Snowy Morning at Bird Camp

In addition to her other tasks for the day, Amy dashed off this quick oil painting of the snow scene that awaited her this morning at Bird Camp.


Actually, it’s just a cell phone picture.

Bird Camp: Dispatch in Late May

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I hold here the very latest text message from Amy – my assistant prints them up on onion-skin paper and runs into my office with them, shouting “this just in, sir!” – and it’s too good not to share.

Expecting foot of snow 2night

But that’s the way life goes when you throw off the trappings of civilization and follow the call of the songbird into the depths of the Coconino National Forest each summer – the life of a daring Bird Camper. (If none of this is making any sense, you might want to start here .)

After I left Arizona at the end of April, Amy and Jen continued with camp setup and greeted crew members as they began to straggle in. (Many of the crew members are students, or are finishing other seasonal jobs, so sometimes they are delayed in arriving at Bird Camp.)

One big obstacle was what turned out to be four trees down on fences around the exclosure plots; when I’d left, Amy only knew of one such tree.

The fences keep elk out, in the interest of Science.

Fortunately, the forest’s recreation ranger volunteered to cut up the dead trees with his chainsaw and fix the fences, which was a big help. This kind of assistance is frequently forthcoming down there, Amy tells me – between the fire crews and the rangers, there is an abundance of people who like to feel useful, it seems.

By now, just about every member of the crew has arrived, and Amy is beginning to assign research plots.

“We’ll be starting normal work days soon,” she says.

I visited for one “normal” work day last summer. Amy’s alarm went off at 3:45. I rolled over, but she struggled out into the chill morning air, brushed her teeth, dressed, and went to the cook tent to make herself breakfast (hot chocolate, instant oatmeal) before the 4:30 departure of vehicles to drop the campers at their work sites.

The first part of Amy’s work day was over shortly after noon, but after lunch and some administrative work, she was on her way back out again to make nestling measurements. I went along and held the ladder while she climbed up to grab the baby birds, her hat pulled low against possible attacks by the parents.

In the evening, Amy rushed through dinner and kept working so that we could leave for town as early as possible. I was departing on an early shuttle from downtown Flagstaff to the Phoenix airport in the morning, and we had a room booked at a Flagstaff motel. But no matter how quickly she wolfed her quesadilla – which had been sizzled to flaky, cheesy perfection in a lightweight camp cook pan above the flame of a Coleman propane stove – we still didn’t leave on the two-hour drive to town until after 7, and all I can say is thank god the pizza place near the motel that evening was able to deliver a six pack with the pies.

When Amy does get a chance to relax, one option is a movie, right there in the cook tent, projected on a wall with a projector that could also be used to, say, project scientific presentations from a laptop computer. A recent evening found the Bird Campers circled round for Cabin Fever, a 2002 film by Eli Roth that would not necessarily have made my list for the first movie I’d want to watch 50 feet from where I’ll be sleeping in a tent in the woods all summer.

But you can’t let these fears get to you. When I was down there in April, on the first night we slept in camp – and so before I’d relearned the rule that, when you are camping in the freezing cold, it’s a good idea to forego those last beers for the last hour or so before you turn in – I was out in the moonlight at around 2 a.m., attending to some business. The forest canopy blocked the stars from where I was standing and the night around me was downright inky.

For the same reason why I always have to lean out a little when I’m on top of a cliff, I started thinking about The Blair Witch Project, specifically about how that one guy ends up cut off from the group and they just hear him screaming in the distance for the rest of the movie. Hear it from in their tent.

I was also thinking about how the Blair Witch was supposed to be covered with hair, like a horse.

Also about what I would do if some witch covered with hair suddenly rushed up and poked me in the back and rushed off into the dark again.

Then I just made myself stop thinking, climbed back into my sleeping bag, and tried to find a comfortable position that wouldn’t cause me to slide off of my ThermaRest.

