yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Blacktail Plateau Drive

Blacktail Plateau 1

Welcome to Disneyland people! This site was another first for me and I certainly hope it’s not my last. Honestly, as soon as we parked our car and started hiking, we had elk bounding across our path and birds were perched on our shoulders singing Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah. I felt like I was in a cartoon. We followed a great horned owl flying from tree to tree along with its tubby two fledglings. This blew me away because I’ve never encountered an owl in the daytime before and a great horned at that!

Our first wetland was occupied by a bison herd so we had to work around them as best we could. They were less than thrilled so they begrudgingly decided to move on about halfway through my survey. This was a bummer for me because everything is better with bison, including field work. As the mass migration was taking place, a few folks on horseback came down into the valley to chat with us while we surveyed. We must really be a site for people to behold. Here they are in the backcountry taking in the beautiful rolling hills of Yellowstone, never expecting to see another human soul, and two little girls with nets and waders pop out from the middle of a bison herd grazing in a wetland. Surprise!!!

Not only was the hiking and the wildlife viewing spectacular, the surveying wasn’t too shabby either. A few of the wetlands were absolutely filled to the brim with salamanders. No complaints there. The last wetland was an extremely large wet meadow comprised of tall, sharp grass which sliced my skin with every net swipe. Not cool. That’s a lot of pain just to find nothing but that’s how the job goes sometimes. The one rather neat thing about that meadow was that the substrate was comprised of itty-bitty fresh water clams. I kid you not. I’ve never seen anything like it in Yellowstone. Until further inspection, they looked like small pebbles. I told my field partner to examine the substrate and she agreed that I wasn’t totally out of my mind. Later, I told my supervisor what I’d seen and in all of her decades working in the area she’s never heard of anything like it. Thus, I’m not sure if someone slipped me some crack or not but at least my field partner was right there with me.

As you will discover from my blog, we survey a lot of Blacktail sites: Blacktail Pond, Blacktail Plateau, Blacktail something-or-other. These areas are in the northern part of the Park which includes a harrowing, pants-pooping trip over Dunraven Pass to get to. Usually, I’m frazzled and in need of medication and new pair of undies by the time we arrive at our destination. It’s certainly worth the trip though.

In all seriousness, this is where the rubber meets the road for climate change. Here, wetland loss is measurable and can be witnessed from year to year. People can argue the causes all they want but unless they have their head completely in the sand, they can’t deny that climate change is happening. This year Andy, Kenda and crew installed some data loggers in a few Blacktail wetlands to measure how rapidly this is all taking place. Time will tell but for now the future remains uncertain for the amphibians in this area. If only it was as easy as gathering them all into a large knapsack and releasing them somewhere safe. One can dream…

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The adult great horned owl in the trees.
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A garter snake sunning and eating all my tadpoles…jerk!
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This fawn and its mama were hanging out on the road as we drove to the site. Look at it scamper. So darn cute! I just want to pinch it! Pinch…Pinch.
yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: Blacktail Plateau

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This is my view when I write blog posts. Not too shabby. Usually there is a book and a beer on the side table next to me in my rocking chair on the front porch of the Lake Lodge.

Week two consisted of surveying Blacktail Plateau, Fern Cascade and Gull Point. There were spotted frogs, chorus frogs and lots of salamanders seen and enjoyed. Severe storms just missed us on several occasions until our luck ran out yesterday when we had to postpone our surveys due to rain. I think that worked out for the best though because the place we were headed has at least ten grizzlies hanging around and the rangers were concerned. This coming week we’ll have more helpers to hike in with us–safety in numbers.

Double sun dog at Blacktail
A double sundog at Blacktail Plateau.

