New Travels, New Blog

It’s the journey, not the destination.

There has been a long, awkward and obvious silence here. I abandoned this blog while being occupied with taking some classes, moving from Kauai to Alaska and brewing new travel plans.

With new travel plans come a new travel blog: http://roadlessgraveled.wordpress.com/

Please check it out. I promise I will be more consistent in writing.

Happy exploring!

 

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An assortment of photos from the field. Starting with the native Elepaio, the Hawaiian Raspberry (akala), Becky recording field observations, a lilikoi blossom (passion flower), a tree tunnel on the 18-mile hike down the Waimea Canyon and last (but not least) the endemic Anianiau.

The honeycreeper hunt

Hawaiian rainforests are among the safest in the world. There are no native poisonous insects; no snakes, no large predators and even the plants had evolved without defense, including a raspberry with no thorns and a nettle that does not sting. Yes, the Hawaiian rainforest is intrinsically safe but as I hung off of an eroding cliffside, I begged to differ. Geographically, this place is treacherous.

With my face buried in Uluhe, my feet slipped on mossy footholds and my hands clawed at a matrix of dirt and roots. I honed my rusty rock climbing skills and mustered a burst of energy to pull myself up, trying not to think about the loose roots that could give way at any moment to certain impalement below. I was surveying a transect line that ran north, straight up a wall of dense plant matter and a tangled mess of ferns. These are not normal ferns by any means. Uluhe are sharp enough to cut flesh and pull at your cloths and hair while jutting towards your eyes. They are known as the “the fern of death” in native folklore and because they grow directly off the edge of cliffs, creating the illusion of solid ground underneath.

The "fern of death"

It will poke your eye out. Beware.

What am I doing here? I am searching for endangered honeycreepers, the Akikiki and Akeke’e. They are elusive, small and extremely hard to find. As I covered the rugged terrain, my senses were overwhelmed with while trying to listen for birds, my eyes scanning the canopy above and all the while trying to watch where I step as not to commit native plant homicide.

When you think of hiking, you imagine walking through a peaceful forest path to a beautiful lookout at your destination point. For me, there is no destination. Hiking on this project is more like crawling through mud and ferns to more mud and ferns. Sound appealing? It satisfies a primitive feeling of finding one’s way. Making your way through the jungle with a compass, without trail is the type of challenge that makes you feel you’ve earned the primal achievement of survival. The natural instinct to survive starts to rush through you and suddenly life becomes simple: don’t kill yourself. There are no signs of caution telling you to stay back from the ledge. Your senses become tools. Your mission is not complicated: hike north; find birds.

This time the rare honeycreepers eluded me, but at least I found my way.

Rain, rain. RAIN.

The only constant since we arrived at Halepa’akai is the sound of rain against our tent. Everyday our objective is different as we map out the lay of the land, gain familiarity of the terrain and learn about the native ecosystem. Although our tasks may differ from day to day, there is always water in the form of rain, river, moist moss and mud. The dew hangs in the air, coating our skin, the walls of the Weatherport (our cyclindrical tent home) and everything else that dwells in the rainforest. The rain started the morning after we hiked in and hasn’t let up for almost 2 days. The steady tapping outside is comforting but a reminder that you must be methodical about segregating your wet gear in order to stay dry.

I’ve got my wet clothes. I’ve got my dry clothes.

It’s a process in which I hope to become more fluent in removing my rain soaked gear without tainting everything I accidentally touch. One wrong move and I’ll be snuggling into a sopping wet sleeping bag for the night.

We are patiently learning to coexist with the rain of the Alakai. Today, our research was canceled due to the extreme high of the stream. Tomorrow we will proceed with our studies (given that the rain doesn’t keep falling,) but until then, our camp is probably the best place in the world to do nothing. I silently thank the rain for letting me read, draw, write and dream under the protection of thick layers of tarp and the sound of pounding rain. I know some wouldn’t enjoy being stuck in the wet misery of the rainforest but rain has been a reoccurring symbol in my life; to me, rain means growth. My Northwest heart feels at home in the drizzle.

Straight from the sky!

Photos from the field

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Preparing for the field: Mandatory slippers and flying food.

Almost a month has flown by since I stepped off the plane onto the most northwestern Hawaiian island of Kauai. I have been overwhelmed with nostalgia and immersed in my love of surfing and Hawaiian culture. Kauai represents a symbol of positive change to me. 4 years ago, I decided to aim my ambitions toward the field of conservation while interning for Save Our Seas, and now here I am preparing for an early morning departure to hike into the Alaka’i wilderness to study endemic birds. It seems I have come full circle. Progress feels good.

