Sunday, December 31, 2017

Birds Aren't the Only Thing to See at a Great Valley Wildlife Refuge

River Otter at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
California's Great Valley (called by some less proud people the Central Valley) is the most agriculturally productive place on the planet, producing something like a quarter of the nation's nuts, fruits and vegetables on about 2 percent of the land. The agricultural and accompanying urban development has altered 95% of the original savanna landscape. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans in the 1800s the valley was a vast prairie/grassland that stretched for 400 miles, broken up here and there by a vast network of rivers and wetland marshes fed by numerous streams flowing from the Sierra Nevada.
Raccoon at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
For several million years the valley was the wintering ground for millions, maybe billions of migratory birds that spent their summers breeding in the Arctic. The arrival of humans and their alteration of the landscape disrupted this intricate ecosystem. The birds continued to migrate in reduced numbers and with their natural food sources gone, they started going after the crops being grown by farmers. This became an untenable situation, and there were those who advocating shooting the birds to extinction, but cooler heads prevailed, and work began on establishing a chain of national and state bird refuges at strategic locations up and down the valley. These refuges provide us an idea of the primeval appearance of the valley.
Deer at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
It turns out of course that birds weren't the only creatures displaced by human development. The original valley was a savanna with multitudes of grazing animals and their predators. There were elk, deer, and pronghorns, along with wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, and bears. Prior to 12,000 years ago, there were mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, saber-tooth cats, and giant short-faced bears. To a degree, the refuges that were originally meant for birds also provide shelter for the remnants of this incredible ecosystem. In my travels, I've seen the elk and deer pictured in this post along with river otters, raccoons, foxes, and coyotes.
Tule Elk at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Today's post was prompted by my sighting yesterday of three River Otters crossing a road at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. They were moving so fast that by the time I was able to raise my camera, only one was left, and I got but a single shot.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Best Christmas Present Ever

I grant that this post is a bit out of character for Geotripper, being not about rocks, or faults, or preservation of our most cherished landscapes. It is about a Christmas gift.

There are lots of holiday traditions, whether religious or secular, that are shared by people this time of year. As a kid, ours was all about Christmas. Sure, there was the religious aspect, but come on, we were kids. It was all about presents, Christmas trees, and Santa Claus, and this blog post is about a present. Yup, I was basically Ralphie in the movie "A Christmas Story", only my objective was more scientific: I wanted a telescope. I eventually even got one, but this isn't that story.

When I was a kid, I and my two siblings looked forward to the whole Christmas season, especially the tree decorating. There was the ceremonial selection of the tree at the Alpha Beta Grocery Store parking lot where my Scout Troop sold trees. There were the Christmas lights, the big bulbs that burned hot enough to dry out the tree and cause fires (luckily not in our case). And then there were the decorations, the boxes of glass ornaments, the red ones, the blue ones, and silver ones. We were allowed as kids to hang them, but then there was that fourth box, the "special" ones, the extra fancy ones with the glittered lines, and the concave shape on one side that made it sparkle a lot more. We had to reach a certain age before we were allowed to hang them, as they were as delicate as could be. Then there was the tinsel, hung carefully at first, but eventually just flung onto the tree randomly. And finally, at the end of it all, there was the tree topper ornament, the glass spike. It was a long time before we grew big enough to have the honor of placing that one.

Over the years, the various ornaments succumbed to accidents and sometimes to cats (they dangle so temptingly, don't they?). Sometimes we would miss one of them as we "undecorated" the tree, and heard the crunching as we threw the discarded tree to the curb. Other ornaments were added over the years, some purchased, some as gifts, and some lovingly (or otherwise) made as class projects. The number of plain glass balls dwindled, and even the special ones disappeared. We kids grew up and moved on, developing our own collection of ornaments. Decades passed, and the ornaments of my childhood faded from memory. I had "grown up".

The meaning of the holidays morphed over the years. Grandparents passed away, children were born, family members moved farther and farther away as they pursued their careers. It has become a precious thing to me that I can spend time with my sole remaining grandparent, my parents and in-laws, my own grown children and my siblings and their families. So these days, we travel a lot (you may have noticed how Geotripper has been posting from all over the west coast of the U.S. these last few weeks). We couldn't see everyone, but we did our best.

