5 Weird Things I Do: When I’m Shopping

Weekly Farmer’s Market haul!

My typical Friday afternoon goes a little something like this:

  • 4pm- Begin simultaneous watching the clock and repeating the mantra “Be productive, stupid.”  (Note:  graduate school not always the best for increasing self-love.)
  • 4:30pm- Start to feel like I’m really hungry and, I mean, it’s almost time to go anyway.  Desperately try to make final progress on whatever task I have been attempting.
  • 4:45 pm- Give up.  Start filling in my OCD meal planning spreadsheet and making my shopping list.

So, just based on this 45 minute snap-shot, I’m going to take a wild guess and say that my approach to picking the groceries I purchase might be a little different than your own.  Meal planning spreadsheet you say?  List you say?  It may sound weird, some might say it’s unnecessary, but these are a part of my household’s weekly shopping ritual.  What’s more, I’m confident that these things, plus others I will discuss, help me to save money and cut back on the waste I produce.  So I felt compelled to share, and another instillation of “5 Weird Things” was born.  


As always, I would encourage you to not be overwhelmed by the thought of totally upending your shopping mojo.  I didn’t wake up one morning and decides that I was going to do all these things at once.  Like most life choices, these have come to me through a gradual evolution in my thoughts and actions based on lots of research and some provoking conversations.  Maybe pick the one that interests you the most or that you think might make the most difference and give it a try!  Then come back next month and pick up another one!  That said, here we go.      


1.  Make a plan (meal plan, check the pantry, make a list!)

Let me set the scene for you.  It’s Saturday morning.  Myself and my fella’ have just gotten up and and moving around our apartment.  Hopefully, on Friday evening we’ve looked online and through our cookbooks and picked out the meals we wanted to make during the week to come.  In the less hopefully, and probably more typical scenario, I’m doing that on Saturday morning sitting in my bed.  There is always the temptation to just wing it and head out into town.  However, my mother’s voice in my head saying “a stitch in time saves nine” generally drowns out this alluring option, and I make sure to finish getting my plan together.  You see, as far as I can tell, making a solid plan helps me to save money, waste less food during the week, and avoid eating out, which is usually way less nutritious than cooking your own dinners.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself, so I’ll break down my process, then I’ll make my pitch.

So, what does this planning process entail exactly?  It all starts with a spreadsheet.  Like any good scientist (or anyone with a mild obsessive streak, guilty), I love a nicely organized Excel sheet.  I catalog our meal choices into the spreadsheet which includes spaces for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and three snacks.  I then look at the recipes we’ve chosen and list all the supplies right in the same tab.  Thus, I’m basically making my shopping list as I’m meal planning.  When you’re filling out your meal plan, it’s important to think of it as more of a road map and less of a contract.  If your friend stops by on Monday who doesn’t care for couscous (weirdo), then you can switch your Monday and Thursday meals.  Probably the hardest mental block to get around in this respect is planning your snacking.  My rule is to buy enough fruit each week to eat as one of my snacks, then get two or three other things that we can eat throughout the week.  It doesn’t matter really which days I end up eating those snacks, but writing it down helps me to visualize how much of each thing I will need to buy.  Plus, if you love snacks like I do, having things on hand is the only way to keep yourself from purchasing stuff from the gas station and vending machine.  

My meal planning spreadsheet.  I loves it.


Now that you know what you will be making and snacking on, and you have a list of all the ingredients you’ll need to make it happen, you need to take your computer into the kitchen and check your pantry.  This will help you avoid buying double of anything you already own.  Obviously, there are some things you will just know, but I can never seem to remember if I have chickpeas or not, and my hummus-making ambitions have been thwarted on several occasions when I didn’t take the time to double check.  Now, you can transfer your shopping list to something more portable than your laptop.  I usually type mine into my phone or jot it down on a piece of scrap paper from our scrap paper bin.  

