Thursday, September 11, 2008

Respect (and fear) Mother Nature

There are few people who get excited about the prospect of a hurricane hitting the U.S., and I’m pretty sure most of them are kayakers.

Last week, as news of Hurricane Gustav grew more and more grim, I began to feel like I did as a kid waiting for guests to arrive for the celebration of my eighth birthday. Hours felt like days, and days like eternity. Every hour on the hour, I checked the weather forecast online, jumping from AccuWeather to the Weather Channel and from the local news stations to Weather Underground. It was too good to be true. After a serious drought, the rain was coming…3 to 5 inches of wet and wonderful rain!

As forecasted, it rained all day Saturday. Jack and I stayed in bed, watching the drops fall.

First thing Sunday morning, before I had brushed my teeth or made my coffee, I checked the American Whitewater Association Web site for stream flows. I saw that gauge for Octoraro Creek in the Conowingo-area was reading 4.5 ft. This Class II creek, is navigable, according the AWA at 2.4 ft. Normal height appears for be 2.8 ft, according to data from the USGS.

We immediately began packing up, and headed out. We dropped Jack’s car off at the take-out point on Moore Rd, just off Port Flats. Then Jack jumped in my car and we made our way to the put-in on New Bridge Road in Rising Sun. Here’s a map of the route.

The water was relatively tame until we passed under the Route 1 Bridge. Suddenly, the water was rushing, creating white caps and waves that crashed against the nose of my kayak, soaking me from head-to-toe. There were not many strainers, as the water was well-above normal levels, but there were plenty of tight chutes and zig-zags to navigate.

At one point, Jack attempted a dare-devil run of a rapid fell out of his kayak. I had been following his tail, and was unable to stop before running him over and knocking the kayak from his grip. I paddled after his kayak, which was only half floating as it was upside down and full of water. I got a hold of his boat tried desperately to paddle ashore but the current was too strong. Jack was trying to run through the water after me, screaming for me to “STOP.” But I couldn’t stop. The water was over my head and I was being pulled through rapids, gripping a kayak in each hand.

Finally, I hit a slower moving, rocky patch and was able to direct my body towards shore as it bounced against the rocks below. The kayaks were too heavy for me to pull ashore, so I had to wait for Jack. By the time he found me, I had managed to choke back my tears. Unfortunately for him, my fear turns to pure rage once the immediate threat is over. We fought while we drained the water from the kayaks. We eventually got over it and continued downstream.

Jack managed to fall out a second time. He held onto his boat this time, but had bitch of a time getting on to shore, as the water was well over his head.

With the two “swim” breaks, the entire trip was about 2.5 hours. The take out spot consisted of some stairs carved into the bank. Tired, bruised and wet, we pulled the kayaks to the gravel parking space. I drove Jack’s car back to the put-in, got my car and drove back for him and the kayaks. Together, we went back for his car, and that was that.

The very next day I registered for a white water safety class with Liquid Adventures on Sept. 27. Next is CPR certification, and, in the Spring, water rescue and wilderness first aid certification. Mother Nature is no joke.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bloddy knee, crushe ego (Deer Creek)

This past Saturday, Jack and I did a 5.5 hour paddle down Deer Creek. We started at the access point on Rt. 1, just south of Trappe Road, and ended at the Susquehanna State Park pumping station. According to USGS Real-Time Water Data, the water gauge read 2.25 ft.

We started paddling right at 1 p.m., quickly realizing that 2.25 ft is not sufficient for paddling this creek. Thanks to low waters, Deer Creek was essentially a giant rock garden, which provided good practice for making zig-zag turns and scouting appropriate chutes.

Just as we were nearing the Churchville put-in, I got pinned between a few boulders and had to climb out of the kayak and start walking. My Keens, awesome as they are, were no match for the wet, slimy rocks. I slipped, fell forward, busted my knee and totally soaked my front side. With blood gushing, I paddled ashore and broke into the first aid kit. I cleaned the wound with alcohol, applied a bandage and got back in the boat. There was no time for crying and whining, we had to get on the move to complete the trip before sundown. Jack was thoroughly impressed that I wasn't a "girl" about the injury. Later me knee was so swollen it looked like I had two knee caps.

