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Off the grid: Yotes research in Idaho backcountry

The engine roared as a small bush plane flew a few hundred feet above the tree tops. Below, the Middle Fork of the Salmon River meandered through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. As the plane dipped lower and lower, following the river, it turned toward the right bank and a small cut-out of green grass.

Landing at Pistol Creek Ranch, College of Idaho geoscience professor Jaime Goode and students Natasha Dacic and Donavan Maude unloaded their gear and got ready to trek into Idaho’s backcountry. For the next five days, the crew would visit various stream sites and perform field research to see how wildfires play a role in shaping salmon spawning habitat.

“It was the main reason I chose to work with Dr. Goode—being able to go camping and get research experience from exploring new areas that I’ve never been before,” Maude said.

As fires burn through Idaho forests—740,000 acres in 2015 to be precise—the result is a scarred landscape that causes debris, such as sediment and wood, to flow into rivers. A desire to understand the relationship between fires and waterways led Dr. Jaime Goode to apply for and receive a $48,000 grant from the M.J. Murdock Trust last year. With funding in hand, Goode and her team set out to see if Idaho rivers would have the right types of fine sediment needed for salmon to spawn, were it not for the fires.

After car camping for the first few weeks, the group went off the grid by flying into the backcountry in August. Camping around 6,000 feet, they awoke to the cold chill of mountain mornings, sometimes before the sun rose. A campfire and coffee were a must to warm up as breakfast was prepared.

Each day, the group packed up their equipment and hiked a few miles to stream sites. With waders on, the team spent about 10 hours collecting data in rivers and mapping out the various sites, each of which had different fire histories.

“We look at what’s happening to the complexity of [salmon] habitat—do they have places to feed, places to rest, what are the water flows like, what are the nutrients in the water like?” Goode said.

After a full day of work, the researchers would trek back to base camp exhausted and hungry. And every night after dinner, each had to discuss the most challenging, fun, boring, annoying and interesting aspects of the day.

“Some of the most challenging parts were walking around the rivers and getting over wood jams,” Goode said. “The most fun was looking at all the different bugs, and the most interesting was seeing these systems and how well they appeared to fit into our hypotheses.”

The outdoor lab environment wasn’t quite what Dacic was expecting. It was a lot of field work, getting your hands dirty, hiking though vegetation and climbing logjams while trying not to fall. Cuts, bruises, scrapes—all became souvenirs. But the junior, who wouldn’t describe herself as outdoorsy, found a new love for nature.

“Being able to see [the backcountry] definitely gave me a whole new perspective of Idaho,” she said. “So don’t tell anyone that we have amazing backcountry. We only have potatoes.”

Both Maude and Dacic plan on going to graduate school, so gaining field research knowledge provided valuable experience. While it was Dacic’s first research job, Maude—a senior double major in biology and environmental science—had previously worked with C of I biology professor Chris Walser in studying Columbia River redband trout. The ability to work so closely with his professors has given Maude guidance and helped him focus in on the career path he wants to pursue.

 “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get that much into research, but I have definitely enjoyed it a lot,” Maude said. “When applying to graduate school in a research field, experience is one of the things they look for. So it’s hopefully going to help with getting into graduate school and continuing my educational career.”

A math-physics major, Dacic has enjoyed her long journey to Idaho and the C of I. Born in Germany to Bosnian parents, she moved to Idaho when she was 3 years old. A last minute choice on National Signing Day led her to play basketball at the C of I, a decision she calls her “best choice.”

For her, performing research this summer was more than just a crucial step in pursuing a career in renewable energy resources. It also offered a chance to realize all the amazing opportunities she’s had while at the C of I.

“It’s crazy to look back to see how far my family has come, how far I have come,” she said. “Being the first generation—not only in the States, but to go to college—definitely motivates me to finish school and be able to help out my family when I finish grad school.”

While helping Dr. Goode, Dacic and Maude also conducted their own research. Dacic collected sediment samples in order to measure in-stream carbon storage at the different sites, while Maude collected bugs to see the variability in food resources for salmon. They’ll present their findings at the annual Murdock College Science Research Conference Nov. 4-5 in Spokane, Wash.

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.