Not a photo but a painting by Loren Eakins for this Friday

I met Loren a few years back in an entomology class and right away I knew he was an interesting guy.  I remember despite being in a science class he had aspirations of being a professional natural history artist and looking at his work, one cannot help be impressed.  Since that class he’s finished a degree in biology and travelled a bit.  Loren spent a year at Yanayacu Biological Station & Center for Creative Studies in Ecuador’s cloud forest.  While in Ecuador Loren also climbed some impressive mountains including Chimborazo, Cotopaxi and Sumaco.  He’s also done a description illustration for a new species of plant and done work surveying rare plants and raptors.  Right now Loren is somewhere at sea in Alaska working as a fisheries observer.  Loren is a great mix of outdoor adventurer, scientist and artist.  I’m posting a painting he did of a Golofa Beetle, a genus of rhinoceros beetle.  Enjoy!  To see more of Loren’s work visit his portfolio website or facebook page.

golofa-beetle-loren-eakins

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Inhuman laughter in the dark

Somewhere in Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold talked of a woman he knew who’d never heard migrating geese passing over her well insulated roof.  The point Aldo was trying to make was one about awareness of our environment and how we often train ourselves (often through formal education) to be aware of only those things that are human and often in this age, things that are technological.

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This is a type of training that can easily be overcome.  No one is born ignorant of the small non-human sounds and sights all around us.  Taking notice of ants or birds, a spider weaving its web in the doorway is the most natural thing.  Children notice other animals (and plants) readily and easily while an adult’s more trained eye might slide over some magical critter without notice.

Sometimes part of the world reaches out and grabs our attention without any effort on our part.  There are sights or sounds that are so eerie or intriguing they immediately fix our attention.

Years ago I visited Tasmania for a month and a half mostly just to see the island but also to spend a month WWOOFing on a farm and experience a different way of living.  When the sun was dipping low over the forests of towering Eucalypts and delicate tree ferns a bizarre laughter drifted through the lonely corridors of trees.  The laughter was the call of the laughing Kookaburra, a bird not native to Tasmania but introduced from mainland Australia.  In the morning I often woke to the sounds of loud flocks of cockatoos.

I blogged before about the buzzing sound that woke Erin and I late at night in the lodge we were managing in Ecuador.  At first we thought of rattle snakes, the sound was similar and the just wakened mind tries to grasp something familiar, however unlikely.  It turned out that only a giant cockroach had flown in through our windows and was trapped on its back, buzzing in an effort to right itself.  I released the creature onto our front porch without taking more from it than its photo.

Giant Cockroach in Ecuador

Giant Cockroach in Ecuador

 

Lately we’ve been living in a camper in Rapid City South Dakota.  A camper isn’t a tent in the woods or even a lodge without electricity or glass in its windows but the walls are thinner than average house walls.   The ’61 Shasta Compact we’re living in is definitely small enough to encourage us to go outside whenever we can.  So I feel we notice more of the surroundings than people living in the houses around us.  Several times morning and night we’ve watched owls in the trees of the neighborhood and only once have we seen anyone else outside watching.  There was one particular night where we woke up to what sounded like laughter outside, a pretty creepy experience.  The laughter started again, just a laugh by itself, no words or anything else; a maniacal, sinister sounding laugh I thought.  Going outside we discovered another owl laughing down at us from a tree.  For all I know the owl had its own sinister intentions but I’m not accustomed to fearing owls.  I’m grateful for those times I’ve been surprised by the sounds of other creatures in the night.  It’s worth a little sleep to be reminded humans aren’t alone on this planet.                   

 

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A guest post from Jamesmforrest.com

WALKING THE OVERLAND TRACK IN TASMANIA, AUSTRALIA

Walking the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia

Wilderness, wildlife and walking: a review of the Overland Track in Tasmania, Australia

Snake Encounter

I am a walker on edge. Poisonous snakes, aggressive ants and blood-sucking leeches live in this Tasmanian wilderness. My nervous mind is playing tricks on me, transforming every stick and root into a deadly tiger snake.I don’t dare place my hand on a rock for fear of a leech gorging on my blood or a jack jumper ant striking with its painful pincers. Every slight noise makes me turn around in a panic, expecting to find a snarling Tasmanian devil or scavenging possum. Fallen tree trunks morph into hungry Tasmanian tigers, even though I know the species was hunted to extinction by 1936. Hiking in England (my home) has never seemed so danger-free as I tentatively take my first few steps into this place of strange, scary creatures.

