Saturday, August 30, 2008

6 miles west of Thayer

Heading south on Hwy. 63 through the Central Plateau, one will quickly notice that the natural heritage of historic prairies, savannas and open oak woodlands no longer exists. In the least dissected region of the Ozarks, an area perched on carbonate rock with exceedingly dry soils, most of the landscape has been converted to agriculture. Just before reaching the Arkansas border, however, turn onto Hwy. W to visit a spectacular geologic formation that makes the rather featureless, monotonous drive worth it.

A short walk through a nice little patch of dry (very dry) chert woodlands reveals an enormous collapsed cave system with vertical walls measuring 130 feet high. All but one small 250 ft.-wide span of dolomite collapsed into the cave roughly 10,000 years ago, creating an enormous chasm with a small natural bridge spanning the width. The resulting canyon is roughly a mile long with two forks, the convergence of other collapsed caves. One fork represents Bussell Branch, an ancient creek that thousands of years ago flowed on top of the then-concealed cave system. The historic creek bed once continued south into Arkansas; the original drainage can be seen on topographic maps and in aerial photographs. Bussell Branch drains 24 square miles of surrounding land and waterways. The second fork in the canyon drains 2 square miles, making the entire watershed for the canyon 26 square miles. During heavy rain events, the chasm fills with water, creating a muddied lake that persists for weeks or months.

Water drains slowly out of the chasm, percolating through a small portal, ending up at nearby Mammoth Spring in Arkansas. Last week, armed with flashlights and muddied boots, we hiked the distance of the chasm, through the natural bridge to the sinkhole. It's actually a rather large opening which, under normal circumstances, would likely drain water quickly. But in the early part of the 20th century, rain events following a massive tornado blow down sent thousands of trees and debris into the chasm, subsequently blocking the cave opening. The blockage remains today, but early explorers recount visits into the cave, providing evidence of a large lake:
The ceiling dipped so we were not able to stand straight, and the guide had never gone farther; but to his surprise here was a light boat which I am ready to admit he displayed no eagerness to appropriate to his own use, and swimming about it, close to shore, were numerous, small, eyeless fish, pure white and perfectly fearless; the first I have ever seen....Cave Regions of the Ozarks and Black Hills, Luella Agnes Owen (1898)

In the 1990s, officials sent a probing device and camera through the debris into the cave. It was determined infeasible to remove the debris, with the direct impacts to Mammoth Spring considered. The slow percolation process of the chasm provided by the blockage helps make Mammoth Spring the second largest spring in the Ozarks, producing 9 million gallons of water each hour (Big Spring in Van Buren, Missouri is the largest in the Ozark Highlands, producing on average 278 millions of gallons of water daily). With the blockage removed, an enormous torrent of water would undoubtedly flood the adjacent Arkansas community. Of course, no one knows if the cave fish still live in the cave or if the blockage destroyed the natural water flow to the detriment of the population.

Annual plants like polygonums, clearweed and nettles dominate the floor of the chasm. With water so persistent after rain events, it comes as no surprise that hardly any woody plants thrive down there. Rangy grape vines spill over the sides of the steep slopes, covering many of the geologic features during the growing season. The woods surrounding the chasm are rich with woodland species, despite the lack of fire management. Like Mammoth Spring, the deep canyon outside of Thayer is a designated National Natural Landmark.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Public outcry

The fine folks at Missouri's DNR have just poked a timber rattlesnake with a stick. Missourians, you see, love their rivers and streams. They collectively dedicate literally thousands of volunteer hours to keeping tabs on water quality, removing rubbish, and planting trees along riparian zones all in an effort to keep the state's waterways safe and clean. DNR has decided to remove restrictions on industry that would allow bacteria levels to escalate in streams and rivers that are not specifically used for recreational purposes. They want to meet the same compliance as the federal standards, all relaxed under the current administration to allow high levels of arsenic and other metals. Apparently, the initial press release was met with such ire by our citizens that the department has reissued the information explaining the removal of restrictions in more detail. Essentially, it claims that we won't pollute all of Missouri's rivers, just the ones we're not using for fishing, boating and swimming. Of course, in Missouri, as in every other watershed, it's all connected.

