Monday, September 26, 2011

rain drops in california.


Today was a memorable day. It has been a month and three days since I left Southeast, and it was the first time since I left that it has rained. Granted it was a much warmer rain than what we had become accustomed to in Slocum Arm, but water is water, and I felt a wave of nostalgia rush over me as the drops sprinkled my face. It has been an interesting transition, returning back to Berkeley and starting classes again. The first week or so was spent adapting to the noises. The sound of cars, sirens, cafe chatter, my friends laughing, music, the bells of the Campanile, the sound of our broken fridge, the coffee grinder. There were sounds in Slocum too, but they were different in every way. The sound of the paddles moving though the water, a float plane overhead, the rustle of the trees, the creaking of a leaning tree, the splashing of a salmon jumping, squirrel calls, and Paul and Odin singing as they walked back to their tent. In Slocum I could let my mind wander and heard my thoughts frequently and without interruption. Now, here in Berkeley, I often find it hard to hear my own thoughts as I struggle to drown out surrounding sounds. Even as I am writing this, my housemates are watching ESPN football highlights and periodically screaming.

In addition to the increase in noises, I have also been dealing with an increase in people. I never noticed how crowded the campus and the city is. People wait in line to filter into class rooms. I swerve on my bike to avoid throngs of pedestrians. Even my house has five more people than our intimate group of four out in the woods.

This summer proved to be one of the most challenging experiences of my life. There were times, like I described in earlier posts, where my limits were undoubtedly put to the test. There were moments when I thought of how easy life in Berkeley was. But now that I have gone through that experience and learned how to live in Slocum Arm, completely immersed in a wild place, I realize that Berkeley poses just as many challenges. Suddenly I have “real life” worries, whatever that means. In the woods we were thinking about where we were going to pump our water, or how we should rig the pulley system to minimize bear infiltration. Now I am faced with turning in homework on time, answering emails, meeting with advisors, or helping ease the anxiety of friends who are trying to figure out what comes next after graduation. I have learned that no matter where I am, I will always be faced with challenges, and the ability to overcome these challenges is what keeps life interesting and engaging.

This summer has impacted my life in so many ways, some of which I may not even be aware of yet. It gave me self-confidence in my abilities, as well as humbled me in things that I needed help with. It gave me some perspective on my life and what makes me happy. It gave me strength and the will to conquer anything. Most importantly it gave me respect for Odin, Paul, and Lauren. Odin taught me to pay attention to and respect everything in the woods. He taught me the power of curiosity and the value of selflessness. I will forever be indebted to Odin for the hours he would spend picking blue berries just so we could have something fresh and sweet to put in our morning oatmeal. Paul taught me what it means to work hard and stay positive. I don’t think I heard Paul complain once, and when I was crawling into the tent after a hard and long day, Paul was staying up to sew the end of the tape measure back on so that our measurements would be exact. When I was in “pout town” because it had been raining for two days straight and we were still in a plot at 7 at night, Paul was seemingly unaffected, telling jokes and taking DBH measurements as if it were a warm summer day. Lauren taught me persistence and an unwavering will to succeed. If I thought my summer had challenges, Lauren had ten times the challenge. Lauren not only deserves respect for accomplishing such a physically and emotionally taxing project, but she also put together a dream team of people. Although we all had our differences, one thing we shared was a determination to get the job done, and get it done well. I truly am honored to have spent my summer with these amazing people, and there are many things that I miss about our time together on the outer coast.

I guess to wrap up this sentimental blog post I would like to thank everyone that helped with the project, we really couldn’t have done it without you and would probably still be out in Slocum on a weather hold with nothing but Mountain House dinners left to eat. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life, and I can already feel an itch to return to the wild and beautiful outer coast.


Friday, August 26, 2011

in the belly

8.23.11 I crawled into my sleeping bag here on the rooftop of the ferry at 4:30am this morning after loading all our gear together one last time. Kate left by plane last night. We all took her together, “family style.” Odin was supposed to leave two days ago, but the fast ferry is in for repair. Paul and I got delayed too. I have been aching, aching, aching, to get to Juneau, to stop tackling checklists and logistics and be with community and friends again. Time is too short. I have to leave Alaska all together in just two days. I just want to pause and be here with people I miss.

The broken ferry was ironic to say the least. I was thinking we made it through summer by foot, kayak, float plane and boat in the big swells all clear. Then there we were stranded again by the most reliable form of local transportation – the monster ship. In Sitka we cruised around town in Charlie’s rig these last few days. In the spirit of small town Alaska, he tossed me the keys to his ancient truck after we hit the docks at Ceiling Cove on our last trip out. Said he’d be going out of town and we could probably put that thing to use. Unreliable breaks and a gas guzzling rusted beauty of a ride. Loved that beast. Kind of the perfect end to our summer.

I slept hard on the ferry, woke up to the cold air on my face and the grey light glowing, that thing that happens only here in Southeast, and I still don’t know how to describe. One kind of just has to experience it. I miss it already. Layers of cloud blanket the forested islands as we move through the passage. I realize that I’m looking at a the same route I’ve traveled before differently now. I know what it feels like to be deep in those forests. I can imagine what life they hold. As I peeled back the cocoon of my sleeping bag to unveil the solarium view through sleepy eyes, I remembered a story that a dear friend and mentor sent me when she saw some photographs from our summer. Years back, she was working on a book in the American West and venturing into open landscapes there, and she spent an day visiting with a Zuni. After sharing stories of place, he put his hand upon her stomach and told her “You are in the belly of the earth. ” She told said the same for our summer.

I’ve been in the belly, and I’m watching in fade into the distance before me now through sleep eyes.

The grey shifts to white then it all disappears at the horizon. I’m afraid of what I might forget.

The boat’s engine is purring. My body is still warm in depths of my bag. There’s a slow vibration around me and the gentle feeling of moving forward bit by bit. Raindrops are falling on the deck, splattering. The American flag is flapping in the wind on the stern. Its stripes provide the only color breaking the blue and grey in 360 degrees. I can almost make out the sound of it snapping back and forth above the ferry’s hum. I’m thinking about the belly. I suppose it’s what this is all about – being in the belly of wilderness, figuring out how it’s changing, and what that can teach us. I have a lot to sort out, but this has been a start.

