An Ode to Moab

Coming to Moab felt like walking into an old friends house, kicking off my shoes and slouching into a chair that felt like it had been made just for me. As the Colorado River has effortlessly carved its way through this landscape, Moab has just as effortlessly shaped me in the short time I have been here. Just as water to the desert, this place brought so much life and growth to me.

The desert can seem so barren at a glance. It is such a harsh and trying landscape. Flash-floods, rattlesnakes, extreme heat, scarce water, and the list goes on and on. But if you take a closer look, you see that it is actually teeming with life and the creatures and plants that have made their way out here are each strong and unique. There is inspiration everywhere and everything has a lesson to teach you, if you are willing to listen. Every plant has a story to tell about perseverance, every grain of sand was once a part of something bigger than itself and every drop of water has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles and moved mountains to do so.

Canyon Walls

This uniqueness is not just isolated to the desert. When most people think of Moab they think of arches made of red sandstone or the Colorado River running between two massive rusty walls. It is not the mountains that first come to mind. As you make your way up into the La Sals it is very clear that you have found yourself on an island surrounded by a sea of red. These 12,000 foot giants stand tall above the desert floor. As the sun rises in the morning the desert is slowly untucked from their shadowy embrace, setting the desert ablaze with color. No matter where I am, my eyes are always drawn to these mountains. Perhaps it is the way that these mountains are perched so precariously in the middle of the desert that has me so enamored with them.

The La Sals at sunrise

In a few short days I will be packing up my belongings into my car and driving away from the place I have been lucky enough to call home for the past 5 months. I will be bringing a few lessons with me when I go..

  1. Beautiful things can grow out of difficult circumstances.
  2. Mountains can be moved one grain of sand at a time.
  3. Stand tall, even when you are different.
  4. Always bring more water than you think…
  5. Life. Always. Persists.

The One Where the Seed Girls Work With Archeology

September came and went in the blink of an eye. Its parting gift to us was a slight chill in the air and a blanket of fall colors that is slowly falling over the mountains. The changing colors has sparked a new excitement in me for the La Sals. Every place I explore feels new again.

This past week, our final species has started to seed but the first three weeks of September we were left waiting. This allowed us to take a couple days to shadow the archeologist here.

Working as an archeologist here is not like working as an archeologist in most other forests. Part of the Bears Ears National Monument is managed by the forest and the monument has over 100,000 cultural and archeological sites. While with the archeologist we were able to see a few historical sites and a prehistoric site. After a short hike we reached the prehistoric site. Seeing these structures absolutely took my breath away. Nestled into the rocks were stacked stones cemented into place with a mud mixture. Each rock and piece of mud was placed by hand which was obvious due to the hand prints still visible in the mud. Along with hand prints there were in some placed imprints of corn that was farmed and being stored in some of these structures.

Me at one of the archeologic sites.

Since we had some time to kill, I was also able to help the alpine botany crew with some repeat photo sites. The hike to the sites was about 4 miles in and was one of the harder hikes I have ever done. Once at the sites, we were taking repeating photos of goat wallows that had been been monitored in the years prior in order to document changes. The goats were introduced to the La Sals about 10 years ago as a game animal and their wallows can harm rare alpine plants as well as cause soil erosion.

View from one of the Repeat Photo Sites

When it came time to start collecting our seeds the aspen leaves were just beginning to change to a vibrant yellow. The last week of September, despite it now being fall, was sunny and clear up in the mountains. Our last species was found growing mostly around 10,000 ft in elevation giving us the most beautiful views.

Our last day of collection in September, we went to a canyon nestled between the two tallest peaks in the La Sals. The sun was shining and we were collecting near a stream with breathtaking views of the mountains. It was a perfect fall day and ending to September.

A is for August & Alpine

About a week into August, we were asked to help the alpine botany crew with a species composition plot. Since I had started this job, I had been dreaming about working with the alpine botany crew. I knew very little about their job, but I knew they hiked into the alpine every day and that sounded amazing to me!

That first day with them we hiked above 11,000 ft which was the highest elevation I had ever been to by at least 2,000 ft. To put that height into perspective, the highest peak in Oregon in 11,200 and we weren’t even at a peak! The site was at a saddle between two peaks and had me in awe the entire next two days. I couldn’t stop thinking that the two alpine botanists had to be the luckiest people alive to have places like this be their office every day!

Snow in August?! The hike to the species composition plot.

The species composition plot consisted of three vegetation transects that were about 36 meters long and we would log vegetation every 0.5 meters. At the end of each transect we would set up three 1 square meter plots and find what percentage each plant present took up of this square.

Data collection along one of the transects.

On our way down on the last day we saw a group of mountain goats. I learned that one of the main reasons the alpine vegetation needed to be monitored so closely in the La Sal’s was that the goats were introduced here as a game species, and they were monitoring what effects they had on rare alpine plants.

The infamous mountain goats.

After working with the alpine crew for a couple of days we went back to business as usual: building fences, collecting Heterotheca villosa and scouting for Heliomeris multiflora. We don’t expect to begin collecting Heliomeris multiflora until mid September and are nearing the end of our Heterotheca villosa collection which meant we had a little extra time for other projects.

Pressing Heterotheca villosa.
Breaks with Quinn.
Always building fence!

The last week of August, one of the alpine botanists had the week off and they requested me to fill in. I was over the moon excited! I was going to be helping with the rare plant surveys that they complete every day, which are smaller and quicker than the species composition plot I had helped with before. The rare plant surveys are either a single 10 meter or 15 meter transect, where we place four 1 square meter plots at equal intervals along the transect and mark where within these plots a rare plant is seen. We also do a pellet count to gauge goat, deer and elk presence within the study area.

