I am running away from seasonal depression.

Alyssa cooking breakfast while reading, an icon.

After much scouting, monitoring phenology, and waiting we have finally collected seed. Since, I worked as a seed collector last year too one might think that I would be more accustomed to the less-than-predictable and uncontrollable nature of wildland seed collection. Yet, I am still constantly surprised when I look at my record of our daily activities throughout this summer just how much time we’ve spent scouting and monitoring potential collection site compared to how many seeds we’ve actually collected.

The beautiful Ribes aureum fruits aka Golden Currant. A good collection and a snack that’s hard to stop munching!

But now, finally, I am happy to report that we’ve made 6 collections this month. Don’t mind the fact that only 3 are likely to meet the 30,000 seed minimum requirement….

One of the collections, a collection of Golden Currant, is the prettiest picture I have from the whole month! I mean look at those veins.

But I have surprisingly no pictures of flowers this month that are blog worthy. A sign that the flowers are on their way out for the season? Already?

Recently, I’ve found myself missing flowers than I saw back in April and May (cactus blooms, my old friends) that I won’t be able to see again until next spring. The flowers that I saw on my first camping trip of the season where I hiked barefoot with my sweetie for 5 miles through a sandy desert canyon crisscrossing a stream that was coming back to life as the snowmelt from the La Sals resupplied its flow. The flowers that represent the reawakening of the natural world, where outside becomes inviting and beautiful again.

Cactus blooms- Echinocereus ssp.

I’ve been noticing that the longer I do field work the more I track time based on the flowers that have passed, the flowers that are in bloom, and what flowers I can still expect to see later in the season. This work requires a heightened awareness of phenology and I have come to enjoy keeping time in this way. But what happens when the phenology isn’t noticeably progressing anymore, when everyone closes up shop to wait out the cold? As we come to a time where more of the flowers are behind us than ahead, I begin to confront the dread I feel for the impending winter season.

I’ve been attempting to prepare my brain to learn to appreciate what winter has to offer (what does winter have to offer?) since the beginning of the season, since the end of last winter really. I’ve noted things that I only spend time doing in the winter, clothes I only wear in the winter: the coziness of taking a bundled up walk along a frozen lake before coming home to our warm apartment, the comfort of then making hot chocolate and playing a board game.

But all of a sudden it’s looking like I won’t have to deal with as much of a winter for the next few years. I have been offered a permanent position in a mysterious location where winter doesn’t mean snow….will the growing season be longer? Will there be a chance to grow foods I’ve never been able to grow before? Will I be able to do my favorite summer activities for more of the year? Will sitting outside possibly even feel pleasant in January? So many things to wonder about and soon I will know the answers!

My sisters visiting me in Utah, a lovely winter memory.

A Glance at August…

Boy was this a busy one. We started the month with monitoring the pollinator islands that were established in landing sites throughout the forest last year. One of the goals was, of course, to remediate the land that was cut down and compacted from tons of lumber. However, another goal was to essentially build a pollinator bridge – to bring the pollinators from the forest and encourage them to head down to the farms below. Our purpose was to perform line point intercept in order to understand how the landscape is changing after planting and seeding last year. The seed mix was a very long list of all the different native pollinator-friendly species in the forest and so far it seems like most of the plots are doing well. The hard part about seeds though is that it can be tough to judge the success in the first year because many seeds won’t come up the following season, and could possibly not come up for multiple years. So even if the seed success isn’t impressive the year after planting, that doesn’t mean the project is not a success in the long term.

First day on the monitoring grind!

We spent a while monitoring these 17 plots, but to break things up, we had a cross-over episode with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge botany team at the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. They taught us all about how to survey for bees – where to find them, how to catch them, and what to do with them after. This was also my first time backpacking!

Bitterroot botany team takin on the wilderness!

From here, we did a bit of surveying. We focused on areas that have planned pesticide treatment, and we looked at historic populations that may be in the area. Although we didn’t find anything, we got some great views! Other than that we also worked on some timber seed pilot monitoring, where we looked at seeded skid trails and temp roads to see how the grasses are growing in. Most were pretty successful, with Bromus, Psedoroegneria, and Elymus being the most common. We have been working on a bunch of these plots in two finished timber projects, one on the west side of the forest, and one on the east side. So far, these plots have been quite promising, but we will see in thee coming years how the seed mix is working.

