The Sheep of Cow Hill

Run away! Doune Castle – more famously ‘All of the
castles from Monty Python’s Holy Grail except
for Castle Auuuuugh.
That was a different one. 

My Scottish journey took me first to Glasgow where I was able to see the university and a few more areas. I even got to watch Scotland’s unexpected win against Croatia in the evening’s football match with my Couchsurfing host. My host was also an adventurous fellow and agreed to escape from the city with me for a day of hiking in the Trossachs. I ended up staying in the nearby town of Stirling with all the intentions of keeping on to Fort William. My morning detour to Doune Castle of a bit of Monty Python silliness turned into a day of back and forth complete ridiculousness as I had to backtrack to Glasgow before heading back north to Fort William, at the base of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain.

I was finally set to try my hand at some solo hiking. Safety concerns aside, I was most worried that it’d really just be quiet boring. I’ve had some lively hiking buddies in my day, including Rachel (and Chelsea) for all of last summer. How was my own company supposed to stack up to theirs? I stuck out, being careful to pack my bag with “just in cases” ( water, rain jacket, hat/gloves, etc), and made my way to the only place to start any good hike – the ranger station. Or whatever the Scots call their rangers. They pointed me toward a few options, marked on my little map in green or yellow. I chose the yellow route mostly due to ego and the assumption that it was slightly more strenuous than the green trail. I’m no green trail simpleton!
For a trail called Cow’s Hill, there sure were a lot of sheep around. I had passed through a gate on my way up apparently onto a grazing area. As far as wildlife encounters during hikes, sheep are fairly non-threatening. Most kept their distance and I was able to giggle at them from afar. Have you seen their floppy little tails? Adorable. At one point while walking I had my map in front of my face to check where I was. When I moved it down again I don’t know who was more startled, me or the sheep in front of me down the path. I’m entirely certain we were both thinking the exact same thing. Holy shit, there’s something on the other side of that map. Close call. But not the closest I’d have yet. Further along the trail I crossed through another gate into supposedly sheep-free area. 
Except for the one directly in front of me on the path.

Some poor momma had been too tempted by the greener grass on the other side and somehow got through the fence. Unfortunately, her two lamb twinsies did not follow suit and they were no separated. She wasn’t very much enjoying her decision now. And I wasn’t very much enjoying her reluctance to move from my path so I could continue on. Furthermore, she wanted to come my way.
Ok, I know you aren’t supposed to approach the wildlife, but what do you do when it approaches you?!
Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly at all depending on how well you know me, this was not the first time I’d been in this pickle. 
Amazing Bestie National Park Trip
Day 17ish
Glacier National Park

Established in 1910, this American half of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park is the jewel at the top of the US stretch of the Rockies. Rachel and I had made it from just miles from the US/Mexico border to a park nestled up against the Canadian edge. We were stoked to see some glaciers straight away, but were saddened to learn that it is harder than one would expect from the park’s name. We would have to drive back out of the park and up to another road into (but not through) the park if we wanted the chance to see some. Not ones to spend the day driving around the parks instead of hiking about we struck out on a trail to Hidden Lake from Logan’s Pass. The stellar views of the area only became more and more spectacular as the trail continued, and eventually we began to spy the critter that has become synonymous with the park. The mountain goat. 



At first we admired the goats from afar, but as we descended down the path towards the lakeside, we began to notice an odd phenomenon. These nimble creatures that can scale the steepest of mountains and cliff faces apparently don’t mind taking the easy way around. And the easiest ways down are usually the human-made trails. So we ended up passing several along the trail as though it was an every day affair (well, it probably was for them!). All was well between humans and mountain goats. For the most part. Rachel let me out of her sight for moments to visit the friendly neighborhood outhouse, and I was nearly immediately confronted by a group of goats wandering through their turf. Their turf. And I was on it. They didn’t exactly want to snap their fingers and dance it out. They apparently wanted to make me circle around the outhouse trying and failing to out maneuver them. 




“Rachel. Uhhh. Just stay in there a few more moments.” I can only imagine her thoughts as she heard my voice moving around and around the shack. “Everything is fine. But, yea, just take a moment.”


Eventually they must’ve decided they’d made enough of a mockery out of me and carried on with their day, heading off in another direction. Rachel was safe to come out and laugh at my predicament. No harm, no foul.
 But our gal in Scotland was only getting more and more agitated. She was seemingly realizing that she needed to get back on the other side of the fence any way possible. And I wasn’t sure if that included through me. Normally I’m not going to be too weary of sheep, but when ones has horns right at kneecap level are going to receive a healthy amount of respect from me. Luckily my day pack has a built in whistle, something every traveler should have. A few solid blasts on that baby along with some gravel kicking and momma now knew I also wasn’t in any mood to be bothered with. That seemed to calm her down long enough for me to move far enough away to let her safely pass. 

