Monday, March 23, 2009

The Missing Volcano

How does a 15 mile wide, 8000 foot high, volcano simply disappear? Well, no prize for a correct answer. According to modern physics, its mass couldn’t really just cease to exist. Not even for Siegfried and Roy. But what about for Mother Nature? Extreme geological forces and plate tectonics can come close to approximating such a massive parlor trick. If that volcano is situated along the San Andreas Fault some 23 million years ago, it could be subjected to ancient plate movements that could render its imposing structure into a discrete collection of jagged rock formations, ripping it apart and relocating 75% its mass 195 miles north as though it were some gigantic house of cards. That’s a pretty good brief synopsis of what happened to create the curious collection of rocky peaks and spires known to us today as Pinnacles National Monument. Since then wind and water erosion have played their role in sculpting the rock.

Pinnacles was officially protected as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps established and constructed trails, built bridges and tunnels, and the dam at Bear Gulch. Many of these original structures are still in good repair and in use today. This site is also critical habitat for a variety of animal and plant species. Among them are several species of bats, the endangered California red-legged frog, and over 400 species of bees (yes 400!). But Pinnacles is most notable because it is a natural nesting area, and was an important release site for the California condor. The great condors were very nearly extinct until literally brought back from the brink.

From the book Return of the Condor by John Moir:

“Down to only 22 individuals in the 1980s, the condor owes its survival and recovery to a remarkable team of scientists who flouted conventional wisdom and pursued the most controversial means to save it. Conservationists and scientists have fought what at times has seemed a quixotic battle to save the species. Theirs is a story of passion, courage, and bitter controversy, one that created a national debate over how to save America’s largest bird.”

This preserve is very popular for picnicking, camping, hiking, exploring, and rock climbing. This terrain is very hot and dry in summer, but with the coming of spring are brilliant displays of wild flowers, breathtaking views, and expansive green hills in all directions, making this the most popular season for a visit. For this hike we used a route that is roughly opposite of the way we normally do it, beginning at the Bear Gulch day use area on the east side and hiking up the high peaks trail. There were various groups camping in the park this weekend, probably boy scouts. I’m sure this route allowed us to miss a lot of foot traffic. Instead we would run into the other groups on our way around, but miss them otherwise. Weather was overcast and cold in the morning, but some sunshine fought its way through later. Buy the time we were leaving it was raining. Lots of wildflowers are beginning to show but still not in full bloom. The next few weeks will surely bring a flourish of life and delicate color. We spotted some California condors sitting atop the high peaks far away from the trail access, but as patient as we were, they would not take flight. We got a few pictures from a great distance.

This spectacular landscape here never fails to arouse the “awesome nature” vibe for me. The sweeping green vistas, intricate colorful shapes, sheer canyons, and the mysterious tortured character of the rock spires and crags, all harmonize well to inspire and uplift the spirit of the wanderer. It’s the type of place that can evoke a realization of the smallness of oneself amid the totality of the universe, and a sense of reverence for the natural world. For the seeker of wonderment, this isn’t just a hike. It’s more akin to a cosmic experience. You can browse my photo links below.

I have lots of photos:

Click here to see my photos from this hike
Click here to see Dave's photos from this hike with a topo map
Click here to see my Pinnacles photos from 2007
Click here to see photos from Chalone Peak in 2007

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Water Conservation Tips & Update

Since I last posted on this, we’ve been refining our techniques for saving water around the house, so I decided to provide an update to my previous post entitled Low-Tech Grey Water. Since then, Sue took the initiative to ask for a free water audit to see if we could get any better ideas. The water audit is offered free of charge by our local water district, as well as the San Jose Water Company. It’s totally voluntary. They conduct a house call to review your water usage, inspect your fixtures, and suggest ways for you to reduce your consumption. We got some good information from this. Turns out, the water expert was surprised to see our dishpan-&-bucket technique that I described in my grey water post. He had never seen that before. He told us the water company could not recommend such a technique officially, but encouraged us to do so on our blog. He thought it may not work very well for older toilets. Our upstairs toilet was identified as a 1.6 gallon flush. I had not realized it was that efficient. Therefore my previous estimations of how much water we’re actually saving were overestimated, but only because we were wasting less than I had thought. Our downstairs toilet is the original unit from when the house was built almost 30 years ago and is a 4.0 gallon flush. We have quit using it for now, and plan to replace it, but the bucket flush technique does work on that one too. We never pour water into the tank, only into the bowl. Gravity does the rest. As suggested by the water guy, I made a quick video of my wife Sue demonstrating this technique. We also got a free inspection. We have no leaks, drips, or errors. All of our fixtures are in good shape, efficient, and low flow. Except that old toilet, but we knew that. I would recommend the free a water audit for all households, especially in California where we have an official water emergency which will probably drive up the price of fresh produce nationwide.

