Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

This year Desert Boy will be a skeleton for Halloween. We're going on a hay ride for trick or treating in a few hours. In the meantime is our quest for a nap.

He really likes his costume.

If I can get it to work, I will post some video of him--once I figure out how to rotate it 90 degrees!

Here's my blog post from last Halloween, when Desert Boy was a cow.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Homestead Crater

Okay, I thought I was done with caves for the winter, but I couldn't resist going to another, and this time I dragged my dear husband with me. Fortunately this cave was warm and we were able to walk into it.

This is Homestead Crater, located in Midway, Utah, and it's a tourist attraction with a pleasant resort built next to it.

I liked how the light made my husband seem to glow. He didn't manage to levitate, though.

The real attraction in the crater is the 95-96 degree water. It is used for soaking, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. In fact, this is the only year-round scuba diving destination in the continental U.S.

Here's a soaking section, watched over by an alligator.

The tunnel into the crater was built in 1996.

The water in the crater is over 60 feet deep, but divers are advised to dive no deeper than 35 feet for 35 minutes due to the altitude and sediments at the bottom.

The tunnel is filled with tanks, regulators, buoyancy aids, and more.
The outside of the crater isn't so remarkable. A mound of tufa rises slightly from the surrounding terrain. This is the largest of about 35 "hot pots" that are found in the area. Originally 20 of them had water in them--I'm not sure if that many still do. The water comes from the Wasatch Mountains and then is heated deep in the earth. Apparently the hot pots are only about 10,000 years old--quite young by geologic standards.

We hiked up the stairs to the top of the crater. From above we could look down at the steamy water and see the scuba divers.

The views from the top of the mound are really nice, with mountains in all directions. Although we missed most of the fall colors, we enjoyed seeing the snow at the higher elevations.

In the resort, there's a display about the history of the area.

We found that the ducks like the warm water.

And the pool and hot tub were exquisite. There are also outdoor versions, although the outdoor pool was closed for the season.

To get ready for Halloween, there was a scarecrow convention on the front lawn with many creative entries.

Homestead made for a slightly different getaway, and I'm looking forward to going back someday.
Thanks so much to the cousins and aunt and uncle who watched Desert Boy so we could have a getaway weekend!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Desert Destination: Pinyon Pine Nut Picking

2009 has turned out to be a good year for pinyon pine nuts in our area. Many of the pinyon pine trees (Pinus monophylla) are loaded with cones. This species of pine tree grows throughout most of Nevada and into parts of Utah and California. Another species, Colorado pinyon (Pinus edulis), also produces pine nuts and is found in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. (Click here to see maps and more info on these two trees.)

Pine nuts fall out of mature pine cones and can then be easily gathered. Even Desert Boy quickly got the hang of it. You can either pick up individual seeds from the ground or get pine cones and pry the nuts out of them. The second way can leave your hands covered with sap. Up to 25 pounds of pine nuts per person are allowed to be taken on federal lands.

Businesses also can bid on certain areas for commercial pine nut picking, and they use a slightly different technique, described in this Utah extension office PDF file.

Pinyon pine nuts have been an important food source in this area for thousands of years. A pine nut is about 10% protein, 23% fat, and 54% carbohydrate. It contains 20 amino acids and is rich in thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin A, and niacin.

In the photo above, you can see an old pine cone next to one from this year, with seeds still in it.

Desert Boy enjoyed picking up pine nuts, although he had to be taught to distinguish them from rabbit scat, which is about the same size, although a different color, shape, and texture.

We found a few trees just loaded with pine nuts, and since we only wanted a small amount (they are kind of a pain to shell), we were content after about 45 minutes of picking.

Daddy likes eating them raw.

Desert Boy observed and gave it a try, but wasn't as enthusiastic.

When we got the pine nuts home, we filled the bucket with water and scooped out the "floaters." About 10% are empty shells. Then we boiled the rest in salt water. They are also really good roasted with salt in an oven at 450 degrees for about 10 minutes.

Pinyon pine nut picking might not be quite as fun as blueberry picking (I have very fond memories of this as a kid!), but it still is a very popular activity. Many people go searching for pine nuts as a family event, traveling to where ever the crop is good that year. It can take several years for pine trees in one area to have another good crop, so it is a good way to visit some of the different mountain ranges in the area.

