Autumn Ambushes and Aspen Adventures

A few days ago, autumn snuck up behind me and caught me by surprise. We were up in the Bodie Hills on a particularly blustery afternoon, reconstructing a previously-established aspen monitoring plot, and I smelled it. It was an electrifying moment—surrounded by rustling aspens just beginning turn and reveling in the unfamiliar urge to put on a jacket, I smelled that wonderful crisp, leafy smell that signifies fall in all of its glory to some deeper part of my brain. It was wonderful. This summer was busy and intensely alive, but I have never been one to dream of living in a place where the summer never ends. Give me gloriously colorful falls, deep and snowy winters, and those springs in which the first flowers to emerge feel like declarations of victory after a long fight with the cold over endless summers. Bishop was starting to worry me when it hit 93 degrees before noon last week, but it looks like changes are coming.

It is fitting that fall found me in the Bodie Hills. Autumn ambushes aside, the Bodie Hills are often filled with surprises: hills that appear to be nothing but gray-brown brush from a distance reveal pockets of wildflowers and fields of lupine when approached, and vistas of the Sierras and Mono Lake appear unexpectedly as you wind your way along the bumpy roads. Nestled between the northernmost peaks of the White Mountains to the east and the dramatic eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the west, they are best known as the site of the abandoned mining town of Bodie, the oldest unrestored ghost town in the country. For our purposes, it is a sage grouse haven and home to numerous aspen groves that reveal the damper soils in the region.

Ah, the aspen groves. Now that we have wrapped up our SOS collections for the summer and surveyed most of the sage grouse nests, fire monitoring and aspen surveys have begun to dominate our weeks. The aspen monitoring, a deceptively simple project involving re-surveying permanent plots to track aspen regeneration after different management strategies to encourage aspen growth (mowing, thinning of other tree species, and in some cases burning), has in fact resembled a giant scavenger hunt. Finding the plots themselves has proved the challenge; a few have GPS points associated with the permanent posts, but most are either identified by a grove or simply by a vague description in paper records. Needless to say it has been an adventure, with frustrating GIS sessions more than compensated for the satisfaction of finding T-posts in a grove with no previous GPS information whatsoever. Lesson learned: always create good metadata records as you go, your successor will thank you.

Fall has arrived, our tasks are shifting—did I say our? The biggest change around here, alas, is the departure of my fellow intern, Bridger, who has been a great coworker, a patient teacher when it comes to filling the gaps in my botany knowledge, and the best hiking buddy I could have asked for. I’ll miss having you around, especially on those long drives—audiobooks just don’t cut it. But so it goes. Time stops for no one, and the changes will continue through the rest of my stay here. Some will be welcome, others will require adjustments—but I hope that more of them will resemble my first formal encounter with autumn in the Eastern Sierra. Standing on that blustery hillside, staring out across the mountains and surrounded by the sounds and smells of fall, it was a moment of clarity and quiet exhilaration that I won’t soon forget.

Fall comes to the Bodie Hills


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