Thursday, November 15, 2012

Happy Trails

Phew, there's a lot to catch up on! Work with the trail crew this summer had its ups and downs. To make a long story short, I became a certified Class A sawyer, worked with a great crew on trails all over the southwest corner of Oregon, and ended the season with a lot of hardware in my left ankle after suffering a bad break from taking a fall on Bolt Mt.

I broke my ankle just after I began the MS in environmental education program at Southern Oregon University. It was tough making it through that first term of my grad program on one leg and pain pills.

Before I broke my ankle and started school, I took a break from the trail crew and went on a road trip with my sister. The day she flew into Medford, we set off for Crater Lake. On our way there, we picked up some used wet suits (just in case we decided to hop in the Pacific later) that we squeezed into at a consignment shop called Get-N-Gear in Ashland. If you've ever tried on wet suits, it's not the easiest endeavor, especially not when you're in a tiny dressing room in an attic in July with no AC.

Our first pit stop on our journey were the Mill and Barr Creek Falls outside of Prospect, OR. We were taking the same trip I went on when I first moved here, but in reverse. We stopped at Becky's for some pie in Union Creek and checked out the Rogue River Gorge. The first time I visited this area, the snow on the sides of the road towered above my car. I actually camped in the snow behind the cabins at the Union Creek Resort back in March. I wasn't prepared for the drastic change in weather that came along with traversing into higher elevations.

After feasting our faces on pie and feasting our eyes on the deep blue depths of the Crater Lake, we headed for the North Umpqua hot springs, stopping to check out a few more falls along the way. The first time I tried to reach these hot springs, I couldn't find my way through the snow. By the time my sister and I arrived at our campsite along the North Umpqua River, it was getting dark. All we had for guidance on our hike up to the hot springs were two tiny flashlights. The little light we had didn't help much when we had no idea where we were going. After wandering around in the dark for awhile, we found our way up the steep trail and made it to the hot springs. Our efforts were rewarded with steaming pools cascading down a cliff under a brilliant night sky and the Umpqua River trickling by below.

After soaking in the springs and sleeping under a starlit sky, we awoke the next morning to make our way towards the coast. But first, we had to check out some more waterfalls...

We wove our way through the mountains to the coastal town of Bandon and decided to forgo camping for the night due to the chilly weather. Instead, we got a honeymoon suite with a beach view at the Table Rock Motel. We made up for it the next night though, camping on the beach in Casper, California.

The Sandman somehow brought us sleep that night during our sandy slumber and we awoke the next morning to waves crashing and gulls calling. We groggily jumped back in the car and wound our way down Hwy. 1 that day visiting the redwoods and the Anderson Valley until finally arriving in San Fransisco.

The adventure continued to unfold there when we met a friendly guy named Ben at a local club. He offered us a tour of the city the next day and we fell in love with the Bay area, especially my sister who now lives in Oakland...with Ben!

After that adventure, I plowed through my first term of school while recovering from my ankle injury and then flew back to Missouri for a little while. My mom was able to fly back with me to Oregon to help me recoup. We made yet another trip to Crater Lake while she was here and went wine tasting all over the Rogue Valley.

Shortly after she left, I began working at McGregor Park on the Rogue River near Lost Creek Lake. Right about that time, the salmon were returning to their spawning grounds in the Rogue River after spending several years down in the ocean to get big and fat. I was just as astonished at the sight of salmon as the kids I guided through the park. I had never seen them in the wild before and I was blown away by their massiveness and determination.

To introduce children to the salmon life cycle, we began many of our field trips by playing a game called hooks and ladders. The activity is an obstacle course that simulates the life cycle of a salmon. Students begin as eggs and play rock, paper, scissors to move through the salmon life cycle. Once they reach their adult stage, we send them through the obstacle course. First, they have to pass through a twirling jump rope that represents a turbine inside a dam generating hydroelectricity. If they hit the rope, they die and stand in a line with the other ill-fated salmon who become part of a fish ladder. If they make it past the jump rope turbine, the salmon kids continue down the river trying not to get tagged by their predator classmates until they pass through the estuary and enter the ocean.

Salmon spend about 3-7 years of their life in the ocean. Before they enter the ocean they undergo a process called smoltification that enables them to survive in a salt water habitat. The ocean provides salmon with adequate space and food to allow them to grow large. Once they are fully developed, they return to the exact same spot in the river where they were born relying only on their keen sense of smell.

