Monday, 8 March 2010

Project 4: Zion National Park

At last, no more re-vegetation and no more Lake Mead. For my fourth project I would travel to Zion National Park in Utah to help set up the irrigation system in preparation for the Spring and Summer months where the campsites and surrounding areas require large amounts of water. This is glamourising the job quite a bit as effectively we would be cleaning out ditches but hey-ho, I would rather do that in Zion than just about anywhere.

It was obvious before I went that Zion is one of those projects that most people want. All of the supervisors and past volunteers rate it very highly and many prefer it to the Grand Canyon in terms of beauty. It was also apparent just after entering the park that this could be true as you drive to the bottom and then along the canyon which towers over you from all angles.

We worked the rest of the day that we arrived and the warning we had received about the weather and the cold seemed to be true. It was raining from pretty much the moment we started to the moment we tooled up and there were times where even the beauty of the surroundings didn't count for much. It got pretty low when we had to erect a tent in the pouring rain, cook and eat huddled together under a tarpaulin and then go to bed at 7.30. We had better luck with the weather the next day and for the majority of the hitch to be fair. It only rained on the Saturday night although the mornings were freezing.

One feature of my morning routine was to put the warm water on the stove. Firstly this was so that I and the rest of the crew could have warms drinks but this also helped to defrost my fingers. Imagine holding a shovel for ten hours a day, seven days straight. I would wake up and due to the cold not be able to close my fingers all the way into my palm. One morning my right hand couldn't close and my left hand was clasped shut! Still now I have pains in my right hand first thing in the morning.

Digging and cleaning ditches is pretty easy and doesn't require much thought. After the first day I assumed that by the end of the week I would be ready to kill myself with my own shovel but it didn't work out that way and I was rarely bored. At points where the work does get to you, I would just take a look around and drift off into some random thought. Also, working in a line helps as you can chat the people next to you and it is probably the project where the working day has gone the quickest.

We were also fortunate to have a supervisor who loves Zion and so after work rather than just going back to camp to cook, eat and sleep we would spend a few hours hiking around the park. We managed to hike the Emerald Pools, Watchman, Weeping Rock and Canyon Overlook trails. This allowed us to see Zion from a height rather than the canyon floor and in my eyes only helped to enhance it's reputation as a stunning place to visit. The park rangers at Zion were also fantastic and had collected a weeks worth of fire wood for us. They even provided a tarpaulin so we could keep it all dry. Work hard all day, hike to an amazing location with stunning views, hike back down and then eat a large, lovingly cooked meal in front of a campfire. Add to that an excellent crew with people you enjoy spending time with and it doesn't get much better.

There is supposed to be a lot of light pollution around Zion and so the night sky is not as amazing as it could be. However on one night the moon was so bright that it lit up the side of a mountain as if it were the sun. I woke up at 3am and it was so bright that you could easily see 100ft and didn't need to use a torch at all. Like the scenic drive on the first night I was actually speechless and couldn't quite believe my eyes. I would happily dig ditches on every project if it were in Zion. It is a very, very special place.You can see all of the photos here. My camera did run out and so there are more on my Facebook page.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Road Trip: New Mexico Loop

Another set of days off! Our plan, the seven of us, was to go to New Mexico via Southern Arizona and get some first class American culture. To say we had the foundation of a plan is a massive, massive lie and after renting the cars on the Thursday we set off down towards Phoenix on Friday at 6am with pretty much no idea of what we were going to do.

Phoenix is not over-rated, because no one rates it to start with so we sent sailing past there and stopped around Tucson to fill up on petrol. We could have visited Tucson but we had finally come to the conclusion of visiting Saguaro National Park further South so we carried on. We ended up visiting Saguaro (with the massive cactus) and then Chiricahua National Monument (with the massive rock pillars) in the day before ending up in small town America at Willcox. This was basically a ghost town and we were lucky to find a petrol station, both because you wouldn't expect to see one in such a place and we really needed petrol. Somehow we stumbled across a Texan BBQ restaurant that was actually a train and so the majority of our first evening was spent inside a train carriage in a dead beat town. Rather than stay in Willcox we headed east into New Mexico and decided to do some night driving so we could get to Las Cruces and be in a good place to start the next days travel.

