About Lisa

Lisa Kern is a high school science teacher from Indiana who loves to travel and learn new things. She teaches AP Environmental Science and Integrated Chemistry and Physics. She is a recipient of the 2014 Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Grant and traveled across America to learn about Deep Time in the summer of 2014. This blog is meant to share that journey.

Jack’s Journal

This is a work in progress, but I thought I’d store it here so I don’t lose it!

Jack’s Journal
I remember Dad driving us to Moncton for the week of Great Grandma Rose’s funeral. I was ten years old and hadn’t been to Dad’s mother’s house in many years. Nana Lise lived on the river in a large, beautiful home. The night of the visitation, Dad and Mom stayed after to speak to the funeral home director, and Nana Lise offered to take me and my cranky little brother, Brian, back to her house so we could get some sleep. As she was putting Brian down for the night, she told me to “make myself at home.” I wandered down the stairs listening to her trying to sing him to sleep. She had a beautiful voice, but I knew Brian, so I knew this would take a while.

I walked through the kitchen and lingered over the smell of the soup on the stove, but I wasn’t hungry because I had eaten more than my share of cookies at the funeral home. I had discovered the hospitality room while wandering through the hallways. I had enjoyed sneaking away from the adults while my parents were distracted talking to old friends and chasing my brother. The far end of Nana’s kitchen had a swinging door, and I couldn’t remember what was behind it. I swung it open to find a short set of carpeted stairs. They seemed to go down into a side entrance to the house. The entry room was darkly illuminated by what looked like a street lamp, attached to the newel post at the bottom of the steps. The room was paneled in mahogany wood. A few feet from the bottom of the steps was a set of tall, dark, wooden doors.

The far end of Nana’s kitchen had a swinging door, and I couldn’t remember what was behind it. I swung it open to find a short set of carpeted stairs. They seemed to go down into a side entrance to the house. The entry room was darkly illuminated by what looked like a street lamp, attached to the newel post at the bottom of the steps. The room was paneled in mahogany wood. A few feet from the bottom of the steps was a set of tall, dark, wooden doors.

I put my hands on the enormous door pulls and leaned back. Both doors opened slowly to reveal a study or library. In front of me were two white couches, facing each other. The wall on the left had a large bay window with velvet seat cushions. There was a massive desk on the right and a fireplace on the wall facing me. The room was decorated with a tapestry depicting medieval people riding horses. There were a few framed paintings of angels, and tall bookshelves filled with leather-bound books on either side of the hearth. The books were well worn and had names like Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Around the World in Eighty Days, and Robinson Crusoe.

“Well, that’s that!” I thought. I am stuck here with Nana for a week, so I will spend my time in this room, reading! I walked over to choose my first book and noticed several framed photos on a shelf. One had a young couple at their wedding. It looked like a rather old photo, and it had a card that read “J. + R. Smith. This must have been my Great Grandpa Jack and Great Grandma Rose. Another one had four people in it. One looked like my father as a younger man. He was holding a baby. Sitting on his left was a woman who might have been Nana, and there was an elderly man behind him. I picked up the picture frame and turned it over. It had a card that read, “Four generations: Jacques, Lise, Jack, and Lisa”.

“I don’t suppose you remember having that picture taken?!” I jumped, quite startled to hear Nana speak. I hadn’t heard her come in the room.

“Oh,” I giggled nervously, blushing and turning toward her. “No, I sure don’t!” I was a bit ashamed that I was caught holding the picture. Nana’s house seemed to be a place where children should not be touching things!

Then it occurs to me… “Nana, who spelled Great Grandpa Jack’s name wrong? They put Jacques!”

She laughed, “There are some things you don’t know about Great Grandpa Jacques! His grandparents on his mother’s side were French, you know. His mother, your great-great grandmother, used to tell people ‘I named him Jacques so people would call him Jacques!’ But, to her dismay, she and Great Grandma Rose were the only people who didn’t call him Jack, at least in my memory. My mother used to tell us kids that he followed the old French traditions a lot more before he married her, moved to the city, and decided to act in a more English way. His clients didn’t trust the Acadians very much, so he tried to hide his accent and changed how he pronounced his name. He never changed the spelling, but signed his name just with a J.”

“That’s too bad,” I mused. “I always heard we had some French blood, but with a last name like Smith, I didn’t realize Great Grandpa Jack, er, Jacques was where that started.”

“Yes,” she said, “his mother was still alive when I was born, so I was given a French name to appease her, but she died shortly after my birth, and that’s why my younger siblings all have English names. I always thought it would be nice to know more about our voyageur roots, but I think I’m a little too old to follow all those footsteps.”

The grandfather clock near the door chimed and Nana said, “It’s probably time I get you in bed, too. Your parents will be here soon, and I don’t need them to know I let you stay up past your bedtime!”

As we walked toward the wooden double doors, I was wondering what Nana meant by “voyageurs” and “following those footsteps.”

“Oh!” Nana exclaimed. Then she snapped around and shuffled back to the bookshelf. She grabbed a little black book with a small scrap of paper sticking out of the pages, tucked it in her housecoat pocket, and quietly opened the door for me. We walked through the kitchen and she muttered, “I hope your parents will eat some soup,” as we walked to the stairs to the second-floor bedroom.

Nana showed me where she had put my things and where I could brush my teeth. “Get ready for bed and I’ll be back to tuck you in soon,” she said, and headed back down to the kitchen.

I listened to her cleaning up in the kitchen as I thought about what I had just learned. “Great Grandpa ‘Jacques’?!”, I thought. “Interesting.” And more importantly, “What book was she hiding from me?”

Mom and Dad had still not returned when she came to tuck me in.

“I’m glad you’re here, Lisa,” she said. “My mother died an old woman, but it still makes me very sad to lose her. She and I lived together since Great Grandpa Jack died, and you know I lost your grandfather shortly after that. It was just the two of us old ladies in this house for five years, you know.”

“Yes, I’m sad that she’s gone, too,” I said, trying to comfort her, but not quite knowing how.

“You know, in her last years, she was often confused, but I have to tell you a story. About two years ago, I was helping her get dressed and she sat down, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, ‘You will find a book for Lisa one day. It’s not for you, Lise. It’s for Lisa. An “e” is not an “a”. Will you remember that?’”
“What on earth does that mean, Nana?” I said, wondering if Nana was having the same memory trouble that Great Grandma Rose had been troubled with in her final years.
“Well, I didn’t know, so I just chalked it up to her bad memory. But yesterday, I was looking for old pictures for the visitation today, and I came across a book with a tag sticking out that said ‘Lisa,’ not ‘Lise’.”
“Really?! I love books!”

“I know,” she said, kissing me on the forehead “but maybe we should wait until morning. I love you! Good night!”

“Oh Nana! Please!”

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll put it in the drawer here, and if you can’t sleep, you can read a little bit.”

“OK”, I said, “goodnight!”

Not a second after she closed the bedroom door, I jumped out of bed and ran to the dresser in the dark. Upon opening the drawer and feeling around in it, my hand first landed on a flashlight, then the book. I started to get the feeling that Nana wasn’t too worried about me getting to sleep on time at all!

I opened the book…

In pretty writing, it said “My Dear Lisa, You are so much like my Jacques, a curious adventurer. I wish you could have known him. Maybe this will help you understand. Love, GGM Rose
Tuesday morning, 12 June, 1898
The sun is just coming up. I’ve made my coffee and eaten a biscuit. I’ll grab some blueberries on the way. I’m preparing to make my way south from here. I have my map and compass, but I’ve “perdu le nord (lost the north),” as they say around here, or lost my bearings. I should be somewhere south of Petitcodiac, I think. I’ve decided to get back to the Great Trail by marching straight through the woods. I’ll point myself south and try to follow the muddy streambeds where I can. I should eventually run into the Atlantic Ocean, and the trail will be obvious then. This part of the country is inhabited by black bears and moose. While the sun is up, they are active, so I better be, too!
-J. Smith
Late morning, 12 June, 1898
Finally! Four hours later, and I’ve found the ocean! I can’t be more than a half mile from the beach. What a beautiful place! Red rock cliffs, towering pines, and clear sparkling water as far as the eye can see. Best of all, I’m pretty sure I’ve found the Great Trail! There’s a little town a couple of miles down the shoreline. Once I get there, I’ll know where I am, get some supplies and continue the journey east. I can see the town from here, but I’m so tired and honestly feeling relieved, so I think I’ll get to the beach and take a short nap on the grass at the shore. The salty breeze is soothing, the sky is overcast, and the sound of the gentle waves against the rocks only a few yards away is magical. Seems like a perfect place to relax a while.
-J. Smith

Afternoon, 12 June 1898
Whoa! This is weird. Am I dreaming? I’m suddenly not sure where I am. When I went to sleep, I thought I had finally found my way, but now I’ve “perdu le nord” all over again! I don’t even want to write this down. It doesn’t make any sense; people will think I’m crazy. But I said I would document this journey, so I will. The sun is in the west now, which means I must have slept four hours or more, but that’s not the strange part. The ocean… it’s… gone! The spruce and firs on the ruddy cliffs look familiar, but the water has gone missing. The beach is covered with damp rocks, but they’ve multiplied, or been stretched out in front of me, or I’ve been moved to another beach..? I’ll have to go look around.

