Thursday, November 20, 2008

Homeward Bound

It's been a great season working with the Washington chapter of The Nature Conservancy. My time here has run out and we're on our way back home for the holidays. This week went out with a buzz, fortunately not a bang!

It was the one week per year the TNC is allowed to work on the Artillery Impact Areas of Fort Lewis. We had been through Unexploded Ordinance Training, which can be summed up with; "don't touch anything metal". We did see lots of weird things out there, and fortunately had a trio of soldiers to sweep the area first and flag anything they thought looked dangerous. Lots of mortars, shells, armor piercing rounds, flares, RPGs, and other strange stuff were out there, including tanks, trucks, and dumpsters used for targets.

Unexpectedly, this tortured landscape is also very healthy fescue prairie, on account of very frequent (albeit unintentional) burns that wipe out any plants not adapted to such a frequent fire regime. Also unexpectedly, we spent our time chainsawing native fir trees -- whose crime was encroachment on the prairies. Most of the trees were "grandfathered" into the prairie before the impact area was established, and had grown beyond the reach of fast burning grass fires. It was certainly a juxtaposition of place, equipment, and activity that I normally wouldn't associate with ecological restoration!

Now, it's time to pack up the old truck for a long ride back home to Tejas!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Find the Fish

Righty ho, time indeed to play Find the Fish. But first, I'd like to impart a bit of wisdom to any future perspective field technicians planning to treat invasive weeds on a military base: don't spray bushes that move! Driving to a prairie on Fort Lewis last week, I happened to see some shrubbery out of the corner of my eye. I normally wouldn't have given shrubs a second glance, except they appeared to be walking across a parking lot. On closer inspection, I noticed these botanical beings were well armed, and had two eyes peering from a green and gray face. Either these were hasty bonzai-entlings, or well disguised snipers. Either way, I'd not want to make the mistake of rousing them about.

Did you know it can be rainy in the pacific northwest? It can.

I mowed Scotch Broom (in the rain), and was glad to have a canopy above my head on the tractor. The wind still soaked my legs, but as coach Pappy would tell me, "no pain, no gain boy!". We had a meeting with the acting Director of the Washington Nature Conservancy, who came down to explain the 2015 campaign, and also discuss how our finances look for the upcoming year. (it was raining outside). The red-card brigade also had an after-action review of our fire season, with some plans on how to be more effective next year. TNC's global goal is to burn 15 million acres, but annually we are only achieving about 100,000 acres. That's a current burn regime of 150 years, so clearly we need to crank it up a notch. I know my home state of Texas has recently begun an active burn program, so it'll be interesting to see what they're up to for 2009.

Once the rain started again, it was back outdoors. This time, it was to help reseed some of the test plots with seed mixes. These test plots are measuring the most effective methods to restore prairies. When the weather is at its worst, Lisa's been helping me design a fancy custom database for the TNC Knotweed crew.

On Sunday, when the rain backed down to more of a mist, we took the chance to visit McAllaster Creek. A big surprise was the small creek had a big Chum Salmon run taking place as we watched! It seemed very primal to watch these fish valiantly strive against the current to find their spot in a sandbar. Enjoy this video of another wonder of fall migration... underwater!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hope & Feathers

My time here as a South Sounder is drawing to a close. Our departure date is a mere three weeks away and we're already paring things down in the apartment. At my job in the Olympia Nature Conservancy, things are drawing to a close as well. Brian, my coworker I've been working with all summer, has left for vacation back to Illinois and Iowa. We spent a few last sunny days spraying Aquamaster on some renegade patches of Reed Canary Grass, and then went after Yellow Flag Iris. Treating Iris is a slower process, since it involves a cut-n-dab method to ensure the huge tuber-roots soak up the herbicide.

