Horse-packing trip 2: Lost horses, insects, blooming flowers, and night rides

Note: do to time and technology I apologize for the lack of editing and proofreading. Many Mongolian words and names are currently misspelled. Photos to be added soon.

Our new ranger partner we were ready to meet at 10am. Shortly after we get word that he’s looking for his horses. By 3pm we are about to leave and hear that the research specialist, Dawaseren, is joining us to learn my methods. An hour later we are finally off by machine to meet the horses. We have four horses for four people and no packhorse so he gets creative. At one point the saddlebags fell off a horse, mine spooked, and I flew off landing on the ground on my massive daypack I was carrying. I think I’m a bit too tall for all of this. A few hours of chafe-inducing riding later we set up basecamp at the foothills of some incredible mountains in a valley. This region has quiet lakes, salix shrubs, and meadows of wildflowers loaded with butterflies and swarms of misquitoes and flies. We move camp a few times and conduct five surveys. One day it poured till our datasheets soaked and stuck together and we retreated with potentially mild hypothermia. Hours later it cleared and we finished the transect around 10pm. The bugs ate us alive. We found two or more species of rare butterflies and some rare flowers. Dawaseren helped us identify flowers and we taught both of them how to use our instruments and assess percent cover, soil depth, aspect, slope etc. Vansemberuu grew like a weed here and the adult plants were just beginning to open and flower. Transects took all day, again, because there were so many plants to count.

On the third day we awoke to two missing horses and no ranger. At 9pm he rode back with nothing but his deel (traditional field robe) as a saddle. No food all day, he was beat and the other horse was still missing. He was incredibly worried but insisted we do another day of data collection.

Meals consisted of rice, buckwheat, bortz (dried goat meat), wild onions, wild lily bulbs, potatoes and carrots, dehydrated broccoli and sweet potatoes, and wild rhubarb compote for breakfast. Can’t complain about the food.

The final day we spotted a few ibex in a river drainage. Around 6pm we were riding back in a rainstorm (in which I didn’t bring any rain gear) and he decided we’d pack up camp and start back that night. By 9pm we finally mounted the horses and made our way back out of the valley as the sun set. We had three horses and four people, all of our belongings, and an extra saddle. After extensive finagling he figured out how to attach all the bags and rode double behind Dawaseren on his rain poncho as a saddle. We set up camp around 11pm that night when the horses couldn’t see to walk. Despite glitches with the InReach satellite phone, our ride met us the next afternoon and everyone cracked up about the whole ordeal. Surprisingly, a few days later, the horse was still not found, even though they usually always return home.

I’ve been thinking…..given I have 12 hours a day of counting plants and not much else to do but freeze or burn….about three reoccurring themes . Home. Sharing experiences with people. And who and what we learn from.

I’d like to say I’m an ecologist, or aspiring one, and ecology is the study of home. Thus my research is looking at what makes home for this stationary organism, a vascular plant that when it’s seed landed in a crook of the humus, it germinated and got what it got. What makes home for this flower on a micro and macro level. Sun exposure, moisture, slope, plant communities, are people or livestock around, what’s in the soil, how deep is the soil? I’ve also been sitting with more homesickness than I’ve felt in the past four years of college. Maybe this is a result of being a transient being, moving from place to place, making comforts out of a sleeping bag, backpack, and car. This is a question I’m sure everyone’s grappled with again and again. Is home a house, where you were raised, where you build a family, a beautiful place, a community with friends? Maybe for me home is structured around memories, natural spaces and natural history, and human community. And here I am, grappling with an uncomfortable but fascinating sense of self-uprooting, particularly as I enter a time of many transitions in my hometown and college town. Here’s a sappy metaphor of my life and a plant, a population so reliant on wind and weather, rocks, high elevation, the finesse of climate, and humans.

As to community and sharing with people, a dear friend shared her favorite quote with me at the end of this spring as we parted ways; we were talking about the difference between partnerships, solo travel, personal time, and introverted/extrovertedness. Happiness is only found when shared. It has been interesting to come back and fall in love with this place and be with my Mongolian friends, but I also am grappling with a feeling of dissonance because of language and culture. No matter how much depth there is to my time here with the people I care for so dearly, I’ll leave in a month and be basically alone with my experiences in the US. Even if I keep in touch with Mongolians via Facebook, there will be a major disconnect. Connection and disconnection, it’s a tricky duality.

Learning. The foundation of my research is local knowledge. When looking for a rare species the literature says you have to zoom in on the ideal habitat and thus the ranger’s knowledge is invaluable. They’ve learned from experience as well as each other. And they’ve learned from the mountains. I love asking about the weather and they look up, watch the clouds, and suggest what will happen based on the speed, texture, direction, color and previous patterns of the clouds. The lessons are in stories too, morals about harvest and hunting that always turn back to the sky or mountains. I’m finding myself more and more making decisions based on the landscape and what it is telling me. This understanding with the mountains that the rangers seem to have, I don’t want to romanticize, but is interesting mixed with the hard logic and plan of scientific research. Sometimes they are at odds but occasionally they mingle beautifully.