There and back again, an intern’s tale

Far over the Bighorn Mountains cold,
To canyons deep and forests old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long forgotten goals.

The pines were roaring on the heights
The winds were moaning in the night
The snow was wet, its flurry spread
The trees like beacons shone with light
(-The Hobbit, sort of)

Bighorn Mountains

Winter in Wyoming started October 1st with the first of many snowfalls. The trees experienced one blast of the icy cold and decided immediate leaf abscission was their only path forward. On multiple occasions I have been foiled going to work by ice on the hilly roads between my apartment and the office, and “oh look, the high is 5 degrees” has been a sad and somewhat frequent lamentation by my coworkers. But for all this, I will always remember my time in Wyoming for its beauty, absurdity, and the wonderful opportunities I had while working at the Buffalo BLM.

Snow on October 1st

I was able to take plenty of trainings and develop many professional skills while in Wyoming. In my very first week, I learned “Defensive Driving” (and consequently how to drive a pickup truck) and was able to take an awesome NOLS wilderness medicine course through the BLM. A very long day was devoted to driving a UTV and countless online courses gave me proficiency in writing government documents such as NEPA, Visual Resource Management, and Statements of Work. I was also extremely fortunate to work with Buffalo’s hydrologist on the early stages of a river restoration project. This opened up an entire new knowledge set for me regarding fluid dynamics, elevation measurements via laser, river terms, and just being able to slog through the river in waders to collect various kinds of data. That in particular was an awesome project that I am proud to have been a part of.

There were always little moments of delight at work. Sometimes, especially in the colder months, someone would put out a jigsaw puzzle in the break room. As puzzle enthusiast, I would always take my lunches (when I was not in the field) to work on these. There were a few of us for whom this pastime was perfect, and so a little community of puzzlers formed, people with whom you would chat and eat while plopping pieces into place. Or when it got closer to Halloween, being able to take a break after finishing an office task by cutting out a construction paper bat or meandering through the halls to see the decorations in all of the different departments. This particular joy culminated in a morning of preschooler trick or treaters in the office, whom I was lucky enough to lead through the various rooms on their hunt for candy and stickers.

Our office, decorated for Halloween and kiddo trick or treaters

Professionally, my most rewarding moments were working with kids. Every time I was able to work with kids as the rec intern (which was actually fairly often) I was ecstatic. We did camps and lessons for kids ranging 6 through 16 over the course of the internship. Flower dissections with elementary and middle school students resulted in ripped up pieces of flowers everywhere while students systematically went through and described what they were seeing to me and to each other. A pollination game with first graders lead to conversations about how there are so many things that make it difficult for trees to successfully reproduce, from pollinators to weather conditions. A game focused on public lands use saw beads all over the floor and 4th grade students super excited to use their public lands passes to explore. Each of these experiences once again showed me that the work we were doing, educating the public from a young age about nature and keeping our lands safe, could really make a difference for the next generation of nature lovers and users. It also showed me that you are what you teach. Once, a few weeks after a day of educating 8th grade students about plants at a nearby campsite, I was walking through town and a few students stopped me by saying “hey, I know you! You’re the plant lady!” I think I can safely say being the one and only “plant lady” may be the highlight of my career thus far.

One thing that I did find lacking in this internship was the chances for scientific data collection and engagement. As the rec intern, there was not much need for me to collect data, beyond shuttling the traffic counters with a special tool to amass data on rec site use. I began to keenly feel this lack of science a few months into the internship, and think future interns should be aware that this job is much more focused on the physical aspects of land management (fixing fences, putting up signs, interacting with land owners) than the science that informs these management decisions. Thankfully I joined the hydrology project and spent several weeks back in my element of data collection and analysis. But without this project, this internship would have felt somewhat incomplete. In the end, perhaps this was all a good thing – I now know for certain that I do want to return to the world of academic science, at least for a time, to focus on the science helping to inform land management for the next generation of BLM policies.  

One of the many cool sunrises seen from the BLM parking lot

 During my second week, I was sent out to the Outlaw Cave campground at Middle Fork to pick up trash and do general site maintenance. The campground is located on the edge of a breathtaking canyon. As soon as I got out of the truck, I knew that if trash cleanup on this job meant visiting one of the most beautiful places in Wyoming, then I was set for this internship. During my last week, I revisited the canyon as part of a sagebrush planting crew. This time, covered with snow, the trees standing out starkly against the white of the canyon slopes, I was able to look across this view and say goodbye to this beautiful scene, this wide open place, and all of the people who helped fill my time in Wyoming with stories.

