Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why the wall-to-wall acorns?

Exactly how the acorns fell
Even though the mystery of my leg problems remains elusive, Ralph and I are still managing to find lots of wonderful things to do other than hike. One of the amusing things we are enjoying right now is watching the squirrels in our yard. This time of year is always an active time for our little friends—they chatter at us and the neighborhood cats. They chase each other wildly through the upper branches of our largest oak tree and then run and jump from fence, to roof, to another tree. We can look up and see the branches dip and rebound with the weight of our little friends and then a small litter of oak leaves drifts down to the ground. A few acorns hit the deck with a dull thud.  

Playful squirrels in October 2009 
It is a mystery to me, however, is why are there so many acorns this year. It almost seems that they are wall-to-wall under the large oak tree. The squirrels play a part, of course. They pull the acorns from the branches and drop them in order to store them for later on. The squirrels often forget where they have buried their food supply and months from now I will still be finding many acorns buried in the ground and flowerpots, and I'll be pulling out oak seedlings that have no room to grow. 

This year's crop of acorns, however, is largely due the oak tree itself dropping its seeds. I know that this is a natural process--but still... and why in August? Is this a natural cyclical event--heavier one year than the next--that we just haven't noticed previously because we are often gone in August? Is the drought playing a role? Is the tree failing? 

I don't have the answers; I still searching for some. Meanwhile, I may have to start wearing a hardhat whenever I work in the yard under the tree.  

Have you noticed differences with your yard, or outdoors? Is fall coming earlier where you are? I am hoping that we have a "normal" winter here and that our oak tree remains green and beautiful, but then we all know that climate change is upon us. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Where does one find the answers? The vagaries of life!

This is a difficult blog entry to make--one that I have put off writing for a couple of months because I thought, or at least hoped, that my condition would improve. Actually I expected (on my good days) that the  pain that I am having in my lower body would disappear entirely in a matter of days. It has been three months. 

In the good old days, one went to the doctor, and he (yes, "he") gave you a diagnosis and some pills or a shot and all was better. Nowadays, you are expected to sort through all the advice given by various specialists and figure it all out by yourself. In some respects I wish things still operated in the old way--someone that you thought was more educated and experienced than you figured it all out. However, I know that this can be a naive point of view ignoring many realities--such as the fact that doctors are not omnipotent.

The problem: The pain--in my hips, thighs, calves, and ankles--all started after taking an 8-mile hike in the hills near where we live. This is a hike that Ralph and I have done dozens of times, but had not done for three weeks because we had been traveling in the Galapagos (where hiking opportunities are limited). We were active while in the Galapagos--kayaking, snorkeling, and some short walks, but not as intensely. 

The diagnosis: My doctor initially suggested spinal stenosis, but an MRI showed no sign of that. Now I'm told it is "muscular/spinal strain" most likely caused by the hike. I was told to stop walking and hiking. So I seriously reduced my walks--and am now doing Pilates; some water walking; swimming;  elliptical trainer sessions; and dancing--pretty much anything that doesn't seem to aggravate the situation. 

The search: I started seeing my chiropractor every other week (not seeing much benefit). I went to a physical therapist and got instructions for a few exercises focusing on the abs (stabilize the core). I went to a physical trainer at my new gym (where the pool is) and got instructions on the foam roller. 

Things have shown some improvement in the last couple of weeks--
the pain on the right side has all but disappeared. Now I am focusing on getting rid of the pain on my left side. I thought I was seeing progress there, too, but then some simple exercises I did set it all on fire again. So is it two steps forward, one step back or one step forward, two steps back? 

Where to go from here: I have been trying to link all of this advice together and make progress, but I don't know that I have a clear picture of what is causing this to continue and if I am doing the right things to get well. 

The research: Living as we do in the Internet Age, I have spent a great deal of time surfing the web trying to find answers to my problem. Is it this, is it that? It is daunting to read about all the things that go wrong with the human body. It is sobering to learn about the pain and suffering that so many people go through on a daily basis. 

Some perspective: One of the specialists that I saw offered that maybe this was a lesson in disguise. I didn't like hearing that, but it did give me pause. The reality is that my life would be quite rich even without my normal hiking and backpacking routines. It would be different, but still quite wonderful. 

Have you ever had to face a lifestyle change that sent you reeling? If so, I'd love to hear about it. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How many hikes will you take this week?

