Publication: Using museum specimen records to show migration in Painted Buntings

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Painted Bunting specimens at the Burke Museum.

Migration is closely associated with birds in the popular imagination, from the writings of Aristotle and Homer to modern documentary films. Which is why it may be surprising to learn tracking migratory birds remains a significant scientific problem. While radio telemetry and GPS geologgers can both reveal the movements of birds across the landscape, they are limited to larger species that can tolerate their weight, and to small sample sizes due to their expense. Small samples sizes, never ideal in science, are a particular problem here because of the inherent stochasticity of migration: individuals may veer off course, and are frequently subject to predation. Because of this, it’s hard to know whether those individuals researchers do successfully track are representative of their population or species.

An alternative to this “direct” approach of inferring migration patterns is to use population level data and determine whether densities of a particular species in a particular region change over time, possibly indicating many individuals of that species are going somewhere else (e.g., migrating). For example, the citizen science initiative eBird records bird observations from across the globe and archives them in a freely accessible online database. These records can be then used to visualize patterns that would otherwise escape us, as my labmate CJ did by taking records of Rufous Hummingbirds from western North America and plotting them across the months to show their circular migratory pattern around the Rockies (see the captivating .gif here).

However, though eBird’s international records are improving, its data remains biased toward the United States and Western Europe. Aggregated museum specimen records offer relatively large datasets with better geographical and historical representation, and are a natural extension of this indirect (or metanalytical) approach. These data do, however, come with their own biases, particularly regarding the lack of any standardized information around collecting effort, or how much time a given scientist spent sampling birds in a given region. Without this information, it’s hard to know whether a large number of individual specimens represent high population densities, or simply the fact that the collector spent a long time in that area.

To overcome this problem, Sievert Rohwer (emeritus curator of ornithology at the Burke) developed a formula known as an abundance index, or AI for short.* AIs correct raw specimen counts of a particular species at a particular time and place for collecting effort by transforming them into a ratio over the total number of birds of other species at the same time and place expected to be collected in a similar way. What this means is that using AI values, species are assumed to be abundant only if their specimens make up a high proportion of the total load of individual birds in that region and interval. Sievert and colleagues have already used abundance indices to illustrate migratory double breeding and faunal change in NW Mexico, and the method seems likely to continue to provide opportunities to use natural history museum collections in new ways.

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Abundance indices of Painted Bunting specimens present in museum collections worldwide, plotted by month over an EVI analysis of remote sensing data. Click to play.

Which brings us back to migration. Recently, I worked with Sievert and colleagues at University of Oklahoma and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México to apply AIs to the question of where Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris) went after arriving in Mexico for the winter from their breeding grounds in the southern US. Both Sievert and the team at Oklahoma suspected the western population of Painted Buntings (our focus) first arrived in Sinaloa in the fall before moving down the coast later in the winter, eventually traveling back to their breeding grounds up the gulf coast. In other words, we thought the birds were tracing a circle around Mexico’s central mountains.

Using a comprehensive database of all Mexican birds in museums worldwide assembled by Adolfo G. Navarro-Sigüenza, we plotted AI values across the months to visualize any potential patterns in space and time. We then tested for the statistical significance in the change in bunting densities among regions (in case our eyes were tricking us), and using remote sensing data, tested to see if these changes we observed were correlated to changes in live green vegetation (known as the “green wave” hypothesis). The result? Our hypothesis of “circular” movement was supported, and bunting specimens were nonrandomly distributed on areas with the greatest amount of live green vegetation across the winter.

There’s a lot more you could do with AIs and museum specimen records, which seem like they might be particularly useful for determining crude population trends in difficult-to-survey regions. In the mean time, you can read our paper here.

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*Interestingly, a group of Japenese botanists developed the abundance index method independently, which they used to assess changes in medicinal plant population sizes with herbarium records.