Rec Intern, Buffalo BLM

13 hour day… but HORSES

The last week of September was cold but sunny. Up in the mountains, the wind tore through us and I was glad I had thought to bring my fleece jacket. But what really kept me warm was the anticipation; that day, we were to take horses down a mountain trail. It was something people come to Wyoming and spend a hundred dollars to do, and yet here I was, getting paid to ride a horse all day. I was elated: bucket list item completed and I hadn’t lifted a finger to set it up. My supervisor had arranged the whole thing with someone in the office who owned horses, and all I needed to do was be there, ready to jump off my horse and pound in signposts.

My horse that day was named Lassie. She was a beautiful brown mare who immediately gave me the side eye before turning her back on me, unimpressed. But after I brushed her down she seemed slightly less disdainful of my presence, and consented to some groundwork bonding of my having her run in a circle. Then we loaded up the horses: two were to be ridden and the third was to carry the posts and pounder in a crazy looking saddlebag setup. Everything and everyone secured, we began our day.

Bonding with Lassie
Jazz rocking this balancing act with patience

While I had taken horseback riding lessons as a child and had a few experiences riding horses since then, the day had a steep learning curve. Lassie especially liked running me into low-hanging tree branches to see if I would fall off (which, despite being routinely stabbed and gaining quite a few twigs in my hair, I managed to avoid). Generally, we would ride until we either found an old trail post that needed to be replaced, or until we reach an ideal location for a new carsonite post. Carsonites are the brown fiberglass posts to which one attaches stickers or other forms of signage, and are commonly used to designate trails or the boundaries of public lands. We pounded these posts into the ground using our obnoxiously orange and heavy carsonite pounder, which utilized gravity and some human force to drive the carsonite into the ground. But woe to you who chooses a rocky location for your sign – between a carsonite and a rock, the rock wins and you are left with a mangled carsonite that has a small chance of proving reusable. And even more woe to those who touch the carsonite with bare hands while attaching signage, for the fiberglass likes to embed itself in unsuspecting or careless fingers and itches for days after.

Pounding in carsonites
On the trail

The morning moved somewhat slowly. By the time we stopped for lunch, we had fixed or added some 20 carsonites on the trail and entered truly steep and beautiful terrain. After lunch, we began the process of rerouting the later part of the trail, our main goal for the day. But after a few more hours, it became clear that we simply did not have enough signage to complete this task, making it so next year’s CLM intern will also be able to have a wonderful day of horses and trails and signs to look forward to. When we turned around, I switched places with my supervisor, who had been hiking ahead and scouting out spots for signage. Hiking back up the many hills we had covered, it hit me just how impressive horses are, with their ability to travel long distances with great weights on their backs and not really break a sweat, whereas I was dying be the bottom of the fourth hill. But the vigorous hike was an essential break for my aching body, so I couldn’t complain.

Vistas from the trail
Struggling up a hill behind my supervisor

By the time we returned to the trail head the light was starting to fail. We had achieved much of our task, but it had taken longer than anticipated. Driving back to the office, I knew that although my body would not thank me the next morning for the 6+ horse I had spent on a horse, it was completely worth it. Not many people get to have such adventures on a work day and I know myself to be extremely lucky. Although the workday ended up being 13 hours, it was an awesome experience that I will always remember as being a highlight of my time in Wyoming.

Obligatory end-of-the-day photo with Lassie, who did such a good job!

-Buffalo BLM Rec Intern

Hydrology: It’s a Look

Already unsteady on the invisible rocky surface, I found myself falling backwards as I stepped into the fast moving channel. Catching myself on a willow tree, I didn’t quite end up submerged, just pleasantly spattered by the cool water of the Tongue River. It was my first day out in waders on the river, and I was determined to not make a fool of myself as we collected data for an upcoming bank restoration project. The river had been showing signs of increasingly poor conditions for years, but before any restoration work could take place, the one hydrologist in our BLM office needed to perform some 20 different analyses along 300 points per river bank for his report. So, although a plant biologist and rec intern, I was gladly roped into the world of hydrology to help.

The Tongue River, Wyoming

Our first day out at the river was spent establishing the data collection points every 300 feet along the river. This was before we ordered the waders, so my fellow intern and I covered the land-based jobs while the hydrologist dutifully hiked up and down the river measuring the distance. We would run to and from the truck, making metal caps with the proper distances stamped on them, grabbing spray painted blue posts to mark these metal monuments, and collecting GPS data on the fancy Trimble unit we were using for the project. It was when I found myself squeezing through dense stands of willow trees to reach the hydrologist and hand off our many tools that I truly felt happy; while I have enjoyed my experiences in sagebrush country, here, slogging through trees with twigs in my hair and mud flecking my face, I felt at home surrounded by plants being useful. And we were useful. By the end of the day, the hydrologist officially signed us on to the project and ordered the waders so we could really dive in.

