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!
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.
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

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…

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.




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.

Getting ahead of myself

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but… Kieran was Star Student of the week in school this week, so he got to spend a little time each day telling his class about our trip. He started with Monterey, then Yosemite, then the City Museum (which wasn’t on this trip, but last spring break). Tomorrow he wants to show them Joshua Tree. I haven’t finished that blog post yet, but today I put together a quick video to give the kids (and you readers) a sense of the place. This video was taken near Barker Dam which is in the western half of the park and in the Mojave Desert. I will write more about the geology of the area (and some of the oldest rocks we saw on our journey) soon!

Fun At Joshua Tree


And Kieran and I thought you should see a picture of a desert bighorn sheep, too!

Desert bighorn sheep at Joshua Tree NP

Stop 11: Monterey Bay

On June 25th, we woke up early and headed off to the Fisherman’s Wharf. We had scheduled a morning whale watching trip. Once we got checked in, we walked around a bit taking pictures of the sea lions sunning themselves all over the docks. When it was time, we got on the boat and found a seat inside. Once the boat was headed out of the harbor, the naturalist and crew members came around introducing themselves and giving the safety lecture. The naturalist didn’t waste time before telling us about the wildlife. Not three minutes into the cruise he pointed out a mother sea otter and her baby floating in the harbor.

Momma and baby

She let us get pretty close before she decided she had been the subject of enough photos, flipped over on her belly while hugging her baby to her chest, and dove under the water. At this point I felt like we had gotten our money’s worth, but there was more to see! Out along the breakwater, we saw a cormorant rookery where hundreds of these large black seabirds were raising their young amid lots of sea lions, seals, and pelicans. It appeared to be a very busy place to raise babies!


Once we got out of the harbor, things seemed to slow down a bit. We did not see any animals for a while, but it wasn’t too long before we noticed a huge group of birds sitting on top of the water. A fellow passenger who had a huge telephoto lens wrapped in camouflage tape that seemed to say “I’m a professional nature photographer” explained to us that they were sooty shearwaters. At first I was unimpressed, but he explained that these birds really have an interesting life history! They spend summer off the coast of California, and when it begins to get cool they seek out another summer in the southern hemisphere, off the coast of New Zealand. They spend all of their lives either in the air or floating on the water (or diving for fish, I suppose). They never come on land, and they don’t need to drink freshwater!

Sooty Shearwaters

I never really got a chance to talk to the photographer again, but I wonder if he has a website or something. I’m sure his pictures are better than mine.

The farther we got from shore, the more we seemed to be enshrouded by fog. I began to worry that we might not have ideal whale watching conditions. How would we see whales when we could only see a short distance? The fog made it difficult to tell how far we had gotten from shore and where exactly we were going. Fortunately, David had thought to bring the GPS and we enjoyed tracking the boat into the bay. Below is a Google maps screenshot that will give you an idea of why Monterey Bay is such a great place to go whale watching:

Google Maps view of Monterey Bay

As you can see from the picture above, Monterey Bay contains some VERY deep water VERY close to shore. Of course, humpback whales don’t normally like to be in shallow water where they might get beached. There is another reason this area is great for whales: the upwelling. Astute environmental science students will remember that the trade winds blow from the northeast in the northern hemisphere and from the southeast in the southern hemisphere. This causes a warm upper layer of water to be pushed to the west in most years (except in an El Niño year). As a result, cool water gets pulled up from the ocean depths on the west coast of the US. This water has nutrients from the ocean sediments that get pulled up with it and holds a great deal of dissolved oxygen due to the cool temperatures (remember, gases dissolve better in cool water than in warm). The ultimate result of this upwelling of nutrient-rich, cool water is that phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and zooplankton (small, free-floating animals) can live in very high concentration here. These are the base of the marine food chain. If the plankton population is healthy, so are the sardine, squid, tuna, krill, dolphin and whale populations! I’ll come back to the squid later. For now, I’ll answer the question you might be asking: did you see any whales? YES!

