Gales, Gulls and Goodbyes

Gale arrived this week — a strong wind with speeds below a storm but above breeze — 39 to 54 mph. Ketchikan pulls on a blanket of fog, now a sleepy town with longer nights and greying days of mist and fog and rain. When the sun does come out, the sky is a cold blue — the air piercing, but the sunlight warm and welcoming.

Refuge Cove at sunset

The rainforest is wet and dark, and speckled with fall colors. Devil’s Club exchange their bright green leaves for orange-tipped umbrellas and Salmonberry branches, once dripping with yellow-orange-red berries are almost bare.

Misty rainforest, Perseverance Trail

Field work is drawing to a close along with summer. But Mather and I recently spent a day out in the field with the Recreation Crew, repairing and reconstructing a bridge on a local trail. We hoisted heavy packs onto our backs and hiked to the bridge site. We used pry bars, sawszalls and hammers to remove the old, decaying planks, and replaced them with new, treated ones.

We hiked in 30 wooden planks on our backs. I fell through 1 — slipped straight through the boards and to the ground. The two crew leads pulled me up out of the bridge, all of us, laughing and laughing.

Hiking out the old, decaying planks

Another field day this month drew multiple departments together, completing surveys for potential cabin building sites. We walked several different sites, taking plant inventories, with an eye out for rare plant species. The wildlife biologist looked for eagle nests and rare birds, and considered the possible impacts to salmon, bears, wolves, and deer in the area. The landscape architect took note of the soil and depth and thought about accessibility to and from the site. The recreation management specialist addressed the water table and the amount of flat ground available to them for building the cabin, while the forester assessed the stands of trees and the timber demand. The whole day teemed with friendly debates and conversation.

Just before we all left, we walked through a marshland that brimmed with sprawled, decaying bodies of salmon, out to the inlet. Where the ocean flooded in, a flock of short-billed gulls lifted in one swift group up and off the water, calling and calling.

Wildlife Biologist, Ben Limle, looking through binoculars at a flock of short-billed gulls

Complimenting the new wintry chill in the air, the forest harbors another touch of fall these days. The color red. The huckleberries.

Vaccinium parviflorum (Red Huckleberry) carpets the forest floor, but few are still holding onto their berries. To finish out what will likely be our final collection, we ventured off trail, and up in trees to discover the ripest huckleberry patches. Many were tall and required us to gently bow the stems toward us to pluck their berries. Stellar’s Jays flitted around my head as I reached up to collect the small, blushing berries.

Vaccinium parviflorum (Red Huckleberry)

Seed collection is not the only thing coming to a close. This is my field partner’s final week.

Mather, I want to thank you for the following:

  • Confirming my estimations were often wrong
  • Doing math and counting seeds with impressive concentration
  • Delighting in the smell of decaying salmon while collecting seeds 🙂
  • Making me laugh
  • Being a truly excellent field partner, hiking pal, and friend
Mather taking pictures of plants on the Deer Mountain Traverse

the incomplete education of alexandria colpitts

Some fall color in the form of delicious Golden Currants.

4th graders. It seems that no matter how many times I work with children, I might add that this has not been very many times, I always get nervous. I can’t put my finger on just what it is. The responsibility? The potential chaos? Maybe just the unfamiliarity? This week Alyssa generously signed us up to spend the week educating 4th graders about plants. I know I sure can’t think of a topic a 4th grader might be more interested in. 

We decided to go with a practical topic, something they could use on a daily basis, something I have been using on a daily basis since we started this, every time I go for a walk. A few basic classifications of leaves and flowers: leaf arrangement, shape, and divisions, flower symmetry, and counting different floral parts. The words lance-like, whorled, and pinnate have been some of the favorite words. When answering questions a child might be perfectly audible until they get to one of these words. Evidently they are unsure of how to pronounce the word and so they start noncommittally whispering attempts to sound it out. 

Table of educational materials for a plant lesson that we taught to 4th graders.

After practicing with these classifications for a bit we pass out cards that have pictures of flowers from 6 different plant families. Their task is then to sort themselves into families based on similar characteristics. Without any information on how to figure out which family they were in I was very impressed at how well they sorted themselves out. I’ve surprised myself by how invigorated I’ve felt after these days. 

Something about learning is invigorating. Watching people learn as well as learning myself. 

An unrelated picture of an amphibious friend we found.

I too have had the chance to learn a lot lately. This position has given me so many opportunities to grow my field skills, my plant identification skills, my botany knowledge, my networking abilities, my understanding of where I’d like to take my career, and my abilities to successfully use USAjobs….

After a few years of seasonal work I will be taking a possibly permanent hiatus from seasonal to work a permanent position. I have learned from every single seasonal position I’ve had and I am ready to settle into one job for a while. To have the time to learn a single job really well, to continue my growth from a place of stability and familiarity. 

Speaking of learning….

I’ve recently started learning a bit about environmental ethics. This is something I was completely unfamiliar with until I saw a book about it in a used book store. I instantly knew just based on the title that it would address so many questions that are floating around in the back of my mind.

