After a wildly successful, albeit it somewhat curtailed, ski expedition through the mountains of northern Hovsgol province, Mongolia, we are back in Ulaanbaatar and contemplating next steps for the Mongolian Wolverine project. A month living in the mountains does wonderful, funny things to a person, including decreasing the desire to be online (I am actually having trouble remembering how to type….), so I am going to defer a more detailed update until tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who has followed the expedition, and I look forward to telling the story at greater length soon.
It’s six in the morning and still pitch dark here in Ulaanbaatar as we stumble around doing a final count on bags and gear, packing stray items into bags to be left in storage here, testing the weight of our backpacks one last time. The van that will take us north to Murun will arrive in an hour. Due to the need to register our border permit, we are not yet sure whether we will set out from Ulaan Uul, in the Darhad itself, or from Hatgal, which is across the mountains on the edge of the Lake Hovsgol.
I will attempt to post our locations and send messages to my project’s facebook page and also to the tracking page attached to my Spot device, although both of these depend on finding a way to get in touch with the company, which has apparently locked my account because I tried to access it from Mongolia (this is the second time this has happened. For a global rescue service, this is a major flaw) so no one panic if messages and locations don’t show up. We should also be updating via satellite phone at the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation page, rotating among the five of us over the course of the expedition. Through ASC, if you’re an educator, you can also find a curriculum that will help students follow the expedition and learn about wildlife in Mongolia. We’ll be back in Ulaanbaatar around May 1st, and I look forward to telling the story then.
I am nervous, but also really excited, and very grateful for the contributions of everyone who helped make this happen: to National Geographic for funding this expedition, to Gregg Treinish and Forrest McCarthy for the hard work of organizing, route-finding, and figuring out what it takes to get five people on skis across 400 miles of mountains; to the numerous sponsors who have donated gear and food; to Jim Harris, our photographer, for being willing to come with us on short notice, carrying additional weight in camera equipment; to my many Mongolian friends, who have taught me the language and helped me to understand what wildlife means to people here; to everyone who reads this blog and has been supportive of my work in the US and in Mongolia over the past six years, particularly the Mongolia-Bozeman community, and the wolverine research community (because without the background they provided and the support for my previous trips around Mongolia, we wouldn’t even know where to survey intensively for wolverines in Mongolia, let alone have a context in which to make what we find meaningful); and especially to Jason Wilmot, who first told me back in 2006 that there was an unstudied wolverine population in a country that I knew and loved, and thereby sparked a seven-year effort (and counting….) to bring knowledge of that population to light – and who has come back here for a second trip despite the manifold quirks and discomforts of the first.
See you all in May, hopefully with some great wolverine stories, or, failing that, at least some great ski stories.
Winter in Mongolia is a creature that crawls from some cold hell to wrap the world in its coils each year. The temperature drops so far that the air dries out and becomes too frigid even for snow. In the two winters that I spent in central Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer, it snowed sparsely in the lowlands, and the snow blew away or simply shriveled into the atmosphere after a few days. On the northern slopes of the mountains, where the larch forests grow thick, the snow would stick through March and, in patches, it would last until April – hard, icy, windblown encrustations immune to sun or heat. I had a copy of Herotodus which I read several times during those winters, when the wind was too intense to venture out, and there is a section somewhere in the book in which he reports tales of a northern land where white feathers drift down from the sky. I used to toy with the idea that those reports had come from Mongolia, even though I knew that they were likely from northern Europe. The snow in Mongolia is seldom feathery; more often, it’s sharp, needle-like, without the soft comfort of snowfall in more gentle climates.
Snow is at the heart of wolverine research and conservation, here in Mongolia and everywhere else. Jeff Copeland’s 2010 snow model shows wolverine habitat in the high mountains of Mongolia, but reports – anecdotal but widespread – suggest that wolverines in Mongolia are found outside of the snow model with some consistency. I’ve spent hours staring at the snow model maps, trying to remember my experiences, now more than a decade old, with winter snow in Mongolia. If the reports of wolverines outside of the snow model in Mongolia turn out to be true, what is it that makes the difference here, when wolverines adhere with such rigor to this model everywhere else in the world? Is it the wolverines? Is it the snow? Is it the landscape? Is it the way that people occupy the landscape? The possibilities are numerous, and this is one of the things that we are trying to figure out over the longer term.
