Nature’s Fireworks over Beijing at Night

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 22, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

We returned to Paradise, from our journey by rail through Russia, Mongolia and China, just in time for some lively showers and evening thunderstorms.  It felt a bit like a “Welcome home!” after our travels, and a reminder of how much I have loved the excitement of lightning.

Many times over the years, I have noted that my love of thunderstorms and lightning probably led to my meteorology studies.  Somewhere in there is my long-term fascination with the connection between human comfort and behavior, and lightning—nature’s “Alka-Seltzer of the air.”  Near the end of our trip, I was loudly reminded of all that.

Our second night in Beijing, we watched a wave of thunderstorms light up the sky, and the huge city beneath it.  Lightning filled the sky to the west of our little Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel.  Minute by minute, dancing between the negative and positive charges of ground and cloud, the lightning drew closer and closer.  It finally swept over and around us a bit after 11:00, neutralizing the electrical ion imbalances of a muggy, heavy evening.  Literal sheets of rain washed pollutants from the air and scrubbed the streets and alleys of our historic Dongcheng District, northeast of Beijing’s center.  We caught our breath as the excitement moved to the east.

The last time I saw a fireworks show like that was just a couple months over four decades ago, in Lawrence, Kansas.

As a grad student, the first meteorology class I taught at the University of Kansas was full of young people who saw no sense in studying weather.  They argued that, since they drove air‑conditioned cars and lived and studied in climate‑controlled rooms, there was no need.  They were totally insulated from Nature.

But this was lightning country, and in those nighttime storms, lightning would dash and sizzle and hang from cloud top to cloud top.  I might lay in bed watching it for an hour or more.  I loved it.

I explained to my modern, climate-controlled youngsters that the discomfort they felt with “dry” or “moist” air often had to do with electrical ions.  In very dry air, especially with a warm wind, an excess of negative ions may build up, commonly causing irritability and short tempers.  Water vapor molecules, on the other hand, may carry an excess of positive ions.  Especially in warm air, high levels of water vapor—humidity—might make them fussy and uncomfortable, with a “leave me alone” attitude.

As luck would have it, that spring we had a week of very warm, windy, dry weather.  Students squabbled over almost anything in our study rooms (“Do you HAVE to turn those *!^# pages so loud?”).  It was great.  Then, the night before an early‑morning lab with my “insulated” ones, a line of thunderstorms moved through.  It was, perhaps, the best storm line ever; two and a half hours of fireworks.  As it approached, drawing warm moist air in ahead of it, positive ions built up in our house.  None of us could sleep.  One by one, the kids drowsily wandered into our room.  “What’s Wrong?” I’d ask.  “I don’t feel good,” they’d say.  “Well, what’s wrong, honey?”  “NUTHIN’! I just don’t feel good…  I can’t sleep.”  As they huddled around the bed, each groaning in his or her own world, I turned my attention back to the show in the sky.

When the storm finally passed over us, at least a dozen lightning bolts crashed and exploded within a hundred yards of our house.  As it moved off to the east, having sorted out all of those imbalanced ions, my tribe was asleep.  Michelle conked out on the carpet near her mom, Nicole on the floor by her bed and Tim was sprawled across his bed with one foot on the floor.

My students were all yawning the next morning.  “Just couldn’t sleep ‘til after the storm,” they said.  “Not insulated enough, maybe,” I ventured.

Those Beijing fireworks were the perfect way to wrap up our amazing weeks abroad.  At some level, it probably cleared our heads to weigh what we learned about the people, cultures, history and landscapes of the countries we traveled.  And it is good to be back in Paradise.

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]

About Thunderstorms and Tornadoes

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 14, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

No doubt you have taken note of the thunderstorms which have rolled through parts of our valley over the last few weeks.  We are all paying attention to the tornadoes popping up in parts of the US almost daily.  This is spring—this is weather time.

No matter where I see it or smell it, flashing lightning and the acrid ozone smell, lingering briefly behind it, take me back to being a small kid.  And those hours-long lightning storms moving across the Kansas prairie are still with me from grad school days.  That dance between negative and positive charges on ground or in clouds, and the neutralizing of atmospheric ions remind me that lightning is really the AAlka‑Seltzer@ of the air.

