Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Composting...Starting a Pile

I was asked about composting recently and decided that it is easier to show how to do it rather then explain how to do it. In this blog I'll do both. First off, there is no way to make enough compost. Here in the tropics the soil gets depleted of micro nutrients easily because of high rainfall. Throw out the idea of "mulching" things with compost because the next rain will simply wash it all away unless you are mulching things in pots or contained, raised beds. The biggest problem I have is that once I add my beautiful, loamy compost to my vegetable area the combination of heat and rain compacts it back down again and I am back where I started. Are these reasons NOT to compost? No. Composting is a wonderful thing! There should be compost factories here on the island since there is a huge amount of material. (There also shouldn't be garbage on the ground because trash pick up is free - oh well.) First you pick a spot you can have kind of messy. Yes there are barrels you can buy for hundreds of dollars that spin so you can aerate things, that look contained and official and neat - they cost a lot, don't make much, and rust so don't bother. You can contain an area with cinder blocks, wood, metal, cement, or just leave stuff in a big pile (my preferred method). You want it to be near where you will use the stuff so hauling it is easy.

My "quick" pile is near my vegetable beds, down slope from my vetiver grass (erosion control) and near the hose so when it is dry I can "sprinkle water" it. I am lazy so I just throw a piece of cardboard over the weeds to start things off. Cardboard is great material since is suppresses weeds, decomposes well and dyes now a days are water based so you aren't making a toxic compost.
Every pile should have the first layer be "brown" chunky stuff. Good material for this is small twigs, branches, parts of palm fronds etc. You can use big branches but they take longer to decompose. Just chuk them on the pile. These chunky things will provide some aeration when things start to settle.
After that I put some more "brown stuff" - leaves. I started the pile today since we mowed and trimmed a few days ago and I had piles of stuff along the driveway and all over. It has been windy and small twigs were all over, and since we are entering the dry season a lot of leaves are dropping off onto some concrete areas and I wanted to tidy up. You want to leave the leaves where they drop if under trees and in plants since this is nature's way to make soil. When they fall onto lawns or concrete they are fair game. So I dumped them on and realized I needed some cinder blocks as the pile grew.

Next you want the finer "green stuff" - in this case I used grass from when we mowed. It blew onto the driveway and I raked it into piles and left it there for a few days to dry out. This helps kill the weed seeds and mainly I was just lazy. The green stuff adds a little moisture to the pile. You do NOT want a wet, slimy pile. If your pile ever smells you aren't doing it right.

Then I found some more leaves and dumped those on top. I raked them up from near the little wall under the avocado. Last time it rained dirt went over the wall and was mixed in the leaves as well. Sometimes adding a small layer of dirt kick starts the pile because there are micro organisms in it.

Imagine this pile is a micro organism ballroom with new critters hearing about the new club and coming through the door at all hours! This is what you want - these guys are what are going to break down your material and turn yard waste into gold.

Now you just have to wait and keep adding stuff. I keep all my kitchen waste in a zip lock in the freezer until the bag fills up and then I add it to the pile (this way I'm not running out there every time I cut an onion or not composting because I don't want to go out there). When you add kitchen stuff - "greens" - just toss it into the pile covering it a bit with the other stuff. For maintenance all you need to do it fluff the pile every once and a while when you see it getting flat. It is amazing how fast it does this. Fluff and flip and this will keep things aerated so nothing stinks and acts as an air conditioner for the microbes so they don't leave the dance floor. When things have reduced a lot you can sneak out crumbly compost from the bottom. That's it!
The best compost I have is way up on the hill. When Jeff weed whacks I rake it all into big rolls and I am building flat terraces so it is easier to walk once my arboretum grows up. When we cut down the "bad" trees all the branches were laid out where I wanted to trails/terraces to be and then all the trimmed grass gets raked on top. There is awesome compost under there but if I steal it I won't be building up my trails!
So now I am sidetracked into thinking I should start some seeds and move some starts into the real vegetable beds. First I have to get rid of these huge hot pepper trees! They are 5 or 6 feet and covered with red hot peppers - I already have so many in the freezer that I really don't want more. I dried some and ended up with burning fingers and hands for 3 days because I didn't wear gloves when I prepared them. Nope - out they come! I'll mix some fertilizer and sand into the beds and plant some stuff tomorrow.

