Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let's Talk About Flax

Let's talk about flax.  This summer, we harvested and transplanted approximately 600 flax plants into the valley where we work.  What is flax, and why do we spend so much time working with it?

New Zealand flax is actually a member of the lily family (although parts of the plant can be used for making fiber, like European flax).  Flax has extremely long, sword-shaped, stiff leaves.  These leaves grow in a fan shape, and one plant growing from one root system can send out 8, 12, or even more fans.

This is New Zealand flax, complete with flower stalks with seeds.

In the spring, the flowers of the flax are an important source of nectar for birds, as they are too deep for bees.  In fact, the flowers of the flax plant curve at the same angle as the beaks of the tui birds!  In the summer, the flax sets its seeds, which are also an important food source for birds.  It's also a great shelter for birds, snails, and other insects.  (Remember, NZ does not have native land mammals, so birds are an extremely important part of the ecosystem here.)  Flax roots do a great job of penetrating very hard soils full of clay; their roots also do a great job stabilizing erosion-prone soil.

Flax has been used for many purposes by traditional Maori society.  Known as harakeke in Maori, flax fiber has been used to make clothing, ropes, canoe lashings--even baby rattles!  Nearly every part of the flax plant also has medicinal uses.  The leaves and flower stalks are used to stabilize and treat broken bones and other wounds.  A juice made from flax root is also a great disinfectant.

In this little video, Dave talks about flax and why it's important in New Zealand ecology.


Harvesting flax is a very dirty, very tiring job.  We work in pairs; one person uses a spade to dig around the fan of flax leaves and to separate the roots of the fan from the rest of the plant, while the other person grasps the fan by the outer leaves and tugs and pulls until it comes free.  We aim to harvest 200 plants every time we go into the field; this week, it took us only 2.5 hours to gather 181 plants (practice does help!).

If we're not going to replant immediately, we dump the flax in the river so it doesn't dry out.  Then we have to pull all of it out of the river and throw it back on the trailer.  (We usually make Dave do that part.)  Planting is simple--yank out the grass, dig a hole, pop in a plant, tap down the soil, use the grass as mulch around the bare soil.  Planting in wetlands is muddy and sloppy; once you get past the dirtiness, it's actually fun.

Here's a series of portraits from our last time harvesting flax:

...complete with lucky spade!  Yeah, we're having fun!

To get the flax from the bush to the trailer, we set up a fire line and toss each plant from person to person:

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures from planting.  Imagine a spade and lots of dirt and you'll get the picture.

Yeah flax!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

River of Ice

On our way down the west coast of the South Island, Dave and I stopped at the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers.  Our hiking plans were completely thwarted by the torrential rains that had hit the area just a few days before our arrival.

That's a lot of water going under that bridge...

We did manage a quick walk up the glacial valley to the Franz Josef Glacier.

Waterfalls to rival Ithaca's cascade down the walls of the valley

Glaciers are rivers of ice...  literally.  Meters upon meters of snow will fall on the top of a steep mountain.  The weight of the constant snowfall compresses itself into sheets of ice.  The weight of the denser ice then slowly starts to slip down the mountain.  As the ice moves, it carves out grooves in the side of the mountain.  Viola!  A glacier and a glacial valley!

The massive Franz Josef glacier

Glaciers advance and retreat, meaning they move forward, away from their source (the “neve”), or backward, toward their source.  When the rate of glacier creation—snowfall in the neve—is greater than the rate that the glaciers are melting and breaking apart at their terminus, then the glacier advances.  Most glaciers around the world are retreating, but the glaciers on the west coast of the South Island are advancing.

water in three phases:  cloud, river, ice

The Franz Josef and Fox glaciers are unique because they travel from the highest mountains in the country—over 3,000 meters—to the coastal rainforest in a span of only a few kilometers.  Dave and I slept next to a beach, but we visited the Franz Josef glacier before lunch.  These glaciers also move much faster than the average glacier.  A heavy snowfall in the neve will produce an advancing glacier in about five years.  The glacier can move up to a meter a day.

the only picture in which one or both of us is not sticking out a tongue, crossing eyes, or making goblin faces

So, that's all you ever wanted to know about glaciers.  Another spectacular phenomenon of our beautiful world!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Moving South...

