Visiting Crater Lake’s Wizard Island

blog_2013_07_13_img01

Crater Lake National Park in Oregon is spectacular to behold, but the park’s centerpiece, Wizard Island, truly enchants visitors.

Wizard Island is striking because it appears unreal, as though it was pulled from the pages of a fantasy novel, here’s how I might [poorly] describe such a mystical setting-

Seeing the island for the first time I could only describe this place as the dominion of a sorcerer, a fortress where he/she can perform incantations in solitude. The isle looks as though it was inspired by a familiar clothing item, something mundane and convenient – the magi’s hat; the island gently rises from all sides to a center point, the top appears mischievous as though the fabric has deliberately toppled to the far side. Surrounding the castle is a beguiling blue-colored lake, a gigantic moat that is miles across and terrifyingly deep! The island is fortified too; soldiers of green trees stand guard, expecting an attack from the water they are numerous near the shore, only to have their numbers fray at the ramparts. In the distance, immense cliffs stab into the sky creating an impenetrable wall of stone. The scene is inspiring, beautiful…serene. A cool wind gently blows past and whispers about the power of a hellish phantasm that was once unleashed and devoured a mountain, possibly of a battle between Gods. The island captivates the soul; its beauty too alluring, this grandeur too inspiring, the enchantment…too intoxicating. The wind’s gentle whisper beckons to visit, to explore this place – to walk in its magic.

The best part about Wizard Island is that it is not a fictional destination, this spellbinding place really can be explored, though your time on the island is limited to just a couple of hours.

Like most adventures, be flexible on your journey; while camping at the park I tried, for several days, to obtain tickets for the boat ride to Wizard Island. Unfortunately weather concerns and mechanical problems caused delays. On the third day, the stars aligned and tickets were quickly in hand. After a quick scramble for gear, my family and some friends drove to the opposite side of the massive crater to the Cleetwood Cove parking lot.

The hike to Cleetwood Cove is a 1-mile long, 700-foot decent down the side of the crater.

At the water’s edge was our boat to Wizard Island, about 25 or so people boarded, then we were off.

What is most fascinating about the boat ride is the perspective – a view not fully appreciated from seeing Crater Lake from the rim. Being at the lake’s surface you feel like a small toy boat in a gigantic bath tub, it is an awe-inspiring method to better appreciate just how immense Crater Lake is-

  • The lake stretched beyond our boat in all directions, the crater’s oval shape is a massive 5-miles by 6-miles wide.
  • Below our boat, at the deepest point, was 1,943 feet of water – that’s equal to a 180-story building below us!
  • Around us the rim towered overhead, it ranged in height from 700 feet to 1,800 feet.

Most fascinating, this entire place literally went to hell about 7,700 years ago when the 12,000-foot Mount Mazama erupted – the eruption was 42 times greater than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980*. Riding over the waves it is hard to imagine that the original mountain once stood 1 mile above us and a quarter mile below our tiny boat, and within the course of 2 violent days…completely disappeared in one eruption.

The eruption was recorded in Klamath Native American oral traditions; it tells of two Gods, Skell and Llao who fought. It was their battle that caused the eruption of Mount Mazama and left many of the geographic features seen today.

Over time the volcano eventually settled down, though in the process left behind several gigantic cones, which rise from the crater, several are underwater, the one above the water’s surface is Wizard Island.

The water of Crater Lake is entirely of snowmelt – it is clear, pure, and cold! Its clarity allows light to penetrate to great depths, which absorbs longer rays of light (like red) while scattering and reflecting shorter rays (like blue). When we peer into the water we see these scattered/reflected blue shorter rays.

blog_2013_07_13_img02Approaching Wizard Island, even several miles away, is very impressive.

blog_2013_07_13_img03As the boat approaches Wizard Island the size and grandeur of this volcanic cone becomes apparent.

blog_2013_07_13_img04Hiking to the top of Wizard Island the trail climbs 760 feet, but this is nothing compared to the eastern rim of the crater which towers above me. In the photo the Watchman scrapes the sky at 1840 feet above the lake’s surface. Seen between the trees, on the water (crossing Skell Channel) is a small white line, this is one of the boats that transports passengers to the island.

blog_2013_07_13_img05The views hiking to the top of Wizard Island are jaw dropping.

blog_2013_07_13_img06Think of Wizard Island as a small volcano, and it has a crater; this picture shows several people hiking out. The rim of Crater Lake looms on the horizon.

blog_2013_07_13_img07This Ground Squirrel is a resident of Wizard Island. He was demanding a food tithe from me for visiting his island retreat.

blog_2013_07_13_img08A view from atop Wizard Island looking across Crater Lake to the opposite rim which is about 5 miles away. The blue color is just magnificent.

blog_2013_07_13_img09Hiking down the cinder cone we enjoy a rich tapestry of colors – a masterpiece painted by nature!

blog_2013_07_13_img10This is one of the few boats allowed on Crater Lake. It is seen here delivering visitors; this boat will take us on our return trip around the lake’s perimeter in a counter clockwise direction. Our next stop was the southern shore to see a slide area and the Phantom Ship.

blog_2013_07_13_img11The spires of the Phantom Ship, an island in the lake, which under low-light conditions resembles a ghost ship.

blog_2013_07_13_img12Looking into the water from the edge of the boat we saw this dramatic difference in color. The interpreter on the boat said the contrast was because we were passing over an underwater ledge, to the left the water depth was about 900 feet, to the right the depths plunged to 1,600 feet!

blog_2013_07_13_img13Crater Lake’s legendary “blue” water.

*Wikipedia reference “Mount Mazama.”

