Saturday, June 21, 2014

Roaming in Wyoming

The Cowboy state is everything you've probably imagined, and so much more. If you’re picturing chestnut-colored horses roaming in vast grassy fields with snowy mountains looming in the background, or pronghorn antelopes speeding through the plains, this is the place. Out here, it truly feels like the west – and it’s awesome to call this corner of the earth home for the summer. 
View from the road on the way out here - Custer State park, SD
I’m not just out here for the thrill of it though (as thrilling as it is...), I’m actually working for a Master’s Student at the University of Wyoming who is doing research on Columbia Spotted Frogs (Rana luteiventris) in the Bighorn Mountains. When I told people that I was coming out here for the summer, almost everyone said something like “Oh, it’s gonna be beautiful out there!” They certainly weren’t wrong, but I’m not sure beautiful quite explains it. 
This is what my backyard looks like...
Picture-perfect postcard views are everywhere. The first day I was snapping pictures like crazy, and for those of you who have traveled with me and seen me take pictures… it is impossible to understate my desire to document the moments, large and small. But there’s something about out here that’s different – I’m disconnected from the world while here. In fact, I’m writing this blog on Word and I have no idea when I’ll actually be able to post it. (Well, now I know...) We have no cell service, and no internet in our housing – which isn’t surprising given that we are living in a cabin at an elevation of over 8,000 ft. So instead of worrying about trying to share everything online right away, or attempt to take a bazillion pictures, I’m taking the time to really enjoy it… and it’s AWESOME.
Waaaayyyy down there is the quaint little city of Sheridan, WY - our connection to the outside world
For me, being without phone or Internet is actually a blessing – it’s so revitalizing to disconnect from the world, breathe some fresh mountain air, and appreciate this gorgeous country. Too many people these days are connected to their phones as if their lives depend on it… I know I’m certainly guilty of obsessively checking e-mails or Facebook at times – but I think if everyone took a little time to shut off their phones/computers and go for a walk outside, this world might be a better place. Go ahead, try it.
"The [Bighorn] Mountains are calling... and I must go." - John Muir
OK enough soap-boxing – let me tell you a bit more about my job here and life in the Bighorns, then I gotta get back outside and enjoy this place. The Master’s project I’m helping with focuses on radio-tracking Columbia-spotted frogs, which involves attaching tiny transmitters to the frogs with stylish little belts made of very thin, flexible PVC tubing and copper wire. They are designed to be adjustable and not bother the frogs at all. Once the belts are on we use a big fancy antenna called a Yagi, attached to receiver to track down the frogs and note their location on a regular basis. 
A Columbia-spotted frog with radio transmitter attached
We follow the sounds of the beeps that our receivers make when they pick up the signal from the transmitter. The closer we are to the frog, the louder the beep. So essentially we are playing a very scientific game of “Hotter, Colder” and then recording a GPS point and habitat data once we locate the frogs. Right now, our goal is to track about 30-35 different frogs in at least 6 or 7 different locations, so about 5 frogs in each area. Currently we’ve got 15 frogs with transmitters, after 1 week of work (Update - we're now up to 26 after two weeks!). When we first catch the frogs – we also give them a mouth swab to collect DNA that can be used for a genetic component of the project. The frogs do not like this component very much…
Say "Ahhh"
Luckily for both the frog and us, the procedure is quick and painless. After we've collected all the data we need for the frogs (weight, length, sex, etc) – we put them back where we found them and then check up on their location in the next day or 2. Each time we check on them, we make sure the belts aren't causing them any discomfort or abrasions on their skin, and apply a little vitamin E to keep their skin in tip-top shape.  It’s lots of fun, and we’re very lucky to be doing this in such a beautiful and unique part of the world.
One of our study sites - Sibley Lake
 Frogs aren't the only animals we've found out in these woods – this area is one of the best in the country to see wild moose and elk, and after only a week – I've already become accustomed to seeing these huge herbivores on a regular basis. The ones you really hafta be careful around are the Momma moose (meese?) with calves, as they will not hesitate to charge you if they think you are posing a threat to their little one. Luckily I managed to snag a couple shots of these two from the safety of our truck. 
Say "Awww"
Since we are working outdoors with large metal antennas and cold-blooded animals, our work is very weather-dependent. We typically start our day around 8 am, to give the frogs a little time to warm up in the morning in the hopes of increasing our chances of finding them. We've had some interesting weather up here since we arrived, to say the least. I knew we would have our fair share of cool days, but I was quite surprised to wake up one morning to the sound of thunder, and then look out the window… only to see heavy snow falling in the middle of June. Not too long ago there was an accumulation of about 2 inches in some places. Not exactly ideal frog-catching weather, but still neat to be able to witness.
