Of Ground Squirrels, Mountains, Moose and Brook Trout â€“ Part 1
Summer came to the Wasatch Frontâ€¦ and stayed. By early August of 1967, the Uinta Ground Squirrels had all disappeared from our study area. Burrow excavations in previous study years had shown them to be already in a state of semi-hibernation. They wouldnâ€™t be coming back up until spring. Nonetheless, the project still had work to be done. Data had to be transcribed from field logs to data sheets, equipment had to be examined, evaluated and put away or marked for replacement and study goals had to be evaluated, reestablished or revised, carefully described and buttressed and appropriately placed in the grant renewal application. This would be winterâ€™s work for all of us, along with our specific Thesis projects.
For Masters candidates these were training projectsâ€¦ meant to train graduate students on the â€œhow-tosâ€ of research.
For the few Ph.D. candidates among us, the work being done was more sophisticated. For instance, in one Ph.D. candidateâ€™s research, small underskin pickup-outfitted radios fitted to collars provided data for a â€œsleep studyâ€ of hibernating ground squirrelsâ€¦ much safer, dryly noted the man performing the research, than his initial subjects - grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park. He had been a student assistant to the Craigheads, brothers who funded their Grizzly Bear research by providing video material for National Geographic TV shows. There was a famous video clip of a bear awakening in the middle of one of my colleagueâ€™s data collection and radio collar change-outs, and chasing him down the side of a mountain. Still groggy, the bear lost its footing and rolled over a small cliffâ€¦ leading our intrepid investigator to turn his investigative skills to finding another, safer subject species. The fact that the Craigheads could be heard laughing and cheering him on in the background of the clip may have had something to do with his decision.
The bear? Drunk, half asleep and limber, it appeared to have suffered no ill effects from its fall, but no one was interested in chasing it down to make sure. My friend never knew whether the Craigheads followed up.
In any case, we collected our reams and boxes of data and carried it all down to the labs for wintertime evaluation. Then we had time to kill before classes began. I drove home with a couple of friends for a visit with the Luvly Laura (chronicled elsewhere). When I returned three of us decided to go up into the mountains for a short camping and fishing trip. High in the Rocky Mountains there are small lakes fed by snow-melt and drained by troughs that will eventually fail, emptying them. These, however, are far away problems for most of those lakes, leaving pristine waters nearly impossible to access, and with nothing to do once one got there. It has been said, and it is unfortunately true, that â€œnature abhors a vacuum.â€ The same must be said for both State and federal fish and game commission people. So they filled the vacuum (and the lakes) with Brook Trout.
Brook Trout are cold water fish, and to be dropped from a helicopter along with a couple hundred gallons of water into a lake that maintained a temperature of barely thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit fazed them not at all. The lack of anything resembling food in any quantity was, on the other hand, a major problem. Brook Trout, being carnivores and reasonably efficient, but not very intelligent, bios to energy converters, simply ate what was availableâ€¦ each otherâ€¦ until there was enough distance separating fish that they no longer triggered attack responses in each other. At that point they simply quit growing.
Fish will adapt physically to fit their environment. These fish, dropped into a good mixed ecology with places to hide and places for baitfish to hide as well, would have learned to hunt, and eventually would have reduced their population to a sustainable level, allowing the survivors to grow significantly. In this case, although the lake had been seeded three decades earlier we caught no Brookies larger than fourteen inches long and a pound in weight.
The trip to the lake was a long and winding roadâ€¦ no, it really was. We three made up the most motley of crews. I was just a big (well, five feet eleven inches and a hundred and sixty pounds) farm kid from Ohio, no fisherman to speak of, a pretty good shot with shotgun or rifle, and capable of walking long distances carrying a heavy pack. Andy was a slender â€œtownieâ€ from Kansas City, Missouri. Although he was a good shot with a shotgun, being around him while he held a gun wasâ€¦ less than ideal. Andy wasnâ€™t good at paying attention. Bob was a Utah cowboy. Seriouslyâ€¦ he was a cowboy born and reared in Utah - tall and tan with dirty blond hair and a Stetson hat that had been his grandfatherâ€™s. Andy owned the station wagon we used to get to the bottom of the mountain we had to climb.
The night before departure I made a list of everything I was bringing in my pack or pockets, and requested the same from Andy and Bob. Running down all the lists I determined we were in for a truly bad experience if we didnâ€™t augment a little. So I made a list of what wasnâ€™t on the lists and went shopping, leaving Andy and Bob to pack for the morning. I was back in about an hour, having visited a grocery and an Army-Navy Surplus store.
I brought back three military web belts, wide stiff straps designed to go around the waist with grommet â€œhard pointsâ€ where heavy stuff could be hooked in. To â€œhook inâ€ Iâ€™d bought, three steel WWII vintage canteens with steel cups and insulated covers that included hooks to match the grommets, an entrenching tool (a short-handled folding spade) in a canvas cover with hooks to match the grommets at the top of my backpack, a twelve-pack of CO2 cartridges, a package of water purification tablets, a small bottle of Murphyâ€™s Oil Soap, four Army ponchos (purchased after carefully inspecting about two dozen), a box of paraffin wax, a box of Ohio Blue Tip kitchen matches ("kitchen" matches could be struck to flame on nearly any dry surface, including the leg of a pair of Levis), a ten-inch camping skillet (made of steel, but long-handled and light weight), three metal tubes containing Carterâ€™s Little Liver Pills, which I flushed down the toilet as soon as I got them out of the bag and a fifty-foot double coil of cotton clothesline. Of stuff less esoteric I had purchased two pounds of thick-cut bacon, three containers of cornmeal and a pre-loaded camperâ€™s salt and pepper set. I grabbed a pair of spatulas out of the kitchen cabinet to complete the prep.
I laid it all out on the table. Andy and Bob just stared. Finally, from Andy, â€œWhy four ponchos?â€
â€œCouldnâ€™t find pup tents.â€
â€œWeâ€™re gonna sleep out under the stars.â€
â€œYouâ€™re gonna get stepped on by a moose (more prophetic than I imagined). Lookâ€¦ this is â€œsemi-openâ€ camping. We find two trees about ten feet apart. We cut a sapling or branch about twelve feet long and lash it across the trees. Lay one poncho on the ground and cover it with pine boughs. Hang two over the horizontal sapling. Use the clothesline to tie the corners off and make sure everything is secure. Build the fire across from the open side and the ponchos will reflect the heat. If it rains, hang the fourth poncho in front of us and huddle up.â€
I took the paraffin to the stove and melted some in a pan. Then I fitted just enough matches together to slide into the Carterâ€™s cans, stuck the blue tip ends into the wax and shoved the matches with the wax still dripping into the little cans. I put one can next to each backpack. After a full thirty seconds, â€œBe damned,â€ Bob said, â€œwaterproof matches.â€
â€œPockets,â€ I said, â€œnot your backpack.â€
Andy was confused. â€œWhy?â€
Bob answered, â€œIn case you have to shuck your backpack.â€
We left early the next morning, headed east up Logan Canyon. We drove into Wyoming, and through Kemmerer, where a mercantile store cum museum proclaimed itself to be the JC Penney â€œMother Store.â€ It was, too, and itâ€™s still there, but only as a museum.
We drove through a ten-mile-long canyon in which more than a hundred and fifty campers died in a flash flood. Ninety-two are still somewhere in the canyon, buried under the mud and rubble churned up and carried along by the flood. That night we slept in the back of Andyâ€™s station wagon in a canyon much like the deathtrap weâ€™d ridden through to get there. It was not a comfortable night. Station wagon seatbacks had not much improved since my night at Uncle Jackâ€™s with the mosquitoes.