Pine nuts are often used in pesto. Bon appetit!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

System's Key Cave

Okay, one more big cave trip before I take a long break! (At least that's the plan.) 

At the bottom of this limestone cliff pictured above is a little hole that leads into System's Key Cave.

Here are Ben and Meg checking the map. Our goal was to go into the passage that goes underneath the nearby creek. Sounds crazy, right? Where is our cave diving gear with tanks and masks and fins and string? Well, the passage was reported to be mostly dry, but we wanted to take a look for ourselves, along with noting cave biota and installing a datalogger.

We entered through a gate. We had gotten a permit so we had a key to get in.

Near the entrance we found several land snail shells. These are terrestrial snails that usually give birth to live young. They prefer limestone habitats and are generally only active in the spring and fall, when temperatures are moderate.

Some of the ceiling in the cave was a little unsettling--a conglomerate of boulders held together by dirt and sand. We went though that part quickly. 

Here's a heliomyzid fly. They seem to like caves and will hang out even far into them.

This neat looking creature is related to Daddy-Longlegs. It's called a harvestman, and it is a top predator in the cave ecosystem, looking for little springtails to eat. We were amazed by how many harvestmen were in the cave--there were places where you could see six at one time within a couple square feet.

My camera does okay with closeups in caves, but distant photos get a bit spotty. This photo is of Meg crawling through a low passage, with her pack attached to her ankle.

Pack rats had used the cave, and here is one of the more recent nests. They bring in lots of material from outside the cave, then cement it together with their urine and excrement. Over time it becomes huge. Climate change scientists can dissect pack rat middens to find out what vegetation the pack rats brought in (the pack rats usually stay within a fairly close radius of their midden). The different vegetation types allow them to reconstruct past histories.

Here's another cool cave creature, one that is totally cave adapted, meaning it isn't found outside caves. This is a millipede, and it is white because it has lost all its pigment. It doesn't have real eyes anymore, and it's appendages are probably slightly longer than some of its cousins up on the surface because it gets around by feeling its way. And it has a slower metabolism than millipedes on the surface, taking longer to get to reproductive age. Can you imagine how many thousands of years it took to evolve to these conditions?

Here's Meg, getting ready to get on rope. After going through the mazy part at the beginning, we reached the 25 foot drop. We put on our rappeling/ascending gear and inched down the passage to the edge.

Here's Meg starting on her way down.

And she's about to go to the part where it's a free hang. 

There were some nice views of cave formations on the way down.

These are some soda straws, stalactites, and draperies.

While I was busy taking pictures, Ben and Meg were checking out the cave register. No one had signed in since 2002.

Next we got to belly crawl through a miserable passage with lots of cobble rocks that kept poking me in uncomfortable places. Finally the passage got a little larger, allowing us to crawl, and then even stoop walk.

And then we got to the part of the cave under the creek, where a small stream of water falls into a seat-like part of the rock. This is called the Waterfall Room.

Ben checked the map again, because he spotted a lead that didn't appear on the map. He disappeared for a few minutes, checking it out.

Meanwhile, I installed a datalogger to collect temperature data every few hours. We'll see if there are seasonal changes in temperature. Most caves have relatively steady temperatures, but if they have more than one opening, or are influenced by surface water, the temperatures can fluctuate more.

We then kept going down the passage and basically climbed up on the other side of the creek. But alas, there was not a human-sized entrance. We found lots of pack rat sign, so there are  probably smaller entrances. We had to retrace our steps and belly wiggles and climb up the rope to get out of the cave.

Meg's smile shows that it was all worth it. Sometime next summer we'll go back to get the datalogger, and see if anything looks different in the cave. 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Dog Bed

We recently got Henry a new dog bed. I put it out in the sun for him to enjoy, and Desert Boy promptly went over and plopped down in it. It must have felt good on his bare feet.

Henry starts thinking that maybe he should have a chance to get in his dog bed. Desert Boy buries his head in his arms. He can be pretty stubborn. Wonder where he gets that from?

They negotiate, and Desert Boy gets to stay a little longer. They sometimes have conservations about the dog house, too, and have worked out a time-share arrangement.
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