Thursday, March 16, 2017

Gold Leaf Mine (Gold Cabin)

"Is it haunted...?"

The Miners Cabin at Sierra Outdoor School (SOS) is known as the Gold Leaf Mine. The mine was founded in the 1890's by two brothers from Modesto, CA. The brothers believed that gold was coming out by means of a spring and began mining into the hillside. They ran the mine until the 1940's when during WWII all pit mining was shut down. After WWII the Forest Service took over the land. The brothers went to court for the mine, but were unsuccessful in reacquiring the land.

 The cabin sits on a rock pier foundation with sill (horizontal timber) and wire nails. It measures approximately 19'3"x 28'1/2 with front and back porches. The cabin is basically in good shape except for the floors which have been deteriorating these past years. The doors, with original key locks, came from a Hotel in Columbia. The cabin was fitted with electricity, heating, and insulation when SOS (formerly Regional Learning Center) began to use the cabin as a classroom.


Behind the cabin is where evidence of old trash from the       miners has been found. A former staff member, Norm           Borden, stated on 12/7/01 that a glass bottle, old round cans, and even beads have been found in the dump.



Located on the Gold Leaf Mine are mine shafts which are deep narrow vertical holes, or sometimes a horizontal tunnel, that gives access to a mine.  While heading down towards the adit (horizontal passage into the mine's entrance) a covered 90' deep vertical shaft is just off the trail. The shaft is separated from the trail with barbed wire. There is a second vertical shaft on the opposite side of the trail with a smaller visible opening. 

After a steep descent the 'adit' comes into view. The 6' tall and 10' wide entrance is secured with rebar. According to Borden, approximately 10' into the entrance of the adit is a wooden structure along the east wall. The adit is cut into the hillside approximately 120' where it then T's. One end of the T is connected to the larger vertical shaft previously mentioned. There are more vertical shafts in the floor of the tunnel, but they are usually covered by water.

 In front of the entrance is a leveled area                              with gold troughs where visiting schools,                                    here at SOS, can learn the history and skill                                of gold panning in California.

A very common question we are asked by visiting students is if the cabin is haunted?! 
As far as we know it's not, but.....

Information was greatly appreciated by: E. Potter and S.VanBuskirk, USFS
USFS personal communication with Norm Borden 12/7/01
Photos by Angel Olavarria

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Seasonal Metamorphosis of a Pond

Imagine you are looking at a pond. What do you see? Many would say water, plants, fish, maybe a few frogs.  But there is much more to a pond ecosystem than just meets the eye.  In the spring, a pond is an area teeming with life, while during the winter, everything seems to go still.  So what exactly is happening just below the surface?

During the winter, it may seem like everything in a pond has been put on hold.  This is partially true, as activity is slowed greatly during this season.  Turtles and frogs have retreated into the cozy warmth of the mud.  Insects are no longer skimming across the surface.  The metabolism of organisms in the pond as well as the amount of photosynthesis that is taking place is greatly decreased during the winter.  This is an important adaptation as both food and sunlight are in short supply.  In areas where ice is able to form on a pond, several changes occur. Since ice is less dense than liquid water, ice will form at the top of the pond and will even provide insulation for the water underneath.  Just below this icy layer, life still exists, but in a much more lulled state.  The ice prevents a lot of sunlight from reaching the bottom, and with shorter daylight hours, very little photosynthesis takes place.  The layer of ice also prevents normal gas exchange within a pond from occurring. Without access to the atmosphere, there will be much less dissolved oxygen.  Luckily, colder water holds more oxygen, and pond animals are adapted to use much less oxygen in the winter than they would in the summer.  This is what makes a winter pond seem so tranquil, as the pond organisms are trying to use as little energy as possible.  Although everything is still during the winter, the pond organisms are getting ready for a season that is anything but still. 