I’m taking on the Overland Track, an 80km hike through the heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. The rugged, glaciated landscape of mountains, lakes, rainforests, waterfalls, moorlands and alpine heath has a reputation as one of Australia’s best walks. It is billed by Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service as an “extraordinary journey” that is “life-changing”.

Bennett's Wallaby reflection on the Overland Track in Tasmania

Bennett’s Wallaby reflection on the Overland Track in Tasmania

During the first few kilometres I find myself just hoping it isn’t life-ending. Fast forward to day six and I’m still alive – and haven’t even seen a snake. This is the home straight along the shores of a glistening Lake St Clair. The sun is beaming in a cloudless sky, its rays penetrating the canopy and illuminating the mosses and lichens of the ancient rainforest.  Damp, spongy earth feels soft beneath my boots, as I blissfully put one foot in front of the other and daydream about the hot shower and cold beer waiting at the finish line.

I turn a corner and immediately snap out of my fantasy, freezing on the track like a rabbit in the headlights. A jet black tiger snake is five feet away. It slithers forward momentarily and then stops, staring at me with its piercing eyes. “Oh God, I’m going to die.” I frantically try to remember the safety advice I’ve read. Tiger snakes – as well as Tasmania’s other two species, the white-lipped snake and copperhead – are highly venomous. Their bites can kill but they rarely attack unless provoked or stepped upon and in general dash for cover as soon as a walker’s footsteps are heard. Read about snake bite safety on the Overland Track here

Tiger snake on the Overland Track in Tasmania

My scary encounter with a tiger snake in Tasmania

I stand my ground. My heart is pounding. A bead of sweat runs down my face. I’ve been scared of snakes since childhood and this encounter is making my skin crawl. And then, well, an anti-climax of sorts. No confrontation or drama. It ends so simply. The tiger snake slithers away peacefully into the dense green of the myrtle beech rainforest next to the lake and, to my surprise, I find the sight more awe-inspiring than repulsive. It is a momentary glimpse of everything that is magnificent about the Overland Track – jaw-droppingly beautiful landscapes, majestic creatures and varied flora – and a fitting end to my Tasmanian hiking adventure. I realise too that I am the interloper. The snake hasn’t rudely interrupted my walk. Instead I’ve intruded on its sunbathing. This, after all, is a stunning wilderness, a place of nature not humans – and hikers like me are just lucky to be able to gatecrash the party.

Hiking the Overland Track in Tasmania

Boardwalks guide the way on the Overland Track in Tasmania

Terrible Weather

Rewind a week though and my six-day walk gets off to a stuttering start. I take a free shuttle bus from Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre to Ronny Creek, where a grand sign – tailor-made for a pre-trek selfie – marks the beginning of the famous track. But I don’t stop for a snap. The weather is atrocious. Driving rain and howling winds batter me as I climb the steepest and one of the most exposed sections of the whole walk to Marions Lookout. I can’t even see the iconic summit of Cradle Mountain, which is shrouded in clouds, and to make things worse my backpack feels like it is full of bricks. In fact it is crammed full of instant noodles, pasta, sugary snacks and a myriad of camping accessories – everything I need to survive for the next week and, annoyingly, more than enough to make my back ache like hell. “Ugh, this is miserable”, I say aloud, but I struggle on and make it – drenched and down-hearted – to Waterfall Valley Hut, my home for the night.

Meeting Other Hikers

Day two is similarly wet and overcast so I decide to hike a double leg, skipping a night at Windermere Hut and instead pressing on to Pelion Hut. The walking is uneventful and forgettable and I find myself feeling a little underwhelmed by the Overland Track so far. The night at Pelion however turns things around. It is buzzing with life. Stories and jokes are shared. Encouragement is given to those feeling weary. Bags of sweets are passed around. An informal black market is thriving – a spoonful of Nutella is swapped for a bowl of leftover fried rice, a plaster exchanged for some loo roll.

