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.

The Three Sisters from Bachelor’s Cinder Cone.

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.


The Williams Fork Range from the foothills of the Gores.

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Best dinner in Leadville.


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


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.

Las Isletas.


Volcán Mombacho.

Typical colonial architecture in Granada, established in 1524.



Las Isletas, mapped.

Fall trip backlog: The Brothers (6842′)


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.



Fall trip backlog: Copper Ridge / Chilliwack River Loop

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.

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

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.


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

Copper Lake.

Mt. Redoubt and friends: exceedingly remote climbing objectives.

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


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.



Southwest Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness is the 180,000-acre, “big-W” core of a half-million total roadless acres. This region is (arguably) the wildest and most biodiverse landscape in Oregon, and the largest chunk of undisturbed habitat between the Olympics and Baja California on the Pacific Coast.

It’s also a difficult place to love. The Kalmiopsis is comprised of low elevation mountains lacking much in the way of geologic or aesthetic elegance, and is prone to extremes of weather and climate. It’s filled with scratchy, poisonous brush, scorpions, and snakes. It has a reputation for violent outlaw prospectors, solitary 19th-century holdovers convinced the crystalline waters of the Chetco will cough up enough gold to make their fortunes. On top of this, the Kalmiopsis was almost entirely burned over in 2002’s then-unprecedented Biscuit Fire, making an already somewhat unlovely landscape harsher on the eyes.

Yet the Kalmiopsis took hold of my imagination, and Kate’s. Our first trip here in 2013 only highlighted its paradoxical appeal. There are few places I’ve been that have made me feel as uneasy starting a trip, 20 miles down a heinous forest service road lined with shotgun casings. Or places where backpacking felt as much like tropical fieldwork, replete with heat, thorns, and pit vipers. But there is also nowhere else I’ve been in the US that can replicate its particular brand of solitude: a solitude rooted not in austere rock and ice but in living things piled on living things, a vibrant ecosystem utterly indifferent to your existence.

Part of the reason solitude in the Kalmiopsis is so total (beyond its discomforts) is the complete abandonment of a once-extensive trail network following “the fire.” Over a decade out, regrowth has swallowed nearly everything. As southwest Oregon is already the largest but least-funded unit of the US Forest Service’s PNW region, maintaining trails in a poorly-visited, scabby-looking burn zone has not been a high priority.

Which is where the Siskiyou Mountain Club stepped in, in 2010. Founded by Gabe Howe and Jill Stokes, the SMC’s specialty is primitive backcountry trails in Southern Oregon; restoring lost routes in the Kalmiopsis its labor of love. Two weeks ago, we joined Gabe, Jill, and their longtime volunteer Tom on a three-day backpacking trip crossing the Kalmiopsis from east to west. The route, beginning at the Babyfoot Lake Trailhead above the Illinois River Valley and ending at the Vulcan Lake Trailhead above Brookings, OR on the coast, is 26 hard but manageable miles. Bring a map and good notes, and be prepared for steep, rocky trails.

Kate’s writing about the place for work, so I’ll let her extensive research and narrative notes speak for themselves when published. I’ll only say it was a blast to get to see this fantastic trail in the good company of those who made it a possibility, and share in their enthusiasm for an oft-ignored place. There’s a lot of the greater Kalmiopsis region that remains vulnerable to mining, road-building, and logging, but little momentum towards permanent protection. The SMC makes a strong argument the best way to change hearts and minds can be with clippers and Pulaski.


Looking south towards the origin of the Biscuit fire. The route’s early miles are the bleakest.


Jeffrey Pine (Pinus jeffreyi) is widespread in the Sierra Nevada, but occurs in SW Oregon mainly as a serpentine soil specialist. Serpentine soils (seen here) are a difficult substrate for plants, thanks to their low calcium to magnesium ratio, lack of common nutrients, and high concentrations of nickel and chromium. Their widespread presence in the Kalmiopsis (and the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains more generally) is a major reason for the region’s outstanding botanical diversity.


The California Cobra Lily, Darlingtonia californica.



Dawn from our first camp on the banks of the Chetco.


Box Canyon mostly escaped the blaze and retains its verdure, a heavenly oasis after a hot and exposed climb over the ridge from the Chetco drainage.




The trail’s latter miles seemed to have burned with the lowest intensity.


Tanoak (Lithocarpus densiflorus).


Jill, the legendary “Barefoot” Brad Camden (our shuttle driver), and Tom, at the trail’s end.