As the air temperature warms and the ice cracks and thaws the pond seems to spring to life again.  During this season, the pond is open to normal gas exchange processes and the dissolved oxygen content begins to increase.  The pond is also opened up to more sunlight, which leads to a cascade of life processes beginning again.  The first sign of the affects of spring in the pond is that the pond will become murky.  This is due to bacterial and phytoplankton blooms.  Then the decomposers of the pond will begin breaking down dead matter and releasing important nutrients into the body of water. With the presence of sunlight, ammonia, and carbon dioxide now readily available, algae will begin growing.  This is an important food source for herbivorous micro- and macro-organisms.  Amphibians are drawn back to the water source from which they are born, and soon the calls of frogs and toads will ring out from the edges of the pond as they begin their reproduction cycle.  The fish and aquatic invertebrates will also come to life after their long resting season.  Spring is the season of new life and action in a pond.
Photo credit: Macroscopic Solutions
During the summer, the pond becomes calm again.  Turtles bask lazily in the sun, as fish catch insects on the surface of the water.  Frogs and salamanders are entering their adult stages and leaving the water, as aquatic invertebrates go through metamorphosis and sprout wings.  Most of the oxygen that is now in the water is provided by the abundant plant life soaking in the sun.  Insect catching birds soar across the water in search of their next meal.  During hot summer days, water temperature may increase greatly.  Fish will retreat to the depths of the pond in search of cooler temperatures.  Amphibians rely on bushes and other plant coverage on the edge of ponds for shade from the sun.  The summer provides a warm resting period for the pond after a long season of activity and reproduction.

This is a season of change, not just in the trees, but in the pond as well.  It is a time of transition, where the pond ecosystem is getting ready for the still, cold winter.  As the pond's temperature decreases, it will absorb more oxygen.  This is a cue for the organisms in the pond to use less oxygen and energy.  Fish will produce less ammonia so that it doesn't get trapped under the ice during the winter.  In place of the summer birds, geese and ducks will migrate in.  The berries that were produced in the end of summer will be picked clean by small mammals preparing for winter.  This is a season of preparation, so that each species is able to survive a harsh winter.

A pond is constantly going through changes, as life circulates in and out of the ecosystem.  Everything that lives there depends on the water.  Each small change in the water means a change for every life form living there.  The pond ecosystem is an exciting and fascinating example of the ebb and flow of life throughout the seasons.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Crystal Award Winners at Sierra Outdoor School

The Crystal Award, is Clovis Unified School District's highest employee recognition award, has landed at the Sierra Outdoor School!

The Crystal Award is a prestigious award that honors employees of Clovis Unified School District for their above-and-beyond work.  This peer nominated award recognizes those making a significant difference in the lives of Clovis Unified students.

Superintendent Dr. Janet Young sums up the spirit of the Crystal Award as, “The Crystal Awards celebrates these winners who are true examples of the values and character that make Clovis Unified so special. Their passion, innovation, dedication and dynamic work ethic help our students reach their full potential in mind, body and spirit.”

While CUSD has almost 6,000 employees, only 32 employees were selected as 2016 Crystal Award recipients.  It is an honor to have two Sierra Outdoor School employees be selected for the Crystal Award in the same year:  Sharon Bush and Mike Olenchalk.
Sharon Bush and Mike Olenchalk hearing the news that they were both selected as Crystal Award  Recipients. 
Sharon is the school’s baker and a breakfast cook. If you ever had any of the delicious cookies at lunch or dinner, then you have tasted her handiwork. No matter how early it is in the morning, what the weather was like driving here, or how many students are eagerly awaiting breakfast, Sharon always has a smile on her face and something positive to share with our visitors. A graduate of Clovis High, Sharon has been at Sierra Outdoor School since 2002.

Mike Olenchalk has been part of Clovis Unified since 1985 and embodies Clovis values. After teaching high school biology for many years, he became Sierra Outdoor School's Director in 2001. He may not have realized when he took this position that he wouldn't only be directing this school, but also overseeing the renovation of almost every building on campus, navigating an economic downturn, getting legislation passed in Sacramento, plowing roads at all hours of the day and night, assisting with plumbing emergencies, and leading mountain bike classes, and he has done an outstanding job of it!

The SOS staff would like to congratulate Sharon and Mike for being recognized and honored with this special award. We thank you both for your hard work and dedication to Clovis Unified School District and Sierra Outdoor School. We are so proud to have you as part of the SOS team.