Snow is also essential to the expedition that we are about to undertake, since we will be traveling on skis. So it seemed auspicious when, yesterday afternoon, the sky came down towards the earth, deep and grey, and soft feathers of snow began to fall across the city. I’ve been snowed on more frequently in the summer in Mongolia than in the winter, but even then the snow tends to be bitter. This is the first time I recall a quiet, gentle snowstorm here.
It was snowing across central and northern Mongolia at the same time that we were turning our faces up to blink in the snow in UB. We found this out today when we met with our logistics coordinator, Anya of Boojum Expeditions, who told us that the snow would likely make travel north to Murun, our rendezvous point with our resupply team, difficult. It would also make our resupply team’s journey south to Murun from the Darhad challenging. It’s good to think that we’ll have the opportunity to observe the behavior of snow firsthand, but hopefully not in a way that thwarts or significantly delays our trip. Still, the snowfall over the city felt like a kind welcome and a quiet reminder, amidst the bustle of sorting through gear and buying supplies, of our reasons for being here: figuring out what makes wolverines occupy the landscape in the way that they do, and what we might be able to do to keep them there, even in the places where their snow is disappearing.
The week before any trip to Mongolia, I start to exist in a liminal space, in which time and outlook are skewed, a bubble that encompasses the place where anticipation, nostalgia, and panic crash into each other with unrepentant ferocity. I love Mongolia, I love my research, I love adventure, but there is a significant inertia that drags at me with the demands of having to reorganize my cultural mind, my primary language orientation, my living arrangements, and my entire social life. During this liminal week, I develop a subdued sort of hedonism that is entirely absent from my life at any other time. I voraciously eat fruits and vegetables; I soak in the bathtub for hours, reading The New Yorker; I dress in my fanciest clothes just to run to the grocery store; and I sleep, as intentionally as one can do anything while unconscious, luxuriating in a comfortable mattress, real pillows, and soft bedding. Baths, bedding, fruits and vegetables, and dress-up opportunities being substantially absent through most of Mongolia, I guess that these small indulgences are reasonable, but in the 48 hours before leaving, they assume a disproportionate importance, as if I cannot possibly bear to leave them.
Then, somewhere in line at the airport, usually after I’ve cleared security, the switch flips and the liminal space retreats into the distance and I’m fully engaged in whatever adventure I’m embarking on.
This morning at 4:30, reality hit in the Bozeman airport when I stumbled through the door and saw my fellow Mongolian Wolverine Ski Expedition team members hauling a mountain of bright red dry bags, ski bags, and backpacks towards a check-in counter manned by a woman who was trying to look stoic about the impending task of sorting through all this luggage. Suddenly I was elbow deep in energy bars and dehydrated food, sorting and rearranging weight, shifting heavy items to my carry-on bag, and desperately wishing for some caffeine. On the ride to the airport, I’d stared out at the lights of town and thought, “I cannot believe that we are really doing this. What the hell possessed me, to think that skiing 400 miles across northern Mongolia in spring was a good idea?” By the time the plane took off and my fellow team members – wolverine biologist Jason Wilmot, adventure geographer Forrest McCarthy, and Gregg Treinish, director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation – pulled out maps of the Darhad, we were so elated about the prospect of the trip that bleary-eyed passengers requested that we tone it down, 6:00 a.m. being apparently too early for proximity to unfettered enthusiasm. Still, the switch had been flipped, from backward-looking to forward-looking, from anxiety to excitement.
On Friday, the Mongolia ski expedition team set out for a shakedown – a trial run to test equipment, fitness, and group dynamics. It’s the first time all of us have been together since we started planning this trip more than a year ago; I spent the summer in Mongolia, and team member Forrest McCarthy has been in Antarctica all winter. Expedition organizer Gregg Treinish, of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, and I are both based in Bozeman, and Jason Wilmot, who is based in Jackson, has been through town a couple of times, but we’d never all been in the backcountry, or even in a room, together. So when we convened in the midst of a snow squall in a parking lot at the Taylor Fork off of Gallatin Canyon, with a carload of brand new gear and a whole lot of expectations, I was nervous and excited. In less than three weeks, we’ll be setting out on a 350-400 mile loop of the mountains around the Darhad Valley in northern Mongolia. This was our opportunity to figure out how we function as a pack.