In the hooks and ladders obstacle course, kids have to collect tokens on either side of the playing field and dodge ocean predators along the way. Once they have gathered enough tokens they have to climb the "fish ladder" of "dead salmon" and hop over a jump rope waterfall. The kids, just like salmon, don't get a running start, because they are moving against the current. Salmon can "leap" up to six feet to cross obstacles like waterfalls when returning to their spawning grounds.

Very few of the kids survive the course which they learn is also true for salmon. Only one out of one-thousand eggs laid by a female salmon survives to complete its entire life journey. Their only mission when they return to the river in which they were born is to spawn and die. Salmon don't eat at all in the river when returning to their spawning grounds. Male salmon develop hook jaws to fight for females and to defend nests called redds. These nests are constructed by female salmon who swish their tail to clear off a gravel bed where they lay their eggs.

During their journey up river, salmons' bodies begin decaying due to their weak immune system that results from not eating. About two weeks after spawning, both male and female salmon die and their carcasses become food for aquatic macroogranisms (insects), newly hatched salmon called fry, and bears who carry salmon carcasses into the woods and spread their nutrients in the forest.

Now, the salmon have all spawned and died and our field trips at McGregor Park are over. The fall quarter for this school year is also coming to a close, but I will be keeping plenty busy. I have almost fully recovered from my broken ankle and I will be working with the trail crew again this winter. Even though I was injured on the job, I loved every minute of my trail crew experience. I feel so privileged to be able to explore and help others enjoy this amazingly beautiful part of the world. I'm looking forward to continuing to blaze new trails and clear off old beaten paths so that others can spend more time in nature and soak in the spectacular views that I have been so lucky to see.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sharing Adventures in Conservation Research and My Personal Adventures

Check out this link. It gives a good summary of the Table Rocks where I have been leading hikes for the past 3 months.... Adventures in Conservation Research: Threat Assessment for Limnanthes floccosa ssp. pum...: Lower Table Rock and the Rogue Valley The second week of the field season (late April) took us to Southern Oregon’s Table Rocks to monit...

The Table Rocks are an amazing geologic feature and provide great habitat for a myriad of plants and wildlife. The Dwarf Wooly Meadowfoam only grows on top of the Table Rocks and nowhere else in the world! That's always a shock factor for the kids (and me!). I feel so privileged to lead kids on hikes on these unique outdoor wonders here in southern Oregon. This part of the country has so many beautiful places to offer and I've been lucky enough to explore many of them in my short time here. In fact, I've been so busy exploring, I haven't had any time to blog!

There are a few new adventures that I will be embarking on this summer. After next week, my work with the Table Rocks Environmental Education Program will be done for the season and I will begin work with a trail crew maintaing trails throughout the BLM's Medford District. I will also be starting a masters program this summer in environmental education at Southern Oregon University. This will require me to move once again, but only a few towns away. I am looking forward to it and hopefully I will start doing a better job of sharing my experiences once I finally stop going a million miles a minute...whenever that times comes...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Oregon Trail

My journey up country has took yet another turn, this time due west...

I had much to be thankful for when my internship in Maryland came to an end a few days before Thanksgiving. I was thankful for being able to spend some time at one of the most ground breaking wildlife research facilities in the world; thankful for all of the remarkable people I was able to meet; and thankful for getting to see parts of the country I hadn't spent a great deal of time in, if any, including our nation's capital, the breathtaking Chesapeake Bay area, the Appalachian Mountains, and NYC, the city that never sleeps.

Back in Missouri, I had even more to be thankful for. I was returning to my home state to spend the holidays with my friends and family after being gone most of the summer and fall. I also had another assignment to report to upon my return. Temporarily, I worked for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources as an interpretive resource specialist for Katy Trail State Park. Under this position, I was able to travel back in time to the days when the "iron horse" was running wild through our country.

A bit of background information for those that may be confused as to what I'm referencing -- The Katy Trail is a rail-to-trail. It was converted to a pedestrian trail after the decline of the once prominent and heavily relied upon Missouri, Kansas, Texas Railroad (MKT or "Katy"). A section of this railroad ran along the north side of the Missouri River. My assignment was to research, write and design interpretive panels/signs to be posted at the info depot trail heads. This signage celebrates the days of the railroad and provides onlookers with a glimpse of what life was like for early settlers of Missouri.