Chiwaukum Traverse

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Unless you’re a dedicated Washington-based backcountry skier or hiker, you probably haven’t heard of the Chiwaukum Traverse, or even the Chiwaukums in general, a subrange of the eastern Cascades between Icicle Creek and Highway 2. Though their northern flanks are visible from Steven’s Pass, the Chiwaukums tend to be overshadowed by the fame of the nearby Stuart Range / Enchantment Lakes region, and are nowhere easy to access. But despite their relative obscurity, the group boasts what is arguably the best ski terrain in the Pacific Northwest: grand vertical relief graced by a relatively large area above treeline that is neither excessively craggy nor glaciated. Because of this, a north / south transect of the Chiwaukums has become one of Washington’s premier multi-day ski traverses for skiers of a certain persuasion. In fine Cascadian style, it’s wet, wooly, and remote — and thoroughly devoid of the European comforts of huts, lifts, or beta. (America!)

Which is why over a month ago now, though still reeling physically from the Grand Traverse, I found it impossible to turn down Todd Kilcup’s invitation to ski the route in a day. Todd is typical of talented PNW ski mountaineers in pushing the envelope in an understated, under-the-radar style. It was a pleasure to share the day with him, which turned out to be one of the more memorable I’ve spent on skis.

Other than the two of us, Todd’s frequent partners and coworkers Pat and John joined us, intending to ski the route at a slightly slower pace and reciprocally facilitating a car shuttle. Arriving in the Icicle Creek drainage late Friday night, we slept out under shifting clouds and stars, laying out pads and sleeping bags in a margin of grass that yielded at least one tick (Todd ended up picking it off on the summit of Snowgrass Mountain the next day).

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The next morning, Pat and John left our roadside bivy shortly after 3AM. Todd and I followed at 4, following several false starts in which I managed to sequentially leave my socks, gloves, and water in the car. Though we had hoped to drive all the way to the trailhead, we were disappointed to discover the road remained closed some five and a half miles from our assumed starting point, and so began the day in running shoes, shuffling over asphalt, dirt, and dirty snow. At some point, the snow became continuous enough that I was fooled into thinking I might make faster time skating. but after less than a half mile bare ground again predominated and I was forced to transition back to running shoes, sheepishly catching up to Todd at the trailhead proper some five minutes behind.

We climbed over 2500′ in two or so miles, moving quickly on dry trail with relatively few blowdowns for its winter of unuse, at least until the transition to snow near 4500′, where we caught up with Pat and John. Here, rotten, slushy drifts and thickets of slide alder presented significant obstacles, as did a few sporty crossings of creeks raging with snowmelt. But before long things began to firm up, and the forest opened to reveal a long, hanging valley, terminating in a col that was the top of our first major climb.

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Skinning became tedious once we left the trees, with crusty (albeit manageable) conditions. The sun was rising, illuminating the stunning tableau of the Stuart Range behind us, but it had yet to soften the snow for us. Topping out somewhere to the west of the usual pass, which is presumably a mellower descent, we stripped skins and and made 400′ of steep turns in breakable crust before the slope mellowed and we began a long traverse to the base of the next climb.

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We ascended to a second col, where we again dropped only a short distance before beginning a long, nearly flat traverse on east-facing slopes, here and there broken with spines of rock and groves of pine that required a change in trajectory.

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More quickly than we would have liked, we began to gain elevation again, aiming this time for the summit of Snowgrass Mountain (7993′). The sun now high in the mid-morning sky, we began to feel both the heat and the day’s effort, taking turns alternating the lead and saying little.

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After a steep pitch of skinning and a scramble over ridgeline choss to the true summit, we paused to soak in one of Washington’s more marvelous views, and watch Pat and John on their own traverse below us. The subsequent descent to the NE of Snowgrass was surprisingly steep, with snow that alternated between bulletproof and breakable crust. I took my time on the first few committing turns down its doglegged ramp before my muscle memory kicked in and let me fall into a comfortable rhythm.

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It was another relatively short trip down, taking us only to the base of a moraine where we transitioned to crampons and kicked up an icy, shaded chute to regain the sunny eastern aspect of the range. Back on skis, we lost little elevation traversing to the north, and were forced to run across a nasty slide path riddled with frozen debris, cornices hanging precariously in the heat above us. Though originally planning to summit Big Chiwaukum (8081′, pictured at top of the post), our flagging energy levels and knowledge of a 1500′ climb near the end of the day left us content to peer down a couloir on its northern shoulder before continuing on to the next col.

