A charming Clark’s Nutcracker from my visit to Jasper National Park last September.
A charming Clark’s Nutcracker from my visit to Jasper National Park last September.
We’ve all seen the horrendous news coming out of Australia about their dreadful wildfires. My thoughts went back to the month I spent in Australia in the early 1980s. For two weeks I volunteered on an Earthwatch expedition in South Australia, helping collect data for a group of American graduate students from Cornell who were studying the native flora and fauna. My team members were wonderful, diverse American women who shared an interest in wildlife and travel. One of my teammates was Sy Montgomery, who since has become an acclaimed nature writer of numerous books. At the time, we were both journalists and nature geeks, and we haven’t changed much since then. Our team was camped at Brookfield Conservation Park, which is affiliated with Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Our leader, Dr. Pamela Parker was a conservation biologist with the zoo then, but has been assistant director there for some time and is still very active in Australian wildlife research.
For two weeks after that I toured South Australia, New South Wales and Northern Territory. It was an incredible experience and one that will always be a fond memory.
I wrote this piece for Earthwatch’s magazine back then, but they did not use it.
So it seems timely to post this now.
*Photos included here are from scans of my color slides and B&W negatives.
We slice through the darkness with powerful spotlights. My beam illuminates something in the distance – the yellow glint of eyes. Instantly, I sweep back to the spot. We fix our binoculars on the eyes and discover they belong to a kangaroo. Panning the beam slightly, I see there are two kangaroos, frozen briefly in the light. We spend a minute just watching the creatures grazing and moving awkwardly about. Then, we slowly drive on, searching for more animals.
Our project, “Drought Refugia,” has brought us to Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia.
We’ve come here to study the flora and fauna, with an emphasis on the Southern hairy-nosed wombat. The park was set up as a wombat preserve, but it’s also a refuge for kangaroos and other animals. Last year’s drought had a huge impact on the ecosystems here, and plant and animals alike suffered. Spotlighting is kind of a bonus activity for us volunteers. The researchers do it to catch animal behavior that they can’t see during the day.
As our principal investigator, Dr. Pamela Parker, gives us a tour of the park, we pause to watch a small group of gray kangaroos, survivors of the drought.
We also feast our eyes on some beautiful birds –swift-flying mallee ring-necked parrots, raucous gray and pink galahs, and a tiny, vivid blue Splendid Fairy Wren.
Further down the park’s dirt track, we get out of the car for a close look at a wombat warren.
Here, we get our first look at results of the drought – remains of a wombat that had starved to death.
“How do you spell that? How big does it grow? Does it flower? Is it good food for the animals?” Our questions are endless.
Today, I and another volunteer are inspecting color-coded wombat warrens.
We stride across the sparsely vegetated, rock-strewn landscape, going from one warren to the next. We look for signs of activity, either by wombats or other animals, like rabbits or foxes.
We search for the most important unmistakable sign of wombats – fresh fecal pellets. Finding fresh pellets is not difficult, but identifying them can be confusing.
Just when you think you’ve got them pegged as wombat, Pam tells you that female grey kangaroo pellets can resemble wombat.
So, one of the things we learn to do is break open the pellets and examine the plant fibers inside. This takes some getting used to, handling fecal pellets, but after a while our curiosity overtakes our reluctance. Wombat fecal pellets contain short, fine fibers, while kangaroo pellets have fibers of varying lengths and textures. Even Pam sometimes has trouble telling the difference, so I don’t expect to become an expert in two weeks. But my partner and I give it our best try.
Another part of our warren study is to record the number of burrows. A warren can contain anywhere from two to more than 25 burrows in its elaborate tunneling system. After our first few inspections, we learn to walk gingerly over the warrens.
More than once we’ve felt our footing suddenly give way. In many instances, we come across bones and carcasses where starving wombats finally collapsed. It’s clear that the foxes found plenty to scavenge.
The research atmosphere in the park is very relaxed. I’m a bit surprised at the research staff’s willingness to trust us with pieces of their important projects. They send us out to collect specific data: avian use of water at troughs; wombat activity; fecal pellet transects, and rabbit behavior. We plunge into our work enthusiastically, trying out our new gear – binoculars, compasses and field guides.