John Muir Trail thru-hike. Ralph Alcorn
This is prime backpacking season for most of the country. The thru-hikers of the Pacific Crest, Appalachian, and the Continental Divide (our three best known national long-distance trails) are generally well into their journeys at this point. It's also prime time for hiking the John Muir Trail (CA), Wonderland Trail (WA), and down into the Grand Canyon (UT). But perhaps you are just back from, not yet leaving for, or just not going to do a signature backpack trip this year.

What to do? No need to feel left out or that you've missed out--because you haven't! The Bay Area has hundreds of trails we can enjoy while getting healthier by the minute. You can, of course, always go solo, but if you want someone else to do the route-planning and would like to have company, there are options galore:

Here are a few hikes coming up soon:  

1. Lafayette Hiking group: 
Thursday, August 7, 2014. San Francisco walk--Golden Gate to Sutro Heights. Meet at the Lafayette parking lot, 941 Moraga Road at 8:30 AM. Participants will take BART to San Francisco, then a shuttle bus to the Presidio, and then walk from the Golden Gate Bridge along the cliff tops and beaches enjoying great views of the bridge and the ocean. Enjoy walking through ritzy
Seacliff and Lincoln Park to Sutro Heights. Bring BART pass or money for public transit; lunch (or cash to buy) or snacks, water, layered clothing, good walking shoes, sun protection.
Moderate with some steps and hills, about 4 miles, or 8 miles if you wish to hike back to the Presidio. Leaders: Alison Hill and Joyce Tse

2. Golden Gate Audubon group: 
Friday, August 8, 2014. 8:30 AM – 10:30 AM. Richmond, Point Isabel Regional Shoreline. Birdwalk. You'll be looking for early returning shorebirds. Spotting scopes would be very welcome. Dogs will be present. Restrooms and water at the start. Meet at Pt. Isabel at the end of Rydin Road, off of Central Avenue exit of I-80.  (map). More Audubon events at http://goldengateaudubon.org/field-trips/fieldtrips/ Free. Leader: Alan Kaplan LNKPLN@earthlink.net, or (510) 526-7609 

3. California Parks Conservancy:
Saturday, August 16, 2014. 8 AM to 1 PM. China Camp State Park, Marin. Rather than just hiking, this is a hike and work project (trail maintenance) with a bonus--free tent camping on Friday, August 15th. Registration required. Please visit calparks.org/parkchampions to learn more about each project and sign up today!
Oak in Mount Diablo State Park

4. Save Mount Diablo:
Saturday, August 16. 9 AM to 12 PM. "Hike the property proposed for a cemetery." Learn about this threat to open space while enjoying the scenic wonders of the area. You'll walk near the sites of a proposed Creekside Memorial Cemetery and Tassajara Parks development projects. RSVP to smdinfo@SaveMountDiablo.org or (925) 947-3535.

Enjoy hiking the shorelines and mountains of the greater Bay Area!

Happy trails, Susan "backpack45" Alcorn

Monday, June 9, 2014

Unique to the Galapagos

Galapagos Cormorant (flightless). Susan Alcorn
The Galapagos are volcanic islands that were never part of any continent. That meant that what flora and fauna was there before humans arrived got there by swimming, floating, or flying. Some of the animals we now see are very different than their ancestors--they have evolved in unique ways in order to succeed in their unique environment.

Cormorants are not unique to the Galapagos, but the flightless one is. The Galapagos Cormorant (Phalacrocorix Harrisi) is found on only two islands there--Isabella and Fernandina and its numbers are estimated to be in the 900-1600 range making it one of the world's rarest birds.

The Galapagos Cormorant shares some of the physical and behavioral features of other cormorants. Its four toes are joined to form webbed feet--enabling it to swim well. Its legs are powerful. Because its feathers are not waterproof, it dries them by spreading its wings. Its wings, however, are much smaller than other cormorants--and about a third the size that would be required for it to fly.

The flightless cormorant evolved at a time when there were no enemies on the islands. Like most of the other animals in the Galapagos, it is quite tame compared to others of its genus because it evolved well before there were any humans around that might hunt or otherwise hurt it. However, as people began to inhabit the islands and bring along dogs, cats, and pigs, the birds became increasingly at risk. The Darwin Institute and others periodically assess the situation and conservation measures have periodically been undertaken--such as removing predators from the islands. Another continuing threat to the flightless cormorant is from human activities. They may get caught up in nets used for fishing and they are helpless in case of an oil spill.

When visiting the Galapagos, look for the birds in the waters near the shoreline. We were best able to see them when kayaking or riding in the Kodiacs out from our sailing ship, the Mary Anne. If you're there July to October, look for nests in the rocks above the high-water mark. The nests are usually made of seaweed and sometimes "decorated" with offerings of bottle caps and such brought by the admiring males. The female flightless cormorant can have three clutches each year--let's hope this enables them to flourish in spite of the risks it faces.

