Likin’ The Backcountry

Let’s face it – we don’t all head out to the backcountry for the same reasons. Some people set out to break records – first ascent, steepest descent, fastest time, youngest person, longest distance, most gear carried, etc. Others head out to escape the stresses of nine-to-five, four walls, and paved streets perfumed with petroleum fumes. And some just head outdoors to soak up the spirit of a natural environment.

Now imagine planning a backcountry trip with the mountaineer, the weekend warrior, and the nature nut all together. Don’t laugh, I’ve been there. How is the nature nut supposed to keep up? I like to slow them down with a wild riddle.

What comes in shades of chartreuse, slate-grey or elegant orange, can be crusty or hairy or shrub-like, and brandishes common names like sockeye scale, Colorado rockfrog and peppered pixie-cup?

If you said lichen, well done! There are thousand of species of these diminutive, under-appreciated, and often over-looked members of the Fungal Kingdom. Lichens come in an array of shapes and sizes, from the microscopic powder species to the macroscopic leaf varieties. Up to 30 different species of lichens can be found on a single tree, even more if the conditions are right.

Old Man's Beard and a leaf lichen on a winter branch

Exactly what is a lichen? More than just a pretty puffball, it’s a fungus that has taken up farming.  The fungus provides the residence, or support system for the food-producing algae. This mutually-beneficial relationship culminates in one of the myriad of lichen species.

One of the most obvious in winter is the brilliant, greenish-yellow wolf lichen, Letharia vulpina. Its chartreuse colouration is a sharp contrast to the dark branches of the tree branches it graces. 

Another readily identifiable species on windswept slopes is Xanthoria elegans, or elegant orange.  This crusty-looking, orange leaf lichen favours bare limestone rock, where it grows unimpeded at the astounding rate of around four centimetres every hundred years. 

Hanging off spruce branches, like tinsel on a Christmas tree, are the hair lichens – Bryoria, Alectoria and Usnea – more commonly called Witches’ Hair and Old Man’s Beard.  Bryoria is a dark-coloured lichen, brown to black, hanging in clumps and resembling the unruly mop of a witch.  Alectoria and Usnea are greenish-grey to yellowish, like the bear of a pipe-toting octogenarian. These last two can be identified by gently pulling on a strand. Usnea has an elastic inner cord that can be separated from the outer sheath; Alectoria doesn’t.

As a backcountry enthusiast, the best reason I can think of for liking lichens is the excuse they give you stop and catch your breath on the way up a hill.

“Just checking out these peppered pixie-cups, I’ll be there in a minute!” Think about it – who’s going to try and call your bluff on that one?

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