From Taranaki, we headed south to Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand.  I'm not much for big cities, and neither is Dave, so we spent only one day in Wellington.  Most of our time was spent at Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum.  It's one of the best museums I've ever visited.  I really enjoyed the exhibits on the geology and natural history of New Zealand.

Here are some pictures from our time in Wellington and Te Papa:

After Wellington, we took the Bluebridge ferry across the Cook Straight.  The voyage was very "meh," but the two ferry companies try to make it sound more exciting than it actually is.  It was pretty expensive to bring the van across, but since it's our transportation and our home, it was worth it.  Here are some pictures from the Cook Straight:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Taranaki: This Makes 3 Mountains in 5 Days

Back in New Plymouth at the library.  Two days ago, after sitting right here, we went to the North Egmont Visitors' Center, packed our bags, parked the van, and hiked in to the Maketawa Hut.  The New Zealand Department of Conservation maintains hundreds of backcountry huts, which are very convenient for hikers and trampers.  This was my first night in a DOC hut with my brand new, shiny backcountry hut pass.

thumbs up!  DOC hut!

At first, I wasn't sure if we'd get to climb Taranaki, due to the clouds covering the mountain.  But when we woke up in the morning, the summit was clear, so we decided to give it a try.

whoa...  that shit is STEEP

First the track takes you up a steep road to an alpine club hut.  Then it climbs through a little gorge to a series of stairs.  From the stairs, you drop out onto the scoria slopes (steep slopes covered in gravel and sand).  Last, you climb a steep, old lava flow nicknamed "The Lizard" in a long scramble to the top.  At the top, you cross an ice- and snow-covered crater to get to the true summit.  Except we didn't stand on the true summit, as it has religious significance for the Maori.

above the clouds :-)

After getting my butt handed to me by Ruapeho, I was so happy that this day went well.  The climb is steep and strenuous, but it's definitely "do-able" by mere mortals, like myself.  The hike rises 1.6 km--one vertical mile--in about 5 km (~3 miles).  I've now climbed the three major peaks on the North Island in the span of five days.

Here are the rest of the pictures from the day:

We're going to head toward Wellington later today, then on to the South Island and all of the wonderful hiking and tramping there!  I've written a few posts to automatically post over the next week or two, but maybe we'll find another public library soon.  Until then...  onwards and upwards!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Tongariro II: Who Goes To Mordor Twice?

At the moment, Dave and I are in New Plymouth, a lovely little city on the Pacific Coast near Egmont National Park and Mt. Taranaki.  We jumped into the public library to use the internet.  Here's a recap of the past few days...

About a month ago, I took an “epic” trip to Tongariro National Park with my Earthwise Valley friends (read about it here, here, here, and here).  We climbed Ngauruhoe, the conical volcano (~2200 m) that was the inspiration for Mr. Doom in Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, and part of the group climbed Ruapeho (~2700 m).  I didn't get to climb Ruapeho, and Dave didn't get to go on the trip at all, so Tongariro was the first stop on our New Zealand road trip.

Day 1, Tuesday, 4/20:  We had left Tuateawa late the previous day, so we woke up early and finished the drive to Tongariro.  After prepping our packs, we hit the trail around 11 a.m.  We took our time and enjoyed the great weather as we passed Taranaki Falls and then the Tama Lakes.

We got to the same basecamp where I had camped four weeks previous in the late afternoon.  There was plenty of time to scout out a flat tent site, sheltered from the wind, to set up the tent and sort gear, to dig a latrine hole, and to put together dinner fixins'.

The sunset wasn't as spectacular as the first sunset the last time I was there, but it was still very pretty.  Since we had arrived at the campsite so early, we were in the tent only an hour after dark (7:30 p.m.).  We stayed up talking until about 9:30 p.m, until we were able to doze off.  It was a cold and windy night.

