Explore: September 2011

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14 posts from September 2011


Where the Bears Are

Sequoia road

We pull into Sequoia beneath a purple sky, and the brightest stars are winking. The ranger is waiting for us — the first one we've seen after dark in a month on the road. She has a face like a shriveled apple and urgent things to say about scents: Take all the smellies out of your car and put them in the metal box. It’s news to us Midwesterners that black bears kill cars for tubes of toothpaste. You wake to a commotion in the night and see the vehicle rocking, or you get back to the trailhead parking lot and the car’s not a car anymore. They shatter glass, they ravage upholstery, and they defecate everywhere. We’re not organized road-trippers. It takes a long time to find all the empty wrappers.

This is a random stop on a road trip that’s hurled us through a blur of country. It hasn’t rained in twenty days. A geologist could map our path by the strata of dirt in our wheel wells. We are coming now from Vegas and are still in our casino clothes, which smell charmingly of burned money. For the last few days we didn’t know when to sleep. I woke a few times thinking dawn was coming through the curtains. It was the Eiffel Tower, soaked in neon.

Now we want to get some shade and see a huge tree. But more and more we are thinking about bears, the ranger’s warnings ringing in our ears. On a two-day march through wildflowers and granite up the High Sierra Trail, our hiker blabber fixates on the prospect of seeing one. Warnings crop up on every informational sign and in every stranger’s mouth. A waist-high boy with horizontal teeth has spotted one, but it wasn’t that cool because he’s from Tahoe and sees them all the time.

On our backcountry night I lie rigid with fear. Something is rustling around our tent for what seems like centuries. I feel around for my three-inch knife. Should I have put my dirty socks in the bear bin? Whenever I sit up the rustling quiets, and when I lie down it starts up again. I come to realize that my eyelash is brushing against the sleeping bag.

Four days later, we head coastward, driving through the sequoia groves. Pollen floats in the beams of light that cut diagonally through the trees. Then we catch sight of something barreling downhill. It's headed toward the road, and it can’t be a bear. Bears don't cross roads.

When I imagine a bear, I see a creature that moves at a leisurely pace and stares with its head tilted at clusters of berries. This thing is galloping, alternately weaving between trees and lunging through the air. For a speck of time it's crossing the road. I take a mental snapshot. Then it vanishes down the hill.

I consult the image in my mind. It was a bear, and it moved like a furry brown cannonball.

-- Jake Abrahamson

Astronomy: October Highlights

Comet Garradd
Comet Garradd passed the cluster M71 in August. Credit: John Chumack

Those early evening dark skies are beckoning. The autumn constellations are appearing over the eastern horizon after dark. Taurus with the Pleiades and Haydes clusters, Perseus and Aries, and the Andromeda Galaxy sandwiched between Andromeda and Cassiopeia are all coming back into view.

Jot down the following dates on your calendar so you won’t miss these events:

  • October 8 — Draconid Meteor Shower
  • October 11 — Full Hunter’s Moon
  • October 21 — Orionid Meteor Shower
  • October 28 — Jupiter at Opposition

Check back here in the next few weeks for more details on the above stargazing events. And don’t forget about Comet Garradd, which is still relatively bright in October. I finally found it using a good stargazing map, letting my eyes adjust to the dark, and then starhopping until I had my telescope aimed where I thought for sure it had to be and -- voilà! -- there it was. I had looked in what surely was the correct location on previous nights, but for some reason I couldn’t spot it. But this time the comet was unmistakable with its large, fuzzy head floating in front of background stars.

If you want to search for Comet Garradd, go outside a couple hours after sunset, look halfway between the zenith and horizon in the west to find the keystone shape that marks the central part of Hercules. The comet is to the lower left of the keystone and just above a star named Rasalhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus. You’ll need at least binoculars to see it, plus a dark-sky location. The comet doesn’t move very far during the month of October, so keep scanning the same area until you have success. You can search the web for a sky map of Garradd and surrounding stars, which will help greatly in tracking it down.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Year in Yosemite Redux

Grand Tetons
Grand Teton National Park.

This is the start of our third year of living inside Yosemite National Park. I'm happy here but, truth be told, it's not my favorite national park. I haven't had the good fortune to visit them all, but of the many I've seen, the one that calls me back again and again is Zion. Like a pilgrim to Mecca, I make it a point to visit there yearly. I never tire of its grandeur. But I make no apologies for my wayward affections. The National Park Service rangers we live among taught me that.

