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December 10, 2011

Field work is officially finished. That realization has not quite set in yet, but when it does I promise a retrospective look on this whole experience!


First Trip to “Hoth” aka the Absarokas in Winter

November 27, 2011

This past Wednesday was the first trip into the snowy mountains. This trip was to give heart rate monitors to the first of my two fall semester courses. They were in the Absaroka Range which at the moment is covered in about 3 feet of snow. My first Fall course and another course that was in Lander contracted Giardia and several students were extremely ill which lead to a longer and more logistically complicated trip than we anticipated. We had to take in a student who delayed her trip to the Absarokas due to illness, drop off heart rate monitors, drop off medication for the Giardia infected students, pick up a different student from that course to evac her out (she was very ill), and then deliver medication to the other Giardia infected course. All of this was to be accomplished by snowmobile and sled, and I have to say this is far and away the highlight of this entire field work experience.

The Beautiful Absarokas (The Ice Planet of Hoth)

More Beauty

I have never been on a snowmobile before, yes, I know, I am a terrible Michigander. John Gookin (the research manager at NOLS who has made this entire project possible) and Ryan Hutchins (who camped out with my last year during my pilot study) were my drivers on this trip and these two are legends, pure legends!

I assumed that driving a snowmobile was like driving a car, you steer and the machine goes where you steer. Yeah, I was so very very wrong about that. So much of driving one of these machines depends on how you move your body and where you position your weight. It is far more athletic than I expected. Anyway, all of this hauling had to be done with two snowmobiles, one could not really handle two riders so the other had two riders and pulled a dogsled that carried all the gear and a third rider. I volunteered to ride the dogsled behind the snowmobile. I thought it entailed just standing there, oh no! I had to help steer the sled which also helped steer the snowmobile. This entails standing on a slippery metal platform and throwing my weight around without falling off (which I did…only once). The whole trip was successful and went far better than I expected. The scenery was snow covered and gorgeous though oddly reminded me of Hoth – letting the nerd come out here. It was also a surprisingly warm day, so I didn’t have to wear the absurd snow jacket I borrowed from NOLS, though I did have to wear the pants.

The ridiculous tree-trunk boot covers - made me feel like an Ent + the Leakey Foundation measuring scale

Giant Smurf Snow Suit

What I actually wore, though the pants were so big, the crotch of them hung halfway down my thighs.

It is rather hard to describe the feeling of going about 25 mph on a dog sled through 3 feet of snow, shifting from side to side to keep the sled in line, feeling the cold wind whipping my face, and the thrill of feeling the sled almost tip or slip and using your own strength to right it again. It is exhilarating and exhausting but really the best description is BAD ASS! The morning after the ride out, I get to do it again this coming Wednesday for my other course, and I can’t wait!

This is THE face of Science!

I lied there are three pictures from the Bear’s Ears

November 11, 2011

Here are the only three pictures I took on the 2 day 20 mile hike.

Some landscape

This is Lauren, her husband Adam, and their dog Nola

What is left of a glacier

Long Time No Post

November 4, 2011

Yes, I know it has been a very long time since I last posted, and there is really no excuse for it. Since my last post I did a roughly 20 mile hike over a roughly 12,000ft mountain in two days, had non-stop marathon days of data collection starting at 5am and ending at 10pm, narrowly missed a snow storm, got caught in a wind storm, and went to St. Louis for a little break. But, let’s start with the hike…sorry no pictures.

I had to meet with the second of my two Fall semesters, and instead of going in with the horse re-ration, I had to hike in. I, two NOLS instructors, their dog, and a friend of those instructors were expecting a 3 day two night trip to meet with the group. Fortunately, the friend of the instructors brought along a pack horse (and her two dogs) which definitely lightened the load which became extremely important when our 3 day hike turned into a hike over two days but really only covering about 30 hours. We were supposed to leave at 6am for this trip, but we didn’t actually set out for the road head until noon. At the end of September, a NOLS course suffered a tragedy in India. A student participating in the semester course in India fell over 300ft into the Ganges river, his body still has not been found and he is presumed dead. Here are the two NOLS blog posts on the matter. As a result of this accident, NOLS called in all of their instructors with experience in India to send there and be part of the search and rescue team. One of these instructors happened to be working with one of my courses at the time. He was immediately evacuated out of my course, and my little research expedition was asked to delay our departure until a new instructor could be found and prepped. That new instructor hiked in with us to join the course.

