Monday, October 27, 2014

Deer Poop in the Backcountry: Anecdotes and Advice from Amy

Oh yeah I'll collect anything to spend all day here!
Working in the field is the whole reason I (Amy) wanted to pursue paleontology. Fieldwork gets you up close and personal with the elements, which makes the science even more rewarding. That being said, field work can also suck a lot if you aren't prepared. Field work has many different demands, but whether  hunched over steaming rocks all day in full exposure to the sun or hiking through dense trees and scrubs with bears all around, you need to be able to handle the weird shit field work sometimes throws at you.

Smiles for poop!
This last spring I spent 6 weeks on Revillagagedo Island (Ketchikan, AK) and Gravina Island collecting deer poop for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG), Wildlife Conservation division. Now the reasonable question you might ask is why the hell anyone would get paid to count deer shit. Deer turds are an excellent indicator of animal population and health, which is important to the ADFG who have to determine how many of those delicious animals we can kill and eat for dinner each year. Additionally, how healthy and overflowing the deer population is impacts the need for predator control, cuz humans aren't the only ones in Alaska who love fresh venison. If there are too few deer and too many wolves in the area it is the state's responsibility to check the population of the predators by killing some of them. So essentially I was paid to collect shit to determine if wolves needed to be shot from helicopters. YAY SCIENCE!

Here's a little background about Gravina Island for some context: The average annual rainfall on Gravina Island and nearby Ketchikan is 155 inches; for context, the average annual rainfall in Eugene, OR is 50.9 inches, and in Seattle it's 37.4 inches. That's right mom and dad, 3x as much rain as Eugene! Hell, even for Alaska that's a lot of rain: Juneau gets 55 to 92 inches depending on location.

Needless to say, our field site was extremely WET. We were lucky in that it didn't dump on us every day (just every other). Other fun facts about Gravina Island: the black bear density of Gravina Island in 2010 was calculated to be 48 black bears on the island (that's 0.5 bears per sq. mile mind you) by the ADFG. Let's all go hiking! Alone!
fresh bear track
My soggy, bear-filled poop-hunting job entailed ferrying and driving across a "bridge to nowhere," as well as plenty of logging roads or boating/jumping to seaweed covered tidal zones to get to our transects on Forest Service and State of Alaska land. Once in the right area, I would use a GPS to navigate a giant invisible rectangle in the woods through whatever habitat I encountered, counting and collecting only the freshest deer turds. Luckily for you, I have pictures to help you learn what makes a perfect turd.

We call this a "string of pearls" & it marks the highest
quality poo. The more mucus, the better!

Of course, weren't just walking on trails (TOO EASY) but through a whole variety of ecosystems!

Scrub: Thick with woody growth; wading through alder branches plus devil's club, you don't want no scrub.

Muskeg: Open grassy meadows with occasional stubby trees and hidden pockets of water called "bear baths" that will stuck you in without a moment's notice. The ground looks solid, then it's not.
What path will you take to avoid the pit of despair?

Alpine: High elevation, usually above treeline; where your boss makes you hike when she can't read map contour lines.

Muthafuckin' swamp: Swamp, do you really need a definition? Add skunk cabbage the size of a silverback gorilla.
Skunk cabbage selfie!
Old growth: The best environment. Open mossy forest underneath a thick canopy of conifer branches; Cue scene of Fern Gully meets Pocahontas, pretend you're a hobbit.

Talus: Loose rock accumulated at the base of a cliff or at the top of a mountain. Where your boss makes you hike when she can't read the map contour lines.

Fluvial: Steep embankment you must slide down before crossing a slick skinny log across rushing white water, crawl/climb up tree roots on other side. JUMANJI, ROLE AGAIN!!!!

Cliff: The thing your boss makes you hike when she still can't read topographic maps.

This fire brought to you by Doritoes and
support from viewers like you
Okay, now that you all have a general understanding of the environment and the low topographic capacity of my supervisor, let's discuss my tips for surviving (semi-comfortably) in the back country:

1) Doritos make an excellent fire starter, even when it's raining. Actually any corn chip will do, Doritos are just the best in my experience, all that corn oil and MSG = instafire. As a bonus, they are a delicious snack!

Don't have access to corn chips? Try to find a busted up cedar tree and locate the driest chunks, cedar burns the best.

