Monday, February 27, 2012

Swimming with The Manatees of Florida

What an incredible trip to swim with the Manatees of Tampa Florida lead by the amazing naturalist Kim Powell and Blue Water Ventures.

We arrived on Tuesday 2/14, Valentine's Day, in Tampa and took a 1 1/2 hour van ride to Crystal River. It was my first trip to the great state of Florida and I was surprised to see out of the plane window pools of water everywhere, adjacent to houses and industry the same way way you see strip-malls from the plane window when touching down in Los Angeles. If you are an ecology geek like me, it is exciting to realize you are entering an entirely new ecosystem. The weather was 70's and balmy even in February. A welcome change from the Bay Area in California. We stayed in a lovely house on the river and watched the sun go down over the water of the river excited about things to come.

On Wednesday we woke up as early as you can get a an unruly bunch like us out of bed and hopped in a boat from the folks down at the Plantation Dive Shop. We were on the water by 9:30, a little late, but a good try. We headed over to the Crystal River Natural Wildlife Refuge Three Sisters Springs.

It is an incredible experience to be this close to these amazing creatures. If you do go, please remember to be respectful and follow all of the rules around how to interact with them and use common sense. Never dive down to touch them, let them come to you. If you do snorkel in, it is shallow, remember not to let your feet touch the bottom!

You can snorkel into Three Sisters or kayak in. Even by kayak, they can be curious and come up for a little pat...

Curious one a the surface for a pat from a kayak.

I want to give a big shout out to these guys, the folks at Manatee Watch for being out there and making sure that we can continue to have this incredible experience by educating and helping to enforce the interaction guidelines.

I love this shot ... just decided to roll over and take a quick nap:

Just decided to roll over for a nap...

The bird watching was fantastic, on just our first day, we were able to see American coots,
a Black-crown Night Heron, the Great Heron, Lesser Scaups, American Coots, a Bald Eagle, and the Snake Bird.

On day two, Thursday, we boated around the waterways in the morning, and saw Ospreys, the Double-crested Cormorant, White Ibis, and a Wood Stork. Check out this video for some things you might not know about Vultures:

We got a great view of the Florida Soft Shell Turtle:

On Friday, we took a ride down the Homosassa River with Captain Tracy of Native Vacations, and were able to interact with the Manatees there. The water was much deeper for a different experience with the Manatees. We were lucky enough to catch quite a few in an Estrous herd.

That afternoon, we snorkled in Silver Glen Springs which was gorgeous and we saw the Florida Gar: Florida Gar.

and the Mozambique Talapia which makes these interesting depressions in which to lay it's eggs.

On Saturday we headed to the Ocala National Forest where we canoed down Juniper Springs. The Cyprus trees were incredible:

As was this view of the American Alligator:

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bridge Bay Yellowstone August 19 - 23, 2010

Thursday August 19, 2010
I had the pleasure of being invited along on a wonderful trip to Yellowstone organized by our fearless and wonderful leader Jenna of the GLS. Flew from LA through Denver to Bozeman, Montana. The small airport is technically in Belgrade. Stayed at the Holiday Inn Express. There is an REI in Bozeman if renting additional camping gear is desirable.

Friday August 20, 2010
Drove down into the North Entrance to the Park at Gardiner. The Flying Pig camping store in Gardiner is a great place to stop if you need any gear just before the park. Stopped at the hot springs along the Gardner River just inside the park. Bathing suits required. A wonderful little spot for sitting in the hot pools.

Stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs along the way. Worth the walk up to the springs at the top. Huge pool at the plateau, brilliant blue due to the silica particles suspended in the pool.

On the drive down saw our first Bison - just trundling down the road. It's a fairly long drive and having plenty of time to stop along the way is wonderful. Bring Bino's! The animal watching from the road is a highlight of Yellowstone.

Stayed at Bridge Bay group campsite in the "J" loop. For future reference, the "J" loop has individual campsites that are in the trees and much more scenic than than the others.

