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Category Archives: White Bark Pine Sampling Trip
Now that Kyleen and I are back in Kansas and (mostly) recovered from our field work excursions, we’ve started prepping the cores we took at GTNP. Today, we mounted the cores in wood blocks to hold them still while sanding them with a power sander. Notice Kyleen is wearing all the appropriate safety gear, AND her GTNP souvenir t-shirt! 😀
We have now sanded, scanned, and labeled all of our cores and are ready to measure ring widths and begin looking for correlations with climate (precip and temp on monthly, seasonal, and annual scales). Climate data will be obtained from PRISM which models climate parameters across the contiguous United States as far back as 1895. As you can see in the core to the left, our trees are likely much older than ~120 years. Still, that long of a record will hopefully shed light on climate drivers of growth for white barks.
We also hope to use the ages of the trees to estimate dates of establishment for this watershed. This may be difficult, as many of the older trees had rotted out in the center of the trunk (this is common in trees), and so we cannot get an exact age of each tree. We can, however, at least provide a minimum age of the stand. Also, if Kyleen can core some smaller trees in July (which will give us the full bark-to-pith chronology), we may be able to build a regression based on the relationship between tree age and size and extrapolate out to our larger trees for which the center was rotted out.
It’s official – Kyleen and I are heading home tomorrow! We got in touch with our new friend the Yellowstone biologist, who was very excited to hear of Kyleen’s interest in sampling mid-elevation white bark pines in the park. As I suspected, he is able to sample for us without going through the formal permitting process with the park. Unfortunately, he couldn’t meet with us this week to locate and sample white bark pines, but he will be free when Kyleen returns at the end of July. So, on Kyleen’s second round, she’ll sample additional high-elevation white barks at our original lake-side spot (as the snow should no longer be a problem that late in the season), and will supplement that work with a mid-elevation sampling in Yellowstone. Yay!
In the meantime, we worked with our cabin-mate Kim on her butterfly work. Her field sites are several meadows near roadsides throughout the park, not far from the research station. Once there, we chased down butterflies with our nets, labeled them for future identification, and then did vegetation surveys along 100-meter transects at each site. This put my limited new knowledge to the test, and some plants were unknown by all of us and given nicknames like ‘fuzzy top’ and ‘green spike’ and collected for later identification with field guides.
I was about to say that we’re moving on to Plan B, but realistically, it’s more like Plan R or S at this point. Regardless, our outline for the rest of our time here is as follows: Tomorrow, we hope to hear from the Yellowstone biologist concerning mid-elevation white bark pine stands. Ideally, he would be able to take us out to such stands tomorrow (though we recognize this is super short notice) and we could at least GPS the locations of some stands, and perhaps obtain some samples through the biologist without having to go through the official permitting process. I should note here that I’m not sure this is possible, as we are unfamiliar with the stringency of Yellowstone’s sampling permits, but in other places, the park biologists can have some leeway to collect themselves and then ‘share’ with researchers without formal permitting. We will see what our options are on that regard tomorrow.
In addition, we have determined not to attempt to hike up to the lake again. We talked with Hank (the head of the research station) and he agreed that it was too risky for us to attempt the hike again. We were hoping extra time may provide a little extra advantage with snow melt, but Hank argued that melting snow can be even more dangerous for hiking as it is prone to give way at inopportune times. Kyleen has identified a few days in July where there is space at the research station for her to return, so she’s working on outlining a return trip during that time. Fortunately, our GTNP permit is active until the end of the calendar year, so she could return to supplement our current sampling (at a time when snow would be less problematic) without having to redo the permitting process. She may also be able to set up Yellowstone sampling for that time, if the Yellowstone biologist is unable to meet with us tomorrow.