The compass points north, but I'm headed home now. -Lauren

Saturday, August 20, 2011

bull kelp passage & wood burning stoves

August 18, 2011. Last night we sat on the rocky beach here at Klag Bay with the tide approaching at our feet. We smoked cigars and drank whisky like old weathered seafarers in the salty mist and watched salmon leap. We reveled in the sweet celebration of a mission complete on full bellies of fresh salmon Paul caught in the Whale. 40 plots finished, thousands of trees and saplings measured, no one attacked by bear, impaled by spruce limb, eaten by root holes nor capsized in kayak. I tend to prepare for the worst but always strive for the best, and that makes the best stuff that much better when things actually work out. I will long remember how it felt to sit together there by the water, a mirror of memories of the forests that tower. We have been through a lot together in these 9 weeks. It has been an experience of a lifetime for us all.

I’ve started to list the things I will remember most about each trip and each base camp. I try to scrawl the notes at night before my eyes shut all too quickly as soon as I’m horizontal. The notes are just spatterings of moments and memories I’ll expand into the book I want to write. At Klag, I treasure silence. The quiet, broken by sounds I won’t hear again for a long while and never again in this way. The crackling of a fire. The wisp of eagle wings above the canopy. Odin’s big feet upon the cabin floor. The scratching of branches on my coat as I move through the forest. Boots slogging in muskeg. Surfacing sea lions. Kayaks touching barnacles. The crack of the compass case as I check my bearing. Rain upon rocks and sea. The sound of water poured into a tea kettle. The heavy breath of my friends as we stand together under a tarp in the cold. Endless chatter of squirrels and the songs of kinglets. These are sounds lost in “the real world.” Soon I’ll hold conversations while cars whiz by and subways screech. I’ll talk over twenty different voices in a café or holler over music at a concert. I may not hear the coffee fill my cup. The background noise of a city will be louder than any central one I have noted here all summer. I am going to miss simple sounds. Here at Klag, I want to hold onto the echo of bull kelp crawling with the tide.

Trip 4: Klag Bay. The cabin with deep history. “Vacation week” in comparison. A wood burning stove. Wet polypro and wool drying by clothesline. 4 pairs of extratuffs puddled together. The sweet smell of yellow cedar burning. The way the bunkbeds squeek as we crawl in and out. Odin’s eight egg flip at 6:30am. The excitement in his eyes to cook on an oven after all these weeks. Snacks, endless snacks from carepackages in Sitka. Creek girgling outside. Steam rising from coffee mugs. We watch rain fall through glass. A strange, unfamiliar divide between inside and outside. The way the light shines in from the window facing south. Oddly enough, reading Cadillac Desert on the plywood floor. Paul’s first salmon. YAhoooo from the distance. Sauna night. Cold bodies in fresh water. Bucks upon beaches. Dense canopies and all live cedar forests. The “savannah” hike – shore pine muskeg and 360 degrees of open bog. Our hardest pummeling by rain. Last plot, most trees we’ve seen in one spot ever. Western hemlock and yellow cedar, oak ferns and cedar seedlings. Paddling through the passage, morning and night. The clunk of the kayak rutter upon slithering snakes of seaweed. The way Odin and Paul evenly divide the tasks of Plot 40, as if to admit no one quite wanted it to end. Last quadrat. Last big tree. Last canopy photograph. Last tree core.

On other pages of my journal I have kept notes for methods, excerpts from the study I’ll use to share my science. We’ve kept a log of “Wilderness Character” together thoughout the summer. We log planes that fly above or trash we find or any signs at all of human activity our here. It’s an effort part of a national initiative to monitor our Wilderness lands and how they have evolved since our country put these places aside when the Wilderness Act passed. Alongside science and field notes of plots, distances we’ve hiked, and charts of all the locations where climate sensors will collect data for the next year, I’ve also started to think about life on the other side. What home is. Where I go next. What that will be like.

I made a list of things I want to do, or create, and things I hope for on the other side of the outer coast. Rereading it makes me realize what matters beyond my life here and this project. Outside the occasional daydream of cotton, I don’t really long for any material possessions. My list is quite short – simple pleasures like hot baths, community and friends, talking more with family, surfing, feeling the sun and ocean on my body, fresh greens from the farmers market, more hugs, slow Sunday mornings in warm bed. And then finding a way to share this experience and what I’m learning out here. I’ve thought a lot about a sense of place. As much everything on the outer coast has demanded our full attention, this past trip has also been a bit of a transition for us all. Over dinner at night, we have slipped in and out of talking about the day, to thoughts of the future. Kate says, “I cannot imagine that in 6 days I’ll be in a classroom in Berkeley.” I wonder what it will be like for me to be processing all we’ve collected this summer outside of Alaska. As much as I stay present during the days, I’ve toyed with thoughts of moving to the ocean in California, coming back this winter to Sitka or Juneau, and visiting friends in Montana in the fall. I don’t know what comes next. For the first time in a long while, I can’t seem to plan. I’ve resolved just to let things unfold as they should.

I do know that tomorrow Charlie comes back for us. We’ll pack up our things and boat back together to Sitka, towing with us the kayaks we brought out here 9 weeks ago. We’ll clean gear and drink beers, pack up tree cores for shipment and copy data sheets. Soon I’ll be loading 500 lbs of stuff on the ferry back to Juneau. I’ll have a few days to visit with friends there. Before I know it, I’ll be on a plane, a jet this time, with hundreds of other people and a roaring engine. And then I’ll be boxing up rubber pants and pulling out sundresses and trying to make sense of history, of wilderness, and of change from tattered Write-In-The-Rain paper, photographs, and deep memory.

But today, I’ll sit here at Klag and watch the tide come and go. It’s glory day again, my last one this summer season. - Lauren

Saturday, August 13, 2011

the stoic conifers

The summer is almost over; in the north autumn comes early. We all are grateful for the relatively lenient weather recently, but the evenings are feeling colder and the twilight darkens earlier every night. The trees remain green despite the changing seasons; few are as stoic as the conifers. Despite their consistent exterior, I know they suffer through the winter freezes and excite in the spring sun. I am grateful I can more fully express my range of conditions than the conifers.

