viernes, mayo 4

Scientists follow the route of Jesuit Father Linck across Baja California

In 1767, Jesuit Wenceslaus Linck crossed the peninsula from west to east coming up from the south looking for a passage to the Colorado River. They took several days to cross with pack animals and after dropping into canyon El Berrendo, they gave up their quest to move further north and turned back.

As we looked for ways to access the remote hills, valleys and oases of the lower Sierra San Pedro Martir, we decided to follow the route that Linck took, knowing that mules could indeed cross that terrain. It turned out to be almost 245 years to the very day that we set out on this mission. Linck left on March 20th and we (myself, Elisabet Wehncke, Xavier Lopez, and John Case) left on March 22nd.

The lower areas of the Sierra San Pedro Martir are big-horn sheep territory, harsh terrain, few ranches and access roads, stunningly beautiful and dramatic scenery, and almost untouched by scientists in recent centuries. We had three goals for this trip – 1) to traverse the territory, crossing from the El Rosario region to San Felipe; 2) to visit remote palm oases as part of the ongoing research of Dr Wehncke; and 3) to document the plants that occur in this 'black-hole' of botanical knowledge. This route would take us right through the transitional vegetation where the Mediterranean meets the desert and the rainfall switches from a winter to a summer dominated regime.

We arrived to El Rosario with our truck packed to the brim with every piece of equipment imaginable. We soon met with our excellent local guides, Jesus Loya (Don Chuy) and Romualdo Ortiz (Ruma), and with some assistance from Claudio Claro, we were on our way up into the mountains to some of the most remote ranches in Baja California.

With trucks full of equipment we are to go where man has gone in 245 years. Source: John Case

A solid 5 hour drive on 4x4 dirt roads led us from the Sonoran desert up into the rolling hills and valleys of the southern sierra. We passed several ranches and wonderful mixtures of vegetation, all the time thinking how lucky we were to be able to pass so far by vehicle, knowing that Linck did not have this privilege.

We arrived at Rancho Las Tinajas around dusk on March 23rd and we were enchanted by its position and series of deep pools of fresh mountain spring water. The ranch is set into the base of a steep drop from a high mesa above and has palm oases above and below. The stars that night were magnificent and I slept beside our campfire listening to the frogs calling from the oasis below. The next morning Don Chuy left before dawn to round up the mules and horses we would be using from the adjacent hills. We spent the day working and making botanical collections in the oases. We found an ancient arrowhead and marveled to think that this area has been home to people for thousands of years, and that there are probably fewer inhabitants now than in previous times.

It was an amazing feat to witness the next day when a herd of 10 pack-animals came trotting over the ridge, snorting and hee-hawing, and we were all in awe of the skills of our guides. Some of the animals hadn't worked in 4 years, and although I was nervous, my mule was an angel (as mules go).

The mule that almost threw me off in a descent. Source: John Case

John and I made a short trip on the mules to practice for the long trip ahead. With Ruma we collected amongst other things an unusual sun-cup (Camissonia sp.) growing straight out of the rockface above us. We were collecting plants in presses for long-term preservation in the herbaria of the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, San Diego Natural History Museum and University of California, Riverside. This will allow me to understand more about species ranges and distributions as part of my doctoral research, and will also leave 'evidence' for countless future botanists to analyze the data and perhaps take genetic samples from my collections.

The next day we set out early after a hearty breakfast, heading for the giant palm oasis 'El Potrerito' which Eli and Xavier have been wanting to visit for years. There are only a small number of palm oases in the state of Baja California, and they are a threatened habitat, dominated by endemic blue fan palms that are only found on the peninsula. Elisabet diligently collected data and samples from every oasis that we passed, for her ecological and genetic investigations on the natural history of the oases of the peninsula.

One of the beautiful and rare palm oasis of Baja California. Source: John Case

We arrived just before dusk after an extremely scenic crossing. We made several plant collections en route and stopped at a magnificent vista of canyon El Parral. Every turn of the journey seemed to bring new plant communities and plants I had never seen before. A very pink Anemone tuberosa was a nice surprise near the highest point of our crossing. The ridiculous amount of equipment that we had so nervously brought with us was too much for the animals and we left a large amount behind at the ranch, but still it was necessary to stop several times to rearrange the cargo on the mules.

The next day our guides went ahead to try and find a trail down into Berrendo canyon. We happily worked in the oasis; John and I climbed up to some of the adjacent mesas to collect plants, and Elisabet and Xavier explored 'El Potrerito' area, one of the two more densest concentrations of blue fan palms registered in the peninusla. John took documentary footage of our whole journey and we hope to be able to share a video of the expedition with you in future. The descent into Berrendo canyon was steep and challenging. I was the least-skilled rider and narrowly missed being thrown from the mule, meanwhile dislocating a finger!

The vegetation varied so much during the crossing. We started in an open rocky desert, with narrow steep-sided passes liable to scrape your knees, then into thickets of chamise-chaparral, trusting the mules to guide us out of the darkness, onto open pinyon juniper forests, at one point crossing arid semi-grasslands, and then into dense spiny trees that ripped our clothes (and sometimes our skin!) There were countless mixes of Mediterranean and desert species, growing together in combinations I had never seen before. Each hillside seemed to have a unique community of plants responding to the different microclimates formed by each mesa or mountain. And of course there were the palms, that so often offered the only reprieve from the desert sun.

When we finally arrived at the mouth of canyon El Berrendo, at dusk, we were met by Terra Peninsular associates who brought some very welcome cold beers and offered safe passage into San Felipe – now just a short distance away. We shared a last meal in the hot sand of the riverbed before parting our separate ways. It was hard to say goodbye, but we had made it. We followed Linck's tracks across the peninsula, sometimes applauding him for leading us to such beauty and other times almost cursing his name for leading us into such challenging terrain! Our collections are invaluable, both to our own research projects and to furthering the broader knowledge of the biogeography, ecology and diversity of the peninsula. This trip compliments our global efforts to document the species we share the planet with; but also fills us with awe for the beauty of Baja California.

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