Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dispatch from the field_Sierra Nevada_Robin Moore

It's not your typical office, but Vance Vredenberg has dedicated more than a decade to his work in Sixty Lake Basin, perched 12,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. His job? To unravel the mystery of what is happening to the frogs that used to make these lakes hop with life.

Working in such a remote location brings an interesting assortment of challenges. The paper-thin air at 12,000 feet turns even the most trivial of activities into a monumental effort to the unaccustomed (= me). It's easy to forget that you are this high up until simply unzipping your sleeping bag or splatting gorged mosquitos against the insides of your tent before going to sleep leave you gulping for air like a suffocating trout. Vance has had plenty of time over the years to get accustomed to the elevation, and leaps around the rocks like a mountain goat. He has spent weeks on end up here, often completely alone. Well, as alone as you can ever really be; relentless mosquitos never seem to tire of trying to pierce your clothing and the odd marmot or black bear may stop by in search of food - marmots apparently having a taste for old shoes, while the bears prefer toothpaste and insect repellent (I guess the marmots called shotgun on the tasty shoes). It pays to watch what you leave in your tent at night.

And then there is the commute. I traveled into Sixty Lake Basin with iLCP Fellow Joel Sartore , Affiliate Gina Buchanan and National Geographic writer Jenny Holland to spend six days with Vance and colleagues from San Francisco State University. We opted for the "easy" way in – a fifty mile, four-day round trip on horseback. Vance's team opted for the more strenuous and decidedly less fun 30-mile round-trip hi ke. As we set off in the 110 degree heat, the decision to let the horses and mules do the work felt l ike the right one. But as the sun blazed relentlessly down on us and my undercarriage started to feel like a punching bag, light-hearted banter and horse jokes were gradually replaced by a silence that spoke volumes: "ARE WE NEARLY THERE YET??" Joel scored serious points on the first morning when he produced a family size tub of baby powder. We took it in turns to squeeze big puffs down our pants, allowing us the luxury of suffering from mild, rather than severe, chaffing.

On our trusty steeds we slowly climbed higher into the mountains and further away from civilization. As the intense daytime sun faded into a golden evening light and the first day drew to a close, our packers announced that we would be stopping to set up camp for the night to finish the journey the next day. This was music to our ears. We stiffly climbed off our horses , stretched our aching joints and pitched our tents before running off to take advantage of the warm evening light to capture the stunning vistas. We then settled down to dinner. This consisted of looking on enviously as the packers feasted on grilled steaks washed down with cold beers, while we scooped boil-in-the-bag "tasty bites" out of foil bags with a plastic spork. Despite the name, they were not particularly tasty and did not have much bite. The spork, on the other hand, was indeed a convenient cross between a spoon and a fork - thank goodness some things in life are predictable.

Mounting our horses on the second day was a bit like hitting a new bruise repeatedly with a paddle (not that I have ever actually tried this, but I imagine this is how it would feel). We steadily climbed higher into the mountains, past ancient gnarled trees, through the spectacular Rae Lakes and into Sixty Lake Basin. As we crossed th e crest of the final hill, we were greeted by the shimmering crystal clear waters of the first lake. We eagerly jumped from our horses and scoured the lakeside for frogs. What we found was alarming: a half-dozen white, bloated frogs lying belly-up in the cool waters. Victims to a pandemic fungus that has been wiping through the lakes, these frogs are sending a silent warning: even in such a seemingly pristine environment, all is not as well as it appears.

Can the fungus be stopped and the frogs saved? That's what Vance and team are here to find out.
As we surveyed the scene, Vance bounded over the crest of the hill to greet us - he and the rest of his team had hiked in from the other direction yesterday and he was looking fresh as a daisy. "This is die-off lake" he somberly informed us - it didn't take an expert to figure out why. To raise our spirits, he led us to another small lake nearby. As we approached the grassy banks, plump frogs leaped from under our feet and plopped into the water. Vance and team had treated these individuals with an anti-fungal agent and, since treatment, the frogs have appeared in good health. This was very good news. A treatment for the fungus in the wild is something that has so far eluded scientists.

