Thursday, January 28, 2016

Nevada Crayfish Boil: Save the Pupfish

Both pricey delicacies and bug-like garbage eaters, crustaceans are weird creatures, but tasty. Lobster, the most well known of the family, crawl along the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Eating anything their big fat claws come upon, including garbage and other lobsters, they only come up in lobster traps and are thankfully, promptly boiled.

Crayfish, a smaller member of the crustacean family that originates in warm southern waters, are lobster's smaller cousins. The eponymous star of the Crayfish boil, Louisiana supplies 95% of the crayfish sold in the United States. In 2007, the Louisiana crayfish harvest was about 54,800 tons, almost all of it from aquaculture. Crayfish were introduced to the warm springs and outflows of Ash Meadows in the early twentieth century. Strangely enough they weren't introduced as a human food source but as food for the introduced bullfrogs. Bullfrog legs were popular in Las Vegas and since bullfrogs eat anything and eat a lot, the populations of endemic pupfish and speckled dace weren't enough to fatten then up. Enterprising farmers introduced the fast reproducing crayfish (which also eat pupfish and dace) to feed the introduced bullfrogs.

Restoration efforts have been very successful in bringing back the pupfish and speckled dace, and
relatively successful in eradicating the bullfrog. Crayfish, not so much. A few days ago I stood on the boardwalk alongside the Crystal Spring outflow and watched helplessly as a crayfish took down, and ate a beautiful blue pupfish. And that brings us to Cold Springs.

Located close to the center of the Ash Meadows National Wildlife refuge, between the eastern mountains and the western Carson Slough, Cold Spring is far from the fault line from which the warmer springs rise. Possibly that's why the water from this spring isn't warm. It's cold, and hence the name. Never-the-less the spring still pumps out huge amounts of water into the desert and as such was a prime candidate for human appropriation. Sometime in the mid 1960s the spring head was enclosed in concrete reservoir, pumps were installed and any native fish life was pumped out onto the alfalfa fields.

Today Cold Spring's water is no longer used for agriculture, but the spring has not yet been restored. The water flows up out of the earth and into that concrete box. The box is crumbling, full of wind blown dirt, lumber, algae and crayfish. Lots of ugly, fat pupfish-eating crayfish. Looking into that murky water, seeing those beady eyes, and spindly pincers wave menacingly back, I thought of the only appropriate response. Nevada Crayfish Boil!

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Night at the Opera - Ash Meadows, a Cultural Meca

What do opera, Edward Abbey, robot girlfriends, and international travelers all have in common? If you guessed Ash Meadows, you're right!

Last Wednesday night we went to the opera. Yup there is an opera house here, a mere 15 minutes drive to Death Valley Junction, CA. The Amargosa Opera House was founded in 1967 in the former social hall of Pacific Coast Borax Company by a professional dancer from New York.

The performance we saw wasn't actually an opera however. It was a solo ballet pantomime and a very memorable experience. Also memorable was the inside of the Opera House itself. Painted by Marta, the dancer from New York, the walls are pictures of an 16th century audience. It's a surreal experience to be watching a ballerina perform with a renaissance audience, in the social hall, of a Borax Company, in the middle of no where, in the Mohave desert.

Marta's first performance at the Opera House was in 1968. During that year and the prior one, 
Edward Abbey was writing the final chapters of Desert Solitaire  "in a bar serving a legal house of prostitution at Ash Meadows, Nevada." Less than 10 miles from Marta. The bar was at Ash Meadows Sky Ranch. Consisting of a small motel, bar, brothel and as often accompanies Nevada brothels, an air strip, the Ranch was a popular desert oasis. The brothel and resort closed in the 70s and the land was eventually enveloped by the Refuge. There is no official access, but occasional refuge employees and volunteers do check up on it.