The past two and a half weeks based in Ford Arm were our most challenging, both in the amount of work we had to complete and our personal capacities to handle the rigors of a strenuous field season. We had a few particularly hard days, certainly in my opinion, about a week into it. Paul Hennon and his coworker Robyn and intern Megan arrived at a crucial point, bringing valuable cargo of enthusiasm, work power, and extra food. I marveled at their clean-smelling clothes. With their help we completed all 19 of the plots we needed to measure – almost half of all the plots we will do all summer, and more than the previous two trips combined. As with meeting all challenges, success feels wonderful.

Despite the challenges, I enjoyed this trip. Our island campsite was closer to the open ocean than our other sites deeper in Slocum Arm and allowed us more sea mammal sightings; both sea lions and sea otters became regular companions. Sea lions seem to congregate in groups (pods? prides?) and raise their large bodies partially out of the water to get a better view of us in our kayaks. The first time we encountered sea lions I watched from shore with angst as four large lions rose above the surface and rapidly approached Lauren and Kate’s kayak. The lions soon submerged and returned to the others, huffing and slapping the water. Sea otters hold their babies to their chests as the float on their backs and eat crustaceans and other creatures from the sea bottom. Our boat captain Charlie blames the return of otters (after they were decimated by Russian fur trappers) for the decline of the Dungeness crab, abalone, and other dwellers of the ocean floor in the area.

While I enjoy the wildlife, I am beginning to intimately know the trees. After Odin and I flag out the plot boundaries, I don a worn but dapper yellow forester’s vest with lots of pockets and meet every tree in the plot. I measure the tree’s diameter, pound a nail bearing a metal tag with a number into its wood, and inspect its base for damage. I look into its crown and help pass judgment on its quality. Each species of tree has sharply different characteristics, many of which I could not begin to identify at the start of the summer.

Yellow cedars (Chamaecyparis nootkatensis, in the cypress family) are distinct in many ways. Their bark is stringy and thin, unlike any other tree in the area. Its canopy is deep green, droopy, and oily-looking when healthy; yellow, grey, and thin when stressed. Most unique is the sharp smell of the wood, which remains pungent for decades after the tree dies and corresponds to the incredible decay resistance of the species. I chop into old snags with a hatchet to identify a tree that has shed its bark; only cedars show creamy yellow and that distinguished scent.

Mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) and western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) are quite similar; I cannot distinguish them by bark or wood scent or color, only by needles. Western hemlock’s shorter needles have two white lines on the under side, formed by little pores called stomata that allow air to come and go from the leaf. The soft needles on a mountain hemlock swirl around the branch, making a bottle-brush look. Westerns tend to out-compete mountains on well drained, fertile sites while mountains look vibrant on boggy and more marginal sights. Both species have flaky, soft gray bark and pinkish wood that smells faintly of vanilla and citrus, and turns reddish as it decomposes. They rot much more quickly than cedars. The biggest trees often have hooked, gnarled branches and tops, as if the burden of canopy dominance was too great a challenge to bear. After cedar, hemlocks are our most common tree.

Less frequently we find Sitka spruce (Picea sitkensis) and shore pine (Pinus contorta, variation contorta). The former dominate the productive, sunny coast as giants of the post-glaciated era. We have measured Sitkas over five feet in diameter; Lauren has been told of a site in Slocum with nine-foot diameter Sitkas. Siktas need sun and soil nutrients. When they get it they are huge, when they don’t they persist as yellowed stalks fighting for life among the shade tolerant hemlocks and cedars. Its bark forms hard, brown potato-chip shaped scales. Sharp needles swirl around the branches and leave little posts on the twig when they eventually shed. The wood smells like shore pine and I have a hard time telling the two species apart when dealing with very old dead trees.

Shore pine, conversely, is the stunted, twisted dominator of nitrogen starved peat soils in muskegs. Able to tolerate saturated roots, we see the lollipop crowns of the shore pines at our least productive sites. Rarely, we see shore pines towering above other trees, reminding us of its other variant called the lodgepole pine (latifolia variation). Shore pine has tuffs of paired needles and grey bark in alligator-skin scales. Its wood, like the Sitka spruce, smells the most like a typical pine.

Coring trees is among my favorite activities. I feel a hint of what a surgeon must feel as she plunges a knife into a patient; I pierce the heart of a live tree and extract a cylinder of its substance. Its growth rings reveal its trials and tribulations in life – many have rapid growth when young but slow as other trees begin to compete for light and soil resources. Others persist suppressed for decades, hardly growing, until an adjacent tree perishes and floods the tree with light and easier access to nutrients. Some trees have stories I can only begin to guess.

Cedar trees are the most damned stubborn trees I have ever witnessed. Cedars have the ability to die and live in linear strips. Often bears will chew at the inner bark of a cedar for the mildly sweet sap. The tree above that portion of the base will die, but the parts of the tree that are undamaged continue to support branches. At the extreme, one narrow strip of living wood supports a branch or two, deceiving the uncareful observer into thinking it dead. In the words of Miracle Max from The Princess Bride, the trees are “mostly dead; slightly alive.”

Miracle MaxSee, there's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Now, mostly dead, he's slightly alive. All dead, well, with all dead, there's usually only one thing that you can do.

Inigo: What's that?

Miracle Max: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

I hope we can post some pictures; mostly dead cedars are a case study in perseverance. Unfortunately, their ability to persist is only strong against physical damage to the bark, the reduced snowpack and freezing that damages cedar roots causes the widespread mortality we are studying the summer.

With the hardest work out of the way, I hope for relatively straight-forward and relaxed progress through the remaining four sites on our next and last trip to the Outer Coast. Inevitably, our thoughts turn towards the next phases in our lives. Odin will go to dark Fairbanks for his first term of graduate school, Kate returns to sunny Berkeley for her final term of her undergrad degrees, Lauren is guiding a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon on the 28thbefore settling in for a long semester of data analysis, and I have my ticket booked to Seattle for the 25th; my schedule is the most forgiving with some volunteer commitments on the 29th and my last year of grad school starting the end of September. We each think about what is important to us this summer, what we don’t want to leave behind. The hard times seem less difficult in retrospect. We look forward to one last week in the wilderness, in the comfort of a cabin and the company of a group of friends that might never be in the same room again. We each think about what is important to us beyond this summer, our loved ones and upcoming challenges, the uncertainties of our lives. I hope for some of the conifers' strength as we complete this project and move on through winter freezes and summer sun. - Paul

I admire each of my teammates, as strong as the conifers in many ways.