These are people who have decided to devote their lives to the national parks. It sounds romantic, but it comes at no small cost. Not only is the pay ridiculously low, but getting a permanent job in a national park takes all but an act of Congress. And so rangers move around ... a lot. At first (hopefully when they are young and without families), they take any seasonal work that comes their way, no matter where it is. After living out of a suitcase and changing jobs and locations every six months (sometimes for years), with luck they'll be offered a full-time position. It may not be at the park of their choice, but so few are the opportunities for permanent status (as it's called), that people grab it anyway. So you might work in Yosemite or the Everglades or Big Bend or the Black Hills, but it may not be where you really want to be. Perhaps it's the parks of the Olympic peninsula that touch your soul or the volcanoes of Hawaii's Big Island or even an historic park in a city center. But rangers go where the jobs are and they’ll stay until an opportunity for moving up sends them on to their next posting. That’s kind of how I am with Yosemite. I recognize that I'm unbelievably lucky to be able to call it home and yet (don’t hate me Yosemite lovers) I've always felt it wouldn’t make my personal list of top five parks ... until this summer.

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite Redux" »


An Unhurried Bicycle Tour of America, With No End in Sight

Bike journey In March 2009, Russ Roca and Laura Crawford made the difficult decision to get rid of most of their possessions, to leave their home in Southern California, and to embark on an open-ended bicycle journey across the United States.

They called the journey “the Path Less Pedaled,” and they have a website that documents their adventures, and that also allows them to connect with and meet people along the way.

Funding for the journey is coming from what Roca called a “hodgepodge” of sources, including savings and freelance writing and photography.

The decision to set out on their tour of America was not competitive in nature. It had nothing to do with achieving some type of goal or with accomplishing any sort of endurance test. Rather, Roca and Crawford say it was about “meeting people, tasting new foods, seeing unknown corners of the world.”

Lodging has mostly been a combination of camping and staying with friends they’ve met during their  travels. Fortunately, most people they’ve met and stayed with have been friendly and welcoming.

They have had one slightly scary experience, however: Prior to camping at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, Roca and Crawford had to sign some sort of waiver (something to do with nearby missile testing). Just as they were getting ready to fall asleep, they heard some loud bangs. But there was no need to panic. It turned out be some teenagers with bottle rockets.

West Texas has been one of the couple’s favorite places so far. Despite growing up in Oregon and having a strong connection with trees, Crawford felt a connection to its wide-open, desolate landscape. “It’s gorgeous in its own way,” she said.

Roca and Crawford have been on this journey for two and a half years now. So is there any end in sight? Not at the moment. From the very beginning, they’ve made a point of not having any goals or placing any limitations on themselves. “We really wanted to keep it organic,” Roca said. Their one criterion for keeping the trip going has been to have fun.

For people contemplating their own bike tour of America, Roca and Crawford would advise them to start with short trips and to not obsess over having all the perfect gear and equipment. And above all: Have a good time.

--Josh Marx


Astronomy: Welcoming Autumn Skies

9-23-11 M45-Moon Chumack
The moon glows brightly beside the Pleiades star cluster. Credit: John Chumack

For residents of the Northern Hemisphere, autumn arrives Friday at 5:05 a.m. EDT. The sun rose precisely in the east and will set this evening precisely in the west. The equinox always heralds spring and fall, depending on which hemisphere you are in. The sun will continue to rush toward the south over the next few months until it slows and stands still, signaling the solstice that will occur in December.

Nightfall has also been creeping earlier into our evenings, which has been cutting into our outdoor activities. But for kids, earlier darkness means they are still awake when the stars come out and can get a glimpse of some beautiful sights. This past weekend I was at a gathering with family and friends, and after night fell, the host took out his telescope and I was able to show the children (and adults!) the craters on the moon plus Jupiter with its dark stripes and four orbiting satellites.

