Ken DeCamp’s all-color Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps is a beautiful book covering 505 wildflower species. Here Ken discusses the book, his favorite Trinity Alps wildflower hikes, and the course of his career as a photographer and writer.
Where to Purchase Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps
Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps: Including the Marble Mountain Wilderness, Russian Wilderness & Trinity Divide is at select bookstores in Northern California and Southern Oregon. You can also order directly from Backcountry Press, or you can buy it on Amazon.
What Was Your First Trinity Alps Hike?
My first venture into the Trinity Alps was with my family on a three-day backpacking trip into Big Boulder Lake up Coffee Creek in 1956. The lake was beautiful, the fishing outstanding, and there were no people even though it was the 4th of July weekend. The following weekend we backpacked into Big Duck Lake in the Russian Wilderness and spent three days there in blissful solitude. in those days, backpackers were few and far between and horse packers were a far more common sight.
What Do You Like Most and Least About the Trinity Alps?
The Trinity Alps and Russian Wilderness offer up some of the most beautiful scenery to be found anywhere and I believe it’s the amazing mix of geologies that make it so. Whether it’s the limestone and metamorphic geology of the Green Trinities, the towering granitic peaks of the White Trinities and Russians, or the serpentines of the Red Trinities, these highly variable landscapes are absolutely stunning. Each displays its own unique beauty and while it’s probably the granite country that gets most of the attention, they are all, none-the-less, worthy of a lot of individual attention.
The Trip Is More Important Than the Destination
I like to think, and I’ve stated this many times before, that the overall landscape, while certainly a beautiful visual feast, is nothing but a conglomeration of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tiny fragments – both living and inert – that are the building blocks of that beauty. It is my contention that too few people actually take note of the little and seemingly inconsequential things they walk over and pass by when traversing this landscape. I learned long ago that the trip is more important than the destination, and I have often found myself falling short of the planned end of a backpack trip because of distractions along the way that put a halt to forward progress. These mountains are full of surprises and never cease to amaze me with new discoveries every time I step foot into them.
Decreased Solitude in the Trinity Alps
I think the thing I like least about the Trinity Alps today is, generally speaking, the growing lack of solitude and respect for the landscape and other hikers. Up until the late 60s solitude was an experience we took for granted. There were no crowds – even on the major holidays. Except for horse packers there just weren’t a lot of visitors and you could really get a true wilderness experience no matter where you ventured.
All that changed in 1972 when John Denver hit the airwaves with Rocky Mountain High and Sunshine on my Shoulders. It wasn’t long before the “back to nature” crowd began to hit the trails en mass searching for that natural high, and with the crowds came noise and trash. I was working for the Forest Service when this happened and, overnight, places like Stuart Fork and Canyon Creek (especially Canyon Creek) saw an exponential increase in use and abuse and it has only gotten worse.
A couple of years ago I was shooting wildflowers along Canyon Creek near Middle Falls when a group of about 20 college kids from Humboldt passed by on their way to the lakes. Two of the young guys had keggers strapped to their pack frames while others carried their camping gear for them. It didn’t take an Einstein to figure out what they were after on this trip… one: to get away from coastal fog, and two: to party hearty. I heard later from the wilderness patrolman (a friend of mine) that several people at the lake stopped by the District Office in Weaverville to complain about the noise and trash left behind by this group.
Don’t get me wrong. I can still experience solitude – I just have to work a little harder to find it. Avoiding the crowds has become increasingly difficult as more and more people turn away from places like the Sierra and head for the northern mountains. That being said, I do have secret spots that I don’t share with anyone but kids and grand-kids who have grown up exploring with me.
I like the fact that some trailheads are only an hour’s drive from my home which means I can pretty much be “spur-of-the-moment” with a decision to go hiking. This is important because, strangely enough, I love thunderstorms and love being in the high country when they break. When the storms develop you will find me heading into the mountains while most people already there are leaving. I’ve had some great experiences in over-used places like Canyon Creek when storms drive the crowds out.
