Seven-hundred-foot sand dunes, rattlesnakes, and lizards that expand upon contact are just a few of the incredible things Castleton University students can expect to see during the Natural Science Department’s biennial trip to study the Mojave Desert.
The May trip marks Castleton’s seventh expedition to the Mojave, the driest desert in North America. Professor Brad Coupe, a rattlesnake biologist and herpetologist at Castleton for the last 15 years, stressed that potential applicants should not hold onto their preconceived notions of a desert ecosystem, however.
“A lot of students think that the desert is a dry desolate place where nothing happens. Nothing can be further from the truth,” he said.
Coupe, who has accompanied students on this trip since its maiden voyage in the spring of 2006, wants students to realize how incredible an opportunity this really is.
Almost every student who has gone on the trip in the past had never been to a desert, according to Coupe. So it is understandable their notions of desert life might be misguided.
The truth is, however, that the diversity of plants in the Mojave Desert is more than that of the plants in our Vermont forests, he said.
And gaining knowledge about the desert is obviously better obtained in the actual Mojave, where students can observe the diversity of “one of the last ecosystems that is almost fully intact,” Coupe said.
“No matter how much biology you learn in a classroom, you’ll never learn the kinds of things you do being in the field, in any field,” he said.
Christine Palmer, a fifth-year biology professor who has also accompanied students on the last two trips, also touted benefits of field work.
“There’s an amazing world out there,” Palmer said, her eyes wide with excitement. “The most surprising thing to students is how much there really is in the desert.”
While it may seem luxurious taking a trip to the Golden State, students will be doing field work in a desert environment, braving the various conditions both day and night.
“It’s hot, sweaty, and you’re not gonna shower,” Coupe said. “You’re not going to shower for the WHOLE trip,” adds Palmer.
Obviously this type of environment is not for every student, however the trip is “always filled, and always run” because those who go are all interested in being exposed to this sort of ecosystem, according to Coupe.
But that doesn’t mean it is easy to adapt to. Palmer, who has had “a lot of backcountry experience,” still wasn’t entirely sure what to do on her first trip.
The students were even more baffled by such a radical lifestyle change. They asked Palmer questions like “How do you go to the bathroom without a toilet,” she said.
Though they may have felt like aliens at first in such a foreign environment, “People come out way more awesome than they were going in” after adapting to the conditions, Palmer said.
“The goal is to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Coupe added, saying a lot of students are able to fully adapt to this mindset by the end of their stay.
The living situation is another challenge for a lot of students during their stay in the Mojave.
“We’re certainly not staying in hotels,” he said, adding that the group stays at a University of California reserve field station called the “Norris Camp,” named for the late Ken Norris, a former biologist and professor at UCSC.
Eric Andre, who has managed this field station along with two others through the Granite Desert Mountain Research Center for the last 25 years, contributes largely to making the trip possible to not only Castleton students but many other students as well.
“Students and researchers come from all over who have various experiences,” Andre said, adding that they’ve come from as far away as Japan, Germany and Spain.
Coupe, who did dissertation work at the field center, is eternally grateful for Andre and other biologists who manage these field sites.
“We do provide basic accommodations,” says Andre, but he stressed the goal is not offering too much because the students are meant to utilize their time doing fieldwork.
Students also have the opportunity to contribute their data to a scholarly piece on a plant called acacia greggii, a parasitic mistletoe, and not the Christmassy kind one would think of.
“It’s very Romantic,” Palmer said sarcastically. “It’s a parasite that grows on plants and eats them.”
According to Coupe, the piece will mostly likely be published in the next few trips, as students continue to contribute.
For Andre, the 9,000 acres allotted to the field station not only educates students on the Mojave’s incredible ecosystem, but also gives them a much needed release from society into nature. He describes this with the term “Living on mountain time,” coined by Ken Norris.
Entering nature there are no rules, just time to allow yourself to be free and to serve freely, he said.
Students will also have plenty of space to do so, as the nearest small town is about 80 miles, according to Andre.
Students will also have free time to explore and see all of the incredible diversity the Mojave has to offer, such as 700-foot sand dunes waiting to be summited, the professors said.
“I particularly love the plants, they are baller,” Palmer said. “There are Flowers that would win any sweetheart but also plants that could poke your eye out.”
While Coupe “all but guarantees you’ll see a rattlesnake,” Palmer is certified as a Wilderness first responder, and said students should know they are in good hands for the duration of the trip.
If you are an aspiring biologist or any kind of scientist, Andre said you should certainly visit the Mojave.
“I arrived and for the first five years I thought I was an expert in desert botany, that’s what people told me. In the last 20 years, with every year that goes by I realize how little I know,” he said. “That’s the excitement though.”
There is an application process for the program, but according to Palmer it is simple. The trip is restricted to science and MDS majors, who can just register for it as they do with classes, email Palmer or Coupe, and fill out an application form. There is a $1,200 lab fee, however this covers everything on the trip except for souvenirs.
“If there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s to say yes to every opportunity. Even if you have to take that awkward step and say hey, do you need someone to come along and take notes or something,” Palmer said.