The first question of mine it’s been addressing is why do I care about nature, the environment, and so many people around me seem not to, don’t even seem to have a sense of what drives my passion for it. This question hasn’t been answered per se but this book has begun to give me context within which to think about this. 

My co-intern Alyssa and our supervisor Rose botanizing.

The book uses the phrases environmental metaethical objectivism vs. environmental metaethical subjectivism. The first phrase describes the idea that natural objects are valuable in and of themselves. The second phrase describes the idea that natural objects are valuable only because and if and to the extent that humans desire them. I, in my body, believe the first option and yet when I think about how to communicate the importance of anything in nature or to justify my own love of it I must act as if the second option is what is the correct belief. 

I think these ideas are interesting in the context of conservation and land management. What motivates individuals to believe in, work in, vote for conservation? For what reasons and to what end do we manage the land in this country?

Signing off,


Seeds on the Move

As the seed collecting season has ramped up these past few months, I’ve taken to having a storage cooler in my car for seed collected on days when I can’t make it out to the Big Bear seed shed. A majority of the seed as of recent being various species of milkweed that I had sorted into separate bags into the car cooler. To my mistake, I left the cooler open in the back of my car one tired evening and I reaped the results of my actions the following morning. The following morning, I began my commute to Big Bear and rolled my windows down as I usually do to enjoy the brisk air when suddenly a flurry of white fluff began to swirl around the cabin and to my surprise one of the milkweed bags in the cooler was open! Dozens of seeds began to fly out my window and I quickly pulled over to a turnout to secure the seed bag but alas it was too late. It got me thinking however, how seeds from different species have evolved various ways to disperse into new habitats. As of current, Karen and I have been racing to gather milkweed seeds from monitoring sites throughout the San Bernardino National Forest as once the pods pop open the seeds will quickly drift away in the wind. The seeds reach rather large heights as well even surprising the both of us how far they drift away once the plant is disturbed. In addition to hand harvesting directly from the pod, we have also taken to bagging up unopened pods in preparation for future harvesting. In doing so, we hope to collect as much as we can during this quick seeding timeframe.

Image: Me doing a drive by a milkweed population at the Northshore Cabin in Lake Arrowhead. A few feet deeper into the brush is a larger population of Asclepias californica and Asclepias eriocarpa ready for harvesting.

Other notable seed species I’ve seen displaying brilliant dispersal tactics are not only the milkweeds but Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus betuloides), Manzanita Trees (Arctostaphylus glauca), Anderson Lupine (Lupinus andersonii), and Candlestick Yucca (Hesperoyucca whipplei). While C.betuloides are a pain to harvest as there trichome like hairs are irritating to the skin they travel quite far in the air when a gust of wind hits the trees. The corkscrew like shape of the seed helps it hook into the ground firmly once it lands, slightly digging its way into the soil beginning the first step of possible propagation. Collecting Lupine seed was especially fun and also frustrating as a ready pod will pop instantly at the smallest touch sending the seeds in a variety of different directions! When collecting these I sometimes bent the stalk into the bag and gave it a little shake to trigger the pods to pop open and maximize the number of seeds collected. Penstemons also pop in a similar fashion, though the seeds tend to stay in their pod unless given a hard smack. These are another favorite of mine to collect as the rattling of the seeds into the bag is incredibly satisfying. Lately with our hikes into the forest for monitoring I’ve also noticed an increasing number of small hitchhikers on me as I crouched under shrubs and slid through brush (no not ticks), manzanita berries! These berries are covered in hairs and a sticky sap that sticks to your clothes or hair with ease. I found it neat how the stickiness of the berry’s aids in their dispersal and who knows how far I spread some of these berries in the habitats I was walking through for that day. Another honorable mention is H.whipplei and how one smack to its large stock will release an explosion of glossy black seeds all over the ground. When harvesting from this species we often aid in dispersing the remnant seeds as well by shaking the stalk violently and spreading the confetti like seeds throughout the area. Last but not least I can’t forget about the pesky invasive grasses that are constantly getting stuck in my socks and boots. Not only are they prickly, but they are incredibly difficult to get out of fabric. I spend a good amount of time when I get home plucking out each of the seeds with their pronged or edged shapes in order to minimize spreading into forest habitats. There large presence throughout parks and open nature areas throughout SoCal showcasing how efficient they are at hitching rides to new locations. It’s been rather enjoyable collecting different seed species throughout the forest and becoming familiar with the mechanisms they’ve evolved that help them spread throughout. From popping lupines to barbed cheat grass the evolutionary processes that have driven the development of these unique dispersal characteristics is not only functionally fascinating but incredibly beautiful to watch in action.

Images: The top two pictures show seeds from Cercocarpus betuloides (Mountain Mahogany) and Asclepias californica (California Milkweed) with their unique corkscrew shape or large awn like pappus. Below is a picture taken of me after crawling through some shrubs out near Deep Creek in Lake Arrowhead. Would prefer these berries over spooky insects any day!

