spring in Gotland.

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Over the last few weeks I have been lucky to receive some great visitors to Visby. First my mother came and now two other friends (one at a time!). It’s always amazing how sometimes you don’t do things or see the sights in the place you live until other people come to visit. Suddenly you feel you have to show them around, and you realize you don’t know how! So I’ve learned quite a bit about Visby and Gotland in these days.

It has also been nice because as tourist season approaches, more and more things are opening up, whether it is cafes and restaurants or the ruins of old cathedrals. This weekend I was able to finally go inside some of the ruins and man, they were incredible. So thanks to my visitors for finally getting me outside doing things (and eating some FANTASTIC food, as I rarely go out to eat by myself here in Sweden, $$$$).

When my mother was here we rented a car and ventured to the far north of the island, to Fårö, which is actually an island of its own. We took a small ferry across the channel (just a five minutes ride or something – in the U.S. they’d just build a bridge, but the ferry was great and I prefer it!) to the home of Ingmar Bergman. Confession, I have never seen a Bergman film. But I will have to now. Fårö is amazing. I don’t have much time to write, but here are a few pictures. Click to enlarge.

Coast + rainforest run.

One of the coolest things about living where I live is that you’re just an hour or two away from some pretty big, majestic mountains, and you’re only a bit over an hour away from the ocean. How many other places in the country have that going for them?

After heading out on some hiking trips for the last few weekends, I realized that I was missing out on the other side of the state. I love the ocean; why hadn’t I been there yet? I was pretty busy all week so I didn’t have much time to plan, but I woke up early and drove over to Cape Perpetua Scenic Area.

Almost as soon as I hit the coast, I was smack-dab in the middle of what I had hoped for. It was foggy and moody, with steep bluffs and rocky crags overlooking the Pacific. The road wound up and down the hills, which were covered in the tall Douglas fir trees. The roads were lined with stone walls and there was even a lighthouse. I had made it to the Acadia of the west.

After stopping at a picnic area to stretch my legs and breathe in some ocean air, I made my way to the Cummins Creek trailhead, hopped out, and started running. There was only one other car (another 4Runner) in the parking lot so I knew I’d have the trails to myself.

As a kid, I remember thinking people were crazy when they said there was rainforest right here in the United States. No way, thought my little New England self! But as I padded along the soft path and gradually climbed up through the moss-covered firs, I knew that there was rainforest. It was all around me. I never saw Cummins Creek, which was in deep valley below me, but from time to time I could hear it, and I crossed several small streams which emptied into the larger one.

After three or so miles of gentle uphill, I reached an overlook. It was too foggy to see the ocean, but I could gaze out over the ridges and deep valleys of firs. In a few places the trees thinned out to meadows, which were covered in wildflowers. I still hadn’t seen a single other person.

In all, I ran through the Cape Perpetua trail system for about two hours, never pushing myself, but just enjoying the scenery and the birdsong and the solitude. It was cool this early in the morning, and that was the point. I had a great run.

And then – back to the coast, where I went to a different picnic area, ate my lunch, wrote some letters (yes, some people still hand-write letters), and walked on the beach. A little boy was playing with a big, swooping kite, and I spent a silly amount of time trying to capture a good shot of it as it danced above the waves. I didn’t, really.

I wanted to soak up all of the salty air and the cold wind that I possibly could before I went back to Eugene, so I loitered on the beach for a while more, taking more and more pictures and finally just sitting looking at the water.

Then it was off to a coffeeshop to do some work. It’s funny, because I don’t like coffee that much, but I’m finding that I’m becoming a coffeeshop person anyway – it can be a much nicer place to work than my own house, where I am always distracted by things that I’d much rather be doing. After all, there’s bread that needs to get made, berries that need to get picked, and my room has been looking like a bomb went off in it recently.

It was great to finally see the coast and I am sure that I will be back again soon!

Cape San Blas.

I just got back from a camping trip. It was such a good trip that I surprised even myself, and I have to think hard to understand how to describe what made it great.

I am finishing up a week of time off from my job. For the first few days of the week, I stuck around the trailer. My allowances to myself were going running in the mornings and spending time working on my bike so I could ride it for the first time this year. Other than that, I kept myself working: writing for FasterSkier and studying up on my botany vocab so I’ll be ready for my new job.

My reward for working during my time “off” was going to be a three-day camping trip at the end of the week. I browsed the Florida State Parks website looking for places to camp. I picked out the St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It was a long drive – three hours from my home in Navarre – but it was one of the few parks in northwest Florida which offered primitive camping.

