The Hills Are Alive (with the sound of mosquitos)

The Hills Are Alive (with the sound of mosquitos)

When I say “subalpine meadow monitoring,” I can guess the image that appears in your mind. The first time I heard about our season-long project, I was picturing rolling green Sound of Music hills, complete with frolicking and wildflowers and birdsong. And while we do our fair share of frolicking and the hills are similarly breathtaking, there must have been some movie magic to make Julie Andrews look less sweaty.

Field work in the heat of August at Mount Rainier is a lot of strong, dusty sun, and trying (and usually failing) to get home before the mosquitoes come out for their dinner hunt. Our vegetation monitoring plots were selected through a stratified random sampling method based on elevation, so they are scattered around the subalpine areas (around 6000 feet, though it varies based on sun exposure and precipitation) of the park. This means that though some are located conveniently right off an established trail, others involve day-long treks to access. Most are on steep mountainsides, some are rockier or more vegetated than others, and all have fantastic views.

On any given field day, we strap a GPS and an axe and some quadrats to our backs and make our way out, among gradually thinning crowds. We crest saddles and dip into bowls as we head off trail, noting the white swathes of snow and white dots of mountain goats. We make our way through glittering fields as the grass and sedge leafs out between mats of pink-dotted heath and the phlox, pale purple up close but silvery from afar, carpets the hillside. Our little vegetation team picks our way around spired, tangled firs and happy whitebark pines to find our plot.

The plot is marked by nails and rebar pushed into the ground 5 years ago and at this point either buried in brush or stepped on by elk, but as we slowly locate the corners, the grid begins to take shape. We nestle our half-meter quadrats in the vegetation and work on identifying every species in the squares – whether it be a ubiquitous and conspicuous Lupinus latifolius, one of a dozen near-identical Carex species, or an Agoseris not yet in bloom. We get some tall Valeriana sitchensis, head tightly bound in buds, and some Veronica cusickii, bright blue petals open around a comically long stamen. The Luzula hitchcockii adds its red tips to the carpet of green, and the Vaccinium deliciosum is already fruiting. It is difficult to cram every Latin name and leaf shape and phenology code into my head, but those who have been doing this for years help out along the way.

The pin flags help mark where the nails are (or should be).

We work our way down the data sheets, exclaiming at tiny Abies lasiocarpa seedlings hidden in the grass and trying to avoid the elk scat. I am sweaty, itchy, and sore, but somehow still excited to climb every mountain. The sun is strong, and the mosquitos are truly relentless, but the people and the flowers and the work is good.

The views from the field
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