We get to choose what we want to do, and the work gives us some private time alone with our thoughts.
One of the first things we learn is that “negative data is still data.” So, it’s important for us to note the absence of wildlife during our observations, as well as any activity. We have opportunities to see not only wombats, but red and grey kangaroos, lizards, echidnas, and many species of birds, including emus.
Tonight I am spotlighting again. We go bundled against the mild winter night, standing in the open back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle, armed with spotlights in search of animals. Each of us is eager to see the wildlife that is so evasive during the day, and a little crisp night air isn’t enough to keep us glued to the campfire or in our tents. On our trip we glimpse a wombat before it disappears down a burrow. Then we spot a fox, hungrily tearing at some food, and later, a tawny frogmouth, a bird of prey.
What a lucky sight! Two emus have come to drink at the trough I’m watching.
Until now, none of the volunteers had seen any signs on them except for their flat, circular “pies.” I suspect the emus are a male and female, after checking the head coloring in the field guide. As they are drinking, the emus are making low, booming sounds. When they finish drinking, they walk off as quietly as they came.
The vegetation research is expanding and we have a chance to record density, growth and variety of species.
Only after getting down on my hands and knees do I discover the beauty of the microscopic flowers: candy cane-striped spears the size of toothpicks, and tiny yellow, purple and white flowers.
They all seem so fragile, I’m afraid to step anywhere. Pam says some of the plants take years to regenerate. In times of little or no rainfall, their root systems stay alive, enabling the plants to spring to life at the next rainfall. Pam has been very excited at the return of ephemeral plants and flowers, and her excitement infects us all.
More and more, we realize the devastation of the drought.
Brookfield Conservation Park has been a marvelous learning experience.
We’ve seen and done things no ordinary tourist ever could. The clear skies, sunsets and star-filled nights, the moaning ravens, bounding kangaroos, wombats and the warmth and patience of Dr. Parker, the research staff, and the park ranger are hard to leave behind.
I, for one, vow to return.
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Last fall I visited Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. My first time in Alberta. I was excited to see the Canadian Rockies close up. The timing was perfect for glorious fall foliage. The changing elevations and landscape in the park offered a mix of seasons, first fall, then a bit of spring, then a bit of winter, and back to fall. I was well prepared with a range of clothing.
One of the popular excursions in the park is a chance to “walk” on a glacier, the Athabasca Glacier.
I knew it was a touristy thing to do, but how many chances do you get to do that? To reach the glacier area, I drove the Icefields Parkway, winding through the Columbia Icefields, to the visitor center. I picked a tour time and bought my ticket. Luckily I had time for a nice warming lunch before heading to the glacier.
An outside deck at the visitor center provided an ideal seat facing the mountains and glacier. And, the sun added the perfect touch.
It reminded me of when I visited Switzerland, gazing at the alps on a sunny winter day, from a dry and snowless path. It didn’t seem right.
As the time for my bus ride to the foot of the glacier approached, the sky closed in and a sudden snow squall let loose!
No doubt, this was the coldest, snowiest part of the park. I enjoyed the view going up the slope to where we would transfer to the giant snow coaches.
We climbed aboard. We could see the glacier.
The coaches are well-equipped for moving over snow. Moving is a relative term. Crawling is more like it. As one goes up the snow-packed road, one is likely going back down. We pause to let one go by. The stream of tourists proceeds on schedule every day.
I had every confidence in our driver to keep us safely on the road. His job seemed a little treacherous, but to him it may have been just another day at work.
When we arrived at the parking area, the snow passed, the sky cleared and the sun came out. There were a couple other coaches and groups of travelers already scattered across the ice. Some were posing, some lying on the ice or otherwise frolicking.
Though it was sunny, it was quite windy on the glacier. I noted the various state of dress of the visitors.
Most were well prepared, but some, I thought, had to be beyond freezing. With a cover of snow, the ice still posed dangers. I walked gingerly. We had to stay within the specific area that was deemed safe.
The scene was a mix of international visitors, a good match for the row of flags of all nations that whipped in the gusts.
For a brief time, it was like there were no countries. Just us, the ice and snow, frozen in time. The scene took my mind to Antarctica. I know there are similar flags there too, whipping in similar winds, in a similarly frigid white landscape.
