Tuesday, March 31, 2009

State Parks - Improve – not remove.

Can a person camp without a campfire? Sure. Can a family still have fun camping without a campfire? We did. I am simply writing about the burn ban and the effect it had on the general population using one of our State parks.

My issue is simple. If there is a chance a campfire will get out of control from one of these fire rings - then engineering controls need to be amended, so it can't happen. Banning campfires and charcoal from picnic braziers is not the answer. Banning fire period literally caused MFSP to be basically empty during Spring Break and the sign at the front gate said "No occupancy".

The reason for this was all the sites were booked and paid for in advance, but the burn ban caused many to reconsider. I do not believe it was the rain, as it came and went both days with plenty of sunshine afterward and Saturday was dry and cool - perfect weather.

As far as "Engineering controls" go, a few issues that could be covered are this:

1. Short class at the station the first night you camp
2. Water hoses at the spigots
3. Possibly a CO2 fire extinguisher at the site.
4. Revised Fire ring with the predominant wind sides blocked (2).
5. Online course of campfire/cooking for a safe TX-issued fire card
6. Handouts at the gate explaining safe fire practices.
7. Random oversight by park personnel/volunteers for unsafe fire situations

Now I also understand that seasoned hikers/backpackers/campers have a more educated view of setting camp and camp-discipline, but most people who use the screened-shelters and improved sites (water/elect) want a campfire and many of us who camp often do too.

My beef is simply that the State needs to improve rather than remove. I asked about the fire ban being lifted and found out that it was imposed on the previous Tuesday. Tuesday? Why not Thursday? Why did it have to wait until the next Tuesday before it was considered again?

One Ranger said they thought the ban was on because of an "incident at Pedernales Falls SP", but they were not sure.

Another issue, which I did not bring up in my Blog and it is nothing more than a conundrum, was the firewood issue for the environments sake and I understand this, you are not allowed to pick-up any wood of any kind from the surrounding area and burn it. Fine.

You have 2 options. Bring your own wood or purchase wood at the gate. I brought in about 500 pounds of hardwood in my little car, which basically took up the whole back, because according to the official website Thursday morning, there was NO burn ban in Travis County and rain was predicted.

When I told the Ranger I was going to leave the wood for the next camper, they replied that it would be removed, as they sold firewood. When I observed the park staff removing a tree that was damaged, I asked if the wood could be made available for campers and they said "No", that would involve the forestry service, so they would use it for personal fires. (At no time did I have a beef with Park staff, in fact I talked with a Ranger for 15 minutes and we reviewed one of the videos).

So, the park sells wood and anything left is removed. However, since the burn bans, there has been little wood purchased, robbing the State Park of funds - but - since folks are losing their deposit for reserved campsites, they are still making some money. Then there's the fact that picnickers are not coming into the park to cook on the many empty charcoal braziers, the park once again is losing money and all of this is due to the burn ban.

Improve – not remove.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Texas State Burn Bans Ruin Camping!

Texas County Commissioners issue burn bans which effectively stop campers from campfire camping or cooking on charcoal in state parks. I witnessed and experienced this first hand this past Spring Break weekend at McKinney Falls State Park near Austin, Texas.

See the first video here.

In order to reserve a camp site at many Texas state parks, it is necessary to book months in advance and this I did. Since Texas is a big state and has very little public land, camping in a park is what most of us are forced to do or we will have no place to camp. I booked this campsite January 20th, 2009.

Upon arrival at the Park Thursday March 26th, I was informed there was an "extreme burn ban" in effect and no campfires or charcoal cooking or fires would be allowed under heavy penalty. I informed the Rangers that I had checked the Texas Parks and Wildlife web site daily and it showed Travis County this very morning as not being under a burn ban and they said I was wrong, as they had checked it also.

I had indeed checked the website and it did not show a burn ban or I would have cancelled my reservation, as camping without a campfire is just not the same thing and evidence of this attitude was everywhere in the park – which was basically empty.

