Do Lichens Have Free Will? or Snowshoeing Congo Gulch

Do lichens have free will?

How do things as tiny as atoms and cells operate with so much complexity?

Would an organism on the scale of the universe marvel at the complexity of tiny things like human beings or planets?

These questions arose among the overnight snowshoers on Valentine's Day as we hiked a rather unsnowy mountainside and snowshoed up an icy road without lights. The crystalline fir boughs, hoarse ravens and wide starry night sky were a welcome respite from the grind of the semester, and they let our minds wander towards the existential.

We stayed in Congo Gulch Cabin, owned by the U. S. Forest Service, in the Elkhorn Mountains of eastern Oregon.

The adjacent Fremont Powerhouse was built in 1908 to produce more-affordable electricity for the local mines that were experiencing economic decline. Water was pumped through eight miles of steel and wood pipeline from Olive Lake to generate electricity until 1967, when the powerhouse was decommissioned and donated to the U. S. Forest Service as a historical landmark.

The weather was oddly warm for February. It turns out we didn't need our snowshoes to climb the steep hillside behind our cabin. As we hiked, I got into some wonderful conversations. Allison and I pondered the meaning of free will: am "I" in control of my actions, or does my physiology control me? Are my physiology and I the same thing? Is the act of willing contained within the neurons that fire, and the endocrine and nervous systems that carry out desires? Does lichen, with no conscious mind, still have free will?

It takes only fresh air, a forest, a lack of screens, and a little break from homework to get into the really fun questions of the world.

Our first group photo turned out excellent. It was taken by the self-timer of my camera perched on a precarious platform of rocks and twigs.

Our knowledgeable leaders told us that Ponderosa Pine bark smells like vanilla. Of course, we had to give it a try!

The thick, scaly park has a reddish tint and deep grooves.

The view from halfway up the mountainside was lovely.

And the view from the top was breathtaking! The sunlight lit up the distant snowy peaks in a sparkling glow that's impossible to capture with a photo.

I was collecting lichens during the hike, and at the peak I noticed all the lichens on the ground had been trampled. By what, I wondered? Then a pile of scat told the answer: elk.

Elk scat.

I noticed smaller pellets on our way back down the mountain. Deer scat, I am guessing.

I did manage to find a few lichens, however. I got really excited about this one because it included ascocarps, the sexual reproductive structure of lichens. (Can you see the brown satellite-dish-shaped cups?) Also, its neon lime-green color was gorgeous! I identified this species as Letharia columbiana.

My second lichen species turned out to be even more exciting! I brought this specimen back to the Whitman plant ID lab and scoured books and keys, trying to determine the species.

Here's a photo of the lichen's "cup" taken by my iPhone through the lens of a dissecting microscope.

The only species (out of hundreds) that fit my lichen was Cladonia multiformis, but the range listed for that species in my field guide did not overlap with any part of Oregon. What to do?! I e-mailed the book's author, Bruce McCune, with photos. He replied immediately: I was right! The true range must be larger than the one printed in the guide. I am now in love with lichens. :)

In the evening, we finally got to the activity our trip was named for: snowshoeing!

Used from Wikimedia Commons with permission from the Free Art License.
I was expecting clunky wooden tennis rackets cris-crossed with leather... you know, the kind you might find hung over the door of an old mountain lodge.

But modern snowshoes actually look like this! They're easy to strap on and walk in. Don't try to go backwards, though!

We decided to walk up the icy road without lights so our eyes could adjust to the darkness. We stumbled into a couple ditches, but it was wonderful to be able to sense the trees, ground and sky without the blinding glare of a flashlight. 

We marveled at the stars and constellations. We found Orion's belt (and then the rest of him) and spotted a reddish planet that might have been Venus. I saw two shooting stars but no satellites. I wonder why?

Back in the cabin, a few dedicated fairies had prepared brownie scramble, the best wilderness desert in existence! We spent the night playing Settlers of Catan and Mafia, stoking the wood stove, and keeping our feet cozy in socks and slippers.

The next morning we retraced our snowshoe path up the road, but this time we could admire the melting snow and sapling trees by sunlight.

Baby tamaracks, Douglas firs, grand firs and ponderosa pines sprouted along the road like a nursery.

I don't think I gave the group enough warning for our first attempt at a group self-timer photo...

But the second time, we got it right!

Most of us didn't know each other before we met in the Outdoor Program basement on Saturday morning. I loved getting to know each person as we played icebreaker games on the Whitman Lawn, drove four hours to the cabin, cooked, washed dishes, and raced to the outhouse through the frigid air. Every person brought energy and interest. I was lucky to experience the Elkhorns with such a group.

As we prepared to leave, I noticed a clump of lush moss growing in the middle of a rushing stream.

The moss was coated in ice! How did it manage to photosynthesize and prosper in its chilly bath?

To end with a favorite image from the weekend: grassicles.