When Did You First Get Interested in Wildflowers, Trinity Alps or Otherwise?
Finding Edible Plants
Looking back I think my interest in native plants really began with my parents and grandmother who hauled my 5-year-old butt along on outings to gather blackberries, chokecherries, currants, raspberries, and thimbleberries for making jams, jellies and syrups. We also spent many pleasant hours digging up wild ginger roots, which she boiled in a sugar solution and then dried to make a kind of spicy hot candy – I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do that any more but, at the time – 60+ years ago – it was quite fun… not to mention tasty!
Alice Jones, Author of the First Book on Trinity Alps Wildflowers
So, by the time I was 6, I could at least identify those plants with edible fruit. Then, when I was 10, a second thing happened in my life – I met Alice Jones. Alice’s husband Horace was the Forest Service Ranger on the MInersville District and whenever we needed a fire permit or a map, we would stop at the station, which was a 15-minute drive from where we lived. So while Mom and Dad were getting their permit, I would talk to Alice who, to the best of my knowledge, was the first woman to graduate from the UC Berkeley School of Forestry as a full blown forester.
Alice was always eager to share her knowledge of the local botany with anyone who would listen, but I think she had a special penchant for educating kids. So while the folks were taking care of business, she would show me around the compound, identifying the various trees, shrubs and wildflowers. That encounter led to a life-long casual friendship. When she published her book of Trinity Alps Wildflowers in the mid-80s, it became a permanent resident in my pack and eventually helped inspire me to publish my own work.
When Did You Get Serious About Photography?
In the late 60s and early 70s I spent a lot of time drawing and painting native plants. I was a patrolman with the Forest Service at the time and always kept my sketch books and pencils with me so that during lunch hour I could spend a bit of time drawing. I carried them with me while backpacking and spent many pleasant hours in the backcountry working on drawings as well. I still have one of my first drawings hanging on the wall of my studio… a picture of nine bark leaves and flowers I sketched at a spring alongside the East Fork Stuart Fork Trail in 1975.
I kept at my artwork for several years but it was in the very late 90s that I began to get interested wildflower photography. Gray scale drawings were nice but did little to capture the colorful essence of my subjects. A friend loaned me his 35mm camera and I began exploring the possibilities of wildflowers in color. My first attempts were quite amateurish and I have to say… pretty bad. But, the more I shot, the more I began to experiment until by the early 2000s I was beginning to get the hang of it. Those were the days of film and I would burn through 20 or 30 rolls on a pack trip finding, after they were processed, that I would have to throw most of the prints in the trash.
It was when I bought my first Nikon digital camera and made friends with the folks at Crown Camera in Redding that I began to realize a major shift in my abilities with a camera. The quality of my photographs grew exponentially better, and the better they got the more I shot. I stopped using auto settings and went to manual exclusively, I purchased excellent lenses and polarizers and more adaptable tripods. More importantly… I began to slow down and take more time with my subjects… searching for better angles, better compositions and better lighting. From that point on the world of wildflowers, lichens, and fungi took on a whole new meaning for me and the main purpose for my excursions into the mountains became the search for those species I’d yet to discover.
What Are Two of Your Favorite Trinity Alps Wildflower Hikes?
Stoney Ridge Trail to Stonewall Pass and VanMatre Meadows
The Stoney Ridge Trail to Stonewall Pass and VanMatre Meadows is, by far, the one Trinity Alps wildflower hike I enjoy the most. In late July and August it is a veritable paradise for anyone interested in adding to their botanical life-list. On a single August day hike in 2017, I photographed 36 species, sub-species and varieties. I could have shot more but there is only so much time in a day! I visit this area often but I have to warn people… it is UPHILL and exposed. I’ve encountered backpackers suffering near heat exhaustion only halfway on the climb to Stonewall Pass on very warm days. My advice… leave early in the morning and carry lots of water. Over the years I’ve photographed 64 different wildflowers on that hike… between late May and early October.