Mt Oakleigh on the Overland Track, Tasmania

Hikers resting with a view of Mt Oakleigh

There is a real sense of community – everyone is in this together and looking out for each other. It is a disparate group – three Israeli guys, a couple from Taiwan, a Swiss backpacker, solo female hikers from Germany and Japan, and a good dose of Australian mainlanders over for a Tasmanian trekking holiday – yet we’re all getting on brilliantly. This isn’t usually my cup of tea. I like to escape the crowds and be alone in the wild. But the social aspect of the Overland Track is intoxicating and – as we get to know each other better – it becomes a special part of the experience. I can now see why Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service so proudly boasts that 8,000 people from 50 countries hike the trail each year.

Pelion Hut on the Overland Track, Tasmania

Pelion Hut on the Overland Track, Tasmania

“I feel like the King of Tasmania” – Climbing Mt Pelion East 

I wake rejuvenated. The clouds have lifted, the rain has disappeared and the skies are turning blue. Day three will be all about the mountains. It takes about two hours to ascend to the Pelion Gap saddle where, in a moment of sheer joy, I ditch my heavy backpack in favour of a day sack. Feeling weightless I bound up Mt Pelion East, a 1,433m peak with a striking summit. Dolerite columns rise vertically out of the mountain like a lost city perched impossibly and grandly at the highest vantage point. I haul myself up a steep track and scramble over huge boulders before finally standing atop the protruding rock that has reached just high enough to claim the prestige of being the summit. I feel like the King of Tasmania. No-one else is on this mountain. It is mine. I can see for miles in all directions and survey my realm. It is one of those moments – and they don’t happen very often – when I just laugh out loud spontaneously for the sheer awesomeness of where I am and what I’m doing.

The Roof of Tasmania – Mt Ossa

Back at the col I throw away any chance of an early hut arrival and decide to head up Mt Ossa, despite the grey clouds circling ominously around the 1,617m summit. After all, when will I next have a chance to stand atop the roof of Tasmania? I steadily climb past Mt Doris, boulder hop through an opening between sheer cliffs – a natural gateway to this island’s highest mountain – and emerge on a rocky plateau. It is a short scramble to the top and I make it in perfect timing. A break in the clouds suddenly reveals the surrounding wilderness to me. It feels like the unveiling of a lost world, a portal into a forgotten time, a secret the Overland Track has chosen to share only with me. I whisper “thank you” under my breath to the mountain Gods, as the clouds roll over once again.

Wonderful Wildlife

Day four’s 9.6km hike to Bert Nichols Hut – plus pleasant side trips to Hartnett, D’Alton and Fergusson waterfalls – is memorable for the wildlife encounters, both good and bad. I watch a short-beaked echidna – a hedgehog-like mammal – rummage around the vegetation and I laugh as a common wombat walks across the track a few feet in front of me, barely registering my presence. Skinks scurry in every direction as I plod along the boardwalks and a wallaby hops by the track, giving me a quizzical look. A common brushtail possum noisily sniffs around for food scraps at the hut, eager for any opportunity to raid an unguarded bag for cereal bars. A squirming leech almost lunches on my forearm before I hastily flick it away and I nearly place my hand on a gravelly nest inhabited by blue-black-coloured jack jumper ants. Despite my status as a nervous Englishman with a phobia of Australia’s deadly fauna, the wildlife is a unique, fantastic part of the Overland Track. I’m just sad that I don’t see any rare Tasmanian devils, whose numbers are tragically being ravaged by a facial tumour disease. Check out my top 7 Overland Track wildlife encounters here.