It had been pouring rain in the park for hours and I asked if the ban would be lifted because it was so wet and I was once again informed that this decision had been made the previous Tuesday and it would be Tuesday March 31st before the county commissioner would review the ban.

I was outraged to say the least and once again felt like our Texas government was working against us law-abiding families. The pervasive strong-arm of government interference once again is used to keep anyone from making a decision based on changing conditions. Why in the world would a blanket burn ban be used to stop a family from cooking on charcoal in a State park? The hundreds of picnic tables and charcoal burners were vacant Friday and Saturday each time we walked by them on the many trails.

My pile of hardwood hauled 200 miles from Baytown lay unburned at our screen shelter and I was informed it would be removed by park staff, rather than leave it for the next camper.

See the second video here:

The solution is simple and it involves understanding the nature of families and camping/picnicking and a governing official with enough brass to take this bull by the horns and correct it.

One: The Park superintendent should always over ride the County Commissioner on burn bans, even if it takes the Governor of Texas to step in. Camping and campfires are synonymous, just as picnics and charcoal grills (folks are just not going to tote a propane stove 300 yards to get to a picnic table, but they will tote charcoal, etc.). We must be allowed to have them, so how is this accomplished in a safe manner?

Two: Engineering controls need to be implemented so that fires are always contained. Better fire rings with wind screens and charcoal braziers which do not allow the wind to whip through them are good starting points.

Three: Campers should be educated on safe and acceptable campfires and each camp site should be randomly checked by park staff on acceptable practices. An evening 10 minute camp fire class could be held at the pavilion by park staff/volunteers to facilitate safe camping is an option.

Four: CO2 or Class A fire extinguishers could be made available for campers or at least water hoses for those who wish a campfire.

The bottom line is simple. Campers and picnickers should always be put ahead of County burn bans. The empty parking lots and vacant picnic tables told the sad story. I want to add that my complaint is not with Park staff, but their compliance with the blanket burn ban decisions which effectively ruin camping and picnickers from enjoying the park to the fullest.

I talked to a Park employee for about 20 minutes and we reviewed one of the videos I made and I asked if anything they saw on the video was inaccurate and they said “No”. I am taking this all the way to the Governor of Texas to get this changed and I ask everyone to write, call or do what they can to join me.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

BB eats Chicken-Fried Bacon at the Houston Rodeo!

We are constantly being told what we should eat and many delicious foods are now socially taboo. I contend that many delicious foods, eaten in moderation are still a very viable option, so to back up my beliefs with action, here I am eating what some folks would scream in hysteria if someone suggested they try it.

Folks, I give you chicken-fried bacon!

BB eats the Cheese-filled, bacon-wrapped hot dog

We are constantly being told what we should eat and many delicious foods are now socially taboo. I contend that many delicious foods, eaten in moderation are still a very viable option, so, to back up my beliefs with action, here I am eating what some folks would scream in hysteria if they had to eat it.

Folks, I give you the cheese-filled, bacon-wrapped hot dog!

Friday, March 20, 2009

One Foot in Front of the Other

I met my old Air Force buddy, John Graham at the park entrance of yes – Brazos Bend State Park today. After he read my last hike report, he begged me to go on the “next one”. Who am I to deny a friend a good trail hike?

We both had hydration day packs on and since it rained about an inch over the last week, mosquitoes were expected, but thanks to liberal amounts of Deet, they never appeared, or were absent – I don’t know or care as long as they left us alone.

Wonderful 58 degree weather, clear skies and low humidity were welcome signs, but 80 degree temps were predicted, so after donning our gear, we shoved off towards the east side of 40-Acre lake.

This was John’s first trip to BBSP and he was game to do a long hike. So was I, but since the temperature rise was going to seriously affect us, I plotted a ten-miler. We ended up going about 12 miles and both of us were trail weary by the time we came back to where we started. Wait until July in Texas and a ten-miler will be impossible.