And last, but not least, we may be aiding our cabin-mate Kim (from Iowa State) who is here tracking butterflies. Normally, the butterflies emerge in mid- to late-July, and she was out here early to get her equipment ready and do preliminary site checks, etc before her undergrad assistant arrives next week. Unfortunately, her butterflies didn’t get the memo and began emerging today, so she’s on the hot seat for data collection, with no field assistant. I offered to go with her, though I’m not totally sure what my duties will be… fortunately, her sites are near the roadway, so there will be little hiking 🙂
In the meantime, I’ve been taking the opportunity to learn some of the sub-alpine flowers that are in bloom around the park, which are displayed here for your viewing pleasure 🙂
So, due to a windstorm which came up quite suddenly this evening, the entire field station lost power. My cabin mates and I decided to start a puzzle (found on the shelf in the living room) to pass the time, but as the sun set, seeing the pieces became increasingly difficult. Not to worry! We simply proceeded on the puzzle using our head lamps 🙂
After our grueling, but successful ordeal yesterday, Kyleen and I are taking another rest and recuperation day. This times nicely as today is also my 29th birthday! We drove up to Bozeman, MT to see the Museum of the Rockies and wander their lovely downtown. Now that we’re back in camp, we’re going to crack open the bottle of birthday booze I brought – we’ve invited everyone else who is in the research station to join us for dinner and drinks on the dock behind our cabin 🙂
As for the rest of our trip: Kyleen emailed the Yellowstone biologist, but has not yet heard back. We are unsure if he works weekends, so if we haven’t heard from him by Monday, we’ll give him a call and see if we can’t at least locate some mid-elevation white bark pine stands for future research. Our plans for the rest of our stay are uncertain, we but we have several options, and may accompany some other researchers on their field collecting endeavors in the coming days.
After 5 hours and 10 minutes of hiking, up over 3,000 feet in elevation – we actually made it to our field site today, and successfully collected endangered white bark pine tree cores!
We started today off much more positively than our last hike. We’d had several days to adjust to the elevation, we’d been up the hike (most of the way) once before, so we know (most of) what to expect. I used a pack suited for hiking (although it was nearly too big and I felt an awful lot like a turtle). We took more breaks early on to conserve energy. We ate more food. We drank more water. We got up to where we’d lost the trail on Tuesday in the same 3 hours, even with extra breaks. We were owning that hike.
In fact, on the way up, right before the spot where we had trouble on Tuesday, we ran into a man and his two kids (age ~9 and ~13) on their way down. We asked if they’d been up to Holly Lake. “Oh yes!” said the man, “We camped there last night!” He even recognized the description of our lake and assured us that even if we lost the trail, we could just follow their footprints to our lake. As soon as they were out of ear-shot, I turned to Kyleen and said “A &*$%ing nine year old hiked this?!” We were determined to succeed.
We got to the previously problematic spot, and much of the snow that was obscuring the trail on Tuesday was already gone. Even just a couple warm days had produced a significant melt, such that the trail was still patchily visible. We were ecstatic!
Unfortunately, that precious ice melt lasted about 100 yards and we were soon back to schlepping it over mounds of ice. We were actually really fortunate to have the footprints of several groups that had already hiked up to Holly Lake (crazy idiots…) otherwise we would have been as lost as on Tuesday. If you squint really hard at that picture, you can see a narrow trail of footprints trailing up the side of the mountain. That was what we followed. At the point in the picture, we were about 0.4 miles from the lake. We got there an hour later.
It was around this time in the hike that Kyleen says “You know, I’m not really into showing emotion, but when we get there, I may hug you.” I responded “I’m an atheist and I may shout ‘Praise Jesus!'”
In retrospect, the hike was probably a tad too dangerous for our limited experience with back-country hiking. We realized this about the time we got to the white bark pine lake, though, so it was a little too late to be helpful… The stand was smaller than we expected, with fewer pines than we anticipated. So, instead of the 20 cores approved by the GTNP ecologist, we left with 8. I should also note that we were coring in knee- to waist-deep snow and by the time we were done could feel neither our feet nor our hands.
It took us almost four hours to hike out. It would have gone faster, except I took a bit of a spill off the snow (ironically I fell *onto* the trail) and landed on my knee on a rock. Not a serious injury, but it swelled up a bit and was difficult to walk with, which slowed us down the rest of the hike out.
Needless to say, we will likely not be hiking out there again. Instead, we are contacting the Yellowstone biologist about potentially sampling (or at least documenting the presence of) the mid-elevation white bark populations he mentioned earlier this week.