I stand up and reach for the sky, thinking this may clear my head. I do see some water in the distance. At least, I think it is water. It’s so far, almost all the way on the horizon. Like a mirage. I walk out over the stones, each one moving a little under my feet, each one wet and green with moss or white with barnacles… no, not moss, it’s algae! There are patches of sand and occasionally I see a little crab scurrying to avoid my attention. The water is silent and still near the horizon, it seems. I keep walking toward the sea and a light breeze brings the smell of salt and fish, and convinces me I am still near the ocean. The clumps of algae are brown or green. Some have swollen stems that look like balloons. They don’t belong on dry land; these appear to be marine species. They need to be under water to live, but they still look alive, only slightly deflated. I am careful to avoid stepping on them, since they are very slippery. There are some shallow pools of water here and there, but not enough to support these aquatic plants, and certainly not enough for barnacles! How strange!

I keep walking with my back to the beach, trying to get closer to the water, when I come to a large patch of sand. A thin stream of water is flowing across it, leaving ripples. It looks like water has been making ripples here for some time. But the ripples are symmetrical. Ripples in a streambed are always asymmetrical with one side longer and flatter than the other, indicating the direction the water was flowing. Judging by these ripples, the water must move in two directions equally, but that’s not possible, is it? Looking back at where I napped, I must have walked a mile toward the water by now, but it’s at least another mile out to the waves. This feels like someone pulled the drain plug on the ocean, but there are no confused fish flopping around. Apart from a few shy crabs, no one seems to be the least bit concerned!

A gull flies nonchalantly overhead and drops a mussel on the exposed rock to crack open her lunch. She eyes me distrustfully and gives a little squawk, warning me to keep away. I watch the gull with her prize for a few minutes, or maybe it was longer. As I turn to walk ever further toward the water, it suddenly doesn’t look so far away. Finally I arrive at the water’s edge! My feet are tired, so I drop my pack on the stony surface and take off my boots, carrying them with me toward the cool muddy brine. Aahh! Suddenly, I look back and realize my pack is sitting in a little puddle of water. I thought that spot had been merely damp a moment ago. Hmm… I grab my pack and realize the water is flowing uphill, over the cobbles, and toward the shore. “That’s not possible,” I mutter to myself while gingerly picking my path toward the grassy hillside so far away. I shuffle over to a patch of sand to try to gain some ground on the water, which appears to be returning toward the shore. I pause long enough to throw on my boots, and realize the water is definitely rising.
-J. Smith

I finally begin to consider what is going on. While the sun and moon conspire to pull water toward and away from the land over a few feet on all the beaches I’ve encountered before, this place seems to have an extreme version of this tidal phenomenon. In this place, the water is pulled not over feet or yards, but miles!
I’m getting closer to shore now, and I notice a rocky outcrop along the coast. Not the red cliffs, but green rocks covered by algae. They reach at least fifteen feet above my head! If the tide was all the way in, I’d be under water for sure! I’m a capable swimmer, but the thought frightens me enough to quicken my pace and my heartbeat! After a while, I start to get winded and look back to see that the water is indeed pursuing me, but I’m outpacing it just fine. I can afford a minute’s rest. It occurs to me that I’m still not exactly sure where I am, but I can see the village and I know the townspeople can tell me when I get there.

Another half mile of walking at a nice, relaxed pace, and I find myself crossing the grass and strolling along the road toward the town. They tell me this is Alma, New Brunswick. But they jokingly ask me where I just came from. I told my story, and they said “you were in the Bay of Fundy”.

“In? Like on the bottom of the sea floor!?” I laugh. But as I look back at the ocean gently, slowly, relentlessly returning to the cliffs, I realize that I was indeed walking on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

The Bay of Fundy is home to the world’s largest tidal fluctuations. Here, the moon and sun pull the water 53 vertical feet, and over three horizontal miles from shore, twice a day! There are two reasons that the moon’s (and sun’s) gravitational pull affects this location differently than other locations. One is that the Bay of Fundy is funnel-shaped, so as the water is pulled into the space between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it gets squeezed into ever-narrower areas horizontally, which means it is pulled to greater depth, vertically. (The same volume of water pushed against a long shoreline will spread out, but pushed into a narrow space, it will become taller.) The other is trickier to explain without some understanding of physics, and I’m a biologist. This will be a bit of an oversimplification.

Resonance is a concept in physics that happens when an external force acts on an oscillating system. Sounds difficult, but you’ve definitely experienced it. Let’s say you’re pushing a child on a swing. If you lift them and let go and they don’t “pump their legs”, they will slow down due to the friction in the chain and air resistance. On the other hand, if you push them every time they get to where you are standing, you will be adding “external force” that will keep the “system” (child on swing) “oscillating” (going back and forth). If you add the force at the wrong time, you can slow them down, but by doing it at just the right time, you can keep them oscillating and overcome the resistance forces that would stop them eventually. This system has a “period of oscillation” or time that is just right for adding that helpful force. If the swing’s chain is longer or shorter, the time period will be different.

In a similar way, water in a bowl could be sloshed back and forth rhythmically in such a way as to allow it to reach the rim of the bowl on each side, if you moved the bowl just right. If you wanted to keep that sloshing going, you would have to keep adding force at the right time. The larger the bowl, the longer the period of oscillation. The shape of the Bay of Fundy means that the period of oscillation for the sloshing water happens to be a little over 12 hours. And of course, the moon goes around the earth every 24 hours. So the moon pulls the water into the bay, then away from the bay every 12 hours!

Losing My Bearings, Losing the Sea

Tuesday morning, June 12th

The sun is just coming up. I’ve made my coffee and eaten a biscuit. I’ll grab some blueberries on the way. I’m preparing to make my way south from here. I have my map and compass, but I’ve “perdu le nord (lost the north),” as they say around here, or lost my bearings. I should be somewhere south of Petitcodiac, I think. I’ve decided to get back to the Great Trail by marching straight through the woods. I’ll point myself south and try to follow the muddy streambeds where I can. I should eventually run into the Atlantic Ocean, and the trail will be obvious then. This part of the country is inhabited by black bears and moose. While the sun is up, they are active, so I better be, too!

DSC_0530

Late morning
Finally! Four hours later, and I’ve found the ocean! I can’t be more than a half mile from the beach. What a beautiful place! Red rock cliffs, towering pines, and clear sparkling water as far as the eye can see. Best of all, I’m pretty sure I’ve found the Great Trail! There’s a little town a couple of miles down the shoreline. Once I get there, I’ll know where I am, get some supplies and continue the journey east. I can see the town from here, but I’m so tired and honestly feeling relieved, so I think I’ll get to the beach and take a short nap on the grass at the shore. The salty breeze is soothing, the sky is overcast, and the sound of the gentle waves against the rocks only a few yards away is magical. Seems like a perfect place to relax a while.

DSC_0505

Afternoon
Whoa! This is weird. Am I dreaming? I’m suddenly not sure where I am. When I went to sleep, I thought I had finally found my way, but now I’ve “perdu le nord” all over again! I don’t even want to write this down. It doesn’t make any sense; people will think I’m crazy. But I said I would document this journey, so I will. The sun is in the west now, which means I must have slept four hours or more, but that’s not the strange part. The ocean… it’s… gone! The spruce and firs on the ruddy cliffs look familiar, but the water has gone missing. The beach is covered with damp rocks, but they’ve multiplied, or been stretched out in front of me, or I’ve been moved to another beach..? I’ll have to go look around.

I stand up and reach for the sky, thinking this may clear my head. I do see some water in the distance. At least, I think it is water. It’s so far, almost all the way on the horizon. Like a mirage. I walk out over the stones, each one moving a little under my feet, each one wet and green with moss… no, not moss, it’s algae! There are patches of sand and occasionally I see a little crab scurrying to avoid my attention. The water is silent and still near the horizon, it seems. I keep walking toward the sea and a light breeze brings the smell of salt and fish, and convinces me I am still near the ocean. The clumps of algae are brown or green. Some have swollen stems that look like balloons. They don’t belong on dry land; these appear to be marine species. They need to be under water to live, but they still look alive, only slightly deflated. I am careful to avoid stepping on them, since they are very slippery. There are some shallow pools of water here and there, but not enough to support these aquatic plants. How strange!

