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A Human Leg…That’s Right A Human Leg

August 2, 2011

Yesterday I had to make a trip back to the Absarokas to meet with the second semester. It started with having to re-route to whole meeting due to a forest fire in the area that apparently has spread over 15,000 acres at this point. I went out with the re-ration guy, Mark (he brings new food rations to the courses), since the new route had never been used before and we had no idea what kind of road conditions we would encounter. This was a very very good thing. It was pouring in the Absarokas yesterday, and this new road was HORRIBLE! Because of the rain, it was basically all mud with enormous rocks sticking out, and pot holes large enough for me to comfortably lie down in and not be seen. Add to that the fact the road sloped in the direction of the ravine. I have never actually skidded around in a four wheel drive pick-up truck on mud while simultaneously sustaining minor neck and back injuries due to bouncing in and out of the road craters. My little Ford Fusion would never have made it. It was a harrowing adventure just getting to the course, but we did indeed arrive safely. We even got to see a young male moose along the way! Sorry, no pictures.

We finally find the course, and they look miserable. They were soaking wet and covered in mud; however, they were exceedingly happy to see us. To them Mark means new food and I mean fun treats and news of the outside world. I got many soggy muddy hugs, it was cute. The students started telling me about their adventures in the past two weeks, and rather nonchalantly, one girl told me, “We found a human leg!” WHAT? I of course been grilling her on how much of the leg was left and various anatomical features to be sure it was human…the osteologist in me will never die. The rest of the group chimed in, and it was a mostly in tact leg including the foot. A lot of the flesh and muscle had been eaten away by various creatures. My guess is that it was a solo hiker who either 1) got lost, died, and then animals feasted or 2) the hiker was attacked by a bear, died, and than other animals feasted. The course instructor gave Mark the rough location of the leg so it could be reported and hopefully investigated. As horrible as it must have been for the students to find this, I could not help but feel a bit jealous of their find – would have liked to have investigated it a little bit myself. And, yes, I know how sick that sounds.

And now a highly inappropriate cake picture

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The Epic Battle of Wits

July 27, 2011

Now for the truly interesting part of the CoR trip, I developed a nemesis…a rather diabolical chipmunk that lived near my campsite. Don’t let him fool you, behind this adorable, furry façade lurks an evil mastermind.

The mastermind at work

This cheeky little guy had the gall on the very first evening of my arrival to run between my legs, sit next to my water bottle, climb on top of my propane tank, and then jump in my food bag.  I was stunned at how bold he was and at how habituated to humans he was. He was quite adorable with his little wire brush tail, but the third day I was in City of Rocks, he crossed the line…he stole my apple! It was a bright, shiny, crisp Gala apple. He took it right out of the cup holder of my little fold up chair while my back was turned. Later that day, I find the apple with only a fourth of it eaten sitting in front of a rock.

Formerly my apple

That little stinker stole my beautiful apple and did not even have the decency to eat the whole thing or to at least share it with his other chipmunk friends. On my fourth night, he crossed yet another line. He crawled under the fly of my tent (the fly goes over the main part of the tent part and protects you from the wind), tried to get into my backpack which was outside the tent but under the fly, when he realized I have sealed it off tight he proceeded to sit on top of my backpack and chirp at me. Was he expecting me to feed him? This is no normal chipmunk!

The next day, he decided to use the space between my tent and my fly as his own personal bouncy house. He ricocheted from tent, to fly, back to tent, and then tried to swing on pulled back portion of the fly. How is this normal chipmunk behavior?

I mentioned my chipmunk problems to the NOLS students, and they said they had a chipmunk that sat on top of a boulder above their camp and regularly rolled small stones on to them. Perhaps I was the lucky one…perhaps.

I decided I needed to capture him on camera, in order to do this; sadly I had to bait him with pistachios.

This was a terrible decision. The morning after I gave him the bait pistachios, I was woken by the noise of a paper bag crumpling. He had again jumped into my food bag and attempted to get at the rest of the pistachios. I chased him out, folded down the bag, and but a cast iron skillet upside down on top of the bag. When I came back later that day, the skillet was turned over, the bag opened, and the pistachios gone.