Another change we adopted since that last post is that we now save 2 different types of water. We save grey water for flushing the toilet. But grey water could include soapy residue. I recently discovered that I could save about 5 gallons of grey water by showering with the drain stopped. I then bail the soapy bath water out with the dishpan. But that water could be harmful for plants. As would be any collected grey water that contains soapy residue. It’s ok for the garden water to have some compostable particles, but not chemicals like those present in soap. I will next look for some inexpensive biodegradable soap, but in the meantime, we use a different bucket colored orange for “garden water” along with the white buckets for “grey water”. All this bailing is a lot of extra effort, but we both agree it’s worth it. We are doing everything we can to support water conservation, and energy conservation, in the home. And we encourage others to do the same. This saves some money too. Click on the play button on the image below to check out the video. Notice how Sue pours more water into the bowl after the flush to prevent water from filling back from the tank.

Click here for the Santa Clara Valley Water district home page
Click here for the San Jose Water Company home page

Not Quite Spring

We have been hiking the last two weeks, but I haven’t sat down to post on any of it because I don’t always have time to burn sitting around on my derriere. Sometimes I find the computer a little confining, and don’t even turn it on. And occasionally my wife kicks me off to get some real work done.

We hiked at Sierra Azul a week ago just as a gas saver. This was also good training hike for Sue as she gets back into hiking shape after some layoff to take a class. We started in Lexington County Park, and were able to get a good visual update on the reservoir there. It seems like only yesterday that we could see the old Alma bridge still lying there at the bottom like a ghost. Normally that old 20s era concrete bridge is submerged deep under the surface of the reservoir. Officially we are now at over 90% of normal rainfall, even thought the reservoir still looks quite low. The water also looks especially brownish and muddy as though there were a lot more silt and erosion present than usual. It’s going to be a long recovery, plus I don’t think the seismic retrofit of the dam is completed. They may need to drain it again.

The morning was unexpectedly cold, 36 degrees by the thermometer in my car. We didn’t get any sun until much later. Subtle signs of the approaching spring season are noticeable, but I wouldn’t say blooming. We saw some Indian warrior, and scarce displays of other fledgling early season wild flowers like filaree, buttercups, and milk maids. But nothing to get excited about. Great views are still available there before the sunny season brings more smoggy air to the south bay. The photo at left shows the view toward Almaden valley. Mt Hamilton is obscured by clouds.

This week we went to Grant County Park. Again we got a very chilly day. There were a lot of low clouds obscuring the views, and the wind was cold and moist. We both kept our cold weather gear on all day. Without the sun, there wasn’t much chance of wild flowers occurring, but we still saw a few. Again, very modest, sparse, displays of violets, shooting stars, hound’s tongue, and checker bloom. We got the opportunity to use the Washburn trail I had heard about from other bloggers. Our old maps show this route as private road, but now it’s part of the park. I heard it was killer steep, but we found that most of the trail is not bad. It has a few sections of killer steep trail, but they’re not very long. When we got to the highest point it was so windy, we enjoyed a quick view opportunity, and immediately began hiking down the other side just to get out of the chill. Better to keep moving. Later we had some fun by wildcatting straight up the side of antler point from the cabin site instead of meandering up the trail. This was Sue’s idea because we had a combination birthday party and wedding celebration to go to later that evening, and we needed to save time. But we just had some great fun doing it, by making it a little race.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Low-Tech Grey Water

Please check out this post by Adam Shake at Twighlight Earth. I invite you to watch the short video linked from The It is an interview with Eric Corey Freed about grey water utilization in green building. You may find it educational and inspiring as I did.

Due to the critical water situation in California this year the governor is now calling upon all households to voluntarily reduce water usage by 20%. The biggest impact of the drought will undoubtedly be in agriculture, and the products and jobs dependent on the federal water project for irrigation. The official announcement came from federal water officials February 20th, zero allocation for farmers. But it’s now becoming incumbent upon every individual to search hard for ways to save even more water in our daily lives. My wife and I have been working on saving water for years, but we recently began getting a lot more serious about it. We have been collecting clean water for plants, but there are more effective ways to go about saving more.

One of the best ways to reduce water usage in the home is to install some sort of “grey water” system. Grey water is water that has been used once already, but is still relatively clean. Grey water can be used for tasks that do not require clean fresh water, like flushing the toilet. There are already “green-tech” companies that manufacture grey water systems. One example I’ve heard of is the Aqus system by Watersaver Technologies. Installing a complete system like this is an easy and convenient way to collect and recycle grey water. This seems expensive however, even though it might be considered a good investment in the future value of a home. Especially expensive for households who are watching their spending in these difficult economic times. I’ve also read about some green bloggers that they intend to build such a system, but that seems like a big hassle, and a potential headache if it leaks, or clogs, or if something breaks. And the pump uses electrical energy.