It was perhaps odd to see such unnatural bright colors in the arctic-like landscape. It brought us back to our individual national identities. Like the other visitors, I finally found my country’s flag. It didn’t feel like anything special. It was simply a curiosity, a photo opp. After all, it wasn’t the pole. It was Canada.
Having had enough time to take it all in, we boarded our snow coaches for the slow journey back to the bus.
I was glad for the experience. I was glad to have seen, touched and walked on something that is, in fact, going away.
Sometime after my liftetime it will cease to exist.
I got to see it recently while taking a ferry from Marin County to San Francisco. There it was, silently glowing gold in the late afternoon sun, with a guard tower nearby. Just a simple building at the edge of the water. There was no one outside that I could see. I had to imagine those inside.
With only water between us, I almost got a chill seeing San Quentin State Prison in real life. After all, it’s the stuff of 1940s black and white movies, in which gangsters get their due in the end. I immediately had a vision of Humphrey Bogart, dressed in shades of gray, with his classic sneer and heavy five o’clock shadow.
Among those sent there are all men who have received the death sentence in California. There have been executions in the past, but none have taken place since 2006. In 2019, the governor ordered a moratorium on executions. Almost 700 men remain on “death row.”
The maximum security prison opened in 1852 and is the oldest in California. Pretty tough to escape from there, eh? Some have tried, but no one has ever successfully fled the prison.
Oddly, the tough prison has served as a setting for numerous films and concerts. Johnny Cash performed for prisoners twice, once with inmate Merle Haggard in the audience. B.B. King and Metallica later performed there.
Bogart was indeed tied to San Quentin: he played an escapee in the 1947 film “Dark Passage.” Several other movies used the facility, including Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run.”
The prison has evolved somewhat since it opened. There are now programs to rehabilitate prisoners who are able to be released, and they do have access to exercise, education and entertainment. But for me, San Quentin will always be that cold, concrete place swathed in black and white, where the baddest of the bad simmer inside.
I’m glad to be on the “outside.”
There’s an ad jingle in my memory cells that goes something like this, “Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can? You know who, you know who, who, who.” For some reason, the word Sacramento sticks in my mind along with it.
When I was in the Sacramento, California, area recently, I learned that tomatoes are a huge crop there. A lovely painted vintage-style sign at the tomato processing plant in Woodland verifies that fact.
Surrounding Woodland are farm fields as far as the eye can see. No doubt many of those perfectly aligned rows get planted with the red fruits every year.
California grows 95 percent of the more than 12 million tons of tomatoes produced in the U.S. Those fruits come to our tables as fresh tomatoes, canned, paste, sauces, juice and ketchup. The state’s Central Valley is the heart of tomato country. The tomatoes are processed – cooked, crushed, diced, canned, etc., right there in the Central Valley.
The plant I saw in Woodland is among the few processors left in California.
Statistics I found from 2008 show that there were 225 tomato growers in the Central Valley, farming some 277,000 acres, and working with 16 commercial canneries.
But, in case you didn’t know, the tomato is not native to North America. It is said to have originated in South and Central America. It made its way over to Europe in the 1500s. Not surprisingly, Italians were the first to start growing and eating them. Not too long after that, other countries began growing them, but only as items of curiosity. Using them for food had not really caught on yet.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that tomatoes started to be grown in the young United States. Farmer-gardener that he was, Thomas Jefferson naturally took to growing them. But there was still widespread belief that they were poisonous, as members of the nightshade family.
Now we know better. Tomatoes, which are mostly water with a little bit of fiber, are highly nutritious, providing vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K1, lycopene, and beta carotene, among others. And, how about they are just plain delicious! Who doesn’t love a fresh tomato sandwich? Where would pasta be without sauce?
But even as bountiful as the tomato crop appears, and as endless as our appetites are for tomato products, it remains a risky and costly commodity to produce. Tomatoes like sun and heat, but not too much. California is known for a long growing season, but also for a lack of water. Fuel to power mechanical harvesters, fertilizer and water eat into any farmer’s profits. Throw in unpredictable weather.