First Attempt on Lappi Lake

I was telling a friend about my frustation that I’ve been here in Montana eight months but haven’t really gotten out and explored much. I knew there was so much to do and see, but where to start? My friend suggested a systematic approach.

“Work your way down the Bitterroot, one canyon at a time,” he said.

The Bitterroots are a range of mountains that are part of the northern Rockies, lying within a Forest Service wilderness area of more than 2,000 square miles, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. If you drive south from Missoula, the Bitterroots are on the right-hand side of the road, and their canyons point at right angles to the road, and most are served by trails. My friend’s suggestion was to get a guidebook and a map, start with the closest canyon, and go from there. If you know me, you know I’m a sucker for a systematic approach, so I immediately cottoned to the idea.

My plan is to make these trips every Sunday, or, failing that, at least once a week. (I’m a freelance writer, I can go any day I want, except for all the work I have to do this month…) Since I’ll just be making day hikes, I won’t be able to penetrate very deeply into the wilderness, but I’ll still be able to see territory unlike anything I could ever have seen back east.

Why just today, for example…

I wanted to get right on this plan, now that I was back from Arizona, so on Saturday I went to a local discount sporting goods store and stocked up on the necessary equipment. (Amy has all of our hiking stuff down in AZ.) I didn’t go too crazy, not that you could tell that from the bill, but I wanted to have at least a minimum level of survival and comfort gear. Just as there is territory here that is unlike anything back east, there are also weather, wildlife, and natural hazards unlike anything back east. I don’t want to be “that guy” on the news: “The hiker, recently arrived in Montana from the East Coast, was utterly unprepared for the conditions he encountered…” I bought a first aid kit, a compact “tube tent” for emergency shelter, water-purification tablets, a good compact flashlight, a compass, a Forest Service map of the area, and Hiking the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, by Scott Steinberg, among other odds and ends.

For my first hike, I picked a trail relatively far north (i.e., closer to Missoula) in the wilderness area, along Bass Creek. The Bass Creek trail runs about ten miles in one direction, along the creek, to Bass Lake, supposedly a good trout spot. I knew I probably couldn’t do a twenty-mile round trip in one day, at least not without working up to it, so I decided to walk the first five miles to another trail which cuts over to the smaller Lappi Lake, for a round trip that I estimated at about twelve miles. Though Lappi Lake looked fairly obvious to me on the map, I was excited to read in Steinberg that the lake is “little known.” I had visions of pristine clear water surrounded by mountains and trees, and no one around but me.

I set out from the house around 9 a.m. this morning and was at the Bass Creek trail head, south of Florence, less than half an hour later. I wasted the next half hour tinkering with my pack and trying to decide what I really needed to bring. The first aid and survival items were a given, of course, but did I really need the long underwear, sweater, and roll of duct tape? It was 10 before I finally set out, with a mostly full pack (including – obviously – the duct tape).

As I left the parking lot, I was thrilled to find myself in a cool pine forest with a rushing creek to my left. But – almost immediately – I was surprised to find myself really struggling and out of breath. This might be because I’m not used to walking uphill over uneven terrain with a pack on, or it might be because of the long hours I put in yesterday with a beer in my hand, first at the Garden City Brew Fest and then at a neighbor’s barbecue, or perhaps it was a little of both.

After the first twenty minutes or so, and after shedding some layers, I started to feel better and find my stride. And then, about 40 minutes into the hike, I found… snow. Though snow was almost entirely absent from the wooded areas beside the trails, I began to encounter long stretches of trail covered by 1-3 feet of dirty leftover snow. There was usually a narrow bind of particularly icy snow that, once I got used to the slipperiness, was a fairly solid walking path. But there were frequent less firm patches, and so every 4 or 5 steps I would break through the top of the snow and plunge up to my knee in snow, though this only rarely resulted in snow actually getting inside my boot.

