Rick Shory

Offering a little something you might not otherwise have

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Alaska summer botany

This summer, I have the opportunity to do a couple months field botany in Alaska. It’s in the islands and inlets of Southeast Alaska. Before this, I had only worked on the tundra, north of the Brooks Range.

On the way to the tundra and back, I flew over vast stretches of Alaska, and looked down in wonder. These coastal islands intrigued me. Dense forests are great, sure, but it gets interesting when meadows are mixed in. From the air, I could tell; the coastal Alaska landscape had — something — mixed in. The forests seemed, well, threadbare. In places, I could see down between the trees. What was that? What gave them that texture of nappy velvet?

Coastal Alaska forest, from the air.


 When I got here, I found part of the answer was “muskeg”. There are areas where the forest just peters out. A few scattered trees grow, but overall it’s open. I suppose “meadow” would mean grass and flowers, while “swamp” you’d expect to suck you down. Muskeg you can walk across, but your boots generally make a wet sound. Come to think, your footsteps sound like “mus-keg mus-keg mus-keg …”.

You see a border of muskeg around a lake, where the water table is high. Trees are stunted and sparse because they can’t get their roots deep. But then you see muskeg on level ground where there is no particular lake, just an occasional shallow pond. And then you see muskeg on ridges, where there is no excuse for poor drainage, except the incessant rain can’t run off fast enough.

Small pond in muskeg. The red border on the far shore is sundew.

In interior Alaska, I was shown muskeg. The story was, it’s wet and sparsely treed because of permafrost. But there is no permafrost in southeast Alaska. So, what exactly is “muskeg”?

Let’s back up. What, say, is “forest”? In Alabama you have forest because, even though that latitude around the world is supposed to be desert, a quirk of climate patterns brings in moisture, and so trees grow. In the Cascade mountains of Oregon you have forest because, even on rocky slopes with no soil, the sodden clouds keep things watered, and so trees grow. In the sand hills of Nebraska you have a forest because somebody planted it. All forests, but not one tree species in common between them.

One of the two sundew species, this one is Drosera anglica.

The muskeg of interior Alaska is dwarf birch, cottongrass, and water sedge. The trees are mostly black spruce, many leaning drunkenly above their inadequate roots. Muskeg here in southeast Alaska is deer cabbage, bulrush, and sundew. The trees are the full suite of forest species, upright but dwarfed.

Deer cabbage, Nephrophyllidium crista-galli.

 There are warm sunny days when, incredibly, Alaska here reminds me of the deep South. In Dixie, there are areas of swampy poor soil and skimpy trees. If people in the South who first named landforms had known the word “muskeg”, they might well have applied it.

I never have got an exact definition of muskeg. Nobody can quite explain to me why it forms where it does. But one thing’s clear. People here kind of like muskeg. When you clamber from the tangled obstacle course of a forest out into muskeg, suddenly your stride relaxes, and you can walk. You can see a distance, and enjoy the view. Hunters like it because they can spot their quarry. People go there to pick berries, to gather herbs, to cut Christmas trees. There’s no problem with the wet walk because everybody here wears rubber boots.

Another aspect of why the forests here look threadbare is more sad. When I first arrived, and looked at the green hills backing the town of Ketchickan, I thought it was old growth forest. Scattered in with the rich green of live trees was the occasional silver of a dead one. Like grey hairs on a mature head. I assumed those trees had lived out their long lives and finally gone. And by extension, that the green trees with them were about as old and big as they could get, and would be naturally dying, a few at at time. I had seen this pattern in protected stands of old growth on the Olympic Peninsula.

But no, the Ketchikan locals said. All that forest was cut. So, why would trees grow healthy for decades, grow as tall as any of the others, and then die?

 The term is “cedar decline”. As it was explained to me, the dead trees are Alaska yellow cedar. This is a tree I knew from the mountains of Washington and Oregon. There, I would come across it at some thousands of feet elevation. I had always thought of yellow cedar as the hoary patriarch of the mountains; big trees, clinging to lofty crags. I assumed such a tree could withstand any winter.

Alaska yellow cedar, Cupressus nootkatensis, as it looks in the coastal forest.

 One thing I did not understand about plants for a long time is that their roots can be much less cold-hardy than their tops. The roots don’t have to be, because they are always insulated in the ground. Since roots never get that cold, they never evolved to survive deep cold. Evidently, this is especially so for yellow cedar. Not only do they depend on the normal insulation of the soil, but also a deep blanket of snow. Snow feels cold to us, but it actually keeps the temperature beneath it from dropping much below freezing.

 Formerly, the yellow cedars here always had a blanket of winter snow over their roots. Now, winters are warmer, and there may be no snow. A cold snap arrives. The cold freezes the open ground, and kills the cedar roots. And so Alaska yellow cedar is in decline. This is occurring at low elevations. The cedar at higher elevation, where there is still dependable snow, is safe for now.

 I suppose this is why yellow cedar is strictly a mountain tree in Washington and Oregon. It doesn’t get down to zero very often west of the Cascades, but there is nothing to keep it from happening. If it happens, even once, in the long life of a tree, the tree species does not continue.

 Whatever factors might make the forests here thin in places, there is still lots of thick. I quickly learned the trees.

 Sitka spruce. It’s easy to tell a spruce is a spruce. The cornflake bark. The sharp needles. The peggy needle bases along the twig. But, if you can’t see the cones and the needles and all, it can be tricky to tell different species of spruce apart. Often, the spruces here are tall, and hold all those clues out of reach. But I have it easy. Only one spruce. Sitka spruce.

Butterwort, Pinguicula vulgaris, a carnivorous plant rare in the lower 48, grows right in the gravel roads.

Cedar. I’m not sure I had ever seen western red cedar and Alaska yellow cedar growing together, but here they do all the time. I never thought I’d have any trouble telling them apart either! Red cedar has a distinctive formal look. The individual sprays along a limb repeat in almost mathematical similarity. Yellow cedar, in addition to being less regular, always has strongly downward-sweeping fine branchlets. Or so I thought!  The yellow cedar here is nothing like so weepy. Usually, I can tell red from yellow cedar at a glance, but every now and then there’s one where I have to go up close and look.

Sitka sedge, Carex sitchensis, is a striking wetland graminoid.

Hemlock. I suppose there must be some elevation range in the Cascades where the lowland western hemlock and the upland mountain hemlock mix. Here, it’s the whole forest. Usually, one is more prevalent than the other, but I have to look sharp. The forest may be mostly western hemlock. But, just to keep things interesting, there will be a tree festooned with the little stars of mountain hemlock.

Then, what’s missing.

Douglas fir. The most common tree west of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon is nowhere to be found here. From time to time, I keep thinking I see one, but I look close, and it’s always something else.

Asphodel, Triantha glutinosa, has leaves like an iris, but flowers very different.

True firs are rare. No grand fir. No subalpine fir. There are supposedly a few silver firs on another part of the island. If I ever find any more, the Powers that Be want to know. Pacific yew is so rare as to be the stuff of legend. If I ever find one, the Powers that Be really want to know.

Oval leaf huckleberry, Vaccinium ovalifolium.

In the forest, there is a tall understory and a short understory. The tall understory is mostly made of two kinds of huckleberry, both about head height, and hard to tell apart. The easiest way to distinguish is if they have berries: Vaccinum alaskense has dark purple-black berries, usually single, while V. ovalifolium berries have a blue bloom and tend to be in clusters. There is a lot of rusty menziesia, and occasional red huckleberry. Fortunately, none of these are prickly. For that, we have patches of devil’s club.

 When I was first on the job, I was out with the wildlife crew. They were looking for goshawks. Their protocol is to play a recording of a goshawk call, and see if a live bird responded. To assure they cover the terrain, they make calls from points in a grid, some hundreds of meters apart. At each point, they spend some time, making multiple calls, and writing down various observations. Then, beeline to the next point. Since I was traveling with them, it was up cliffs, and through swamps, never mind the thickets of fallen trees, and stands of devil’s club.

After I was on my own, however, I realized, since I am searching for rare plants, the more ground I cover, the more likely I am to find them. Therefore, a more rambling route. No need to slide straight down a bank. No reason not to skirt a swamp. And my rare plants are never never under devil’s club!

Eagles, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, are so common nobody remarks on them.

The short understory is made of bunchberry, strawberry bramble, and fernleaf goldthread, all only about 10 cm high. The forest ecologist mentioned that, where these are abundant, it’s good winter deer habitat. The deer paw through the snow to browse. I guess it’s a good sign that, in most places, these plants are ubiquitous.

In addition there are about five kinds of ferns. And skunk cabbage. In Oregon, skunk cabbage grows in swamps. Here, it’s so wet, skunk cabbage grows wherever it may please. On banks. In moss. Even, occasionally, in rock crevices. It does seem happiest in the muddy swales between the ridges. It is a way of gauging bears.

I walk through a patch of skunk cabbage, the big slick leaves squeaking at the brush of my boots. Here and there, in place of a plant, is a scatter of leaves around a hole. The bears dig up the roots and eat them. I am impressed. I assume that skunk cabbage, like everything else in the arum family, if full of raphides, microscopic needle-like crystals in the plant tissue.

When I was a teenager in the Midwest, there was this nasty trick kids would play on other kids. I never played it on anybody, but I told my good friend Dale about it. I showed him the plant, in that case jack-in-the-pulpit, a wild arum that grew in the woods. I dug away the soil enough to show the small tuber beneath. I took a tiny fingernail scratch off the tuber and had him carefully taste it. Notice that prickling on the tip of your tongue, I warned. if you were to dig up the tuber and try to eat it, it would taste sweet at first. But then your throat and tongue would start prickling and burning, as the needle-like crystals pierced your cells. It takes quite a while for the pain to fade.

Dale lived in a different neighborhood. The next time I visited him, the prank was making the rounds. Dale, always the trickster, had named the tubers “chew berries”. All the kids who had already had the prank played on them would conspire on the next victim, slyly convincing him how good a chew berry was going to be.

I don’t know if the bears here are immune to that prickling and burning, or just tough it out. But, in every patch of skunk cabbage, there are some dug up. If it was a long time ago, the detached leaves are pretty much composted into the ground, and new little sprouts are coming up from pieces of root left in the hole. There is every gradation of brown leaves, yellowed leaves, and leaves barely wilted, that tell you how recently the bear was here. If the leaves look very fresh and green, the bear could be right over there looking at you from behind a tree.

When I talk to people back home, they always ask, “Have you seen any bears?” Of course I see bears. Fortunately, I have only seen them when we drive around a corner and surprise one or two. They take off into the country as fast as they can go. I am long over the romance of seeing bears. I most definitely do not want to see bears when I’m out working in the woods. Usually, they take off into the country as fast as they can go, but you never know.

It would look really, really bad for the Forest Service to have an employee mauled by a bear. Thus, the protocol is never to work alone. What exactly is “alone”? In the bear training videos, the example is hikers marching together along a trail. When the bear appears, the humans step up side by side into a phalanx, bear-spray canisters at the ready.

Well, we are never anywhere near a trail. A good part of the work, such as wildlife and botany, is “a whole lot of nothing”. This means, we are looking for something, rare plants or animals, and the overwhelming majority of the time do not find it. The point of the work is to thoroughly document the rare thing is safely absent.

One of my rare plants, Platanthera orbiculata. I would surely recognize this distinctive leaf, but I never found it on the job (this photo from another district).

To do this with any kind of efficiency, we end up widely dispersed. How widely? In sight of each other? In earshot? Well, in reality it usually means within a couple miles, in radio contact.

This actually can work. An example illustrates why we humans have taken over the planet. One day, Ted, the wildlife biologist radioed, “We came down on a sow bear and half grown cub.” Later, he related in more gripping detail: Seeing the tall salmonberry bushes moving up ahead. The cub trying to climb a tree. The sketchy view, through the thick brush, of where the mother bear was. Mostly going by sound, and slight motions of trees. The tense moments of both sides feeling out what to do. The uneasy standoff till the bears decided to retreat. Summed up, on the radio, “She seems to be headed uphill, parallel to the P road, towards unit 854”.

Now, I had the same maps on my iPad.  In one second, I knew exactly where the encounter had taken place. In my mental geography, “unit 854” was bright orange.  If the bear shared any such concept, she probably knew it as an area of thicker timber. However, the “P road” had no physical existence. The term means “proposed road”. It was merely a dotted line on our maps, marked by at most a few strands of flagging. Yet it was real to us as a superhighway.

I was actually headed over to survey the P road. From this news about the bears, I angled to intersect the road at the other end. And so, we avoided the bears. However, suppose we had been a group of hunters who wanted those bears? Even with their superior senses, they would have stood little chance.

My whole summer has been like a trapeze act, for getting my work done. Some weeks, the wildlife people had work off on another part of the forest, so I clasped hands with the fisheries crew. They walked up streams, documenting salmon habitat while I surveyed the woods nearby. One week, though, all the other teams had commitments far away. At the last minute, it turned out the geologists were coming over from another district.

Our geologists

I enjoyed working with the geologists. They took routes through the forest similar to mine, but with a slightly different focus.

When I was looking at this job, the organizers had talked excitedly about “karst”. Karst means land underlain by minerals that dissolve, such a limestone. This can form features like pinnacles and caves. To get an idea, search for keywords “china karst images”. These landforms, as well as the chemistry of the minerals themselves, can give rise to interesting botany.

“We have karst here in the forest!” was the word. I pictured knobbly ridges poking out above the trees. Since this was Alaska, they would have long views out across the sea. I would be sent to these places. They would be a wonderland of rare herbs and flowers I had never seen before. Many years ago I came up with a term for this: “The heaven, and hell, of field botany”. Heaven, because of all the interesting new species. Hell, for exactly the same reason, identifying what all those species are!

Painted peak looks like karst, but is really a volcano.

From time to time, after I got here and was working on the forest, someone would refer to “that band of karst that runs through here”. They waved vaguely at the map. To me, the forest was all so thick and cliffy, I couldn’t tell the difference. Finally, I was going to be out with the geologists. I would get to see the karst!

Well, it turned out I had been back and forth across the karst already, numerous times, without knowing it. It didn’t look any different. Just tall trees. No views. The geologist had maps showing where it was. We went in there.

Since karst bedrock can dissolve out from underneath, a common feature is streams that disappear. One of the main things the geologist were looking for was these “ingresses”. Water is flowing down a course, and then finds it easier to go underground and follow one of the solution channels. The water re-emerges somewhere else as springs. If logging operations run over an ingress, they can clog it with sediment, and upset the hydrology of the springs. The geologists were marking no-cut buffers around the ingresses. This meant they had to find the ingresses.

Until recently, the main way to do this was simply to walk all the flow channels and look. But now they had a new tool: LIDAR maps that showed closed basins. It was amazing how well this worked. We targeted these areas of the forest. Following down a stream, we would typically come to land that had character of wetland edge. The geologist explained that during heavy rains, there might be standing water for a while, when it could not drain down the ingress fast enough. To my botanist eyes, it was like the suite of species I had got used to seeing where trees blew down and let more sunlight in to the forest floor: Merten’ sedge, star sedge, pioneer violet, enchanter’s nightshade, and various shrubs and grasses.

Star sedge, Carex echinata, typical of forest openings.

Eagerly, I sought for new flora. But the only unique thing I found was miners’ lettuce, Montia sibirica. In Washington and Oregon, this little herb is one of the most common understory species west of the Cascades. I found a bit of it in the marshy flow channels at two different karst ingresses, and I saw it nowhere else in all Alaska. So much for rare herbs and blossoms. And so much for sweeping views. Still, it’s sweet to work in the forest.

Cloudy view of Deer Mountain, over Ketchikan

One weekend in Ketchikan, I was waiting for the bus and got talking to a woman. When I mentioned I was working here as a botanist, she got kind of dreamy. “You mean, all you do is walk in the woods, and look at plants?” Well, then the bus came, before I could explain.

In a town the size of Ketchickan, the phone book is slim. If you live here, as you leaf through, you see people on every page you know. Well, the difference between being kind-of-into-plants, and being a field botanist is like that. Everywhere you go you see plants you know. But for the field work, you have to know every name in the book.

Folk art

I suppose every job gets to its limit. A couple weeks ago, once I knew all the plants, it was feeling like enough. Slogging through the wet woods, seeing the same old species. And never, never finding any of my rare plants.

But I had agreed to stay for the extension. From the original thirty days, to a total of sixty days. About three more weeks. I was ready for a change.

The word came down for a change. I was asked to switch from routine track-through-the-forest surveys, to instead checking rock pits for invasive species. The idea is, if there is going to be logging on the forests, they will need gravel for the roads. They may be taking this gravel from diggings developed decades ago. If invasive species have got into those rock pits, it could be bad news. Seeds and roots would be spread all through the forest.

The sweet-scented orchid Platanthera dilatata is almost as common as a weed.

So I have been doing this the last week or so, and it is rather more interesting. It took a while to figure out. You would think old rock pits would be obvious. The first time, I drove the whole south end of the island and didn’t see a single one. Then I got the GIS coordinates, and put the locations on my maps.

The first one I went to, I thought I still hadn’t found it. I parked along a road, and looked at the solid wall of trees. On faith, I walked in. I found myself in a grove of alders with a flat floor. Around the sides were the rock cuts into the hillsides. There were no invasive species. Nothing like that could live in the dense shade of the alders.

