Week 1 Recap

The time lapse between posts can only be explained with a combination of no internet access and an extremely busy month! My previous post left off with crew training, and since then we have been unleashed into the wilds of the Sierra Nevada to chase mustelids and acquire battle wounds (also known as knowledge).

As Forest Service employees, our schedules are 4-10's, or four days out of the work week. As a result, these days usually range between nine and thirteen hours. The first week of real work saw me paired with one of the Student Conservation Organization volunteers, Clark, who is a fellow North Carolinian!

Day One, Go! Photo by C. O'Bannon.

The first week of the run (or the time period for which sampling units are, uh, sampled) involves the put-in of survey materials: camera stations and track plate stations. Each station consists of one camera and one track plate, and our job consists of navigating to these pre-set points (which have been sampled repeatedly over the last ten years for both fisher and marten presence) via GPS data and creating the station. For each person within a team, that means a backpack full of nails, tools, chicken wire, raw chicken, cameras and bear-proof camera boxes (those puppies are heavy!), and the materials to build a track plate. Oh, and barbed wire. I learned to hate barbed wire last summer on the bear project, so I'm happy to only have to use small strips of it (the wire catches hair samples from visiting animals). Combined with food, water, and whatever else one can fit into a pack, we're carrying between thirty and forty pounds on the put-in week. 

Translation: Running and strength training was a joke.

I was flattered to find that Clark considers me a field veteran, which, despite making me sound old, means I actually know difficult field work. Hell, I tore my hip flexor doing field work. The second day of my field research career had me climbing cliffs not covered in my rock climbing class, and I lived. I am very fortunate to have done and seen some amazing things, but I must say that hiking up to ten miles a day, uphill, with that kind of weight is not something you train for other than by hiking ten miles a day, uphill, with forty pounds on your back. The first week was a little bit of a challenge, I admit! But, a few cool things happened and it ended up being a challenge met with zest (ok, and a few expletives).

On day one, as Clark and I turned onto a FS road that I commented was exactly the kind of road you see bears or bobcats or coyotes on at 7 in the morning, lo and behold, a bear ran right in front of our truck! First one of the season, and if you know me, you know I am always excited for a wildlife sighting. A real wildlife sighting- not the interactions in parks where wildlife are conditioned to human presence, or even holding a wild animal under anesthesia (though that is a priceless experience)- rivals all experiences because, for a fleeting moment, we get to see an animal being just that. It's unbridled, sometimes dangerous, and awesome, because while we still startle one another, for two or five seconds we get to witness a creature unharmed and untainted by anything unnatural.

The Sierras are absolutely and breathtakingly beautiful.  The waterfalls, the trees, the wildflowers, and the wildlife are surreal individually, but when all together in one place, the senses are overwhelmed. There was even snow at the beginning of the month! One of my sites for Run 1 was at about 9300 ft in elevation, and our first day of work was an unexpected 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I love winter, and I miss snow, so despite being a tad brisk, Clark and I worked well together setting up our stations on day one and throughout the week. Per station, the chicken is placed in a wire "burrito" and nailed to a tree with gun brushes surrounding the bait to collect hair samples from whatever visits the station, with photos capturing the activity. Nearby, a small piece of meat invites animals into the trackplate box, where the sooted track plate catches their footprints (and thus species identification) on contact paper, and where barbed wire at the entrance might snag a hair sample. Oh, and the scent lure. Who can forget the scent lure? During training we combined a magical mixture of skunk scent glands, animal urine (I forget the species), and some other ground up wildlife secretions with lanolin to create a glorious spread that smells like rotten garlic, horseradish, and a lot of dead stuff. We spread that on the bait tree to hopefully entice the mustelids to visit our stations (but everything else loves it too). And yes, I somehow managed to get it in my hair that first week.

Clark holds his breath while mixing our scent lure, called Gusto. No gusto was involved in the mixing of this Gusto.

One of our sites from the put-in week was unrealistically gorgeous: any one of the LOTR movies, or the show Game of Thrones, or another Jurassic Park, could be filmed in this location. We navigated through drones of honey bees as they buzzed like one great machine in a field of bear clover, which is a thigh-high brush with daisy-like buds and a sappy residue that covers your boots and pants. All week, but particularly at this site, we were visited by hummingbirds, presumably attracted to our bright yellow helmets as they darted past our ear and over our heads or perched on a nearby branch and chirped at us. Another part of the site was also covered with poison oak, but since this project might as well have stock in Tecnu (a lotion that removes poison oak and ivy oils), we were okay. Shortly after the photo below was taken, Clark and I encountered a herd of domestic cows (farmers and ranchers can lease public land for grazing) and were chased downhill. 
Note: cows run fast, especially when angry and on loose substrate.

 Do I look hot? It was 95F and six miles uphill!

 Vista from atop one of our sites.

Photo taken at about 5500 ft elevation, facing East, from a vista at one of our sites.

Glorious view of Huntington Lake, just before our bear sighting.

Once the put-ins are complete for each run, we then sample each site once a week for three weeks. This involves collecting hair samples, track plate prints, and photographs of our visitors. I'm not able to share the wildlife camera photos with you on this site, but I do have a lot of cool stories to share for this run! Unfortunately, Clark was only my partner for the first week, because we have a position called the "Lone Wolf" where someone is responsible for working with crew leaders to accomplish things both in the field and in the office, and with a weekly rotation for this position, I traded off to a new partner for week two onwards when Clark became the Lone Wolf. We're in the office all week, which means I have time to access internet, which means I will be posting my adventures (and tons more photos) with Rachel very soon!

AND HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY! I'm so thankful to live in a country where I can pursue my vividly wild and ambitious dreams.