To put it mildly, this took some of the fun out of the hike, not to mention slowing me down considerably. And after the initial hard going, I decided I probably didn’t have enough water along to make such an ambitious strip. I decided to just try to find the beginning of the trail to Lappi Lake and then turn back. But this trail, along with the one I was actually on, proved elusive. Well before I found the turn off, the main trail seemed to me to disappear in a confusing mess of snow patches and fallen trees. Perhaps once the snow melts, it will be easier to find my way, but today I had to give up.

Instead, I took a side trail that eventually led into an open area at the foot of a waterfall. The open area was completely snow covered, and covered as well with little 3-6-inch fragments of pine boughs, still green and strewn everywhere. What few trees were on this open area were saplings, and they were all bent severely toward the ground. Perhaps this was what was left in the aftermath of an avalanche over the winter. I made a strenuous climb up a wooded slope to one side of this open snow field, eventually gaining a rock outcropping overlooking the base of the waterfall, where I had lunch.

The walk back down the trail to the parking lot went faster – it was downhill, for one thing – but I found that my increasing exhaustion made it more and more difficult to recover from my periodic plunges knee deep into the snow. I made it down without injury, though, stopping near the bottom to soak my aching feet in the creek near a disused sluice gate. I was able to keep them in about 10 seconds before the chill turned to pain, and for several minutes afterwards my feet felt as though they were wearing a coat of tingling fur. I dried off on my pants legs and got moving again, emerging into the parking lot a few minutes later.

Back in Missoula, I stopped at the Reserve Street Safeway for some ground turkey so that I could make meatballs with spaghetti tonight. As I made my way up Brooks, a chihuahua came darting across the road, followed by a man on foot. It ended up in a grassy area near me, so I turned in to see if I could help. The man proved to unequal to the dog in a foot chase, though, and the thing wasn’t interested in coming closer to any other strange humans. It headed back toward the road, where more cars slowed and people stepped out to see if they could catch the thing, too, but the one constant in the dog’s behavior was its avoidance of anyone trying to catch it. Up and down the road it ran, causing dozens of cars to stop and drivers further back from the action to honk their horns, wondering what the damn holdup could be.

At first, I wasn’t going to get involved, but it happened that, as I pulled back out into traffic, I was just far enough back from the dog that I ended up following it for a while, and the thrill of the chase gradually overcame me. I followed the thing around for the next half hour, periodically leaving my car to try to catch it, encountering other people doing the same thing. At one point, thinking it might respond to food, I threw some trail mix out in the street, but apparently the dog didn’t like M&Ms and peanuts and left them lie.

Eventually, I teamed up with a man in a Nissan sedan who had the idea of trying to tempt the dog with the pizza he had in his car. We followed the dog down a side street and had it cornered in a fenced grassy area, but the dog managed to get around us and started heading down the street again. Thinking that it must be getting awfully tired by this point, and feeling a little frustrated, I broke into the fiercest sprint I could muster, which unfortunately wasn’t all that fierce, since I was (1) exhausted and (2) wearing heavy hiking boots. The other man was similarly inspired, and there we were, running as fast as we could down a quiet residential street, trying to box in the dog. We came close but it had greater endurance and eventually drew away again. Looking back now, I can’t help but think, if only I’d dived for it. But that kind of second-guessing will make you crazy.

The last I saw the chihuahua, it was running across the field behind Southgate Mall, headed for the train tracks, and there was no quick way to follow it in my car.

I drove home and drank about a gallon of water and then made spaghetti with mushrooms and meatballs.

Return of the Bird People


For background on Bird Camp – or if you find yourself confused by anything described below – see About Bird Camp.

A week ago Thursday, Amy and I got up and had breakfast like any other morning, then piled some bags into a GMC Suburban and a Ford F250 parked at the curb and set out for Arizona and Bird Camp.

The bulk of Bird Camp’s equipment stays in Arizona all year, but there is still a huge amount of it to transport down each summer, including three camp vehicles (the third one, which followed us later in the day, is another Suburban). We’d planned all along that I would join Amy for this trip and help set up camp before the rest of her staff arrived, but the initial plan had been that I would just ride in one of the vehicles. As departure time approached, though, it became clear that Amy was one driver short, and so I was sworn in as an official USGS volunteer (USGS funds the research), with rights under the Federal Employees Liability Reform and Tort Compensation Act, or so claimed the paperwork I signed.