I spent the last sunny day spraying Garlon on Hairy Cat's Ears on Johnson Prairie; which was in preparation for Cheryl to replant these plots with native forbs that are valuable to some rare & threatened butterflies, such as Taylor's Checkerspot and the Mardon Skipper. Fort Lewis has become these butterfly's last stand, so we're trying hard to determine ways to restore prairies that allows them to flourish again. Some restoration treatments, such as prescribed burning, ultimately benefit the butterflies, but if the timing is wrong, such as when caterpillars are foraging, the short term could result in wiping out an entire population. While spraying, I came across a clump of pretty feathers of a Ring-necked Pheasant in the grass, perhaps the scene where a hawk had cleaned a kill. It reminded me of a book I'm reading, "Hope is the Thing With Feathers", which is a mournful memoir for 6 extinct birds that once were significant components of North American wildlife. It's a book suited for this time of year; sad ghosts of the past reminding us of what has been lost, which is a form of bitter inspiration for conserving these remnant prairies.

My friends from Redmond came down last weekend for a visit, and we spent perhaps the last warm, sunny day hiking up to Snow Lake on the Tatoosh Range in Mount Rainier National Park. The shadowed portions of the trail still had snowfall from the past week, and footprints of elk could be seen alongside the meadows. Unicorn Peak and the Castle had a light dusting of snow, making the grey rocks look even colder. Bench Lake dutifully reflected the grandeur of Mount Rainier, but Snow Lake itself had a thin veneer of ice over it's surface, already in the clutches of winter, a frigid portent that yet another year is drawing to a close.

We will likely not visit Mount Rainier again this year, but we have drunk from the artesian spring in downtown Olympia, whose waters originate on Nisqually Glacier on the slopes of Mt. Rainier. Local Legend has it that this will always bring you back to Olympia.

Beginning on Halloween Eve, the weather has shifted into classic northwest winter: raining every day. Our work schedule must shift too, so we're readying the tractors to mow Scotch Broom. I hope my rain gear is up to the task!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Run, Salmon, Run!

The salmon are returning back to Tumwater Falls! Many rivers and streams along the Pacific Northwest have historically suffered much damage to salmon; mostly from water quality issues due to overly intensive logging or dams created for various reasons. However, the Deschutes River in Washington enters the brackish waters of Puget Sound with an imposing waterfall. In 1952, engineers built the salmon a fish ladder to climb past the waterfall. Now, the Chinook Salmon are coming back to spawn, slowly working their way up the rushing river to spawn. Over 10,000 are expected this year!

We also went to visit Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, which is currently involved with a huge earthworks program to allow floodwaters to restore wetland habitat on the delta that was lost to agriculture. Along the river we saw a family of three sea lions swimming up stream! We couldn't walk too far though, since most of the trails were blocked off because of hunting on nearby state land.

While the western Washington weather is getting gloomier by the week, the autumn is still providing nice days. This weekend we explored more of the Columbia River Gorge. This majestic canyon was created about 15 million years ago in the Miocene era, when massive basalt flows poured in from the east. Then, during the past ice age, the massive Missoula Floods carved out the land and essentially created the landscape seen today.

The area has more impressive waterfalls than any other region I've been too, and being so easily accessed from the interstate, many of them, such as 620' high Multnomah Falls are popular attractions. We started our hike by returning to the first place we ever saw in the Cascades: Horsetail Falls. We met a couple coming down from a hike to Rock of Ages, but they had encountered too much snow, in May, at only around 900ft above sea level! Since it sounded interesting, we returned to do the hike.

We hiked up the slope to see Ponytail Falls, which is one of my favorites. It has a cave set into the basalt cliff behind the falls, so you hike behind them. From there, the trail leads up to a bluff overlooking the Gorge and then goes down to Middle Oneonta Falls. Making our way upstream, we encountered the beautiful Triple Falls. Retracing our way back to Ponytail, there is an unmaintained trail leading straight up the ridge. This eventually led me to a huge cliff of lava turned golden in the setting rays of the sun. Along the ridge is an outcrop of basalt that has eroded into a perfect arch, just big enough to stand in and gaze out eastward. It was a tough hike up, but worth it for the exhilaration of being there to watch the shadows stretch across the valley below, eventually reaching across the river to Beacon Rock where we were camped just a month before.

