Sunday, August 31, 2014

Custer, South Dakota

Our trip from Alliance to Custer was uneventful, and on Tuesday, August 12, we pulled into Custer’s Gulch RV Park and Campground.  There has been plenty of rain this year, and the entire Black Hills area is beautiful and green.  It’s quite a contract to the previous couple of years, which were drier than usual.  

We have spent our first couple of weeks just “chillin’” after such a hectic few weeks before departing Austin.  Of course, we took advantage of the wonderful logging roads and trails through the forest adjacent to our camp.  The dogs adapted quickly to their packs, and remembered (for the most part) to stay on the trail while wearing them.  

The forest between our camp and Custer State Park has changed significantly since our visit last year.  Large areas of dead trees, victims of the mountain pine beetle, have been cut and stacked (and presumably will be burned during the winter months).  In the second photo, you can see the reddish brown trees that have been cut and stacked.  The Forest Service says that these trees were actually attacked last summer/fall when adult beetles emerged from infested trees and flew to adjacent trees.  The adults bore beneath the bark, laying eggs and spreading fungus spores.  The eggs hatch as tiny white larvae that excavate their way laterally around the tree, cutting off the flow of nutrients.  Simultaneously, the fungus introduced by the beetles clogs the trees' pores, further reducing the flow of sap.  The tree succumbs the next spring as the needles turn yellow and then reddish brown in the summer.

The Forest Service and South Dakota Department of Agriculture say that the mountain pine beetle is native to the Black Hills, and that its life cycle includes periods when they become very abundant and then relatively rare.  The first recorded beetle outbreak occurred in the late 1890s.  An estimated 10 million trees were killed during this outbreak.  Approximately five outbreaks have occurred since that time, but none has been that serious.  Outbreaks last for about 5 to 13 years, after which the beetle population declines.  In the early 1970s more than 440,000 trees were lost.    The last previous outbreak occurred from 1988 to 1992 when 50,000 trees died.  At present, beetle populations are said to be increasing, and they are expected to continue to increase during the next five years.  So far, it is thought that 25% of the forests in the Black Hills have been destroyed by the beetles.

In the Black Hills, in addition to cutting dead trees, dense stands of living trees are being thinned aggressively to make it harder for the beetles to migrate from infected to healthy trees.  On our walks, we pass through some areas that have been thinned, and adjacent to others that are densely wooded.  Where thinning has occurred, the native grasses are thriving and in many places vegetation on the forest floor is taller than a dog. 

After getting settled in camp, we wasted no time in getting our fishing license and trying our luck in the Grace Coolidge Walk-in Fishing Area in Custer State Park.  

The first time we fished, we were not disappointed.  The trout were biting, and we had a feast of panko-crusted rainbows.  John landed two nice fish, and I contributed one.

Our next outing was different.  John and his fly rod only brought in this one fish, 

while Pink Power Bait and I caught this beauty.  Fortunately, it was big enough to feed both of us.  

Life in camp has been interesting.  Last week we enjoyed visiting with our next-door neighbor, Richard, who has come here from Alberta, Canada, for the last two years.  Richard didn’t bring his two dogs, Timber and Duke, so the Bagley Pack were only too happy to give him lots of dog affection so he wouldn’t be too lonely.

Another attraction this year has been the yellow-bellied marmot clan.  A number of these little guys live in rock piles in the forest and in camp.  They are mostly unaware of the danger straining at the end of each leash, and let us come quite close.  Occasionally one gives a loud whistle (thus the common name “whistle pig”) to warn their friends if it thinks we are a threat. 

Wickipedia calls them “large squirrels,” normally weighing between 3.5 to 11 pounds.   These don’t look like eleven-pounders, but they are very plump, and I’m sure couldn’t move nearly as fast as the squirrels that visit our backyard outside Austin.  Colt is disinterested, but Kota and Rue have visions of catching one each time we come near their homes.

There has been a lot going on in Custer, too.  The first week we were here we were treated to drive-by looks at a number of antique tractors.  There is an annual get-together here for folks who collect them.  They go out each day for a tour of the area, including visits to Custer State Park, the Needles Highway and Mount Rushmore.

Most of the tractors have been modified so they can carry two people, and have plenty of shade for touring.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the Road Again....

With the paint barely dry and the mortar just set, we loaded up and pulled out on August 3, and have now completed our first week on the road.  Our first stop was Airport RV Park on Waco Lake.  That is only some 90 miles from home, but it gives us an opportunity to make sure all systems are working before we’re too far from Austin.