By the time we reached the pumping station at 6:30, I could barely drag my kayak out of the water. Between my crippled knee, tired arms and over-worked abs, it was a task.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ecological Field Studies Program

Written for the Smithsonian's staff newspaper, The Torch

Getting out of the classroom and into the field
By Mara Jonas
OPA Staff Writer

Teachers who participated in the National Science Resource Center’s summer Ecological Field Studies Academy are returning to the classroom this fall equipped with new skills and techniques for teaching science.

Eight teachers spent six jam-packed days working side-by-side with scientists from the National Zoo learning to apply field techniques to classroom education and doing everything from setting up a biodiversity monitoring grid to using a Global Positioning System and setting camera traps. The program was hosted by the Zoo’s Center for Research and Conservation in Front Royal, Va.

According to David Marsland, director of the NSRC Professional Development Center, the over-arching goal of the Ecological Field Studies Academy—and other NSRC Smithsonian Science Education Academies—is to connect teachers with Smithsonian science and the museum world. The specific goal of the Ecological Field Studies Academy is to help secondary school teachers develop inquiry-based course content, using the natural world as a living laboratory, Marsland says.

The teachers used CRC’s lush campus as their own living laboratory while earning three master’s-level credits through Virginia Commonwealth University.

For one of the “living lab” activities, academy participants awoke before dawn on a sunny Thursday morning and made their way from their hotel to CRC’s campus, where researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Neighborhood Nestwatch Program had already set up a number of almost-invisible, J-shaped, silk mist nets.

The nets are designed so that a bird unknowingly flies into the vertical top portion of the net, drops down unharmed into the curved bottom and is trapped until a researcher removes it for study and banding.

The team caught an indigo bunting and a male orchard oriel, among other species of song birds. Academy participants witnessed the researchers in action—measuring and weighing the birds, determining their sex by gently blowing the feathers on the birds’ bellies to reveal a brood patch for females or cloacal protuberances for males, and ultimately, banding and releasing the birds.
While all of the participants enjoyed the mist-netting demonstration, some felt that the logistics of such an activity might be difficult to replicate at their schools. However, CRC Education Manager Jennifer Buff points out that those challenges are an opportunity to engage the community. “Almost every area has a nature center or another resource that can be tapped,” she says.

Most of the research techniques taught at the Academy are easily replicated on school grounds. “There are many barriers for schools when it comes to teaching outdoor education, especially off-campus,” Buff says. “That’s why we promote this idea of using a piece of the school’s grounds—whether rural, suburban or even urban—as a living, learning laboratory,” she continues.

Many of the Academy participants have plans to do just that.

Amanda Gonczi, a middle-school teacher from The Plains, Va., and Bob Fuhrman, a high-school teacher from Charlottesville, N.C., both plan to study small mammals with their students.

“Studying live animals will get the kids excited about science,” Gonczi says. Fuhrman agrees: “With all the focus on standardized tests in schools, I want to get my students outside to appreciate what’s out there,” he says.

Another participant, Mike Jewell, a teacher at St. John School in Fenton, Mich., plans to set up a long-term aquatic study of a creek that runs through his school’s grounds using the data collection, management and reporting techniques he learned at the Academy.

Justin Rasmussen, a teacher at the International Berne School in Switzerland, plans to replicate with his students a predator survey experiment conducted during the Academy. For the experiment, the teachers placed real quail eggs and and small clay models in fake nests at various locations on CRC’s campus and left them overnight. The next morning, the group noted which nests had been disturbed and examined bite marks left in the clay eggs to infer information about predators in the area.

For those teachers unable to stretch the bounds of customary science activities, the butterfly and vegetation surveys they conducted during the Academy may be more viable options.

“Students can conduct these surveys on their own just by exploring their own backyards,” NSRC Education Specialist Juliet Crowell says.

“Science education is about wonder and exploration and need not be confined to the classroom,” Crowell continues. “It is NSRC’s mission to help our fellow educators—to not only educate the next generation of scientists, but also to inspire students to be proactive, informed citizens.”