The kids in my group weren't quite old enough to stay out until the Pleiades rose a bit later than Jupiter. But soon the Pleiades will be up earlier in the evening, letting anyone spot this beautiful little cluster in Taurus with a telescope, binoculars, or just their eyes. In the photo here, you can see how the Pleiades has a shape reminiscent of the Big and Little Dippers. Although the Pleiades is known as the Seven Sisters, only six of the stars are of magnitude 4.29 or brighter. It is believed that at some point in the past when the cluster was originally named, one of the fainter stars was brighter and more compatible with the six brightest now seen. The six brightest stars are named Alcyone, Atlas, Electra, Maia, Merope, and Taygeta. For a telescopic observing challenge, see if you can spot the very elusive, wispy nebula that surrounds this cluster.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


Year in Yosemite: Love Story


This past summer my family and I left our home in Yosemite National Park to take a 3000-mile round trip to Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Zion and Death Valley National Parks. Here's what I learned: Ignore the TV. Turn off the radio, the iPad and the cell phone. Don't read magazine or newspaper articles. Ignore the constant drumbeat of doom and gloom, the drone of best-guess pundits, the stifling undercurrent of fear that seems to consume America these days. Instead, get in the car, (preferably a hybrid) and start driving. In our case, we headed northeast to the huge open swathes of land that make up northern Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. I'm not convinced it matters where you go. What seems to matter is really seeing our country and our people, because when I did, I found myself falling deeply in love with America.

Continue reading "Year in Yosemite: Love Story" »


Stand-up Paddle Surfing


The surf looks different when you paddle out standing up. It all looks different, especially things that sway and dart and eat each other underwater--leathery bull kelp, Crayola starfish, bubbly sea grapes, the occasional seal torpedo. Sometimes I wonder if my change in perspective would apply as well to sharks.

For 40 years I'd been paddling a surfboard the traditional way: on my belly, eyes at sea level, attention tuned to the telltale shadow play of incoming swell. Then last summer, risking ridicule from my too-cool brethren, I bought a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), a craft streamlined for wave riding but as stable as a fishing dock when motionless. At ten feet long, two feet wide, and five inches thick, it has about four times the mass of my everyday board. The idea is to stay on your feet from launch to landing, propelling through the water with a paddle apparently purloined from a gondola.

I took up SUPing because several people (including Laird Hamilton, surfing's Charles Atlas) raved about the workout it provides. I should note that I hate working out. I've avoided inheriting my father's apple-on-a-stick physique only because my pastime of choice--surfing--happens to require upper-body effort. So SUPing seemed ideal: Stay healthy, get strong, have fun.

The first few sessions left me frustrated and sore. Imagine balancing for an hour on an exercise ball while doing ab-enhancing arm pulls; the post-session trudge from shore to car had never felt so long. But once the tumblers aligned, I surged with that adolescent wave lust that keeps surfers at sea long after their arms beg for rest. My stomach muscles strengthened. My posture straightened. I slept better.

Because it glides like a canoe, the stand-up board has taken me places where traditional surfers rarely ride. My favorite is a cove I'd watched for years from my living room window, never imagining its soft waves were worth the extended kelp-obstructed paddle or the area's history of "encounters" with white sharks.

During the long, slow paddle to and from the break, I began studying heretofore unnoticed sea life below. It shamed me to realize I couldn't identify things I'd been seeing for decades. Contrite, I endeavored to learn both genus and species: bat stars and kelp crabs and all manner of saltwater algae--sea palms, bladder wrack, feather boa, and dead man's fingers, which looks all squishy and cute until you find out its name.

Although I try not to let myself think about the sharks -- reasoning, probably naively, that balancing upright on a five-inch-thick plank lessens one's chances of getting fatally chomped -- it's impossible to wash away thoughts of apex predators in a cove so teeming with life. But I find some small comfort in this: If Carcharodon carcharias ever bursts up from the bottom to sup on my SUP, at least now I'll know its true name.

-Steve Hawk lives in Half Moon Bay, California.

Photo: Servais/A-Frame


White Sands National Monument

White sands yucca 

Visitors who find White Sands National Monument otherworldly are spot-on, particularly if the other world they’re imagining is Mars. Aerodynamic ridges called yardangs, found abundantly on the Red Planet, jut from southern New Mexico’s desert floor like ship bows. These gale-scoured forms seem to gamely plow into the unremitting spring winds, always from the southwest, but the cemented gypsum is quite stationary. It’s the region’s 4.5 billion tons of silky soft sand—composing the world’s largest gypsum dunefield—that is gently shooshing forward, dozens of feet each year.