It was a hot, muggy day when I first tried out my waders. They are made of Neoprene, a very thick buoyant material that, I quickly learned, are not suitable for any land hiking on hot days. Only in the cool water is it tolerable, although the pressure from the river makes it feels like you’ve vacuum packed your legs in an attempt to keep them dry. Our task for the day was to make bank assessments for every distinct section of the river. These assessments included taking note of the bank height, root depth and density, surface protection, sediment types and degree of stratification for these sediments. Each of these categories received a numeric value which, when manipulated according to a template, would give you an overall rating for the health and stability of each section of the bank. It is a somewhat rough estimate of health, however, as you are supposed to apply each set of observations to a given section of stream; making these assessments at every point along the river would be time consuming, absurd, and not effective in the long run due to the ever-changing bank geography.

Me, trying not to fall over in a pretty fast current

As we hiked the river (downstream, the more energy-sensible direction), the hydrologist pointed out features of the river for which I never had official vocabulary before. Pools, well-known as the deeper areas of rivers, turn into glides, or smooth areas of fast-moving water. These are followed by riffles, or shallow areas where fast-moving water is agitated by rocks, and then go into runs which make up the main body of moving water. These four areas repeat all down the river and once you recognize them, you begin to recognize the various types of erosion or deposits that are associated with each. There was also bizarrely a lot of car parts protruding from the banks. When I asked about it, I was told that dumping cars on the sides of banks and covering them with soil used to be a widespread restoration method in the 1950s, resulting in many rivers across the country with old decaying cars randomly popping up. They provide a tough problem: on one hand, they are polluting the river and becoming dangerous debris while on the other, many of them are still doing their job stabilizing the riverbank. Our hydrologist will have to make the call as to whether we will rip up the bank to get at the semi-revealed cars, or if we will wait for a future restoration project to do that.

I am very happy to be working on this hydrology project. It gives me the opportunity to learn about a system which I’ve never really focused on before, as well as asking an expert millions of questions that he has been kind enough to answer. We will continue working on river data collection for the next two month, by which point I’m sure I will love the warmth my Neoprene waders provide. Until then, I’ll just rock the sweaty end-of-summer look. And it truly is a look.

Buffalo BLM Rec Intern

The Red Wall

Famous as the site where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s Hole in the Wall gang hung out, the Hole in the Wall area is quite the spectacle. The massive red wall seems to stretch for miles, only broken up when its wavy path is visually blocked by the wall’s own protrusions and dips. In the distance, hills made of the same red sediment disappear into the blue and grey of faraway vegetation, and the only sounds that pervade the landscape are the wind and the mumbling of cattle, insects and birds.

Vista from on top of the wall.

I was lucky enough to visit the Hole in the Wall via an odd route. While I had previously attempted to reach the site by the normal designated roads, the mixture of bad weather and a computer malfunction in the car meant we had to turn back before reaching the base of the wall. So this time, we went in over the top of the wall. Our goal was to see if the marked road was still accessible to trucks.

The road started off decent enough, with only a few tight spots and turns. But as we approached the edge of the wall, we found ourselves at our first really iffy area. The road sloped steeply downward with a layer of loose stone on top, making slipping inevitable. At this point, we switched drivers to that the member of our team who had been driving Wyoming roads since she was a kid could tackle these sections with much more confidence and know-how than me or my supervisor, both from the East. We made it down with little incident and continued on, getting right up along the edge of the wall at one point. Then came the scariest slope of all; what felt like 50% slope up on that same broken and loose stone. I’d be lying to say I didn’t close my eyes and grip the seat, knowing that even if we made it up, we’d have to take the same crazy slope back down on the way back. While we made it, I didn’t really relax for the rest of the drive, which became much more pleasant but less stunning as we moved into the grassy areas further in from the edge of the wall.

While in one of these grassy areas, we ran into a rancher herding his cows. Well, more like we were suddenly surrounded by cows and sat waiting in the truck until the rancher, some ways away, drove over in his ATV. It is clearly a lonely job, roaming the fields each day with cows and not interacting with people very often, so we all had a nice long chat. He also gave us a heads up on a mountain lion in the area, alongside a terrifying story of watching a hunter behaving oddly in the distance who, upon questioning, said that he had been preparing to shoot the mountain lion lurking on a ledge just above the rancher if need be. Needless to say, we proceeded with even more caution.

By the time we finally made it to the end of the road, three hours had passed since we first entered the gate. Though only 13 miles, the landscape had made the passage difficult and safety standards necessitated caution. But the final destination was worth it. We wandered the landscape above the wall, locating the specific sites our team’s archaeologist wanted to find. We found several pieces of flaked stone, likely broken off from the rocks used to form tools hundreds of years ago. Obviously, we left them at the sites, relatively confident that others would not find them, or if they did, have no idea what they were really looking at.