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There, we were treated to some of the best skiing we were to encounter en route, dropping nearly 2000′ into a long, scenic valley, dotted with lakes and larches. Though the crust that had been dogging us all day remained in places, it was predictable, and didn’t take too much body english to manage. Elsewhere, the snowpack was mostly consolidated and beginning to turn to corn. Whooping ensued, at least until the grade leveled off, the snow became slushy, and the scale of the final ascent — baking in the midday sun — became evident.

Todd went to see a man about the proverbial horse, and after killing the rest of my water, I began to skin up a steep, broad gully as quickly as I could towards a bench with a rocky outcropping and some trees that promised an island of safety. There was nothing to indicate wet slides of any sort were imminent from the snowpack itself, but the relatively late hour and high temperature (80+ in Seattle, we learned on our return) gave us little inclination to linger. Once Todd rejoined me, he took over, setting endless kickturn after endless kickturn through whitebark pines up the relentless, 35-degree slope. Attempting to avoid positioning ourselves above cliff bands, we trended right, blindingly shooting for the ridge and climbing well above its lowest saddle. “I hope we don’t get cliffed out,” Todd said quietly near the end of the ascent. I tried to put it out of mind.

Topping out, then, to see nothing but rolling meadows dotted with larches — as well as the only other human beings we’d seen all day, skinning slowly in the distance — was a relief. We skipped over to the edge of our sightline, and after following a rounded ridge half a mile, peered down on our final, massive descent to Highway 2.

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Of course, endings are almost never tidy, and the first 500 feet of the Swath (a 4000+’ slide path prominent from Steven’s Pass, and the terminus of our trip) were rock hard and very steep. Todd tentatively lead the way, gaining confidence once he realized his edges would bite. After ten minutes of hopturns, sideslipping, and the “falling-leaf” maneuver, the snow softened enough to let us open things up, and we quickly lost 2000′ in fine style before hanging left to grab a logging road we hoped would let us glide most of the way to the car.

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Two switchbacks and four portages later, it was clear our exit was going to take much more work than either of us wanted. Todd dealt with the situation by running all the way to the car in his ski boots; I plodded along at 2.5 mph, solidly over it. Over it until the moment I broke out of the trees at Cascade Meadows, 11.5 hours from our start and moments from a Dale’s Pale Ale, at least.

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General beta
: With a fully consolidated snowpack and a hard freeze, traveling north to south would certainly be quicker; possibly under 6 hours for a fit team with race gear in a hard effort. On the other end of the weight spectrum, bringing overnight gear and exploring some of the many alluring couloirs and summits along the route would be highly rewarding. I can’t recommend the area enough — but like any remote trip in the Cascades, don’t underestimate its difficulty. It can be a very 26 miles and 10K of gain.

Paonia again

2016 Elk Mountain Grand Reverse, 23rd, 8:53

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The view from my old living room. I’ve been putting this off for one reason or another for over three weeks now, but it’s time to get a report off my shoulders, as the rest of my life hasn’t come to as much of a standstill as my blogging. I’m not sure why this is so long — it just came out that way. Consider yourself warned.

The Elk Mountain Grand Traverse — a 40 mile, point-to-point backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen, starting at midnight one day in late March each year — is expensive, a logistical pain in the ass, and extremely alluring. For better or worse, the EMGT has also taken on more importance in my life than races usually do. There are reasons for this. I used to live few miles from the start of the course, spending day after day doing the sort of low-angle skinning that is requisite training for successfully competing in the race. Kate and I started the 2014 event together, a “Grand Reverse” beginning and ending in Crested Butte due to avalanche danger, but were forced to drop with an injury only a few miles from the finish. And this year, my close friend Peter has himself been spending the winter in Gothic as a RMBL winter caretaker. As we are about as tightly matched in fitness and skill set as I can imagine, it was an obvious decision to team up once I determined I had the week free from teaching. We both very much wanted to do well.