Due to the 50 degree weather, the American Alligators were laying low and we only saw a few along the Spillway Trail and Elm Lake before we came across a big Daddy towards the back of the lake. It is to date the largest alligator I see at the park. We did however get a close look at an American Bittern, as brownish bird that is normally reclusive.

Rosette spoonbills, Little blue herons, Moorhens, Blue-wing teal and many more waterfowl are everywhere and it is pure delight to be in this park. The duck-weed lies across the many sloughs, ponds and lakes and makes alligator spotting difficult. They are right in front of you and look camouflaged beyond instant recognition.

The last two times I’ve hiked BBSP, it has been during the week. Today was Friday and since it is Spring Break, there were kids and families on bicycles on all the trails. Well to be honest, we saw a few families on the trails, but that was more than I was used to. Last week, I walked for 5 and half hours and didn’t see another human for 90% of it and that was fine by me.

John was excellent trail company and this meant he listened while I talked and talk I did. I ran on about trail philosophy and philosophy in general. I told him about experiences I had hiking in California, Michigan and Georgia. We talked about protein, fat and carb control to keep stamina high while hiking and we shared a couple granola snacks. We both had a hard time hiking through the feral hog ruts and we both returned to our vehicles weary, but better for the experience.

There is something about good clean and hard work that cleanses the soul. Today we experienced this in abundance.

We vowed to do it again soon and we will.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Banging my Foots on the Trail

I guess I’m the proverbial glutton for self-abuse. Only a week has gone by and I’ve went hiking again and I blasted off like I was a spring chicken after working a shift at the Chemical Plant that pays my bills.

I blame Brazos Bend State Park, its wildlife and the Staff that maintains this great Park for drawing me back so soon, plus the fact that American alligator breeding season is in full heat. If you want to see gators, now is the time to go where they live.

I made the hour and twenty minute drive from Baytown to the Needville, Texas State Park (BBSP) and pulled in the Ranger station right about 8am. I was greeted by a friendly Hispanic Ranger and I attempted in my meager Spanish to ask about mosquitoes. She instantly warmed up to me and told me in Spanish that zancudos were no problemos right now due to the dry weather.

I parked in the first lot, next to the bathroom facilities and made my way down the short Prairie Trail towards the 40 Acre Lake.

Right off the bat I noticed two large alligators lounging close to the bank. This was a big change from a week ago when the alligators were more sluggish. This morning they were alert and numerous times during the day I witnessed them sliding along or moving towards me as I walked the trails.

They tell me they’ve never had a serious incident in the park concerning alligators, but warning signs are posted and during breeding season, the gators move all over the place. This is important to note, as one could be directly on the trail, or lying beside it in deep grass. When in doubt, keep to the middle of the well-maintained trail.

Since the park was for the most part devoid of people and it was early morning, my head turned back and forth like a pendulum, as I walked, but I was confident and cool and I was steadily hiking, looking and taking photographs and videos to post on the web.

I was having the time of my life and the best part was I knew it as I was doing it.

All the State Parks have online maps and also in the park you are visiting. I grabbed one at the Ranger station and they are printed on 8X14 paper and quite rugged. Each time I’ve hiked, I used mine extensively (with sweaty hands) and they hold up very well.

This day I plotted what I figured to be about 12 miles, using a series of trails and visit part of the park I did not hike the week before. The only problem I encountered was getting from one trail to the next across the park and not having a to-scale map to gauge the distance. This hike grew as I walked it and even though I kept on a steady pace, it turned into a 14 miler by trails end.

I shot 11 videos for posting on youtube and if you subject yourself to them in the order I shot them by following my web pages, you will see how beat down I became by the last one. I had foolishly run out of water, even though I took what should have been enough, my feet were sore and I was dehydrated. Live and learn you say? Not likely, as this wasn’t my first rodeo…but, I am okay and next time I’ll bring a hydration pack instead of my lumber pack, which only carries 32ounces of water.

