Archive for 2014 September

Squeezing the last few drops from the PCT: Walker Pass to Kennedy Meadows

listen to the wind
lie down
listen to the winds
always moving on

As we've all heard,if we read a newspaper, heard radio news, or looked at the alarming pictures from the state, here in California we are living through a drought of historic porportions. It's too soon to attribute it to climate change, but a big study on that exact question will be arriving this month from Stanford, and given that these pictures triggered — according to the Washington Post — the Obama administration's action on climate this year, it's certainly not too soon to talk about it.

But more on that later. For now let me tell you a little about what it's like to walk fifty miles of the desert wilderness in the third year of this drought. Because this section is one of the least visited wildernesses in the nation, and crosses few roads, none paved, there were no helpful water caches left for hikers, as there are in section F of the PCT, which crosses part of the intimidating Mojave desert.

In the first fifty miles of Section G, there were three natural water sources by the trail, none of them flowing freely. But a trail angel left a cache of at least twenty gallons at the start, the Walker Pass campground, which is right off Highway 178, only about ten miles from 14, a freeway, about fifty miles north of the hard town of Mojave. And I had the fun of starting exactly where I left off last year. Here's where Section F turns into Section G: if you look carefully, you can see a trail register up the hill. 


This is pinyon pine country, and never have I appreciated this friend of wildlife and humanity more than this past week, when I camped under the pitchy, fragrant, sheltering limbs of these trees, wonderfully dominant in this landscape. Without the pinyon, one wonders how much biology could survive here. 

A memorable quote about these trees from Ronald Lanner's "The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History," published l981.

Despite many other uses, physical and metaphysical, the pinyon pines greatest service to the native Americans was as a supplier of food in a harsh land. When the hand-to-mouth hunters of the north discovered the nut-pine groves, they discovered the Southwest and became the custodians of the vastest orchard on Earth's surface.

Here's a pic of a particular plant friend of this variety who converted me to his ways last year, at mile 637, at an extraordinary campsite overlooking the true Joshua Tree and chollo cactus desert lands.


Here is the single trail distance sign for this section from the BLM, as minimal as possible of course (but actually, they did a nice job clearing the trail, even through burned sections, unlike miles of miles of burned Section D, overseen by the Forest Service). 


"Carry water" for sure: I started with 7 liters, which for many throughhikers is unacceptable. Just too much. Met a bushwacking fellow who said he crossed 500 miles of mountains from Mammouth Mountain without carrying more than a quart or two. Couldn't do that: wouldn't feel safe climbing mountain trails in 100 degrees with that. No matter the weight. Put the 6-liter water bag at the top of my pack and somehow got the top strap across it, making it look (and feel) a little like a camel with two humps.

Don't have a picture of my embarrassingly lumpy pack, but here is two-humped mountain I passed climbing up to Owens Peak. Now this is true desert, unlike the often-shaded section I walked. 


Despite these vistas of barren lands, the trail at first could hardly have been nicer. Here's my first stop, not especially well photographed, but with a bench perfectly suited for a mid-day break. 


And here's a haiku I compsed for the occasion. (I know, corny.) 

a one-person bench
made for lunching on the trail
unknown genius

The seventeen-syllable haiku form was created centuries ago to encourage memorization (according to "The Japanese Haiku: Its Essential Nature, History, and Possibilities in English," by Kenneth Yasura). You know you have a good one if you can remember it (at least a few times) after you "wrote" it, without seeing it on paper. I have hopes this one will pass that test. 

And here's my first campsite, just short of 674, about thirteen miles up the trail, arriving at 3ish, giving me my one substantial break of the four-day trip. A lovely place to hang out, believer it or don't. Note how the BLM (I presume) trimmed the limbs to allow camping close to the base of this sheltering tree.


Next morning soon passed a spring that is not far from the trail, but as I still had five liters and didn't want to carry more before the spring on the trail at mile 670, I let it go. Apparently the water is officially unsafe because of naturally occuring uranium levels — but not seriously.

Joshua Trees were actually becoming scarce, which I was relieved to see, feeling much more at home in the gentler pinyon country, but they still do look so dramatic at sunrise. 


Soon came across this cheering sign in the trail — only about 2000 miles to go. 


 Still a ways up a steep six-mile trail to Owens Peak.  


