Now that the chaos of the end of the year is behind me, I thought I’d take a step back and look at my progress (such as it was). Lots of lessons were learned this year, and not just scientifically. Navigating the inter-state bureaucracy when it comes to collecting samples is, to put it nicely, slow and inconsistent. More on that later.

Sampling trip #1 (a.k.a., the trip that never should have been)

Leaving my wife at home with our daughter while I was out in the field was a situation that I really wanted to avoid. So, when the opportunity came up for Kristin to have time off at a time when I could get into the field, we both jumped at it. As husbands sometimes do, I made all of the camping reservations for our trip without consulting anyone. The trip was to span a nice swathe of land across the southeast, taking us from Richmond, VA to South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. In my mind, this was reasonable. Hell, I was even building just travel days so our baby daughter didn’t have to spend 12+ hours in the car. I care. I really do. Most of our camping was going to be done in our pop-up, towed lovingly by our trusty SAAB. We had heat, water, power, and shelter - we were golden. The trip started off innocently enough, and we made it our first night stay without issue, if not somewhat late at night, at The Oaks in South Carolina. The next day was a drive to FL to stay over at Rainbow Springs State Park. Again - no issues. Got in, set up camp, dinner, some wine. You know, roughing it. The following day was to be the first day of sampling. I was ready. Unfortunately, the system (read: the man) wasn’t. Armed with not a single scientific permit (because for sure we didn’t need one and for sure a hard copy of my NSF grant would suffice), I was either denied access to any state park I tried as well as chased from two National Forest sites. Did I mention that this day was also the first day of the government shutdown? With my head hung low, back to the campsite I headed. Because we are both of solid German stock, we kept what was to be the daily itinerary of waking, sampling, packing, and driving (minus, of course, the sampling). Our next stop in FL was a KOA in Perry, but I had a couple of hours worth of driving from Rainbow Springs, so I did what all good Americans do while driving: make lots of frantic phone calls. I called the FL state park offices in Tallahassee, The Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Telling my story to endless chains of assistants was trying, but I eventually was able to get my hands on a last minute permit (by email) t sample in AL. GA would have to wait, though the extremely helpful staff there (literally, not sarcastically) did manage to get me a rushed permit, but it ended up being too late.

Sampling in AL was great - we had beautiful weather, the Frank Jackson State Park was completely accommodating, and (as I said earlier), I was ready. However, I grossly underestimated the amount of time sampling would take me, especially in dense forest. The goal was to sample needles and make other measurements (DBH, height, and bark thickness) for 25 trees. Finding the trees was the easy part. I could do the measurements in about 2.5 minutes. Getting the needles with a Big Shot, however, was the most challenging part, taking my 2.5 minutes/tree up to sometimes 20 before I could move on. Given that math, I realized I would going to be at this for a long time (and not just that day, but more like on the scale of years) before it was all said and done. Starting late that first day, I worked until dark, and nearly finished. Nearly, because, well, this happened:

Kristin was cleaning a wine glass, the baby was having some lunch, and bang! Wine glass shatters off the faucet of the camper, Kristin’s thumb goes right into it, completely severs a nerve, and bleeds like a M-F’er. A frantic phone call and a trip to the ER (in Opp, AL!) to follow. Thankfully, Kristin, a CNRA, is well-connected. The next day, I finished sampling, and we drove 16 hours from Florala to Richmond so she could be seen by an expert and schedule up some surgery.

All in all - the trip was, well, basically, a fail. I was able to get only 25 trees sampled (I anticipated 250). I did, however, learn some valuable lessons:

  1. Make sure to allow enough time for sampling and travel.
  2. Make sure to obtain any and all permits, even if you might not need them.
  3. Carry plastic wine glasses in the camper.
  4. Don’t bring your wife and baby on a 10-day camping/field expedition.
  5. If you do bring wife and/or baby, make sure to consult wife ahead of time.

Collecting permits for collection

Getting permits for sampling turned out to be more of a chore than I imagined. Seems like so much of science, really, and at some point I suppose I’ll stop getting surprised by it. For those of you who are reading and planning on embarking on a scientific sampling endeavor (outside of CA, where, according to Andrew, you can pretty much sample anything as long as you’re not taking seeds), save yourself a lot of heartache and contact the states/national offices before you go. This will save time, hassle, and jail time - trust me. The process is as follows (roughly):

  1. Search for the state parks you want to visit on-line.
  2. Navigate an unpublished and inexplicably long phone tree.
  3. If you can’t find a phone number, find an email.
  4. If you can’t find an email, call the park reservation line.
  5. Once you find the right person, find out what they need from you. In my case, my grant application, approval letter, and a page or two of description did the trick.
  6. Submit applications, pay (if required), and wait (up to a month or more).