Bennett's Wallaby on the Overland Track in Tasmania

Spotting a Bennett’s Wallaby on the Overland Track in Tasmania

More Adventure on The Acropolis

On day five I awake in the mood for a bit more adventure, rather than a simple descent to the finish line. I opt to head for Pine Valley Hut, which is technically off the Overland Track, and use it as a base to climb the enticing, towering pinnacles of The Acropolis. The walk takes about two hours as I ascend a path of a million slippery tree roots before a hands-on-rock scramble to the 1,481m summit. Standing on top of the mountain I look across the valleys, plains, grasslands, rivers, rainforests, distinctive eucalyptus woodlands and dramatic peaks.

“A rugged, remote, precious landscape”

There is no sign of human life here – no roads, no villages, no farmhouses, just the boardwalks snaking ever onward.It is a rugged, remote, precious landscape in front of me. I think of the Aboriginal people who called the area home for thousands of years and made a living off the land. Their wilderness is still untouched and glorious. I hope it stays that way for another thousand years.

Tips and Advice

How to get there?

Flights are readily available to Launceston, Devonport, Hobart and Burnie (Wynyard) in Tasmania, connecting via Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane in mainland Australia. Bus and coach transport to Cradle Mountain Visitor Centre and from Lake St Clair is available through a variety of providers including Tassielink and McDermott’s Coaches. Booking in advance is advised. Long-term parking is also available at both Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair.

When to go?

Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service states more stable and warmer weather patterns occur from November to April, explaining that winter walking should only be attempted by very experienced bushwalkers. It adds that “every season offers something unique”. In spring from September to November expect rain and new growth while summer from December to February brings longer daylight hours and warmer weather, but more people. Autumn from March to May welcomes some crisp, clear days, as well as an increased chance of rain and wind.

Where to stay?

A network of huts is in place along the Overland Track, providing basic shelter. A typical hut has wooden sleeping bunks for about 20 people (often in one room), a table, bench seats, a gas or coal heater, rainwater tank and nearby composting toilet. There are no mattresses, cooking facilities, sinks, toilet paper or resident chefs. Space in the huts is offered on a first-come first-served basis, but wooden platform camping sites are available next to each hut. There is no additional cost to stay in the huts or on the campsites. More luxurious private huts with hot showers are exclusively open to walkers on a guided tour with commercial operator Cradle Mountain Huts. A broader range of accommodation options such as cabins and hotels are available at the start and end of the track.

How long does it take?

For most people the walk takes six or seven days. The total distance covered can be reduced from 80km to 62.5km by taking a ferry from Narcissus Hut to the Lake St Clair Visitor Centre at Cynthia Bay. Walkers do not need to follow a set itinerary and can choose to walk the track as slowly or quickly as they want. Numerous optional side-trips are available during each day’s walk.

How much does it cost?

To walk the Overland Track during the peak season (October 1 to May 30) you must book in advance, pay a $200 Australian dollar fee and buy a $30 national park entry pass. It is compulsory to walk from north (Cradle Mountain) to south (Lake St Clair).The booking system reserves a departure date but not hut accommodation. From June 1 to September 30, you do not need to book or pay, and can walk in either direction. Check out my Overland Track money-saving tips here.

What to take?

Walkers should be self-sufficient and carry all of the usual equipment required for a long-distance trek including sleeping bag and mat, cooking stove, food and maps. The weather in Tasmania is notoriously unpredictable and therefore warm and waterproof clothing suitable for any conditions is essential. It is compulsory for all walkers to carry a tent in case the huts are full and gaiters are recommended to guard against snake bites. Water is available from streams and rainwater tanks at the huts – many hikers choose to treat the water before drinking it. Despite a plethora of on-a-shoestring walkers completing the track in running trainers and even wellies, sturdy walking boots are necessary.

Can I do it?

The Overland Track is a “significant undertaking”, according to Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service, with a large part of the hike above 1,000 metres in elevation on exposed plateaus in a remote area. But it should be well within the capabilities of walkers who are physically and mentally fit, prepared for all seasons and self-sufficient. The track is very well-signposted and presents very few navigational challenges.

How to walk responsibly?

Walkers should adhere to a range of Overland Track rules including: always walk on the official tracks so damage is kept to a narrow band; carry out all waste and ensure you ‘leave no trace’; only camp on tent platforms and at established campsites; respect wildlife; and never light fires.