Just as a note, you can go to the sewage plant near the little Mayaguez airport and get a load of "compost" for about $8 a mini pickup load. It is a little "hot" (meaning not all the way decomposed) and it contains human sewage that has been treated. I was talking to owner of BoKeana Nursery and he takes that and mixes it with regular topsoil and sells it. He had it tested and it tested out very low in heavy metals which is usually the problem with the sewage compost. Since it is a little hot you need to compost it further before putting it around any trees or plants. This is a great price if you need some soil improvement around ornamentals. I prefer the idea of using all my yard waste since it has to go somewhere and I know it hasn't been treated, but if you are buying topsoil or compost from a nursery you may want to ask if it contains treated sewage - not that that is necessarily bad - just so you know. If you don't have enough yard waste ask your neighbors - chances are they put everything into garbage bags and sit it out near the garbage cans - free gold for the taking! So get excited and make some dirt today!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hiking/Floating the Tanama River

This past Saturday we were lucky enough to have been invited by Dallas (you may remember a post about him and his kayaking cat) to go on an excursion of sorts to the Tanama River. We have gone down one section of the river just above the dam a couple times with the SEPRI group but this section was to have "caves" that you pass through. Mention the word "cave"and we are there. It was another early morning. We have been having a lot of those lately. We left the house at 6am and met at the Arecibo Observatory at 8. Other participants dribbled in and by 8:30 we were all there, suited up, and ready to begin a long day of fun. First we had to pile into a couple cars to drive to the take in. The Observatory is where we would come out. If you have never been to these places (and even if you have) you may not find them. We drove for probably 40 minutes on windy roads down and then up and finally parked alongside the road. We then headed into the jungle for 40 minutes or so to reach the river. Maybe it was 40 minutes, maybe it was more, you just kind of walk...taking in the scenery...smelling the smells...chatting with people you have just met and people you already know.

Then we arrive at the river bank, scramble down and plop into the water. This hike/excursion was wet 3/4 of the time. We had life vests since the water was over our heads in places. Some people wore helmets and a few had headlamps. It is always a challenge to keep things like extra shirts and lunches dry when you are submerged most of the time. I sported my new "Guano Gear Personal Pack" which is a really nice, easy to drag around...push around...carry on your back pack with a huge drain hole so you don't cart around heavy water. Elvin tried the double-garbage-bag method of putting things in zip locks inside a hefty garbage bag inside another hefty and filled with air so his camera and stuff would float effortlessly (and hopefully water-free) down the river with him. I think he had some success- but it looked uncomfortable to haul on the dry parts. The first thing we encountered was this "cave" section. This was really a cavern since it wasn't full of water and you could see a slit of light at the end. Very cool to enter a tunnel like this - a near death experience (you know, "go to the light" and all that). It was nice to just drift into the dark and out again.

The water level was low since it hasn't been raining which is good - There were lots of things embedded in the ceilings of these caverns and it looks like they fill up regularly with water. See the tiny human in the light on the left? That gives you an idea of the scale of things. This river is really in a canyon.

We encountered interesting geology like these fallen-off sections of large rock.

Do you recognize this character? From Survivor Man perhaps? Tom had the strategy of taking off the dry shirt, braving the very cold water and putting the shirt back on for the shallower sections of our journey. He is clutching his survival pack of who knows what or maybe the pack doubles as flotation? (he looks cold at any rate)

Some more neat geology.

At some parts we opted to climb out of the water and into the sun and scrambled over rocks for awhile.

There were many beautiful waterfalls...

Lots of hanging vines and some nice caverns with small holes to explore...

Most openings were really wide and you imagine how much water passes through them.

To the left in the upper part here are some caves. Unfortunately on this trip you have to keep moving or you won't make it out by dark. Jeff popped up there for a quick look-see but you have to get to those caves from above.