The trail turned steep, going back and forth across a parched creek. Going slow as to avoid heat stroke, finally made it to this source, which turned out to be a tiny trickle, barely capable of half-filling my bag in an hour. Still was awfully happy to see that water. So precious! 

Here's another attempt to mark this moment on the trail in the memory:

shoe-lacing across
Spanish Needle creek, up and up
trail looks for the spring

And here's the spring itself, only about ten or fifteen feet off the trail, blessedly. 


Moved on a little reluctantly, moving slowly up the steepness in the glare on the southwestern slope. Took me about three hours to attain about 1500 feet and two miles, but I did meet a charming southbound through-hiker named Rob, who said he was from Alabama, where people know how to avoid getting upset. "It's incredibly hot back there," he said. "But not as hot as this!"


The trail reaches the top of the crest at about 6700 feet, and then takes a long gentle transverse along a north-heading ridge, overlooking two or three different watersheds. Made for a nice silhouette when I arrived near sundown.


That night had a lot of rushing winds that, with exhaustion, helped put me out. 

listen to the wind
lie down 
listen to the winds
always moving on

In the morning woke to discover that some creature — probably a desert rat — had stolen my breakfasts, lunches, and one dinner. About half my food. Found two of the three bags the clever thief (who usually subsists probably on pinyon nuts) took and chewed through. Appeared to have liked the trail mix the best. Unfortunately I was almost exactly halfway through the trip, but fortunately he left me enough. 

And the (previously published picture of the) sunset was worth every bit of it. Next day had an eight-mile downhall to the one remaining spring in the next twenty-five miles. Hot but fast. 


The Fox Mill Spring was dripping fat drops, but had no trickle. Had to compete with bees to tie the mouth of the bag to the faucet. Felt a little guilty monopolizing the water, but only took an hour. 


Onward! At about 2:30, set off up the hill (uphill almost inevitable after a water stop) hoping to make it close to the ridge at 7800, to make it possible to make it to Kennedy Meadows the day after. Hit the sack at 6, hopeful of an early start the next day, to cross Bare Mountain. Worked. 


 Got pretty stark out there.


Happy to make to the Dome Lands. One example reminded me of the Three Brothers of Yosemite. Terrain was so different from the Sierra, but the mountain ridges so reminiscent.


Right at the end of this section, literally at the trail marker, I ran into a southbound couple, charming, with the trail names of Dirt Stew and Doormouse. 


Just two miles later, made it to the "hiker friendly" little outpost of Kennedy Meadows. Appears not to have changed much since Cheryl Strayed passed this way back in l995. Utterly charming in a ramsackle and inexpensive as possible sort of way. Here's the adorable proprietor Scott, a man who knows what long-distance hikers need (and provide it) before they are even able to express it. 


Thanks for coming along with me! 

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Just another sunset over the Mojave: PCT mile 674

From a lovely campsite at the end of a long hot day on the PCT, Section G, through the dry dry region north of Walker Pass, looking south towards the Mojave desert. Here we see the twilight wedge effect (that a meterologist reader explained to me years ago). I'm a total sucker for it. 


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Female spiders like males who can dance, sing better

From Science Friday, perhaps the most purely enjoyable science story of the year to date, about the Dance of the Peacock Spider.  

Seems we've been seeing many examples of species showing traits we think of as human lately. Using tools, like crows, or mourning the dead, like elephants, or having local dialects in languages, like songbirds. But this is the best example of a species shaking it on the dance floor I've ever seen. 

Tho' arachnid sex doesn't always have a happy ending — at least for the male. 

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Huge climate march in NYC: “There is no Planet B.”

From the NYTimes: A Clarion Call for Action

USAToday calls it the largest climate march ever. MSNBC said hundreds of thousands in NYC.

To be followed by a mass demonstration at Wall Street tomorrow — now that should be interesting. Flood Wall Street. Bringing the experience so many people around the globe have lived through home to the financial captal. From metaphor to life. 


Not able to join this mobilization because I am off to explore Section G of the PCT of Planet A, which goes from Walker Pass, south of Kernville CA, to Kennedy Meadows, the gate to the Sierras.

Back next weekend. Wish me luck and no rattlesnakes. 

