Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 20th, 2013

Mud Volcano, etc...Cooking Hillside (4)Churning Caldron (3)Churning Caldron (5)Cooking HillsideChurning Caldron (6)Cooking Hillside (2)Cooking Hillside (3)Dragons Mouth SpringDragons Mouth Spring (4)DSCF2314Grizzly FumaroleMud CaldronCooking Hillside (6)Cooking Hillside (5)Mud GeyserMud Geyser (3)DSCF2386DSCF2387Mud Volcano  (3)Sour Lake & Black Dragons CaldronSulphur Caldron (2)Sulphur CaldronSulphur Caldron (7)Sulphur Caldron (6)Sulphur Caldron (8)

I spent most of the day puttering around the dorm trying to get my joints to re-lubricate themselves and my blisters to pop. Surprisingly, Andrew looked far better than I. He was up, bright and early, to drive back home to Casper to see his wife. I don’t envy him, especially in his condition. That’s a cramped 5.5 hour ride. I caught up on my journal entries, did some stinky laundry and then decided to stop being pathetic and savor this day off, in spite of my feeble body. I bought myself an ice cream cone at the Fishing Bridge general store, ate it in Hayden Valley and then walked around the Mud Volcano and Sulphur Caldron sites. I love how stinky it all is. A large portion of the Park smells like rotten eggs or really bad gas. As soon as I arrived in the Park, I rolled down my window and took a deeply satisfying whiff. I’m not ashamed to admit that I love the smell. I’ve got to find a way to bottle it so I can take some Yellowstone stink home with me! Sick? Yes, but I stand by my passion for all things smelly. After my sightseeing jaunt, I returned to the dorm and right at the front steps was a coyote with some sort of dead animal in its mouth. It sauntered across my path and then circled back around in front of me as if to show off what it caught. Then is proudly trotted off down the street. Everyone was in the dorm kitchen and they all happened to miss the coyote just outside the door. Duh! I spent the night laughing with the researchers in the kitchen and watching them play cards. Such a hilarious cast of characters here. Plans for the faux bear jam were stepped up and further fleshed out which led to us swapping bear spray stories. I told them about how in 2006 we were practicing deploying a few expired bear spray canisters in the dorm parking lot. We checked the area to make sure no one else was around and then we let it rip. Mere seconds later, from under a nearby truck we heard someone coughing and swearing. A beat-red, sweaty, extremely pissed-off man appears out from under the truck. He blindly zig-zagged over to us in a complete rage, ready to beat the crap out of all of us. We apologized profusely and explained that we were just practicing with our spray and that we had no idea he was under there. He calmed down and forgave us. A few weeks later he gave us all engraved mini-pocket knives as a way of apologizing…for spraying him in the face with bear spray. Yup, he gave us a gift for that. You gotta love people sometimes! I still have the knife. Tomorrow is another day off but it’s not just any ole day. Oh no. It’s my birthday! Not to mention that it’s also the summer solstice and the longest day of the year–I couldn’t ask for a better day for a birthday. The Germans and the Wisconsinites taking me to the Park employee pub for some pizza and cheap, yet delicious, beer. We plan to walk to the pub from the dorm which is right through serious bear country. So most of us will be packing bear spray. The only foreseeable problem with that plan is bear spray several beers deep may indeed become a toy, especially on the walk back. A very painful, uncomfortable toy. We shall see though. Maybe I’ll get another pocket knife out of the deal. Can’t wait!

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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.

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.
Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 17th, 2013

 

Continental Divide (2)Continental Divide (3)Continental Divide (4)Continental Divide (5)Today is a combined field effort with the GRYN crew consisting of three young twenty year-old male whipper-snappers (a nursing student, a GIS student and a geology student) and Andy, who is the head-honcho of the entire amphibian monitoring project this year. It was a training day for them and a field data collection day for Andrew and I. We headed out to the Solfatara Plateau. This area in the Park–along with many others–is mostly burnt forest from the great fire of 1988 with minimal pine regrowth. Things decay and grow very slowly in this ecosystem so the damaged trees from the 88 fire still litter the ground with almost no decomposition. Many burnt forests still stand today but are at risk of falling like dominoes at any gust of wind due to their extremely shallow root systems–this is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of doing field work in the Park. Standing dead and fallen trees are not removed from the forest because their eventual decay will add nutrients to this nutrient-poor ecosystem and increase the speed of forest regrowth. Many studies, including the one being done by my dorm-mates, show that these dead trees are not the potent fuel source for another wildfire as some may believe. The research indicates that live trees are actually the biggest wildfire fuel source in the Park.