Canyon Creek Lakes
My second favorite? Probably Canyon Creek Lakes, but this wildflower extravaganza begins along the road well before you arrive at the trailhead. A couple of miles past Junction City the show begins on the cliff faces, cutbanks, and roadside flats, and continues all the way to Ripstein Campground. The adventure begins again a couple of miles up the trail where you break out into the exposed granite and Canyon Creek itself. I honestly cannot tell you how many wildflowers I’ve photographed on this hike but I would say, conservatively… around 50… more if you were to include the walk up to L Lake and Kalmia Lake. The road-side and trailside shows are very impressive but need to be experienced throughout the blooming season which can last into October. This requires several trips beginning in late May, which should break no-one’s heart who loves the Alps.
Which Trinity Alps Trails Offer Easy Access to Wildflower Enthusiasts?
Swift Creek Trail
This is a tough one because easy for one person is tough for another… it all depends on levels of fitness. BUT… right offhand I would offer up a short hike up the Swift Creek Trail for a great close-up view of Darlingtonia (Cobra plant) fens and Western azalea thickets (the aroma on a warm day is intoxicating… prepare yourself for olfactory overload!).
Stoddard Lake, Big Boulder Lake, East Boulder Lake, East Weaver Lake
Then I would recommend the trail into Stoddard Lake where a hiker can find beautiful fens and meadows loaded with a variety of wildflowers including some rare species. The trail to the Coffee Creek Boulder Lakes is another very easy hike… one favored by families just introducing their kids to wilderness adventure. The area surrounding Big Boulder is rich with wildflowers beginning in mid to late June as the snow melts. On the north side of the Alps check out the short hike into the East Boulder Lake Basin. Beginning in late May or early June (depending on snow pack) the wildflower show is stunning. The short hike into East Weaver Lake above Weaverville is another great way to spend a day. The wildflower show begins the moment you leave your car just below Weaver Bally Lookout and continues all the way to the lake and beyond.
What Did You Like Most About Writing Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps?
What did I like most about writing and illustrating this book? I think it was the chance to share a passion of mine with anyone interested in the flora of these spectacular mountains. The process of selecting images for use in the book brought back floods of great memories and I came to realize that shooting wildflowers had become more than a job per se. It became something I could adhere myself to, and by doing so, involve other people in developing an interest in the natural world with more depth and understanding. I can tell you, without fail, exactly where I was, what the day was like and what I had to do to get each and every photograph I keep in my files. These are experiences I could never put a monetary value on and that is what I am hoping I can impart to others. I could wax poetic about my experiences but anyone who has been there knows exactly what I’m talking about.
And What Did You Find Most Challenging About Writing Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps?
In 2010, with my book complete, I approached my friends and Forest Service co-workers Julie Kierstead Nelson and Julie Knorr, both professional botanists, hoping they would be willing to do a summary review and confirm my identifications, lending a level of credibility to my efforts. Review they did… in no time at all upending my entire effort, but not without complimenting me on the integrity of the photography.
Impact of the Second Edition of the Jepson Manual
They quickly indicated that one… sorting wildflowers solely by common name and species was a no-no, and two… that the entire world of California botany had just been turned upside down with the publication of the second edition of the Jepson Manual — the bible of California botany. They saw, clearly enough, that the book entries had to be re-arranged following a simple scientific identification system using the scientific name for organization but the common name primarily for amateur use, flower color, number of petals, position of the ovary and whether or not the entry was an herb, a shrub or a tree etc.
This brought everything to a screeching halt while both Julies made positive identifications following the Jepson Manual protocols which, in turn, allowed Julie Knorr to produce massive and detailed sort lists from which I could finally organize the book entry by entry, page by page. I have to admit that, despite assurances from the Julies that everything was working out well, I was very discouraged by the whole idea of starting over. I have to say though… they babied me and my ego while working closely with me to make sure the edited end product was not only accurate scientifically but attractive to the amateur botanist as well.
