Thursday, December 4, 2014

A month? Already?!

Actually, we've been here well over a month. We were really excited to come back to Florida, for many reasons - not the least of which being that since it is our second season here, we don't have to work as hard at learning everything. Then, we got here...

…and found out that one of our supervisors, who moved to a new place last May or June, has not yet been replaced. And our boss is interim for her boss, so not around our office much. So the supervisor for the other environmental education site is doing three jobs – and we’re helping out. Thank GOD we are nearly all returning this year. Less pressure to learn the ropes and do extra work all at once.

The situation should be remedied by January, so this is temporary, of course. It’s busy now, but we’re still basically keeping up with it all. We even have camp nearly ready to go.

Setting up tents. It only looks tough – once they’re up, they’re up for the season, so we’re golden now!
This requires some flexibility and dexterity – but I’m not talking figuratively, I’m talking literally. This guy greeted me as I was getting out of the car to close the gate to camp. Reflexes and dexterity are all that saved my life.

Ha! He didn't rattle, so we’re good.

Really, though, we've been finding plenty of time to have fun. One thing I like about this job is that we have real evenings and real weekends, where we typically don’t have anything we have to do for work. (Imagine that, teachers? Crazy talk.) We have pretty cool parties, like our Halloween shindig.

Smurfette and Gargamel
Crazy cat lady and Virginia creeper
Indiana Jones and Medusa
Plain old crazy lady and... actually, I don't know. Researcher on a weekend?
We get out a good amount, taking full advantage of the kayak we bought on a whim last year. A lot of people who live down here have boats, although many are not fancy – but a fancy boat would get beached out here anyway.

Chillin' in the slough.

There are a few wild foods to forage, like cattails, although they aren't that calorically helpful – but that’s okay when you’re desperate.

We paddled hard on this particular trip, but it was often too shallow, so we would sometimes have to slog through the water and pull the boat. But it was lovely anyway.

Once we were back to the car, though, the siren song of laziness got us. Our car rack can only hold one boat (ours), so we tied our friend's canoe, on its wheely cart, to the car.

To make sure the boat didn't get damaged, or the boat didn't damage the car, they had to run alongside.

Very efficient, I tell you. No pulling wheely carts by hand for us!

Really, though, we’re here because this place is absolutely incredible. It isn't the place of mountain valleys and crazy tangled geology. It’s flat, and many say boring. But those who are willing to look deeper will see an incredible coexistence of ecosystems, with amazing adaptations of plants and animals for survival in this strange and wonderful place.

And it’s in the 70s all winter. That too.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The transients at home

Our visits home are always too short. Now that we have work during both the summer and winter seasons, we have start and end dates for each job that are pretty non-negotiable. With the way our seasons have been lining up the last couple of years, we only get two or three weeks between seasons. In that time, we need to move across country, so two or three weeks become one or two weeks of vacation time every six months. (This, of course, begs the question what would we do if we had “real” jobs with only two weeks’ vacation a year? Simple answer: we’d go nuts.) Since we live so far from home, vacation = visiting family and friends in Washington, which is wonderful, crazy, and all too short. Here’s a glimpse into our last not-quite-two-week trip home:

Days 1-4: Kate’s home with MomSig, where we went to a fruit festival at a local orchard (hippies! yay!), put in a new faucet for her kitchen sink, sat and drank coffee in her living room with cats on our laps, went to a yearly doctor’s appointment, visited our old college campus for entirely too short a time, and ate salmon (oh my god salmon) and lamb burgers. I am sadly very bad with using my camera at home, since it’s home, after all.

Days 5-8: Jeff’s home with MomPen and Wally, where we went pumpkin hunting,

had an early birthday party (read: excuse to get together) for Jeff that was well attended,

went walking in the dog park with our baby and her sister,

and ate mussels (oh my god mussels).

Day 9: MomSig came down to join us for our last day at MomPen’s (oh my god in-laws getting along), and ferried us down to Seattle for the last leg of the trip. She had discovered a Washington geology blog that she got me into, and it advertised a well-timed tour of building stones in Seattle (hey, man, that’s pretty awesome). We took a couple hours to wander downtown and see some pretty cool rocks, like a 3.5 billion year old gneiss – do any of you realize how old that is? MomSig posed with it to remind all of us how young she really is.