On the left Diana floats by this beautiful waterfall. The sun was out and peeked into the canyon in many spots really making the jungle and geology look even neater. I really like to climb and get muddy - Jeff and the others were floating down below while a couple of us did some quick exploring on a ledge above. Jeff guided us to what he thought was a carving in the rock and when we got there it was...a carving. There isn't any way for us to know if it is Taino or recent (I'm always thinking recent) - it would be an odd place for the Taino to carve something (there are many carvings in the river beds of Puerto Rico though) but it would be odder for a recent human to carry rock chipping tools to this spot and chip away to fake out explorers like us. Who knows?

Anyway, the carving was pretty neat.

Now we are at the end and have to climb climb climb (and did I say climb?) out of the gorge. We had some pretty steep spots on what started out to be a trail...then we were following the fence line of the observatory on a trail of sorts - this looks like a trail right? We went for at least and hour before emerging into a farmers field. We could see the Observatory and knew we had to go up and around it, but the last time any one had been on this "trail" was a few years ago. I know how fast things grow in my yard, so I was amazed when after 20 minutes or so a trail was found! In the states you have trails that animals keep open - deer, raccoon, possums, elk...here there aren't any mammals other than feral dogs to do that. So what keeps the trails "open"? On other excursions we were told the trails had been used by Tainos and local people for foraging...maybe that is the case here too. So now we had the really steep part of the trail. When going somewhere for the first time you just don't know what to expect and how long to expect it for. This is both good and bad. The bad thing is that is seems that you won't get out and it will never end. The good thing is that you don't know how long you have been hiking or how much further things are so you keep going at a good clip since it is getting dark, your feet are soggy, there are still rocks in your boots, the hunger pangs start and mainly it is getting dark! We locate the trail and some very old flagging. (I really need to bring a roll of flagging tape with me at all times to re-mark some of these spots.) We follow the trail out and ta da are close to the end.

Finally we emerge at around 6pm on the other side of the viewing area of the Observatory. We trudge down one last part with a Yee- Hahh and clean up a little, shuttle back to the cars, go off to the Mofongo place and have some dinner. By the time we get home it is 10:30 at night. Iraida and Bro had maybe even a little longer trip back and everyone else lives near us or San Juan. This was a little longer than we thought it would be, more interesting than you can imagine or see from the photos, and the group was a group of really nice people. We hear there is another section that has 6 caves to pass through. We also hear that it is an even longer trip. Guess we have to wait until we get an extra hour or so of daylight to do that one! So thanks Dallas for arranging everything, a thanks to Tom for leading the way, and everyone else for another great adventure! Who does this kind of stuff? The next morning we were back up in Aquadilla for some diving. The waves were kind of big, the current was really weird, and the visibility was around 20 (bad for here) with milky white water from all the suspended sediment. As soon as we got close to Aquadilla we saw surf boards everywhere and knew it wasn't going to be great, but diving is relaxing for your joints and mind (unless there is trouble) so we popped in for an hour or so. We came out into even bigger waves and figure diving is going to suck for a while. That's ok though - we got a bit of exercise Saturday and frankly, I need a rest!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Hell - the Sequel

Yes - you read correctly...we were invited to return to Hell! This time it was not Hog Hell - but rather a different section of the Infierno System...the part Jeff exited out after the beloved Hog and sump adventure. Somehow I doubt he remembered it. The purpose was to map another section. The cave was wet mostly but it wasn't as putrid as the other section.

Here's Tom at the entrance donning his purple pullover.

We entered the cave almost immediately into water and this cave continued to have a dark, evil presence. Jeff had a little freak moment and said he didn't want to go (was probably having Hog Hell flashbacks) but he got over it when he realized it wasn't going to be that constricted. There were a couple folks from Tennessee along as well. Note the rope embedded in the ceiling (this is the thing that creeps Jeff out) - wonder how that got there...

So here is Jeff in the water tromping to the next "station." When mapping you've got to find lines of sight so you can measure the distance and inclination/declination from station to station. Sometimes this is hard because spots are narrow, rock is in the way, water is in the way etc etc.

Just like a Disneyland ride (only not as cheerful) there is a little tunnel of water to somewhere.

