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Cathy Free: Duo collect sounds of Western wild spaces

Published: Thursday, Jan. 7 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

You have your New Year's resolutions, and Jeff Rice has his. In 2010, he's determined to find the elusive southern mountain yellow-legged frog in the California Sierras.

Once he's found the preferred cold creek habitat of the endangered amphibian, Rice will unpack his recording equipment, position his microphone and wait patiently — for hours, or even days — to capture the frog's unique songs for his archive.

Years from now, if the frog is extinct (they're already absent from 95 percent of their preferred environment), anyone curious about what it sounded like will merely have to make a few computer clicks to call up the croaking.

They'll also have access to nearly 2,000 other natural sounds, thanks to the efforts of Rice and a few others who are making recordings for the Western Soundscape Archive — the only audio archive devoted to the disappearing sounds of the West.

Funded through a federal grant given to the University of Utah's J. Willard Marriott Library, the project has collected recordings of everything from elephant seals and waterfalls to the desolate silence of the West's rapidly vanishing wild spaces.

"Even in the most remote places, like the Arctic Circle, you'll find noise today," says Kenning Arlitsch, the digital librarian who hired Rice to collect sounds for the archive. "With the wilderness shrinking, it's now more important than ever to collect as many sounds as we can. Because the day might come when they won't be there."

Eager to talk about their project and illustrate the urgency of protecting the West's untamed sanctuaries, Arlitsch and Rice met me for a Free Lunch of chicken kabobs, stuffed grape leaves and lemon-rice soup at Aristo's Greek Cafe near the U.

Rice, who lives in Seattle but grew up in Salt Lake City and makes frequent trips here to drop off new recordings, was preparing for his frog expedition, also hoping to collect a few new mammal sounds.

"There are a lot of happy accidents — once I left the recorder somewhere and a mountain goat came past and gave me some great stuff," he says.

On another occasion, Rice was sleeping under the stars and saw a pair of eyes glowing near his camp. It turned out to be a black bear, rambling a little too close for comfort.

"I've spent a lot of nights in my rental car," says Rice with a smile, digging into his grape leaves. "If there's one lesson I've learned, it's to always get the upgrade."

Ever since they opened their windows at night as children to hear singing crickets, Rice and Arlitsch have been fascinated by the sounds of the natural world. Arlitsch grew up exploring the seascape of Long Island, N.Y., while Rice hiked the foothills on Salt Lake City's east bench.

Both are concerned that development and modern technology are increasingly taking a toll on the West's remote canyons and deserts.

"The soundscape is changing just as much as the visual landscape," says Arlitsch, who has accompanied Rice on a few of his trips and is most impressed with Gravel Canyon near Natural Bridges National Monument in southeastern Utah.

"It's so remote — few people go there because it requires a long drive on a dirt road and a long hike in," he says. "But the sound of true silence is very rewarding."

In wilderness areas with more traffic, such as Yellowstone Park, Rice will get up at 4 in the morning to capture what the place must have sounded like in a time before snowmobiles, mobile homes, motorcycles and boom boxes.

"There are a lot of times when I'm sitting out there in pouring rain, mud and wind, thinking, 'This is my life?' " he says. "But the end result is so worth it. We have the sounds of hummingbirds, rustling leaves, ocean waves, even Gila monsters in our archives now."

Now if only he could track down that obscure southern mountain yellow-legged frog.

The sounds of the West can be accessed at westernsoundscape.org.

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com

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