WHALES!! (two humpbacks here)

I may have mentioned before that I went whale watching off the coast of Maine with my parents and siblings when I was 18. At the time I had just graduated from high school and was about to head to Purdue to become a veterinarian. I decided against applying to vet school about a year and a half later for various reasons, but my whale watching experience probably had an impact on my career choice. I remember being so impressed with the naturalist on that boat. He could tell us which whale was which based on the shape and markings of the tail flukes (most adult humpbacks have had run-ins with boat propellers, so they have markings). I was absolutely smitten with biology and ecology. During my senior year of college I remember writing a paper on why I was interested in becoming a biology teacher for my Methods of Teaching Science course. Quite a bit of that paper was about my whale watching experience. Since then, I had not been whale watching and taking David and the boys on a similar trip was at the top of my list of things to do in California. What does this have to do with geology? Maybe nothing. But, look at the whales!

Humpback tail fluke

Actually, when I got home (I’m only about a month behind on my blogging at this point – only) there was another little splinter in my mind. Maybe Monterey Bay was the perfect place to consider geology. In fact, the area is really unusual. Not only is there an extremely rich feeding ground because of the upwelling, but the deep water so close to shore gives the humpbacks a place to find lots of krill and tiny fish in an area that they can really dive deeply to come up far and make a big catch. So why does Monterey Bay contain such a deep underwater canyon? Well, after some research, it seems that this is one of those times scientists use that much-hated phrase, “we don’t know”. Mind you, “we don’t know” and “we have no idea” are not the same thing. Scientists do have some good ideas about how the canyon formed. Although it seems like a straight forward question, there is a compounding issue that people in Indiana (like me) might not think about. In California, you must always take into consideration the fact that you are at the edge of a tectonic plate or two. Because the Pacific plate has moved north relative to the North American plate, the canyon is probably not currently adjacent to the river responsible for carving it. Some geologists believe that the canyon was carved when it was an outlet for the Colorado River, before the Gulf of California opened up. Others believe that it was carved when California’s Central Valley was drained and the canyon was near present-day Santa Barbara. The canyon is about a mile deep and it starts about a mile below the surface, so it is astounding to me how deep the water is so close to shore! OK, enough geology, back to the whales!

Humpback whales feeding

Humpback whales (like several other species of large whales) are baleen whales. They take huge mouthfuls of water into an expandable pouch in their throats, then push the water out through their baleen to filter the krill and small fish from the water. What is baleen? Baleen is made of keratin, and similar to fingernails. Whales have many rows of these baleen plates along their mouths that allow them to strain out their tiny prey. Here is Kieran with a piece of baleen that’s longer than he is tall. David and Evan are looking at pictures and listening to the naturalist explain how humpbacks use the baleen. In this video, Kieran narrates and makes up a joke. Ah six year-olds!

Kieran posing with baleen

It is pretty astounding that the largest animals on the planet hunt some of the smallest animals as their prey! Of course, humpback whales are not the only ones that were enjoying the seafood buffet that day. The cute little (comparatively) sea lions looked like they were playing, but I am sure they would take offense to such a suggestion. I’m sure they were feeding just like the whales were.

Sea lion

We also saw about 100 Risso’s dolphins. They are not a species I was familiar with, and I found them interesting. These guys were really fast. Every time I tried to take a picture, I ended up with their left over splashes. I did get a few shots that came out OK.

Risso's dolphin

These guys really don’t hold still for the camera. Here’s another one:

Another Risso's dolphin

And here’s another one:

Risso's dolphin #3

Not all cetaceans use baleen to catch their meals. The other whales are called “toothed whales”. This group includes orcas and dolphins. Risso’s dolphins eat a variety of fish, but they prefer to eat squid. Their coloring is usually grey with white scarring. These scars come from the hooks on the ends of the tentacles of their prey and from bites from other Risso’s dolphins. They actually start life uniformly grey and their skin becomes whiter as they age and accumulate scars. I almost forgot! David caught some good video of these guys! Check it out!

Not long after seeing these guys, we found another pod of humpbacks. Our naturalist counted seven as our total for the trip.

I took a lot of humpback pictures.


How about one more for good measure?

Diving down

As we came back to the wharf, the sky began to clear. I’m certainly no travel expert, but I might advise someone going whale watching in Monterey Bay to consider an afternoon tour, rather than a morning one to avoid the fog. Of course, that day’s weather may not be the normal weather pattern. As we returned, we were welcomed back by our old friends, the sea lions.

