I have been in Washington for ten days, and in those ten days we've received almost as many feet in snow!
Teri's car is buried in snow.
We are currently staying in Trout Lake, a quaint little town at the base of Mt. Adams, the focus of our surveys the month of January. The first two days, we hiked over nine miles on snowshoe! I don't think anything can condition a person for that much snowshoeing because of the specific muscles used for the activity. Needless to say, all of my preparation and work getting physically ready for this was thrown out the window on the first mile. I am sure I will echo thousands of snowshoers with the simple phrase: omg.
Those first two days involved a trek to set one of the remote infrared cameras for the project. I am working for Jocelyn Akins, a PhD student at the University California Davis on the Cascades Carnivore Project. Her objectives include the conservation genetics of the montane red fox (Vulpes vulpes), their habitat selection, and monitoring species of interest from a management and conservation standpoint. Additionally, we are also searching for wolverines (Gulo gulo) if we can find them. Wolverines are rare in the lower 48, as they require extreme snow conditions through breeding season to flourish (with loss of habitat and hunting contributing to population decline). The cameras are motion-censoring devices that take photos when any animal approaches the bait we secure to a tree. Hair snares collect any hair from the animal in it's attempt to steal the bait, and the hair is collected by us for genetic analysis in the lab. The majority of the time, our meat is stolen by methodical American martens (Martes americana). On our second day, we happened to encounter one very curious little marten from a distance of about five feet, who watched us with hesitant but insatiable curiosity for almost five minutes- I wonder if we were the first humans he had ever seen?
A rather curious marten
Marten or red fox hair samples?
I am working with Teri Lysak, a tracker through the non-profit Cascadia Wild, and she is teaching me everything there is to know about tracking animals! This involves everything from species identification to gait style, taking measurements of various gaits, and identifying ideal conditions to track an individual. For more information on Cascadia Wild, look for the link at the end of this posting.
The first day involved a short snowmobile ride to our trail head, and a 2 mile hike up into the woods to set our camera. This involves placing a camera at the right height across from the bait, which is nailed to the tree in chicken wire. Copper pipe-cleaners are set up below the bait so hairs might be snagged from any visitors. On this first hike, after I had huffed and puffed quite a bit, I came across some tracks I had never seen before:
Old wolverine tracks. A bear track straddle (or girth from one foot to another) is wider than the wolverine's (because of weight).
I quite literally (and perhaps unprofessionally) thought, "What the hell is that??" when my snowshoe tips intersected this strange, and yet slightly older, set of tracks. Track conditions change daily, meaning that snow level, snow compaction, and temperature are just a few things that affect how reliable a set of pawprints may look in the snow. To me, these old (old by the fact that they were slightly melted out and full of debris blown into the recess of the foot pad) tracks resembled bear paws by the length of the track... but bears are currently in hibernation. Only a crazy bear would come out in the beginning of January for a stroll, despite low snow levels and higher than normal temperatures (it's still freezing!). As this was my first day, I waited for Teri to come down the huge hill we'd just trekked to solicit her opinion.
Then, she muttered something along the lines of "There's no way." and "Are you kidding me?" It's true, folks... on day one, we had found WOLVERINE TRACKS!
Teri the tracker
Here I must note the audacity of the wolverine. Wolverines, though not well known by the public and difficult to study because of the terrain they choose, hold down home ranges of more than 200 miles and travel at a near-constant speed to tour and maintain the rule of their domain. Wolverines have been known to win fights against 800 pound grizzly bears over food, and at a mere 50 pounds, these animals traverse the most difficult and dangerous terrain known to man and animal without batting a furry eyelash. Unfortunately, they face extinction in our lifetime due to fragmentation between suitable habitats- meaning that the few individuals who live in Point A are unable to travel to Point B to spread their genetics because of humans and climate change. Shortly put, however, research like Jocelyn's is working to mitigate the threats to carnivores like the wolverine, and when evidence suggests the presence of a wolverine in a new area, it is most certainly our job to encourage the expansion and protection of both animal and area to encourage future success for the species. My friend Doug Chadwick is a biologist turned journalist and the author of the wonderful book "The Wolverine Way" and describes the wolverine:
"I still don’t really understand what makes wolverines tick. But I learned that they tick at a higher metabolic rate than other animals their size. If you were to picture them as organic cruising machines with a souped-up carburetor, you wouldn’t be far off the mark."
So go the Gulo tracks. Since we were supposed to be looking for red fox tracks, however, we returned the next day to backtrack some fox tracks we saw this day.
Backtracking (or forwardtracking) for this project involves looking for genetic material: scat, urine, or hair samples. As biologist criminologists, we are collecting samples to store and send to a laboratory at the University of Montana to be analyzed for genetic relationships, identification, etc. So, we returned the next day intending to backtrack some red foxes... but we found fresh wolverine tracks!
Fortunately, the wolverine tracks crossed the red fox tracks regularly, so we were able to hit two birds with one stone, so to speak. We tracked this wolverine for more than two miles (which is not as easy as air miles, or as the crow flies, or whatever you consider when thinking of two flat miles!): up, down, around, but mostly up. I'm pretty sure he/she covered this distance in less than thirty minutes judging by the inconsistent gait: lope, walk, trot thing. It took us three hours! I was reminded of the male wolverine from The Wolverine Way who ascended 9,000 ft in elevation in 90 minutes without stopping... just because he could. This would be why the wolverine is so bad ass, folks.
We watched him intersect with the fox tracks periodically, wondering why the trails were so well traveled. We lost the tracks occasionally because the snow was too hard for him to sink into in some places, and I managed to walk by a huge scat pile! I'm not sure how anyone can miss a giant pile of bone and hair... but then again, that's why many eyes are good. Wolverines scavenge bones and can digest the tough stuff many other species can't, so we are hoping that there is some Gulo genetic material in the samples!
After day two, we completed an Avalanche Safety Training course. I feel a little smarter, and perhaps slightly more reckless in my activities as a biologist in the wilderness. My poor mother can rest assured that I am prepared and capable (as much as a 130 pound human can be against the elements, anyway).
The rest of the week involved a lot of waiting it out, unfortunately. We received four feet of snow below 2000 ft elevation! That's a lot of fresh powder. Teri and I went out on the sleds two days to try and check cameras, but between getting the truck stuck and turning the sleds or getting bogged down, we only managed to set one camera and check another the remaining part of the week. However, we do have foxes on camera! Cascade red foxes are unlike anything I've ever seen- they have so much coat variation amongst individuals within a species. They are rather similar to black bears in this sense. Similar to coyotes, these red foxes can vary in shades of red, bronze, amber, brown, black, and grey. Smaller than coyotes and thought to use higher elevations, these silent canids often go unnoticed and manage to flourish in a deeper snow environment.
I write this from a little table in the Big Horse Brew Pub in Hood River, OR. Jocelyn lives in Hood River, and yesterday we checked a camera in Mt. Hood so we could accomplish something in spite of all the snow! The one thing I love about wildlife research is the opportunity to learn the stories of the people who share my passions. I enjoy exploring the little tourist towns, having a great microbrew, and resting until my next trek into the wilderness. Until next time!
Just another view from the office- I have a hard job, but one of the most amazing in the world!
I really wanted to take a "winter photo" to put on this site... just a simple photo of me smiling in the snow. Instead, I lost my balance on those darned snowshoes and this is what we got. Perhaps its more indicative of my personality. I'll post the better version at a later date! Never lose your childlike wonder, I always say. Or humility.
For more information on Cascadia Wild, visit:
For more information on the Cascades Carnivore Project, visit: