Monthly Archives: August 2013

Marmot monitoring in Olympic National Park

Over this past week we spent three days in our “back yard,” participating as volunteers in Olympic National Park’s marmot monitoring program.

NOTE: All of the marmot photos below were taken with a zoom lens. Although marmots are not particularly bothered by the presence of humans, I would never get so close to a wild animal in its natural environment.

Wouldn’t you want to spend as much time as possible with these cute little guys?

The Olympic Marmot is endemic to the Olympic Peninsula; 90% of the Olympic Marmot population lives within the boundaries of the Park.

Historically, a stable population of 2,000 or more Olympic Marmots existed, but about ten years ago anecdotal reports began to indicate that the population was in rapid decline. By the year 2006 the estimated population was only 1,000. The probable cause of this decline is predation by coyotes, which are not native to the area. Although the population is currently rebounding, the marmot’s lifecycle (slow reproductive rate, long hibernation time, limited mobility within its range) and other factors including climate change cause concern for the long-term viability of this unique species.

In 2010, Park biologists began a citizen marmot monitoring volunteer program. The idea is to survey areas within the Park that are known or likely sites of marmot habitat. The program is now in its fourth year. CFL and I volunteered to participate this year and were thrilled to be selected!

We began with a morning of classroom training followed by an afternoon in the field. This video taken at a prior year’s training will give you an idea of what is involved.

The survey method is straightforward:

  1. Hike to an area (“unit”) delineated on the map
  2. Use a GPS device to confirm that you’ve arrived at the right location
  3. Look for marmots within the boundaries of that unit
  4. If you see a marmot
    1. Hike to its location and mark it as a waypoint on the GPS
    2. Count all the adult and juvenile marmots you can see at any one time
    3. On your data sheet, enter the marmot count and mark the unit as “occupied”
    4. You’re done — move on to the next unit.
  5. If you don’t see a marmot
    1. Hike around within the unit looking for marmot burrows
    2. Mark any burrows on the GPS
    3. Determine (based on fresh dirt, feces, etc.) whether the burrow is occupied or abandoned
    4. Mark the unit as “occupied” or “abandoned”
    5. Move on to the next unit.
  6. Keep looking for burrows until you’ve surveyed the entire area
    1. If no burrows, mark the unit as “no sign”
    2. Move on to the next unit.

As first-year volunteers with (in my case) no overnight backpacking experience, we requested and were assigned to a front-country area. The most remote of our units was only about three miles from the trailhead.

Hiking out to each unit was the easy part! Once there, we left the trail and scrambled across meadows. These sub-alpine meadows are extremely fragile, and we would normally never go off-trail — but this time we were doing it in our official volunteer T shirts. We felt like kids getting away with something!

In many places the meadows are steeply sloped, and getting around the unit can be difficult. The next photo shows a typical occupied burrow. Note the freshly-dug dirt as well as the dirt on top of the rock (left behind by sun-bathing marmots). To get here, we had to hike for some distance sideways across the slope. It’s a good workout for toes, ankles, knees, and hips!

Accesses to and/or within couple of our units were so steep that we didn’t attempt to hike into them — but we didn’t need to, because we could survey them from above with binoculars.

There are (at least) three marmots in this photo. Can you spot them all?

The pups are grayish in color.

Adults have two-layer coats, brown to yellow-brown with a darker undercoat. Many of them are in the process of molting right now.

This big guy is sporting an ear tag. We’re hoping that the Park biologist can identify him or her from our photos and tell us more about him.

He or she was very patient with us while I took numerous photos in this stunning setting.

However, he finally expressed his displeasure by showing us his incisors, so we moved on and let him enjoy the rest of his day in peace.

To our surprise, we didn’t see a single black bear or mountain goat during our three days of off-trail excursions. We did see a golden eagle (a first for me), lots of deer, and some other interesting birds.

I believe this is a female sooty grouse (formerly known as a blue grouse). She had at least three chicks with her, but they were impossible to find through the camera viewfinder in the tall grass.

These are horned larks.

Sadly, the wildflower season is pretty much over, but we did see some beautiful specimens. This is pearly everlasting.

This is red columbine.

I have no idea what this gorgeous flower is, but we saw it only in a few places where there was loose shale.

All told, we hiked about 15 miles over the three days, at least a third of which was off-trail. We saw marmots and/or marmot burrows in 12 of our 14 units. We were very happy citizen scientists! We will certainly volunteer to do it again next year — maybe even venture into one of the back country areas. All in the name of research!

The Providence Bridge Pedal: Portland, Oregon

A week ago CFL and I rode the Providence Bridge Pedal in Portland, Oregon. I first learned about this ride last year when we happened to drive through Portland a couple of hours after the finish, but CFL has had it on his wish list for years.

With an estimated 18,000 riders, it’s billed as the third largest community bike ride in the world, behind first-place Montreal and then New York City.

The Portland ride essentially shuts down traffic through downtown Portland on a Sunday morning and early afternoon. The route encompasses all of the major bridges that cross the Willamette River — including two freeways. Yes, they close parts of freeways for this ride!!

There are several variations of the ride, ranging from a few miles and a couple of bridges, to 30+ miles and 10+ bridges.

I’m still rather new to cycling, having logged fewer than 200 miles in my adult life prior to this event. But CFL encourages me to dream big! In early June we registered for the 33-mile, 10-bridge ride.

I figured that two months to train would be enough. As the big day approached we did several easy rides of varying lengths on generally rolling trails and roads. I was terrified at first of riding on roads with cars whizzing by, but installing a rear view mirror on my handlebar helped. Our longest ride was 26.3 miles ten days before the event. I was confident that I could go the distance and that I could ride up the uphill approaches to each bridge. But I was very anxious about riding in close quarters with others. What if I did something stupid and caused a multi-bike accident?