Fishermen's Wharf Welcoming Committee

After we left the boat we checked out the wharf which has lots of seafood restaurants and trinket shops. We tried fresh raw oysters, which was a first for all of us. Kieran was the only one who didn’t approve. Then we ran across a few new arrivals to the wharf.

Baby seagulls on the roof

Our afternoon was spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I think that’s going to require another post.

Stop 10: Point Reyes

We left Yosemite on June 24th and headed to Merced, CA. We had heard good things about a particularly yummy taco truck from Ranger Erik (see previous post). He told us that Ramone’s truck would be found in Planada, just before we got to Merced. As we drove through, we did find the truck, but it was closed up and no one was there. Bummer! We all had our hearts set on a good burrito, so we planned to catch some Mexican food later on. We did end up having the craving satisfied in San Francisco. More on that later.

When we arrived in Merced, we enjoyed a little pool time and had a relaxing evening. The next day’s drive was set to be a big one!

In the morning, we rolled out early to head to Point Reyes National Seashore. As we drove, we could not believe the number of distinct ecosystems we went through! High desert, chaparral, grassland, pine forest. We arrived at the Point Reyes Visitor Center and got a little information about a good place to drive and see some wildlife. We drove along the San Andreas Fault and talked about how strange it was that an earthquake could happen here at any time.

The road from Yosemite to Merced

We decided to go out to the sea lion overlook off of Sir Francis Drake Blvd. The road ran along a ridge of a peninsula that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean. This was the first time any of us had seen the Pacific, and it seemed surreal to see it from this vantage point. The Pacific coast is nothing like the Atlantic, where the water meets the gentle slope of a sandy beach. The rugged, rocky beaches here and high cliffs upon which the roads were built were quite beautiful.

Sir Francis Drake Blvd.

The road also took us past several cattle ranches, some of which allowed the cattle to roam free. We were a little taken aback by how rural and agrarian the area seemed. So this is California?

We've got cows.

When we arrived at the Sea Lion overlook, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the cliffs, rocks, flowers, and mist. I think I took more pictures of flowers than of sea lions!

Flowers at Point Reyes

We even saw a deer.


But we had come here to see some marine wildlife. We stood there quite a while and another couple was lamenting that there was “nothing to see”. I had not given up on it yet. Evan went back to the truck to grab binoculars because he and I thought we heard some sea lions. When he got back, it didn’t take him long to find what we were looking for. This video is one of my favorites, because I think it is hilarious. David is doing the camera work and can’t really see the little screen because of the glare. He zooms in on the sea lions, but thinks he’s just looking at rocks, until Evan explains what we see in the binoculars! Lots of excited chatter in English and German(?) in this one!

California sea lions

We left Point Reyes and took US Highway 1 south toward San Francisco. The road hugged the coast, high above the shoreline, and instead of building bridges each time a river dumped into the sea and cut back into the cliffs, the engineers of this road just made the road go back into the cut. This road is as far from “as the crow flies” as a road can possibly be, curving left, then right around hairpin turns on the edge of the continent. The views were magnificent, but we didn’t stop often to capture pictures. I tried to take a few from the passenger seat, but most of these are marred by a terribly blurry foreground. Anyway, we ended up with a few good shots.

Lighthouse along US 1

Many places along US 1 made us think of the Amalfi Coast in Italy, only foggier.

As we arrived in San Francisco, we were fairly surprised that we went from forested rural land, then suddenly into the suburbs. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, but only saw part of it, as it was shrouded in thick fog.

Golden Gate Bridge in fog

As he was driving, David kept messing with his phone and the mapping software he uses. I thought this was weird, but he didn’t seem to be having trouble with the driving. He kept making turns through the city that I thought couldn’t be the most direct route to follow US 1 further south. When he turned into an urban neighborhood and into the parking lot of a machine shop, I started asking him what was going on, until I saw it… A taco truck! Not just any taco truck, it turns out, but the second best rated one in San Francisco! The sneaky man had been researching our lunch options on Urban Spoon at every stop light. We hopped out, went to find an ATM to get cash, and went back to order. Evan had lengua, Kieran had carne asada, David had al pastor, and I got the veggie one. While we waited, Kieran and I went to the park across the street and he played on the playground. English was the second most common language spoken here, but he fit right in with the other kids.

