30 November 2003

Dear Friends and Family,

Yesterday, the first snowfall of the winter reminded me that yet another year has passed and it was time to start writing the annual Christmas letter. Each fall there is a flurry of activity after the end of the field season to try to get everything set before winter arrives. Foremost among these activities is the raking, mulching, and composting of innumerable leaves before they are plastered to the ground by the first hard snow, or else spring will see a miserable cleanup job and a yard ravaged by snow mold. This year our next-door neighbor Jordan, who is in high school, rounded up most of the early- and mid-season leaves while we were traveling in Arizona, and cut our grass very short so that a tremendous windstorm near the end of November took away the late-season leaves and left the yard in great shape, ready to be snowed upon. We even managed to give the garage its annual cleaning before the weather turned freezing, so we were able to wash it out with a hose, without turning the driveway into a sheet of ice. 

With the outdoor chores done, another early winter activity is planning trips for the coming year. For the last few weeks I have been finalizing details for a 2-week Christmas 2003 trip to south Florida that will emphasize canoeing; a 5-day personal extension to a business trip to San Jose, CA, in January; and a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon in Spring, 2005. These days I do most of the trip planning using the internet, although our extensive file folders, compiled during our trips to all 50 states and all the Canadian provinces and territories, are still very helpful. I also use AAA/DeLorme Map'n'Go software extensively for estimating driving times and planning routes. But it still can take a long time; planning this year's 52-day camping trip to southern California took most of my spare time for over a month.

There's not much news to report here. Eileen continues to volunteer at the Nature Conservancy, garden, read voraciously, and feed most of the gray squirrel population of northeastern North America (with whom she is on a first-name basis). She is looking forward to starting a video course from the Teaching Company on anthropology this winter, once she finishes up a course on Beethoven’s symphonies. I’ve started a tape course on concert masterworks, chosen because it discusses Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony, a personal favorite. A few of the books Eileen read this year and recommends highly are: the civil war works “Gods and Generals” and “The Last Full Measure”, by Jeff Shaara; and “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life,” by Carlo D’Este. I particularly enjoyed “Barren Lands,” by Kevin Krajick, an extraordinary account of the search for the first commercially exploitable diamonds on this continent; and “Throwim Way Leg” by Tim Flannery, an Australian mammalogist describing his fascinating field work in New Guinea.

I am still working in the area of medical image quality, and will be leading a large, new project in that field next year, which should be very challenging. The ISO standard I am working on is progressing well and probably will be published late in 2004, and I got a couple of patents this year on image quality measurement. My Handbook of Image Quality: Characterization and Prediction is doing reasonably well; it's going into a second printing. My colleagues and I have now taught three one-day courses based on the book at various conferences, and have a fourth scheduled for January. I got my first royalty check in June, which Eileen said I should use to do something special, instead of just putting it into checking and letting it slowly dwindle away.

So we bought a new canoe, the Wenonah Spirit II, made of ultralight kevlar (helpful if you get involved in a shootout while paddling). It weighs only 42 lbs., about 20 lbs. less than our previous one, and so is much easier to portage and to get on and off the roof of the camper, which requires use of a ladder. It is a little longer (17 versus 15 feet) and bit faster than our previous canoe, which I sold to a friend at work. We also upgraded to carbon-fiber racing paddles that weigh about half what a wooden paddle does, which makes a noticeable difference when you paddle over 10,000 strokes in a day, as we often do. After getting the canoe in early July, we took every available opportunity to get out paddling, and by the end of the year had covered a little over 300 miles in 30 days or partial days on the water. Our most intense canoeing was on our annual Algonquin Provincial Park foray. This year we spent four days each in Brent and Kiosk, remote outposts on the northern edge of the park. In both spots we were able to set up the camper on the shore of a large lake and then do several long day trips in the canoe without ever having to drive anywhere, which was a nice arrangement. In 6 days of actual paddling we traversed just over 100 miles. Unlike other years, we had relatively poor luck seeing mammals, but it was a good trip for birds of prey; we saw goshawk, peregrine falcon, and merlin very well.

