Follow our trip right here as we travel through central California studying ecology. We will update this blog with new entries each day from June 12- June 19.
I thought I'd mention the lack of chronological order in this blog. The California trip inspired me to give the "blog" version of Weebly a try. I didn't want to lug around my huge laptop and cross my fingers that everywhere we went had wifi. I decided to bring my iphone instead, which doesn't have the friendliest editing program for Weebly on it. For whatever reason, the Weebly app only allows blog entries. I wasn't able to go in and add to a page already created on the website. The blog version was just as adequate except I could never figure out how to put my entries in chronological order. I still haven't figured this out. So as you read on, just note that there was a logical migration from one town to the next.
After visiting pier 39 we decided to go to China Town for lunch/dinner. As the usual in San Francisco, it was way over priced but really good, authentic food (which of course means that the kids weren't impressed. They seem to prefer the Americanized version.)
After lunch we visited a fortune cookie making factory in a little back alley, which was pretty neat. We didn't have to pay to visit the place, just 50 cents to take a picture! Typical SF style.
After that the kids did a little souvenir shopping, and of course they are every store owner's dream customers. They can be talked into a lot it seems. Not sure where we are going to pack all of this stuff...
Finally we ended the night with the Alcatraz evening tour. We took the ferry over to the island, saw prison cells, spent some time in "the hole", learned about the structure, inmates and prison guards, and heard the story of the 1948 riot by one of the guards himself.
It was a long day, but a successful one. As of tomorrow we will be getting into the ecology portion of the trip, starting with our tour of the California National Primate Research Center in Davis.
When we were in Monterey Bay area the original intention was to snorkel the rocky shoreline and under water kelp forest. This type of coastline habitat is relatively unique to California, which brings unique plants and critters along with it. You don't find a lot of coral reefs in CA like you would in Florida where the water is calm and the land is flat. CA's unique coastal habitat brings sea lions, seals, sea otters and even elephant seals off of the Farallon Islands for food, shelter and breeding grounds. Those animals bring larger predators and so on up the web creating an incredible ecological community. These species aren't found in many other coastlines in the country because the habitat type is different. Monterey is famous for it's amazing diving conditions and sites. Snorkeling on the other hand isn't as popular. The divers at the snorkel rental store advised against it, claiming it would be murky and a waste of money. Instead they suggested venturing inland to a fresh water hole that only locals know about to do some cliff jumping. The prospect of cliff jumping excited the students, and gave allowed me a new habitat type to slip into the curriculum (freshwater systems).
We went on our way to find this illusive hole, using some pretty questionable directions. Long story short, we drove in the complete wrong direction for two hours. We were finally in the vicinity of the hole after 3 hours of searching, and still never ended up finding it. What a finale to wrap up the last day!
Luckily before we went in search of the phantom hole we ate breakfast and had a final lesson/overview on the trip and ecology concepts we were studying. The students made a lot of connections and now understand the balance and interdependence of life. They used this travel experience to see first hand how climate dictates the species that dominate an ecosystem. They were also able to see how altitude, topography, proximity to the ocean and equator effect the climate.
We also had the chance to stop at the beach in Santa Cruz and eat lunch at Pizza My Heart, arguably the best pizza in the country! We drove through the University in Santa Cruz on our way out, which like Jennings, does not give grades. The students there earn their bachelors by creating an impressive portfolio. The kids were very interested in that, as there are very few project-based universities in this country.
Yesterday we drove from Pinnacles to Monterey to check out the bustling coastal community of Monterey Bay. The plan was to check out Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and check out the frigid Pacific first hand. Monterey Bay is known for its spectacular scuba diving. The coast is dominated by rocky shorelines and massive underwater kelp forests. These rocks and kep forests are important habitat for sea lions, seals, sea turtles, sharks, star fish and more. The ocean habitat here is unique in that kept forests don't exist in other parts of the country. Rocky shorelines are also fairly limited to Northwest states. Those under water forests attract a particular community of organisms that rely on the kelp and rocky shoreline for food, protection from predators and breeding habitat. You wouldn't find many of the animals that are in the California coast in Florida for example, because Florida doesn't have kelp or rocky shorelines. In fact there are few ocean mammals at all in the tropical Atlantic coast. The point being that climate and topography highly dictate the populations of plants and animals you would find in any given ecosystem.