Stone flake from making tools – Archaeological artifact

When we walked over to the edge of the wall, we could see the hiking trail that lead from the official rec site parking lot winding its way through the landscape. This trail required hiking up the steep wall, with only one section of “iffy scaling” as my supervisor put it. While we did not plan on taking that trail today, I know it is in my future, a challenge for both my bad knees and my dislike of heights. In any case, we had our wander, examined the sorts of vegetation growing in this area, and made it back to the car without being mauled by a mountain lion. The drive back didn’t take quite as long, and the dangerous slope, which had us all slightly shaken, did not prove fatal. We returned to the starting gate and let out a sigh of relief, for while the landscape was incredible, its boldness only served to remind me that I am a mere speck in the history of this place, a land that can and should never be tamed by the ambitions or pride of humans.

Super Science Students

I was fortunate enough to spend a week helping lead the BUDS camp in the Black Hills. Run through a joint cooperation by a local middle school and the BLM, this program had 10-20 middle school students spend a week in the Black Hills learning about various components of science through lessons, adventures, and games. While each day was themed – wildlife, water, geography – the whole week built upon itself to provide a lasting base of nature knowledge for this kids.

I was generally the plant person for the camp. The day before the camp, I had gone round to all of the flower shops in town in an attempt to find lilies, the ideal “perfect” flower to dissect due to the large size of all flower components – the stamen, style, petals, etc. Lilies acquired from the shop and a variety of other flower from my supervisor’s garden, we were all set to teach about plants. On the actual day, the kids loved dissecting the flowers, quizzing each other on the parts and generally exploring and observing, an activity that was…immediately overshadowed by spear throwing with atlatls. When asked at the end of the day what their favorite activity was, the atlatls were a universal win, although one student took pity on my and told me that the flowers were their second choice.

Over the course of the week, we collected and identified “herbarium specimens,” went Hiking with Lichen, discovered all of the weird designations for fruits, learned the stories behind the constellations (despite dense fog), did water tests, panned for gold, learned about maps and GIS from professionals, and played endless rounds of improv and tag games that made me thankful for my camp counselor background. Even though there were sometimes tears at the occasional fall during tag or frustrations with the other campers, our kids did really well. My favorite line was when one student said “It’s like science in school, except actually fun,” a testament to our efforts to make every child there comfortable, happy, and receptive to learning. Because, while a large part of being in the CLM is interacting with nature ourselves, it is doubly important to make sure the next generation of scientists discovers its joys and beauties while they still exist, pushing us all towards preserving what we have left.

Rec Intern, BLM Buffalo WY

Wilderness Medicine Right from the Start

There were bodies everywhere as we walked out into the sun. My partner and I made eye contact and walked over to the nearest patient, ready to follow the procedures we had just learned. One… is the area safe for us to operate. Two… what appears to be the Mechanism of Injury. Three… put on proper protective gear… By the time we finished our initial assessment of the scene, we were ready to address the simulated situation with calm, confidence and a supportive attitude.

I was extremely fortunate to start my internship with an intensive Wilderness Medicine training conducted by NOLS. After a week’s road trip out to my new position, I started Monday in Buffalo, WY at the BLM Field Office. I had hardly finished the initial tour of the place when a supervisor came up and asked how I would like to take the last open slot for a wilderness first aid course being offered a few hours away that a number of the office staff would be attending. I of course agreed and so began my week of training. The first two days at the office were filled with the basic safety training necessary to work for the BLM, especially driving and field pitfalls. When I was not in training sessions, I was at my computer, finishing the required online trainings on government policy and UTV prep. On Wednesday, several of the office headed out to Casper to begin the real deal: wilderness medicine training.

The three day session, lead by two extremely competent and supportive instructors, covered a remarkable number of topics. We learned how to assess the scene when arriving as one of the first responders, followed by the essential aspects of a patient assessment to ensure that airways, breathing and circulation were unimpaired. We became CPR certified and learned how to conduct head-to-toe patient exams, monitor vital signs, and collect important patient information to radio back to medical emergency establishments. Then came the lessons on evacuations, spine injuries, shock, head trauma, wound management, infection prevention and treatment, burns, blisters, splinting, musculoskeletal injuries, heat and cold illnesses, altitude sickness, lightning strikes, and more. Three days into the internship and while I may not have had any furniture in my apartment, I at  least had the knowledge to deal with a plethora of wilderness accidents.

The most important part of the training was definitely when these lessons were put into practice through simulations. The participants were divided into three groups, with each group respectively acting as patients that the other two groups would have to assess and treat. Even when frustrating, these were invaluable learning tools that really sought to take best field medical practices and make them muscle memory. After many hours spent either lying (as the patient) or kneeling (as the responder) in the sun, I felt much more prepared, in the case of a real emergency, to do my best for the patient in a calm, composed and professional manner.

As my first week ends, my training does not. While I do have further scheduled trainings on computer programs and UTV operation in the coming week, I don’t believe I will ever stop learning something new in this position, and am excited to see what the coming months bring.

Rec Intern, BLM, Buffalo WY