And then there is Cherry 2000. Soon after Sky Ranch closed a film crew showed up to make a movie. Cherry 2000 is a B-rated sci-fi movie, starring Melodie Griffin. The plot is pretty silly for an action movie: "In the year 2017, a rich man travels to the ends of the earth to find that the perfect woman is always under his nose." But hey, it was still filmed here. We haven't seen the movie yet, but the popcorn is ready.

And then there is today's international appeal of Ash Meadows. A little less than half of the visitors come from countries other than the United States. Last week alone we talked to travelers from Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, and Brazil. It's great to hear about their enthusiasm for the Pupfish, the Meadows, and how much they appreciate the preserved and wide open spaces of the United States.

When you come right down to it, it is the wilderness, or at best the preserved and shared wide open spaces that are one of our greatest cultural treasures.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Volunteer Life - In the Desert

Sunset Over Ash Meadows
This morning it occurred to me that the closest Starbucks, even the closest latte-serving coffee shop is more than 30-40 minutes away.  Less than a year ago, just to get to work, I passed 6 Dunkin Donuts, 4 Starbucks, 3 Au Bon Pains and countless local cafes.

Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, where we're volunteering is located along the Nevada / California border, 30-40 minutes from the closest town, and 31 miles from Death Valley National Park. The refuge is home to, and famous for, being the home of several endemic species including the Devil's Hole and Ash Meadows Pupfish. The Refuge tag line reads "Where the desert springs to life."  I prefer - "Come for the Pupfish, Stay for the Springs".  Sure the pupfish are cute, but there are 50 crystal clear warm springs here putting out a total of 11,000 gallons a minute, and they all are amazing! Some are
Crystal Spring
accessible by boardwalks, some are hidden away in the folds of the rolling desert hills. But again, all-in-all an amazing oasis in the middle of the Mohave desert.

Volunteer life, even without lattes, is pretty sweet. This morning I woke up, took a walk alongside a desert stream, and strolled 3 minutes to 'work' at the Ash Meadows Interpretive Center.  Yesterday I helped collect pupfish DNA samples next to a crystal clear, hot spring. 

Inquiring minds have asked for more details on exactly what it is we are doing, so here it is.  For the months of January and February (and if I can convince SD) some of March we will be living and volunteering at the Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge in Southern Nevada.  Volunteering requires that we work three, eight hour days (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). During that time we are responsible for staffing the visitor center as well as keeping it clean.  Once a week we also empty trash, recycling and clean pit toilets at the boardwalks.  On slow days we can also get out on the refuge and help with habitat rehabilitation projects, maintenance or just do roving interpretation.
Longstreet Cabin and our New Bikes!

The four other days of the week we get to explore. There is a lot to see and do on the Refuge, and our new mountain bikes were the perfect addition to help us do that. There are miles of dirt roads through the rolling hills. Even on our first day here we took a quick ride up to the Longstreet Cabin and Spring. Less than 4 miles to the north of the trailer pad the spring and cabin have both been restored. The cabin being built more than a hundred years ago is one of the oldest structures in the Amargosa Valley. The Spring, like many others here. had been destroyed by over pumping and aggressive irrigation in the 60's and 70's.  With the establishment of the refuge in the 80's and the subsequent projects to bring back the springs and provide living habitat for the endemic Amargosa pupfish, Longstreet spring was restored in the second round of projects, about 10 years ago. Today it, along with Kings Pool, and Crystal Spring and the three gems of the refuge. Riding to Longstreet the first day was the perfect introduction to the Refuge.