Blacktail Plateau was beautiful and I remembered most of the sites from 2006, which astounded my field partner. I told her that I have the memory of a turtle: I see and remember things in terms of the micro-landscape. I easily forget where I put my keys yet I remember the smallest backcountry puddle from several years ago. I had one very close call when I was walking around the perimeter of a wetland and slipped on some logs. I contorted my body in such a way that I managed to miss landing on all of the pointed stakes sticking out from the mass of dead trees. I seriously have no idea how I made it out unharmed. My field partner and I were both freaked. The last lake-sized wetland we surveyed at Blacktail was full of sallies (I counted around 300+ during my survey) and loads of animal carcasses. And there was a lone bull bison nearby that had three birds perching on his back and they’d fly around his head sometimes when he moved about. The whole scenario was rather adorable, right out of a cartoon. Sometimes I feel sad for those lone bulls but clearly this guy had more company than he probably bargained for. On the harrowing drive over Dunraven Pass to and from Blacktail we were lucky enough to see a mother black bear with two cubs by the road. I felt for her. She clearly had spent the entire day being harassed by people doing completely unsafe, stupid things just to get a photo of her and her cubs. By the time we saw her on the way home she looked completely exhausted from trying to keep her babies safe. People can be so thoughtless sometimes.

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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.

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Yellowstone: July 19th, 2013

DSCF2274Today I bid my beloved Yellowstone adieu and drive 7.5 hours (it’s actually 10 for me since I drive slower than molasses in January) to see my friend in Fort Collins, Colorado for a few days. After that, we drive back east together. Leaving here makes me feel ill. I don’t want to go. I’m so thankful I have something exciting to do after this or else I would sulk all the way back to New York. Yesterday I made it clear to Deb that I wanted to return next year so at least I won’t be gone forever. I may have to do the backpacking trips though–which are even more physically demanding and treacherous–but a bad day out here is better than a good day anywhere else.  As I packed up, Deb and Andrew surveyed a site near the Lake Lodge where there had been notable tadpole die-offs in previous years.  I wish I could tell you the source of these die-offs but for now it remains a mystery. While they were gone, I scattered soap and love notes about people’s rooms and by the time they had returned–with good news of no amphibian deaths noted–I was all packed and ready to go. We exchanged contact information, Andrew and I shook hands (which we both agreed that I need more practice doing–a good, firm handshake speaks volumes!) and Deb sadly stood on the porch and mournfully watched as I pulled away from the dorm. It was hard looking back at her in the rear view mirror. I could see her waving and it made it that much harder for me to leave. I visited the Fishing Bridge general store one last time for a sandwich and a no-bake cookie, of course. Then I choked back my tears and headed off to Colorado.

Words cannot describe my love for Yellowstone or how much I wish my summer there could last forever. It’s actually been several weeks since I left and I can only now write about it. And I do so with tears in my eyes. I can only hope that I make it back next summer and that it remains as wonderful as I left it. Ironically, my mother is getting ready for a 14-day trip out there and one of my 2006 field partners is also going back for a conference in October.  I’m jealous of them both and am trying not to eat so I can fit inside their luggage. Deb emailed me a few days ago to say my bunk looked lonely without me and the place just doesn’t feel the same. Ugh! It tugs at me something fierce. As far as specifics about the amphibian situation in the greater Yellowstone region goes, it’s hard to say because this years data has not been examined yet. I will say that there was a noticeable decline in amphibian numbers from the field perspective, however, I cannot say if there’s any statistical significance to that. Time will tell. In the future, amphibian numbers will depend on, strangely enough, beaver and the wetland habitats they create, disease, and also the ever-changing climatic conditions. We shall see… Their fate remains to be unseen but let us not forget how important they are. Amphibians are the indicators of environmental health. If they crash, everything eventually crashes. That’s why this monitoring project is ongoing and continues to receive funding. However, funding is being cut across the board for environmental research so if you happen to know a financially endowed ecology-lover with money to spare, please talk them into donating to the NRCC. This will ensure that crazy folks like me can continue doing insanely adventurous stuff in the name of science. And I promise to take you all along when I throw my hat into the ring again.

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Yellowstone: July 18th, 2013

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“Hey, let me down or I’ll eat you like a fly!”