Friday, August 12, 2011

great grandfathers by the sea

Eighteen days ago I was stepping off of Captain Charlie Clark’s drop-bow skiff and onto the rocky beach of a small island at the mouth of Ford Arm that would become our new home for the next two and a half weeks. We left the dock in Sitka crazed and anxious to get back to the forest. The weather was testing us, disabling us from flying into Slocum Arm. But to our relief Charlie came to our rescue in his rusty beat up pick-up truck, which at the time and through our tired and frustrated eyes resembled a shiny black stallion ready to carry us off to his boat and into the woods.

The sea was fierce and we all swallowed down some Dramamine as Charlie charged through the outer coast swell. I chatted with him to keep my mind off the bumpy ride and soon found out that he had a jack russel terrier named Tackle. He then held up his right hand to show off a rather mangled thumb and matter-of-factly said “he bit off my thumb last January.” I think I sensed a hint of pride in his voice. I was so caught off guard that the only thing I could think of to say was “Do you still love him?” What a weird question. He replied that yes, he still loved Tackle and the recovery wasn’t too bad. A couple hours passed and soon we were off-loading our gear onto the beach of our island and waving to Charlie as he motored off into the misty white atmosphere surrounding our cove.

The next couple days were real “limit-testers”. The kind of days when you just want to give up and say “I quit!” The rain was relentless. Our hands were disgustingly pruny, our only clothes were soaked and even the “waterproof” electronics were failing us. I remember climbing into the tent after the worst of the “limit-testers” and crawling into my sleeping bag. Lauren sidled in next to me and just when I thought I was safe from the rain I touched my sleeping bag and it also felt wet. I frantically started to touch different parts of the bag and worriedly looked over at Lauren to ask “is this wet?” She touched it and reassured me that no, it was not wet but my hands were so saturated that everything I touched felt equally drenched.

The next few days the rain gods gave us a break (thanks to Odin who ceremoniously pours out a couple of drops of our precious whiskey to the earth to show our respect). The sun felt amazing and soon our clothes and electronics were the driest they had been since we left Sitka. We hiked around sans rain gear feeling the sweet but salty southeast ocean breeze on our skin (through our long undies of course) and Odin mentioned how the islands in the distance looked somewhat tropical. After a slight moment of silence we all started laughing and agreed that Odin has got to go further south sometime. The remainder of the trip was spent measuring plot after plot after plot….after plot. We really are lean mean measuring machines.

The forests are becoming increasingly interesting and exciting as we discover more and more of their secrets. We are becoming accustomed to their different structures, shapes, colors, smells, and components. The trees tell us stories and we are merely trying to understand and interpret this knowledge so that others can understand how to manage and maintain these changing landscapes. During this past trip we learned that the healthy forests have a very different story to tell than the dead ones, but they are all interrelated, and hopefully by sorting through our stacks of soggy, dirty, and torn data sheets Lauren will be able to decipher a complete history as well as some insight into the future. We encountered some of the biggest cedars we have seen yet. The great great great grandfathers of the forest. We take turns guessing their diameters and when Paul yells aloud the exact measurement we all let out one big synchronized “woahhhhhhhhh.” This experience has been so many different things it’s hard for me to come up with a clear and precise way to describe it, so for now I will just sum it all up by saying “woahhhhhhhh.” - kate

where cormorants glide above glass.

August 10, 2011. I am writing from the nest on another “Glory Day,” surrounded by what is now more than two weeks of stink. Kate is still passed out beside me in her sleeping bag. I am cuddled up to the Toughbook computer in my bag, wearing down the last bars of battery power for some writing. I am essentially sleeping in a laundry pile these days; woolies and polypro line the perimeter of the tent. Socks hang from every corner. Write-In-The-Rain paper struggles to dry out in the mesh wrack we’ve rigged up above us for data preservation. I fear they are starting to mold. I’ve got ziplock bags full of the few items that I keep dry at all costs – batteries, storage cards for my cameras, letters and postcards I am in the midst of writing to friends and family, and a few others I have received and still carry with me to read after a hard day. Rain drops hit the roof top in the usual patter patter ping ping.

Today we will savor sweet Glory Day. For the past two trips now, we have worked harder than one could understand without experiencing. Paul Hennon says I shouldn’t even try to explain. We pushed it even a little further so we get a glory day at the end – one full day to ourselves, free of the demands of finding plots, climbing and crawling, and measuring trees, and free from the chaos of Sitka. Returning to the “real world” is always something to look forward to for showers and food and catching up on life beyond the outer coast. But it’s always accompanied with logistics, lots of running around to fix broken things and restock, unanticipated news from family and friends, and missing things we don’t have out here. Whatever unfolds can be a lot to take in, especially when we just have forty-eight hours to recoup and what we really need to do is simply rest. I’ve come to realize I can never know what to expect when we hit full communication again. So on glory day we revel in the beauty of the outer coast, sleep late, sip coffee while the salmon jump, and nothing really touches this day. The boys are packing up to hike “Block Top” – the mountain we’ve named across Slocum Arm on the Khaz Peninsula. When Kate surfaces from her cocoon, we’ll load up the Whale to paddle to the little islands that scatter the coastline as Slocum Arm fades into the ocean. I want to look for glass balls from the old fishing boats and watch cormorants glide above the glass.

We are thirty-six plots down and only four to go. It seems that anything can happen here, and whenever we get confident, some new challenge suddenly emerges. So I don’t want to jinx us. But I am absolutely blown away with what we have accomplished thus far. And I’d say barring bear attack, broken legs, and impassable weather (sorry mom, these are all slim but notable possibilities), it looks like we are actually going to pull this off.

Everyone told me this summer plan was ambitious. I didn’t quite know what that meant until I was deep in it. There have been waves of doubt and endless moments of discomfort juxtaposed with those filled with growth, accomplishment, and camaraderie. There is one grey morning I remember quite well this trip. It had been raining so hard that everything was starting to fog and malfunction. I was putting foggy GPS units in my pack in the pouring rain at 6am on Day 2 thinking “we still have so far to go, we won’t make it like this.” It was the one morning all summer when I actually voiced any doubt. I generally find anything worth doing in life is accompanied by doubt. Yet voicing it, or focusing too hard on hesitation, tends to cripple what would work out otherwise. If I only acknowledge doubt briefly and put one foot in front of the other, it becomes a mere blip in the past. So I try not to let my mind entertain any of that too long in anything or anyone I pour my heart into. But that morning, I was huddled under the tarp pouring coffee and muttering, “Guys, if it keeps up like this I don’t know. It just may not work.” Everyone was silent. Silent for at least a few minutes. “I mean, it’s only day two. My camera in the drybag is totally fogged.” Odin finally broke the enduring lull, “It’ll shift… We can do this.” That afternoon the sun came out for 3 hours. We scattered electronics on the ground beneath the dead trees to let condensation form and then slowly slip away, like a distant memory of old problems and road blocks.