This creature became the bane of my existence and a constant bother. He outwitted me at every turn, and I am sad to say I lost a battle of wits to a chipmunk, sigh…a chipmunk.

Devil’s Tower, City of Rocks, a Minor Miracle, and a Sad Turn of Events

July 27, 2011

Sorry it has been so long since my last post, but with all my travels internet service was intermittent and usually weak; however, far better than the cell phone service. During this blog-blackout I spent a week at Devil’s Tower with one semester course, was back in Lander a couple days to turn the equipment around, and then spent about a week and a half in City of Rocks, ID.

Devil’s Tower

It was a mind blowingly boring drive to Devil’s Tower. Eastern Wyoming does not have a whole lot to offer by way of scenery. However, I did drive past Hell’s Half Acre which is where a few scenes from Starship Troopers were filmed. Yes, sadly, that was about the greatest highlight. Devil’s Tower itself is a fascinating piece of geology and quite monolithic. It very much resembles a giant tree trunk with boulders sprouting from the bottom rather than roots. It also has a large prairie dog area. They were rather adorable, but apparently black widow spiders have taken up residence in abandoned prairie dog nests, so I did not go exploring too much in that area. I set up camp about 30 yards from my subjects at the Devil’s Tower campground, a good safe distance from black widow nests.

Devil's Tower

 

This section of data collection proved to be difficult. This course was rather lackadaisical about everything. They often forgot to wear their heart rate monitors, one person almost lost his (the instructor found it), they would fill out their diet and activity logs days after the fact and generally only after I yelled at them. It was incredibly frustrating. On top of that frustration, I was not allowed to sleep past 5:30 in the morning. At that point, the sun came up and started blazing down on my tent turning it into an oven – several of the days I was there it reached over 100 degrees in the sun. Then, when trying to go to bed early to make up for the terrible morning, new campers with TONS of kids would decide to camp right next to me and make noise for the next several hours. Also, I did not get to shower the entire week. It was not pleasant trip, but I managed to collect the data however poor in quality it may be.

City of Rocks

I had a couple of days in Lander to turn around all the equipment, shower, and catch up on my sleep before I had to head out to City of Rocks, ID to meet with the other semester. I met up with my subjects and decided to implement a “No Heart Rate Monitor Removal” policy. Basically, I did not want them to take the HR monitors off ever. They all agreed, but literally hours later, when I came back to collect a urine sample, I saw one of the students walking around without his heart rate monitor. Seething Frustration! I am hoping beyond hope they are better with their diet and activity logs. These kinds of things really have the ability to suck the life out of a researcher, there is just so much out of my control. At least this time, my tent is in the shade and I get to sleep in a bit more.

City of Rocks is rather beautiful though. The area is covered in rolling green hills and when I was driving in I could not possibly imagine how this place was called City of Rocks and where my subjects could even have their climbing camp. However, after some winding roads I breeched the encircling rolling green hills and truly saw a city of rocks. Enormous boulders were all over the landscape the interior of the rolling green hills were actually very rugged rock walls that I imagined to be rather difficult climbs. I did some exploring that taught me two things: 1) I need climbing shoes to do any “serious” bouldering around here…Keens just do not have the traction to cut it 2) cactus needles are rather nasty! My exploration consisted of some hiking (the cactus needles came into play here and tweezers came into play later), some crawling over rocks, and oddly enough crawling under barbed wire fences. There are apparently cows in the National Reserve. I often hear them, I see their feces, and I see the fencing meant to keep them in but I never actually saw a cow. The disembodied moos became quite disturbing.

The Bread Loaves

The rock behind Elephant Rock that I think looks like an elephant's head

Neat rock formation

Neat rock coloring

Three days before the end of this section, the course instructor told me that one of the students jumped into a lake while wearing her heart rate monitor. I was shockingly not all that upset…like I just expected something like this to happen. I told the girl to keep wearing the HR monitor on the off chance it was still working. Miraculously, when I got back to Lander and plugged the HR monitor into the computer, IT WORKED and I got ALL the data from it. I am going to put it out of commission temporarily until I can test it a few times myself. Not only was it important to get all that data, but it was also some much needed good luck for this project.

