Tag Archives: nature

Last-Call Adventure: Canyon Lake Gorge

Our dear friend, Colin, is leaving us in August. He’s going to Boulder, CO (of course).

This is Colin.

This is Colin.

Lewis is sad to loose a kindred spirit. I am sad to lose one of our only friends who doesn’t think that all of my adventure ideas sound ominously fallible. In fact, Colin trumps me in great ideas that are more…grand… than anticipated.

So, in honor of his departure, we’ve begun to execute what I will here dub the Last-Call Adventures.

May 18 was Canyon Lake Gorge

This is Canyon Lake Gorge.

This is Canyon Lake Gorge.

Walking along the Canyon Lake spillway feels like a trek into a wasteland. Concrete severs the limestone in an attempt to solve a different man made problem (erosion of the man-made dam, which was built to make the lake), this scenario tends to proliferate when left unattended. Canyon Lake itself was born for flood and drought control, because German settlers insisted on inhabiting an area that is more flood-prone than anywhere else in the country. Barry Commoner might have had some thoughts on what we were setting ourselves up for here.

Lewis and Colin surveying the landscape.

Lewis and Colin surveying the landscape.

Case in point: A massive flood event in 2002 that crashed over the Canyon Lake spillway flooded homes, washed out roads, and moved enough earth to cover a football field under 30 stories of rock, soil, and flora. The flood carried such force ( 7 feet deep over the spillway at 67,000 cubic feet per second) that it ripped a giant gash in the land, exposing millenia’s worth of fossils, footprints, and geological features.

The laceration is now known as the Canyon Lake Gorge. The only way to gain access is by paying a for a tour from the Gorge Preservation Society (GPS). So that’s what we did.

Our guide was clearly a geology/archaeology enthusiast, and thus we spent the bulk of our time looking at fossils and dinosaur prints. There was also a rather excited 8 year old in our group, so fossils and dinosaurs were winning topics. However, since Colin is an environmental reporter who writes mostly about water and water issues, and Lewis is a spring fanatic, we took issue with our guide’s overall dismissal of the hydrological significance of the area. But we did learn a lot about fault lines and local dinosaurs, so the day was a most definitely a significant net gain, educationally.

The first layer of limestone to tear away under the flood waters revealed several dinosaur tracks. Personally, I buy about 70% of what any given paleontologist says on the matter because in grad school I became sort of a slave to sample sizes. However, these are undeniably footprints in the limestone, put there by the controlled fall of a bipedal creature long before several feet of limestone formed on top of it. Given the rate of limestone production in nature, the size of the print and the length of the stride…I’m convinced, and awed.

This is a very unphotogenic dinosaur footprint.

This is a very unphotogenic dinosaur footprint.

From the mega to the mini, our guide called our attention to the crunching beneath our feet and asked us to find fossils. Lo and behold the very tiny things crunching beneath our feet were, in fact, orbitolina texana. Tiny tiny fossilized forminifera (a one-celled creature with a nucleus and hole in its body).

Orbitum texana

Orbitolina texana

Another tiny fossil.

Another tiny fossil.

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Crunch.

We proceeded deeper through the strata into the gorge. Each limestone shelf gave way to another stunning feature, more forensic evidence for times past and the general behavior of the earth’s crust.

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Limestone is porous, and so for the Edwards Aquifer dependents in the group, witnessing both the porosity and the solubility of the stone was a telling look into how we get our own water. The water in the gorge leaks out of the lake, though the porous ground, as well as underground canals carved out by persistent rivulets over time. Lots and lots of time. A similar process created the Edwards Aquifer.

Our guide lost me a little bit when he snubbed the Edwards Aquifer Authority for placing water restrictions on San Antonio to save the fountain darter, tampering with right of captures laws (I think that differentiating between surface and ground water is absurd as well, but while I’d like to see ground water protected like surface water, he’d seemed to be advocating for the reverse). He also assured us that fracking would not hurt our drinking water and that the aquifer was far deeper than we would ever need it to be. Oh the confidence of those who don’t have to drink other people’s “rights.” Except that he did spend a few minutes ranting about an ex-business partner who poured motor oil into a hole in the ground near enough to effect his private well.

