yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Dunraven

2014-07-21 10.27.57

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Dunraven is another favorite of mine. It has beautiful old-growth forest with lots of small, manageable wetlands to survey. Even better, the hike is super majestic and downright enjoyable. You honestly expect trolls and fairies to pop right out and strike up a conversation. Despite its awesomeness, this year was a bit of a mess when it comes to Dunraven. It was intended to be a one-day survey that turned into a two-day depressing event. To make matters worse, all this went down on my field partner’s birthday. Not good.

All was smooth sailing and we were more than halfway through our survey sites when we happened upon my absolute favorite wetland. I was so psyched to get there and I was telling my field partner all about how awesome it is and how it’s usually packed with tadpoles and such. As I approached the wetland, I was surprised to see that it had shrunk in size compared to previous years. I mean, it was half the size. This was a bit unusual, especially since this year was considered to be fairly wet. I was disappointed but not too floored by this because I have a theory about Dunraven being extremely dynamic and that it’s becoming thermal (no one seems to agree with me on this though). So I was bummed to see my favorite wetland had shrunk but not totally shocked.

Another thing I noticed as I approached was that the water was moving and hundreds of little tails were breaking through the surface and splashing about. This is the kind of stuff that makes a herper jump for joy. So although the wetland had shrunk, the frogs didn’t get the memo and they were still doing their thing. Aces! Just in my first few net swipes I had more spotted frog tadpoles than I could count. This was going to be a fantastic survey! Well, you can guess what’s coming next…

About five minutes into my survey I began to discover that something was very wrong. I netted a dead adult frog, and then another. I stopped and took a good look at the water around me and I saw many dead or dying tadpoles. They were swimming in circles, sometimes upside down, and then just dying. It was extremely eerie. I abandoned my survey, told my field partner that we had ourselves a problem, and then instead of counting the living, we began counting the dead. We searched that wetland with a fine-tooth comb and found two dead adult spotted frogs and about thirty dead spotted frog tadpoles. This is of course not accounting for the hundreds of tads whirling around the surface doing strange stuff.

We both agreed to cut the day short instead of contaminating the other wetlands with our equipment. Being the amphibian lovers we are, all we could feel was dread. Any creature that even so much as walked through that wetland could be spreading something awful throughout the ecosystem.

That night I was able to contact my supervisor, who then contacted the disease specialists for the Park. That crew went out to take samples and either they went to the wrong location or they need eye exams because they couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary.

A few days later we resumed our surveys of Dunraven and on our way out we collected samples for the disease crew. We needed to collect a dozen dead tadpoles, slice their bellies open and place them in vials of alcohol. Since I love blood and guts, I was the slicer and my field partner was the wrangler. She had no problem finding dead things, to the point where I couldn’t keep up with her and we had our dozen within minutes.  The place was certainly in worse shape than we had left it the first time.

I am sad to report that as of right now, months later, we still don’t have any answers. It could be chytrid or it could be something new for all we know. Amphibian die-offs are not a priority in the Park. And even though they are considered species of special concern, that seems to be just on paper. It’s extremely frustrating. You risk life and limb to gather data for absolutely nothing. It all seems so futile at times. As with any job, you have to find your own meaning for doing it or you’ll be miserable and in this case I’ve found it, thankfully.

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2014-07-21 17.46.33

yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Fern Cascade

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Fern Cascade is a notorious nightmare from hell so I was absolutely dreading it and so was my field partner. My 2006 field experience is one I remember like it was yesterday and if I could have those memories erased I sure the heck would. It requires two days of intense off-trail hiking through non-stop downfall, up mountainsides and through claustrophobic forest regrowth. Besides the amphibians, the only live animal we saw was a curious coyote checking us out during one of our surveys. I was stoked but my field partner didn’t take it so well.

And of course, I had another really sick-looking fall that I immediately bounced right back from. It was bad enough to turn my field partner’s stomach. This ability to stay loose and flexible against all odds has prompted her to nickname me “gummy bear.” Sadly, my skill did not save me from slicing my arse cheek in half on a dead branch while answering the call of nature. I didn’t realize how bad the cut was until I looked at my underwear later that night and found the entire right side was blood-soaked. Yikes!

When all was said and done, we were both relieved and overjoyed with our experience because we seemed to make perfect navigational choices as compared to our previous years in Fern Cascade. One bad choice in that place could mean hours and hours of being stuck and gaining very little ground.

On the way out we found the largest elk rack and skull I’ve ever seen. We have no idea how this creature managed to get that size in such a dense forest. Its days must have been spent constantly getting stuck and unstuck on the thick forest regrowth. What a cruel freakin life. Him and his friends did manage to blaze us the most amazing path out to the trail though. What took us about 45 minutes of bushwhacking to get into only took us 15 minutes to get out of thanks to our elk spirit animal.

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.

yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Week 1

View from my bedroom window
Yup, that is a mound of snow…in June.