I skied as much as work and relationships would permit all winter, honing my fitness with regular track work and a few short running races. I flew out to Grand Junction. Following a lovely but anxiety-tinged week in Paonia, Kate and I spent Thursday night in Gothic, my first time back since I left Colorado two years ago. Skiing in under shifting clouds and a bulging moon, my headlamp jumping among the ghostlike aspens, brought back a flood of memories — and an inevitable rish of sadness for a period of my life rapidly receding into the past. Stegner’s doppler effect.

We stayed up later than we should have, drinking whiskey and chatting about the very particular things only people who spend the winter in a shambolic cabin in Gothic can know. The next morning, cooking a huge breakfast and waxing our skis, we watched the weather put on a concerning pageant of wind, snow, and brief, tantalizing glimpses of blue sky. Though a storm had hit the high country Wednesday, snow totals and avalanche danger had remained low through the end of the week. However, with another system predicted to strike shortly after the race got underway on Saturday, the question of whether we’d be pointing our skis at Aspen — or anticlimactically looping around the East River valley — was going to be settled by how quickly and how hard the storm rolled in. As of 9AM the morning of the race, things weren’t looking encouraging.

Still, there was nothing to do but ski out, get our mandatory gear cleared, and pick up our packets. We skied back to the car in a white-out, but by the time we started to drive the mile or so down to Mount Crested Butte, the sky was clearing. We didn’t dare get our hopes up, but after rushing over to the pre-race meeting (already underway), another racer at the back of the crowd confirmed it for us: conditions were safe enough to send us over to Aspen.

Elated, our spirits quickly dropped again after realizing we had misread the website and entirely missed gear check. But after pleading our case to the race directors, they graciously allowed us to go through the process anyway. Then, with 10 hours until the gun would go off that evening, we were left with little to do but anxiously organize our gear, drink coffee, and eat.

After a last dose of internet and espresso at First Ascent, Kate headed back to Paonia to grab some sleep before rushing over to Aspen and meet us on our (hopefully) early morning arrival. We decided to camp out at the base lodge, and nap if possible, steeling ourselves for a long night in the mountains. We chatted race strategy, tried to manage our excitement, and visualized plunging down to Aspen in sunshine, exhausted but thrilled.

***

There was only only one catch, which was that it hadn’t stopped snowing and things looked to be getting worse. Though the weather was off our mind for most of the afternoon, we couldn’t help but overhear another team of racers furtively discussing a distressing possibility: the possibility that race might be canceled. It was hearsay, but it quickly sent our moods in a spiral, and left us feeling hollow for the next few hours. Our veggie burgers (pre-race food at slope-side pubs is tough) did little to alleviate the sudden, unwelcome tension.

Finally, at 9PM, an email came through. Due to unexpectedly severe weather and already-huge snow totals, the reverse course would be implemented after all. It was, undeniably, a punch in the gut, mitigated by the relief of finally knowing what was in store for us. The problem of how to get a ride from Crested Butte to Paonia now that Kate had left was non-trivial, but something to worry about another day. The clock ticked on, and before we knew it, it was time to get going.

***

The start of the race can’t help but be thrilling, even in a Reverse year. There’s a spotlight on the horn of Mount Crested Butte, a dance party at the lodge. An old-hippy-style “rite” is read to racers, and then things get underway, with 450 racers sprinting psychotically for 50 paces before settling in to march rhythmically up the slope. Miraculously, the storm had finally broken, and in its post-coital calm the moonlight broke through receding clouds.

From our brief warm-up lap, I was aware my heart rate was spiking as I attempted to hang on Peter’s heels, a predictable result of having spent just enough time at high altitude to throw my body for a loop. (Paonia, at 5600’, doesn’t really qualify, and day-trip excursions above 10,000’ tend to make you taste blood but not affect performance to the same degree.) This proved true as we jockeyed for position and jogged toward the top of the slope but I am nothing if not proud, and I didn’t ask Peter to slow down. Absolutely nailing the first transition, we blitzed off skating, only to find immediately that we had dramatically miscalculated our wax, our skis dragging and squeaking and muscles burning with effort.

