Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Maps, good or bad?

I started out this entry intending to complain about the latest trail map of Pedernales Falls State Park.

At first, when I grabbed it off the counter as I was checking into my campsite, it looked like a good deal since they've gone to a larger format, 11x17 instead of the old standard of 8.5x14, and bigger is always better, right??

Well. . .

First off, by folding the old standard into thirds it fits very nicely into the outer thigh pocket of most cargo/tactical pants where it's protected from the hazards of the trail but handy. The new format? Not so much. I had to add an extra fold, folding it into thirds then doubling it over again, before it would fit into my pocket. This proved quite annoying as the bulkier map had to be wrestled, both into and out of the pocket, and then unfolded and unfolded and unfolded and refolded and refolded and refolded every time I wanted to take a peek. I tried reverting to my secondary carry point, tucking the map under one of the shoulder straps of my pack where it's super handy but very exposed to the ravages of the trail, not to mention the sweat of a hot hike, but that wasn't any better because if I didn't fold it all the way up, which was the whole point, I had to listen to the extra real estate that was sticking out there to the side rubbing and crinkling and rattling every time I moved my arm, and I don't know about you, but I find the extra noise unacceptable and the alternative, hiking uneven terrain without moving my arm, is a challenge I can do without.

Side by side comparison of the old and new map formats. Note the extra fold required in the larger map to get it into my pocket.

Second off, contrary to what you might expect, in this case bigger doesn't mean more detail. In fact the new map pretty much sucks in this area. For some reason I'm sure some pin-head, desk-bound bureaucrat can justify with a 10 page memo, in triplicate, all of the topographical data, landmarks and trail distances have been left off of the whole north end of the park, details of the complex web of trails down around the duck pond area along with the whole Hackenburg Loop Trail have been reduced to a few stray squiggles with no sign of the duck pond at all and most lesser side trails have been left off the new map altogether, along with all of the equestrian trails.

I swear there used to be a duck pond around here somewhere!!?

Now I happen to like lesser side trails and I especially like the equestrian trails. For some reason it seems like when most hikers see a trail marked as equestrian they avoid it, (Maybe they're afraid someone will mistake them for an ass!) and I find that very handy when there's more people tramping around than I like. I very rarely run into another hiker on an equestrian trail and only occasionally have an encounter with the four-leggers the trail has been designated for. (When that happens I step well off the trail, stand still and respond quietly to any greetings so as not to appear threatening to the potentially skittish Equus ferus.)

So, like I said, my first reaction was to bitch about the new map, but on second thought; I already know that when I walk to the end of the campground road, turn south and go to the third power pole, tucked back there about 100 yards from the road, then start bushwacking due west I'll avoid all but one 8' ledge as I climb towards the knob in front of me and eventually hit the east arm of the South Equestrian loop. From there I can move freely, and in peace, from one end of the park to the other while staying well clear of any roads and the more popular trails. And so what if new-comers can't find the duck pond, I know where it's at, along with the ruins of a couple blinds that are still functional. And side trails? I've been on many of them and I'm sure I can manage to find others, on the map or not.

Now if I was unfamiliar with the park, that might be a whole 'nother story, but I am so what am I bitching about??

Of course there's still the issue of folding the damn thing up so I can carry it. . .

Friday, February 20, 2015

Keeping Score

I left camp early this morning and hiked up to the bird feeding station (Pedernales Falls State Park.)

The first half of February is clearly not the best day on the calender for birding, even here in the Texas Hill Country, but this feeding station is a pleasant place most any time with it's courtyard flanked by two glass-front viewing stations, each with seating and photo portals.

Besides, it's not like I had any other pressing engagements.

View from the photo portal of the north-facing station.

As expected, other than the woman scouting for the Audubon tour she would be guiding next week, who was just leaving as I arrived, the station was empty of people, and almost empty of birds.

Almost empty of birds, but not quite.

With the place all to myself I chose the best seat in the house and parked myself there in this quite, gentle spot, but it wasn't long before I was freaking out because I hadn't brought my Sibley Guide to Birds with me and the Audubon lady had already left and now I wasn't going to know for sure THE NAME OF EACH AND EVERY BIRD I WAS LOOKING AT!!!!