Such a dramatic conservation story set against a stunning backdrop and with a cast that includes an authentic Daniel Day-Lewis look-a-like cowboy, was a real gift for a group of Conservation Photographers. Being in the field with the express purpose of taking photographs is like being handed an excuse to act like a kid again, and to feel the buzz of excitement that comes from expl oring a new place. It was liberating to breathe in the cold, fresh mountain air; to feel a million miles from a computer screen and cell phone, and to take the time to seek out and appreciate the small things that are waiting to be found like the hidden treasures on a scavenger hunt.

On our last day in the Basin, Vance took us on a hike to a spectacular waterfall plunging 100 feet down a vertical rock face. In the spray of this waterfall Mt Lyells salamander hides in cracks during the day and comes out to hunt at night. When alarmed, the unusual amphibian employs an innovative escape technique: it rolls into a ball and canon-balls down the rocks to safety. Vance scoured the cracks in the rocks and within an hour had found two. As I held one up to my face, he kindly informed me that back in the 1950's a photographer had been blind for three days after holding the salamander. I put it back down.

That night I lay awake listening with trepidation to rain pattering heavily against the sides of my tent for what seemed like hours (but was probably no more than 20 minutes). As water slowly se eped through to my sleeping bag, I willed it to stop and tried in vain to take my mind off how grim it would be to pack up all my wet gear in the morning. Camping always seem like such great fun until you are actually doing it, and then the idea of a com fy bed and hot shower seem like bliss.
In the morning I had regained my perspective on the situation: my worst fears were not realized and my tent and sleeping bag dried nicely before I had to pack them for the return journey. Camping was fun again.
Once packed, we reunited with our horses to head back down the mountain. On the return journey I learned two things: 1. going downhill on a horse is even less comfortable than going uphill and 2. if you encounter a bees nest whilst on horseback, you should jump off your horse as fast as possible and run (also as fast as possible). As we approached the end of our journey, tired and sore, our thoughts turned to the endless bounty of food and drink that awaited us. And now, after six days without washing, it was definitely time to scrub behind the ears and return to civilization.
The expedition would not have been possible without the support of the iLCP and the "Tripods in the Mud " initiative.


  1. It's unfortunate that the dramatic efforts being undertaken to restore the Mountain Yellow-Legged Frog are not having greater success.

    I just returned from visiting the Sixty Lakes basin earlier this week. It would be interesting to explore the other threatened species in the area, the Volcano Creek Golden Trout, living in only one stream and its tributaries, and to compare the efforts being dedicated to restore the frog with the steps being taken, or needed, to address the issues facing California's state fish.

    "Within the California golden trout’s native range, non-hybridized populations appear to be
    extremely scarce. Ecologists normally consider at least five healthy, reproducing local subpopulations of animals, maintained within stable habitats, to be necessary to assure species viability (Moyle and Sato 1991; Williams 1991). But in the case of California golden trout, there is only one documented remaining non-hybridized population located in a tributary of Golden Trout Creek. Unfortunately, this isolated population is too limited in its number of individuals, distribution,and therefore population stability, to assure its continued viability. Exacerbating the uncertainty of the species’ continued existence and stabilization of introgression levels is the potential occurrence of catastrophic events or unauthorized trout movements. As such, additional refuge populations are urgently needed at locations which are sufficiently separated as to remain safe from local catastrophes."
    The California golden trout population in Golden Trout Creek is also threatened by invasion by non-native trout. Golden trout from Cottonwood Lakes were aerially stocked in several of the lakes in the headwaters of Golden Trout Creek before it was known that these fish were hybridized. Recent genetic analysis confirms that these hybrid fish are confined for now to the lakes and streams that flow out of the lakes. Pure California golden trout are present in most of Golden Trout Creek and most tributary streams, including Volcano Creek. However this is a tenuous situation and needs to be corrected immediately.

    The Department, along with Inyo National Forest and the Endangered Species Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently signed a Conservation Strategy Agreement for the Volcano Creek Golden Trout. This agreement details the measures to prevent the need to list this species under the Endangered Species Act and details what actions will be taken to bring this subspecies back from the brink of extinction.

  2. Here's a link to the report containing the first quote above:

    Conservation Assessment and Strategy
    for the California Golden Trout