I also gave up counting on planes this go around. The waffling weather poses too much of challenge to the mission, and I have had to learn quickly to be flexible and make decisions minute to minute. I am eternally grateful for Charlie the champ. He rallied from the docks in Sitka on moment’s notice, making the long run through the narrows, out to the coast, and around the Khaz peninsula to get us back on track. We’d been stuck eating omelets and waiting for planes for too long. “Tell me what you need, and I’ll getter done.” He told me on the phone. “I just need to get back to those trees, Charlie.” He asked for five minutes to check is gas levels. And ten minutes later we were pulling six hundred pounds of gear from the float plane and shoving it all in his rusted old truck. He threw me the keys to another car nearby to pick up Paul, and less than half an hour we were gone from stuck to Slocum.

For the past two weeks we have been camped on this little island that strattles the space between the calm, protected waters of the Arm here and the wide open coast. Bears can swim, but I chose this spot to give us a bit of a breather from the last one where grizzlies wandered down from forests to fish the creeks near camp. There is little here to entice a bear our way. We haven’t seen any in camp this trip. Instead we are surrounded by birdsong, where still live cedar forest meet ocean coast. And every night, I am awakened every few hours by the sounds of sea lions surfacing – the “pffoof” gasping they make as their heads bob up for air. Humpbacks seeking protection from the open waters have journeyed past a few times, and I caught the glimpse of one orca fin, a little teaser for the pod that must have accompanied below. There is a rocky pier we use for radio check-ins, sat phone calls, and rock fish jigging. Fresh fish in pasta has been latest treat after “family fish night.” The skies let up, pink sunset shifted in, and we passed our one rod around to reel in some protein. Kate and Paul brought home the bacon.

My birthday was filled with simple pleasures. We slept until 7:30. Instead of waking up and sliding into wet rubber and wool within minutes, I lay in the nest for half an hour with the ipod, ignoring my battery rations for the trip. In fact, it was a rationless day for all. Paul said, “Everybody wins on birthday day!” Extra cheese slices and chocolate. I had planned for us to explore a live forest that day. I wanted to spend my 30th under a full canopy, amidst the quiet open of a forest still thriving with cedar. In the live forests I find I am more present, and I tend to ponder the future – what will happen next. We measure the stress of the wise old cedars, and I wonder how long they’ll hold onto their green. I am no bird biologist, but I see a clear pattern of marbled murrelets that scatter the waters around us when we go to measure live stands. They skip and dive across the water like stones. We seldom see them near the dead forests. In the dead I tend to feel some loss – what once was there, what might have been, which species won out and which did not, what we miss no longer there now. That’s no good line of reflecting on life lessons for anyone to start year 30. So we hugged live cedars, walked amidst oak ferns, climbed the roots of giant spruce trees and basked in what we now consider the leisure of measuring just one plot in a day. To top it off – Paul Hennon and two new friends dropped in to help out for a few days. Our pilot buddy in Juneau surprised us with a 24 pack of beer. We ate pasta with fresh veggies and watched embers smolder on the rocky beach over Raniers. Over the days that followed, we doubled our work power in the good company of friends.

The team agrees -- we are lean mean measuring machines now, well in the groove. Standing in Plot 40 is going to be a flood of emotions for us all. We are quite a family now, and I feel fortunate to say I somehow managed to end up with the dream team of a field crew. There’s a lot I am going to miss about our time together. Charlie returns for us tomorrow, picking us up in the same spot where he left us seventeen days ago (and for me a year younger). We’ll transport our kayaks north to the last spot, where we will measure just four or five plots in live forests after a couple days rest in Sitka. We will be spoiled by the comforts of a cabin there, built long ago by the grandfather of a dear friend of mine in Juneau. We’re calling it “vacation week” – swapping bear boxes for better food and looking forward to coming home to a cabin with a wood stove. I can’t quite believe there are no more dead forests for us to survey this summer.

Every now and then I have visions of coffee shops and warm sunny days entering data between surf sessions and bike rides back in California. I can’t imagine that reality, but it will come. And I’ll be there savoring sunshine, missing the fog here and the way the thick white clouds settle into the hemlocks, spruce, and cedars in the Chichagof Wilderness. It’s kind of crazy how life works that way. - lauren

Saturday, July 23, 2011

in the rhythm of measuring

we’ve made some serious improvements to the system. butter served by the spoonful into morning oats, cheese consumed in bread like slices. neoprene arm cuffs keep cold water from penetrating wool within seconds every morning. and then the big “I” for improvement is the groove we have found together. we have a rhythm to our days now, to the tasks ahead, to the decisions and unknowns we face along the way. we often load the kayaks in silence, knowing intuitively where each item goes and how it’s secured. we accept a plot to measure, and we know who does what. I have started to love the moment when odin leaps in front as we approach the last 25 meters before a possible plot center. we pull the tape together, and with this excitement in his eyes, he asks “can I run it?!” he bushwacks his way up the last stretch, pushing aside the thick understory and crushing the downfall on his way to our spot. I come trailing behind, scrambling my way up and over, never able to see him just 25 meters away until I’m there at his feet, reaching for a log or limb to get back to my own feet. then there I am, sizing up the trees again and our day’s dance amidst trunks and ferns begins.

we are two out of four trips down, and I am starting to think it is going to fly by too fast. 17 plots down, 23 to go. we actually have to buy return tickets to the “lower 48” this weekend. I’m not sure when I’ll go for a lot of reasons. somehow three days of work and life seems to pack into one for us out there and yet the clock still races. it takes so much energy to do what we do all day, I can’t let myself think too much of another world until I crawl in the nest at night. I’m sure that soon we’ll have 40 sites, I’ll be sleeping in a bed, and the thick clouds of mysterious history in slocum arm will feel like a distant memory I will also miss. so I am making sure to savor these moments. oddly sometimes that competes with the only way to survive the really cold ones - thinking of the warmth of a home, food, missed friends on the other end. it is a strange irony.

