Thursday, February 28, 2013

Time to Plant Seeds!

 I started getting weekly emails from My Square Foot Garden a couple weeks ago, reminding me that it was time to start seeds indoors. Last year I just bought seedlings from the store, but this year I decided the kids would really enjoy seeing things grow. So we bought a couple supplies:

In particular, I bought a mini-greenhouse seed starter kit for $6.99 and some potting soil. I also bought a couple extra packets of seeds, although I had more than I thought left over  from last year.

 The kids got the soil moist in a big metal tub and then started filling in the plastic trays. I thought they would like this a lot, but it wasn't nearly as fun as I had anticipated. Oh, well. I guess playing in mud is more enjoyable when it's less supervised.

 Then came the seed planting. Desert Boy did a fine job, but Desert Girl thought it was fun to put seeds into extra spaces. Hmm, we may have some surprises coming up.

 We carefully labeled everything with little bits of paper secured on toothpicks.

 Then it was time to water with a little warm water on the bottom of the tray and add the plastic cover. I put the whole tray up on top of the refrigerator, hoping to find a nice, warm place for it. Our house is usually about 65 degrees and I had read that germination was best about 70 degrees. It turns out that the refrigerator is near our door, and all the opening and closing lets in some drafts, so I found a place on top of a high cabinet. It didn't have good light, but the seeds don't need light at this point.

 Three days later, I took down the tray and we saw seedlings! Broccoli, spinach mustard, sunflower, and parsley (which probably really isn't parsley because that takes longer than three days to germinate) had just barely emerged from the soil in six of the little spaces.

Desert Boy is keeping a record of the sprouts. It's been good for his math, reading, and handwriting skills. Today was day 4, and we had sprouts in 11 of the compartments. This is fun! The plastic cover seems to make a big difference, as many other times when I've tried seeds indoors, I've invariably let the plants get too dry. Hopefully this year we'll have much better success!

What plants do you like to grow the best?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Snow Survey 2013

The last week of February is the time to do the snow survey for the March 1st forecast. I was sort of looking forward to it, as the scenery is beautiful, but I was also sort of dreading it, as it's a really long day and I haven't been cross-country skiing since last winter.

 We met at the road closure at 7 am, which meant for an earlier start and a more likely finish before sunset. Last year we ended by skiing in moonlight, and we didn't want a repeat of that.
The first mile and a half was along the road with two inches of snow, and often times less. It was a little frustrating not to be able to drive up the road, as the snow was so low. We were wondering if the whole day would be with so little snow. We saw lots of bare ground and signs of spring--many birds singing (mountain chickadees, Cassin's finches, dark-eyed juncos, common ravens, northern flickers, nuthatches, kinglets, and more). John told me that when he had skied up the day before, he had seen marmots at the marmot crossing sign. Wow, marmots in February! With the are south-facing slope bare of snow, they apparently can find some food.

 We didn't see marmot tracks, but we did see lots of rabbit tracks and a fox that meandered back and forth across the road several times. When we saw the two tracks next to each other (above, rabbit on left, fox on right), I wondered how much time separated them.

 We also found where a bunch of turkeys had crossed the road. They have spread all over the park, and this wouldn't be the only time we saw evidence of them.

We reached the first of the three snow survey sites after a little more than two hours. During the summer it's about a five to ten minute walk from the trailhead. The snow survey sites were established in 1942 by the predecessor of the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). These sites, part of a large network in the West, help the NRCS predict how much water will be in streams in the summer. Many of the snow survey sites have been automated, and the 10-mile round trip we were doing is one of the last, long courses left.

It only takes about 20-30 minutes to do the actual snow measuring at each snow course site. The basic procedure is to use a special metal tube to measure snow depth and then weigh the snow in it. This is done five times at preset distances from the snow course markers. The average is computed and compared to previous years. The first site had roughly 50 percent of average for the snow water equivalent (SWE), which is a nice way of saying how much water is in the snow. We hoped the upper two sites would be a little more positive.

Five of us started the snow survey, but one member turned back after the first site. He may have known what was to come:
 Deep powder, sometimes up to our knees. It made trail blazing a real chore. We took turns leading, but none of us could go for very long because it was so taxing. People who love to ski powder must not spend much time going uphill in powder. And we had a lot of uphill to go--2,600 feet.

 Here's a view I had at one point while I was leading--fresh snow with cool shadows. The scenery was beautiful, but it was hard to think about it sometimes, as we were gasping for air.

 What was frustrating was that even though we were in deep powder, up higher on the hill all the snow had melt off. It was such a teaser!

 We also had some obstacle skiing, like going over deadfall and under logs.

 About lunch time we found a melted out spot and sat down for a few minutes. That 15 minutes was the only time during the ten hours that we got to sit. Mark couldn't get one ski off, and I couldn't get either off, due to the bindings freezing up. So we felt a little stuck. The temperature hovered near freezing, which meant that I got chilled relatively quickly and set off for Snow Course Site #2.

 Snow Course #2 down in the trees and cold and snowy. After we finished that site, one member decided to head back and wait at the lunch spot. He was just a little too worn out due to the elevation and exertion. The remaining three of us headed on to the last site.

