Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What do a bunch of Sierra Club folks do after a week of hard work?

Well, we clean the lodge. And then we go hiking, of course!
There were some old structures, now abandoned, up in the Baboqivari mountains. These stone walls were everywhere and I can't imagine the work that went into them.
This shed had a door but the lock was open.
Impossible to resist, we had to see what was inside.
Next to the stone shed was a cattle pen with rusting mystery equipment.
There were five of us on this hike - three in their 70's and two of us youngsters. Seriously, I have to love a group where I feel absurdly young. In fact, one of the men in our group responded to something I'd said with, "You're a good kid."
This stand of sycamores by the creek looked ghost-like to me.
But the smooth bark was a rarity - most plants have spines.
Brown's Canyon is what is called a "sky island" - one of a series of ecosystems isolated from others by altitude so that it houses unique species.

Our goal was the arch - a 47-foot natural bridge with a creek and pool running through it.
As I stood under the arch next to the water, I said, "You know, this would be a great place to camp. You could put your sleeping bag ri... are those bones?!" Yes they were - deer bones. As it happens, there is a mountain lion who also thinks it's a great place to camp.
Normally you are only allowed to go up to the arch as part of a guided tour but as Refuge volunteers, we had free range. This meant we were the only group out for a hike.
We walked back past this old farmstead.  It's pretty dilapidated inside, but I bet it would have been an interesting place to live. You'd have to be comfortable with isolation, though.
Baboquivari Peak in the evening light. I took this photo standing behind the lodge. I can see why the Tohono O'odham felt it was a sacred place.
I came away from the week with a new set of role models for how to age right. They were a friendly, hard-working bunch who also knew how to have fun. I can't say that the desert is for me, but the trip - the work, the interesting new scenery, and especially the people with me - was absolutely worth it.

Monday, March 2, 2015

And then more work.

Thursday of that week we got to choose a project - more fence-clearing or working on the flight pens. The latter task sounded like gardening so I picked it. I didn't think about the expected high of 81 degrees or the utter lack of shade. I'm going to admit up front I chose wrong.
The Refuge is working to reintroduce an endangered species of quail, the masked bobwhite. Nearly extinct in the 1960's, the remaining birds were taken into captivity in an effort to preserve the species. Some exist in the wild now and there is a breeding population on the refuge (17 of them) being kept in small cages. The idea was to clear out these larger pens so they could breed in more natural conditions. We were facing 16,000 square feet of brush in the cages, some of it taller than we were, in hard-packed dirt.
There were old eggs still in the nesting areas. One of the volunteers had one explode on her. I'm told it wasn't pleasant.
The brush had to be chopped with a hoe and then raked. As we were dragging some brush clear, a mouse with several babies still clinging to her ran toward the stick tipi where the birds nest. The babies dropped off and the mama mouse squeaked anxiously from the shelter. That wouldn't do. I caught the shivering babies and transferred them into the shelter in the hopes that their mother would collect them.
I also found this spiny lizard, who was sluggish in the cool morning. I put him in a safe place, too.
It didn't stay cool long, however, and our small group was tired by noon. Even water breaks were in the full sun. Add to that lung-choking dust, prickly brush and an endless supply of cockle burrs stuck in our clothes.
At lunch we went back to the Visitor's Center for a bit. I took a walk along the original fence of the old cattle ranch that was bought by the Refuge in the 80's. My main goal for the walk was to have a chance to make a phone call and whine about the exhausting work. Okay, it might not have been my finest moment.
I went into the Visitor's center to ask one of the naturalists about the quails we were dong all this work for. He offered to take us to see some of the older quails they have penned separately. These ailing quails weren't expected to live long, so they are being allowed to live outdoors to mimic natural conditions. Seems to have perked them up because apparently there is a little breeding going on. Here a couple of bobwhites the naturalist lured out of their shelter with some seed.
We got four pens cleared that first day and I was more than ready for a shower and dinner when we got back. Our leader had brought cases of wine for nightly wine tastings. All reds from Napa and Sonoma. She was a bit of a wine snob, so all good vintages, each with a story. One night she made us say what we'd been doing the year the wine was bottled before we could taste it. For 2006, I said, "That was the year my marriage was wrapping up." She clinked my glass and said, "Here's to the intervening years."
A group of us sat for a while with our glasses of wine watching the sun set over the canyon. I have to say that the conversation with this group was often lively. While rolling barbed wire with one of the older women, for instance, we started talking about past relationships. At one point she laughed and said, "I have NEVER slept with a Republican and now I'm starting to question your judgment!"
On Friday the entire crew went back to finish up. Raking, hoeing, dragging brush by the armful - truck load after truck load hauled away. It was slightly overcast so the work was a little more enjoyable.
We collected up rocks in the pen and used them to ring the water pools.
A pen that has just been cleared. The shorter green vegetation was left, but everything else had to go. We were absolutely determined to finish them all before we left. After we'd cleared the last flight pen, we stood for a moment to survey our work. The naturalist in charge of the breeding program was a little choked up as he expressed his amazement over how much we'd accomplished in two days. It was good to know that it wasn't just busy work and I love the idea of the bobwhites relocated from their cramped cages into these huge pens. The plan had been to return to the visitor's center to eat a late lunch, but the five of us who had ridden in with the assistant leader decided we'd rather head back to the lodge. We were trying to get him to spill information about that evening's plans and he just shook his head in his affable way and stayed quiet as he drove carefully along the rough road. Since I was in the middle of the front seat, the others told me to "use your feminine wiles on him." I leaned my head on his shoulder and said, "Come one, tell us, pleeeeease." He said, "Get off me, girl! (and then glancing at the speedometer) "Oh my god, I just got up to 70...(turning to look at me) and it's only been a week!" We all laughed heartily at this. So I don't have invisibility, x-ray vision or flight. My superpower is apparently "feminine wiles."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

