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

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 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.

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

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

Enjoy!

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!

Cormorants

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.

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, Part 3

Updated 9/18/2014. I just realized that I had linked to the part 1 video and then the part 1 again.  Oops! The link is updated now and it should make a lot more sense!

Oh my, a three-part post about just one place?! Yes, Yosemite is a huge park with lots to see, and in our three days there, I feel like we only scratched the surface. At least we saw enough to know that there is much to do there, and we need to return.

On the morning of June 24th, we woke early, broke camp in Tuolumne Meadows and headed West and South toward Yosemite Valley. The drive was filled with ooohs and aaahs. We drove past El Capitan, then Half Dome. Yosemite Falls was flowing beautifully.

Yosemite falls

Having not been in Yosemite Valley before, I was a little surprised how many people (and cars!) were packed into the relatively narrow valley. The place bustled almost like a city. Between the valley walls were packed two roads (one Eastbound, one Westbound), some bike paths (a great way to relieve some of the road congestion), campgrounds (for those who book nearly a year in advance), lots of buses, the Merced River, Visitor Centers, in some areas a wide meadow, and lots of people. We knew Yosemite was a very popular summer destination, but driving and parking were a bit more complicated than I had planned. Still, the place seemed to run smoothly and we got to the Visitor Center almost on time. We had been given permission to park near the Visitor Center in an area designated for employees, which was nice. When we arrived we gathered our gear and headed right past the mule deer munching grass on the lawn of a chapel toward our meeting place.

Ranger Erik Westerlund was there to meet us. He said that he thought he’d walk us through his usual geology talk which he regularly presents to groups of visitors. We didn’t catch the beginning of the talk on video, so it starts off a little bit into the discussion. Ranger Erik is a biologist and always thought geology was boring, until two events changed his mind. I’ll let him tell the story. I will say it’s interesting to get two biologists together to talk about geology. He and I both kept interrupting the geologic story with “hey look, a Steller’s Jay!” and “is that milkweed?” and “how is the health of your monarch butterfly population?” I edited most of that out, but I might put together another video at the end with all the extraneous plant and animal talk. There are some really interesting stories in there! And besides, geology is Boring. Right?

Hey look, a Steller's Jay! (photo by Evan Kern)

And this is one of my favorite pics from the trip:

Showy milkweed and a bee (photo by Evan Kern)

I split the videos up in two so that they weren’t so hard to upload. Here is the first video. In this video, Ranger Erik explains how subduction of the Pacific oceanic plate under the North American plate along the coast of California caused the Sierra Nevada range to be uplifted. The Merced River cut the V-shaped Yosemite Valley. Then, much later, glaciers carved the valley. Since then, it has filled in with sediment to a very great thickness!

Before Erik explains why he finds geology interesting now, although he thought it was boring before, I think I should explain a few things.

Firstly, Erik talks about endemic species and endemism. I doubt my new students will know those words yet. Endemic species are species that only live in a certain area. We discussed the fact that California has a high degree of endemism, which means that there are many species that only live in California.

Secondly, I think a refresher on evolution is probably a good idea now. Erik finds geology interesting because in California, as in many places, geology has been a direct driver of evolution. There are several things people misunderstand about evolution, so let’s clear those up. First of all, individuals do not evolve; populations evolve. Secondly,evolution is simply a change in how common each genetic trait is in a population over time.For speciation (one population splitting into two species) to happen, there are certain criteria that must be met. Here is how a new species is formed: 1) The population must have some genetic diversity within it. If all the individuals within the population were the same, the population could not evolve. 2) Some members of the population have to be separated from other members for a long period of time (this is where the geology comes in). 3) In one of the two populations’ ecosystems (or in both), there has to be some environmental difference from the original populations’ ecosystem. It could be a climatic difference, it could be a different predator, or it could be a difference in vegetation. It could also be a social or behavioral difference. 4) In this new environment, some members of the population may have genetic differences that result in them being more successful at competing for resources (we call this “better adapted”) than other members. 5) As a result of this difference, the more successful ones will either have more offspring, or have more that survive. 6) The offspring will have the more successful traits passed on to them, so the more successful genes become more common within the population in the next generation. 7) Eventually, one population becomes so different from the other that they no longer can interbreed. They are now two different species.

So now, see if nunataks make sense as drivers of the evolution of the Lyell salamander!  (<– This is the link I messed up before.) I find it so interesting that California is a biodiversity hotspot, in part due to glaciers! Indiana had glaciers, too. Anyone want to guess why Indiana doesn’t have a high degree of endemism?

 

Black-headed Grosbeak (photo by Evan Kern)

Upon finishing the geology talk, we asked Erik for a recommendation on a trail. He suggested a hike up to Vernal Falls. We also got on the subject of food and he suggested Ramone’s Taco Truck. That is the beginning of another story that I will tell in the next post.

Bear trap

On the way to Vernal Falls, we saw some interesting things, including this bear trap in the campgrounds. I wondered how often it became a curious kid trap! Shortly after passing the bear trap, this little thing walked right past us along the sidewalk:

Young mule deer

At the trailhead, we enjoyed the view of the river:

The Merced River, below Vernal Falls

The trail to the falls is paved, popular, and a fairly steep up, up, up. There were lots of squirrels who were looking for some easy lunches in the form of handouts from hikers. They didn’t mind being petted at all. We didn’t pet or feed them for a couple of reasons… one because it is not good for them to become dependent on summer handouts, then have difficulty finding food for the winter, also because the little guys can carry fleas and diseases. Lots of other people enjoyed playing with them, though. I just enjoyed the fact that they seemed happy to model for my camera.

Not shy

Along the trail, there were a few places to stop and take some family portraits. One of my favorite things that happens along populated trails is the little interactions with other hikers. We offered to take a picture for a Japanese couple and their two little kids and they took a picture for us. This is one of the few “all four of us” pictures we got on the trip:

All four, near Vernal Falls

It wasn’t long before we were at the halfway point. We were tired and had a bit of a drive to Merced, CA that afternoon, so we decided not to go to the top. Here is the view of the falls from the bridge at the halfway point:

Vernal Falls

Once back in the valley, we hopped in the truck and headed off toward Merced, with visions of delicious taco truck burritos dancing in our heads.