The next day we started out at Oneonta Gorge, which is an unexpected slot canyon. Unfortunately, it begins with a huge log jam slippery with slimy mold that required climbing past. Beyond was a very narrow and high canyon walls covered with mosses and ferns. If it were 10 degrees warmer, I'd think I was in Hawaii instead of the Cascades! We hiked up past Multnomah Falls, where there is an overlook to watch the falls spill down. And then the trail follows the crashing, noisy stream past a few more shorter falls and cascades when Wiesendanger Falls sneaks up on you from around a bend.

Down the road, we made a few more stops for short hikes. We saw the ruins of 92 year old Mist Falls lodge, which is now nothing more than a collection of broken stone walls, pottery, and a robust black stone chimney standing alone in the woods. We saw Wahkeenah Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls, and just when I thought we'd seen them all, the last one was one of the best: Latourell Falls. It's only a mere 250' high, but it has it's own upside-down ampitheatre that reminds Lisa of a madman's pipeorgan petrified in stone. After that last fun hike, it was time to drive home and hit the hot tub for a long soak.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Nothing Gold Can Stay

The difference one week can make is amazing. One week ago, we performed what might be our last burn of the season at Glacial Heritage Preserve. It was about 20 acres in size, but with heavier fuel types, such as logs, snags, and stumps that kept burning long after the grass fire was out. The perimeter of the fire break had a few weak spots too, due to unburned heavy fuels. We wanted to ensure the break stayed secure and patrolled the area frequently, so Lisa, Brian and I camped out overnight. The winds would change several times during the night, and each time the wind shifted, many new fires would flare up inside the burn unit. We still had 2 pumper trucks on site, so we were certainly able to tackle any problems that might get started. When the shifting winds would settle down, smoke would pool around the area like the fog of war.

In the morning, there were still many areas of open flame, but it began raining. We traded our watch for someone to monitor the area, but the rains kept falling for the next 4 days, letting us sleep tight knowing the fire was well doused. Unfortunately, the rains also put a damper in our plans for camping over the weekend. We opted instead for a brisk walk through Tumwater Hill. Lots of the big leaf maples were turning colors, so we collected a few leaves to decorate around our pumpkin, and our walk reminded me of the famous Frost Poem:

Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

That seemed to be foreshadowing for Wall Street as well. It might seem surprising, but many of the equations used to model both ecological systems and economics are very similar. Concepts such as feedback loops, competitive exclusion, laws of diminishing returns, and others can be applied equally to both disciplines. However, one thing Wall Street does that is not paralleled in nature is having a mass-herd mentality result in jumping off a cliff. The wives-tale of lemmings leaping to their deaths is actually a manufactured myth perpetuated by a Disney film in which the directors forced lemmings to jump to their deaths (and subsequently won an award for best documentary!). Other species can also be forced to jump to their deaths, such as bison being tricked into galloping over cliffs by Plains Indians, but one would think that human investors would not be as foolish (our species name 'sapiens' implies we are wise). Taking a manageable credit crunch and turning it into a negative feedback loop, thereby virtually ensuring a recession, reminds me of an old saying, "argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours".

But don't worry, my fellow earthlings; I have been in jobs where I worry about my entire division being eliminated, or teaching foreigners how to perform my job because they are willing to work cheaper, or automating a process to make it more efficient and require less manpower... but I bet very few of you have had your job threatened by a work force of Goats!!

Yes, you heard (herd?) me correctly, certain aspects of my job can be performed by goats, willing to work for the pure joy of killing weeds. The idea of using livestock as a tool for controlling weeds is not new, and goats are almost like mercenaries in the sense you must control what they are doing at all times, or they might become your worst nightmare. Like many weapons, they are capable of doing much damage to an ecosystem if not carefully deployed, but if used with precision, can be effective and mutually beneficial. In Washington, goats are employed by the Nature Conservancy to tackle dense stands of blackberry thickets. I have also wondered about using them to tackle the marshes on Fort Lewis that have become mono cultures of Reed Canary Grass.

Well, the Winds of Change are nothing new to me, and can be interesting times; like the many unique species of birds now migrating south on these northern fronts. It's a great time to view many birds, such as the majestic sandhill cranes, so I plan to get out and make the most of it. I'm going to miss BirdNote when I leave the Puget Sound, so I'll have to lobby my own Audubon Chapter to make a Southwest version of the show.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Hoh Hoh Hoh!