Why I mention all of this is because when there’s a forest fire in a nutrient-poor ecosystem, such as Yellowstone, it’s a shame. Even though they’re a natural part of and generally beneficial to the ecosystem, they rob us and future generations. Those forests won’t regrow in our lifetime, perhaps not even in our children’s lifetime. That’s a hard thing to imagine but that’s the reality. The 88 fire started due to an unfortunate mix of drought and human carelessness. Fires with similar causes (including lightning strikes) happened in the 1700s and in 1850. And although these fires burned a relatively small portion of the Park’s forests, when you think in terms of acres, that’s 800,000 acres of charred forest within the Park’s boundaries. So let’s use this as a cautionary tale–enjoy, respect and treasure what you have today because tomorrow it may be gone.

The hike was super easy and the trail was well maintained. Off-trail was a different story entirely; I tripped over a few dead trees, of course, but I’m gaining expertise at remaining loose when I fall so I don’t bust anything. About halfway to Cascade Lake, we found our catchment of wetlands and got to work. Andrew and I blew through our sites with impressive efficiency, especially since this was our first time out without Deb and considering Andrew being new and me being rusty. Andrew’s many quirks are starting to reveal themselves, much to my delight. For example, he won’t use anything other than a spray on his body. He adamantly refuses to apply any balm, salve, lotion or even chapstick. He was absolutely baking in the sun and being devoured by mosquitoes despite my offer to lend him both remedies. Nope, he’s a spray man or nothing at all. Apparently, he finds the consistency of such products to be repellant.

During our surveys, mostly chorus frog tadpoles were found. They’re so darn cute with their iridescent, see-through bellies; pinched waists; and large, laterally set eyes. It looks like they’re wearing corsets that have been cinched so tight that their eyes have gone all googley. They always look surprised, yet delighted to see you looking down at them from the dip net.

We were supposed to meet up with the other survey crew at noon but there was no word from them on our walkie talkies for about an hour. Apparently, they had been stuck in a two-hour bison jam just a few miles from the trail head. Traffic was backed up for miles and Park visitors were pissed. Visitors must remember, these things are to be expected in a park with free roaming large animals. That’s part of the appeal of Yellowstone. Yet, time and again, people have difficulty relinquishing control over their environment and letting animals have the right of way instead of their own busy schedules. The novelty wears off quick for most, but not for me–it’s nice to be able to blame my tardiness on a baby badger jam. Eventually, the rangers came to encourage the bison off the road with sirens and flashing lights. It worked and the crew finally made it. We met everyone and hiked to our next wetland and they went to survey one nearby. The goal was to get the entire wetland complex (or catchement) finished in a day but we got a call from Deb saying the crew needed more help identifying amphibian species than anticipated so they were abandoning ship for the day to work on the basics. Andrew and I finished up, completing 6  to 7 wetland surveys, and headed back to the dorm. I socialized with my dorm-mates and read for the rest of the evening. Overall, it was a good start to what I feel will be a great field season.

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 11th, 2013

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The Lake Lodge

Training Day: Deux

Amphibian id training today in Gibbon Meadows. I remember doing the same exact thing in the same exact location in 2006. This entire experience is going to be like some wonderful kind of déjà vu for me. We saw every species on our very short list, including tiger salamander larvae. And I was reminded that I have eyes like a jungle cat; too bad I lack the reflexes of one! I can spot a reptile and amphibian from a mile away. I was finding adult boreal toads, spotted frogs, chorus frogs, and snakes like it was going out of style (which it never will, of course). I was doing it with such efficiency that I think they were beginning to suspect that I was just pulling them from my pockets or something. They should see me with turtles! At each site we were followed by Japanese tourists taking photos of us; they can’t resist funny-looking people with dip nets and waders. So, maybe I’ll become the next big thing overseas–hopefully even bigger than Hasselhoff (one can only dream).

After work, I got re-acquainted with the Lake Lodge. I love it there. It’s good to be back. I was sipping a local microbrew and writing in the lobby when I heard someone playing on the piano one of my favorite Yann Tiersen songs from the Amelie soundtrack. Could it get any freakin better than that? I think not.

Here’s information on the four amphibian species we’re looking for in Yellowstone.

Here’s a link to my employer’s webpage explaining the amphibian monitoring project.

Here’s a link to our protocols and reports.