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Continental N: The Final Countdown

The Continental N sampling trip is fast approaching! On March 14th, Emily Sutton and I will set out for our 10-day, 14-state, 140-tree road trip.

We had a rather last minute change in strategy. Originally, I had planned on doing the northern loop (NE, SD, ND, IA) first, then proceeding to the southern loop. We decided to reverse this order partially to give the northern states an extra week for weather purposes (no Snowmaggedons, please!) but mostly to increase the effectiveness of the trip. Namely, if we get too delayed, we will have to cut the trip short after one loop. The southern loop constitutes more sampling locations and would therefor be the most valuable loop. If we have to cut the trip short, I can complete the northern loop over a weekend sometime later in the spring/summer. Depending on the weather, we may delay the northern loop regardless of how efficient we are with the southern loop.


Our final itinerary. Different colored lines are different days worth of driving, sampling dots are NADP stations (blue), OBFS (red), both (green) or neither (yellow).

Problems that have already been solved:

1) Hiring A Field Assistant: Emily Sutton, a junior at KSU double majoring in Biology and Anthropology, will be accompanying me on the trip. We drove out to Konza yesterday for a ‘dry run’ with Kendra (see photos below). Kendra and I were stressing the importance of quickly removing the corer from the tree, as trees can quickly seal around the corer and lock it into the tree. I have nearly lost a corer this way, and Kendra actually had gotten one permanently stuck once. Ironically, the practice tree we chose had apparently been previously sampled, as there was a 5 mm borer still stuck in the side!


Emily Sutton coring a Konza burr oak (left) and a stuck corer left by a previous researcher in the base of the tree (right)

2) Permits and Permissions: all sites have been approved by a park biologist or research coordinator. Additionally, I have notified all sites of the exact sampling locations and addressed logistics of access (ex. is there a locked gate?). For each site, I have a little bundle that contains a sampling sheet (for taking notes as we sample trees), a copy of the approved permit, and addresses/phone numbers for the site contact (see photo below). I’ve also listed out street addresses and phone numbers for nearby ranger stations, just in case.


Information bundles for each site, containing sample note sheets (on top) with detailed descriptions of the sampling location (lat/long, driving directions), contact person name and number, and approved permits.

Problems for which I am prepared:

1) Getting Lost: Many of our field sites are rather remote, and either do not have actual street addresses (like the NADP stations), or have addresses that even Google Maps does not recognize (like forest service or county roads). We will have a Garmin, handheld GPS units, a 2014 road atlas, Google Map screenshots of our sampling locations at various scales, and our smart phones. I have even put little stickers over the sampling locations in the road atlas (see photo below).


Bankhead National Forest, Alabama. Our sampling site will be in the Sipsey Wilderness just north of Double Springs, AL to the west of Highway 33.

2) Getting Delayed: I have (intentionally) planned this to be a rather ambitious trip. I would rather have planned too much work and not have time to get through all of the sites than plan too few and have extra time which I could have used to sample additional sites if we had permission. It is more important that we have good samples from the sites we do visit than get sloppy samples from a lot of sites (ie. we want quality over quantity here). Consequently, we may get significantly delayed.  This is why Missouri has been dubbed ‘the ripcord.’ If we are significantly delayed by the time we get to the Missouri sampling site, we will bail on the northern loop and come home. If we think we have time (and weather permits) for the northern loop, we will forgo the ripcord and continue on.

3) Running Out of Daylight: in some cases, we will have ~12 hours of driving in a single day, with sampling halfway through and at the end of the day. That means the evening site will almost certainly be reached after the sun has set. I have brought several flashlights, including a large lantern-style one, and I have two headlamps we can use to keep our hands free. I will avoid sampling at night if we can (it’s more dangerous logistically, and will also be more difficult to ID trees, etc) but am prepared to do so on the couple of days where it is unavoidable.

4) Equipment Failure: I am taking backups of everything; multiple GPS units, every corer the PaleoLab owns, and multiple flashlights/writing utensils/maps. I have extra batteries for everything that needs batteries.

Problems for which you can’t really prepare:

1) Accidents: We’ll have a first aid kit and I’m trained in first aid and CPR, but I’m mostly just crossing my fingers that we don’t have any injuries or illnesses to deal with. Ditto for vehicular breakdowns.

2) The Soul-Crushing Boredom: I’ll bring some trivia cards, and some CDs, maybe a book on tape. Let’s just hope Emily enjoys playing 20 questions. For 12 hours a day. For 10 straight days…

3) The X-Factor: Things always go wrong in field work. I mean, really – things ALWAYS go wrong in field work. I can run scenarios through my head for weeks and I will not think of the one minute thing that could unravel the whole trip. But when it happens, you just have to be adaptable, remain calm, survey your options, and make the best judgement you can.

And remember – it’s FUN! 🙂

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