» Find out more about boat rides to Wizard Island
» Find out more about Crater Lake National Park

A Discovery of 55 Banana Slugs in 70 feet at Point Reyes

blog-20120827-img1Banana Slugs are really cool. They can be up to 9 inches in length and are recognizable by their bright yellow color. The slugs help to turn old leaves and plants into soil; they are “good-guys” in the forest. It is possible to see several on a day hike, but on this hike in the Point Reyes National Seashore, located in California, my family encountered 55 individuals in just seventy feet of trail! What a rare treat!

Our hike began at the Point Reyes Hostel and continued down a gentle trail to the coast. In a low section, moisture was being funneled off the hill and over the trail into a marshy area. This is when we saw a banana slug, then another and then one about every foot and a half. The slugs were everywhere. Some were fully-grown; others were just a couple of inches in length. Two-thirds of the slugs were pointed basically the same direction, to the moist area just over the trail.

I am not sure if this grouping was because of the water, or a food source, but it was a very unusual sight to come across.

That afternoon, while returning from the beach, I passed the same area. Now, just a handful of slugs could be seen, the rest has disappeared into the undergrowth.

A Quick Explore of the Tule Elk Reserve at Point Reyes

The Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California is a dramatic landscape sculpted by powerful tectonic forces, fierce winds, and the constant bombardment of ocean waves. It is also a gentle place with rolling hills, drifting fog and tranquil bays. This is a great geography for families to explore and enjoy a weekend away from the hustle and bustle. It is also a great place to discover a success story, the return of the majestic tule elk.

California was once home to large populations of elk, but after the 1849 Gold Rush these populations were decimated and within ten years the elk had disappeared from the land. Fortunately, a very small population (possibly fewer than 10 individuals at the lowest level) survived in a remote area of central California. Eventually, a rancher in the area protected the elk with a refuge on his ranch and later land management groups relocated small bands of elk to other areas of the state, but with limited success. In 1978 a handful of elk were relocated to the Tomales Point region of the Point Reyes National Seashore. Today, the elk at Point Reyes number over 400 and enjoy over 2,600 acres of land to roam.

During my family’s visit, we started on a weekend day in January. The temperature was a chilly 48 degrees and the wind blowing off the Pacific Ocean was heralding a storm that would roll in that night. We wore multiple layers of clothing and some heavy knit hats to cover our ears to shield us from the cool air. Some might be uncomfortable here; but the experience of breathing clean air, seeing the open sea and the expansive land uncluttered by structures provided ample warmth for something deep and primal within our souls.

We walked up the great peninsula; along with a trail that is roughly 5 miles from our starting point to lands end. Tomales Point is surrounded by the mighty Pacific Ocean to the north and west while the tranquil Tomales Bay is visible to the east. It is a curious geography formed by the San Andreas Fault. Here we were witness to the results of two gigantic tectonic plates of the earth grinding together; the peninsula where we walked was part of the Pacific plate while across the mile-wide bay lay the plate of North America.

After thirty minutes we saw them, a small band of elk. Several sentinels watched us while the majority munched upon shoots of grass. Further beyond we saw more elk and over the next rise even more. On our return walk we saw another band, but this time we saw the bulls with their noticeable and very intimidating antlers. As with all the elk, we gave them plenty of room. For the rest of the day, we spotted the elk along various rises on the trail or as dots on the sides of the hills.

We were glad to have seen these creatures upon such an inspiring marriage of land and sea. We are wealthier because of the experience. As we left we said a ‘thank you’ to the people who over the decades worked hard so others could enjoy such a majestic sight and appreciate a success story.

To explore more:
http://www.nps.gov/pore/index.htm
http://www.nps.gov/pore/naturescience/tule_elk.htm

The Mountain Lion

mountain-lion

Able to –

– Leap a height of 3 humans tall
– Heavier than 16 housecats
– Eat the equivalent of 1 deer each week

This large cat shares many names: mountain lion, puma, panther and cougar.

Built for stealth and power these majestic creatures have large padded paws, tawny colored fur, muscular limbs and sharp claws. They are generally elusive and can be found in remote wooded or rocky areas where the deer populations are prevalent.

The photo was taken in Sunol, California, at the Sunol Regional Wilderness Interpretive Barn.

Discovering The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie

Few symbols represent the spirit of the American West like wild Bison grazing on the expansive and open prairie.

There is something about this setting that makes the heart pump a little faster and one’s breathing to quicken. Such a setting whispers about time when our ancestors lived on or traveled across this expansive landscape. It quietly reminds us, in today’s busy world, not to forget their stories about independence, rugged individualism and family. This uniquely American setting is often seen two-dimensionally in movies and TV shows, but a three-dimensional landscape can be explored and experienced at The Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County of north-eastern Oklahoma.

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is big. On a map it covers an area that is roughly 12 miles wide and 9 miles long! The total acreage is about 40,000 acres, with 25,000 acres reserved for the bison.

This is a wonderful place to visit for many reasons, but one of the most important is seeing this landscape that was almost lost. As the settlers came westward the Bison (also known as American Buffalo) were hunted and the land plowed to create rich and bountiful farmlands. But, there was a high cost. The original population of hundreds of thousands of Bison had been hunted to less than five-hundred individuals and the pristine open prairie that spanned from Texas to Minnesota had been reduced to less than ten percent of the original size. Fortunately, there were visionary folks who saw value in preserving untamed land. Since 1989 the Nature Conservancy, a private, non-profit organization, has restored the largest “fully-functioning portion of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem with the use of about 2500 free-roaming bison.”

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveMy visit to the tallgrass with my Father started in the town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, close to the preserve’s southern entrance. The drive down a paved county road was surrounded by woodlands but this soon turned to prairie and the road turned to gravel and then a packed calichi clay.

