Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Grand Tammie Whackin' Adventure - Part III - Whack n' Run

Yeah, so there's this beaver that lives across the street...or in this case, across the river:
Beaver town - right across the river
One of the other consequences of the dam's regulation of the river (the first being the presence of the tamarisk) is an over-abundance of beavers.  The pattern of massive floods that would have periodically destroyed their dams and dens having been eliminated by the engineering marvel that is Hoover Dam, these pesky rodents are free to proliferate.  

Too bad they don't like to chew tamarisk.  That might have been a problem that solved itself.  Instead, they just love the tasty, irresistible flavor of those lovely natives: Gooding willows, coyote willows and cottonwoods.  

So, here we are, busy as beavers removing the inedible tamarisk plants and replacing them with a virtual river-rodent smorgasbord of fresh cut poles - all right at perfect beaver-munching height.  The first poles weren't in the ground 24 hours before our neighbor came over for a midnight snack.  
Beaver-chewed plantings
Unfortunately, I didn't capture the bugger on camera - though other members of our crew were luckier.  It wasn't hard to catch him in the act, as his chosen chew sticks happened to be located near our groover (a clever river folk word for crapper).  If I had been lucky enough to take a photo of him, it would likely have looked like this:

Well, actually, he wouldn't have looked that cute...I have to be honest that up close and personal, beavers really aren't cute at all.  They're kinda creepy looking, and big.  Like, big dog big.  Definitely not something I want to be responsible for keeping out of my newly planted garden of twigs.  Which is why it is wonderful that we had this person on our team:
No beaver's gonna get her plantings!
Melissa was the project manager for NPS, and she instantly went into superhero mode when she discovered the beaver's unexpectedly keen hunger for the new plants.  Although the team had planned to create "cages" around several of the larger trees, we shifted into high speed and turned that smaller project into a shield for each of the planted poles on the beach.  Not only was it good for the plants, but it was good for us - we needed something new to do (tammie whacking was getting a bit old).  

Andy Goldsworthy eat your heart out

Our first attempt was an idea put out by Mark, who brilliantly combined our need to dispose of large amounts of cut wood and our desire to protect the plants.  He created only one of these art-installation-worthy natural anti-beaver structures, but within only hours of its erection, a group of boaters tried to tie their boats off to it.  Clearly, it felt substantial and solid enough to keep a beaver out!  

Too bad each one would have taken hours to construct and we needed hundreds of them...

In the end, we spent our final day on the beach constructing and installing cages and shields like these:
Small protection cages with arrow weed stakes

Large cage with mulch
Take that Mr. Beaver!  While I'm sure the protection will be temporary, our hopes are that it will give the fresh plantings a chance to survive and establish roots before the voracious critter gets to all of them...

In the mean time, the sun had returned to the canyon, and the ice and snow disappeared in an instant.  It was hardly warm yet, but the positive influence of the sun helped to chase away the worst of the chill.  It was on a sunny day like this that the boaters had to pack up and head down the river. 

Boaters preparing for launch
Before they left, I insisted on the time to capture a group shot.  I was worried that I was pushing my 'welcome' by making everyone stop and pose, but now I'm glad I did it.  What a fantastic group of people - to give up weeks of life in the 'real world' to do just a small bit of improving for such a magical place!

Granite Beach Stewardship Crew
When the boats were gone, Melissa put us back to work finishing up the plantings and sorting out the tools.  We kept on task all afternoon, which was a great way to keep us distracted from thinking about the fact that we were leaving the next day.  So sad to be going, but so ready for the hot shower, soft bed and puppy ears that waited at home!

Our kitchen that night was a little more reminiscent of the backcountry style I'm accustomed to...

Dinner for 7, coming up!
The next morning, it was up and out.  I'd never hiked up the Hermit Trail before, and I was excited to see it from a different point of view.  This excitement lasted until about the top of the Cathedral stairs when it was replaced by impatient irritation.  The irritation was gone about an hour and a half later when weariness began to set in - and still thousands of feet to climb.  What a bear!

See the hiker ahead on the Tonto??? Scale is everything in the canyon. 

Melissa and Gayle ahead of me on the Coconino Sandstone paving. 

As I'd expected, I was the last out of the canyon by a good bit.  I can't say that I'm not proud of myself, however.  I don't think anyone who walks themselves out of that hole in the ground should be unimpressed by their own fortitude.  It's a small and distinguished group of folks.  