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Shakshuka: a new and exciting veg dish from Ottolenghi

In this week's food column in the L.A. Times, Russ Parsons catches up with the flamboyant Middle Eastern cook Yotam Ottolenghi and his great recipe for Shakshuka. Unfortunately the newspaper writer does not actually give the brilliant cook's recipe, but does offer numerous variations on his theme. 

To me this is peculiar, no matter how fine these variations may be. But no matter — another site (The Rebel Kitchen) feels as I do about this recipe, and has as well had the enviable experience of eating in one of Ottolenghi's restaurants to back up his love for the recipe, and reproduces it accurately. 

Note that it begins with dry roasting a palmful of cumin seeds. This is the most exciting start to a new main dish recipe I have experienced in years. 


½ tsp cumin seeds
190ml light olive oil or vegetable oil (I used just under half a cup)
2 large onions, peeled and sliced
2 red and 2 yellow peppers, cored and cut into 2cm strips
4 tsp muscovado sugar
2 bayleaves
6 sprigs thyme, picked and chopped
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
6 ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ tsp saffron strands
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper
Up to 250ml water
8 free-range eggs

  1. In a large saucepan, dry-roast the cumin on high heat for two minutes. Add the oil and sauté the onions for two minutes. Add the peppers, sugar, bayleaves, thyme, parsley and two tablespoons of coriander, and cook on high heat to get a nice colour. Add the tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, salt and pepper. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes, adding enough water to keep it the consistency of a pasta sauce. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It should be potent and flavoursome. You can prepare this mix in advance.
  2. Place four saucepans on medium heat and divide the mixture between them. Break two eggs into each pan, pouring into gaps in the mixture. Sprinkle with salt, cover and cook very gently for 10-12 minutes, until the egg just sets. Sprinkle with coriander and serve with chunky white bread.

As Yotam says when he introduces this recipe in Plenty, this is street food — and he cites a stall in the Middle East (in Israel if memory serves) that serves shakshuka and nothing but shakshuka, all day, every day that the stall is open. But it still looks good, tastes good, tastes different, and doesn't involve meat. 




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Ventura squeezes area injection well firm on two fronts

The company has two injection wells on a site located on unincorporated land near Oxnard. Since 2010, according to records from the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, at its main well the company injected 2,195,364 barrels of oil-field-related fluids at a depth of approximately 5,000 feet.

Ventura County is challenging Anterra, the county's only injection well for oil field related fluids, on two fronts — including a criminal investigation.

But why? Here's my story from today's Santa Barbara Independent:

Last week, the Ventura County District Attorney sent police squads to seize records from two sites run by Anterra Energy Services, which operates the only commercial injection wells in Ventura County legally allowed to dispose of fluids generated by oil production. Senior Deputy DA Christopher Harman said the company is the target of a criminal investigation but would not discuss the reason why. “I can confirm the search warrant,” he said. “I can’t comment on what the investigation is about.”

Anterra attorney Jim Prosser said the company is cooperating with Ventura authorities and indicated the spotlight appeared to be on actions by a previous management team, but he would not discuss details. “The investigation by the district attorney appears to be focused on a period around July 2013 when we were under prior management,” he said. “We are cooperating as requested, and brought out our IT professionals to assist in providing information.”

The company has two injection wells on a site located on unincorporated land near Oxnard. Since 2010, according to records from the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, at its main well the company injected 2,195,364 barrels of oil-field-related fluids at a depth of approximately 5,000 feet. The company is allowed to take two tanker trucks an hour for injection, but in the past three years, it has far exceeded its permitted limits of about 60,000 barrels a month, said Brian Baca, who manages commercial permitting for the county.

In a notice of violation to the company dated June 25, 2014, Baca charged, “Anterra Energy has violated the truck delivery limits [in the permit] for every month from November 2013 through March of 2014.” A “notice of noncompliance” has been recorded on the property, prohibiting the sale or refinancing of the facility, and the county has threatened the company with fines of more than $1,000 a day.

Yet Baca said that to his knowledge, the criminal investigation of Anterra is not related to the dispute over the permit. “The district attorney has not requested any information, and I have not participated in any communications on this with his office,” he said. “Our issue is the permit violation, and I don’t know of any linkage between the criminal investigation and our permit.”