Simple signage marked the entrance to the preserve.

The sun this autumn day was shining and the blue sky was punctuated with small white clouds. The wind was blowing about ten miles an hour and the temperature outside was around 40 degrees.

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveA plaque near the entrance of the preserve includes the text, “The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. You stand at the south edge of the largest unplowed, protected tract which remains of the 142 million acres of tallgrass prairie grasslands that once stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Today, less than ten percent still exists, found mostly in the Flint Hills and Osage Hill regions of Kansas and Oklahoma. In an increasingly crowded and noisy world, what you see is an oasis of space and silence. Here you can experience the same beautiful vistas that greeted the earliest human hunters and gathers many thousands of years ago. This area is indeed a national treasure. Please treat it with respect.”

Sadly, the area surrounding this marker had been marred by a number of empty beer cans left apparently from the evening before. I later learned the roads leading to the preserve are county roads open to the public at all hours. Although there is a cleanup service provided in the preserve by volunteers they cannot be everywhere and at all times. We spent a few minutes picking up the unsightly and very uncool trash.

Twenty minutes or so down the road we stopped at an interpretive marker along the edge of the road. Dark stacked piles of bison poo dotted the area all around us. These were not messy cow patties, rather the dung was tightly packed together into circular disks. These nutrient rich ‘buffalo chips’ were used by natives and settlers as a charcoal because the material burns hot and slow.

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveFurther beyond a few dark bison sentinels stood at the side of hills, these were apparently lone males who had been pushed-out from the herds. The mature males, after mating, are no longer needed by the female dominated herds and are excluded.

Hawks and kestrels soared over the dry prairie grasses. Most of the birds I saw were sitting on fence posts observing their domain, but sometimes one would fly up, soar overhead and then later swoop down and appeared to have caught a rodent in its sharp talons.

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveA herd of bison was just ahead. It was easy to see their dark forms against the dry and brown landscape of late autumn. The bison allowed us to slowly drive past. They did not appear to mind us and continued with their business. If they wanted to the bison could cause us some harm as these are great creatures measuring 5-6 feet at the shoulders and 7-10 feet in length. Plus bison can weight up to 2,000 pounds or more! Some of the individuals peered at us through thick, wooly looking coats that would soon protect them from the coming winter cold. We watched them for some time.

In the sections of the preserve where we saw fences the barbed wire included 6 strands and were at least 6 feet tall. We later learned that bison can jump 6 feet laterally and 6 feet in height! The fences are tall so the strands appear at eye-level to intimidate the great beasts from jumping over.

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveWe passed another two groups of bison close to the road. The ‘Bison Loop’ road offered an additional several miles of great sightseeing.

The open prairie now presented low canyons of cottonwood trees and ash. In one of these more protected canyons was the Preserve Headquarters. As we pulled into the gravel parking lot an elegant looking eight-point buck darted in front of us and disappeared behind a building.

At the headquarters was an enthusiastic and and knowledgeable docent who was a treasure trove of information. One item she mentioned was that the hunting of bison in the 1800s had been so intense that the last wild bison seen in Osage County was in 1869.

Tallgrass Prairie PreserveThe Preserve Headquarters offers a great visitors center. One memorable exhibit showed just how tall the grasses at the tallgrass prairie can grow – as tall as a grown man. The grasses on the tallgrass are very nutritious and part of an amazingly fertile ecosystem. Another item was a table filled with bison bones and fur. I had expected the fur to be harsh feeling but, it was surprisingly soft and extremely warm. A scapula (shoulder blade) was at least 21 inches in length and 14 inches wide – a big bone for a large animal.

Near the headquarters are several short walking trails that looked welcoming, but the temperature that day was lowering and the wind was picking up.

We left the preserve when the sun was very low on the horizon. As the sun lowered past the rolling hills the dark forms of the bison were silhouetted against the rich shades of an ever increasingly dark sky. My heart pumped a little faster and my breathing quickened – it was a scene of the American West.

If you are interested in visiting, make the most of your day, stay overnight in the town on Pawhuska so you can get an early start. There are no gas stations or places to eat on the preserve, so fill up your gas tank in town and take some lunch or munchies with you. Tulsa, Oklahoma, has an airport, but be prepared for a good hour-and-a-half drive just to get to the preserve. Entering the preserve is free, though recommended donations of several dollars per person are welcome at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserveheadquarters. I was informed by a docent who has been at the preserve for years the best time to visit is in the spring (May) when the wildflowers carpet the landscape and the colors are superb. I plan to return at that time.

Quoted source and learn more:
http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/oklahoma/placesweprotect/tallgrass-prairie-preserve.xml

Is it a Crow or a Raven?

If you’re on the trail, on the street, or having a fun day exploring in the outdoors you will likely encounter crows and ravens.

Crows and ravens are thought of as the same kind of bird, but these are actually two different species. There are many ways to identify the two, but here are some basic features I look for:

(The above photo is of a raven. This beautiful bird soared overhead, low enough for a great photo while on a day hike in northern California.)

Body:
If you see a monster-sized crow it is most likely a raven. Ravens can be up to 24+ inches in length, while crows are smaller at 18 inches.

Hanging-out:
Ravens are shy and often solitary while spending a lot of time on the ground. Crows tend to be noisy, bold and sometimes congregate in large numbers.

Flight:
Ravens soar more than crows; conversely crows tend to flap their wings more.

Voice:
Ravens give a very low “croonk” sound, but can give a variety of calls; crows give a loud “caw.”

Beak:
Ravens have black and very heavy/thick-looking beaks that can be 3 1/4 inches or more in length. The beak of a crow is less thick and shorter at about 2 2/3 inches.