The original plan was to snorkel today. When we got to the dive shop to rent however, the owner suggested we shouldn't. The skorkeling isn't popular here because the top several feet of the water is murky making it difficult to see anything. Instead we mixed things up a bit, went to the aquarium today and will go to a freshwater water hole a little inland to swim and collect data on freshwater ecology tomorrow.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of the best in the country, and going there today we could see why. They pride themselves on their great white shark populations. We went to a seminar at the aquarium on great white sharks specifically, and the important role they play in the Monterey Bay ecosystem. The speaker was one of the co-founders of the aquarium. His presenation focused on the unfair reputation of the great white shark. Movies like "Jaws" have perpetuated the idea that great white sharks are man-eaters, when in fact you are more likely to get struck by lightening 5 times in your life than ever have a negative encounter with a great white. Other programs like Shark Week on the Discovery Channel attract viewers by creating the misconception that shark attacks are very common. Most of their segments focus on the shark attacks that have happened. Because of this negative perception that media has created, the great white shark population worldwide is at risk of extinction. This would of course throw the ecosystem off balance because we would be losing one of the top ocean predators. Their job is to keep the populations of secondary and tertiary consumers in check. If we were to lose our top predators, the seal populations would explode. So what? The seals are cute! Unfortunately those seals would need to eat. They would exhaust the fish population in the bay. Not only would that create many problems ecologically, but would have an economic impact as well. The commerical fishing industry would suffer because they would be in competition with the seals, sea lions and sea otters. This is a perfect example of how easily ecosystems can be thrown off balance, having serious repercussions for both the ecological and human communities whom rely on a healthy coastal community to thrive. This was an important lesson for my students. One simple notion that shark populations are at risk, taught my students about the food web, niche, carraying capacity and the interdependance of life.
At the end of the day since the kids were desperate to swim in the ocean, they did a polar plunge. The ocean water on the California coast is not warm. It is just warm enough to take one quick jump in, accept the shock, and get out. It's very refreshing (so I hear)!
Today we started the ecology aspect of this trip. One of the reasons we decided on California as our destination was so that I had a great natural laboratory to help them learn about ecology. One of their projects while they are here is to collect data on climate and dominant species occupying the areas we will visit throughout the trip. California is famous for its variety in landscape, climate and the flora and fauna found from one place to the next. You could be on the coast of San Francisco in 50 degree, cloudy weather, and then hop in the car, drive 45 minutes to Napa where it could be 90 degrees and sunny. There will be palm trees in one spot making you feel like you're in the tropics, and pine forests in another giving you a north woods feel. California's variety in landscape and climate has a lot to do with proximity to the coast and mountains, altitude and location relative to the equator. Today we started hopping from one place to the next checking out and recording the similarities and differences between our destinations. We will post our findings on here when we have put the data into something understandable.
Today the kids woke up and made sausage and egg tortillas. I didn't bring many cooking utensils because they were too heavy to travel with. So the kids got creative and literally attracted a crowd. They simply molded tin foil into the shape of a pan and fried up some hash browns in it!
Then we went on our way. We spent our last day in the San Francisco area a little north of the city. We visited the Muir Woods, famous for its towering, old growth redwood trees. These trees are coniferous (meaning they have pine cones) and live several hundred years when undisturbed. They are also the tallest trees in the country. They are not the widest, that would be sequoias, which are also in California, but redwoods are still pretty wide. Redwood trees grow close to the coastline. The mist from the ocean is important moisture for redwoods survival.
Next we drove just 6 miles up to the summit of Mount Tamalpais. The kids stood at the top taking in the spectacular view of the Pacific and the city below. Tamalpais is also near the ocean, and the summit is 1300 ft above sea level. As you ascend the mountain the air gets colder and the oxygen thinner. The nutrients in the soil also change. That is why you see very few plants and animals as get closer to the peak. The animals and plants that can tolerate high altitudes are those that have evolved specific traits to do so. There aren't many, hence the sparse plant community at the summit.
Finally, we ended our day with a quick drive into the city to do some window shopping in the famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood. The kids found some great finds at a few of the thrift shops on Haight.