Overall, the past 3 weeks have been fairly successful. However, I must put a word in about the recent NOLS tragedy in Alaska. A group of seven students on their independent group section of their Alaska course were attacked by a grizzly bear this past weekend. Two of the students were seriously injured and at least three others sustained minor injuries. The students are all shook up, but it seems that everyone will pull through just fine. The Alaska Dispatch has a great article on this. This story made national news, and NOLS though currently bombarded with calls from parents and press, are dealing with the situation well.

The Ups and The Downs

July 7, 2011

This is going to be a quick post because I am pressed for time with far too much work to do. Let me begin with the 4th of July in Lander. It is unlike anything you get anywhere, I am quite sure. Explosions started at roughly 9:30 AM on July 4th, and literally did not stop (and I mean did not stop) until 12:30 AM July 5th. This is both and Up and a Down for me. I love fireworks and the build-up of excitement for nightfall so we can set them off; however, this experience made me kind of hate fireworks a little. I walked to the Lander City Park to take part in the 4th BBQ, and it was truly a death defying half mile walk. There were 5 and 6 year old children, completely unattended, shooting off fireworks in all directions. I had to duck and dodge firework shrapnel multiple times. Just the surrounding sounds were terrifying and honestly sounded like a set on a war movie. There were the multi-shot fireworks that sounded like machine guns, and then the HUGE BOOMS which resembled landmines or exploding shells. I let out more than one scream of surprise. By about 3pm, I had it with fireworks, put headphones in, and tried to ignore my massive headache and the massive unending explosions the rest of the day…it was not easy. At about 10pm I decided to look out the window, and I am glad I did. I saw gorgeous aerial shots that lit up the sky in an array of colors.

The day after the fourth of July, my subjects came out of the mountains bringing with them the heart rate monitors I had them wear as well as urine samples from the doubly labeled water portion of this study. I went over to meet the course to collect all those things, and everyone was very happy to be back, get a shower, and get some real food. It was actually very nice to see them all…until one of the subjects came up to me and told me she lost her heart rate monitor in the mountains. I was stunned at first and did not quite comprehend what she was saying. I asked if she meant she lost it in her backpack and it may take her a while to dig it out. No…she lost it…in the middle of nowhere. AHHHH!!!! Not only was that $500 worth of equipment, but a loss of data, and a loss of one of only 3 female subjects on the semester. This was quite the disaster on many levels. The rest of the heart rate monitors appeared to have collected good data with the exception of one that did seem to pick up anything at all. That afternoon, I collected resting metabolic rates from 12 people, during which the computer system crashed three times and the building lost power. This was not a good day.

However, yesterday, yesterday went much better. I had to do treadmill tests on 12 subjects, and they all went extremely well without the slightest problem. I also got my phone working again which was a huge relief. I had been without a phone for almost a week due to sim card exhaustion which I did not even know existed. Apparently, sim cards can only register 9000 networks, my sim card reached that number last week rendering my phone useless until Tmobile could send me a new one. It was a long 14 hour day, but the work got done and it got done well.

Today, was a tiring but very good day. My new advisor found some money to buy a new heart rate monitor for me which is absolutely amazing and wonderfully supportive of him. Other than that, the day was filled with entering all the data of the past two days and beginning prep for the next month. I leave for Devil’s Tower on Sunday and will be there for a week. I head back to Lander for two days, and then go to City of Rocks, ID for a week and a half. I will be doing the heart rate monitor and doubly labeled water collections at both places. I also get to try out my new tent! Once I get back from City of Rocks, I hit the home stretch for the first half of this research project which will end with a little vacation back to St. Louis followed by a road trip back to Wyoming with Aaron!!! That is the prize upon which I keep my eye. Anyway, for now, I must get back to work prepping for the upcoming trips and upcoming data collection. I promise to have lots of fun pictures from my mini tour of the West. I miss everyone so very much and I hope you are all well.