Thankfully, we now have small and organic farms growing heirloom tomatoes in almost any state that we can buy locally and at our farmers’ markets. We don’t have to depend on big footprint, long-distance crops, at least part of the year. I, along with millions of other Americans, plant my own in my frontyard garden every year.
Each season is an exciting unknown: which varieties will I try? Which ones will taste best? I know that plants sold locally will do fine in my zone. My favorites have been Black Krim and Green Zebras, but I always aim to pick at least one new one to try.
Once thought to be poisonous, tomatoes are beloved and devoured by the tons. The perfect tangy, juicy tomato is the Holy Grail of our summer gardens. Let’s hope that no matter how our climate evolves, we’ll always have tomatoes.
On a recent day that began very overcast, I visited Mount Rainier National Park. There are several rivers in the park, and the Nisqually is one of them.
Here it is a very narrow, shallow ribbon cutting through a rocky bed. You can see the low clouds over the valley.
These were shot in color, but I have converted them to black & white, to focus on the patterns in the water and colors and patterns in the rocks.
The tone of the water reminds me of chocolate milk.
These views were shot from a bridge over the river.
I crossed the border to visit Boquillas del Carmen, a tiny rural village next to the Rio Grande in the prinicipality of Ocampo, in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The town was recently featured in a New York Times article in which the reporter visited border towns to portray life on each side. At the time, Boquillas was suffering from the U.S. government shutdown; it’s largely dependent on tourism.
The U.S. makes it simple for its citizens to venture to the other side. I had taken my passport along on my trip to the Big Bend area of Texas, just in case something strange arose, such as a need for prove my citizenship. You never know, right?
A few days before my trip began, the shutdown ended and the passage to Boquillas opened up again. I hadn’t planned on going over, but a few days into my trip I decided I could fit it in, and, why not? I had never been south of the border, and it was a quirky opportunity.
On the day of my crossing, I drove through Big Bend National Park to the little southwestern style Border Crossing Port of Entry building.
“How do I go?” I asked the agent. “Through that door and follow the path to the river,” he pointed. I stared at The Door. The magical door to the other world.
I returned to my car briefly to figure out what to wear and take, and then walked excitedly back to the building. I gave a nod to the agent, ensuring he remembered just seeing and approving me, and opened The Door.
I found the dirt path and walked the short distance to the river bank. I looked across. There it was: Mexico. The storied rowboat that I had read about awaited me.
The Rio Grande is narrow and shallow here, facilitating friendly relations and easy passage and trade between countries over the past centuries. Even the customs agent had seemed easy going and not too concerned about anything.
The boat trip lasted maybe two minutes. I admired the oarsman’s strength and wondered whether he was the only one who had to make the round trips many times a day, every day of the week.
On the Mexican bank stood many local men, who waited to take visitors by burro, horseback, or pickup truck into town. I opted for a burro, after seeing most tourists on them.
A couple of firsts: first time in Mexico, first time on a burro (or donkey, as they are interchangeably used).
My guide was selected for me, by a process unknown to me, and he then selected my burro. Daniel was my guide and Machete was my ride.
I hoisted myself up to the animal’s back. It was not an easy task.
The saddle was hard and the walk into town was sometimes bumpy on the dirt track. If a truck was coming down the road, Daniel would shout “Burro,” and Machete would move over. Again, I wondered how many times in a day or week that Daniel did this. I paid $5 for the boat ride. I paid another $5 for the burro ride. How much did Daniel get to keep? He did not own the burro, so I imagine there is a big cheese somewhere who owns the burros and “employs” the guides.
When we got within sight of town, it was time for me to dismount, so Daniel could tie up the burro where he could rest, and we could walk up the hill.
I did not ask too many questions of Daniel, but I did learn that he was born there and has lived there all his life. It’s a hard life, I’m sure.
Daniel gave me a tour of Boquillas, during which we passed very modest homes, a couple restaurants, a bar, a grocery store, a school, a health clinic, a customs office, and the solar energy facility. I was amazed at that, and happy for the residents. I especially liked the colorful buildings.
In front of many homes, along the street, there were tables filled with handmade crafts. It seems everyone makes the same items: small beaded, wire-framed figures of ocotillo cactus, roadrunners, spiders, scorpions and such, and embroidered objects and T-shirts.