Again, this had more of an effect on me than Peter, who was relishing the change in technique. We dropped off the back side of the mountain, skated some more, threw on skins, and then climbed and careened through sagebrush, somewhere in the top 10. At the entrance to Brush Creek, there was a bonfire, and some teams passed us as Peter took a leak, but with considerable effort (on my part, at least) we closed the gap. Death Pass, a narrow section of trail on a steep gully, had mostly melted out the week before, and I cringed as I nailed a series of rocks negotiating it. (Luckily, Hagans are exceedingly durable for their weight).

Crossing streams and meadows as we gradually climbed toward Friend’s Hut, I began to struggle more and more. I wasn’t eating, and despite trying to store my water against my body, it was freezing, so I wasn’t drinking much either. After deciding to pass a team moving just slightly slower than us, Peter jogged for 50 yards, and in trying to hang on to his heels, my heart rate again spiked dramatically, only gradually returning to manageable levels. This was probably the point at which we went from competing to surviving, as I was never able to summon much more than a slog from then on. Teams we had passed repassed us, and I succumbed to the tow rope. It didn’t help much. We hit the turnaround point, tantalizingly close to Star Pass and the promise of Aspen, and then descended, making turns in soft snow and then skating and double-poling with difficulty in the same, facing down oncoming traffic.

The 2016 Grand Reverse route was modified from the version Kate and I had skied, cutting straight over the summit of “unremarkable but impressively girthy” Strand Hill rather than endlessly skirting its lower slopes. This was a welcome improvement, but at our slow pace dawn still caught us before we topped out. Our Carbondale-based friend Sean and his partner were also having a rough go of it, and we traded places for a while, eventually passing them for good on a stretch of gravelly skating following the descent from Strand, easily best bit of real skiing all day.

The final three or four miles, circling back around the west side of Mount Crested Butte, were a solid dose of misery. After a getting brief second wind while skating past Sean, the return to grinding uphill on hiking trails made me acutely aware of how much I was burning the proverbial candle at both ends. We crawled along, and crawled some more. I began to take “breathers.” At long last and after many false summits, we broke back out into the ski area, and immediately faced a gradual uphill skate I only managed as an exaggerated waddle.

We descended 600 feet to finish in 23rd place and 8:53. For the only time since my very first ultramarathon, I briefly teared up, utterly beat and grateful to be done.

***

On finishing, the dilemma of how to get home immediately reared its head, and so the usual post-event comforts of rest and race analysis were postponed until the memories had begun to fade. Because of this, it’s hard pinpoint exactly how I feel about finishing (once again). I am at once disappointed in slightly underperforming my own (unreasonably high?) expectations and happy with how well we did on an off day. More than anything else, I am grateful to be able to do these things at all, and for the images the race left indelibly imprinted in my head. The mile-long chain of headlamps stretching behind us. The shimmering crest of the Elk Range in the moonlight. Dawn from 10,000′. Scarred aspens, sage, melting snow.

Next time, I’ll keep my water warmer, eat more, and respect the altitude more. It’s probably too soon to say this — and for playing chauffeur all weekend, I think I owe Kate and Sarah the same favor next year — but goddamnit, I’m going to ski to Aspen some day. I hope Peter will be there with me.

Skiing across the Enchantments

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The Enchantment Lakes region, a pair of alpine basins sandwiched by the parallel crests of the Stuart Range, is the most storied backpacking destination in Washington State. In summer and fall, despite a strict permit system for overnight trips, the crowds are equally storied: on a given weekend, it can seem like most of King County has made the 2.5 hour drive over the crest to secure a lakeside tent site. Habitat degradation, wilderness character, and basic manners are perennial concerns.