We anticipated a 2 day hike in given it was over a mountain pass; however, once we were over that pass we were able to see the tents of my course a couple miles off. This was a delight! They were closer than expected, and I was able to get my work with them done the next morning. Why is that so exciting? Well, the instructors’ dog got in a fight with the friend’s dog, wounding it. Also, our stove broke and we only had enough cold food for one dinner and one breakfast. This meant a dinner of slices of cheese and summer sausage and a bagel and peanut butter for breakfast. We would have been royally screwed if we had to stay the entire 3 days. So, the research part went well, and the timing worked out super well to offset the bad luck in other areas. Also, that excruciating hike up and over the mountain pass on day one is SOOOO much easier on the way back down, I basically ran down that mountain.

After that, I had a couple of days until the first Fall semester course came back into town and I had to perform treadmill tests and resting metabolic rate tests starting at 5am and ending at 10pm. This was not a pleasant time. I slept in shifts from about 12am-5am and then from 10am-1pm. All time around that was dedicated to collecting data or analyzing data. I can’t remember a more unpleasant schedule, and there were multiple student infractions during this time which made things incredibly difficult. Despite all this, it got done. Fortunately, the second Fall semester group proved to be champs and all of that data collection went off without a hitch. It was seamless and beautiful!

When all of my subjects had completed their tests, I then had about a month and a half until I was to see them again and collect more data. I decided it would be nice to spend some time in St. Louis, relax a bit, and work on a hiking treadmill test I have needed to do. I left Lander extremely early in the morning on October 7 to avoid an incoming snow storm. I did manage to miss the snow, but ran into a massive wind storm in Eastern Colorado and Western Kansas. I faced 50 mph sustained winds, my car was pelted with tumble weeds, and I had to drive through walls of dust. When the tumble weeds flew over hill sides they reminded me of tribbles…kind of adorable and hilarious.

Tumble Weeds...I mean Tribbles

Anyway, things got so bad that the highway was shut down. Aaron had to guide me through about 40 miles of country dirt roads. I happened to make a wrong turn towards the highway and by sheer dumb luck it seems they forgot to close this entrance, or had not closed it yet. I fly onto the highway determined not to get off until I was forced by cops. I made it to Salina, KS a little before 8pm and got one of the last hotel rooms left in the entire town. Because of the highway closure, everybody headed west was stopping in Salina and the hotels were jammed. Fortunately the trip from Salina to St. Louis was completely uneventful.

While home, I was able to spend lots of time with Aaron, see friends, got to lots of haunted houses, have a great Halloween, spend over $1,600 on car repairs (you would not believe the damage mountain roads do to a car) and really appreciate my life here. My time home is just about up. I head back to Lander on Tuesday. They have been getting walloped with snow, so should be a fun trip and should provide for some interesting and challenging research conditions!

Typing with Gloves On

September 15, 2011

It has been a while since my last post, but mostly because that time has been completely filled with lots and lots of treadmill and resting metabolic rate studies. There were more 12-14 hour days of data collection than I can remember. However, the last 24 hours take the cake. I had to meet the first fall semester in the mountains to pass the heart rate monitors and doubly labeled water dose. This was scheduled to coincide with the courses re-ration, which in the Wind River Range is done by pack horse. So, we arranged for me t ride out with the pack horses. I went to the Diamond 4 Ranch on Tuesday evening. This ranch is less than 40 miles away from Lander, but with the winding, dirt mountain roads, it took well over an hour and a half to get there. The ranch is owned and operated by a wonderful old Wyoming cowboy named Jim Allen. The ranch at this late point in the season consists of Jim and three other members of his crew. There is one main cabin, the stable, a few smaller cabins, and an outhouse. There is no electricity, all the lamps are fueled by propane, the water comes directly from a mountain spring, and there is a wood stove for heat. It was a wonderful feeling of being thrown back into a different time, very relaxing actually to be removed from so many distractions.

That first evening was spent meeting the crew and chatting with Jim. Jim is a fantastic person, once the crew had left for the night, Jim and I chatter for well over an hour on topics ranging from evolution and geological time to third world country property rights and common horse illnesses. It was a great conversation and one of the most intellectually stimulating talks I have had since I have been out here.

