Have Boots, Will Hike

At C-Level Cirque - big smiles and a love of wilderness makes the world go 'round.

At C-Level Cirque – big smiles and a love of wilderness makes the world go ’round.

This week, I started breaking in the new boots and went on my first hike of the season. A good friend and I hiked the C-Level Cirque, a short trail up a side of Cascade mountain. The first hike of the season always feels so good – the fresh air, the smell of the trees, the sounds of robins and squirrels scampering about, and my vigilant eye always looking for bear sign. But this past weekend, I had other things to think about too.

The C-Level Cirque is one of the hikes that I may be sampling this summer, so I hiked it with different eyes. I was looking for potentially good spots to put a camera, thinking about how a bear may walk this trail and where I could put a camera to capture that.

Getting Intimate with the Big Mama

My mind began to wander and think about all the other trails that I’ll be sampling this summer and how much I’ll be outside, hiking and talking to people. It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to. The beauty of field work is that you are outside, in nature, all the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, snowing, or blazing sun, the data collection schedule stands. And in this is an intimacy that cannot be adequately described. It’s how you really get to know Mother Nature in all of her glory.

Searching for bears in the Khutzeymateen.

Searching for bears in the Khutzeymateen.

During my Masters, I spent all day everyday outside floating in a boat in a coastal inlet looking for bears. Most of the time I saw bears and sometimes I didn’t. But everyday was an adventure. There is something so special in getting to know an ecosystem like you do when you’re doing field work. Learning the ins and outs, the little nooks and crannys, what it’s like when it’s cold and wet and when it’s warm and sunny. Watching the plants bud, flower, and finally go dormant for another winter. Witnessing the baby birds hatching, learning to fly, and then leaving the nest. In these moments, I have felt as though I am part of the ecosystem. That I am just there, being fully submersed and surrounded by Mother Nature.

It is for those moments that I’m a biologist.

The life of a field biologist

The life of a field biologist isn’t always romanticized as I have described above. Sometimes it’s cold, wet, tired, and gross. Sometimes you just want to crawl into your warm bed at home and forget about going outside. But it’s not an option. The data isn’t going to collect itself… or will it?

I’ve been reading some good papers lately that review and critique all of the remote technologies that are becoming more and more valuable and popular to wildlife biology, namely GPS collars and remote cameras. These technologies allow us to observe and witness wildlife and ecosystems without having to be outside. If you set it up right, you can even monitor animal movements from your warm bed at home if you want. The biggest advantage to this is a window into the life of the wild without accidentally impacting it with your presence.

But what is lost?

One paper I read talked about the changing field biologist. That with these new technologies we run the risk of removing ourselves a little too much from the ecosystems we study. Nothing can replace the intimate knowledge that a biologist gains by spending time in the woods, walking the landscape, watching when the plants bloom, and seeing first hand the berry patch where the bears eat.

Technology can help you draw a map of a bear’s movements across the landscape, but it can’t tell you why it spent several days in one spot. Only a hike to that spot will show you that it’s a berry patch, or their bedding site, or a great place to stash an elk carcass. Without the field visit, much of the picture is lost.

It’s the time in the field that actually helps biologists interpret what the technology is saying. The GPS locations may suggest a bear walked a certain path, but after hiking the landscape, a biologist may remember a steep cliff face or an obstacle along that path that a bear would have to navigate around. Understanding these fine scale differences are important.

As a wildlife biologist, it would sadden me to think that I was losing that intimacy with the ecosystem. That I would slowly begin to rely entirely on my computer to tell me what the animals are doing. After all, I went into this field to get so close to nature that I feel completely part of it – not separate from it.

Grab your boots! This is the kind of thing that's waiting for you!

Grab your boots! This is the kind of thing that’s waiting for you!

The Big Mama Wants to Meet You Too

I want to share this research and experience with people, which is why I’m using volunteers to help with data collection. By developing your own intimate relationship with Mother Nature, you’ll see the Park and its inhabitants differently. (See my previous blog post for volunteer job descriptions).

All volunteers, whether working with remote cameras or surveys, will experience the National Park in a slightly different way. By meeting new people and talking to other Park visitors, you’ll be able to share your experiences with others.

Through sharing this passion and learning, I think we can all contribute towards a brighter future for Alberta’s grizzly bears.. and so much more!

A volunteer training session will be held on June 23. If you’re interested, please get in touch with me before then. Email me at grizzlyresearchrockies@gmail.com

See you out in the woods!

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