I have been itching to get into the field, quite literally. Mosquitoes plague the town of Waimea where our field house is located. I long for the cool mosquito-free air of the Alaka’i, where they have not adapted to living at higher elevations. We were warned that mosquitoes are the least of our worries. In Hawaii, it is custom to remove your rubber slippers (mainlanders call them flip-flops,) but not in our house. We have a ‘slippers on’ policy due to reports of centipedes and scorpions. I consider myself lucky to have avoided confrontation with the dreaded centipedes that are said to have a sting that feels like something between a bee-sting and a bullet wound. The only experience I had before moving to the Westside of Kauai with the nasty invasive insect was convincing the kids I used to babysit on the Northshore not to poke a dead one with a stick. During my first 2 days at the Waimea house, my luck with centipede avoidance ran dry. As I was taking the garbage out, one crawled up my arm, out from underneath the handle and I shrieked, abruptly decorating the lawn with trash. My roommate thought someone had kicked a dog, which is apparently the sound of my true scream of terror. The next day I was mowing the lawn and another ran across my foot. 2 centipedes in 2 days: I am not a fan of these odds. Fortunately, my recent days have been free of the little scaly creeps and I am yet to endure their painful sting (knock on Koa wood…)

We’ve been filling up our time preparing for the field: this included purchasing about $1000 dollars worth of food from Costco and packing it tightly into Action Packers for a helicopter to bring a “sling load” into our backcountry camp. This is greatly beneficial because it means we don’t have to haul 100 pounds of food each on our backs. I am thankful. Although they can be relentlessly annoying as they fly tourists around the mountains of Kauai, I personally have a newfound appreciation for helicopters. Packing all of our meals into a giant container sounds simple enough but planning out several month’s worth of community meals is challenging when you consider estimating how much people will eat and how long you have until perishable items go bad (unless you don’t mind eating beans and rice for weeks at a time.) I will eat practically anything but I need variety. I’m planning on making some gourmet field meals.

We leave early tomorrow to hike 8 miles into Halepa’akai camp where we will conduct surveys on 3 endemic species of forest birds. I will return in 10 days as a budding expert of Akikiki, Akeke’e and Puaiohi…that is unless I am severely attacked by a swarm of centipedes.

Muddy Boots. Birds. Big Changes.

I was recently offered a job with Kauai Forest Bird Recovery Project on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. This job represents a major turning point after a stagnant 5-month period of post-undergraduate unemployed disarray. After working with Cascadia Research Collective on surveys studying odontocetes off the coast of Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii, I felt I had nailed my niche. I loved the smell of the sea, the expansion of the endless horizon. I loved the thrill of encounters and the possibility of new discovery. When the field project finished at the end of August, I gave myself a tentative deadline to find another field job during September. 3 months and at least 50 cover letters later, I began to feel a little discouraged. But I did not lose hope. Patience finally paid off. Although my recent endeavors have revolved around the ocean, the field of endemic birds intrigues me; I am mainly interested in endangered species in any biological genre. I took some time to reflect on the catalyst of my pursuit in ecology; I recalled my time spent volunteering through Jatun Sacha at Bilsa Biological Reserve in Ecuador. My time tromping the muddy trails in Ecuador runs serendipitously parallel to my upcoming adventure working in the rain soaked mountains of Kauai. I will be working in close proximity of the wettest place in the world. Cheers to muddy boots, birds and big changes.

The journey to Bilsa.

After 3 hours on the bony back of a mule, in a state of delirium, I took a moment to realize where I was in the world and how I came to be on this strange trek. The journey to Bilsa is not for the meek traveler. After a 6-hour bus ride from Quito along the sheer cliffs of the Andean mountains, I waited in a nameless town another few hours near a pharmacia as vaguely instructed. I waited (as patiently as an anxious foreigner can) for my transportation not knowing what to expect. Finally, a door-less passenger converted flatbed truck, known as a rancho, rolled to a stop with salsa music blaring at full volume. I stepped aboard, relieved to be in motion again. The truck bumped along, stopping every 5 minutes. Men hung off the sides, chickens squawked on the roof, and women miraculously breastfed their babies while I could hardly help from being tossed side to side. The loud music gave the odd scene an exciting flavor and the surrounding jungle grew thicker as we climbed into the lowlands of the Esmeraldas province of northwestern Ecuador.