While I have knowledge of the leadership at DNR, I'm rather unsure of who is really leading this campaign. Go here to read about the issue and provide comment through a survey on the proposal. If you don't have a specific waterway to comment on, write to this email address directly with your comments:
Hurry, though, as the comment period ends on Sunday.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A matter of fuels

"You should name your next dog 'Fire,'" Kate tells me earlier this week as we watched aspen logs morph into glowing red embers. "That way," she continued, "you can talk about fire all you want and people won't think you're strange, you're just talking about your dog." I laughed, thinking of phrases I repeat at least 50 times a year, usually exclusively while huddled around a campfire: "Don't you just love the way Fire rips up a draw?" and "Wow, look at the effects of Fire on that hillside...." followed by the most common "man, I'd love to set Fire to that."

I can't help it, I guess, that when I see fire I conjure images of prescribed burns I've worked, of my colleague's early experience setting Taum Sauk Mountain on fire, of the wonderful effects fire has on our woods. So I regale my fellow campfire attendees with fire stories. Out west, however, my mind turns to those harrowing videos I saw in wildland fire fighting school--300 foot flames moving through spruce forests at 50 mph. Because I was in Idaho this week surrounded by flashy, grassy fuels, my baby sister's log cabin behind us and plumes of smoke coming from the Targhee NF to the south, I was reminded that 1,200 miles away my colleagues were not suppressing but mimickinglightning fires, the ultimate in reproducing natural fire events. The rest of my program spent the week performing growing season burns on glades in the Ozark Highlands while I remained hesitant to throw another log on a contained campfire.

What I know about fire I learned in Missouri's woods, on her prairies, or in fire school. I know that in a typical Missouri summer (not in the middle of a drought), our managed woodlands won't burn. I know that in Missouri, on a grassy glade in July with humidities around 25%, you can set windrows of red needle stage cedars on fire and needn't worry about the adjacent woods. The fire extinguishes itself at the woodline.

But fire out west is a different story, one I wanted to understand better. My trip to Idaho and Montana (which caused me to shelve- for the 5th year in a row -a visit to Maine's moist woods and craggy shorelines) corresponded to the 20th anniversary of the Yellowstone fires. Driving through western Idaho and into Montana, I witnessed fire effects from the Yellowstone and subsequent fires: wooly mountainsides, pine regeneration, towering remains of lodgepole pines and spruce resembling spent matchsticks (pictured, the southern reaches of Glacier NP). Small town newspapers recounted the controversy surrounding the Yellowstone fires in full section spreads, complete with pictures of raging flames ripping through the landscape, flames finally extinguished by a thick blanket of snow.

So, my thoughts return to Missouri and fire behaviour in our own woods. We have lightning storms, drought, overstocked woods, days when our humidities are conducive to fire, but we simply don't have enormous crown fires like they do out west. Our fuels are different, our weather patterns different, our whole landscape different. (In the past 25 years since the introduction of prescribed burning in the state, Missouri's Ozark Highlands have witnessed at least one stand replacing fire. Highly controversial, the prescribed fire invited heaps of criticism onto the administering agency. Historically, of course, we would have seen more crown fires in the Ozarks, but few will prescribe them today.)

Slowly making my way through central Idaho's Sawtooth National Forest, I pass the same sign every 90 miles or so: a lifesize Smokey Bear pointing to a color wheel indicating fire danger. From Ketchum north, the arrow hovers on "Very High," a bright red swath next to "Extreme." It's been a wet summer in Idaho, but the climate is so dry that even the near daily rains wouldn't push that arrow to a level that would make me feel comfortable enough building a campfire in a designated ring. Just before reaching Montana, Smokey gave me a break. The arrow was lowered to "High."