Lil ol’ me checking the species for this LPI

Last, but of course not least, we have spent days and days working on seed collection. We have collected about 30 different populations – most on the smaller side. There are still lots of plants that we are waiting to collect, but I’m surprised at the amount that we have found ready. I hope this next month we will get some larger populations!

Eriogonum umbellatum and a peek at the Sapphires.

Smoke Everywhere!

Oh, August you could not get smokier if you truly tried (this is in fact not true at all as it’s supposed to get worse next month). Waking up to pillars of smoke covering the sky was something I wasn’t entirely ready to get used to when I moved out to Oregon. The AQI of the closest major city, Eugene, this past week reached a total of 450. Just to be clear, that measure is part of the maroon category also known to be hazardous to human health. The effects can certainly be felt.

Mount Thielsen

Other than hazardous smoke conditions the Umpqua has been beautiful as usual. Everyday feels like a surprise in this forest. You never truly know what beautiful spectacle you’ll get to witness. Some of our collection sites are truly like working in a mirage. These incredible sites are surrounded by some of the most picturesque collection species. Not only this but most collection sites have a wide breadth of species to collect from. As we have a target list of around 30-40 species, these luscious meadows hold the key to most of our success. My personal favorite of these habitats are the hidden alpine meadows we’re to collect many of our September/October species from.

Our weed treatment adventure continues as well. One of the worst treatments so far occurred this past month. A couple of coworkers and I ventured out to the infamous Poo Lagoon (wastewater dumping site). The task at hand was incredibly daunting. The major focus here was the Common mullein which surrounded the multiple waste pools. Laced between these stands of mullein, however, were some of the vilest stands of Canada thistle imaginable. These low-lying pests numbered in the thousands hidden underneath the water-fed grasses. As well, since Canada thistle is rhizomatous, we were not allowed to just pull and move, we had to individually cut each stem with hand loppers. If fire restrictions were not at their strictest, we might have been able to use brush cutters. Coupled with this was the 105 degrees heat that made it incredibly difficult to function. But we all made it out alive and that’s all you can truly ask for.

Clark’s nutcracker on top of whitebark pine

Personal events this past month saw my mental health slightly deteriorate. It’s truly a shame of the personal struggles because this experience has been nothing short of incredible. Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t control the events that unfold. These events leave you feeling absolutely abandoned in a place that was already foreign to begin with and all you can do is try to dig yourself out of the hole that makes you feel so powerless. It’s difficult but you have to do it because you can’t keep living your life in the gallows of past events. You must push through it because nobody else will do it for you. Sometimes life just hits you with the hardest metal pipe to the knees unexpectedly. You fall and have no choice but to get back up, of course after feeling the immense amount of pain from the initial hit for a considerable amount of time. Eventually you’ll get back up from being beaten and the pain will progressively get easier to handle, although it will always linger. This is just a roundabout way of saying that unfortunately life can be incredibly unfair, but most of the time you can’t control it. You just have to keep going until it gets better.

I truly hope each intern had an incredible month. For those who finished their term this month, congratulations. For those that are still along the journey like Casey and I, only a few more months until it’s over. Make the best of the time that we have with these incredible opportunities.

Crater Lake
Alpine meadow
My coworker Alejandro and I fixing a tire

Hells Canyon and High Water – August in Council Idaho

Ergot fungus on blue bunch wheatgrass
Sterile hybrid between two of our target species, blue bunch wheatgrass and bottlebrush squirreltail

First seed shipment to Coeur d’Alene Nursery

Levi immediately after attempting to climb Clematis vine
Levi realizing his dreams will never come true…
Mormon crickets attempting to eat a lupine seed bag
Grasshoppers and crickets eating my backpack
Checking Sulphur-flower buckwheat for seed fill

I am writing this monthly post while holed up in the community library hiding from a storm that seemingly came out of nowhere. The minor flooding and landslides are the price paid for relief from the wildfire season that was reaching its peak when broken just in time. The smoke and oppressive heat previously settling over both forests is gone for the time being, but now we wait for the roads and woods to dry before resuming our search. With only three viable collections left in the field we have transitioned back again into primarily scouting. The summer has passed and fall colors have begun to set in on the lowest and most productive sites. The Council team is now searching further, higher, and more intensely for remaining target species. It has become clear that some of our target species will not be successfully collected this year. To combat the difficulties of the situation our mentors have given us permission for recollections of species already targeted, and independence in determining additional species for collection. The new policies have allowed our team to target Columbine flavescens, start scouting western-coneflower for collection, and recollect a superior population of Columbia needlegrass. The added diversity will help us remain productive as our season progresses. Disease like the fungus pictured above, and pests like the mormon crickets on our lupine would have been intimidating setbacks for me at the beginning of the season. Now, these problems seem more and more manageable as I gain experience and familiarity with the two forests I am assigned to. As I look at the reddening maple outside the window, I see the branches oscillating with the gusts and leaves shuttering. Soon the tree will stand motionless again, and the Boise – Payette team will be back out and searching.