Saturday August 21, 2010
Up and out in the morning to do Mount Washburn in the morning. Around 6 plus miles to do the whole trail (dropping cars at the Chittenden Road entrance). 1024 ft at the fire tower at the top with a commanding view. Incredibly windy. Guessing gusts up to 50 miles an hour. No bighorn sheep sightings along the way as we had hoped but we did see some eternally cute Yellow-Bellied Marmots. Wonderful sighting of a Grizzly Bear with 2 cubs at the end. Stopped along the road there and snuck a peek from a Wolf-Watcher named Kim through a great scope of a couple of wolves in the distance on a mud flat.

From Mt. Washburn we drove out to the Lamar Valley which is known to be a great stretch for viewing animals. It's late August and the weather had turned stormy. Started spitting rain. Perhaps most of the animals had gotten smart and hunkered down for the late afternoon. We did see a small group of Pronghorn (they look like antelope) and another brown bear as well as a couple of Osprey.

We had dinner on the way back at the Roosevelt Lodge. I would not recommend the steak, sustainably-raised as it was, but a hot meal was wonderful. What a great day.

Sunday August 22, 2010
Short drive to the Elephant Back Ridge Trail hike just off the lake. Around 4 miles with a beautiful view of the lake at the top. Nellie, Kim, Kate, Elva and I did this hike with some of the group going out to to the much steeper and more dramatic Avalanche Peak hike. No bear sightings but must locals agree that to go hiking without bear-spray is just, well, not recommended. We brought some along. Felt especially relevant after the Grizzly attack last week that killed one and mauled a couple of others in the park.

From there we drove Norris Geyser Basin which was incredible. About a 1.5 mile loop on a raised platform through the science-fiction inspired landscape of bubbling geysers, mud-pools and hot springs. A shower was overdue and for a couple of bucks we got all the hot water we wanted at the RV park in Fishing Bridge back near camp. Ahhh, clean.

Raining off and on all day and the temperature dropped probably 20 degrees today. Night was probably in the 30's and day time temperature in the evening dropped into the 40's. Good to have your down for a day like today.

Monday August 23, 2010
Up and out by 8:30. Drive out towards West Thumb and then to Old Faithful to see the most famous and predictable geyser in the park. Sure enough it went off within 10 minutes of it's predicted time. Around 120 feet high. From there we went out to Madison and out the West Yellowstone entrance. Plenty of time. Got to the airport at around 1:30 for a 3:30 flight. Time to unpack the car and drink the last cold beer before heading out. Nice sighting of Bighorn sheep on the way out along the hillside across a river. Somewhere along the way we also saw a couple of American White Pelican's and a Coyote. Wonderful trip.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Yosemite High Camps - Helpful Packing Tips and Miscellanea

[How to keep your pack weight down, enjoy yourself and still be comfortable.]

Last time I was at the Sierra High Camps was around twenty two years ago . Seeing as I can’t remember exactly where I went, when I went to go this year, I needed some updated information. Here are a couple of notes from my trip this year, mostly on things I wished I didn’t bring, or did bring.

When writing this I found myself thinking about ‘spoilers’. One if the things I like best about back-country is it is one of the last places in the States where a person has to rely on their own judgement and have their own experience. There is no one out there to tell you, ‘Hey, climbing up that sheer rock face in your slippers is a really bad idea.’. I believe this is a good thing. Self-reliance and good judgement are not fostered in environments where everything is signed, proscribed and wavered. There are no surprises. Because of this, I don’t want to write about all of the amazing experiences that I had, and how you can have them too. I want you to have your own experiences, your own adventures.

So the following are tips that won’t keep you from having your own experience. Rather, these are little tips that might make your own adventures more enjoyable.

Save Your Napkin

Sounds funny, but the napkin they put in your lunch is also a pretty good map. Endless hours of enjoyment, or frustration, depending upon whether or not you are lost... The picture of a map at the beginning of this blog is actually a piece of it.

Camp Voice, Earplugs and Drugs

Most of the High Sierra Camp Tent Cabins are in very close proximity to each other. While the white canvas tent is an effective visual barrier, it does nothing for sound. Auditorially you are effectively living in one large room where sound carries extremely well - with 35 other people. So they don’t feel the need to eliminate you in the morning or visa versa, use your ‘camp voice’. Additionally, if you feel the need to complain bitterly about the obnoxious people you met on the trail, do it really really quietly; those same obnoxious people are probably sleeping, or not sleeping, next door. Lastly, take earplugs. If the conversations next door don’t put you over the edge, the slamming cabin doors, snoring, and squeaky mattress's probably will.