Five Map Friday

June 26, 2011

This past Friday I collected the second portion of data on one of the semester courses. This consisted of going out to the Absarokas and getting up to date weights, body fat percentages, and muscles masses. I also gave out heart rate monitors, diet logs, clothing logs, and activity logs. Finally, I doses one subject with doubly labeled water. This, though the easiest portion of data collection for me, is the MOST important for the project. I do relatively little, just pass out various pieces of equipment and paper, but the data from those heart rate monitors and the various logs make up the meat of this project. It is a rather nerve wracking experience placing the quality of my data and the care of heart rate monitors at $450 a piece into the hands of a bunch of 18-21 year olds for the next two weeks. I prefer to not think about it.

That was the basic punch line of Friday, now here is the story leading up to it. I will spare you the details of all the tedious work of prepping all the equipment and logs for the subjects. However, let me describe to you how I was briefed by the NOLS people for the actual road trip to the Absarokas. The original plan was for me to catch a ride with the NOLS bus as it brought out new rations to my subjects. But, turned out that bus was going out the day before to drop off another course, and the driver was just going to stay out there. So, I was told I had to drive out there myself. Once I was told that, I then took part in about an hour long briefing on how to get to the road-head of the Absarokas. This briefing started with the NOLS people pulling out five different maps…five different maps to travel less than 100 miles, also I was given a hard core GPS unit. We went over the maps several times, each time I was getting more and more concerned. And then, I was asked what type of car I own. I told them I have a 2007 Ford Fusion (basically a 2-wheel drive sedan with low clearance). They just stared at me in silence for a good 15 seconds. They then proceeded to tell me about the conditions I will likely encounter during the last 20 miles of the trip. I was told to expect twisty roads with massive amounts of mud and deep ruts. It was at that point they decided to give me satellite phone so that I could call for help in the likely event that my car got stuck. Here are the implements of travel.

 

The morning of this trip I went and picked up Kate, and we began our journey. We got to travel through the cute town of Dubois, WY which is currently under threat of some pretty major flooding. They have been fill sand bags for the past several days and putting them around all buildings near the Wind River. It was a very smooth journey, and as we approached the dirt road that would take us to the road-head, we both got very nervous about what we would encounter. We had all five maps out and ready to guide us. To both of our delight and surprise, the road was in fantastic condition. I mean this road was actually better than the old dirt road I grew up on; there were some muddy spots and some minor ruts, but absolutely nothing to cause concern. It was a shockingly easy ride. We even got to see a few elk which were huge and gorgeous. As we got close to the road-head, the Absarokas Range came into full few. This is very interesting mountain range in that the mountains do not really form peaks, but more flat mesas.


We finally got to the road-head and the campsite where we were going to meet the course. I had brought along lots of fresh fruit, Cliff bars, and Snickers bars for them. They had been out in the field for 17 days at that point and were DELIGHTED to have fresh food and new faces. I had to endure several hugs from people who had not showered once in those 17 days. It was a pleasure to see how happy they were. I had a meeting with the whole group and passed out the logs and heart rate monitors. I went over all the rules and the importance of being careful with the equipment. They were all really excited to see how their weight, fat percentage, and muscle mass changed. At first, it seemed like I would not be able to get these measurements. The scale refused to work on the ground even on the most level of areas. So, I decided to try it on top of the picnic table that was present at the road-head. And it worked! It became a great big group event where everyone had to stand on a scale on top of a picnic table. All of them really enjoyed it and a lot of the guys started taking bets on how much muscle they lost because of the lack of protein in their diets. Administering the dose of the doubly labeled water went fairly well. This is the “golden goose” subject providing a pre-dose urine sample (he was very proud of himself) and then drinking the DLW dose.

Delivering the first urine sample!

Drinking the doubly labeled water

And finally we took some group shots.

The drive back consisted of running into an older man and his wife who do wilderness horseback tours. He went to Michigan Tech for undergrad and is originally from Wisconsin (that is where Kate is from). When we got back into Dubois, we stopped for a coffee with ice cream in it, and then finished the rest of a successful and wonderfully uneventful ride back home!