Tail:
The tails of ravens in flight are wedge-shaped (think diamond shaped). The tails of crows are more fanned (the shape of a hand fan).

References:
“National Audubon Society Field Guide to California.” Peter Laden and Fred Heath. Pg. 319.
“Fieldbook of Natural History” (2nd edition). Palmer/Fowler. Pg 631.

Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, Oregon

You can see magnificent raptors at the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon.

What is a raptor? A Raptor is “another word for birds of prey: eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, osprey and kites … hunting birds with keen eyesight and hearing, strong feet with sharp talons for grasping and killing prey, and curved beaks for ripping up their food.”

Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, OregonThe Cascades Raptor Center cares for the “sick, injured and orphaned raptors” in central Oregon “with the goal of returning as many as possible to the wild.”

As a visitor you can see many of these beautiful creatures up close. Be sure to read the signs that include information about the bird’s stories. Many of the birds came to the center with injured wings, or other injuries that prevent them from flying well, some of the raptors are even missing an eye – all injuries that will mean certain death in the outdoors to the high-performance athletes.

Other birds at the center were injured, and are now healing, they will be returned to the wild once they regain their strength.

On the day I visited it was feeding time. Several docents approached the outdoor cages. The first docent carefully opened one of the doors while the second docent held a large tray. On the tray was lunch – an assortment of rodents from small mice to large rats. Stops were made at cages and the appropriately sized lunch was provided to the hungry raptors.

Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, OregonI encountered these walking chefs several times, but the most memorable experience was just after they had provided a most juicy looking rat to a Bald Eagle. I quietly walked up, the eagle was about 8 feet way. The eagle stood at least 25 inches tall; it Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, Oregonhad a huge head crowned with white feathers and an intimidating yellow beak that reminded me of upside-down hunting knife. The rat was pinned with sharp and massive talons equal to the size of my hand. The great beak was quickly reducing the rat’s body to gulp-sized morsels. In a final gulp the hind end of the rat – tail and all – was swallowed. Then the eagle’s gaze settled on me. It had eyes the size of large marbles; black orbs surrounded by a ring of golden yellow. We contemplated each other for a moment, but the eagle did not look at me – rather, the eagle looked through me. For an instant, a primal fear cautioned inside me that I did not want to be an enemy of this creature, and I was thankful for the cage. Still looking at me the eagle lowered its head and in a quick wave-like motion raised the head and shrieked at me three times with a high-pitched siren. The sound was loud, piercing and intense…it was wild. Wow!

Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, OregonFeeling I had intruded upon the powerful creature I lowered my gaze and did not look directly at him. I quietly walked off but the great raptor watched me closely as I departed.

The center has a number of birds to see. I especially enjoyed seeing the owls, hawks and the vultures. One vulture (shown left) liked to hang out by a fence and allowed for a close up photo. As you can see, vultures are not as ugly a people take them for – consider it a stylish, bald look.

Seeing Eye-to-Eye with Birds of Prey in Eugene, OregonAs I left a private group was being treated to an interpretive demonstration about the raptors and several were being shown. Some friendly docents, with raptors on their arms, were very eager to share information.

Quoted Reference:
Cascades Raptor Center Website

Learn More:
http://www.eraptors.org

What is the Name of that Giant Moth in My Cabin?

We were asleep in a tent cabin nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. In the still of the night a visitor joined us.

We awoke that morning and were greeted by a huge moth on the wall – almost 4 and half inches across!

What was it? The moth was beautifully colored in burnt red and adorned with white and black that sometimes gently blended into one another.

It quietly sat on the wall, not moving. We inspected it closer and accidentally disturbed it causing it to clumsily flutter about the small tent cabin room. Interestingly, it found a resting space on a pinecone that was sitting on a small table. We carefully snapped a photo.

This time we gave the large moth more space so we would not disturb it. A quick rummage in a backpack produced a field guide, after a few page turns we found the section on Butterflies and Moths. Our visitor was:

Ceanothus Silk Moth
(Hyalophora euryalus)
Giant Silkworm Moth Family

We quietly dressed and departed for coffee and breakfast. The cool air embraced us as we opened the door and gave us a quick shiver. Light appeared as shafts breaking through the wall of tall trees that surrounded us. I understood why the moth found shelter in the moderate warmth of the tent cabin.

When we returned to the cabin the giant moth had departed. We later read more, we had seen an adult Ceanothus Silk Moth. These handsome moths just live for a short time; their primary purpose is to find a mate and lay their eggs to continue their species, after which they die. It seemed harsh, but it was part of a natural cycle. We wished the giant moth good fortune in having a family.

The short existence of this moth provided reflection for everyone the rest of the day as we explored the woods.

Location: Sierra Nevada Mountains of California
Source: National Audubon Society Field Guide to California.

Walk Among the Bellowing Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

A visit to Año Nuevo State Park along California’s central coast is a must for active families.

Seals can be seen at Año Nuevo throughout the year, but in the wintertime the beaches are packed as males battle for mates and females give birth to pups. The size of this gathering makes it one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for northern elephant seals in the world. What makes this place especially fun is that visitors can get up-close with these amazing creatures.

Elephant seals are curious to behold; at first glance they look like giant sausages on the beach, when they move it is similar to the way Jello moves when giggled. The males have large elephantine-like noses which gives the seals their name. Some of the males are huge – they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and be 15 feet in length! If you are curious how heavy 5,000 pounds are, it is roughly the same weight as 16 football linebackers! These giant seals might look slow moving but when provoked these undulating masses of blubber can move a speedy 25 feet in several seconds.

