Yellowstone: July 3rd, 2013

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven (2)
One of the sandhills in the background–gearing up to eat my face!

Ahh, the beautiful Dunraven catchment. This was supposed to be a two-day affair but Andrew and I blew it up (in a good way). I think the Iron Maiden car-ride/jam session helped lay the right foundation for the day. The walk in was about an hour through dense old-growth forest with areas of downed mature trees. By comparison, this catchment was much easier going than Rock Point or Crawfish Creek because it was flat and the dead wood was by no means as dense. Plus, it was majestic on the eyes with it’s lush green understory, large pine trees, and winding streams. I kept waiting for a woodland nymph or troll to pop out from under a hummock and give me a hard time. But alas, it never happened. We were bound and determined to finish this catchment in a day so we were on fire. We had the first three sites surveyed and cataloged within the first 45 minutes and we kept that pace the entire day. Rest assured, we didn’t miss a thing but we also didn’t dilly-dally. We hit a snag when we got to a huge wet meadow (which we all know by now, I despise them). Pacing in the middle of this meadow was an angry pair of sandhill cranes. Presumably there was a nest in and amongst the wetland vegetation that they were determined to not let us get anywhere near. I like cranes but getting close to one that is nesting is not my idea of a good time, especially since I had one almost eat my face off at Nez Perce. We agreed to stay far away from the cranes and survey what we safely could. I made my way out into the wet meadow only to discover that it was instead a bog–a thermal bog. The only thing keeping me from plunging into a superheated sea of mucky water was a wobbly moss mat under my feet. My footing was tenuous at best and I almost fell through the mat on several occasions. I told Andrew to stay back, declaring it unsafe to survey, and made my way back towards solid ground. I surveyed a few thermal pools near the edge (boreal toad tadpoles like thermal areas so it was worth doing) and told Andrew that it was in his best interest to not venture out. He took my advice and we walked away from the site feeling a little defeated but also wise.

This was one of the catchments where we had to perform a stream survey which simply consists of walking along a stream and looking for signs of beaver activity. Beavers bring hope to us amphibian people. They create new breeding habitat, which is especially important since some of Yellowstone’s wetlands are permanently drying up. Thus far, we haven’t found any beaver activity in the Park but Deb just surveyed some high-quality wetlands made by beavers in the Tetons. During our leisurely jaunt along the stream I tripped and fell–of course, it was only a matter of time. To make matters worse, my pants literally exploded during the fall. My button came undone and my zipper flew open leaving me on the ground with my pants down. I scrambled to my feet and hiked up my pants before Andrew could see and never let me live it down. The worst part is that at our next survey site, I discovered that I had lost our only thermometer during the fall. Normally, I would have caught that but I was in such a hurry to right myself that I didn’t stop to look what had fallen out of my pockets. So the last three surveys of the day were lacking in air and water temperature data. Luckily, we didn’t find tadpoles in those wetlands so I don’t think it mattered much.  Along the stream were a few eerie patches of relatively new thermal pockets in the forest. It looks like the area was literally bombed. It’s weird to see a large chunk of forest now killed off. The trees are dead but still standing and there is no plant life on the forest floor. It’s just a large, bare patch of  steaming, sulfur smelling earth with only dead things in it. According to one of the German geochemists living at the dorm, back in the 1990s the Park experienced high number of rapidly appearing thermal areas.

Sand Hill Cranes at Dunraven
Flesh-eating sandhills!

They were literally popping up overnight. The Park was more than happy to have her come and research the geochemistry of the thermals because they were perplexed and a bit concerned. It has since slowed down but I can’t help but wonder if these particular thermal areas in Dunraven were from that time in the 1990s when the earth was going a little crazy or if the change was even more recent. We had to survey a pool of bubbling water between the stream and one of these thermal dead zones. It seems like that spot is getting much hotter and drier compared to years passed.

Our second-to-last site was the equivalent of a puddle but it was below a popular overlook. We kept waiting for people to spot us below them in the valley and create a biologist jam. The funniest part is that Andrew and I ended up making the exact same fashion faux-pas, totally unplanned. We wore the same beige Columbia button-up shirt with beige field pants and beige hats. It looked like we were both given the most horrendous uniform that the color beige threw up all over. We were certain that all that moving beige in the field would catch some attention but we went completely unnoticed. It’s probably for the best because that is the last outfit I would ever want to be seen or photographed in.

When we arrived back at the dorm, we met up with Deb to go over our assignments for the next week and met the brave backcountry crew, Jeanine and Scott. They’ve done this in previous years so they know what they’re getting into but I had to give them props anyways. There are some backcountry sites that I wish I could completely wipe from my memory and they’re willingly returning to them. Jeanine sent some props back our way by saying that Nez Perce and Crawfish were some of the worst experiences she’s ever had. Their first day at Nez Perce was so dangerous that they had to immediately abandoned their surveys and hike back out, only to do it all over again the next day. That’s thirty + miles in two days. And the biting insects in Crawfish scarred her for life. So I guess we’re all crazy here! She told me that she tells herself that every year is going to be her last and every year she comes back. I can relate. I promised myself in 2006 that I would never do field work this intense ever again and here I am.

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