Most of the approved permits also come with some strings attached. For some states, I’m required to renew early/often, provide detailed reports, and/or speak at their meetings about my project. Most places require that I give them advanced notice of when I’m going to be at their location. Luckily, it seems like they’re cool with approximations and it really does come in handy when the park is expecting your visit. Usually, they also want to know what sites you plan on visiting rather than, say, “I’d really like a permit to visit any state park in FL for the next year.” For national parks, it’s a little more complicated. In my case, I submitted an application for the entire region 8 which covers any site I might want to visit in the southeast. As of today, I have permits to sample (at some point this year) at select state parks in:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Louisiana
  • Tennessee
  • Texas

The permit for the National Forest Service, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Virginia are still pending. Applications to Delaware, South Carolina, and Maryland will be submitted by the end of this month.

Sampling trip #2 (a.k.a., two pining boys)

With sampling permits in hand for Arkanasa, Texas, and Louisiana, Brandon and I set out after his last final was done. An epic drive later, through torrential rain in Tennessee, had us sleeping on the ground in AR, on ice, in tents. See, it was my original plan to sample further south in the winter, foolishly thinking that it might just be a little warmer. So, so wrong. We woke up to this nice young man and his dog (who can play dead better than a possum) and set off to get some sampling done after downing a few pots of french press, locally-roasted Richmond coffee, and frosted Pop-Tarts. Remember how much I rough it? We were in loblolly country, and got our first population of the trip done in relatively short order (about 5 hours) at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. The staff there was super friendly, and very interested in what I was out there doing. It was great to talk about the project to some enthusiastic young people! The plan for this trip was basically the same as the trip which shall not be named - drive, sample, drive. The next stop was Lake Ouachita State Park, and boy was it cold (like single digits, cold!). A good campfire, some dinner, a little Woodford, and day two was done. Sampling at the state park was a bust, but an employee pointed us to the Ouachita National Forest, which was just overflowing with nice stands of loblolly. With sampling done there, and a quick afternoon coffee break out of the back of the car (French press + Camelback water + coffee + propane stove), we were on our way into Texas.

We got into Atlanta State Park, or as it shall now be known, the “Park of the 1000 Howling Coyotes.” We rocked a huge fire that night, some burgers, I attempted in vain to order Christmas presents from my tent on a single bar of Edge over Tether. No longer in the throngs of Arkansas winter, Texas was shaping up to be not too shabby, despite the inability to buy beer, after 6:00pm, on a Sunday. Sampling here was a non-issue, and we were soon headed south about 240 miles to Village Creek State Park.

Due in part to a late start, we decided late in the day to stay another night and get the first longleaf population in addition to the loblolly we sampled the first day. The trail system at the park was really nice, and we only got off trail once on the second day, and we had a good laugh about two PhDs being found dead in the woods with fully charged iPhones and 4 bars of LTE. Down a trail about 2 miles, we found an area that was being reforested, with natural stands of longleaf. Thinking we were golden, we sampled 12 in addition to the 25 loblollys on the first day, planned to get the second half the next day before heading into Louisiana. Well, you know the saying about paving and best intentions? Because I’m being careful to control for kinship, I’m sampling only from trees more than 50m apart, and when you consider 25 trees in a population, that gets to be a pretty big area (there’s a good math problem there, methinks). So, on day two, we only ended up with a total of 17 longleafs. Not a huge deal, but boo anyway.

With many beers in tow after the worlds longest fill-up before leaving TX, we got to Sam Houston Jones State Park. As with the other places, they were expecting me, and could not have been nicer. The park sits right on top of an old longleaf savannah, and sampling here was a great way to end our trip. We had lunch at Botsky’s and dinner the first night at the Seafood Palace, both of which were awesome. The weather for sampling the next day could not have been better - sunny and warm! Finally, we had the weather I thought we’d have for the entire trip. Out of time, we needed to get back to Richmond by Friday evening. We left Sam Houston Jones, had boudin/cracklin’ dinner at Best Stop in Scott, LA (thanks to the guy at Botsky’s for the tip!), set up camp at some place in Mississippi about 1/3 of the way home, and drove the remainder on Friday. This trip yielded some new insights as well:

  1. Going into the field with someone else is much more fun and enjoyable than going alone.
  2. Brandon is a pro with the Big Shot.
  3. I will never be as good as Brandon with the Big Shot.
  4. Cold Bourbon is just not all that good.
  5. We could really only get down to 10 min/tree. Meaning 2 populations/day is damn near impossible with the winter daylight.
  6. I need a team of people.

So, we were able to sample six populations in six days for a total of 142 trees. Add that to my previous from the trip that shall not be named, and that brings the total to 167 (out of 2000…)

Wow - longness. If you made it this far, you deserve a “Happy New Year!” Here’s to a much more productive 2014!

Note: This is not all that we did in 2013, but look for those papers soon to be out in journals near you, this spring.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone at the state parks and departments who were so helpful.

—Chris