Winter ... err, Summer? Wonderland
The snows are generally short-lived, most of it melting away by the end of the day – but there are still snow packs in various places throughout the mountains. These surprise snows have become a “normal” occurrence here – just the other day it snowed twice in the evening for at least a couple hours, and then the clouds moved on, the sun reappeared, and melts it away. These late snows are not typical (supposedly) for the Big Horns though, and it’s very possible that they could be one of the reasons why we aren’t finding as many frogs in some of the area’s where Anička (pronounced A-neesh-ka), our supervisor, was very successful in finding them with her crew last year.
Anička with a freshly caught frog
Luckily I get along really well with the people I work with, which is always a blessing in jobs like these where you are almost constantly together. The “Frog crew” consists of only three of us – Anička, another field tech named Julia, and myself. When we aren’t working – we have gone on some fun adventures together, everything from hiking to enjoying a couple cold beers at the local bar, Bear Lodge, which is just up the hill.  Nothing like a pint of cold Moose Drool after a long day of work! J
The frog crew - laughing at ourselves on top of Twin Buttes after attempting a jumping pic
In addition to working with these two cool chicks, I am actually living in a large bunk house with 8 other dudes that seasonally work for the US Forest Service. Apparently the Forest Service has fairly strict rules about people of the opposite sex sharing a cabin, so they put me in with these guys instead. About half of them work seasonally as firefighters, and the other half are part of a summer trail crew that helps to maintain the many miles of trails in the Bighorn National Forest. These guys are pretty cool, and a lot of them were out here last year – so they know the area pretty well. In fact Charlie, one of the guys on the fire crew, was the one that led us to the top of the Twin Buttes – the impressive peaks in the backdrop right outside our cabin.
Following the leader...
Unlike most hikes, we weren't following a trail – we were just exploring the wild outdoors with no boundaries or set paths. It caused me imagine what it must have been like for the pioneers of the 1800s to discover this place, not to mention the Native Americans that called this place home long before then. It’s so stunning, rugged, and truly remote. Thankfully it retains a lot of that spirit, even in today’s overly connected world.
From the ground to the sky - natural beauty is all around us
I could go on and on about how breathtaking this place is (quite literally – lot less 02 up here!) but I hope you kinda get the idea. Since we aren’t always online or even around that many people, these guys have come up with other ways to enjoy living here. I’ve gone mountain biking a few times since being here which is always exhilarating, not to mention quite a workout, and the views never disappoint. Nothing like looking down from the top of a mountain to see a couple moose grazing in the field below you.
Mountain biking with Charlie
Since we all work pretty hard up here, it’s important to have fun ways to unwind as well. Sure we can always go grab a beer at Bear Lodge, and it’s pretty common for a campfire to be burning out back, but the weekends call for something special. This past weekend, I was introduced to a whole new level of relaxation… the “Hillbilly Hot Tub.” It’s basically an over-sized water trough, set up on some metal pallets… with a healthy fire burning underneath in order to heat the thing. I’m surprised they don’t sell the materials for this in Wal-Mart right next to the S’mores section.
This is the definition of classy
The trick was getting the fire hot enough to heat all of the water… but not too hot, otherwise we’d all be cooked. Turns out we got a bit zealous with making the fire, and even though there was snow falling that evening – for many hours the water was scorching hot. So we waited it out and had a few beers, played some games, and even made a late night trip to Bear Lodge.
The local watering hole
Eventually around 1:30 am after the flames had died down and the coals simmered for quite a while - we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labors… and for just being a water trough in the woods, it felt damn good. We sat on wooden boards in order to avoid burning our asses… be sure to remember that if you’re planning on trying this at home. After all, who doesn’t love spending all afternoon chopping wood and starting a fire in order get hot water?

Well, I gotta get back outside now… hope a few of you got a tiny bit of entertainment out of this little life update. If you need me, I’ll be out roaming in Wyoming. And don’t bother trying to call me – my phone’s roaming too J Until next time, Peace out!
America, the Beautiful
P.S. I may not have Internet all the time, but I can always get mail! If you feel like writing a letter (yes, some people still do that!) my address is ...
Brad Nissen
Bighorn National Forest
(Burgess Ranger Station)
2013 Eastside 2nd Street
Sheridan, WY 82801

1 comment:

  1. Glad you're having a good old time out there! Definitely an underappreciated part of the country. The hot tub sounds awesome!