One of the wonderful aspects of working at Mesa Verde is the opportunity to make casual discoveries while walking about. Last year, it was a parrot figurine we found at Yucca House that piqued the interest of the archeologists. This year we were surveying the only known population of Acer grandidentatum (big-toothed maple) to exist in Colorado, which only grow along the north escarpment in the park. The terrain is really steep in places, so it's some of the least explored, and this is when I stumbled across Squirrel-Bear. I call him that, because the body looks like a bear to me, but the long tail makes me think of a squirrel. The archies were interested in him too, so they picked him up and brought it back to the lab for scrutiny. Surface finds like this, especially without the context of an ancient ruin nearby, can be tricky to date, but squirrel-bear was unique enough to that it was important to investigate. Looking under magnification, it became clear that the quartzite was worked by steel tools, and therefore historic. While it's not 100% conclusive, it was probably a Navajo fetish, since near the area was an old hogan and sweat lodge. Alas, probably not cool enough to go on display in the new visitor center, but it made me keep my eyes open.
The past few weeks of work went by very quickly, as they always seem to do. We headed into areas of the park I had never visited before, which is always a treat. One of the archeologists had spotted Ulmus pumila (Siberian Elms) growing in an ancient kiva on Battleship Rock. The kiva was one of the largest I had seen, although mostly buried under sand and shrubs. It was an interesting place to be, mostly since the archie escorting me was kind enough to take the time to explain all that I was seeing. After that, I spent a week with the Lake Mead EPMT team chasing weeds and dodging lightning bolts.
One of the biologists had placed a wildlife camera at one of the springs and got a series of amazing images of these pumas. I had seen a few paw prints and drag marks, but I'd never seen a mountain lion before... and still haven't... but I'm certain they've been watching me.
On my 2nd to last day, they needed someone to rotate onto a wildlife surveying shift... in a helicopter! My crew-boss graciously asked them to let me go, since I had been whining about missing a helicopter flight last year (2 of my crew last year were flown to a fire). This was my first time on a 'copter, so wasn't sure what to expect, so I popped some Dramamine and waited for the shift. My job was simple; look out the window for wildlife, call out anything interesting, waypoint it, and writedown the location, sex, and count.
The 'copter took off, turned, and started flying towards the south-east corner of the park to begin a series of North-South running transects. We were flying low, but also somewhat slow, to give us a chance to survey. It was really awesome flying over canyons... the same canyons that would take a half day long slog of a hike and were were just into the breezing blue like it was nothing but a walk in the park. The eastern mesa ends in a series of cliffs and steep slopes down to the river, so the 1st transect was fun topography... oh, there's an ancient ruin... I wonder why no sagebrush grows there... hey, is that an eeellllllkkkkk!?!?!? The co-pilot had just pointed out a herd of elk and before I knew it, the pilot had spun the copter and begun a dive at the same time, spiraling in close to allow the biologists a chance to photograph them. The first spiral-dive really caught me unawares, and I was suddenly glad for the dramamine as I fumbled with the GPS unit and tried to listen in on the counts. After I knew what to expect, it wasn't so scary, but there were certainly IMAX-like scenes of ridges and cliffs looming before us, especially along the north escarpments. The coolest thing was watching the pilot maneuver the 'copter broadsides down a canyon for survey photography-- it was really unnatural to look out the front when the motion was sideways with a pronounced yaw.
It was a terrific way to end the season; now if only I could fly home instead of drive. I won't be leaving for a little longer, since watching the aspens turn color and seeing the first major snowfalls are great incentives to stick around and I have the free time to soak it in. Meanwhile, is anyone interested in a not-so-gently-used alarm clock?