Well, having completed my first week of the 2014 field season, I can say that it’s started out in a very unexpected way. First, I swiftly came down with a pretty severe head cold about a week ago, which has seemingly reinvigorated itself today. I think it was a combination of the dust in the air and the musty-ness of the dorm messing with my allergies and then the extreme temperature change throwing my body into a complete tailspin. I went from very warm temps in New York and all the way out here to snow. Yup, snow. That’s not at all unheard of in June but my body did not get the memo. Second, our field refresher sessions have been in the absolute worst weather. I’m talking 20 to 30º with a mix of rain, sleet, hail and snow. We had to completely bail out of Gibbon Meadows one day but not before getting completely drenched and near hypothermic. Luckily, before I ventured out into the field I bought a really awesome coat from the gift shop for super cheap. It completely saved my arse because although I brought enough warm clothes to get by, I failed to bring anything resembling a coat. Yikes!

We were actually supposed to begin surveying Crystal Bench with the other field crew on Wednesday but the weather report looked so miserable (snow, sleet, hail…) that we didn’t do it. We figured that the visibility and the conditions in the wetlands would make it hard to find anything. However, the other field crew managed to hike out there during the storm to install data loggers (they measure wetland temperature and water depth) in a few of the Crystal Bench wetlands with a bunch of helpers from USGS. While they were out there they realized that the sites were teaming with boreal toad tadpoles. They were finding them by the thousands! Compare this to last year when we saw about four toad tadpoles in that wetland complex. Now, before you freak, boreal toad tadpoles prefer thermal waters so they were fine despite the snow. Needless to say, they completed our surveys of Crystal Bench for us and me and my partner were able to scratch that site off our list without ever having to go there. It’s kind of a bummer though because it’s one of my favorite places to survey.

Our field gear.
Our field gear.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
The rest of the crew stomping around the wetland trying to calibrate their equipment.
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!
This black slick is actually zillions of what seem to be fleas. Ick!

Speaking of boreal toads. I’m convinced they’re hitting it big this year which is fantastic news. They’ve always been found in a few thermal pockets throughout the Park, however, on a larger scale they’re being hit hard by disease. Throughout their normal range, most populations are in decline. And although an estimated 80% of Yellowstone’s frogs have the same disease responsible for mass extinctions elsewhere, the elevation and climate conditions seem to have made it so the toads can either shed or suppress it (researchers are still trying to figure out how they’re doing it). Yup, it all comes down to location, location, location. From our visit to Indian Pond on Monday, and then our brief and unpleasant trip to Gibbon Meadows on Tuesday and then the news from Crystal Bench on Wednesday, we’re seeing them in massive numbers this year. Just in Indian Pond, I’d estimate that we saw a few hundred tadpoles last year whereas we’re talking in the thousands now. The only difference I can think of is that this is a wet year compared to last years drought year but I’m not sure this is the driving force. No matter what the reason, it’s good to see them thriving somewhere.

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: July 2nd, 2013

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It’s hard to tell but this creature is rubbing him/herself against a tiny metal rod.

Crawfish Creek (I like to call it Mississippi Mud Bug Creek) was another brutal experience. The four mile/ two-hour hike to our wetlands was a nightmare filled with boggy surprises, seeps that will swallow your limbs, thermal areas, stream crossings, hoards of hungry biting flies, blood thirsty mosquitoes, steep mountains, intense heat, huge swaths of downed old-growth trees, dense forest with spider webs in the face, etc… By the time we got to our first site, our shoes, socks and pants were completely waterlogged and mud-soaked from experiencing the entire array of the ways one could get sucked into the muddy center of the earth. The wetlands–at least the ones that weren’t dried up–were nice to survey. Thankfully, most were large ponds or wet meadows that were easy to navigate. There’s nothing I hate more than a large, untrustworthy wet meadow (ex. Tanager Lake) but give me a small one with a few little pools in it and I‘m as happy as a pig in mud. We caught a lot of chorus frog tadpoles and a few spotted frog tads (which were enormous). Once again, Andrew made the most of it and was hugely entertaining. Most of the time we bonded over guns, gun rights, gun legislation, self-defense, violence in society, etc… We also talked about our favorite actors from Bruce Campbell to Anthony Hopkins to Daniel Day Lewis and Tarantino movies. I had my suspicions before but this catchment made me realize that Andrew does not think of me as a girl and I love it. Most of the time we talk about guitars, cigars, guns and politics…all the things I enjoy but no one usually talks about with me. It’s totally refreshing and I’m going to miss it. The walk out went a little quicker but the biting flies were unbearable. The field notes from previous years said to don head nets because of the flies but neither of us were that prepared. They wouldn’t have made much of a difference though. The flies attacked the entire body regardless of clothing or nets. They were an unstoppable force of pain. I could even hear them chuckling at our attempts to deter them with bug spray. They bit my stomach, through my shirt, and intensely focused their attack on my hands. By the time we got back to the car, our hands were completely chewed up and swollen and my welted stomach hurt for several days after.

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Still rubbing…
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The young ones are tentative about crossing.
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They own the park and they know it.
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Take your time…no one’s waiting.