Steve France presenting the Crystal Award to Mike Olenchalk and Sharon Bush.  All winners will be honored at a special presentation in Clovis.   In addition each winner receives a monetary award to use at their school site.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wait, do bears really hibernate?! Waking up to the truth about winter's sleep

Imagine yourself going for a hike through the vast Emigrant Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You stop to look out over a field covered in the first light snowfall of the year. You’re captured by its beauty. One snowflake falls on your nose, then two, then more cover your hair. It’s mid-November. A crisp breeze rolls over the field and makes you shiver. What would you do next? Being a smart hiker, you probably brought a warm cozy jacket. Maybe it’s fleece, and if you’re experienced in the wilderness, it’s probably waterproof.
Now imagine yourself on this same field of freshly fallen snow, but instead of two feet in wool socks and hiking boots, you now have four large paws covered in dark brown fur. Your five claws are sharp from climbing trees to reach nuts, berries, and seeds. Your fur has thickened in the recent months. The snow is falling gently, covering your snout and ears. That same crisp breeze rolls across the field… but you hardly feel it. That 350 pounds you put on in the recent months is really paying off now. And it will continue to pay off in the months to come. You have been eating up to 20,000 calories per day, which is like eating 40 Big Mac burgers per day! Foraging takes up 20-23 hours per day, leaving you only 1-4 hours to sleep per night. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to sleep later.[1,6] Some wildlife biologists call this foraging the “fall shuffle” as bears will search up to 60 miles away from their home for food to prepare for winter.[6] Now, you turn away from the field, and journey back to your winter den. You find your warm waterproof cave nestled under three large boulders. You enter and curl up on the ground. Every part of your body begins to slow down. Your heart beat, your breathing, and your body temperature drop lower and lower. You fall into a deep slumber that may last for days or weeks at a time. You won’t eat, drink, urinate, or make scat. Instead, your body is adapted to keep your bones and muscles strong by cycling calcium, and using nitrogen from fat metabolism to build protein for muscle mass.[2,7]

But here’s the question: Are you really “hibernating” or are you only sleeping through something we call “torpor”? The answer to this question will show you that the world of winter sleeping is a far more complex one than you may have thought.

Hibernation is a process where an animal falls into a deep sleep that lasts several days to several months. They may only take one or two breaths per minute. In small mammals like the ground squirrel and hedgehog, body temperature will drop to almost freezing – temperatures around 37 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Heart rate slows in bats from 600 beats per minute (bpm) to 20 bpm.

Left: Two chipmunks snuggle for warmth during a fall nap.
Right: A bat sleeps in a torpid state in the basement of an abandoned house.
Chipmunk photo credit: Pinterest. Accessed 2/1/17.

Bat photo credit: Five Valleys Ecology. “Bats: Bat Biology.” Accessed 2/1/17.

Torpor is a state that many animals, like the chipmunk, will enter on cold winter days. It’s similar to hibernation in some ways. Breathing slows, body temperature lowers, and heart rate goes down. Unlike hibernation, however, animals in torpor will usually sleep for only a day or two, then wake up to forage for food. In torpor, body temperature only lowers a few degrees.[1] Animals that enter torpor may do so simply to take a break from the cold winter day, saving energy for hunting later.

An Alaskan bear showing off some serious snoring during hibernation.

*If you’re using CUSD internet, here’s the sciencemag article where you can watch the video: - scroll halfway down the page.

Bears land right on the line between hibernation and torpor. Their body temperature lowers at most 12 degrees, staying above 88 degrees F. [2] This is not nearly as low as smaller mammalian hibernators. Bears often wake up several times during hibernation, too, which looks like torpor. Thus, if we only look at temperature drop and length of sleep cycles, bears may not be considered “true hibernators.” In fact, before the 1980s, some people shunned the term “hibernator” to describe bears, preferring the term torpor to describe their winter sleep.[4] It wasn’t until 1981 that biologists redefined hibernation in mammals as “a specialized, seasonal reduction in metabolism concurrent with scarce food and cold weather.”[4,5] Once they realized that there was a whole lot more to hibernating than just body temperature, the definition of hibernation extended to many animals, not just those whose temperature dropped to near freezing. Today, many physiologists say bears hibernate, while some prefer calling it extended torpor.[4] In the end, it’s all a matter of how you define hibernation. Torpor usually refers to shorter sleeps, while hibernation lasts longer.

By the end of this we hope you have gained at least two things:
1)   An appreciation for the complex world of winter sleep.
2)   At least one new fancy word to show off to your friends.

