From the moment I learned about the Rare Care program I knew that I just had to be a part of it. I read about the work that goes into monitoring these rare plants and remember thinking to myself “I could get paid for that?!” Overjoyed to be selected as a 2020 intern, I started planning my summer as my first field season and I quit my job scooping ice cream a few blocks away from campus where I had worked all through undergrad.
While patiently (OK, maybe not so patiently) waiting for the season to start, the COVID-19 pandemic put our plans on hold. Suddenly, we were unsure if it was safe or possible for us to continue with the project at all. After a little over a month of planning and waiting, we received the green light to begin with new health and safety protocols in place. Bright and early the very next morning, we left for the Olympic National Park bright. After months of quarantining at home, the park was an old and welcomed friend. As we made our way up to our first site, visiting a known population of cut-leaf kittentails (Synthyris pinnatifida var. lanuginosa), I was mesmerized by snowy peaks peeking up endlessly in every direction. I remember feeling very fortunate that the mountains were my “office”, and to be learning from both my fellow intern Megan Rodenbeck and Rare Care’s program manager and plant extraordinaire Wendy Gibble.
This summer was the first season that Rare Care set up permanent plots throughout Washington’s National Parks meant to capture some of the most vulnerable edges of these rare plant populations. These plots are meant to be monitored over decades to come to detect changes in these plant communities that are inevitable in our ever-changing climate. Lugging heavy gear up talus slopes and driving nails into bedrock were only a few of the challenges associated with setting up these plots. We also had to consider what types of plots would be best for the species at hand, and what type of data we should take in order to capture the population accurately. No two plots looked exactly the same, and this kind of critical thought made the work as mentally challenging as it was physically.
After a few trips up to the Hurricane Ridge area of the Olympic National Park, Megan and I left for our first solo backpacking trip in the North Cascades. I had been looking forward to this all summer, and for this trip in particular we planned to traverse our way up to the tops of the stunning Rennie and Reynolds peaks, looking for Salish fleabane (Erigeron salishii). Though 6am always comes too early, we donned our 45+ pound packs and started on the trail, confident in our wayfinding abilities, and that we had left early enough to beat the intense Eastern Washington August heat. We had read that the trail was overgrown and at times nearly non-existent, but we were not worried since we had trustworthy coordinates, Garmin GPS units, and plenty of spare batteries. What we didn’t know, however, was that the area had been swept by a fire a few years back, leaving the route to Rennie peak a maze of downed burnt trees and ash. For 6 hours we pushed on, dropping our bags every few minutes to climb over or under ashy logs and before we knew it we were hiking through exposed forest in the very hottest part of the day. Feeling beat by the “trail”, we checked our maps to see how far we’d gone, and how much farther we had until camp. We weren’t even halfway to our destination, and it had taken us 5 hours to go 1 measly mile through all of the wreckage. Exhausted and covered in soot, we made the tough decision to call this trip a bust and turn back to the car.
We made up for the Rennie and Reynolds trip by successfully making it out to Fisher Creek and McAlester Peak the next week. Commonly referred to as the crowned jewel of the North Cascades, the hike over Easy Pass and into the Fisher Creek Basin rewarded us with jaw-dropping views the whole way.
Here we looked for Pygmy saxifrage (Saxifraga hyperborea), only to find its sneaky (and quite common) look-alike, Romanzoffia sitchensis. Deep in the North Cascades we were delighted by busy pikas, basking marmots, a quick fisher enjoying a river bank, and one nonchalant black bear plucking away at abundant black huckleberries. At camp one night we were visited by what sounded like a very young, and hungry barred owl, making joyful and almost monkey-like hoots throughout the night. At McAlester Peak we found the sweetest little population of my favorite species we looked at all summer, Kotzebue’s grass-of-Parnasuss (Parnassia kotzebuei). Crawling and clawing our way up talus slopes, sometimes on all fours, and climbing around the wet cliff faces where these tiny plants grow sparked an unmatched excitement in my heart. It’s hard to believe that these plants thrive in these incredibly harsh environments where we are merely visitors.
One final trip to the Olympic National Park wrapped up the field season. Throughout the week, we found a couple new populations at Hurricane Hill, which has just reopened after a few years of non-native mountain goat removal. We found three of our target species on the hill: Cotton’s milk-vetch (Astragalus astralus var. cottonii), sticky locoweed (Oxytropis borealis var. viscida), and field locoweed (Oxytropis campestris var. spicata). All of these populations were growing in large, dry, grassy meadows; a habitat that is not typical for these species. Wandering the edges of the populations, taking coordinates as we went to be mapped later, we wondered why these plants were so prevalent in the area and if it could be an indication of a habitat shift.
Our evenings in the field were spent cooking meals and keying plants, giddily squealing when we reached a consensus on the identity of these tiny alpine plants. One night we were even treated to a great view of the Perseids meteor shower and the brightest Milky Way I have ever seen. Each night after a long day in the rough terrain, my sleeping bag felt just like home.
As the field season quickly came to a close, we worked from home creating maps using GIS for the new populations we found this summer. It was rewarding to be able to see finalized maps of these populations that we had visited, and to get to look at it and say “I’ve been there!”
Working for Rare Care has been fun, challenging, and incredibly rewarding. Not only am I a stronger and more confident hiker, but I have also grown leaps and bounds as an ecologist. I am beyond grateful for this experience, and for the countless opportunities to learn all throughout the summer.