I also picked it out because the setting seemed fascinating. The park was on an improbably long and skinny peninsula, Cape San Blas. The first several of the fifteen miles of coastline were home to beach houses. The last were home to the park and over 240 species of wildlife.

The website warned that the primitive sites had no shade and no fresh water. I was excited but nervous, and considering how far I had to travel to get there, I really didn’t want the experience to be less than great. I packed my small backpack as full as I could and set off.

First of all, regardless of whether it’s an ideal camping spot or not, where else can you (legally) stay on the beach for two nights and only spend $11.10? State parks one, rest of the U.S. zero.

I parked in my allotted spot and started off down the Wilderness Trail. The last seven miles of the cape are a wilderness preserve, and it was into this area that I set out. The trail was made of deep sand and the walking was slow. There were scrubby trees on either side of the trail, but it was wide enough that they generally couldn’t provide much shade. The sun beat down on me as I made my slow way along the trail.

After about an hour and a quarter, I reached the second of three trails crossing over from the bay side of the island to the gulf side. I had decided to camp here as I could only set up a tent close to the gulf beach along one of the crossovers – you can’t camp just anywhere in a wilderness preserve. I walked towards the beach and soon left the trees for secondary dunes. I looked down from the trail and saw a perfect flat spot in the last group of trees, so I stopped and dropped my pack in the shade and then continued on towards the beach.

As I crested the last of the frontal dunes and the beach spread out before me, I couldn’t suppress a smile. I couldn’t not laugh. I felt totally free. I ran the rest of the way down to the beach, pulling off my Chacos and my shirt. I walked along the edge of the perfectly clear, shallow water, which rested on top of patterned white sand. There wasn’t a soul in sight, only beach stretching as far as I could see in either direction. It was exhilarating. I had this world all to myself.

That evening I found a sand dollar, pitched my tent, and fell asleep at sunset to the sound of the waves. I was surprised at how exhausted I was now that I could sleep when I was tired rather than when I finished the tasks I had set out for myself.

The next morning I woke up to the sounds of birds chattering back and forth. I took my breakfast – an apple – over to the top of one of the frontal dunes and ate it overlooking the beach. Then I walked along the shore again and saw a school of large silver fish jumping out of the water just fifty feet offshore.

I had absolutely nothing I had to do that day, so I spent it exploring.

First I walked barefoot the four miles down the beach to the end of the island. As I strolled around the water’s edge, sand bars came and went, shorebirds ran in front of me, and the frontal dunes changed from gentle hills to eroding cliffs and back again.

Driftwood and shells had washed up on the beach and, sometimes, coarser sand.

In a few places, channels of water had formed, washing in one side with the waves and then running back into the ocean on the other side of an expanse of sand. In others, there were small pools left behind by the retreating tide. Sometimes there were schools of tiny fish swimming in them, which raced and scattered when my shadow passed over the water. In one of the little streams, barnacles opened and closed as the seawater periodically moved through.

I saw a dead ray on the beach, but only three other people in the four miles.

When I reached the tip of the cape, the shorebirds seemed to multiply. They came in all shapes and sizes. Terns screeched at me. The water cut in towards the interior of the island, providing even more habitat for the many different species. They shared the beach with crabs, but not other people. It was a bird sanctuary sticking out into the gulf. After looking around a bit, I started the walk back to my campsite.

By the time I got back I was hot and sweaty. The shade of the trees was a relief and I rested up during the hottest part of the day, sitting on a dead trunk and reading John Steinbeck’s tales of King Arthur, which seemed out of place but lovely (and infused with a sense of humor – way to go John).

In the afternoon I wandered in the dunes, following the tracks of coyotes and beach mice. I saw small white flowers on spiked leaves and an endless array of dune architecture.

I ate my dinner atop one of the dunes and then went for a swim. The water was perfect and comfortable, the waves were gentle, but I was still nervous for some reason. With no people for miles, what if, I don’t know, a shark came and gobbled me up? This wasn’t likely, but it was the only time the whole weekend that being alone made me wary. Still, I sank into the pleasant water and relaxed.

Finally, I watched the spectacular sunset over the water. The last minutes as the sun sank into the ocean went so fast.

It stayed light even without the sun – the reason we are not working this week is that the moon is quite full. I had no reason to hurry back to my tent, but when I reached it, it was with the weariness of someone whose energy has been sapped by the sun. Once again I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves.

The next morning, I had my last breakfast on the beach, waded in for the last time, and set off down the Wilderness Trail back towards the car.