I keep walking with my back to the beach, trying to get closer to the water, when I come to a large patch of sand. A thin stream of water is flowing across it, leaving ripples. It looks like water has been making ripples here for some time. But the ripples are symmetrical. Ripples in a streambed are always asymmetrical with one side longer and flatter than the other, indicating the direction the water was flowing. Judging by these ripples, the water must move in two directions equally, but that’s not possible, is it? Looking back at where I napped, I must have walked a mile toward the water by now, but it’s at least another mile out to the waves. This feels like someone pulled the drain plug on the ocean, but there are no confused fish flopping around. Apart from a few shy crabs, no one seems to be the least bit concerned!

DSC_0595

A gull flies nonchalantly overhead and drops a mussel on the exposed rock to crack open her lunch. She eyes me distrustfully and gives a little squawk, warning me to keep away. I watch the gull with her prize for a few minutes, or maybe it was longer. As I turn to walk ever further toward the water, it suddenly doesn’t look so far away. Finally I arrive at the water’s edge! My feet are tired, so I drop my pack on the stony surface and take off my boots, carrying them with me toward the cool muddy brine. Aahh! Suddenly, I look back and realize my pack is sitting in a little puddle of water. I thought that spot had been merely damp a moment ago. Hmm… I grab my pack and realize the water is flowing uphill, over the cobbles, and toward the shore. “That’s not possible,” I mutter to myself while gingerly picking my path toward the grassy hillside so far away. I shuffle over to a patch of sand to try to gain some ground on the water, which appears to be returning toward the shore. I pause long enough to throw on my boots, and realize the water is definitely rising.

I finally begin to consider what is going on. While the sun and moon conspire to pull water toward and away from the land over a few feet on all the beaches I’ve encountered before, this place seems to have an extreme version of this tidal phenomenon. In this place, the water is pulled not over feet or yards, but miles!

I’m getting closer to shore now, and I notice a rocky outcrop along the coast. Not the red cliffs, but green rocks covered by algae. They reach at least fifteen feet above my head! If the tide was all the way in, I’d be under water for sure! I’m a capable swimmer, but the thought frightens me enough to quicken my pace and my heartbeat! After a while, I start to get winded and look back to see that the water is indeed pursuing me, but I’m outpacing it just fine. I can afford a minute’s rest. It occurs to me that I’m still not exactly sure where I am, but I can see the village and I know the townspeople can tell me when I get there.

Another half mile of walking at a nice, relaxed pace, and I find myself crossing the grass and strolling along the road toward the town. They tell me this is Alma, New Brunswick. But they jokingly ask me where I just came from. I told my story, and they said, “you were in the Bay of Fundy”.

“In? Like on the bottom of the sea floor!?” I laugh. But as I look back at the ocean gently, slowly, relentlessly returning to the cliffs, I realize that I was indeed walking on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean.

DSC_0576

The Bay of Fundy is home to the world’s largest tidal fluctuations. Here, the moon and sun pull the water 53 vertical feet, and over three horizontal miles from shore, twice a day! There are two reasons that the moon’s (and sun’s) gravitational pull affects this location differently than other locations. One is that the Bay of Fundy is funnel-shaped, so as the water is pulled into the space between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it gets squeezed into ever-narrower areas horizontally, which means it is pulled to greater depth, vertically. (The same volume of water pushed against a long shoreline will spread out, but pushed into a narrow space, it will become taller.) The other is trickier to explain without some understanding of physics, and I’m a biologist. This will be a bit of an oversimplification.

Resonance is a concept in physics that happens when an external force acts on an oscillating system. Sounds difficult, but you’ve definitely experienced it. Let’s say you’re pushing a child on a swing. If you lift them and let go and they don’t “pump their legs”, they will slow down due to the friction in the chain and air resistance. On the other hand, if you push them every time they get to where you are standing, you will be adding “external force” that will keep the “system” (child on swing) “oscillating” (going back and forth). If you add the force at the wrong time, you can slow them down, but by doing it at just the right time, you can keep them oscillating and overcome the resistance forces that would stop them eventually. This system has a “period of oscillation” or time that is just right for adding that helpful force. If the swing’s chain is longer or shorter, the time period will be different.

In a similar way, water in a bowl could be sloshed back and forth rhythmically in such a way as to allow it to reach the rim of the bowl on each side, if you moved the bowl just right. If you wanted to keep that sloshing going, you would have to keep adding force at the right time. The larger the bowl, the longer the period of oscillation. The shape of the Bay of Fundy means that the period of oscillation for the sloshing water happens to be a little over 12 hours. And of course, the moon goes around the earth every 24 hours. So the moon pulls the water into the bay, then away from the bay every 12 hours!

Green and Red

 

Sugar Creek, Shades State Park, Indiana

Sugar Creek, Shades State Park, Indiana

Near Capitol Reef National Park

Near Capitol Reef National Park

I live in a green land
Many rainy days feed sheltering forests
Wind spreads the seeds
A stream carries rain to waiting ponds

Damp soil covered with plants
Geologic time hidden underneath

Mice scurry between the bushes
Seeking refuge from the cold
White-tailed deer leap through the woods
Fearless because their predators are gone

Towering white oak trees
Grow quickly
Providing nutrients to animals and man
Through the centuries

The oak’s value is now seen as lumber
To be made into furniture and floors

The forest is alive, beautiful, valuable
It must not be wasted

I went to a red land
Bright sun feeds small shrubs
Wind spreads the seeds
A stream quenches lush cottonwoods

Rocky canyon walls show their stripes
Eons of time preserved in stone

Lizards scurry between the boulders
Seeking respite from the sun
Bighorn sheep drink deeply and scale
Sheer cliffs, away from human eyes

Twisted bristlecone pine trees
Grow slowly
Recording weather and history
In their rings, over millenia

The bristlecone’s value is now known
A tool to measure the passage of time

The desert is alive, beautiful, valuable
It must not be wasted

Silly Moose, a story from two perspectives

Part 1

It was a normal July day. I woke up, stretched and rolled out of my sleep, yawning. There was a little frost on the grasses, but the sun was bright and the sky was blue. Chilly air shocked my nose, but it would warm up soon, as it always did at this high altitude in summer. Leaving home, I slowly walked down to the lake to get some fresh water. I had the trail all to myself at this early hour, although I could hear the buzzing of mosquitoes as I approached the shore. They never really bother me, but I find their sound annoying. The pebble beach was covered in tiny blue butterflies who seemed to be enjoying a drink of shallow water among the rocks. The lake reflected the tall, gray-blue, rocky mountains. They still had a lot of snow at their glacial tops. This was good news for someone like me. In the last few years, the snow had melted too early, so the rivers ran dry and the lake shores became crowded by everyone forced to come to my lake to get water. I’d rather not be in that kind of crowd. I bent down and took a long sip. The water was icy cool, so I stopped before completely quenching my thirst. I thought I’d eat and then come back for more when the sun had warmed it a bit. I noticed a moose at the far end of the lake. I sat down and watched him drink for a few minutes. Silly moose like to drink their water while bathing in it! That morning, I found it puzzling. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good swim, but it seemed too cold. I considered taking a dip, but not until later in the day when the air was warmer. Ah well, to each his own.

Breakfast called me to the hills. I wandered back up the trail and found some huckleberry bushes hidden among the tall pine trees. The berries were tiny, black and sweet. Delicious, but not very filling. I ate quite a few, but I really wanted something more substantial. I thought I should head up and over the hill to the stream on the other side. It has shallow water and a rocky bottom. Sometimes I can catch a fish there. On the way up the hill, a strong breeze started blowing. It parted my hair and let the cold air get to my skin, giving me a chill. I began to wonder if I should expect a storm today, but the blue sky seemed to say no. When I got to the stream, the water was rushing over the rocks. I must have slept through quite a bit of rain last night, I thought. Whitewater made it harder to see the fish than usual. I stood there for a while but had no luck fishing. I did observe several large birds flying by, including a bald eagle who seemed to have better luck with the fishing than I did. I was a little jealous, but I can’t fly, so I guess the eagle gets to eat the meal I wanted.