Two straightforward admissions: I like wolverines because they reflect an independence of character that I think I possess. I’m not a creature of hierarchies or groups, I’m incapable of engaging in competition or dominance games (I just zone out or leave situations in which these things are important), and I know that working well with others is not always one of my strong points. And also, I have been worried all winter about being the only woman – and a small, lightweight woman who hasn’t been winter camping in 12 years – among a group of incredibly fit, strong men who are backcountry experts. It’s one thing to carry a 50 pound pack when it’s 25 or 30 percent of your body weight; it’s another thing altogether to carry it when it’s 50 percent of your body weight. All winter I’ve been hauling bait and camera station supplies around the mountains, hoping that this would render me tough enough, but no matter how frequently I go out, I still end up exhausted after a few hundred yards of hauling a burden uphill through thigh deep powder. I consistently felt like a failure. The complex dynamics of working in Mongolia also weighed on my mind. I’ve set out to traipse through the mountains of Mongolia alone or with a few good friends, for work or for fun, dozens of times over the past 13 years, but I’ve never felt so responsible for the experience of people who, at least in the case of Gregg and Forrest, I don’t know that well, and who have absolutely no experience working in Mongolia or on long-term, community-based international conservation and research projects. So as we divided up the new gear and packed it into our bags, I was on the verge of hyperventilating. What if I couldn’t keep up? What if I wimped out in the cold? Worse yet, what if we all simply hated each other?
Gregg’s girlfriend was also along for the weekend, and she, Jason, and Forrest had all brought their dogs, so we were a big group as we embarked. We left a car at Taylor Fork and then drove north to set out from Big Sky. Our route would take us over approximately 25 miles of mountain terrain, over the course of two days. As we wound our way up into the mountains on the first evening, we left the well worn trail and pushed further up towards the passes that would lead us back to the Taylor Fork drainage. The pack didn’t feel anywhere near as heavy as I’d feared, although I was still behind – until we left the trail and set out over crusty, unconsolidated snow. The guys, along with our three canine companions, began to punch through the crust. I stayed on top and pushed ahead. Forrest, veteran of a zillion expeditions and instant source of calm confidence for anxious novices, neatly summed it up by pointing out that what might seem like a weakness can, in certain circumstances, turn into a strength. This is how wolverines take down moose and reindeer. My trepidation diminished.
We spent a spectacularly starry night testing our tents and bags, which were surprisingly comfortable and warm. The next day we headed up towards the first pass. The sky was clear, Lone Peak arced up into the blue with breathtaking grace, and it was pure exhilaration to be out, with mountain peaks on the horizon in all directions. With the guys still punching through the crust and with me lagging on the uphills, though, we were concerned that we might have to turn around, but Gregg encouraged us to push on towards our original goal. It was a long day, with multiple tumbles on my part down steep slopes as I adjusted to the new skis. Jason and Forrest are both amazing to watch on skis, fearless and elegant, with their dogs bounding just ahead or behind. I am a lot less graceful, and it took some time to get used to the kicker skins and the weight and balance of the new pack. We arrived at our campsite after dark, mostly because I’d been so slow on the uphills. Halfway through the day I’d started to run a strange fever, concentrated in my ear lobes and the lymph nodes of my neck, and had become unbearably dehydrated. I felt pretty awful by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, though I hoped this was all just an adjustment and part of the learning process. My sister, who is a marathoner, has been a source of confidence and inspiration as I’ve prepared for this trip, and I fell asleep thinking of her advice about the mental and physical fortitude that it takes to complete these big endeavors: once you survive it once, you know you can do it again. I’d made it through day one. Everything after this was just another day.