Day 2, Wednesday, 4/21:  Summit day!

Happy Birthday, Sisser!

Today, my sister Katie turns 22.  Happy birthday, sis!  How are you already 22?  Wasn't it just yesterday that...  well, let's not go there.  :-P  I hope you have a great day with your friends down in A.C.  Do everything I wouldn't do, and then some.  *wink*  I'm looking forward to the next time we get to skype in a few weeks.  Love you!

P.S.  The only recent/ decent picture of us I had the cat in it.  *sigh*  Appropriate.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Pinnacles

On Saturday, 4/17, Dave and I took a trip down to The Pinnacles for a day hike.  Most guidebooks recommend this as an overnight trip, with the overnight happening in The Pinnacles hut, and The Pinnacles themselves as an optional (!) side trip.  (Ladies and Gentlemen, this is why I don't read guidebooks!)  The hut is sweet, though; maintained by DOC (Department of Conservation), it is complete with 80 mattresses on bunks, a full kitchen, and even (cold) showers, for a cost of NZD $25 per person per night.

On the way up, we took the Moss Creek trail.  It starts out as a wide, relatively flat trail through lush, green bush (Kiwi for "forest").  There are a few stream crossings, complete with suspension bridges:

The trail then becomes steeper, with lots and lots of rock steps.  This goes on for a few kilometers as you traversely climb a ridge.  At one point, an enormous tree trunk (kauri?) sits alongside the trail.  I think every tramper uses it as a photo op!

It took us a little over two hours to reach the hut via the Moss Creek trail, and another 45 minutes to the top of the Pinnacles.  The reward at the top was sweet:

Unfortunately, the weather worsened, as some clouds rolled in and the wind picked up.  We decided to take the Moss Creek trail straight back to the carpark.  Alternately, you could take the Billy Goat trail, which is a little longer, but has different types of scenery.  We made it back to the carpark in great time, and I regret a bit not taking the extra time to descend via the other trail.

Because of the DOC hut, the well-maintained trail, and the stairs on the moderate grades, this would be a very accessible first backpacking trip or a great trip with children.  I can see why this tramp is so popular and so highly recommended in the guidebooks...  and why the carpark was so full.  (Seriously, there was a group of ~40 Asian adult tourists all tramping together.)

My recommendations:

  • Definitely make the "optional" trip up the Pinnacles
  • Decide whether it makes sense for you and your group to stay in the hut--this can be a day trip, but if you've got the time, the hut is very nice
  • If you use them regularly, bring hiking poles
  • As always, bring a fleece and/or rain shell and sun protection
  • Start early; avoid the crowds (you'll see them heading in the other direction, leaving the hut)

Photo album here:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Our Pimped Ride

This week, Dave and I were dog-sitting as we prepared for our six week road trip across the North and South Islands of New Zealand.  The dogs, Evee and Ninya, are New Zealand Huntaways.  They're two of the most awesome dogs I've ever encountered!

"you can't say no to me!"

Starting tomorrow morning, we will be living out of a van, so this week we took a few days to build an awesome platform bed into the back of the vehicle.

Under the bed, there is space for our clothes and personal items; hiking and camping gear; and a nearly-fully outfitted kitchen (cooler, propane range, and pantry box).

All pimped out and ready to ride!  But Evee and Ninya are wondering where we are going, and whether they will come along...

So, until June 1, my updates will be irregular.  I've written a few blog posts that will automatically post themselves over the course of the next few weeks, so I don't feel any obligation to find internet.  Although I will probably pop into a library or internet cafe to check email and post a few pictures a few times, I'm looking forward to an unplugged existence.

Until June...  onwards and upwards!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Summer 2010 Slideshow

Over the past few days, I put together a little compilation of the best photos from the summer 2010 earthwise valley residential conservation volunteer program.

