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 11th, 2013

2013-07-11 14.09.222013-07-11 14.09.462013-07-11 14.09.532013-07-11 14.10.35Oh Craig Pass…why? WHY!? Once again, we had another doozie of a catchment. Previous teams had set up seven navigation points to get us, the easiest way possible, to the wetlands. Well, Andrew and I both want to tell those people off. The navigation points led us through the worst forest known to man. Painful hours later, when we finally made it to our first site, it was a large lake. The entire day was one large lake after the next with a few dried up wet meadows containing a few adult frog hot tubs thrown in there for good measure. Surveys of that size are a lot of work but we hustled. This has been a two-day catchment in all years but one but Andrew and I both agreed that there is no way in heck we were doing this another day. So we blazed through as best we could. Overall, the breeding habitat was actually pretty spectacular and we found chorus frog tadpoles, one spotted frog tadpole and by glorious god we saw lots of neotenic spotted salamanders. Yes! They’re so cool! Their gills look like big frilly clown collars and they swim so fast. The way out was much easier because we completely ignored the terribly misleading navigation points and instead chose to follow the stream bed. It was relatively smooth sailing once we decided to buck the trend. I fell a few times, of course; I was poked so hard by a fallen log that it split my skin; surefooted Andrew even fell; he split his walking stick right up the middle; Andrew’s forehead was so badly eaten by mosquitoes (even through his hat) that it was inflamed and lumpy for the rest of the night; and both my hips and knees were shot. Basically, it was the status quo for the week. On the bright side, it was much cooler and not as sunny so we weren’t desiccated husks (we often net the desiccated husks of damselflies and dragonflies and wonder how cool it would be if humans left behind perfect little husks like that). As fate would have it, that was the only day that Andrew carried enough water with him. Now he probably doesn’t think he’ll need to carry as much next time since he still had some leftover this time. Ahh…I see a vicious circle forming. While we were still in the forest, I exclaimed that I could see the road peeking through the trees. Andrew all of a sudden sings “Let’s go there. Let’s make our escape.” like Scott Stapp of Creed so we entertained each other by doing our best Scott Stapp impressions until we reached the car. Then it was no-holds-barred Creed’s greatest hits on full blast. If our neck’s weren’t hurting before, they certainly were after our one-hour extravaganza of head banging, dashboard drumming and air-guitaring. I’m so glad he’s my field partner. He’s funny and happy even during our worst moments out in the field. Our styles are perfectly balanced: in the mornings he has a positive outlook on the day whereas I’m poo-pooing everything and by the end of the day he’s wanting to die and I’m telling him that things are looking up. Hah! When things get tough, we both turn inwards and get quiet but eventually the jokes always start back up. Even better, he’s equally out of shape so I never feel like I’m lagging behind. I don’t think the gal who was supposed to be with me would be anywhere near as much fun. Sometimes we try to imagine what she would be like. She would be a snobby, extremely fit aerobics teacher and she would make me survey every wet meadow, even if it was dry that year.

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My so-called snake count

I wandered around the property looking for snakes today. It’s not the kind of thing one normally does but it’s not too much of a stretch for me. The idea was to take an inventory of the location, abundance and species of snakes inhabiting the area for the Center for Snake Conservation’s fall snake count. Today was the last day to participate so I wandered around the backyard trails for about 2 hours looking for critters to count. Well, I found a plethora of critters but no snakes– which is a bit of a shock because I usually find them when I’m not looking for them, of course!

On my slither quest I found red-backed (and lead-backed), dusky and slimy salamanders and the red-eft and adult phase of the red-spotted newt. I couldn’t photograph them all because they were just so darn fast! Just so we all know, newts are salamanders with toxic skin and a predominantly water-based life-cycle. Newts generally spend their adult lives in the water whereas most other salamanders are terrestrial as adults (with a few other exceptions such as hellbenders [which are completely awesome!]).  The red-spotted newt has a particularly interesting life-cycle because it starts out aquatic then undergoes a bright-red terrestrial stage called the eft stage and then becomes a light green aquatic adult with red spots. The really interesting part is that red-efts can roam the land for anywhere between 1 to 14 years before becoming aquatic adults. Why and when they decide to finally go back into the water has always been of interest to me. If only I could ask one…

Overall, it was a good day for sallies and seeing them made it well worth the time and effort. For future snake counts, I found some excellent potential sights to check out. From what I’ve seen, I would definitely say that the property is snake heaven. There are abundant wetlands for some tasty amphibious snacks and rocky uplands with a lot of stone fences from the farming days of yore. I took some photos of a few of the spots that I would frequent if I was a snake.

I also found the most charismatic praying mantis. So photogenic…and aggressive! This creature was fully prepared to take me on if necessary.

Enjoy the photos! I hope they encourage you to go outside and turn over some rocks. You never know what amazing things you will find until you get out there and do it!