As I climbed into the car for the ride back to Flagstaff, I tried to nap but found myself still jittery and excited.  After all, they told me I might be able to come back and help again in April...

Tammie whackin' good time!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Grand Tammie Whackin' Adventure - Part II - A Whackin' Good Time

We came, we saw, we kicked some Tammie ass...

It was an amazing week, with a great cast of characters.  When your commute starts like this, you know you've got an awesome job:

Traffic up on the least they're all my co-workers!
After we arrived at our beach and welcomed the boats full of wonderful food, important gear, even more important beer and recently harvested 'poles' (I'll get to that in a minute), we settled in.  I felt great, and I could tell these were my kinds of folks...botanists, biologists, Landscape Architects, river guides and volunteers.  Just the roster I'd put on my fantasy employment team.

The boats arrive and immediately begin disgorging stuff...
My first attempt at a camp...
Most of our time that week was spent removing the last stands of thick tamarisk from the study area.  Two things made this process even more strenuous than you might think: first, the nature of tammies and second the needs of the project which dictated that the trees not only be felled, but that their carcasses be completely removed from the site.  

The team surveys the battlefield
First: the nature of tammies.  Although many of the plants we were removing were the size of small trees (20' tall by 30-40' wide), they aren't trees at all but big, overgrown shrubs.  This means that they've got active growing branches all the way down to the ground.  In order to even get at the larger trunks, you have to crawl and saw and beat your way through the woody, salty and twiggy goodness.  Fun.  

A tamarisk in its pokey glory
Second: hauling away the carcasses.  Not being a veteran of other vegetation removal projects, I was unaware that it's unusual to actually remove the debris from downing the tamarisk.  However, it is very obvious, no matter what your level of experience, the reason that they usually don't.  It's a HUGE job - much larger than actually cutting down the trees.  

First, you cut the branch of the tree (no small feat considering we had no power tools).  

Then you cut the branch into bits no larger than 3-4' in length.

Then you pile the bits into a heap and carry the heavy, misshapen heap across this rocky gravel bar...

And then finally pitch them into the rapids (without also pitching yourself, which would be bad.)

Yup.  These rapids.  Not a good place to go swimming (at least the guy in the video has a PFD on).

Of course, though tammie whackin' was a big part of my involvement in this trip, it is only one part of the much larger project.  This meant that there were many things to do when you were tired of/frustrated by/beaten over the tamarisk.

The most fun, and simultaneously most frustrating, was planting the 'poles' that had been harvested from other drainages upstream.  These were cottonwood, coyote willow and Goodings willow shoots that had been collected by the team and carried down by boat to be planted on Granite Beach.  
Sorting the poles off the boat.
The theory is, with these riparian species, their natural adaptation to patterns of flood would work to our advantage.  As long as the cutting is fresh, it will sprout leaves and roots when exposed correctly to soil and water, creating a whole new tree.  This saves the plants when a devastating flood wipes out a population and all that's left are bits of new wood buried in the recently deposited flood debris.  

Clever folks, these, and a clever way they'd planned on planting them.  It's called 'the Water Auger'.

The water auger at work and the first successful cottonwood pole! 

Blast a hole in the sand using nothing but a 7' long stick and high-pressure water from the river, leaving behind a nice, wet environment for the stick to establish itself in.  Perfect!  Of course, there were two or three small problems, and the diminutive height of several of the team members was not one of them.

They're all the things that make the Grand Canyon grand.  Remoteness, rocks and weather...

Remoteness because a single broken part on the top of the water auger itself wasn't easy to fix at the bottom of the canyon.  Though they'd managed a jerry-rig at Phantom Ranch the day before, it was still temperamental and at times it just wouldn't work well.  

This is the type of digging the auger is made for
As this was a 'pilot' project, it wasn't clear whether or not the water auger would even dig in the rocky gravelbars at the river's edge.  Lesson learned: it doesn't.  Not really, anyhow.  It dominates the soft sands of the beach, but if you've got any sort of gravel down there, you'll slow to a crawl or stop altogether.  Frustrating when you know you've got to get the poles planted no matter what.  

This is the kind of stuff we had to dig with - NOT what the water auger was made for! 
And's the Grand Canyon in February.  What did we expect?  (Hint, not this)
Running from a cloudburst headed our way...

Yup - snow on the ground at river level!

Oh - and I almost forgot about the beaver...