If you don’t know if you have a hard time sleeping at altitude or not, bring drugs for sleeping. Or, if you really want to make friends, bring sleeping drugs even if you don’t need them - someone will. There is nothing worse than hiking all day through stunning terrain and not being able to enjoy it because you were up counting sheep or praying for someone to knock you unconscious. I have seen people try everything in their arsenal to no avail so bring something you are sure will put you out.

Your Weight Problem

You look beautiful just the way you are. Really. But, you are going to gain 20 to 35 pounds in the form of a backpack, that you will be carrying with you at almost all times. The difference between carrying 20 pounds and 35 pounds will quickly become apparent. Here are a couple of tips that might help you keep the weight down without making you any less comfortable.

  • If you are traveling with other people, combine, combine, combine. Do each of you really need your own bottle of bug spray which contains enough Deet to make you unattractive to bugs for an entire year? Probably not. The small bottles of creams, salves, balms and ointments really add up in weight. Consider pooling shampoo, conditioner, anti-itch ointment, bug spray and any and all first aid. If jointly you can bandage every toe, ankle and heal you all have every day, twice a day, you probably have too much.
  • A note on moisturizer and skin creams - you will be so dirty that you will not want to look at your legs after a day on the trail, let alone smear lotion into the dirt to form a paste that can not be removed. Bring less than you think you will need -- you will probably only use it after showering, which occurs infrequently.
  • Bring a sleep sack, you will not want the army issue wool blankets next to your skin. The silk ones are worth it. They are much lighter and less bulky than cotton. You can slip into them easier than into cotton.
  • Rain Gear. You will hate taking things you don’t use, because you have to carry them. Rain gear is one of those items. If you want to keep weight down, take lightweight rain gear (do not bring the two pound plastic poncho from the drug store - you will rue the day). You can use your rain gear as part of your layering system for cold weather. I bring a down jacket and put on my rain jacket over that when it gets really cold. You can use long underwear and your rain pants for warmth on the bottom half.
  • Pair down the clothes to a bare minimum. Here are my preferences: For hiking, boots, 3 pair of hiking socks, long johns, one pair of shorts, rain gear, two t-shirts (luxury), one long sleeve sun shirt, a mid-weight wind-proof , non-bulky fleece and down jacket should do it. When you get so scummy you can’t stand it, you can wash your shirt, shorts, etc at some of the camps. For swimming, and you must swim every day, bring something you can get wet in and not have to hike in later. Alternatively, skinny dip. It weighs less but might freak out other hikers. For in camp, sandals (or ‘crocks’ which are really lightweight) are a must. Your feet might refuse to get back into boots and you will be trapped on your cot in your tent for lack of comfortable footwear. Also a ‘must have’ is one outfit for the evening. This is one pair of socks (warm), one shirt, and one pair of pants that you do not hike in. Your table-mates at dinner will thank you and it will give you the illusion of being clean, even if you are not.
Random Miscellanea
  • Bring a Sarong. This is a very lightweight tight weave piece of cotton. It can be so many things. It’s a towel for drying off or sunbathing. It’s a pillow if you need one. It’s a satchel for carrying items. It is a picnic table.... or a sun shade; a football for a quick pickup game. Lastly, it can be used for it’s original purpose of wrapping around your waist and legs should you rip or lose your shorts.
  • Cold weather gear. Sunrise and Vogelsang can get really cold. You will appreciate a warm hat, neck warmer, and lightweight gloves if you are going to spend time there. They do have small pot-belly stoves in the tents. Bring someone with fire-making skills or befriend them and get them to put logs on every couple of hours throughout the night.
  • Boots. Make sure they fit. If you are solid and are sure they fit, you might be able to get away with not bringing a second pair of hiking shoes. This gets rid of a lot of weight.
  • Pee cup. Someone has to say it. The bathrooms are usually far away and no one wants to get up in the middle of the night and trudge all the way down there. Some sort of tupperware can be used and emptied in the morning. All the cool kids are doing it... you can too.
  • Water purification. If you have a water purification pump or tablets that you feel comfortable with, using them can be a great way to bring down water. There are streams and lakes all over the high country. Make sure to ask folks which streams are running before you set out.
  • Flashlight with red light. Probably a luxury item, but your tent mates will thank you. When you are rooting around in your backpack for your [insert your item here] at 3 am, a nice mellow red light is much less jarring than a blinding white beam. They are also great for star-watching and general night vision.
That is all I have for you from this trip. Have a great time.