Okay, so here is the promised pitch.  My process described above might seem like a lot of unnecessary effort to some.  And for some people, perhaps that is the case.  But for myself, planning my meals in this fashion has helped me in numerous ways.  First, it’s really aided my efforts to waste less food.  When I go to town with a plan made and a list in hand, I know what I’m going to actually need for the week.  This really encourages me to avoid impulse purchases, especially impulse purchases of perishable items, because I know I won’t have time (or tummy space) to eat them.  Also, making this meal plan and checking back with it during the weeks has given me a really thorough insight into how much food we can reasonable consume.  I remember when I first started meal planning, I would pick out so many recipes that I was excited about, but I would end up with far too much food!  For our little household of two individuals, we generally cook 3-4 dinners a week at home.  For the other 3-4 evenings out of the week we work through our leftovers.  We like to snack on things like fresh fruit, pretzels and homemade hummus, veggie and dip, peanut butter and apples, and the occasional granola bar.  I also generally purchase enough produce to make salad for both of us for the week for lunch.  For breakfast, we like oatmeal, smoothies, fruit, and toast.  Wasting food is obviously a no-no on lots of levels, not the least of which is the impact food production has on the environment.  But, hey, when you throw food out, you basically throw out money.  Who wants to do that?  

I think this quotation from a study performed by Parfitt and colleagues in 2010 sums it up pretty well.  The U.S. stats are equally embarrassing  but I chose the U.K. statistics as they were quantified in carbon emissions (Note: Mt stands for metric tons).   

“More recently, the Waste and Resources Action Programme 
(WRAP) has shown that household food waste has reached unprecedented levels in UK homes (WRAP 20082009a,b), with 8.3 Mt of food and drink wasted each year (with a retail value of £12.2 billion, 2008 prices) and a carbon impact exceeding 20 Mt of CO2 equivalent emissions. The amount of food wasted per year in UK households is 25 per cent of that purchased (by weight).”


2.  Reusable Bags, reusable containers, reusable foreva’

Bulk bags and a selection of reusable containers.

Once I have my list in hand, I get all my shopping accessories together.  For me, that includes a team of reusable grocery bags, a bunch of reusable containers and bulk bags (we’ll get to the use of these below), and my reusable coffee mug (it’s my weekly treat to get a coffee from our Co-op).  I’m a pretty firm believer that reduce and reuse are way more important “R’s” than recycle.  I’ve talked about this view in length here.  Thus, for anyone who is trying to reduce their impact on the planet, I’d say reusable shopping bags are a no-brainier.  The next logical step is to start bringing your own containers for foods you purchase in the store such as meats from the deli (if that’s your situation), pre-made foods like salads, and the increasing number of bulk foods popping up in co-ops and large chain stores across the country.  Depending on the store you go to, there might be some health concerns with using your own container for things purchased from the deli, but I’d be willing to wager that if you spoke with a manager you could figure out some solution that would work for everyone.  

Reusable shopping bags.  Way more fun.


Here are a few reusable shopping tips I’ve developed over the years.  First, buy one of these amazing ChicoBags or something similar.  Put it in your car or your handbag/manbag.  This is great for when you are just running to the store during the week and forget your normal fleet of reusable bags, or when you get a little excited at the store on the weekend and end up needing an extra shopping bag.  Second, even if you have no bulk section and your deli is not allowing you to use your own container  you can easily cut down your waste in the produce section by choosing products that aren’t wrapped in plastic and then bagging them with reused plastic/paper bags from home.  I have a small collection of bags I used to put my store bought produce in before my mother made me a set of awesome bulk bags for Christmas.  

Okay, now that we have all that stuff together, we can actually leave the house and go shopping!
    
3.  Shop the Farmer’s Market

FarMar Veg

Oh, the joys of the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning.  This is one of the highlights of my week.  We always arrive hungry and grab brunch at one of the food carts that is parked on the lot with all the farmer’s booths.  After we are full (hunger is dangerous at the FarMar!), we take a stroll all the way down the isle of vendors, checking out the produce, referring to our list, and trying to find the best combination of quality and price for the items we want.  The benefits of shopping at the Farmer’s Market are numerous, and you have likely heard many of them before…but I’ll repeat them anyway.

Beautiful summer produce!