OK, head between the knees; take deep breaths; keep it up, you're doing just fine: get your heart-rate back out of the stratosphere; relax; everything's going to be alright. . .

I understand where my need to keep score comes from, why I have a compulsion to label every bird I've seen, identify every tree, count every mile I hike down to the tenth, clock how fast I can get from here to there. It's an evolutionary thing and it's not easy to escape evolution!

After all, how's a girl supposed to know which boy will grow up to be the fastest runner (I don't have to outrun the bear, I only have to outrun you!) and best provider without keeping score? How's a guy supposed to know which is the best woman to spit out his kids and raise them with one hand while gathering firewood with the other if there's no scorecard to rank them with? Or in the more modern context, how are you supposed to know who among the competing hopefuls deserves to make the next step up the corporate ladder or which of the neighbors has the most toys if nobody is keeping score?!

But the hard fact is that evolution is all about creating stock that can survive long enough to breed and raise offspring to the point where they too can breed. This requires lots of different traits, but among the things evolution doesn't give a flying hoot about (Get it!? Birds, owls, hoot!!!) is an individual's ability to be content and find enjoyment in just being there.

But even understanding all this, it still took some effort to overcome my reptile brain and not fret over specifically which of the many types of sparrows those were flitting around over there in the branches, or whether I would know a Towhee if I saw one (The Audubon lady mentioned she could hear a couple of them singing out there somewhere.) but eventually I managed to (mostly) set aside the compulsion for score-keeping and sat back to enjoy the birds just being birds. For a little while there I managed not let the wonders of the Universe slip by unappreciated because I was too busy checking things off on my scorecard.

In addition to the lowered heart-rate and increased alpha brainwaves, the upside of this conscious exercise in overcoming my baser instincts is that I ended up hanging around long enough for Don, the Park Volunteer, to show up for the 0830 feeding. Don is an interesting guy who used to live in the world of corporate finance and now is very enthused about his life wandering around full-time in a vintage 70's travel trailer as a Texas Parks and Wildlife Volunteer. In fact Don was so enthused I'm afraid that by the time we finished enthusing all over each other the bird's morning feed was almost an hour late!

So the take-away here (Oh no! Corporate speak is still part of my language!) is that the scorecard might have it's place, but it isn't always necessary. And clearly, I still need to work on embracing that lesson.

OK, I just couldn't resist: From bottom to top: Northern Cardinal, White Wing Dove, Scrub Jay, Cardinal again, Ladder Back Woodpecker probably young, and something with the wing bars of a Blue Jay but no crest or neck ring so has the head of a Scrub Jay, maybe a hybrid?

Damn! I guess I still have some work to do on putting down the scorecard. . .

Monday, February 16, 2015

Pink Enchantment

Out there north of Fredricksburg Texas lurks a mammoth batholith  of pink granite. (Also apparently called a plutonic but my ancient language skills are not up to explaining why.) To a geologist this igneous batholith is a chunk of roughly 1 billion year old Town Mountain Granite of the Middle Precamrian that intruded into an even older metamorphic schist called Packsaddle Schist.

If that made your eyes glaze over, as it did mine when I looked it up, you might find the little bit of this batholith that sticks up above ground level more interesting. This is a 640 acre bubble that erosion has exposed at one end of the 63,000 acre granite formation (The information plaque in the gazebo visible in the photo above states that that's 3 times the size of Manhattan. For someone that knows Manhattan I suppose that means something, but for the rest of us - huh?)

That bubble is called Enchanted Rock and since 1984 has been part of the State Park system.

The camping here is walk-in tent camping only which is why the van and I were staying some 60 miles away at Pedernales Falls State Park. (There are commercial campgrounds much closer but that just didn't sound very appealing.) With the sun still lurking below the horizon I set off and took a few of the lesser roads, as in cattle guards and low-water crossings, across ranch country to get here.