 One thing that's good about getting way up there is that the views keep getting better. This area is so pristine, and I love the feeling of being out in the wild. Realizing that if any of us needed a rescue that we would have a very long wait makes it feel even more raw and makes me feel more alive. We carried a SPOT device and checked in regularly.

 I kept on the lookout for winter beauty, like the snow melt circles around the aspen trees.

 And a Douglas fir cone that had rolled down the slope, creating its own little trail.

 The pure winter light made the limber pine needles stand out in the shadows.

 Here comes Ben.

 Then at about 9,500 feet, we saw some animal tracks. We had seen hardly any animal tracks above 8,000 feet, so we were surprised. What was out and about? It didn't take long to see the three-toed tracks and some wing brushes in the snow. A turkey had been up here. They are non-native, so we're none too pleased to see their evidence.

 Finally, about 2 pm, we made it to the third snow course site at 9,600 feet. It's in a meadow longer than a football field.

 Here I am, with my pack creating a strange silhouette.

 Ben takes one of the snow samples, pushing the metal pipe through the snow until it reaches the ground. We found lots of mud under the snow.

Then the snow was weighed while I took notes. Both the second and third sites had roughly 70-75% of average SWE. We need more snow!

When we finished the fieldwork, it was time to head down the mountain. I fell several times, but the powder provided a soft landing. Getting back up was not easy, though. By the time we got back to the truck, I was thoroughly exhausted. Ten hours on skis does that to a person!

We have a photo in our house of my husband's grandfather helping with the snow survey decades ago. He and the group are all on snowshoes. I wonder how long it took them to do the snow surveys, and think of all the untold stories of these annual winter forays up the mountain in search of snow measurements.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Science Experiment: Lava Lamp

It's time for another science experiment! We're going to make our very own Lava Lamp!

This project requires four things: 
* an empty, clean bottle
* vegetable oil
* food coloring
* Alka-Seltzer tablet

First step: fill bottle about 3/4 full with oil.

Next step: fill nearly to the top with water. Watch where the water goes.

Note--have the child that spills more pour in the water. It makes cleanup a lot easier.

Even though the water was poured on top of the oil, it ends up at the bottom. Why?

(Water is denser than oil, so it sinks.)

Ask your child to try to mix the water and oil by shaking the bottle. 
When they don't mix, tell your child to shake harder.

Eventually you should explain why they won't mix. (Basically the water molecules form an exclusive clique, not allowing any other non-polar molecules to join them. Oil is non-polar, so it can't join the party. Check out a more detailed explanation here.)

Of course, if your kids have lots of energy, you could have them shake the bottle for a very long time.

They may, however, really want to get to the next step:
Adding the food coloring! (A great use for a food additive that's not so good to put into our bodies.)

The instructions said to put in 10 drops, but we put in a lot more than that. Where does the dye go?

Finally came the last part: put in a piece of an Alka-Seltzer tablet.
It takes over 20 seconds for something noticeable to happen after the Alka-Seltzer is dropped in.

But then it becomes quite apparent; something magical is happening. Blue bubbles are rising.

They become more and more agitated. Once they reach the surface, the blue sinks back down to the bottom. The Alka-Seltzer creates carbon dioxide gas, which clings to the molecules of water, which have been colored. The gas is less dense than the water or oil, so it rises to the surface, attached to the colored water. Once the carbon dioxide reaches the surface, the gas is released, and the colored water molecule sinks back to the bottom.

The kids found this fascinating.

They took turns putting in the other pieces of the Alka Seltzer tablet.

We did this experiment many times. Actually, it's a demonstration, as we're watching it over and over. To really be an experiment, we need to be able to change things: amount of Alka-Seltzer, or have several bottles with different amounts or types of oil. Nevertheless, I think they learned at least a couple scientific things during this lava lamp demonstration.

Later we did it in the evening and used a flashlight to illuminate the lava lamp, and it looked so cool.

This was a really fun project, and we still have it on the shelf to share with visitors. The lava lamp has made a trip to school, and I think it will be around for awhile.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Little Snowshoe Trip with a Special Treat

On a day off, I took the kids up for a little snowshoeing, the first time this winter. They were very excited. I think they were more excited that I let them pack their own snacks than that they were going snowshoeing, but I'll pretend that it was the outside time they were craving. We hadn't received snow for awhile, so the snow was hard packed, meaning that you didn't really need snowshoes to walk on it. That was okay, it made it much, much easier to practice!

We also packed a sled and skis so Desert Boy could ski down and Desert Girl could take the sled. That was exciting, too, as the more snow toys, the better.

It was just below freezing, so it felt good. When Desert Boy asked how far we were going, I told him he could decide. Wow, the day just couldn't get any better for him!

Desert Girl was about to have her highlight of the day:

She found something on the snow.

Now, she may be three years old, but she's still a little like a baby sometimes, wanting to fully explore things with all her senses.
First, she looks at it and touches it.

Then she smells it and eats it.

Well, I guess whatever it was, it was good.

We continued a bit more, then turned around and switched the snow gear. It was a rockin' time down the gentle slope. Yippee, a fun little jaunt in the snow!
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