Merry Autumn!

The weather is starting to change over to cooler and wetter conditions here at the Puget Sound and coastal prairies. The few sunny days left are going to be action packed, as we race to treat areas of Reed Canary Grass that we had previously brush-cut along stream beds. Reed Canary Grass forms such a tangled mass in creek bottoms that it prevents salmon and other fishes from being able to swim upstream to spawn, and can even grow to such densities as to lower the water table. It's also very difficult to kill, requiring us to wait about 1 month after cutting to return and spray it with an aquatic-approved herbicide. Fortunately, weeds we've sprayed earlier in the summer look like they are not resprouting, so we seem to be making a difference.

Our prescription fire program is also trying to finish up a few last burns before it becomes too damp to continue, so early next week will be a rush to complete a few last important areas.

For our weekend adventure, Lisa and I went exploring the Hoh River and Rainforest on the west side of the Olympic Mountains. We saw huge, old growth Western Red Cedars, Hemlocks, and Sitka Spruce, and an area in the forest called The Hall of Mosses. Our campsite for the first evening was simply along the river banks in an area manged by the Hoh River Trust. We had the entire river to ourselves, and made a little fire along the gravel bar as Kingfishers would fly past and chatter. During the night, we heard sounds of a large animal rummaging around, but fortunately we are careful with locking away food at night. In the morning, near our campsite, we found fresh bear scat.

The Black Bears are busy this time of year trying to bulk up for the winter, and the nearby Himalayan Black Berry bushes (alas, an exotic invasive weed, but a tasty one!) were providing the bears most of their diet. A full bear is a happy bear, and we were glad to have not let this one sample human camp food and begin associating people with food; bears are very smart, and when they learn that campsites have food, they will keep returning and eventually cause a problem. Unfortunately, the bears get blamed for eating any food lazy campers leave out, and eventually are killed.

The following day, we hiked up the river to where Mount Tom creek flows into the river, and a pretty waterfall cascades down. We saw bald eagles, baby coho salmon, red squirrels, and lots of signs of elk. When we returned to our camp in the National Park, a pair of bull elks began sparring with each other!

On Sunday, we visited several of the coastal beaches and watched the tide roll out. These beaches are much rockier than what I'm used to seeing, and even stranger, have huge masses of driftwood logs piled along the shore. Looking out west into the Pacific Ocean, I was reminded by Lisa about an article in my American Bird Conservancy magazine about death by plastic. Plastic is a wonderful material; extremely durable & lightweight, and cheap to make; but sadly it's inexpensiveness has let society treat it as disposable.

I recall one of my old school friends dad, Dr. Foss, predicting in the early 1980's that since plastic is so durable that it will quickly accumulate if we are not careful how we use it. Sure enough, plastics have accumulated so much that out in the middle of the Pacific floats an island out of trash as big as the state of Texas! Prior to 1990, this area was known as the North Pacific Gyre; a slowly rotating current similar to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. Now, it is called the Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch amazing only represents about 10% of the total plastic trash in the north Pacific. Seattle had recently passed a law requiring a 20 cent fee charged for disposable bag use to encourage us to reuse bags instead of trashing them. Unfortunately, this plan has stalled. Hopefully, more cities and states will adopt measures to reduce the amount of garbage, especially plastics, which ultimately save much more in the long run; not only in reducing waste, but preserving natural systems like the pacific ocean that provide us food.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Autumnal Equinox

This week was off to a great start, as we had our quarterly meeting along the Black River. This river has it's origin in deep, dark springs of Black Lake, just a few miles from my apartment in Tumwater. The lake is strange in that it has two outflows from it; a canal that stretches north to Puget Sound, and the Black River that stretches south and eventually joins forces with the Chehalis river that heads out west to the Pacific, technically making the Olympic Peninsula the largest island in the United States. We spent the day on the river, which the Nature Conservancy has helped protect and restore, and as thanks, Black River Canoe and Kayaking Trips very generously loaned us canoes and shuttled us back from our drop off point! We saw lots of belted kingfishers, cedar waxwings, and blue herons. There were also these huge globs stuck to the base of some of the water lilies that are probably the egg cases for a newt.