everyone rallied for a 15 hour day, nailing two sites, two lunches (could have used a third), proving to ourselves that we could do it. our big "two" day took three valiant attempts, stymied by big waves, poor sites, or climbs too demanding to make it a “double.” we are going to have a lot of those on tap for this next trip. paul, odin, kate, chant “TWO TWO TWO” to get us in the mindset. our hands keep taking their abuse. I went on antibiotics for an infection in one from a series of splinters. paul might be up for a dose (see his frightening crack lower left, below).

the sun came through for our day off in the wilderness before flying back to Sitka. kate and I paddled the whale together to this site from old homesteaders and spent the day basking in the sun, photographing, walking amidst human history with the dead cedars lining the backdrop. i heard about the broken down cabin from an ecologist in the area and came across a tattered copy of a book written there in the 50’s when I was in California. for the past 6 months I have been waiting for the day, curious what it would be like to stand there. I felt a similar sense of wonder to what I feel amidst the cedar forests. There was a life there we could only imagine. I ran my fingers over a pair of old leather boots, soles worn out and peeling back. i thought of what paths they might have carved, what challenges and beauties they once encountered on the outer coast.

other highlights – humpbacks coming into the arm for refuge from the outer coast storms, partnered sand hill cranes flirting amidst cedars, sitka spruce some 7 feet in diameter, bear’s den, and salmon returning with the tide. some lows – we are now making a list of all the things that were supposed to be bomber but failed us. the list gets longer every day. Brunton compass can’t declinate anymore (too much condensation). The toughest rubber fisherman pants we could find are tattered and torn. Sharpee pens ain’t that sharp anymore and duct tape really has met its limits. though we’d like to thank Ibex for the prodeal, we should also tell them their longunderwear woolies were the first to tear. the list of things we can’t live without has Arc Teryx at the top of it along with neoprene and chocolate, chased by the thoughtful notes of support and love from friends and family when we dry out in Sitka.

we leave again monday for our biggest trip yet. i’ll be celebrating my “dirty 30” birthday in the woods -- surely being the dirtiest I have ever been. -lauren

Sunday, July 10, 2011

snapleaf and the whale

My eyes slowly open as the pattering of raindrops on the roof of the tent moves from a dream to a conscious reality. I lift up my left hand, look at my watch. It’s 7AM. I hear Lauren stir beside me and after one big sigh I know that she means business. It’s time to get up. We both sit up stretch for a moment ramble to each other “warm…slept so well….could sleep forever….rain…need coffee…” We soon hear the boys wake up in the tent beside us. I unzip the tent flap, my body tenses up as the cool moist air infiltrates our dry warm sleep nest. Before I change my mind I swiftly unfold my cold, damp rain pants and slide them over my long underwear one leg at a time quickly followed by foot after foot into two equally cold XTRA TUFFS. One layer, two layer, three layer, four and I’m standing outside the tent reaching for my bear spray with one hand, the other rubbing my eyes, clinging to the last bit of warmth evaporating from my face.

I head over to the other side of the cove where we have set up our food and kitchen, consisting of a tarp and some flat rocks that Odin found to cook on. I heat up some water, pour heaping mounds of coffee grounds into everyone’s cups and rummage through the bear box for the trash bag that holds our breakfast food. Granola, powdered milk and dates. One after one the others arrive. Odin comes first, a tall figure moving along the edge of the declining tide outfitted in a large orange rain jacket, a wool hat, a soaking wet backpack, and a rifle slung over his shoulder. Odin starts to get lunch packed as Paul arrives smiling and feeling good, thoughts of GPS points, maps, and tree coring running through his brain. Next comes Lauren, radio in hand doing our morning check-in with dispatch and relaying a weather report to those people not fortunate enough to be in Waterfall Cove. We all sit and sip our coffee, scarf down our granola a little too quickly and proceed to get the camp squared away before we begin packing our gear into the kayaks. DBH tapes…check, quadrat poles…check, compasses…check, yardsticks…check, prisms…check, tree corers…check, tree tags…check, and so on.

All of the gear is loaded into the kayaks and we are ready to make our morning commute (as Lauren calls it) to the location of our plot for the day. Lauren and I climb into “The Whale,” our beautiful blue steed of a kayak. The boys push us off because we always manage to get stuck and away we go, soaring through the glassy water. The wind is hardly blowing and the water acts as a mirror creating the illusion that we are smack dab in the middle of two worlds. The mountains, the sky, and even the eagles soaring above are reflected one atop another and we are no longer paddling in the ocean water as we dip our paddles into the clouds and watch as the image of the sky ripples behind us. We are speechless for a while and then I utter from the front of “The Whale,” a distinct and increasingly louder “wooaaAHHHH.” We soon reach our desired location on the coastline so we come onto shore, unload the kayaks, and drag them above the high tide line. Packs on, we venture into the woods to tackle our plot. The forest turns into a relentless and aggressive jungle-jim almost instantly and before we realize what we are getting ourselves into we are crawling on hands and knees underneath fallen trees. Lauren has a close call as she falls through a root hole, now endearingly referred to as “child-eaters.” Odin bounds over an embankment that’s taller than him, only to pop up and yell back to the rest of us “don’t come this way!” Paul, our navigator tells us how far we have gone and much to our dismay, after an hour of intense climbing, falling, and hardcore bush-whacking he informs us that we have gone a measly 30 meters. 30 meters…in one hour…30 meters! After a lot of perseverance we reach our plot center and begin to flag it out. Odin and Paul begin to flag and take control of counting and measuring all of the saplings while Lauren and I go to the South and to the North to take notes on the less intensive satellite plots. When we return we eat a meal consisting mostly of tortillas. I then set out to measure tree heights with a laser rangefinder (so cool) while Paul takes DBH’s and hugs a few trees, and Lauren records and makes important decisions. Meanwhile Odin is hunched over, intently studying the under story plants, kneeling down every so often to count out all of the tiny tree seedlings.