Publication: Exploring the evolutionary history of a “supertramp” species

Photo credit and (c) Jack Dumbacher

Scientists often assume species living on oceanic islands have strong dispersal ability, surmising that colonizing these isolated, far-flung land masses in the first place would have required the ability to travel vast distances. Oceanic islands are also often known for their endemic species — organisms that are found nowhere else. Taken together, these two statements constitute a famous paradox in the field of island biogeography, a scientific discipline focused on studying the distributions of island organisms. The paradox goes: If island species are able to cover the great distances required to colonize their homes, shouldn’t this ability also maintain sufficient gene flow (the process of migrants from one population interbreeding with another, which tends to make both more similar) to outweigh the processes of evolution that give rise to unique, endemic species?

In a paper my coauthors (Dr. Sarah Schaack and Dr. Jack Dumbacher) and I published this month in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, we investigated this paradox by examining patterns of genetic variation in a small songbird distributed on offshore islands in Papua New Guinea, the Louisiade White-eye (Zosterops griseotinctus). The Louisiade White-eye is a member of a family of birds (the White-eyes; Zosteropidae) known for their rapid speciation, with a large number of islands across the Pacific and Indian Oceans featuring an endemic species. But unusual for the White-eyes as a whole, the Louisiade White-eye is what Jared Diamond termed a “supertramp species:” an organism highly specialized for overwater dispersal.

Diamond’s concept of a supertramp draws mainly on patterns of distribution in South Pacific birds he observed during his extensive fieldwork in the region. Noting that some species were only found on low-lying, resource poor islands, and never on adjacent larger, higher-elevation islands, he hypothesized supertramps were skilled colonists and ecological generalists that competed poorly against more specialized species in richer habitats. He holds that the dispersal ability of supertramps is also an asset in providing the ability to move on to new habitat when resources were overexploited or otherwise became insufficient, and in escaping disturbances from cyclones, sea level rise, and volcanic eruptions. Intriguingly, in the few rare exceptions where supertramps were found on higher-elevation islands, there was evidence of shifts in their ecological niche towards more specialization.

The Louisiade White-eye, Zosterops griseotinctus, with its family’s eponymous eye-ring.

If this change is accompanied by a reduction in dispersal, it might help explain the famous paradox mentioned above. Imagine a scenario in which a supertramp species arrives at a decently-sized, higher-elevation island lacking the kind of competitor species that have previously kept it to lower, smaller islands. On this new island, size and height mean disturbance is less prevalent and resource levels are less prone to catastrophic crashes. Dispersal ability therefore is less advantageous, and more individuals stay put and breed exclusively on their new home. As they more sedentary, gene flow is reduced to the point that populations are sufficiently isolated for long enough that processes such as natural selection and genetic drift become new species.

In our study, we examined the plausibility of this scenario using on a large number of samples of Louisiade White-eye tissue my coauthor Jack Dumbacher and his team collected via sailboat in 2009 and 2011. Jack focused on sampling small, coral atolls that had previously been overlooked by scientists. To represent the rare larger, taller islands where no collections had been made for nearly a century, we sampled tissues from toe-pads on specimens housed the American Museum of Natural History, originating from the seminal Whitney South Seas Expedition. Using a special technique known as ‘ancient’ DNA extraction, we were able to obtain DNA sequence from birds shot in the 1920s, perhaps the greatest “oh-shit-science-is-cool” moment of the research project. Coupled with sequenced DNA from the modern samples, we ran analyses to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships of the different island populations of the Louisiade White-eye (building a phylogeny), and assessed relative levels of divergence.

We were particularly interested in learning 1) whether there was genetic evidence for the supertramp idea, e.g., a signature of significant interbreeding among different island populations; and 2) whether there was genetic evidence for the loss-of-dispersal-ability explanation for the ‘famous paradox’, which would show significant divergence on the few high-elevation islands in our sampling. While our data lacked the resolution to come to unequivocal conclusions, our results provide preliminary support for both these hypotheses, which, of course, only lead to more questions. How frequently are migrants exchanged between populations, and where do they go? How do shifts in dispersal ability occur?

It’s been a lot to chew on as I ponder future research and my dissertation, but in the mean time, you can read more of our conclusions and questions in the publication either online or as a PDF.

