Women and Dirt

to Eustis_162A dozen years ago, a great soil survey project leader and I had a joke.  If a woman collected rocks at 3, refused to come inside out of the rain, and loved mud pies, she had the makings of a soil scientist.  When I first traveled into the world of soil survey in the 70’s, women soil scientists were rare. Times have changed, and more than half of the young soil scientists in the field are now women.

AlisonI had the pleasure of working with one of these dirt loving young women when I managed my last project in the foothills of California.  Of course, we insiders know that “dirt” and “soil” are two very different things, but sometimes insiders lovingly refer to our particular specialty as dirty.  AKA, the bumper sticker that says “Do It In The Dirt” and other such silliness.

scoopy 2008Alison came to me by way of Chicago, detailing to California to map soils when we were bringing people in from all over the country to help complete soil survey in areas as yet unmapped.  Most of the eastern and central parts of the country have existing soil maps, but out west there are many areas with no certified soil information available.  Alison came with enthusiasm and energy and brought a great work ethic to Sonora.  Her nickname was “Scoopy”, since not one of us could dig a hole as fast as Alison, guys included!  Of course, the fact that she has run 10 marathons (including the Boston Marathon twice) probably helps. 

walking the sinkhole with AlisonWhy am I talking about Alison on the travel blog? Because visiting in Florida gives me a chance to spend a day hanging with a fellow soil scientist who has also become a good friend.  Alison left Chicago and took a well deserved promotion to Florida and loves it. With a project office in Tavares, a beautiful new home in Eustis, near the charming town of Mt Dora, and a life filled with year round running routes, Alison is happy.  Her husband Matt has settled in as well, teaching marimba and music from their home, although he does mourn the loss of easy access to university culture.

more roads with no carsWith 8 days available for Bel I didn’t feel badly about taking a day on my own to drive south for a visit.  Once again the open space of the roads around Ocala amazed me.  Traveling east on 40 and then turning south on 19 led me through the Ocala National Forest and miles of traffic free highway.  I passed Juniper Springs and Alexander Springs, remembering stories from Karen and Al’s blog about their camping sites in this part of Florida and day dreaming once again of the time when I will be here with Mo and the MoHo and the kayaks.

along the highway to Mt DoraIt was wonderful seeing Alison, laughing about some of our shared soil survey stories, catching up on good inside gossip about fellow crew members and work in general  as we walked around her favorite little sinkhole close to her home. The area has been fenced and protected and has a great trail around the ravine through some lovely habitats. Why we were walking enjoying the warm breezes, Alison came up with a line that I loved.  “People say we don’t have mountains in Florida, but we do…they are just up in the sky.”  She said that watching the huge cumulus clouds build in the afternoons always gives her the chance to look up and appreciate the scenery.

to Eustis_151Matt joined us for a drive to Mt Dora for lunch at the little French restaurant with a lovely patio and live music.  Mt Dora is a storybook town, with surprising hills surrounding several lovely lakes lined with beautiful homes.  Just down the road from the main part of town is the lakefront and boardwalk giving us another wonderful walk through the woods with views of the water. I still am trying to take photos of “velvet air” to no avail.  I think a real photo challenge is getting a picture that evokes that feeling.  Still haven’t managed it, but I keep trying.

to Eustis_129Mt Dora was quite busy on this Sunday afternoon, with many people shopping the cute shops and stores.  The Christmas music was piped outside with strains of “White Christmas” serenading the 80 degree balmy weather.  Floridians really get into the Christmas thing, and the decorations are everywhere.  Must to Eustis_184be all those retired New Englander’s missing their homeland, but not enough to actually go back and weather the awful winters. I found a perfect Christmas flag that has eluded me, a sturdy applique two sided flag with good colors.  Even an internet search didn’t yield anything I wanted.  I will hang it in the snow at Rocky Point and remember this warm, delightful afternoon in Mt Dora.

Around the neighborhood-15Bel is doing well, medications are current, her health has improved a bit with the help of “Heart of Florida” in Ocala, and I had a chance to meet her neighbors and exchange contact information. Bel’s laptop is running well and she is getting used to using the mouse and Windows 7.  She now knows how to get online, either in her back yard with a local internet from an agreeable neighbor, or a couple of miles away at Wendy’s.

to Eustis_170By the way, Wendy’s is a really great connection spot, none of that interface stuff that happens at McDonalds, and a really fast connection. I have learned to search out a Wendy’s when I need to get online and don’t want any hassles.  Wish I had a connection that fast at home!

I talk to Mo every day, and home has been uneventful.  The night temps are in the teens with daytime highs in the low 40’s at best.  I have enjoyed the break, the warmth, the sunshine, but I am ready to get back home to my real life.  Time to haul wood, hug the dog and the cat, hang the flag, have cable TV and an internet connection again, and work in my home office in my pajamas. 

Helicopter mapping in Hells Canyon

so wildRecently Laurie and Odel, of Semi-True Tales of our Life on the Road, have been staying in Joseph, Oregon. Like so many others, I love Laurie’s blog; wonderful writing, beautiful photos, great humor and always interesting. Laurie’s blog was the only one I followed for several years before I had any clue there was such a thing as an RV blogging community.  Last August, when we met in Minot, Laurie brought me up to speed on RV blogging in general, introducing me virtually to Rick and Al and many others. But I digress.