I approached the park from the east on  FM965 and with the sun behind me had some spectacular views of the monolith as I approached. Unfortunately those views have resulted in about 9 miles of FM965 being designated a no-parking zone and without another set of hands in the van to handle camera duty I didn't get any shots on the way in. I did go looking on the web for a few but apparently very few photos are taken of Enchanted Rock from this approach, at least none I could find. I guess those no parking signs way out in the middle of nowhere really work.

In the photos it's especially apparent, but even in person the scale of the place is deceptive.

I took this photo from near the main trailhead with a 24mm lens and the little red circle marks were

these hikers were. To get this shot, taken from the same spot and nearly the same time as the previous photo, I used a 1200mm lens.

The climb from gazebo to rock-top is approximately equivalent to 40 stories of stairs! As I was taking these photos a gentleman about my age dragged himself painfully up the last few steps past me and collapsed on a handy bench. He didn't look too good and sounded even worse! I don't know if he made it all the way to the top or not but whatever he did I'm pretty sure he was wishing he hadn't, and suddenly things weren't looking too good for me either at the moment!

 But being the intrepid soul that I am, (OK, some just call me stubborn and foolhardy but I've gotten pretty good at ignoring them.) onward and upward I went.

The footing is pretty secure (Though I might not want to try it in the rain!) and, though there are some dangerously steep areas up there, a little careful routing keeps you on more reasonable slopes.

It might look solid but the rock is actually layered like an onion and gravity is in the process of peeling these layers off one by one. In some cases, as in these two photos, the layers are only a few inches thick, but in other spots the layers are more like 10 to 15 feet thick. I imagine it would be a pretty spectacular ride to get caught up by one of these as it broke loose and slid down the dome, but fortunately that didn't happen, although, during the frequent breaks on my slow, slogging way up the rock, once in a while I could hear it tick and thump as it adjusted itself to the warming sun!

Oddly enough, on the summit are several patches of vegetation clinging, and I do mean clinging since can get windy up there! to the otherwise bare rock.

It starts with little depressions on the top of the dome, some of which will hold water for several weeks at a time and are called Vernal Pools.

Over time these start to fill in with vegetation and organic matter

until eventually there's a whole little habitat up there.

But it's clearly a harsh environment and I'm amazed that something could manage to hang on long enough to become as large as this before finally succumbing.

This habitat produces a unique version of fairy shrimp which attract birds,though on this day the smart ones stuck to walking since the moment they took to the air the wind blew them right off the rock!

Ladybird Johnson was instrumental in saving Enchanted Rock from a quarrying interest when it came up for sale in the 70's. This quarry, well outside the boundaries of the park, was visible in the distance from the top of the rock. Since it looks like there isn't any heavy equipment hanging around I would say the quarry isn't active anymore, but to the right were rows of blocks already cut and just waiting to be drug out of there for the next big building project.

At first this might look like a two-track off in the distance, but it's actually a pair of well used access roads bounding off across the hills on either side of a boundary fence.

Enchanted Rock is one of 4 or 5 distinct peaks in a cluster and this is the slightly smaller Little Rock photographed from the top of Enchanted Rock with Echo Canyon in between.

The 'trail' through Echo Canyon is more of a boulder scramble than trail, what with both peaks shedding their layers into the slot between them.

This is also where water tends to run which has formed a few of these hoodoo like formations.

The coarse, seemingly sterile top of this particular hoodoo was supporting small clusters of  garishly green lichens along with the more common grey lichens. They might not look like much but a patch of lichens a few inches across could be as much as 500 years old!

Enchanted rock isn't all about rock either. There are oak woodlands, mesquite prairie and floodplain habitats as well. With over a dozen miles of marked trails and plenty of off-trail opportunities, once I came down off the rock itself, I easily used up the day just wandering around the 1700 acre park.

And for those into that sort of thing, there are also nearly 50 named technical climbs within the park ranging from 5.5 to 5.11. If you don't know what that means my recommendation would be don't go climbing!!

I don't, and didn't.



Saturday, February 14, 2015

Are we there yet?!!