Deb, Andrew and I got an early start since we had no idea what this catchment had in store for us. All we knew of Gibbon Meadows is that Andy and his crew had to stop surveying when they hit a large, confusing wet meadow filled with beaver dams. Needless to say, we were concerned–me especially since I despise wet meadows with the fiercest of all hatreds. Not to mention that there was an entire page of handwritten directions on the easiest way to get into the site. That never bodes well. Last year, Janine and Scot surveyed it for the first or second time instead of Grebe Lake because of the nesting swans. Normally, this and a few other sites are backups in case crews can’t survey one of the regulars for some reason. By the end of the day, we had decided that this site would remain a backup or be turned into a multi-day backpacking trip–but I’m getting ahead of myself.

First of all, I will preface all of the bad by saying that this catchment is absolutely beautiful. The terrain is breathtaking which made the entire event much easier and kept me in good spirits. However, right from the parking lot we had a tough time. The first thing we had to do was ford a river and that meant either doing a perilous circus act by crossing over a skinny log that was high above the water or wading through the river that was nearly above my waders. We all chose the wading and my waders were minimally filled (Deb had to do it twice because she left her GPS in the car). Then it was a half-hour trek through some nice, flat terrain on an animal path. We, of course, encountered a nesting pair of sand hill cranes who amazingly enough did not eat my face off but certainly threatened to do so. One of them kindly escorted us into the forest…the forest of death (or so it felt). This was nearly two hours of hiking through very intense, rugged terrain. To say the least, it was exhausting and brutally hot. On several occasions I stopped for a drink and remarked on how beautiful it all was and Deb–sweet, always cheery Deb–acted astonished and completely disgusted by the place. You know things are bad when Deb isn’t digging it.

Eventually, we made it to the sites in question and we could definitely appreciate Andy’s predicament. The beavers were having a field day in this site. They had built dams every fifty meters or so along the stream, yet we never saw a lodge. Some areas were completely flooded, some were still dry but certainly wouldn’t remain that way for long, there were thermal seeps, and the once dry forests were now dying from the inundation. This wet meadow was an ever-changing landscape that defied our ability to characterize it in a way that would make any lasting difference. Next year, this place would be a habitat completely changed from the one we were seeing–perhaps an even better one for amphibians.

We found some potential sites to survey and even some spotted frog tadpoles to assure us that we were on the right track. Then we continued up the wet meadow for another 200 meters to see if we found any other potential sites.  Basically the entire meadow was either a stream, a wet meadow or a thermal seep. It would take several teams to even come close to completing this survey in a day. Andrew and I met up at the stream and headed back to find Deb. We chatted for a second and then in one fell swoop Andrew scooped up an adult female boreal toad that was hanging out by his feet. He proudly displayed his catch without even skipping a beat in the conversation.  I thought that seeing an adult boreal toad near all of these warm seeps that they love to breed in would be a great indicator of habitat suitability but Deb didn’t seem to think it meant much because they’re known for being impressive travelers. They can cover distances you’d never expect them to. They’re rather Olympic in that respect!

The way out was equally hellacious but Andrew’s quirky conversational abilities and chosen topics kept things light. I ran out of water but luckily Andrew’s steri-pen saved the day. That thing’s magical! Just before the car, I managed to fall into the river while trying to gracefully pounce over some logs. The cool water felt good though, especially on my torn-up feet (I wore the wrong shoes) so there were no complaints from me, just some embarrassment. Enough with the bad though. I will bookend this Gibbon Meadows experience by saying another nice thing: there were relatively few blood-sucking insects. Thank goodness! It may seem like a small thing (pun intended) but a lack of bugs is a major relief after being constantly devoured by them for the past few weeks.

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This is where I fell on the way back.
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He clearly has no problem getting across–unlike me.
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Deb & Andrew happily heading back to the car.
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The trees dying from the beaver inundation.
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Look at that physique!
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An adult boreal toad.

My last night in Yellowstone was spent eating, drinking, and swapping stories in the employee pub with Janine, Scot, Deb and Andrew. This was our last big hurrah of the season. We signed our names on the wall under those of previous amphibian field crew members. This is our lasting legacy…at least until the place is torn down or painted over. Oh, and we played pool and I actually did okay. I love it when I pretend like I can do something well and then the fates align so it looks like I actually know what I’m doing. That rarely happens so I definitely sit up and take notice when it does.  I will miss this place so much. I already do.

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Yellowstone: July 15th, 2013

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Adult spotted frog.