Probably the biggest impact of shopping at the Farmer’s Market is the minimal amount of miles your food have to travel to end up on your plate.  Webber and Matthews (2008) found that “…for the average American household, “buying local” could achieve, at maximum, around a 4-5% reduction in GHG [green house gas]…”  There are several things to consider about these findings.  First, the paper never formally defines what “local” means, but the widely accepted definition is that local products are produced within 100 miles of where the consumer purchases them.  Additionally, that figure is for a fully localized diet, which can be very difficult to achieve, even for the very devoted!  Another interesting finding of this study is that not all food groups are created equally.  According to their work, you could reduce your GHG impacts to equal that of a totally localized diet by shifting away from eating red meat one day a week, wow*.  However, if you are only concerned with the farm-to-table travel impacts of your food (less holistic) focusing on local fruits and vegetables whenever possible will provide you with the biggest bang for your buck, as these foods generally make the longest trek from the producer to your plate.  There are several other terms in the model which are clearly estimates and averages, and I highly recommend you check out this study, or any of the related literature on food miles if you are interested.  The take-home here is that buying local, especially fruits and vegetables, does matter, but what we choose to eat can matter more (probably more on this in a later post).  Remember, your personal impact might not be monumental when you change a single habit, but over time and in conjunction with other lifestyle changes, you can make a difference!  Buying local has lots of other fringe benefits aside from reducing food miles, such as keeping money in your local community and getting to know the people who provide you with your food!

Lavender!

Another great benefit of the Farmer’s Market is the lack of lots of unnecessary plastic packaging.  Now, don’t get me wrong, the vendors at the FarMar will always be ready to give you a plastic bag to put your produce in, but you don’t have to take it!  I know when I first started trying to avoid plastic, I felt a lot more comfortable politely refusing the nice person at the market and putting my produce straight in my reusable bag than I did carrying my peaches all willy-nilly up to the checkout counter at the store.  I’m over that now by the way, and if I forget my reusable bag, I just bring a bunch of loose apples to the checker.  It’s never seemed to cause anyone any problems!

Last, if you want to buy organic at the Farmer’s Market, you totally can!  However, if you are only interested in pesticide free produce or you want to support a farm that is only just transitioning to organic and doesn’t have a certification yet, you can!  The point is, if you have a question about your goods, you can ask the farmer!  I can’t quite put into words the nice feeling of matching a name with your asparagus, but it’s a real thing.

4.  Buy in bulk when you can, and ask for more bulk options

Jars for bulk foods!


This one isn’t an option for everyone, and I realize that.  I’m supremely fortunate to live in an area where even the Safeway has some foods in bulk.  This is a movement that is spreading however.  When I was last home, I went to the store with my mother and saw many types of beans in bulk bins in her local chain grocery store.  And if you are thinking, “There is a Whole Foods near me, but their bulk food will be too expensive!” you might be incorrect.  Do a price comparison between what you usually buy and what you could buy in bulk at a health foods store.  You might find the price difference is negligible, or the bulk foods might even been cheaper!  Just beware the interior isles of places like Whole Foods.  When you start buying pre-packaged foods from those stores, then you can end up saying “oops, there went 80 bucks!”  Okay, what if you don’t live near any bulk food options?  I would encourage you to ask for them!  Speak to a manager, or write on a comment card.  As I said, this option is spreading.  Request it and support it.

Why buy bulk?  You only have to buy the amount you need, which can lead to less waste of food in the end.  And the obvious:  less plastic, fantastic.

5.  Shop once a week 

This item is last on the list, but I think it’s still important.  Shopping once a week (or less) does a lot of really good things for you.  Initially, it makes all the tips mentioned above that much easier!  You only have to plan and remember your reusables once a week, and then you can coordinate that with your trip to the Farmer’s Market and the store!  Less travel also means you save gas.  Running back and forth to the store multiple times per week can add up quicker than you might think.  If you get all your major shopping done in one go, when you need this or that from the store, you can usually pick it up with your bike or just go to the store that is most accessible on your commute without worrying about price as much!  Next, shopping once a week means you are prepared for the week to come.  You know what you have in your pantry and fridge and, thus, you’ll have some idea of what you want to make for your meals.  Even this small step, being stocked up by the time the week starts, can save you from the ever tempting trap of delivery/take-out/fast food, which we all know is less good for us, less good for the planet, and just generally less tasty than food we make ourselves!  Plus, I find when I have all my supplies right off the bat, I can pre-prepare some foods to streamline my work week.  For example, on Sunday (okay, usually Monday morning) I cut up and prepare salad and salad dressing for the entire week.  That way, on most weekday mornings, I just have to assemble the veggies and head out the door!  Last, making shopping an event makes it fun.  In our house, we look forward to Saturdays.  We know we get a Farmer’s Market treat, and it’s an uninterrupted time together to to plan something we are both invested in.