We may also spend tomorrow (which is my birthday) sleeping in, sight-seeing in Idaho, and then grilling and drinking with fellow AMK ranch residents 🙂
Today was another non-hiking day, mostly because Thursdays are the colloquium day at AMK Ranch. The colloquium starts at 5:30 and we would hardly have been able to hike out and back in that amount of time, let alone do much sampling. Instead, Kyleen attempted again to get in contact with the GTNP ecologist to discuss alterations to the sampling permit and the location of other potential populations of white bark pine in the area. I worked on some other stuff I brought with me, particularly a peer-review I was asked to do, and beginning a manuscript on nitrogen analysis of tree rings.
Our prep for tomorrow is well on its way. We have coordinates of the lake ready for our off-trail adventure. We borrowed bear spray and a space blanket from Shannon, the AMK ranch intern (just in case!).
And I changed packs. There’s a bit of a story behind this. Before we left Kansas, I was talking with Anthony (my husband), who has done lots of back country hiking for personal enjoyment as well as field work. He loaned me his giant hiking backpack in case we decided to camp nearer our site and needed to carry a lot of gear. He recommended I use it on our day hikes too, but I thought it was too big and bulky. Anthony argued that even if the pack is a little heavier, it allows you to portion a lot of the weight on your hips (via a waist strap) and save the stress on your shoulders. I disagreed and on our first hike on Monday used my regular bag. Look at how the weight just HANGS down my back – no wonder my shoulders hurt so bad by the end!
So, yesterday I got out Anthony’s big pack, took off all of the removable pockets and sections and wouldn’t you know, it’s almost as light as my regular backpack. And with it’s giant waist strap, most of the weight will be on my hips and not my shoulders. It took me like 20 minutes of fiddling with straps to get it adjusted to my size, but it looks like it will work really well. It seems (grumble grumble grumble) that Anthony may be right 🙂 I will fully test this theory tomorrow on our hike.
Anyway, this evening, we also attended the previously-mentioned colloquium. Today’s speaker was Dr. Arthur Middleton, a post-doc at Yale working on elk migration. He gave an excellent talk on the differences between reproductive rates in resident (non-migrating) vs migrating elk populations. The normal theory is that migration allows populations to access better forage and escape predators, and so they should be ‘better off’ than non-migrating populations. In this case, non-migrating elk can access agricultural fields with high-quality forage, and are protected from predators (like bears and wolves) that are actively removed from human-inhabited areas. Elk that migrate into Yellowstone however, have none of these advantages and are showing reduced reproductive rates. That was an over-simplification of all of his awesome research 🙂 It was a great talk and a lovely evening!
It wasn’t at our lake, and it wasn’t even in the Grand Tetons – but let me start at the beginning 🙂
Since today was a rest, recover, and reevaluate day for Kyleen and I, we decided to meet with both the GTNP and Yellowstone biologists to talk pine ecology. The GTNP ecologist (Kelly McCloskey) was tied up in meetings most of the day, and we couldn’t reach her the rest of the afternoon, but we left messages to set up a time for tomorrow.
We did meet with the Yellowstone biologist, Roy Rankin, who had quite a lot to discuss about white bark pine dynamics. Turns out that Yellowstone has a number of mid-elevation white bark populations, which are unusual since white bark is typically a high-elevation species. Roy has been tallying away ideas for research on these populations for the last 20-odd years he has worked at Yellowstone, and has been trying to garner interest in scientists to research it (he even rattled off numerous sources of funding that would likely be interested in such research), but so far had not been able to get anyone to start a project on these populations. Roy said “I just need to find some young, excited grad student who will do it for little to nothing.” Kyleen literally raised her hand and said “I’ll be that grad student!!”
