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Friday, September 27, 2013

At Home With Nature

What I'd rather see when I open my eyes on a Monday morning.

I spend a lot of time moaning about how I'd rather be on vacation. You know the feeling: the alarm goes off on Monday, you squish your eyelids together and say "nooooo... why can't I be (fill in the blank: camping, hiking, fishing, etc.)

It's especially hard the first workday after vacation is over. For me, visions of pine trees swaying above the hammock and poking the fire to get just the right coal configuration for roasting marshmallows are what dance through my head. That is until that stupid alarm goes off...

Recently, we have been plagued by a novel problem: the wildlife I miss so much from our vacations has followed us home. At least that's what it seems like.

It started quite a few years ago when the city tore up the sewer pipes in our neighborhood. Some of the old clay pipes under the street were original, dating from the early 1900's. When they opened up the trenches they disturbed a decades old network of rat highways. Rats, being the resourceful creatures that they are, found a much more pleasant environment when they moved into everyone's yards, garages & attics.

We have been fighting these surprisingly smart creatures for years, with some success. Alternating sticky traps, poison and the good old snap-traps seemed to keep them in check. Right up until this year.

The Chinese calendar says this is the Year of the Snake. If only that were true it might take care of the Year of the Rat we seem to be living in now. A mild winter and a bumper crop of apricots, apples, walnuts and plums have apparently sparked a baby boom. For every two rats we catch, a litter of 20 is born somewhere with aspirations of getting hitched and building a nest in our garage someday (the timeline for getting hitched in rat years is five weeks.) Our terrier, Twitch, had been doing his best: he caught several before he wiggled underneath a cabinet in the garage and ate some rat poison. (Thankfully, he left the empty container right in the middle of the floor for us to find in time to get his stomach pumped. Poison is no longer an option for us--too scary.)

We had been getting an upper hand on the rats when the possums showed up. They tend to be a little slower and the dogs were able to chase them out of the yard. Or so we thought until meeting one late at night under the work table in the garage. It ran under the very cabinet Twitch had gotten the poison from and as far as we know, is still living there. It comes out at night and eats all the bait we put in the rat traps.

Raccoons have been plaguing us this summer as well. We have a pond in the backyard stocked with small koi. Every other night the pond would get hit: plants knocked over, rocks rolled in and on one memorable occasion, a fish head floating in the gyre created by the disconnected pump hose at the bottom of the pond. We finally resorted to one of those motion-sensor sprinkler heads. They're pricey, but they actually work. As long as you remember to turn them on...

Throw in the ever-present squirrels, the crows having a board meeting in the redwood tree next door, and the neighbor's cats that use our fences like an interstate highway system and you have quite the ruckus in the evening. In the spring we had a bit of a mosquito problem, but that was solved by the bats that decided to move in behind our chimney.

Nature seemed so cool when She stayed out in... well...nature.

We had despaired over ever having a nice yard and a clean, pest-free garage and home until early the other morning, when we heard not one, but two owls hooting to each other in the dark. I don't know whether to laugh or cry: it seems our yard has now become a complete eco-system, with prey and the predators to keep them in check. The circle of life, the call of the wild, the "eat or be eaten" lifestyle has begun in our tiny slice of Santa Rosa.

I'm just waiting for the day I hear that tell-tale scream of a mountain lion reverberating down the street. What? It could happen. And when it does I'm leaving the garage door open, with a sign up: All You Can Eat.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

An Ode to Lake Tahoe

I could write a thousand words describing the Lake Tahoe region and all of it's beauty; how each season brings out a different aspect of the place; how the lake really lives up to it's famous clarity; that no matter what the weather brings it's one of the most spectacular places on earth.

But no one wants to read that garbage.

Truly, it's one of those places you just have to experience for yourself. If you need a little help getting off your butt and getting there, here are some pictures to try to goose you along:

Let's start with Emerald Bay:

A weird cloud formation over Emerald Bay, as viewed from Vikingsholm.

A sailboat glides into Emerald Bay beside Fannette Island.
Side of Vikingsholm; a "castle" built in 1928, it's now part of the state park. 
Window detail of Vikingsholm.

Just across the road from the Emerald Bay parking lot you can catch a trail up to Eagle Lake and Falls, an easy 1.5 mile trail that will get you a taste of the backcountry above Tahoe.

View from the trail to Eagle Lake, an easy day hike starting from the Emerald Bay area.

A view from beside Eagle Falls.

The Tallac Historic Site is a great place to spend an afternoon wandering around. Old summer cabins dot the landscape, and the local historical society has set many of them up with period furnishings to show what it was like to "summer" in Tahoe in the 1920's. Dogs are also welcome there if canines are part of your crew.

The meandering trail through Tallac Historic Site.
An afternoon thunderstorm is reflected
in the windows.