Then it was back to business as usual, which some spraying of nefarious Scotch Broom and then two more burns. One burn was at Scatter Creek, which is a diverse wet-prairie located at the base of the Black Hills. We burned several small test plots there, along with two other units a few acres in size to determine how the prairie there responds to fire. I think these were the first prescription burns done in that area, so it was great to accomplish them. The next area we tried to burn on Friday was a 5 acre unit on Rocky Prairie. We began setting blacklines, but the wind kept shifting back and forth, and eventually decide to drift smoke over a nearby busy road. To prevent the smoke from affecting visibility, we tried to go slowly, but it became clear it just wasn't going to be a good idea. That was probably a good decision, since a sheriff was nearby attending a historical reenactment at a nearby pioneer settlement site. The DNR Burn Boss said, "I've called off fires because of bad weather, broken equipment, medical emergencies... but this is the first time I've had to shut down a burn because of a bleepin' stagecoach." Always nice to be a part of history.

Lisa and I didn't get much of a weekend, because on Sunday morning, we joined up with Casey and Brian to drive down to Pierce Island on the Columbia River gorge. We setup camp in the rain at Beacon Rock State Park, and then canoed each day over to the island, armed with brush cutters and back pack sprayers to treat the False Indigo that is starting to form a dense stand along the eastern shores of the island. It was a spectacular setting to work in, with the massive 900' tall Beacon Rock jutting up from the shoreline, the rocky cliffs of the Columbia Gorge framing the valley of the river, and even the huge Elowah waterfall on the distant Oregon cliffs could be seen.

This area was named when Lewis & Clark first camped at this spot and named Beacon rock 200 years ago, and noticed the river level changed with the tides, the first sign their journey to the Pacific was almost over. Less than 100 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers saw this rock as nothing more than rubble; they planned to blow it to bits and use it to make a large jetty (fortunately, Mr. Biddle begged the state to stop the nonsense). Thankfully, this small area was protected, and we saw herds of elk grazing on the island, a peregrine falcon feasting on a gull carcass, an osprey with her nest, and a new lifelist bird: a pair of horned larks! We didn't have much time to explore the park, but we did manage to do the short hike to Little Beacon near our campground, which was very rewarding: we saw rare lowland Pika in the rock slides along the trail! Casey had also noticed some wood fragments that glow in the dark, which I found really interesting. I suspect it's from a mold, so I brought them back to the apartment to try and figure it out.

Of all the times I've worked through the weekend, this was the best!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Whales Have Tales

It was an eventful week, as we burned some test plots at West Rocky Prairie and Mima Mounds, and also a large 80 acre unit on Glacial Heritage Prairie. The Glacial burn included a small sections of fir woodlands, which subsequently took two days of work to douse all the smoldering spots. Photographers from National Geographic had attended that burn to tell the story of how the Nature Conservancy is using prescription fires to restore native plant populations. That was a good fire to take pictures, since it had some large flames and big columns of smoke.

For the weekend, Lisa and I camped out at Olympic National Park's Heart of the Hills campground. We did spend a little time there attending a ranger talk and exploring a small stream, but really we just wanted a nice place to sleep near the ferry docks in Port Angeles. We woke up at dawn on Saturday to drive down to the docks and catch the first ferry to Victoria in British Columbia. Victoria is a nice city on Vancouver Island, and we had arrangements with the Prince of Whales to take us out on a boat ride to find some Orcas.

Upon landing, we had several hours before our boat ride, so we rushed to see The Buchart Gardens. 100 years ago, it was a cement quarry, but when the limestone deposit was exhausted, the Burcharts turned it into a magnificent sunken garden. Even at the beginning of autumn, the gardens had lots of blooms to enjoy. We rushed back to the docks to catch our boat for the three hour tour. It was hot standing around in the docks in our jumpsuits, but once the zodiac got up to speed on the open water, we were wishing we had brought gloves too!