Since the fishing was no good, I decided a meal of some less-traditional forage would work. I followed the stream downhill for a little while and found the area that had the forest fire last summer. Not much was growing there, except beargrass. It’s funny. Despite the name, bears don’t eat beargrass, and it’s not even a grass, but a lily! I could smell them from quite a way upstream. Their smell was soft and sweet but smelled more like perfume than food to me. I have often used this burned pine patch for a quick meal this summer. No one else seems to have found it. That’s OK with me. I’d rather not share the rich supply of grubs that are slowly breaking down the dead trees. They may look squishy and slimy, but they taste really good. I stayed in the fallen forest until I was nearly full, then decided on a quick nap among the beargrass.

When I awoke, I noticed the sun was starting to go down behind the tallest peaks. I stood tall to look around and sniff the air. No new bears in the area today. I decided it was time to head back home. I would take the long way there. There was a nice path that led down to the lake where I had stopped this morning, and from there, I could take another little spur that went back to my place. I needed to stop for some water before going home anyway. As I approached the trail, a mule deer came running at me. She took one look at me and darted off into the pines. I wondered what she was running from, but I didn’t see or smell anything that concerned me in the area. I shrugged and sauntered toward the path to home.

Just before I got to the trail, I noticed the smell that must have come from whatever the deer was running from! It smelled terribly strong and acrid, like nothing I had encountered before. I stopped to sniff the air and try to figure out how to avoid whatever smelled that bad. At that moment, a man rounded the corner. He was a large man in his fifties, with a backpack and two walking poles. Briefly, I questioned his intent with those poles. Would he try to hurt me with them? When he noticed me, he gasped and began walking faster. At first, I assumed he smelled the foul odor too, but as he went past me, I realized HE was the one who smelled so bad! I backed up a bit to let him pass before I joined the narrow trail. It took me a second to catch my breath, but I walked far enough behind him that we didn’t feel pressured to interact, and I didn’t have to deal with his scent. I’d rather be alone on the trail, but at least he seemed to want to let me be.

When I got to the spur to go down to the lake, I heard some commotion and realized the spur trail had quite a few people on it. I was thirsty and wanted to remain alone, so I cut the corner a bit and stayed in the underbrush until I got close to the lake. As I crossed back onto the trail, I saw two more men. These two were younger and looked stronger. They didn’t carry walking poles or smell the way the first man did, but I questioned their intent as well. They stopped and looked at me, but didn’t seem to want to engage me. Thankfully, they let me pass to follow my own path. A few seconds later, I was back on my beach enjoying a deep drink of cool, refreshing water. I decided now would be a nice time for a swim. As I eased myself into the shallow water, I noticed the silly moose was standing in the lake again!
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Silly Moose, Part 2

It was an exciting July day! I woke up near Glacier National Park. The RV was warm, but there was frost on the ground when I went out for a short walk. When I returned, I woke up the three generations of my family who traveled there with us, and we made breakfast. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, and best of all, coffee. When everyone was ready, we drove Going-to-the-Sun Road. It was unbelievably beautiful. We stopped many times to take pictures and even had a snowball fight on Independence Day! My family is from Indiana, and this is never a possibility in July at 700 feet above sea level and 39 degrees North latitude. But at nearly 7,000 feet and nearly 49 degrees North latitude, snow in summer is common! After some rock skipping at Lake McDonald and a stop for lunch, we headed back to camp.

My sister is a professional photographer, and she had offered to take my family’s pictures while we were on this trip. Today was the day! Back inside the RV, we got dressed in some clean clothes, and I tried to do my hair as well as can be done while camping. My parents, sister’s family, and brother were planning to stay at camp while the rest of us went to the Many Glacier part of the park for some pictures. Then we would meet up at the Cattle Baron in Babb, MT for a nice dinner to celebrate my youngest son’s fifth birthday and the end of our trip to Montana. We were looking forward to a nice, relaxing hike.

When we arrived at Many Glacier, we parked and trotted down the trail. It was such a lovely place the adults were all snapping pictures, while the two boys climbed trees along the path. We saw almost no one on the trail, which was a nice change from the very populated Going-to-the-Sun-Road. There were mountains, streams, waterfalls, beargrass, and pine trees everywhere we looked. We posed for many pictures. It was late afternoon and the light was creating beautiful alpenglow on the mountains. Photographers dream of locations like this.

As we got further into the forest, we found a spur trail with a sign that said it went down to a lake. Just before we got to the still sunlit lake, the quiet of the forest was broken by a hum that sounded like either a very small helicopter, or a huge number of mosquitoes! We had completely forgotten our bug spray. We decided to snap a few pictures on the little beach at the lake then head out before we got eaten alive by those critters! My youngest son noticed tons of little blue butterflies all over the smooth colorful stones, and we all tried not to step on any. My sister took a few pictures then we turned to head up to the main route back to camp since the oldest was starting to get bug bites.

When we approached the main trail, my sister decided to take a few individual pictures of me. I put my camera down to pose and sat on a log to smile. She straightened my hair and I positioned herself to get the lighting right. The boys were patiently watching, but wanted to explore some more. Suddenly, I noticed my husband must have stayed back at the lake. He does that a lot. He must have seen something he really wanted to take a picture of. We decided we’d wait for him there. Surely, he’d be coming along soon, and it was a comfortable, picturesque spot to wait, anyway.

After about a minute of waiting on my husband, a large man with a backpack and hiking poles suddenly appeared at the intersection of the main trail and the spur trail we were on. He looked frantic! “There’s a grizzly bear coming your way, get out of here now!”

“We’re waiting on someone. We’ll head out in just a minute.”

“No, you need to leave NOW!”

He hurried off, clearly too startled to stick around and help us. It quickly occurred to me that our five-year-old would be the most likely victim of a bear attack, so I threw him on my back, hoping the bear wouldn’t notice his small size. “Go down the trail and warn your father.” I said to the sixteen-year-old with my heart pounding, “but don’t run or it will chase you!” My sister and I headed up the trail and saw fur and rustling leaves at about eye level next to us, as a large grizzly bear lumbered past, just out of our view. I was so terrified, my feet moved faster than they ever have before, despite the fifty-pound child on my back. All the while, I tried to turn back to make sure my oldest boy was OK. But he was quickly out of my sight. When we got a little way down the main trail, we anxiously stopped to wait for the other two.

Not a minute later (but the longest minute of my life), my husband and oldest son came jogging up the trail. After giving them both big hugs, I said, “let’s get out of here”! We hiked quietly and quickly for a while, but soon the fear subsided a little and I regained my curiosity and composure. I asked the men what had happened. It turns out, after the bear lumbered past us, it crossed their path, nearly fifteen feet away. They froze, not daring to make a sound or take a picture. I asked what the bear had done. They said that it paused and looked at them, then went on toward the lake. Then I asked why my husband had not stayed with our group, he said…

He stayed back to take a picture of a silly moose standing in the lake.
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Part 1 of the story above is fictional. Part 2 is entirely true, and it occurred in 2012. People encounter grizzly bears very rarely, and grizzly bear attacks are incredibly rare. Most occur when people approach a bear and catch it off guard, or get between a mother and her cubs. Being “bear aware” on the trails is incredibly important. This means making noise while you hike to alert bears to your presence. Bear spray can also be carried and sprayed at a bear as a deterrent in the case of an attack. The encounter we had gave me a much deeper respect for bears and made me consider the grizzly’s perspective. In most of their range, they are constrained by encroaching human activity. When bear/human interactions become problematic, bears are relocated at best and shot at worst. Protecting large wilderness areas is vital to the survival of bears.

If you are looking for a photographer in the Indianapolis area, I highly recommend contacting my talented sister at ArdeaPhoto.com

And now for something Completely Different

This evening, I find myself sitting in a dorm room at Indiana State University at a three-day workshop with my Lilly Fellows. I had planned on being social tonight, but there is something I feel I need to do, and this is the perfect time. So instead of joining in the drum circle which I can hear through my window, or going to the pub with my new friends, I’m going to tell you a story. I wasn’t going to tell this story on my blog because it has nothing to do with geology, or paleontology, or science at all. But last night, it occurred to me that this story is as much about Traveling Through Space and Time as any story I’ve ever heard. This story is not about my personal travels, but about an object that went on a very long journey.

It all started in the spring of 1945. A young American man named Arthur Evans had left his wife and three children in Nappanee, Indiana to go off to war. He joined the Navy and had been sent to the Pacific. During the Battle of Okinawa, his ship supplied the US troops on the Island. When the battle was over, he was given a few hours of leave time to go on shore. As he walked along the beach, he found a variety of small, interesting items with Okinawan and Japanese writing on them scattered around. He did not read the language, but thought his friends and family back home would enjoy seeing such exotic things from a far away place. So he took them back to his ship, and eventually back home after the war ended.