We ended our holiday journeys at my mother's place, and when we arrived, we noticed a cleared area in the garage. It was a lifetime of family Christmas ornaments that my mom has saved, and she wanted us to pick whatever we wanted. And to my great surprise, there were three surviving "special" glass ornaments out of the original twelve. And then mom pointed out that the tree topper had also somehow survived through the decades. Memories flooded back and in that short moment I was nine years old again.

And that's the story of my favorite Christmas present ever. How often do you get to experience a few moments of your childhood a half century on? No special morals or anything like that. Just a neat and special moment in life. Even better than the telescope I got fifty years ago.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Moon over (former) Magma...Pictures from the Road

 Who knew that it rains all the time in the Pacific Northwest??

We're most of the way home from our travels from central California all the way to Seattle, and I of course was looking forward to views and pictures of all those incredible volcanoes that extend from Shasta to Mt. Baker, but for the most part we saw overcast skies and rain. Go figure.
We did see Mt. Rainier briefly in our rear-view mirror at the end of a long driving day, and St. Helens for a moment from a bridge over the Columbia River in Portland, but neither moment offered an opportunity to stop for picture-taking. The clouds closed in shortly after.

We had similar hopes for today as we traveled down the central axis of the Oregon Cascades from Roseburg to California, but once again, the clouds were thick. But as we left Weed on the flanks of Mt. Shasta, the clouds parted and we had a glorious view of the sun-bathed volcano. I pulled off the highway, determined not to miss this last opportunity for a picture or two. As I was snapping pictures, I noticed the moon emerging over Shastina, the slightly smaller cone below the summit of Shasta. So here are the results. Enjoy! We did.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Every Victory is Fragile, Every Loss is Catastrophic: The Grave Robbers and Pot-Hunters

 It's all about the attitude and point of view.

Would you feel outraged if someone spent time on a Civil War or Revolutionary War battle site, digging and digging, looking for bullets and artifacts to sell on E-Bay? Or even more to the point, digging up Civil War cemeteries for articles of clothing and the like? Maybe even the graves of your own ancestors? Does the mere thought of it make you angry? Perhaps you would agree that grave-robbers and pillagers are a particularly low form of human life?

Here's a story (from the exhibit at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington):

"While they were sawing, I noticed a carved seal on a deserted Indian shack back of the totem. I asked the Rev. P.P.D. Llwyd to help me take it down. In crawling up, he slipped and fell into a rank growth of blackberry vines. He was badly skretched in getting out." Elbert F. Blaine

This sea lion once rode a house ridge in the Tlingit village of Tongass. It was illegally removed and carried off to Seattle in 1899 by a group of Seattle businessmen on a totem pole hunt. The collectors visited Tongass in August, when most residents were away fishing. While some men sawed down Kinninook's pole (the so-called "Seattle Totem Pole," shown to the right of this photo), Blaine and Llwyd took the sea lion (shown on the roof of the house in the center left of this photo). When witnesses to the theft complained, a grand jury indictment was brought against the collectors. But the case was dismissed after the investigating federal judge had been entertained at Seattle's premier businessmen's club. To silence the public protest, the collectors raised $500 that they sent to Alaska. The Tongass owners of the pole did not receive this payment. The Burke Museum was given permission to display the sea lion by the late Esther Shea, Taantakwaan (Tongass) matriarch. The museum plans to return it to the Taantakwaan ("Sea Lion People").

Dominant societies and cultures do terrible things to the cultures they have impacted or destroyed. That's a horrible indictment on the human race, and no matter how sophisticated and compassionate we may like to think of our ourselves in this current period of history, it is still true. I was at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington the other day during a rare slow moment on our holiday travels, and I loved working my way through the paleontology exhibits. But it was this small display downstairs that caught my attention. It was one more example of our sordid history. Symbols and artwork of the Taantakwaan people were mere souvenirs to be collected. It was a century ago, but not a whole lot has changed.