Pellet count views.

The La Sals are on of only three areas on the Colorado Plateau where you can find true alpine tundra communities, making the plant life super fascinating. One interesting plant they study is called Silene acaulis and is a mossy plant that gets covered in tiny vibrant pink flowers. Studies have found this plant to live to over 300 years old! Another interesting species we saw was Erigeron mancus which is a little yellow button flower that we spent most of the week studying and is endemic to the area.

Silene acaulis
Erigeron mancus

This was easily one of the best work weeks I have ever had! We hiked over 30 miles and gained over 8,000 ft in elevation total. The highest peak we summited was 12,600 ft with some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.

August is when I truly fell in love with these mountains. I can’t wait to summit more in September!


The One Where the Seed Girls Build a Fence

July has always been my favorite month for many reasons and this July proved to be no different. Why is July my favorite, you ask? Well, for starters, it’s my birthday month and it so happens to also be my co-intern’s and another coworker’s birthday month all within days of each other. So, as you can imagine we had a LOT of sweets this month. July came with many other reasons to celebrate though, including finishing our first seed collection, completing a project we’d been talking about since I got here, friends and family coming to visit, the fourth of July and so many other things. 

July Seed Work

We started the month off strong collecting Hedyserum boreale and finished our collection with a grand total of over 300,000 seeds. I have since been finding those seeds in every nook and cranny of my house and car. 

Our final Hedyserum boreale collection.

Once done with Hedyserum boreale we began scouting for our next species, Heterotheca villosa. Our last species was found in a location that had been burned a few years back, so it was bare, dry and extremely hot. Much to my excitement, Heterotheca villosa was found in beautifully forested areas or on mountain tops where the temperatures were much cooler and the views unlike anything I had seen before. We found this species higher in elevation so the seeds were not yet ready and wouldn’t be for a week or two, so we left them to mature and began work on other projects.

One of the sites we scouted for Heterotheca villosa.

Medicine Lake Project

The hydrology crew had been talking about the Medicine Lake project since I had started, and it had finally come time to start work on it. The project was to build a fence around Medicine Lake and the surrounding wetland to protect the water and riparian vegetation from cattle. 

Medicine Lake

In preparation for the fence, we had to move large amounts of lumber, t-posts and barbed wire to the project site, which was exhausting work, but we were in one of the most breathtaking spots I have ever worked. We began work on the fence with the help of the Grand Canyon Trust volunteers and the forest service’s range crew. After about 4 long days of hard world, a few rips in my clothes (from barb wire), and 6 Oreo pop tarts (the only thing that kept me going) the fence was complete. 

Creating a base for a section of the fence. Unsure who decided to let me use the ax…
Cows testing out the finished fence.

Now that the cows could no longer get into the wetland, we were able to put in some beaver dam analogs (BDA’s) to help restore the wetland to its natural state. This was one of my favorite parts of the project because it felt more like arts and crafts than anything. We would place aspen poles vertically across the stream channel and then weave willows between the poles to trap sediment. With enough of these placed the stream begins to flood the meadow surrounding it, turning it back into a wetland. 

Me, Savannah and Emma with one of the BDA’s.

July flew by in a flash and brought with it so much hard work but so much joy and left behind so many happy memories. Hopefully august is as sweet!

Cheers! -MS

Week 1 at the Manti-La Sal National Forest

I made the 14-hour journey from the lush green of Oregon to the vibrant reds of the Moab, Utah desert. Such strikingly different landscapes but both equally enthralling. After about 48 hours, of which I spent unpacking, familiarizing myself with the town, and hiking to streams to beat the heat, I began work. 

A creek I swam in with a view of the national forest I would soon be working in.

Over the next 5 months I will be working in the Manti-La Sal National Forest collecting seeds. I started a few weeks later than my co-intern because of my college graduation (woohoo!) so it felt as though I was a little behind. My first day consisted of completing the required trainings and after we got into the fun stuff.

Since I was coming into things a little late, my co-intern and supervisor had already scouted for our first seed we were going to collect. We were looking for the Utah Sweetvetch (Hedysarum boreale). The Utah Sweetvetch was easy to distinguish between other similar plant species due to its constricted pods, broken into separate sections. After about an hour in the field we were able to identify a massive population, much of which was ready to collect. We spent about 2 more hours collecting seeds and were able to collect about 24,000 seeds my first day. The following day we were able to collect 20,000 more. 

After two days collecting seed at lower elevation on an exposed landscape, we were recruited up to higher elevation. The recreation crew for the Manti-La Sal needed bodies to help with a large fence project around a lake in the La Sal’s. Much of the La Sal’s have free range cattle which have a tendency to get into everything, a problem I am familiar with from rural Oregon but did not expect to run into here. We were tasked with taking down the existing barbed wire fence that surrounded a small lake and its campground. The fence was in disrepair due to the winter months at high elevation as well as the nosy cattle. A portion of the fence ran through boggy areas surrounding the lake as well as patches of stinging nettle that managed to make contact with my wrists despite my long sleeve shirt and gloves. Both the wet boots and itching wrists were a welcome tradeoff for the cooler temperatures. We spent nearly two days taking apart this fence and were all hugely satisfied to unwrap the last piece of barbed wire from the final t-post. The fence will now be rebuilt with t-post 3 feet closer together for more support and we will all cross our fingers and hope that this year’s snowpack and cattle don’t destroy it again.

My first week of work, although I am exhausted and welcomed the weekend with open arms, has me stoked for the rest of the season. I can’t wait to explore more of the Manti-La Sal NF and my new desert home!