We arrived at La Ye de la Laguna , which is exactly what it translates to; a Y in the road near a lagoon, a town that consists of 2 restaurants, one phone booth and 4 houses. We pulled into the center of the town and children, old men and women gathered around to watch me struggle to pull my gigantic backpack from the roof of the rancho. A woman soon asked if I was a voluntario and I nodded. She smiled, took a breath and then shouted quite literally at the top of her lungs, “MAXIMO!” in no direction in general. An elderly man looked up from playing with some children across La Ye. He instructed me to climb into the back of a pickup truck and soon I found myself flying over hills splashing through mud puddles. The sky began to glow pink. The truck dropped me off at a farm where I was told I would sleep for the night. I looked with apprehension toward the farmhouse. The mother of the house looked somewhat confused as if she was not expecting a guest for the night. She asked me to wait one minute as she shoed chickens and ducks out of my room with a broom and began to sweep. The farmhouse, owned by the Zambrano family, was covered in thin layers of dust and mud but my concrete room felt comfortable and was complete with a mosquito net over the bed. I warily gazed around for malicious mosquitos, recalling that the area is known for having high rates of malaria. Chickens and ducks waddled by and peered into my room, making angry farm fowl noises in protest. I closed the door to get some privacy from their beady eyes.

I started to walk toward la Languna but the road seemed to never end and I started to grow hungry. I did meet many locals passing by who wanted to know who this gringa rubia was and where she was from. I returned just in time for a mild dinner of rice, omelet and plantains. It was delicious. I finished my meal and tried to create a conversation with my broken Spanish. Suddenly, a bat flew in (perhaps due to the lack of windows) and began to circle the room. The family chuckled as I flinched when the creature flew toward my face, obviously a common occurrence.

The next day I awoke early to explore the farm. I emerged into the sunlight and saw two small silhouettes tramping through the mud towards the house. The niece and nephew of the house seemed to have already proclaimed themselves my under aged guides. Liliana, 5, and Marcelos, 4, eagerly beckoned me deep into the property. ¨Que lindo!¨ Marcelos exclaimed at every creature and plant he showed me. The children introduced me to pigs, chickens, cacao trees, butterflies and a small river they convinced me to cross. I felt a twinge of sadness as I said goodbye to my newfound fellow explorers.

I caught another truck back to La Ye, where I was told to wait for Don Almado to meet him at 11 am. After a few hours of waiting I began to question my mission. I had set out to volunteer at Bilsa Biological Reserve, to study plants and animals and learn to live in the equatorial jungle. I wondered if I would ever really get to Bilsa. Suddenly a man with a huge grin and beads of sweat across his face extended his hand. Although it was already 2 pm I felt excitement rush through me as I shook his hand; I was eager to leave the hot, muggy, midday scene of La Ye where mangy dogs roamed too close for comfort.

The road to Bilsa is 14 kilometers long and thick with mud. We loaded up the mules and began down the muddy road. The road followed a ridge through lowland mountains and winds through sparsely settled farmhouses. The mules were excruciatingly slow. I thought to myself…I could walk faster than this…They avoided the mud at all costs and would walk on the edge of cliffs to stay away from the deep parts. I soon discovered why the road was not manageable for 2 human feet alone. 4 legs are a necessity. In some places the mud was unavoidable and it came up the mule’s chest. I was soon splattered in mud but enjoying the ride. The layers of trees produced shades of green I did not know existed.

Night gently fell and the green hills faded to black. Tiny lights sprinkled the area surrounding the path. Small glowing insects gave the illusion of lanterns in the distance. After the 5-hour mule ride, my joints ached. I felt very sympathetic for the mule’s amazing feat of endurance. Finally, with a sigh of relief and exhaustion, we reached a small painted sign that simply said Bilsa Biological Reserva. We entered the barbwire gates and stumbled with numb legs down a boardwalk toward an illuminated structure and the hum of a generator. I could hear a dog barking and guitars rhythmically playing. After a brief introduction we learned the first and foremost rule at Bilsa; wash your boots before anything else. Everything at Bilsa revolves around mud.

I met the other volunteers while we devoured a simple but delicious dinner. Little did I know what good friends these people would become and how I would relish each meal at Bilsa. During the next three weeks I would learn the techniques of hiking (and falling) in mud, spotting birds through thick foliage, camping in the jungle, climbing waterfalls, harvesting bananas, catching frogs at night, and savoring cold showers.