It's 50% pictures, 10% captions, and 100% feel-good cheesiness.  Bring on the crackers and wine; you're in for a show!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Orange Goodness Lentil Loaf with Sweet Beet Sauce

Orange Goodness Lentil Loaf
i made this recipe up, combining lots of lovely orange colored ingredients.
makes 2 loaves, serving 6 hungry gnomes and 2 hungry ogres
  • 3 onions
  • 5 cloves garlic
  • olive oil
  • 3 large carrots, shredded
  • 2 medium kumara or yams, shredded
  • 3 cups red lentils
  • 4 cups water
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 c. + 1/4 c. breadcrumbs
  • dill, coriander, mixed herbs, salt, pepper
Saute the onions for a few minutes in olive oil, then add the garlic.  When the onions are translucent, add the carrots and kumara/ yams and cook covered for ~10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the veggies start to wilt.  Add lentils, water, and spices; bring to a boil; then reduce to a simmer.  Stir occasionally to mix the lentils into the veggies and cook until the water is absorbed and the lentils are soft and falling apart.  Mix 1/4 c. bread crumbs and 2 beaten eggs into the veggie mix, spoon into 2 greased loaf pans, and bake at 175 C/ 350 F for ~30 minutes.

Sweet Beet Sauce
in a fit of culinary inspiration, i threw together this sweet beet sauce to accompany the lentil loaves.  this made just enough for 8 hungry gnomes and ogres.
  • 1 can beetroot
  • 1-2 tsp. white vinegar
  • 2 tbs. tomato puree, paste, or ketchup
  • allspice, garlic powder, chili powder
Blend all ingredients until smooth. Serve chilled or warm.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Next Chapter

Today the other summer 2010 residents are catching a ferry out of Coromandel to Auckland.

summer 2010 residents at the gate of the valley
from left to right:  laura (nyc), hannah (yorkshire england), dave (upstate ny), nicole (upstate ny), john (georgia), bexie (minnesota via ecuador), daniela (mexico)

Two days before everyone left, we played a silly little series of games.  Two of the very creative residents came up with an obstacle course (incorporating activities we do frequently: hand sawing wood, mulching, eating watermelon, etc.), a scavenger hunt, egg toss, frisbee target shoot, and a blindfolded dizzy walk.  Hilarious and a lot of fun.

I can't believe that I've been in New Zealand for seven weeks--the time has gone by so quickly!  Overall, it's been a positive experience.  I've definitely learned some stuff...  stream of consciousness begins, Nico-style (with bullet points, haha!)...
  • kitchen stuff:

    • making non-loaf breads by hand (pita bread perfection, tortillas)
    • first time making a quiche
    • working with beets (they're so great; how did I not know about them?!)
    • working with eggplant (likewise!)
    • baking and cooking without a recipe (definitely not new) but with a general idea of what I want the end product to be (definitely new!)
  • construction:

    • design (especially the composting toilet project)
    • intermediate carpentry
    • first time doing any sort of masonry
    • earth/ mud construction (earth oven)
  • backpacking:

    • new backcountry recipes (i.e. vermicelli with dried tofu, seaweed, shitake, peas, and soup mix)
    • very lightweight entertainment (yahtzee and iPod--never used either in the backcountry before!)
    • more experience hiking on very unstable scree
  • philosophy:

    • general thoughts and specific details on how I want to live my life back home in Upstate New York
    • remembering why I left in the first place--to find out what's really important--making small steps in that direction
    • more observations about people, animals and the earth, and the general nature of things
may all of your storms end with rainbows :-)

Believe it or not, it took me a few weeks to get accustomed to not going to an office every day, not being constantly stressed out, not eating processed foods, not staying up late, not sleeping inside, and all of the other maybe-not-so-positive-but-not-bad-enough-to-kill-you things I used to do to myself.  I don't feel like I was totally awake over the past seven weeks.  Even though I haven't left yet, I'm really eager to come back to Tuateawa to realize my full potential here during June and beyond.

Dave and I are sticking around for another week while the program admin is out of town to watch the dogs. I never used to like dogs, but I really like Evie and Ninya, and I can't wait to play with them all week!