This water does not belong to you.

This water does not belong to you.

We progressed to an examination of the Hidden Valley fault. The dramatic effects on the rocks as they press and jar against each other is magnificent. It looks like wreckage, and yet its presence makes rivers possible, and fills our aquifer. We also learned the term slickenside, referring to the scrape marks caused by the hanging wall (moving plate) moving against the footwall (stationary plate). I think it sounds like something you’d find at Schlitterbahn.

Under the careful explanations and occasional soap-boxing of our guide, our three hour tour matured into 4.5 hours, but even the 8 year old weathered it well. It’s an amazing place, though I am a little leery of industry building around it, even something as noble as the GPS. It just seems like when a human ties their livlihood to the whims of nature,  the battlelines are drawn. Already there are power washers involved.

I highly recommend the trip, if you are heat/sun tolerant, and fond of a good hike. Take a note from Gilligan, and don’t build your plans around a three hour tour. We lost Colin to a work commitment about 3.5 hours in. On the way out I heard the 8-year-old say, “I feel so bad for that man. He had to leave right before we got to all the fossils!” Darling, but untrue. We’d seen 3.5 hours worth of fossils. But I admire his enthusiasm for the final sites.

Fossil

Fossil

Canyon Lake Gorge, as it is now, is the museum that nature made. Her response to Canyon Lake. Her moment to show off what she’s been up to for so long before we were looking.

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Explorer’s challenge: Five climate zones in 15 days

I pride myself on being a good packer. Or at least in having chosen an excellent convertible carry-on/backpack suitcase once upon a time. Two weeks in Africa, no sweat. Forty days in Europe, easy. This summer it was my moble mueble carrying not only clothing but plastic plates, utensils, and basic groceries as I lived three days per week at a hotel in Katy.

This last trip, however, may have stretched my trusty sidekick to its limit. He’s still going strong, zipper works, wheels roll, handle retracts. But my creative packing and his elasticity we going full throttle as I packed for my trip through Peru and Ecuador. First off, it was a business trip, so I needed to have the ability to look nice, should the situation present itself. I would also be hiking, snorkeling, city-touring, and boating. But the most complicated element:  I would be traveling through six climate zones, which I will here below grossly oversimplify.

#1 Coastal Desert

“It never rains in Lima,” said the man driving us from the airport to our hotel in Miraflores. We would hear this exact sentence 3 more times before we left Peru.

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Nonetheless, there were puddles on our terrace in the morning.

Lima’s coastal desert climate is a product of the Humboldt Current, which keeps it temperate (60s in their winter, 70s in their summer) and foggy. In my opinion, humidity makes all weather feel more extreme, so add 10 degrees to the heat index for summer and add “cold sweat” to the winter forecast. It’s a humid place, even if it rarely comes to fruition.  Most of their <2 inches of “rain” every year, like our puddles, are actually condensation from the dense fog called the garúa.  

The closest thing Lima has to crazy weather are El Niño events, when the Humboldt Current warms up and they have a heat wave. But that wasnt’ happening when we were there, so I have to say, Lima was easy to outfit.

#2 Sierra- Andean Valley

The Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu are often lumped together in terms of climate. In fact good luck finding an online resource to say otherwise. However, thanks to the windows of the Vistadome, we watched as bromelia replaces agave, opportunistically sprouting on trees and rocks, while the agave ran out of personal space. The polite and orderly mountain flora is overtaken by aggressive and lusty Amazonia.

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The true Andean Valley is ideal for agriculture. Temperate, predictably dry, then torrentially wet November-February.

Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu are exploding with life. It’s everywhere, and while rain and dryness are equally predictable, there’s an added something in the air that covers the Citadel with clouds and the rooftops with jungles of lichens.

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#3 Sierra – Andean Highlands

Again, the highlands are often lumped in with the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu, but anyone who has had to budget their long-sleeves and short sleeves know that this is simply not true.