The lake is beautiful, and although it’s still a few feet below full, the water is clear and we enjoyed our short stay.

The end of Day 2 found us in Murray Lake State Park, Oklahoma, at Elephant Rock Campground.  Murray Lake is a huge park, with a lodge and several campgrounds. Elephant Rock is one of the newer campgrounds, and the only one the park staff recommended for an RV our size.  There were plenty of squirrels and bunnies, walking trails, and great beaches for dogs to swim.  

The Bagley Pack enjoyed wading out and climbing Elephant Rock.

And, on August 5, we celebrated Rue’s second birthday.  She, Kota and Colt dressed up in their bandanas to eat a special birthday supper and play with her new toy.  (Note:  this toy gets its “squeak” from an empty plastic water bottle.  No more squeakers for Rue after our January experience.)

John and I took a short drive up the road to the Turner Falls Overlook.  The falls were not flowing as strongly as usual, but there was still plenty of water cascading down the 77-foot waterfall.

Adjacent to the falls, we were surprised to see the ruins of Collings Castle.  Built in the 1930s by author Ellsworth Collings, it was a summer home for his family and a place to entertain friends.  Sadly, it has fallen into disrepair. 

The castle, as well as Turner Falls, is owned and run by the City of Davis, Kansas.  There are plans to restore the castle, but so far budget shortfalls have prevented any work being done.  We hope to see the castle restored to its former grandeur on some future trip.

Another historic building, Tucker Tower, is located inside Murray Lake SP, the first and largest state park in Oklahoma.  The tower was constructed by WPA and CCC workers beginning in 1933.  During construction, almost 17,000 men worked on the project for $1.25 per day in wages.  Standing 65 feet tall, it offers spectacular views of Murray Lake. 

Having just completed work on our outdoor fireplace in Austin, John was especially interested in this one in Tucker Tower.  It is quite imposing, with very impressive “heat-o-lator” pipes that would direct warm air into the room. 

Adjacent to the tower is the Murray Lake Nature Center, with excellent facility with a number of exhibits.  

What immediately caught our eye are the twin plexiglass tubes enclosing clumps of switch grass on the right and big bluestem on the left.  If you look at the top, you can see the 6-8 foot grasses, dwarfed by the root systems that can go as deep as 18 feet underground.

A drive north on August 6 brought us to Wellington, Kansas, where we overnighted at the KOA outside of town.  It's a small park, but good for an overnight stop.  There is an adjacent small wooded area where John and I stretched our legs and the dogs enjoyed looking for bunnies.

Then, we were off to Concordia, Kansas, a lovely small town where we have stayed before. The Airport RV Park is just off the highway and has about 15 full-hookup sites.  It's a beautiful park and we enjoy visiting there.  We had the unexpected pleasure of meeting some great people at the RV park.  After checking in, we met our neighbors who explained that they were completing a week of training with CARES, Inc.  CARES (Canine Assistance Rehabilitation Education Services) is a private organization that trains service dogs for people suffering from, among other problems, diabetes and PTSD.  It is one of the few canine assistance schools that accepts applications for children and persons with multiple disabilities.  

Many of the puppies are fostered by volunteers, then trained by inmates at Kansas correctional institutions.  They are placed with individuals needing dogs to assist them with their medical and psychological issues.  Though some dogs come from CARES' own breeding program, others are donated to the program.  

Two individuals staying in the park with their families were completing CARES certification.  Sophie, a yellow lab, will warn Henry when his blood sugar levels approach dangerous levels.  Layla, a great dane, and Mahle, a labradoodle, will provide support for veterans who have suffered PTSD.  All of the handlers and their dogs graduated from the CARES service dog training program.  They look forward to beginning a new life assisted by their canine companions. 
Henry and Sophie
Derrick and Layla
Franck and Maley
We were honored to meet them and they will be in our thoughts and prayers.

From Concordia, we headed to North Platte, Nebraska, for one night at Holiday RV Park.  A few miles outside of North Platte, we came upon this big rig towing two trailers that had overturned on the side of the road.  The rig was a mess, but hopefully the driver wasn't badly injured.

Not ten minutes later, just as we were thanking our lucky stars that had not happened to us, there was a muffled explosion and our Pressure Pro tire monitoring system lit up like a Christmas tree, complete with loud alarm squeals.  John immediately pulled over and we got out to inspect the damage from a delaminated tire on the fifth wheel.  Fortunately the monitoring system and John's quick action kept the damage to a minimum, but we will still need some fiberglass repair the fender.  It could have been much worse, so we're very grateful the damage was minor.

