Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cowboys, Waterfalls, and Snails: A tale of true grit in the Oregon wild

The purpose of my research was to use molecular and morphological analyses to help establish the species status of a freshwater physid snail in the Owyhee river of southeastern Oregon. On paper, this task did not appear to involve any sweat-inducing, heart-palpitating-causing, shortness-of-breath-producing activities. In reality, however, where most of the things I do take place, it most certainly did. But from the beginning, who would've thought? Here's what I mean...

My summer research began in a lab. Work station, latex gloves, pipettes, centrifuge tubes, tiny dead snail DNA, and a handful of chemicals. I was living the simple life. I would go to work every odd day, perform extractions, PCRs, sequence DNA and make trees. From this life of simplicity, I produced a poster to present at the ESA Conference.

I enjoyed this work. Not only because I knew what I was doing, but also because everyday I was learning something new and interesting. Even so, I was looking forward to the field work. Lab work can only be so satisfying. What I needed were more specimens for morphological analyses and to characterize the species habitat. Thus, after ESA, I prepared to make my way from Ann Arbor to the Owyhee River in Oregon. From here on, the level of simplicity, comfort and ease with which I worked inverted.

The easiest part of my field work was arriving at the Boise, Idaho airport. There, I met Dave Hopper of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who was the driving force behind this research project. During my first night in his neck of the woods, he and his wife showed me the sights of Boise: a local co-op grocery store, a family-owned Mexican restaurant (including an adorable Mexican man singing karaoke), and the state capitol. It was calm, quaint and, in retrospect, the perfect juxtaposition with the next two days.

The plan was to leave by 7am. We hit the road, bags packed, sleeping bags secured, and canoe laced tightly to the top of the Jeep. The highway was beautiful. We took it for 2 hours before turning off onto a rarely-traveled but moderately well-maintained dirt road.

Then the simple life I had learned to both love and expect evaporated and in it's stead was a stampede of cows and cowboys, which apparently are still real. 


We waited on the side of the road for 20 minutes as cow after cow, urinating, drooling, and doing a lot of staring into my soul with their dark and lucid eyes, walked up to and around our car. Moos came from every direction with cowboys on horses and 4-wheelers herding to their heart's content.

Once the procession passed, we traveled the remainder of our 3.5 hour journey to our destination. Between our camp site and the gate entrance was a drive down the mountain side, spiraling, precarious, and rock-slide susceptible. Pictures of this portion of the drive don't exist because terror prevented me from taking them. Several minutes, two sweaty palms, one dry throat, and an unhealthy new-found fear of dirt roads later, we arrived.

After setting up camp, we canoed a mile up river to the study site where the snails are found. Two of Dave's friends had joined us, along with their dog (who the owner originally thought was a female and named Cindy, only to "discover" it is actually a male and began to call him Sydney) and they partook in some fly-fishing in their inflatable.

Once we reached the study site, the following happened:
We located hot water streams that fed into the main river, GPS'd and surveyed them for snail presence/absence, I took pictures, we climbed a waterfall, Dave told me to be very careful of the wet rocks, then I slipped on some wet rocks, caught myself, paused to decide between fight or flight, then both strategically and with some well-placed prayer made my way up the rest of the way. All of which made me realize that I'm literally nothing like Bear Grylls or Les Stroud.
At the top of the waterfall sat an artificially constructed hot spring occupied by four overly-friendly half-naked middle-aged men, who suggested that I join them but I politely declined. Beyond this semi-nude congregation, a hot-water stream flowed down from the mountain and into the hot spring. The water flow was strong enough to cause a constant sense of uneasiness; wet-rocks abound and surety of balance a thing of the past, we traversed the landscape. For the next several hours, Dave and I hobbled and tight-roped our way up-stream, occasionally visited by the bounding and roaming Cindy/Sydney, and measured physid population densities, stream depth, temperature, pH, dissolved solids, and conductivity. 
Once finished, we tip-toed our way back down the waterfall, canoed downstream and settled back in at our campsite. So close to the finish line, I relaxed most of the evening away in a folding chair with a book in one hand and what we will call water in the other. But relaxation was short-lived as there was one more test to pass: the Oregon wild at night. Coyotes. Rattlesnakes. Mountain lions.

For emphasis: MOUNTAIN LIONS.

Dave had mentioned casually that they were in the area, though rarely sited, and this remained in the back of my mind since the morning when I walked the 100 yards, alone, to the only port-a-john around for miles and saw not only hooves, but very large, very un-dog like prints in the sand. Needless to say, I did not sleep well. Rustling leaves, footsteps around my tent, the dog occasionally growling. At who? Dave walking to the bathroom? A mountain trying to sneak in and kill me? Unsolved mysteries.

However, in the end, I didn't die. I held my breath the night away and the next morning, we took the liberty to do some quick canyoning and explore the area before vacating. As clouds rolled in, it was important to leave ahead of the weather to avoid being stranded in the canyon for days (with mountain lions prowling, which is what they do I bet). As we drove back up the narrow, gut-wrenching mountain-side road, I took the opportunity to remember every sight I saw, every fear I felt, and every smile I shared because through all the nit and the grit, I wouldn't have altered my experience. The fear and uncertainty were a part of the learning and if they weren't, this wouldn't be my story. 
Cowboys, waterfalls, and all of the above, this was a tale of true grit in the Oregon wild.

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