My wife and I have begun to use our own completely low-tech solution that works just at well, but cost mere pennies in comparison, uses no energy, and requires absolutely no installation. If this seems kind of gross, I apologize, but we have become very serious about saving water. We recycle grey water using a system consisting of two 5-gallon paint buckets and 2 plastic dish pans. These things can be obtained for less than 15 dollars, provided that you don’t already have them lying around in the garage like ours were. We keep one set downstairs in the kitchen, and the other set upstairs in our main bathroom. We have stopped using our downstairs bathroom. We use the dish pans to catch water while washing up, shaving, warming up water for a shower, cleaning dishes, or anything else we would normally have to run water for. We then pour the used grey water into the bucket for storage. The grey water is then poured directly into the toilet bowl to flush it. This does work even though it may seem like a strange way to do things. We have not flushed the toilet using fresh water for weeks. We don’t know exactly how much water this is saving, but I would estimate that 6 to 10 flushes a day for a water saving toilet is still about 24 to 40 gallons a day. For an older toilet make that about 36 to 60 gallons a day. If we can do it, I'm betting anyone can do it.

Coastal greenbelt hiking

Winters in this part of California do not even closely approximate the harsh seasonal conditions that are characteristic of other parts of the country. Actually winter conditions here are, in their own way, nicer than summer. If you live here, and you love to hike, you have an all season activity that becomes a different experience depending on the time of year. I had been hiking by myself the last few weekends while my wife was taking a class, but now that she’s through with that, she’s anxious to rid herself of the cabin fever, and has returned to the trails with me. I was surprised when she told me that after not hiking for several weeks she thought it would be better for her to do something easy. I wouldn’t think someone would loose their “hiking legs” that quickly. Especially since she accompanies me to the health club every weekday evening barring unforeseen situations demanding of our time. She asked to avoid doing a lot of climbing. Ok, that’s a good enough reason to head for the coastal greenbelt system around Santa Cruz California.

My photoset includes pictures from my solo hike last week at Forest of Nisene Marks in Aptos. With rain threatening that day I wanted to get off the trail early, so I opted for a quick hike out to Maple Fall. That’s an easy climb, which would have been perfect for this week, but we decided instead on Pogonip, with a brief car shuttle over to Moore Creek Preserve.

The name Pogonip is of Shoshone origin. Literally it means “icy fog”, referring to the thick, bone chilling, coastal fog common to this location. The site still has remains of the 1850s era lime works owned by Henry Cowell. After Cowell’s death in 1903, his son Harry Cowell established Henry Cowell Big Trees Park in 1906 which included the tract that is now Pogonip. In 1911, Fred Swanton, founder of the original Santa Cruz boardwalk, negotiated a lease agreement with Harry Cowell to create the Casa del Rey Golf and Country Club on this tract. The famed club perched atop the hills above Santa Cruz, featured views of the ocean, and played host to many celebrities and social elite. Activities included golf, polo, tennis, swimming, and various equestrian events. The club endured financial woes during WWI, and eventually closed its doors in 1935.

Today Pogonip is part of the Santa Cruz public greenbelt, and features a trail system that meanders thorough beautiful open coastal meadows, several pretty riparian areas, and stands of thick woods, all situated right on the edge of town. This park also links with trails at UCSC, Henry Cowell park, and even Wilder Ranch State Park. The dilapidated club house is still there along with the remains of the old pool, tennis courts, and stables. Hiking there is easy, with very little elevation gain, and the park has one of the most well marked trail systems I know of. It’s one of the best country strolls you can have. In the springtime many of the grassy meadows with their gentle ocean breezes, and coastal views, seem to invite wanderers to toss down a blanket for a sit-down picnic. Right now acacias are blooming, and other subtle signs of the approaching spring flourish are beginning to show. I noticed some periwinkle (non-native but pretty), some hound’s tongue, and wild currant blooming. The hills are very green and wet.

After sauntering around Pogonip we headed over to Moore Creek Preserve to check out the expansive meadows and nice little creek trail there. This required us to use our car because there is no trail connection. This is also a great little short hike that’s perfect for drinking in the sea air. We spotted some kites hovering and hunting over the grasses. We also crossed paths with a rather large bobcat. As soon as it saw us it calmly scampered off into the brush seemingly confident in it’s superior speed and agility to any mere human. A really beautiful animal. I got some photos of the cat, but couldn’t manage the kites.

Here's a link to my photoset on flickr