We enjoyed driving up the crazy steep hills, and admiring the architecture while eating some fantastic Mexican food. San Francisco seemed like a very culturally rich city, and I definitely want to come back and spend some more time there.

Obligatory steep road photo

But we were just passing through. It was not long before we were back on US 1 and hugging the coast again headed to our destination for the next three days: Monterey Bay, where we would leave the geology discussion at the door and talk about animals and environmental issues instead. It was about time for a break from looking at rocks.

Sunset near Monterey Bay


Stop 9: Yosemite

Before we left the Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest, we asked Ranger Dave about the road that went mostly straight west and back toward Bishop. We had seen the road on a map the night before, but the rangers at the station in Bishop had suggested we might have trouble with it due to the size of our truck. They had nearly talked David out of trying this 4-wheel-drive-high-clearance-vehicle-only gravel road, but he wanted a second opinion. David operates heavy equipment for a living and is fairly comfortable with driving on tricky roads. Ranger Dave told him that the road was built for the power company to bring their trucks up to fix the power lines that run through this area. He said that they drive big bucket trucks up and down the road all the time, and he had driven it often himself. He said it was a fun drive with lots of great views. Well, that settled it. We were going to go “check it out” and maybe turn around if it looked too bad. When we got to the top of the steep part, David said he thought it looked fine, so down we went! Here is a GoPro video we made of the drive. It doesn’t look nearly as terrifying as it was!

Silver Canyon Road

We saw lots of uplifted rock strata, some interesting plants and two four-wheelers that came out of nowhere!

Prickly pear cactus in bloom


We got back to Bishop safely and turned north to head to Yosemite. It turns out we missed some interesting geology at Mono Lake and the Devil’s Postpile along the way, so anyone thinking about doing a similar trip, check those two out! We’ll hit them next time!

Mono Lake. We didn't stop, but should have.

When we got into Yosemite, we set up camp, made sure our bear locker would hold all the food we brought, then relaxed around the campfire and made dinner.

A visitor to our campsite (Steller's Jay)

I took a picture of what we had accumulated at the half-way point in the trip.

The half-way point of our trip

And as the sun went down, the boys got creative. We didn’t get any fantastic long-exposure photos of the night sky like I had hoped we would… but we did get this. Evan made the sun; Kieran made the waves.

Other uses for head lamps

The next day we went for a couple of hikes along the Tioga Road. This road is not open year-round, due to snow. I happened to fall into a campsite here because I follow all the national parks we were scheduled to visit (and all the ones I’ve been to before… they post awesome pictures) on Facebook and Twitter. About two weeks before we left Indiana, they posted that Tuolumne Meadows campground was open for the summer. I had booked a campsite a lot farther south and farther from Yosemite Valley, so I quickly scrambled to switch the sites. I’m glad we did. The Tioga Road area is at pretty high elevation and has beautiful scenery! It was different from the Yosemite Valley area, so we really enjoyed the diversity of ecosystems. Our first stop along the road was Tuolumne Grove, one of several giant sequoia groves in the park. We thought, since we had just seen some of the oldest trees on Earth, maybe we needed to check out some of the tallest ones! I had always wanted to see the sequoias and finally had the chance. As usual at places like this, it is difficult to convey the scale of this place.

A giant

Just how big is this one?

There was much eye-rolling when I requested the picture above. But when we got to walk through a tree stump, and then crawl through a fallen tree, Kieran loved that!

That's right, I'm gonna walk through!

And then…

Hey Mom, we're going in!

The giant sequoias were every bit as impressive as I had hoped they’d be, and the interpretive signs around the grove were really well done. We learned that this grove was near last summer’s forest fire. In order to keep the fire from spreading to them, the rangers intentionally started a small fire ahead of the wildfire to clear out the underbrush, leaving less fuel for the wildfire.




This post is getting too long, so I’ll write about Pothole Dome and our Ranger interview in part 2 (and maybe 3). Yosemite was the first place we stayed more than a day, so I guess I shouldn’t expect to be able to summarize our visit in one post!