This has turned out to be rather typical. Many of the old rock pits, when I find them, are now alder woodlands. A good number of them have standing water. This, again, discourages most invasive species. There is some reed canarygrass, but there is far more along the road right-of-ways. After logging, the Forest Service planted this pestiferous grass for erosion control. I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Dwarf fireweed, Epilobium latifolium, can grow in rock crevices.

Some of the diggings are real quarries, with steep sides that harbor interesting cliff species. In one north-facing hollow, I came upon purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), a plant more typical of the high arctic.

Potentilla erecta, found once, never seen before or since.

Exploring old rock pits is kind of fun, but nothing in the way of invasive species alerts. Over the decades since the major logging, people have occasionally visited here. As with most National Forest, it is public land. However this area is only accessible by sea. People would have to get here by boat, and then travel the roads by whatever scooter or buggy they could bring on their boat. This typically happens in hunting season. The result is that any weeds, such as oxeye daisy, would be spread along the roads. But seldom would anyone have reason to go into the rock pits.

At one site, I stepped into the forest. While I stood setting up my data screens, a tiny animal, maybe a shrew, scurried out of the duff. It nosed my boots, walked around them, and slipped back into the undergrowth. All, so quick I never got a good look. But, that seemed a kind of welcome. Or at least unceremonial acknowledgement that I was now part of this world.

The obscure orchid Malaxis monophyllos. The distinction between var. brachypoda and var. monophyllos is whether that stalk twists 180 degrees or 360 degrees. Who’s to say?

One day, I had been to the far south end of the island, or at least as far as I could go. There were more rock pits on my map, but I couldn’t get to them. Roads were bermed off, and bridges over streams had been removed. I had spent a long day, probing down each branch of the road system till I got to the point of diminishing returns.

The past week of rainy weather had finally broken up. There had been sun breaks through the day, and now as I drove out, the afternoon was golden. I passed through shady forest, and out into muskeg, crossed creeks and skirted little lakes. All, surpassingly lovely, and peaceful. Through all this terrain, in the track of the road, mile after mile, were — toads.

I respect toads, and would not knowingly harm one. Their stolid little forms were no more apparent than chunks of road gravel, until they would move. Fortunately, something in their instinct told them to hop at right angles to the truck that was trundling down upon them. Pathetic little hops. Not the graceful leap of a frog. Only the inch-or-two jumps that toads can manage. They got the idea, though. Hop hop hop hop hop. And each one would be out of the road. I hope I didn’t squash any.

But, where had they all come from? Why, on this particular sun-splashed afternoon, were they suddenly there? I could not remember seeing even one toad in the forest, ever before. In the bigger picture, how had a little fresh water amphibian managed to get to an island all surrounded by deep salt water, and which had been so since the ice age glaciers melted?

Gentiana platypetala

In a few weeks I go home. I know how government bureaucracy works, and wonder if anybody will ever use my data. I never found any rare plants. I did not even find many invasive plants.

I did find one patch, of a really bad invasive species called orange hawkweed (Hieracium aurantiacum). It spreads by seeds, tracked on shoes and tires, and by blowing in the wind. It forms dense patches that spread, and persist, from underground runners. Once it gets into an area, it is almost impossible to eradicate. By far the best practice is prevention. Prevent the spread. The good news is, at this time, there is only one known patch on the entire south island road system. The bad news is, this is right where the Forest Service parks the trucks and four-wheelers, which then drive all over the forest.

I know how bureaucracy works. Probably, nobody will ever look at my data.

grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

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Growing grapes, part 1, propagation

Growing a few grape vines around your house is a different proposition than a commercial vineyard. Much of the information you will find is geared towards large-scale production. In this post, I am going to concentrate on backyard growing. There are significant differences in focus, both in propagation techniques, and in training the vines.

 You start a new grape vine from a “cutting”. A cutting is simply a section of grapevine. You get roots to grow from the bottom, and leaves to grow from the top, and then you have a new grape plant. Grapes will grow from seeds (except of course seedless grapes), but you’re not sure what you’re going to get. To propagate a certain variety, you want to use cuttings.

In grape growing, you prune off a considerable amount of vine each winter. This naturally provides material for cuttings. Most information about grape propagation is geared towards these winter cuttings, made from dormant, leafless vines. I’ll discuss these, but also alternatives.

To start a sizeable vineyard, a grower would, of course, be dealing with a great number of cuttings. The easiest way to get these is to section up the prunings from existing vines. So a lot of grape propagation information concerns the mass organization, storage, and rooting of these winter cuttings. On a backyard scale, however, not all these points apply.

To divide out a section of vine to make a cutting it takes, of course, two cuts. One is the lower cut, which will be the bottom of the cutting, where roots will grow. The other is the upper cut, the top of the cutting, from which the leaves will develop. In large scale propagation, it’s handy to be able to tell these ends apart at a glance, and so a tradition has come about: The lower cut is straight across the vine, just below a node. The upper cut is angled, just above another node. If you receive grape cuttings, they will usually be done this way. If you are dividing up grapevines to make your own, it’s a handy grammar. However, you don’t have to strictly follow this.

Cuttings are usually made with at least three nodes, such as the one on the left in the picture below. This gives nice strong cuttings.  You may be surprised how long three-node cutting are. You may have a hard time finding a place to store them. You may be bringing some home in your airline luggage. You may have difficulty digging a hole deep enough to plant them. So, if you are making cuttings, and length is a problem, you can make two-node cuttings, like the one in the middle of the picture. (Click on the picture to enlarge.)

Three grape cuttings, one with three nodes, one with two nodes, and one with four nodes.

Grape cuttings: 3-node, 2-node, and 4-node.

It’s fine to have more nodes, such as the four nodes of the cutting on the right.

I have had one-node cuttings grow, by accident. When I prune my grape vines in winter, I just chop up the small stuff with my pruners, and let it fall on the ground. Usually, a few pieces happen to land among the garden plants just right, and get watered just right, so that some time the following summer they start to grow. Roots come out below the node, and the node bud opens out into leaves. So, if one little section of grape twig is all you can get, you might be able to grow a vine from it.

single bud cutting showing roots

Even a one-bud cutting can grow

Commercial propagation consists of bundling up the grape cuttings for winter storage, and then getting them to grow in the spring. You may read about technique such as burying them in sawdust or sand, using rooting hormones, burying bundles upside down, and using bottom heat in a propagation bed. I’ll explain what these are about, and how they apply, or don’t, to home propagation.

The basic issue of storage is to keep the cuttings alive, and keep them from sprouting too soon. The main reason cuttings would die is from drying out, thus the burying in damp sawdust or sand. This is reasonable for large bundles, but there is no reason for you to go get these materials for only a few cuttings. You can just keep your cuttings in vegetable bags, like any other produce.

As I’ll describe later, you can start your cuttings growing in the winter. But then you are faced with the problem of keeping the plants healthy until spring when they can go outdoors. So, unless you particularly want to do this, you should keep cuttings cold, so they stay dormant. If you have only a few cuttings, you can keep them in your refrigerator. For more, you can store them outside.

Freezing is not particularly a problem for grape cuttings. Any variety you are planning to grow, which is hardy in your climate, can stand up to your winter temperatures. However, in continental climates, winter weather is often very dry. Therefore, grape cuttings left out on the open ground can dry out. A convenient way to both avoid this, and keep the cuttings organized, is to slip them into plastic vegetable bags, and tuck these under a few inches of dead leaves or other mulch. In a mild, wet-winter climate like the Pacific coast, you don’t even need to bury them. Grape cuttings may be too long for a single bag. You can use two bags, one “telescoped” inside the other.

grape cuttings in plastic bags, showing that if cuttings are too long for one bag, you can use two bags, one overlapping the other.

Bags for long cuttings, one overlapping the other.

If you have plenty of cuttings available, the easiest way to start a grapevine is simply to plant a number of cuttings close together where you want your vine.

eight grape cuttings planted close together

Grape cuttings planted

Here, I put eight cuttings close together. This was in early March, but you can do it any time in winter the ground is not frozen. I did not use any rooting hormone, or other treatment. The ground was so stony, I could not plant all of them as deep as ideal, which would have been with only the tip above ground.

Still, six of the eight cuttings grew. This picture is from the following December.

the same eight grape cuttings the following fall

Grape cuttings after a season’s growth

The point of this technique is that, even though some of the cuttings die, you still get a grapevine going. Just pull out the dead ones and the extras, and leave the strongest. If you have lots of cuttings, which you will if you have an existing grapevine, or know someone who does, this is by far the easiest way to start a new one.

Incidentally, there does not seem to be any pattern to which cuttings take hold. In this case, the two that died, out of the eight originally planted, looked just as strong and promising as the ones that grew.

the two cuttings that died, of the eight originally planted

The two cuttings that died

This multi-cutting method does not, of course, make sense for a large-scale planting. For that, you want to be pretty sure each cutting will grow, so you can line them out in rows and end up with a vineyard. From cuttings just stuck in the ground, I have always had more than 50% grow, typically 75%. But that’s nowhere near good enough for commercial production.  Filling in 25% gaps would be a lot of effort. It would be almost as much work to take out the extras, from mutliple cutting planted at each spot.

The propagation techniques you come across in the grape literature are all about increasing the odds per cutting, so you get one grape vine from each thing you plant.  For home-propagating a few vines, these techniques may not apply. If you have lots of cuttings, you can get away with a low per-cutting success rate.

But what if you have got ahold of only one precious cutting, which you absolutely must make grow? Maybe you had to pay a lot for it, or it was all the source could spare. Maybe it came from halfway around the world, and you will never be able to get another. I stumbled on a simple, inexpensive technique that, for me, has given 100% success: Root them in water.

Nowhere in all the propagation literature had I ever heard of rooting grape cuttings in water, but it works quite well. It allows you to carefully monitor progress, as well as being interesting to watch. It would be far too much fuss for mass production, but it’s ideal for a few.

grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Grape cuttings, rooting in jars of water

Just put your cuttings in jars that have some water. Change the water if it gets too murky. Because there is plenty of water, the cuttings cannot dry out and die, unless you let the water dry up. You can put the jars outdoors, in direct sun, so any leaf growth is firm and strong.

grape cuttings that have been in water, laid out to show the details of roots

Cuttings that have been in water, growing roots.

If you look close at the picture above, you will see that the source of the cuttings did not much follow the “grammar” of number-of-nodes, and straight- and angle-cuts. But the cuttings are rooting just fine. The conventional wisdom is that grape cuttings grow roots from the nodes. However, as you can see, the roots are coming from the bottom of the cuttings, ignoring the nodes. Cuttings do have a tendency to put out more roots near nodes, but this is by no means strict.

Cuttings with roots at this length are ready for planting. Short roots like this are called the “rice” stage; little white rods like grains of rice. Roots let to grow to the “spaghetti” stage are more prone to break off. Longer roots don’t give much advantage in water absorption. They have to develop a new set of root hairs, from additional growth, before they can supply much to the plant.

Virtually always, cuttings in water will have leafed out by the time they root. This is the main thing you will have to fuss over.

Roots absorb water, and leaves expend it. A typical scenario is this: Grape cuttings are planted out during cool, wet weather. They look fine, the foliage fresh as lettuce, as long as the rains remain. Then, one day, the weather turns hot and sunny. The roots can’t keep up, and the leaves shrivel. In the extreme, the whole thing may die. It can also happen that the leaves shrivel up, but the cutting hangs on till it finally makes enough root growth to put out new leaves. Although a cutting like this may survive, it will be set back, and not make nearly as much growth in its first year as a cutting without this hardship.

What to do? Simply shade a newly planted cutting until it adapts. You can rig up special shaders in various way, but often the simplest thing is to just put a lawn chair on the sunward side of a new grape cutting. This would be on the south side in the northern hemisphere, on the north side in the southern hemisphere. A cutting can handle as much indirect sky light as there is, and it won’t have much trouble with morning and evening sunshine. It’s direct mid-day sun will that will dry it out.

You only have to shade a new cutting for a few days, or a few weeks at most. Soon the roots extend and send more water up to the top. The leaves grow and send food down to the roots. And the plant is in business.

Up till now, we have been talking about cuttings from winter-dormant vines. I found by accident that you can root green leafy summer shoots.

Once, I had a chance to get grape cuttings of a variety I wanted to try, but it was midsummer, not the usual time. I kept the cuttings in water, intending to study them. After some weeks, I noticed they were growing roots.

cuttings taken in the summer that have grown roots

Summer cuttings may drop their leaves by the time they grow roots.

This can take quite a while. In this case it was September, and by then the shoots had dropped their leaves. But I had a rooted cutting I could plant.

detail of roots on summer grape cuttings

Roots on summer cuttings

Later, I saw summer grape cuttings being propagated in a university research greenhouse. These were two-bud cuttings, and half of each leaf had been removed to reduce water loss. The cuttings were under an “intermittent mist” system, which is a method that works very well, but it rather complex to set up.  So, if there is a variety of grape you want to try, and the only time you can get cuttings is when they are fully leafed out in summer, you can get fairly good success by rooting them in water.

For various reasons, you may need to transplant a grape vine. If at all possible, do this while the plant is dormant and leafless. Leaves lose a lot of moisture.

In my experience, you can transplant a grape vine of any size, but a mature plant will be set back for about a year. It will take hold, as though it were a large, rooted cutting, but it will put out less growth the first year after transplanting, and produce fewer grapes. A large grape vine can be quite physical to wrangle, so take this into account in deciding whether you want to move a vine, or simply start a new one. You can have grape vines in full production, from cuttings, in three years.

Below is a picture of a one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting. This grew from a cutting merely stuck in the ground, with no other help than regular watering. It is typical for a vine to make only a few to several feet of top growth the first year. It’s developing lots of roots, getting ready to take off following year. Now, there is more root than top.

one-year-old grape plant, dug up for transplanting

Grape dug up for transplanting.

Grapevines typically have a root system that consists primarily of relatively few long, snakey roots, rather than much of a root ball. Notice the plant in the picture: Even though more roots started from near nodes, the strongest root came from between nodes. This is just the way it happens sometimes.

Grapes are mostly woodland plants, where their roots have to compete with trees. Their roots grow long, to seek out what they need. For the backyard grower, this means that after a few years, you are going to be finding your grapes’ roots many yards away, mining water and nutrients from whatever garden beds they can get into. Be aware of this when choosing a planting site.

Grapes do fairly well with their roots under a lawn, but be aware of what this can mean. For some years, when I lived in a dry climate in Colorado, I grew grapes on the chain link fence that bordered my neighbors. The neighbors were much more lawn conscious than me, so the grapes put most of their roots over there, where they could get more moisture. Then, at one point the neighbors were going to sell their house, so in order to spruce up the lawn, they sprayed weed killer. The grapes took it up, and nearly died!

You can of course grow grapes in pots, but they are not naturally adapted to this.

grape vines growing in pots

Potted grape vines

This picture is of some grape vines, in their first summer, developing from rooted cuttings. It is only July, and the plants are already getting to unmanageable size. If they were in the ground, the roots would have extended at least as long as the vine top growth. But here, the roots are having to spiral around and around inside the pots. These plants are sustained by drip irritation, and their water demand is only going to increase. If the moisture were ever interrupted, the plants would be severely stressed.

Of course nurseries only sell grapes as potted plants. Typically, these vines are fairly small. If they had been let to grow large in pots, they would be significantly potbound. They are going to have to stretch out their roots some time. If possible, let them do it from the start.

Now, I would like to demystify some of the grape propagation information you are likely to come across. Often, terms are given without any definition, and techniques are stated without any reason why.

You may come across the term “callus” in grape propagation. Callus is whitish cauliflower-like growth that plants may form in the process of re-organizing their tissues.

callus on the ends of grape cuttings

Well developed callus on grape cuttings

Some varieties of grape develop a considerable amount of callus, which serves as a signal that roots are on the way. However, others grape varieties make no visible callus before roots pop out.

a grape cutting that has roots, but developed little callus before rooting

Some cuttings root with little callus

The propagation literature may recommend a certain operation to “callus” cuttings; that is to nudge them towards creating roots. This is what “callus” means, used as a verb. Keep in mind there may or may not be any visible change.

The main reason grape cuttings fail and die is that leaf growth outstrips the moisture roots can supply.  Most of the details of large-scale grape propagation are to get around this problem, so a higher percentage of the cuttings succeed, and a vineyard planting will requires less fill-in afterwards. Again, this is less important for a home grower, but it’s the reason behind the recommended methods.

A bud is ready-made. All it needs to do is open and put out leaves. However, for a grape cutting to grow roots, it has to re-organize its tissues to create these. Different varieties of grapes vary in the time-lag it takes them to do this. In the extreme, you can get a leafed-out cutting that still has no roots at all. To improve on that, you want to speed up the formation of roots, relative to top growth.

Rooting hormones act as “auxins”, which are a type of naturally occurring plant hormone. Plants produces auxins in their growing shoot tips, and the auxins are transported downward through the stem. If the stem is cut off, the downward travelling auxin accumulates at the cut end and stimulates the tissues to re-organize into roots. There’s more to it, but that’s the general mechanism.

This explains why reluctantly-rooting grape cuttings will finally get around to growing some roots when the buds open. The growing shoot tips produce more auxin. This is how the water method works. It provides life support until roots grow, no matter how long it takes.