The key is to keep your wits about you. Calm and cautious. Generally wildlife will give you a wide birth, but when they get too close usually they have their own reason and are just as annoyed with you for getting in the way. Of course, rabid animals might also approach humans without fear, in which case stay way back in case they attack and alert proper animal control personnel. I was able to fully enjoy the remainder of my hike and made sure to alert hikers passing in the opposite direction of what was ahead on the trail. Once back to the visiter center, I told the ranger and was reassured that the farmers monitored the fence line and would soon reunite the momma and her babes. All in all, a rewarding and successful first solo hike! 
Question of the Day: 
What is your wild animal encounter story? Any extra advice? 

Elk, Deer, and Sheepsies, oh my!

Day Ten

Rocky Mountain National Park

Total Miles Hiked: 10.24 (58.3 overall)

 

Who Pooped in the Park? Who?!

The ranger who helped us (this time I didn’t remember to peep his name tag) could tell right away that we were bonafide nature nerds. You start dropping science slang like ‘ecosystems’ and ‘habitat’ and you’ll see the smile on the rangers face. You’re one of them now. He suggested a long hike up Flattop Mountain for the next day. We’d have to wake up early to make it to the trail head before the road closed in that direction; we were too late to do so today. We could, however, try our luck with the Deer Mountain loop as well as varying other short trails with wildlife opportunities. We were certainly gaining experience in hikes with high elevation gains. I’m not sure if they ever get easier. Perhaps, you, oh reader, knows an answer? Deer Mountain was a 6.2 mile trail with a 1000 ft gain. Our quads and calves would take most of the strain. And a strain it would turn out to be at the very end. Stairs. Stone stairs to the top. Don’t they know I’ve already hiked up a few thousand feet. Is this some kind of a joke? Rachel soldiers on ahead, while I take the ol’ slow and steady tortoise approach. Breath. 

A little yellow flower child hiding in the bushes.

There is no better motivation that looking up to see a small scrap of a girl looking down at you inquisitively. 

“You’re almost to the top.”

“I don’t know, is the view worth it? Or should I just turn around?”

“I think you can do it.”


Her solemn answer cinched it. And at the top, I arrived. Rachel giggled down at me, knowing I had it in me the whole time, and sometimes I can be a bit of a slow poke. 
We laid out our prepared picnic, but soon had to battle both the habituated chipmunks and the dark clouds rolling our way. We don’t need much of an impetus to scarf down our sammies after that hike, and we soon do a quick tour of the available views before descending once more. Now, some people will try and tell you that going down is much harder than going up the hill. I find this to be utterly preposterous and question the sanity of these naysayers. Hiking down hill, you are more relaxed, less sweaty, often full of a snack or lunch, and generally in a much better mood. The worst is over. You get down so much faster than the hike up took you.  There’s a reason for the phrase ‘it’s all downhill from here’. You can smile and chat with the hikers still on the struggle bus. “So close! Watch out for lightening!” You may even hold your arms out like your an airplane and let gravity pull you faster and faster down the slope. Airplane noises are optional, but recommended. Keeping an eye out for rocks and switchbacks is required. 

Rocked carried down to the alluvial fan.


The visitor center may be my new favorite way to start my mornings. Especially visitor centers when you’re in a new park. New postcards to look through (still need everyone’s snail mail addresses: alwaysscientist@gmail.com), new stickers, new patches (my favorite), new books, new maps, new poop books. Also, we can chat with new rangers. As stated previously, Rachel and I love figuring out what sort of sights we’d like to see and how far we want to hike during our stay and getting suggestions from the Information Desk. It has yet to let us down. We knew we wanted another moderate-strenuous hike, we wanted to hike in and explore all three available ecosystems, and we desperately wanted to see some bighorn sheep or a moose. 

And then you’re magically back at the trail head. No time at all.

We opted for a tiny viewpoint for our resting area/mid-day reprieve. A 70+ year old  reservoir dam had burst in 1982 releasing 220 million gallons of water to race its way to Horseshoe Park. That much water moving with such speed is a deadly, and often startling, in its sheer force. The aquatic juggernaut scooped up rocks, trees, and whatever else it darn well pleased and carried them along it’s path, pounding into anything that dared get in the way. It was only an observant garbage collector, who phoned in the roaring noises, that saved the majority of the people in the path of the water catastrophe. Three people still lost their lives as the rush of water swept through a campground. The debris the flood carried was deposited in a large fan-like array (alluvial fan) that even 25+ years later can be easily observed. 

We left feeling somber and in awe of the raw power that nature possess. 

We were in need of relaxation after such an impressionable stopover. 

Elks.

After two parks of hoping and searching, we were still on the hunt for the elusive Bighorn Sheep. We had seen deer all over the place. They were no big deal at this point. Elk nearly immediately greeted us the evening before on our drive into Rocky Mountain NP. Herds could be seen along the roads and moving carefully through campgrounds. Our last stop of the day was a quick drive to Sheep Lake. We focused really hard on our desire to see the sheepsies. 

And then the cars ahead of us slowed to that tell-tale creep that indicated the sighting of some charismatic critter. Could we be so lucky?

Sheepsies.


Yes. 

We got to the pull-in and parked.