White River 50, 4th, 7:14

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Photo credit and (c) Glenn Tachyiama

The White River 50 probably competes only with Chuckanut as the PNW’s quintessential ultra. Held each July since 1993 by Scott McCoubrey and crew, the course features two loops on beautiful singletrack in the foothills of MRNP, and regularly attracts some of the region’s fastest runners, most gunning for a sought-after sub-7 hour finish.

I had signed up over a beer or three sometime in the spring, but in recent weeks had been anticipating a trip to a family reunion in Montana would be keeping me from the start line, and had responded with commensurate focus: relatively low weekly mileage and an opportunistic approach to workouts. When that trip fell through, I decided to do a quick week-long taper and see how things went.

And it went pretty well, all things considered, though the a steady, soaking rain precluded views of The Mountain (good thing I’ve seen it before). A quick start had us through the first aid station (3.9mi) in a bit over 24 minutes, well under Ueli Steidl’s 2004 CR splits. Hanging in 15th place or so during the first few miles, I worked my way up as the trail began to climb in earnest, eventually slotting into a chase pack consisting of old PDX friend Yassine Diboun, Matt Palilla, and Seattle Running Club racers Evan Williams and Olin Berger (Matt Cecil and Lon Freeman were leading a few switchbacks up). We gave some lip service to “taking it easy” this early in the race — the course’s elevation profile is defined by two 4000-foot-plus climbs, with somewhere between 8500 and 10000′ of gain in sum — but honestly, we were pushing it a bit. This was confirmed at the second aid station, Ranger Creek (11.9mi), where we remained 5 minutes under Ueli’s splits.

A bit spooked, we slowed down significantly on the out and back to Corral Pass, and by our return to Ranger, were a solid 10 minutes off our early pace. I found myself in fifth chasing Matt and Yassine, both effortlessly fast runners on gradual descents, as they hammered back down to the river. Slightly over halfway as we passed through the campground, I began to feel some early fatigue take hold, and the first half of the second major climb was the major low point of my race. Easing into a hike whenever the trail pitched upward too sharply, I mostly tried to maintain momentum and make each moment feel as if I were racing, without digging my self too deeply into a loamy Cascadian grave of overexertion. And lo, in a timely reminder of the old ultrarunning adages that it never always gets worse and the winner is the one who slows down the least, I drew up on and passed first Lon and then Matt P., and then was sitting in third with Yassine’s bright orange windbreaker in my sights, the rain continuing to fall and fall.

Which is not to say that winning was ever a possibility! I crested out at the Suntop aid station (mile 37) in a good amount discomfort from chafing, attempting to summon enough focus to run the next 6 downhill road miles (losing over 3000′ to return to the banks of the White River) hard enough to maintain my position. I almost managed it. Averaging about 6:15 a mile on the descent, I was keenly aware that I was riding the ragged edge between a sustainable effort and leg-seizing cramps. Yassine, however, quickly pulled out of sight, and in the final hundred meters before the aid station, Matt Palilla zoomed past with demoralizing pizzazz.

“Save some for the end,” everyone always says about White River, referencing a technical, gradual, grinder-of-an-uphill from mile 43 to the finish. I mostly had, running in discomfort, not particularly fast, but fast enough. Adrenaline kicking in for my customary last-half-mile-sprint, it was over in 7:14:29, about 3 minutes after Yassine and Matt dueled for a second and third place finish, respectively, and a little over 10 minutes after Matt Cecil grabbed the win.

With more self restraint on that first climb and more focused training (particularly in the form of downhill tempo efforts), I think sub-7 is plausibly within my reach. Whether time and motivation will align and get me to the start line again remains to be seen, but it’s certainly a race I can imagine returning to. In the meantime, attention shifts to the last two races of my competitive season: a second stab at the Race to the Top of Vermont, and a second stab at the 100 mile distance.

Is it too early to be dreaming of snow?

Burke Museum 2015 collecting trip: SE Washington and central Idaho

Sunrise in the Blue Mountains, south of Pomeroy, WA

A large part of my work as a graduate student — in both research and public outreach — involves specimen collections. For outsiders, the specimen collections of natural history museums are a mostly-invisible feature of institutions like AMNH (or my own Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture) best known for their kitschy dioramas and dramatic taxidermy. Specimen collections are almost always behind locked doors, in back rooms filled with identical cryptic white cabinets, and unless you have a zoologist or evolutionary biologist in the family tree, you probably don’t know they exist.