Last Word:  I strongly believe considering our food choices is a cornerstone in attempting to live a more Earth-friendly lifestyle.  We all have to eat right?  This post was all about the little tweeks we can me in getting that food in order to avoid food waste, stay away from too much packaging, and begin considering the foods we actually choose!  I hope you learned something new, or were inspired with a new idea.

I was obsessed with these pepper wreathes this fall
at the FarMar.

What do you think?  Do you do any strange things when shopping because you feel they reduce your impact on the planet?  Any suggestions for me to try out/research?  I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Sources: 

  • Parfitt J, M. Barthel, and S. Macnaughton.  2010.  Food waste within food supply chains:  quantification and   potential for change to 2050.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 365: 3065-3081.
  • Webber C.L., and H.S. Matthews.  2008.  Food-miles and the relative carbon impacts of food choices in the United States.  Environmental Science and Technology 42:  3508-3513.

LIT to KY Pt 1: Planes, trains, and moral conflict

My Greyhound view on the 20hr trek between NM and CA.
As a preface, this is part one of a two part post about my recent trip home to Kentucky.  Part two will take the more traditional form of my other Low Impact Travel (LIT) posts where I discuss my adventures and the little ways I try to alter my travel behaviors to reduce my ecological impact.  However, I wanted to take some time and space to talk about an issue which often troubles me, how and why we choose our means of transportation.  Please note that while this post does contain some science, it’s mostly my own opinions and rational.  It should be taken as neither fact or prescription, and is simply the conversation I have been having with myself for the past 4 years, converted into essay form.  
Part One:  Some Science
I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but I travel a lot, and I really enjoy it!  I am, however, generally conflicted when it comes to the subject of plane travel.  It’s a pertinent topic considering the new study published in Environmental Science and Technology last week (for some good summaries of the study you can look here or here, but I suggest you read the paper).  The study’s authors Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Jan Fuglestvedt, and Terje Berntsen offer very accurate estimates of the climate impacts of different modes of long distance travel (in their study 500-1000 km) by comparing impacts at 100% vehicle occupancy vs. average occupancy.  They also expand the definition of “climate impacts” to things beyond simple CO2 emissions, though no matter which measure you examine, the story is relatively consistent.  Spoiler alert, plane travel loses big time, every time.  Now, allow me a moment of European envy.  One of the options in their study, high speed electric rail, boasts zero grams of CO2 emitted per vehicular kilometer.  Obviously, that is just based on the fact that these trains don’t have tailpipes, and who knows where that electricity is generated, but trains lack some of the fundamental climate impacts included in plane travel such as the creation of cirrus clouds and the indirect production of ozone.  So, plane travel, not so good…yet I’m going to try and write a low impact travel post in which I take a plane?  It seems mildly disingenuous to me.  
The thing is, I know that lots of people face these same sorts of problems.  Obviously, I need to visit home.  It’s good for my mental health, I adore my family, and I don’t know if anyone else has had a southern mother but…even if I didn’t want to go home, I would.  So allow me a moment to try and work through this moral quagmire here, in this forum.  I’m going to use my potential trip home over Thanksgiving to make this a bit more tangible.  Admittedly, holiday pricing sort of skews the picture for us, but that is when most people do most of their long distance traveling, so I feel it’s appropriate.    
Part Two:  Time, Money, and Convenience
This is how Clark Gable and I prepare for train travel.
First, let’s break this problem down economically based exclusively on the upfront cost of travel.  When I first moved to California, I had some pretty romantic visions of myself boarding a train and chugging the 2264 miles back to Kentucky for the holidays.  I might also have envisioned myself in some pretty excellent period garb; I might also have been riding on the train with Rhett Butler.  That’s beside the point, because in 2013, taking the train in the USA is not substantially cheaper (or cheaper at all!) than plane travel in many cases.  For example, this coming Thanksgiving, it will likely cost me around 450 dollars to take a plane to and from home for the holidays.  The train would cost me about 500 dollars (included in this cost is the necessary bus from Chicago to my final destination).  Taking a bus all the way across the country would run me only about 375 dollars.  If I drove my car, by myself, it would cost me about 393 dollars.  I suppose this part isn’t super surprising and matches up relatively well with the findings of  Borken-Kleefeld et al. (2013) who found coach (that’s European for bus) travel to pose the lowest climate impact.  So, hooray, the cheapest form of travel is also the most environmentally friendly.  That’s a good thing.  The fact that the train costs more than the plane in this case is probably partially due to timing and partially due to the fact that I’m not just traveling between two major Amtrak hubs.  But how many people are just going between LA and Chicago, for example?