Where can I find out more?

For further details and to book click here

I originally wrote this feature for the May/June edition of Adventure Travel, an awesome magazine about hiking, the great outdoors and (obviously) adventure travel. Check it out here.

Check out more of James Forrest here.

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A Geography of Furry Devils: Interview with Y.D. Bar-ness, editor and founder of Tasmanian Geographic

The southern coast of Tasmania. Nothing until Antarctica!

The southern coast of Tasmania. Nothing until Antarctica!

For my first zachofjungle.com interview, I decided to go to a place and a magazine most Americans are pretty clueless about.  Y.D. Bar-Ness is the editor and founder of Tasmanian Geographic.  Tasmanian Geographic has previously published an article I wrote about commercial paleontology.  Since spending a month and a half travelling and WWOOFing on the island a few years ago, I’ve only grown to love Tasmania more from afar through reading.  I decided to interview Y.D. Bar-Ness to learn more about Tasmanian Geographic, Bar-Ness’s own outdoor exploration and recreation and his unique views on Tasmania and environmentalism.

 

What are some common misconceptions people have about Tasmania?  What should people know about the island?

The most common misconceptions is a very lazy mistake with Tanzania.  I’m sure there’s many islands in the world that I don’t know much about, but both Tanzania and Tasmania are relatively vast areas of land.

You could think of Tasmania as the West Island of New Zealand, and you wouldn’t be conceptually too far off.

What do you love about Tasmania?  What makes it special to you and what lead you to be editor of a magazine devoted to the nature of Tasmania?  How did Tasmanian Geographic come to be?

It’s a special little island in a strange corner of the world. I started Tasmanian Geographic and so therefore being the editor is a self-appointed position. I had been writing for a number of publications and creating maps and outreach materials, and this seemed like a nice project to do some good in the world.

As editor, what goals do you have for Tasmanian Geographic?

 The idea is to have the more specialised  enthusiasms – embroidery, Irish history – bundled alongside the climbers, walkers, photographers etc in a package that makes them all look good.

Do you consider yourself an environmentalist/conservationist?  If so what unique problems does environmentalism have on Tasmania specifically and islands in general?

 Undoubtedly. Tasmania is at once light-years ahead and behind other parts of the world. There is a very strong conservation ethic here that has prompted the rise of the Green political movement and the discipline of permaculture. But there is also an often-poorly performing economy and the well-intentioned but sometimes rushed government efforts to “open” wildlands for business.

 

What dangers does Tasmania face that are unique to it and what obstacles does it have in common with the rest of the world?

The island itself as a geographical entity is like all coastal areas threatened by sea level rises, but overall the human threats to the island are forest clearing, wildfires exacerbated by the eucalyptus forests, and decreasing water supplies with declining snowfall and landscape vegetation.

What outdoor activities does Tasmania have to offer and what are your favorites?

 It’s pretty much all here – Tasmania is a world capital for outdoor exploration. The snow is in serious decline due to climate change, but there’s kayaking, caving, canyoning, rafting, mountaineering, orienteering, bushwalking/hiking, and many many other activities.

I know you climb trees.  Would you tell us a little about that; how did you get started climbing trees, what’s involved and what types of trees does Tasmania offer for climbing?  How does tree climbing change how you see forests and trees?  Why climb trees?

I began treeclimbing as a research intern at uni in Seattle. Tasmania has some very interesting forest types, but the most famous of the trees here are the giant Eucalyptus regnans, the tallest flowering plants in the world. Working in the treetops gives you a good sense of a tree as an unique individual, and as a unique place.

 

What are some of your favorite places in Tasmania and why?

 The strange conglomerate rocks and crater lakes of Mt Murchison in the northwest, the limestone caves with their glowworms in the far south at Lune River, the giant forest of massive Eucalyptus on the Huon River, and of course the sandstone overhangs and caves of southeastern quadrant.