- Stephanie Left.

One more thing, this might be a bit of a spoiler but I have to talk about the lunch sacks. It is old school and some camps might not do it, (and if they don't they might be called slackers by members of the camps who do), but if you are lucky you might get your lunch sack illustrated.

This one was done by a wonderful young man at May Lake who will be going on to art school. I liked it so much I had him sign it.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Doing the Yampa - Sea Kayaker's First Time River Trip

I vaguely remember being on rivers, a river, some river, as a child, but this was the first trip I had taken as an adult. I am an ocean girl, surfing, swimming, sea kayaking. If it doesn't have salt in it, I don't get it. As someone who has guided sea kayaking expeditions for years, I was very excited to have the opportunity to be on a river for the first time. This trip was a benefit for a friend of a friend, Kelley Kalafatich, an accomplished paddler who has developed a rare spinal cord injury which has left her with paralysis and severe nerve pain. She is facing challenges greater than I have ever been given. The trip was run by Don Hatch River Trips who donated the proceeds.

Here are some "notes to self" as one new to a commercial river trip.

©2008 Catherine Aurelio
[Normally, this is a campground.]

What's The Tide Doing?
When I got on the water, my first ingrained thought was, 'What is the tide doing? -- ebbing or flowing?'. Ya, so, this is a river, Steph, tide has no appreciable effect. It was amazing to me to be on a piece of water that always flows in one direction. We didn't have to think about tides, but we did happen to hit this river at a flood stage. It was about 10 feet higher than normal for this time of year. No one who had guided the river had seen it this high and fast in 12 years. The CFS (Cubic Feet per Second) is a measure of the rate of flow, or speed of the river, and kind of like the length of a fish that someone has caught (but can't show you) from what I gather. At any rate I heard all kinds of differing measurements, but all agreed it was huge. The rapids became almost unrecognizable to guides familiar with the river. Some estimates were that a normal flow for this time of year might have been 4 - 6,000 CFS and we were supposedly at anywhere between 20 and 30,000. Entire beaches and campgrounds were underwater. There were massive tree trunks and root systems floating down river at what looked to be about 12 - 15 miles an hour.

©2008 Catherine Aurelio
[Where did I put...]
Its like summer camp - label everything.
If it had been just me, soloing down the river, I might not have needed this, but since I was with 22 other people, I would have appreciated having my name on ... everything. I am pretty attached to my gear, and suffered from mild separation anxiety to see it all go into identical dry bags and then get packed onto any one of five boats. I like to think that I am unique, but my sleeping pad certainly is not. One night, my sleep kit dry bag wandered off with other campers. I tried call and response, but no luck, unlike a duckling, it refused to identify itself to it's mother. My own, uniquely painted carabiner or ribbon, to attach to the outside of the dry bag would have been great. Packing for this trip, I looked at my trusty indelible marker around which I wrap a couple of feet of duct tape for emergencies, and thought, Steph -- you are not guiding this trip, put away the CPR mask, the blood pressure cuff, the radio, the repair kit, and the marker. Wrong! Bring the marker.

©2008 Catherine Aurelio
[Pulling like heck to avoid bad things.]