So, let’s say you, like myself, don’t mind the bus and love saving money.  Maybe you’re leaning toward a Greyhound trip for your next adventure.  Let’s now expand the analysis past just upfront costs, and things get a little more complicated.  For my long distance holiday travel, I’d say driving alone in my personal car is out of the question.  It would take me about 33 hours, so I would need to pay for lodging (a hostel or a campsite at about 20 dollars a night) and I would have to get my oil changed and what not before and after the trip (another 80 or so dollars).  After taking these things into account, driving is about the same cost as a flight or train travel.  According to the study, gasoline cars, even at maximum capacity, were second only to airplanes in their carbon impacts.  So let’s just throw that idea out.  Then there is the seemingly appealing option of taking the bus.  To get me home for the holidays, I would be in transit via bus for 2 days and 6 hours.  I don’t know about you, when when I take a long trip, I’m always very tired afterward and need a day to recoup, so that’s essentially three days lost on either side of the vacation, or almost a whole week!  Let’s say you get paid 10 dollars and hour, that is a net loss of 480 dollars if you can’t work remotely.  Okay, so maybe for such a long trip, Greyhound isn’t what we want.  What about the train then?  To get me back to KY from CA would take almost 66 hours via train, or almost three days.  So, the train takes longer than the bus.  An advantage of the train, however, is the free WiFi and more comfortable seating where one could, potentially, get some work done.  Last, we have plane travel, which could get me back to KY in as little as 5 hours (no counting transit to and from the airport).  So I only lose two or three days to travel (depending on recovery time), and a lot of planes and airports have WiFi now, so I could even work in transit.  
Okay, so up to this point, this essay might seem a little…unusual based on my general content.  And that’s a fair observation.  The truth is, I want to advocate for coach and rail travel, I want to say that I never fly because I know how bad it is for the environment, and I want both those statements to be true.  Unfortunately, that’s just not the case.  So, where do we go from here?  I think I have quoted Colleen Patrick-Goudreau previously, but she often says “Don’t do something because you can’t do everything.”  I think that applies here.  So, what to do?  I think we must all apply some careful time and thought to how we move around the world.  Consider your personal circumstances carefully.  After all, convenience cannot be the only factor when making choices…that’s sort of how we got into our current environmental mess.  Based on my own personal reflections, I do have some recommendations, but I encourage each of you to do individual research and make choices based on your own knowledge and morals.    
Part Three:  A Practical Ecologist Guide to Transportation Selection
1.  Traveling with friends who don’t dig alternative transportation?  Carpool every time possible in the most fuel efficient vehicle available.  Squeeze in, sit close, just do it.  Appeal to their wallets, that generally works.       
2.  If you are traveling somewhere nearby, maybe within the 1000 km (about 620 miles) range proposed by  Borken-Kleefeld and colleges, I would strongly advocate that you take the bus.  I’ve taken quite a few regional Greyhound trips, the longest lasting about 20 hours, and they aren’t as bad as you probably think.  I’ve met some really nice and interesting people, and I got to see parts of the country that you just miss when you are traveling via plane.  And hey, if you have a job where you can work from your computer, you don’t really need the internet, and you don’t get carsick, you can probably take the Greyhound just about anywhere you want to go!    
3.  If you are traveling regionally or if you have a flexible job which allows  you to work remotely, take the train!  The seats are comfortable, the views are great, and the free WiFi is pretty speedy.  Once I am done taking courses, I have big plans to do this for the holidays.  At that point, my office will be my computer and I’ll have a lot more freedom to take transportation that is less efficient time wise.   
4.  If you have a job that really requires your physical presence or gives you limited flexibility in vacation time you really have two options:  don’t take the trip at all or hop on a plane.  While I know that some people might advocate for the former option, I really don’t.  I do, however, advocate that we make our plane travel as efficient as possible.  Carpool or take public transit to and from the airport.  Try to avoid buying bunches of plastic-packaging while you’re on the move (etc.  etc. etc.), and make your trip count!  When I’m on the other side of the continent, I try to see as many of my friends and family as possible, even if that requires the occasional Greyhound up to Chicago for a weekend.  
5.  Purchase carbon offsets when you are forced to choose the less efficient mode of transportation.  This could be a whole post later, but make sure you do a lot of research before purchasing an offset and don’t fall into the trap of using more carbon because you plan to purchase an offset later.  Carbon offsets are by no means a perfect system, but they are a tool we currently have at our disposal.  Alternatively, calculate how much you would have spent on a carbon offset and donate that amount to a environmental/conservation NGO of your choice.  
“You take your car to work, I’ll take my board..” ~Weezer
Last Word:  In closing, I would like to remind you (and myself) not to lose faith.  Changing technology and infrastructure could really alter things.  That’s why it is important that, whenever possible, we vote with our wallets and support the industries in which we believe.  We cannot let convenience be the only factor that drives our choices.  It’s also really important to remain realistic about the impacts our personal choices have, for both the good and the bad.  It’s easy to say that plane travel is less efficient than train travel, but it’s more difficult to translate these things into the currency of our daily lives.  Last, recall that this conversation becomes even more important when we consider our daily travels which can easily add up to have more substantial impacts (for the good or the bad) than our holiday or vacation travel.  I would argue that choosing the most fuel efficient way to get to and from work daily might be even more important than how you get home for Christmas.   
What do you think?  Should convenience play no role in our transportation decisions?  How do these conflicting factors play out in your life?  