We'll be setting up the van to be our temporary home for the next five weeks.  Who knows where we'll end up during April and May!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Earthwise Valley Pancakes

pancakes from food team b's last cooking day
  • 2 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons raw sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups cow/ soy/ rice milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons butter, melted
Mix together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and sugar.  In a separate bowl, melt butter, then beat in eggs and milk.  Pour wet ingredients into dry ingredients and mix until barely blended (there should be small pockets of dry ingredient in the batter).  Drop ~1/4 cup of batter onto a hot, greased pan over medium heat.  When the edges of the pancake start to look dry, flip over.  Keep pancakes warm until ready to eat.  Serve with butter and blackberry sauce.

Makes about 16 pancakes, serving six gnomes and two ogres.

Tongariro: Part IV

Laura, one of the women who lives and works here, made an awesome video of the sunset and moon rising that we enjoyed on our first night at the feet of Ngauruhoe.

Totally awesome video set to a really sweet song...  great work, Laura!  Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Kiwi House

On the way home from Tongariro, we stopped at the Otorohanga Kiwi House to view live kiwis and other native New Zealand bird and animal species.

They keep their kiwi birds in little habitats, and they allow visitors to view their feeding times.  We arrived just in time for the kiwis' 1:30 p.m. meal.  Since kiwis are nocturnal, they keep the habitat light during the night to simulate day, and then put on very dim lights for a few hours during the day to simulate moonlight.

Kiwis are the most ridiculous birds.  First, they can't fly.  They look like little wingless dumplings.  They have incredibly strong legs and feet, which they use for digging, scratching, and fighting.  Instead of a reasonable beak shaped like a hook or a bill or maybe a triangular cone, they have two chopsticks stuck into the front of their faces.  Even stranger, they have little nostrils at the end of their bills, instead of at the top near their faces.  They use their chopstick bills to probe into the leaf litter, snuffling around for insects and worms.

Stuffed (dead) kiwi bird from the visitors' center...  the kiwi house didn't allow photography of their kiwis.

And how do they move?  Let me share a brief, ridiculous example.  You can't make this stuff up.

In addition to the kiwis, the place had numerous other species, the majority of which were birds (New Zealand doesn't have any native land animals).

Putangitangi, the sheldrake duck.  This little guy was wandering around like he owned the place.

The pukeko, another of New Zealand's ridiculous flightless birds.

The kaka parrot.  We have a flock of kaka living in the forest next to our house in Tuateawa.  They have a very distinctive, croaking scream.

There were also a few tuatara and some geckos and skinks.  Even though the tuatara looks like a lizard, it's actually a completely different type of animal, from the order Sphenodontia.  In fact, the two species of tuatara are the only surviving members of this order, which flourished at the time of the dinosaurs!

I'm very special.  Also, my eyes look evil.

On the one hand, I was really happy that we stopped at the kiwi house.  I'm sure I never would have encountered a kiwi in the wild, much less a tuatara or some of the rare ducks.  I think that establishments like the kiwi house help foster an attachment to rare animals that you can't get without actually being in the presence of something incredibly alive and incredibly rare.

Having said that, the less rare but far more memorable, sexy, and flashy kiwi birds generated considerably more interest in the American, German, and Kiwi tourists than some of the far more rare ducks and birds elsewhere in the exhibit.  Is this just another tourist trap, albeit in a feel-good form?

Also, I was unclear of the origins of the animals.  I think (or I would like to believe) that all of them live in captivity because they can't survive in the wild, for whatever reason.  Still, it makes me a little sick to my stomach to see wild animals in cages.

I took this picture of a harrier through the mesh of his enclosure.

I went to take another picture, and my camera auto-focused on the bars.

How appropriate?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Tongariro: Part III

Day 4:  Time to pack out.  The weather wasn't great; for the first part of the hike, we moved through a cloud.  Then it rained on us.  Pretty cold, too.  This is about what it looked like:

Once we got back to Whakapapa Village, Ogre suggested that, instead of continuing the day with repacking and another two hour hike to the Alpine Club hut on Ruapehu (the second mountain we were to climb), we might stay in a backpackers (hostel) for the evening.  The group readily took up his suggestion.  I was less than keen, since I felt very strong and had tons of energy.  In the end, I slept in a tent on the grass next to the backpackers as a compromise.