In other words, a bona fide federal agent, just as I had always dreamed.

We left a little after nine, after divvying up a pair of walkie talkies we could use to plan bathroom stops and trade acerbic comments, such as how vomitous the suburbs of Salt Lake City appear, and how fortunate we were to have missed rush hour there, which last summer delayed the convoy with some two hours of stop-and-crawl traffic hell.

Our route followed I-90 southeast to Butte, where we picked up I-15, our last turn for the 600 or so miles remaining before Flagstaff. The drive took us through succeeding views of mountain ranges that might as well have been trying to outdo each other for most beautiful vista of the trip. On most of them the snow was starting to melt, and the swirls of white and brown and green and black, blurred a little at times through clouds, reminded me of oil paint smeared and blended on an artist’s palette.

We stopped for the first night in Nephi, Utah, about an hour south of Salt Lake (depending on where in the sprawl you start clocking it). The third driver, Jen, met us there a few hours later, and the next morning we all left together, the two Suburbans up front and my F250 bringing up the rear. As we moved further into southern Utah, we found ourself in the red rock and mesas of the classic American westerns, though not quite as grand as in Monument Valley. On Friday, just in time for dinner, after about 19 total hours on the road over two days, we pulled into Flagstaff.

Saturday morning, our convoy set out again, this time to the big box stores of Flagstaff. At Home Depot, Amy purchased six doors to replace the old ones used as tables in the camp’s cook tent, a step ladder one of the grad students needs for peering into nests, 25 two-foot sections of rebar for use as station markers (i.e., to be pounded into the ground and mapped to help campers orient themselves on-plot and give them fixed reference points for describing nest locations), and some other odds and ends. At Wal-Mart, we collected cleaning supplies, two table-top propane grills, and a whole pile of other small items. Finally, we visited a local grocery store so that Amy and Jen could stock up on personal food supplies.

We were ready to head to camp.

The route to camp begins as a winding two-lane blacktop that hugs the shores of two lakes before climbing into pine forests. As we drove, Amy and Jen remarked via their walkie talkies on the high water level in the two lakes, one of which was barely more than a puddle last year. Indeed, the area saw a lot more moisture than usual this summer, and we had been warned by Amy’s ranger contact to expect “four-foot drifts” of snow, although this warning turned out to be several weeks out of date.

After following the blacktop for about an hour, we turned onto the gravel Forest Service roads we would follow for about another hour before reaching camp. These roads wind through a Ponderosa pine forest, descending into and then climbing out of a steep canyon. While the overall road surface is in good shape – nice and wide for the most part, and few gaping holes or deep ruts – washboard ripples on the road made for a very rough ride, especially for me in the F250, with its extra-stiff, heavy-load suspension. Amy and Jen, in their considerably softer-ride Suburbans, were often far ahead of me, and I was forced to check in on the walkie talkies and follow the dust clouds hanging in the air. There seemed to be no way to close the F250’s vents to the outside air, and I could soon smell the dust and feel it in my throat and eyes.

But this was just part of the experience, as dust is one of the defining characteristics of life at Bird Camp.

We didn’t find any snow to speak of when we finally arrived at Bird Camp, although another of the ranger’s observations about weather turned out to have direct relevance. He had said that the area had seen some extremely high winds lately, which had been causing a lot of tree falls. And right there in the middle of camp lay a huge downed tree, one that Amy and Jen immediately remembered as having had a noticeable lean when it was standing.

We unloaded the truck and then drove back down to the ranger station, where Bird Camp maintains a storage shed (constructed by Amy and two other bird campers last summer), and began what would be a weekend-long process of shuttling supplies from there back up to camp. The ranger station (also home to a contingent of forest firefighters) is basically at the entrance to the forest, so driving there means about an hour on the gravel roads each way.