From the photo above you might think that all is peaceful, calm, restful, or any one of the other adjectives of quietude we are so fond of. You might think that I have actually arrived; but you would be wrong.

What you can’t see in the photo above are the heatwaves coming up off the still hot engine. What you can’t see is the matadorish slog across 50 miles of Metro-Austin crush it took me to get from there to here.  What you can't see are the ranks of big-box and strip centers and Mc-Mansion subdivisions with enticing names like Ledge Stone and Clearwater (Filled shoulder to shoulder with homes that for the next 50 or so years are destined to be mostly jointly owned by the banks that cater to our insatiable desire to outreach our resources!),  or the endless road construction and ranks of mindlessly malicious traffic lights that have to be negotiated to get here.

About 10 or 15 years ago Austin started showing up on ‘best places’ lists, and those lists are inevitably a death knell. As usually happens, many of the traits that got Austin on those lists in the first place were quickly squashed under the crush, destroyed by the very people that poured in to enjoy those traits, but apparently nobody has figured that out yet because they're still coming. Something like 100 new residents a day are thickening the sprawl.

I too once lived in such a place. I spent nearly 20 years living fairly comfortably and content in a quiet, eclectic neighborhood, a little self contained community in the middle of a major metropolitan area. But that was before the destruction. Once that dreaded word got out, once my little neighborhood started showing up in the Sunday supplements, the yuppies (Yeah, it was a while ago, back when yuppies ruled.) moved in and quickly destroyed all that had made the place unique. Suddenly, for every two 1920's brick duplexes built by the original Italian residents that were torn down five towering, garishly contemporary town-homes were shoe-horned in.  Where we used to have upwards of 100 kids and a dozen languages walking past the door in the morning on the way to the elementary school, now less than a handful of kids were left. We went from first-name conversations with the local homeless as they collected the aluminum cans we set out for them, to watching the scraggly old Vietnam vet that's been living on the local corners for years being ticketed by the police. They say it's because the aluminum cans he's been caught picking out of the garbage are property of the city, but we all know it's really because he's committed the horrible offense of sullying the view from someone's $500,000 third floor balcony

When we left under this onslaught we were sad for what had been lost, but eagar to get away from the ruins our neighborhood had become.
I think such devastation must be the nature of man, not necessarily the individual but the collective man, because this destruction of habitat happens time and time again. It’s probably why we're always trolling the media, looking for the next ‘best place’ list, but rarely satisfied once we get there.

But of course I’m part of the problem too! Not 10 minutes after I moved into this neighborhood, however temporarily, this poor Cardinal was reduced from going about his kicked-back Cardinal business to fiercely battling my mirror!

I tried clipping a couple spare dish towels over the mirrors but he just switched to fighting the reflection in the window instead!

This guy was persistent if nothing else. By the end of my stay the mirror was covered in Cardinal snot and I can imagine the poor, deluded warrior coming home every night exhausted from his battles but proudly proclaiming his victory and showing off the fresh chip in his beak to all the ladies.

OK, so I got a little side-tracked there, but my original point is that I ‘got here’, but now I have to get here. I have to shake off the frenzied pace of the ‘civilized’ world, I have to let go of the need to be constantly doing, to be 'active and productive', to be checking things off my list. I have to switch all that off and just kick back. I have to transition from ‘what am I going to do with the rest of the afternoon?, to ‘isn’t this nice, sitting here in the dappled shade with a good book and no immediate demands’.

So excuse me while I set aside this bit of technology, along with a few other accoutrements of modern living, and try to reboot myself to a quieter, more natural place.

Friday, February 6, 2015

When convenience attacks!! (The isolator failed - and not in a good way. . .)

Don't you just love it when a plan comes together? Me too. I just wish I could get one to come together once in a while. . .

Yesterday the plan was to head over to a friend's place to do some design work on a proposal for a contemporary, open-plan, steel framed house, but that was before the washing machine blew up and I had to deal with that instead.

This morning - well -  that didn't go as planned either.

