Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dreaming of Donuts

Using the grocery list written on day 6 and 7 of a back country work trip was not one of my brighter ideas. I guess the theory was that if I wanted this food in the backcountry on one trip, then I would probably enjoy it on my next trip, too. Rationalizing aside, I was a little embarrassed when I got to the check out. Pop-tarts? Hostess donuts? Those pink and white animal circus cookies? The list goes on. I think my inner eight-year-old ran this shopping trip.

Now I am back at my cabin, where that unopened box of donuts still sits on the counter taunting me. I think I will stash it in a bear box at the trailhead as a treat for the end of my next trip. It’s amazing how fast the summer goes by. Today is my last day off, tomorrow I head out in the field for a week, and by next Tuesday I will be back in sunny (warm) southern California. It was sunny and warm up here but that was yesterday and the alpine summer is short.

My season started in June. Even at eight thousand feet the snow clung to road sides and blanketed the shady forest floor. Summer had the lower elevations in its grasp, but in the high country spring was still struggling to take hold. In June we worked at seven and eight thousand feet, watching snow melt and green grow. In July summer moved higher, and so did we to nine, ten and eleven thousand feet. Each step higher is like setting the clock back just a little, holding back the warmth of summer just a little longer. I had 6 months of spring this year, moving higher to greet the newly emerged wildflowers and mosquito hordes. By the beginning of August summer, or what passes for summer, had reached even our highest meadows. Now it is the end of August. In the back country I wake up with frost on my sleeping bag (could be time for a tent). Green is turning to yellow in the meadows and a toad is a rare site to see.

It’s been an interesting season. I have slept on the ground far more than in a bed and hiked miles of Yosemite backcountry rarely seen by us bipedal wildlife. I’ve learned a lot, although not necessarily what would be expected. The biology in my biological technician position is fairly simple. The office folk want to know where the toads are. The data monkeys (yep, that’s us) go fetch the data. Interesting, but not highly stimulating on its own. The good stuff is all in the extras: spending so much time searching for toads that you see the unexpected. Albino tadpoles. Cannibalism (the toad tads, that is). Badger. Bears. Mountain king snake. Parasitic orchids. The observations that don’t have a spot on the data sheet, these are what make the field work worth it for me. There is no check box for alpine glow and they don’t want a description of the view in the site notes.

I missed the openness of the desert when I first got to Yosemite. In the trees it’s almost claustrophobic. Green and woody-ness close in from all directions to make a jungle gym of the forest floor. But, the trees do not go on forever. Above ten thousand feet the world opens up again into vast slabs of granite, slopes of talus, and pockets of meadow. This, I like. Go above tree line and suddenly the whole park sits below you, a living postcard of granite, pine, and swirling cloud. I pick out the landmarks. Cathedral peak: I climbed you. Tuolumne meadows: where the ice cream resides. Tenaya Lake: the local beach. The Valley: from this distance the swarms of visitors and their cars are just metallic specs on a grey ribbon of road. Cloudsrest and Half Dome: climbed those, too. Hoffman, Pothole dome, Tenaya peak, Glen Aulin, Mt. Dana, Pate Valley, the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, May lake, North Dome…. each its own adventure and accompanying story.

Tomorrow I head out on my last trip of the season. That will be it for the Yosemite chapter of this great adventure. Come September 20th the next chapter begins: Graduate School.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Saturday, July 31, 2010