The captain had heard a sea plane sight the J-pod family of Orcas, but they were heading east and nearly 2 hours away. The captain instead opted to head out west, where some transient killer whales had been seen, along with reports of a Humpback Whale too! We circled a tiny island with a lighthouse that is now an important rest area for Harbor Seals and Sea Lions. It was great to be so close to hear them, but not so great to smell them. Ugh! The pinnepeds were so used to seeing boats, that we hardly got their attention. Instead, they fear the killer whales who hunt them. One thing I did not realize is that the resident Orcas feed primarily on fish such as salmon, but the families of Orcas that travel long distances on the west coast are hunters of seals, Dall porpoise, and sea lions, which earns them the title 'killer whales'.

We continued our search for Orcas, but the only cetaceans we saw the entire trip were Dall porpoise, who were not interested in playing around in the pressure waves of our boat, as most dolphins and porpoise seem to enjoy doing. I wonder if the Dall porpoise have learned that tour boats are heading towards Orcas and following us would lead them into danger? Riding out, we stayed near the coastline where the Orcas would likely be hunting, but on the return back to Victoria, we rode the open & deep waters of the Juan de Fuca Straight, where the Humpbacks would swim.

So we returned to shore without seeing any Orca, but the good news is that Prince of Whales has a guarantee that you can continue riding with them until you finally see your whale. We made our plans to ride out with them again on Sunday. This time, we headed east toward the San Juan islands, where our captain found us a pod of transient whales, which she believed to be the T-30 family. Thar be whales! The two males would stay a distance away from the family, and the matriarchs and one calf would form the core of the pod. They would breath at the surface about 5 times and then make a long, deep dive for several minutes, leaving us guessing where they'd surface next. Our captain had radioed in the discovery to other tour operators, and after about 30 minutes of observing, we left the area to make way for the next boat coming on scene.

It was a great experience, and I'm glad we had the perfect weather for it!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


The burn season continues, with more prairies getting torched. We've noticed that without enough fuel load, problem species like Scotch Broom or exotics like St. Johns Wort seem to survive the burn. I've also discovered how much hard work goes into mopping up after the fires! Ugh. Mosses, rotten roots, and fir needles will continue smoldering underneath the surface unless they are dug up and doused. We try not to disturb the soils, since that gives an opening for weeds to encroach, but more important is ensuring the fire doesn't escape it's boundaries. Fortunately, I was able to leave work early enough one evening to attend Tea & Tales at the Tumwater library... whew!

For the weekend adventure, we climbed Mount Saint Helens. Since Rainier and St. Helens are such big draws for hikers, there is a permit system in place to ensure the number of people on a given day does not exceed a certain limit. Otherwise, too many people cause severe trail damage and it would be impossible to determine who is on the mountain if an emergency occurs. Only 100 people per day are allowed to climb Mount St. Helens, and the weekend reservations for summer book up months in advance. We bought our permit for last Friday, but had to reserve it in June!

We picked up our permits Thursday evening before and established our base camp at Climber's Bivouac, which gave an expedition-style feel to our climb. Before bedtime, we prepared our gear for the ascent. The following morning we awoke to a cold sunrise and began our trek up the Monitor Ridge Route at 6:30am. There were still some snow banks sheltered in the forest by the trailhead at 3800 ft and in the deeper gullies on the flanks of the volcano.

We cached our heavy jackets and some water at treeline (around 4700 ft) and began the scramble up the boulders. The weather was perfect, which gave us views of Mount Adams, Mount Hood, the Three Sisters, and in the far distance, Mount Shasta in California! On the climb up, we passed by two monitoring sites: one was an abandoned platform, but the other site was an active EarthScope Plate Boundary Observation Station. Its job is to continually receive GPS satellite signals and plot its location, then transmit this data to help monitor shifting continental plates.

After the boulder field came the pumice field (starting around 7800 ft) and the final push for the top. Ever walked through sand? Now imagine doing it uphill and you have an idea of what walking through pumice is like. We continued marching upwards and onwards, until finally we were at the rim, where we celebrated with an early lunch.