Hmmm..what now? We are on this huge fountain of neat rock and it is a little taller than any of us.

In our minds we try to imagine we are at a water park and we just slid on down hoping nothing pointy is in the way.

It was kind of fun and kind of a controlled slide.

Here is one of Jeff's favorite things - a slightly frayed rope we will use to get down the next fountain! He is trying to make sure he hangs on above where it is frayed. How's that working for ya? The 222 (or is it 777) white card is what we use to aim the laser beam at to take measurements.

Tom went first kind of swinging on the rope and down to the next spot. I'm kind of glad this is a one direction (we think) trip - it would be hard to get back up this thing!

Isn't this just the coolest looking thing? What a neat formation. We were in the cave for around 4 hours and managed to map the entire section as planned. The personality was just like Hog Hell - dark and brooding but it had some nice areas like this. It was nice to successfully finish off a section. There wasn't any slithering required on this one but it was wet and muddy. When we came out we exited into a farmers field where there were cows and horses and chickens and guinea fowl. It is always an adventure to come back into the light and be who-knows-where! We stopped at the property owners house for introductions and they offered us a ride back to our cars. This saved us maybe 30 or 40 minutes of a walk so it was nice for them to do. Then they proceeded to tell us (in Spanish or course) that we were lucky no one stole our tires and batteries and other car parts. They invited us to park at their house the next time where it would be safer for the cars. That sounds like a good invitation! I showed some photos on my camera (hard to see) and Tom gave them a map of the system and they seemed interested. I'll bring some photos for them the next time so they can show people the beauty of what is in their back yard! Another great adventure (although not as entertaining as a dead pig) - thank you Tom for inviting us!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Vieques Part 1

Jeff needed to use up some vacation time and after getting good advice from our blog viewers we decided to go to Vieques as our first little mini excursion. After reading trip advisor, researching the ferry and attempting to talk to them I was very frustrated and not happy. For the last month I have been dealing with CRIM and Hacienda, Puerto Rico Wire didn't have trimmer line, and I was selecting tile for the last 6 days and had the dirt that comes with redoing a bathroom floating around the house along with 2 strange men. I read about them not selling tickets until the hour before sailing, about people getting in line for hours ahead of time and after waiting there being told they weren't gonna get on because they took locals and people who mysteriously were able to make reservations on at the expense of everyone else. I wasn't in the mood. Sure it was $4.50 with $5 parking, but for a 2 night trip like ours I don't want to waste time and get irritable doing it!

Instead of the ferry we paid 44 bucks each round trip to fly over there on Vieques Air Line - no waiting required. On demand flying. It was a skinny little plane like Snoopy's doghouse and I had to turn my knees to the side the fit. You drive to Ceiba (before Fajardo), walk in, give them your name (we did call ahead and got a talking person), give them money, wait 10 minutes, fly ten minutes and get off! Sooooooo eassssy! My god it was great! Then there was a publico that brought us to the hotel for 5 bucks each on the other side of the island.

We stayed at Casa AltaVista. I had read reviews on Trip Advisor and it sounded good. The nice things were that we had the place to ourselves until late Thursday night...our little deck was nice, the walk to town was short but we were far enough away to not hear drinkers/partiers. The front office people were super nice and helpful and confirmed our little trips, arranged the publicos and were genuinely nice. The bad things were -1 the uncontrollable - a rude group of 30 something Puerto Rican guys came in late, hooted and hollered and basically were yelling for a few hours and we had to talk to them a few times to get them to abide by the quiet at 11 rule. The hotel resolved this the next night. A piss off point for me was that for $85 a night (2 nights) they never came in the room or gave us new, dry towels. We went to the biobay bay the first night and biking first thing the next morning and when we got back had to use the beach towels we brought to dry off. I'm sorry - that is just stupid and inexcusable! We got more when we asked, but we don't want to ask - we want them to appear!You can't fix other people but CAN put towels in rooms! So I don't know how much other places cost or what their problems were but if we were to return I'd go somewhere else and ask more questions.

