June 19, 2007

Field Work Doesn’t Always Work Out as Planned

Posted by: Rod Crawford

Spider curator Rod Crawford shares the ups and downs of one of his latest field adventures...

My most ambitious (and, with the price of gas, expensive) spider collecting field trip of the year was to be a Memorial Day Weekend expedition to northeast Washington, in collaboration with Larry McTigue, an old friend from my caving days who wanted to hunt for new caves in the limestone deposits. The plan was to start in southern Stevens County and work our way north to really high quality areas near the Canadian border toward the end of the weekend. That was the plan...

Saturday went well for me. I got a much-needed supplementary spider sample from a beautiful spot in sagebrush country on Sinking Creek southeast of the town of Wilbur. Then we wasted a lot of time hunting for a gas station in Wilbur: population 1400 and all 3 of the stations out of business! But we finally made it to Hunters along the Columbia River where, at a site with meadow and pine forest, I got 20 species in a couple of hours including one jumping spider completely new to me. Meanwhile, Larry was searching for a lot of limestone shown on a geologic map, and finding very little of it. We found a decent campsite and went to bed with the moon out —

—to wake up with rain pattering on the tent. Not much, just enough to make the vegetation too wet for spider collecting. The sun came out later but it was noon before I could sweep any grass or beat any bushes. Our morning plans centered on an area northeast of Chewelah where a place called Johnson Lake looked promising for spiders and a place called Limestone Spring drew Larry like a magnet. But there turned out to be no rock of any kind at the spring (let alone limestone) and by the time Larry returned to the lake to pick me up I only had 18 species or so. It had been a pleasant morning, though, with a deer joining me for a little grazing while I chased wolf spiders, and Larry hung around while I sifted conifer litter to get the sample up to a barely adequate 21 species. Then we tried to exit back to the highway via a short cut. Who would have expected a fence right across the road? So it was backtracking through many miles of intricate logging roads for us before we could head north.

Heading north, as it turned out, right into a series of thunderstorms! Every place we tried that afternoon was wetter and less productive. The final indignity was Rabbit Mountain, which (if dry) would have been great for spider collecting. The road around the base of the mountain was a series of giant puddles that would have stopped anything but Larry's 4WD pickup. The road up to the ridge crest was blocked by a man and his daughter cutting firewood from a tree he'd felled right across the road. He told us the road only went another hundred yards and we might as well turn back. We waited him out and proved him a liar by going at least another mile along the ridge, but all in vain. The rain wouldn't stop, in fact it became a steady downpour, and the brush was so thick that the only way Larry could have found a rumored pit would have been by falling into it. And the rain seemed to positively encourage the local mosquitoes. Finally we'd had enough and decided to head south and (we hoped) out of the rain.

Well, we finally did get out from under the clouds, but the landscape was still wet by the time we camped on a soggy hilltop north of Spokane where I needed another supplementary spider sample. The sky was clear and the moon out when I crawled into my tent. During the night a very cold wind came up, and it was overcast and very wintry-feeling in the morning. I did manage, though, to get my tent packed and 7 spider species collected before it started to rain. Then the rain started to turn to sleet! Was this May 28 or were we in a winter time warp?

At this point the central Washington desert started looking very good indeed to us. The backup plan was to go to Dry Falls and take a trail I knew of down into Grand Coulee. All well and good except that when we got there the trail was blocked by a big steel bar with "Trail Closed" sign. However, it was warm and dry and that felt like a big plus just then. With about 10 hours of daylight and no clouds visible to the north, we drove north into Ferry County to try to salvage something from our last day in the field. The first place we tried had spiders but no limestone. The second place had limestone but no spiders. Finally in the early evening I got another good supplementary sample from the Curlew Lake area. Then for the long, long drive home. The upshot of the trip was better for me than for Larry; I at least got 5 valuable (if small) spider samples, while he found nothing. But the big collecting plans for those enticing spider habitats near the Canadian border remained just unfulfilled plans. Can't win them all!

For more on this year's spider collecting trips, see the Spider Collector's Journal.

Photo: Female Evarcha proszynskii from Wolfe Camp Road by Rod Crawford