yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Nez Perce off the Mary Mountain Trail

The glorious view from the Mary Mountain trailhead.
The glorious view from the Mary Mountain trailhead.
A boreal chorus frog.
A boreal chorus frog.
Elk antlers
Elk antlers
An adult spotted frog.
An adult spotted frog.
Black bear print
Bear tracks.
A very large wolf print.
A very large wolf print.
Big sky country.
Big sky country.

If you don’t remember the disaster that is Nez Perce, just note that it was by far the worst site of last year that nearly crippled both Andrew and I. It’s a 7.5 mile hike each way on flat terrain (a few miles are sandy so imagine hiking in sand all geared up) and two to three miles between the wetlands. So in total it’s about 18 miles. Not to shabby. Plus, there’s usually unpredictable weather, stream crossings and wild predators involved. It rained on us last year during our surveys making the hike out in wet shoes and socks bloody, painful and cold.

So you can imagine my delight when we were scheduled to survey sweet little Nezzie Perce on Friday of our first week. And if we didn’t finish our surveys all in one day, we’d have to hike back out there on Saturday. Admittedly, I’m in a lot worse shape than last year, plus I’m super sick with a cold so I didn’t have much hope for this ending well. However, as lady luck would have it, we had a huge team of extremely capable USGS employees on hand to help us knock it all out. Compare this to last year when we had a huge team of complete idiots who only held us up. Andy, the coordinator for this project, took one team and I took the other and we made magic happen! As you can see from the photos, the amphibians flocked to us like the salmon of Capistrano. We saw eggs, we saw tadpoles, we saw adults…. It was great and the weather held out.

The most painful part is always that 7.5 mile hike back to the car and this year was no different. There were a few times that I just wanted to just drop dead but my stubborn arse kept plugging away. What helped the most, because I have super bad knees and hips, is using hiking poles (plus mega doses of hyaluronic acid and flax oil). I’ve never done this before but I cannot express to you the difference it made on my joints. Sure, you look kind of like a pretentious idiot who thinks they’re skiing but it’s worth losing some street cred over it. In fact, I wasn’t even sore the next day whereas last year I couldn’t get out of bed for a few days. Yup, I’m a well-oiled machine out here, save for my cold. But who really needs to breathe anyways? That’s so overrated. Overall, it was nearly a 17 hour day. We left the dorm at around 5am and returned a smidge before 10 pm. Yow!

Also, let me note here that I was among four other girls on this hike and it served as a great reminder that girls are way grosser than guys. All we talked about the entire day was poop. This by no means is a complaint. Poop is where I shine people. I have so many classic poop stories, I should write a book, and I broke out a few of my best during this trip. And let me tell you, the ladies were impressed. The guys were absolutely horrified but I think they need a not-so-gentle reminder every so often that we’re nowhere near as delicate as we let on.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 17th, 2013

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Riddle Lake, my old friend, opened for the season today but only for about two hours. Normally there are nesting swans in Grebe Lake which has led to previous teams not being able to survey the lake and its surrounding wetlands but it appears that the swans moved to Riddle Lake this year. I guess people fishing and surveying in Grebe Lake scared the swans (and babies) into open water making them easy prey for eagles. Not good. So it’s best they moved on to an area that’s closed to foot-traffic most of the time. We got approval from Yellowstone’s wolf/bird guy to survey about five remote sites that are in the forest and far from the lake. A few of the sites were not too far off the trail and semi-easy to get to. Most were completely dry but there were a few small wetlands with an abundance of chorus frog tadpoles and adorable metamorphs. I tried to get a metamorph photo for you to enjoy but the little bugger jumped out of my hand at the last-minute and did an impressive vanishing act. Let me assure you, they are far more precious than I can even describe. Words cannot do their adorableness justice. The last few sites were of course farther away in the thick and painful forest. It was about 40 minutes of intense hurdling and stabbing of downed logs before we made it…just to find them completely dry, of course. On the way to the last site Andrew fell off a log and one of the zillion dead, stumpy tree limbs sliced both of his legs. One was cut from his inner thigh on down to almost his calf. He was extremely lucky though because he came thisclose to being run-through. Despite the pain (and blood) he was a champ and just kept chugging along. That incident was a sobering reminder of how dangerous our job really is. The predatory animals aren’t the biggest worry, it’s the trees. One slip in the woods and you’re a kabob. When we finished and arrived back at the trail-head we saw that they closed the trail again. So it was technically only open for a few hours this entire season and we were one of the lucky few to have enjoyed it. The rest of the day was going to be devoted to climbing Mount Washburn with Andrew so we could see some bighorn sheep, pica, and mountain goats but since his legs looked like they had been through a meat grinder we abandoned that idea. So I wandered around Fishing Bridge in the hopes of seeing the otter again but no dice. I knew I was pushing my luck with that. On the walk back I was caught in a windstorm on the bridge and low-and-behold, Andrew was driving by in search of the same thing I was and he was nice enough to give me a lift. Within a few feet of walking from the bridge to the parking lot, we were both covered in dirt and inhaled a ton of it. The night was spent prepping up for Gibbon Meadows, which promised to be excruciating since robo-Andy and his robo-crew couldn’t handle it and had to send us in.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 8th, 2013

