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.