Sequoia National Forest, Week 1

The end of a run is almost as busy as the beginning of a run. For us, a "run" is classified as a four week period in which Primary Sampling Units, or PSU's (defined in our training book, by the way, as "a unit which is primarily sampled"...), are set and checked once every seven days. Each PSU consists of three stations, and each station has one each of a camera trap, bait, and hair snags, as well as a track plate box to collect the tracks (and hopefully hair) of whomever or whatever decides to enter (or, more commonly, destroy) the box.

The end of Run 1 saw everyone arriving on that Friday sweaty, dirty, and smelly... well, that's not particularly any different from field days all over the world, but the end of a run involves pulling all field sampling material and organizing (organizing?!) data by the end of business, so we were all rushing about. Luckily, we had a week of office work between runs.

The office week included sorting photos ("is that a cow?"), washing track plates, organizing all written data for each PSU, and re-sooting track plates. Our track plates are metal sheets burned with an acetylene torch, the result being a black ash that gets on the paws of an animal and is then pressed onto sticky paper as it walks through the track plate box. I was really excited to learn how to use the torch, as it was highschool the last time I touched one. In learning how to use the torch, I was reminded of our oxyacetylene lesson in highschool in which  one of my fellow classmates caught his pants on fire and didn't realize it until the flames were licking up to his thighs. No one was hurt too badly, so I can laugh in hindsight, but the acetylene torch is no joke and a lot of caution goes into sooting track plates.

With trucks cleaned, blisters healed, and new partners, we embarked south into Sequoia National Forest!

 For this first week I was assigned SCA volunteer Katy, a really awesome chick with zero fear and an intense love for soccer. We were stationed near an area known as "The Needles." The name comes from the intensity of the granite peaks that cap the landscape. Additionally,  the lines on the topographic map are so close together that it looks like needles drew it!

The Needles

 Sequoia is lower elevation that Sierra, and as a result it was HOT. Our first day of sampling was in an area similar to rolling plains in that it was entirely open and the majority of the vegetation was a wheat-like grass (sorry, I don't know the species!). However, it isn't prairie land, so the hills were steep and there were actually a few trees. Because the hike was so long, however, we only got two of the three stations set. On the hike out, Katy saw her first rattlesnake! I tried so hard to get a decent photo, but he was almost five feet long and as thick around as my forearm, so my trekking poles weren't actually long enough for me to be very safe. I did get a decent audio piece, so I will post it later (I have a difficult time with video on this blog domain).
Katy on the hike out from our open site

 You can hardly see him, but this picture is a great example of why those rattlers are a good warning. He was HUGE!

I also found a little scorpion

We stayed at a remote little campsite at the center of our PSU's. Unfortunately, every week we returned, someone had left a bunch of garbage in the non-bear-safe containers and some critters had strewn the trash throughout the site. The first two nights of this week, Katy and I shared the site with two other crew members, Brad and Ben. We had an interesting time starting a fire with random kindling (I brought marshmallows) and chasing some curious cows away from our campsite. When Brad and Ben left, however, Katy and I were happy to have the cows as company, because the trash issue meant there was one very curious black bear who circled our campsite every night. We never saw him/her, but the animal made enough noise to convince us that it wasn't a raccoon.

The rest of our week involved my introduction to some pretty intense hikes (because of the way SCA's rotate, Katy was only with me for the install week). While I've always enjoyed a challenge, I don't think I've ever really had a hiking experience that I disliked in any way... until now. Katy and I had one hike that was 1500 m in to the first station, and it took us four hours to get down (yes, very, very down) because the landscape was literally a slide pf pine needles and rock drop-offs. Using the topo map wasn't very helpful because every time we thought we'd hiked up to a ridgeline, it dropped off again. Katy and I get along famously so the days were full of laughs and exploring and enjoying our surroundings as we completed our tasks, but this site was brutal. It could be the yellow jacket nest I stepped on first thing in the morning, or it could be that the hike out- scratch that- up, was one of the most intense I've ever done while working. Before you assume that it's either A) the worst thing in the entire world and that we are just that badass, or B) that is wasn't actually that hard and I'm just whining, remember that we were carrying fifty pounds on our backs! Despite the site being old growth forest and therefore shady, we both went through four liters of water each and were still dehydrated. However, the site was really beautiful... I just never got any pictures of it the entire run because it was so intense.

 The third day involved road drops... meaning that the hikes weren't very far from roads and we didn't have to suit up for all three at once. The drive out to our first site was easily one of the most beautiful I've ever seen! We were really in the heart of the Needles on this day. On the early morning drive, we saw several critters, including squirrels, tons of adorable cottontails, and one grey fox.

One cottontail was brave enough to let me lean out of the truck window and snap a few.

Katy and I thought our second hike would be as easy as the first one and that we would probably complete the day an hour earlier than usual. The hike in question was only 317 m from the truck! It was pretty much straight up, but the directions from the crew who did this hike five years ago said to stick to the ridgeline and avoid the brush.

Well.... it wasn't exactly that easy. The brush was everywhere! It was impenetrable. Manzanita is a real pain in the ass- it's similar to the northwest plant called Alder in it's rigidity, satanic nature, and desire to suck you into the earth (I'm only slightly kidding). The "manz" was uphill, sidehill, downhill. It was indeed a slippery slope. Looking at the topo map and comparing it with the written directions and drawings, we decided it would be best to scale some rocks and approach our site from behind. We climbed for about half an hour and dropped into a pretty little stream full of wildflowers:

 It took us THREE HOURS to hike 300m! THREE! We were not impressed with ourselves, and even less impressed with how overgrown the site was and how difficult it was to swim through the vegetation. But, it is wonderful wildlife habitat, and it if were easy everyone would be doing it!

Day four, by comparison, wasn't that hard at all. We had some longer hikes and a little confusion with abandoned service roads, but since it was a drive out day (that alone takes four hours), the sites had to be a little easier. Because the vegetation changed in the five years since it had last been serviced, however, we were unable to get to one of the locations in time because an old road was so overgrown.

I think this is a juvenile male western tanager. I tried so hard to photograph an adult tanager, but alas!

We had an awesome install week. It was really hard physically, but Sequoia National Forest is SO beautiful. We even saw a few Sequoias (we camped right by the famous Trail of a Hundred Giants). Here are a few landscape photos:

 View of the Little Kern River 

 Nature is so large and we are so small. It's beautiful.

 Searching for lizards!

We get paid to work here!

I'm definitely having a "top of the world" moment.