Day 5:  We woke up late and spent a while discussing whether it was worth it to make a summit attempt on Ruapehu, since it didn't look like the weather was going to cooperate.  Clouds were forming around the summit, threatening not only to kill the views, but also to make the climbing pretty miserable.  In the end, five of the seven of us decided to head up to the Alpine Club hut, halfway up the mountain, and wait to see if the weather would break.

The hut was really sweet.  It had running water, electricity, a full kitchen, and even heaters that worked on a timer!

We had lunch and hung around, waiting for the weather to clear up or get worse.  As we were waiting, my stomach started bothering me.  When Ogre gave the signal that we were going to leave, I decided at the very last minute that it would be unwise to head out onto a mountain knowing beforehand that my body might not be up to the challenge.

Huge bummer--in the end, the group ended up getting above the clouds and made it to the top (although not the true summit, which was another two hours round trip from their top-out point).  Apparently the views were stunning.  I was super bummed when they got back to the hut, cheeks rosy, smiles huge.

Day 6:  On the last day, we packed out and picked up the rest of our group at the backpackers.  I still wasn't feeling great, but I felt better as the day went along.  We stopped at a "kiwi house," where birds are reared in captivity and/or rescued, injured, from the wild.  We also stopped at Burger Fuel, which might have the best restaurant veggie burger I've ever had, period.  We got home around 8:00 p.m. and enjoyed a spa bath in our backyard to celebrate the great adventure.

In conclusion, it was a good trip.  The first half was definitely better than the second.  I felt really strong; even though the hike was challenging, there were never any moments when I wondered if I was going to make it.  In some ways, it was easier and more enjoyable than some of the Adirondacks weekends I've had!  The second half was definitely a bummer...  but I'll be back for Ruapehu, for sure!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tongariro: Part II

Day 3:  Summit day.  We got up relatively late, packed our day packs, and set out.  Ngauruhoe is basically a huge pile of large rocks, small rocks, gravel, pebbles, and dust.  The beginning part of the climb was pretty enjoyable.

Later parts of the climb were more strenuous.  The gravel was so soft and footing so unstable that sometimes it was literally "one step forward, slide one step back."  I let my Jersey upbringing shine through with more curse words than I think I've said in the past month.  We took plenty of breaks, and I found the climbing to be tough, but not too bad.

And holy guacamole, were we rewarded with a view!

Mt. Ruapehu, with the Upper and Lower Tama Lakes in the foreground.  View from the rim of the outer crater of Ngauruhoe.

After climbing to the rim of the crater, we actually climbed down into the crater to see what we could see.  In one place, we found a geothermal vent spewing steam into the cold, dry, windy alpine air.  We could see John, from our party, over on the other side of the outer rim (that's him, the little black speck, in the picture below).

Finally we got to the grand finale:  the inner crater.  The Fires of Mordor, if you're a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies.  So here I am, looking way too freaking happy.  I must have stolen The Ring or something.

On the way out of the crater, I made sure I hit the true summit.  Proof:

You can't imagine how windy it was as I was taking that picture.  I nearly had Pippi Longstocking braids, sticking straight out from my head!

The hike down was more slide than hike.  I managed a significant portion of the descent on my behind to keep my center of gravity low and to protect my knees as best I could.  I didn't find the climb or the descent too bad, which was reassuring, since I haven't done much hiking or climbing lately.  When I got back to our base camp, I realized that the mountain had left her mark on both my pants and Laura's pants:

It's gonna suck to sew that up.

Some of our party had a pretty rough trip up and down the mountain, so we played some Yahtzee in our tent to pass the time until bed and to cheer everyone up.  It was a lot of fun.  And that was summit day.

P.S.  One more mountain to go!