Flora and fauna have apparently fared better here than on our planetary neighbor, but residency remains restricted to the entrepreneurial. In this constantly shifting landscape, some plants have learned to outmaneuver the dunes. When the soaptree yucca (pictured above) begins to be buried, it periscopes its stem, up to a foot a year, to keep its leaves above the encroaching sand. The skunkbush sumac one-ups the yucca, both extending its stems and using its roots to cling to a clump of sand; when the rest of the dune moves on, the plant remains on a solidified pedestal. This hardened, shaded gypsum then becomes an oasis for the desert’s beleaguered animals: The kit fox, for one, carves its den into the stabilized sand.

Other animals beat the heat with radical moisture-saving methods: The kangaroo rat stores food in external cheek pouches to avoid losing water from its mouth while foraging. To keep cool (and camouflaged from predators) the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard are white as the sand. The spadefoot toad here is pale, too, but since the inhospitable desert is even more so to amphibians, it also has to be quick, sexually. The spadefoot lives underground until it hears the summer thunder, its cue to leap to a freshly formed pond for toady love. The fertilized eggs hatch just 20 hours later—faster than any other North American frog or toad’s—and rapidly mature into adults, which then hunker down in the damp sand to patiently await the next season’s storms.

Elisa Freeling

Photo by iStockphoto/KateLeigh

UFOs: The Usual Flying Objects

9-16-11 Meteor Fireball Chumack
This fiery meteor was captured by astrophotographer John Chumack.

On Wednesday night, the skies over the southwestern United States lit up when a fireball soared through the dark night. Footage taken of the fireball shows that after its initial burst of light, it faded and began to break up into smaller bits of light, which is perfectly characteristic of a larger meteor when it enters our atmosphere.

Yet, despite the fact that it behaved exactly as a meteor should, there are still many voices out there claiming that it was a UFO. People have a fascination with things that can’t be explained. Sometimes it’s just because they don’t know any better. Bright Venus is frequently mistaken for a UFO as it hovers near the horizon. This time of year, the star Capella is twinkling rapidly low in the northeast. Because it shines at us through a thicker layer of atmosphere, it almost appears to flash and has been considered “suspicious looking.”

Amateur astronomers spend many hours out under the stars, observing all the happenings of the heavens. They are also educated about what they’re looking at and what is going on in the sky. Understandably, then, this is not a group of people that frequently reports UFO sightings. When I am observing, I frequently see little bits of light trucking through my field of vision, passing background stars. But because I know they are orbiting satellites, I’m simply excited to see a bonus object and I don’t need to resort to fantastical explanations.

As for the southwestern fireball, it was probably about the size of a basketball that disintegrated completely as it ripped through the atmosphere. The next good meteor shower will be in late October, but random meteors such as this fireball can happen at any time.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.


The Subway, Zion National Park

Subway, Zion National Park
Though named for mass transit, the Subway sees just 50 people a day. The oddly tubular canyon, tucked in the wilder western part of Utah's Zion National Park, is limited to hikers with permits. A segment of a seven-mile gorge, the Subway opens narrowly to the towering sandstone walls above. Its lucky few visitors must wade—at times swim—through icy pools infrequently touched by the sun. While even the easy route requires ropes, hard-core canyoneers and fans of German submarine films can take a technical one dubbed "Das Boot," where wetsuits come in handy. For those whose taste runs to Jurassic Park, dilophosaurus tracks stamp the mudstone along the canyon's creek.

Around the time the dinosaurs made their mark, some 150 million years ago, Zion's walls were laid down: A massive windblown desert blanketed the land from central Wyoming to Southern California, with its greatest depth—3,000 feet—in this corner of Utah. Compressed, uplifted, and slowly sliced by rivers, the sandstone cliffs are now among the world's highest. At the Subway, the Left Fork of North Creek has cut to the softer layer of shale beneath the sandstone, allowing the creek to widen and create the curved canyon walls.

While primordial forces are showcased at Zion, the park also tells stories of 8,000 years of human history. Ancient yucca-fiber sandals—the earliest residents' footwear—were found in local caves. Art of the Anasazi, who disappeared around a.d. 1300 after centuries in the region, still decorates the rock. More recent canyon dwellers left their legacy with names: The main canyon was christened "Zion," from the Hebrew word meaning a place of refuge, by 1860s Mormon pioneers who had escaped persecution back East. Not far from the Subway, Tabernacle Dome rises, while farther down the creek, Archangel Cascades fall.

--Elisa Freeling

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