The arid landscape of San Juan County, Utah may seem a world away from the temperate rainforests of Tongass and the Washington Coast temperate rainforests. But one thing is not different, even in the modern day: Native Americans are treated as second-class people. The population of the country is around 15,000, but you wouldn't know it to look at local governments. If I understand correctly (and I welcome corrections), the county government includes a single Native American.
Monument Valley, as seen from Cedar Mesa at the south end of Bear's Ears National Monument

San Juan Country is a rare center of support for Interior Secretary Zinke's and Trump's attempt to decimate the Bear's Ears National Monument, the large park established by Barack Obama in 2016. Elsewhere though, 80% of Utah's population and 98% of the population of the United States supports the monument, as well as the five Native American tribes that hold the land to be sacred.
The overriding consideration by Zinke and Trump was not the will of the American people; instead they claimed to be listening to local voices, but it is clear that they didn't do this at all. They listened to the corporation that wants to mine uranium within the present monument boundary, and they listened to local government officials who said the land really in all fairness belonged to them because their families had farmed and ranched the lands for five generations or so. This was said with no sense of irony. They ignored those who have inhabited and used this land for 10,000 years or more. The monument contains some 100.000 archaeological sites, and is one of the most important sacred landscapes in the southwest that is otherwise unprotected (yes, the land is administered by the Bureau of Land Management, but they are woefully understaffed, and under the current administration are more interested in leasing mine sites than preserving the past).
Worst of all, the pot hunters and grave robbers want to continue their activities unimpeded by rangers and Native American monitors. It's a local "cottage industry" conducted by people who have no compunctions about digging up gravesites with bulldozers and tearing down walls of ruins to get at artifacts that they can sell. These are people for whom the desecration of a civil war battlefield would be horrible, but they think nothing of destroying the grave sites of their fellow citizens, because money is their ultimate god. They are among the voices who oppose this monument, and the Trump administration has listened to them over the concerns of five different tribes who consider these lands sacred.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Happy Holidays from the Geotripper Gang.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from the gang at Geotripper (that would be me and Mrs. Geotripper, and two cats)! As is our tradition, we offer up once again a very big Christmas tree, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. The tree is so large (268 feet high, 40 feet across at the base) that it took three pictures for me to capture it.

The tree was declared by Calvin Coolidge in 1926 to be the nation's Christmas Tree. At an early ceremony, park superintendent Colonel John White said ""We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day. That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh."
I don't have a shot of the General Grant all dressed in snow, so here is another Sequoia after a surprise storm during an April trip some years ago.
Upper Yosemite Falls with a rainbow
The Sierra Nevada, as exemplified by Kings Canyon and Yosemite Valley, is the kind of place we think of when we dream of a white Christmas. We try to get up there whenever we can at this time of year.
The Cathedral Rocks
Christmas season is a time of gifts, and year by year I think more of the gifts that come from somewhere besides a store. One of the most precious gifts in my life is that I am able to live near places like these, and that I have the health and ability to visit them often. In places like Kings Canyon and Yosemite, we have a precious gift of nature. There are places near you that are gifts as well. It might be another national park, or it could be a state park. It could simply be a river, or a spot of forest surrounded by a city. My wish for you is that you can discover and explore a new place in the coming year. And if it is threatened, I wish that you will have the resources to help protect it. I have a feeling that we will need to fight for many of our precious wild places in the coming years.
El Capitan
I want to thank all of my readers, new and old, for your attention and kind comments over the last ten years that I've been blogging (that's 1,970 posts now, not that anyone is counting). I've always enjoyed hearing from you, and appreciate getting to know new friends from all over the world. I wish a wondrous season to you all!
Although this is a repeat of my traditional Christmas message, I can't help but add a bit the beauty I've experienced this evening, my first white Christmas in many, many years. The snow began here in the Seattle region in the afternoon, and now late in the evening there are a few inches on the ground. I had to relearn my snow-driving skills in a hurry. My friends in snow country might not understand the thrill, but my California friends who never see the stuff up close will understand completely. Have a wonderful holiday season!

Friday, December 22, 2017

Travels in the Northern Hinterlands of California

The holiday season often means the special moments with family and decorations and Santa Claus, but when your family is spread out in a thin line running the entire length of the west coast of the United States, it also means some time on the road. We have had a long way to go in the past few days, but we stopped a few times and took in some of the extraordinary geography of California's isolated north coast.