2) Ladies: Get your cover-alls in 2 sizes too big so you can just slip the back over your butt and pee without taking ALL YOUR SHIT OFF!!! Also, there are no hairstyles that will survive a day in the field without driving you nuts. Braids were as close as I got but they still got stuck in zippers, got in my face, and almost definitely in some of the poop we were collecting.

3) Always point the bear spray AWAY from your face. We had a coworker who was hiking with her bear spray on the side of her backpack in a water bottle holder. For those of you not familiar with bear spray, this is a sooped-up version of pepper spray or mace which is meant for bears rather than sexual predators. Obviously it + your eyes is not a good combo. Remember that scrubby shit we talked about earlier? It tends to mess shit up, and when you are hiking through dense brunch sometimes the branches knock off the safety and push the trigger. Our unsuspecting coworker heard the hissss, turned around to look, and took a cloud of bear spray straight to the face.

4) Carry a cheap external speaker and blast tunes while working. I have never been an advocate of listening to music while you hike, but working in bear country is a whole different issue, you want to be as loud as possible. Plus you can have impromptu dance parties whenever you feel like it.

5) Always pack a spare change of clothes. I was the only one of the crew who brought an extra baselayer (wool socks, long johns, wool t-shirt) with me in the field every day. This is especially good because I was also the only one who fell into a bear bath one day while hiking a transect by myself, out of radio reception. Jammin' along to Daft Punk's Lose Yourself to Dance, I lost myself to the watery abyss that was the deep unsuspecting pool covered in a thin misleading veil of muskeg moss and grass. But no worries! I was soon warm because of my extra base layers and my elevated heart rate. Another note that you all should know: Don't wear cotton!
 field style swag
6) Carry a small piece of insulate pad with you, a square big enough to fit your ass. It's amazing how much warmer you stay with just a tiny bit of insulation between you and super saturated soil you kneel on when putting those little deer turds into their own individual vials. A chunk of insulate pad can also be extremely useful as a splint for an injured arm or ankle.

7) Learn about the local flora and gather dinner ingredients while you hike. We were in the woods during the spring so yummy tender fiddleheads were popping up all around us. For those of you who do not know, fiddleheads are the furled fronds of a young fern (say that five times fast...) and can be cooked and eaten like a vegetable. Other plants like devil's club buds are actually quite scrumptious as long as you get them young enough (if not, sorry mouth full of spikes for you).
Fiddleheads: I swear they're not worms

8) Your hair is not a mosquito net. This may seem ridiculous but when you forget the bug spray and you're stuck in the woods for 10 hrs a day you get desperate. At the time my hair was at a nice "hobo-chic" length so if the bugs got too bad I'd take out my ponytail and let my hair cover my face, you know, like that girl from The Ring. So hot. Anyways it didn't work. I just scared my coworkers and tripped a bunch because I couldn't see shit (literally, HA!).

9) Find a geologic map of your field area. If you are a nerd like me then you will be curious about the rocks you're hiking on every day. We scored a map of Gravina Island after meeting up with local celebrity Ray Troll who let us borrow it with promises of good keeping and good fossil hunting ("you will call me from the outcrop if you find anything significant!"). That map helped us find cool shell fossils on a few beaches we worked on and helped us look really cool to our coworkers who were mad jealous of our bond with Mr. Troll.
extra points if you instagram it

10) Befriend the old guys you work with! My supervisor based in Ketchikan was an awesome old dude who happened to love paleontology and rock hounding. Chatting with Boyd about my studies got me tons of beautifully polished fossil coral "scraps" from his stonecutting projects AND towards the end of our job Boyd figured that we needed a helicopter day to check out the other side of the island, which also happened to be the same beach I'd pointed to on a geologic map a few days earlier where I knew marine reptile fossils had been found. No we didn't find any ichthyosaurs this time but we did find a bunch of invert fossils and got paid to fly around in a helicopter for a day. #winning
This was the expression on my face the entire flight.

11) Chocolate raisinettes look a lot like deer poop. Freak out your boss when you work with her in the field by pretending to "sample" the poop sample and really eating some candy you planted there before she looked. Just make sure you can tell the difference.

That's it! That is literally everything you need to know to run around in the woods looking for deer shit. Well that and various boring collection and survey policies that I didn't want to talk about. It's cool though - that'll probably be covered in your training.


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