Over the years, he stored the items away. His little family grew to include four more children, then many grandchildren. I am one of those grandchildren. As a young girl, I remember discovering these items in a box in the upstairs bedroom with my cousins. He had a large artillery shell, a box of pencils with Japanese writing, some photos of Okinawan people, a book with maps that I couldn’t read, and a few other things. I was fascinated by them, but forgot all about them over the years as I grew up.

When I was a Junior in high school, my US History teacher gave us an assignment. We were to interview people who lived through World War II and write a paper about their lives. I was lucky enough to have all four grandparents living at the time, so I chose to interview them. I still have a copy of the paper, and I was able to refer back to it to fill in some of the details about this story, although my grandfather died about ten years ago. (I am still in contact with this teacher and recently wrote to tell him this story and thank him for assigning this. I hope that someday I will assign something that has such a big impact on one of my students!)

When my grandmother died in 2011, my father inherited some of his father’s things, including the items from Okinawa. My mother showed them to me one day, and I began to wonder what the letter said. It seemed unlikely that anyone in Nappanee in 1945 would have been able to translate these items, but I thought maybe someone in Indianapolis in 2014 might be able to. I knew several people who spoke Japanese and/or were from Okinawa, so I reached out to them and sent pictures of a few items, including the letter.

In 1945, Okinawa was not a part of Japan, so their languages were not the same. My friends who were raised there were young enough that they learned Japanese, not the Okinawan dialect the letter was written in. They could understand it a little, but not well. Months passed and I had almost forgotten about the mysterious letter and pictures. And then…

I received a message on Facebook. It was from the mother of two of my former students. She immigrated from Japan years ago, but still had many contacts there. Her daughter had passed the photos on to her to see if she could make any sense of them. She had done some research on Japanese websites and contacted someone in Japan who had contacted a reporter from Okinawa. She forwarded my information to the reporter and a few days later, I found myself on the phone with a woman in Okinawa! To make a long story short(ish), the reporter had found the sister of the man who wrote the letter, my mother shipped the letter to her, the reporter brought her the letter, and the story aired on Okinawan TV. I never would have thought my TV debut would be in another language and halfway around the globe, but it was.

The reporter said that she thought it was fate that this letter was returned to its home nearly 70 years after the end of the war. I think it is a great story of a letter that traveled through space (from Okinawa, to Nappanee, to Indianapolis, and back home) and time (from 1945 to 2014), and united people from halfway around the world. Even though this blog is supposed to be about science, I think the story belongs here. I wanted to put these videos and information on a website that I own, so I don’t lose access to them, in case the Japanese TV station ever takes the story down. I hope younger generations of our family will see this story and appreciate the bonds that can grow after war. I love that several very curious women cracked the case of a seventy year old mystery and helped another woman regain part of her past.

Below are links to my uploads of two videos that go with the story. I will also include links to the original websites and also a translation.
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My Youtube video of the story that was on TV in Okinawa
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Translation (with my comments in parentheses):
“Hello” said Manabu Uehara. He visited Chiyo Kokuba in Kin village, Okinawa, on the 1st of Oct.
“I don’t have any detail of these letters yet. It’s still in the U.S.” he said. He was showing her some pictures sent from the U.S. last month. In the pictures, there were some old letters.
Uehara works for a website to share information about funeral ceremonies in Okinawa. Last month, a Japanese lady contacted him: “My American acquaintance has letters that her grandfather brought from Okinawa during the war. She wants to give them back to the owner.” She said she googled “Sobun Yamakawa”, the name of the sender, and found exactly the same name on the Uehara’s website.
Uehara started to look for the owner. And a few weeks later, he found Kokuba who is a younger sister of Yamakawa.
Seeing the pictures of letter, Ms. Kokuba said “What a fond memory. If the TV crew was not here, I would have burst into tears. I’m trying to control myself now.”
For a long time, she has believed that the letters were “lost” because of an unforgettable incident happened 69 years ago during the battle of Okinawa.
“One day during the battle, some US soldiers came to my house with a Japanese translator. They said they are going to burn my house, because Japanese soldiers are hidden inside of the house. They burnt my entire house. Entire village. Maybe they brought the letters from my house, believing something secret written in them.”
The place where Ms. Kokuba’s house used to be during the war, was taken and became Camp Hansen, One of the biggest US military bases in Okinawa.
“That takes me back…” said Ms. Kokuba, in front of the gate that she is never allowed to go in.
I called Ms. Lisa Evans Kern living in the US. I asked why she has the letters. She told me that the letters were originally from her grandfather. He was in Okinawa during the war as a member of Navy, and he laid up the letters in lavender (put them in storage) after the war back in the U.S.
“During that time, he was walking on the beach, and found several things. He thought it’s interesting and pick them up” said Ms. Kern.
And finally, yesterday….
“Father, please be assured that my family members and I are all doing well in Tokyo.” Ms. Kokuba was reading the letter at home. She saw her brother’s handwriting eventually after 69 years.
“When I saw his handwriting, I felt like I met my brother face to face. I felt like he is still alive and doing well. I feel happy and sweet, cannot describe well. In Okinawan dialect, I would say KIBURU DACCHA, meaning `feel a thrill go through`.”
In the envelop, there was a letter from Ms. Lisa Kern. She wrote she was sad to hear about Kokuba’s story during the war. Also, she was surprised it was the internet that helped her finding Kokuba.
“We can communicate with each other like this, because the world is peaceful now. I would like to tell Ms. Kern `Thank you very much for returning the letters with your kindness`” said Ms. Kokuba with smiles.”
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Another video letter to our family, in which Ms. Kokuba says thank you and my heart is warmed tremendously.

This is the link to the news station’s original story.

Stop 13: Joshua Tree

Updated 1/18/2016 to add this video: Joshua Tree Interview and Hike

In late June of 2014, on our big Lilly Grant journey out west, we left the Salton Sea, a place we thought we’d hate but kind of loved, for Joshua Tree National Park. For some reason, I thought I would be totally in love with the place based on my research. The last few days had showered us with surprises, though, so I began to fear I might not fall for Joshua Tree after all. As we drove through the desert, we got another quick glimpse of Palm Springs, then Yucca Valley, the town of Joshua Tree, then the city of Twentynine Palms, before we turned off the main road and into the National Park. We were kind of surprised at how big of a population this section of desert seemed to support. Again, this trip challenged my preconceived notions.

When we arrived, we went straight to the Visitors Center for my interview. In retrospect, it might be better to spend a day exploring and learning about a park before conducting an interview. I feel like I would have more interesting questions if I did that. I’ll keep it in mind the next time someone hands me $10,000 and tells me to go learn stuff.

Cactus garden outside the Visitors Center

The woman who greeted us was not Carey Goldstein, the Ranger we had scheduled to meet with, but she went to get him for us. Then she talked to Kieran for a while about the Junior Ranger program, as Carey and I discussed how we’d conduct the interview. I don’t know how we missed out on this as we went through all these National Parks, since they all have a Jr. Ranger program, but we never took the time to try it out. She gave Kieran a book and he spent the next two days using it to explore the park and learn. It was fabulous! We all learned a lot from the program and Kieran really felt proud the next morning when we returned to the Visitors Center, and Ranger Carey swore him in as a Junior Ranger, giving him his brass shield and a book about Joshua Trees.

Cactus garden, again

We decided to conduct the interview out on the patio in the shade, but it was still quite hot there! Ranger Carey gave me a quick history of the geology of Joshua Tree, which isn’t as complex as some parks we’ve visited, but includes some of the oldest rock in the American west! Despite the lack of complexity, I still was momentarily confused about it because I’m used to Indiana’s geology, and am still a novice to the subject in general. Joshua Tree National Park has only two major types of rocks. A mottled, dark-colored rock called Pinto Gneiss, which is very very old (on the order of 1.7 billion years!) and a younger pale pink or yellow rock called monzogranite. The gneiss is on top, which means it should be younger, if these were sedimentary rock. Carey reminded me that the granite was igneous and resulted from magma intruding upward into this very old gneiss and folding it into mountains. Over the last 1.7 billion years, the gneiss has cracked and been eroded to expose the young granite beneath.

Ancient pinto gneiss

Carey also explained that the many fault lines that run through California are responsible for more than just earthquakes. As Rocio had explained at La Brea, the faults squeezed pockets of oil and tar up toward the surface, leading to the demise of many dire wolves and other large animals. Carey described the same process. The faults had pushed and diverted deep aquifers to the surface, resulting in desert oases around the Joshua Tree area.