At the Twin Creek campground, just north of the confluence of the truly stunning Salmon River and Twin Creek, families all around my site were sitting around nice, healthy fires. I had picked up a box of firewood in Salmon (home of Sacagawea!) for the night, mainly so I could keep the box: Yellowstone Firewood Co. I gathered a few downed branches of spruce, pine, stray needles, a handful of twigs covered in goatsbeard lichen which looks nothing like any lichen in Missouri, but like a wad of hair from a brush belonging to someone with dark, curly hair. The branches would have caught just fine, giving me a nice little fire, but I lit the match on the lichen. Fire consumed it so quickly that I literally jumped back. Looking above the campsite, every single tree, nay, every branch in the forest was dripping with goatsbeard lichen. "All it takes is a single spark," my friend from the Forest Service repeatedly tells me about wildfires out west. I looked around the campground again. Everyone else still had fires, all contained in the rings made with a foot wide perimeter of concrete. No one else seems to be nervous about the woods catching on fire, about the sparks flying up towards the lichens.

Fuels. I set the small green branch of spruce into the base of the little fire. Whoosh! sparks move upwards into the 30% humidity night air. A green branch of pine. Pop! followed by sparks drifting outside of my designated ring, the forest seeming to be more tinderbox than anyplace peaceful and relaxing. Yes, western fuels are, indeed, quite different. When I build campfires in Missouri, I have this childish tendency to throw handfuls of oak leaves into the embers to get the fire started again, even if only for a second. By midnight in Idaho, I was pouring my cache of drinking water onto this fire. I have infrequent nightmares about prescribed fires escaping in Missouri, and that night in my tent, I dreamt of nothing but forest fires....fires I certainly wanted no part in.

Back at my sister's house in Victor, I mull over my upcoming departure. I've been away from work for weeks, popping in for three half days since July. I love western landscapes: the big vast tracts of public lands, the puffy white clouds, the elevations that cause photographs to take on a blue tint, the insouciance inherent in mountain towns where skiing and kayaking take priority. Every time I go out there, I want to move there. But I don't think I could live or work in a place so prone to massive wildland fires. The recent beetle infestation continues to reduce huge tracts of woods to nothing but kindling. If I worked out there, I'd have to spend most of my time suppressing fire.

Sluggish from a long vacation, I returned to my office with hands full of rocks for my desk, a batch of goatsbeard lichen to show my boss. My more enthusiastic colleague greeted me with great news. While I was out, staff burned several small glades, torching several cedars in the wake. Better news yet is of plans to burn even more in the coming weeks (if the relative humidity stays low enough in the St. Francois Mountains). I came back just in time to take part in growing season burns.

I actually hold a red card which allows me to fight western wildfires, but I lack the strength and stamina to actually do it. While part of me almost wants to see raging walls of flames from far away, I'll leave the firefighting to the experts. I think I have just enough strength and ability to sling a driptorch at the base of a hillside.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

While you were out...

The morning started innocently enough. I walked in three hours late to work with unbrushed hair, no makeup, clutching coffee and simple mementos from Oregon for my wonderful boss. The fine folks I flew with sent my luggage--wine, cheese, cherries among it--to Chicago rather than to Dallas, so following a 12 hour drive from Louisiana, we arrived in Missouri with nothing but carry-on baggage of library books, smooth basalt, shells and Doug fir cones. Not even a toothbrush.

He dusted the black sand off the shells and rocks, perched the Doug fir cone next to the smiling picture of his daughter Jenny clutching not one but three medals she received for her time trials ("but she's mean as a snake," he says). "So," he says, leaning back in his chair, smiling, "tell me about Oregon." The oak savanna made me want to burn more in Missouri...we need to revisit the reintroduction of elk on the we have anything as cool as kelp beds in Missouri?...if so, can I go dive it?...boy, they clearcut right up to the road there...oh, yeah, I wore a sweater everyday (as sweat dripped down the side of my face).

Your turn.

