Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Culture Clash

Leonid Brezhnev and Nikita Khrushchev have made themselves quite comfortable here in SoCal. We met up with them at the Nixon Presidential Library, where we quickly realized that Disneyland isn't the only attraction requiring a multi-day pass. After a couple hours on The Enemy Within, a special exhibit put together by the Spy Museum, we didn't really have the stamina to fully appreciate all the Nixon-propaganda. We had conserve our energy and imagination for Disneyland.

Tuesday, January 30, cloudy, slight showers. Apparently the perfect day to brave the "happiest place on earth." The lines we'd prepared ourselves for, weren't there! And not just because we had Ukiah and his sprained ankle in a wheelchair. We were in the door and on Space Mt twice before the park had been open a half hour. It's a Small World and Splash Mt were closed, but we made up for it with multiple trips on Thunder Mt and Indiana Jones.

I'd share the details, but am distracted. Who knew poison oak could have a delayed-reaction of sorts?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Parting is such sweet sorrow...

Last week we said goodbye to our transmission.

Mechanic #1- Harry has lived behind the camp for 20-years. All this time, he’s had the same mechanic; a local shop just down the road from the historic Santa Rosa Cemetery, where his late 50’s Beetle engine was just rebuilt. We described the “squeaky” brakes and took a test drive with the mechanic. No one smelled death yet.

A couple hours later, we got the call. “Hey, have you been having any trouble shifting into reverse?” NO. An hour later, another call. “I drained some fluid. Looks like your transmission is full of metal… I don’t know where to find a new one …”

Mechanic #2- Back when we thought it was just brakes and were optimistic that we'd replace the pads and save the rotors, I searched craigslist for Volkswagen-loving mechanics, connecting with a really supportive at-home-dad/mechanic ready to help us out. Our new tranny would come from Hood River, Or, the same shop our mechanic at home uses. We got nervous. What if it's too big a job to have done by someone we don't know...

Mechanic #3- GoWesty, a resource
for every van owner I know, is about 30 miles south of our camp home. I’d heard a few nasty rumors about the management/ownership, but most of the stories are good and they have a warehouse full of every part imaginable, so we turned to the pros. On the way to the shop, we took a wrong turn off the freeway. Turning around, we confirmed Mechanic 1’s finding. Reverse was failing. In an ugly way.

They’re a big operation- shop, retail, sales, detailing… could be that the front desk is chaotic everyday. It took hours, three separate visits, to confirm the repair schedule and costs. Five days later, after the work was done, we’re told it won’t be warrantied. There was some confusion about the necessity of a working odometer as a condition of the warranty. Our frustration escalated over a series of phone calls including a “customer is never right” version of the blame game. Eventually the shop agreed to split with us the cost of replacing the odometer. Picking up the van, we made peace with the service manager, small talk of camping and Disneyland. Which eased the way when we returned an hour later with a non-functioning odometer.

Financial pain aside, we’re really grateful to the shop crew at GoWesty. They gave us a hands-on, behind-the-scenes lesson in transmissions/differentials, offering some comfort in the face of a major mechanical failure. We especially appreciate the sliding-door handle they replaced for us, making stumbling out to the bathroom in the middle of the night that much easier.

In other goodbye news, we left the acorns, science lectures, and otters of Camp Ocean Pines yesterday. After packing for Anaheim, Ukiah wondered if this past month, we might have already experienced the “happiest place on earth.” A beautiful environment topped only by the wonderful people. I’m tempted to quote the governor here, but I’ll just say we look forward to returning- sooner, rather than later.

Finally, at least some of us hope that Aslin will soon be saying farewell to her much-loved shoes.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Geology, anyone?

The first theory of plate tectonics came out of Germany in the 1920s. Scientists worldwide ridiculed the hypothesis and it’s leading advocate disappeared on a field research trip to Greenland in the 30s.

Dr. Gerald Weber graduated with a master’s degree in geology in the early 1960s. After 6 1/2 years working in the field, he returned to school to earn his PhD. In less than 7 years, everything had changed. A complete paradigm shift. He assigned himself a crash course in the latest developments in ocean floor research. Plate tectonics, continental drift, turns out it's all real.

His white moustache folds in a little as he grins. Science, he isn't shy to tell us, isn’t absolute. It’s just the best we know at the time. He figures it always takes about 30-years for science to catch up with itself; that there are these broad sets of questions and observations that eventually fall into a thin line of “facts”. He gestures. I envision a horizontal funnel.

It started with a handshake and quickly became a lesson. “Hi, I’m Nora,” led to 45 minutes on rock formation, global warming, and the fluidity of science as “truth.”

Another reason to think about grad school at Santa Cruz.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Wildlife CSI (viewer discression advised)

It wasn't all blood, guts and parasites. The weekend started innocently enough with our move from the Cousteau cabin down to a shag-carpeted, early 70's trailer typically reserved for summer-camp counselors. There were crafty ladies to make space for, a dozen quilters, beaders and silk painters. A retired teacher gladly shared her fish-print project with Ukiah and Aslin. Add to that some jr. high kids from LA and a contingent of marine scientists and camp was buzzing. A full house.