But in winter, solitude returns to the Enchantments, with heavy snowfall down to Icicle Creek at ~1300’ ASL closing road access to the popular Stuart Lake Trailhead, and a very long approach to the high basins via Snow Creek discouraging day trippers from going the other way. The majority of human visitors in the offseason are campers at Colchuck Lake, or climbers and skiers headed for aesthetic routes on menacing Dragontail and Colchuck Peaks, a relatively small area. The remainder of the classic 19-mile horseshoe remains largely abandoned to wolves and wolverines. Which is why, since I’d yet to complete the full circuit, winter seemed the best time to do it.

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Erik and I knocked it out two Saturdays past, starting at 5AM at the Snow Creek trailhead. Our full route (including the ski back to Icicle Road from Stuart Lake TH, a road run to retrieve Erik’s van, and a ski descent of the summit of Little Annapurna) was approximately 27 miles with 8500’ of gain, which we covered in a hair under 12 hours.

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Photo credit and (c) Erik.

It’s a long, remote, laborious day, and not something to underestimate: there’s unlikely to be a skin track for most of the traverse, and travel both 1) up Snow Creek as far as the lower basin (~11 miles and 5700′ above the car) 2) down from Colchuck Lake to the trailhead can be very tedious. But with efficient gear that still affords a margin of safety, it’s a doable fast-and-light tour of some of the Pacific Northwest’s most spectacular high country.

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Possibly the crux of the day: navigating steep granite slabs coated in isothermal snow on the way up to Lake Vivian. Erik demonstrates exemplary kick-turn technique.

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Our first view of the lower Enchantment Lakes basin, with Little Annapurna merging into cloud center horizon.

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Erik, with Prusik Peak arrears.

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It’s a long, long way down to Ingalls Creek.

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While I tagged Little Annapurna, Erik opted to briefly bivy above Asgard Pass. Weather was closing in, and we were both glad to have the option to continue. Unfortunately, the descent to Colchuck Lake — 2500′ of steep, fall line skiing, and usually highlight of the traverse — was an ordeal, alternating between skittery ice and breakable crust. It’d be nice to return and milk the run in friendlier snow conditions. However, given the low elevation of much of the Snow Lake Trail, waiting for a reliable corn cycle would likely mean substantially more hiking.

Modify according to your strengths and preferences — what’s most important is concluding the trip with Bratwurst and something from Icicle Brewing.

Fall trip backlog: the start of the ski season

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Jake contemplates the appropriate technique for managing frozen avalanche debris as Mt. Baker looms in the distance

Compared to last year’s grim meterological stakes, the 2015/2016 winter has been a relative bonanza for skiers in the Pacific Northwest. Starting in late fall and picking up serious steam in the final weeks of 2015, a series of cold North Pacific storms have hammered the Cascades, resulting in snow levels frequently dropping to 2000′ or below. Because of this, the *real* story of the season has been the proximity of exceptional skiing to Seattle, and frequent 4:30AM wake-ups to snag 3000′ of powder before work. But back in November, a couple of trips further afield provided profligate eye candy for my dutiful X100.

Kicking things off, Jake and I knocked out a short circumnavigation of Table Mountain in the Mt. Baker sidecountry. It’s hardly a committing undertaking, but I don’t think there’s a better short ski tour in the world. I’ve already been back to repeat it with Sarah and Kate.

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Shuksan (!)

Following that (and my trip to Nicaragua), Kate and I observed tradition to meet college friends Ben and Hannah outside Bend. We managed to skin a few laps at Mt. Bachelor, but more notably ticked another spectacular Cascadian shield volcano, the often-overlooked Paulina Peak / Newberry Crater (7985′). At 14 miles round trip, it was an excellent introduction to training for this year’s Elk Mountain Grand Traverse, which I’ll be tackling with fellow RMBL winter caretake and close friend Peter come March.

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The Three Sisters from Bachelor’s Cinder Cone.

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Kate, Stringer, and central Oregon’s Cascade Crest on a cloudless western horizon.

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Newberry Crater from Paulina Peak.

We closed out 2015 with a trip to visit Kate’s parents in Colorado over the winter holidays, and were treated to a week of gorgeous skiing in the Gore Range and the Sawatch Range, confirming that yes, aspens and thin air and still make my heart ache nostalgic.

