December 03, 2003
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.''
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.
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.
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