A Season of Un-Expectations

I had no specific expectations clouding my view of what life might be like in Tonasket, working on the Colville National Forest. What I did have were expectations of how doing so might make me feel. When I wasn’t immediately satisfied by my work, happy with my living situation, good at every task assigned to me, there was disappointment. I was honestly confused by the feeling because I didn’t have some glamourous image of what it’d be like to live in a farming community with a population hovering around 1000, but it persisted.

The last place I resided was a small, liberal city with a population of 30,000, excluding the 20,000 seasonal college student residents. Before that, I grew up in a dense, liberal, suburb of Boston, where people lived in 1900s split-family homes, within walking distance of two Dunkin Donuts locations. So really, I had no point of reference for what life is like in rural Washington, and each day this season I discovered something new. Friends have asked me what it’s like, what’s different, and aside from the obvious, it’s hard to pinpoint the difference in attitude or collective belief structure here versus the sub/urban Northeast, but it’s immense. I think it may be something that has to be felt rather than described, so I won’t go into too much detail trying.

I appreciate what I’ve learned about the differences between the lives I’ve lived before and the one I lived this summer, and my belief has been affirmed that there are infinite possibilities in this world, and I’ve only scratched the surface of experience. I’m proud of myself for getting through the disappointment to a place where I can appreciate my days, and I’m proud of the work that David and I, along with the other Tonasket botany techs, have accomplished this season. To sum up those days, I’ve included some pictures for your viewing pleasure below.

There are moments of beauty, nuggets of magic inside each path life takes, like finding a Botrychium in a sea of moss and wetland grass.

Although there aren’t many people in Tonasket, I did make one friend outside of work that I’ll be sad to say goodbye to forever. His name is Lucifer, but he’s more of an angel than a devil.

We may not have seen the widest diversity of wildlife this season, but we certainly met our fair share of these guys.

You never know what you’re going to find while bush whacking through what feels like an overgrown jungle. Sometimes it’s a rare plant, but sometimes it’s a decrepit ammunition crate that looks like it’s been there for 50 years.

I think my version of “amber waves of grain” is now “golden waves of Carex”.

Before this season, I was very afraid of getting lost in the woods (or maybe, the mist). By now, all my coworkers and I have been lost and found again enough times that it no longer feels like a fate to worry about.

Sometimes when you’re pressing herbarium vouchers, you will find something you didn’t know you were looking for.

The Whitebark Chronicles

For the duration of September, along with seed collection, the Tonasket botany team has been working on whitebark pine surveys. Whitebark pine, or Pinus albaulis, is considered a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, but the Colville National Forest is fortunate enough to house multiple populations of this high-elevation tree. Whitebark is perhaps best known for its symbiotic relationship with Clark’s Nutcracker, the bird that cracks open their cones and bury pockets of seed around the mother tree for later consumption. Whitebark cones don’t open on their own, so they rely on the jays to forget where they’ve cached seeds in order for new whitebark to sprout and grow.

So far, we’ve headed to three different mountains to assess the health and distribution of the Colville’s whitebark. Because they specifically like high-elevation, rocky peaks, just getting to the survey site can sometimes be a full day’s work.

The first mountain we surveyed is Molybdenite, a 6,790-foot peak in the northeastern corner of Washington state. Because this mountain is a 3.5 hour drive from Tonasket, we headed out for a week, staying at a nearby Forest Service bunkhouse that was surprisingly comfortable and well-maintained (besides a little bit of a mouse problem). That week, we summited Molybdenite twice to map whitebark spread across the peak and surrounding area. We were warned that three grizzlies call the mountain home, but our biggest problem did not end up being bears, but holding onto our cell phones, and not getting lost. Two surprisingly challenging tasks when bushwhacking through a forest you’ve never been in before.

A beautiful view from the peak of Molybdenite

The next peak we set out to survey was Mt. Leona, a 6,440-foot peak an hour and a half east of Tonasket. Luckily, there was a road that allowed us to drive almost to the summit. Unluckily, that road was a treacherous mess of rock and loose gravel that made for a white-knuckled ride. By the time we reached the top of the mountain, we were so thoroughly engulfed in a cloud that it was a challenge to ID trees more than 15 feet in front of us. As you can imagine, this made scouting for whitebark a bit more challenging. The howling wind and partially burned forest contributed to an eerie vibe befitting of the first official week of fall. It should also be noted that the temperature at the top of Leona was 45F before the wind chill, an incredibly stark difference from the balmy mid-70s of the week prior. I was very glad to have purchased a new down jacket the day before.