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The Williams Fork Range from the foothills of the Gores.

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Best dinner in Leadville.

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Celebrating an early New Years.

All of which is old news, but in the midst of a frantic few months, something worth pausing to reflect on. And be thankful for. Why else have a blog?

Nicaragua and the Interoceanic Grand Canal

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Nicaragua’s plant and animal communities are perhaps the least-well studied in Central America. One symptom of this knowledge gap is that birds are poorly represented as natural history museum specimens, and mostly absent from North American collections. There is, however, one notable exception: my home institution, the Burke Museum. As a result of this quirk of history (itself the result of fieldwork by UW graduate student D.A. Banin in the 90s), the Burke’s Zoology department is once again considering field work in Nicaragua, this time with collaborators at the Universidad Centroamericana.

Our future research in Nicaragua (which I’ll say more about later) has mostly been spearheaded by my colleague, the indefatigable Rebecca Harris. But as Rebecca was in Germany at the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies for the past quarter, I was lucky enough to briefly visit the country in November, and meet our collaborators in her stead.

The proximate reason for my trip was to participate in the 2nd Annual Taller Internacional Sobre El Canal Interoceánico Por Nicaragua — the 2nd Annual Workshop on Nicaragua’s Interoceanic Canal. Held in Managua, the goal of this year’s workshop was to assemble a cadre of local and international experts in biodiversity, geology, engineering, economics, and sociology to rigorously review the environmental and social impact statement prepared by a UK contractor for the Nicaraguan government on its ambitious proposal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via a major canal through the country. This quixotic venture is only the most recent in a series of over 80 proposals of trans-isthmus canals through Nicaragua, dating back to at least 1581. (Other than Panama, Nicaragua presents the only major gap in the American Cordillera amenable to excavation, and is a particularly appealing site for a canal the navigable San Juan River feeds to a major lake with shores only 12 miles from the Pacific.)

The Sandanista government’s rhetoric is revolutionary, but the economic benefits of the canal are far from clear, and there has been considerable opposition from academics and los campesinos, both in the predominately mestizo communities on the Pacific Coast and Afro-Caribbean / indigenous communities along the Atlantic. It’s emphatically not my place to offer an opinion on whether Nicaragua should or should not construct the canal (which would be the largest excavation project in human history), but the workshop’s consensus was that considerably more study was needed to determine whether the project’s benefits would offset its substantial ecological, economic, and social costs.

It was my second trip to Nicaragua, and my first to Managua, a fascinating, complex city usually overshadowed on tourist itineraries by its showier sister, Grenada. I was not exempt to Grenada’s charms, however, and following the conclusion of the workshop on Friday, left the capital with Jorge Huete-Perez (UWBM collaborator, head of the Centro de Biología Molecular at UCA, and workshop organizer), UCA hydrologist Katherine Vammen, and fellow Seattleite workshop attendees Lindsey Whitlow and Wes Lauer (Seattle University professors; UCA and SU have a sister-university relationship).

We drove two hours south to the shore and gazed at the surreal beauty of Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), with Isla Ometepe’s twin volcanoes painted against the horizon. Following a meal in a 16th-century hotel, we toured Granada’s “Isletas,” an archipelago of tiny islets formed by the spray of nearby Volcán Mombacho in some long-ago eruption. It was dusk, and cormorants, egrets, and kingfishers flew in front of our boat as we cruised the great Lake’s northeast corner, clouds clinging raggedly to the surrounding mountains.

24 hours later, I was back in Seattle, already looking forward to a longer visit in the months to come.

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Lago Cocibolca and Isla Ometepe.

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Las Isletas.

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Volcán Mombacho.

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Typical colonial architecture in Granada, established in 1524.

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Las Isletas, mapped.

Fall trip backlog: The Brothers (6842′)

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My office at the University of Washington is on the fifth floor of a grim 1970s-vintage brick and mortar tower. But on clear days, when I stand up from my desk, I can see the skyline of the Olympic Mountains towering above bungalows and strip malls and the interstate. Specifically, I can see the eye-grabbing twin summits of The Brothers (6842′).