We proceeded on to Kate’s brother’s place, to make our semiannual pilgrimage to see Mi Chicharron and Moonface, our nephew and niece.

Jeff, of course, charmed the nephew, Mi Chicharron, who was even willing to walk barefoot in the rain to look at rainbows and pick flowers for him.

Good to know we still have the touch!

Days 10-12 were spent at our last landing place, friends Jeff and Katie (yes, Jeff and Katie, friends of Jeff and Kate – ah, generational names; can you imagine the groups of Aidens, Jadens, and Kaidens that will be gathering in 20 years?). To be honest, we don’t “do” much when we visit them, but we talk a lot.

And we get pinned down by really (really) heavy dogs.

We even got others to come to their place to visit, including a mutual friend and Jeff’s cousin. Ah, Washington.

Our final full day at home was dedicated to the other niece, nearly sister, who moved there after living with us in Stehekin for a summer. Small town to big city switch, no joke! She introduced me to a very rare thing – a store where I could imagine myself going for retail therapy.

And we all geeked out together at the Pacific Science Center.

Geeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeks! Yay!

And then we flew out, back to our car and our long drive. All I can say about the long drive is that it was well described by this:

This trip was made possible by the generosity and chauffer services of MomSig, MomPen, and Jeff and Katie Lanning, and by visits from and with people like you. You all have no idea how much you mean to us – this crazy, wonderful life is only possible with the anchor of home!

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Ecology of the Everglades

We're on the move again! We've just finished a summer in North Dakota (perhaps more on that later?), and are getting ready to head back to our Environmental Education jobs in the Everglades. Another winter in Florida sounds pretty good, especially since fall was falling in North Dakota just before we left... brrrrrr.

When we decided to take the job in the Everglades, many people oohed and aahed about how nice Florida in the winter would be. Friends told us of great places they've been - typically in the Keys, occasionally in the cities, but few mentioned how cool the Everglades themselves were. Since we were working in North Cascades National Park at the time, we met many “park people,” folks who travel to see parks, people who have generally been to way more parks than I have. Reactions of the park people were mixed, and although some thought the Everglades were cool, many changed the subject by commenting on how gorgeous Stehekin is.

Well, yeah.

One gentleman said he was from Miami, and hated the Everglades, Ugly, he said. Why would you ever go there?

Jeff and I had been to the Everglades before, on a spring break trip while I was in graduate school. We knew that mostly, it looks pretty flat and unimpressive.
Flat, yes. Wet, too.

Depending on the time of year, you might see a different side of the Everglades, though.

Flat and dry.

Sooooo - we knew what people were hinting at. However, we also knew that the subtlety is there, and that there’s magic in the details. One of the biggest things we try to impress upon students when they visit us is how there’s actually a lot of variety in the Everglades. Go out into the swamp and see a cypress dome from the inside - it’s like a cathedral in there.

A little farther down, the water gets brackish, and the mangroves take over - which are a place unlike any other.

Not to mention Florida Bay, of course - but that’s dangerously close to the Keys.

Beautiful, though.

But the Everglades are not all water. Six inches of elevation change makes a perennially dry area, which is why this spot is important enough to be marked:

Don’t laugh. It’s actually an important break between waterways. Actually - go ahead and laugh. But it’s still important.

One of the most important habitats in the Everglades, or at least one of the most endangered, is the Pine Rocklands. Because it is dry, it has been built up into cities. Only 13% of the original Pine Rocklands survives, and 11% of that is in the Everglades National Park. On first glance, they’re kind of scraggly.

But they’re one of the most biologically diverse habitats out there, supporting everything from exotic plants to the endangered Florida panther.

So, if you came to visit our workplace, you might think the National Park Service has gone crazy. First, you might notice this:

Burn, baby burn!

Just before we left the Everglades for the season, the Park Service conducted a prescribed burn on a section of pinelands near our office. One day, lots of plants and greenery (although it was dry enough to be brownery by that time); the next, DEVISTATION.

But the crazy thing is, one week later, the green was coming back!

Florida can be very jungle-like - stuff just won’t die.

Even the trees won’t die:

Turns out, the South Florida Slash Pine is well adapted to fire, having bark that protects the inner wood, and needles that are up high so quick understory fires can’t kill the trees by burning their green bits. The way to keep the fires that go through quick and understory, though, is to regularly burn the pinelands. The official quoted figure is that fires should go through the area every two to seven years. Yowza!