Previous Galapagos blogs:

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ten things you may not know about the Galapagos

Red-footed boobies
In my three previous posts about the Galapagos, I introduced some of the exotic animals that live there--Blue-footed boobies, Frigate birds, and Hammerhead and reef sharks. Now, I am stepping back to give you some background info about these remarkable islands.
  1. The Galapagos Islands are part of Ecuador (annexed in 1831) and lie approximately 600 miles off the mainland's west coast and in the Pacific Ocean.  
  2. The Galapagos Islands are volcanic in origin and were formed at different times--some were formed more than 5 million (mostly in the east), some were formed closer to 3 million years ago. Eruptions that change the landscape have occurred within the last 200 years on some islands. 
  3. According to experts, there were no original (indigenous) people living in the Galapagos. The islands were first sighted in 1535 by Tomas de Berlanga, the Spanish Bishop of Panama, from aboard his ship.
  4. Until the early 1800s, pirates lurked in the bays and inlets of the islands waiting for Spanish galleons to come by with their booty of gold and silver taken from South America. 
  5. In the 1700s and 1800s, whalers and fur traders frequently stopped in the islands to collect
    Galapagos Tortoises at the Darwin Research Station
    fresh water and to capture the Galapagos tortoises, which they then used for food. The tortoises could live in captivity on the ships, without food or water, for up to a year. This practice nearly drove the Galapagos tortoises to extinction.  
  6. On September 15, 1835, the HMS Beagle arrived in the Galapagos with  
    Charles Darwin on board. His observations there were instrumental to his later written works, including the Origin of Species. 
  7. In the 1920 and 1920, Norwegians came to the islands because they were offered free land; other Europeans followed--including some from Germany fleeing their country because of the political climate.  
  8. The Galapagos and the surrounding marine area became a National Park in 1939, and then National Heritage sites.
  9. The population of the Galapagos is approximately 25,000. The population groups are mestizos (descendants of Native Americans originally from Ecuador's mainland and Europeans); the descendants of European and American settlers. 
  10. Nowadays, the majority of visitors stay in small hotels on the islands and
    take day trips to see the islands and their flora and fauna. There are strict conservation measures in place. The number of boats is limited and the times and places that islands and waters can be visited must be scheduled in advance.

We highly recommend the company that we went with, Wilderness Travel of Berkeley, and the Ecuadorian company that guided us. We spent two weeks on the Mary Anne, a powered sailing vessel. In my opinion, cruises are a far superior was to see (as Wikipedia puts it) "the complex environment and wildlife of the islands."
If you have seen the movie, The Galapagos Affair: Satan came to Eden, we'd love to have your review. 

Next up, a return to the exotic animals. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Wonders of the Galapagos, swimming with the sharks

Black-tipped reef shark: Susan Alcorn
It was just days before we left for the Galapagos trip when a friend, who had been there previously, just happened to mention that we might find ourselves snorkeling with sharks--and not just any kind of sharks--but hammerhead sharks. Now, I'm not exactly an expert of sharks, but I do know that hammerheads are big! According to one online site, they can weigh up to 1,000 pounds and grow to 20-feet long.

The good news is, however, that most species of hammerheads -- six out of the nine (another source says eleven) species are harmless to humans. Of course that implies that three out of the nine (11) species can be harmful to humans. When I looked further, I read that the three potential dangerous ones are the scalloped, great, and smooth species. The Scalloped Shark (so called because the leading edge of the "hammer," is scalloped) not only hangs out in the Galapagos, but is commonly seen in schools upwards of 100!

Hammerhead sharks belong to the genus Sphyrna and have easily recognizable heads--the front part is flattened into a distinctive flattened "hammer" shape called a "cephalofoil." This cephalofoil may help its sensory abilities; like other sharks, the hammerhead usually hunts during the night.

Because we had already paid for our trip and it was, we joked, predestined and because neither Ralph nor I had read of any (recent) shark attacks in the Galapagos, we assumed that we should not worry about hammerheads. As it turned out, we didn't see any while snorkeling, but we did see an impressive looking one from the boat.