The hike into the Grebe Lake took one blazing hot hour. My stomach was already killing me from last nights pizza, not to mention the lack of sleep so I wasn’t as enthusiastic as I should have been. Don’t worry, I gave myself hell for my bad attitude the entire walk in. I haven’t forgotten how extremely lucky I am to be here, not for a second, and a bad day working in Yellowstone is equal to a good day anywhere else. Sadly, my time here is quickly nearing an end and I only have two more days in the field after this one. My body will be thankful for the rest but my heart will miss this place immensely. The surrounding forest was burnt and the ground was covered with fallen deadwood but luckily we had a well-groomed path to follow. I have to give Yellowstone trail crews some major props for clearing hiking paths. It’s a lot of work and that‘s putting it very, very mildly. What would take us several agonizing hours to hike off-trail only takes us one thanks to them. Just last week we got to see an aerial view of Grebe Lake during our hike to Observation Point so it was kind of cool to finally see it from the ground. Most of the wetlands we had to survey around the lake were completely dry this year with the exception of a tiny pool of water in the middle of what was once a wet meadow. The pool was absolutely filled to the brim with large spotted frog tadpoles. I’m crossing my fingers that the little guys fully metamorphose before the pool dries up. It’s definitely going to be a tight race. Surveying the lake took each of us 100 minutes. Previous years took over 200 minutes so we were super speedy by comparison. Most of it wasn’t even close to being amphibian breeding habitat though. Each of us saw about ten adult spotted frogs along the shoreline (the largest, fattest spotteds we’ve ever seen!) but they were just hanging out. Most of the breeding would have been done in the–now dry–nearby wetlands. We weren’t able to survey the entire perimeter of the lake because of a beaver lodge being in the way and a precarious area of downed trees. There were white pelicans along the shoreline and I collected some feathers while they enjoyed a swim. Let me tell you, their scat looks just like bear poop. It’s enormous! Andrew is convinced it was bear poop but I stand by the fact that what we saw littered along the shore, among a whole lotta white feathers, was indeed pelican poop. I’m certain. I thought goose poop was large but it doesn’t even hold a stinky candle to a pelican’s. Along the way I stopped to photograph a skeleton in the water, which I presume belonged to an ungulate of some sort. Submerged in water is an unusual place to find the skeleton of a land-mammal so I just had to spend some time examining it and seeing if I could find all of the pieces scattered about the bottom. Perhaps it got stuck in the muck and just died…we’ll never know. I also netted a fish head and a dead bird but alas, no tadpoles. And speaking of fish, they were jumping near me during the entire survey. Jerks! Every few seconds either a view of one jumping or a splash taunted me. All day I had to jealously maneuver around anglers catching mostly rainbow trout. Oh how I wish I had brought my pole with me. We stopped to watch two loons dive under the water and catch fish right in front of where we were sitting. Every once in a while they would call to one another. I love the beautifully haunting noises they make. Throughout the day, a bald eagle circled overhead and on the way out, we saw an osprey dive down and catch its dinner. How cool!

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A buffle head mother with many babies behind her.