He convinced the state to buy a big, desirable chunk of land north of the Missouri River...he interviewed a talented small mammal specialist for my former position in southeast Missouri...oh, and...a population of Emerald Ash Borers was found in the Ozarks: "Not on our land, but way, way too close for comfort." This explained why the rest of the Natural History Program was not around to accept their rocks and shells. They were all at a press conference, a consortium, a veritable doomsday planning meeting.

I had actually received a text message about this last week while I was looking for sand dollars at low tide, so I wasn't too surprised when he saved the worst news for last. State agencies in Missouri have feared this moment for years. In short, because I trust my friend Ted will tell you all about it in his entomology journal (located to the right), emerald ash borers are introduced beetles that have essentially lain waste to the forests and woodlands of Michigan, Indiana, and several other states. They live on ash trees, destroying them by burrowing into the cambium layer to lay eggs. Because the beetles kill trees, firewood dealers often serve as unwitting vectors in their spread. Missouri is the farthest west the insect has been found, and it likely arrived in out-of-state firewood. Oh, we've had a public information campaign that illustrates a cartooned, menacing beetle carrying a suitcase with a message about transporting firewood, but in a state that depends on outdoor recreation, activities that involve campfires, it's apparently rather difficult to track where firewood vendors buy their firewood. If you're a firewood vendor with thousands of dead ash trees in your woods, what else would you sell as firewood?

Surrounding states have all kinds of problems with their woods. They don't burn enough, really, so the simplest disease or forest pest infestation can have dire effects on their woods. Naturally, I leaned back in my chair this morning and asked, pointedly, "so, we need to make our woods resilient. We need to burn more. Right? That should keep it under control?" Under most circumstances, he'd agree. You bet, he'd say, pointing to single exotic species plants in a sea of a healthy prairie plants. Exotics can be outcompeted in healthy systems, so I wasn't expecting his response.

"We've never dealt with anything like this," he muttered gravely. Our mode of attack is unlike other treatments, which usually involves landscape management, not single species control. When emerald ash borers are discovered in a tree, the tree is removed, chopped into tiny bits, then burned. The impact this will have on the canopy of our woodlands will be noticeable; ash trees make up something on the order of 4% of Ozark woodlands. Hardest hit areas will actually be urban and suburban neighborhoods, where fast growing ash trees are often grown for their shade. What follows is the official release about the discovery. The take home message remains: buy firewood locally, or burn your own....

Discovery of forest pest triggers state, federal response

The emerald ash borer could be devastating to Missouri trees.

LAKE WAPPAPELLO-State and federal officials are working overtime to
determine the extent of an emerald ash borer infestation at Lake
Wappapello and develop a strategy for containing the problem.

The infestation came to light July 23 when U.S. Department of
Agriculture (USDA) scientists discovered seven suspicious beetles on
traps at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Greenville Recreation Area
in Wayne County. Officials with the USDA confirmed the identity of the
insects Friday.

Collin Wamsley, state entomologist with the Missouri Department of
Agriculture, said his agency and the Missouri departments of
Conservation and Natural Resources are prepared to deal with the
infestation. Before proceeding, however, both state and federal agencies
need to determine the its extent.

"Although it is a disappointment to find the early detection of the
emerald ash borer, it is not a surprise," said Wamsley. "We have
been preparing for an event like this for some time. Right now, we are
doing what we can to determine the location of the emerald ash borer. We
hope to have that information soon and begin the next steps in battling
this pest."

Wamsley said the first steps that will be taken include conducting
visual searches for emerald ash borers and placing more traps around the
initial detection site. This is under way. The results of these surveys
will dictate further actions.

The emerald ash borer is a small, metallic green beetle native to Asia.
Its larvae burrow into the bark of ash trees, causing trees to starve
and die. While the emerald ash borer does not pose any direct risk to
public health, it does threaten Missouri's ash tree populations.