Lastly, here’s a cool table that shows you the winter survival strategies of many different animal species from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bugs, amphibians, mammals, and more:

For more on black bears, hibernation, and what they do to prepare for winter, visit these sites and any of the references listed below:

5.    Watts, P. D., N. A. Oritsland, C. Jonkel, and K. Ronald. 1981. Mammalian hibernation and the oxygen consumption of a denning black bear. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, A. Comparative Physiology, 69:121-123.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Safety Tips for Prey Animals

SOS Naturalist, Tom, with the Western screech owl
The Western screech owl
Above are some photos of a Western screech owl, a member of the Sierra Outdoor School raptor center.  What is the first word that comes to mind when you see her?  There is a good chance you thought "cute."  Her diminutive stature(not much taller than a soda can) and big eyes make us humans view her in the same way we would view a puppy dog—adorable, harmless and the like.  In doing so it is easy to overlook the fact that the Western screech owl is a raptor, a bird that hunts and kills other animals for its food. 

For the duration of this article, we'd like you to pretend that you are a prey animal of this owl. Take your pick of what you'd like to be.  These owls will take the usual small mammals (mice, rats, etc.) and birds, but are also known for eating reptiles (snakes and lizards) and even insects, sometimes catching them while in flight.  Not even the aquatic animals are safe—these owls have been known to capture and kill trout and crayfish.  If you'd rather be dead than be eaten by a screech owl, know that they've been seen scavenging roadkill.

You are now pretending to be a prey animal of this owl. How would you avoid getting eaten?  Consider that this animal is nocturnal and has a relatively large set of powerful eyes, well suited for hunting at night.  Hiding in the darkest of shadows will not help you.  Do you think that slithering or crawling under the cover of leaves, snow or shrubs will keep you alive?  Consider yourself lunch…owls can use their ears to triangulate the location of their prey without ever seeing it. 

Source: Flickr, Dominic Sherony
Perhaps you are thinking that you could hear or see the owl coming and maybe even fight it when it arrives.  Looking at the owl’s image, you probably noticed that it camouflages well in a forest setting. What you can’t see in the photo are tiny serrations on the owl’s flight feathers that makes the owl's flight nearly silent.  As for fighting back, consider that the owl has incredibly strong talons relative to its body size, allowing it to crush the life from its prey. The rear talon, called the hallux, penetrates the prey’s body, injuring vital organs and potentially severing the spinal cord.   

By now you’re probably thinking that, given no other option, you’re best off leaving the Western screech owl’s territory in search of a safer life somewhere else.  Consider that there are an estimated 400,000 of them in North America ranging from Alaska on down through Mexico.  Hiding in the desert is not an option because they are there, too.  You could try travelling east but you will ultimately meet this owl’s cousin, the Eastern screech owl. 

Since neither running nor hiding is an option, perhaps some knowledge and a little luck will keep you safe.  Keep your ears open for the following sound:

The owl’s name is a misnomer and better suited for its close relative the Eastern screech owl.

If you want to stay alive, be careful around their nesting sites—abandoned woodpecker holes and natural cavities in trees and cacti.  They favor nesting sites near canyons and drainages and will nest up to 6,000 feet above sea level.

An owl in its nest.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps a mating pair of these birds have moved into your neighborhood and recently had offspring. Think the adults will be too busy to eat you?  Think again.  The female bird will be busy with the hatchlings, but the male will still be out hunting and bringing food back to the nest.  Also consider that those little hatchlings will be leaving the nest in a month or less and be out mating within the year.  If you think you can wait out their stay until they die consider that the oldest Western screech owl ever recorded was 13 years old.  As a side note, consider that the single owls are equally as dangerous—the males are known for flaunting their dead prey animals around the mouth of their nest to attract females. 

If by now you are thinking that being 100% safe from a Western screech owl is impossible—you are correct.   If you do get eaten, know that you have become part of the metabolic process of a truly cool animal.  Just consider it’s genus—Megascops—a name that would be equally suitable for a fire-breathing robot.  And the species name? kennicotti, named after the American naturalist Robert Kennicott. 

American naturalist Robert Kennicott.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If nothing else, we hope that you have a new appreciation for:
1)How great it is to not be a prey animal of a Western screech owl.
2)That while Western screech owls may be cute, they are far from being harmless.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Senescense: Why leaves change color

Here at Sierra Outdoor School we have few large trees that provide the bulk of our autumn color: black oak, big leaf maple, and Pacific dogwood. All of these trees are deciduous - meaning that each year they shed all of their leaves, remain leafless for a period of time, and then grow all new leaves. The process where the leaves prepare to fall from the tree, or the cells gradually deteriorate as they age, can be referred to as senescense. During this process of senescense, the pigment levels in the leaves change producing the much awaited fall colors.

