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 3rd, 2013

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven (2)

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

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

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven

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

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

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

Travel, yellowstone national park

Yellowstone: June 13th, 2013

 

 

DSCF2218Yellowstone Lake (5)DSCF2214

Training Day: 4

Today I woke up feeling very off due to the very vivid dream I had. Dreams here are so real, detailed, and colorful and they really stick with you. I’ve been trying to write them down, just for the heck of it. It seemed like a little fairy or greedy goblin was following me around and moving all of my stuff today. I lost pens, sunglasses, field equipment and just when it seemed like I was going to lose my temper everything lost would miraculously appear again. It felt like I was the butt of some unseen cosmic joke all day.

We navigated to some off-trail wetlands to do some practice amphibian surveys. Thankfully, the data collection process has been refined since 2006, when we were the guinea pigs for this entire amphibian monitoring program. Things have gotten more streamlined and the low quality or just plain dangerous sites have been dropped. It still doesn’t mean that any of this is going to be a breeze. Data collection is still a pain and young tadpoles are hard to differentiate sometimes–as Andrew and I learned today. We were stumped many times but luckily Deb, our crew leader, is here for a few days to help us. The last site we went to already had another herpetology crew there collecting chytrid fungus swabs from the bellies and legs of adult spotted frogs. They said that about 60 to 70% of the frogs they’ve swabbed in the Park have the fungus (which basically suffocates them by causing hyperkeratosis of their permeable skin). Thankfully, in Yellowstone, they haven’t been dying off in the numbers that researchers once feared they would; however, that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods (no pun intended). The team was able to buy their own PCR machine and run DNA samples right from their field office which has increased efficiency and detection. (Just as an aside, the field crew consisted of three very handsome young men and one lovely young woman. It was nice to socialized with people around my age and not have it be awkward. I guess having something like frogs in common helps more than one would expect. Needless to say, I hope to run into them again.) They caught and released about 15 adult spotted frogs in this particular wetland and the frogs were so worn out from the whole ordeal that all 15 of them just floated, with their little legs splayed out, on the surface of the water. It was kinda cute.

They also mentioned that the guy we’ll be working with next week, Andy, is developing a DNA test that can detect the presence of amphibians in a wetland–down to each individual species. So all you would have to do is collect a water sample or swab and it would tell you what amphibians are there, their abundance, and even what species had recently visited the wetland. This sounds cool but it may eventually put us out of a job. Andrew made a good point though: it may not account for wading animals traveling from one wetland to another carrying DNA on their feet and such.  We shall see.

Later that night we went to the rustic employee pub which offers $2.95 microbrews, delicious pizza, hard rock/heavy metal music, billiards and best yet, no shutter-bug tourists. It’s heaven. We spent a few hours there voraciously eating, drinking, and catching up. Deb made the mistake of asking me how a biologist becomes a soap maker for a living and that opened up a whole can of worms that she wasn’t expecting. There is no simple, quick way for me to explain that. I highly value conciseness but I just can’t seem to do my story justice by making it short and sweet. Seemingly a lifetime later, after I was done giving them an overview of my life from 2006 to today, it was obvious from the looks on their faces that I had tired them out. So it was back to the dorm to read my addicting book. I’m blowing through the second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy like it’s nobody’s business! I can’t put it down!