Rooting hormone is simply externally supplied auxin. Much like natural auxin, it moves downward through the stem and accumulates at the lower cut end. The usual mode of application is by dipping the rootward end of a cutting into a powder or a solution, so the hormone starts near to where it’s needed. Then the cutting is planted in a soil-like medium.

It’s an open question whether rooting hormone would help cuttings root in water. Would the auxin accumulate in the water and help? Or would the water dilute it, and lessen its effect? From the product standpoint, this is usage beyond its specifications. From the plant standpoint, grape cuttings root fine in water without it.

Another aid to rooting is “bottom heat”. All else being equal, plant life processes go faster at warmer temperature. If we were to keep the bottom of the cutting, where we want roots, warmer than the top, the lower end should grow roots while the top is still dormant.

This is, in fact, exactly what happens. Bottom heat is much used in commercial propagation. However, when you start looking into it, you will find it amounts to considerable outlay in effort, equipment, and expense. You will have to decide if the investment is worth it for a few grape cuttings.

The idea of burying bundles of grape cuttings upside down for some period of time is to use nature as bottom heat. Since soil warms in the spring from the top down, this will make the root ends of the cuttings warmer than the tops. This technique could tip the balance in large-scale commercial production, if the weather and climate cooperate. However, think for a moment what’s involved in digging holes big enough to bury long bundles of grape cuttings. Not to mention, digging them all up later, to plant right-side-up. There is no reason to do this, to start a few new plants.

I have tried various things with water, to get roots while buds were still dormant. One time, I used winter-dormant cutting in late fall. I put them in water, in an indoor growth chamber about 70 degrees F. I knew that most deciduous plants have a “chill requirement” and the buds won’t open until a certain time period of cold weather has elapsed. I figured I could get roots, with the buds still closed.

Well, the plants had their own idea. The cuttings rooted well, but the buds opened too. By January, I had healthy, actively growing grape plants. Again, unless you particularly want these decorations, you should keep your cuttings cold, and dormant, till spring.

I tried the bottom-heat idea, with water. My system involved an aquarium heater, in the refrigerator. The bottom ends of the cuttings were held at about 78 degrees F, while the tops remained about 40F. This worked, to some extent, but it was a huge amount of trouble.

Continued in part two, grape vine training.

close up of Greenlogger, in case



From the early 20teens, till now, I have been working on a project I call “Greenlogger”.

It started from work I did with Dr. Heidi Steltzer at Colorado State University. She had the idea to log “greenness”, over the growing season, from a natural ecosystem such as a patch of prairie or tundra.

This is important in climate research. If you set up a number of such monitors, you can do experiments to simulate climate change. For example, in dry prairie, you can artificially water some sites and exclude rainfall from others. In tundra, you can melt the snow away early from some areas, using black ground cloth. You can hold the summer temperature a few degrees warmer by placing small tentlike structures. Also, long term records across many years will be able to show actual climate change.

tentlike structures on tundra

Structures used to warm tundra sites, for climate change experiments

You monitor “greenness” spectrally, that is by looking at what light is reflected from plants and whatever else is covering the ground. You want this to be automatic, that is by electronic instrumentation. For climate change research, you want remote undisturbed sites, typically miles out on the high plains, in alpine meadows, or north of the Arctic circle. Visiting such places is expensive. You can’t afford to pay for people to go there, day after day, for manual observation. The other advantage of instruments is that they have no bias or opinion, and they don’t get bored.

Spectral data is available from satellites, but only to a certain resolution, typically with pixels 30 meters on a side. If your experimental sites are only the size of a card table, the satellites will see nothing. Some day drones may be feasible, but they presently lack the reliability and repeatability, not to mention the flying range. There are various legal and jurisdiction issues with drones too.

So, Dr. Steltzer had got her research proposal funded to use individual ground-based monitors, one at each site. I came onboard to make this happen.

I inherited a good part of the design.

You might think the spectral way to monitor greenness would be to take pictures, and analyze them for the color green. This is fraught with all sorts of complications, such as dark shadows in the frame, changing light conditions, and the fact that plants are such different colors green. To keep consistent with decades of scientific work, such as from satellite imagery, the greenness factor we used was “Normalized Difference Vegetation Index”, abbreviated “NDVI”.

Here’s an oversimplified version, but it will explain the equipment design. Plants absorb visible light to use for photosynthesis, but they reflect infrared because it is no use to them. So, basically, the higher the infrared reflectance relative to visible, the more “greenness” down there. At large scale, you can make greenness maps of whole continents from satellite imagery. At small scale, there are instruments to clip onto individual leaves. We were working at an intermediate scale, looking at reflectance from a living ecosystem, such as meadow or tundra, in chunks about one meter size.

The design for the monitoring devices had developed from two directions. One, obviously, was to detect the infrared and visible spectral bands. The other was weatherproofing. Satellites are far above the atmosphere, and you can take the clip-on devices home. However, ground based instruments that will run unattended must handle all the vicissitudes the environment can throw at them. The evident choice, at least for off-the-shelf, was weather station parts.

To make all this happen, I had to use quite a bit of patching and overdesign. Some of the spectral detectors were photodiodes. These had amplifier circuits. Which needed batteries. Which required cases for those batteries. The batteries had to be kind of big, to assure they would run the whole time. And so the cases were big. And needed supports. Kind of big supports. By the time I came along, the design had solidified into the “mantis”.

site showing manits, with person for scale

“Mantis” greenness monitor, deployed in Wyoming

Can you see the resemblance? The frame of steel bars looks rather like a giant insect. The head is looking out, pensive and intent. The body is slung behind.

It wasn’t long before the mantis began to evolve. I had to adapt it for a project in Alaska. There would be more extensive data collection, so there would be additional sensors. These would require a more complex weather station box. That meant “bigger”. Each mantis would have its own solar panel. Even as a mock-up, the insect is metamorphosing, sprouting new appendages.

mantis mock-up, frame and instrument boxes

Mock-up of mantis, adapted for tundra project

The sensor cables had to be protected from gnawing varmints out on the tundra, so they all were sheathed in metal conduit. The Alaska design looked less like an insect than an octopus.

tundra version of mantis, top view

“Octopus” mantis

As in all science, you need lots of “replicates”. You can’t just have one experiment and one control, because any two sites will naturally be different. For the Alaska project we needed about two dozen of these mantises.

I had to finalize the design, and scale up for the total number of parts. I cleaned out three local Home Depot stores, to procure some parts! I had to figure things out, down to the last nut and bolt, and get it all shipped to Alaska. There would be no neighborhood hardware stores out on the North Slope tundra.

Things went well. At the research station, we spent some days in the lab trailers assembling all the mantises.

people assembling mantis parts

Mantis assembly

When they were ready, we took them out to the tundra and got them going.

person carrying completed mantis on his back

Mantis on the way to tundra site

In all, I worked on this project for three years, setting up the mantises each spring, and bringing them in at the end of summer. Each one weighed thirty-five pounds. Each one had to be taken a quarter mile out via a boardwalk, so as to keep the tundra pristine. Sometimes people helped me with them. Sometimes, in the spring, we could use snowmobiles. But still, there was a lot of lugging. I couldn’t help thinking about what all the thirty-five pounds was doing. I knew the design.

The heavy steel frames were to support the boxes, which were to anchor the sheathing, which was to protect the cables, which were to reach the sensors. But the active guts down in the sensors was — tiny. At the other end, the frame needed extra iron to support a sizable solar panel, and a big battery, to power the weather station, which had to run all the time because it was general purpose. But the actual data chip down in the recorder was — tiny.

man carrying mantis on back across tundra, Brooks Range in the background

Packing thirty-five pounds of iron

What if I could put a tiny sensor right with a tiny data chip? Suddenly, all the boxes, sheathing and cables disappear.

The spectral readings are only in the daytime, none at night. So that’s the only time you need solar power. Could the instrument “sleep” at night, and get by with a tiny solar panel, and a tiny battery, just enough to wake it up each morning?

A good bit of the mantis design was how to get the data out. A weather station case needs robust hinges and a latch, to stay weatherproof. You open it, and plug in a cable. The other end goes to your laptop, which you have to lug out to the site. You have to make sure your laptop stays charged, and try to keep it from getting rained on too much. You have to be sure to bring the right connector cable! Also, while you have the weather station case open, it can catch rain, hail, and snow. So you put in desiccant packs to dry it out. And indicator cards to monitor that the desiccant is still working. And more desiccant packs when the first ones quit.

What if you never had to open the instrument case? What if the system transmitted it’s data wirelessly, such as by Bluetooth? No need to bring a USB cable, or worry if you brought the one with the right style end.  What if, instead of a laptop, you could pull the data in on your smartphone, which you could just keep tucked inside your jacket pocket?

I started working on this. I had not done much electronics since grad school, so I had to get back up to speed. I could not use the popular Maker platforms, like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, because they need too much power. My thing had to run on the trickle of energy available from a few solar cells. I could not depend on a wall plug nearby.

So, I had to get down to the raw microcontroller level. A microcontroller is like a one-chip computer. (The word is abbreviated “uC”, as the lowercase “u” is easier to type than the Greek letter “mu” (“µ”), for “micro”.) Many uCs have low-power “sleep” modes, but you need to program them on a chip level for this.

I found that uCs had advanced quite a lot since I’d used them in my Masters project. Overall, much easier to program. Interfaces had been standardized, so it took fewer pins to connect to other chips. I knew I needed at least light sensors, and a micro-SD card for data storage.

I got used to surface-mount components. Before this, I had always worked with through-hole parts. Through-hole electronic parts have wire leads that you put through holes on the circuit board. Then, you melt solder into the hole. This both makes the electrical connection and holds the wire in place. With surface-mount, however, the component has only metal patches for leads, or short pins. These connect to flat metal pads on the circuit board. The solder acts as both an electrical bridge, and “glue” to hold the part on the board.

through hole and surface mount light emitting diodes

Through-hole compared to surface-mount (SM) LEDs. The SM LEDs are the three pale patches in the carrier strip.

With no wire leads, surface mount parts can be much smaller. At first it was mind-bending to work with an electronic chip no bigger than a grain of aquarium gravel. Steady hand, and don’t sneeze. Pretty soon, though, I was thinking, “This one sure is wasting a lot of board space. Can’t I find a smaller version?”

greenlogger prototypes in glass jars

Prototypes in Mason jars

Some of my first prototypes were in Mason jars. I learned that you can mollify the TSA by simply putting a nice note, with your phone number, in your checked baggage. Say something like, “This is a vegetation data recorder, for environmental research.” No need to say, “Not a bomb!”

Once in a real case, I hoped it looked less like a bomb.

greenlogger prototype boards in clear plastic case

Prototype in weatherproof case

I called my device “Greenlogger”. I was doing this on my own, not part of any job. Of course I thought about eventually making some money off it, but I wanted it reliable first. So, instead of trying to sell them at this point, I offered to loan them out for testing.

There is no substitute for real-world testing. I did not know if it would work to run the instrument in a totally sealed case. Maybe the electronics would get too hot, or there would be some other problem. But I decided to try. I rigged up some basic stands from PCV pipe.

greenlogger mounted on stand made of PVC pipe

Simple stand

In field tests, the instruments worked, but I learned other things too! At one site, where researchers set Greenloggers out on Colorado’s Mt. Evans, at 14,130 ft elevation, animals tore the heads off. What else would leave teeth marks? So I had to re-design the mounts.

In a few years, my Greenloggers were standing in the field next to mantises. The solar power was keeping them charged, so they could run indefinitely.

field site in Wyoming sagebrush, both mantises and greenloggers

Greenloggers with mantises

The scheme I came up with to get the data by Bluetooth was tap-to-wake. Most of the time, the Bluetooth is shut off, to save power. When you want to communicate, you rouse the logger with a sharp tap. My design contains an “accelerometer”, which measures all forces of acceleration. A tap is a rapid acceleration, and so it’s the signal to wake up and connect.

Overall, things were working pretty well. The light sensors were getting readings that spanned about 6 orders of magnitude, from moonlight to full noon sun. I put a temperature sensor on the circuit board. This would not tell much about the environment during the day, when the case bakes in the sun. However, it might give a clue if something failed. If an instrument died, and the temperature record leading up to that was climbing and climbing; well we need to figure out how to keep things cool. At night, though, the instrument temperature would drop to ambient, and the record would correspond to local weather.

Greenloggers mounted above head-high vegetation, on long-legs PVC stands

Long-legs Greenlogger stands

It’s important for an instrument to know what time it is. Each mantis was, essentially, a semi-mobile weather station. Weather stations need to timestamp their data. If, say, the temperature is recorded, but not when it was that temperature, well, that’s not much use.

Commercial weather station instruments incorporate a real-time clock (RTC). This is like an embedded wristwatch. Modern electronics can keep pretty accurate time, to about a minute per month. For the mantis weather stations, the RTC would be set during the initialization process, while connected to a laptop. After that, it’s understood that a free-running RTC can “drift”, that is, run a little fast or slow.  To keep it accurate, you need to periodically correct any drift, and that means a field visit.

I built an RTC chip into the Greenlogger. You can set the RTC by Bluetooth, so you do not need to open the instrument case. My prototypes kept pretty good electronic time, but of course there was the inevitable drift. This was not going to be good enough for months, or years, of unattended operation.

Early on, I considered a doing it like radio clocks, which set themselves by the US standard time signal transmitted from Colorado, or perhaps use one of the European services. But my instruments might be deployed in far remote locations, out of range. I needed it to work anywhere in the world. I thought GPS would be the way, but it took a while to figure out.

GPS works by triangulating on three satellites. The GPS receiver knows the distance to the satellites by very accurate time signals, so timing in inherent in the technology. GPS output contains this time signal, along with the location.

A big part of the solution was simply the physical technology. A “GPS receiver” basically consists of a chip and an antenna. The antenna has to be good enough to pick up the faint signals from distant satellites. The chip (or chip set) handles all the complex math of extracting those satellite signals into simple usable data. Both the antenna and the chip posed serious conundrums in terms of size, cost, and power management in my design.

The good news is that GPS is becoming so universal that the technology is advancing rapidly, and things are being mass produced. I could get the chips for under $10, in quantity. The antenna, however was another matter.

Discreet antennas are expensive, and take special connectors so as not to degrade the signal. Also, they are quite “big” as electronics goes. An integrated circuit chip can be shrunk to the size of a rice grain, because it does everything by microscopic transistors. However, an antenna has to be a certain minimum size to match the wavelengths it deals with. The GPS in your smartphone actually uses part of the internal metal casing for its antenna, but this is serious woo woo design, like doing acupuncture on a cricket.

Fortunately, modules were becoming available that integrated the GPS chip right with an antenna, as well as all the onboard electronics. I designed in one of these modules, but then the company went out of business. This was right when I was putting some of my prototypes out for long term testing. So they had a “hole” in the board where the GPS was supposed to be.

Other products came available, but they were bigger, and harder to interface. “Big” may not seem like much of a complaint when the thing is half the size of your thumb, but board real estate is precious. I had finalized my design to fit in a certain small plastic case. If I had to rework that, it would be a big step backwards.

GPS is a classic example of “asynchronous”. For an electronic system to read, say, a memory chip, or a sensor, it just, well, reads it. This happens in a nanosecond, or at worst a few milliseconds. On the other hand, a GPS subsystem doesn’t just “have” the data you want. It has to go get it from the satellites. This can take a few minutes, or at worst half an hour! For my Greenlogger, this ought to be OK, because it just needs to correct for RTC drift maybe a couple times a month. But how to run that?

I had found a new GPS module that would work, but controlling it was looking complicated. My main uC would be pretty busy: First, it would try to wake up the GPS. Then, check if the GPS actually did wake up. Next, see if the GPS is transmitting anything. If so, see if what the GPS is transmitting makes any sense. If it does, winnow through the firehose-spray of information the GPS is emitting, to see if we have got a time fix yet. If good, snip out this tidbit, and set the system time. Keep track of how long all this is taking. It could be, we are stashed in a metal file cabinet somewhere, and the GPS is never going to get a reading. If it takes too long, forget it. Gracefully shut down the GPS, whether we got a fix of not. Make sure the GPS is correctly shut down, so it isn’t leaking precious system power. If we never got a fix, peek out every now and again to see whether the project scientist has finally put this device outdoors under the open sky, where we can breathe!

This would have taken about a quarter of the total computing power of the main uC, juggled in along with all the normal data logging. It would have taken a bunch of board space, and a rat’s nest of signal traces. I started toying with the idea to put all this on a separate board, with it’s own auxiliary microcontroller. The GPS module itself was already on a separate board, in order to fit everything inside the instrument case.

This turned out to be the solution. There is kind of a joke in microcontroller design, about sleep modes. Modern uCs feature a wonderful array of sleep modes. The uC can shut down functions to save power. But if a uC goes too deep asleep, so it isn’t doing anything any more, how can it ever wake up again? Kind of like the joke about write-only memory. But in this odd case, it was just what I wanted.

The main uC chip sends one time-request pulse to the GPS uC, and then forgets about it. The GPS uC takes it from there. It handles all the waking up of the GPS module, babysitting it while it watches the sky for satellites, and patiently listens to it babble about what it’s seeing. If the GPS module takes too long, its uC puts it back to bed. But if all goes well, the GPS uC finally gets a valid time from the GPS, and sends it as a set-time signal back to the main system. This is the same signal you can enter, say from your smartphone, to manually set the time. The main system has only the relatively simple housekeeping, to keep track of how many days since it last got a time update, and periodically ask for a new one. Meanwhile, every time the GPS uC runs, it finishes by swallowing a whole bottle of sleeping pills. So it then uses no more system power. This is OK, because each time the main system wants a time signal, it brute-force resets the GPS uC, to raise it from the dead.