Our most recent whitebark-related adventure occurred on a mountain our team is intimately familiar with, sitting within the project area we’ve been working on all summer, Mt. Bonaparte. This 7,260-foot peak was the highest we’d been to, and one of the longer hikes from our parking area. It was really amazing to get to the top of a mountain that I’d seen countless times from the road and heard about on the radio, but I didn’t necessarily get to see those roads from the other POV, because yet again we were deeply enmeshed in a cloud. I thought I was cold on Leona until I got to Bonaparte. Despite the chill and misery of the peak, there were many whitebark pine trees to be found, and we had a large crew amassed to figure out how far they spread down the unburned half of the mountain, so we persisted, slowly warming up as we descended from the sky.

Despite what felt like a near miss with hypothermia, it was really cool to see a threatened species thriving within the forest we’ve been working in and getting to know all season. In a weird way, there’s a sort of ownership and pride, even though I’ll probably never be back in Tonasket after this season ends. I hope that Colville National Forest’s whitebark outlives me by far, keeping with it a memory that at one point in time, I was here to see it.

A Seedy August: Reflections on seed collecting and life in Tonasket

Seed collection is a competition.

I’m not talking about competition between CLM interns or forest districts (ok well maybe just a little bit). Over the past month or so of seed collecting, I’ve been racing the wind, the clock, insects, and most notably, cattle to get to seeds first. Everywhere I look in the forest, there seems to be something or someone else looking to steal, eat, or stomp on my seeds before I can collect them, and I’ve learned that whether I’d like to be or not, I’m in competition with these forces.

The Tonasket Ranger District has 51 active range permits, and I’ve heard one of the highest range permit to area ratios of any national forest district in the country. Lucky us! Sometimes, it feels as if every square inch of our forest has been munched or trampled by cows. I’ve gotten used to the sight, even enjoy their presence from time to time. No matter how much mutual respect I believe we’ve built, though, they never hesitate to eat every Lupinus sericeus seed before they have the chance to mature to harvestability.

Our worst enemies best friends

Seeds want to be collected…

It’s not always easy to tell when a seed is ready to be collected. Take Carex utriculata, for example. No two spikes look exactly the same when they’re ready for harvest, but without fail, their akenes will slide right off when they’re ready, whether they’re completely brown, or still half green. Every plant looks different, but their seeds will always be easy to separate from their plants when they’re ready to be collected.

Like any living thing, the biological goal of a plant for its seeds to germinate, their offspring to thrive, and thus their genetic lineage to persist after their own lives end. I’d like to think that by collecting their seeds, I’m giving plants a better chance at achieving that goal than if they’re left to their own devices. I’ve kind of beat evolution in that way, become a god to these plants. So why wouldn’t they want me to collect their seeds?  

Carex utriculata, affectionately “corn cob sedge”. Photo © 2017 Matt Below

…and bugs do too.

While stripping a plant bare of its seeds, we’re often asked to abandon our botany hats in favor of entomology ones. It’s nearly impossible to remove the seeds from a plant crawling with bugs without taking a few of them with you, but most are friendly and seem to crawl out of our seed bags without too much prodding.

Luckily didn’t accidentally collect this guy

Not all seeds are made the same.

On a good day, we’re able to harvest 3 seeds from each Lupinus sericeus plant, while Chamerion angustifolium produces around 80,000 seeds per plant. Both wildflowers are on our target species list, but to complete a 30,000 seed collection for one, we’d need to find 10,000 plants, while one weed on the side of the road would suffice for the other. Seeds are kinda like us that way, all a little bit different.

A field of Chamerion angustifolium (fireweed)

Maria like Pariah

July is a month to celebrate—America’s independence, the heat of the summer before it gets too old, interns (national intern day is July 27th, according to nationaltoday.com). In the botany department at Tonasket ranger district, we celebrated finishing our ongoing survey of an inhospitable 10-ish mile stream system, Maria’s (pronounced Mariah’s) Creek. At times, I believed that the spirit of Maria was alive and well, out for mine and my coworkers’ blood. And blood she got.

Maria’s Creek is situated within a canyon, adjacent to a well-traveled USFS road. Though the road sees plenty of traffic, most of the stream seems to have been abandoned by humankind many years ago. The creek is narrow, almost as deep as it is wide in most spots. As inhospitable as it is to someone like me, it is a haven for plants, particularly the varieties with thorns and other lines of defense. Each bank of Maria’s creek is thick with Rosa woodsii, Ribes lacustre, with scattered surprise spots of Urdica dioica. Bravely, we fought our way through the waist-high roses and pushed past patches of stinging nettle to search for sensitive plants that prefer to make riparian habitats their home.