In another week, I set out for my great tour of the West to meet with the two different semesters at different locations for a whole bunch of data collection. This will last about a month and a half and will take me through the rest of the first half of this project.

Some more Absarokas pictures.

Lazy Days in Lander

June 21, 2011

The past week and a half have been a whole lot of down time which is both good and bad. The bad is of course that I am bored a lot. The good is that I get a bit of a break and I look for ways to fill that time. So, here are a few of the highlights, if they can be called highlights.

1.  I finally got my own tent. I got the Mountain Hardwear Skyledge 3.

It is big enough for either 3 people, or two people and gear. I will be using it for the latter. During the upcoming trips to City of Rocks, ID and Devil’s Tower, WY, I will have to bring all of my sensitive and expensive equipment which means it has to sleep in the tent with me and whoever accompanies me on these trips. The fly is completely water proof, so as long as there are no raging floods, my equipment will stay dry. I also just really like the color. I found it at a local store here, and the very nice people let me take one out and set it up to see if it would suit my needs. I loved it, but did not love the price. I was able to find the exact same tent for $150 less on Amazon. I felt bad not supporting the local store, but $150 is $150. Here are some more pictures the latest addition to my camping kit!

2.  Testing out some new equipment. NOLS got a couple temperature data loggers that the course instructors will carry while on course so that I get minute-by-minute readings of the temperature. This is such a great thing to have, and so much better than handing out a thermometer and having someone check the temperature every hour. Using this little data logger means I get more data and more accurate data. Also, it is easy to use, you just initialize the device on the computer, and then hand it to one of the NOLS students (or instructor) and have them put it in the top part of their backpack, and they leave it alone for two weeks. It is pretty ideal.

3.  Baking at high altitude. This made me nervous. It kind of felt like I had to throw all my baking experience out the window and start from scratch. Strange things happen to the baking process at high altitude, and it all really does depend on what you are making. Because of the lower pressure at high altitudes, things tend to rise faster…using up the baking powder (or soda) at a faster rate leading to a quick rise but then an eventual collapse. This happens most commonly with cakes and cupcakes which I have yet to attempt. Typical corrections for this are reducing your leavening agent and often increasing the flour to add more structural support. For all types of baked goods, it seems common practice to increase the baking temperature to 25° higher than called for by the recipe and reduce the baking time. Over the weekend, I made cornbread. I reduced the amount of baking powder by about ¼ – ½ tsp, increased the baking temperature, and decreased the baking time by about 5 minutes. The buzzer went off, I peeked in the oven and the cornbread was NO WHERE near done, I mean it was almost raw. The oven was up to temperature, so that was not an issue. For me, and for cornbread, bake time actually increased rather than decreased despite the higher temperature. It did turn out quite well though. I did find it lacked the depth of flavor I normally have in my cornbread. I did a little research on this and found that high altitude often results in a loss of flavor too, though I am unsure why. If I make cornbread again, I will likely increase the amount of salt to see if that helps. But, here is the initial result.

Yesterday, I made some chocolate chip cookies. Now, cookies are more hardy than cakes, so often recipe adjustments to leavening agents and flour amounts do not need to be made (apparently, only 10% of cookie recipes need to be adjusted Lander’s elevation). I went with my normal chocolate chip recipe, increased the baking temperature, and decreased the bake time. Again, I found that I had to increase the baking time by 5-6 minutes compared to St. Louis bake time. I was astounded by this. Sorry, no pictures of the chocolate chip cookies. You will have to ask Aaron how they turned out since I shipped them to him. I have started a new baking learning process, seems kind of silly considering all I have left to learn for sea-level baking…not to mention doing actual dissertation work. I am not sure how much more time I will have for experimentation, but it is kind of like re-discovering baking. It is actually a lot of fun.

Those are the highlights…sad I know. I head out to the Absarokas this coming Friday to pass out heart rate monitors and the temperature data loggers to one of the courses. I am sure I will have far more exciting things to talk about after that and some nice pics too! I miss all of you terribly.

First Round of Data Collection COMPLETE!!!