Possibly the most unusual feature about elephant seals are their bellowing vocalizations. At best, it sounds like a deep guttural burp mixed with low-frequency popping noises. You can hear moms, pups, and males here.

The seals spend much of their life at sea traveling great distances, sometimes swimming an astounding 5,000 miles before resting on land.

The elephant seals were once thought to be extinct. The seals have a lot of fat on their bodies, and at one time their fat was a hot commodity as a fuel source for oil lamps. In the 1800’s as whale populations diminished from over hunting a new source of prevalent, easy-to-obtain oil was sought. The large, slow moving (slow at least on land) elephant seals were an easy harvest. Their population soon plummeted and the seals were thought to be extinct on the California coast. Fortunately, a small group survived in Mexico; this population, thought to be less than 100 individuals, was eventually protected and their population slowly grew.

In the winter months, primarily in January and February, the males battle for control of harems and mating rights. When two males challenge each other they loudly slam their massive bodies into one another sometimes raking teeth across their opponents body. It is common to see males with bloody scars and lacerations on their heads and fronts.

During December through March access to the breeding area is only available through guided walks. These docent led groups consist of 10 to 20 people and are led every quarter hour. You can easily make reservations online. On the day of your appointment check in at the visitor center to confirm your arrival. Then make your way to the staging area, which is about a three-quarter mile walk. At the staging area you will be introduced to a docent who will guide you into the protected breeding area. This walk takes about an hour and a half. Afterwards, enjoy a walk back to the visitor center, or explore a nearby beach and trails.

The docent lead tours are held rain or shine. Bring layered clothes, a sun hat (or rain gear) and plenty of water.

Año Nuevo is located a 45 minutes drive south of Half Moon Bay, California.

To learn more and make reservations:
http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=523

Standoff at the Amish Bakery

One morning Grandpa announced that he was hungry for pecan pie. His eyes doubled in size when he purred the words ‘pecan pie.’ He knew of an Amish bakery about 30 miles away that made excellent pies, cookies, breads, pancakes, eggs, grits, and of course no Oklahoma country breakfast would be complete without bacon. He looked at his watch then rubbed his hands together with enthusiasm, his eyes widened again as he exclaimed, “They are still open for breakfast!”

Driving thirty miles just for breakfast seemed extreme and a waste of gas, but Grandpa had spoken. Our morning drive took us through town and out in the eastern Oklahoma countryside of prairie and gently rolling green hills. Cows dotted many of the fields like pecans on hotcakes. Grandpa’s 30 mile drive was not so much about breakfast, as it was spending time with family while enjoying some beautiful scenery.

Within half an hour we arrived at a small and simple building located at the edge of a dusty farming town. Inside was a large sparsely furnished room filled with a dozen well-worn tables. A small wooden cross was the only item displayed on one wall, two walls featured framed pictures related to farming and cattle. On the fourth wall was the register and several racks filled with baked items. Next to the racks was an unkept bulletin board with postings of local church events, carpentry work, horses for sale, and bulletins about veterinary services. The folks eating breakfast worked in the livestock and farming industries. Sitting at one very long wooden table, which was set slightly apart from the main dining area, were several modestly dressed Amish families. They were speaking in in hushed voices.

At the far end of the dinning room, just under the cross, was a large yet utilitarian buffet cart. Inside were golden waffles, fluffy scrambled eggs, thick slabs of bacon, and medallions of freshly made sausage. Adjacent was a smaller cart containing bins of large biscuits and what looked like real gravy – not the fake stuff. At a side table was a bank of pitchers that housed milk, orange juice, coffee, honey, jams and cream. All of the food, with the exception of the juice and coffee, had been produced locally on farms and prepared fresh.

As Grandpa and I served ourselves the kitchen door quickly swung open and a thin muscular man wearing an apron came out to re-stock the food trays. He was carrying a large bin of waffles. As the door swung back it provided a glimpse into the kitchen, inside were several women hard at work, they were dressed in simple garments that harkened back to an older age. I said to the man, “Good morning.” He said nothing, only politely smiled and nodded as he took inventory of the food and restocked what he could before returning to the kitchen.

A large font hand-written sign on the buffet cart read, “Do not waste food. Take only what you can eat.”

As we found a table we passed two grizzly-sized men eating their breakfast. These men reeked of a hard days work and a no-nonsense attitude. They were dressed in dirty jeans, worn flannel shirts, and appeared to be returning from a work shift rather than starting their day. One man was using a fork as a stabbing implement rather than a utensil for eating. The other man chugged a glass of milk, the glass appeared tiny in his massive hand. Instead of speaking they used grunts and low tones. These were intimidating fellows.

After cleaning their plates they swaggered to the buffet and restocked with copious quantities of sausage, biscuits and gravy. Ten minutes later the two prepared to leave, but a good supply of food remained on their plates. As they gathered their jackets and started to stand a young Amish girl of about 12 years, who helped at the restaurant, approached and politely chided the two for taking too much food. She only said, “Food is a gift.” Then motioned with her hand to the sign posted on the buffet. One man was still chewing, and at hearing the interruption he stopped for a second then slowly continued his bite – unsure how to react.
he glanced over and read the sign. The girl crossed her arms and pinched her mouth to reinforce the point. The two giants glanced at each other. A few tense seconds passed – it was a standoff! Nobody moved. Then she slowly began to tap the tip of her foot on the floor. At that moment some unseen boundary was crossed because fear now appeared on the men’s burly faces. One man respectfully said, “Yes Ma’am.” He sat down, quickly followed by this friend. The girl thanked them and returned to her duties. The two cleaned their plates, bused their dishes, and left a respectable tip in the church donation jar.