Laurie posted a photo of the Hells Canyon overlook that instantly brought back some amazing memories.  Last October I wrote about what it meant to be a soil scientist, mapping soils in the field.  If you weren’t around for that post, and are interested, you can read it here. Another little side note here, all these photos are scanned from my old scratchy original prints and I haven’t really had time to get them all clean and shiny. ( As usual, you can still click over the photo to enlarge it if you choose.)

so wild, but still a road along the Snake River in this part of the canyonMapping soils in the wilderness of Hells Canyon was one of the highlights of my career. At that time, GIS (Geographic Information Systems, a fancy name for maps on a computer) was just a budding science, and our crew was part of a pilot project using digital imagery and digital elevation data to evaluate landscapes.  It was called the Soil Landscape Evaluation Project, SLAP.  To the current generation of mapping soil scientists, this stuff is old hat, and Digital Soil Mapping is the way of the future.  In the mid 80’s however, we still used aerial photographs and a stereoscope to make soil maps. 

For the Hells Canyon project, however, we had several hundred thousand inaccessible acres to cover in the most efficient manner possible.  With the cost of the helicopter and the pilot, we had to make our choices count.  We used the SLAP project methodology to determine the sample pit locations by evaluating the slope, the aspect, the vegetation patterns, and with the geology and climate maps we determined positions that would best represent what was most typical for that particular set of parameters, since how soils form is directly related to those variations in climate, vegetation, geology, and landform.

My tent is a bit aflying into the base camp on Wapshilla Ridge my tent is over by the tree on the leftpart from the guys on the left side of the photo by the tree.

Then the real work began.  I worked at that time with a crew of six, of course I was the only woman on the crew, since soil mapping in those days was usually done by men. Some of the men I worked on this project with are still pretty important in the world of soil survey.  Pete Biggam is now the lead soil scientist for the National Park Service, Tom Hahn is the MLRA Leader in Colorado, and Mark Keller has retired after a wonderful career mapping soils in the west.

If you look very closely, you can see our camp on the upper right Base camp on Wapshilla Ridge Hells Canyonside of the ridge next to the trees.

At that time, the soil survey office for Lewis-Nez Perce soil survey was in Lewiston, Idaho, and I still remember the excitement of loading up the trucks with all our camping gear and food for the duration and heading south into the wilderness as far we we could go on a rough dirt road.  Our campsite was on a high, flat ridge overlooking the wild canyon, broad enough for the helicopter to land and for us to set up a base camp.

With a huge campfire and a great supper we settled in to the dark night anticipating the days ahead with excitement.  During that time period, soil survey in the west was well funded, and several crews were using helicopters for access, but it still wasn’t something that was very common.

Sunrise from our ridgetop camp was always gorgeous.sunrise from camp

Our days were long, up at sunrise with a good breakfast over the fire, we would then suit up in our flight suits, load up our maps, aerial photos, shovels and description kits, and pile into the helicopter. Even though I tend to get seasick, I was never bothered in the helicopter.  The pilot was an old Viet Nam vet who owned the copter company in Lewiston and was a great guy.  I rode in the navigation seat, locating our predetermined sites, with my mapping partner in the back seat.  The pilot would land that copter on one runner on a rocky ridge, hovering as we bailed out with all our gear.  There were three crews of two people each, and he would drop each pair to a site and then spent the day leap frogging from site to site. 

the copter2Our job was to get full soil descriptions in the hour that we had before the copter returned.  The two of us hiked down opposite sides of the mountain, dug a pit as deep as the soil required, and described our soil.  Lucky for us, the soils in the canyons were usually less than the five feet deep required for a full description and we would get stopped by hard bedrock ranging from a foot to 3 feet deep.  We would then climb back up with our tools and soil sample boxes, packs and shovels and be ready as the helicopter approached  and hovered and we climbed back inside.

steep canyonI’ll never forget the engulfing silence of the canyon as the copter left and I hiked down to my pit location.  I remember sitting silent and still as an unwary coyote trotted past me sitting by my pit, oblivious to the idea that there could be a human in this wild place.  We did ten to twelve sites a day, and by the time evening rolled around we were all pretty much exhausted.

Of course, we had only limited water on our high ridge, but the pilot took great care of us.  In the late afternoon light, he would drop us into a sandy beach on the Snake River and we would all swim and laugh and cool off before he took us back to our high ridge for another night of canned beans and a big campfire.

This is one of my favorite favorite photo of Petephotos of Pete. Great Legs!

down to the riverThroughout my career, I had the opportunity to map in many wild places, but Hells Canyon was the wildest, the most magical and remote and something I will never forget.

At the time, I was also a wife and mother, in my 40’s, and my husband was the long-suffering spouse who managed the farm and teenagers until I would come home on the weekends. 

It was always fun when he picked me up on Friday nights after my week in the wilderness.  He would meet me with a bouquet of flowers when things were especially bad.  The time my daughter broke her leg getting thrown off her horse was the Friday night that I got the biggest bouquet.  There weren’t cell phones or internet at the time, so I was inaccessible for a week at a time.  I still remember him saying, “OK, what do you want first, the good or the bad?”  The good was often an especially big load of peas on the vines, and the bad was often related to whatever craziness the teenager would get into.  Good days, all of them.  cool water

Just thought it might be fun to share.  Thanks for reminding me, Laurie.