Carmen Ramirez, mayor pro tem of the nearby city of Oxnard, expressed her frustration: “I don’t understand why we have an injection well in the middle of the Oxnard Plain,” she said. “We rely on groundwater for our homes and for our agriculture, and this is where we grow food for so much of the country. To be pumping unknown and potentially caustic substances into the ground here ​— ​I don’t know why we are so reckless.” Anterra has appealed the notice of violation, and the matter will be heard before a county planning board on October 23.

Here's a pic from the firm's website, showing its operations on the Oxnard Plain. 



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CA drought hits home — in Upper Ojai

Or, to be precise, the drought hits my backyard.

Yesterday the second of two enormous oak trees that have fallen in the same area in the past month came crashing down.

About a year ago an even bigger and more beloved oak in vicinity split apart and fell. Here's a basic phone pic that gives a sense of the chaos and devastation. 


Drought related you must figure. I'm still shaken. 

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Anterra violates Ventura County permit routinely: State

According to public records available at the agency known as DOGGR (Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources) the injection wells at Anterra in unincorporated land have routinely violated the amount of oil field fluids they are allowed in put into the Oxnard Plain by the county. 

The conditional use permit allows fluids from 24 tanker trucks a day, which comes to approximately 60,000 barrels a month. This graph from one of the two injection wells (#5) on the site shows that Anterra has paid little or no attention to the permit. 


That's according to the state of California.

Here's what Brian Baca, of the county's Planning Division, wrote about that in his notice of violation to the company dated June 25, 2014. 

Anterra Energy has violated the truck delivery limits established in CUP 531-1 for every month from November 2013 through March of 2014. This includes the three days in February 2014 that Anterra reported accepting between 33 and 63 trucks at the Anterra facility.

The CUP limit is 24 trucks a day. 

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Ventura County busts fracking injection well in Oxnard

From the Ventura County Star, news today of a police bust of an injection well site in Oxnard — the only site in the county that accepts fracking fluid for disposal purposes. 

OXNARD, Calif. – Investigators from the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office converged on the site of a local oil field waste company outside Oxnard on Thursday with search warrants.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Christopher Harman said investigators arrived at Anterra Corp.’s waste disposal site on East Wooley Road outside Oxnard on Thursday morning. The company’s headquarters in Santa Paula was also served, he said.

Harman said he could provide no further details about the open investigation of possible criminal violations.

Anterra officials had no prior warning of the searches and had not been interviewed by any agency before the investigators arrived, company attorney Jim Prosser said Thursday.

Prosser said he understands that investigators are looking at company activities in and around July 2013, when Anterra was under different management. He declined to say who was managing the company at that time, saying he didn’t know enough about the circumstances and the time period under investigation.

Interesting, but the timing mentioned by the corporation doesn't seem to jibe with this note from our local watchdog group, CFROG, which posted this a month ago about what sounded like an on-going dispute between the county and the corporation. 

The Ventura County planning department is alleging that in just five months, at the Anterra Waste injection wells in Oxnard , the company injected 19.2 million gallons or 457 thousand barrels or of waste into two disposal wells on East Wooley road. (42 gallons = 1 barrel) They allegedly accepted a total of 4350 tanker trucks when the CUP allows 3096. (still far too many for safety in Oxnard in our opinion.) That's 1254 trucks coming down our highways and streets in violation of the current permit according to Ventura County. Class II underground injection wells. can take any fluid related to oil and gas drilling, including fracking waste water.

Anterra is appealing the decision on some interesting grounds including claims that planning manager Brian Baca is unethical and a hearing will be held October 23rd.

For some reason the Star story today did not mention this dispute over the volumes of fluids being disposed beneath Oxnard, although you must figure it's at the root of the conflict. It's well-known among geologists that there are thresholds to be attained before seismicity becomes possible. which is why the volume of fluids can be a crucial matter. But the paper has three reporters on this, so I'm sure we haven't heard the end of it.

Was just talking today with a geophysicist at UCSB who said a new study from CalTech found "induced seismicity" — earthquakes connected to injection wells — at a handful of injection wells sites in Kern County, out of a total of 1600.  

So why worry? Right? 

But the Ventura County D.A. has issues, clearly, when they send what looks like a SWAT to collect records from a corporation. Why the urgency if they're investigating what happened a year ago?


 Follow-up from a commentator, Quiet against the Noise, in the "comm boxes" below the newspaper story, who seems to know more than all the rest of us put together. See here (or below the fold).  