Tiga was fascinated by the historic artifacts in this cabin.

Sugar Pine State Park boasts a huge mansion and assorted boathouses, as well as the best camping on the lake.

The Hellman-Ehrman Mansion sits on a hillside overlooking Lake Tahoe. Tours are offered of this huge "summer" home.
This lucky duck makes a living on Lake Tahoe begging for food.

Sugar Pine Point State Park is the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Cross country ski trails turn into summer hiking trails in the snow-free months.
A bird sings for his supper at the Lily Pond, a 5 mile roundtrip hike at Sugar Pine.
Some of the flora and fauna you can find along the trail.

A pine cone sits on the forest floor, it's mother tree reflected in the shiny pitch.
No camping trip would be complete without "Dough Gobs"
A wooden dowel coated in biscuit batter roasted over a campfire, filled with butter and jam once it's done.

Spooner Lake is a state park on the Nevada side. I think fall is the best time of year there--it is chock full of quaking aspens that turn bright yellow and really do "quake" in the wind.

The trail around Spooner Lake, October.
"Hair Plugs"
Trees planted on a previously clear cut ridge.
The bark on this aspen looked like a goggly-eyed face to me.
Spooner Lake

Tahoe can be expensive and crowded, but just like Yosemite, it's well worth a trip. If you don't like crowds, go in the off-season. Autumn is my favorite time--the kids are back in school and the skiers are still waiting for that first powder to appear so it's not as crowded. There's something for everyone there: gambling on the Nevada side, pricey restaurants on the California side, camping, hiking, skiing, or just plain laying around on the beach.

Why are you still sitting there? Go already!

An afternoon thunderstorm over the western shore of Lake Tahoe.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Of Rubbish and Relics

When I first saw John McCann's photo (below) of uranium mines in Capitol Reef National Park I was disappointed that the parks had allowed such a thing. John quickly set me straight though--the mines had been established in 1904 and the park was not created until 1971 (in fact, the Park Service has been working to make them safer since taking over.) Once I learned the timeline I calmed down--in fact, the mines seemed kind of a cool remnant from the past--but it got me to thinking about the transient nature of our public lands.

Oyler Mine, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah (photo: John McCann)

It was funny that the mines in Utah bothered me so much, especially considering how I enjoy exploring the backcountry of Death Valley and all the abandoned mines there. The valley has such a dry climate that the old mines seem to have hardly aged; you can still find intact evidence of the past lying around. It's a thrill to uncover an old can of tomatoes, or find a cabin with flaps of wallpaper, the pattern faded but still discernible. The National Parks have chosen to preserve these items as part of the park's history, even though technically it's abandoned junk. How long do things have to lay around until they are considered historic? Will there ever be a time when that illegal marijuana grow will be preserved for posterity?

Old car rusting away with Augerberry Camp and mine in the background, Death Valley National Park.

There's a big difference between National Parks and National Forests. National Forests are generally used for their resources; logging and mining are often allowed, as are a multitude of other activities (off-road vehicles, hunting, cattle grazing); that's why you might see one of those signs proclaiming "The Land of Many Uses" when you enter. When you read about mining companies signing a $1 annual lease for a 100 year contract, the first thing that comes to mind is graft--unfortunately that seems to come with the territory (so to speak.) It's easy to get angry with the destruction of national property, but when you think about it, exactly where did the wood for your deck come from? And how about the gold, quartz and silicon used for that computer and cell phone of yours?

Photo credit: Jim Peaco, July 2000

One thing that, quite frankly, really pisses me off is finding litter in the parks (or anywhere for that matter.) To see plastic bottles and candy bar wrappers blowing around in the parking lot at Glacier Point in Yosemite just broils my hide. But I have been known to squeal with excitement when I come across old tin cans, nails and other refuse at an old ghost town site. So at what point does litter become artifact? How old does trash have to be before it's a protected object to be collected and cataloged?

I have to admit I'm getting old enough to where some of the litter that turns up is sort of nostalgic. I spend a lot of time on the Pacific coast, and in the last few years those old soda pull-tabs are popping up like wildflowers out of the sand dunes. When I first started seeing them, I'd pick them up and couldn't help but remember the days when I'd collect and make necklaces from them. A combination of stronger storms, heavy rains and more wind have unearthed all kinds of garbage from the 70's. Old beer cans, broken glass; bits and pieces of all sorts of things are slowly sifting to the surface. The sand has etched and smoothed the edges of the broken glass. I know a few people who collect beach glass and use it for decoration; does this mean it's no longer litter? Is 40 years long enough to become an artifact? I certainly hope not. I'm not ready to be considered an artifact...

One man's trash is another man's treasure I suppose.