It was tremendous staring at the inside of a mountain that ripped itself apart. Spirit Lake was still, some twenty years after the eruption, 30% covered in floating logs. Several steam vents hinted at the possibility the dome was alive and waiting for the next mountain-building cycle. Rock slides tumbled down the crater walls. We also thought we heard gurgling noises below the dirty glacier. Mount Rainier beckoned in the distance to the north.

The elevation we have for the rim is 8,280 ft with one of the higher points on the rim at 8,365 ft, although the wind and almost continuous rockslides are probably shrinking those numbers down. Looking over the edge of the rim was very windy, and large dust devils almost continually scoured depressions around the rim. This flying ash and dust is why goggles are recommended gear for climbing to Monitor Ridge. We could see Johnson Ridge Observatory in the far northeast, and in between the desolate Plains of Abraham stretched below, still mostly barren after 20 years. If you look closely at the flat, broken rocks (remains of the whaleback dome shattered during the 2005 eruption), you can see an orange dot that is a geologist far below, investigating the dome. He must've been transported there by helicopter.

We headed down at noon, but it took a long time to pick our way across the boulder fields. We took the chance to glissade down one of the snow banks, which was a nice change of pace.

It was a great and unique experience to climb this wicked landscape and see an active volcano! Next weekend, we hope to see a real whaleback on a boat trip to another country!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Burning the Last Great Places

The Nature Conservancy has a slogan of 'saving the last great places', named for an intensive initiative of identifying and securing many of our intact ecosystems. The prairies and woodlands that are now protected from agricultural and development often have a long term relationship with wildfire that acts as a recurring disturbance that keeps the ecosystem from slowly changing into a different form. This need for fire to maintain an ecosystem is referred to as a 'fire regime'.

This past week, we performed our first burn of the season on a small section of Wolf Haven. It was a small burn, only about 2 or 3 acres, and we had over 20 people to manage it! Many of the folks at the burn, including myself, were first-timers on a prescribed burn, so this was was as important for training as it was a trial to see how the prairies at Wolf Haven respond to fire treatment. Our Burn Boss tasked the Nature Conservancy Crew with holding the western line, and the East Olympia and Thurston County firefighters managing the eastern line. My coworker managed the TNC pump truck, which provided one water source. My job was keeping fire from creeping across the burn lines into our fire break, which was a mowed area.

Ideally, fire breaks are best as bare soil, but since we want to restore the prairie, and not leave permanent scars on the land, we simply mow the fire breaks and keep them doused with water. The winds were from the south, so we began at the north end of the unit and started a test fire. After observing how the test fire behaved, the burn boss decided to continue the burn. A person on each end of the fire line would use a Drip Torch to ignite a line of grasses that "backburn" into the wind. The wind tries to push the fire across our fire break, but we use water and flappers to prevent it, which is referred to as a wet line.

Once the fire has crept far away from our line, the two igniters move the fire towards the center, where the wind rapidly sweeps it across the unit and creates what is called a Head Fire, hopefully creating the right conditions to accomplish the restoration goals. Once the head fire reaches the burned line, there is no fuel and it is contained, but if it ever crossed our blackline, the head fire would become a wildfire and could quickly become a problem. Another potential danger is wind throwing embers far over the blackline and creating a Spot Fire, which could become it's own fire and spawn yet more spot fires. In prescription burns, weather is monitored continually for bad conditions, and lookouts are posted to watch for spot fires.

We continued this method of parceling the burn unit into chunks like this until the entire area is completed. Three acres of grass burns very quickly, so it was only about 45 minutes before only the poor, smoldering ruins of Thatcher ant mounds were left. These ant mounds are quite large, sometimes build to heights of 4 feet! Many chambers are tunneled under the ground too, with stored seeds and other organics that will smolder a long time. We needed to ensure these were doused before calling the burn completed.

Thatcher ants are really fascinating insects: they don't really bite humans, and they perform many beneficial services for the ecosystem by collecting litter and controlling bad insects from damaging the plants and trees. Their mounds can extend up to 15 feet below the surface, and perhaps for this reason they were one of the first animals to recolonize Mount Saint Helens after the 1980 eruption.