There were no s'mores 'round the campfire Friday night. The lodge seated nearly 100 for a presentation on the transmission of toxoplasma gondii and other land-animal parasites now infecting sea mammals, specifically sea otters. Power-point presentations illustrated the life cycle of the bugs, percentage of cats/horses/possums infected, and finally the resulting brain disease in otters. Four years of collaborative research summed up in 2-hours. Stories of skunks building nests in live-traps set for possums and the mid-lecture passing of a grocery bag full of candy, kept all engaged. Only one jr-higher was led to the exit by his teacher.

Otters trigger the "ohhh... isn't he cute," response from the public. Dr. Melissa Miller and her team of wildlife pathologists exploit this, employing otters to educate us on the ecological health of our land and sea environments. But their work isn't limited to cuddly creatures. So, when an emaciated mountain lion with no visible signs of trauma shows up dead in Marin County, the Dept of Fish and Game and UC Davis Wildlife Health call Dr. Miller to investigate. Saturday, she brought her investigation to us. Pealing the skin and fur away, we're shown that the animal has almost no fat, a sign that it isn't eating. The parasite found in abdominal muscle, is encysted (?)- not harmful. Pruning shears snaps ribs, revealing a chest cavity full of blood. The lungs are too small, heart too pale, stomach empty. We're assured that the smell of whale innards is much worse. It's not until they go to look at the brain that they discover the broken jaw. The absence of bruising of the head and neck leave some mystery, but the evidence points to blunt-force trauma (car). Cause of death- internal hemorrhage/starvation.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Aren't deer cute?

I thought I would share something sweet, to soften tomorrow's photos...

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Now that the holidays have passed, the camp employees have resumed their regular schedules, including in the kitchen. We've shared lunch with the trail-building construction crew, retired townsfolk visiting the amphitheatre they're helping fund and most recently, 70 overly-enthusiastic Cal-Poly students training to welcome next year's freshman. This afternoon we'll meet a bunch of 5th graders up for life science at the beach and community building over tomorrow's pancake breakfast.

Camp food is delivered in an enormous refrigerated truck. It takes at least an hour to unload the 7-pound cans of beans and cases of red delicious apples. Behind closed doors, the generic foods take a turn for the better. Green beans with red peppers and a touch of something sweet- apricot? Roasted vegetable soup with extra garlic. The lemonade, always the same, is mixed in a 5-gallon bucket.

The lunch bell doesn't startle me anymore. Last week's california rolls did.
I watched Theressa pat rice onto sheets of seaweed. My spanish is lousy. Her english marginally better. It took a while before I understood. She learned to make sushi working as a cook at Walmart* in Mexico.

*Our appreciation of avocado/cucumber rolls should NOT in any way be seen as an endorsement of Walmart, its policies, practices or world-wide evil-doing.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

We heart snakes

If it were warmer, we'd probably find all sorts of snakes in the woods here, even rattlesnakes. But it's winter and most are hibernating. We have caught a couple different types of salamander and we hear lots of frogs, but they're harder to find.

This is a gopher snake. It’s very fast. In the picture you may only see one, but there are two. The other is sleeping. You know how people say snakes are slimy? Well, actually, they’re not. They are very cool. They make me think of Shell. ~Aslin

There are two snakes in aquariums in the office at Camp Ocean Pines. They’re gopher snakes (they get their name from what they eat) but since they’re pets, they get fed mice. They didn’t have names so we just call this one “Fluffy Brownie Snowball”.
Some people think snakes are slimy, buy they’re not, just smooth. It feels really weird having a snake wrap around your arm, but it makes them feel more secure because they won’t fall. The snakes were hibernating but it’s been so warm, they woke up. The snake hissed, “What? Spring already?” Even the hissing tongue isn't slimy, it just tickles. I'm thinking of getting a snake. ~Ukiah

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


“They’re use to being on top,” Chris tells us. He’s the director of the camp and has a science-related love affair with the forest and marine ecosystems. He gestures towards the sky, demonstrating that oaks usually dominate the forest canopy. Not here. Along this stretch of the coast they’re dwarfed by the pines. Monterey Pines living in the southern tip of their range. But the pines too, are out of their element. The heat’s too much for them. It’s 75 degrees and Chris tells us, “They think they’re going to die.” They’re cracking up, literally. We listen as the pinecones pop, unwinding in a Fibonacci twirl. Pine seed helicopters litter the ground. It’s their effort against extinction- the possibility of a next generation. Meanwhile, the 17 redwood seedlings are holding on despite a lack of water. Last year, Chris picked up a couple dozen free; leftovers from a forest service project a few hundred miles north. Ironically, life in this forest is entirely comfortable for the South American amaryllis- who spread gracefully by seed and bulb production.