After a number of design iterations, I finally had it so the Greenlogger could set its own time anywhere in the world. The GPS module added a somewhat uncomfortable $30 to the parts cost, but, well, how much would it be send a technician to, say, Greenland once a month for the sole purpose of updating the instrument’s clock?

Greenlogger, on camouflage colored stand, to blend in with sagebrush terrain

Camo Greenlogger

In spring of 2014, I had the opportunity to set out three Greenloggers for long-term testing, at remote sites in western Wyoming. In autumn of 2016, I went back to look for them. One had been stolen, but the other two had kept on running through two winters, recording temperatures down to -24 degrees Centigrade.

In the winter weather, one of the instruments held a record of temperature staying at exactly freezing for about three days, with muffled light levels, indicting it was buried in snow. Then, as its battery ran low, it went into hibernation and stopped recording. It remained running in ultra-low power mode. About ten days later, when it got more solar power, it woke up and started recording again.

Overall, I was satisfied how robust they were, but this was in the gap when I did not have GPS working. After two and half years, both devices had serious clock drifts, of 4 and 5 months! So now, with GPS installed for automatic time setting, I have prototypes out for winter testing in Greenland and Alaska.

I thought these loggers could be repurposed. For example, they already serve as solar site evaluators. They record just how much sunshine reaches a spot, day after day, through all weather.

They also serve as trackers. One prototype I loaned, was shipped back to me, broken. From the log, I could see what had happened. I had packed it up to ship at 6:30 PM on June 25, 2017. After that, it recorded darkness. About 5 PM on July 11, it started detecting light again. It got a GPS fix, and corrected its clock by 31 seconds. It also recorded that it was now in Alaska, on a tongue of land in a small lake in the middle of Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge.

Research collaboration plans change. A few days later, it recorded that it was at the airport in Durango, Colorado, evidently en route on a transfer to Greenland. On July 20, it recorded a location on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. That evening, it was dropped hard enough to reset. It lost its location, though the clock kept running. The same thing happened a couple more times over the next few days. On July 22, it was recording temperatures below freezing. Freezing in late July? Greenland! The light level traces showed the never-quite-dark summer cycle of the midnight sun.

Then, on July 24, the record abruptly stopped. I received the device back August 9, shipped from an address in Maine. The battery clip was broken off the circuit board, evidently from impact. Repaired, in Portland, Oregon, it recorded the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017.

Every electronic system needs a Reset button. To avoid having to open the instrument case, I had equipped the circuit with a magnetic reed switch. This works similar to how a strong magnet picks up a chain of paper clips. The magnetism travels through the iron, and makes normally un-magnetic pieces stick together. In the Greenlogger, you can bring a strong magnet close to a certain corner, and two tiny contacts, normally separate, will touch. Thus you can “press” the reset button from outside the case.

It turns out other things can make the contacts touch, such as a hard slam. I thought about leaving this in the design, to determine if the scientists were playing softball with my instruments. But, no; if I want that I should program the accelerometer. Instead, I plan to replace the reed switch with a magnetoresistive sensor, which responds only to magnetism, not physical shock.

close up of Greenlogger, in case

Latest design

I know of one more issue I need to fix. I call it the climb-out-of-reset hang. The commercial weather station boxes we used have this same problem. It is classic in energy harvesting designs.

If ever the battery discharges too low, so the system completely stops, the instrument can never start up again, even with sunshine blazing on the solar panel. It seems there would be plenty of power available, but this is what goes wrong:

Say the battery drains down, and the system totally dies. When there is solar power again, the battery starts to recharge. There is an exact point of voltage when the system electronics are just barely able to start. They start, and try to run through their initialization routines. However, this small sip of power is enough to drop the battery back down below the critical threshold, and the system dies again. The battery recharges. The system starts — and the cycle repeats, forever.

If you connect the system to a well charged battery, the voltage droops a little during initialization. But right after a successful startup, the system can go into battery management mode, and keep itself on a strict energy diet. However, on a slowly-charging battery, what the system really needs to do is hold off on powering up, at all, until the charge is well above the start threshold. But the system had no way to know how to do this — because it’s still dead.

Since the system cannot rely on the intelligence of the uC, it needs some sort of hardwired holdoff circuit right up next to the battery. This is tricky because these “dumb” electronics have to work, and make critical decisions, based on fractions of a volt. Not much electronics works reliably on fractions of a volt!

Everything else in this project was impossible, but now it’s working. It’s going to be really cool when the holdoff circuit is too!

Documents for using Greenloggers: https://github.com/rickshory/Greenlogger-Docs

The code that runs the Greenlogger microcontrollers:

Main board uC code: https://github.com/rickshory/AVRGreenlogger

GPS board uC code: https://github.com/rickshory/GPS_time_841

The printed circuit boards: https://github.com/rickshory/Greenlogger-PCBs

The mantis was developed under government research funding, and so is in the public domain. I wrote sections of the documentation, which includes instructions for data processing. We developed two tools for processing data from the mantises, Greenloggers, and other recorders such as iButtons.

The documentation: https://github.com/rickshory/mantis-docs

The two data tools:

One using, Microsoft Access: https://github.com/rickshory/mantis-Access

A cross-platform one using Python: https://github.com/rickshory/NDVI-modules


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The “big one” earthquake

This entry was inspired by a friend on the other side of the country, emailing to ask if I knew about this:


Of course, everybody in the Pacific Northwest knows about the Cascadia Subduction Zone, and the long overdue “Big One” earthquake. But it’s not going to sink in until it hits.

Near the top of my list when I bought my house was earthquake retrofit. A lot of gay guys, their first thought would be “Decorate!” Mine was “Earthquake safety!”

I researched, and it emerged that the most concrete (so to speak) thing you can do is keep the house from jumping off its foundation. That means bolting these big metal plates between the concrete and wood. At first I was going to do it myself, but like most one-time jobs I would have made a lot of mistakes, and have to re-do it later. So I got bids and paid for the work. A good thing too. I had bought the wrong length bolts. They would have poked all the way through the foundation wall.

I went with the contractor who was the most, shall we say, neurotic about earthquakes. I knew he was my man when my eyes began to glaze over as he rambled on about shear planes and foot-pounds. This guy was into it. He’d to the best job that could be done.

But of course, nobody really knows. Earthquake bracing is not something you can test, and then have a second try.

When the job was done and the inspectors came by to sign off, they expressed a range of opinions. One related a city in South America, I’ll call it “Terremoto”. Terremoto had similar architecture to Portland. Terremoto was struck by an earthquake of similar magnitude to what’s expected here, and “80% of the houses survived”. That sounded pretty heartening. On the other hand, another inspector thought the situation would be like your whole world inside a rotary clothes dryer for three minutes. Not so heartening.

But humans are pretty hard to kill off. The Johnstown Flood of 1889 is distant enough in human memory that it is no longer part of pop culture. If not for that Big One, there would have been no “the” Johnstown Flood. Johnstown flooded every time it rained hard. Tiptoeing across their city streets on planks, balanced above sluicing water, was a way of life. The decrepit dam upstream, which everybody knew about, had cried wolf innumerable times by resolutely not breaking in flood after flood.

The Big One for Johnstown arrived in the middle of the night, in the form of the homogenized remains of the lake and dam. This roiling mass was so high and swift it snapped the telegraph lines, precluding any warning. It had picked up various miscellany on its journey. Among these were the stock and infrastructure of a barbed wire factory. After covering Johnstown to a depth only its taller buildings poked above, the watery mass took a siesta. It clogged the arches of a bridge down from the city, and so lay as a lake over Johnstown, until rescue workers finally blasted the debris some days later.

So: Zero warning. Complacent population. Woken from sound sleep in the middle of the night. What do you think the death rate was? This was an ordinary town, with its share of babies, elderly, the bedridden and infirm. What percent? Less than ten percent. Pretty hard to kill off.

If I had the time to accumulate a Ph.D. in Sociology, I’d study what people do when the game changes. “Game change”, is, after all, what people worry about. Big game changes: Global warming. Economic collapse. Solar flare. Alien contact. Or personal game changes: Losing your job. Cancer. Your teenage daughter getting pregnant. But always, changing the game. The old rules are gone. You won’t know what to trust. You have to figure things out all over again.

In the sociology of it, there would be lots of questions: What’s the correspondence of people who come out on top in the new game vs. the old game? Are they the same persons? Is it random? Do new folks come to the fore, who nobody ever noticed in the old game?

More important for the individual, are there some personal qualities that go with being able to make it, no matter the game? If I had to guess, I’d expect those qualities would include health, good attitude, and a wide range of practical skills. What I suspect even more is that people who have not mastered the current game are less likely to make it in the new one. Particularly, if they are so wrapped up in preparing for some particular game change they’re out of touch with current reality.

Doom sayers are occasionally right, by the law of averages; but it seldom does them or anybody else any good. And they have low odds on the particular doom.

That said, I do have fairly complete earthquake kit made up, though housemates keep borrowing the duct tape. The tape is for strapping plastic over the hollow frames of the windows, after the concussions have smashed all the glass out.

For a couple years, we saved all the two-liter plastic soft drink bottles as they got empty. Rinsed, filled with water, and tucked away, they wait. In field work, I came to like these for emergency water. They don’t expand and contract with temperature and elevation, as those cubical water containers do, and so wear little holes in their corners. The cubitainers might only drip, but those slow drips add up to empty, when you finally open them in the middle of the desert.

Those two liter bottles could jostle around under the seats of the rig, all the summer field season. When we cleaned out in the fall, we’d play catch with them. They could survive a bounce on pavement, from up to a six foot drop.

So maybe we’ll make it through the Big One. Or maybe the archeologists will dig up my earthquake bracing plates and be impressed with my design makeover after all, how I artistically placed them all around the perimeter for feng shui. The sociologists will wonder why we needed so many plastic bottles to play catch.

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Poplars north of the Brooks

Title: Populus North of the Brooks Range: Temporary Adventives, or Yet Another Sign of Global Warming?


Populus L. is rare north of the Brooks Range in Alaska. Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar) is noted from a few refugia and Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is not reported at all. The current observations, however, find them both to be fairly common in disturbed areas such as roadsides and old gravel diggings. This may represent northward spread of these species due to climate change, or merely temporary survival after accidental introduction. These first observations are presented as a baseline, to allow determining this in future years.


The word “tundra” means “treeless”, and that is the character of Alaska’s North Slope, from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean. In this open country, trees stand out. People have noted the few stands of Populus balsamifera L. (balsam poplar). One grove is at Ivishak Hot Spring, where geothermal warmth creates a microclimate equivalent to much further south. Scattered populations of P. balsamifera are known from along major rivers, where flowing water evidently contributes to warming the soil. One locally known site is a very steep south-facing slope in a sheltered hollow.

The limiting factor is evidently permafrost depth. Tundra soils are typically frozen most of the year, with only the surface thawing in summer. The permanently frozen subsoil, which extends to great depth, prevents penetration by tree roots. The common factor in all previously observed P. balsamifera stands appears to be that the soil thaws to greater depth than typical for the North Slope tundra.

Populus tremuloides Michx. (quaking aspen) is the tree with the greatest range in North America, being found in all of the 50 United States. Yet the range maps in both Flora of Alaska and of NRCS indicate it is not present north of the Brooks Range at all.

This observer, therefore, thought it was remarkable when he began finding both of these species near Tookik Field Station (TFS). Toolik is the site of many ecological surveys, with exhaustive documentation of all natural phenomena. Yet Toolik botanists were evidently unaware these two species existed in the vicinity.


These observations were undertaken during a brief stint at TFS, 26 August to 7 September 2011.

The overall plan was to record parameters on each individual of Populus seen. The goal was to choose parameters that will readily show changes in health, biomass and/or abundance in future years. The parameters chosen were GPS location, height, age, and number of clonal stems. In addition, digital photographs were taken, though these may be of limited usefulness as hard data.

GPS locations were recorded using a hand-held Garmin GPSmap 60CSx. Positional accuracy was typically good to 2 to 3 meters. Locations were recorded as waypoints. Individuals of Populus were scattered, so there was seldom any ambiguity as to which waypoint corresponded to which individual. The datum was WGS 84. Waypoint coordinates included both decimal degrees and UTM. Waypoint timestamps were automatically recorded in Pacific Daylight Time (default time zone for the device).

Where coordinates are given in this document with no other explanation (for example: 68.03210853, -149.67015512) the first number is latitude and the second is longitude, both in decimal degrees. Positive latitude means north of the equator and negative longitude means west of Greenwich meridian. The datum is WGS 84.

Heights of individuals were measured using a folding 2-meter tape, and are given in centimeters, to the nearest centimeter. The number recorded is the maximum height of any stem from terminal bud tip, measured straight down to solid ground surface. Seldom was there sufficient slope that the “tallest” stem by these criteria was in question. Much of the local tundra is spongy, so “solid ground surface” could be indefinite; but all Populus were on sites having a hard substrate covered by no more than a litter of fallen leaves.

Determining individuals

Both observed species of Populus have a marked tendency to send up adventitious stems from their spreading roots, and thus to become clonal colonies. In only one case was there any possible ambiguity as to which aggregation of stem represented a clone. In this case, two clumps were near each other, not much more distant than the size of the clumps. In all other cases, clumps were widely separated.

At the observation time, deciduous tundra species were in the process of normal autumn senescence, their leaves turning yellow and gold. The different Populus clumps varied in shade of leaf color and timing of leaf fall, providing another means of distinguishing the various clones from each other, and from Salix (willows).

In the data record, each Populus clone is considered one individual. In the single ambiguous case, the two clumps are recorded as separate individuals.

Individuals are coded using the standardized NRCS species codes, followed by an underscore and a three-digit numerical identifier. The numbers are the order in which the individuals were found, 001 being the first. The NRCS code for P. balsamifera is POBA2, so the code for the first individual found of that species is POBA2_001. The species code for P. tremuloides is POTR5, so the first found individual of that species is POTR5_001.

In recording stems per clump, stems were counted as distinct if they had at least 1 cm of space between them at ground surface. This arbitrary criterion might possibly yield some confounding counts in future years, if stem bases widen to have less than this distance between. In most cases, however, stems were either well distinct, or closely aggregated. Clones that produced aggregated sprouts appeared to be rapidly proliferating. If such clones remain as healthy in future years, the stem count will increase to indicate this, even if there is some uncertainty in the number or stems.

Some stems were very short, but they were counted if they had even one recognizable leaf or bud.

Distinguishing species

P. tremuloides is easily recognized. The leaves have a distinctive shape range, from cordate to broadly lanceolate, often wider than long. The laterally flattened petiole, which causes the leaf to “quake”, is also diagnostic.

P. balsamifera would not be confused with P. tremuloides but possibly with some of the shrubby Salix (willows). All had yellow leaves (at the observation time), and some Salix leaves were similar in shape to P. balsamifera. However P. balsamifera stems have a distinctive upright growth habit with a central leader, while all local Salix are spreading. After eye training to develop a search image, P. balsamifera was easy to spot. An unambiguous diagnostic was the axillary buds. In P. balsamifera these have a large, pointed, enwrapping scale with a shorter truncate scale distal to (“in front of”) the large scale. Salix have a single sack-like bud scale.

Populus Axillary Bud

Axillary bud of P. balsamifera, showing bud scale structure common to all species in the genus Populus. This unambiguously distinguishes them from Salix (willows).

All putative Populus individuals were checked for these diagnostic characteristics.

Age estimates

Age of Populus individuals was estimated by counting bud scale scar rings. This is a non-destructive technique useful for estimating growth years of woody species where the plant can be observed all the way to the top.

Bud scales are modified leaves. When they fall off after bud break, scars remain on the stem similar to those left by the bases of petioles of regular leaves. Since the bud scales are in close proximity to each other, their scars form a visually identifiable “ring” around the twig where the terminal bud was that winter.

As the stem elongates out of the bud during the season’s growth, the first leaves are close to the bud scale ring, and close to each other. As growth continues, the leaf bases become spaced further apart, up to a typical maximum.

As stem growth slows in anticipation of dormancy the leaf positions again become closer together. When the terminal bud forms, the bud scales have no stem extension between them, and so their bases form another ring.

Bud Scale Scar Ring

Ring of bud scale scars on P. balsamifera stem, indicating sections that developed during two succeeding growing seasons. A few bud scales persist.

It is thus possible to read back along a stem and count the previous seasons of growth. The pattern of leaf/scale scars becoming more distant from each other and then close together again defines a year of growth. It is usually possible to read back at least 5 years at high confidence, often more.

Deciduous trees can perform two or more cycles of bud break and growth in a single year. This is rare, and usually due to extremely favorable growing conditions, unlikely in the arctic.

This scar ring count can only yield a minimum age, for various reasons:

As woody stems become older, the bark thickens, stretches, and cracks. This finally obscures the leaf/scale scars.

Many deciduous trees have the ability to persist as stunted seedlings for years, then grow rapidly when conditions improve. Coupled with bark roughening at the stem base, this could hide many years of a tree’s age.