In addition to exploring Ash Meadows, there is also many places within a two to three drive that we
Dates - really for harvest
also want to check out including  Death Valley, Red Rocks Canyon, and Desert National Wildlife Refuge. For our first trip we drove about 50 miles south to the China Date Ranch. While the name conjures images of cowboys rounding up four legged fruits, the 'ranch' is really a date plantation. Everything around here is a ranch, even the brothels are called ranches. The Date Ranch is located in a hidden valley of the Amargosa River. The river creates a lush habitat for dates and for all desert plants and animals. We took a brief walk along the riverside trail. It's still winter here and most everything is dormant but it was wonderful. The dates are really cool too, and some were still being harvested. The ranch shop had about 8 different date varieties all available for sampling. They were all good. Some would be better for cooking, and some were sweeter, juicier and excellent just as they were. We had planned to get lunch a little cafe in Shoshone, CA but the day we went was the day of the 1.3 billion dollar powerball and the parking lot (and the entire town) was packed with cars of people buying tickets. The line must have been 1/3 of a mile long. With stomachs still full of dates we headed home for a late lunch.

It's coyote time!
And where is home you ask?  We are living in our trailer on a trailer pad at the refuge. There is another couple here and occasionally government folks stay in the bunkhouse next door. The bunkhouse has a washer and dryer which we can use. There is a TV but no cable. There is also wifi, both in the bunk house and in our trailer. At night, heck even during the day it's quiet. Sometimes the coyotes get a little loud but SD enjoys their company.  I enjoy the quiet. The sunsets, sunrises, surrounding mountains and desert continually surprise us with their beauty.

Friday, January 01, 2016

Last Month in Arizona

We're in Nevada now and for the next two months, but last month we toured the Western deserts of
Arizona. Arizona, the land where rocks float, giant trees sink and the winter desert blooms with RVs.

We started our tour way back at the end of November at Lee's Ferry, and I already blogged about
Colorado River @ Lee's Ferry
that. Not sure however that the post included the fact that there, as in many places in the southwest and especially Arizona, the ground is covered with pumice, porous volcanic rocks that weigh very little and actually float. Scattering a handful out onto the Colorado was like sending a hundred seeds downstream. These light weight rocks are everywhere and I still get a small thrill from easily picking up a big one.

From Lee's Ferry we headed south to Flagstaff. We spent a week or so exploring along RT 40, and where it still remained, RT 66. First we headed west to Williams, with a days detour to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and then east to Homolovi State Park, and the Petrified Forest National Forest.

Looks like a log, sinks like a stone

The Petrified Forest is one of those places like the Grand Canyon, that is more than photos or written description can do justice. I'm certainly not going to try but I will say that hiking the Blue Mesa trail through the 'forest' of log rock chips and finding giant petrified trees eroding out of bluish purple sand dunes was amazing. Also amazing was picking up a piece of one of those magnificently colored 'tree' pieces and feeling how really heavy it was. Really, really heavy. Certainly heavier than the floating pumice stone, maybe even heavier than granite. If that rock/piece of wood ever came close to water it wouldn't float for a second.
Blue Mesas

From there we headed further south and a bit west to Dead Horse State Park in Cottonwood, just west of Sedona. Sedona generally gets all the attention but the Verde Valley, in which Cottonwood sits, and through which the Verde River runs is stunning, in a the way only a river-running-through-the-desert can be.

One of the many magnificent
finds at the Quartzite swap meet
Heading further South, and almost to Mexico, we drove to Quartzite and spent a few days satisfying our curiosity about this legendary RV mecca. We wanted to know why every year, from January to March, millions of RVer's descended upon this barren desert outpost. Was it because of the thousand acres of free BLM camping? Was it just of the climate and companionship of other RVers? Was it the lure of the hundred acre swap meet, rock and RV show? Even though it wasn't peak RV season, still the desert sprouted RVs of every kind for miles along the road, and it was easy to imagine the place with wall to wall campers.

We were glad we had visited Quartzite off season. It was interesting, but just not our thing.  We then headed North, back to the Colorado River. Camping at Buckskin Mountain State Park along the shore of that awesome river. This time a ways downstream of the Grand Canyon and a few dams. From there we continued North, stopping at Lake Havasu to see the London Bridge, which we drove over while arguing about where it was. Then a night in Bullhead City visiting family. The next morning we drove on to Nevada and the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. We'll be in Nevada for a few months but are looking forward to going exploring more of Arizona this spring.