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Yellowstone: July 1st, 2013

Today we tackled the Rock Point catchment. We assumed it would be a piece of cake since most of the wetlands were just off the side of the road and didn’t seem to take previous crews a long time to survey. Some said it was a half day of work, some said it was a short full day. So we figured it would take us–the dream team– a half day, easily. However, the only snag would be three naughty little wetlands: two about 600 meters in and one over 1 km in from the road which had been dry in 2011 & 2012. Okay, so you know how this is going to go already, right? The lesson here is don’t assume anything. The teams that went before us were right about the wetlands near the road, they were super easy to get to and easy to survey. We had them finished in two hours. Our next task was to hit the 600 meter-away wetlands and then  the farthest one. We started out super cocky with 100% certainty that we’d get them knocked out in time to enjoy a half day. That’s when we realized that there were steep ridges between us and these next wetlands. Added to that was the forest became extremely dense with enormous spider webs everywhere you walked and tons of fallen dead trees to either climb over or under. Every step was a challenge and we had too many to go. We eventually surveyed the two wetlands and then we had to literally climb a mountain to get to the remote one. The mix of climbing and having to navigate over/under fallen dead trees is nothing less than torture. It took us two hours to get there, just to find it dry, of course. We cursed the world and headed back down the mountain and ridges for another two hours of being scratched and scraped by dead tree limbs. The only thing that made the entire experience bearable was Andrew’s sense of humor. The things he says are totally hilarious. I’m so lucky to have him as my partner. However, this hike made it abundantly clear that I have a gift for choosing the path of least resistance, while Andrew picks the hardest route imaginable. For example, the GPS will tell him to go directly northwest so he walks in a straight line in that direction which will invariably lead us directly into one impossible tangle of dead trees after the other. I’m always taking a second to look at the entire landscape to see possible routes that will take us over the least amount of deadfall. By the end of the walk, Andrew was following close behind me and we came out of the forest right where the car was parked. Never once did I have to check the compass or GPS. Yes! I have so very few talents and I certainly wouldn’t rely on this one but it’s still nice. Since we completely underestimated this catchment, neither of us took enough water, so by the time we got to the car, we were a little nuts. I had rationed my water so I had one sip left and Andrew drank all of his at the last wetland. Andrew did have a water bottle in the car which was now super-heated and not refreshing whatsoever. Overall, we still managed to finish at 3:30 pm, which was not too shabby considering what we went through. Ever since Rock Point, I see it as my duty to report the complete truth as to how a catchment treated us on the field data sheet. Previous years seem to just report where to park and the length of time it takes to hike in and such. But you have no idea what the conditions are like during the hike. You may get one helpful soul that tells you to beware of biting flies and thermal areas, but that’s it. Not me. I wrote down all of it so people know and are fully prepared for one heck of a rough time.

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Yellowstone: June 25th, 2013

 

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Bison love Fishing Bridge.
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This is cutthroat spawning habitat.
Fishing is no longer allowed off the bridge.
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A view of the bay from the bridge.
Another beautiful view from the bridge.

The second day of the Tanager Lake catchment was not quite from hell but it sure wasn’t a good time either. It was filled with several nightmare worthy wet meadows, which are my absolute least favorite wetland to survey. I have perfected a technique to deal with wet meadows as swiftly as possible so you can get out of there fast and forget you ever had to contend with one. I like to call it the rowing method or the walking net scoop. You walk a few steps, row or net scoop and look at what you’ve caught as you simultaneous walk a few more steps and prep yourself for another scoop. This is all one continuous movement that gets you the heck out of there fast. I’ve also invented the BAZZ method or the Big Ass Zig-Zag. Technically, we’re supposed to survey the perimeter of a wetland and perhaps do a transect if it isn’t too deep. Since many wet meadows don’t have really defined perimeters, I just do one big ass zig-zag across the entire meadow and call it a day. That way I’m surveying  a  portion of the perimeter while simultaneously surveying many various water depths and little kettle holes that are hidden throughout the meadow. I , of course, managed to fill my waders very early on in the day. All was fine and dandy until I found the one hole in the meadow that led to the center of the earth. One moment I was on solid ground and the next I was up to my waist in muck. I made it out before Andrew had to throw me a rope and pull me out (I think he kinda wants that to happen so he can use the rope). So I did the rest of the wetland surveys in my sneakers, which I actually prefer. Wet sneakers weigh far less than wet waders and my hips have been killing me from all the intense hiking, hurdling over dead trees, and constant lifting of mucky waders. And the idea of sticking my feet and legs into mucky wetland soils where a ferocious damsel fly larvae could nip my leg off at any second doesn’t bother me at all. Plus, I’m delighted to know that my two dollar, second-hand, North Face field pants dry in about two to five minutes depending on the temperature outside. That fabric is amazing! Never will I fear peeing my pants again…just kidding!