A couple of miles later I reached it, hot, sweaty, very smelly, and coated in a disgusting layer of sunscreen. And completely happy.

I had never been lonely, the whole three days. I had never been bored. I love camping, but this had surprised even me. I don’t know if it was something about the landscape or something about my particular frame of mind, but I had been perfectly content just by myself for three days. The freedom was exactly what I had needed, and I came out of the trip feeling infinitely more at ease with myself and the world than I went in.

Which is the point, isn’t it? I hope that many of my future adventures can be this good.

I Saw a Sea Turtle Nest.

This is a sea turtle crawl. I saw it!

This was my week off, but my boss called me up on Sunday night anyway. “I found a turtle crawl when I was walking along the beach today,” she said. “It’s right near the trailer. I gave the turtle people a call and they are going to work it up tomorrow morning. Do you want to come?”

My roommate said no way; it would have meant leaving our trailer at seven, which was too early for her. Me? I was ecstatic. I knew that I wouldn’t see an actual turtle, but sea turtles are some of the most symbolic threatened animals in ocean systems. Tens of thousands of sea turtles are caught by fishing vessels each year. The turtles are also threatened by global warming, and here on the Gulf Coast, they had a particularly rough season last year with the BP oil spill. So: everyone knows about sea turtles.

In fact, many days when we walk to work people ask us how the turtles are doing and are surprised to find out that there are other species of interest on the beach besides the turtles. Besides the obvious importance of the turtles, it would just be plain cool. So yes, I said, I’ll be there.

After a walk down the beach we found Marv, the turtle volunteer looking at the nest. He was a pretty old guy, still wearing his bike helmet from the ATV ride which had taken him here. He had already dug down to find the eggs – which were buried about a foot deep in the sand – and then covered them up again, but for our benefit he dug down and brought out one of the eggs.

It was incredibly soft, fragile, and, well, un-egg-like. It was not like a bird egg or a snake egg or anything else I’ve seen on land – there was no hard shell. It was just there, kind of diaphanous. Apparently the shell is permeable, which allows the turtle babies to breathe. How cool is that? Other fun facts are that the temperature of the sand in which they are buried determines the sex of the little turtles.

So, it turns out that Marv wasn’t supposed to dig up an egg, and that it was a really bad move. When we mentioned it to the head of the turtle program later, she freaked out. The embryos attach to the shell walls after only a few hours, and after that point, turning the egg may disattach the embryo and, well, kill it. So, touching the eggs is generally a really bad idea. And by innocently mentioning it to the program head, we might have gotten Marv fired.

Which sucks. Because Marv was an old guy who really loved being a turtle volunteer. He told us about how he’d been doing patrols up and down the beach to look for crawls and nests for the last ten years and had found twenty nests. Poor Marv. I’m sorry, Marv. Don’t pick up the egg next time.

But anyway. After that, he took some measurements of the crawl and the nest. The crawl was pretty cool – you could see where the turtle had planted her flippers and dragged her body along the sand. Based on the width and pattern of the crawl, both Marv and the program head decided that it belonged to a Kemp’s Ridley, the smallest and one of the rarest species of sea turtles. I’m a little confused because everything I’ve read about them suggests that the females came ashore en masse to nest, and this was a single nest, but whatever. They are the turtle people, so they are almost certainly right, and it’s cool that the one nest I saw was from the rarest of turtles.

Next, Marv put down some wire mesh and stakes to cover the nest.

The wire will keep raccoons and coyotes from digging up the eggs and eating them, which would be bad news bears. He finished the site off with some orange tape and signs to tell beachgoers – which there aren’t many of, since we were on the restricted part of the Air Force base – not to mess with the nest.

And then we walked home, having seen a crawl and a nest and a real sea turtle egg, which is definitely more than most people can say (for good reason, turns out). How cool! I don’t know if Jamie thinks she missed out, but to me, it was definitely worth the early morning wakeup.

If you want to learn more about sea turtles, there’s a couple of websites you could check out: SeaTurtle.Org, which keeps track of nests and sightings around the world; the Sea Turtle Conservancy, the world’s oldest sea turtle research organization, now a nonprofit based out of Florida and working worldwide; the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a more politically-active nonprofit based in California; and many others.

Sedge.

This is a field of broomsedge.

In the last week, I made two day trips up to this field, which happens to be in Jay, Florida, about an hour north of our place in Navarre. The drive up to Milton is pretty in a way that I always assumed Florida could be, but hadn’t seen yet – quiet! Trees on the side of the road! Rivers meandering languidly through the forest! Milton itself, which you pass through before reaching Jay, is a cute historical town of brick buildings and character. I saw advertisements for a farmer’s market and cursed the 20 miles separating me from fresh vegetables.

