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!