Trip co-leaders Colden Baxter, left,
and Wayne Minshall, examine a study plot.
Image Credit: Bill Schaefer, Idaho State Journal

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A Day in the Field

Stream Monkeying: (Verb) The act of climbing on top of, under) and over partially burned, 20-year-old, sometimes crisscrossed deadfall timber, crossing and wading through a stream repeatedly and scrambling up and down steep hillsides covered with deadfall and new growth to take scientific measurements.

It is mid-August 2008 and a group of 11 researchers, a journalist and a university public information officer, is in Yellowstone National Park 20 years after the famous fires of 1988. The researchers and the entourage aren't exactly celebrating the anniversary they're working hard.

The group ranges in age from 20 to 73. Young and old alike are showing dexterity negotiating the terrain of a small tributary of Cache Creek, in an area burned by the epic Yellowstone fires.

On the August 2008 expedition the researchers (sans the journalist and the PIO) had backpacked in, accompanied by seven pack mules and two handlers carrying scientific equipment and various supplies, about eight miles up to a base camp on Cache Creek. That creek is located in the upper Lamar Valley in the northeast corner of Yellowstone National Park. That day the group set up base camp for the start of their 12-day study and the pack team left.

The second day they had spent 12 to 14 hours doing fieldwork on South Fork Cache Creek.

Today, the third day of the trip, the researchers have traveled a couple miles cross-country from the base camp to a different set of research sites to do more fieldwork.

The group has split up into four loose teams, each scrambling around or "stream monkeying," as coined by Kevin Donner, a new ISU biological sciences master's student. His colleague, Dave Shaw, a retired science teacher from Nampa and another former Minshall graduate student from 38 years ago, describes the area as a "bungee stick obstacle course."

The teams are taking measurements in a comprehensive and efficient manner. One team's job is to locate the survey pins that mark where the research sites are located. Each study site is 250 meters and has pins every 50 meters, a subset of five study sites. Finding the pins is not easy, as a stream channel may have moved, a half-burnt tree may have fallen down or new growth may hide a marker.

Once a marker is found, Minshall, using photographs taken of the site on every trip since 1988, orients the group and takes new photographs from the exact same spot to further document changes visually that aren't apparent through other means by which data is collected.

With the site established, one crew gets in the stream and collects insects, invertebrates and algae, recording data and meticulously preserving specimens.

Meanwhile, a pair of researchers wades through the stream, taking a series of measurements on rocks and stream velocity.

The last crew completes 50-meter wide transects using long measuring tapes and meter sticks. They create a cross-section profile of the stream and the streambed to measure changes.

As the three latter teams are finishing their duties, the first team moves to find the next pin and the pattern is repeated until all five spots within a specific site are hit. The group then moves on to the next set of sites, hitting two to three sets of sites in a day, before returning to camp and starting the process over the next day.

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine