A Memorable Field Trip

Wed, 2009-08-05 04:12 pm | By Ken Christiansen, Professor Emeritus of Biology

As I sit in my laboratory, the radio plays "Green Grow the Rushes Oh" and I am swept back in an instant to the summer of 1957 when 10 of us wended our way down to the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona, where we spent eight weeks at the Southwest Research Station as part of our short-lived C-60 biology course. I can see and hear the 10 of us wheeling down the road from a late field trip, headed to the laboratory, and barreling out that song in a high-spirited, if off-key, harmony.

The course C-60 needs some explanatory preamble. At that time we had no field stations or programs at our avail, and our botanist, Norman Russell, and I felt the need for the students to have some extensive field experience. With this in mind, we created a course to last nine weeks in the summer and involve extensive fieldwork and projects. The first year (1956), Russell took a group to the Quetico Border lakes area in Minnesota for a canoe trip, which was a great success.

I had had considerable contact with Vincent Ross, then director of the Southwest Research Station in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, and he had offered a minimal-cost housing and feeding of any students we wanted to bring there. Since I had read of the enormous ecological diversity the region afforded, I decided to take a group there in 1957.

Road Trip!

The College owned no cars at the time, but did have a leasing relationship with the local Ford dealership. We arranged to rent two station wagons. I placed a notice on the bulletin board about the course and how to apply. I was interested to note that some young person (male, I presume) inscribed below it, "Sex on a Stick." I did not quite understand what he meant by that, but I assumed it was in approbation.

Since the capacity of the wagons limited the student number to nine, I assume I had to make some decisions, but do not at this 49-year remove remember if only nine applied or I had to make some choices. In any case, we ended up with five men: Tom Bailey '58, Steve Rogers '58, Andy Johnson '59, Terry Irvin '59, and Doug Robinson '58, and four women: Paula Kirby Adkins '59, Nancy Egbert Barks '59, Betsy Patterson Hawtrey '59, and Pat Adams Rogers '59.

I remember with some amusement that Pat and Steve were (and still are) a couple. (Couples were an almost universal phenomenon at Grinnell in those days.) I assigned them to separate wagons. I recall overhearing two men discussing this with obvious amusement and thinking I had done it purposefully, but I was blissfully unaware of the relationship, and it was done merely by chance.

The logistics of getting ready were rather great. I remember making list after list of collecting and preserving gear, but my many collecting trips in Lebanon had made me reasonably good at this. What I do not remember is what we did about sleeping on the way down, but Tom Bailey remembers: "I recall that we drove nonstop from Grinnell to Wolf Creek Pass in southwestern Colorado, stopping there for two or three nights. It was beautiful, though a bit cold in late June. We tent camped, found and gathered mushrooms at your direction, and sautéed them for topping on our steaks. I also remember that you taught us that the tips of blue spruce boughs with the new year's growth made an excellent pad upon which to place our sleeping bags. Have tried this with douglas fir boughs (blue spruce is not endemic in the Cascades), and it doesn't work nearly as well. I seem to recall that we stopped at Mesa Verde after leaving Wolf Creek; got out and explored a bit, but did not stay the night there."

We must have driven well into the night that first day, since we made regular brief stops to look over different environmental situations. In addition, we soon discovered that the station wagon's tires were not designed to take the kind of long distance loads we were inflicting on them. I believe we had some 12 or 14 flat tires going down. The first ones required unpacking the whole wagon, but we soon learned to pack the tire on top and soon we were as efficient at changing tires as a pit crew at the Indy 500.

On the trip down, I did take many opportunities to stop and point out the interesting biological and geological features of the regions we were passing through. It was fun for me, since we saw a good deal of America's varied ecology and landscape. The weather was generally good, and this was helpful since we did not have air conditioning in the cars.

Frequent flash floods slowed us down as we got into the Southwest, which changed dry runs across the road into raging rivers. When we got to one of these, we would ask Terry Irvin, who was at that time considering a career in the Presbyterian clergy, to get out and make contact with the man upstairs. He would do so, and by golly, it generally seemed to work. I remember once as we waited in a long line of cars, the lead driver got impatient and started across too early. We all held our breath as the car slanted and started to sweep downstream, but somehow they barely made it. As we came through the normally desert areas of New Mexico, I was stunned to see deep grass as a result of one of the wettest late winters and springs they had had in 50 years. After some considerable travail, including getting lost and ending up on a gravel road where we had to do a little impromptu road building across a creek ford, we arrived at the field station.

Flora and Fauna

Now for anybody not familiar with these mountains, it is necessary to know that they are arguably the most lushly beautiful region in our Southwest, located near the junction of New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. The mountains were sacred to the Apache, and our stealing the area from them after promising never to touch them "as long as the grass shall grow and the sun shall rise" started the last major Indian war.

The station was at that time a modest set of laboratories and living facilities located about halfway up one the largest mountains in the range. One of the biological delights of this is that you can travel from a Boreal dense coniferous forest at the top of the mountain to a subtropical Sonoran desert at the bottom in less than an hour's drive. In between all the intermediate ecological zones are well developed.