We also took some of the camp’s propane tanks to be filled at Clint’s Well, a sort of trading post or outpost of civilization not far down the highway from the ranger station. Clint’s Well offers not only a gas station and convenience store (with many varieties of jerky, and used guns for sale from a glass case on the wall), but also the local post office and a diner. It is a real stroke of luck that such a place lies so relatively close to Bird Camp, because the next similar establishment would be another half hour’s drive on the highway at least.

We arrived back at camp in time for me to make use of a little remaining daylight to begin assembling one of the propane grills, although by the time I was done and Amy had finished setting up her tent, I was working by the light of my and her headlamps, trying not to drop any of the several dozen screws and washers on the ground under the picnic table. Soon we were enjoying steaks and pork chops and cans of PBR, the night black around us and the stars brilliant overhead. We were all exhausted, and it wasn’t long before our full bellies had us thinking of bed.

The temperature would dip into the 30s that night and was probably close to that by the time we were getting ready for bed. Amy had laid out our sleeping bag on those cruddy little wanna-be air mattresses known by the brand name “Therma-Rest” (she wouldn’t get her mattress until we had fetched the professor’s camper trailer the next day). She advised me to change into clean clothes before going to bed, as any sweat or moisture in any of my clothes would make it difficult to stay warm in the bag. This is not exactly what you want to do after sitting shivering after dinner on a picnic-table bench, but I went along with it and was glad I did.

At about two in the morning, I wasn’t glad I’d had that last can of beer, however.

The rest of the weekend followed a similar pattern: trips to the storage shed, unloading in camp. The major tasks included setting up the large canvas tents that constitute the “downtown” of the camp, fetching the professor’s camper trailer from a local RV storage yard, and cleaning and filling the camp’s 500-gallon trailer-mounted water tank.

Setting up the tents was not difficult, but Amy was very worried about the prospect of driving the 25-foot camper trailer along the gravel roads to camp and then making the very sharp, uphill turn necessitated by a fence and several inconveniently placed trees – in the manual-shift F250, no less – in order to get the thing into the fenced center of camp. In the end, she made it look almost easy and became kind of a perfectionist when, having gotten it inside the fence, she was backing it into its customary spot. We were aiming for a hole dug for the thing’s black-water pipe, and when after several tries we were still six or so feet off, I suggested we just dig another hole. But Amy, who was getting better at backing the trailer by the minute, climbed out of the truck to survey the situation and then made another try, edging the trailer into position only a foot or so from the hole.

On Monday morning, we drove up to one of the camp’s fenced plots (fenced to keep elk out, to compare birds’ nesting success there with their success in areas where elk munch down some of the little trees they would otherwise use) to check for the inevitable downed trees. Every season, at least a tree or two falls and crushes part of one of these fences, and with the ranger’s warning that there had been a lot of tree falls this spring, we expected the worst. We split up to walk the fence line, with Jen going one way and Amy and I the other.

As it happened, there were only two trees down on the fence, both of a size that the campers could handle with their chainsaw. (Otherwise, it would be a job for the firefighters, who apparently need to practice their chainsawing skills anyway.) But it was just another thing to add to a long list of to-dos for getting the camp up and running, so of course Amy wasn’t thrilled – and this was only one of the fenced plots. There’s a good chance that the other plots will be in similar condition.

And so the first weekend of Bird Camp passed. On Monday afternoon, Amy and I returned to Flagstaff for another night in the motel, so that I’d already be in town when I needed to catch my 7:30 a.m. shuttle to the Phoenix airport the next morning. And the next morning we said goodbye for the summer, as we’ve done so many times now (three for this job, one for another similar job in California, not to mention my two partial summers on boats and Amy’s semester in Belize, back in 2001).

It was instructive that, on Monday night in the motel, we caught a little of the PBS series Carrier, which I assume will be released for rental and which I highly recommend.

Lots of couples have to spend lots of time apart these days; at least neither one of us is going off to a war.