Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Toto, I don't think we're in the Keys anymore...

This was my first week at my new job with the Nature Conservancy. I toured several of the prairies I'd be working on this summer, and learned many new plants; both the good (natives) and the bad (non-natives). There are over 80,000 acres of natural areas, mostly preserved on the military base Fort Lewis, named after (Lewis Meriwether of the Lewis & Clark expedition, which reached the end of the Columbia river not far from here). This ecosystem is unique, and home to many rare plants and animals; for instance, in this photo is the Paintbrush Castilleja and the nesting grounds for the endangered subspecies, the Streaked Horned Lark. These prairies are part of the glacial deposits of the Nisqually plain, whose drainage begins on the slopes of nearby Mt. Rainier.

While Poison Ivy is present here in the lower elevations of Washington, I'm pleased to report that it's nastier relatives such as Poisonwood are nowhere to be found. Instead of Nickerbean and Acacia, there's Himalayan Blackberries and Stinging Nettles, and in place of Manchineel there is Death Camas (the pretty white lily in this photo). At the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I found myself constantly scanning the freshwater marshes for alligators.

The refuge was a really great place to get acquainted with the local flavor of plants and animals. We walked over 7 miles there, and saw many birds, bugs, plants, and a beaver-thing (a nutria, perhaps?). Often, there are sightings of seal lions and river otters, but we weren't so lucky. However, we did see a Rufus Hummingbird nest and I added several new birds to my lifelist: Tree Swallow, Band-tailed Pigeon and Wilson's Phalarope. There were many ducks in the water, with little fuzzy ducklings earnestly swimming after mama. Other notable birds for us were Bald Eagles, Townsend's Solitaire, Virginia Rail, Wood Duck, Yellow Warbler, and Blue-winged & Cinnamon Teal.

The Cascade range had a very good winter for snow, and some of the ski areas were open for Memorial Day weekend, which had never happened before. Since it had been WAY too long since the last time I went skiing, and the snowbase was still > 100", this was too tempting to pass up. We ended up in Alpental along Snoqualmie Pass. It was great to be playing out in the snow wearing light pants and a T-shirt! The snow was melting fast, and there were no less than 6 big waterfalls that could be seen along nearby cliffs (one can be seen far behind me in this photo).

After skiing, we drove onward towards Seattle to visit with an old friend of mine, but not before stopping at the touristy hotspot of Snoqualmie Falls, which was roaring at full intensity and splashing everyone way up on the rim with cold mist. We had a nice evening of tasty Indian food and fun games (I lost). Another very exciting historical event that occurred while we gazed over the falls; the Phoenix Lander successfully touched down upon the north pole of Mars... a day for snow, ice and water here and afar!

For Memorial Day, we toured several geocaches around town, such as nearby Tumwater Falls, Priest Point Park, and the state forest. It was fascinating to a fish ladder in person for the first time; a series of concrete pens that had small chutes to let water channel through them and let the salmon swim upstream past the dam.

Next week should be fun. We start tomorrow with a plant plot survey on Johnson Prairie.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday weekend!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Journey to Tumwater Hill

We left on a Monday morning, with not yet having a place to stay or having seen the Northwest. 2,300 miles later, we finally made it to Olympia! Originally, I had planned on taking 8 days to make this drive, with some time to camp and explore the country we'd be driving through. But having never traveled before with cats, we wanted to keep things simple. It was almost like self-imposed torture to be so close to many national parks, monuments, forests, and wildernesses and not be able to experience them. Even from the seat of the car, the scenery was exciting, such as Shiprock, the Way of the Ancients, and Valley of the Gods, and the thrilling drive up Moki Dugway.

We did make time on the drive to tour around Natural Bridges National Monument, and did a few short hikes while cats slept in the car. I was surprised by how much snow was still hanging on the mountains, even as low as 8,000 feet. The short hikes we did took us past inspiring landscapes of sandstone, which still showed the dune forms with petrified cross-bedding clearly visible in the weathered rocks. From one cliff, we could look down into the cave that sheltered Horse-collar ruins, an ancient and unique Anasazi home that was abandoned 700 years ago as the climate became too dry to support their farming practices.