The craziest thing you’ll see near our office, though, is not so much the burn, but the complete destruction by big equipment of large swaths of forest.

No joke - the Park Service is mowing down areas of the forest and scraping every last bit of dirt off the ground.


The backstory: This area, called “Hole in the Donut,” was a strange hold-out when the park was created in 1947. The land was considered too productive of farmland to add to the national park, but everything around it became parkland. The maps back in the day show a hole - the Hole in the Donut - of farmland. Over time, it became less profitable, and was finally sold to the park service in 1975. Now, the area is covered in good, thick topsoil, which is not native to the area - pinelands are characterized by their thin, acidic dirt. Seems great, but the thick topsoil allows non-native plants to take hold and out compete the slash pine and other native plants. Instead of the open, scrubby pinelands, the area is now a tangle of Brazilian Pepper, an invasive species that chokes out everything else.

Pulling out the pepper in Hole-in-the-Donut doesn’t help in the long run, since the seeds will still be hiding in the thick topsoil. The only option that has really worked is scraping off the topsoil and pepper.

After that, the Park Service mostly leaves it alone. They spot-treat pepper if it starts popping up, but the hope is that with time, natural pinelands will return. After all, it’s about the only thing that can survive in the dry, thin-soil environment.

The scraping we saw being done was not the first section to be scraped. Another section was done about a year ago, and already has some native plants gaining a foothold.

It's not gorgeous, but it's a start.

Perhaps, after these scraping projects are complete, the 13% of pinelands will be increased, the panther will have more habitat, and the views on our way to the office will be more natural.

As we prepare for our next season in the Everglades, we're pretty excited about working in such a subtle, fascinating place. We really are lucky to be able to live and work in so many incredible places.

Monday, July 21, 2014

North Dakota AHOY!

Ugh - we've been awful at blogging. Sorry! We've been working very hard, and I finally got a moment to write something up, so I figured I'd answer the question that is on so many minds...

Why did we come here to North Dakota, anyway? I mean, besides the obvious draw of the great history of Theodore Roosevelt’s pre-presidency adventures here.

That wasn't much of a draw for us non-historians, although we have been happily surprised at how much fun it is to learn and teach about TR.

There were, of course, many things that did draw us here. The scenery is gorgeous:

And, as I was informed by a colleague who tried to sell us on the area, there are bison.

There are bison everywhere, as it happens. We have lots in the park - so many that they will have to do a round up this fall to pull some out of the herd. There are bison on the road…

….and around the visitor center…

…and in the campgrounds…

….and on the trails…

Notice that the bison in the picture above is scratching his belly on a trail post. They do that a lot, which makes it challenging to mark the trails, because they tend to rub signage off:

Jeff is drawn by the birds, and I’m drawn by the geology:

Our park has a particularly fun area  - the petrified forest:

The area used to be covered in Everglades-like sloughs and cypress swamps, but would get occasionally covered in ash (most notably from eruptions of the Yellowstone caldera), which left us with lots of petrified trees and fossils. Not too many hours south is a totally different geologic wonder, the Black Hills, where I got to play with huge amounts of mica for the first time in my life.

Hey, man, whatever floats your boat.

We do get out some on our weekends. We’re close enough to the Black Hills, Bismarck and Knife River Indian Villages, Devils Tower, and quite a few pretty awesome state parks in Montana:

But, of course, we are working our tushies off.

Jeff in particular is working on getting public awareness of the impacts of fracking (hydraulic fracturing, a technique for oil drilling) on the park.

But we do plenty of playing, too. We’re in a very close communal living situation - it’s hard to find non-government housing in the area because of the oil boom and its huge pressure on local communities - so we have quite a few parties. Nicaraguan style tortilla making comes to North Dakota!

We’re already about in the middle of the season here, which is wild - we’re just getting comfortable with our programs! But we found out that we will be returning to the Everglades for another winter of environmental education, so we may have more time for blogging (and sewing, and playing music, and beading, and photography, and fishing, and kayaking, and hiking, and…) this time since we won’t be starting from scratch on our jobs. We will likely have a two-bedroom apartment there again, so if anyone is looking for an Everglades vacation this winter, give us a buzz!