Andrew and I arrived back at the dorm and I immediately headed out to the Fishing Bridge general store to purchase some sweat pants and more delicious Bitch Creek beer. I finally broke down and bought some sweats because I had apparently packed for a trip to Florida or the tropics or somewhere hot. I brought very few pants and most were lightweight and gross from field work. No, I needed some thick, cozy sweats to keep me warm because I’ve been freezing since I got here and my wader-filling day just made things worse. So beer and pants it was. The beer situation has been great. I’m a huge fan of Grand Teton Brewing Company’s Bitch Creek beer and Yellowstone has been the only place I’ve been able to find it. In fact, the first thing I did when I arrived in Yellowstone was to park my car at the dorm, walk to the Fishing Bridge Store and purchase a 6-pack of Bitch Creek. When the cashier looked at my New York id, I told him that I came a long way for this beer and he was certainly impressed. I wasn’t lying either. That beer is a large reason I came back to Yellowstone for a second round. I happily trotted past the bison and tourists with Bitch Creek under my arm, all the way back to the dorm feeling finally complete again. I’m going to have to stockpile the stuff for my trip back home. However, Alex (one of the three German hydro geochemists) discovered a beer I like even better at the Canyon general store so I may have to re-prioritize my love for Bitch Creek.

After the pants-purchasing, I arrived back at the dorm to a homemade enchilada casserole made by Patsy, our mother/sociologist studying bear jams. Andrew doesn’t eat real food and we all jump at every chance to rag on him about it. His wife makes him eat better when he’s at home but his field diet consists of hot dogs, ramen noodles, cookies, doughnuts, chips, packaged cheese and crackers, soda, coffee, and his favorite, ginger beer.  I’m not sure what this casserole of real non-processed food did to his plumbing–and I don‘t really dare venture a guess–but I’m sure his body was perplexed with what to do with things like vitamins and minerals and such. The entire crew, sans the Wisconsinites who were still car camping north of Yellowstone, sat around the table and enjoyed Patsy’s delicious cooking and good company. I’ve been really hungry for hearty food lately but we’re hours away from the nearest restaurant (the norovirus is going around Yellowstone so I’m avoiding eating in the Park). It doesn’t help that my cooking is inedible and I’m living on PB&J’s. I’m ravenous but I have no appetite for anything that I have in the fridge so it’s kind of like slow torture.

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Yellowstone: June 24th, 2013

 

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Boreal Chorus Frog tadpoles
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Tons of tads!
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Look at those bellies!
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Googly eyes!

Thankfully, it was an easy hike in to Tanger Lake. It’s just outside of the south entrance to the Park and the trail begins just behind a horse corral at the South Entrance Park Ranger Station.  There’s no way we would have found the trail had I not remembered surveying this site in 2006–it’s way too random of a location for a trail head. First thing, Andrew and I tackled surveying Tanager Lake which was a complete nightmare. It took us both just shy of two hours to survey the perimeter and it was downright unpleasant. Most of the water’s edge was concealed by brambles so you had no idea where you were stepping and one false move would leave you stuck in waist-deep muck–requiring your partner to come pull you out with a rope. Andrew fell in and filled his waders so he was soaked and miserable for the rest of the day. I fell down a million times in the brambles and nearly filled my waders on several occasions. I even took a pine tree to the face during a stream jump while simultaneously getting one wader stuck in the muck. We both laughed at my mishap and then quickly realized that had I not remained loose, my ankle would have snapped in half. To add insult to injury, no tadpoles were found in the entire freaking lake! All that work and physical anguish for absolutely no pay-off. The rest of the sites were relatively small, the largest one taking us maybe 20 minutes to survey. There were so many nearly metamorphosed spotted frog tadpoles and a few adorable chorus frog tads in the wetlands, plus some adult spotteds and a wandering garter snake to boot. I’m so thankful when we find something at a site. Several of the sites had tons and I mean tons of moose poop in them. That’s so freakin’ cool that I don’t even mind wading around in it! We made quick work of the surveys we planned to do for the day and headed to the trail just as a huge storm rolled in. The wind was whipping through the trees so hard that we were both extremely nervous about one coming down on us. The tree situation in Yellowstone is actually more dangerous than one would expect. They have such shallow roots that high winds can easily cause blow downs and many of the trees are standing dead from the 88 fire which makes them even more prone to falling at any moment. We hurried to the trail and just as we were almost to the horse corral we saw a pine tree with huge bear claw marks running down it’s bark. That was certainly cool but seeing that and hearing the trees creek (which sounded a lot like angry bears at the time) definitely encouraged us to step it up several gears.

