Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Ashley Ahearn talks about the Cascades frog and other creatures she encountered while tagging along with scientists high in Olympic National Park.
LUNCH LAKE, OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, Wash. — The first question of the morning: How badly do I have to pee?
At 5 a.m., in the semi-dark backcountry of Olympic National Park, at 5,000 feet of elevation, in primo mountain goat and bear habitat -– that’s actually a pretty tough question.
I lie in the tent listening to the thump, thump, pitter, pitter of a family of mountain goats –- a couple of mamas with babies probably born earlier this spring –- as they trot around the campsite, baaaing softly to one another.
They are looking for urine because people pee is for mountain goats what catnip is for cats. They’re fiends for it. They fight over it. And right now, I am in possession of a lot of mountain-goat catnip.
I wait until I can’t hold it any longer and then I zip out of my safe little tent and walk a couple hundred yards over to a nearby rockface, my camera strapped over my shoulder. The goats are there within minutes:
And here’s more because, well, who doesn’t want to watch mountain goats and their babies?
But I’m not here to study mountain goats (as rad as they are). I’m here to learn about the Cascades frog (_Rana cascadae_), who share this alpine habitat.
And I have a pretty awesome guide and teacher on this adventure. Maureen Ryan is an expert on the amphibians of the West. She’s a researcher with the University of Washington and has been studying frogs, newts, salamanders and other slimey-wigglies in high elevation zones around the region for the past decade.
But the Cascades frog holds a very special place in Maureen Ryan’s heart. This creature is only found in the Northwest and rarely seen below elevations of 2,000 feet. Cascades frogs love the ephemeral wetland potholes of water that form as the snow melts off the highest peaks and drains down into the valleys below. These sunny shallow bodies of water provide shelter, warmth and breeding habitat for the frogs, who spend nine months of the year hiding beneath upwards of 20 feet of snow.
A tarn in the Seven Lakes Basin
Snowpack acts like a sort of water bank, making steady deposits of water through the drier parts of the year. But climate change models project a decrease in snowpack and a lengthening of the dry summer period in the mountains of the Northwest.
Ryan worries that the decrease in snowpack could mean that many of the high alpine wetlands the Cascades frog depends on could dry up permanently.
Seven Lakes Basin
The frogs will probably have to move into the larger lakes and deeper, more established wetlands of the alpine zone. But here’s the problem: sixty years ago people introduced trout to many of those water bodies, and those trout love Cascades frogs almost as much as mountain goats love people pee.
Ryan and her team are studying how the frogs use the Northwestern alpine wetland habitat in order to better understand, and predict, how those occupancy patterns might change as the climate warms and snowpack decreases.
I will admit some radio bias here, but I think one of the coolest things about these frogs is the call they make during the mating season. It’s a chuckling sound and it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard before, but it wasn’t an easy sound to get on tape. We spent the entire day catching frogs in ponds all over the Seven Lakes Basin, but they were all pretty quiet. They’d sort of hunker down and eye us, silently.
I was getting worried that I wasn’t going to get the chuckle on tape. Then Maureen took me to a set of ponds that had just emerged from beneath the receding snow. The Cascades frogs in those ponds were just waking up and starting the breeding/feeding frenzy of the season. We could see their bug-eyed heads peering out from beneath the grasses and muck along the banks, but they got quiet when we approached and I feared another recording disappointment.
Maureen pointed toward a little hummock of moss and heather overlooking a quiet corner of the pond and told me to hunker down behind it where the frogs couldn’t see me. I snuck my shotgun microphone over the lip of the hummock, pointing it down towards the silent water below, and lay down on my side… and waited. Maureen left.
Seconds ticked by.
And then I heard them. First one, and then another, chuckling back and forth in a sort of call-response that sounded like a round of guffaws at a New Jersey old folks bingo night. The chuckles would get louder and then subside, one frog out-guffawing another.
And then I was chuckling with the frogs, quietly, from my hideout. And the rivers were rushing around us and the ponds were filling with snowmelt and life and sound.
Backpacking gear only a radio reporter would carry.
In the coming weeks I’ll be putting together the radio feature (with the amazing chuckling sound), as well as some really cool videos of the frogs and the scientists in action, so stay tuned for more, and check us out on Facebook for more sneak previews.
Fix Your Coordinates
There’s a gorgeous (and tough) 18.2 mile loop that takes you to the Seven Lakes Basin. You can access the trailhead if you drive past the Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort in Olympic National Park.
Making reservations is advised and it can get pretty crowded after the snow recedes in mid-July. Be sure to bring a bear canister as there are a lot of bears around.
And if you want to hear Cascades frogs, hike in to the Potholes Meadows area, just off the main trail after you pass Deer Lake on your way up to Lunch Lake. You can see the small pools from the trail. Be careful, don’t trample the habitat and if you sit quietly you might just hear a chuckle or two.