Ash trees make up approximately 3 percent of forests and 14 percent of
urban trees in Missouri. Since no ash trees in North America are known
to be resistant to the pest, infestations are devastating to these tree

Missouri is the ninth state to have a confirmed emerald ash borer
infestation. The pest was first found in Michigan in 2002. Since that
time, seven other states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland,
Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia) have confirmed infestations.
Missouri is the farthest south and west of any other known emerald ash
borer infestation.

The emerald ash borer trapping effort that revealed the infestation is
part of a monitoring program started in 2004. It is Missouri's
contribution to a nation-wide early detection effort coordinated by USDA
in partnership with the Missouri departments of Agriculture,
Conservation and Natural Resources and the University of Missouri.

Emerald ash borer traps are purple, prism-shaped devices with sticky
outer surfaces. The borers are attracted by the color and by chemical
scents that mimic a stressed ash tree. Insects that land on the traps
are stuck and can be identified by periodic checking. So far, emerald
ash borers have not shown up on any other traps throughout the state.

Although adult emerald ash borers are strong fliers, they are less
likely to travel long distances when plenty of host trees are available
nearby. However, they can move long distances on firewood and nursery
stock. State officials urge Missourians not to transport firewood from
one site to another. Instead, they suggest that campers buy firewood

"The discovery of this highly destructive pest at a campground is a
strong indication that it probably arrived in firewood," said
Conservation Department Forest Entomologist Rob Lawrence. "If people
knew how devastating this insect can be, they would never consider
bringing firewood from out of state."

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Oversized postcard for Ted

Around noon, midway up the cliff, I thought my last words were going to be the ones I uttered at the bottom of Cascade Head: “Oh, how cool! A native herd of Roosevelt elk! Look! They’re all over the place….” Clad in thick woolen sweaters, we had just hiked about a mile through the Siskyou National Forest en route to the top of a 1,000 foot rise which begins at the Pacific Ocean. After witnessing the elk herd, listening to their alarm calls from the base of the enormous grass-covered rocks, we decided to sally forth the rest of the way, another mile and a half to the top, thinking my mountain goat skills would serve me well.

I try to take very good care of my health. I run, swim, bike, lift weights. I hike around rugged terrain. I can run burn lines in the Ozarks while slinging a driptorch with a full waterpack on my back. I eat properly, but I have consistently low blood pressure and blood sugar levels, both conditions that require me to ingest calories every couple of hours and lots of water to keep my blood pressure at an almost normal level. I am driven by a deep-seated fear of being left in the dust by field staff who may laugh if they lost the girl from the office in the woods, wondering if she could subsist on unripe berries, roots, soil, and twigs. I never, ever, want to utter to my 40-something year old boss, “hey…(pant, pant)…hold on…(huh) I can’t…(pant)…keep up,” so I ramp up the incline on my treadmill with every daily session.

So it came as no surprise that I found myself wondering, angrily really, “where has my workout failed me?” as I sat in the middle of the muddy trail, high above the elk, attempting to catch my breath. We had hiked at a fast clip the whole way through the woods, stopping for pictures of moss, big fir and spruce trees, and the stunning understory of truly enormous ferns. When we reached the grasslands of TNC’s Cascade Head Nature Preserve, we agreed that what it gained in interesting topography and great views of the Pacific, it lacked in biological diversity: lots of red fescue, patches of goldenrod, swathes of native grasses, all uniformly golden in the wind-whipped dry climate. Rather than spending time on each plant like I do in Missouri’s managed prairies, I decided to test my endurance by racing up the slope.

