The Broken Compass

Many of you may know that I landed one of the sweetest summer jobs I’ve been able to envision. I am doing research with a Biology professor on climate change alpine lakes. My task in the project is the hike up the Uinta Mountains in order to collect samples of algae, moss, and insects and collect other physical and chemical data on the streams as they flow into and out of the high lakes.  Basically I get paid to go camping in the mountains that perhaps I love more than any other.

It sounds pretty good on paper. In practice it has been very challenging. I spend the first few weeks mapping out lakes and collecting past data on the lakes. I had to create a lot of this data myself using computer programs. We were delayed in our field work because of record snow fall through the spring. In June the Uintas had 374% the usual snow pack. This kept delaying us until the 4th of July week when my two coworkers and I joined our professor/boss on a trial run to a small basin on the north slope of the Uintas known as the Weyman lakes. We hiked for about four miles when I decided it would be faster to cut cross country than to follow the trail which didn’t go where we needed to go anyway. Following the GPS we head straight to where we needed to be, about 2 miles away. We soon ran into boulders. A lot of boulders. We would spend the next two days surrounded by boulders.

We slowly picked our way over the boulders until we ran into a lake, the wrong lake. We went around it and discovered that it was overflowing in several places resulting in multiple outflows. The streams also frequently flowed under the boulders, very much out of sight or sampling range. Exhausted from boulder scrambling we decided to set up camp near another lake, about a mile below our first site. We started to search for a place to set up tents but there were boulders everywhere. We could not find a 6 foot square of clear ground big enough for a tent after twenty minutes of searching we resigned ourselves to the swamp as the only flat ground around. We barely found a spot big enough for the tent between pools of water. The mosquitoes weren’t very numerous there for some reason, which is only a relative term because they were just as bad there as everywhere else in the mountains. The mosquitoes were a constant the entire trip. They would swarm in the dozens any time we spotted moving. Bug spray kept them back for a good 15 minutes before they would attack anyway. The only way to get relief was rain, which came frequently and heavily. For the whole trip there was more rain than sun. After a pathetic meal of dehydrated backpacker food we settled to a wet, bug filled night.

The next day we left our tents and heavier stuff and headed for the highest lake with nothing but science equipment. Two hours and one mile later we arrived at our site. It took us two more hours to take the necessary measurements. The water flowed out from under a snow bank so there were no algae and little moss. It began to hail. We finally left the site and moved to the base of a boulder field where a stream flowed out. The professor tried to justify that the water came from the lake but I pointed out the ridge and the snow and convinced him it didn’t. So we moved to another stream which came from a lake and the rain came harder. It was unclear if the stream was permanent or not because of the volume of water pouring down the mountainside. Cold, wet, tired, and confused by unclear research guidelines we headed back to our campsite to collect the tents.

We arrived around 4 pm and the professor told us that he was calling it and we would go home that night (I suspect the volleyball game he had scheduled the next day was a big part of it.) We packed the tents and started our wet journey back.

Through the pouring rain and darkening sky we made our way back the 5-6 miles and 5 hours to our car. We were utterly completely demoralized but grateful to have made it out with no significant injuries.  We had sampled only one of the six sites we intended to visit and determined that our protocols were unmanageable. While we never got physically lost we were lost as to how to navigate the back country, how to pack our backpacks, and how to perform the research. The bugs had destroyed us and the rain washed away our morale. So powerful was the sense of failure that we didn’t try again for two weeks.

I call this entry the broken compass because of an old muddy compass I found near the campsite. it was the only sign of another human we saw for the two days in that basin. It also adequately describes our comprehension of the task before us, a job muddled and distorted by our inexperience.

So began my Uinta Backpacking adventure.

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