After an awesome breakfast at Pancake Alley we headed to White Sands National Monument which is basically a collection of brilliant white sand dunes in a desert. It was shocking to see it there as it looked completely out of place but it was beautiful at the same time. Like kids we ran about on the dunes and rolled down them. This was a fairly brief visit and we were soon on our way to Roswell. We didn't necessarily want to visit Roswell but it was a good connecting location for our journey South. The drive to Roswell from White Sands only took about an hour and a half but it was probably the best driving experience of my life so far. We had to descend quite a distance and at one point it was just both of our cars on the longest, straightest stretch of road you have ever seen. Nothing in front, nothing behind for miles, and you lost the road in the horizon. We had identical cars and so it was only fair to have a mini race. I was comfortably doing 115 mph when Hayley came racing past closer to 130mph. Unfortunately this wasn't the first time a girl has beaten me at something but we got to speed all over the state to be honest as the roads are so empty and so inviting!

Roswell turned out to be pretty boring as we had been told it would be. We paid a quick visit to the UFO museum and headed South to Carlsbad. We wound up in a pretty little motel and went back to Carlsbad to get some beer and wine for a little house party in our rooms. The next morning we were up nice and early to visit the Carlsbad Caverns which are undescribale. Just a massive space beneath the earth with amazing rock formations, stalacmites and stalactites. My pictures don't really do it justice as it was obviously dark but it was probably the highlight of my trip. Also, the entrance to the caverns is at the top of a large hill and there were amazing panoramic views into Texas for miles around.

After Carlsbad we headed North and visited the smaller Las Vegas. This was pretty pointless as it was Sunday and everything was either closed our out of business. I definitely prefer the Nevada version. That evening we arrived in Santa Fe and ate at the highly recommended Cowgirl Hall of Fame Cafe. This was the best meal of the trip and I had some rib burger which was humongous! The next morning we spent a few hours looking around Santa Fe at which point it began to snow! Unbelievable. I visited the Georgia O'Keefe museum which was fun in places but I expected more. American Hayley was due to go out on project today and so we set off for Flagstaff at around 1pm, stopping in Gallup at the famous El Rancho hotel. Apparently Ronald Reagan stayed there! 1500 miles in just over 3 days and you get see all of the pictures here.

Project 3: Lake Mohave

Back to Lake Mead National Recreation Area for the third project but this time we would be based at Lake Mohave, south of the Hoover Dam rather than further up at Lake Mead. The object of this project was to remove Tamarisk trees from the around the shoreline of the lake. The Tamarisk trees were introduced basically because studies showed that they would flourish. As Lake Mohave was man made the powers that be preferred a species of tree that would grow quickly to help the lake look more natural. The only problem was that they flourished rapidly and more effectively than anyone ever thought possible. Basically each tree consumes around 200 litres of water a day and then dumps a whole load of salt back into the earth, making it nigh on impossible for native species such as Mesquite and a type of Willow to grow.

We had two crews each with two supervisors who were chainsawed trained. Their job was to identify a native species of tree, they would then chainsaw all of the surrounding Tamarisk in order to free it up. We then had to drag these branches and in most cases whole trees around 150 metres across the desert to a slash pile. We then had a sprayer would had a specially designed herbicide that they would spray on the stumps to stop the Tamarisk growing back.

My week started badly as on the first full day I had a really bad head and felt very sick. It didn't help that at the end of the day we had to move camp as we had found a more suitable spot. I couldn't eat a thing at dinner but Sam, our supervisor, recognised that I was dehydrated and ordered me to eat dinner and drink a litre of water. He certainly knows his stuff as half an hour later I was as right as rain. I've been so good with my water intake up until then and even on that day I drank over four litres but it gets hot and is so dry that I'm now averaging six just to be on the safe side.

That evening we watched the sun set over Lake Mohave and we would get to do this every evening as unlike Lake Mead we were on Mountain time and not Pacific. It is so nice getting back to camp after a 10 hour day and it not being dark. Sam has his crews set up a bit differently as well. We break into sets of 3 and take turns to cook the dinner and wash up each and every day, which means rather than everyone getting involved (which we did previously and it worked well) you get to chill out and not do a thing around camp on at least four days. Sitting by the lake watching the sunset, waiting for someone to cook you dinner is a nice feeling. Also we were able to have a fire every single night as our job was cutting down trees which were to be destroyed. The fires were the highlight of my day and probably the trip. You work hard all day, get back to a gorgeous sunset over the lake, someone cooks you dinner and washes up for you and then you get to relax by a roaring fire, looking up at the most amazing starry sky and if you're lucky (which I was) see a few shooting stars. Just perfect.

