Tuesday, December 13, 2011

It seemed so straightforward...

It all started with an e-mail from Lori Schmidt, our wolf curator.  There were three collared wolves that died in late fall last year, and the USGS wolf and deer study staff wanted to examine them for their research.  They did not have the personnel to retrieve them.  “Does anyone want to help?”

Sure.  One was down a minimum maintenance road, one was near a small lake easily accessible by road, and one was near the portage between Bald Eagle Lake and Turtle Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (BWCA) (See Map). 

I offered to get the one in the BWCA.  It turned out to be Wolf 989, an eleven year-old male from the Pike Pack and whose mortality signal was first picked up on December 13, 2010. (More information on 989)

I figured my wife, Molly, and I could ski out to it, locate it using the GPS coordinates I received from the USGS staff and use the radio telemetry unit to find the dead wolf.  We would then haul it back on a ski pulk and bring it to the Kawishiwi  Field Lab.  Simple.

If only things were ever that simple.  What follows, broken into three entries, is the story of our attempts (yes, attempts) and what I learned about the nature of field work that many of us who are not biologists may believe to be glamorous and alluring.

Two by Ski
Both my wife and I are good skiers and quite comfortable in winter conditions.  It’s one of the reasons I volunteered to get the wolf in the BWCA.  The wolf was about 6 miles from the nearest access point, and we thought we could make it there and back in a day.  Our first incorrect assumption.

It’s important to remember that vehicles with motors are not allowed in this part of the BWCA, so taking a snow machine across the frozen lakes was not an option.

We started off just after dropping the kids at school and daycare, about 9:00 AM.  We packed all of our gear into two backpacks, brought a sled to haul the wolf once we found it and drove down Spruce Road to the winter trailhead. We had not taken the time to get backcountry skis with Berwin bindings, thinking our regular cross country ski equipment would work fine for this short ski.  This was a bad decision and had a major impact later in the day.

Wind Chills -40
It was a cold, but seemingly manageable -1 degree Fahrenheit when we left the truck. However, wind chills were predicted to be nearly -40° F.  As we skied through the woods it felt quite comfortable with no hint of the predicted wind.  We followed trails used mainly by dog teams in the winter making slow but steady progress.

Then we hit Gabbro Lake.   Skiing out into the wind on the lake it became obvious the predicted wind chills would be reached. No matter, we were dressed properly, had plenty of water and food, and appropriate first aid and survival gear.  Success still seemed possible.

The wind was at our back much of the trip out and although we hit slushy spots on the lake several times, we were able to scrape off the ice and keep going.

A note about lake slush:  If you are not from a northern area, you may not be familiar with it.  The slush does not mean the ice isn’t safe.  It is created by the weight of snow pressing down on newly formed ice and pressing water out of cracks in the ice.  The water is then insulated by the snow and stays liquid.  Once it is disturbed and exposed it freezes very quickly to whatever it touches. It can make winter lake travel difficult or impossible in bad slush seasons no matter what form of transportation one is using.

By just before noon, we were within about a mile of the wolf’s location and were looking for an obscure winter trail when the trouble started.  We skied into a bay and knew the trail was somewhere on the other side.  While stopping to look around I realized I was standing in a slushy mess.  Molly figured it out quickly and skied to the edge of the bay and escaped the slush.  I was stuck.  I removed my ski to try and scrape it, lost my balance and stepped into the slush. I now had ice on my ski and boot.

I had had enough
Normally, that’s not a huge deal.  Unfortunately for me, ice got into the binding and kept if from locking onto my ski boot.  I messed with it for quite some time with no success.  Molly was yelling to me from across the bay—a distance of about 50 yards—I couldn’t hear what she was saying due to the wind.  Finally after what I thought was about ten minutes, I had had enough.  I gave up and decided to keep one ski on and hobble over to Molly.  When I stepped onto the snow again, my foot went all the way through the snow and the slush went over the top of my boot, soaking my foot.  Definitely not good.

When I made it to Molly, I asked, “What were you yelling?”

“I wanted to know what you were doing.  You were stuck there almost 20 minutes,” she replied.

In my effort to fix the binding I had not realized that I had been standing out in the full brunt of the wind in my light ski clothes for that long. Between that and the wet foot, I suddenly realized just how cold I was.  This was still not a life threatening situation, but it was time to start making good decisions or we might find ourselves in real trouble.

We decided to seek shelter behind the only thing available, a large boulder on the other side of the bay.  Molly skied and I hobbled over to it, avoiding the slush in the bay.  When we got there we realized it didn’t offer as much shelter from the wind as we had hoped.  As we sat there considering our options we realized the possibility of retrieving the wolf was diminishing by the second.

It was time to move
We put on our heavy coats and dry hats and tried to figure out how to fix the binding.  First, we tried cleaning it out with a knife.  Then, we tried knocking it against the rock to break the ice loose.  Finally, we tried melting the ice with the flame from a candle in our pack, but we couldn’t keep the flame lit, even with the protection of the boulder.  We spent about twenty minutes working on the binding and even with our warmer clothes on, we continued to get colder.  It was time to move, and unfortunately the direction had to be back to the truck, not towards the wolf.

We made the decision that continued work on the binding made no sense.  I took off my ski boots (The other boot had frozen into the binding and remained attached to the ski.) put on dry socks and slipped my feet into my Steger Camuks for a long, slow walk home.

What had been a pretty slow pace on the way out ebbed to almost a crawl.  It had taken about two and a half hours to ski to the bay before being foiled by the slush.  The return trip, mostly into the wind, took more than three grueling hours.  It was an extremely challenging effort for both Molly and I, and we consider ourselves to be in fairly good shape.  We had to rest and swap the load numerous times on the trip back, but after our fingers and toes warmed up from the extended stop, we could once again focus solely on the effort.  When we made it off the lake, we stopped to rest and snack in the relative warmth of the woods. (See pictures.)

We made it safely back to the truck and enjoyed some warm coffee we had left in a thermos before speeding off to pick up our kids.  Although it was frustrating not to get the wolf we had set out for, both Molly and I felt strongly then and still do that turning around was the right choice.  This trip was a good reminder that although we were only about five miles from our vehicle, in harsh winter conditions that can be a really long way.

Next installment:  One more trip by ski and two with dog teams…