On the Road Again

It’s been almost two months since I left behind the warm red sands of the southwest for the cold grey granite of the Sierra’s. With my material goods (those not permanantly ensconced in the parents’ attic) carefully shoved into the back of my car I hit the open road. For forty miles. In the middle of nowhere between two somewheres my tire issued a final agonal breath before defecting into shredded rubber on the side of the road.
Good thing I have triple A, I thought to myself. I fished out the card, unearthed my phone, and then spent almost an hour trying to explain my location to a service representative. We established the fact that I was in Utah in a matter of seconds, but it proved remarkably difficult to convince her that I was not in Salt Lake City. I recited mileages from nearest intersections, closest towns, and major landmarks to no avail. I (loudly) cursed Subaru for putting the spare tire under the floor as I began excavating the trunk. Food, camping gear, ukulele, boxes of clothes made a disorganized heap on the side of the highway. The fuel for my stove rolled down the embankment into the dry ravine below. I had the spare tire out as the triple A lady asked me if I was near the salt lake city airport. I might have gone a little hysterical at this point because I found myself talking with the manager.
And that’s when the boy scouts arrived. A whole troop of them. The troop leaders had the spare tire on in minutes. I have a whole new respect for boy scouts and complete lack of faith in triple A. It’s funny how the world works.
On the road again, this time at 45 miles per hour, I headed for the nearest town (Green River). I pulled into the only open tire shop only to find that they only dealt in big rig tires. Another 50 miles to the next town. I borrowed the phone book and called all the tire shops. It wasn’t looking good. The few that were open don’t have the right tire size. I paced back and forth across the asphalt as I waited for the last shop on my list to call me back. I started thinking about the phone call I was going to have to make to my new boss. Sorry, can’t make it to the first week of work because I am stuck in the middle of nowhere with one tire short of a car. Finally they called me back. They had the tires and for the bargain price of 400 $ they will put them on my car. Great. I hit the road again at a brisk 45 miles per hour and infuriated every other driver on the road (hmmm, only thirty mph lower than the posted speed limit).
With my new pair of tires I rolled through western Utah into Nevada. The red desert dust on my car was replaced by grey. At a gas station somewhere in Nevada a trucker told me my windshield was dirty. A clean windshield is a clean driver, he says. I washed off 400 miles of splattered insect remains and then continued driving. On the 120 I crossed from Nevada into California. The first road sign I encounter proclaims this particular stretch of asphalt to be adopted by Rainbows and Butterflies. Yep, must be back in California.
I drive through Yosemite and marveled at the snow piled 6 feet deep on either side of the road. Tenaya Lake is an iceberg and Tuolomne Meadows is a snow field. I wondered if leaving the desert was the right decision.
I found myself asking that question a lot for the first month of my Yosemite tenure, I still ask it on occasion. I am not complaining, I swear, but sometimes you have to wonder what it would have been like to hike the other path.
So, I guess I need to put a disclaimer here. Apparently I signed some paperwork at the beginning of the season saying I would not talk about my federal government job with anyone in the outside world. Well, the federal government said I was going to have housing at my job and then made me live out of my car for a month and a half. Deal’s off. I will talk about what I want. Of course, I won’t reveal locations of sensitive species or similar information, but otherwise, I feel like I have right to share my experiences. If the government wants to read my blog and fire me for talking about wildflowers and alpine glow, go for it (and anyways, after this summer I don’t really want to work for the federal gov’t again).
Disclaimer over.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Going Green (River, that is)