But these archives are an integral part of research programs into that question of all questions, the origin of species. Specimen collections (and associated tissue / genetic resource collections) serve as a library of biodiversity, recording in perpetuity our knowledge of of all life on earth. This is done through both type specimens (the original individual collected from a newly-discovered species) and through series, or multiple individuals of the same species collected from different locations, serving to capture some of the variation present within a species.

In western North America, at least, our understanding of species-level diversity (“alpha” diversity) is relatively complete. But our understanding of diversity below the species level — how genomes, plumage, size, and other features vary across geographic areas, across climate, along elevational gradients — remains drastically insufficient. This is the focus of the Klicka Lab’s research, and the strength of the Burke Museum, the University of Washington’s longstanding natural history museum, home of one of the most active ornithology departments in the country. To conduct this research requires not only delving into the existing specimen collections, but also expanding them, with particular research goals in mind.

How do we obtain the specimens used in research? Sometimes by salvaging incidental fatalities, when natural-history savvy citizens send birds dead from window collision or feline assault to our office. Sometimes from the Woodland Park Zoo, when a cherished ostrich or lorikeet passes away. But mostly, the specimens at the Burke Museum (known as UWBM in natural history museum acronym-speak) come from targeted collecting. “Collecting” being the euphemism of choice for the dirty job of killing, stuffing, and cataloging wild birds.

For people who love birds, nature, and animals — as I assure you, everyone who decides to pursue ornithology or museum work emphatically does, likely to the detriment of more anthropocentric passions — the idea of collecting is often hard to swallow. How do you justify taking life for science? In the anthropocene and its epidemic of collapsing wildlife populations, how do you justify removing individuals from the breeding pool?

Responding to the first critique is a philosophical issue beyond my pay grade, but it certainly pivots on a belief in the intrinsic value of knowledge, and the power of knowledge of our natural world to inform decisions dedicated to its preservation. A response to the second critique is not dissimilar, but must also encompass the vast balance of evidence that illustrates scientific collecting has no effective detriment on wild populations. It would be intellectually dishonest to say that this is an unquestioned tenet of field biology, but after a recent editorial by three scientists arguing collecting no longer has a place in modern research programs, a forceful response by no less than 123 scientists in defense of collecting demonstrates the degree to which a majority of practicing biologists believe in its continued importance, despite the now-established advent of high definition photography and other new technologies with the potential to supersede some of the utility of physical specimens.

These are debates which others have argued more forcefully and articulately than I, and I’ll leave it to you to pursue them beyond what I’ve briefly cited above.

This year, the Burke’s three week expedition focused on northeastern Washington and the Idaho panhandle before heading south for the Blue Mountains (WA) and the Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness (ID). Otherwise occupied with summer duties as a teaching assistant, I was able to take the time to join Chris (UWBM Ornithology collections manager) and Kevin (UWBM Ornithology jack of all trades and Klicka Lab technician) on the final week of the trip. Beyond being my first exposure to collecting and its nuances — using a shotgun, preparing specimens in a field camp, the upsetting method of euthanasia known as “thoracic compression” — it was also my first trip to these striking corners of the inland Northwest. What follows is an annotated account of those moments when I had my lens on me.

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My stint began in the Blue Mountains, a small range spanning NE Oregon and SE Washington between the Cascades and the Rockies. The Blue Mountains are physiogeographically unique in the region in their merger of canyons with high, flat ridges, a sort of vivisected plateau over 6000′ in elevation. We camped off a spur road at 6180′, and hunted the most floristically diverse forest I’ve seen in the inland northwest, replete with Western larch and doug fir and subalpine fir and lodgepole pine and many others. It also boasted the highest bird densities of the trip, perhaps a result of being the apogee of land for a long ways in all directions during a week in which lowland eastern Washington cleared 100 degrees F.


After two mornings, we broke camp and drove many hours southeast to a high valley in Boise National Forest on the border of Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The goal was to base ourselves within spitting distance (1.5 hours drive) of the location of the University of Washington Herbarium’s 2015 collecting foray in Yellow Pine, Idaho, who we had arranged to join forces with for the final days of the expedition. At 6800′, we camped alongside a meandering stream in a marshy meadow surrounded by low mountains. Each evening, a family of breeding sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) announced their presence and soared low above our camp. A first for me, their presence was a stirring reminder of the wildness at our doorstep.


Our field camp, amply equipped for eating, skinning, and drinking Rainier.