After a busy week, Lisa and I spent most of the weekend camping out at Big Creek, which is near Cushman Lake. The southern entrance to Olympic National Park is at the north end of the lake, and is called Staircase because nearly all the trails leading from there go in only one direction... up! We saw ancient Western Red Cedar trees, century old manganese mines, waterfalls, and crystal clear water flowing down the Skokomish River. There wasn't much wildlife readily visible, except for a few squirrels and birds. Most of the birds were high up in the trees, and wouldn't come down to visit except for a Hairy Woodpecker and Stellar's Jays. We did see a pair of Osprey tending a nest high up over the river, so they seem to know where to find food - any maybe why we didn't see anything else.

I hope everyone else had an enjoyable holiday weekend too!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Midway at Midsummer

The time between summer's solstice and autumnal equinox is upon us; summer is half over and so is my season with Olympia's Nature Conservancy chapter. The weather seemed to signal that summer's days are numbered, since a prelude to fall arrived in the form of rainy and cool weather. We are now wrapping up our Reed Canary Grass cutting, and will transition to late summer work schedules. There are several prescribed burns planned for the upcoming weeks, and I may be called in to assist with them.

The blackberries, salmonberries, and thimbleberries are ripening on the prairies of Fort Lewis, and we've seen many signs that black bears have been feasting on them. We've also seen deer carcass, likely roadkill, that was dragged into tall grass and munched upon by either coyotes or bears. Along the oaks lining Johnson Marsh, we had an excellent view of a Red-breasted Sapsucker, another life-list bird!

Lisa and I decided to explore more of Mount Rainier National park, and we left early on Friday to secure a campsite... but the entire park was already full. Fortunately, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest borders the park, and we were able to nab a campsite at La Wis-Wis. This allowed serendipity to guide us to a wonderful cascade called Purcell Falls. Its icy cold waters air-conditioned the little canyon with cool, damp air that was welcome relief on a day with temperatures reaching record highs in the area. There was a pair of Winter Wrens chasing bugs in the moss covered rocks to feed their chicks hidden in a cliff-side nest.

At Mount Rainier, we first visited Grove of the Patriarchs, a small group of ancient Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, and western red cedars clustered along the flood plain of the Ohanapecosh River. There is a nice suspension footbridge across the river. The same clear, friendly waters under that bridge turned into a raging torrent a few miles further downstream at Silver Falls.

The following day, we explored many other sites, such as Martha Falls, Box Canyon, and Reflection Lakes. Martha Falls is actually a long series of tiers along Unicorn Creek, with a grand total of 650' of falls. We hiked down to one section that can be approached along the Wonderland Trail. Trees and logs from last winter's avalanche littered the canyon, and the ruins of two footbridges could be seen, one that was made from reinforced steel I-beams! The tier of the falls we could see from the trail tumbled over a columnar basalt palisade, and was the only trail at Mount Rainier we had to ourselves.

For the afternoon, we had a nice dayhike up Pinnacle Saddle. From the saddle, there are trails to The Castle and Plummer Peak, so I went up Plummer Peak. There were amazing views of Mount Rainier, with Mount Adams and even Mount Saint Helens could be seen on the hazy horizon. Along the same ridge as Plummers, Pinnacle Peak loomed nearby, with The Castle looking more like an ancient fortress and Unicorn Peak in the distance, whose snow banks become the headwaters of Unicorn Creek. There is a perfectly sloped snow bank on Plummer Peak that makes for an excellent glissade down a portion of the hike. Soggy buns are a cheap price to pay for a cool thrill like that in August!

We hit up a few other roadside attractions, such as Narada and Christine Falls, and walked along a huge bridge that crossed the valley carved by the Nisqually Glacier that has retreated several miles upslope. The headwaters of the Nisqually churned a muddy brown below our feet, and occasionally a booming sound of a rolling boulder would echo up to us. We might return again this fall to see the first snows and the brand new visitor center at Paradise. Maybe I should've bought an Annual Park's pass this year?