Down the Green River. Larval fish traps, seines, dry bags, food, drink, gear stacked in colorful piles in the two boats. We launched from Green River State Park on Monday afternoon for a four day fish trip. Our sample jars covet the illusive (endangered) Razorback Sucker larva, a transparent slip of a fish to-be. We put them in the jars of alcohol to return to civilization where someone with a microscope will announce our sampling success, or failure.
To hunt our miniscule prey we set light traps in the backwaters as the sun goes down. The next morning we pull the traps before the sun returns to draw the quarry from our artificial light. That’s about it for our work day. In between dawn and dusk we motor downriver to our next sites and stop to seine in fishy looking areas. This leaves ample time to play Mexican train dominoes (one of the few games I actually like), wander around in the desert, and lounge aimlessly in camp.
It’s a beautiful stretch of desert: down the Green River through Labyrinth and Still Water Canyons, turning the boats back up stream at the confluence with the Colorado River to return to civilization via Meander Canyon. It’s a different sort of boating now that we have left the inflatable oar rigs at the warehouse in favor of the faster metal, motored boats. Boat driving (specifically the steering part) is a new skill for me, and one that certainly doesn’t come naturally. My apologies to that willow tree.
Finally I felt that I was getting the hang of it all. And here comes the wind to chop the river’s surface into a thousand pummeling waves. And here I am, by myself, trailing behind in the slower (25 hp motor, that’s why) boat. OK, no problem, I got this. Just hit the waves at an angle. But watch out for the sticks and branches floating downstream, you can’t hit those, it’s tough on the prop. Vroooom, thud, vrooooom, thud, vrrrooom, thud, etc as I go plunging into the waves and the flat bottom of the metal boat smacks down into each jarring trough. I got this guys, don’t worry, but how about keeping me in eyesight (the second boat is a 50 hp and leaves me in the dust)? Suddenly, in a particularly windy wavy section my motor falls silent. Alright, out of gas? Nope, just filled that anyways. Ok, give the fuel line a few pumps, back to neutral, hit start, put in gear. I get a grumble and then silence again. Try again, and then again, and one more time because I might have done it wrong the first three times. Nothing. Alright guys, you can come back and find me now… guys? Please come back?
They came back to rescue me, the fuel line had cracked but when replaced we were back on our soggy way.
I think I am just not meant to deal with anything with a motor. I can handle a car, but only because I have been driving since age 16. Make it a (huge) truck and it’s still ok. Put a boat trailer on the end of that truck and it’s alright, as long as I only have to go forward. Backing up that trailer is a whole other embarrassing event. Sometimes it goes so smoothly. I pat myself on the back and say I am getting the hang of this. Then toss in a busy ramp and a few onlookers and suddenly that trailer seems magnetically repelled from anywhere I want it to go. Three tries later it’s where it’s supposed to be and I am wishing I could hide under a rock until my incompetence is forgotten.
Mechanical discombobulation aside, it’s a beautiful stretch of river. Work is less a chore and more of a privilege. I could be imprisoned in a cubicle, confined to a desk, to shuffle papers from one stack to another. I am not. In the day we float through canyons, following the river down through a million years of geologic history. The white, red, orange, purple, and green layers of rock each tell a story of what was there before. Dinosaur tracks marching across uplifted blocks of stone speak of a time before people. Cliff dwellings, perched on the cliff walls like hanging swallows’ nests, are reminders that we are not the first to explore this landscape. And, as I sit on the tethered boat at night, watching the bats dive and weave in the growing darkness, silhouettes lost against the trees and then reappearing above in the yellow glow of the rising moon, I know this is special.

Friday, May 7, 2010

It's getting lizardy, but maybe that's just spring

If I wasn't feeling like my usual inordinately lazy self I would split this into two posts, and include some complete sentences on the shenanigans associated with these photos. I might have even spellchecked. I didn't. So here are some photos comprising the last two weeks: hiking adventures in the needles district of Canyonlands and then a San Juan river trip from Shiprock to Montezuma Creek.

The work photos go first.

First day on the river. Technically we didn't even make it on the river. After leaving Moab at 5 am and driving through snow, sleet, and hail to reach Shiprock, New Mexico and the rest of the river crew the bosses decided the weather was too bad to work in. It wasn't the snow/rain that did it. It was the wind. We still work in the snow.

Freezing river fashion

Oh, you have got to be kidding! That looks like another storm! I repent for burning all those peeps on Easter, just bring back the sun.

That's a razorback sucker, one of the endangered species we get to play with. Yeah, the pictures a little out of focus, but I couldn't feel my fingers.

Kokepelli (I think) hanging out with a gallery of other petroglyphs in the canyon above our first campsite.

Now, jumping back in time, to my canyonlands hiking trip. There was more sun, but it was also so windy that my tent blew out of the campsite. We returned at the end of our 11 mile hike to find it held down by rocks (thank you to whoever caught and tethered it)

It's a lizard! The weather has turned quite lizardy out here. This is embarrassing, but I an not really sure what this one is. I want to call it an ornate tree lizard (Urosaurus), but it could just be a side blotch and I missed the blotch. It ran away after I shoved the camera in its face.

I'm trying to learn all my desert flowers (since I seem to be failing on lizards, at least the flowers don't run away from me), but haven't got a clue as to what this is. A beer to anyone who can id it.

Common Paintbrush

Newspaper rock, on the road to the Needles district.

