Last week, three volunteers hiked 75Km around Skoki Mountain and put 22 cameras up all over the darn place. For all of us, heading in to Skoki was something to look forward to. For me, it was a bit of a homage. Three years ago, I did my first solo backpack in to Skoki and got the idea for this PhD (see my first post: From Mountain Musings to a PhD). It was so cool that the first real big camera deployment happened to be in the same valley that inspired me on to this path in this first place. I spent 5 days being reminded that a simple idea can always become reality if you work at it and commit to it.
Heading in to the backcountry for 5 days takes some planning and organization. There will be challenging times ahead and glorious times too. I have to admit that heading in to the backcountry for 5 days with three men that I didn’t know was a little interesting. I wanted everything to go smoothly with the cameras, but I also knew it was important we all get along and have a good time out there.
I needn’t have worried. Hiking with Pat, Peter, and Alan was awesome. Spending time with three retired men in the backcountry who were full of questions and different perspectives than my own made me think about my project differently. They all had questions about my methodology and ideas on how to improve it, which made me think about why I made the choices I did in my planning and what potential improvements I could put in place for next year. They also had great stories of their own wilderness experiences, which made me laugh and taught me more about the wilderness from a new perspective. As we sat around the stove or on the trail discussing wilderness and what it meant to each of us, I realized how personal everyone’s relationship with wilderness is, and how it’s not the same as anyone else’s.
My relationship with wilderness
I can’t speak for Alan, Pat, or Peter, but I can tell you about my relationship with wilderness. It is my relationship with wilderness that has driven me towards all major decisions in my life. It’s why I got a degree in Zoology and then became a bear biologist. It’s why I am a tireless environmentalist, conservationist, idealist, and passionate tree-hugger. I’m not a religious person, but I can honestly say the closest I have ever felt to “god” has been in the wilderness – it’s where I find peace, solitude, and inspiration. The wilderness is where I am the most mentally and physically challenged at the same time. The wilderness also fuels my endless string of “why” questions – why did that animal do that? Why does that plant grow that way? Why is the sky blue?
In moments of elation, excitement, quiet, stillness, and beauty the wilderness penetrates my entire being. I can feel the sun on my every pore. I feel every muscle in my body absorb and become one with the landscape. I hear the birds differently. I see the creek more clearly. I stare at the mountain faces and feel their historic story of rising from an ocean floor millions of years ago. It’s my own personal intimate relationship with the landscape and everything in it that makes me who I am.
So I became a grizzly bear biologist somewhere along the way, but when I’m out there it’s not just about bears. It’s about everything and nothing all at once.
Walking the land like a bear biologist
This time I was in the backcountry with work to do. There were times when I could hardly believe it – this is my job! YIPPEEE!!!! But I had to be focused. Looking for the perfect camera location meant trying to read the landscape like a grizzly bear. Where would a bear walk? When would the topography force a bear to walk on the same trail as people? Where would be good places to eat and where would be places to just walk through?
There was a lot of bear sign in Skoki – diggings and scat mostly and the odd track. How fresh is it? When was the bear there? Trying to answer these questions requires a little digging (ha… punny). First, every scat gets a poke with my pole – if it’s dry on the outside and squishy on the inside it’s probably a few days old. By looking closely at diggings we tried to estimate how fresh they were. If the vegetation on the top of turned over earth is dead, but not dried out, then the digging is likely a few days old. Sometimes, I would stick my finger in to the clump of dirt to see how moist it was on the inside. Just like when I check to see if my house plants need water, I could guess how long ago the earth had been turned over. I also looked closely at diggings to try and understand what the bear was doing – hunting gophers or digging up roots? All that helps to piece together a mental image of how grizzly bears are using the landscape.
We also had to find the best places to put up a remote camera. I want to place cameras in places where they will capture people and bears. People are fairly predictable, they will hike on the trail and follow it’s path. But a bear can come on to the trail at any point and walk off of it at any point. So we tried to place cameras along trails where they intersected with a wildlife trail or where it looked like a bear had passed through recently. Other times, we could see the wildlife trail on the other side of the meadow from the human hiking trail and we knew we probably wouldn’t catch a bear on a camera there so we’d save the camera for later. I realized that our mountain topography can really influence wildlife movement – narrow valleys don’t give a bear many options and they’ll probably walk on the hiking trail because it’s the easiest path, but wide, open, flat meadows give bears plenty of opportunity to walk through the landscape without necessarily having to share the trail with people.
Learning to think differently
From my perspective, doing a PhD is about learning ALL THE TIME. Whether I am sitting at my computer in my office learning a new computer program or hiking the bush with people I don’t even know, I’m learning all the time. On our trip to Skoki, my volunteers asked me questions that made me think a little differently. Watching for bear sign constantly made me see the landscape differently. Coming home and talking to my supervisor about the trip made me ask myself different questions again.
I learned that there are always many ways to do research and there will always be options, but the trick is to stick with your plan until you get some data and results. You can’t know what’s wrong with a plan until you see what results it gives you. A methodology can always be tweaked, but you have to know how to tweak it first. I learned that bears are not going to walk where I want them to walk all the time, and even when they do there might not be a tree to stick a camera on anyway. I learned that working with volunteers in this work is giving me way more than I ever imagined – I am so happy to work with such amazing people!
Most importantly, I learned that doing what I love gives me the greatest happiness I could ever know. Sitting in Merlin Meadow, thinking about the cameras we had placed in the day and what pictures they would provide made me so giddy with happiness. Man, I love my job!