I went out to the van first thing because it looks like we have a stretch of good weather coming, (Is it just me or has this winter sucked!!? Weeks of cold, and grey, and damp. I might as well be living back in Michigan!) and I wanted to hook up a 2 amp charger to the chassis battery which has been acting weird, i.e. voltage dropping by one or two tenths every couple days even though I have a 5 watt solar panel hooked up to it as a maintainer.

While out there on this, the first real sunny day in several weeks, I happened to notice the house-system solar panel was producing 3 amps. Now this was a bit strange since the van has been sitting there with all the house loads disconnected since my last trip way back in early December so I would have expected the house batteries to be well charged and taking 1 amp or less, even first thing in the morning.

A quick check of the E-meter confirmed my expectation. The house batteries were taking 0.5 amps. So where were the other 2.5 amps going??  Oh well, I guess the gardening I planned on doing this fine day will have to wait.

I checked to make sure I hadn't left anything on since - well - that can happen. . . But nope, nothing on.  Just to make sure, I hit the disconnect to positively kill all 12V power, but there was still 3 or so stray amps being sucked out of the solar and going somewhere.

For the past couple months I've been suspicious of the behavior of the isolator that keeps the house and chassis batteries separated unless the engine is running so that's the next thing I thought of. I dug around inside the driver's seat pedestal and pulled the 10 amp fuse so the isolator couldn't do anything but isolate, no connecting of anything with that fuse pulled. (At least that's what the manual says. . .) Except that while fishing around in there, very carefully since there's lots of 12V crap just waiting to reach out and grab me, I was surprised to feel a significant amount of heat coming from the isolator.

By significant I don't mean it was blazing hot or anything, but it was certainly warm when it shouldn't be warm, and that can't be good!

Donning leather gloves and taping up my tools, I very carefully disconnected and removed said suspicious isolator. I had been planning on doing this anyway, just not today. . .

Here I have the driver's seat pedestal opened up and the isolator that used to be in there disconnected and removed. I slipped a short piece of scrap PVC over the lugs on the main cables coming from the two battery banks and taped it in place to avoid any unnecessary fireworks while I was messing around.

Well look at that!!  With the isolator out the solar panel is behaving just the way it's supposed to! A half amp at 14V out of the panel and that same half amp into the house batteries.

Seems the isolator, which is supposed to provide the convenience of automatically looking after things for me, got bored with the same-ol' same-ol' and wandered off to try something different for a while with no thought at all about the consequences. It lawyer-ed up and wasn't talking, no signed confession today, so I don't know exactly what it was doing with those three amps, but I figure it can't have been good!

Since I already had everything opened up anyway, I went ahead and installed the alternative I'd been planning on putting in for some time now. A manual disconnect switch. Simple, reliable and cheap.

The old and the new. A $100, 200 amp isolator that went rogue, and the $10, 300 amp manual disconnect switch that will replace it. (I'm not really that bad a housekeeper, but when it's wet around here mud gets everywhere, which is why I have to carry a can of spot cleaner with me!)

I drilled a few holes for mounting the new switch,

connected up the cables and taped the crap out of them,

then mounted the switch, and buttoned everything back up again. The visible part of the switch is that short black, pipe looking thing right in the center of the photo.

The switch itself is dead simple. (Hence the low price!) Basically it's just a big,  momentary push-button switch you can find at any decent auto parts. So that you don't have to stand there and hold the button yourself, it comes with a red plastic key (Two actually, in case those that tend to lose things were worried.) that you push in and twist a quarter turn to lock it.

Of course the thing about manual is that you've got to remember to do - well - the manual part. And frankly I don't see my memory getting any better as time goes by, so to reduce the likelihood of  connected the two battery systems together then getting distracted and wandering away like I know what I'm doing, I simply put an absurdly long loop of brightly colored twine through the hole conveniently provided in the key.When the key is in the switch I can drape the string across the couch where I can't miss it, or even better, hook it over the armrest of the passenger seat where I'll trip over the dang thing!

Now all I need to do is make sure that chassis battery has a good charge in it so I'm ready to head out into a great looking forecast as soon as the weekend crowds dissipate into the work-a-day week. (Damn I like being retired!!)