Many items proclaimed No Wall and No Al Muro. I wanted to get something with that message, for sure.
One surprising feature of my tour was a look at some sand dunes. I have seen sand dunes before, so I wasn’t too enthused when Daniel offered to show me theirs. But, when we got to the viewpoint, yowza! It was stunning.
It was lunchtime and I had to choose a spot to try the local cuisine. I settled on one and sat outside with Daniel.
We both enjoyed “Mexican” Cokes, made with Mexican sugar, the owner proudly pointed out. Another first for me! I offered to buy lunch for Daniel, but he declined. Another American couple sat at a nearby table.
While we waited for our food, we tourists stepped inside the small eatery to check out the crafts for sale. Women were busy in the small open kitchen, making our food. There were T-shirts and religious items, along with table cloths and food items. When I spotted a shirt with a burro, I had to get it. Machete would live on once I returned to Seattle.
It was easy to see how tourism is the life blood of Boquillas. I couldn’t buy something from everyone there, but I could help in my small way. I tried not to seem like the typical American tourist, and I hope I succeeded. I had purchased a couple items from a woman near the other end of town, and then after meeting Daniel’s wife and young son, I bought a couple more from them.
Then it was time to head back across the “big” Rio Grande. We collected Machete and I hoisted myself up again. I turned and waved “Adios, Boquillas.” When we got to the river, the boat was waiting, with the other couple already seated. I dismounted, said goodbye to Machete, thanked Daniel and started to walk toward the boat. Suddenly Daniel said, “My tip?” I was startled. I had not even thought of a tip! I quickly went to my wallet and found a few dollars.
Back on U.S. soil, the couple and I looked at each other and were sad that our little adventure had ended. We chatted about how we wanted to do more traveling.
I kept thinking I should have given Daniel a much bigger tip. He had walked me round trip, in the sun, on the dusty trail, showed me all around the village, sat while I ate, and allowed me to take his picture. Because the residents take only cash, I had spent most of my small bills, so I didn’t have much to give except a large bill. I wondered if the burro owner pays the guides at all.
The experience was definitely worth it and I recommend it to anyone who is going to Big Bend. I’m sure visiting Boquillas for a brief excursion into Mexico is a much more personalized and authentic experience than crossing the border at, say, Juarez or Tijuana. And it reinforced the knowledge that we Americans are so lucky to be able to cross borders freely, to come and go, while others are not so fortunate.
Less than 100 years after Americans won independence from the British, way up in the Pacific Northwest, a little-known squabble took place between the two. In the late 1800s, Americans and British soldiers averted actually firing on each other.
San Juan Island, sections of which today are part of a National Historical Park, had a pleasant temperate climate, and farming, fishing and timber opportunities that appealed to several nations. In the 1800s, it had been visited but not yet claimed. Eventually, ships from England and the U.S. mainland brought military contingents to occupy the territory. Both staked claims to the island and in 1859 they agreed to jointly occupy the island, separated at the 49th parallel, until the water boundary could be settled.
English Camp occupied the northwest end, while American Camp occupied the southern tip. Soon, British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company located a large sheep farming operation there. In time, other farm animals and agricultural operations were added. The large Belle Vue Sheep Farm was a strategic move on the part of the British to fully establish their claim to the land.
Underlying tensions persisted between the two. The Americans tried to tax Hudson’s Bay but no taxes were paid. Though both countries had military camps at opposite ends of the island, things remained relatively calm between the two communities. Officers and their families even visited with each other.
Summer 1859, everything changed. An American settler shot and killed a pig belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company. He claimed that the pig had wandered onto his property and, therefore, he shot the trespasser. Though the pig’s owner, who ran the HBC operation, made little fuss about the incident, things escalated rapidly. The time is known as the Pig War crisis. Tensions continued to simmer, with more and more American settlers coming to the island, many squatting on HBC land.
The British wanted the American settlers removed from the island, but American officials said no way. British warships sailed to the harbor, while troops at both camps multiplied. Both sides stood their ground but no war ensued.
Finally, the disputed water boundary went to arbitration by a third party – Germany. An arbitration panel settled the boundary between Canada and the island, and the San Juan Islands became American possessions. In 1871, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Washington, and a year later the British left the island.