Younger Monzogranite

When we asked Carey what we should do with our time at Joshua Tree (again… if you ask a ranger about a good hike, you won’t be disappointed), he challenged us a bit. He explained that Joshua Tree is not just about geology or the absolutely fascinating Joshua trees, themselves. It also exists to preserve the human history of the area. He said that since we were there to study geology, we should seek out the human history aspect instead. I hadn’t really thought to do that, but I’m glad we took him up on the challenge. He suggested several places to hikes to check out, but we finally decided on the Barker Dam trail. He also gave us some suggestions about choosing a campsite, which we followed and were quite glad we did. We talked about the wildlife at Joshua Tree and the problem of invasive plants, the history of humans in the area, the current land use around the park, and much more. I took a lot of Carey’s time, and I felt like I could have asked many more questions, but we really wanted to get out there and explore, so we concluded the interview.

We had left LA early in the day, cruised through Palm Springs to the Salton Sea and back, and conducted an interview, but we still had things planned for the day. We needed to make camp, take a hike, and make dinner before we could get some rest. The next day was set to be a long drive, so we needed to leave at a reasonable time, and we wanted to drive the Geology Route as well before we left Joshua Tree! Carey suggested we camp at Hidden Valley campground. It wasn’t where I had planned to stay, because I didn’t consider any place that didn’t have water. Of course, we were carrying plenty of water with us, I just have never camped in a place that didn’t have water (not an issue in Indiana). Actually, I had been very concerned about getting a campsite at this park, because they don’t do reservations. Some Yosemite sites are booked nearly a year in advance, so I was a bit worried about not getting a site. But of course, it wasn’t an issue at all. We got to the campgrounds, put our money ($15 for the night) in an envelope in the box, and picked our own site. Granite rock gets its name because it is made of grains. When you touch this monzogranite, it quickly becomes clear that the name makes sense, and so does the sport that draws so many people to Joshua Tree: rock climbing!

This guy loves to climb!

The site we chose had a huge granite wall that would block the morning sun (see we aren’t rookies on that aspect of camping, just the water thing!), and had a large flat area to put the tent. Anytime the boys weren’t actively helping set up camp, they were climbing in, on, and around the granite boulders. We set up camp quickly, grabbed our water bottles and cameras, and jumped back in the truck to head out for our hike. We didn’t have a long drive before we arrived at the trail head.

The boys at our campsite.

Our Hidden Valley campsite

We hit the trail just before sunset, and took headlamps along, just in case. We didn’t need them, but I must say, this sunset hike was one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever taken. It’s right up there with Colob Canyon at Capitol Reef NP, Devil’s Backbone/Lucifer’s Spine at Pine Hills in Shades State Park, or Trail #3 at Turkey Run State Park (Indiana friends will understand those last two). The trail was a loop and we went left at first. I think I snapped a photo of every Joshua tree for the first 15 minutes we walked. Kieran was busy checking off the plants and animals on the list in his Junior Ranger book. The Joshua “trees” are really relatives of yucca plants, which we have in Indiana (are they native to Indiana… must look this up later). This species of yucca just grows very tall! They are really hard to describe, but I hope the pictures will suffice. I think each Joshua tree is unique in a way that makes them seem more like people than like plants. I can’t really think of any other plant that has such an individualistic style, except maybe the oldest of the bristlecone pines.

One of many Joshua tree photos

Lots of Joshua trees

Seriously, I love these trees!

Tree of Life

I was totally geeking out trying to catch every Joshua tree with the sunset in the background, or sunlight streaming past the leaves when we reached a small cave-like indention in a rock wall. There was an interpretive sign that explained that the symbols drawn on the walls were made by ancient people who lived in the area. It was amazing to have such a connection to people who used this land to supply all their needs so long ago. As I read further, I found that the symbols had been painted over by some early Hollywood filmmakers who used them in a movie, but the original carvings didn’t show up well enough for their liking. This happened before the National Park Service was around to provide protection for the cultural heritage of this area. What a shame, and restoration of an artifact like that is really difficult, if not impossible.

Ancient drawings

We continued from the cave through a low basin in which we saw some lizards and a jackrabbit. Here is some video of our jackrabbit friend.

Jackrabbit

We checked several species of cactus and a couple of birds off the list in this area as well. The trail began an ascent and there was a French-speaking family coming the opposite direction. As we went up, we noticed some desert bighorn sheep high above us on a ridge. We could only see their outline against the fading red sky. We pointed them out to the French family who told us the sheep had just been at the dam. The family showed us some fantastic pictures they had taken of the sheep up close! We got some good shots of them as well before we went up to the dam itself.

Bighorn sheep

Three, or so sheep

The dam had been built by some people of European descent who used this area to graze their cattle. The cows needed water, so they built a couple of dams to capture the little rainwater that falls on this area. We climbed around the boulders in this area for a while before following the trail through the little slot canyon where we finally realized what scrub oaks were, thanks to Kieran and his Junior Ranger book (they’re the trees with the tiny oak leaves that are all over the place, but we couldn’t seem to recognize them for the longest time)! It’s times like this that I think my degree in biology should have been in wildlife biology instead. I was trained to work in a lab, but that’s never been my job. I wish I knew more about plant identification!

So those are scrub oaks!

We followed the trail up and down over boulders, pretending to be sure-footed sheep, snapping ever richer sunset pictures along the way. When we were back near the trail head, we stopped to try to capture some bats on film. They were flying all over the place, snacking on various flying insects. It seemed like they were teasing us, coming in close, then turning sharply to go another way. We got a few blurs in some pictures, but not much more than that. It still makes a great memory, though I can’t share it with you.

This is where we saw the bats.

Back at camp, we slapped together a quick meal (smoked pork sandwiches and oranges, as usual), cracked a couple of cold drinks, and found a place to watch the sunset finish up. Here again, the rocks and Joshua trees made for some pretty spectacular pictures!

Back at camp

A little sliver of moon shined through the crook of a Joshua tree branch and reflected the light off the earth, making me think of the Rush song Earthshine.

Moon with Earthshine

There were people who had camped far enough away from us that we couldn’t really hear them, but we could see they had climbed up into the boulders and made a fire in a cave. It was surreal to see them moving around the fire up on the cliff with their shadows dancing against the stone.

Fire in the cave

All the while, we sat on one of our big boulders watching the sky. It was a quiet night and there were almost no man-made light sources to be seen. I tried taking some long exposure shots, but they weren’t capturing what I was seeing, so I put the equipment away and just enjoyed the view. David fell asleep on the picnic bench, but the boys and I laid on our backs on our boulder, about ten feet above camp and watched the occasional meteor. I don’t think we talked much that night, but it was a night I won’t soon forget.

Stop 13: Salton Sea

It’s about time I get back to this blogging thing. I’ve had one of the busiest years ever, this year. So I really didn’t put any effort into my blog since the fall. This year, I’ve taught three different types of classes, one of which I hadn’t taught in several years, and one that was entirely new to our school, so I spent a great deal of time writing curriculum for that class. Aside from that, I had two part-time jobs, and our oldest graduated from high school. I wish someone had told me to expect to spend about $1000 on all the odds and ends that come with being a senior… SAT test, college applications, housing application, buying a cap and gown, etc. etc. etc. And more than the money, the time… honors nights, band awards nights, all the “last times he’ll be doing this and that.” I guess I knew all of these things were coming, but I wasn’t really ready for it. It’s definitely been a bittersweet and busy year. BUT I am determined to get all of our experiences from what has come to be known as the BIG TRIP down before the memories fade too much. We’ll see how that goes!

After we left the California coast, we drove a little way inland to Ontario, California. We spent the night at a hotel near the airport. When we got up in the morning, we grabbed breakfast and headed to visit a place I had been curious about for many years. The Salton Sea is not known for its geologic history or its beauty, but I just HAD to see it. I had learned about it because I teach Environmental Science. Living east of the Mississippi, I think of agriculture and irrigation differently than people out west do. In the eastern part of the US, farmers can generally use rivers, reservoirs, or aquifers to water their crops when needed, but they can also count on some rain during the growing season as well. Farmers in California can’t just turn to abundant natural (or man-made in the case of reservoirs) fresh water sources. They have to work a little harder. Diversion of the Colorado River has been the primary source of water for California’s growers for a long time now. It continues to be a concern because the cities at the mouth of the river frequently get no water from upstream. This also means there is also no sediment replenishment, which is a concern at the north end of the Gulf of California (APES students will want to review this later on).