Hands are sore, cold and pruny, bellies are hungry, and legs are tired but we finally finish. We have conquered the plot and everyone feels good. Pack up and head down the mountain back to our kayaks calling out to bears as we move. The kayak home is more tiring after a day of hard work and when we pull up back at camp everyone is tired and hungry. Two people work on dinner and one cleans the guns. When dinner is ready everyone gathers around and swears that this dinner is the best meal yet. The truth is that as each day goes by the meals taste better and better regardless of what they are. We then divide up a bar of chocolate, read some Tlingit stories from Odin’s book and head off to bed. Wet, cold clothes off and warm, dry clothes on. I have never felt so comfortable. I lie in my sleeping bag and as my eyes close I enter into the double world I witnessed earlier in the kayaks and enjoy the warmth of the tent until 7AM strikes again.
- kate

standing still in the cold

over the past two weeks we have been moving constantly. working hard to stay warm, measuring trees, paddling to sites, scrambling up/over/around every which way through downfall and regeneration, hanging bear bags, fetching water, cooking under tarps, dancing and singing loud to keep spirits up & the grizzlies away, and battling the steady chill of wind and rain on the outer coast. we are moving so much during the day, i have been waking with hunger pangs at night despite whatever we try to pack in during the day. some of the older mortality forests are so dense it takes us an hour to move a distance less than a city block.

after completing 86 kilometers of a coastal survey by boat to map the spread of mortality (big thanks to SCS and scott harris), we randomly selected 40 plots to measure this summer. so each day is like a treasure hunt – we have a point on a map, we have an idea about what we might see there, and then we try to find it by GPS, map and compass. i’ve built in safety clauses that come first before science. i think i am on the only one in the crew with a fear of heights. so around 60% slope when my heart starts to patter and i start hugging more trees for comfort, we reroute. we do the same sometimes for science. at times little spot X leads us to we boggy musqegs with few scattered trees on the edges of the productive stands, and then we have to reroute by our protocol again to find our plot for the day. it can be frustrating, working so hard to get to the place where we actually start our work.

there is a sense of anticipation amidst us all for that moment when we drop the stake in the ground, look up and the trees, and call out our plot number. R_03_31! Recent mortality, 3rd site, from coastal survey observation number 31. i am so focused on being present in my movement through the forest --- watching for patterns of plants and big trees as we move, finding my best route to avoid any injury, and listening for birds and wildlife. when i stand at plot center for that first time, it feels like meeting a new friend. I look up and start to think about the structure of the dead forest above and the new growing below. there are first impressions. i make those judgements, sizing everybody up, and know then that for the next 8 hours and then the years to come, that place will teach me a lot more on its own. if only I look hard and listen. there is an aurah of history in the white skeletons of cedar. then this curiosity about what booms below. a curiousity about the future.

my favorite task is the last of the day – when paul and I get to coring. his positive energy is relentless as he jumps from tree to tree and kate nails the heights. we have made all our measurements. i have my thoughts on what’s happening here. we have a roster of everybody in our plot “Yellow Cedar, Dead, Class 4… broken at the top…” “Sitka Spruce, big fatty DBH 40.3 centemeters…” when I pull out the core the years of each trees life unfold before us. it’s also a moment when I laugh at myself thinking, “how the heck did become one of those people geeking out over something like a splinter of wood?” and then I realize it is all about standing still.

something about our generation today especially has led to a lot of wandering. I’ve been a wanderer myself. scattering here or there, savoring each place and person in my life for the time, that smaller window. the tendency, the draw is to wander. I think people find it easier to hop from one job to the next, one place to the next, than to stand still, really commit to one, and accept all the challenges and then wonders that come with that. there are times I question what I am doing. especially in the harder moments... but the questioning doesn’t last long. despite all the moving day after day, i am standing still, getting to know a place deeper that I ever have with quite a group of committed, adventurous souls. it's not just any place -- but a carefully chosen one. we are out there on the edges of the outer coast, "frolicking" on the far margins of Wilderness. these lands are farther from “civilization” by any standard in the lower 48. they are intact and “pristine” – what those Hudson River School romantics would have painted if they had only been able to get here. landscapes that seem like remnants of the wilderness Thoreau pondered and what people once encountered in the old growth stands of the pacific northwest.

but here too, amidst the fog and vast open waters of slocum arm, these forests too are changing. we’re doing our best to learn how and why it’s important. i believe standing still has something to teach us. so tomorrow we go back. i need to eat another pound of cheese and spinach before then, but tomorrow we go back.

we’ll be out for another 12 day stint, back on the 22nd. thank you for the carepackages of fatty cookies and sweet smellin love. b & s at the roble ridge farm take the cake for the best homemade hippy granola ever. and thanks to a little california sun, i'm adding a "new" tshirt to the one sacred set of tent clothes that must stay dry at all costs.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

heading out

It's been less than three weeks since I arrived in Southeast Alaska, but it feels like it could have been four times that long. I suppose it's because there have been so many changes and developments while I've been here. My surroundings have changed incrementally as I've traveled from Fairbanks to Haines to Juneau to Sitka. Juneau, the town I grew up in, felt oddly alien now that my family have all moved away and I was visiting for work. A day or two before I left, I went out and visited "the glacier." It was so scrawny and anemic--hardly the valley-filling outwash of serrated ice that had been a backdrop to my childhood. Maybe some older Southeasterners have similar impressions of today's yellow cedar forests as ghosts of what they once were. Low snowpack has taken its toll on both glaciers and cedars.

This project is changing and evolving daily, as is my understanding of the subject matter and methodology. Lauren, Kate, Paul and Caitlin, one by one, have "evolved" from folks I knew only abstractly to real-life colleagues; to fun, interesting, and exciting people. Even the way I look at the Southeast rainforest has changed a lot since I arrived in Haines on June 5th. There are quite a few plants around here that are extremely common, yet just weren't charismatic enough to pry their way into my head. There's one called goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) that probably lines every single roadside in Southeast. Till recently, I had only a vague consciousness of it as a leafy, weed-like thing growing all over the place. Now, when I walk around town, I find myself paying as much attention to plants and trees as to streets, buildings, and mountains. There's goatsbeard and cow-parsnip next to that buttercup species we can't identify...and is that western hemlock or mountain hemlock growing above those plants? Occasionally, me and Kate (she's also focusing on understory plants) have been waylaid for many minutes trying to ID some roadside herb...or worse, stumping ourselves on a non-native plant in someone's yard, which wouldn't be in our plant guides and which neither of us would have much chance of knowing. We're probably in the early stages of understory neurosis...