From North Platte, we were off to Alliance, Nebraska, for two nights at J&C RV Park.  It's a lovely small amenities like laundry or clubhouse, but beautiful grassy sites with a great area for throwing balls.  Not to mention it's only a mile or so from the Alliance rail yard.  If you're interested, you can listen to the coal trains as they make their way north or south.  On the way the highway paralleled the tracks for many miles.  There was a constant procession of loaded trains going south and empties headed north to pick up more coal.

While in Alliance, we met a very nice couple who are interested in a heavy duty truck to pull their fifth wheel.  Dave and Marlene live in Alliance with their red border collie, Jake.  They stopped by the RV park to look at our truck and fifth wheel.  We met them again on Monday morning at Alliance's very spacious dog park.  As usual, the dogs had a good time and John and I had a good time visiting with Dave and Marlene. 

Alliance has a number of interesting attractions and museums.  Here are a couple of photos of Carhenge, located just north of Alliance.  

A replication of Stonehenge, Carhenge was constructed in 1987 as a memorial to the father of Jim Reinders, who owned the property.  It was named as one of the top three "Quirky Landmarks" by USA Today.  Google it for more information on this unique attraction, and plan a stop if you're in the area.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Sticks and Bricks

Birthing calves and smelling bluebonnets aren’t the only things we have been doing lately.  Our "sticks and bricks" in Austin was in need of some care and attention.  It was time to repaint the inside of the house and install new carpet.  The living room furniture, and shades, all of 18 years old, were well past their prime as well.  In addition, John has long wanted an outdoor kitchen.  So, we went into overdrive this spring, and began work on all those projects.   

The paint and carpet came together seamlessly, and shutters are due to be installed in a few days.  The furniture was another story, but with the help of my good friend Pattie, I found just the right pieces.  But more important, Pattie went through all our art and furnishings.  She reorganized and rehung everything downstairs.  The whole look is fresh and new, and we’re thrilled.

But the outdoor kitchen was the really big project.  My cousin, Jim, gave us some suggestions for how we could lay it out.  Then, our friend Larry, an engineer with a major architectural firm, made some changes to the design and produced construction drawings for the project.  Not only that, he helped John supervise the work and put in a lot of hands-on time himself.  We couldn’t have done it without him.

Here are some progress photos of the work, and the almost-finished product.  

Larry and John on the job

How work is supposed to look

Topping out

Ready for a steak!

When we return in the fall, we still need to install lighting in the outdoor kitchen and update the patio furniture, etc., so stay tuned later this year to see how it all comes together.

There was only one more major project we undertook this spring.  It wasn't related to our Austin home, but to the family farm east of Hamilton, TX.  John spent quite a bit of time researching "skid steers." That piece of equipment is a "bobcat" with a tree shear on the front.  We, along with my brother and all our children,  will use one at the farm to clear ash juniper, commonly known as cedar.  These invasive evergreens cover large areas of Texas, slurping up water that could grow native grasses and spewing out quantities of pollen to which many are highly allergic.  Removing some of them will alleviate those problems, as well as provide better habitat for the endangered black-capped vireo.

Just before we left, our skid steer was delivered to the farm.  Here it is being unloaded.

When we return this fall, you'll get to see photos of what it can do.

Friday, August 8, 2014

More Birds of a Feather

The spring and summer also brought beautiful songbirds to the bird houses and to our feeders.  This little guy (or gal) is a Bewick’s wren.  They use this nest box at the farm every year, and usually raise a brood of five babies.

Another wren nested in one of the hanging baskets on our front porch in Austin.  I was able to peek in every day, and watched the little ones from eggs to fledging.  I know I have photos of the nest, but I can't for the life of me find it right now.  I'll add the image when I can locate it.

The most spectacular of our feathered visitors, however, were the painted buntings.  I don’t know how many families visited our feeders, but there were always several adults and fledglings in the area.

The young ones are pretty nondescript, but they are very persistent.  Father Bunting was hounded mercilessly, and he dutifully made trip after trip to the feeder to bring them seeds.

Painted buntings prefer white millet seed, and the hatchlings finally got the message and began visiting the feeder themselves.

They were endlessly entertaining, and we look forward to their return next spring.