Today, Kyleen and I attempted to hike out to our field site at the White Bark Pine Moiraine Lake. The day started off sunny and cool – the perfect day for a hike! We packed up our field gear, loaded up some pb&j and set off for the trailhead, our bear bells tinkling merrily (ok, maybe only I thought that – Kyleen found them irritating from the get-go). Below is map of the trail we used, starting at String Lake and proceeding all the way up to Holly Lake, which is just north of our sampling lake.
ANATOMY OF THE HIKE
1) Not Awful: We were expecting this part to be almost completely flat (judging from Google Earth estimates), and it was in fact kind of steep. Aside from that unfortunate surprise, this part of the hike went relatively well. We even saw a muskrat, which initially terrified us. Throughout the hike, we saw about a half dozen of them, which got progressively less startling each time. We also found elk poop and grizzly bear poop (identified by Google Images and Hank, respectively).
2) Also Not Awful: The early part of this section was rather flat, a nice breather from section 1. The second half was more strenuous, but still doable. This section, however, was where we started to feel the effects of elevation and pack weight and got winded rather easily.
3) Kind of Awful: This section was also quite steep and rocky, and much sunnier than the heavily forested sections before it (hence my shoulder sunburn). It was hard to hate it too much though, as the view of Paintbrush Canyon was absolutely beautiful (see photos below). Considering the sun, the elevation, and the several miles of hiking already done, we were getting pretty tired by the end of this section.
4) Soul Crushingly Awful: It was steep, it was rocky, it was the last section (and so, we were the most tired), it was the highest in elevation, there was snow, there were rather treacherous crossings of the meltwater river. And last, but certainly not least, there was the problem of seeing the trail at all. We had hiked three hours, up to 8,505 ft in elevation only to lose the trail under the last of the snow drifts. The most frustrating part was that the snow was easily traversable (especially with the crampons loaned to us by Hank and Brent Campbell back at KSU), it just obscured the direction of the trail. For a while, we could follow the snow tracks of folks that came before us, but it seemed we all petered out about the same place. I left Kyleen with the packs and spent about 45 minutes hiking out from her spot in various directions to see if we could meet back up with the trail after the snow. But no luck. We hiked back out in about 2 hours.
Ironically, on the way down, we met a couple on their way up in Paintbrush who asked if we had ‘found the elusive Holly Lake’ – since Holly is a bit farther on the trail than our lake, we of course had not found that one either. We explained our situation and the woman said “Oh, then what about your research?!” We’re working on that.
Options for Moving Forward:
1) We GPS’d the spot where we lost the trail and we are 0.6 miles from our lake as the crow flies. We could hike back up and just bee-line it from the trail end to our lake. Hank assured me there are no hazards awaiting off-trail hiking and that sometimes this strategy is easier than following all the switchbacks. This may be our best option, although we’d need to be super prepared with GPS coordinates, maps, and compasses.
2) We could try to find additional white bark pine habitat at more accessible locations to sample – Kyleen is working on this now, and has been in touch with the GTNP ecologist to discuss changes to our sampling permit, and the locations of other known populations of white bark pine (if there are any).
3) We could look into studying pine ecology more generally in other ways – perhaps lower elevation assessment of competition between pine and other conifers (spruce and fir), or analysis of pine beetle and blister rust on lower elevation populations (which appears to be extensive) and how this might relate to higher elevation populations. We are still sorting through options, and many of these would also require approval from the GTNP ecologist.
We have not lost hope – we made it farther on the trail than we thought, and Hank assures us we can still get out to the lake. We will also talk tomorrow with the GTNP ecologist about other avenues of data collection. We may wait till Wednesday to hike out again to give our legs and our backs a bit of a breather, and to develop a solid plan of action for our second attempt.