What got me down was the temperature and rising humidity. Up until then, I’ve been hiking with cool temperatures and 78 degrees while hiking 14 miles and carrying 20-pounds of gear multiplied the stress factor. That and the five and a half hours of strenuous hiking.

Anyway, my photos are posted here along with the many videos.

All feedback on http://www.youtube.com and ratings will be posted and appreciated.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

BB Hikes the Brazos Bend SP Trails

I’m fresh off the Pedernales Falls State Park camp-out; my coat still has the faint scent of wood smoke and I decided I just had to go check out another set of trails. I’ve got a fever and the only prescription is more trail-hiking, to plagiarize Christopher Walken’s famous line.

Now I have reservations for a 4 day campout at McKinney Falls State Park in three weeks and since there is a burn ban in effect there, I’m cancelling it and going back to Pedernales Falls, where they will let you have a campfire. Anyway, even though I have a trip planned, I still want to go hiking and I want to do it anytime I get the chance, so here is how it all went down this week.

Back about ten years ago, my bride and I drove through BBSP (Brazos Bend State Park) and basically stayed in the car and visited whatever was viewable from the front seat – hardly the best way to see nature and this was my meager memory of the Park. However, we now have the Internet at our fingertips and the great State of Texas’ website people have gone way out of their way to attract campers, hikers and day-trippers. Maps, photos, scads of information and even videos of the park grace their well-built web pages.

I downloaded a park map and a separate trail map of BBSP so I could plan out a good 10-mile hike and then I enlisted the fellowship of my son, Nick and nephew, Andy Tallant. These two mid-20’s fellows made for some good company and a lot of trail humor to boot and we all benefited from pounding our feet on the trails.

Now, I’m in Baytown and according to Google Maps, BBSP is about 70+ miles from my house, but Houston traffic had a tail-wind and we arrived exactly one hour after leaving the house. My goal was to arrive at 9am and we did. I stopped at the main gate and flashed my Texas State Park Pass ($60 once a year and well worth it), which allowed me and my trail mates free access, so to speak.

Nick, Andy and I wore semi-warm clothes, as it was 50-degrees F and both young men wore water bladder packs, as we wanted to make sure we did not get dehydrated. I wore my excellent High Sierra Ridgeline Lumbar / Waist Pack w/2 water bottles. I like to eat sunflower seeds when I hike and we each took a couple Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut granola bars for an energy fix. A 10 miler was planned and 2.5 mph is about all a person can do if stopping to “smell the roses”. Our hike took about 4.5 hours and we felt a bit pooped afterward and real hungry.

This Park is really an amazing place for wildlife viewing, more so than any place I’ve hiked. We saw many American alligators, a wide variety of waterfowl, logs loaded with turtles and even a river otter. The park is not a zoo by definition, but we were able to see such a wide variety of wildlife that it felt like we were observing tame animals. I had no idea we were in for such a visual treat. I’m used to seeing wildlife high-tail it for the horizon, not ignoring me and this was fantastic and really added to our outdoor experience.

Both of my trail companions remarked that this would be an excellent place to bring a lady friend instead of “just going to the movies”, or sitting in front of an Xbox 360. There are camp sites, screened shelters, excellent bathroom and shower facilities available and picnic areas for park visitors.

One two occasions, I peaked over an obstacle to spy the American bittern, the only time in my life that I have been this close to this normally secretive bird. Blue-wing teal swam in groups and alligators lounged along the trail – so beware. One time Nick spotted a large gator covered with green pollen, not 40 feet off the trail. While we looked at it, Andy spotted an even larger cousin right behind us, just 30 feet off the trail. The Park’s web site warns us 30 feet is as close as we dare to get to these large carnivorous lizards, as they can cover the first 30 feet of ground at 30 miles per hour.

Great park, great time and I will be going back in April during the alligator breeding season, so stay tuned. Here are my photos.

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