Maria didn’t want to make things too easy for us, though, and bush whacking can be tedious but not always hazardous. Her preferred method of spicing up the “trail” was through fallen trees. In certain spots, crisscrossing logs, fallen from the canyon side far above, were so dense there were no other options but to hop from trunk to branch, praying neither the rotting wood nor your shaky balance gave out. On our first day surveying the creek, David fell victim to a log that had been there a bit too long to be of much support; falling straight into the running stream below. Perhaps the rest of us should have taken that as a prediction for how the rest of the day would go.

Sweaty, bruised, and battered, the crew made it two and a half miles on our first day in the creek. Judging by the downtrodden feeling in the pit of my stomach, my spirit felt like we had made it much farther. Over the next two weeks, we took breaks to visit nicer creeks and wetlands in search of our target species, but always knew Maria was there, sadistically waiting for our return. Thirteen days after that first journey, the crew split up to finish our last few miles of Maria’s Creek surveys. That day, David and I were joined by some exceedingly bold cows, who moo’ed us towards our finish line.

Those of us not driving snoozed peacefully in the rig on our way back to the office that day, knowing we had conquered the beast, praying she doesn’t have co-conspirators elsewhere in our project area, lying in wait for unsuspecting botanists to get stuck in their trap. In my mind, July 18th will live on as a personal day of celebration. The day we said adieu to Maria’s Creek.

Counting Chrysosplenium in Colville National Forest

I showed up to Tonasket, Washington with a car filled to the brim with memories (junk) collected (hoarded) over my 22 years of life on the East Coast, two faded bumper stickers, and an incessantly lit check engine light. Like my Massachusetts license plate, I felt a little out of place in this small, self-sufficient community. 

My position with CLM and the Forest Service has found me working on the Western half of the Colville National Forest, a mountainous forest dominated by douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens). While we wait for the forest’s forbs and grasses to mature enough for us to collect seeds, my co-intern and I have been conducting plant surveys alongside Tonasket’s botany team, searching for rare and invasive plants.

Views from Colville NF’s Buckhorn project area

At first I was intimidated by Erica, Tonasket’s head botanist’s, encyclopedic knowledge of the region’s plant species, but I appreciate deeply how much I have to learn from her. July Jenn already knows far more about plants than May Jenn did, and that is entirely thanks to Erica’s support and instruction. Some days the learning feels impossibly slow, like my team would probably run more smoothly without me there. But it’s the fact that despite my lack of experience, they’re still willing to bear with me and give me the opportunity to learn that I’m grateful for. Before, I was nervous that leaving academia meant the beginning of my brain’s deterioration, but it certainly won’t be rotting during the course of this internship.

So far, the team has successfully found several monkey flower (Erythranthe suksdorfii) a rare plant that the Forest Service has interest in cataloguing for further monitoring and protection. We’ve also gotten to visit known populations of columbia quillwort (Isoetes minima) and golden carpet (Chrysosplenium tetrandrum), rare plants that have previously been identified in Colville NF’s Buckhorn project area (the area in which we do the majority of our work). I feel incredibly lucky to have witnessed any of these plants in the wild, when I know some botany teams spend entire seasons searching for rare plants fruitlessly-no pun intended.

Every day is different in the field, and some are more challenging that others. My co-intern, David, and my first day conducting a survey independently of our mentor, Erica, sticks out as one of those days. Our task was to revisit a known population of Chrysosplenium tetrandrum, count the number of plants, and keep a running exhaustive species list of the project area. Simple enough. The very first hurdle of the day were my species identification skills (abysmal), the next was the path to our plant population sight (very overgrown). Navigating through unkempt undergrowth and over fallen trees alongside a healthy creek, while swatting mosquitos and avoiding prickly plants, I certainly got my socks wet a number of times, and sustained a healthy number of bruises. Discovering a Chrysosplenium population that had exploded since the last botanist site visit many years ago, however, was certainly worth the journey.

Everything is new to me here. The plants, the scenery, the gas prices. I can’t help but to think of the sights and sounds of east coast city life. The feeling of estrangement has been slow to fade–each day I encounter things that remind me how far I am from home. But I think it’s time for me to accept the unfamiliar, embrace the opportunity I’ve been given to work here, and hopefully to learn about myself alongside Okanogan County’s plant life.

butterfly and I enjoying the silky lupine (Lupinis sericeus)