DSCF2151I woke up and got right down to the business of catching up on my journal entries from the past week. I was so engrossed in writing that Andrew busted in and lit a fire under my ass. It was noon and I hadn’t even gotten out of bed and here he was, having just driven 5.5 hours from Casper, ready to survey site 13 of the Shoshone catchment with me. Yup, only one survey today because the hike in and out is going to be tricky. I hustled and we were on the road in no time. The off-trail hike was moderately strenuous and took about two hours each way. The wetland was well worth it. We found tons (okay, not literally tons…but close) of chorus frog tadpoles. And you know how I love them! My only complaint was the sheer number of mosquitoes and biting flies. Holy gawd! As soon as we got to the pond we were absolutely devoured. These blood thirsty suckers completely laugh at you when you frantically try to apply repellant. They laugh…you can hear them chuckling in your ear if you listen hard enough. Overall, it was a high-quality site to survey, despite the blood loss. After work I treated myself to a black bean burger with fries and a scoop of ice cream at the Fishing Bridge soda fountain. Yum! Sometimes running out of food can be a tasty dilemma. Then it was back to the dorm to goof off with my other dorm-mates for the rest of the night. All is well in my world.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: July 3rd, 2013

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven (2)

Ahh, the beautiful Dunraven catchment. This was supposed to be a two-day affair but Andrew and I blew it up (in a good way). I think the Iron Maiden car-ride/jam session helped lay the right foundation for the day. The walk in was about an hour through dense old-growth forest with areas of downed mature trees. By comparison, this catchment was much easier going than Rock Point or Crawfish Creek because it was flat and the dead wood was by no means as dense. Plus, it was majestic on the eyes with it’s lush green understory, large pine trees, and winding streams. I kept waiting for a woodland nymph or troll to pop out from under a hummock and give me a hard time. But alas, it never happened. We were bound and determined to finish this catchment in a day so we were on fire. We had the first three sites surveyed and cataloged within the first 45 minutes and we kept that pace the entire day. Rest assured, we didn’t miss a thing but we also didn’t dilly-dally. We hit a snag when we got to a huge wet meadow (which we all know by now, I despise them). Pacing in the middle of this meadow was an angry pair of sandhill cranes. Presumably there was a nest in and amongst the wetland vegetation that they were determined to not let us get anywhere near. I like cranes but getting close to one that is nesting is not my idea of a good time, especially since I had one almost eat my face off at Nez Perce. We agreed to stay far away from the cranes and survey what we safely could. I made my way out into the wet meadow only to discover that it was instead a bog–a thermal bog. The only thing keeping me from plunging into a superheated sea of mucky water was a wobbly moss mat under my feet. My footing was tenuous at best and I almost fell through the mat on several occasions. I told Andrew to stay back, declaring it unsafe to survey, and made my way back towards solid ground. I surveyed a few thermal pools near the edge (boreal toad tadpoles like thermal areas so it was worth doing) and told Andrew that it was in his best interest to not venture out. He took my advice and we walked away from the site feeling a little defeated but also wise.

This was one of the catchments where we had to perform a stream survey which simply consists of walking along a stream and looking for signs of beaver activity. Beavers bring hope to us amphibian people. They create new breeding habitat, which is especially important since some of Yellowstone’s wetlands are permanently drying up. Thus far, we haven’t found any beaver activity in the Park but Deb just surveyed some high-quality wetlands made by beavers in the Tetons. During our leisurely jaunt along the stream I tripped and fell–of course, it was only a matter of time. To make matters worse, my pants literally exploded during the fall. My button came undone and my zipper flew open leaving me on the ground with my pants down. I scrambled to my feet and hiked up my pants before Andrew could see and never let me live it down. The worst part is that at our next survey site, I discovered that I had lost our only thermometer during the fall. Normally, I would have caught that but I was in such a hurry to right myself that I didn’t stop to look what had fallen out of my pockets. So the last three surveys of the day were lacking in air and water temperature data. Luckily, we didn’t find tadpoles in those wetlands so I don’t think it mattered much.  Along the stream were a few eerie patches of relatively new thermal pockets in the forest. It looks like the area was literally bombed. It’s weird to see a large chunk of forest now killed off. The trees are dead but still standing and there is no plant life on the forest floor. It’s just a large, bare patch of  steaming, sulfur smelling earth with only dead things in it. According to one of the German geochemists living at the dorm, back in the 1990s the Park experienced high number of rapidly appearing thermal areas.

