Sunday, July 6, 2008

Woodpeckering: Part 01

Finally. Here I am. I have found that going back and forth between my regular life as a compositor, wife, swimmer and my summer life as a ornithological field worker, solitary person, hiker is difficult. When I come home there is lots to attend to (and work!), so I have not been posting. This is my attempt to break that habit.

First off, I have to confess that my camera doesn't work anymore. Rather, it doesn't work more than it does work, so my words (perhaps linked to others' photos) will have to suffice. I think this is another reason I have not been blogging - the visual images I bring home lead to a story; without those, I flounder.

Thursday the 26th, I flew up to Oakland, where I was picked up by Rodney Siegel, the biologist from IBP who roped me into this adventure. I have known Rodney since 2006, when I did my first birding study - looking for Great Gray Owls. Rodney was the man who trained me, and we have remained email buddies since. Last year when I worked on the WIFL (that stands for Willow Flycatcher) crew for IBP, Rodney joined us for a few weeks and we actually backpacked together for old times' sake. This is the second woodpecker expedition with Rodney; we went out June 03-09 also. We are looking for Black-Backed Woodpeckers (BBWO) in fire areas. These birds move into recent fires to take advantage of the outbreaks of wood-boring beetles that occur. We are doing this in National Forests all around the Sierra Nevada. Rodney took a random sample of relatively recent fires (I think within the past 8 years) for us to survey.
This time out we were making a huge loop. From Oakland we drove to Mineral King, in Sequoia National Park.
I have never seen such terrible air quality in the Central Valley. If you are not aware, there are hundreds of fires burning here in California, and a lot of it gets funneled into the Valley. Unfortunately, this was creeping upslope into SNP. The air quality there was rated "Unhealthful for All" at the rangers' station. And, we were about to backpack twenty-some miles roundtrip, up to elevations of 10,587 ft. Great.

The ride to the Cold Springs campground in SNP took us through from the valley through foothill and into Sierra Mixed Conifer regions. A gray fox ran across the road on our drive up. What a gorgeous creature. We spent the night car camping at the aforementioned Cold Springs. We discovered when we went to the ranger station that yellow-bellied marmots
are a problem in Mineral King. The current thinking, as related by a campground volunteer, is that it seems to be the lactating females who are drawn to nibble at our radiator hoses and other such delicacies under the hoods of cars. They think the animals are either getting some trace minerals from their snacks, or are getting high. Whatever the case, Rodney and I were a bit concerned about leaving the car unattended for a 36-hour stretch while we backpacked in over Farewell Gap to the National Forest outside the National Park. They recommended leaving the hood open; the rangers said that seemed to discourage them. ? OK. When we saw people who had the underneath of their cars wrapped in tarps or chicken wire, we were doubtful, but we didn't have a choice. We had no tarp or chicken wire and there wasn't any available.

We spent a relaxing night at the campground. Here's the river that ran through it:
We took a walk and came back to find a deer nibbling on & licking my tent (what's wrong with the animals in Mineral King anyway?)
One corner was covered in deer slobber. Bad deer.

Next day was up and out over the pass. I still can't figure out how long it was. The signs and maps all seem to say different things. Suffice it to say, it was somewhere between 10-14 miles one way, and it featured a 3000-ft. elevation gain (from 7,500 ft. to 10,587 ft.) and then a 1,500-ft. elevation loss. As it turns out, it is very difficult to carry a 35-lb. pack that far at that elevation with unhealthful air. I was coughing at the top - Farewell Gap - when we took a break for lunch. There was much more snow than in the picture I link to. We had to cross a small snowfield on the other side, as we entered the Golden Trout Wilderness, part of Inyo National Forest. I really dislike crossing snowfields; they seem to be inevitably on steep slopes and I am walking on melting snow and if I, say, slipped, well, it's going to be awhile before I stop. Scary. I don't look down and don't think about it too much. I find that gets me through. And, it was quite windy through the gap, but the wind was nothing compared to on the way back. That adds to the challenge of walking on the snowfield.

So, we made it over and to the survey site. It took about six hours. Exhausting hiking, but stunning scenery. We were above treeline and could see as far as the smoke would let us! This is a little closer to the amount of snow, but there was even more.

Rodney and I had a hard time finding a campsite because it was very steep around the study area. We finally decided to just plonk our tents down on a bare patch in between two creeks. We were desperate to go to sleep - we were both exhausted - but the site was completely exposed to the sun and we would have roasted in our tents. We were sitting and waiting for the sun to go down behind the mountains to the west. Inevitably, it did. When I got in my tent to settle down for the night, I realized I was filthy. I saw rivulets etched in the dirt on my arms. I was too tired to do anything about it.

After all this, there were no BBWO! The nerve. Rodney did see a black bear and a goshawk, though. I flushed a sooty grouse. She really let me know of her displeasure, by constantly clucking as I walked away.

After several kilometers of surveying, it was back to camp to break everything down. We left at 11 a.m., a little ahead of schedule. Rodney and I are good hiking partners, because I am better at the uphill and he is better at the downhill. So, I pull him up the mountain, and he pulls me down the other side. I was going as quickly as possible, because I could feel everything from the knee down hurting from the day before, and I knew that the sooner I finished, the better for us both. When we returned to the 10,587-ft. Gap, the wind was roaring through it. Small pebbles were hitting me as I turned around to check Rodney's progress across the snowfield. I actually had to grab the sign marking the pass because when the wind caught me crossways as I turned, it started to blow me over. I don't know how fast that is, but I would have to guess maybe 50 m.p.h. We made it back to Mineral King by 4 p.m. That was the hardest hike I have ever done, even harder than the Hetch Hetchy last year, mostly because of the elevation. The car was unscathed (Thank you, oh Great Marmot God) and we drove back to Cold Springs and collapsed. End of the first survey on our second trip, and we were wiped out and had no woodpeckers to show for it.

To be continued ...

1 comment:

where i live said...

sounds like quite an adventure!