After a morning in which we all hunted habitats near camp, collecting the usual assortment of montane Western birds (e.g. breeding songbirds such as dark-eyed juncos, chipping sparrows, Western tanagers, American robins, hermit thrushes, Audubon’s warblers, and many others), Chris and I headed north, downstream along Johnson Creek, to collect in mixed forest and meadow (dotted with mariposa lilies) some 800′ lower. Pictured is the .410 bore shotgun used with dust shot for collecting most smaller birds. With sufficient distance, even such delicate species as rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) can seem merely concussed by its blast.


Arrowleaf balsam root (Balsamorhiza sagittata), past its bloom.


A mariposa lily (Calochortus sp.)


Lupinus sp.


Near the airstrip in Yellow Pine, Idaho, site of the 2015 foray and a decidedly unique community. Sheer slopes and slide paths.


My kind of town.


Kevin, Chris, and Dr. Olmstead’s unmistakable vehicle on our rendezvous.


Johnson Creek near its merger with the east fork of the Salmon River.



After collection, an individual bird is prepared to become a specimen suitable for storage in the museum collections. This process, deserving of another post itself at some point, involves stripping the skin, feathers, bill, and legs from the other soft tissues, and stuffing them with cotton in a more or less standard way to enable more or less accurate comparisons with other members of its and other species.


Here, a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), tagged and awaiting skinning.


After being skinned and stuffed, specimens are pinned into rigid positions to dry for several weeks. No preservatives are needed, although it’s understandably important to keep them out of the rain.


The final morning before Chris and Kevin returned to Seattle, we hunted along a high ridge above Yellow Pine and near the skeletal mining community of Stibnite, a dry backbone of mountain bordering the incomprehensible vastness of the 2.4 million acre Frank Church / River of No Return Wilderness. The Frank Church is a mosaic of healthy forest, healthy burns, and apocalyptic burns that ominously portend the future of Western forests. It’s the home to hundreds of wolves and vicious wolf extermination campaigns. It reflects the Kalmiopsis in its pyramidal, labyrinthine heights and v-shaped canyons.

I gazed into its depths, and crossed the border a few times. It was enough to win me over, and made me promise to myself to come back.



In central Idaho, quaking aspen (Populus tremulosa) doesn’t nearly approach the degree of its extent and coverage in the southern Rockies, but occurs with a frequency alien to the Cascades, even on their dry eastern slope.


Nonetheless, where there’s water, the forest is lush, verdant, rich.


At the region’s highest elevations, subalpine meadows merge with groves of dark fir and short crest-like peaks of silvery rock, often clearing 9000′.


I hunted alone the final morning to the trip, with little success. Briefly stopping to preview a section of the IMTUF100 course outside McCall on the way home, I was soon back in Nez Perce territory, the steep prairie and ponderosa country east of Hell’s Canyon bordering Highway 95. Not far beyond, the monotonous driving characterizing the Palouse agricultural belt beckoned, with many hours separating me and home. I lingered for a while at a modest marker at the site of an ambush in the Nez Perce War.

Science can be monotonous, frustrating, and poorly compensated. But after the right kind of week in the field, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else.

Paonia and the Raggeds


I’ve been a lazy blogger. Time to start digging myself out of a rapidly-compounding photo backlog.

I spent mid-June back in Colorado, helping Kate close out life in Paonia, and move back to the Northwest to start a new gig as HCN’s Seattle correspondent. It was bittersweet for her, and for me. Home, it seems, is made of many places.


We took two days for a quick backpacking trip into the Raggeds Wilderness, in the northeast corner of the West Elk Range. It’s unusual for Colorado in featuring relatively low elevation habitat, rich riparian zones cloaking the river canyons hewn into the Western Slope.


The striking confluence of Anthracite Creek and Ruby-Anthracite Creek.


The Ruby Range, a defining feature of Crested Butte’s skyline, from its far side.


East and West Beckwith Peaks, with their striking succession of linearly stacked cirques.


Our camp, in a strange and wonderful grove of scrub oak amid sage and stunted aspen, ~8400′.


Not a bad view from the tent. At least until the storm rolled in…


…which happened shortly before dusk. We stayed dry through the night, but after a few hours hunkered down at dawn in a sagging tent, its pitch loosened by wind and wet clay, we broke camp in the gale and fled for the car.


The remaining days in Paonia were clear and hot, with vivid sunsets, beer at dusk, and a pervasive sense of melancholia.


“…but o my desert / yours is the only death I cannot bear.”