I sweat at the gym. I breathe heavily in the first part of my run, but my breathing patterns turn into a mere pant by the 4th mile; by mile 4 I can talk comfortably to that really skinny guy with wide eyes who rides a bike with a little cart all around Columbia. But rushing up Cascade Head? I felt blood pulsing into little places I never knew had blood vessels. My back, I felt blood pulsing through my back, a strange sensation I can honestly say I’ve never felt before. I wasn’t in pain at all, my legs were fine, my muscles were fine, but my lungs, clear, clean, healthy things, couldn’t keep up. I don’t stop in the middle of my daily run to catch my breath, but keep my pulse racing full steam ahead. I’ve never held the universal time out symbol with my hands to a tennis partner to catch my breath. But my body simply stopped. I was livid, almost steaming. Oh, my legs could go for miles, and I wasn’t even near the top. It was my lungs. I must need more swimming, more biking. No more dark chocolate covered hazelnuts but more White River Hills. Fieldstaff, at the least the ones who ask “what does a little girl like you know about timber?” would have smirked at me, Schadenfreude, what with my head held in my hands.

Down the cliff was my trusty native Oregonian who used to bike the hills of Portland everyday. An avid cyclist, he’s biked Hwy. 26 from Salem to Cannon Beach, a road that -in a car- requires regular downshifting into 3rd to climb the hills. Slow and steady wins the race, he proves, as he admits on his ascent, barely panting, that no, he was not dying, that’s just me. As a child, he was given a t-shirt with a turtle on it with “Slowpoke” underneath the image. A little disappointed about possibly being considered a slowpoke, he surely realizes box turtles outlive rabbits by about 80 years. Anyway, he’s deliberate, not slow, and I was the one who was sweating. I was the one satisfied with the view from where we were: Big! Vast! The whole Salmon River floodplain! Waves crashing against big rocks! “You’re not about to die, are you?” he asks, almost sincerely....

We continue the trudge up the mountain to the final viewpoint (“Come on, you’d never forgive yourself if you didn’t go to the top.”). I remark how noble it is that the Oregon Chapter of the Nature Conservancy never mentioned in their trailhead signage that a. you should really be in decent shape to accomplish the hike, b. native Roosevelt elk thrive here, among native predators like mountain lions, bobcats, and coyotes, c. 1.5 miles of steep elevation is significantly more difficult than 1.5 miles on a treadmill. Having been here over a week, I am reminded that Oregonians are much healthier than we are in the Midwest, what with their affordable produce, clean air (no Ohio Valley coal plants here!), and vast stretches of high quality “green space” for hiking and biking. I was told by not one, but three people that the hike at Cascade Head is “great;” they didn’t add “…but tough,” or even, “wear good shoes.” No, these lovely Oregonians probably wore long linen skirts and sandals with socks on their hike up the mountain. Just another day on the coast, really, followed by an elegant, affordable meal of local Chinook.

At the top, I was struck not only by the obvious fire-mediated topography (north facing slopes covered in dense firs, south and west facing slopes of grassy meadow, interrupted only by scattered, scruffy manzanita bushes), but how this landscape fits into the larger picture of Oregon’s coastal landscape. While interrupted by stretches of clearcuts (more than I’ve ever seen. The Mark Twain NF looks pristine in comparison), Oregon still has the puzzle piece in landscape management that we lack in Missouri: native large herbivores. In fact, elk have been extirpated from Missouri’s woodlands for so long that we don’t even know what impacts they had on maintaining the woodland structure.

The clapboard signs in the Willamette Valley for elk jerky, sandwiched between bright red painted signs for cherries, marionberries, and boysenberries? I thought the elk were farm raised, kept in fences like they are in Missouri, raised for meat or, as in the case of Barton Co.’s elk, reintroduced to perform that vital role of grazer on the prairie landscape. Elk and black-tailed deer thrive in Oregon’s landscapes. Efforts to reintroduce elk to the Ozark Highlands in the mid-1980s were roundly denied by government officials, despite well-researched arguments in favor of elk to help maintain the open character of our historical oak savanna. But you see, native predators are also common here: mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, all keeping the native grazers in check. Of course, Oregon contains significantly larger tracts of uninterrupted woodland and forests than we have in Missouri. While the landscape here is drastically different than it was in the 1800s, while dairy cattle reign supreme in Tillamook Co. and few traces of their savanna exist, I think one could still lose herself in the wooly, wild woods of Oregon, and I wouldn’t have a clue of what to eat.