Until tomorrow! Goodnight Minnesota!
Ok, so maybe this wasn't the highlight of the trip, but there were peaks. Literally, see the pictures below. Yesterday morning we woke up bright and early and started heading south. Before we got too far, we pit stopped in San Francisco one last time so that Carlos could meet an aunt of his for breakfast that he hasn't seen since he was 5! While he caught up with family, the rest of us killed time at Ghiredelli Square watching chocolate get made and checking out the street vendors. We also got to experience the trolly before leaving San Francisco for good.
We started toward Pinnacles National Park, which is a very hot, dry ranching area inland toward Death Valley. This park is famous for it's small, very rare population of endangered California condors, it's high rocks jetting out from the valley floor, and it's excellent rock climbing landscape. The entire park looks like it went on fire. It is covered with brown grass and shrubs. This type of biome is caled chaperrel, which means it is dominated by a few types of shrub plants under 3 ft tall. These specific plants thrive here because they have adaptations that allow them to survive without much water. For example, many of the plants have seeds that stay dormant in the soil until there is a fire. Fire actually "wakes" up these seeds to start growing. These plants are also able to store water for gradual use later on when it hasn't rained in a while. Pinnacles rarely gets rain, and with the plants that occupy the space, it all works out because these plants are meant to thrive in this environment. That is one part of what makes this particular ecosystem balanced. If it were to suddenly start raining in Pinnacles all the time, the ecosystem would collapse. The plants and animals are not adapted to withstand a lot of water. In my opinion, this area is gorgeous. At night you can see the Milky Way as clear as day, there are so many animals walking around you feel like you're in a Disney movie. Unfortunately our students didn't find PNP as breathtaking as I did.
We didn't end up arriving to our campsite until 5, so we didn't have many daylight hours to enjoy the park. The kids were tired, hungry, and ready to relax. As we cooked and set up tents, organisms started coming out of the woodwork. With hot, arid weather comes fire ants. With primitive campgrounds comes beggars like raccoons and squirrels. I made the mistake of telling the students there were mountain lions in the park. They barely slept the whole night in a panic that a raccoon, coyote or cougar was going to take one of their claws, find the zipper to their tent, open the zipper and proceed to attack them.
Luckily there were no fatalities that night :)
When we got to Pinnalces all they wanted to do was swim and all I wanted to find was a condor. The pool turned out to be closed, which worked well for me. I forced the students to go on a night hike with me to the pinnacles so we could get the data we needed for their habitat project. I thought they would fight me on that kicking and screaming, but they were actually pretty compliant. When we got to the trail head, we read that our hike would be two miles up hill to get to a cave we were interested in checking out. The kids were the first to take off on the hike. They were troopers, hiking at dusk, uphill for that matter. When we got to the cave it was closed. Long-eared bats that roost in the cave needed protection, so we weren't allowed in. The kids were bummed but I used it as an opportunity to remind them of the "balance of life", an ecology concept that is fitting to what they are learning about. Even the most annoying, most dangerous, grossest animals out there all have a role to play to keep the ecosystem healthy. Including bats. Because the main cave was closed, the kids ventured off and discovered their own nooks and crannies. They were troopers!
We never did see a condor. I was disappointed, the kids were indifferent. They just knew that these birds were huge, but had never experienced looking up to see a bird with a 10 ft wing span flying over them. It's an indescribable experience that I wanted them to have. The California condor population in Pinnacles is very small. These birds are highly endangered. They can be found only in California and near the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They are the largest bird in North America. Their numbers are threatened because they consume lead shot. California condors are vultures that only eat dead animals. A hunter may kill a deer with a lead bullet and then lose the deer. Eventually the condors will find it and have a feast. If the bullet the hunter used was lead, the condor will get lead poisoning from ingesting the lead bullet. This is how most of them die. Unfortunately California's policy makers have not yet made lead bullet illegal even though there are many alternatives like copper and bismuth bullets. The condor population is no longer self-sustaining. Their survival at this point is completely reliant on teams of conservationists and researchers to literally babysit these birds. The recovery program is very expensive, yet the complete loss of this species would be devastating, both ecologically and aesthetically. People drive long distances to Pinnacles National Park JUST to see these birds. If they disappear all together we lose a very special piece of the Pinnacles community.