Pacific dogwood leaves changing along the ditch trail at S.O.S.
The change in day length and temperature signals deciduous trees to begin the process of senescense by first sending any nutrients available in the leaf to other parts of the tree. The next step is to breakdown chlorophyll, the pigment that gives leaves their green color and allows for photosynthesis to occur. As the dominant green pigment slowly disappears, other colors are revealed: yellow, orange, red, and purple. After the chlorophyll is gone, the other pigments will breakdown. At the same time, the cells of the leaf stem are changing so that the leaf will eventually fall off the tree and leave a sealed, leaf scar behind.

Unusually colorful black oak leaves at S.O.S.
In addition to light and temperature, water availability also helps to determine the intensity and duration of the fall colors. If you live in an area with maple, dogwood, and sumac trees they are known for their bright red and orange leaves. These colors are at their peak when temperatures are low, yet above freezing, and also after an early frost. While less intense colors are created from rainy and overcast weather. These photos were all taken along the ditch trail here at S.O.S. Wherever you are, we hope you take the time to enjoy these beautiful changes around you!

Big leaf maple leaves in various shades of yellow

If you'd like to learn more about autumn colors, check out these reference pages:

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Where are they now...2015-2016 SOS Naturalist Interns?

Every year SOS says hello and goodbye to some great Naturalist Interns. This post is dedicated to the amazing people from the 2015-2016 school year. Let's see where they are now!

Andrew Martin (Summit)

Andrew is enjoying teaching children in the outdoors at Sierra Outdoor School as a Naturalist. He loves living and working in the mountains and SOS is the perfect place for him. He is excited about his new roommate, Juno, his puppy, and about learning and working with the SOS raptors.  

Beth Thompson (Owl)

Beth is working at Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center in Yellow Springs, Ohio, as the Program Coordinator Administrative Intern. She is communicating with the schools prior to their arrival to gather information for their visit to the OEC. She also develops the schedule rotations for the naturalists. As one of three administrative interns, she mentors a third of the naturalists and provides input and advice on their lesson plans and teaching techniques. While her position does not require that she works with any of the birds from the Raptor Center, she is putting in the time to handle an Eastern Screech Owl right now!

Emma Ervolina (Glacier)

Emma is working as a Naturalist at Greenkill Outdoor Education Center. Greenkill is a branch of the New York City's YMCA. She teaches anyone from elementary to college folks about the diverse flora and fauna on their 1,150 acre forest.

Karl Koehler (Jellyfish)

Karl is working at Catalina Environmental Leadership Program on Catalina Island. He gets to go sea kayaking and snorkeling all the time with kids and loves every minute of it.

Laurel Marks (Peregrine)

Laurel is working as a Naturalist in the beautiful coastal redwoods at Mendocino Outdoor Science School. She lives in a yurt among the giant trees and takes kids hiking in an old growth redwood forest that's 1,400 years old, to explore the tide pools, and on a fun challenge course. In November she is off to Australia, New Zealand, and Bali to teach Outdoor Education

Lizzie Hoerauf (Salamander)

After leaving SOS, Lizzie had a wonderful road trip back to Virginia. The highlight of it was hiking the Grand Canyon from the rim to the river and back in one day - 18 miles and totally worth it. She spent the summer working for Friends of the National Zoo at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute as an educator at their residential Nature Camps. She had a blast hiking along parts of the Appalachian Trail with the campers while learning about the Smithsonian's breeding efforts for highly endangered species. After a great summer, she made her way out to Minnesota to begin her Naturalist Fellowship at Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center.

Madeleine Burke (Trillium)

Madeleine is working in the beautiful Yosemite National Park as a Field Instructor for Nature Bridge - Yosemite. She is having a great time exploring the park and surrounding areas while taking kids on all sorts of adventures. 

Stephen Ligtenberg (Monkey)

Stephen is in the middle of a three month European tour. He started in the Netherlands and since then has traveled through Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and is currently exploring Estonia. His photo is from Nimis, Ladonia. Ladonia, an independent micro-nation on the west coast of Sweden, known for its life sized drip castles and driftwood structures. In the next couple of months he will travel through Germany and Poland and then various countries in southeastern Europe. He is currently participating in the Adidas Sickline Whitewater Kayaking World championship in Austria.