout the canyon the hikers are exposed to many plants with different leaf structures that enable them to adapt to the desert, but none are more fascinating than the hairy leaf of the Rock Nettle.

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''These plants on the other hand with these little barbed hairs on the surface actually capture a little pocket of air over the surface of the leaf. So when the wind blows it doesn't disturb that area, and it doesn't suck the moisture out of the plant. Very much like a sweater. You know you think about how could a sweater keep you warm when there's all these holes in it. Well, it traps a pocket of air around your body. Keeps you warm. These plants on the other hand trap a pocket of air to keep them from drying out.''

As the hike progresses the group learns the survival skills of numerous other plants with common names like Desert Holly, Sweet Bush, Ground Cherry and Creosote. They also learn that there is an unexpected task ahead of them.

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''They have a little saying in the desert about plants. They say, 'for protection the desert plants all either stick, sting or stink'. Well, we've seen stick. We've seen the rock nettle. That's the one you want to steer clear of. This one of course definitely stinks, and as we go up this canyon we'll have many plants that stink. And I'll have you smell all of them because they all smell really different. And they all are a little warning to you to not eat them.''

Smelling the plants is just one of many devices that Alan uses to show you that even though you thought that this was a Death Valley it is very much alive.

Alan Van Volkenburg, Park Ranger, Death Valley National Park...''In Death Valley National Park there's more than a thousand different species of plants. It's very rich botanically, but everything is pretty sparse. These plants have lived in all these different types of habitats. We've seen one. Here we are in Titus Canyon, but we're only in the narrows of Titus Canyon. As I mentioned before in the upper sections you get all different types of plants. There's incredibly rare plants that grow up there. There's plants that are only known to grow in this canyon and the ones on either side of it. And that's it for the entire world.''

The people on this hike have learned that the beauty of the desert is in its diversity, but to find that diversity you must look closely. It's impossible to appreciate the beauty of the desert through a car window at 65 miles an hour. To really understand the esthetics of this magnificent environment you need to leave your car and walk. Preferably in the company of a Park Ranger like Alan Van Volkenburg who can bring Death Valley to life.

Death Valley National Park has daily ranger-conducted activities such as guided hikes and informative talks at the visitors center.

For more information call 760-786-3200.

See discussion rules.

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