So, you may be wondering why I’m not posting great pictures of Cascade Head, Roosevelt elk, vast vistas of the Pacific Coast from Neskowin Bay. Just as we turned the corner at the base of the grassland onto the south-facing slope covered in elk, I opened the trusty camera who, then and there, decided that enough was enough. It had endured too many grains of sand, too many drops to the ground, too much river water in the lens. I have composed a letter to the Nature Conservancy lauding them on their recent purchase and praising them for the lovely preserve on the coast. I started with one question (about elk grazing behaviour), and ended with about thirty more pertaining to management, all masked in a series of lengthy sentences. I closed my letter with a short story about the camera, how I really wanted pictures from the various points of the trail, but really, I’d like a photo that shows the whole thing on fire, please.

Heading back up the coast, I felt lost without a working camera. I haven’t even taken pictures of the starfish yet! I haven’t spent as much time on the beach as I need to! Ah! I haven’t even spent a day at the cabin reading and watching the Anna’s hummingbirds gorge on the honeysuckle! Recalling the lovely Maria Sharapova taking pictures of the dog (surely she wouldn’t own a Pomeranian…she’s more of a yellow lab kind of gal) during Wimbledon, I picked up—with no research, no shopping around—a new digital camera, complete with pink brushed metal finishes. I feel like an ultimate sucker, someone who chomped down in a spinner bait because maybe, just maybe, the advertising world will serve me properly. I don’t really know yet, since it’s only been a couple of days, but I’m glad Nadal doesn’t hock cigarettes or fried food during the French Open.

But just past Lincoln City (due north of Cascade Head on Hwy. 101) is the industrial little town of Tillamook, Oregon, home of my favorite mass-produced cheese: Tillamook Sharp Cheddar. I eat it by the block. A stop at the factory was not only necessary from a tourist’s perspective, but I wanted to find the elusive Roasted Garlic White Cheddar block that Tillamook Co. Cheese Company only sells in select stores in Oregon, only during Christmas.

I felt like a hayseed moving into Columbia from southeast Missouri, impressed as I was with curbside recycling, coffeeshops, a grocery store I could walk to. When I headed straight for the cheese section at my local grocer and saw that Tillamook cheddar was cheaper even than the store brand, I reacted appropriately, buying up as much as I could in the event the store might stop carrying it that afternoon. Haven’t eaten anything but Tillamook since December (excepting the fancy Goatsbeard cheese, made in Columbia, sold at the Root Cellar on Broadway).

Interpretive panels about the Tillamook National Forest fires of the 1930s-1950s reiterated the need to perform prescribed fires in the area, though the Forest Service seems to forget about these needs. Clean, vast viewing windows hovering above the panels into the cheese factory allow the cheese lover to watch as enormous blocks are situated, cut and packaged, ready to be sent to Columbia. I learned from another panel below the windows that the fields surrounding the Tillamook factory that house Guernsey and Holsteins who produce the milk that makes the incredible cheese and (even better) Tillamook Huckleberry ice cream, are sustainably farmed. While I hate cows so passionately that I vowed to never eat them again (knowing what I do about their impacts on the landscape), I can’t give up cheese. I was pleased to learn that Tillamook dairy farmers practice a form of agriculture that supports rather than destroys the watershed, protecting the aquatic invertebrates who thrive in Oregon’s rivers and streams. I still hate the smell of cows, but how dearly I love good cheese. I even bought a bright blue kids t-shirt for myself that reads: “Nothing that a little Tillamook ice cream can’t fix!” I should wear it to work.