The story of the Salton Sea goes something like this: In the early 1900’s, a water diversion project mistake caused the Colorado to be completely diverted into a large, low, desert Basin, that had previously been filled with water, but had evaporated, leaving behind a layer of salt about fifteen feet deep. By the time the flow was stopped and the Colorado returned to its banks, the basin was filled to a great depth, and it became known as the Salton Sea. It quickly attracted a large population of people who built homes on the seashore and enjoyed the desert sun and beautiful water. People stocked the sea with tilapia and other sport fish. The water allowed for lots of agriculture, so fruit growing became a booming business. But the basin didn’t have great soil, so lots of fertilizer had to be used. And in the early to mid-1900’s, there were few public concerns about pesticide use, so those were used in high concentration as well. The Salton Sea being a basin, had no outlet so all the agricultural runoff from the area ran into it. The hot desert sun evaporated the water, but not the dissolved chemicals (as you will remember from discussions of distillation in chemistry class). There were also no natural tributaries that would bring fresh water into the Sea. Over the years, the fertilizers and pesticide concentrations in the Sea rose to levels that killed off fish and caused algal blooms, which tend to cause dissolved oxygen levels to drop when aerobic bacteria decompose them. Low dissolved oxygen levels also kill fish. (AP Environmental Science students should stop reading and go review “cultural eutrophication” now.) At this point, the Sea began to have a characteristic stench of dead fish. This problem didn’t go away, in fact, the Sea continued to evaporate and the shoreline receded to reveal new beaches, not of sand, but of barnacle shells and fish bones. The property values declined drastically, and the population fled.

When we were leaving Ontario, CA (basically an eastern suburb of LA), and heading toward the Salton Sea, I tried to explain to David and the boys why I wanted to go see this place. I warned them that it would probably smell awful, and might not be too pretty. They grumbled that it seemed like something we could skip, but I insisted we go. We drove through Palm Springs, which reminded me a bit of Las Vegas… lots of glitz and excess in the middle of the desert. Seemed like a big waste of resources to me, but I was intrigued by the MANY MANY MANY windmills and solar panels. At least they are getting some of their energy in a renewable manner. We pretty much blew through town without the opportunity to get to know the city better, so maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake.

Near Palm Springs, CA

As we continued south, we began to see plantations of orange trees and palm trees, which I later realized were date palms. The fruiting parts of the tree were wrapped with netting to keep the dates from falling on the ground (or is it to keep critters from eating them??). When we arrived at the Salton Sea, we drove to the sign that cheerfully said “Welcome to Salton City” and turned down the main street.

Welcome to Salton CIty

The community looked like the homes were built in the 50’s or 60’s. They were moderately-sized ranch houses, some well-kept, and others slightly disheveled. But many lots either never had houses built on them, or the homes were torn down. Only about two-thirds of the lots had homes on them, and there didn’t seem to be a pattern to explain which did and which did not. A small K-12 school building appeared to serve the community. We drove to the marina and beach, which appeared to be placed in the wrong spot. It was obvious that the shoreline had been higher in the past, and the marina was far too shallow. There were no boats at the docks. We parked in the middle of the beach (there was no parking lot) and got out. The smell was overwhelming. We walked toward the beach and tried to avoid stepping on the fish skulls.

Hazy view of the Salton Sea

The water was beautiful and had a haze over it that made me think the sunsets there were probably gorgeous. Normally when we go to a beach, we toss off our shoes and run to put our toes in the water. I didn’t even feel the need to tell the boys not to do it here.

Guess which scout camp song this place brings to mind.

At the water line, there were thick mats of bacteria that reminded me of small versions of the stromatolites in Shark Bay, Australia, which gave scientists clues about the first life on Earth. There were some long-legged shore birds that kept flying too close to us and screeching. I finally realized they were probably trying to scare us away from their nest. It didn’t take long before I found a few well camouflaged eggs sitting out in the open among the fish bones and shells.

Black-necked stilts (I think)

Eggs among vertebrae and barnacles

We took some pictures, but didn’t stay long. In all, we were probably in Salton City for 45 minutes, but I didn’t see a single soul there. For those who are interested, for $99 a month, you can own a lot there in seven years. It almost seems like a good deal.

When traveling with your children, it is impossible to predict which locations will make lasting memories for them. David took a picture of Evan staring out over the water, looking very pensive. Months later, I found the picture and thought it was a really good one. A little while later, Evan was writing his college application essay and what he wrote came as a bit of a shock to me. I’ll share it here with his permission:

Evan at the Salton Sea, photo by David Kern

As surprising as it may be, the place in which I experience the most contentment I have only been to once. The Salton Sea in California is my destination of choice for any vacation. The Salton Sea is surrounded by ghost towns composed of broken down buildings, the scent of dead fish, and an overarching air of complete, deathly silence, aside from the crunching of fish bones as you walk atop the “sand”. All of this would normally act as a deterrent, but it draws me in. Just like a good horror novel, the back-story behind this place sets the mood for visitors.

The Salton Sea was the result of an awful mistake in the diversion of the Colorado River. The men working on the project did not expect the massive amount of flooding that came their way in the spring of 1905. Via miscalculation of the vast quantity of water, this flooding overwhelmed the gates designed to keep the water from escaping, leaving the mighty Colorado to flow wherever she pleased. When they finally had stemmed the flow of this beast, the Salton Sea had already been born. Because of the generally high temperatures and low elevation, the Salton Sea became a massive hit among vacationers. This prosperity was very short-lived because the sea had no influx of fresh water. After about fifty years, the quality of water and life in the area declined and the vacationers began leaving. The sea’s salinity levels began rising thus making it harder for fish to survive. The water began to evaporate leaving the remains of fish bones as a sort of pseudo-sand. This is what is seen by passers-bye to this day.

I find the story of the Salton Sea from “birth” to “death” to be a horrific tale, but despite the grotesqueness, there is something beautiful hiding in those briny waters. Maybe it is the stagnant air. Perhaps even the backdrop of desert. Maybe the sheer idea of a boomtown that once was intrigues me. What it is about the Salton Sea that I find so remarkable, I cannot quite say. However, what I can say is this: it changed my viewpoint on life. The Salton Sea serves as a window into a possible future. Could it be showing a world after us? What we decide to do with the planet now is the only thing that creates a defined line between a prosperous world and a world like that of this environmental anomaly. Seeing the consequences of these actions made me realize that I should use this example as a reminder that the decisions I make in life can have a profound effect on not just my personal life, but on the world around me.

Also, I think this short video about the place is interesting and very well done. It is probably the biggest reason I wanted to see the Salton Sea with my own eyes. I didn’t quite see the desolation this video shows, but I have no doubt that some communities around the Sea are even more economically depressed than the one we visited. The man at the end who built/painted the “God is Love” monument died several months before our trip. I might have considered visiting that part of the Seashore had he still been alive, but it was farther out of our way, and we had plans to meet with a park ranger at Joshua Tree National Park that afternoon. So I’ll leave Ransom Riggs to share his bleak, but beautiful view of the Salton Sea with you.

The end.

Stop 12: La Brea

On June 28, we left Monterey and drove south following the California coast as much as we could. It was a beautiful drive!

CA coast, south of Monterey

After driving along the coast, we headed in toward Los Angeles. Fortunately, David doesn’t mind driving in big cities like Chicago and Paris. So he didn’t have any trouble here, but we were all impressed with the size of the highways… 10 lanes wide, one way! A bit more than we’re used to in Indianapolis. The city is large and sprawling, but not quite as overwhelming as New York. Our first stop was at the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum where we would experience the Ice Age of 30,000 years ago. I’m not sure what we were expecting, but we certainly didn’t realize that the Tar Pits are smack in the middle of downtown LA. We found a place to park across from Hancock Park and walked across the wide street. The park is surrounded by apartment buildings and a few high rises. Sirens could be heard in the distance. It was quite a contrast to the far-from-civilization places we had seen, and not where we would have guessed an interesting bit of natural history would be found. California continued to show us that our preconceived notions of the state were all wrong.

Here’s a little video I put together with a stop along the coast, followed by the walk through Hancock Park up to the Page Museum. It’s not really geologically relevant, but I think anyone who hasn’t been here will appreciate the atmosphere of the park and its location within the city.

The contact I had found at the Page Museum set me up with a tour guide named Rocio Santoyo. We were scheduled to arrive in time for her last tour of the day, then have a chance to interview her afterwards. We were running a little late, so we didn’t get a chance to check out the exhibits until later. We were able to jump into the tour group and make introductions right before she began the tour.