On Sunday morning we were up very early to drive the ten miles from our motel to downtown Portland, find a place to park, unload the bikes, and ride slowly to join the masses at the starting line.

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From the starting line the route would take us immediately onto a ramp and up and over our first bridge. Although we were released in waves every few minutes, it was crowded and slow going over the bridge. I did my best to keep my balance while wobbling along at a mere 4 MPH while surrounded by other wobbly bikers. After a few minutes it dawned on me that I wasn’t the only nervous, inexperienced biker. We were all in this together and nobody wanted to crash! Gradually I began to build some confidence as I gained experience in not crashing.

Once we were over the top of the bridge, we all picked up speed and spread out. I was able to relax and enjoy the ride, the scenery, and the encouraging shouts from spectators and fellow riders.

This pattern of bottlenecks and spread-outs continued for the remaining nine bridges. In a few cases the crowd approaching a bridge was so dense that everyone got off and walked, but on most of the bridges there was room for both through riders and those who stopped to rest or take photographs. We mostly fell into the latter camp.

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The views were amazing!

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Some of the aid stations were set up in the middle of bridges, which encouraged people to take their time enjoying a snack while taking in the views. There were also bands on a couple of the bridges — it was all quite festive!

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On the freeway sections we were able to spread far apart and whiz down the long, gently curving roadway. I managed to dislodge my twitchy fingers from my brakes and actually got going more than 25 MPH a few times. My GPS watch recorded one sub-4-minute mile. I felt like I was flying! It’s hard to imagine that there are many humans alive who can run that fast.

The ninth bridge was the toughest. After nearly 20 miles of criss-crossing the Willamette in the center of downtown, we tackled a 10+ mile loop to the north, crossing the St. John Bridge before heading back toward downtown. This bridge ramp was very steep;  lots of people around me got off and walked but I managed to ride all the way to the top. And I was still smiling when I got off my bike for the photo opportunity!

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From there it became a freight train as we all seemed to pick up speed for the final push back to the 10th bridge and the finish line. I was finally fully relaxed and beginning to feel rather proud of myself. The ride finished only a block from where it began, but those 33 miles were transformational for me. I felt like a triumphant cyclist!

There was one last crush at the finish line. We all lined up with great anticipation for the ice cream bars and other snacks that awaited.

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The ride was not officially timed, but I timed us at a leisurely four and a half hours. That’s okay! I finished feeling strong and — most important — staying upright. No crashes by me or anyone around me!

CFL had a great time also. We vowed that we’d come back and do it again someday. Actually, we are already talking about coming back in 2014. It was that awesome.

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Of course, while we were in Portland we also visited a few brewpubs. We finished our ride day at the Deschutes Brewery Public House, where I enjoyed vegan mushroom shepherd’s pie paired with a delectable Black Butte XXV. Another Portland standout was the tiny Tugboat Brewing’s amazing Chernobyl Imperial Stout. Our Oregon trip also included beer tasting stops in Astoria and Eugene. I think we hit about a dozen brewpubs and taprooms overall. And we haven’t scratched the surface of all that Portland has to offer!

Yes, I think we’ll be back next year.

How about you?

Ride the Hurricane!

The other day some people took a fun little bike ride in our part of the world.

There were 522 registered riders in the fourth annual Ride the Hurricane. This event — a fun ride rather than a race — is organized by our local Chamber of Commerce with the involvement of the staff at Olympic National Park. For six hours on a Sunday morning, the road from downtown Port Angeles into the Park and up to Hurricane Ridge is closed to automobiles, transformed into a superhighway for bicycles.

This was CFL’s third time in this event. He usually rides up to the Ridge solo at least one other time during the summer, but this was his first trip up this year. The ride is 36 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of nearly 5,000 feet on the way up and the equivalent (very rapid) elevation loss on the way down.

New for this year was a spectator shuttle, which turned the event from a personal cycling challenge into an adventure that loved ones could share. I watched CFL start out on his ride, then I got on the shuttle. We drove very carefully up the Hurricane Ridge road, mostly in the left lane, passing hundreds of panting cyclists. That is a steep road! I waved at CFL as we passed him at about mile 6.

At the top, most people positioned themselves at the finish line so they could cheer for each arriving cyclist. However, I knew that CFL would take about four hours to reach the top — which gave me nearly two hours for hiking!

CFL and I have been so busy with many other things that we haven’t had many opportunities for high country hiking. Some of the best wildflowers are already gone. However, I was hopeful as I set out along the Klahhane Ridge Trail.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I had given myself an extraordinary opportunity. Because the road up to the Ridge was closed that morning, there was almost no one on the mountain. The trail runs along the ridge high above the road, which gave me occasional birds-eye glimpses of cyclists far below. Now and then I’d hear a shout from the road, but most of the time all I heard was birds and bugs. 

I was on that trail all by myself. This struck me as slightly weird and a bit disconcerting at first. But as I continued to walk I lost myself in the wildflowers and mountain views, and I relaxed.

I hiked out for just over two miles, then somewhat reluctantly started back. The return trip provided the best angles for viewing the cyclists on the road. These photos were taken with a zoom lens.

During the last half mile of my hike I was looking down at the parking lot where the cyclists were arriving.

I hurried back from that point to make sure I wouldn’t miss CFL’s arrival! Sure enough, I’d only been at the finish line for about ten minutes when he pedaled around the final curve.

He was a little tired (understandably!) but recovered quickly and was his usual smiling self moments later for his official portrait.

It was simply a wonderful day for both of us! An awesome bike ride, a perfect hike, and many hours soaking up the midsummer sun.

Then we relaxed and had a couple of home brews!