Getting to the coast from our home in the Great Valley requires crossing the Coast Ranges first. Our preferred route is through the Clear Lake region. Clear Lake itself is a huge natural lake formed by lava flows and landslides that altered and blocked water course flowing into the Russian River. It covers 68 square miles, which makes it the largest natural lake entirely within California (Lake Tahoe is larger, but is partly in Nevada. The prominent peak on the lakeshore (above) is Mt. Konocti (4,721'), which is a potentially active volcano with eruptions as recent as 10,000 years ago. Hot springs and earthquakes attest to the continued existence of magma chambers in the region.
We reached the coast in the vicinity of Eureka and Arcata and headed north on Highway 101. We soon passed an incredible sight at Humboldt Lagoons State Park. The growth of hooked spits (long linear sand bars) has led to the formation of a series of baymouth bars which isolate the coastal estuaries from the open sea (there are no big rivers in the immediate area to flush out the sand. The bars are only a few hundred feet wide at most and one extends for three miles. There are a total of four lagoons.
The lagoons are a unique ecosystem. Because they are breached only on an irregular basis, salmon and other creatures have adapted in interesting ways. Young salmon migrate downstream to find their way to the sea blocked. They live in the lagoons for extra months or even years, gaining size that may enhance their chances of survival in the open sea. On the other hand, breeding salmon may have difficulty getting into the estuaries.
Soon we were deep into the Redwood forest. The Coast Redwood only grows along the coast of California and in a tiny part of southern Oregon. They are extraordinarily large with the giants reaching heights of nearly 400 feet. They are related to the Sequoias of the Sierra Nevada, and the Dawn Redwood of China (and ornamental landscapes). The Redwoods are the tallest, but the Sequoias have the greater bulk. The Redwoods make for excellent lumber, while the Sequoias do not. It was almost their undoing.
The Redwoods once existed as an unbroken forest from the Big Sur Coast to Oregon, topping out at some 2 million acres. More than 90% of the old-growth forests were cut down during the last century, and it was only through the foresight of the founders of Save the Redwoods and other organizations that old-growth groves were purchased and given over to the state of California for permanent protection from logging. As recognition grew of the need to preserve not just patches but entire ecosystems, Redwood National Park was established in 1968 and expanded in 1978. It protects an entire watershed (Redwood Creek) that has old-growth forests as well as second-growth tracts.
We didn't have very much time, but we stopped at Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and at the visitor center for Redwood National Park as we passed through. We hated to move on, but a storm was coming and our families were awaiting our arrival. One could spend weeks among these beautiful trees and the stunning coastline. Which we intend to do as soon as possible.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Every Victory is Fragile, Every Loss is Catastrophic: The Ruins of Bear's Ears National Monument