We really hit our targets on this project and hopefully some of our hard work will go to helping some of the native species of tree continue to grow. You can view all of the pics here.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Road Trip: Las Vegas

I was going to write about my second project and had typed up this big essay but the computer at the library has been infected with a virus and Blogger didn't automatically save it, so instead of typing it all up again I'm going straight to the Vegas. The second project was basically the same work as the first one apart from what I like to call brutal Sunday where we planted over 1200 cactus and had injuries with hospital visits. You can view the photos from the second project here .

So, Vegas. First of all we rented a Toyota Four-runner which turned out to be a best of a car, it seated seven and it was like driving a tank. I thought I would struggle with the drive but it turned out to be easier than I thought. The roads are so big and there's no one around in this parts of the states that it was probably the nicest four hour drive I have ever made. Plus I got to drive over the Hoover Dam and on the strip in the same day!

We checked into our hotel around 2.30pm, the world famous Hooters Casino and Hotel resort, yeah baby! You know it's classy when they have an ex porn star signing autogrpahs in the afternoon. We sorted all of our stuff out and went to meet Karl who had injured his back on project and instead of going back to Flagstaff, had returned to Vegas to stay with his uncle. He was our guide and showed us around some of the casinos at the top of the strip. On the first day we pretty much covered the MGM Grand, New York:New York, The Excalibur, The Luxor and Mandalay bay.

After a quick shower we decided to check out the buffet at the Bellagio. I had heard about this before and it also had an amazing write up in Lonely Planet and I can confirm it is all true. Okay it was $40 a head but the food and the atmosphere were world class. On one plate I had Ostrich and Kobe beef! The Sushi was also amazing and the cheesecake might actually have come from heaven. Unfortunately, this sort of standard attracts a certain type of clientele and the bellagio is for the high rollers, there are no $2 tables here! As such, we moved on to gamble at the City Centre Casino and Hotel.

After a late night I started the next day with a trip to an indoor gun range where I had a go on a Glock pistol and shot an Osama Bin Laden target in the head. This may sound strange but the gun was louder than I expected and the aim is never true, you have to aim slightly higher than where you actually want to hit. I spent the rest of the day wandering around the strip and having a few small bets here and there. We then went for another buffet at the Tropicana and it was slightly cheaper than the Bellagio and as such the quality was slightly lower. The girls then went to a male strip show and me and the boys set about the Hooters Casino where I managed to win back most of my losses for the first day.

I am having to rush this and will edit it next week when I get back but basically Vegas was amazing, the Stratosphere at night was breathtaking and you can see all of the pictures here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona

This was a special one day project to help clear the trails so that the public could still access much of the monument. It was quite nice to be up early and working having spent over a week pottering around in Flagstaff. Having said that the day started pretty poorly with little organisation which resulted in over 30 volunteers crammed into a living all trying to make their lunch!

Walnut Canyon is about 10 miles from Flagstaff and we were soon there and after our stretches and a safety briefing we divided into two crews and started shovelling. Our first task was to clear the path leading to the visitor centre and after 10 minutes it looked as if this was going to be a long day.

However, once we moved onto the 'Rim Trail' things started to brighten up and we were afforded stunning views across and down into the snow covered canyon.During our lunch at one of the lookout points we spotted a trio of deer which is pretty much the first major piece of wildlife I have seen. We then moved away from the rim and helped dig out the trail, almost completing the full loop before we had to leave early as our supervisor had a meeting back in town. We saw a couple of hikers during the day and it was satisfying to know that our work had enabled them to experience a little bit of this fantastic location. You can see all of the pictures here.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Project 1: Lake Mead, Mojave Desert

So the first project! After checking the schedule I found out I had been assigned to the Lake Mead re-hab project. Speaking to returning volunteers they told us that this was basically a lot of plant work and not too physically demanding.

