It is an unseasonably warm, overcast day in December and I am wading through a river as pockets of mist seep upwards from the water’s surface into the still, humid, gray air. All of the leaves have dropped now and a brown-carpeted forest stretches across the bank in front of me for as far as I can see in either direction. As I carefully navigate the river, I adjust the backpack I am carrying, which is full of camera equipment designed to catch glimpses into the secret lives of wildlife. I am in search of the trees that will serve as woody anchors for these cameras for the next several years. To my left, I can just make out a westward bend in the river, where, over countless thousands of years, the slow, steady scrape of water against earth has carved out a sheer bank of shale that now rises 100 feet above the watercourse. I have a Go-Pro camera on my head and a grin on my face; this is a welcome break from my fall-semester Ph.D. coursework at Michigan State University. Oh, and the most unusual thing about the whole scene – I am in the middle of a major U.S. metropolis.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to find this kind of wild beauty in Cleveland, Ohio. I had heard glowing reports from fellow outdoor-enthusiasts about the natural glory of the Cleveland Metroparks system, but my mental image of the city made it hard to believe the accounts: I pictured an industrial conurbation characterized by ranch-style homes and neighborhood sidewalks heaving above the roots of 100-year old trees and parking lots worn by years of weather and smoke-stacks and cars and highways and…well, most everything except natural splendor. It’s not that my expectation was totally off the mark; if you take a ride around the city you will feel the distinct pulse of Midwestern, blue-collar industriousness. But the pleasant surprise is that this overall flavor is consistently punctuated – at times, veritably dominated – by the rolling hills, sprawling grasslands, steep riverbanks, and tree-lined recreation paths that comprise the 23,000 acre Cleveland Metroparks system. The present setting reshaping my preconceptions of the city is the Rocky River Reservation, a 2,500 acre park that snakes along its namesake waterway from the southern suburbs of Middleburg Heights all the way north to the lapping shore of Lake Erie. As I reach the river bank with my colleague, Cleveland Metroparks Natural Resource Area Manager John Krock, I think to myself: this place is a gem. And a gem indeed it is, as the colloquial name for the Metroparks is the “Emerald Necklace”, christened so because the 18 reservations encircle the Cleveland area like chain of nature-green jewels.
John and I clamber up the bank in our waist-high waders and consult an indispensable modern field instrument: the iPad. You see, we will not affix our wildlife camera to just any tree. We are looking for one that is marked by particular coordinates. Presently, as John and I consult the interactive digital map, those coordinates are represented by a green dot in a sea of forest-dominated satellite imagery. But there is much more to the site than the symbol on the iPad conveys. After a 10 minute, leaf-crunching hike, we reach the green dot on our map and look up to find a permanent vegetation survey plot that Metroparks Plant Ecologists Connie Hausman and Sarah Eysenbach are using to document the dizzying biodiversity of plantlife in the Metroparks. Being careful not to disturb the plot, John and I find a suitable tree host for our camera. We calibrate some settings, take some notes, secure the camera, and when these tasks are complete we take up the trusty iPad and orienteer over hill and dale and river and road to the next green dot to set up another camera. Today, John and I will complete this routine a dozen times, as will several other teams of collaborators, including Metroparks Wildlife Ecologist Jon Cepek, Manager of Field Research Patrick Lorch, and fellow graduate students Kyle Redilla and Tutilo Mudumba. In sum, we hope to set up more than 400 such sites over the next year. Our efforts are a part of an exciting research initiative recently spearheaded by our RECaP laboratory at Michigan State University and the Cleveland Metroparks. The RECaP lab conducts Research on the Ecology of Carnivores and their Prey and our work in the Metroparks will comprise the focus of my Ph.D. research. Our research team is rounded out by three folks that bring an impressive diversity of knowledge, experience, and leadership to our burgeoning project: veterinary epidemiologist Pam Dennis of the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo and The Ohio State University, Jeremy Bruskotter, an associate professor of human-wildlife interactions at The Ohio State University, and Terry Robison, the Director of Natural Resources for the entire Metroparks system. By combining wildlife cameras with detailed vegetation data, we aim to provide a comprehensive assessment of the wildlife community and its habitat throughout the Metroparks system, with a particular focus on urban carnivores such as coyotes and foxes. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of such a wonderful collaboration, and the expertise, creativity, and skillset present in our team of researchers is truly humbling.
After three ten-hour days in the field, our research team has successfully put out just under a quarter of the total cameras that will eventually be in this system. The last camera that John and I establish is in Huntington Reservation, a 103 acre park. Huntington is one of the smallest reservations in the Metroparks, but it boasts access to the largest natural resource in the area: Lake Erie. John and I lean against the railing overlooking the beach and survey the view. In the distance, the downtown Cleveland skyline serves as reminder that we are, in fact, still within the limits of the 29th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. My mind wanders as I gaze over the gently undulating waves and I am reminded of a similar scene I took in many times growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was always a city kid and didn’t spend a lot of time participating in traditional outdoor hobbies such as hunting or fishing. Rather, my passion for nature was developed as I trained for cross country and track in city parks not unlike the reservations that John and I toured this week. My favorite running trail in Tulsa traversed the rolling woodlands of Turkey Mountain and I can vividly recall stopping during every run I took there at an opening in the trees that provided a spectacular view of the Tulsa skyline beyond the Arkansas River. A chilly breeze interrupts my musing and I snap back to the cityscape of Cleveland. My mind turns to the kinship that I have, unbeknownst to me before this trip, with Clevelanders. Like those fantastic citizens of Cleveland, I am urban, hard-working, and use city parks to escape from city life, if just for a few hours each week, to immerse myself in someplace wild. The work that we have completed this week has only fueled my excitement to achieve the ultimate goal of our research initiative in the Metroparks, namely, to maintain and promote a sustainable ecosystem full of urban wildlife, the places they inhabit, and the humans who happen to dwell among and be inspired by them.