If a stem is broken off, growth resumes from a lateral bud. All the growth information above the break is lost, though the remaining stub above the activated lateral bud indicates at least one year’s growth, and the change in branch angle is evident. The Populus stems observed had many partially missing tops like this, probably due to winter storm damage.

Similarly, aboveground stems may be completely removed by browsing, disease, or winter kill. If the roots re-sprout, as Populus easily do, scar rings can only count the years since this occurred. In a few cases the remains of dead stems indicated the clone was older than the oldest living stem observed. Usually, though, the group appeared too young for this to be so.

Search protocol

A “GPS track” was recorded while searching for individuals. This is a semi-standard technique used in rare plant surveys. The GPS receiver is set to internally record a position periodically by time interval, by distance interval, or by an “auto” algorithm combining both time and distance. The “auto” setting was used.

This track provides a series of locations that define a search path. Since recording is automatic, it does not distract from the search. Each track location is timestamped. This allows geo-referencing of the digital photographs by matching the photo file creation timestamp to the nearest track point timestamp. Timestamping also verifies observation date and time.

The track can later be displayed on a map to show the path searched. It can reasonably be assumed that any individuals of interest within a certain proximity to the search path would have been seen, the proximity depending on terrain. In the open North Slope tundra, this proximity would be at least ten meters either side of the search path. By this means confirmation of absence can be established for an area.

(This post is under construction.)

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Lubricating your Bicycle Chain

We were all out to lunch on a nice spring day.

“Have you been to ‘Damn Yankee’?” Anna asked.
“What is it?”
“It’s the new bike shop, up the next block.  I thought sure you’d know about it.”

I guess, since I don’t own a car and bike everywhere, people expect me to be up on all things bicycle.  I don’t even follow the Tour de France.  Does a long-haul truck driver, after his days in the cab, go watch cars drive around, for fun?

“Where is it?  I can’t place it.”
“Next door to ‘The Screaming Peach’,” she said.

“That name sounds sort of familiar,” I mused.  Anna is always up on popular culture.  She knows more about Princess Di than I ever will.

“It’s that new waxing studio,” she said.

I chuckled at the clever name.  I cringed at the thought.  Talking to me about hair removal is like talking to the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz about fire.

Anna needed to go by “Damn Yankee” to see if her bike were ready.  I went with her, walking my own bike.  She explained the name.  “The guy who owns it is a Yankee, from somewhere in the East.”
We entered a storefront nearly bare of furniture and goods.  A bike stand, the kind you clamp a bicycle in to work on, sprouted sideways out of the wall, rather than rising from the ground as I’d seen before.

Anna talked to the owner, Jimmy.  I looked around the shop.  I glanced at articles pinned up on the wall.  Truly a temple of bicycle worship, being created here.

“I can get anything by next-day delivery,” Jimmy casually remarked, “So I don’t need to carry a lot of fucking inventory.”

Damn!  I thought, He is a Yankee!  I was raised, in the Old South.  There, a guy would never use that kind of language in front of a female.  At least till she did first.  I warmed up to him instantly.

On the shelf I spied bottles of chain lubricant.  My supply at home was getting low.  I picked up one.  “You may never have to clean your chain again!” the label announced.  This was one of those fancy wax lubricants, supposed to flake off when it got dirty.

I had tried them before.  It had not been the end of chain cleaning.  The drive train still accumulated a thick, black layer of grime.  The consistency was different, more like asphalt, compared to the good old grease of yesteryear.  On second thought, it had been the end of chain cleaning.  The mess was so bad I gave up trying.

But I needed some kind of lube.  I may as well support this guy, I thought.  I had one question I was going to ask.  This was a brand I’d tried before.  Of course it claimed to be the eighth wonder of the world, in lubricating ability.  It did all right.  But its relation to wax showed up in an inconvenient way.  I congealed and clogged the nozzle, so you couldn’t get it out of the bottle.  I’m sure it would have been a great lubricant if you could.

I was all set to ask if they’d fixed this problem.  Jimmy cut me off.

“You don’t need that stuff!” he exclaimed, “Just put paraffin on your chain.”
“Uh, How do I do that?” I asked, amazed.  He was turning down a sale?

“This little crock pot,” he indicated the vessel on a side table.  “I just melt Gulfwax and dip in the chain.”  He demonstrated how he spiraled the chain up in a double coil, for a tidy footprint.

I was amazed.  “That’s all there is to it?”
“Yeah,” he said in his Yankee accent, “That’s where the wax lubes came from.  It’s all the racers have used for years.”

He demonstrated, “Let it work a few minutes, for the wax to soak in.  Wait till bubbles rise.”  While it was cooking he showed me assembled bikes treated so.  Their chains, rings, and derailleurs were silver rather than black.  It was incredible.  They looked naked.

I was warming up to the idea.  “I’m so bad about not lubing my chain,” I mused, “But this is interesting enough, I might actually do it.”

Anna had gone on.  Jimmy and I talked longer.  I was completely won over by his business attitude of helping the customer, rather than quick sales.  I was definitely going to patronize him again.

“So if I come to the back parking lot,” we ambled towards the rear door, “What storefronts are you next to?”

“Right with Solmon’s Deli,” he said, “And of course ‘The Screaming Peach’.”  He noticed my cringe.  “You know what I call that place?” he went on, “But I can’t say it in public.”

“Oh, come on.”

He didn’t need much encouragement, “The cunt shavers,” he shook his head, “One guy, they were getting him cleaned up for his wedding.  Waxed his balls.  Took most of the skin off.  Another guy does his forearms so you can see the muscles ripple.”

“If they’re that hard to see, I’d rather have the hair.”  I felt like sharing from my own repertoire of depilatory horrors, though I’d had mere brushes.  Jimmy and I were male bonding, after all.

“Before I bought my house,” I started my anecdote, “I lived in this communal place, owned by a young Sociology professor, Mona Palmer.  She’s very right on, fighting corporate power and all.  But she’s also quite the diva.  One day I came home, and all the male housemates were crowded around her in the bathroom.  She was doing a show-and-tell of waxing.”

At this point, a careful listener to the transcript tapes will hear a slight stumble in my narration.  I had barely met this guy, scarcely knew him.  But I had talked myself into a corner.  If I went on, I was about to come out to him.  Oh, well.  What’s male bonding, if you can’t come out?

I plunged on with my little story.  “Mona painted a layer of the wax on her forearm.  After it congealed, she ripped it off.  Much to my horror.

‘You want to try it?’ she offered.  She smiled innocently to the stricken knot of manhood.

‘Not me!’ I backed away.

‘Oh, you’d do it,’ she coyly chided, ‘For the right boy!’

‘No,’ I assured her, trying to keep my voice level.  I even attempted humor, ‘If he even knew what waxing was, he wouldn’t be the right boy’.”

By now Jimmy and I were in the parking lot.  I rode off on my grease-encrusted drive train.  I wondered later if he’d even noticed I’d told him I was gay.  Things like that used to go right by me too.

To my mind there are three levels of dirty work.

There’s normal dirty.  Like changing a tire.  On a dirt road.  In the rain.  While trying to find a level spot for the jack between the mud puddles.  While dodging the road-spray from passing cars.

There’s nasty dirty.  Like repairing a wastewater discharge pipe.  Which has been leaking for 15 years.  Into the 18-inch crawlspace you have to work in.  That’s festooned with cobwebs.  And laced with desiccated blackberry brambles.  And furnished with the occasional dead cat.

And then there’s working on your bike.

The merest touch, and your hands are contaminated with black grease.  The grease transfers by an unnoticed series of subsequent mere touches to every tool, surface, and article of clothing.  And the exterior of the dish soap bottle when it’s time to finally wash it off.  So it gets back on you when you put the bottle away.

Actually accomplishing work on the bike, that’s a lot worse.

The idea of paraffin-coating my chain held the promise that this would be no more.  A truly life-changing event.  I steeled myself for the ordeal of filth one last time.

The problem with living by yourself is you have to play all the family roles.
I was the unruly teenager, ready to dive into this adventure, devil-may-care.
But I was also the housewife, thinking about grease-stained clothing to launder.
And the middle-aged homeowner, worried that permanent oil dribbles on the flagstones might cut the resale value of the property.

The compromise was to work on a large sheet of butcher paper.  And this on top of a bed of absorbent pine needles.  The clothing solution was to wear as little as possible.  Only a faded pair of cut-off sweat pants, found wadded on a forgotten shelf.
And so we began.

I started the paraffin to melting in a shallow aluminum pie dish.  I floated it in water in one of my frying pans.  For some reason there were no old cans the right size in the recycling.  The pan looked tipsy, but I couldn’t wait.  I might lose my nerve.

I disassembled the bicycle.  I put the gunky rear wheel on the butcher paper.  I set the gunky frame on the long suffering picnic table.  I started to struggle with the gunky chain.

This was one of those chains with a link that would come apart without tools.  The first trick was finding the special link.  I looked.  I couldn’t see it.  I poked at the grease-encrusted spans and rivets.  My fingers were getting grease-encrusted themselves.  I gave up all pretense of elegance and just fed the whole length through the gears, inch by inch.  I had to scrape the grease back from the side of each link to see if it were the special one.  Finally, the link turned up.

I pinched and prodded, but the quick link was clotted with gritty grease.  The release mechanism was blocked.  I went and got pliers.  This delivered smears of black grease to various points of the toolbox.  I went and got solvent, biodegradable citrus of course.  This left more smudges.  I went and got old rags and toothbrushes.  This further anointed the kitchen and back room with dark smears.

Finally the chain came apart.  I dropped it into a jar and poured on citrus solvent.  Next, the rear wheel.  I dribbled citrus on the gear cluster and started brushing.  Chips of gritty black flicked off, and dirty orange-scented oil sprayed with each stroke.  I pulled strips of blackening rag back and forth between the gears.  It was a chill morning.  The cutoff sweat pants weren’t enough.  Fortunately, some of the rags were still wearable.

On the derailleur gears, the black deposits were so thick I literally peeled off the first layer.  As the bike got cleaner, I bore the brunt.  My legs and ankles were freckled by drops of flung spray.  Squatting over the awkward metal, I would sway back and get poked by the pine needles.  I had dirty orange solvent dripping down to my elbows.  Finally it was done.

Yes, the pie pan was too tipsy.  The hot wax spilled on the first try, but I got it back together.  Into that melted paraffin went the oddly silver chain.  I let it cook, then drew it forth.  I carried it outdoors to cool.  There was so much orange solvent splashed around the back yard, it smelled like Florida after a tornado.

I got myself unto the shower, and the gunk would not quit.  Smears of black appeared on the floor of the bathtub.  Of course chips of the tarry buildup had tracked into the bathroom on the soles of my bare feet.  They were now streaking into a craze of Chinese brushstrokes across the once-white porcelain.

Finally the job was done.  I think it’s been worth it.  Now, when I go pick up a rental car, I can shove my bike in the back seat and not leave permanent black stencil marks all over the upholstery.  The job of re-paraffining every couple of weeks is almost fun.  More like a science project now, than an autopsy.

But I’m a little nervous.  I can’t talk about this too much.  Sure, it’s nice to be clean and suave.  But what will people say?  I’m going so mainstream!  I have given in to the allure of waxing!

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North Rim

Cruising north out of Flagstaff, I suddenly realized where I was. I popped the library CD out of the deck and surfed FM channels.

Lately I have experimented with the cultural norm of listening to CDs. I’m sure everybody else, years ago, got their CD player, figured out what kind of music they liked, and built up their collection. They have their folder of tunes slipped in little plastic sleeves, and they run them every moment they are in the car.

Me, finally after months, I realized every rental car has a CD player. You can’t very well read while you’re driving, you can’t check email. It’s a workaholic’s nightmare anyway, so, to pass the time, why not?

I owned a total of one CD. I played it till I knew every song. Then I noticed, the library had CDs. Well, all you have to say is “library CDs”, and people nod knowingly. Maybe a good artist, but not his or her best. Why else would it have ended up in the library? But I was in for some long drives, so I stocked up.

To the Denver airport, it had been 60’s pop medley. Technically well done; but that psychedelic stuff loses something without the funk. Singing it, had to be either a Christian choir, or a gay chorus. I could not tell which. The world over, and probably all through history, groups of people who have the hardest time with each other, (Arabs vs. Jews, Protestant vs. Catholic Irish, Iowa vs. Nebraska) nobody else can even tell them apart!

Never thought of that before with gays vs. Christians. Both are painfully nice. Both are sadly misunderstood by the general population, who continually worry those people are going to try to convert them. And they both do great vocals.

Phoenix from the air looks like a toy city, but somebody stuck big chunks of rock in the model. Gaunt desert mountains jut abruptly out of checkerboard neighborhoods. The hours north, driving through hillsides of paloverde trees and blooming saguaro cactus, the tunes had been Boy George, Kenny Loggins, and Dan Fogleberg; none of them very memorable. I was pretty close to the bottom of the CD barrel by the time I arrived in the Ponderosa parks around Flagstaff. Now something better was out there.

The pines thinned mile by mile as I dropped in elevation towards the desert. The channel seek kept finding only NPR. Finally I caught it. Station KGHR, 91.5 FM, broadcasting from Tuba City. Oh, this was a prize! Navaho radio, “native voices”. I loved it.

There was an old woman chanting. Minutes of repetitive tones. Totally unintelligible to me. But, I expect, one of their traditional chants they have been singing at least a century of two. Not a bit “produced”. Raw sound, as though you’re in the room with her. I felt so honored. I felt like such a pahana tourist.

  “Pahana”: Hopi word for “white person”.

The purple, green, and chocolate hills of the Painted Desert rolled by. Next on the airwaves was a male singer, evidently off an album, more a radio kind of thing. It was a love song, but with that unmistakable Indian flavor. “…Her hair was black as chokecherries, her lips tasted like buffaloberries…”.

I couldn’t help wondering if the artist were messing with us. Buffaloberries (Shepherdia) are intensely tart, piquant. Too concentrated a flavor to take much of at once. Maybe Native men like their women that way. Maybe I like my men that way too. Maybe I am that kind of man.

But after the sensory overload of a buffaloberry, the aftertaste calls you back for more. Working in Western river bottoms where  those berries grow, I seek them out. Maybe this singer meant what he said after all. Makes as much sense as the Anglo “kisses sweeter then wine”. They both make you pucker up.

All too soon, KGHR faded out, as I cruised through The Gap, took the turn to Marble Canyon, and crossed the bridge over the green Colorado River far below.

I pulled off at Cliff Dweller, as we had prearranged. There were four rigs of us altogether. The young men and women piled out and went inside the restaurant for a pee stop. Edgar and I hung out.

“You ever been through here before?” he asked.

“This general area,” I replied, “Just a year ago, coming back from Havasu. North from Flag, but I turned back there,” I gestured south and east, “And went through Kayenta, four corners. And we had a project in Escalante National Monument just north of here, three, four years in a row. So I was in Kanab and Page. The first year I worked it, we camped up on this mesa a couple weeks, so remote we were helicoptered in. A lonely place. At night you could just barely see car lights way, way off in the distance to the south. Could’ve been this highway here.”

I thought about it, “But I haven’t been on this very road since, let’s see, 1977! A couple of us in the Northwest got this wild idea, to escape the rain and go to Tucson for the winter. We came through Jacob Lake, and I remember Marble Canyon. It was early October when we got there. Tucson had cooled down to a hundred and three at night.”

We laughed.

Towering to the north, behind the buildings, were the Vermilion Cliffs, tall stacks of red sandstone, roughly matching a set we had passed on the other side of the river on the way here. Here, the road followed a roughly level platform below the breaks, and the river canyon was a wide crack in the ground.

Edgar indicated the cliffs. “They say they’re slowly receding.” I knew what he meant. A hard layer of rock above, and a softer one below. Erosion takes the soft stuff away, undercuts the hard, till it spalls off in chunks. Over geologic time, the cliffs remain cliffs, but become farther from the river.

“Yeah,” I squinted up at the rock masses, deadpan, “I think they’re a little farther back since 1977.” Dry, geologic chuckles.

the vermilion cliffs

Vermilion cliffs.

Several miles west, we turned south off the highway onto a dirt road. I took it slow, for the little car’s low clearance, and to hang back from the other rigs’ dust.

It must have been a wet winter. Desert flowers were blooming all along the track. There were great bushes of white Prickly Poppy, tall spires of yellow Prince’s Plume, and, in places, almost a lawn of Desert Dandelion. In the distance, there were splashes of color across the valley floor that could only have been Globe Mallow. It was an absolutely saturated orange, so bright it didn’t look real. It was easily as solid a color as the red of the sandstone.

Grasses waved in the breeze and poked up tall between slats of cattle guards. I mentally inventoried the species, and thought of ways to teach lookalikes. These two both splay, but notice that one dangles down while this one sticks up. These two kinds look like an artist’s paintbrush; but, see, this one is random, while that one has two tidy ranks, like a stalk of wheat. Those hairs? The hairs are called “awns”.

I had arrived on the doorstep of Sky Island Preserve (SIP) the evening before. They are a conservation nonprofit, mission to protect and restore the local lands. Edgar’s project was to inventory the holdings and grazing allotments of two ranches they’d recently bought. The ranches were a huge, remote, and magnificent spread.

Sometimes, my job feels like a trapeze act, or being some kind of secret agent. I had been in email touch with Edgar a few weeks. He was interested in using our methods for his survey.