Highly Variable Landscapes Wont Get Us Down

Thus far, August has been the most profitable month for seed collection. We are finding that most of our populations are nearly ready, already collectable, or past at this point in the season. This makes for two quite scattered seed collectors! It’s difficult to be in many places at once, and seemingly more difficult to make a decision about where is the most profitable place to spend our days. Of course, there is some rhyme and reason to it all; we consider the location of the population (elevation, moist/dry area, shaded or exposed), the timing of flowering/seeding of other populations in the area or other populations of the same species, and which populations to prioritize based on size/profitability as well as species we may have already collected enough populations. Despite knowing to consider all these different factors, it is still possible we may make the wrong call, simply as a result of the highly variable landscapes that exist in and among the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forests.

We do not, however, let this get us down!

We are professionals in our field with the knowledge that each of us is doing the very best that we can to accomplish this incredibly important work we have been called to do. We work with the knowledge that there is no ‘one size fits all’ for this type of work, as there are many factors out of our control, especially as we make our way into fall and the rainy season.

In an effort to combat these highly variable factors and put our knowledge as native plant materials collectors to good use, we have called on some backup. Fortunately for us, the Wildlife crew that works out of the same office as us has had a bit of a lull in work between projects at the very moment that we are experiencing the height of our season. It has been awfully convenient to the point that I wonder if maybe it was planned this way by our very experienced boss. In reality, I think luck would just have it that way. Regardless, this recruitment of even just two (sometimes four) extra individuals really increases the flow and productivity of our work. Typically, my counterpart and I will split up and each take one to two extra individuals with us to separate locations/populations that are in need of collection. This allows us to cover more ground in a timely manner, taking advantage of ripe seed crops as they become available, because, well, they don’t typically wait!

This addition of extra help is wonderful because we can get more done in a day, however, this is just a small portion of the extent to which this supports our efforts. I also find this addition helpful because it requires us to explain to other very thoughtful and considerate people the ins and outs of collection. Not only does this reiterate the requirements and the procedure for me again, but teaching others about this process inevitably brings up questions or comments from those learning, and gives me another perspective with which to look at the collection scenario at-hand. This is especially helpful when working with our crews here at the Belt Creek Ranger Station because each of them are incredibly attentive and committed to providing their services to the best of their abilities. They are advocates for the forest and its many inhabitants and care deeply for their vigorous persistence into the future. Truly inspiring and thought- provoking individuals alongside whom I am so very delighted to work.

The Anything But DRy(iNG) Summer

This summer started like any normal summer, with lush, green landscapes and a plethora of wildlife. The beginning of the season was serene and unusually cool. I took in the views of our field sites along with a whole load of knowledge regarding the experiment and data collection. The spring was rainy many days and the cloud cover was definitely welcome. Although I was sure my knees would give out from kneeling all day after just the first week, I somehow survived.

I have learned so much this past summer about grassland ecosystems and the organisms that call it home. Some could say, maybe even a little too much. I grew attached to my favorite forbs and grasses. Many times, I would dream about doing stem counts or aerial cover. I also made enemies with many small, biting insects. Every morning began with dousing myself in sunscreen and bug spray. By the end of the day though, I still went home with souvenirs on my skin. The days were long and often tiring (on hot days especially), but the work was equally rewarding. It was such an interesting experience to be a part of the data collection and processing, and start to glimpse the outcome of our work. Being outdoors all day also allowed me to get very familiar with the larger wildlife, like the Western Meadowlarks that perched fenceposts, the prairie dogs that littered the badlands, and the occasional rattlesnake in our plots.

The sheer amount of consistent rain this summer was an outlier compared to normal years. Our sites stayed green for much longer than usual, and bogs of collected water were present all summer. The mosquito season was far prolonged and the air remained humid even on some of the hottest days. Our plots directly reflected the abnormal weather patterns, regrowing in a few days after mowing.