We did get some sight-seeing in.

Like visiting an abandoned vineyard that is on the Refuge's property. The vines are now blackened and dead, which just seems sad to me.
There were mysterious stone circles at the vineyard, many with in-laid designs. This was my favorite - it looks like the bird is dancing. The group leaders made a point of taking us to see something interesting every day and providing good food and wine every night. On only one night was the vegetarian option a bit of a disappointment. I happened to be sitting across from one of the other women not eating the roast and when I saw jello on her friend's plate, I asked fearfully if jello was the dessert. She started giggling because she said I looked like I'd just discovered there was no Santa Claus. I started giggling because she was and we soon were laughing so helplessly that we were distracting from that night's presentation and had to stagger out of the lodge. You know the kind of laughter where just when you've managed to get yourself under control, it starts up again? That kind. The middle schooler in me never grows up.
After two full days of work, we got Wednesday on our own. I teamed up with a couple of people to go visit the Sonoran Desert museum. It's really more of a zoo and botanical garden, featuring native plants and animals. Which means plenty o' cacti!
The fishhook barrel cactus. Like the prickly pear, its fruit can be used for candy and jelly. We were sent home with a little jar of prickly pear jelly, in fact, at the end of our trip. It is sweet and reminded me a little of quince jelly.
Agave, the plant used to make tequila, is everywhere. Also called century plant, it doesn't flower until the end of its long lifespan. Then it sends up a tall asparagus-like stalk (foreground) that dries out as the plant begins to die (background).
There were also animals in enclosed spaces. Wolves, bobcats, prairie dogs and so on. Near the javelina enclosure a woman told us that you could hardly see the javelinas head on because they were so thin. She made point of saying this several times. And so we had to laugh when we finally saw them- they were actually sizable creatures and not easy to miss. She described them as if they might be like flounders seen on end. We have coyotes where I live, but I rarely see them. Here, in addition to seeing them at the museum, I saw them a couple of times crossing the road. Aside from coyotes, the only other big animals I saw in the wild were mule deer and pronghorn antelopes.
I was especially taken with the saguaros. I learned that woodpeckers make the holes in them and that later other birds, like tiny elf owls, use them as nests. Saguaros grow very slowly - only an inch or so their first year - and straight up until they are between 50 and 100 years old, and then some develop their arms. They typically live to be 150-175 years old, and get as tall as 50 feet high.
After walking around the Desert Museum, we headed up to Kitt Peak to see the Observatory. It is located on the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, and Kitt Peak is the second most sacred spot in that culture next to Baboquivari Peak. (One of the local volunteers who worked with us was telling me about the Tohono O'odham and I asked if he could spell it. He smiled and said, "Nope.") The national observatory worked with the tribal elders to set things up in a way that would respect their ancestral lands, and Native Americans are given preference for jobs there.
This mural-covered stone was made the same weight and dimensions of the 4-meter lens in the largest telescope so it could be used as a surrogate in building during the three years it took to make and polish the glass lens.
We took the walking tour up to the 4-meter telescope, which overlooks the valley. Our guide stopped several times claiming it was to point out various sights. Judging from his labored breathing, however, he might want to take this walk a little more frequently.
I was a little baffled by the sign since there didn't appear to be anything remotely resembling a sidewalk. On there other hand, there wasn't exactly any through traffic, so we only had to move aside for cars a couple of times.
There was more than just the one telescope - 26, in fact. The world's largest collection of them.
And then back to the outpost to park cars that couldn't make it up the rugged road to the garage. The raised hoods? That's to discourage pack rats from thinking they've found a new burrow and chewing up the wires in the engine. Because everything living in the desert is out to cause problems.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Okay, so I said I'd blog about this trip. But I'm going to have to break it into sections.