What we did see while in the water was "white-tipped" and "black-tipped" reef sharks (the tips of their fins are either white or black). These are much smaller fish, typically five to seven-feet long. As with the sharks, the reef sharks are usually not a threat to swimmers, snorkeler, or divers. Another website, Living with sharks, recommends that people don't harass, don't tease with food, and don't chase sharks. I think a reminder "do not feed" would be important, too. Of course, there are some who think it's cool to pull on a shark's fin, or try to ride one, but I generally try to avoid morons.

So, though we weren't unduly concerned about the shark-issue, Ralph did become a bit nervous when he saw a reef shark circling around below me, and he suggested we move to another area. There were so many zillions of fish everywhere, that we knew that the sharks had more than an adequate supply of food.

Some facts about sharks:

  • According to OMG Sharks.com, there were "118 shark attacks in 2011 and only seven were fatal." An attack can be anything from a young shark taking a sample to a full-blown encounter. Because of sensationalized coverage of attacks and movies such as "Jaws," many people have an exaggerated fear of sharks.
  • Probably not surprisingly--considering the number of sharks and the number of people in the water--Australia has the most fatalities and the U.S. the greatest number of attacks.
  • Many sharks are now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCM) list as vulnerable or endangered including the Great White Shark. 
  • Sharks are at risk because of over-fishing and because of their fins are considered a delicacy. When "finning," fisherman cut off the fins and throw the fish back in the water. After losing their fins, the fish can no longer swim and die a slow, painful death.
  • Many conservation, and other groups, are working to save our dwindling number of sharks worldwide. The Sea Shepherd group states that they are working with the Ecuadorian officials to form a K-9 corps to sniff out shark fins.
Clearly one of the many benefits of traveling to an exotic place such as the Galapagos is the opportunity to learn more about what's working there and what isn't. We were greatly impressed with some of the environmental research and conservation practices occurring on these unique islands. I am also glad that in the process of researching the sharks of the Galapagos, I also learned more about the threats that they face. 

In line with that, we are reviewing the guidelines of the "Seafood Watch." This is a chart originally created by California's Monterey Bay Aquarium in conjunction with their Seafood Watch program. The chart indicates which species of fish are "best choices," "good alternatives, " and "to be avoided" in order to not harm the environment. 

In addition, I am going to pay greater attention to which restaurants and grocery stores offer sustainable seafood. Please join me! 

Part 3, above.
Part 2, to learn about blue-footed boobies, click here.  
Part 1, to learn about Frigate birds, click here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Wonders of the Galapagos, part 2

The bluest of the blue: One of the best known, and loved, animals of the Galapagos is the blue-footed booby. This delightful seabird, while graceful in flight and streamlined when diving into the water, is definitely awkward while on land. Those bright blue feet are about as clumsy on land as ours are when we are walking around in snorkeling fins. However, during courtship and mating periods, the female booby is very interested in the feet of the male. In fact, during the mating ritual, the male struts back and forth in front of the female, lifting his feet up and down. The brighter the blue, the more likely the male will be successful in finding a mate. 

It's all in the genes: The blue of the boobies' feet is from the carotenoid pigments obtained from fresh fish. Experiments have shown that depriving a booby of fish for 48 hours will reduce the intensity of the blue. In addition, the older the booby, the less bright the blue. Added together, good nourishment and youth are more likely to produce successful offspring.

Sibling rivalry played out: After boobies successfully mate, usually a single egg is laid immediately and the parents begin taking turns incubating it (under those blue webbed feet). A second egg is usually laid five days later. Therefore, the first chick usually will hatch a few days earlier than the second one. (This is called asynchronous hatching.) 

This type of hatching has advantages and disadvantages. In some respects, it's easier on the parents because the earliest days of feeding the chicks are the most difficult in terms of energy expended. It sometimes leads, however, to what is called facultative siblicide -- in this case, the first chick killing the younger chick if there is a food shortage. On some questions of which chick is favored by the parents in case of food shortage, experts do not necessary agree (some say the smaller, some say the larger), but most seem to agree that as far as facultative siblicide, the parents do not appear to interfere with the process. 

Designed for diving: With its thin bill and sleek head and body, the booby is well-suited for diving from high in the air and deep into the ocean. They can dive from 100 feet up and into the water 75 feet deep in their search for small fish such as sardines and squid. Their nostrils are permanently closed; they breathe through the corners of their mouth. 

The Mary Anne flies the flag of Ecuador. 
Where to see them:  Although they can be found in the Gulf of California and along the western coasts of Central and South America down to Peru, about half of all breeding pairs nest in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. We saw large numbers of blue-footed boobies on the islands of Espanola and North Seymour.   

More info: 
Galapagos Conservation Trust, click here 
Wikipedia, click here.