Some of the intermediate zones furnished us with an amusing example of the rigidity of behavioral patterns where both ground and tree squirrels lived in the same spot. It was most amusing to see a ground squirrel foraging in the trees and a tree squirrel on the ground. When alarmed, the tree squirrel runs up the tree and the ground squirrel down, sometimes in the same tree.

The region is blessed with an extremely varied fauna and flora, including five species of rattlesnake (we managed to catch 13 specimens, including all species save the sidewinder). It was virtually impossible to make a trip anywhere without seeing at least one, but fortunately, by far the commonest species was the mild-mannered black-tailed rattlesnake. Under the expert instruction of Doug Robinson, we all soon learned how to deal with them and never went anywhere without our snake stick. All but the first specimens we captured were alive.

This first encounter is a vivid memory for me. I believe it was the second night at the station, and I decided to take a night field trip to light trap the Sonoran Desert for insects. Now both Douglas and I knew that this is the time when rattlesnakes are most active, and therefore we urged all to stay in single file behind us. But of course, shortly after entering the desert, everybody was hopelessly spread out. We were carrying a .22-calibre rifle for emergencies, and I forget who was carrying it, but suddenly we heard a yell and a couple of shots. The rifle bearer had found a pair of large western diamondback rattlers and shot them before we could arrive to stop him. The couple were in flagrante delicto and, thus immobilized sufficiently for this to be done with ease. Douglas and I impressed upon one and all that this was not to be done in the future and pointed out the desirability of staying in single file. After this event, we had no problem with this, and I believe we had a most successful light trapping.

Beetles, Rattlers, and More

We had the remarkable good fortune to spend our time at the station when the only other visiting researcher was one of the world's most eminent biologists, Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was a most amiable, genuine, warm person, and he held a number of discussions with me, and gave a few informal talks to the group. His wife was with him and helped with the cooking, doing the dishes and setting the table. Dobzhansky had received a Nobel Prize some time earlier for his pioneer work on genetics. I remember her brief summary of his career: "Vell, you know Teddy vas vorking with these little beetles and all of a sudden he vas famous!" Dobzhansky impressed many of us. As Andy Johnson remembers: "He would ask us into his lab, which contained hundreds of bottles with fruit flies (Drosophila) in them. We would be sitting on the lab tables listening to his great ideas, and one of his Drosophila would land on your nose (having escaped from a bottle). I remember wondering if I swatted the fly if it would throw off his research effort. So I sat there, eyes watering, and let the fly rest on my nose."

We had a marvelous cook, and the food was splendid. In addition there were unlimited seconds, and I remember skinny Doug Robinson coming back with a heaping plate of third helpings, to the general hoots and amusement of his male fellow students. Years later when I met him and was wondering how he managed to eat so much, he said: "You know Doc C., I never stopped because I was full, but just because I was too embarrassed to go back for more." I wonder how much he could have downed?

Doug was a phenomenon - a brilliant student, but one who could not be bothered to study unless he was interested in the topic. He had been an ardent herpetologist since childhood and was most remarkable in his knowledge of every aspect of the science, including capture and handling of poisonous snakes. He taught all of us how to catch rattlers and never to put a foot in some out-of-sight place without using our long snake stick to assure ourselves that no rattlers hid there.

I was never very comfortable with the capture technique. You put your snake stick just in back of the head, then with your other hand grab the head, using mid fingers to push down on the top of the skull so hard you deform it downward. Then you quickly pick up the snake, holding it away from your body, and open the snake bag to drop it in. Some of the men got quite enthusiastic about this, but I never did, catching only two during the whole trip.

The last one I caught is a clear memory, since I managed to get us thoroughly lost in the mountains. For some reason, Doug was not with us, and we went off on a long collecting trip. Coming upon a black-tailed rattler, I caught it, but we had no snake bag, so I put it into our insect net and tied the bag near the top. We then started back, but I soon realized that we are lost.

Now one secret I did not share with the students was that I have the sense of direction of a wind-up toy and had already been lost in more places than I could count. For one who has spent a considerable portion of his life in caves and the wilderness, this can be a drawback. I compensate by not panicking. I long ago adopted Dan'l Boone's motto, "I ain't never been lost, but I been confused for a day or two."

My inability to find my way may have become abundantly apparent to all of them during this trip, but at this point I was still in charge. Sometime after dusk, when it became apparent to all we were thoroughly lost, we had some discussions about which way to go, but it appeared that we might have to settle down for the night somewhere. Meanwhile, Tom Bailey, to whom I had vouchsafed the privilege of carrying the treasure, was muttering that he was damn tired of carrying the large heavy snake and was going to cut it loose. Feeling that we had to have something to show for the fiasco, I assured him that he would not do so.

Finally, just as I was beginning to make plans for how we could camp for the night, we saw the lights of a vehicle off in the distance and headed for the road. The lights turned out to be Doug in one of our station wagons, out looking for us. I remember the lot of us riding along, packed like sardines in the wagon, belting out "Green Grow the Rushes Oh" and "That Good Old Mountain Dew," with Paula interjecting the "MOUNTAIN DEW!," heading back to food and comfort.

