By Iris Puffenberger
On a summer day in August of 2003, I was asked if I wanted to venture out into the field to assist with the Allegheny woodrat survey on Dan's Mountain in Allegany County. Being the adventurous sort locked in the body of an Administrative Specialist, and willing to do most anything to get a day out of the office, I didn't hesitate to say yes! I even agreed when I was told we'd have to meet at the wee morning hour of 6 a.m. After all, adventuresome types rarely sleep-in.
The evening before our trek, I inventoried all the necessary "field" items: new hiking boots, a gallon of bug repellant, rain parka, sunscreen, water bottle, snacks and various other staples of survival, all secured and strapped to my daypack. Prepared for anything this side of Everest, I then went in search of the obligatory 'walking stick.' My family suggested I carry Grandma's cane; I opted instead for an old but sturdy broom handle.
In the dark of early morning the alarm sounds and I spring out of bed, knowing I need to be on the road by 5:30 in order to meet at our rendezvous spot by 6 a.m. I load my pack adding Chapstick(c), tissues and a breakfast bar, as well as extra bug repellant and another bottle of water, just in case. Concerned that I didn't allow enough time to get to my destination, I break the speed limit and run a few lights arriving just in time.
I meet up with Jim Mullan, Western Region Wildlife Manager, and Dan Feller, our survey guide and a biologist with the Maryland Wildlife and Heritage Program. Dan has set several Hav-a-hart(c) traps hoping to capture the elusive Allegheny woodrat, a state-listed endangered species. Dan explains this two-day effort is part of an annual population estimation and monitoring survey designed to keep tabs on the isolated creature.
Off We Go!
Lying in a bit of a heap I begin to wonder if this was a big - no, huge! -mistake. I'm much too old for this, I can't keep up with Dan, my knees are throbbing and I think I've sprained my wrist! At what point, I wonder, does the fun begin? As I dust myself off and try to regain my composure, the guys inform me that in terrain like this I should always maintain three good holds to avoid falling. Shouldn't they have mentioned this before I fell? Now with one bum wrist I only have three available contact points as it is!
Dan, however, is in his element, skipping and gliding from rock to rock, stopping occasionally to check on our status and to wait for me. There was a lot of fog and I really couldn't get a feeling for the view - or the heights - so I was thankful. Soon enough the fog clears and I realize we are clinging precariously to the rock face. I hold on for dear life and try to listen as Dan points out various types of vegetation, most of which are invasive exotic species that threaten the native plant life in fragile ecosystems such as this. He also warns us to watch out for another invasive - broken glass, a result of 'The Rock's' popularity as a party spot. Judging by that and the spray-painted graffiti, it's clear that more than one variety of "rat" frequents the area.
Pushing the Limits
At this point I'm concentrating on where I put each step, hanging and leaning heavily on the broom handle, hoping it will not break! The next thing I know Dan's scrambling to the top, calling over his shoulder that we'll now have to do a little climbing. Much to everyone's amazement (mine included) I make it to the top with little trouble. Then Dan launches himself off the rocks and onto the lookout platform for a fantastic view of the valley below. I'm left wondering how I'm ever going to get to that point with the huge slabs of foreboding rock formations in front of me. I quickly decide that I really don't need to get to the platform and instead sit down and slide to a safe place for a graceful exit of the rocks.
Looking across the jumbled rock outcropping and the broad valley beyond, I'm surprised at what I've just done. I've just crawled and clambered my way to the top of one of the highest points in the state. I'm filled with a feeling of great accomplishment and decide that maybe it wasn't as bad as it seemed after all. Welling with pride, I cruise down to our vehicle on the smooth, flattened pathway constructed for tentative tourists and others that aren't as quick, nimble or adventuresome as I am.
Wait... There's More?
On firm ground again, we make our way to the trapping site. I'm told to look for the orange marking tape that indicates the trap site and soon spy it at the top of a shale pile where a huge spire of rocks juts into the sky. Dan scrambles up the mound, rocks falling and clattering everywhere sounding like so many dishes breaking. That's when I announce that if the traps are up at the tape, I'll be happy to stay on firm ground and watch! Dan assures me that it would be just fine to monitor the site from below.
Success in Hand
We head out for the last location and I'm getting pretty confident, thinking this shouldn't be too bad. Looking up the hill, I think to myself that it looks pretty steep but luckily there are no rocks to climb over. We haven't gone far however before I'm wishing there were some rocks to hold on to since the unstable ground is crumbling beneath our feet! We're about three-quarters of the way up and there are no handholds anywhere. Suddenly, I feel the earth falling away and I grab for the only thing in sight, a slightly rotten tree stump. Next thing I know, I'm sliding out of control and my handhold, the stump, is out of the ground, tumbling erratically toward Jim.
As quickly as it started the small-scale landslide ends and I peer through the dust to see if Jim is okay. He's fine though he's muttering something about me having schemed with his wife to get rid of him and I quickly rebut, accusing Jim of being in cahoots with my husband for the insurance payoff! We check the remaining traps then carefully work our way out of the rocks and back to our vehicles to shake hands and part ways.
An Exhilarating Experience
I wish I could remember all of the fascinating things that Dan told us bout the elusive Allegheny woodrat - like the way they fold grape leaves to collect moisture for their water supply, how they do not hibernate but stay active all winter, that they steal from each other, and how they are very territorial. I was too busy concentrating on my next step and my next handhold to grasp much more.
I have always been a huge advocate of cross training, especially when it involves getting out of the office. I think the change of pace is important and I also think it is valuable for office staff to see how operations take place in the field. Though this trip was much more intense than I ever dreamed, I'm so thankful to have had the experience. When you undertake an activity outside of your "comfort zone" you're bound to learn something new. And like me, you may even learn something about yourself.
Iris Puffenberger, the Assistant to the Associate Director of Regional Operations for DNR's Wildlife & Heritage Service, began her career with the Department of Game & Inland Fisheries almost 33 years ago. She and Alan, her husband of 28+ years, live in Cumberland and have 3 children - Matt, Tara and Cliff. Dan Feller provided the photos for this article.
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