 

For more about Tasmania, Y.D. Bar-Ness and the exciting ezine visit Tasmanian Geographic

 

 

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Lost in the Hills: A hike in Jewel Cave National Monument

Erin and I went hiking this weekend.  We weren’t sure if the weather was going to be cloudy and cold all day or if it was going to warm up.  We were also having a lazy Sunday morning, so we got started relatively late.  We didn’t really know what hiking trails were in Jewel Cave National Monument (above ground) so we decided to check it out.  There was a nice hike of about 3.5 miles called the Canyons Trail, so we headed off, at first in thin snow but into increasingly deeper snow.  Soon we were calf deep…then knee deep in snow, trudging along.  This was a little worrisome for me because when we left the house there had been talk of a short trip to the city park and then maybe some blogging, so I’d foolishly worn my blue jeans.  The bottoms of my said blue jeans soon were packed with snow, large balls of snow formed on the boots, especially around the laces.  Still, the sun was up and we were both cheery and merely laughing at the snow.  We still had plenty of sun light and we’d be back home before it got too cold.  Then we came to a trail sign with a very nice map.  The nice map had a bright red arrow stating quite helpfully ‘You are Here’ we glanced at the map on the sign and continued down the very obvious trail.

A very helpful sign with a very accurate trail map.

A very helpful sign with a very accurate trail map.

Soon we came to a large sign saying “Now Leaving Jewel Cave National Monument”  Odd we thought.  We wondered aloud to each other if we were on the right trail but decided in the end to continue on.  After a while we came to a road and the road came to a cattle ranch.  Then we turned around.  We walked all the way back to the helpful sign and discovered there was a fork and a less obvious trail heading off through the snow.  We took it.  Then we came to another useful sign and immediately made the same mistake.  By the time we’d turned around and taken the right trail this time, it was dark, my feet we soaked and numb.  We were both tired.  We climbed a hill, the snow lessened and soon it was just an inch or two under foot.  At the top of the hill, there was a wooden deck with a railing and I joked about there being a beautiful scenic overlook here and Erin said, “Actually it is quite beautiful” she was right.  In the moonlight dark clumps of Ponderosa Pine contrasted nicely with the ghostly glow of the snow.  No power lines or roads or even the trail could be seen as we looked out over the forest and for a moment we almost glimpsed the untouched, primeval wild of what South Dakota once was.

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Boy Scouts of America: A step in the right direction, a long hike ahead

As an Eagle Scout, I have mixed feelings about Boy Scouts of America.  I have fond memories of spending time outdoors in scouts.  I also feel that scouting has done a lot of positive things for me.  It seems unlikely without the exposure to the outdoors and nature I had in scouts I would’ve ended up where I am today.  My experiences today, hiking, camping, climbing, caving, back packing even international travel, all have roots in my time with scouts.

That said, the horribly conservative views of Boy Scouts of America often horrify and anger me.  I’ve signed many petitions to let homosexual boys into boy scouts.  With loose ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and other religious and social conservative organizations, it’s not surprising how conservative scouts can be.

I was thrilled when a couple of days ago I heard an announcement on NPR that boy scouts is now allowing trans-gender scouts into their ranks.  However, I don’t think it goes far enough.  Many scouting organizations the world over include boys and girls into one cohesive organization.  Girl Scouts of America is not part of the same international organization as BSA.  I think scouts has incredible potential to instill virtues of tolerance, social and environmental justice and compassion.  Scouts can’t be the compassionate organization I believe it could be while maintaining exclusivity.  Putting boys in one organization to do one thing and girls in another to do another activity gives the wrong idea to kids.

Beyond gender and sexual orientation, scouts is largely made up of religious people and a belief in god is a key prerequisite to being a scout (a prerequisite I no longer have).  I personally think scouts needs to focus on civic and environmental responsibility and forget about it’s heritage of homophobia, racism, sexism and other discrimination.  Scouts was born of a different age but now it must decide it’s future destiny; it’s a decision it will live or die by.

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Photo Friday! Mountain Lion Track in the snow.

Mountain Lion (Felis Concolor) in the Black Hills, Custer State Park, SD

Mountain Lion (Felis Concolor) in the Black Hills, Custer State Park, SD

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