It’s best to bring an ice axe when counting butterflies in North Cascades National Park. Located on the Canadian border in the US state of Washington, the park is renowned for its jagged peaks, limited trails and annual snow pack.
“Before my census crew could learn to identify over 40 butterfly species,” John McLaughlin recalled, “they had to know how to safely traverse snowbound, steep passes and – if necessary – to self-arrest using an ice axe.”
A wildlife biologist at Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, McLaughlin has endured the inherent rigors of surveying the park’s invertebrates and mammals for more than two decades. Like most highly accomplished biologists, his passion for his subject began early. He created his first insect spreading board when he was in elementary school. In high school, he collected so many insect orders that his biology teacher, having assumed he’d purchased most of them, lowered his project grade.
Thankfully, things have changed since then, and he is credited with completing a landmark study of the North Cascade’s butterfly population that demonstrates the remote, rugged environments within the park – the very sort of prohibitive characteristics he cherishes.
“North Cascades is one of the few places left on Earth that truly possesses wildness; it still contains the full complement of species that were here before human contact,” explained McLaughlin, who first visited the park to teach backcountry wildlife courses in the early ‘90s. “It’s inspiring on both an emotional and, probably not the best thing to say as a scientist, a spiritual level. But it’s also very challenging intellectually because the ruggedness – the unknown nature of much of it – creates a mystery and challenge for a scientist to try and figure out what’s going on there.”
To this end, the Stanford University educated biologist – who studied under legendary ecologist and fellow lepidopterist Paul Ehrlich – had originally hoped to inventory the entire 684,303-acre park for butterfly habitats, including 236,000 acres of old growth forest that contain as much biomass per square mile as anywhere on Earth. However, because several of the study sites required two days of arduous hiking there and back, the late season snowpack forced him to select more “convenient” locations that could be reached in just one day. The study’s timeframe, one short summer season, intensified the pressure.
Every time I go back, I get a better glimpse into what it means to think like a mountain.
According to McLaughlin, even the single day treks were strewn with obstacles. “We were working off a contractor’s [satellite] data layer. One habitat map showed a butterfly habitat in the middle of Whatcom Glacier. I was suspicious, so I climbed [7,574ft] Whatcom Peak to look down onto the glacier. There was obviously no butterfly habitat at all. Our first challenge became locating suitable habitats in the vast park.”
After McLaughlin confirmed an authentic habitat, the first expedition – armed with ice axes and butterfly nets – set off for the 12-mile hike through the Sawtooth Wilderness along the ridges above Stehekin, an isolated village at the west terminus of Lake Chelan.
“We were sampling along the trail under clear blue skies when suddenly we heard a very loud boom… On the way back we saw the trail had been consumed by fire caused by a forest service crew that had dynamited the area to clear ‘blowdown’, accidentally igniting the forest fire in the process. It was an interesting introduction [to field study] for my crew who had to get around [the fire] on a fairly steep slope.”
McLaughlin’s four-person crew would face plenty of other challenges before the season finished. Unlike the wildflower meadows located 170-miles south on Mount Rainier, the North Cascades subalpine ecosystem contains primarily granitic rock, which meant a lot more scrambling upon exposed sections. This was especially problematic when bad weather struck.
“We were hiking once to sample the area on Crater Mountain above Ross Lake,” laughed McLaughlin. “The thunderheads on Crater Mountain were building in the distance but we needed to get three visits in that summer so kept climbing. The clouds rolled in quicker than we anticipated, and suddenly, we’re sprinting down the mountain getting pelted by cherry-sized hail. We finally ducked under some trees. We also had a time of it camping in sideways rain on Copper Ridge.”
Like most Pacific Northwest field biologists, equal parts academic and mountain man, McLaughlin wouldn’t skip any of these adventures. He continues to explore the North Cascades National Park backcountry at every opportunity.
“There’s a wild heart in the North Cascades that is alluring me and is far beyond my experience and comprehension,” he mused. “Every time I go back, I get a better glimpse into what it means to think like a mountain.”
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