Rocky Mountain is the Real Deal

Hello all,

I made my way up to Rocky Mountain National Park last Thursday through Saturday to do some fieldwork and shadow Alejandro in his Interpretation duties. On Thursday, I joined the Rocky Mountain Wetlands Inventory & Monitoring (I&M) team in Horseshoe Park to set up a study for a proposed artificial beaver dam.  Rocky Mountain National Park has many ungulates that eat the willows beavers use to build dams, and this has had a cascading effect on the rest of the ecosystem there.  If the park approves the installment of an artificial dam (in whatever form that may take), the I&M team will be able to track the changes in the surrounding vegetation, water levels, and soil composition by that dam in the coming years because of the work we did.

We began the day by marking the transects we would be studying, and meticulously labeling with small aluminum markers that could be found next year when the site is evaluated again. I didn’t realize how every physical aspect of a study must be balanced between its purpose for research and its appearance to visitors in a national park setting.  We try to meet our goals while leaving the smallest possible trace of our work.

I want to take a moment to bring some attention to the impressive women I was working with, before I put the non-biologist readers to sleep with further details of the study.  Erin Borgman is a member of the I&M team and she kindly allowed me to work at the site with her.  She patiently explained the structure of the study, answered all my questions and gave great directions.  Additionally, she worked steadily under the hot sun and waded through dense willows for several hours…..oh, and did I mention she is in the third trimester of a pregnancy?! Yep, just casually working eight hours outside while growing a human life.

I also joined Denise, the botanist on site, towards the end of the day to help record the data she was collecting. Imagine walking into a forest and having someone point at random to obscure tiny plants and asking you their scientific species name.  That’s what Denise, a.k.a the Human Computer, does.  (Ok, I made up that nickname myself.) I think my favorite moment with Denise was when we plotted a circle within one of the transects we established in the thickest part of the willows. As we walked (trudged/climbed/contorted ourselves awkwardly) to the heavily shaded plot she stopped abruptly, “An orchid! Wow, so pleased to find one of these here!” I stupidly scanned the ground for some fuchsia moth orchid we commonly see in floral shops (native to Asia, *face palm*), but she crouched low and inspected a tiny green sprout that looked, to me, like every other tiny green sprout in the area. “I did my Master’s on this guy,” she muttered to herself.  She pulled out her trusty species guide and quickly flipped through the pages checking every aspect of the plant in order to identify it. We marked the little guy to avoid trampling him as we moved through the rest of the plot. She proceeded to identify about a dozen other plants in the area including grasses.  GRASSES, the straight, green, plain-Jane kind.  (You can tell this is my first rodeo with botany.) Anyway, I was just so impressed by her thorough evaluation and her expertise. It’s unique to pursue something so specifically as to become an expert on it, and I’m not sure I’ve ever

Beyond identifying the vegetation on the site, I also collected soil samples and learned how to test different aspects of water quality. I didn’t realize how much I would learn in one day!developed that depth of understanding on any topic…yet, anyway.

On Friday, I shadowed Alejandro as he assisted visitors and answered questions on the trails in the morning and at one of the visitor centers in the afternoon.  He truly loves his job, and had a mountain of information (I actually hate puns, but here we are…) to share with me.  Also, it was an absolute TREAT to see a female moose with her calf on one of the trails! I was so pumped when I spotted them that I scared Alejandro as I grabbed his pack jumping up and down, pointing at them down the trail.

Immersing myself in the operations at the park level really renewed my energy for work at the office this week.  I think it’s important that National Park Service employees working at the Regional and Washington level get a good taste of the parks each year, because their magic is undeniable. I am grateful to Alejandro and the I&M team for gifting me with so much information and a unforgettable experience.  That’s a lot of superlatives for one post, but I can’t put it any other way.

Time to enjoy my last week at the office! 

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