The Pig War had ended diplomatically and peacefully.
Today, little remains of the two camps but visitors can wander their spectacular landscapes.
Birding at Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge in Hoquiam, Washington, I walked from the parking area to the trailhead, past these old structures at the little Bowerman Airport.
Last time I was out here, the restaurant was still operating and was bustling with hungry customers. The retro décor and classic diner menu were lots of fun. Back then when my birding group stopped there for lunch I thought, what a strange place for a restaurant. But now I see it was likely a sort of landmark that drew birders, pilots, as well as locals for good food and company. Now, it was closed, enhancing or perhaps causing the atmosphere of abandonment.
I don’t know how often planes use the airport, but nearby, birds and birders flock to the wetland habitat at the wildlife refuge. Particularly in spring, the salt marsh and mudflats host thousands of migrating shorebirds. Raptors also are drawn to the abundance of prey.
If Trona Pinnacles looks like something out of a sci-fi flick, that’s because it has indeed served as a backdrop for several movies. You might have heard of some of these: Star Wars, Star Trek V, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes.
I first drove to the Pinnacles in 2005, during a visit to Death Valley National Park. I had set aside part of one day to make the drive to the somewhat remote area managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But it took more than an hour to get there, and I had made arrangements for an afternoon horseback ride at Furnace Creek, back in Death Valley. By the time I got to the Pinnacles, I had about a half hour to spend there if I wanted to make my ride. I peered at the Pinnacles from a plateau that overlooked what I thought was a rather limited formation. There was a steep-looking road down to the Pinnacles, but I “there’s no way I’m driving down there,” I decided. I quickly snapped some photos from the parking area and sped back to Furnace Creek.
It wasn’t until January 2017 that I made it back to Trona. I had planned to spend unlimited time there, doing lots of photography and some hiking. I lucked out with a dry day. This time I had rented an SUV, so I had high clearance, though a car could make it.
I drove south through Trona, and spotted the Pinnacles, rising like the Emerald City out of the desert. I arrived at the turnoff for the Pinnacles about 10 miles later. At the corner there are some interpretive signs about the human and geological history of the area.
The five-mile dirt road to the landmark had received recent rains, so it wasn’t as sandy as I remembered. When I arrived at the plateau that overlooks the monument, I realized the drive down the hill to the Pinnacles didn’t look so bad, and saw other vehicles, including a huge RV, down below. How the heck did that RV make it down the steep drive, I wondered. You have to realize that the Pinnacles lie in a basin. To really experience them, you need to get down there. The drive down the gravelly slope was so easy, I felt silly.
And then, I had my real surprise! Trona Pinnacles is expansive! You can’t even see all of it from the plateau. Narrow dirt paths snake around more than 500 formations. I had no idea how much I missed on my previous visit.
Like their cousins at Mono Lake, the pinnacles are tufa formations, which are primarily calcium carbonate.
At Trona, they’re distinguished by age, elevation and shape. The northern, middle and southern groups were formed by different ice ages.
The sun was out; there were some spectacular clouds to add depth to the scenes. The only problem was the WIND. This was my fourth trip to Death Valley and never before had I experienced such winds. I was not going to abandon my photography plans, so I soldiered on.
Each time I got out of the car, I had to fight hurricane-like gusts. I was afraid the wind would snap off the car door! I had to use all my strength to close the door. It goes without saying that any hiking was out of the question.
You can spend as much time as you like at Trona Pinnacles. It’s fairly easy to access, unfenced and free of fees.
Don’t expect much from the town of Trona, beyond a convenience store and gas, if you need it. With a population of about 1,900, it’s a sad little “blink and you miss it” hamlet that is centered on the mining activity in dry Lake Searles. The name of the town comes from the abundant mineral trona, one of many extracted by Searles Valley Minerals. Lake Searles once held water, eons ago, but as it slowly evaporated, the water left behind many minerals. In the 1800s, the dry lake became the scene of many mining operations. First, there was borax, famously being carted out by 20-mule teams. Later there was an Epsom salt operation, and now, a multitude of minerals is produced, including salt, borax, boric acid, and halite.