June 10, 2011

As of Wednesday, June 8 at 5:00 MST, the first round of metabolic data collection was completely and utterly done! It was four days of non-stop data collection in Lander, WY followed by a trip down to Vernal, UT for another full day of marathon data collection.

The Lander data collection was particularly stressful and hectic. I had to weave data collection in with the typical NOLS schedule. We had decided it would be easier for the students if the data collection took place near where they pack their bags and organize their food rations. So, on Monday morning, I moved all of the equipment to the new location to find that there was a Stair master set up for me rather than a treadmill. This was an old school stair master where I could not get speeds or any real measure of work intensity performed by the subjects. I was not happy about this and decided to completely nix this whole stair master idea. I was already measuring out a track way for subjects to walk and run on when I was told that temperatures would reach the upper 80s that day – too hot for this part of the study. So, after having moved all of the equipment, I had to move it all back to its original location. Kate helped tremendously making sure the students got to me for data collection. The students (my subjects) were really a wonderful, fun loving group. They were enthusiastic about the project and seemed generally interested in the study and all the fun information that will come from it. The course proctor, Kate, and NOLS staff in general were absolutely fantastic about all this and really made it work, and it all got done with very few if any problems. Another potential disaster averted!

The next morning, Kate and I were on the road to Vernal, UT to meet the second semester I am following and collect the pre-course metabolic data. The drive down, a little over four hours from Lander, WY, was absolutely gorgeous. There were lots of fun winding, switchback heavy mountain roads. The first highlight of the drive through was stopping in Dutch John, UT for a bathroom break. This is what I found on the women’s bathroom wall.

 

How great of a poster is that?!?!?

The second highlight was Flaming Gorge Dam. It was beautiful and the first time I have seen and drove across a dam in person.

When I was in Lander, I was told that Vernal was a small Mormon town with absolutely nothing to do. When we got there, we were shocked! It was so much bigger than Lander, and it is the location of lots of dinosaur digs. They have a couple of nice looking dinosaur exhibits throughout town and little Mom an’ Pop fossil and rock shops. I did not get a chance to visit on this trip, but I plan on doing so in the future. When I got to the NOLS Vernal base, I was met by such lovely people. The staff there is really tremendous and they were very accommodating to the needs of the study. They were interested in what I was doing and had lots of questions and input which is always wonderful. We also met the NOLS Vernal bosses Red and Ocho.

Red the Cat - apparently the real boss of the NOLS Vernal base

Ocho the Dog

Ocho got into a wild turkey nest and managed to steal the eggs, gingerly carrying them in his mouth to a secret location for a late day snack. Poor mama turkey!

 

And this is the Vernal NOLS base.

Once we touched base with the NOLS staff and the course proctor, Kate and I went for a drive to Dinosaur National Monument. Here a couple pictures of the park.

Entrance into Dinosaur National Monument

View of Split Rock Mountain

Prairie Dog!!!!

And an awesome picture of this little ant moving a rock.

 

We got back in the evening, met with the students, set up a data collection schedule, and then turned in for the night. We camped outside near a horse stable. The horses were neighing all night long, and I barely slept, but science must go on.

The course proctor set aside Wednesday just for data collection to reduce competition with the normal NOLS curriculum. I measured out a track way outside for students to walk and run, and it worked amazingly well. Here are some data collection action shots!

Resting metabolic rate setup

 

 

The whole thing went very well, and we were able to drive back to Lander Wednesday evening. However, we ended up driving into the apocalypse! There were massive thunderstorms surrounding Lander, and we were driving right into them. I feel so bad for people who were up in the mountains because it looked like they were getting slammed with snow, rain, wind, and lots of lightening. I do hope they are all safe and doing well.

Once I got back into town, I shut my mind off for about 36 hours. I took all of Thursday off to just rest my mind and body after such a marathon. Today it is back to the grind, planning how the Fall/Winter semesters will run, working on a bunch of little different projects for NOLS, and the tedious process of entering data into excel files. All in all, I am feeling very good about how things are going. There was plenty of potential for disaster but things went rather smoothly; it imbues hope for the future!