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.

Some Garbage I Found

The idea of eating yogurt in a forest seems so foreign to me, yet in 2010 an unnamed Colville National Forest visitor downed a Yoplait mixed berry 6 ouncer while driving down the Marias Creek Road between mile markers 1.5 and 2. What possessed this visitor to carelessly fling their discarded yogurt cup out their window into the drainage ditch paralleling the road, I may never know. The discarded cup was found thirteen years later almost completely submerged in dirt and leaf litter. I found this cup while walking back to my rig after a long day of plant surveying along Marias Creek; a lovely little trickle surrounded by downed logs, thorny plants, cow pies, and discarded garbage.   

The yogurt cup in question

I have found garbage all over the forest this summer while conducting plant surveys. Of all the garbage I have found, very few pieces stand out. For every exciting piece; like a license plate, ammunitions crate, hot dog wrapper, or golf club; there is a discarded beer can.

I found this partial license plate near the summit of Mt. Bonaparte. I suspect the owner may have been involved in some illicit activity. Because Tonasket does not have a police department, I may have to take matters into my own hands. 
This ammunitions crate is likely from the Vietnam War-era, when U.S. forces repelled the seldom discussed Vietnamese invasion into North-Central Washington. 
The contents of this hotdog wrapper were nowhere to be found, despite an exhaustive search. 
Golf club found off a forest service road, miles from the nearest course. Someone must have been really mad. 

Beer cans are by far the most abundant pieces of litter in the Colville National Forest. Though, I am sure you are wondering which beer brands are most commonly found discarded in the forest. To answer this question I conducted some statistical analyses. All analyses were done in R (version 4.0.3). Funding for this project was provided by a bank I robbed. 

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Table 1: Raw data of discarded beer can abundance across two areas in the forest. Natty Ice and Natty Light were separated into different brands due to the belief that drinkers of these beers account for two entirely different demographics.

First, I conducted a t-test on the seven most abundant beer brands in the forest. Based on the results of the t-test, Coors was found more frequently than all other beer brands (P<0.05). Other pairwise comparisons were not statistically significant. 

Figure 1:

Results of the t-test. Coors was found significantly more often than other beer brands. 

Next, I used a Tukey p-value adjustment to account for the number of individual tests done. Based on the results of the adjustment, Coors was found significantly more often than Natty Ice, Natty Light, and Rainier (μdiff≠0, with 95% confidence). Other Coors pairwise comparisons were no longer significant.

Figure 2:

Results of the Tukey adjustment, showing that Coors was found significantly more often than Natty Ice, Natty Light, and Rainier. 

Overall, the results of this study show that, when not factoring in differences in beer popularity, Coors drinkers may have a proclivity to discarding their empty beer cans more often than some other beer drinkers, mainly Natty Ice, Natty Light, and Rainier drinkers. More work should be done exploring patterns of beer can disposal in a wider variety of forests. 

Falling for September

Time has been flying by since I began this internship back in June. It feels like just yesterday I had packed up the car and made the trek across the country from Connecticut to Utah. September seemed to fly by the quickest of all for some reason! Perhaps it was the growing signs of fall (my favorite season), the beautiful crisp air, the changing leaves, and the Halloween decorations getting put up around Moab that had me enjoying September so much. I have always loved fall in New England and I was so excited to see what fall looked like in the La Sal mountains. So far, I have not been disappointed.

Fall colors amongst the oak brush

At last, our third target species, Heliomeris multiflora or showy goldeneye, is ready for collection. We began collecting seeds from this species in the last week of September, which was a pleasant surprise considering we thought we had a lot more time until seeds were mature enough to collect. We have found that the best way to collect these seeds is to clip off the seed heads and put them in a paper bag. We give the bag a little shake and the seeds fall out from the heads pretty easily! If anyone else is collecting this species and has a better method we are open to constructive criticism 🙂

One of the most exciting adventures that Mattie and I got to partake in this month was accompanying the Archaeology crew to survey archaeological sites. Hiking around the woods and coming across remnants of Puebloan peoples and later tribes was like traveling through time. I learned so much about the rich history and culture present in the Manti-La Sal National Forest and especially around Bears Ears National Monument. Having a deeper understanding of the cultural significance of the land that I work on has helped to grow a greater appreciation of it and I value the time I get to spend on it so much more now.

Thanks to very bad weather one day, I also got to tour the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum which features exhibits of Ancestral Puebloan artifacts such as pottery, baskets, blankets, etc. dating back to as early as the Basketmaker III period (A.D. 500-750). My favorite thing that I saw in the museum was the different effigies that had been recovered in the area, particularly the ones of dogs that I included images of below. It is super cool to imagine people having dogs as pets thousands of years ago like we do today! I also loved learning about the different methods that archaeologists use to determine what time period an artifact is from. This includes radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, pollen dating, and more!

Overall, September was a very enriching month that will go down in the history books and I am eager to see what the future holds for the seed girls!