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven

They were literally popping up overnight. The Park was more than happy to have her come and research the geochemistry of the thermals because they were perplexed and a bit concerned. It has since slowed down but I can’t help but wonder if these particular thermal areas in Dunraven were from that time in the 1990s when the earth was going a little crazy or if the change was even more recent. We had to survey a pool of bubbling water between the stream and one of these thermal dead zones. It seems like that spot is getting much hotter and drier compared to years passed.

Our second-to-last site was the equivalent of a puddle but it was below a popular overlook. We kept waiting for people to spot us below them in the valley and create a biologist jam. The funniest part is that Andrew and I ended up making the exact same fashion faux-pas, totally unplanned. We wore the same beige Columbia button-up shirt with beige field pants and beige hats. It looked like we were both given the most horrendous uniform that the color beige threw up all over. We were certain that all that moving beige in the field would catch some attention but we went completely unnoticed. It’s probably for the best because that is the last outfit I would ever want to be seen or photographed in.

When we arrived back at the dorm, we met up with Deb to go over our assignments for the next week and met the brave backcountry crew, Jeanine and Scott. They’ve done this in previous years so they know what they’re getting into but I had to give them props anyways. There are some backcountry sites that I wish I could completely wipe from my memory and they’re willingly returning to them. Jeanine sent some props back our way by saying that Nez Perce and Crawfish were some of the worst experiences she’s ever had. Their first day at Nez Perce was so dangerous that they had to immediately abandoned their surveys and hike back out, only to do it all over again the next day. That’s thirty + miles in two days. And the biting insects in Crawfish scarred her for life. So I guess we’re all crazy here! She told me that she tells herself that every year is going to be her last and every year she comes back. I can relate. I promised myself in 2006 that I would never do field work this intense ever again and here I am.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 18th, 2013

 

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Antelope Valley with snow-capped mountains.
Antelope Valley
The Beartooth Highway in the background.
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Deb & Andrew enjoying the view.
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Deb with her binoculars.
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Beautiful sunshine.
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The wildflowers are starting to bloom.

If you ever get the chance to visit Yellowstone, you have to take the winding ride from Dunraven Pass to Mount Washburn to Tower to the Lamar Valley. When I wasn’t white-knuckling it in the back of Deb’s car –praying her sight-seeing gaze didn’t stray too far, too long and send us toppling off a cliff–I was totally awestruck by the sweeping views of the Beartooth Highway and Antelope Valley. On a cliff side in Tower, overlooking the falls, is the Park’s only population of chimney swifts. Deb described them as cigars with wings, due to their svelte little bodies. The entire ride was glorious. We met the GRYN crew at the Specimen Ridge trail head (Specimen Ridge contains a petrified fossil forest that I have yet to see) and almost too briskly walked several brutally hot, uphill miles to our catchment. Aside from the large bison herd, there were pronghorn antelope along the way. They’re behavior was a little incongruous when you consider normal ungulate behavior in an ecosystem where they are considered prey animals. A group of three of them nearly walked right up to us, full on. And another group, turned away from us and back-stepped towards us, kind of like we wouldn’t notice their butts getting closer and closer. Presumably, there were babies hidden nearby so they were fully prepared to chase us away if need be. There is also a known wolf pack in the area that we were not lucky enough to see. Once my tired, overheated, parched ass arrived at the catchment–far behind the young whipper-snappers–we got to work surveying what was left of the wetlands. Over the last few years, these wetlands have been drying up at a rapid pace. It’s interesting to look at the data and site photos from previous years to compare. The wetland loss has been obvious throughout the Park due to this being a dry year, but the amphibian breeding habitat loss at this catchment has been staggering. Most sites were entirely dry. Nevertheless, we found tiger salamander larvae, chorus frog tadpoles and a few toad tadpoles. And every step we took between wetlands, there was always and adult chorus frog or two at our feet. I have complete faith that they will figure out the breeding habitat loss situation before we humans do. The walk back was a breeze and so enjoyable since it was all downhill. Such views are truly indescribable. Once again, we drove back from whence we came and it was equally gorgeous on the way home–it wasn’t just a mirage born from fear of unintentionally being driven off a cliff. I got home, cleaned my waders and net, read for a bit and was asleep by 10:30 pm. We had to be up at 5 am the next morning to tackle the dreaded Nez Perce catchment.

 

Crystal Bench
Andrew trying to escape me.

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More antelope butt.
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Interesting place for a tree.