We set off at 7am on Wednesday morning heading West towards Las Vegas. The drive took around 4 hours but did include a crossing of the Hoover Dam which was pretty cool. Lake Mead is situated just after the dam and is one of three man made lakes in the area, each the result of the dam project back in the 1930's. We found our camp which was fairly luxurious by most standards (it had a working toilet), pitched our tents and headed for our first half day of work at the Lake Mead National Recreation Centre.

This is effectively a nursery which is growing species of cacti native to the Mojave Desert and re-planting them. The reason for this is the construction of a new bridge next to the Hoover Dam which is aiming to move traffic off of the dam. The construction project is huge and on both sides of the Colorado river large areas of the desert have been disturbed to create the various approach/access roads, on-ramps, etc. This has left large sections of road with what are effectively wastelands either side.

Our main job is to manufacture seed balls and distribute them and then transport and plant hundreds of cacti along these roads. The seed balls took the majority of the first two days and involved making a mix of red clay, sand, compost, water and the seeds into large batches which we then had to mould into miniature balls. These would then dry overnight and we would distribute them along the new roads at the end of our project. The project partner did stress that this was an experimental method and so unfortunately it is not guaranteed to work, unlike the planting of cacti that has already blossomed which was our next task.

The cacti came in two forms. The large, heavy Barrel Cactus and the small yet thoroughly annoying Beaver Tail Cactus. The Barrel cactus were heavy and the mopst physically demanding in terms of transportation and loading on and off the trucks. The Beaver Tail's were just plain evil and we warned that we had to wear long sleeve shirts and sunglasses as the spikes can come off so easily with hardly any wind at all. This proved to be right and they even found their way through two layers of clothing. There are some pictures at the link at the bottom of the post where you can see the damage they did!

After transportation we had to plant these hundreds of cacti and trying to dig into solid desert floor is a task and a half. Then, when you have finally dug a hole big enough to support the cactus roots you have to handle the cactus in order to place it properly (Barrel Cactus have to be North facing) and there is simply no way to avoid being pricked or stung. You then have to use the earth that you have dug up to bury and support the cactus and once that is done you move onto the next one and then the next one and then the next one. Most days the sun came up and we had to work in the heat but it was exactly what I wanted. Fairly tough, outdoor work in an amazing location.

On the Saturday night we had a visit from one of the supervisors to check on the project and during his visit he took a phone call from the office back in Flagstaff. It turns out that a major snowstorm is due to hit to Flagstaff on Monday afternoon and the Highways Agency have declared they are going to shut the highways, effectively meaning we wouldn't be able to get back as the project was meant to last a week and we were to return on Wednesday. It is Wednesday as I write this and I am already back, having returned Sunday. It has snowed heavily for the last couple of days but apparently it is going to hit really hard tonight and then snow all the way until Saturday. Some of the locals reckon it might the worst snowstorm they've had in twenty years! Needless to say I've done some food shopping and have got tea and cigarettes for the next few days just in case we're snowed in.

On a more positive note I have just found out that our crew will be returning to Lake Mead next Wednesday partly to finish the job we started and also as the project partner has requested the same crew. I guess we did a great job! You can find all the pictures here.

Monday, 18 January 2010


The day started pretty well and then deteriorated just like the weather, with my flight being delayed five hours. It was around midnight that we finally got to Phoenix and I got checked into my hotel. It was okay for a one nighter and was really close to the airport. We weren't getting picked up until 6pm on the Saturday and so I chilled out until 12.30 and then headed to the airport. I didn't bother with Phoenix and have since found out that I didn't miss much as there is not really alot there.

There was the pick-up at the airport where I got to meet most of the incoming volunteers and we then headed for Flagstaff which took around three and a half hours. We were assigned our apartments and once there literally went straight to bed. It was strange waking up Sunday in a room with three other people I didn't know and at the bottom of a bunk bed! We had an induction about the house rules and how things work and were told that we had a free day as our main induction would not be until Monday afternoon. The rest of the day was spent exploring and meeting my other housemates. It had been snowing heavily in Flagstaff and it was strange walking through although technically being in a desert environment. There are more photos here.

Thursday, 7 January 2010


A picture of the pier, the day before departure. You can see other pictures here.