Back to the broomsedge. It’s not actually a sedge, but rather a bluestem, a member of the Poaceae  family. It grows to about a meter tall, or sometimes even taller. It was historically used to make brooms, hence the name. Broomsedge grows well on poor soils and comes back quickly after burns, of which there are plenty on the Florida panhandle. This characteristic has made it invasive in Hawaii and weedy in California, but in the southeast, it’s right at home.

Imagine yourself in this large field of broomsedge, which has turned straw-colored. It’s early morning and the grass is bathed in the sun’s rays and framed by a few tall, green trees.

Now imagine yourself pulling up this broomsedge, one clump at a time. For hours. When you’re done, there will be a large empty spot in the field. If you look in one direction, the sun, now high in the sky, will be beating down on the yellowy stalks. In another will be the void you have created, with a large pile in the middle. Your back will ache, your fingers will be blistered, and you will be covered head-to-toe, even under your clothes, in a layer of black soil. You will look like you’re returning from a coal mine.

This is how our work trips were. I listened to NPR podcasts to pass the time and drifted off into my own little world, where all I focused on was pulling one handful of grass after another. I lost track of my boss and coworkers, and lost track of time. The hours seemed like an eternity and yet I was surprised when it was already time to eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We pulled up several truckloads of broomsedge and transported it back to the island, where we plant it in the sand.

After a morning spent inland, being back on the beach was a shock. A bright, reflective shock. The sand was so white it almost seemed sterile, while the ocean was an impossible shade of blue. The colors of this beach are some of my favorites, but the landscape seemed static after a morning spent in another ecosystem.

Today, I finished my 25th consecutive day of work. Only two of them were pulling broomsedge, but at least a dozen were planting it. Now, I am done with both tasks. We have a lot of work still ahead of us, but rearranging the distribution of one of the southeast’s characteristic plants won’t be part of it.

I have an entire week off as a thank-you for my work, and I’ll spend it in Atlanta, Georgia and Santa Rosa Beach, just down the panhandle. I can’t wait for a little R&R and a trip to see my wonderful grandparents.

Working on the Beach (updated).

My exit from Craftsbury was abrupt, much more abrupt than I meant it to be. After looking for jobs for the month-and-a-half after I decided to leave the Green Racing Project, with little success, I had decided to move back in with my parents for the spring while I continued to search for employment.

Then, my life took a U-turn. On a Friday, I applied for a research technician job with the University of Florida. I was interviewed over the phone the next day and by Monday had a job offer. I had less than a week to tie up loose ends in Craftsbury and move out, and then I drove down to Florida.

(And for the haters: the 1998 4-Runner got 22 miles per gallon, on average, over the course of the more than 1,400 miles I drove. Not so bad.)

So here I am, working on the beach in Navarre, Florida, studying the Santa Rosa beach mouse.

Every day we leave our cars at the Navarre Beach State Park and walk fifteen minutes along the beach until we come to our first field site. At 7:15, it’s a beautiful walk: it’s still cool and breezy, the sun is still rising, and the morning light is soft and pink. I drink my Earl Grey as we stroll but the surroundings are more than enough to jolt me awake.

Work so far is pretty much manual labor, but then again, fieldwork often is. Theoretically, we are looking at the foraging behavior of beach mice. Practically, we spend eight hours each day planting experimental plots of broom sedge in the sand.

My boss is awesome – she served in the Peace Corps after college and her last batch of fieldwork was in Bolivia. I am lucky to be working for someone who is happy to discuss the particulars of the study with me, and to explain how she selected an experimental design and all the nuances of what we are doing.

That interaction and education always makes it worthwhile to provide the legwork on a study like this. I’m not treated like a nobody; I’m treated like someone who also has a stake in whether the research works out. As such, I’m privy to a lot of the details.

Plus, we have to talk about something while we’re planting all that broom sedge.

Another fun part of the job is that our free housing is in a FEMA trailer in a trailer park. It still has its official U.S. Government plates on it, leading our neighbors to joke that we work for the CIA. Nope. We’re just beach mouse workers, hoping not to suffer from the formaldehyde that supposedly plagues these trailers. We spend a lot of time sitting at our picnic table outside.

So: it’s a pretty drastic change from New England. Exactly a week ago, I was skiing with Jennie Brentrup at Oak Hill. Now I’m watching people waterski as I work. Wow.