Bilsa was the driving force behind my desire to become involved in field biology. I have never experienced such amazing biodiversity. For example, in a square meter you might find tarantulas, caterpillars, frogs, snakes and other insects all living within centimeters of each other. The canopies are equally diverse and home to numerous primates, mammals and birds. Amazed by overwhelming biodiversity, I learned to love the wildlife of the jungle, which gave me a greater appreciation for different ecosystems no matter the geographic location. The sense of adventure and the possibility of discovery that Bilsa emanates made me realize that I want to spend my life exploring the beauty of the natural world.

The study of nature is a limitless field, the most fascinating adventure in the world.

~Margaret Morse Nice

The wanderings of an idealistic nomad

I’ve never really had the opportunity to pour out my life story so what better place but here. The following is a condensed version of my existence; an overview of what I’ve done, where I’ve been and who I am. After taking a long awaited leap out of the comfortable nest that is my hometown of Bellingham, WA, I have been bouncing around the globe, fulfilling my previously suppressed nomadic urges. I took my time in earning my undergraduate degree (with some extended breaks) and squeezed all I could out of the college experience while participating in 3 internships and designing several research projects abroad for school credit. I studied a very versatile range of environmental subjects; from writing to war to whales…

Spot Prawn in Hood Canal (featured on Cover of the Planet fall 2006)After a full year of study, I left Western Washington University in the spring of 2007, where I had been studying environmental journalism and science at the Huxley School of Environmental Studies. I had the chance to write and photograph for Huxley’s award-winning Planet Magazine and wrote the fall 2006 cover story “Diving into the Dead Zone” and with the aid of my scuba diving skills earned my first taste of underwater photography. After being bitten by a strange and wondrous Costa Rican travel bug on spring break and being fed up with massive, impersonal science lecture halls, I took a somewhat random job offer to nanny for a family on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. As the 5 weeks of the originally planned time frame neared an end, I watched the calendar with dread. I did not want to leave. One morning, after toying with the idea of pushing back my plane ticket, I woke up and decided to stay. I’d never felt more sure of anything in my life: I wanted to live on Kauai. I wanted to get to know the rich island culture, learn to catch waves, and eat fresh fruit everyday. So I decided to stay for the rest of the summer…then the fall as well…and the winter…maybe the spring?! 11 months later, I had learned to surf overhead waves, could easily navigate the 25 square mile island by hitchhiking and could understand a bit of dakine pidgin. Sure, maybe it sounds like morphed into a surf bum, but that island taught me more about myself, work ethic, culture, friendship and life than I had gathered from the previous 22 years. I also performed an internship with Save Our Seas, a local marine conservation organization where my passion for marine field research was sparked. I made some amazing friends and will never deny that my time on Kauai changed me forever. I love that small volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific with all my heart…but I had to leave. It was for my sanity. After feeling the claustrophobia of “island fever,” I increased my work load and started stuffing my piggy bank with travel funds. I worked hard as a server and naturalist guide to buy a digital SLR and a plane ticket from Quito to Panama City from Guatemala City back home to Seattle for my dear friend Jasmine‘s wedding. My 2 month solo journey through 7 countries was fast paced and filled with wonderful moments, exciting places and many stories.

Back in the Pacific Northwest, I transferred to the Evergreen State College where I immediately started to scheme how to use an academic disguise to travel. I completely clicked with the school’s innovative curriculum and progressive style of teaching. I studied with the interdisciplinary Environmental Health program, where I learned how human-introduced toxic chemical’s abundance are taking a toll on health and our environment. I realized I could combine my passions for environmental science and human rights. I finally began to feel focused as I saw my commitment to better the world begin to mesh in both realms of the environment and humanity. With overwhelming scientific proof, the fact cannot be denied that the environment affects our health as much as our existence affects the environment. We are not separate. I became interested in the issue of Agent Orange after studying how chemicals can have severe adverse effects and often third world health is the most devastating example. Agent Orange was used as a defoliant in the Vietnam War…a chemical spray that contains TCDD, a toxicant so powerful, it dissolves rain forests. I was drawn to the issue because of it’s severity, the lack of public knowledge, my own country’s disregard for responsibility after the Vietnam War and perhaps the fact that 40 years after the initial application of the chemical, babies are still born with deformities. After much research and preparation I traveled to Vietnam, and performed an independent research project about the adverse health effects of Agent Orange and how scientific studies could be implemented to remediate the dioxin that still contaminates the once pristine jungles of Southeast Asia. I flew into Hanoi and then made my way south where I worked with the Hue Medical School and their studies on this issue. My ultimate goal was to raise awareness about overlooked environmental issues and to reiterate the point that the years gone by do not simply dissolve; You cannot bury the past. I wrote a long detailed paper on how scientists, NGOs, non-profits and the government work together and more often do not work together to tackle the growingly outdated but relevant issues of Agent Orange and health of the Vietnamese that are continuously under exposure. My paper is available if you are interested in reading it.