Not unlike many of the early settlers, I wasn't ready to hang my hat in the Midwest. I had an itching to get on the Oregon trail and see what the future had in store for me in unexplored territories. Luckily, the West answered my call and gave me an opportunity to continue my trek up country.

Thanks to a recommendation from my previous supervisor at the Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge, I got in touch with the Bureau of Land Management in Medford, OR. They had a position open in their Table Rocks Environmental Education Program for a hike leader, and I seemed to fit the bill.That's all it took, and I was off, full speed ahead to my new life in Oregon.

My parents joined me on the Oregon trail following Route 66 almost the entire way. This was unexplored territory for them as well and they were just as eager as I was to see this part of the world. The beauty of the West began to unfold at one of our first stops in New Mexico to catch up with my parents' old college buddy. From there, the scenery grew steadily more striking until climaxing at perhaps the most wondrous of all the wonders of the world, the Grand Canyon.

As we pulled into the park, snow was falling silently all around. The air was cold and brisk. A dense fog was rolling in and the sun was setting as the opening of the canyon came into view. This geologic wonder stretching out as far as the eye could see in vast arrays of colors, layers and depths was enough to make my heart skip a beat at the magnificent sight standing before me. Each view of the canyon that evening and the following day seemed to be more beautiful than the last. Unfortunately, our pit stop there had to come to an end and we piled back into the car heading west again through mountains, desert, and farmland until finally reaching the coast.

Waiting for us on large, dark rocks jutting out of the Pacific Ocean was a plethora of plump sea lions basking in the sun. What first appeared to be hundreds of small dark birds floating on the water, a closer look through my binoculars unveiled the heads of sea lions poking out of the waves. They were definitely a sight to sea ;-) But the grand finale of our journey to the coast was waiting for us a few miles north, the giant redwood forests.

Standing among these mighty, prehistoric giants made me feel so minuscule yet part of something larger than life at the same time. I practically fell over backwards peering up into the canopies of these enchanted trees that had out survived the dinosaurs. The entire experience was mind blowing and deeply moving, bringing me to tears at one point as I stood surrounded by a cathedral of trees and birds calling back in forth in a mesmerizing melody.

Winding back east through the forests and mountains, we snuck into Medford under the star filled, moonlit sky. That following morning, I woke up in my new home to see the sun rising out my window over the peak of the Roxy Anne mountain. I walked out my door to find that I was surrounded by mountains on all sides, with the Cascades to the east and the Siskiyou Mountains to the west. Perhaps the most spectacular of all in view from Medford is Mt. McLoughlin, a snow capped volcano in the Cascade Range.

My parents and I climbed the Upper Table Rock that day, the first of many hikes I will be leading on the Table Rocks. Upper Table Rock lies up river on the Rogue from Lower Table Rock. These two flat-topped formations are capped by impermeable andesite lava rock that once flowed through the Rogue valley after erupting from Mt. Olson, a shield volcano to the northeast that has since been almost entirely eroded away. The Table Rocks and their neighboring Castle Rock are some of the last traces of this eruption that occurred 7 million years ago, much later in history than the formation of the Cascade Range mountains also volcanic in origin. The Table Rocks are roughly 2,000 feet above the valley and represent the original elevation of the ancient Rogue River valley before erosion took its toll on the underlying sandstone of the Payne Cliff formation.

The impermeable andesite lava caps on top of the Table Rocks create a unique mounded prairie/vernal pool environment. This sensitive environment is home to the federally threatened Vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp. This macroinvertebrate lays cysts in the pools that can survive extreme conditions until they are able to hatch when the vernal pools are filled with rainwater. The Table Rocks are also the only place in the world where the Dwarf-Woolly Meadowfawn grows. The seeds of this plant can also survive extreme conditions and produce an oil that has similar lubricating qualities as sperm whale oil which NASA uses on probes sent into outer space!!!

These are some of the many cool facts I will be explaining to children on hikes up the Table Rocks this spring along with the fun-filled BLM crew that I have joined. For now, I am continuing to explore all of the wonders that southern Oregon has to offer as I chase after rivers and waterfalls, and traverse high into mountain tops to feast my eyes upon such glorious sights as the crystal clear depths of Crater Lake.