Sure enough, the next day was easier, with the exception of an absolutely terrifying, steep, icy slope that I felt like cursing with eternal damnation. But the clear skies, the great skiing through rolling meadows below, the abundant tracks of ermine, marten, snowshoe hare, and squirrels gamboling through the forest, and the mountain views more than compensated for the moments of doubt up on the steep pitch. Gregg’s encouragement to press on towards the Taylor Fork, Forrest’s consistent confidence, and Jason’s absolute competence in all things related to being out in the mountains, were reassuring, and all paid off. I’ve been out on research trips with guys who have constantly put me (and other female companions) down for lack of experience or strength, and this is my number one test of any men with whom I hike – do they try to make me feel bad? Do I, in turn, find myself wishing that one or more of them might conveniently fall off the nearest cliff? Despite very disparate personalities in the everyday civilized world, we functioned pretty well as a group in the backcountry. I still feel like the weak link, but as Jason pointed out, as the only person who speaks Mongolian and has connections in country, I will be the critical piece once we’re in Mongolia. So we all have our roles to play, and like any wolf pack, each member helps the whole to function.
By the time I got home, my face, hands, arms, and chest had broken out in hives and I was running a serious fever. My ears were so hot that they felt like they might combust, my lymph nodes were hard as rocks, my fingers were swollen and painful, and I had huge welts across my face. This morning, I went to the doctor, who said it was probably just a bad reaction to the sun. Later in the day I saw my Mongolian friend Badmaa, who is here in Montana on a Fulbright scholarship. She said that the condition looked to her like something that Mongolians refer to as huiten alergiin, an allergy to cold – she described the symptoms right down to the burning ears. And then she added that the other name for it, in Mongolian, is chonii hurgan, or “rough wolf skin” – a suitable initiation for a temporary transformation into a creature of the pack.
If you’re ever feeling glum about the future of humanity, go hang out with the second graders at Bozeman’s Irving Elementary School. They’re smart, self-assured, clearly psyched about creative work, and welcoming to visitors – and they also know more about wolverines than most adults. During a half hour class about wolverines in Montana and Mongolia, the 14 students were able to tell me, before I even began to talk, that wolverines:
1. Are members of the weasel family.
2. Have five toes.
3. Look a bit like a skunk and a bit like a bear.
4. Live in cold places.
5. Are found in Montana.
6. Have a reputation for being fierce.
7. Count at least one superhero in their family.
Not only that, but they also managed to reason through the consequences of climate change, figure out why wolverine kits are born white, draw connections to the conservation of polar bears, and confidently locate Mongolia on a map, unassisted. They also asked the kind of questions and said the kind of things that make you so grateful to live in a world filled with smart, funny kids:
” What’s DNA?” (I was totally stumped on how to answer this in eight-year-old terms, but one boy immediately piped up, “It’s a red and blue spiral thing.”)
“Wolverines probably don’t live in Antarctica because they don’t like penguins.”
“Wolverines can eat reindeer, but reindeer can fly.”
“Did you know that my dad petted a wolverine once?”
There’s something great about being around kids and the fluid world of their perceptions, and this school seemed an especially rich learning environment, with a very diverse group of students, and a program that is fostering some pretty knowledgeable naturalists and global citizens. So thanks to these kids for inviting me in to talk, and thanks also for the knowledge that they shared with me. I hope to see them all out in the field at some point in the future, exercising their knowledge of wolverines and the wider world to help us learn even more about how to protect the world that they, in turn, will pass on to their children.
It’s an exciting time to be a writer and researcher specializing in wolverines. I’m running my own small wolverine camera project in Montana, and preparing to set off on a 350 mile ski trip in search of wolverines in Mongolia. In the policy arena, wolverines are proposed for listing, with more press attention than the species has ever seen. Wolverines are poised to become the next celebrity wildlife icon, the standard-bearer for the effects of climate change on mountain ecosystems. Perversely, though, all of this action and activity has served to dampen rather than accelerate my motivation to write.
Part of this collapse of motivation has to do with basic physiological issues – ski or snowshoe six to 14 miles, four or five days a week, breaking trail straight uphill through thigh-deep powder with a 40 pound pack on your back, and see if you’re in the mood to write eloquent odes to wolverine research when you stumble back through the door after dark and realize that there’s no food in the house for dinner.