As volunteers here, we’re advocates for this forest of misfits. Not many pine seeds will manage to evade the quail, squirrel and mice. So we collect and roast pinecones, harvesting seeds at a safe distance from the birds. We wrote a grant, seeking county funds for equipment for a pine tree nursery. In ten years, these babies will tower the mighty 60-year-old oaks. Until a windstorm topples them. Without a taproot, they’ll sway, shutter and collapse. On an oak. Who for decades has struggled in the shadows. Whose acorns have been devoured by rodents and whose offshoots are continually mowed by the deer.

The camp was run under a YMCA/Elks Club partnership for some years. I’ve given tours to seniors who tell me they were counselors here in the late 40’s. At some point, the camp fell on hard times and the YMCA wanted $200,000/year to continue to host it. The two are no longer affiliated. Outdoor education is the focus of the revived, independent camp. And while the oak, pine and redwoods face some challenges here, 3,000+ kids will thrive here this thie year. Chris really doesn’t want to include flowers from another continent in their hands-on lessons about the watershed. We’ve removed about 600 amaryllis belladonna bulbs. We'd be happy to pack them in peat send some to you. Just don't go planting them in a native forest outside of Argentina.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Wine and Company

A hundred thousand acres of ranchland gave way to hillsides lined with vines. Copper-colored ribbons flicker warnings to next spring’s birds. Another winery with “stunning patio views” announced at every highway exit. Trendy tasting room/galleries dot the newly revitalized down town core. The wine country was unmistakable. We, were lost.

We circled the cemetery three times before stopping at a Honda dealership to ask directions. Certain roads were missing from the map and intersections could not be expected as they appeared in the 2005-06 Paso Robles visitor’s guide. For all our efforts, we found ourselves off the beaten track with a winemaker who ignored us until the preferred customers, women wearing foundation and men in loafers, asked about our kids. We joked with the other customers while Mr. Wine worked to project nobility, and poured with some hostility.

Our next stop was a tasting room for hipsters. Aslin skipped "zinbitch" and opted for the complimentary "Biker" tattoo. Stylish baby-doll tees, $15, hung behind the bar. Here the pours were hurried. The "wine pushers" did slow for a bit of gossip on wineries to avoid and told touching stories of three-legged cats. We waved thanks and followed their directions to a small organic winery.

Up the drive, past the horses, past the rings of lavender, we parked across from the goats, facing a small sing posted at the end of the row of vines. “Sustainable.” Other signs gave brief descriptions of grape varieties, soil conditions, and incorporating feng shui and farming practices.
Pipestone Vineyards makes an extraordinary fist impression.

Tasting room introductions led to the easy sharing of stories. Jeff and Florence run a family farm, open to the public. For 10-years, they’ve received the loud talk of LA liberals who support organic farming and leave empty handed and welcomed Orange County conservatives who are unconcerned with the environment, and buy cases of the wine they enjoy. We left with a bottle Rhone Style Red and a little California wine-world enlightenment.

Last night we joined the Pipestone family for dinner. They fired up the cob-oven and Ukiah built an olive and mushroom pie. We talked schools, agriculture, politics and travel and enjoyed their Grenache, especially well paired with the wood-fired pizzas. A welcome party for Brad’s birthday.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Elephant Seals: Part 2

We went back to the Elephant seal beach recently. The elephant seals were much more active. There was still alot of laying around but there was also a bit of sparring, new born pups and loud barking.

Male, female and baby elephant seals. (Some males grow much bigger than this one)

A mom and her baby. A pup's bark sounds nothing like what you would expect... It sounds more like an angry monkey than a seal. One pup in perticular (not this one) was barking ALOT and driving even the other seals crazy. One of the larger male seals bit the pup to shush him. Poor little pup...

Most of the seals laying down were using (or had used) their fins to "splash" sand over themselves. They itch and adjust much like us humans, in fact, when they scratch you can clearly see the little "fingers" in their fins and they look alot like human hands... They annoy each other like we do too.

A large sleepy male elephant seal. Um... Not much to say about this picture.

Two smaller males sparring (Sort of like practice fighting.) There were several pairs of younger males sparring in the waves. They bite and bash each other with their bellies but they aren't REALLY all-out fighting yet, the ones you see in the picture are not old enough to compete for mates yet.


Monday, January 01, 2007

Here's looking at you, kid!

With two bottles of sparkling cider, we rang in the New Year on the dunes of Morro Bay beach, where the people watching was fantastic. Some kids built castles, others drove remote-control cars and some took running leaps before belly-flopping in to the sand. The wind encouraged one man to attempt flying. In a wetsuit, he harnessed himself to a gigantic kite contraption. We squinted into the sun, watching him skim the sand for about 10 feet before rolling tripping back to ground. Birders with clipboards directed their binoculars at Morro Rock and we set our attentions on rock scrambling.

Atop the rock barrier, the crush of waves retreated to a tranquil sunlit aquamarine, only to cap white again. One lone duck went along for the ride. We tempted the spray to tag us, edging out until a swell prompted our common sense.

We'll close the first day of our New Year back at Camp Ocean Pines. From our deck, we watch the sea lions wake as the sun sets.

Health and Happiness,
Love and Laughter,
Peace and Prosperity,
and a dozen additional pairs of blessing for your New Year!