Cusco is cold. Technically we were there in the summer time and I’m wearing a jacket in most of the pictures. Also, this has nothing to do with the climate, but the air is also terribly thin, so everything is out of whack when it comes to dealing with the climate. You’re cold, you’re panting, you’re dizzy, you’re thirsty.

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I have no idea what grows and lives naturally in Cusco, because we never left the heart of the city, or strayed from it’s concrete arteries.

#3 Selva – Amazon

This might have been our most dramatic transition. From chilly Cusco to Puerto Maldonado where the highs and humidity were in the 90s. We never stopped sweating. Fortunately, our mood was somehow improved by this, and Lewis concluded, “We’re just happier when we’re sweating.”

Never thought I’d hear that said about me.

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The Amazon is fascinating. The soil is nutrient poor, and so things grow quickly with shallow roots dog piling on top of one another. In some cases, like the banana tree, they are productive for about three years, and then they are gone. So few develop into hardwoods that our naturalist guide made a point to call attention to almost every single one we passed.

In the explosion of life, competition is fierce, and so everything is brighter and bolder than it would be in a world where there were enough of things to go around. Flowers need to attract pollinators, and you don’t waste your energy getting all magnificent if there’s no need to impress anyone. It also means that bacteria, mold, infestation and decay happen more rapidly. Everywhere you look, there is life…and it’s all fighting for the same small space.

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Four (some say five) layers, each it’s own system of relationships and bioeconomics, make up the rainforest. The herbacious floor, with life piled upon life and the detritovores coat the ground and speed decay. Next layer up are the shrubs and short trees of the shady understory, which provide shelter to much of the forest fauna. Next up is the canopy, which can only be explored by binocular or ingenuity, as it is both dense and impossibly high. The emergent layer are those survivors who hover even above the canopy, like the Jetsons.

Those last two layers, the canopy and the emergent layer are made of primary forest. Old growth. These are the treasures of the forest that have survived mold, parasite, and competition for light and nutrients. These are the mighty men of the rainforest. And they can’t be quickly replaced.

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#4 Galapagos

I had soaked through most of our warm weather clothes by the time we got to the Galapagos. Fortunately March, while it is the hottest month, is the best time for snorkeling, so I could wear my bathing suit most of the day.

But there were the morning hikes, during which I would wear slightly smelling post-Amazon explorer attire and give it 20 minutes until they were drenched anew under the unforgiving sun of 10am on Española Island.

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The Galapagos, like the coast, is dependent on the currents for it’s seasons. Humbolt, June through November, brings dry air and wetsuit weather to the waters, particularly on the western islands. Panama Current brings wet summer, peaking in March, when hiking is best reserved for the hours of 5am-9am. Which is what we did.

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Every few years El Niño comes and starves the islands, which are devoid of fresh water resources. Without rain, the volcanic rocks just bake, along with everything on them.

Being volcanic, the rocks hold almost no nutrients, and host desert plants like sesuvium and prickly pear (which impressed even this Texas girl by growing into trees…). Their iconic tree, the ever-adaptable endemic scalesia grows across the climate zones, including the highlands of Santa Cruz where it shares space with a wider variety of short but dense vegetation.

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Odd as it may seem, this remote and exotic world felt the most familiar, as far as my skin was concerned. August in San Antonio has a tropical desert element to it.

#5 Páramo

My favorite climate region was the one we visited last. Nestled between the continuous treeline and the snowline along the equatorial Andes lies the páramo. Cold and humid, pretty much year round and simultaneously home to delicate flowers, hummingbirds, and evergreens.

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The mid 60’s temperatures were welcome, as we were all out of warm weather clothes that didn’t smell like a gym floor.

We hiked all day, visited the Andean condor rehab center, and sat down to dinner fresh faced and still smelling nicely. The crops were not particularly diverse in the páramo, but the dairy production was devine, and the cows looked happy with their lot in life. They should be, at least, as the scenery in the Zuleta region is nothing short of breathtaking.

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If I had it to do over again, I’d spend two weeks in each location. No question. But as a survey, I left me utterly convinced that South America holds more natural wonders than anywhere else I’ve seen, and I hope that they know it, protect it, and stand by it.

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