We too were interested in them using our methods. In scientific research, fame is important as money. It leads to money. If we can say such-and-such organizations (a long, impressive list) are all doing research based on our work, well then we must obviously be the leaders, tops in our field. So, you, Congress, or whoever, obviously should continue to fund us, bigtime.

One of our thrusts lately is getting all our stuff posted on the web, so even more people can use it, and further increase our fame. Well, the stuff itself works well, but it’s a matter of getting it across, how to use it.

I, of course, built most of the stuff, so it seems logical I should write it up. Well, the guy who built it is the worst to explain it, because he knows how it works. But there’s nobody else, so I am writing and writing and writing. Trying to imagine I don’t know what I know, can’t understand what I understand, and basically have never seen it before.

It’s pure gold when I meet a naïve user. Find out whether I am getting it across. With Edgar and his project, somewhere in Arizona, we had struck gold. Day by day, I would get polite, excited, but very baffled emails. Does it do this? Of course it does that, I would write back, all you have to do is this. Can it do that? Oh it was built to do that! All you need to do is go in and do such and so.

And I’m thinking, but I wrote that up. It’s right there in paragraph 142z, diagram 96a. Howcome people aren’t getting it? Well, I was getting feedback. This had to be front and center, while that could be back a few pages. Also, I was learning, people setting up a project are frazzled,  not in the leisure mode to wade through tomes of documentation.

Than, at the last minute, the download logger broke. The download logger tallies who downloads what. The download logger records the raw material for our long, impressive lists of users. Without it, we have no idea who has our stuff, if they’re happy with it, or are badmouthing us over some glitch we could easily fix. So in a frenzy, I pulled the plug on downloads, and posted:  “If you need stuff, ask me.  Send me email.”

It was obvious SIP, somewhere in Arizona, was not going to get it from our website in time. They’d helped us, so I wanted to help them. “Why don’t you send me down there a few days?” I asked the boss. He gave the nod. The secret agent part began. The dark car pulling up in the middle of the night in the rain. I bundled inside, and was soon winging through the air in a private jet. Ok, ok, a commercial airliner.

I wonder if real secret agents have to deal with this. The slip of paper with the rendezvous point. Nowadays, of course, it’s would be an electronic text message, mysteriously appearing in your mobile shoe-phone. Meet Saturday afternoon, 16:00 hours, 1913 E Mesa Park Ave. Somewhere in Arizona.

They forgot to tell me what city. Oh well, all in a day’s work. If I can write some of the leading field data acquisition software in the world, I can certainly work around a little detail like that.

I pulled up to SIP headquarters at the appointed hour. A few of the newly hired field people were there, and the rest soon arrived. Eight young men and two young women. This was a plum job, and Edgar had selected them from a broad field of applicants. Obviously highly qualified, they asked good questions, and dove right in to getting things ready.

I met Edgar. He looked at me in surprise. Finally he got the words out, “I didn’t expect such a big beard,” he laughed.

“What? Balding and pocket protectors?” I joshed.

“Yeah, more like that,” he admitted, “From computer programming.”

I nodded towards the new team. “That’s where I came from,” I said, “I’m a field guy from way back. After working enough projects with lame data collection, I finally lucked into a place where I could do it right. Make it work the way we need it to.”

Late into the night, we worked prepping, arranging and setting up. Still later in the night, I sat with Edgar loading, marking, labeling, and testing. Good for me to see what all I’d need to put upfront in my documentation, what questions would come up first. In the morning, I took the crews through the initial paces of the equipment, and we set out for our field site.

Three hours later we got to our destination, in the middle of utter, spectacular desolation. We pulled up to the old ranch house “It was completely unlivable when we bought the place,” Edgar had said.

The old ranch house.

The old ranch house.

A wiry little man, gray moustache, shirt off, was working in front of a side building. This was Clem, who had restored the old stone and adobe structure to habitability.

Us new arrivals hauled in supplies and rustled up lunch, taco salad, cuisine from the NOLS cookbook. We set up office mostly on porches, or even out in the grass. Space was too limited inside the few buildings, and much of that was still construction zone. Electrical power was from deep-cycle batteries, through an inverter.

After lunch, under the bright afternoon sun we held a session on plant ID. The teams were sure learning their weeds — that’s about all there were around the ranch buildings. Then we laid out a practice plot.

people looking on as we explain field methods

No matter what, we are always standing on sacred ground.

I think there is a gene that gets activated in a certain strain of young people, about the second or third decade of life. In me, it was set off by the threat of nuclear Armageddon, during the chilliest years of the Cold War. Ok, what if we bomb ourselves back to the Stone Age? How would I survive? What do you eat? Well, plants seemed likely. So I soaked up botanical knowledge like a sponge.

Maybe something psychologically like the Cold War is still going on, because I continue to meet young men in the throes of fascination with Edible and Useful Wild Plants. Different names: “Ethnobotany”, “Natural products”, “Alternative crops”, “Wildcrafting”. This team definitely held a good proportion of these folks. I felt very at home.

tiny flower

Under magnification, some things you recognize.

tiny flower

Others go abstract.

They were eager, but intimidated by the seeming scope of the subject. I tried to reassure them. “Hey, I can only remember a few new species per day. Only thing is, I’ve been at it longer. And I forget ’em about as fast as I learn ’em!” Chuckles from the crowd. “That’s what these are for,” I tapped a PDA. “Let the computers remember stuff for you. You just look, and tell things apart.”

I demonstrated why all the equipment was festooned with brightly colored plastic flagging ribbon. I flicked a PDA stylus off in the weeds and, rhetorically, “Could you find it now, without the flag?” Then, sidelong, “Mental note: Next time in Arizona, something besides orange.” All my flagging was the exact color of Globe Mallow.

Finished with a species, someone would ask about a new kind, “What’s this one?” We, the experts, turned it this way and that. The crew folks stood with pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks. We pointed out features, key points, mnemonics, lore, secrets. They dutifully jotted notes and sketched pictures. The name. How do you spell it? Is that “F” or “PH”?

It took awhile to get across to them how easy it could be. I’m not sure they entirely believed me, even by the end of my stay there. You don’t really need to know what a plant is. You just need to be able to tell it apart. Then, make up your own name for it, describe it in the PDA, and you can use that like any other identifier. It’s a placeholder name, an “Unknown Code”. But make it so someone else, later, can figure out what the Unknown Code refers to — take pictures or specimens.

view across the desert

View beyond the ranch house. In the dark of night you can only see one single light, far, far away.

In the slanting rays of evening, back at the house, Clem remarked, “Pretty nice front yard.” Understatement. The view stretched easily ten miles, long and broad through the expansive valley. The red slab of the Vermilion Cliffs stood as the north horizon. The lighter limestone slopes of the Kaibab Plateau shouldered in from the west. We, at the ranch HQ, were snuggled up into a southern tuck of that massif. In the eastern distance, a broad crack in the earth snaked across the plain; the rim of Marble Canyon, the walls dropping straight down. Far, far away, blue in the distance and at the limit of vision, lay the low-slung contour of Fiftymile Mountain in Utah, where we had camped in our study in 1999, my first season out here.

I could almost hear the background music, harmonicas and strings. This was the Old West, about as real as it gets anymore. Somehow laptop computers and Tungsten PDAs did not much spoil the effect.

Desert lilies among the stones.

Desert lilies among the stones.

I have friends who are experts on cowboy history. One surprise, leafing through their books, I learned real cowboys did not much look like the Hollywood version. The hats, for example. What we think of as a “cowboy hat” is such an archetype it instantly evokes the mystique, whether spotted in the Phoenix airport, the pancake house in Moab, or clopping on rake-heeled point-toed boots towards the Denver (gay bar) Wrangler. Yet, actual historic cowboy hats were nothing like that. The headgear was of great variety, but generally narrower-brimmed and smaller. A hat you’d see on Frank Sinatra would have been at home on a cowboy of similar epoch.

We look down through so many layers of cowboy romance, it’s hard to see what life was really like. Hints survive that it was boring, grueling, and made you really appreciate simple pleasures.

Who were the first cowboys? And what was life like in that new-minted realm, before there even was a word for “cowboy”.

Ok, here’s your chance to get in on the ground floor. The IPO of a new genre of romance. We don’t even have a name yet. But here we are, out in the prairies and mountains and riparian corridors. For an Unknown Code, let’s use “nowboys”, with the understanding we are of course of all genders, and gender preferences. That’s part of the romance, and trouble.

In the late evening, just before sunset, I hiked up behind the ranch house to have a look around. The land sloped up towards the top of the Kaibab Plateau. Tilted sedimentary layers generally followed the trend of the land, though they were scalloped and carved by small side canyons. I walked up onto one ramp, and the whitish limestone was studded with fossils. I had never seen so many fossils. Even I could recognize sea shells, things like clams and snails. Also chunks of coral, sticking right out of the rock. Nothing was preserved perfectly. Everything always looks a little careworn in the desert, but these ocean relics fit; as natural as the silvered trunks of Apache Plume.

It was mind boggling. There had been a sea here, and now there was no sea. Dried up, drained away — it didn’t matter. For all these water creatures, it would simply have been The End Of The World, so far as they, or any of their friends, knew.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

Desert land, once a coral reef.

On around the hillslope, the land was sculpted into steplike layers a few feet thick. I walked on older and older strata as I worked around into one of the side canyons. It seemed like the top of each layer, as it lay exposed, was thick with shells, and shattered branches of coral. Finger-size to wrist-thick, they matched the look of dead desert shrubs. The wood of those curving sticks lie broken but recognizable for years as they, ever so slowly, molder into the ground.

Was each one of these layers, too, an End Of The World? A huge storm, an ancient hurricane that smashed a reef, or poured a layer of mud on top, smothering and entombing all the shelled mollusks and coral?

This idea is not new with me, that most geologic features mark cataclysms. Yes, off the coast of Florida, limy precipitates settle from the water, particle by particle, like snow. Yes, sand dunes drift, their grains ticking in the wind. Yes, sometimes the stuff that will eons later be rock is laid down gradually. But many, many of the things we see mark The End Of The World.

About halfway up the Vermilion Cliffs are layers of purple and green. As far as I can tell, the same volcanic deposits that, by a quirk of tectonics, are laid out broad as the Painted Desert. The day those ash clouds fell from the sky, it was surely the End Of The World for any living thing there.

Farther south on the climb to Flagstaff, there is a point where the smooth, tawny sedimentary layers are suddenly overlain by chunky black basalt. The day that red-hot lava rolled forth, another End Of The World.

Back on the limestone, it seems the coral and shells are more abundant in the upper layers. Was the sea becoming shallower, the habitat getting better and better, in general, for our marine friends? And then finally, the ultimate End of their World, dry land.

When city life gets to be too much, I comfort myself with the thought about our civilization. When eroded and covered by the millions of years of geologic processes, it will likely compress to a layer a few inches thick at most. The traces of our building may be recognizable as a stratum slightly enriched in, perhaps, iron from all the re-bar, or copper from all the wires.

I slept that night out under the stars, nowboy style. It was a perfect spring evening on the range. Of course I got far enough from the ranch house to avoid most of the little prickly things that could pop a hole in your Therm-a-Rest. Weeds have their soft side. Filaree blooms pretty little purple flowers, early. A stand of wild barley shimmers in the breeze, pink, silver and sea-green, like silky waves of grain. But when they ripen and shatter, watch out. One thing that makes a good weed is a way to get it planted. Many of them have seeds like needles, velcro, or anti-tank weaponry.

Part of the nowboy way is passing along this culture of the Western outdoors. I couldn’t escape the sense that I was cast as the grizzled, venerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. And my role was to teach, and guide, and set impossible tasks for the new young ones coming along, some of them their first time off pavement.

Mark my word, this nowboy stuff will be the heart-touching romance of the next century. There will be songs, movies, and even a rack of the 22nd century equivalent of paperbacks in the 22nd century equivalent of supermarkets. It’s got to be. We’ll be the heroes who saved the world from environmental destruction. Or else, even more romantic, who tried against all odds but couldn’t. Either way, we’ll be set.

All the more culturally iconic, we’ll be obsolete. Why bother with the mud and dust when Starfleet technology will allow you to map a planet from low orbit, right down to the microorganisms? There will be tourist re-enactments of ecology surveys. Little kids will go out dressed like us for Halloween (of course, with all the clothing wrong). And gay guys will fantasize about what it would have been like to do it with us in our dome tents, in those ancient, primitive, but heart-wrenchingly romantic days of yesteryear.

At first Clem, the wiry little handyman, rubbed me the wrong way. Then I realized why. We were in competition for the role of grizzled, vanerable, and somewhat peculiar old nowboy. The situation just set it up. After I got it conscious, it didn’t bother me any more. Plenty of elbow room out on the range. And why not a team of peculiar old nowboys?

We had some good laughs. One of the concepts it took the trainees a bit to master was how, on the PDAs, you didn’t quit a program. You just exit to the Home screen, and that puts it away for you.

Clem, overhearing, warbled, “There’s no place like Home!”

Picking up on that, “Just click here, three times,” I instructed, “On the icon of the Ruby Slippers, and say…”

Next day we went out to our first plot. After the long process of muddling around and getting the locations set up, we started on the vegetation. Away from my home ecosystem, I did not recognize many of the species.

Crouching over the plot, I examined a tiny plant. “Looks like a Steptonia,” I muttered.

“A what?” they cried. They had pencils poised over Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks, ready to jot and sketch.

“Oh, uh, like a Deadula,” I backpedaled, “You know, a dead plant. Stepped-on-ia. It’s been stepped on. You can’t tell what it is.

Sure enough, I lost my hand lens for awhile, even with the orange flagging, out among all the Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

Globe Mallow.

After a couple of days, as their beards sprouted, some of the young guys started looking good to me. Of course I would never hit on a man who wasn’t into it, but I enjoyed being around them. It was the masculine ones caught my eye. The ones with the chiseled features, thick arms, or a certain aggressiveness — always out there asking the most questions, wanting to learn or help. I laughed at myself. So much for gaydar. Probably more likely to be gay were the skinny ones, the plain ones, the ones invisible in their quiet competence. The ones I never noticed. The ones most like I was at that age.

The night before I left, the wind howled, and a spatter of rain fell. Tents tumbled and loose gear went AWOL. We had figured out to knock the camp chairs over on their backs when nobody was sitting in them, or they would soon be in that position anyway, if not airborne. Still, it gave an alarming impression at first glance that somebody had gunned down the Senate.

All the electronics and printer paper went under cover when we were away. One of the first things I learned about the desert was, it may not rain as often, but when it does it’s just as wet as anywhere else.

No sleeping under the stars that last night. I’d stayed up late, one thing after another, showing them how to print, press, catalog, and through it all keep things from blowing away. It was late — by out-on-the-range standards, anyway — nearly 9:30 at night. I flipped the seats down and curled up in the rental car.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Spring flowers, and cliffs beyond.

Next morning I said my goodbyes and headed out across the brilliant rain-washed landscape. Ok, rain-dampened. Across the Painted Desert there was a radio spot about Navaho and Hopi veterans, and how the different tribes handle their healing ceremonies; Navaho through the community, while among the Hopi it’s a family thing. Then more raw sound, kids in a classroom, singing something in native tongue.

Flying out of Phoenix, a cold front had come through, same system that brought last night’s wind up north. It was frigid for that time of year, below 90°F.

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May Day

“I saw some blue sky!” the man exclaimed.

“Oh, don’t hope on that,” I chided, “Here in Colorado, there’ll be blue sky soon enough. We’re always glad for some rain.

Maybe the first of May conjures up visions of balmy springtime, but this is the second time May Day has been blustery and spitting snow. The first time it dampened spirits at a Beltane gathering in Fort Collins. This time it made challenging another event that, I suppose, could be considered a sort of religious ceremony.

We were in the food line. There was fruit, cake, cold cuts, and a baked egg dish. Light breakfast fare after the service.

“Are you from around here?” I asked. People were from all over. One busload, about half the congregation of a church in Denver.

“I live in Virginia,” the man said, “It rains there a lot!” he chuckled.

I made smalltalk, complementing the East on being so green. You look different when you’re not on stage, I might have said. But I didn’t. It had dawned on me who he was. But I thought, you have to be Famous every minute. Let’s just let it be my little gift to you that you don’t have to be Famous with me. We chatted a bit more about the weather, and drifted on.

He was the Reverend Mel White, founder of Soulforce. He used to be ghostwriter for religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell, Billy Graham, and Pat Robertson. He fought for decades against the fact that he himself was gay. Then he finally accepted it, came out, and is now an activist. He had been the featured speaker here the past couple of days. Maybe he wondered why I didn’t recognize him. He has a different presence off stage. And, hey, all men without beards look alike to me.

So, this is how I spent my May Day weekend; at the Soulforce rally in Colorado Springs. I take the attitude that if you go to a demonstration, you do it for your own personal reasons, and have no expectation it will change anything. It was kind of fun, hobnobbing with all the other GLBT people and catching up on what’s going on.

I rode down with Jimmy Cole, a sweet older man in his 70’s. No spark there, but it was a good connection. Now that I think of it, kind of parental. Like with my parents. They are old, and somehow I get a lot out of helping them, serving them. Atonement? For being such a trial to them earlier in life? Guilt appeasement? Probably more like, now that they are old, roles are reversing. I get to be the parent, the one in charge, doing things. And what could be a better affirmation than to do little things that are easy for me, that only take patience and no other effort, but that obviously make so much difference for somebody else? Cheap cop out!