I'm thinking about my experiences, and about the changes so far this summer, because I know these first few weeks have been only the tip of the iceberg, the "crown of the cedar," compared to what we're about to learn and experience. Slocum Arm is still pretty abstract to me. I've never been there. I know what it looks like on a map, and I've filled in that map with general impressions of the Tongass, Chichagof Island, the Gulf of Alaska, forests full of dead cedars. But I don't have any idea of what it actually feels like to be in Slocum Arm. I don't know what it will be like to stand on the beaches (are they rocky? gravelly?) and look across the fjord at rounded, glacier-scoured mountains reflected in the rippling ocean water. I don't know how I'll feel when I'm in the middle of a stand of dead cedar, clawing my way through six-foot-high blueberry bushes just like our friend the brown bear. I don't know how I'll feel after ten straight days of counting and measuring those six-foot-high blueberries. And, I don't know how the four (sometimes six) of us out there will relate to each other after two weeks of working and living together in the woods, in the brush, on the beach, on the ocean.

By the time we come back from this first trip, I'm sure my understanding of everything about this project will be totally different than it is now. It even seems likely that my entire understanding of the Southeast Alaska rainforest will have thorougly changed--if not right away, then at least by the end of the summer. I'm looking forward to it! ...I'm writing, of course, with the assumption that the brown bears and all the capricious spirits out there accept us as their guests, and let us live with them for a little while.

- Odin

preparation, action

Juneau seems like forever ago and Sitka is about to feel the same way. We take a boat to Slocum Arm tomorrow morning and somehow we managed some down time this afternoon. The past week has been a hustle of food and equipment prep, revising the research surveys plans, developing data sheets, working on digital data management, and a hundred other tasks. Lauren’s brain is a tornado of schedules, contacts, to-do lists, and action plans. She especially is doing a remarkable job of keeping her cool despite the manic schedule.

Juneau was great for me, typified by beautiful mountains, great trail runs, and GPS units. Lauren was mostly busy meeting with Forest Service ecologists and statisticians to hammer out the kinks in her in-field research design. I ran around town checking tasks off of to-do lists: color copies of topographic maps, dropping the car we were using at the ferry for the owners, picking up .44 ammo and mechanical pencils at Walmart, etc. It was a good way to see the city outside of the tourist zone near the enormous our boat terminals.

While in Juneau we took time for some recreation each day. Lauren pointed me towards trail runs up Perseverance trail along the first mining road in Juneau, along a fabulously challenging trail at the end of our driveway terminating at a secluded beach on Gastineau Channel, and up Mount Roberts to where the gondola stops and great views of the Chilkat Mountains, Juneau, and the channel. We swung past the Mendenhall Glacier, blue and over-run with tourists but isolated and beautiful in the winter. One afternoon in the Forest Service office someone stopped by trying to unload one of nine salmon she had caught but couldn’t keep for herself, which motivated an impromptu salmon bake at our house/base with some of Lauren’s friends from the area.

Juneau down town is a surprisingly cute city, if you can ignore the bizarre mechanical behemoths mounting the waterfront, filled with tourists. Most of the 30,000 people seem to live scattered elsewhere in the glacial valley, creating a car-dependant way of life for an area that isn’t accessible by road. I read the forests around Juneau offer 250 miles of recreational trails close at hand. While that sounds fantastic, there are no other options unless you leave the by plane or boat. I suspect this sort of isolation, particularly in previous decades, created the self-reliant attitude I am beginning to sense in Alaskans.

I learned a lot from my three days with Lauren. She has involved me (and Odin and Kate too) quite a bit in her tribulations developing the field research component, for which I am grateful – the alternative is to be a field grunt. Watching her go through this phase of her PhD reveals quite a bit about the level of commitment I would need to go into a PhD program – more than I have now. Her yellow cedar research has been years in the making, if only a year or so in academia. For her, having a sense of connection to a community and ecosystem is the foundation for her research. Southeast Alaska forest is the only place she would be willing to work this hard. I think about my own thesis work in forest carbon and more generally about how I relate to where I live and the ecosystems around me, how my connection seems weak compared to Lauren’s, and how I wonder where I am and to what kind of work I dedicate myself.

The froth of activity continued into Sitka. After the gorgeous and productive four-hour ferry ride, including a humpback whale sighting, Kate and Caitlin met as at the ferry terminal and we loaded up our big duffel bags, bear boxes, backpacks, and Pelican cases for the final bout of preparation. Caitlin is our handler in Sitka. A Stanford student, Caitlin is from Sitka and provides invaluable support in town for transportation, knowing who to talk to and where to get what we need, moral support, and (with her mother Stacey) baker of fabulous cookies. Lodging at the Forest Service bunks is a notable step down in quality from the wood-and-window house overlooking the channel in Juneau, but it will get the job done. Many of the same activities continued in Sitka – wrestling with GPS equipment, developing data collection details, and data management for me, research design and myriad other details for Lauren, and food, equipment, and camp logistics for Odin and Kate. Plus some training and meetings for us all.

Odin and I, bunkhouse buddies, have spent a lot of time together over the past few days. He is about to start a Master’s degree in Siberian cultural studies, having traveled to Siberia a couple of times on research projects. Raised in Juneau, Odin provides the team with Alaska street cred. I particularly enjoy his colloquialisms – a garbage bag is the Southeast Samsonite (after the luggage company), and he regularly calls garbage bags Samonsites. XtraTuffs, rubber boots that are the footwear of any reputable Southeast Alaskan and incredibly functional in the perpetual rain and drizzle of this part of the world, are the Juneau Tennies. I now own a pair, and they are function and style sublime.

I got to spend some time at the shooting range with the .44 magnum handgun and .338-caliber rifle we will be taking into the field with us as a last resort for grizzly bear protection. Nearly all of our bear-prep efforts are going into bear avoidance and conflict mitigation – keeping a meticulously clean campsite, making noise wherever we go, and interpreting bear actions to know how to act to alleviate difficult encounters. It sounds like there will be a lot of bears where we are headed, a density of around one per square mile, and encounters are inevitable if not common. I will consider my work complete when I see a big grizzly bear scratching his back on a tree.

Tomorrow morning we begin. It was easy to lose sight of the field experience when we have all been so focused on completing preparation tasks. I think we are all excited – we are well prepared, we have a solid research plan, and we will have a breathtaking backdrop in the Chichagof Wilderness. Wish us luck!