Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Intern Blog. Katie Roland from Centre College, KY

Being from Nashville, TN, I have the honor of being the intern who traveled from farthest away, whilst still being from this country. This obviously excludes Perrine, an intern from France who was also at the garden this year. Being not only from the eastern half of the country, but also from the South, I grew up in an area of constant green and high humidity. There is always water, if only in the air, and I am surrounded by deciduous trees. Needless to say, everywhere I went during the course of my internship was different and exciting. I did a lot during my two month stay at RSABG, too much to even begin to describe here, and I had the privilege of getting to meet so many wonderful people. I was able to work in the herbarium, the seed house, and the nursery. The best part was the fieldwork. We took numerous day trips, mostly to Bighorn Mountain Wilderness. I also had the opportunity to go on several overnight trips.
Erika's Study Site. Kiavah Wilderness,  Kern County, CA

My first overnight collecting trip was with Erika Gardner, a Masters student at the garden. The Masters students at RSABG often do a flora of an understudied area, which means that they document and collect every species of plant that grows in that area. This generally requires two or three seasons of field work, and Erika is just finishing her second. Her study site includes parts of the Kiavah Wilderness and the surrounding area, and it is a gorgeous section of desert. At the end of the second week of my internship, I went with her on a two-day camping trip to document whatever of interest we found.
 The first day, we had driven the perhaps three hours from the garden to her site, hiked part way along the Pacific Crest Trail, and set up camp. Possibly my favorite moment from this first day occurred just outside a trailhead where we parked and ate lunch. Erika noticed a piece of paper under a rock sitting under a tree near the trailhead. After staring at it for several minutes from afar, she decided to go investigate. It turns out that it was a warning, presumably left by some industrious hiker, about a snake that had been seen under the tree from several weeks ago. Whether the note-writer meant this as a general warning about the existence of snakes, or they thought that the snake was a permanent resident under that particular tree, I cannot say. I can say, however, that there was not a snake in sight. We left the note, just in case the snake came back.
 The section of the Pacific Crest Trail  (PCT) we hiked was fairly high elevation, although I could not tell you the number exactly. It was definitely desert, and very dry, but we did find some things flowering, and we made a collection of wonderfully mature mustard seeds, because they looked good. There was very little in the way of trees, or even large shrubs, in this particular area. This meant that there was almost nothing to shield us from the wind, perched on the side of an exposed slope. And there sure was wind. I do not know whether it was just the lack of shielding that caused the impressive wind, or if the location of her site in the desert or if the aspect of the slope influenced it as well, but it was magnificent.
The PCT, Erika said it looked like we were about to hike off the edge of the world

The wind continued to be strong throughout our two days, and in the evening of the first day found us hunched over in the covered back of the truck, trying to press the days collections without having plants and newspaper flying away in the breeze. Nearly everyone I accompanied into the field collected specimen in the same way, excluding only Joy England, another graduate student working in the Rock Creek area in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, who presses her specimen in the field. The collections were made for preservation in herbaria, primarily the herbarium at RSABG. They must be collected, pressed, and later attached to herbarium sheets. For most smaller herbaceous plants, this meant collecting the entire plant, roots and all. For people doing floristic surveys, this generally means collecting a large number of plants in a day. Trying to press plants in the field is time consuming, and in windy areas like Erika’s site nearly impossible.
To avoid these problems, at Rancho they place them into Ziploc bags and press them all together at the end of the day, usually back at the garden. For someone who still struggles with plant identification, this process seemed very intimidating. You have to be able to identify everything well enough the first time so that, when you go back through the plants, you can tell them apart and label them correctly. Of course everyone working at the garden was quite skilled at this, and I could just write down what they told me and try to remember as many plant names as possible. I also got very good at dismantling newspaper, as each specimen had to be pressed in an individual sheet. 

The next morning, we got up early to try to beat the heat. Our mission was to hike back into a nearby canyon to look for water. Erika had found water in this canyon at different times of year, and we were trying to figure out whether it was permanent or ephemeral. The hike started off across another steep slope, but unlike the day before there was no easy trail, and the slope was covered with little ankle-height plants that felt like they were growing tiny razorblades. By the time we finally got to what I would describe as the mouth of the canyon, we had nearly turned back and had come up with an alternate route back that would require us to climb up a pile of large boulders, but could not be nearly as painful.

Evening at our campsite.
The obvious path to follow back into a canyon would be along the bottom, but that was absolutely impossible in this case. The floor was alternately covered with impassible brush, usually willow shrubs that reached well over our heads, and boulders that did the same. Our only other option was to hike up one of the sides and back at a higher elevation. The slopes themselves were steep, to say the least. In fact, at some points it ascended at a 90-degree angle. This was made even more exciting because the slope itself was only occasionally made up of stable soil. The rest of the time, we were climbing up deep sand, loose rock fragments, and sometimes large boulders. If all of this were not enough, fairly frequently there would be no way to continue along a side at any height. Something would block our path, and we would have to descend once again to the bottom of the canyon and climb up the other side.

By the time we heard the drip of water, neither of us was sure what it was. In fact, for a while we thought it was some wild animal in the brush. We followed the drip until we found several clear pools of water, still present in the heat of summer. By one, we even found what had once probably been a coyote, but now was a ragged pelt floating at the edge of the water. The water there is likely a year-round source of drinking water for the surrounding fauna, as well as a haven for water-loving desert plants. It was a gorgeous area, and I do not think I will ever forget it. It was also some of the most exciting, and possibly death-defying, hiking I have ever done. This is just one of the many fond memories of the desert I have taken with me, and Erika is one of the many people I will never forget.


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