Publishing With Backcountry Press
When the final page was done, and the dust had settled we, all three, sat back and gave a huge collective sigh of relief. THEN Michael Kauffman with Backcountry Press came on board and I found myself dealing with another round of editorial abuse! I say that tongue in cheek, but I did suffer some serious angst when he brought to my attention certain DeCamp writing quirks that were unacceptable in the world of publication.
Long story short… I threw a tantrum and threatened to pull out of the entire process. Michael calmly explained that at that point I couldn’t back out… he had expended too much time arranging for funding and besides… his job as editor-in-chief was to point these things out and that I shouldn’t take anything personally. So… he and I settled into a complicated round of editing and re-writes that I’m sure about drove him crazy… I know it did me.
Needless to say we survived and the book became a reality. I definitely learned a few things along the way about the publication process. Chief among them:bring the professionals on board at the very beginning and, if possible, do the same thing with the final publication editor. If I’d done that, the entire process would have gone so much smoother. Live and learn they say… a lesson I’ve taken to heart in my old age!
What Is Your Next Creative Project?
Now that the dust has settled with Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps, I am in the process of hunting down and photographing a few more species that I would like to include in a possible 2nd edition… if and when that happens. I’ve already added half a dozen and am looking at the possibility of another 15 or so.
Wildflowers of the Diemtigtal in Switzerland
In the meantime I have been offered the chance to make my archive of Swiss wildflowers available for a guide to the Wildflowers of the Diemtigtal. I’ve been shooting in that part of Switzerland since 2007 for the Swiss Institute of Technology as well as for myself. We will see where that one goes… if it does it will be in German and probably not of much use to local wildflower enthusiasts here in Northern California.
Patrick’s Point State Park Wildflowers, Lichens, and Fungi
I’ve also been avidly shooting the wildflowers, lichens and fungi along the North Coast and am beginning to develop a guide to Patrick’s Point State Park. I’m calling this one – “THE HIDDEN WORLDS OF PATRICK’S POINT – 500 reasons to spend time on your hands and knees in this premier state park.” With this guide I’m hoping to get people to slow down and take notice of the little things that make this Patrick’s Point State Park so attractive. I have my scientific editors all lined up and as soon as I have an outline in place we will start the process of review and assembly. Hopefully it will go much more smoothly than my guide to the Trinity Alps. Patrick’s Point State Park is hugely popular with coastal vacationers and I think it would sell quite well… at least, that’s what my inner voice is telling me!
About Ken DeCamp, Author of Wildflowers of the Trinity Alps
I was born to parents who pursued outdoor adventure with a passion especially when it involved backpacking, fly fishing and photography. When I was 4 months old,they hauled me along on my first backpack trip into Glacier National Park, safely tucked into the top of my Dad’s well-used Trapper Nelson Pack. From that moment on my life has been inextricably linked to the outdoors, and since those earliest days I’ve logged thousands of trail miles in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, the Carolinas, Georgia, Pakistan, Australia, and Switzerland. My love of the outdoors led me to a 38-year career in Fire, Land Management Planning, and Public Affairs with the USDA Forest Service. I retired from public service in 2007 to more closely follow my interest in photography and to spend more time backpacking, kayaking, and mountain biking.
Though I have traveled widely, I have always considered the Trinities, the Russian Wilderness, and the Trinity Divide my home and I doubt very much that you can name a place I’ve not been in the past 60+ years. Whether it’s a lake, meadow, peak or stream — I’ve explored them all. I have poked into every nook and cranny of these mountains with the anticipation of a new discovery and a new insight into this special area. Truth be known — I have never been disappointed.
Thoughts on Trinity Alps wildflowers? Questions about the book itself? Let us know in the comments below.