The experiences I had and the connections I made this summer were priceless. On my second to last day on the job, I had the opportunity to join the Wildlife Biologist at RMRS on a herpetology survey of the Badlands Bombing Range in South Dakota. We spent all day looking for herps and talking about what being a biologist in the real world is like. Although I still have a couple more years in college, it was a very insightful experience which will guide me throughout my education.

Month 2!

Lately I have actually been doing my job! We have finally started sampling tissue and collecting seeds from around Idaho which includes Oregon, Nevada, and California. Our Erum hunts have been fun! I had no idea how many different types of Eriogonum there are or even just variations of ERUM itself. I have taken tons of pretty pictures over the last month or so and I’ve been to so many cool places! I’ve been to Modoc Plateau a couple of times, and we also went to Ketchum, which was beautiful! Recently I traveled all over Nevada, finding different collections of ERUM.

I am getting quite good at backcountry driving. I was not too well versed with the subject coming into this job, but I have been doing it more and more, and it is actually really fun! I like the challenge of dodging rocks and potholes and trying not to get the truck stuck in mud.

I also went on a GLORIA alpine monitoring trip which was super fun! We climbed sheep mountain and I learned a ton of new plants from some super experienced botanists. I also discovered my new favorite camp snack. When I get lazy and don’t want to cook at all, I simply make myself a tasty cold cheese burrito. It is surprisingly good, although my fellow interns protest it.

The truck that we have dubbed mountain goat just reached 100,000 miles! We stopped and celebrated on the side of a mountain. Overall, this past month has been a ton of fun, and I have really enjoyed being out in the field more searching for plants!

Chemtrails, An “Exhaust”ive Exploration

Work in the Colville National Forest over the past month has been filled with many rewarding plant surveys. Three new rare plant populations have been discovered, and thousands of acres of forest have been surveyed in total. The majority of surveys this month have been in wetlands or riparian areas. Most everyday has ended with me wet in some form or another via many different methods (e.g., stepping in a surprisingly deep hole while wading through a creek (x5), falling off a log into a creek (x3), slipping on rocks and falling into a creek (x2), unsuccessfully jumping across a creek, stepping into a creek because I thought I was wearing waterproof boots but I wasn’t, stepping on what I thought was the ground but was actually an extension of a creek, and successfully avoiding stepping on a cow pie by instead stepping in a creek).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image.jpeg
I fell into this lake

If I had to categorize myself before I started this job it would be somewhere between “obedient sheep” and “follower, complicit in my own undoing”. But not anymore. 

It was at the end of my first week at the job that I first sighted the chemtrails booth at the Tonasket Farmer’s Market. I had never taken chemtrails seriously before, but seeing them here with titans of industry such as the lady who knits clothes for stuffed animals and the friendly Dutch goji berry vender, it was difficult not to take notice. I picked up a couple of fliers printed on glossy paper (like I said, these guys are pros). The amount of information packed on these flyers was immense because the font size was very small.  

Over the next few weeks the contents of the fliers flew around my head, leaving behind traces of knowledge and insight, much like the planes that fly over us and leave behind toxic chemicals that destroy the environment, and make us sick, and change the weather, and put a hole in the ozone layer. A couple of weeks later I felt I was ready (mentally, physically, and emotionally), so I returned to the booth to pick up the 17-page informational guide. Based on how the pamphlet was written I could tell the authors were outsiders who’s minds were not poisoned by indoctrinating forces such as science education. I had looked the booth vendor in the eye and promised I would return the next week to ask questions, so I did. The next week we talked for over 30 minutes about chemtrails in an open air farmer’s market that was attended by many of my coworkers who all gave me weird looks. I may have entered the conversation a stranger, but I like to think I left as a friend. At the end of the conversation the following wisdom was imparted on me: 1) watch a 2-hour chemtrails documentary, 2) don’t listen to everything you see on the TV, and 3) keep making observations. 

Since then, I have made many observations. One observation being, when you try to discuss chemtrails with your co-intern, she will start to gaslight you into believing you are mad. The next month myself and the other botany interns plan on ramping up our seed collection efforts. We currently have identified over 15 potential seed collection locations from six species and hope to start collecting soon. 

Hornworm Kisses to Alpine Hiking!

