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  • Cold comfort

    Twenty-something fox researchers winter camp in Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains
  • BEARTOOTH LAKE — There are adjustments you must make to spend the winter in a snowbound travel trailer parked at 9,000 feet elevation in Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains.
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  • BEARTOOTH LAKE — There are adjustments you must make to spend the winter in a snowbound travel trailer parked at 9,000 feet elevation in Wyoming's Beartooth Mountains.
    Eggs are best transported frozen, so they don't break, when traveling the nine miles and 2,000 feet elevation gain by snowmobile. You just peel them like a hardboiled egg and fry them up for breakfast.
    No running water means throwing a bucket tied to a rope into the unfrozen opening of the nearby lake's iced-over surface and hauling canisters back. The water has to be boiled to kill any germs, but it's still easier than melting snow.
    Shoveling snow off the trailer's roof and to clear the maze of pathways is almost a daily task. By the end of the winter, expect to have spent at least one full day of accumulated time just shoveling.
    And to ensure that your coffee, tea or cocoa doesn't go instantly cold, preheat the mug next to the propane gas heater's hissing and glowing orange burner.
    Despite such unusual tasks, Patrick Cross and Jake Kay feel pretty lucky to have such a sweet setup.
    "It's nice having this cozy spot to hang in," said Kay, a 27-year-old research assistant who grew up in the San Francisco area and most recently did cougar research in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "It does take a different mindset, though, to get used to it."
    This winter, Kay and Cross, 29, are living mostly in a 30-foot 2011 Nash Northwood trailer parked in a deserted campground at Beartooth Lake. They are there to conduct research on red foxes in the Beartooth Mountains.
    The trailer was purchased by their employer, the Bozeman-based Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, with a grant from the National Science Foundation. The trailer provides a mobile and remote laboratory, office, bunkroom and kitchen for the men while they work.
    The idea of being in such a remote area during the winter — with the only access by skis, snowshoes or snowmobiles — prompts people to ask Cross what the heck he does during his down time at the trailer.
    "We're out working all day," he said. "We get back and cook, clean, have a hot beverage and sit back and read. I hit the hay at 9. I'm tired enough at the end of the day that entertainment isn't necessarily an issue."
    With permission from the Shoshone National Forest, Cross towed the trailer up to the campground in October and parked it. He made a trip up in September to shovel out around the structure before his study began full time. Last year he found two trees lying atop the roof, blown over by a windstorm. Luckily, the damage to the trailer was minimal.
    Two car batteries allow the use of the trailer's lights at night, one of the most important features to Cross.
    "When you're out there working in the cold and you have a nice, dry space to come back to, there's something about having the electric lights," he said. "That's huge. And listening to (National Public Radio), hearing other human voices and having contact with the outside world helps."
    Even residents of the nearby Montana town of Cooke City can't get a radio signal without a satellite service. The surrounding mountains block all AM and FM stations.
    To recharge the trailer's batteries, as well as other battery-powered devices like a hand drill or telemetry gear, a gas-powered electric generator is fired up almost every day — another one of the site's unique tasks. The generator's ignition is sometimes timed to coincide with the use of the trailer's microwave oven, a small but appreciated luxury in the comfortable but chilly trailer.
    The coldest temperature Cross and Kay recorded this winter was 40 degrees below zero.
    "Being out in nasty weather is part of the adventure of being in the Beartooths in the winter," Cross said. No big deal.
    But it's nice to get out of the biting wind, cold and snow at the end of a day outdoors.
    They can't use the trailer's built-in heating system, because it requires electricity to operate the fans to move the heat. Instead, sitting in the middle of the floor is a white propane bottle with a heater mounted on top. At night, the heater is turned off to avoid buildup of deadly carbon monoxide gas that the device emits.
    There's no cellphone service and the satellite phone is so expensive that it is for emergency use only. But the pair always travels with their avalanche beacons turned on, because they are often working in avalanche terrain. Recently, a slide roared across Highway 212 — the access to the campsite which is closed to all but oversnow vehicles in winter. The slide occurred in a section of the roadway carved into the side of a steep, rocky cliff. As Cross noted, that made for an interesting morning commute. They take turns speeding through the winding, steep avalanche site in case one has to conduct a search for the other.
    They also have a SPOT satellite emergency beacon that can be turned on to send out a call for help in an emergency. Just another day at the office.
    A snowmobile trail groomer also checks on them when he drives past twice a week.
    "That takes a lot of worry off your mind," Cross said.
    One time the groomer saw their unattended snowmobiles parked near Island Lake, at about 9,500 feet, and waited to ensure they were OK.
    "He expressed to us in colorful terms that that was a bad place to be if a blizzard blew in," Cross said.
    Given all of the chores and duties necessary to exist at their high-elevation camp, Cross said it's sometimes "amazing we collect any data at all."
    Despite the many hardships involved with the work, when Cross advertised for a person to assist him this winter, he received more than 100 applications.
    "The real kicker with this job was the winter," he said, which many of the applicants failed to note. "You have to have the gear.
    "I was really specific that you had to have split board or Randonee gear," he continued. "Jake has a level one avalanche certification. Being able to do the job in the winter was as much of a qualification as the science and biology background."
    Finding winter work in wildlife research is difficult. The jobs are few, so when Kay applied he didn't give much thought to being in such an isolated area for weeks on end.
    "It's a sweet job, whatever," he said. "You don't really think about how you're going to be with just one other person in close quarters."
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