How I love lightning… and am fascinated by tornadoes.

I am carried right back to Lawrence, and the University of Kansas.  There, in the early 1970s, I met Bob Brown.  Bob was hooked on heavy weather—the heavier the better.  I got caught up in his addiction the first time I met him.

I was working on a Ph.D. in geography and meteorology.  Bob was after a Master=s degree in business administration.  He had been an Air Force meteorologist, but was out of the Vietnam and Air Force business by the time we met.  For giggles and cash, he worked with us in the Department of Geography and Meteorology as a teaching and research assistant.

Bob insisted that the atmosphere, and every individual storm or system within it, had its own life force—its own consciousness.  He also believed storms had well‑developed senses of humor.  To forecast the weather effectively, he said, you had to be willing and able to “feel” what the atmosphere had to tell you.  The best forecasters, he said, were old Kansas farmers who heard the weather talk.  I thought long and hard about that consciousness, that sense of humor and that “life force@ of storms.  Years later, my best forecasts as a TV weatherman in Denver came when I really listened to the atmosphere.

One of our KU profs had a big federal contract to study tornado damage, to identify the safest place in a house during a tornado.  It was great.  We got to travel on that dime through much of the Midwest “tornado belt,” examining the carnage and learning about twisters.

I was fascinated by the power and damage of those storms.  We saw things that seemed impossible.  And we saw tornado humor.

The bark might be completely stripped off one tree‑‑and I mean completely‑‑while a tree ten feet away would look as if nothing had passed.  A broom and individual broomstraws might be sticking THROUGH car windows.

A tornado flattened part of Lubbock, Texas.  It hit in midafternoon, as school let out.  A woman told us that she heard the roar of the tornado as her two kids hit the front steps.  There was no time to get under the house, and a voice told her to get into the coat closet by the front door.  When the terrifying shaking and roaring and crashing stopped, they got out.  That closet was the only thing standing above floor level in the entire block.  The woman said she found God in that closet.  Probably still goes in there Sunday mornings.

Our funniest tornado story also happened in the Lubbock episode.  Mobile home parks are often death traps, since the light metal boxes are not made to take such winds.  One mobile home park was hit, but little damage was done.  It seems a bachelor, the owner of a bright red Mercedes convertible, lived in the park.  When he had a date, especially if she was pretty, he would drive around the park a couple times.  He flaunted his women, money and shiny car at every chance.  We found his totaled home upside down on his totaled car.  No serious injury, but his was the only real damage in the park.

Looking at damage was interesting, but we always arrived after the tornadoes.  More than anything, Bob wanted to see a tornado close up.  He spent his spare time doing what he’d done for years—chasing storms.  With the top down on his little Austin-Healey, he would intercept a line of severe thunderstorms and follow them into Nebraska or Missouri, hoping to see a funnel drop out of the bottom of some bulging cumulonimbus cloud.  Bob often returned soaked to the skin with stories of crashing lightning, hail, and torrential rains.  Over hundreds of hours and thousands of miles, however, he never saw a twister.

Bob got his MBA, and took a job with Ma Bell in Boise.  One week after he drove his wife and baby out of Lawrence, we watched a tornado hang for ten minutes over the house he’d lived in for three years.

Tornadoes here in Paradise are highly unlikely—indeed almost impossible with that stable marine layer above us.  But I thrill to our lightning storms.  Sometimes I remember that, after this life, I intend to go fly with the tornadoes.

Happy almost summer…

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]

Hard Questions Answered

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 7, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

As you might imagine, from time to time, questions are posed to the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association.  I believe this is because we have gathered some of the best minds in the Western Hemisphere.

Perhaps I get the hard ones, because I am willing to devote research time to finding answers to those outdoor questions with which others can only struggle.