A long day on the coastal highway, a decent enough hike that obviates my need for a long run, we ended up in Seaside at the beautifully appointed Pacific Way CafĂ©. Erath pinot noir (whose Portugese cork reads: “Erath=Earth”), a great salad with Gorgonzola dressing, fish and rosemary chips with a fennel slaw. But it was the marionberry cobbler, arriving as it did on a platter in a ridiculously large ramekin, marionberry juice bubbling over the sides, made me realize that Oregonians really are lucky. All those articles touting the health benefits of berries? They’re generated here, where impeccably produced marionberries serve as the inexpensive dessert, the chocolate brownie of Missouri. I’m shipping 8 lbs. of Rainier cherries to my mother who will gladly pay 6$/lb. for them in Louisiana, but I’m buying them way less than that—locally grown, fresh, big and much better than those from California. In fact, everything I’m eating, seeing, feeling and smelling is here, locally grown, fresh, affordable, reeking of the incredible state of Oregon, where its customary to go without makeup, where sweaters are worn with shorts, socks under sandals.

Okay, Ted, low tide at Haystack Rock occurs in 20 minutes, time enough for me to slip on a sweater and my Tevas so I can see anemones, sand dollars and starfish nestled among the smooth basalt rocks. I’m attaching a last, parting photo of the only beetle I found in the Siskyou NF, just for you. While most Americans may prefer beaches of palm trees, water you can swim in comfortably, temperatures that allow for bikinis, stores that sell t-hirts covered in cartooned hibiscus flowers, I’ll take the subtleties of the Oregon Coast any day of the year.

Kelp and her allies

Part of me is really grateful that kelp doesn’t grow in Ozark rivers. I’ve grown so enamored with it lately, picking up large chunks of it as it washes up on Cannon Beach, dragging it back to the beach cabin, chagrined when it doesn’t dry as prettily as it lives.

At low tide today, I didn’t encounter large uprooted kelp plants like I have all week, but I ran into a couple of red jacketed volunteers working as Friends of Haystack Rock. Just before low tide, these nice folks set up spotting scopes focused on Haystack Rock: tufted puffins, pigeon guillemots and baby Western x Glaucous gulls in view.

They also set up sawhorses emblazoned with admonitions about stomping through the rocks during low tide. Walking on the rocks around Haystack Rock damages barnacles, starfish, anemones. Most beach visitors obeyed the request, as most Oregonians naturally do, but a few schlubs stomped right up to the base of Haystack Rock to pluck who-knows-what live sea critter off the rocks to take home as a souvenir. Colorful limpets live here, as do several species of starfish and California mussels. The folks in the red jackets are just volunteers…they can’t even holler at the people who can’t read well enough to obey signage.

While we don’t have kelp in Missouri (which is really a good thing because otherwise, I’d never stop diving in it), we have a whole host of indigenous aquatic plants and less charismatic animals dependent on our fragile ecosystems. Haystack Rock, a huge lava floe, was formed when "lava pushed into softer sediments on the sea floor and formed basalt intrusions. Colliding continental plates uplifted much of the coast and after millions of years of erosion, softer sediments were worn away leaving only these dramatic formations." Thinking back to Missouri's geologic timetable, represented on my wall in Columbia, when the Missoula Flood occurred, the Jack’s Fork was already deeply entrenched in the Ozarks, the northern reaches maybe (though doubtfully) running low in the latter part of the year.

I know eel grass and coontail. I know my potomogetons, though I never see them in the backwaters of clear rivers. I know a few of my native mussels. While I searched in vain through the USFWS publications today for all the different kinds of kelp, I realized I knew very little about my own backyard and even less about the Oregon Coast. Oh, I have the book, the aquatic plants of Missouri, but I think I need to spend even more time on our rivers, learning the few mussels that remain, using my snorkeling gear to understand the diversity of plants and animals of the Ozarks. Our rivers will never have a group of red jacketed volunteers instructing floaters how to behave when in fragile ecosystems, but I myself can always gently discourage floaters from scraping bottom over a known mussel bed or ripping up some interesting (heretofore unknown to me) grass.

By the way, if anyone can tell me what the little red berried plant is that I keep seeing on the roadsides along the Coast Range, I'll send you a big, pretty California mussel shell.