So, with Jimmy Cole, I was looking out that he wasn’t tiring himself, that his aching back was doing OK, that he was getting what he needed. We got to The Springs early, and made a stop at Garden of the Gods. We talked as he tottered as best he could on a short stroll among the towering red and white sandstone monoliths.

There were things about the weekend I didn’t much like, such as going to church. Nothing against church in particular, but sometime in my early 40’s I realized I had lost the ability to be in certain situations. The general pattern is, anything where there is a group of people, and I am in that group, and someone is standing up in front talking, and I am supposed to take them seriously. This cuts out all church services (except a few meditations like Quaker Meeting); school classes (unless, I get to talk, like at Speakers Bureau); most slideshows, presentations, ceremonies, etc.

It took me awhile to realize the pattern. I’d find myself wanting to either get disruptive, leave, or fall asleep. One way or another, get out of there. I trust it. I think the cosmic reason it happened was to get me out of school, so I would not waste any more of my life in structured education.

So, I really had to force myself to sit through the MCC church service. I get seething like this, even when I totally respect the people talking, and I like what they stand for. I can handle it about once a year. I made it easier by planting myself next to the handsomest man in the building, a straight ally of course, but with a nice ginger-colored beard, the only full beard the whole weekend, climbing all up his face and down to the edge of his neck.

The congregation held all sorts of people. I liked the little touches, such as the (woman) minister saying, “Rise, as you’re able” when it was time to stand up for the hymns or something. Acknowledgement of ability, and disability. Across the way I noticed a person, a woman who obviously used to be a man. Had done it fairly well. Like, “Transition, as you’re able,” I guess.

A trans woman once explained it to me. “Unless you start very young,” she had said, “Or spend a fortune on plastic surgery, you are never going to look like a natural woman. The bone structure of your face changes.” She was middle aged, and I had at first taken her for just that. Tall, rather angular, and, I have to admit, somewhat dowdy; but she carried it all in a feminine way. Her partner though, another trans woman, I don’t think will ever look like anything but a man in drag. Oh, well; we all do the best with what we’ve got.

The woman across the room had strawberry blonde hair, fine chiseled features, and would have been handsome as either gender. She was tall, and must have had a hard time finding high heel shoes big enough to fit. As I have learned to see trans folk, I am intrigued watching them, kind of like those optical illusion pictures that are two things at the same time. I see the gender they used to be, shifting back and forth with the gender they are now, the gender they feel themselves always to have been even when the body lied.

Another part of the fascination, as I learn more, is how their particular issues are so different than “gay” issues. For example gay men doing drag are coming from an utterly different place than trans women. Drag queens do their thing for camp, or outrageousness, or performance. For trans people, it’s part of a long arduous journey home, which asks sacrifices most of us can not even imagine. Of course it’s not so black and white, and we are all in the same big boat from oppression. I am in awe, though, knowing trans folk’s paths have been so much more difficult than my own, plain old white bread gay. By comparison, I’m almost mainstream. I mean, we’re even on TV.

After MCC we went and had our demonstration by this place called Focus on the Family (FOTF), at the north end of Colorado Springs. The gist of the rally was Dr. Dobson, who I had never heard of till somebody told me about the planned event a couple months ago. Dr. Dobson supposedly has a media listenership of hundreds of millions of people, in countries and languages spanning the globe. Dobson has been spreading homophobic distortions and half-truths to the point that a very good argument can be made that he is causing the death of GLBT people. Parents, for example, look to him for spiritual guidance. When their kids come out as gay, the parents get down on them so hard, reject them and tell them they are abominations, so there are suicides.

Anyway, there were some hundreds of us out there. The police were very friendly and cooperative. They closed off a street for the event, and set up parking. FOTF neatly sidestepped any confrontation by being “closed” for a few days, claiming some problem in the buildings.

The people speaking were very good. The whole thing felt more like a street fair. But it was cold. The foothills in the distance were dusted white, and the leaden gray sky spit snow. I was glad I’d come so well equipped, and I bundled up.

I saw a few people I knew. One woman, or how can I say it? A man and his partner were familiar. I recognized them from a campout the previous June. I went over and talked to them.

“Oh yeah,” he said, “I was trying to figure out where I knew you from.” His name was Andy. He and his partner Charlotte and I chatted a while. They told me about what had originally brought them to The Springs, and we caught up on news.

“I’m further along in my transition now,” he remarked by and by. Those 11 months ago, I had been introduced to them as a lesbian couple. I could only imagine all they had been through, underlying that casual comment about transitioning.

“You know,” I said, “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand trans stuff. But I’ve decided,” I quickly added, “I don’t need to understand it. My only job here is to say ‘Yes!’. Absolutely, unequivocally ‘YES!’. There are lots of people who will never understand my being gay. It’s the same thing.”

Sometimes with trans guys I am tempted to say something like welcome to the world of men. But it seems kind of pompous. I mean, who knows more about it? Me, who never had to do anything, or they who worked so hard for it?

Early afternoon, Jimmy Cole found me in the crowd. “I’m f-f-f-freezing!” he exclaimed, so we hit the road. We talked on the drive back north. The rally had been very pointedly non-violent, Gandhi-ian and Martin Luther King. All about loving your enemy, and not playing into their own small minded perspective.

“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe I’m naïve, but why don’t we just sue them? How violent would that be? Just a civil suit, like a class action against some industrial polluter for example? Seeking compensation for them having ‘polluted’ the social climate so much some of us are being killed. It should be easy to show.”

“It’s ridiculous of course,” I went on, “But it would get attention, publicity. Which as far as I can see is the whole point. And it would hit them in the pocketbook, or threaten to. Which is the whole reason they’re fabricating this ‘gay menace’, to scare people into sending contributions.”

When Jim dropped me off, he was all excited to see the TV coverage. I was not intending to watch the news, knowing it would only get me incensed. I have been in the media a lot, mostly over 20 years ago when I was on peace walks and bike rides. I quickly learned the news story would always be wrong. Errors in things you’d expect would be facts — names, dates, places. But more, the spin they put on it. Always, the media clip would bear no relation to what I thought I was doing there. Not even opposite. Just no relationship whatsoever.

Jimmy I guess had higher expectations. About 10:00pm the phone rang. “It was about twenty seconds total!” he fumed, “They gave more time to a cat up a tree!”

They had showed our side. They had showed the response from FOTF, an “ex-lesbian” saying homosexuality was an abomination and against God’s law. And they had showed the Fred Phelps people, who had been picketing outside the MCC church.

There had been maybe 5 picketers total, waving colorful but nearly inarticulate signs. Some of the placards said things like “God Hates Fags” as you might expect. But there were others bearing the likes of “Pope in Hell” and “Thank God for 9/11”. I could not figure out what they were getting at but I though, hey, free speech. The picketers showed up just long enough for the cameras, then disappeared.

But on the news, it was like the rally, FOTF, and the Phelps people got equal weight. The Phelps people had at some point in the past even picketed FOTF, saying FOTF was too liberal. So the spin was like FOTF had the “balanced” perspective, and was middle-of-the-road.

A few lonely picketers outside the MCC church.

A few lonely picketers outside the MCC church.

Jimmy ranted and raved. “I’m going to call that station and demand they give truer coverage!”

“Good luck,” I said. It really was pretty obnoxious. Sure enough, I was incensed, as I had known I would be. I tried to calm him down. All I could think to offer was the long perspective. “One little rally is not going to change the world. The media is going to distort, dismiss, and marginalize us, just like they always have. Hey I have an idea. You might want to contact Mel White in person. Ask him how he keeps his faith in the face of all this. Because it’s always like this. Seriously, I think you should talk to him.”

The rally had been fun for once in a while. But in the middle of it I thought, here we are all just talking to each other.

The Speakers Bureau is much more my kind of thing. I can put my ideas in front of people I know have different opinions, and try to change them. There is no media between me and my listeners to distort my words. And I am doing the most effective thing, it has been shown, to sway the great 80% in the middle — put a live human face on at least one GLBT person.

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Biking Maui, part 8. Haleakala.

I got a taste of that climbing, and coasting, when I went up to Haleakala. I decided to take it easy on my legs and get shuttled up. At first, I made arrangements with the Haleakala Bike Company (HBC, 808-575-9575) in Haiku. I was going to be camping, so they gave me a very good deal. They considered the shuttle up to be only “half” of one of their tours, so they quoted me half price on their trip that left at 9:00 am. That came to only $22.25, very reasonable.

I waited about a week, timing my trip for what I hoped would be drier weather. A few days before I was scheduled, though, I made a new acquaintance, and we planned a day hike in the Haleakala crater. On the way up, he took me and my bike to Hosmer Grove. I canceled with HBC, and it was something of a relief. Getting from where I was staying in Kihei, all the way to Haiku by 8:30 in the morning, with full camping packs, would have been a pull.

There had been a certain elegance in the idea of coasting down ten thousand feet. I had a touch of disappointment, first talking to the bike company. They can only legally take bikes to the entrance of Haleakala NP, elevation about 7,000 feet. And then, technically, the destination is their shop in Haiku, which is not sea level. I shouldn’t whine. I saw their clients a couple times, masses of red-helmeted people coasting down the roads all in a string. By early afternoon they were getting into the lowlands. They looked like folks who maybe didn’t ride bikes much in their everyday lives. But, hey, they seemed happy.

Hosmer Grove campground is near the Haleakala National Park (NP) entrance, also about 7,000 feet elevation.  The “grove” is different kinds of temperate zone trees brought to Hawaii by the forester Hosmer, to see if they would be suitable for timber.  None of them were.  Something about falling over in storms.  But some of the species have found the Maui uplands very much to their liking in terms of growth and reproduction.  So the Park has to continually cut trees from the edges to keep the grove from spreading.  Otherwise forest would eventually take over the whole band of native shrubland, which the Park is mandated to preserve.  Why don’t they just cut it all down and be done with it?  Well, the grove is just too nice, I guess.  It’s full of twittering birds, and it’s such a comfort and haven after being out in the intense mountain sun, and sometimes intense wind.

Hosmer Grove is probably the least complicated place to camp on Maui.  There are no fees, and no reservations; first-come-first-served.  There’s drinking water and toilets.  You can make a campfire in a fire ring, and there is abundant free firewood from all the trees they have to cut down.  There are other campsites in the park, but they are in the crater, so out of the question for bike access.  I am going on about this because, reading the lists and descriptions before I got to Maui, it wasn’t at all clear what was what.

If you do want a backcountry experience on the top of Maui, the other camping areas are a substantial hike in. You can easily find out the details, but here’s a local tidbit that is not advertised.  The official picture is this:

  • you either camp with your own tent, no reservations needed, or
  •  you stay in one of the cabins, which require reservations months in advance, and even then there’s a lottery.

Now here’s the tidbit.  You can call the Park the day before you want to stay at a cabin. If the reserved party has cancelled, you get it for the night with your credit card number.

Looking east into Haleakala crater

Looking east into Haleakala crater, roughly in the direction of Hana.

I was happy to spend my days at Hosmer Grove. I had given up aspirations of biking to the top. I wanted to learn more about the geology and ecology of the volcanoes. I had already been to the summit on a car trip, and then again on my day hike into the crater.

It is a Maui thing to do to go to the summit for sunset or sunrise. On the first car trip, we timed it for sunset. Once was enough. Not much to see below, except clouds. Someone had big binoculars, and it was enlightening to look at the snow banks over on the Big Island, the thirteener mountains of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea.

Sunset from Haleakala, looking over the observatory.

Sunset from Haleakala, looking over the observatory. People who think it spoils the view call it "Science City".

But standing on Maui at ten thousand feet, it was cold. That sun took an awful long time to go down! My first evening at Hosmer, other campers were making their plans to waken in the wee hours and hitchhike up to the summit for sunrise. My one summit sunset had been enough. I figured the sunrise would find me just as well anywhere I was.

I took a leisurely morning on the nature trails, learning about Hawaiian plants, birds, and wildlife. This is my personal idea of fun. Being a botanist, it was like having traveled to another planet. Maybe to other people it would be nothing more than bushes that looked a little odd. But to me, here was stuff like nowhere else on earth. I could scarcely even tell what it was related to.

It really was like another planet. In scifi stories, the colonists bring earthly life forms in their starship to a new solar system. Then they are all marooned, for epochs. The surviving species mutate and evolve. Maybe clover grows into trees, grass starts bearing nutlets, bats don’t need to fly anymore and learn to walk. The stuff on these uplands really was like that, to my biologist’s eye.

About the middle of the day, I pedaled the mile or so up the road to the headquarters (HQ) visitor center. I spent a couple hours reading books, and bought a few. Now that some of my curiosity was satisfied about these strange life forms, I decided to go out and have another look at them.

Pulling out of the parking lot, I could go either uphill or downhill. I’d come from downhill and seen that. I cranked along, leisurely, looking at the endemic shrubland. Being from Colorado, the altitude was no problem.

Before I knew it, I’d gone a mile. Then another mile. I have no need to go to the top, I told myself. When I’ve seen enough, I’ll just turn around and coast down. Another mile. Interesting little tree there, with golden flowers like pea blossoms. And that bush with coral purple berries. The name of that’s in the book.

Another mile. Another. That bridge, I bet when it rains, there’s a waterfall over that black basalt. A little pool in the rock hollow now. How many people ever get to see that, zooming by in their cars? Eight thousand feet elevation. Here’s the pulloff to that crater trailhead, Halemauu. Guy last night at Hosmer was talking about hitching up here. And isn’t that cool! The park has made a special pullout, just for hitchhikers! It even says so.

What’s this? Only six more miles to the summit? Funny, it’s still pretty much the same vegetation along here. That mile wasn’t so hard. Now only five? The long runs of these switchbacks are uphill south, so you get a little extra push from the prevailing northerly breeze. Will slow you down on the descent too. Descent. I can just turn around and go down any time I please.

How did I miss a mile marker? Must’ve got broken off. Now it’s only, what? Three miles? Four? Leleiwi overlook, pretty neat. Bushes are finally starting to thin out. Nine thousand feet elevation. Just bare black and red lava. There’s a silversword plant. Another one over there. Like the ones they have planted on display at the summit parking lot.

And there’s the summit observation building, like a glass pagoda, on the ridge right up over there. Can’t be far. Another mile. Here’s the Visitor Center already. With those signs for the tourists “High Elevation, Walk Slow”. There’s the trailhead we took yesterday, a ways down the Sliding Sands.

OK, I’ll bike slow. Middle ring has done good up till now, but this last mile is steeper. Shift to the granny gear. There’s Magnetic Peak. I can see into the crater. Didn’t remember how this road spirals around. Who’s that honking? Pickup truck full of young guys, waving; a cart in back with their singletrack bikes. Passing me. OK, I’ll see you all at the top.

Now the parking lot. This handicap ramp runs up the ridge from here, skips the stairs to the top of the hill. And here we are. Time for a drink of water. I wasn’t planning on this. Anybody asks, I’ll say I was headed to the beach and took a wrong turn.

Me with my bike at the top of Haleakala

Hadn't really planned to bike up here today.

I’d done between 4 and 5 mph up from HQ, except for the last steep mile. I really wasn’t prepared for this. I was in shorts and Tevas. I’d brought a windbreaker and rain pants. Now I put them on. Rain could happen any time. As usual, clouds were washing around the mountain, a layer about at their typical 5,000 foot level. Kind of like slow-motion surf. Similar to surf on a tidal rock, a wave of air could splash clouds up over the summit in minutes. I had been lucky to have sunshine all the way, and the exertion to keep me warm. But the 5:00pm sun was lowering, and a lobe of cloud seemed to be reaching up for it right now.

Good brakes on the first, steep mile down. Then the switchbacks. The luffing nylon I wore served as much a needed airbrake as for warmth. Temperature was probably 40 or 50 Fahrenheit, but with no pedaling and the wind, my tootsies were chilly. Nine thousand elevation. Another switchback.

The occasional cars were courteous. I paused to let one pass, and what is that bare twigged bush below the pullout? A few leaves remain. It’s a peach tree; dropped its leaves obedient to day-length winter from its homeland, I guess. Grown from a pit somebody lobbed off here decades ago. Hawaii is like a giant terrarium. Anything you drop in doesn’t die, but grows.

Eight thousand feet now. Moving fast, but still this is taking awhile. There’s Hosmer Grove below, some clouds dancing up behind, but still in the sun. Another switchback. The bridge over the basalt watercourse. Man, this is a chilly ride! Imagine that, being cold in Hawaii. Glad I believed the literature, and brought some clothes! Now HQ. I shouldn’t’ve been so brusque with that man. He saw me on the bike and asked if I was going to the summit. No, just here to look at books. Shoulda known!

Last mile to Hosmer. Here’s the turnoff. A little uphill crossing a swale. Pedal. My feet are so cold they barely work. Chilled all over. Shivering. Finally, pull into the parking. Dismount. Pad on numb feet over to my tent. Pull on warmer clothes. The sun is winking low between the trees, just about to set. A new contingent of campers. Folks in the next site have set up at the fire ring.

“Hey, can I share your campfire?”

The pink light of sunset caught shreds of cloud dancing off the slopes of Haleakala. It looked like the mountain was still erupting.

