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.