In mid-October, newly healed from a bout of achilles tendinitis and fresh off two week-long field trips to Mount Rainier as teaching assistant, I was aching for one last long run in the high country before the snow flew. My frequent partner Richard felt similarly, and suggested we make the trip across the Sound to tag the Brothers’ south summit.

I didn’t take much convincing, and before long, we were parking his van at the trailhead, less than 1000′ above sea level. For some reason, despite first-hand experience with 2014-2015’s depressing winter, we expected snow in the route’s defining couloir, the Hourglass. Alas, though both of us were hauling crampons and ice axes, we were met only with loose scree, eventually scrambling to the summit amidst an intermittent hail of golf-ball sized rocks.

Nonetheless, topping out, it was hard to imagine there was a more worthy lookout in all of Western Washington. Cumulus clouds and blue sky were interleaving in flag-like, patriotic stripes, and the rest of the Olympic Penninsula was putting on a striptease of mist, crag, and forest. We ate jerky and gummy bears, and started running downhill.

Lunch was on our mind.

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Fall trip backlog: Copper Ridge / Chilliwack River Loop

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Mount Ruth (7115′), looking bony.

Back in September, when Washington had more than four hours of light each day and the academic quarter had yet to suck me into its vortex of responsibilities, Kate and I stole away for a two-day lap on the über-classic Copper Ridge / Chilliwack River loop. The 34-mile circuit was my introduction to the grandeur of the North Cascades five years ago, and we were treated to similar conditions: a day of rain, and a day of cool temperatures and astounding clarity.

I’ve yet to knock the sucker out in a single push, and while I’m sure I’ll do it someday, the plethora of appealing overnight sites on the route and general pleasure of briefly living in such grand country urge a more leisurely pace anyway. In fact, I’ll argue there’s no finer short backpacking route for scenery in the lower 48. Feel free to argue that point in the comments.

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This photo does not do them justice, but we hit peak vine maple at lower elevations dead on.

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Most parties hike the loop clockwise, to avoid a >4K’ climb from the Chilliwack to Copper Ridge, but we opted for the reverse, both to maximize canopy cover on the first, rainy day, and to better soak in views of Shuksan and Baker from the ridge.

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Blue raspberry water abounds en route. Earlier in the season, the Chilliwack is thick with blood-red sockeye and a marvel to behold.

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Copper Lake.

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Mt. Redoubt and friends: exceedingly remote climbing objectives.

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Shuksan, Baker, and miles of tundra walking on the eponymous Ridge.

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Closing out the [racing] season

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 9.38.15 PMPhoto credit and (c) Ross Comer

Fall is typically the low point in my seasonal flux of training effort. This year, it seems to the low point in my seasonal flux of blogging effort as well. But now that snow is falling and I’ve developed a backlog of photos from more interesting trips to report on, I thought I’d jot something down about the last three races of the year.

  • In late August, I headed home to Vermont for my hometown hillclimb, the Race to the Top of Vermont. Despite having substantially less preparation going into the event than I did in 2014, I managed a 15 second PR, finishing in 2nd place in 36:30.
  • Bailing on a fall 100, I signed up for the Crystal Mountain Skymarathon as a consolation prize, and then spent three weeks nursing a nasty bout of achilles tendinitis and barely running. By race day, it had improved some, and I stubbornly decided to go for it (said every runner, ever). The tendon held up, sorta, but running substantially harder than I had the fitness for brought on massive cramping around mile 20. I ended up jog-walking the last 6 miles to cross the line 6th place in 4:30.
  • After thus reaggravating my tendon and being forced to take a few weeks completely off from running, I managed to heal up and start getting out casually again. A couple of weeks later, I was sufficiently motivated to jump into the final Cougar Mountain Trail Series race of the year, running to 4th in :51:39 in the 7.6 miler.

In other running-related news, I published an essay in High Country News back in October, in response to an op-ed claiming trail runners were “missing the point.” It’s available here.

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