While still in Vietnam, I landed a summer internship with Northern Arizona University (NAU) and Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals (ITEP) working for the Region 9 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in San Francisco…also known as a crash course in bureaucracy. I worked in a cubicle 5 days a week tracking down GPS coordinates of tribal minor pollution sources. My objective was to build a Graphic Information System (GIS) and then present the locations of minor pollution sources on tribal lands of Region 9 (Arizona, California and Nevada). This meant hours of planning meetings to meet with people in different departments that would tell me people they thought I should meet with in different departments. Gahhh. At times I felt like a dog chasing it’s own tail but I did learn to create a GIS and attended inspiring seminars about working with tribes and the environmental history of the Bay Area.

Fall of 2009, I began my 6-month internship with Ventana Wildlife Society where I learned the wonders of working as a wildlife biologist. I lived in Pacific Grove and commuted to Big Sur each morning except when I stayed high above the Pacific ocean in the field station. I worked with the Songbird Conservation Ecology program where my duties included mist netting, identifying, banding migratory and resident birds in the riparian area of Andrew Molera State Park. Majority of my time was spent working with the California Condor Reintroduction Program where I frequently used telemetry, observation, nest searching, and participated in the handling and feeding of critically endangered condors. I spent much time in the Ventana Wilderness and indulged in being alone up at base camp.

Although I loved working with the largest bird in North America, often I would find myself distracted by the distant spouts of migrating leviathans. My love of the ocean became stronger than ever with such close proximity and I spent all my spare time watching for cetaceans and identifying invertebrates in rocky tide pools.

For my final quarter at Evergreen, I designed a research project studying toothed whales (odontocetes) with Cascadia Research Collective in Hawaii. During April 2010, I worked on a 2-week field project as a data recorder on rigorous surveys offshore of Kona on the Big Island; a crash course in cetacean ecology. However new I was to marine mammal work, I gained experience data recording, observing seabirds, collecting video/photo data and recording data during biopsies and tagging of odontocetes. I saw over 10 species of cetacean I had never seen before. I processed biopsies, recorded data using Access and prepared equipment and digital cameras each day. It was a great deal of hard work but a very rewarding experience nonetheless. For my final thesis, I wrote a scientific paper on the impacts of the fishing industry on Hawaiian odontocetes. I attended the False Killer Whale Take Reduction Team meeting on Maui and learned a great deal about the alarming rate of decline of many little known species of rare odontocetes in Hawaii. My paper is available if you are interested. After my graduation in June, I continued to work as a naturalist and crew for Safari Boat Excursions where I practiced free diving, marine identification and taking underwater photographs.

I then traveled back to Santa Cruz, CA to work as a marine mammal observer on a NOAA transect survey over the Davidson Seamount. It was an amazing experience at sea for 5 days, good pay and over 200 Fin whales! That’s the second largest whale in the world which means I saw some serious tonnage in terms of blubber. The survey will aid in the protection of the seamount in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. After the California survey, I was invited back to participate in another Hawaiian odontocete project during July and August, this time with a smaller crew, less resources which ended up being in my favor. I was able to not only data recorder but also act as photographer, collect prey samples, record underwater bioacoustics which allowed me to gain more field experience overall. It was an amazing opportunity to combine my passion for photography and science.

I’ve used my passions for the environment and humanity to fuel my travels. I look at each new opportunity as a chance to learn how I might better serve the world. I want to experience life to the fullest and have some amazing adventures on the way.

I owe much appreciation and thanks to my family and friends who have helped me struggle through the many challenges I’ve faced. I’ve received an amazing amount of support from my friends and family who have given me so much to be thankful for. I could not possess the courage to pursue my dreams if it were not for your love and encouragement. I am so lucky to have an incredible network of friends and family that never fail to stand behind me and my endeavors.