The next morning started very early with a hearty cowboy-style breakfast and getting the horse team packed. We were taking out a 12 day food ration for 18 people which required 4 pack horses…you would not believe the amount of cheese NOLS students get on these courses! Chris was the cowboy/rancher who rode out with me. He led 3 of the pack horses and had me lead the 4th. The horse I rode was named Diamond, a big chestnut colored male with a white star (or perhaps diamond) on his forehead. The horse I lead was named Dandy, a smaller girl who has had a privileged life of mostly being ridden by children which means she lacks discipline. We had a 4 hour ride to meet the course and then another 4 hours to make it back to the ranch. The entire time, I had to yank on Dandy’s lead rope because she kept trying to stop and snack along the trail.

The morning was beautiful, the sun was shining and the scenery was gorgeous. The ride is was rather uneventful until about the last hour before we met the course. Low clouds were rolling in, which meant rain. Now, we fully expected to get rain, it is almost a daily occurrence in the mountains to get some afternoon showers. We had packed accordingly with our rain gear. We thought it would be the typical 20 minute storm and then the sun would come back out as is typical…we were very wrong.

We got to the course safely, unloaded all the food, they got it all organized, and as I was getting the heart rate monitors out the rain and thunder began. The sprinkles turned into a steady rain round about the time Chris and I were packing to leave. Instead of the rain going away like it normally would, it actually picked up in intensity and even worse the temperature started to drop. The saddle was wet and cold, I was wearing jeans (as I was told to wear) which just soaked up the rain and made the colder temperatures far worse. The trail we took in had now become a flooded, muddy disaster. There was seriously a small river of rain water running through and along the trail, the horses HATED it and were very unsteady. We got to the steepest part of the trail we had to go down which was nothing but slippery, muddy rocks of death. Chris decided that it would be safer to walk the horses down rather than ride them down. So, this meant that he and I had to hike down the muddy rocks of death wearing cowboy boots (which have no grip by the way) with 1500 lbs animals behind us who were prone to slipping on the rocks. So, there was the fear that I would slip but even the greater fear that the horse would slip and fall into me. This was a very frightening half mile, one that I am not quite sure how we made it through without a single slip or fall.

The rest of the ride home was cold and wet and muddy and just plain miserable. With about three hours left in the ride my fingers and toes had gone numb. I had to frequently check that the reins were still in my left hand and the lead rope for Dandy was still in my right hand because I could no longer feel them. At about this time my butt was also becoming incredibly sadly sore, my inner thigh muscles were tensing up, and my knees were screaming…again there were still 3 hours left to get through! With about an hour left, my entire body was soaked and I was shaking and chattering my teeth. I have very little memory of this now and I am not even completely sure how I kept going when all I wanted to do was fall off the horse, curl up in a ball, and go to sleep.

When we finally got back to the ranch and I got inside, I was shaking so strongly and uncontrollably that even the basic functions of removing my shoes and changing into dry clothes became nearly impossible. I could not hold a mug of hot chocolate without spilling it because I was shaking so much. It took two hours, two cups of hot chocolate, a cup of hot tea, a hot spaghetti dinner (thank you, Chris) and sitting by the wood stove for the shaking to stop. The goal was to be able to drive back to Lander that night. However, the steady rain during the ride became a torrential down pour and flooded out the roads. And these mountain dirt roads filled with switch backs basically disintegrate in heavy, sustained rain. So, I was at the ranch one more night, and sadly no hot shower to look forward too. But you know what, I made it through. I am back in Lander, my fingers and toes are still cold and tingling, I am wearing gloves and it is 70 degrees out, but I got through it. Now for the big hike out next week…in the same area!

The Vacation Post

September 1, 2011

This has taken far too long to post, but I crashed for two days after vacation and then had to get right into some data analysis and setting up of logistics for the next round of data collection which will begin this Sunday. Thankfully, that is the only talk of work you will hear in the rest of this post!

The Monday morning I left for St. Louis I was incredibly nervous. Flights out of Riverton, WY are notoriously problematic. There are far too many equipment problems, staff shortages, and weather issues to contend with which leads to delayed flights and then missed connecting flights in Denver. However, I am happy to say, I made it into St. Louis without a single hitch and even landed a few minutes early. I was greeted at the St. Louis airport by Aaron with flowers in hand which was the perfect start to a wonderful vacation. My five days in STL were filled with baking, eating, visiting with friends, a few work related meetings, and playing with kitties. It was a whirlwind of activity, but it felt so good to be home and see some (but not all) of the people I miss so much.