In another part of the bakery Grandpa had scoped out the pecan pies that were on display. He had identified the pies that were still warm. Then he asked a young woman at the register for her help. She told him in great detail about the quantity of pecans in each pie, the number of eggs used, the crispiness of the crust, and density of the filling. Two pies were in the final run-off; both had been baked early that morning, each flaunted a crispy crust and were golden brown on top, they also had a wonderful aroma. He wrung his hands together over and over. The decision was too much so he bought both pies.

One of the pies was enjoyed with relatives at a family dinner. The other pie was enjoyed with Grandpa over the course of two evenings as we told stories and laughed.

Seeing Bears Along Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek

blog_20101020_img1Autumn at Lake Tahoe offers beautiful vistas, vibrant colors and the rare opportunity to see Black Bears along a creek catching spawning Kokanee Salmon.

Recently some relatives, visiting from overseas, made a trip to California and included a side trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe. We suggested they see the Lake’s sights in October during a tourist ‘down time’ when the weather is still warm and the summer crowds have disappeared.

The relatives were not disappointed by their visit. One trip in particular amazed everyone in the family from age 3 to 67.

blog_20101020_img2Walking next to Taylor Creek, at the southern shore of the lake, they saw vibrant red colors moving in the clear and cold water. These were spawning Kokanee Salmon. Then hearing some nearby splashing in the creek they looked up and saw a mother black bear and a young cub wading in the water. They were surprisingly close so everyone backed-off a little to allow the bears their space. The bears were catching fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. Several good pictures were snapped including the picture of this young bear devouring a just caught salmon.

blog_20101020_img3Taylor Creek is a picturesque mountain stream that flows into the southern waters of Lake Tahoe. The nearby U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Taylor Creek is a great starting point to learn about the Kokanee Salmon and this wonderful area. The Rainbow Trail is a short hike and very good for families with young children. Make sure to visit the underground Stream Profile Chamber for an up-close and fish-eye view of Taylor Creek.

To continue your own explorations by car drive past the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe drive three miles north on Highway 89 to the USFS Visitor Center. To learn more about this area online, and an annual Kokanee Salmon Festival held at the area, visit the USFS website.

What Is That Cute, Brazen and Silly Animal in My Campsite; Is It a Chipmunk or a Ground Squirrel?

blog_20100813_img1While camping at the Lodgepole Campground in Sequoia National Park several cute ‘chipmunk-like’ critters would quickly scurry across the ground, over rocks and under picnic tables in our area.

These critters were not just cute, but brazen. Sometimes one would jump up on the table to see what you were eating, or if the opportunity permitted, to inspect an open backpack sitting on the ground.

They were also silly. One or two would spring with the ease of a gymnast onto a sunny bolder, then stretch their out body on the warm stone and ‘enjoy some rays.’ If they felt unsafe they would quickly dart away.

What exactly was this cute, brazen and silly little creature? Most of the other campers in our area called them Chipmunks; a few called them Ground Squirrels.

A quick look in a California field guide solved the mystery. Chipmunks did exist in the area but these small mammals had a white-strip down either side bordered by a heavy black stripe. Plus they did not have any stripes on their face. These were Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels.

Shown is a picture of a Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel that visited our campsite.

Here are some characteristics to identify these cute, brazen and silly little critters when they visit your campsite at Sequoia National Park-
1) They are very cute.
2) A white strip on each side bordered by a heavy black stripe.
3) Their head and shoulders are plain – no stripes on their face.

Reference: National Audubon Society Field Guide to California.

Whale Watching in Monterey Bay

Humpback Whale in Monterey BayA great family adventure is to go whale watching. Recently we heard the Blue and Humpback Whales were in large numbers in Monterey Bay off California’s Central Coast. The whales were feasting on the great population of krill, a shrimp-like a creature, that baleen whales love to eat.

Several companies in Monterey offer whale watching trips. We selected “Monterey Bay Whale Watch,” because they were recommended and have Marine Biologists and Marine Naturalists as guides on all trips. On the day we selected the morning trip was booked but we were able to reserve space for an afternoon 3-hour trip. The price was $36 per adult and $25 for kids – a price well worth the experience.

We boarded the 70-foot (21 meters) Sea Wolf II with about seventy other people. At first, this seemed to be a large number but we later found space not to be an issue. We had brought daypacks stuffed with hats, gloves, and extra jackets. At first, we felt awkward with our plump packs but once we entered the open water the wind became colder and we were glad to have the extra clothes.

The waves ranged between 2 and 4 feet (.6 -1.2 meters) that afternoon and the unpleasant sense of nausea was not felt – any suspicion of it was even forgotten when the whales appeared.

In the distance, we could see small geysers of vapor on the water. The whales were close!

We watched several groups of Humpback Whales before moving on to see the mighty Blue Whales. Blue whales are immense creatures – at 90 feet (27 meters) in length, they are the largest creatures ever on earth. These giants glided in the waves and apparently took no notice of us. At one point you could hear them breathe as they passed by.

Then we moved near a group of Humpback Whales. This group included a mother and calf that came within 40 feet (12 meters) or so of our vessel. The Calf was about 10 to 12 feet (3- 3.6 meters) long, the mom was possibly 45 feet (14 meters) in length. The mom made several dives to feed while the calf stayed near the surface. The calf seemed to enjoy frolicking, splashing and playing. Much of our video includes footage of this Humpback Whale Calf.

All too soon we returned to the harbor. Everyone in our family had a great time and no one had been sick. Even if we had felt sea-sick it would have been a treat to see these amazing animals – especially the Humpback calf who gave us great memories.

Enjoying Condors at Pinnacles National Monument

California Condor

I saw a young California condor. It was 40 days old – it was also the first condor to be hatched in Pinnacles National Monument in over 100 years!