Doug had a great sense of direction, and I usually relied upon him. He also had enormous energy and single-mindedness in pursuit of reptiles. We all agreed that the simplest way to get someone to the top of Mt. Everest (at that point still unconquered) was to put Doug on one side and tell him there was a rare lizard on the other side. This idea was re-enforced on one occasion when most of us were at the base of a very narrow and challenging peak, having a discussion about how anyone could climb it. Would we use ropes or pitons and ladders. etc.? When what should we see but Doug standing on the top and waving down to us. I believe he had chased a lizard up it.

Techniques of Capture

Living conditions were Spartan, but not harsh, and I remember I had the pleasure of seeing a lizard in our shower stall several times, although they left before I turned on the water. I managed to catch one, which I did not recognize (the great plains skink). We even had a small swimming pool. Since the water was algae green, it would probably now be banned for human use, but we enjoyed it. I remember Nancy practicing her White Caps routines. I liked to do a few laps after a hot day. We had few rains, but I remember one and a trip down to the desert to watch the spadefoot toads emerging to take advantage of the breeding opportunity.

We captured a few spadefoot toads and brought them back alive with us to Grinnell. They were unwitting participants in a small adventure back at the College. We brought back with us quite a small zoo and used to exhibit parts of it the hall display case of the science building, including the five rattlesnakes. The prettiest of these by far was the small green rock rattler. It had a pastel green back with an attractive tan pattern and a pink underside. Now the books all say these eat only small mammals, but we could never get it eat anything, even delicious baby white mice. We had it in the display case in an aquarium with a glass cover, right next to another one with two spadefoot toads. One morning I came in to find the damn snake had somehow crawled up and pushed aside its cover, crawled over and pushed aside their cover, and eaten the two toads. I showed it the book saying it ate only small mammals, but it was unimpressed and looked quite satisfied with its two large stomach swellings.

We managed to capture quite a variety of animals on our field trips and on the students' separate trips in connection with their individual projects. I do not remember who caught the coral snake. One of the most amusing captures was on a trip to the subalpine forest where Betsy came over to show Terry Irvin a small snake she had picked up and dropped in her insect net. It turned out to be a twin spot rattlesnake (the only one we collected). She swore that she knew it was a rattlesnake (it had one button on its tail), but I was never convinced. If it hadn't been so stunned by being picked up, it could have bitten her and given her a nasty swollen arm. I also remember our capturing a coati-mundi that apparently died of shock right after capture.

Our porcupine was harder to capture, but much more amenable to the captivity. I remember somebody (Paula or Pat I think) patting its nose and saying lovingly, "His nose is soft!" He was a favorite in the small zoo I kept in the laboratory after our return.

Our techniques of capture left a lot to be desired, but one I found most interesting was Pat's. She chose to do her project on scorpions, and since she appeared to me to be more than a bit timid and squeamish relative to dangerous beasts, I was curious to see how she captured them. I went with her collecting and found she had cleverly devised a technique that allowed her to stay at least 10 inches from her victims. She would open a large jar of formaldehyde solution, place in on the ground, and then with one hand turn over rocks and with a pair of long tongs in the other hand, pick up any scorpion she found and drop into the formaldehyde solution. This was effective, since she not only found all species known from the area, but also an undescribed species.

We were quite a distance off the beaten track, but the small town of Portal was about 18 miles away. I did occasionally let people go there, and even to the much larger and more distant town of Douglas, but not into Mexico. I found out later that some people had defied my edict, but I did not suspect it at the time. I worried a lot about accidents when people were gone and, indeed, the worry was justified. On one of the trips a wheel came off one of the wagons, though the accident turned out to be not-so-serious.

Andy Johnson earned his tuition by being in charge of logistics, and he remembers that trip clearly: "One day I heard a noise in the rear axle and suggested to you that I had better take it to a Ford dealer for repair. You agreed. I called the leasing company, and got permission to take it to Douglas for repair. Everyone wanted to go, so you let me fill up the wagon and head for Douglas. Halfway there, the left rear wheel fell off and spun down into a ditch. I got the car under control, but the sparks had ignited the grease in the axle, and flames were going over the fuel tank. I got everyone back and started putting the fire out with sand from the shoulder. Just then, I heard a loud explosion and looked over to see the group jumping away from the tire, which had been on fire and exploded right behind the group. I sent the group to Douglas, asked them to arrange for a tow truck, and then waited eight hours (without water) for the tow." This event did put a check on the trips thereafter.

Home Again

Near the end of our nine weeks, we headed back to Grinnell, much faster and with fewer flats. We got home with, for me at least, many wonderful memories of the experience. We are now only 8 rather than 10 participants. The deaths of Doug Robinson and Betsy Patterson Hawtrey brought a deep sense of loss, but also many fond memories.

This trip was one of the pleasantest academic experiences I ever had. This is due partly to the fact that I was young at the time - not very much older than the students. Partly it was that I had a chance to get to know Dobzhansky, but mainly I think it was the good-natured, eager, and simpatico nature of the students who went. This was its essential ingredient. I often think of it - always when I hear "Green Grow the Rushes Oh" or see a can of Mountain Dew - "... them as refuses it are few...."

Sad to say, I hate the stuff.