A homey who wishes to remain anonymous followed up on a recent column by raising some interesting points.  To wit: “I have long felt that groups of us—and even some individuals—can and do create weather, danger and other situations that society handles just with our thoughts.  What is your opinion of the role of the mass media in this?”

It seems to me that, at some point, we gave over control of our health and well-being to the American Medical Association and its lackeys, the mass media.  The media report some new outbreak of the flu—verified by some official-sounding medical association—and thousands of us dutifully fall ill with it and the rest line up for flu shots.  Some official crackpot identifies tree mold as on the rise, gets the media to “report” it (along with a suggestion that a large number of people are allergic to these levels of tree mold), and people throughout the broadcast area start sneezing and wheezing.  We pretend the media gives us all sides of issues so we can make considered judgments about our lives.  Not so; the Daily Record is the only balanced media left.

Actually, now that I think about it, I have no opinion about that, homey.

“So you are going ‘steelhead’ fishing.  What exactly are they, and how did they get that name?”
(Lois Love Brown, South Ellensburg)

I’m delighted to share my research on this, Lois.  Simply, steelhead are sea-run rainbow trout.  But it’s not that simple.  They’re anadromous—meaning that they are “bi” (liking fresh water AND salt water).  The whole thing started when a rainbow got large enough to develop a taste for ferrous minerals.  It headed for the ocean and places where the underlying rock was rich in iron.  The shrimp and salt-water prey of this first sea-run trout were very high in dissolved iron.  That iron, in turn, was absorbed into the bony parts of the sea-run rainbow.  By the time the first sea-run rainbow returned to fresh water, its bones, especially the skull, was nearly entirely iron.  As others joined that first pioneer, they became exceptionally heavy, strong, fighting fish.  Part of their beauty is the result of some of the iron leaking out through their gills, staining their sides with an almost iridescent red color.  The first European to catch one of these fish did so accidently when he dropped his magnetic watch fob into the Columbia, and immediately found himself chained to a twelve-pound trout.  The year was 1855, the man’s name was John Steele, and thus it became “steelehead.”  Really, the fish is more appropriately named “ironhead,” but you know how biologists are.  It also should be obvious to you why Washington Fish and Wildlife has outlawed the use of magnets in ironheading.

Roberto K. Pensepesca, Ellensburg, asks:  “I know that males’ contribution to fish egg fertilization is called ‘milt,’ which is released over the female’s eggs to fertilize them.  What is the source of this term, ‘milt’?”

An excellent question.  Too little has been understood about this over the years, and I’m pleased to straighten it out now.  In 1798, when the first fish hatcheries were being built, the idea of hatching and rearing fish in captivity, to then be released into the wild, was big news.  During that time, the press was very cautious about using words which might titillate emotions of America’s good citizens.  The first headline, “Fish Semen Spread Over Ova!” stirred up such an uproar, that the entire program was in danger of being scrapped.  Biologists quickly hatched a new plan.  Milton Harrison (who, you may recall, pitched in Erie, Pennsylvania’s first baseball game) was the man in charge of “milking” the males, so the semen became, euphemistically, “milt.”  Following this same logic, ova became “suzanna” after the woman in charge of stripping the eggs from the females.  Suzanna didn’t actually last long at that job, as she had great inner conflict over the whole idea of females giving up their eggs for science and became increasingly depressed.  (While her career in the hatchery was short, she became widely known as the heroine of Stephen Foster’s song in honor of her stand for the female fish, “Oh, Suzanna.”  But I digress.)  The first headline using the new euphemisms for fish sex read, “Suzanna Covered By Milt At Fish Hatchery!”  That was too much for those fine folk, and biologists decided just to call them eggs, or roe.  The “milt” part stuck, however, and we still honor Milton by using it today.

As always, submit your hard-to-answer questions (of an outdoor nature, please) to the RCRGWD&OTTBA in care of this paper or to the blog.  We are always pleased to share answers to the mysteries of the natural world.

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]

Up a Potholes Swamp without a Battery

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 31, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey Chris Smart heard from Roger Reynolds, and asked if I remembered him.

