Posted by: pointreyesscience | July 27, 2009

Vegetation Monitoring at Muir Beach

I am in the jungle. Oh god, how did this happen?

I am surrounded by cattails more than twice as tall as me, as noted by my calm and collected coworker who is behind me describing the vegetation that I’ve been painstakingly careful not to disturb in my trailblazing plunges. I am relatively calm, though invigorated by the surprise adventure in which I have found myself. I am forging a path through virgin cattails. The cattail is a smooth plant. A giant leek. Prehistoric celery. No one would expect it to harass a hiker, and generally it doesn’t. The problem with this kind of work, the kind of work I am doing, rises insidiously from the underbrush that grows thick among the cattail stalks. All of a sudden the explorer, who is prepared only for snapping brittle cattail stems, is challenged by thorns, stings, vines and branches. Sneak attacks from below.

I am deep in now, pulling a measuring tape with my left hand. I dare not disturb the plants to the left of the tape. We must monitor them. Now I push the tape ahead of me an arm’s length. I drop it. It falls into a pit of mystery leaves. I, on the tape’s right-hand side, push ahead a meter through the cattails and turn back. Grab the tape. Swing it forward. Use my fingertips to edge it up through the cattail bodies. Don’t disturb anything. Move it ahead of me another arm’s length. Repeat.

I do anything to break through. Feet first. Breaking the cattails at the base feels like kicking the braces out from under a polio victim, but one you neither know nor care about. Snap snap snap. Topple over. My pant legs are soaked above the knees with dew. Luckily I wear leggings underneath. I try hands first now. Palms protect my eyes. As I split the cattails in front of me it feels like parting like wet hair hanging over my face. A good strategy. I could really use some goggles. I begin to tire. Time to diversify. I try the karate chop method. Roundhouse kick. Lunges. At one point I try rear end first. Unsuccessful. An endless wall of plants. I run into it. Fall into it. Just have to keep moving. Got to get this tape through.

No. Oh no. A field of nettles. Somehow I pass. I step on the nettles like Godzilla. Revenge is sweet. My hands are throbbing. But five minutes later – are you serious? I stop cold and a bee buzzes past my ear. A wall of dead cattails shakes a finger at me as if I were a disobedient child for wanting to pass. And this time it’s a real wall, no poetic frivolities. The Great Wall militarized, a barbed-wire-esque curl of blackberries on top. Guess I’m not climbing over. I try to go through and discover a tree branch four inches thick. Why is there a tree here? I do not understand. The tape is about to run out anyways: 100m.

Phew. I drop the tape and turn around. I’ve followed a compass here, a 238 degree bearing, to lay this vegetation monitoring transect out parallel to the others. I don’t need a compass to get back. I follow my trail. All is easy-going except the knocked-down cattail corpses which attack me like javelins, now pointed in the wrong direction.

In a tenth of the time it took me to penetrate, the cattails exhale me into the adjacent pasture. We all breathe again. I check the tape and subtract from 100 to see how far I went. 20m. 20m! All that for 20m? I am displeased. Or at least I feign displeasure, even though it’s for no one in particular since no one is in sight. Inside I am shyly thrilled. I am an explorer. I feel ancient and powerful. I am singular, stoic, special. I have conquered obstacles that no one else has even seen. I have laid ground for others to follow. Excellent!

Once free, I jot notes of my voyage in my notebook. I read through them once they are written. Dang it. Perhaps my 20m expedition was not as epic as it had at first seemed. I would have to bolster its awesomeness if I ever wrote it up.

I sigh, swing the cover of my notebook around its spiral spine, and toss it into the passenger seat in a nonchalant manner that I immediately feel is too unofficial for the government vehicle I am about to drive. Vegetation monitoring is over for the day but not forever. I’ll be back.

I drive home on the 101. I enter the Waldo Tunnel. Hope the bridge will be framed by the tunnel’s exit. I get to the daylight-saturated end but I can’t even see the water. Thanks, fog. Alas, such is the life of an intern in the Marin Headlands. I don’t mind it much. I might even say I love it. Where else can you get paid to hike and write for a living? I jet with into the tunnel with the 5-minute red light. It’s always a good day when you get a green. I swoop slowly through the headlands, savoring each curve. I arrive at Fort Cronkite, park the car, and transplant myself onto my bike seat. Saddle up. It’s time to go home.

To learn more about the Redwood Creek Restoration at Muir Beach visit http://www.nps.gov/goga/naturescience/muir-beach.htm.

[Elaine Albertson is a science communications intern employed by the Pacific Coast Science and Learning Center in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area]

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