I have a hard time believing anyone will ever get nostalgic over a pile of cigarette butts along a hiking trail, but hey, maybe smoking will someday be obsolete and in 100 years they will be a rare find, worthy of documentation. It would be nice to be alive long enough to witness the end of cigarette butts thrown casually everywhere (and the lung cancer that goes along with them.)

When I was in first grade, a Forest Service Ranger came to my classroom and gave a talk about pollution. It was part of the "Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute" campaign in the 70's. At the end of the talk he passed around a contract and asked us all to sign our names promising not to pollute, and if we saw litter to pick it up and put it in the trash. I'm sure most of the kids signed and promptly forgot about it, but for whatever reason it stuck with me. I clearly remember signing my name on the line, and Woodsy the Owl's picture on the top of the page. To this day it bugs the hell out of me to see someone throw trash on the ground. And yes, I pick it up and put it in the garbage can.

Artwork from the Forest Service campaign, 1970.

Nowadays we know a lot more about the harm pollution can wreak on the environment. The huge rotating nightmare of plastic bits in the Pacific Ocean; the ever present plastic bags blowing around the fields, stuck in every barbed wire fence and floating in every urban creek. Before there was plastic, most garbage seemed to break down pretty quickly, and the items that hung around (the tin cans, wooden crates) were more environmentally friendly. The right environment can reduce a tin can to bits of rust in a few years, and wood makes a good meal for insects and fungus. Even asbestos, although a health hazard to breathe, is a naturally occurring substance. Our newfangled junk seems to have more lasting power.

I'm not sure what to make of it all; I suppose everything has the potential to be historical if you wait long enough. I will always be excited to run across old mining equipment in the desert, but that's not going to stop me from picking up modern trash when I see it.

I signed a contract after all.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Allure of the Road

We have been known, on occasion, to sing during our road trips. (photo credit: Desilu Productions)
What is it about a road trip that's so exciting?

Plotting out a course, packing up the car and heading off (usually before the sun rises) to go discover what's out there. The first few miles are so familiar--the road out of town has been driven a thousand times--but once you leave the daily perimeter things start to look new. The very fact you're not on the way to work is enough to give things a new perspective. I'm no longer distracted by that project due next week, or what to cook for dinner. I do, however, obsess over whether I remembered to pack my socks (but only for the first twenty miles or so.)

Road trips are the complete opposite of airplane trips. For me, air travel is stressful, but not for the typical reasons. I'm not afraid to fly (I've actually been skydiving--if you can jump out of a plane, you can sit in one without fear) and I figure the whole security thing is just part of the package. What I hate about flying is there's no control; it's like taking a Greyhound bus across the country with no stops along the way. Crammed into a seat next to people you've never met, fighting for a tiny armrest that isn't even in the right place for an arm; having to ask permission to go to the bathroom from your fellow row passengers and, a crime against humanity; just when the view gets interesting being ordered to lower the window shades so everyone can see the rotten movie you saw on the last flight. Once you arrive at your destination you are treated to an endless procession of lines: for the luggage, for the shuttle, for a rental car, for the hotel room. By the time you actually get where you wanted to be, a full vacation day has been completely wasted.

Saw this guy grazing along the side of the road in Canada. Try pulling over to take a picture in an airplane.
On the other hand, road trips start the second you put on your seatbelt. Everything flows by at a more leisurely pace and if you feel like stopping, you stop. You can play your favorite songs, or even better, tune into the local radio and find out what other parts of the world listen to. We once picked up a station in Utah that was hosting "Tradio," a program that connected locals with extra stuff they were willing to trade. We listened as a guy from Hurricane (pronounced 'hur-can' we learned) traded a lightly used toilet for a 55 gallon drum that could be used for water storage. A fair deal if we ever heard one.

Sign Post Forest, Watson Lake, Yukon Canada
My mind starts to wander on the long trips. I like to watch the scenery go by and wonder what it would be like to live in the places we pass through. Long stretches of freeway are good for people watching as well; what exactly was that woman in the Chevy Volt doing in the backseat? Did you see that guy's hat? Where do you suppose they're going with that goat?

The road is an interesting study in humanity. As you travel further from home you begin to see fashions and hairstyles changing; even the make and model of the vehicles change. You've got the rural road standard of course, the pickup truck, and as you approach the more populated areas the compact cars start cropping up. But then there are the complete surprises: on one stretch in rural southern Arizona every other car was a Toyota Prius. This I never would have guessed. I don't know why but I had always envisioned overly tan retired people tooling around in big old American-made Cadillacs. My apologies Arizona.

The jackass behind the wheel? Roadside sculpture near Great Basin National Park, Nevada.
I realize it's not very "green" to be traveling in a big Ford F250 getting 12mpg but I can't help it, I love it. The adventure of the road less traveled mixed with the excitement of getting away from the day to day grind is intoxicating. Even if that guy in the next car over is picking his nose...

Ah, the open road awaits.