The point of the Pinnacles stop was to show them just how quickly the landscape, climate and dominant plant and animals species can change in just a short drive, and what variables create those differences. I'd say in that way the detour was a success.
This morning we woke up bright and early to drive to the University of California, Davis. On their campus is one of several National Primate Research Centers in the U.S.. Dion, who planned this trip, is interested in primatology as a career. We got in touch with Kathy West who offered us a free educational outing to their facility. They talked to us about all of the research that is being done there and all of the incredible breakthroughs they've made. For example, as of yesterday they came out with a publication showing the positive effects of a new drug being used to prevent HIV transmission from person to person. They are also in the process of developing an autism treatment by injecting oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone in monogamous species, into patients. Another research study they are known for is their study on the effects of ingesting bpa's by eating or drinking out of plastic containers. There is a positive correlation between that and breast cancer and other health issues particularly associated with women. Because of this study, the kids have been asking incessantly if they can drink the bottled water I've been giving them! I'm glad to hear they are conscious about their health, but they will have to revamp their water drinking habits when we get back, cause we only have plastic! None of these discoveries would have been made without using primates as research subjects. On a brighter note they did say that only 2% of animals used for research are non-human primates. Most of them are rats and mice.
At the end of our visit we did a tram tour of the breeding facility where we were introduced to their macaques and titi monkeys. It was a very educational experience.
We are now back at the campground, a little earlier than expected because one of us has the flu... And that would be me! So I'm signing off to get some rest. I need this to be gone by tomorrow!
Oh, I don't have pictures because they wouldn't let us take any. Apparently they get harassed by animal activists who in the past have taken pictures, gone home to photoshop the picture in a negative light, and then post them on the Internet. So I don't have a picture. But I can say that those monkeys were darn cute, and had a healthy and safe living environment.
We made it across the Golden Gate Bridge and fortuitously stumbled upon an awesome shot for a photo op. As we made our way around the bend the students spotted Alcatraz, which they were excited about because they've been studying up. Our campsite for our first few days in CA is a little north of San Francsico in a town called Petaluma. To get to San Francisco you need to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. When we woke up this morning, it was 75 degrees and sunny at our campsite and all the way down to the bridge. Once you come around a corner and see the bridge there is a very prominent haze or massive cloud hovering over San Francisco. It is rare that you can even see the bridge most days. This constant cloud over SF keeps the city at an average 65 degrees all year. Thi is because of the surrounding topography. SF is situated on the coast with a pile of mountains surrounding it on all sides. The wind blows ocean mist into the sky, it bounces off the mountains behond SF, and comes back down right over the city as a large blanket of overcast. Many people, including my students, had the misconception that CA is tropical. It is actually very dry. palm trees are not native mor are they common. If there are any at all, they got here through the hands of people. The dominant habitat type is coniferous forest, which includes plants like pine trees. Learning about the this was their first lesson in ecology.
We are now at Pier 39 checking out the basking seals and sea lions. The California Coastline has sea lions, seals, sea otters and even elephant seals at the Farralon Islands off the coast of CA a few miles. These species all exist here because of the rocky shoreline and kelp forests. No coastline in the United States is exactly like the one we are looking at now. The students will learn more about this in a couple days when we visit Monterey Bay, and I will post more about what they will be learning on coastal ecology later in the week.
Next stop: China Town for lunch at Chef Jia's.
After 19 hours of travel time we are finally here! We arrived at our campground a little north of San Francisco in a town called Petaluma, at about midnight last night. The trip took about 11 hours longer than it should have but the kids haven't complained once, and now that we are here they are getting pretty excited.
They woke up this morning seeing our campground for the first time in the day light. They were greeted by the mountains, a 5 day old goat, and a peacock. Interesting campgrounds these days. That's the KOA for ya.
We are about to head out to San Francisco to spend the day. We will go the Fishermans Wharf and Pier 39. We will eat dinner in China Town at a little hole in the wall we found recommended on Trip Advisor. We will try to get to Haight/Ashbury and see Lombard St and Telegraph Hill. Finally, we are scheduled for a night tour to Alcatraz. We are now headed over the Golden Gate Bridge! Check back on how our day went tomorrow morning.