During the hour drive home a sub-adult cinnamon black bear jumped out into the middle of the road right in front of my car. It looked like it had been clipped by the Honda Civic ahead of me but Andrew assured me that it was just surprised and safely ran back into the woods. The Honda didn’t seem to even know about the bear so I’m going with Andrew’s take on it. I certainly hope it wasn’t clipped. We returned to an empty dorm but it didn’t stay that way for long. Andy came to download data and bond with me over Def Leppard. He’s such a light-hearted guy. Plus, he was all matchy-matchy today which cracks me up. His lime green shoes just had to match his lime green shirt. Someone like that, who has a position of power, could choose to be a real jerk but he’s genuinely a really nice guy. I guess his team had lost one of their expensive PDA’s when we were all out at Nez Perce. He was desperately hoping we had it but to no avail. So if anyone wants an expensive piece of equipment and is up for the 15-mile hike, go to Nez Perce via the Mary Mountain Trail and poke around.

Our Wisconsin friends are car camping in a forest north of the Park until Thursday so I won’t be laughing as much until their return. We did, however, get a new dorm-mate and I got acquainted with her while Alex (one of zee Germans) fed me his delicious leftovers. Amy is a bubbly young gal who adds even more sunshine and enthusiasm to this already fun dorm crew. She’s working with the sociologist for a few weeks, interviewing people at bear jams. Off to bed now and back to Tanager again tomorrow to finish it up and teach this catchment a lesson!

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 19th, 2013

IMG_20130619_170252Welcome to my 16-hour day from both heaven and hell: Nez Perce starting from the west side of the Mary Mountain trail. Andrew and I woke up at 5 am to meet the GRYN crew at the trail head by 7 am. The dorm is almost in the center of Yellowstone, between Fishing Bridge and Lake, and it takes about 1.5 hours to drive to many of our field sites. It’s also about 2 hours from the nearest exit out of the Park. We had a 7-mile hike to the catchment ahead of us with about 15 wetlands to survey (one being a 1.5 hour survey in previous years) and another 7 mile hike out, none of this includes the wader-clad hikes between each wetland. The goal being to turn this mother out in one day so we didn’t have to re-live the hike the next day (giving Andrew and I a four-day weekend, yes!). The hike was really nice, aside from our brutal, break-neck pace. You have to remember, I’m hiking with a bunch of young, fit dudes. My stride measures 0.4 meters and theirs on average is 0.8 meters. So for every one of their steps, I had to take two and by God, I kept up! In some spots I even outpaced them. There were some thermal features along the way and some stream crossings to content with–not to mention the fresh bear scat and enormous grizzly bear prints (sadly, no long-distance sightings though). Two and a half hours later we made it to the catchment. Andrew and I were split up because we were the only ones that knew how to work with some of the data collection equipment. We split up into two groups of three: two people to survey and one to spot for bears and collect habitat data. Surveys went fast and easy. I worked with Andy, the project manager, and perhaps the laziest young fella I’ve ever met. Andy and I would be surveying for amphibians and we would look over and he would be snoozing under a tree. I wanted to smack him but Andy and I worked so efficiently that he didn’t hold us back any. Andy is an absolute hoot! He’s a few years older than me, has the accent and laid back attitude of Matthew McConaughey (I would be shocked if there wasn‘t any naked bongo playing in his past or future), and bonded with me over our love of 80s hair bands.  Needless to say, we got along famously.