We then drove through more beautiful canyon lands, and across the office space of my former crew boss's, Capitol Reef National Park. He lives in a quaint old farmhouse, so we hope to visit him again on our way back home and this time make plans to stay long enough to explore more of the area. After a huge dinner at Diablo's, we blazed tracks all the way to northern Utah. Our last day we made it to the Columbia Gorge just as the sun was setting, and had time to enjoy the cold spray from a few magnificent waterfalls, such as Horsetail and Multnomah Falls, which are the 2nd highest falls in the USA.

We arrived in Washington at nightfall, with the snow on distant mountains looking ghostly by the moonlight. We spent the next day viewing apartments and settled on a place in Tumwater, whose claim to fame is it is the gateway to the Inside Passage (with awesome looking totems that look out from the bridge to the Sound), as well as the site of the first pioneer settlement in Washington back in 1845. On our walk at nearby Tumwater Hill park, we can see the state capital, the sound, and most impressively, the peak of Mount Rainier. The forest is full of unfamiliar plants; huge maples, stinging nettles, lush ferns, and many others that I'll need to learn soon.

Today was our first full day in the apartment, which we spent hitting up garage sales across town, buying lots of used furniture and getting used to driving around town. Tomorrow should be a fun day of hiking around nearby parks and getting ready for my first day on the job as a Prairie Restoration Tech!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wild Wild West

We have over 2200 miles to drive across Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and finally Washington. There's so many sights I would love to see along the way... places that have been on my "to-do" list for a very long time, such as the Latir Peaks, Maroon Bells wilderness, Chaco & Frijole Canyon, Hovenweep, Canyonlands, and many more. With the cats in the car, it's just not possible, so we'll have to save those gems for another adventure.

It's been a whirlwind at home setting up a house-sitter and giving away plants, fish, and cheeses. Now we're on the road again. My Trusty Truck is now spruced up with a Brahma camper shell, which needed some TLC, but will be perfect for the long road trip ahead. We're taking our cats with us, so if the weather's nice, then the camper can serve as our sane-asylum.

We still haven't selected a place to stay in Olympia yet, but have a list of places to look at. We're only packing what can fit in our truck, so if anyone has a friend near Olympia willing to part with a couch, TV, bookshelf, toaster, beanbag chair, bed, blender, or matching salt & pepper shaker... please let me know! :-)

Hopefully, I'll have an internet connection soon and get time to update this next weekend, once we've moved into our new home for the next 6 months. Meanwhile, check here to see what's going on in some of the nearby Parks we hope to visit soon:

Mount Rainier Webcam

Mount St. Helen's Webcam

Happy Trails!

Friday, May 2, 2008

From Sea to Shining Sea

In one age, called the Third Event by some, a wind rose among the Cascade foothills far to the west. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the wheel. But it was a beginning. (friends on my last job were always tossing around obscure references that went way over my head, so this is payback.)

As the title of this blog hints at, I'm off to Washington to begin my next job: working with The Nature Conservancy to restore coastal prairies in the foothills of the Cascades!! This photo (copyright by Keith Lazelle) is to be my new 'office' until this October! Yes, that's Mt. Rainier in the background!!! w00t!!

I miss the Florida Keys already. The director took us out on a research trip on the boat from Boca Chica to Woman Key, stopping at the historic wharf in Key West for some tasty sandwiches. Woman Key has large stretches of beach protected for sea turtle nesting -- even a Leatherback has been spotted nesting there, although it's mostly Hawksbills that use that beach. You can see survey stakes that mark some of the old nest sites. There were also lots of seashells, like stout seabiscuits and delicate scallops, hamburger beans, and sadly, a dead gannet and blue-winged teal washed ashore. My boss-boss even found a stash of pirate brew! *urp* Then, we sped over to an excellent little patch-reef for some snorkeling, which had a resident nurse shark and a little juvenile hawksbill sea turtle. That evening, we had a cozy campfire at my favorite hangout: spooky house on Big Pine. It was the best send off I could have!

When I returned home, the pace of things did not slow down: birthday party, then off to Austin for a "Snakes & Arrows" concert and camping at McKinney Falls, where I saw a western kingbird in the tree by this meadow. There were painted buntings, blue-winged teal, and a red-shouldered hawk too. Then I drove to Bullard to see nieces dance, and I've been catching up with local friends in the time inbetween. Whew!! Right now, I should be frantically packing and shoring up the ol' homestead, since I'll be leaving soon... but instead I'm off to Galveston for the weekend to visit my brother's families and help with a chili cookoff. Tonight, I'm providing entertainment: juggling torches for the first time in my life!