Low Impact Travel: Snow Mt. Wilderness

Preamble: I feel some of these “Low Impact Travel” posts are going to get a little repetitive in their environmental action content.  Unless I have a striking new tip or experience, I’ll just include ways I generally lower my impact into the narrative and sum up at the end.  As I do more different kinds of travel this summer (travel for conferences, going home to Kentucky, or driving for work) I’ll write more posts with more specific tips.  As suggested in the comments, I’ll bold some of the basic tips/suggestions throughout the post.

****

I wrote on Wednesday that I needed to re-up my commitment to make time for nature before the month ended and I inadvertently killed my 2013 streak of monthly nature outings.  In the middle of writing that post, I sent an email out to a group of my friends about organizing a hiking trip or adventuring some other adventure.  I got a reply from two of these pals about a potential camping trip already in the works with a few mutual friends.  I’m super duper shy and was a little nervous about spending the weekend with numerous people I don’t consistently spend time with (but I did know almost all of them…super duper shy).  But, my friend A (who I went to the snow with) and another friend J were going to be there, and honestly I knew everyone else going was fun and nice, so I decided to get over my irrational reservations and do what I wanted to do:  go camping!

The other nice thing about tagging along on someone else’s adventure is that I had to do very little planning.  The ring leader of the operation, M, had us all over to her house for dinner on Friday night where she made us delicious food and we worked out the details.  A had already picked out a great spot, the Snow Mountain Wilderness in the Mendocino National Forest.  I do my work along the coast in salt marshes, where there aren’t really any trees and even less mountain action, so I love exploring in areas like this.  There were nine of us leaving together on Saturday morning and planning to return early Sunday evening, with another person meeting us up later on Saturday night.  So, we split up meal/beer duties and decided that we only needed two cars.  Everyone would sit close, but we would use way less gas, which, in a group of ecologists, is a prime concern.

I headed from the lovely dinner straight to the Co-op to get food for my meal, Saturday dinner.  I was going to make burritos with guacamole and my dinner counterpart planned to make roasted vegetable packs to put in the burritos or eat on the side.  I got my supplies and went home with the best of intentions intentions to make everything for my food contribution that night.  Instead, I went to my room and set my alarm for early…I’d do all that stuff in the morning.  We were planning to leave at 8am, and I didn’t roll out of bed till 7:20.  I hadn’t packed a single thing.  Oops.  Lucky for me I keep most of my camping gear in a single location and this was only an overnight trip.  I quickly threw all my stuff together in my backpack, went downstairs and threw all my food in a bag.  No coffee yet, ugh, but I rolled up to M’s house only 15ish minutes late, just as everyone was bringing their stuff outside to pack in the cars.  Perfect timing actually.  And M had coffee.  A good woman.