That Saturday, Aaron and I set out for our Great Western Vacation. Our goal on the first day was to hit Sioux Falls, SD. We saw this little gem at a gas station/fireworks store in western Missouri.

A sausage gravy dispenser at a combo gas station/fireworks store - nothing about this is right

This leg of the trip took about 2 hours longer given road closures in Iowa due to the massive and truly devastating flooding. But we arrived to our campgrounds…Jellystone Campgrounds, which was a crowded and loud experience – we escaped unscathed. The next day started our real adventures – We hit the Badlands! This place is truly like another planet, as Aaron said you could clearly picture Captain Kirk fighting a man in a giant green, rubber suit in the Badlands.

Kirk vs. Gorn

We spent several hours scrambling around and doing some minor exploring. Here are some pictures of what we saw, and really they do not give you any idea of the scope and uniqueness of this place.

Me scrambling

Aaron being silly

Once we completed our little trip to Mars, we continued on to the Black Hills. I adore the Black Hills despite the gut wrenching disappointment that is Deadwood, I find this part of the country to be gorgeous and tranquil. We camped out at the Sylvan Lake campgrounds which I would recommend to EVERYONE for one reason and one reason only – the lake! Aaron and I did the typical visit to Rushmore.

This was followed by an absolutely amazing candlelight tour of Wind Cave. Sorry, no pictures of that since we literally saw the cave by candle in a bucket, but I would tell anyone who can do such a tour to do such a tour. We got back to our camp and decided to go to the lake for a swim. The water was perfect, there were boulders sticking up around the lake that could be climbed and become great spots to jump back into the water. This picture is not mine, since camera + water = bad, but it gives you an idea of the beauty we swam in.

The spaces in were big enough for us to swim in between the rocks which was really neat but also really creepy.

Sadly, we had to leave the Black Hills, but for bigger adventures. We hit Devil’s Tower on our way to Yellowstone.

Yellowstone is truly a place everyone should visit. I cannot even begin to describe everything we saw there, and I am not going to try – it would be far too long of a post. It just seems that a place such as this should not exist. There is wildlife, large lakes, rivers, mountains, grassy plains, a huge canyon, water falls, thermally active waste lands, hot springs, burbling pools of mud, steam vents, and geysers – all in one place. We experience these moments of peace and tranquility, and then you seem a violent steam vent and are reminded that you are currently standing on an active volcano. It was a fantastic and surreal experience. I kind of can’t wait to go again and do more exploring. Here are some of the highlights.

Mud Volcano

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and the Lower Falls - the best picture I have ever taken

The vast, thermally active wasteland that is Norris Geyser Basin. This is the Black Growler Steam Vent in the foreground. This was probably our favorite place to visit

Palette Spring of the Mammoth Hot Springs

Silex Spring from Fountain Paint Pot Basin

Giant Geyser in the Upper Geyser Basin (where Old Faithful is) this is the largest geyser in the park but very unpredictable

Baby buffalo - look at that red coloring!

A adult buffalo posing

Alas, vacation did have to end, and it did in Lander. But not before a drive through the Grand Tetons.

Aaron got a tour of the town and of Riverton, but had to leave this past Sunday. After all that, it really does make it tough to get back to work. I just keep remembering only 3.5 months left to go!

Half Done!

August 13, 2011

I will keep this quick. After a trip to Vernal, UT and one to Brooke’s Lake in the Absarokas mountain range of Wyoming, I am officially half done with fieldwork!!!! I only had to deal with some very minor problems, a couple of very long days, waking up to ground frost outside of my tent, and yet another all to clever chipmunk. But overall the last bit of data collection went quite well.

None of this would have been possible without the support and hard work of so many of the wonderful NOLS staff, not to mention the students who took part in the study. A huge thanks to all of you!

I have a day and a half left here in Lander, WY, and then I fly home to St. Louis for a short vacation. In the next post expect lots of pictures of the road trip Aaron and I are taking from St. Louis to Lander.

I hope you are all well and thanks for sticking with me through this first half!