Honestly, as I rode southward with some of the others who'd flown into Tucson, I looked at the desolate landscape and thought, "What have I done?" It probably didn't help that I was used to the lush green of my home. And it for sure didn't help that I was looking ahead at a long week more than 1500 miles away from my boyfriend. But all that I knew as I drove by the Baboquivari Mountains, it all seemed dead.
But I was here to volunteer at this refuge, 117,500 protected acres stretching down to the border of Mexico. So I listened to the warning about gila monsters, javelinas, tarantulas, rattle snakes, drug smugglers and plants with spines that would have to be removed with pliers... and signed the papers to make me a Fish and Wildlife Services volunteer anyway.
And then we made the hour-long drive up into Brown's Canyon to our lodge. I'd texted my boyfriend earlier that we could talk on the phone before bed. Partway up the mountain, there was a beep from the cell phone of the local volunteer driving some of us to the lodge. He said, "Oh, there's my phone letting me know we're now out of cell range." I looked absently out the window for a minute and then - "Wait, what?!" That's right - not just no wifi, but no cell service at all at the lodge.
When I got there, the leader consulted her list and said, "You're in the coati room." I walked upstairs muttering, "What the hell's a coati?" Turns out it's a raccoon-like thing.
My roommate was a 74-year-old woman from Vancouver. I discovered she was a freaking work horse in addition to being very nice. In fact, it was an older crowd in general, many of whom were retired. The oldest was 81 and there were six in their 70's. Four of us in our early 50's anchoring down the other end, and the rest in their mid-60's.
For some reason, there was a stuffed jaguar downstairs. I actually sat with this thing just over my shoulder for about 20 minutes without even noticing it. Probably doesn't bode well for my chances of surviving in the wild.
But the place was starting to look a little more beautiful.
The next morning we started on our first day of work. We were here for this barbed wire. Miles of it, impeding the roaming of the pronghorn antelopes, who apparently spend much of their time singing, "Don't fence me in."
We hiked into the refuge and dropped our packs under a tree so we could carry the wire clippers and shovels further out into the field. I was glad for the shade when it was time for us to eat our lunches.
We spent two days cutting down barbed wire and uprooting the metal posts and hauling them back over rough terrain.
Up and down hills, under the scrubby branches of the mesquite and past the treacherous cacti that were everywhere.
And when I say treacherous, I mean those things had evil on their little succulent minds.
All of us ended with scratches and little puncture wounds from the rusting wire. I did a quick count backward and realized with some relief that I was still under the ten-year mark for my last tetanus shot. On the walk over the higher areas I was able to get a signal, so I shifted the rolls of wire to one arm and made a call. Later one of the other woman said they'd passed me and asked each other, "Is she talking on the phone?" Well, yes, yes I was. It was urgent. I was pining.
Browns and tans as far as the eye could see. While my home was being blanketed with snow, we were working in the sun, in 70-80 degree weather.
This is one day's haul. The bikes are often found abandoned, we were told, by people crossing the border into the US. And part of the time, we were only a mile from the edge of Mexico.
We took a quick trip to see the post -9/11 fence. A rather creepy (and insanely expensive) structure that does nothing whatsoever to solve the problem of illegal immigration. It does, however, impede the movement of various migratory species and also involves the abolishment of environmental protections in a 100-mile wide swath along the border. Your tax dollars at work.