Part of it, though, also has to do with a certain authorial possessiveness, probably the same sort of pique that devout fans of indie bands feel when their beloved group makes it big, and the preppy, conventional guy down the street suddenly thinks he’s an expert on an art form that – in the eyes of the long-term devoted fan, anyway – he doesn’t really get. A good person, of course, is happy for the success of something they care about, but it’s difficult to escape a certain sense of dispossession. For the past five years, wolverines (as an actual entity rather than a legalistic abstraction….) have been the concern of a very small group of people. The narrative of research and conservation has been contained, manageable, and generally based on consensus. The people with the greatest authority and the clearest voice have been the scientists, who have worked directly with the species, held the animals in their hands, understood the ecological relationships, and built the models that describe those relationships. As far as I know, only three people have chronicled this wolverine research in systematic narratives – Doug Chadwick, who wrote The Wolverine Way, Gianna Savoie, who wrote and directed Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, and me, in keeping this blog. For someone with an enduring infatuation with knowledge and the processes involved in obtaining it, and a natural wariness of propaganda and conflict, wolverines have been a heady escape from the ritualistic bickering over carnivore conservation in the Western US, precisely because they have been the purview of a limited number of individuals.
Now the story is bigger, and in becoming bigger, it becomes less manageable, with new elements, new concerns, new people, and new agendas. In the face of these new elements, my writing instincts have been temporarily paralyzed, and I decided to take a few weeks off to let these new narratives sink in. I’m back now, and will post updates between now and my departure on March 19th for Mongolia. More soon!
A delegation of Mongolian Buddhist monks arrived in Bozeman last week, and will be in town until the 20th as part of the Tributary Fund’s work on encouraging environmental leadership within religious communities. I will be talking with the monks in a small group session about the potential for monasteries to participate in environmental monitoring (including monitoring of wolverines, pikas, and other climate sensitive wildlife), and on the 17th TTF will host a public discussion at the Bozeman library to talk about citizen science in a broader sense. I hope that we will have a chance to talk with more specificity about wolverine citizen science and about the differences between citizen science in the US and citizen science in Mongolia. Please join us if you are in town; the library discussion session is a brown bag lunch, and runs from 11:45 to 1:00. As a bonus, my friend and colleague Marissa Smith, environmental anthropologist extraordinaire, who has accompanied me (with great patience and endurance) on several Mongolian wolverine expeditions, will also be there to contribute to the discussion.
In other news, environmental advocacy groups have apparently launched another lawsuit against the state of Montana, as part of an on-going attempt to shut down the trapping season. I’ve already written extensively about this issue, and I have several draft posts about the broader issue of the strategies that the environmental advocacy community employs around endangered species protection, but they are not ready for posting. Instead, I defer to friend and colleague Arthur Middleton, who explores this issue in a recent column about wolf conservation in the Wall Street Journal (you can get free access by searching for the title of the piece and clicking on the search result). Wolves and wolverines are different creatures with different sets of biological and social challenges, and we are very fortunate that wolverines create none of the problems for people that wolves and bears do. But the point about the destructiveness of endless litigation remains the same.
Another quick update – the conference presentation was a success, and I was invited to give another, similar but less formal, talk at the National University Steppe Forward program’s monthly Biobeers meeting. (Yes, indeed, Biobeers is exactly what it sounds like – beer and wildlife biology.) I’ll be much less nervous in this setting, so feel free to drop by if you happen to be in town – October 4th, 6:30 pm, at Sweet Cafe, which is just behind Internom Bookstore and just in front of Admon Printing. I get on an airplane for the States a few hours later, so this will be your last chance to hear about Mongolian wolverines in Mongolia for a few months.
This is short notice, but I figure very few of the blog’s readership will be able to attend, unfortunately. Tomorrow, Monday, October 1st, the National University of Mongolia hosts a conference on climate change and ecosystems. At 11:00 I’ll give a presentation on the preliminary results from our three summers of interview surveys in Mongolia, a summary of future wolverine research options here, and a short discussion of possible links between North American and Mongolian wolverine research. The conference is being held in the main building of the National University. I’ll post a write-up here on the blog sometime in the next few weeks.
I hate public speaking, so I’m sitting here trying to figure out how not to faint. On second thought, it would probably be better if no one I know shows up – so if you are by chance in UB and thinking of attending, stay away and just check back here for the summary.