The publico got us in at 1:30 or something so we rustled up food and then at 5:30 headed to the meeting place for the biobay tour. Many operators do this but we went with Abes Snorkeling (which we found out after the fact is who the Sierra Club uses for their trips). We had fins, snorkels, masks and I wore a 2mm wetsuit. I picked these dates for our trip based on the moon (or lack of). It was perfect for the biobay thing. We have seen a lot of bioluminescence but nothing like this! It really was spectacular.We got a lot of good information (this is the world's largest and brightest biobay) and we got to swim around and it was a bright as light bulbs! I couldn't photograph it but it looked exactly like what is on the www.biobay.com website. There were a few other small groups out there (this was on Thursday). We found out later is that you aren't allowed to swim in the bay and are supposed to just float in your kayak or canoe. There is a guy (the guy we biked with) who is buying clear canoes that will make the biobay tour wonderful. It is in Mosquito Bay which is named that for a reason and still, people wore bathing suits - I don't recommend that! So we swam, since we had masks and fins we could dive down and hear all kinds of manta shrimp clicking away. The stars were fabulous...the sunset was nice...something everyone who lives here really needs to do. We were taken by surprise by how good it was (we have seen a lot of stuff). Back to the hotel for a shower and sleep - biking is at 7:30!

We meet for biking and the guy comes, all apologetic....he has got to pick up a shipment of clear canoes that have just arrived or they start charging him big bucks to keep them with the shipper. He has to reschedule or cancel. He ends up giving us a couple bikes to use for the day, tips on where to go, how to use the bikes (we haven't ridden before) and we will meet up at 7 the next morning for the guided thing. This works out just fine for us.

We hop on the bikes and head out to the Natural Resources land that end up out on the beach. The first beach is Playuela. A very nice sandy beach.

This whole week has been less than perfect weather and the water was a little rough for snorkeling.

We stay awhile and then hop on the bikes to another beach...we end up at Tres Palmitas. We went 10 or more miles and it didn't feel like it. We saw some new areas of the island (we didn't rent a car). Then it was off to lunch and into the water to snorkel. Snorkeling wasn't good. We dive and there just wasn't anything there. The Navy used the island's waters for bomb testing and didn't leave the island until 2003. The reefs were blasted and who knows if things will recover. We had a very nice action packed day.

We went to Quenepa restaurant and had a really nice meal -fish prepared properly (I had seared Ahi on a little bed of salad and we had cream/cheese/crab tempora sushi with salmon on top. Yumm. Then a molten lava chocolate thing for dessert - I always love those. The presentation and service were really excellent. I'd go there again in a heartbeat!

Vieques Part 2

Saturday turned out to be the day we had the guided bike tour for half a day with Gary from www.viequesadventures.com . Since he was generous enough to give us the bikes Friday because of the rearranging we had gone all around Esperanza. He popped us in his truck and we headed to the other side of the island and started out near this Ceiba tree. I can't wait for my Ceiba to start getting roots like this - unfortunately I won't live long enough to have a 300 year old tree like this in my lifetime!

Here's Jeff near the giant roots.

Jeff and I in a pose near the roots. How fun to grow up here and use this as a fort! It is a really cool tree. We hopped on bikes and went 1.5 miles to the end of the pier for some instruction on shifting and a little island history, then back out and off down some trails. Gary has a permit to take people into government owned property that is also, I think, protected wildlife area (actually I think the whole island is protected). Anyway, the wonderful thing was that there were nice trails, some small paved roads, a little mud and puddles, sand, and NO CARS. This made it real fun without worries or looking over your shoulder. We cruised around past government bunkers and some large installation of some kind that was all fenced and said no photos. We made stops to talk about some of the fruits and shrubs along the way and then went into some ruins of old sugar processing areas.

This is an old sugar processing area that is falling apart. It was really neat to see.

We stopped to add flowers to my helmet...and finally climbed a few hills and ended up back in Esperanza where we were staying. We probably went 15 miles I am thinking. Something over 10 anyway. We took a quick shower, checked out, and had an hour or more before our transportation came.

So we went for a final meal at Tradewinds. I had had the seared tuna/olive/egg/greens/tomatoes etc salad yesterday and Jeff ordered it this time. I had ice coffee and a bacon/turkey/cheese wrap that was very good.