Duh…  I knew Roger from our shared time in Central’s Communication Department a decade and a half ago.  Roger was a great prof—and a good coach—as I developed Com classes, but we mostly hit it off over our shared interest in the outdoors.  He guided duck hunters in his off times, and was a champion duck caller.

Chris got me thinking about this time of year a decade and a half ago.

As I recall, in celebration of the long-awaited arrival of spring of 1997, several members of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association went afield.  As Vantage Rep of our humble think tank, Roger offered to show us the Winchester Wasteway and a vast number of waterfowl passing through.  John Hultquist, Bob and Cynthia Kuhlken and a couple others came to play.

Huge flocks of birds were in the Basin, on their trip north to the task of making more birds.  Roger figured this might be our last chance to see so many birds, and it was good to be out of the Upper County snow, even on a chilly and windy day.

There were birds everywhere.  We tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as we walked along the Wasteway, or sat with our binoculars.  At various times, we were behind, alongside, under and in front of thousands of birds.  Within a couple hours we enjoyed close encounters with tundra (whistler) swans and Canada geese, mallards, green-winged teal, redheads, pintails, goldeneyes, buffleheads, gadwalls and ring-necked ducks.  There were common mergansers and a couple grebes.  Roger estimated we saw some 25,000 birds along one stretch of the northern Winchester Wasteway, even though many had already headed north.

That refreshing day left us in the mood for more Basin country adventures, and Roger and I soon created one of the great adventures of my life in Paradise.

Much of Roger’s waterfowl hunting took place out in the Basin—in those Potholes lakes and ponds and the meandering waterways among them.  “We should see what it looks like in spring,” he said, “and maybe we can catch a few of the bass that hang in there, or see deer or country we haven’t been in yet, maybe.”

And so it was.  We met on a still-dark Saturday morning at his place, loaded a canoe and headed east on I-90.  Somewhere out toward George, we turned south on a gravel road to increasingly isolated wetlands and potholes.  When we were sufficiently lost, Roger found a parking spot and we carried the canoe to the water.

Over the next many hours, we paddled, explored, portaged, laughed, caught bass, paddled, explored and laughed.  We saw country that few had wandered and had a day to remember.  Somehow, a couple hours before dark, we ended up back where we started.

We stowed our gear, loaded the canoe back atop his Carryall, and started the rig.  Not.  In our haste to explore, someone forgot to turn off the rig’s headlights.  Given that there was not a soul in sight and we were at least 10 miles off the interstate, this was a dilemma.  Finally, we decided that there had to be someone about and set off to find them—me in one direction and Roger in another.  I went uphill to the main road (i.e., the biggest gravel track in the area) to, hopefully, flag down some rig from whom we might get a jump with our cables.  In an hour and a half, I saw exactly zero rigs.  As I was planning our overnight bivouac, I saw a rig emerge from the scrub trees a mile or two off to the west.  It approached our lonely-looking carryall and stopped.  One guy was dressed like Roger; the other just looked like good luck.

When I finally reached the rig, they had it purring nicely, recharging its starved battery.  The story behind our Good Samaritan was the best part of a now really great day.

Roger, in his wanderings, had heard voices off at one of the large ponds and went to say “Howdy” to the three guys fishing there.  Turned out they had no clue what he was saying, and Roger’s sign language for “Help me jump my truck” was just causing laughter and curiosity.  About that time, a young guy walked up from another pond, dragging half a dozen big carp, and asked if he could help.

They were from Seattle, he told Roger—Kazakhstanis collecting their traditional carp for a big wedding feast.  At the time he met them, Roger figured they had 200 pounds of carp in three coolers.  It still took a bit of sign language, but the younger fellow finally understood our problem, and here we were with the rig running.

What a day it was, really.  We got to practice communication skills and language contortions, while learning about a culture which—like most of the world, actually—valued a fish we considered trash.

Ah, spring…

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]

To the Edge of America for Big Flat Fish

Written by Jim Huckabay on May 24, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

We needed a big adventure, so we signed up for one at the Central Washington Sportsmen Show in February.  We got one, and more.