21 Hours Ago
The Anterra site – a commercial Class II Injection Well – has never come under environmental review since opening for operation in 1956. 
When The Texas Company applied for and received their first CUP in Oct 1956, no environmental review was required. In Feb 1989, the facility was sold to Anadime and in June the County permitted a Class II Injection Well for disposal of its on-site oil waste. No environmental review was required. 
In Aug 1989, Anadime applied for and received a CUP with a Minor Mod allowing for their Class II Injection Well to become a "commercial facility" and receive oil waste from other operations. Anadime was exempted from any environmental review by the County of Ventura. The County of Ventura granted Anadime's CUP for a period of 20 years. 
In Nov 2001, DOGGR approved a transfer of ownership to Anterra and restatement without requiring any environmental review by the State of California. 
In Feb 2009, Anterra received County approval to convert Well #5 from production to injection. The Planning Director found the applicant's request to be categorically exempt from CEQA. 
In June 2011, Anterra was issued a Notice of Violation for exceeding truck trips along with 5 other counts. It took them nearly 2 and 1/2 years to clean up their act. Eight months later, Anterra filed a pre-submittal application with the County of Ventura for analysis of a text amendment to allow its commercial Class II injection well – currently a non-conforming use – to continue to operate under a new CUP. The Planning Director's initial review did not identify any public health, safety, or welfare concerns. 
In June 2014, Anterra was once again issued a Notice of Violation for exceeding truck trips – from 25 to 552 over the legal limit per month from Nov 2013 to March 2014 – along with other citations. Anterra has appealed and is scheduled to meet with the Planning Commission this October 23rd. 
It's time for the County of Ventura to quit playing footsies with a 60-year-old operation that receives toxic fluids just outside the Oxnard City limits, knowingly exceeds their permitted uses, and injects God knows what into wells over and/or under our deep water aquifers, which we may one day need soon to use for drinking water. 
While Planning may not recognize any public health, safety or welfare concerns, then maybe County electeds might want to take a harder look as we approach November…  
I have concerns. DO YOU? 

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Missing in India: Vultures

Of all the stories I have heard of in this year's environmental journalism convention (held in New Orleans) none dropped my jaw quite like Meera Subramanian's long-form piece in VQR India's Vanishing Vultures

I hope to quote just enough to convince you folks to read the whole thing — it's just great. And it's worth mentioning, after seeing Meera speak at a seminar on how to survive as a freelancer, how wandering her road to this success was, beginning with an obsession with peregrine falcons in New York City that she could not sell as a book, which led to a discovery about vultures, which led to a small article in an obscure religious magazine about the vultures, which led to this great VQR piece, which led to more opportunities and eventually a book about something else entirely.

But! Back to the vanishing vultures. 

At first, no one noticed they were missing.

Vultures—massive and clumsy, their naked faces buried in rotting flesh along the roadside, on the banks of the Ganges, lining the high walls and spires of every temple and tower—were once so ubiquitous in India as to be taken for granted, invisible. And something in us didn’t want to see them. 


But for all of human history, vultures served India faithfully. They scoured the countryside, clearing fields of dead cows and goats. They soared over the cities in search of road kill and picked at the scattered refuse of the region’s ever-expanding populace. For a subcontinent where religious and cultural mores restrict the handling of the dead, human and animal alike—Muslims won’t eat an animal that hasn’t been killed according to halal; Hindus won’t consume cows under any circumstances—vultures were a natural and efficient disposal system. 


Just fifteen years ago, there were at least fifty million vultures on the Indian subcontinent; today, according to Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, less than sixty thousand individuals of the three species survive in the wild—and a newly-completed Indian-sponsored census, the first in three years, is yielding even more distressing results. Several hundred long-bills still fly over the cliffs of Ranthambhore in Rajasthan, some perch high on the domed pavilions of Orchha’s cenotaphs in Madhya Pradesh, and I have seen a colony of twenty white-backs on stick nests in the crooks of trees along a hidden riverbank in Bandhavgarh, but some scientists have started calling these species “functionally extinct” and refer to their own research as “monitoring to extinction.”



I found Nikita [Prakash]’s apparent love for the birds contagious. I felt the same intimate wonder I have when watching any creature up close, but there was something else that I can only define as a pre-nostalgia, an ache for something that will soon be gone. 

Great great story. Please, even if it is three years old, please, read the whole thing

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