From Paddle to Oar.
I am used to a sea kayak, usually no more than 17 feet long and maximum 300 pounds fully loaded. These boats were around seven to nine hundred pounds with gear and people. They have two paddles, not one. Basic terminology those of us new to rafting: when you are on one of these things you are on an "oar boat", you "row" (not paddle), it is an oar (not a paddle), and you are a "boatman" (all of us women just get thrown into the same terminological bucket as the men). When you navigate down a rapid, you can "push in" or "pull in". Before I took a turn in the hot seat, I had a hard time intuitively understanding why one would want to turn their boat and their back to a turbulent piece of water. Once I tried rowing I got it immediately. Women tend to pull and men tend to push into rapids. Most everyone feels that they have more power pulling as you can put your back into it. The power increase is worth having to swing the boat around and go in backwards. Rowing for the first time was so fun. Much of my experience with other kinds of craft translated, but it was different to have two large water-moving devices in the water instead of just one. Turning the boat was a bit like trying to rub my head and pat my stomach at the same time.

©2008 Catherine Aurelio
['Maytag', meet Nervous Paddlers,
Nervous Paddlers, meet 'Maytag'...]

Just Sit There and Pray.
The rapids seemed fun and easy until we got to one named "Warm Springs". Normally challenging, it had morphed into a class 5. I don't know the technical definition of a class five exactly but I think it is something like "Bad Things Will Happen If You Mess This Up". The telling signs for me that this was a big piece of water were: 1) all the guides changed out of their shorts and t-shirts and into wet suits 2) some dunked themselves in the river prior to running the rapid -- something I normally do before paddling out to surf, making the assumption I am going to get wet 3) after scouting the rapids many experienced people had dry mouths, their breathing changed and pupils dialated 4) it was a boiling cauldron of water that looked like it could either crush me or hold me under for a long time. It spelled one thing for me: Loss Of Control. I was in an oar boat. What I did not understand prior to coming on this trip is that "river rafting" can mean "sit in a boat and do nothing except hang on while someone else oars you around". This is something I have to work at. I am not good at just sitting. It was a challenging experience for me because it was all out of my hands. I had the utmost confidence in my guide. He was a wonderful fellow, all experience and muscle. There was one move in the rapid that required considerable strength and skill -- maneuvering around a hole called "Maytag". While I did have to let it all go and just sit there and pray, it did help knowing that the guy rowing could dead-lift over 700 pounds. It was a wonderful experience and even though I had nothing to do with the successful run of the rapid, I shared in the excitement of making it and not having to swim in 48 degree, chocolate-colored, roiling water.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The Nature People

Running through the forest. I am fortunate enough to have a old growth redwood forest next to my house. I get to throw on my running shoes and fly through the big trees that most folks have to travel far to see. Today we met the nature people. We were trying to find a new trail, (you can't be lost if you have no destination, so no, we weren't lost) and ended up running into a small man-made pond in the middle of a clearing. On the periphery of the pond were ducks, beautiful with the late afternoon sun glinting off of their backs. In the middle of the pond was a large clump of rushes. Amongst the rushes were little black birds with red patches on their wings. We had ended up at the back side of the steam train yard adjacent to the edge of the forest. There were a couple of people a little farther on. The woman was using binoculars to look at something in the general vicinity of her feet. The man was photographing the same general area. Already in the spirit of adventure, we snuck up quietly to see what they were looking at. We assumed that they had indeed, seen their shoes before. K. It was the biggest, fattest bull frog, ever. Just sitting there, looking like a log, except for it's big shiny eyeballs. You can't be as excited because you can't see it. You can only read about it. Trust me it was exciting.

The woman had a forest green parka on, salt and pepper hair, and a winning smile. She was a nature person. I love nature people and aspire to be one when I grow up. You can generally identify them by their relaxed, peaceful, curious-about-the-world attitude and sensible shoes. I am in nature a lot but I can't be considered a nature person until I can remember the names of more nature things so I might never get there. We were very excited about the bull frog and the presence of a fountain of nature knowledge in the form of our new friends.

We asked them about the pretty black birds with the red wings - what they were called. The woman asked us if we meant (and she paused here) the red-winged-black-birds? I have long since gotten over my embarrassment of not knowing things that might seem obvious. The woman looked a little nervous, clearly people who do not know a black bird can't be trusted. She tentatively asked us where we were from. (As you know, I live across the street.) I think they liked us though, even though they might have thought we were a bit touched in the head.