Stop 8: Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest

On June 21st we woke up at our hotel in Bishop, California, well-rested and ready to head out for an interview. This one would be a little different. This time we were going someplace that was not chosen due to its geology, but due to the unusual plants that live there. Ancient Bristlecone Pines National Forest is part of the Inyo National Forest. It contains some of the oldest trees alive, and has a dendrochronology record that goes back almost 10,000 years. This time, we were not going back millions of years, but thousands of years.


We drove south, then east, then north out of Bishop to get there. It was a long, twisty, up and down road with great views. When we arrived at the beautiful, brand-new Visitors Center, we met Dave Hardin. Dave is a retired middle school science teacher from Bishop, who now works as a Ranger at Ancient Bristlecone Pines. In talking to all these park rangers, I’ve become rather jealous of their jobs, but Dave’s job in retirement gave me a great idea. If you need to find me after I’ve retired from teaching, start looking at national parks out west!


Dave started off by introducing us to a few Bristlecone Pine trees. He explained the life history of the trees, and why they live in this area. It turns out this stop was about geology afterall! The bristlecones grow very slowly, and I mean VERY slowly! He showed us a couple of trees that were under a foot tall. I would have guessed they were 1-2 years old. They were 15 or more years old! The problem with growing very slowly is that almost everything is taller than you for a long time. These trees can’t even compete with the sagebrush that grows only to about 18 inches tall. So, if you can’t compete, you better be able to live where no one else can! That’s exactly what bristlecones do. They grow in the dolomitic rock, which is basic, or alkaline. They don’t particularly love basic soil, but the sages can’t grow there. In fact, almost no plants can grow there, so they avoid competition. They also grow pretty far apart from each other for the same reason. Being too close together leads to competition.

Bristlecones on the left, sagebrush on the right

In fact, when a bristlecone finds a good place to grow, it will grow there, very slowly for thousands of years, using up the mineral resources in the soil around it. Eventually, it will exhaust the minerals in the soil its roots can reach, and it will start to die back. The oldest bristlecone pines have tall branches that have died off and lost their bark. Many have only a small section of green needles left. But they still produce cones in their old age. Bristlecones even reproduce slowly. They have a two year reproduction cycle and don’t reach reproductive maturity until their 30s. As Dave said, if you want to live a long time like the bristlecones, you should rest often, and live slowly. Somehow I don’t think I’ll live to see 4000 years, even if I take lots of naps!

Here is the video of Dave explaining everything about the Bristlecones, and then part of our hike.

When we left the Visitors Center, we took a short trail into the Path of the Ancients. The trail wound around among the trees and there were lots of squirrels and wildflowers to see. The trees individual ages are not indicated in any way, because in the past people have broken off parts of the trees as souvenirs when they knew which tree was the oldest. Now people are less likely to take parts, since they don’t know which tree is oldest. Still, we knew what to look for and could identify the very old trees, as opposed to the several hundred year-old youngsters. I have been around rocks and fossils the last few weeks with ages in the millions of years old, but I felt a kinship with these 4000 year-old trees. They are alive. It was awe-inspiring to think about what human history they had been witness to. They were standing here before the Egyptians built the pyramids, when the Greeks dominated the Mediterranean, and while the Mayans were contemplating how to measure time.

This tree is in the three to four thousand year old range!

The oldest trees may be approaching the ends of their lives because they have used up all of their resources, but the younger trees, maybe 1000 years old, are still growing strong. While I was thinking about the history of the trees, I began to think about their future. As the climate warms, they will not survive at lower elevation. They will not be able to compete with the piñon pines that currently cannot live at such high, cool elevations, but will soon be able to. It is sad to think that the next generation will live at higher elevation, and the one after that at higher elevation still. The mountains only go up so far. If the climate warms too much (and too quickly), the population of these ancient organisms may not survive. The bristlecones have made their stand by growing and changing very slowly. In a quickly changing climate, the population may not be able to adapt. I suppose it is possible that they will find a way; nature often does, but it is not just the polar bears whose extinction I worry about. Maybe the bristlecones don’t make such a good poster child for environmental awareness, but you can’t deny the wisdom of the ancients. I hope we can learn from them and find a way to slow down our pace so our society can reach an old age along with our elders, the bristlecone pines.

An ancient