Another month down! This month has been packed with trips and projects for the Rocky Mountain Research Station.

First, Elric and I headed to Sun Valley to scout for some Eriogonum umbellatum and Lomatium dissectum. We hiked this scree covered mountain, and when we got to the top we found a small population of Lomatium! It was super windy up there, and as we were hiking some jets flew over our heads! We also took a beautiful hike in Antelope Valley, and found two varieties of Eriogonum umbellatum!

After that successful trip, I decided to go visit some other CLM Interns in Council, ID! Dan and Levi introduced me to their housemates, and we explored the beautiful area around Council. Dan knew a spot for (low) cliff jumping by a waterfall, and we camped on this huge rock.

Then, we had a busy week ahead of us! Our station went to the Botany 2023 Conference in Boise, ID. We got to interact with botanists from all around, go on rafting on the Payette and Boise rivers, go on hiking field trips, and sit in on talks about botany research! It was an amazing time to get to see what the world of botany is like, and meet many peers who love the field! Such a wonderful time with great people.

Right after the conference, Elric and I departed to Eastern Idaho to take part in the GLORIA (Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments) Project! We met up with Kat and Alex, who work in Idaho Falls (Alex is a CLM intern and Kat works in the Idaho Falls office as a Resource Assistant!) Our group hiked up to Sheep Mountain South and began alpine monitoring. Luckily, the weather was cooperative while we were there, with only one small sprinkle while we were on the peaks. Our group had 4 peaks to survey, and we split up during the day to cover more ground and set up our monitoring equipment. It was a great weekend and a nice change of pace working in alpine environments!

Overall, it’s been an exciting and busy month! I look forward to what the rest of August holds!

Is Southern Illinois Still the Midwest?

Over the past month, our team has spent many hours traveling throughout the Midwest to visit new USFWS field locations. While many of the sites we have recently visited were a bit closer to our homebase at the Chicago Botanic Garden, some felt quite different in more ways than one. One hitch that particularly stands out was our most recent hitch to visit the Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge near Carbondale.

Crab Orchard NWR is an interesting property, consisting of a series of reservoirs and encompassing nearly forty four thousand acres. There are incredible sandstone features, with some of the most beautiful hiking I have experienced in Illinois, although very different than the majority of the prairie state. If you are in the area, a day visit to the Rocky Bluff Trail is worth the detour! However, like so many of our public lands, there is a weird history with the property here, as some areas were used for the manufacture and testing of explosive devices during the second world war. Luckily, we did not have to survey those areas, and you should avoid these areas during your visit as well!

A scene from along the Rocky Bluff Trail

While conducting our plant surveys, we were joined by a Professional Botanist who was incredibly knowledgeable with respect to regional flora, which was very helpful in locating target species on our list, while also adding a few. Some of my favorite plants that I learned on this trip include the American Bladdernut Staphylea trifolia, the Inland Oat Chasmanthium latifolium, Hibiscus laevis, and the Zig Zag Spiderwort Tradescantia subaspera.

Surveying a refuge with over 43,000 acres meant working up quite the appetite, and we were lucky enough to be blessed to dine at the Famous Lodge at Giant City State Park, not once but twice in one week. World renowned for their Unlimited Family Style Fried Chicken Dinner, this facility (along with the surrounding state park) was completed in the 1935 by the CCC, and not much has changed since then. The taxidermied raccoon and deer really bring in a sense of ambiance lacking in dining establishments further North. Now, I was not going to back away from the meal after reading the words “World Renowned” and “Unlimited” in the same sentence, and was soon to be richly rewarded. I could not have been happier with my choice (except to possibly substitute sweet potato fries for the green beans) and did indeed end up ordering an additional round of chicken. The team was so impressed by the meal, we ended up there the following evening for an encore.

The World Renowned Family Style Meal from the Lodge at Giant City State Park

While our trip to Southern Illinois was enjoyable, informative, and successful, I cannot help but feel something was different about this hitch. The plant communities consisted of a number of different species, unknown to us on the team. The hot, humid environment was not kind to our us or our tents, keeping in the moisture. Most importantly though, as someone who was born, raised and majorly consumed fried chicken in the Midwest, every where you order chicken 1) they serve ranch as a side and 2) it is never as good as at the Lodge at Giant City. Southern Illinois may not actually be the Midwest, but it is a cool area of the country to check out (and decide for yourself). 3/3 recommend.