House on Fire Ruin in Bear's Ears. I wasn't smart enough to catch the "fire" in the rocks at the time.
There are a lot of pictures in this post, and I hope you will enjoy them. They are the ones most precious to me, the product of two hikes into the heart of Bear's Ears National Monument in the years before it was established as a monument by President Obama in 2016.
National monuments are a bit different than national parks or national recreational areas. Parks (and recreational areas) are established by Congress. They may preserve vast scenic landscapes like Yosemite or Grand Canyon, or may be declared because of their potential for, well, recreation (examples are Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Oregon Dunes, or Lake Powell).
The origin of national monuments is by presidential proclamation. Under the Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents can declare monuments of areas with archaeological, historical, or scientific value that are threatened with destruction through looting, mining, logging, or urban development (some monuments are as small as single houses in big cities). They are often controversial, because somebody was to profit off the exploitation of the resource in question, but they are always federal lands that are supposed to be administered to the benefit of all citizens, not the select few. They aren't "land grabs".
Controversial or not, many monuments are eventually transformed into national parks by Congress as the representatives come to realize the value of protecting a resource (or more cynically, how the surrounding towns benefit monetarily). This happened with Grand Canyon, Zion, Olympic, Arches, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and quite a few others. It would be unthinkable today that someone would want to eliminate national parks from our country's heritage. And that is what is so disturbing about the present administration...they are trying to eliminate protections from a series of national monuments, and invariably it is for the purpose of mining (coal and uranium) or logging, or quite seriously, to make it easier to plunder archaeological sites and rob graves.
I am trying to imagine the protests that would arise if a Civil War battleground were to be eliminated from its status as a monument so that a housing development could be constructed (it's happened). Or digging up an English Castle ruin because coal beds were underneath. Or an ancient Hebrew temple ruin being bulldozed in Israel for a shopping center to be built. These kinds of historical sites are valued by the dominant culture or majority population, and it is easy to understand why people would be upset. What's less easy to understand is why it is so much easier for some to destroy the remains of ancestral Pueblo culture in the American Southwest. The lands at Bear's Ears are held sacred by not one, but five different tribal nations, and they have tried for decades to get this monument established. A great deal of planning and negotiation went into determining the boundaries. There are around 100,000 archaeological sites within the monument, and the vast majority have never been investigated or studied in detail (most should remain undisturbed).
I have only barely begun to explore the riches of the Bear's Ears, having walked through maybe half a dozen canyons that have been carved into the plateaus within the park. These pictures were taken in two forks of a single canyon at the north end of Cedar Mesa within Bear's Ears. A single canyon of perhaps a hundred or more canyons in the monument. And these are just some of the pictures. This land is a precious treasure of sacredness and knowledge of the past.
J.R.R. Tolkien said in the forward to his Lord of the Rings trilogy that he "disliked allegory in all its forms", and I've seen some clumsy ones over the years, but I was looking at the pictographs in the picture above, and noticed how parts of the figures have been destroyed, either by vandalism or eroson (I suspect the former). I couldn't help think that this is a metaphor for what Secretary Zinke and the president are doing to Bear's Ears as they carve it up to make it easier to mine uranium. So much history is lost when lands are not given the protection they preserve.
No, I didn't dig up this bit of what was probably a moccasin. It was already sitting out on a rock.
Cedar Mesa (which makes up a huge part of the southern part of the monument) is a plateau that rises out of the desert above Bluff and Mexican Hat. It is more of a semi-arid landscape that is covered today by a pinyon-juniper forest, and in the highest reaches, ponderosa pine. It is desolate and lonely, crossed by a single paved highway, with not a single development or habitation. A thousand years ago, it was home for thousands of Ancestral Puebloans (once called the Anasazi), and a visit at that time would have revealed thousands of acres under cultivation for maize and beans. It was one of the most important agricultural regions in the entire southwest. Remains of villages lie scattered across the plateau and in the gulches and valleys below. As I understand it, the area once supported a population much higher than the one that exists today.
Early on, and for most of the history of the region, people lived in the open on the plateau surface. Towards the end, just before the abandonment of the region, the situation had changed and people began to construct literal fortresses in the alcoves of the sandstone canyons. One ruin I saw was simply astounding. It was built flush with the wall of the canyon and was mostly invisible, aside from a single structure (above). A closer inspection revealed seven or eight rooms hidden behind a fa├žade (on the right side).
Even more extraordinary was a granary or additional room about fifteen or twenty feet higher up the sheer cliff. It was completely inaccessible by any means that I could see. At best, I could guess that access was possible only by placing logs into the cliff to make steps, or a large ladder, but it would be a terrifying climb in any instance. One has to wonder what had changed to make these people so scared, and so defensive? There are all kinds of clues in the ruins and hints in the oral histories of the people in the region, but no definitive answers.

The interior walls are astounding as well. Soot from years fires covers the plaster they used to fill cracks in the rocks. After eight hundred years, one can still make out the fingerprints of those who came before (above). It is an incredibly intimate connection to the past.
Every victory is fragile, every loss is catastrophic. These ruins sat undisturbed for 600-700 years before Europeans moved into the region in the 1800s and started plundering. It was the destruction of ruins like these that caused the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906, and Bear's Ears is one of the last regions that needs to be part of the monument system. I "assume that some of them are good people" (to paraphrase the current occupant of the White House), but some the people living in the area are part of the network of grave robbers and plunderers. There have been arrests, but for the most part these "thieves of time" (as Tony Hillerman so aptly put it) steal with impunity. They feel free to threaten the overextended federal officers who are trying to patrol the lands and protect them. Some have told me personally about having mummified bodies in their garages, or described the use of heavy equipment to tear down the walls of ruins or digging pits to get at artifacts. Without adequate protection, the loss to humanity will be incalculable.
In a sense, I am preaching to the choir. When Zinke allowed comments on his proposal to gut the monument, they ran 98% to 2% in favor of preserving the monument as is. Most of those who would take the time to read this are the people who also know the importance of preserving the past.
If you can, see these places before they fall to the vandals and grave-robbers. If you aren't able to see them, work towards their preservation from a distance. Support those who are involved in the lawsuits against the president's illegal actions. Make your voices heard...
...because those who plunder these lands can't hear the voices of those lived and died here for thousands of years. Nor will those in power listen to their descendants. We only have the times we are living in to do our part to preserve the stories and artifacts of this bygone past. In so many ways it is a gift to be able to play a part in doing the right thing.

Some of the parties to the lawsuits over the national monument reductions are included in the article found here. The clothing manufacturer Patagonia deserves credit as well. They have taken a very public stand in favor of the monuments (information here).