We’d arrived just in time to watch a herd of sheep cross the meadow in front of us. Mommas and babies. 

They’d spent the day frolicking and were now heading back into the hills.

We nearly missed them. 

But we didn’t!

BIGHORN SHEEP!

We had a nice rest while we watched the few lingerers and chatted up the ranger on duty in the area. Ranger Volunteer Gina was lucky enough to be assigned to the Sheep Lake station for the day instead of her usual visitor center position. She informed us that the sheep hadn’t been viewed in the area since Independence Day weekend. She told us more about her adventurous summer as a park intern and how she often ran programs at the visitor centers. Talk about an awesome guest post…here’s hoping!


Feeling alive with satisfaction, we managed to pull out a few more miles that evening during our periodic jogs. We found a path leading to a road and subsequent trail from our campground and had a mini-evening adventure. If you’re a runner, you must head to the National Parks for some of the most gorgeous scenery ever. Just don’t pull a Meridith and stumble all over the place while craning your neck to see the views.  

We were so pumped with energy from our day and run that we decided to head into the nearby town of Estes Park for some sugary Starbucks drinks and internet time. Can’t be a mobile grad student without a little productivity. 

We were so starved for solid internet connections that we were eventually (politely) kicked out of the coffee shop and continued to suck up the precious from the outside tables. We must’ve seemed like normal, decent people that didn’t smell like days of hiking and driving because we eventually garnered invitations for drinks and pool in the nearby bar from barefoot boys. Rachel knows better by now to try and dissuade me when beer, billiards, and bare feet are involved. 

We stayed long enough for Rachel’s team to dominate in a fair Best Two Outta Three round and for me to find a co-author for my envisioned, future e-textbook on biostatistics before we retreated back into the park for sleep. 

Question of the Day:
Could Rachel and I beat you in a game of pool?

Hello, Goodbye

Day Nine


Arches to Rocky NP


Total Miles Hiked: 0 (48.06 overall)


We knew leaving Arches NP and Moab that our destination would be vastly different than our origin. I was more than happy to finally be trading the sand, sun, and rock formations in for the soul refreshing mountains, trees, and streams. Such an eventful day of driving deserves to have its own road trip mix. We’ve jammed to all of these songs on our drives.

 

 

Rachel’s Ramblings:
I was a bad invasive species ecologist for the first few stops on our trip.  Meridith and I had discussed out travels before leaving and both agreed we wanted to minimize our impact on the parks we visited.  One of the major challenges facing many ecosystems on the planet are invasive species.  If any of you have been with Meridith’s blog for the long haul, you know over her spring break she came and profiled my (and my lab’s) work on wetlands in California.  If you’re just now following her, the short version is this:  I study the impacts of invasive species on ecosystem processes, usually applying potential impacts of invasive to food web structure within a certain community.  Invasive species are, by definition, any organisms non-native to an area which cause some sort of harm by their presence. Thus, I’m uniquely concerned about my own ability to spread the species I study around the different areas I work.  To keep this from happening, because, really, how embarrassing would that be, I take some pretty simple precautions.  

So, why do I feel I was bad for the first few stops on our trip?  You see, Meridith and I had developed a plan for avoiding spreading seeds, spores, or small critters between parks, but we failed to implement it until we were traveling from Arches NP to Rocky Mountain NP.  I justified it because Carlsbad, Zion, and Arches were all pretty similar ecosystems with lots of species overlap.  That aside, we didn’t follow the plan, and we should have, but now we are, and you can too!  I’d like to point out before going on, that this method is really more my opinion and based on conversations I’ve had with other scientists.  I haven’t looked up these things in the scientific literature (though I know the literature exists, and I would love it if you sent me some!).  However,  I think these steps are practical and that they do help, or at least they certainly don’t hurt.  I would encourage everyone traveling between ecosystems, especially those known to have invasive species, to take similar steps or do their own research on the topic.


A Few Simple Tips to Avoid Being a Vector for Invasion:

  1. Clean your shoes between locations.  Seeds, small mollusks, fungal spores, and lots of other things can cling to the bottom of your shoes, or get stuck in the tread of your boots.  If you can, make a bleach solution and soak the soles of your shoes.  If you don’t have access to bleach (like we don’t) give the soles a good scrubbing, then spray them down with 409 and let it sit for a little while (remember this is what the ranger did to our boots at Carlsbad Caverns NP).
  2. Wash and dry (preferably on high) clothes worn in one area before wearing them in another area.  You know how plant parts love to stick to your socks and pants and everywhere while you are hiking in the woods?  Plants are clever, but you can outwit them.
  3. It’s the whole “take only pictures, leave only footprints” thing, this is just one more application of this really important advice.  This goes a little without saying, but we have heard the Junior Rangers at each park promising to leave the pretty flowers they see so that other can enjoy them (so cute!).  Another good reason to not pick flowers, buy seed packs from areas outside your home region, or otherwise transport wild plants or animals is to avoid the spread of invasive species. 

Question of the Day:
Will you adapt any of Rachel’s tips to help stop the spread of invasive organisms?