After that we took another quick stroll down town then back to the hotel. The public transportation was already there and for 5 bucks each we were off to the airport. We "checked in" which essentially is giving your name and waited about 15 minutes before taking off. Doesn't get any easier than that!

Monday, December 14, 2009

The "White Sea" of Salinas - a Kayaking Excursion

After a few emails and multiple times trying to connect with the Sierra Club we lucked out when Jeff emailed an English speaking trip leader - Jose - who gave us all the needed details so we could join the group on an excursion to "Blanco Mar" (the White Sea) in Salinas. Jeff had gone to Salinas spearfishing, but there are many cays and we really wanted to join this group because they go to all kinds of places you will never find out about otherwise. Also they are like-minded people who know things we don't about ecology. There is "Blanco Mar" and across from it "Negra Mar" or the "black" sea. They are named for the tannin or lack of tannin excreted by the particular type of mangrove that lives there. There is a lot to learn and I may not have it all straight but I believe there are 4 types of mangroves: red, black, white and another that it is disputed as to whether or not it is a mangrove. They all have the ability to remove salt from the water but do it in different ways. The red mangroves live completely in the water and have a couple of organs at the base of the leaves that process the salt out. The white mangroves live more in sand and excrete salt out the leaf surface. I think the black ones are in the water (not sure). We saw blooming mangroves that had little fruits, and the cool thing is that they do not produce seeds, the "fruit" matures in place and sends a long root like thing down to the water as a way of propagating. Really cool!

Here we all are gathering at the launch site waiting for a few lost people. It is a beautiful, calm, sunny day and I am just in a bathing suit like most of the people.

We kayaked about 4 miles maybe (kind of my limit if it is windy) and because we started a little late it got very windy. I hate the wind. I REALLY hate kayaking in the wind. We went through some mangrove areas and then got some information about the ecosystem on a little beach and then had to cross to another cay. The wind and waves had picked up some but we made it across. We stayed on this cay for the remainder of the time swimming and chatting. Then a huge squall came through - one that you could not be on the water in. It rained, it got really cold, it got super windy. I was frozen. It was warmer in the water so we stayed there and finally I was too cold so I put on my only shirt, both our life vests and my lycra skin. Still cold. Then puuufff it disappeared and got nice again.

On the other side of our little cay it was calmer and warmer but more exposed to the outside reef. Jeff tried to kayak "surf" and I looked around at small life. I really enjoyed the plants going in one direction and the neat water ripples going in another.

The roots are so ornate - like baskets.

We went through many "tunnels" which is what we like best. The water wasn't clear so we didn't snorkel or see many fish but usually you can see schools of baby fish in mangrove areas - mangroves are a sort of nursery for fish.

The roots are really interesting.

It was still windy and a little rough for me on the way back so I got lazy and Jeff towed me. I did paddle but really he did most of the work. He is strong and knows that paddling isn't my thing. I view the kayak as a way to get to somewhere so I can float and wait to see things. He prefers to paddles for miles and miles just to paddle. The Sierra Club is doing a lot to preserve and protect areas like the mangroves. They have mobilized fishermen and made it worth their while to protect areas they have historically dumped garbage in, over fished or harvested wood from. Now they receive money for parking ($5 bucks a car), they get some of the money from the club, and the biologists don't have to act like enforcers or enemies. The locals now are selling fried fish and tostones to groups that come through and are keeping garbage off the road and see this as an opportunity and not a take over. That balance is always hard to achieve anywhere. They are trying to set up similar arrangements in other areas of forest and mangroves to help keep some of these areas wild. We are looking forward to the next outing. It probably won't be kayaking, but I'd like to visit some of the organic farms on the island, go on some identification hikes etc etc. They do some really neat camping/hiking/kayaking trips that we hope to take part in. I didn't like the part where I was cold (I hate being cold) but otherwise it was a nice day and we met some nice people. A special thanks to Jose for giving us the English verison of information. We appreciate the extra attention - I REALLY need to and want to learn better Spanish!