About nine o’clock at night, the clear sky clouded over and a soft drizzly rain began to fall. I was warmed up by then, and ready to bed down. The rain rattled heavy at times through the night. Once, I looked out and saw stars. Sometimes the droplets whispered, quiet as someone sprinkling from a saltshaker onto the tent rainfly. By morning, it was a steady Oregon style rain. Not always heavy but, for all you know, everywhere and everlasting.

I waited a couple hours to see if it would quit. It kept on. I’d planned to head down this morning anyway. I had brought the lightest weight compromise of warm clothes I could muster. I put on every scrap. I had wool socks and neoprene bike booties inside my Tevas. I zipped up the rain layers carefully; habits from the Pacific Northwest — don’t get wet in the first place because you aren’t going to get dry again.

I imploded my camp. Methodically, in the cramped confines of the small tent, I compressed and packed each piece of gear waterproof, then tossed the bag outside. Finally the tent itself. Collapsed, rolled up, shaking out as much water as practical. Strapped it all on the bike and set out.

Passing out the entrance station, I wished I had a picture. It could have been Vancouver. Your nylon-swathed bicyclist, perfectly adapted to the eternal wet. The bulky mass of the packs visually set off the vertical line of the rear wheel, seen from behind, reflected in puddles. The figure disappearing into gray mist.

A mile down the road, I came out from under the clouds. In another mile, I was in sunshine. Rainbows danced over the valley below. Down and down I went. A few more switchbacks, and I stopped to peel off layers in the warming sun. Here was another biker coming up, the other side of the road. We nodded acknowledgement to each other. He looked bewildered, but maybe it was just the exertion and concentration. He was lightly dressed, with only a tiny pack. I hoped the rain quit by the time he got up there.

I guess that’s a way to summit Haleakala. Start early, go light, and just tough out what weather you find. I had started down from Hosmer about 10:00am. The climbing biker would be to that level well before noon. He could easily make the summit, as I had, by early afternoon. Then, the wild ride down. It had taken me only half an hour from the top down to Hosmer. This leg I was on now, the tight switchbacks, I traveled in an hour, even with stops to enjoy the view and stow gear. By 11:00am I was at the junction of 377. It was all fast downhill then to Pukalani, and on down to the lowlands.

I did not go that way just now. The tight switchbacks below the park entrance curl through meadowy slopes of green grass and groves of eucalyptus trees. Ever on the lookout for camping options, I had noticed a place called Skyline Eco-Adventures at about 4,000 feet elevation. I mentally filed it as maybe they’d be into letting a bike tourist camp there, who was making a slow packed-out climb up Haleakala. All the rest of the area looked to be a private ranch, too open and exposed to just sack out unobtrusively.

From the junction, I went south on 377 to check out some places of botanical interest. The road climbed a few hot, slow miles. Then it was all downhill, first to the south junction of 377 and Kula Highway, then downhill north on Kula Highway all the way to Pukalani, then all the way down the Haleakala Highway to its junction with Hana Highway a few miles east of Kahului.

This last stretch, the six miles from near sea level to 1600 feet in Pukalani, had taken me a good hour and twenty minutes to climb with full packs (it’s where we met for the crater day hike). Going down, it was only 25 minutes. The road is straight, and steady downhill, and you can go as fast as gravity, aerodynamics, and your nerves allow.

So, with that rain, the lesson of biking Haleakala is: Be Ready For Anything!

Clouds in the Haleakala crater

Clouds in the Haleakala crater. Car is for, uh, SCALE.

Even though I didn’t end up biking all the places I first envisioned, a bicycle is a good way to get around Maui. Near the shore, it’s always warm, so you don’t need to carry a lot of layers. If you wear clothes that can get wet, you don’t have to worry about rain.

It took me awhile to appreciate the charm of snorkeling. This was mainly the process of figuring how to rig the equivalent of a tight-fitting mask that would work with a full beard. Snorkeling then was like effortless levitation, floating, in flight above this multicolored wonderland of rainbow-hued fish, coral, turtles, or whoever else was out that day. Sometimes, you could even hear the whales singing.

Lugging scuba gear on a bike would be a bit much, but snorkeling equipment is small and light. Perfect for the two-wheeled traveler.

If you’re into bike training, Maui offers lots of options. Out from Kahului, you could have long, flat fast rides into the valley and back. You could have steep twisty uphill rides, such as the north side of West Maui, or after you get out the Hana Highway a ways. Or, if you want to burn yourself out for the day, there’s Haleakala. Take it as fast as you can, as far as you can, then coast home.

Hitchhiking seems to be a standard Hawaii way to get around. I heard lots of people mention having hitchhiked, but I never saw anybody doing it. I take it then, they didn’t wait long for a ride! I never tried it on that trip, though I am a veteran of many years hitching in an earlier life. I don’t know how it would be hitchhiking with a bike, to connect the dots on some of the trips. But this is after all the land of aloha!








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Biking Maui, part 7. Hana loop.

A few days later, a friend of my friends, another visitor from the mainland, was driving to Hana. She wanted a traveling companion. I took it as an opportunity to scout the road for biking. We went the north route. She had been coming to Maui for years, and remembered when the Hana Highway was dirt. Now it is all paved, from Kahului to the east end.

That north side of the island is rain forest. This particular day however, there had again been a kona wind. In fact, there had been, by Hawaiian standards, a huge storm. Being a visitor, I didn’t know the difference. Maybe fifty, sixty miles per hour was a brisk tropic breeze?

It had rained that morning on the south shore. I may have rained on the north shore, but now, this afternoon, it was clear. A gusty wind still tossed the trees, and as we made our way east, there was indication it had been fierce. Eucalyptus branches littered the roadway in places. At one spot traffic was stopped and a Hawaii Highways woman was walking back along the line waving certain vehicles on, and stopping at others to explain something. We got waved on. Around the curve, a huge tree had fallen, its branches choking the narrow roadcut where the highway ran. So far, the road crew had managed to clear a tunnel only big enough for small cars to get through. We crept past the ends of the cut limbs. Beyond, a queue of SUV’s, beer trucks, and the like, facing our way, was just going to have to wait.

Road,  barely cleared through the branches of a fallen tree.

Through the down tree limbs, barely enough room for a small car.

The rest of the highway to Hana, though littered, was uneventful. The terrain is very steep. Rock faces tower above, and presumably below, though the trees are too thick to see down much, most places. Every stream, of which there are many, is more a series of waterfalls splashing down through rocky alcoves. To get through this, the road is very twisty, hugging the cliff face on outside curves, then curling back to picturesque mossy bridges at watercourses. Though it was not raining this day, it obviously did a lot.

The run from Kahului to Hana is one of the standard tourist day trips. Only about 50 miles, the twists and the scenery easily stretch it to half a day each way. This afternoon, we were going against the flow. Most of the little rental cars were returning to Kahului by now. For biking, it would be good to keep that daily pulsebeat in mind.

Just west of Hana is another of the few “official” camping places on Maui, Waianapanapa State Park. We got there after hours, and a sign directed us to application forms to fill out, under a covered breezeway. In the gathering dusk, we set up tents on a broad lawn above a gray pebble beach. In the morning, reading the fine print, it was not entirely clear whether the “applications” we’d completed really entitled us to camp there. Something about deadlines and waiting lists. So we quietly packed and left. This might be something to check on.

There is no other evident public place to make a nightly stop all along the fifty miles of that north shore of the Hana Highway. Keep in mind, the weather will probably be wet! However, people in Hawaii are friendly. If you are social at all, you will meet people, as I did, who live all over the island. It is a small favor to ask to camp in someone’s front yard, if you’re into it. So many places, coming to a house, the drive would open out into a tiny, lovely valley, the dwelling set like a jewel among fruit trees and palms. If I had it to do again, there are two different acquaintances who’d be happy to have me, nightly stops to break up the Hana run. Remember, in Hawaii it is always warm.

Fifty miles is, of course not all that long a biking day. The road itself does not climb very high, but it is continual up and down; therefore more slow. Coming east from Kahului, the last town with a store is Paia. You would have to climb uphill from the coast, and out of your way, to other towns, such as Haiku. These are nice short trips in their own right, if you are in the area; but along the Hana Highway, Paia is the last real town.

Paia is pretty dang touristy. It has a really great place for provisions, Mana Natural Foods. This store looks like it was once a small grocery, now groaning under the weight of its success. The crowded aisles are narrow, and there are signs asking you to leave any packs up at the front, just for navigation logistics. You almost get the impression of having to crawl over the other customers while shopping, but the prices are good and the selection is outstanding. A high percentage of the Hana day tripping tourists undoubtedly stop there.

Along the Hana Highway, another option for food is the numerous fruit stands. These look as though local residents, when they realized their trees were going to provide more than they could personally use, decided to share the aloha with visitors. So they slapped a few boards together, stuck it out by the gate or driveway, and piled atop whatever crop was producing. Nobody is there to take your money. Prices are marked, and there is a jar or can for the payment, honor system.

So far as fruit growing wild, well, I was there in winter, the off season. One turn of the road had grapefruit trees, their fruit, overripe when it fell, rolling down the bank. There were endless guava bushes, but in January only scattered fruit. In season, I’m sure there are bushels, though how many guavas can you really use? The storm had knocked down coconuts, which we cleared off the right of way as a public service. I expect there were many mangoes, though out of season the trees blend into the background.

The town of Hana was described to me as being “old Hawaii”. Remote as it is, it’s not the same kind of touristy. There are no golf courses, malls, or art galleries. There is the gracious, and undoubtedly very expensive, Hana Hotel. There is a small airport a few miles out of town. There is one gas station. There might be a grocery store.

Hana from across the harbor, looking up the ridge of the island to Haleakala.

Hana from across the harbor, looking up the ridge of the island to Haleakala.


On past Hana, heading towards the south shore, is the coastal part of Haleakala National Park. This features the Pools of Oheo, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools. There are really more than seven, an indefinite number — you decide where they begin and end. But doesn’t “Seven” and “Sacred” have a nice ring to it? In this area, also, is one of the other few official campgrounds on Maui. I did not happen to go there, but it would be easy to locate if you’re interested. So you’d have a choice of two close to Hana.

Around the east nose of Maui, the route designation changes from Hana Highway to, surprise, the Piilani Highway. Remember? The road that goes through Kihei. But the road does not connect to the Kihei coast. You have to go all the way to Kahului, almost, and backtrack. I should have written down the mile marker, for distances. I think it was about 36.

This next stretch of road is in the worst condition of any on either of the loops around the Maui volcanoes. But it’s not really that bad. In other words, if you can bike this segment, nothing else on the island should be a problem, at least in terms of road surface.

This day, the road was actually closed, “But you can probably get through,” the Haleakala Visitor Center guide told us. Indeed, there was a chair-sized chunk of rock fallen from a cliff, and the tire tracks from cars pulling around it had to cut pretty close to the edge. This was just past the “road closed” notice. The road here was gravel, and steep, carved into a precipitous bank. It went on like that another mile or so, then improved. To my eye, the very worst part of this road is just where the pavement ends south of Hana.

Where the pavement ends the first time. Different maps show the road along the south side of the body of Maui as variously “secondary”, unpaved, or nonexistent. In fact, it’s probably about half paved. In the eastern reach, pavement keeps stopping and starting. It looks like maybe they focused their asphalt efforts in the valleys, and abutting bridges, where the road was more likely to wash out. The upland stretches are more gravel. By and by, going west, the pavement becomes more frequent, then continuous, though rough and much patched. Then, you come to new smooth blacktop, though narrow to be called highway. It’s like this, and has been for miles, by the time you come to where you can look down on La Perouse.

There are no towns along this whole south coast. One place name, Kaupo, has a couple of old missionary churches. One church you see perched down off the highway, in an inviting swatch of green grass near the shore.

We stopped for a dip in the Manawainui Stream, which rushes cool and inviting down between gray lava boulders. There I asked some locals about camping spots. They could not think of any place along the north shore other than the park near Hana.

“Along the south shore,” a young woman told me, “There are two spots. You can camp at Kaupo,” she indicated the church, “or at the place the road comes down to the shore.”

After the road, near Hana, becomes Piilani Highway, it climbs westward. This is not a steady climb. It jumps over some small, abrupt headlands. It snakes up and down from one stream to the next. It clambers across ridges. But overall, it gains elevation. Be ready for this. It’s the same section where the pavement comes and goes. Top elevation is probably less than 1,000 feet.

Somewhere around Kaupo, it starts down again. This is a more steady drop, but not entirely so. It’s then pretty evident where the road “comes down to the shore” again.

At this low point, it looked like ponds and marshes near the beach. These were probably from the rain the previous day. By this low point, it’s desert again. The land has dried out from tropical forest, which seem to go about as far as the Manawainui Stream. By the low point, it’s open grass and kiawe trees. Most of the time, there is probably no fresh water to be had. We had passed a small store that did not show on any map. West of the low point, though there are only remote scattered houses till after the road turns the corner and goes north.

This low point is also where the Kings Trail would intersect, if it existed. As the road began to climb again, I looked and looked down the slope below. I didn’t see even a trace of a track or trail.

This part of the Piilani Highway then climbs, not steep but steady. The land is open. If there had not been the past few months of anomalous rain, it would probably have looked even more like desolate lava then it did.

Then, the highway turns north, and quite abruptly everything is green. There is a spine or ridge running up from La Perouse, the “fracture zone”. where everything changes. It seem like any land at middle elevations should be called “upcountry”, but it’s north and west of this ridge that people give that name. Maybe the south face is too dry and the north face, above the Hana Highway, is too wet and steep.

The road continues to climb. It comes to the tourist trap part of Ulupalakua Ranch. The entire ranch is probably huge. The map dot marks a couple of features. One of them is a winery, where tour busses pull up and the happy haolies sample the vintages. There are historical displays and, I think, a store.

I made a beeline for the ranch office. I went in and explained, I was wondering if there were any way I could cut through, on a bicycle, on one of the dirt roads, from Maui Meadows up to the highway?

The lady was polite and cheery, but definite. “No, it’s private property, and the liability. I’m afraid there’s no way you can do that.”

I pushed a little more. “Could I sign a waiver, or something?”

She held firm. “There’s hunting in there,” she said, “It wouldn’t be safe.”

I think that’s what they always say when they want to clinch it, but now it was my turn to be cheery. “Well, if I hadn’t asked, the answer would surely have been ‘no’. Thank you!” and I breezed out. OK, I had come up with all the aloha I could muster. May as well quit on friendly terms.

A few miles north, the route abruptly changed from the Piilani Highway, route 31, to the Kula Highway, route 37. There was no difference in the actual road. So, I concluded, about here is where the road used to go down! Now, there was no trace of a connector. Just in case anybody’s thinking of climbing up cross-country, I wouldn’t advise it. Down by the Maui Meadows water tank, the land seems to go off in all directions as lonely, though concealing, kiawe forest. Like nobody would ever know or care if you were in there. But the tall, spreading trees obscure the fact that the woodland does not really extend very far mauka. Up here, just a few miles away, you look down from the highway across ranchland and grass meadows. If you came from below, you’d be out in the open, and probably find yourself climbing through somebody’s back yard before reaching the highway.

Supposedly, “they” are thinking of making a road from the shore to upcountry here again. If so, it will certainly shift demographics on Maui. People will be able to live upcountry, but quickly get to the Kihei beaches. Maybe the road will be there by the time you come visit.

Running northeast, the Kula Highway tops out a bit over 3,000 feet elevation, right about at the junction of route 377. Route 377 is a loop that runs roughly parallel mauka, east a few miles of the Kula Highway. It rejoins the Kula Highway at the upcountry town of Pukalani. Off the 377 loop is how you get to the top of Haleakala, so the north section is called the Haleakala Highway. The road continues this name from the junction of the Kula Highway in Pukalani, on down northwest to near Kahului.

You can coast, probably without pedaling at all if you try, from this first junction of Kula Highway and 377, north to the other junction in Pukalani, and then down. Of course the other way, you’d be making a steady, unbroken climb up to 3,000 feet. So this route around the body of Maui, you’d have a pull either way.

I never ended up doing it by bike. By the time I left, though, I had it figured out so I could do it next time. First, I’d try to time it with the weather, a dry stretch on the north coast. Starting from the valley, I’d take the first easy day getting out on the north shore somewhere. That coastline east of Paia is very picturesque, with big waves. I loved to watch the surfers, so deftly “walking” on that impossible water. I’d make the first night stop along the north shore somewhere.

The next day, on to Hana. It is entirely possible to get all the way from the valley to Hana in one day, but the road is a lot of up and down. More than that, there are so many amazing things to see; pools, cliffs, beaches, waterfalls. Then, I might spend another day just in the Hana area.

Coming back on the south shore, I’d make sure I carried plenty of water. The last public stop may be Haleakala NP. There are homesteads and farms perched along the road, who would surely give you water in a pinch; but the long steep access driveways and No Trespassing signs make it awkward. These habitations get sparse westward on the south shore anyway. Even with a water purifier, or no fear of pathogens, the last reliable water may be the Manawainui Stream.

I might camp at Kaupo, or more likely where the highway comes down to the shore. I’d try to get an early start out of there, while it was relatively cool. A three thousand foot climb in hot sun with no water is something to plan for. But then, that would be about all the effort for the day’s ride. You could get water at the Ulupalakua Ranch.  Or, for that matter, wine. Then, from the junction with 377, it is a solid downhill coast, more than twelve miles, to the junction of the Haleakala Highway and the Hana Highway on the flats a few miles outside Kahului.