Claretcup. Cool trivia: the genus name Echinocereus comes from the Greek word echinos, hedgehog.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gummi bears in the wash

I need to outgrow the habit of putting food in my pockets. I got back from another five day river trip today, and like the responsible adult I pretend to be, am doing laundry. The great thing about the spin cycle is that it nicely separates the candy wrappers, soggy gummi bears, nail clippers, twigs, change, and rocks from my pants and socks. The chapstick never fairs as well, unfortunately.
I tried something new on this past river trip. I attempted to record bits of events throughout the day, though out the trip. I attempted. I failed. I made two entries and both are distinctly grumpy in flavor as they were written on days when the wind was threatening to fling me and my boat into the sharp rocks and spiky plants. So, I’ll just record my usual summary of what immediately comes to mind about the last few weeks.
Well, the last five days were spent river rafting and shocking fish. The weather vacillated between April and January. The river greeted us with rain and gusts of wind on our first day. I lost an oar (but got it back). I caught it on a rock and sent it flying as I was furiously flailing away from the rocks towards which the wind was pushing me. I have amassed the most interesting collection of blisters on my hands. Everyone else seems to have settled into calluses. Not me. I just get new blisters in new spots on each trip. Eventually they will run out of new territory to colonize and be forced to form calluses. Or so I tell myself.
The high water made the San Juan a much more exciting river to row. Stretches that had been flat water on previous trips presented as washboards of waves and the current made each stroke more of an effort.
I gear boated the first day, which meant that all I had to do was get from point A to B then to C (and set up lunch) then to D and finally Camp (E?) before the shock boats. Gear boating is supposed to be your relaxing day on the river, but the increase in weather had an inverse relationship with my relaxation abilities. (AAAAAH Not the Rock!!!)
The weather was better the following days but still threw windy temper tantrums on a regular basis. We caught the usual cast of fishes: Catfish, Pike minnow, bullheads, and suckers. I was only stabbed by one catfish on this trip. I think I am getting better at this!
There is one good thing about the serrated razor blades that serve as catfish fins. The little buggers practically net themselves. All you have to do is get the net near the catfish and it gets its spiky little self stuck in there. Of course, you then have to untangle the slimy pokey thing from the net which is generally when the stabbing happens. It could be worse. It could be a carp.
That’s it. I am going to have a bowl of lucky charms, fold my laundry, and go to bed. There better not be any gummibears stuck to my sheets.
And a few photographs for you viewing pleasure:

last night on the river, from the camp site.

cool, catfish leeches!

wait... I thought we were hiking to an arch. oh well, this is cool, too. (but maybe we'll take the map next time)

when was the last time you looked closely at a lichen? I suggest you try it. Amazing (and no, I am not on drugs I swear)

Cryptobiotic soil, also AMAZING!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

catfish and goblins

Here I am in Moab sitting down to a lunch of a more than slightly blackened grilled cheese sandwich. The appearance of which, I tell myself, reflects an inability to multitask and not a complete deficiency in cooking skills (or so I hope). Sometimes I wonder at how I used to cook for 40-60 people in the co-op days.
The last two weeks have been filled with lots of desert and river work/fun. I became a gainfully employed “fish squeezer” on March 30th. April first we launched on the San Juan for a week of rowing and fish zapping. We are monitoring endangered species (Colorado pike minnow and razorback suckers) and removing unwelcome invaders (catfish, carp, brown trout, etc). On the last trip I learned how to paddle a shock boat. On this trip I hope to get some practice with the dutch oven. How else do you make brownies on a river?

So, I spend my work week river rafting and fish flinging. When the weekend comes I take a break from this tough life with various hiking adventures. Arches National park is right down the road and someday I might even make it to Canyon Lands. There are great hiking adventures right in town. Petroglyphs lurk around rocky corners and absurdly augmented jeeps roam the landscape like drunken mountain goats.

Yesterday I headed out of town to explore a pair of slot canyons (bell and little wild horse) with a fellow fish squeezer. It’s a non-technical hike (no ropes or skills needed) but we were still a little surprised to find ourselves sharing the narrow canyon corridors with screaming babies in backpacks and several troops of grumpy grumbling kids (there were plenty of happy kids too, but they didn’t make nearly as much noise). The scenery was great, the hike amazing, but next time I think we will figure out which day of the week it is before we get to the trail head ( ohhhhh, it’s Saturday…. Oops).

We finished our hike with plenty of sunlight remaining and decided to explore Goblin Valley State park. It’s truly in the middle of nowhere, but highly worth the visit. I could try to describe it in words, but out of laziness I’ll just upload the photos instead.

On Tuesday morning I will be heading back to the river for a second round of fish filled fun. Is there an aspect of my life you want to hear more about? Want a species list of every herp I have seen so far? Wish I would write more than once every 6 months? That’s what the comments are for!! (hint hint).