During a recent hike at Pinnacles National Monument my family and I were blessed to see, just forty feet above us, a California condor with roughly a nine-foot wingspan glide over our heads. Whoa! It was over in several seconds but we were able to snap a picture (shown).

A few minutes later down the trail we approached a trail junction. At the junction were spotting scopes pointed at an impressive rock wall about half a mile in the distance. Manning the scopes were biologists and interpretive volunteers helping visitors to see a young condor.

Looking through the scope I could see a light grey, fuzzy looking young bird resting in the crevice of a ledge. According to the interpreters this youngster was about the size of a duck.

What is impressive about seeing these condors is that it highlights the work that has taken decades to accomplish.

After years of over hunting, Lead and Strychnine poisoning and habitat loss the condor population plummeted. In the mid 1980’s only 22 condors remained. The last condors were captured and placed in a captive breeding program to increase their numbers. In the mid 1990’s releases began in California ad have now expanded into Arizona and in Mexico. As of today the total condor population is about 500 individuals; roughly 350 are in the wild while another 150 remain in the breeding program. Slowly the condors are returning to their historic territories, including Pinnacles.

We inquired about the condor that flew over our heads a few minutes earlier. According to the scientist this was the hatchling’s Dad.

To learn more about the Pinnacles Condor Program visit:
http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/condors.htm

Building a Toad House

“Grandpa, there’s a toad in the drainpipe,” Anna exclaimed!

The sudden and intense summer rain had quickly filled the rain gauge. Critters in the front yard were finding refuge. A small toad apparently found sanctuary in a drainpipe only to be washed away as the rain intensified and quickly flooded the downspout.

Anna saw the toad being tumbled along in the torrent of water. She reached down, carefully cupped her hands and picked up the drenched toad. The toad sat motionless. After several seconds the toad looked at Anna. She studied the big eyes, wide mouth and bumpy skin of this odd creature. The toad apparently studied the small eyes, small mouth and non-bumpy skin of this human. After a minute the toad seemed to sit more comfortably in Anna’s hand. Anna held her hands out and proudly showed this very content toad to the family.

Thunder rolled in the distance. The rain fell more gently now but the previous downpour had washed away the toad’s abode. The toad needed a new home and an industrious seven year old had the answer – a new toad house. But how? The family discussed several options. Grandpa suggested to place the toad near the massive toad home that dominated the front garden. Anna called this monolith Mount Toady. Mount Toady was a large rock supported by multiple stones which formed caves and alcoves at the base. Surrounding the mountain was a lush garden of plants, rooted in rich soil and inhabited by yummy earthworms. To a toad, it was paradise.

Anna had her own idea of a toad home and asked Mom to hold the toad. Mom took the toad and peeked around her fingers into her cupped hand – Mom peered in at the Toad, the Toad peered out at Mom.

Anna found a high spot on the ground that was protected from future flood waters. She dug a shallow hole with her hand then raced around the yard and collected sticks that were about a foot long. The thumb-sized sticks were used as a base. Smaller sticks were crossed to form the roof. After a few involved minutes the toad had a new house. Mom transferred the toad back to Anna who proudly introduced the toad to the new structure. The toad quickly hopped away but could not avoid the determined and quick hands of a child. The toad was again placed near the house, this time the toad made good use of the home.

Visiting the Horses and Burros at Return to Freedom

horses and burros at return to freedom

Anna, my seven-year-old daughter loves horses. When a family weekend trip included a visit to the “Return to Freedom” sanctuary for wild horses and burros she was ecstatic.

Anna Jasper the DonkeyReturn to Freedom is a non-profit, 300-acre sanctuary near Santa Barbara, California, where families and young people can directly experience America’s remaining wild horses in a natural setting. Wild horses are a living symbol of our country’s heritage.

We jumped out the car and readied our GlyphGuy backpack with water for the warm day. Suddenly a burro appeared, startling us with his stealth. Anna giggled. “Hello donkey.” The greeting was returned with a soft nuzzle. The burro’s name was Jasper.

Several other families soon arrived and were also greeted by Jasper. A guide for the sanctuary welcomed everyone and after a few ground rules we began to meet the horses and burros. We began to learn for ourselves why this place is important.

Many of the horse family groups found refuge at Return to Freedom after being displaced from public lands in the west. The Sanctuary provides a safe haven for wild horses, herds and burros who might otherwise be separated, slaughtered, abused, or left to roam without food or water. Anna met several horses, Flicka and Ginger, who were only minutes from being destroyed before finding refuge at Return to Freedom.

In the afternoon a visit near a herd of about forty wild horses allowed us to rest and let the horses approach us.

A Kiger Mustang stallion is the most famous resident at Return to Freedom. ‘Spirit” was the inspiration for the animated DreamWorks film, “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron”.

Anna Meeting Spirit the Stallion of the Cimmaron

Jasper always made sure no one got too far away from the group. When it was time to leave it was Jasper who led Anna up to the visitors center.

Anna said goodbye to the horses she had met; she gave Jasper a big hug around his neck, “Thank you Jasper for being such a great host.” This inquisitive and gentle donkey had become one of Anna’s new best friends.

All of us left with a deeper appreciation for why places are needed for free ranging horses and burros. This place was more than a sanctuary; it is a reminder of our own heritage and freedom.

Learn more about Return to Freedom at: www.returntofreedom.org.

Coyote is Still Teaching – Lessons from the Trail

coyote is still teaching

It was springtime in California’s Henry Coe State Park. The hillsides were sprouting green and rugged looking oaks dotted the hillsides.