We blew a tire on the way to the campsite,
but with our powers combined overcame

We piled into the two cars and began our caravan out to the Ranger’s Station closest to our end destination.   Meridith wrote last summer about how we love to talk to park rangers and get their recommendation on what to do in the area.  We planned to ask this ranger where she thought we should camp, and we needed to get a campfire permit.  I actually didn’t know that, in CA, when you are camping outside of designated camp grounds you must have a campfire permit to start a fire or use a camp stove.  It’s a cool practice because they go through a bit of basic fire safety with you and make you state (cross your heart) that you will abide by certain cations to minimize fire risk.  If we want to keep enjoying the wilderness, we need to make sure and follow the rules.  Fire permit in hand, we headed to the recommended Summit Springs Trailhead.  Along the way we drove through the remnants of a forest fire, which A (a forest ecologist who studies fire!) told me happened in 2009.  We pitched our tents at the informal site along a flat about a quarter mile short of the trailhead.

The light green looking clearing in the center is a
serpentine outcrop
Serpentine

After an awesome lunch, we headed to the trailhead around 2:45 for a 4 hour hike about the wilderness.  We saw tons of really cool native flora and some awesome vistas.  One set of really cool ecological features we saw were the serpentine outcropings.  These unique geologic formations result in the very unique serpentine soils.  These soils are the result of the erosion of metamorphic rocks which contain high levels of iron and magnesium.  Due in part to the unique mineralogy of these rocks (and in part to some other ecological characteristics about which I am certainly not an expert), this soil has very characteristic properties and supports a specific group of native plants.  The really cool thing about serpentine outcrops is that they represent small discreet patches of habitat for theses specialized communities.  As a result, these soils and their associated flora and fauna have been used to study many ecological theories (island biogeography, meta-population structure, meta-community theory, just to name a few).  Plus, these are just really pretty rocks.

Forest Frisbee
Old Forest Fire

We arrived at an open glade around 5:00 pm, and everyone was pretty ready to turn around and head back for dinner prep before we lost the light.  A little game of frisbee broke out, and a few of us wandered a little past the open area, and around a meadow to attempt to get another good view.  Meadows are really cool ecosystems as well.  A lot like wetlands, they are periodically wet and walking through them can cause subtle changes in elevation, which alter hydrology and can impact the native species.  Public service announcement:  when you are hiking, always walk around a meadow.  We found our final view, which was a great glimpse of the valley and part of the Coast Range, and we also passed through another, older (according to A) forest fire.  Seeing all the burned trees standing there, stark white, with little saplings popping up underneath was really cool and moving for me.  Seeing the natural cycles of nature, and feeling like I understand even a small part of what is going on is humbling and exciting.  We headed back to camp, made an epic dinner, had an killer bonfire, drank some adult beverages, and ate (at least I did) one too many s’mores.  As the night wound down, we dowsed our fire with a substantial amount of water, stirred the embers, and headed to bed.

Informative Sign

The next morning after breakfast, we packed up our camp and headed back down the road.  We wanted to get another short hike in, but weren’t sure where we wanted to go.  One of our party had a really poor night’s sleep and another had long standing knee issues.  After a full day of hiking the day before, we were looking for something low key.  Luckily, on the way out, we passed a sign for Letts Lake.  We snacked by the shore then took a short, hour long hike all the way around the shores of the lake.  I, naturally, poked all around at the edge of the water and took a picture of the lake from every angle.  I love ecology in general, but when you add water to it, I’m in my element.  I saw some cool dragonfly exuvia on the emergent vegetation and a pretty interesting informative sign.  I wish there had been a little more information as I could infer a lot from this sign, but I think the general public would have been interested in a  bit more information.

Letts Lake

And that was that.  Adventure success.  And, despite my initial shy-girl reservations, I had a great time with this group of people and think I will hang with them again in the future.  It’s hard for me, but I always feel so great after making new connections or expanding on ones that are already in place.  I’m excited to see what will happen in June as that will be the half way point for this new year’s resolution.

Last Word:  After feeling sort of despondent after a few weeks of pretty intense work, getting out into nature totally recharged my batteries.  As usual when traveling, I tried to make sure we took as few cars as possible.  We brought and cooked almost all our own food (we stopped at a little Mexican joint on the way back out of the woods) and were careful to LNT (leave no trace) when we packed up our campsite.  We also were very careful about our use of fire in the woods and made sure to get the proper permits.  I also took lots of pictures and made sure to get thoroughly wow-ed by the natural splendor of the area.  A very successful trip indeed.      

This is me, glorying.

What do you think?  Do you get nervous going on trips with people who you don’t know super well?  What are some of the best nature facts you’ve learned on the trail?  Any awesome “wow, this is beautiful and makes me feel small, which is AWESOME!” moments to share?