The tour started in front of the lab. As a science teacher, it was really neat to see another place (like at Ashfall and Dinosaur) where paleontology research is an ongoing activity. We watched researchers sorting microfossils under microscopes. They were seated along a glass wall, so we could watch them work, without being able to interfere. A few of them would post notes to tell us what they were working on, and they had little displays of the tiny mammal jaws and teeth they had found. In the middle of the lab, and labeled boldly, there was a HUGE skull partially encased in plaster and cloth. This belongs to the Colombian Mammoth, Zed.

Here Rocio is introducing us to the museum and lab… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=20_KCkK6pQs&list=UU3jmOSMNzJq3-3aB4E5n5-w

The tour group walked outside to the Observation Pit. It was designed to give visitors an idea of what researchers would have seen when they first opened a pit years ago.

Inside the Observation Pit

This pit was opened, each fossil taken out, recorded, then put back in place for visitors to see. Here is our view of the pit…  and here is a link to an article written about the re-opening of the pit. It was actually published on the day we visited!

Tar pit, obscured by leaves

We walked further to a pit that had been completely excavated to a depth of about 30 feet. It has since filled in with oil that seeped in. It became obvious how these animals could have stepped into the oil without noticing it was there. Rocio explained further: 

Then we walked to see and learn about Project 23. 

When we were done with the tour, I got a chance to ask Rocio some questions myself…
It was nice to talk to another female scientist, since most of the people I interviewed on this trip were male. I think it’s really good to be able to show my students that science is done by a diverse group of people. One of my colleagues who teaches chemistry is always frustrated that the History of Atomic Theory might as well be called the Old Dead White Guy unit. She and I are glad to see that science is changing and the field is closer to reflecting the population now. Rocio is an excellent example of a woman who is passionately curious about the world around her, and that is what science needs! Yay for women scientists!

When we left Rocio, we went into the museum to see some of the exhibits that we had missed earlier. The museum was close to closing, so we saw a few things before heading out.

Sabre-toothed Cat skeleton

I thought this display was particularly cool. You look into a window and see a skeleton, but if you glance away and look back, it has changed!

Sabre-toothed cat!

We also enjoyed seeing the skulls of the most common fossil they have found… Dire wolves!

Many dire wolves and a Kieran

I didn’t use a tripod here, but I should have. My photos didn’t come out that great in the low light of the museum, which was a bit disappointing. Here is one more that I liked. It’s through a window of a storeroom. This gives you a bit of an idea how HUGE the collection of fossils is at the Page Museum.

Part of the fossil collection

This is one of many places I wish I could have spent more time. It is really unique!

When the museum closed, we left to do the normal tourist things in LA. We drove up to see the Hollywood sign, went up Mulholland Drive, then went toward the shore one last time for dinner.

Proof we went to LA

I enjoyed posting pictures of all the mansions to Facebook. I labeled them with 80s star’s names, although we really had no idea who lived there. I guess I was getting a little loopy from the hours on the road! We had not picked out a place to eat, but thought LA would be a good place to get some food that didn’t come out of our cooler. We let Evan use Urbanspoon and/or Yelp to pick a spot. He suggested a place a bit out of our way, but what’s an extra few miles on a 7200 mile journey? We drove to Malibu just in time for some fried seafood on the beach at sunset. It might have been my favorite meal on the trip!

K representin' Indy

Again, I failed to use my tripod and regretted it later, but I was kinda too covered in sand and grease to mess with all the gear.

Me and my sweetheart

Not the best picture of us, but let me tell you, the beach was beautiful and we had a wonderful evening. We left Malibu for a drive to Ontario, California. We got in late, but we were OK with that. We had enjoyed our little slice of LA and were ready to leave the Pacific coast for our next adventure.

Stop 11: Monterey Bay, part 3

… in which i squeeee and share pictures of massive cuteness.  Er, I mean, give a lesson on endangered species.

After a full day of whale watching and aquarium touring, we enjoyed sleeping in on the morning of June 27th. When we woke up, I spent some time working on blogging and the boys enjoyed a little TV time (which had been very rare on the trip so far). When we were done being lazy, we drove a few miles north to Moss Landing. We are big fans of kayaking and have had some really great experiences with our kayaks, but we decided against bringing them with us on this trip (too many miles and not enough space). Nonetheless, I wanted to experience some kayaking in California, so we decided to rent yaks for a few hours. After some research, we opted for the more natural Elkhorn Slough, rather than trying to navigate the harbor in Monterey.

Elkhorn Slough is a protected estuary (a National Estuarine Research Reserve) that has a large population of a threatened species, the Southern Sea Otter, as well as lots of sea lions, harbor seals and birds. We arrived and got our gear ready. We decided we would rent two tandem sea kayaks, even though that is not what we are used to paddling (we have three sit-inside kayaks and Kieran rides along with David or me). This time Kieran had a chance to assist in the paddling, which he loved, of course!  Evan and I had one boat and David and Kieran shared the other.

We got on the water and immediately noticed there were sea lions hanging around the beach where the extra kayaks were sitting. I was a bit unsure of myself with a new boat and having to share control of it with Evan, so it took me a while to get up the courage to pull the expensive camera gear out of my dry bag. Luckily David had his camera up and running right away.

Kieran, the power plant, and the entrance to Elkhorn Slough, photo by David Kern

As Evan and I got to the bridge to go into the estuary, we heard an extremely loud *crack* sound. We looked over just in time to see an otter cracking open an oyster with a rock. I still didn’t have the good camera out, so I didn’t get any shots, but it was amazing to see them doing that behavior in the wild. We watched him hold the oyster in his paws and eat it before diving down for seconds. So cool! I finally gave in and decided to get the good camera out of its safe hiding place and take my chances. But I was also trying to wrangle the GoPro as well. I was really hoping to get some action shots of the otters swimming around us, but it never happened. Once we got past the bridge we noticed a couple of otters swimming not too far away. When I got out the camera I found that it was two mothers with pups.

This pup was happy to see us. Check out those canine teeth!

Here’s another pic of the happy pup and momma.

Momma was checking us out

As we got further in, we found a beach where the sea lions and seals were sunning themselves while being supervised by a bunch of pelicans.

The beach

As we headed further into the estuary, we noticed a large group of otters who were floating together, wrapped up in the kelp. As we got closer, we realized it was more moms and pups.

Otter families

Here are a couple more. I just can’t resist adding more pictures of these guys.

Could this face be any happier??

A blondie

We were not very close to them, but at one point, they started taking notice of us, and we decided we should leave them alone. Knowing that the Southern Sea Otter is threatened in part due to its low biotic potential (slow birth rate, etc.), I found it really encouraging to see all the mothers with pups. I do hope their population can recover from the damage the fur hunters of the past have done.

Turning south, we saw a blue heron and a pelican searching the water for some food.

Pelican

 

Heron

We were getting a little tired at this point, and we had to fight the wind on the way out, so we turned around, planning to get another glimpse of the seal beach. we enjoyed watching them interacting with each other, and they paid absolutely no attention to us.

 

Seals and cormorants

OK, a few looked up to check us out. And a couple of young ones seemed to be asking their parents permission to go swimming with us. The parents didn’t seem interested in getting back in the cool water though.

What's up guys?

Here is a little conversation from a youngster and his elders:

Come and swim with me, Momma!

Back under the bridge, we saw a few more otters hunting shellfish, but didn’t get a good picture. Then we went past a dock with lots of sea lions and one otter sleeping, grooming themselves, and or playing king of the hill.

Sea lion pile

I was amazed at how the dock floated up and down in the waves, submerging the sea lions’ faces intermittently. They just didn’t seem to mind! One more shot of these guys and then we’ll head south down the California coast in search of more geology.

I'm pretty sure they're sleeping and not dead!

Some day I’ll add some video from this little trip, but we had some issues with files that had to be recovered.

Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship presentation video

Today I am giving a short presentation to some of the Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellows and their guests. I am looking forward to sharing a little about the experiences I’ve had over the last year. From the planning, to the travel, to the interviews, to the photo and video editing, to the blogging I have learned many things. Not only did I learn a lot about geology but I learned about desert, marine, and alpine biology and paleontology. I learned about how to conduct interviews. I learned about the National Park Service and how they meet the challenge of balancing preservation and education with a small budget. I found many parallels between the great work they do despite a shortage of funding, and the work we educators accomplish with our minimal budgets. I learned about the human history of the west, and about the difficulty of survival under the harshest conditions.

There is still more blogging to come, but for now, here is the final draft of my video presentation. Unfortunately, some of the pictures go really fast, and I didn’t provide adequate narration for some of the locations pictured in the video. But I still feel that it gives a good overview of what I learned from the experience while showcasing some of the most beautiful parts of America.

Enjoy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BT0ro9XMLEY&feature=youtu.be