Anyhow, after exchanging contact information, Roy pointed us to a near-by spot where he has frequently seen mid-elevation white bark pine trees. Lo, and behold – we found some!!!! We took copious pictures (and a tiny little sprig) for ID, and once back at the field station perused our own field books, those in the Berol Lodge library, Google Images, and the forest service field ID guides, and we can now confidently say that we have found the elusive white bark pine 😀
Of course, you can’t just drive ALL the way up to the biologist’s ranger station and drive ALL the way back out of Yellowstone without seeing ANY of the awesome things in the park 🙂 So, we stayed for one of Old Faithful’s eruptions (is that the word? ‘Spurt’ seems too unimpressive). We saw a handful of elk, and some bison, and a mountain goat waaaay up on one hillside. We saw Sulphur Cauldron, which actually smells worse than you might expect. My personal favorite was Dragon’s Mouth – a small cave that belches sulphurous smoke over a shallow pond, gasses inside the cave make deep growling sounds. I certainly would have thought a dragon lived there.
Once we got back to the field station, we stopped at the Berol Lodge for the art show. Several students from University of Wyoming had been out here a couple of days using the park as inspiration for a series of paintings. They were all fantastic, but I particularly enjoyed the one pictured in the gallery below. It’s watercolor on hand-made paper, and she used a smudging tool to add texture to the contours of the mountain. Absolutely beautiful!!
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.
Kyleen and I had an uneventful drive from Fort Collins CO to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP), and arrived by 3:30 pm because Google Maps drastically over-estimated the time it would take…. We got settled at the AMK (no idea what that stands for) research station at GTNP operated by University of Wyoming and the National Park Service. Right now, we have our cabin to ourselves, but during the two weeks we are here, two other groups will arrive to share the same facility. We have our own bedroom, but will share bathroom, kitchen, and living area. For anyone who has done national park fieldwork, it’s pretty much the same set up as everywhere else. And the view out the back of our cabin is phenomenal.
We met with Hank Harlow who runs the field station and is a professor at UW. He gave us lots of good advice on the hike itself and avoiding bears. Apparently, the field site has already had three bear ‘visits’ so they are quite strict on food and trash handling in the area. He’s also going to loan us some bear spray to use while hiking, and had already planned a mini bear safety session for all current residents of the field station.
Our other major concern has been snow and ice on the trail up to our field site. Hank assured us that there was minimal to no snow at all along our hike, though he recommended we take crampons just in case. He also gave us some advice on hiking across snowy or icy patches, so we’re well equipped to handle what little snow we should come across.
We also hiked down to the trailhead we’ll be using to access our fieldsite. There are two trailheads from which we can reach the lake, but the closer of the two is closed because a bridge was washed out. This will add about a half mile to our hike, but it’s in a flat area, so shouldn’t be too strenuous.
Hank also told us about a couple events going on at the field station. This week, there’s a group of artists (not sure where from) using the park as inspiration for a series of paintings. Wednesday evening, they’re holding an art show at the Berol Lodge (the main building at the field station). Also, all summer long, the Berol Lodge holds Thursday seminars with invited speakers whose research is relevant to the area. This week is a professor from Yale who researches elk migration patterns. The seminars are open to the public as well, and Hank says there can be as many as 150 people in attendance!
Anyhow, so far the prognosis seems solid. We are prepared for bears, no longer really concerned about snow, and my only concern now is the length of the hike. So long as the hike itself doesn’t take the bulk of the day, we’ll be able to get our sampling done really quickly. We shall see tomorrow!
Good evening from beautiful Fort Collins, Colorado! Kyleen and I left Manhattan this morning and made excellent time across the exquisite and exciting western Kansas and eastern Colorado 🙂 Our host for tonight is a hometown friend of Kyleen’s, Kyle Taitt (pictured with us at right), who is a biology student at Colorado State University. Kyle studies animal behavior, and is currently working with an adorable marmoset named Bubba. Kyle and his roommates, Casey and Brian (also students at CSU), have quite the menagerie in their house, including a parrot, a leopard salamander, a red-eyed tree frog, green tree frogs, a fiddler crab, and myriad species of anemones and salt- and freshwater fish in two 40-gallon tanks. Kyle also manages an evolutionary science blog, which you should TOTALLY check out. We all went to downtown Fort Collins for some dinner, and then spent several hours chatting about various scientific topics.
We are now off to bed for a much needed rest before tomorrow’s long drive to Grand Teton National Park! Thanks Kyle, Brian, and Casey for letting us crash your house for a night!