Homey Kirk Johnson and I hooked up with Captain Don “Determined” Davenport for a run from Westport out to the edge of the Continental Shelf on his charter fishing boat, Ranger.  We would chase big flat fish—just for the halibut—with ling cod and sea bass thrown in for good measure..

Last Sunday morning, at 3:45, we and our new fishing family were aboard the Ranger, mulling the prospect of catching our limits of some of the best eating fish in the Pacific.

We cruised out of Grays Harbor and northwesterly into a breezy gray morning.  It was so choppy that the mere thought of a two plus hour ride to the halibut flats was stirring the stomachs of several of our new kin.  I had taken my Bonine, and managed to keep my stomach where it was supposed to be—for the moment, at least.  Homey Kirk had attached one of those magic patches right behind his ear; and his only concern seemed to be keeping his balance in the rollers.

Captain Don warned us that it would be a long and bumpy ride, but that the couple boats in front of us would keep us apprised of changing conditions.  The halibut and other denizens of the deep awaited us.  The trip out to the edge of America was all he promised.

By the time we reached our halibut flat, several of our compatriots had spent time hugging the aft lee railing.  As we focused on the halibut several hundred feet below us, though, the rocking of the Ranger became simply the rhythm of fishing.  We were a couple hundred yards from the edge of the Continental Shelf.

We quickly were into fish, and shifted from travel to the serious business of catching halibut.  A husband and wife team pulled in 30 and 37 pounders from the bow.  Each drift across the shelf brought another handful of 20 to 25 pound flatfish aboard.  Deckhands Blake and Jason were busy with bait and fish and tangled or snagged lines.  From time to time, someone would whoop over a nice halibut or a big ugly ling cod.  No matter how queasy a fisher felt or looked, any whoop would bring a smile and a sense that his or her rod would be soon controlled by some denizen more than a football field beneath us.  In a bit over an hour, we caught the final halibut of our limits.  Somewhere in there I caught the record small fish of the day (12 pounds or so), and took a short turn at that lee aft railing—my second offering of stomach contents in forty trips on big water.

As my innards settled, Captain Don pointed the Ranger toward his Rockfish and Ling Cod Reef.  It was still choppy, but the ocean grew quieter as the morning waned and we moved toward shore and the magic reef.

At the reef, in much quieter water, and from a fraction of our former depth, Kirk and I quickly landed a couple nice sea bass (black rockfish) and then another.  I was still pretty green around the gills, but that passed as we brought in a couple dozen more big bass over the next hour or so.  At one point, Kirk and I each tied into two five-pound plus fish, which agreed among themselves to tangle our lines.  Working together, we reeled in a scrappy twenty-pound mass of bass.

Homey and I failed to bring in lings, although several six to ten pound lings came aboard.  A couple fish pushing two feet in length, but still under legal size, were released.  Captain Don calls them “swimmers,” and they headed back into the deep with our wishes for growth and a future opportunity to play “fishing for ling cod.”

By this time, most everyone was warming to the brightening day and quieting water.  Hanging over the rail became more and more a distant memory, as fishing took the moment.  In an hour or so we filled our limits of rockfish.  In a couple decades of catching these sea bass, that time on the Captain’s reef was the best I had ever experienced; fast and hard biting, the fish were consistently bigger than I had seen before.

With limits of halibut and sea bass aboard, Cap was determined to make one last charge at lings.  A final stop at a secret ling cod honey hole looked promising, but the current and wind drift kept our tasty baits just out of the lings’ range of temptation.

We declared it a great adventure and successful day as the Captain fired up the motors and pointed us back toward Westport.  We examined and photographed fish as they came up for filleting by Deckhand Blake.  The newly made fish meat went into marked bags; halibut first, then sea bass and finally the lings.

We returned to the dock twelve hours after we left it.  Fisheries agents checked us out.  We thanked Captain Don and his crew, gathered our filets and stepped back onto terra firma.

Thus, we achieved our needed adventure and would do it again in a heartbeat.  Happy spring to you, too…

[Copyright James L. Huckabay, 2013]