My family enjoyed a day of just being outside. My six-year old daughter enjoyed hiking but would sometimes be so engrossed with her surroundings that she would not see sticks or rocks on the trail. After a near tumble she was heard to comment, “I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.” That same day my wife had asked me to ‘check the camera’ and I was heard to say, “I don’t need to check my camera.” After all it was ‘my’ camera and when I last used ‘my’ camera there were plenty of pictures, though I had noticed the picture count did seem higher than it should be.

I don’t need to be aware of where I’m going.

I don’t need to check my camera.

We were hiking back to the car when my wife noticed a coyote several hundred feet in front of us on the trail. We were downwind, so the coyote (apparently) had not noticed us. The coyote had rich colorful fur. She was looking at something in the grass. I could count on two hands the number of times during my life I seen a coyote in the mid-day sun. Possibly this was a mother coyote with a litter of pups and she was gathering food.

Seeing the coyote reminded me that some people fear and even demonize these animals because they might venture into suburbs to scavenge for food. Coyotes are sometimes lumped together with dark creatures that few appreciate like bats, snakes and rats. On the contrary coyotes are interesting animals. In some Native American oral traditions, the coyote is a creature of power and influence; the coyote could choose to teach valuable lessons to people, and sometimes those lessons were taught through trickery.

After a short time the coyote lost interest with the something in the grass and looked unconcerned over her shoulder at us. She moved down the trail and rounded the bend. We also continued on the trail making sure to keep a distance between us. Just before every curve in the trail she would turn and pose in the sun. I would carefully take a picture but she always moved out of sight. I felt as though I was being teased.

This ‘teasing’ continued for twenty minutes until the coyote became very distant on the trail and then disappeared. My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo. After stepping in it the awkward grimace on her face spoke volumes – that from that day on she would be more aware of where was going.

My young daughter was so intent on looking for the coyote that she did not see a trail hazard, a very fresh pile of poo.

At that moment the coyote appeared, up the hillside from us some thirty feet away. She looked at us then gracefully turned and stood sideways along a rock outcrop. Her head was slightly raised as she sniffed the air. It was a picture perfect moment: the green grass surrounding the rock, gray rock underfoot and the deep blue-sky overhead accentuated the tan and golden brown of her fur, the late afternoon sunlight was soft and offered no harsh shadows.

I could not believe this opportunity for a photograph. I slowly raised the camera and pressed the shutter button…it was to be to be my best photo of the year! The camera made an annoying electronic peep-peep noise. I raced to look at the camera screen, it read, “Memory Card Full”

“What?!” I was shocked, angry and confused. I glanced at the coyote; she was still posing but she was looking at me and ‘my’ camera. She appeared to grin at my situation.

I quickly looked at the pictures in the camera’s memory. My family had used the camera to take photos of a school event, the pet guinea pig, and some relatives. “AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”. …I should have checked the camera!

“AAArrggh!” Within my mind I heard my carefree comment, “I don’t need to check my camera”.

I glanced again the coyote – now she seemed to raise her eyes as though mocking me.

I fumbled with the camera and erased a guinea pig photo. The coyote was shifting her weight as though readying to walk – she was turning. Quickly I raised the camera and snapped the photo…the coyote was gone. I checked the photo in the camera’s memory – it was a well-focused, perfectly visible picture of the coyote’s posterior. The messaging was not lost.

My daughter and I looked at each other, we both felt tricked, we both felt like posteriors. Neither of us talked much while returning home.

During dinner we talked about what had happened on the trail. At first we blamed the coyote for our own shortcomings, then we correctly blamed ourselves. Although we had made mistakes those mistakes would not happen again; my daughter would watch the trail better, and I would check my equipment before another trip.

Perhaps the stories about coyotes playing tricks are true – the encounter on the trail provided us with several valuable lessons.

One Ladybug, A Thousand Ladybugs…One Million Ladybugs!

It was a cool March morning in a redwood forest of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.

My family ventured up a small fern lined creek following an overgrown trail – a trail less traveled.

Near the top of the stream the trail became overgrown, we climbed to the canyon’s edge to walk a more recognizable path. A major trail was about twenty feet away. Walking to the trail we noticed a single ladybug basking in a sunbeam just front of us. We thought this to be a rare sight for the time of year.

In another step we saw ten ladybugs, then one hundred. Several more steps and we saw clumps and carpets of red and black ladybugs covering the ground! Then we noticed that all around us the tree branches and tree trunks were also covered. Surrounding us were millions of ladybugs!

The ladybug patchwork carpet covered an area roughly 20 by 30 feet. The ladybugs were clumped between the ridges and valleys of redwood bark forty feet above our heads before becoming difficult to see. We recognized that we had ventured into a rarely seen spectacle.

The ladybugs were apparently emerging from ‘diapause’, the insect equivalent of hibernation. During diapause the ladybugs gather together in large groups to conserve their resources and for reproductive purposes. “Ladybugs can survive for up to nine months by living off their stored reserves. They break out of diapause when the temperature reaches 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius), which is generally when food becomes available again.”

The ladybugs that were fortunate enough to enjoy a sunbeam were more energetic than their cooler neighbors, sometimes only inches away.

These insects are commonly referred to as ladybugs, but are actually beetles. Their correct name is the Ladybird Beetle. Apparently such grouping locations are carefully guarded secrets by people (who must obtain a special permit) who harvest the beetles primarily for purpose of selling in garden stores as pest control insects.

We were awed by this large concentration of ladybugs and watched them for some time before continuing down the trail.

We left the ladybugs as we found them. Their location enjoyed others who may take a trail less taken.

Reference Source: San Diego Zoo website > Animal Bytes > Insects > Ladybugs.