Both teams converged on the enormous pond/lake wetland for one final survey. Four people surveyed and it took 1.5 hours each. I found 115 chorus frog tadpoles, 2 spotted frog tads and an enormous neotenic tiger salamander. It took every ounce of restraint I could muster to not kiss that chubby sally on its grinning little mouth and put it in my pocket! In the process of catching the sally, I was nearly attacked by a sandhill crane. Apparently, I was too engrossed in my netting to see that I had nearly trotted upon the crane sitting on her eggs. I was only a few feet away when she flew towards my face. For the rest of the survey she was verbally abusing me from a nearby tree. Eventually, she landed back in her nest to sit atop her two or three enormous eggs. It was kinda neat, besides her almost eating my face off. A storm rolled in just as we were finishing up. Luckily, we only experienced a brief period of hail and extreme cold. On the way out we surveyed a new site the we found earlier and then started our long trek back. It was rather amusing being amongst a group of young guys. I forgot how awkward and undeveloped they are. Some of the stories they were telling, like getting busted for drinking under-age and denying it to a police officer or sustaining severe head trauma while riding home form the bar drunk on your bicycle, were proof positive that our brains truly don’t develop until our early twenties. Nevertheless, they were amusing. The hike back was difficult and painful, to say the very least. Andrew sustained some minor foot injuries and we were all beat from the day. The last ¼ of the trek was by far the most agonizing. I could no longer keep up with the whippersnappers and Andrew was doing as bad, if not worse than I was. By the end, we could barely walk. We did our best to hide our pain in front of the rest of the crew. It took every ounce of cool we had to bid them a causal goodbye. As we turned away from them, on the walk back to Andrew’s car, we promised each other to never tell the whippersnappers how much we hurt. Our pride was the only thing we had at the moment. As soon as they pulled out of the parking lot, we poured ourselves into the car (crying out in pain with every movement), whipped off our wet socks and compared our sores and blisters. I won the prize for largest, angriest looking blister, sadly. The trip home was both funny and agonizing. We told stories to lighten the mood but laughing hurt. The simple act of breathing felt like a steaming hot poker. Our pain was so bad, we saw a tourist excitedly running to her car and just the visual of her running made us both recoil in horror. By the time we reached the dorm, our bodies had seized up to the shape of the car seat. We both considered sleeping in the car because we didn’t want the pain that comes along with bending and standing and certainly not walking. We arrived at the dorm at 8:30 pm and at 9 pm we made it inside. As soon as we opened the front door and made it through the threshold five minutes later, Andrew collapsed and the phone rang. It was Deb, asking how the day went. I quickly and prideful reassured her, got off the phone, walked by Andrew’s lifeless body and was greeted by three amused forest ecologists from Wisconsin, three geochemists from Germany and one sociologist from Laramie, all enjoying our show. They were in hysterics! They had assumed we were hammered when we stumbled in. We pathetically recounted the hike for their enjoyment. Andrew was such a hilarious mess, he pulled up a chair to cook his staple–ramen noodles–because standing was out of the question, then he couldn’t eat them because his body hurt too much, then he left to call his wife but completely forgot to turn the stove off (is this how fires get started in Yellowstone?). Oh we certainly were the nights entertainment! At some points, there wasn’t a dry eye in that kitchen. One group of researchers, who will remain nameless, admitted to faking an animal jam earlier on in the day. They all got out of their car at a roadside pull-off and just started pointing out into the valley. That’s pretty much all you have to do to test the gullibility of human nature: just point into the trees and the suckers begin pulling over and the cars pile up behind you in no time flat. I must admit, I was overly amused and more than a little jealous, I’ve always wanted to do that. After the laughter, I creeped and creaked to bed as soon as my body could get there and slept like a log.

IMG_20130619_175907 (1)The worst part of all this, and I was pondering this on that last ¼ mile back to the car, is that seven years ago, Polly and I did a three-day, 15-mile (each way) back-country hike with 50-pound packs each. It was an absolute hellacious experience that I can’t believe we lived through. We forded several rivers almost getting swept downstream and soaking our packs. We set up camp in very active bear country, got devoured to near anemia by mosquitoes the entire time, starved to the point that we ate mac & cheese that contained more mosquitoes in it than macaroni or cheese, and were hammered by freezing rain soaking us both to near hypothermia. I remember being so exhausted and delusional half way through the 15-mile hike back that I crumbled on the trail and begged Polly to leave me there so I could happily be eaten by a bear. Yet after all that, I came back for more. This year, I specifically signed up, looking forward to more of these “adventures.” I’m here all but tempting the Gods of nature to hit me with their best shot. This leads me to question everything about myself.