We did a 4-day canoe-camping trip on Low's Lake in the Adirondacks with our friend Allan Sowinski, which featured many bald eagles and a couple of Baird's sandpipers foraging on floating vegetation in the lake, an unlikely location for these scarce migrants. Other areas we canoed included the St. Regis Ponds and Raquette River in the Adirondacks; several of the Finger Lakes; and most of the lakes in Harriman State Park, in the Hudson River Highlands west of New York City. At this latter location, we joined a New York Flora Association (NYFA) field trip where we saw many exciting plants, several of which are very rare in the state. The highlight of the trip, however, were long and spectacular views of a six-foot, gravid, coiled, timber rattlesnake! While in the area, we had the chance to visit with my brother, Chuck, and it was marvelous to see him again.

Another NYFA trip we attended was in the northeast corner of the state, visiting sandstone pavement barrens, a globally rare habitat. The most exciting find, by yours truly, was a new orchid that we had long sought, the white adder's-mouth. On this long weekend we made a big loop, visiting friends and family. One day we hiked with Gary Lee, who is retired from the Forest Service; he took us into a beautiful bog that we had snowshoed over once many years ago. Then we visited Marie Kuhnen, whom I met while I was in high school and she was leading a field trip to Chincoteague for one of her ornithology classes. It was lovely to see her again, and we together enjoyed a beautiful canoe trip between Jones and Osgood Ponds, near Paul Smiths. Finally, we visited my dad in Burlington, Vermont, where he recently moved. His new apartment in a seniors complex is very nice, and he is close to many family members there.

January started with an exciting first-winter Ross’ gull in Rochester, only the second we have ever seen and the first in this plumage, which is very rarely seen on this continent (the species breeds primarily in Siberia). In February, I had a medical imaging conference in San Diego. Eileen traveled with me as usual and enjoyed the beautiful weather, visiting the zoo, Marineland, and the wild animal park. In the two days touring San Diego Co. after the conference, we tracked down four rare conifers of very restricted distribution: the Torrey and Sierra Juarez pines, and the Guadalupe and Cuyamaca cypresses. On our last afternoon we finally tracked down a very cooperative surfbird, a sandpiper that Eileen had not seen well previously.

In March we flew to El Paso for Eileen’s parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. All six of Eileen’s siblings, seven grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and four spouses were present, as well as many friends. I’m pretty sure I saw Eileen’s parents also, briefly and in the distance, but the light was poor and the view was not definitive. It was great to have the whole family together again, for the first time in a decade. Otherwise, the wintry first three months of the year were uneventful, although we did quite a bit of snowshoeing, including one weekend trying out the new camper on the frigid Tug Hill Plateau, a particularly snowy area east of Lake Ontario.

Our big trip of the year was a 52-day excursion to southern California, from 2 May to 22 June. Eileen will try to write up an account for our web-site, but for now I’ll just give a brief synopsis. We have been trying to do this trip for several years now and each year some conflict would arise and prevent us from going. Now we’re glad it was delayed a bit, because: (1) it was a great trip on which to have the new camper; (2) I still had extra vacation left from the year when I wrote the book, allowing a longer trip; and (3) we lucked into a year with outstanding desert wildflowers thanks to late winter rains. Most areas of Southern California have been in a roughly five-year drought, so this was a very fortunate spring to visit. As an example, in Death Valley, which normally would be almost devoid of flowers by mid-May, we found 50 species in bloom in just a few days, and large areas of the desert had so many flowers that they appeared colored in the distance. We were also lucky in that snowfall was not excessive, so we were able to reach all the places we wanted to visit in the higher mountains near the end of the trip. 

Our 10,500 mile route took us through Ash Meadows (Nevada), Death Valley, the eastern Mojave Desert, Joshua Tree National Park, the Salton Sea, Anza-Borrego State Park, the Santa Rosa Plateau, the San Jacinto, San Bernardino, and San Gabriel Mts., Santa Cruz I., the transverse ranges, the Carrizo Plain, Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks, Mono Lake, Devil’s Postpile, the White Mts., Onion Valley, and the Charleston Mts. (Nevada). The weather was warm, the night-time lows of 45° and daytime highs to 113°. We had no rain west of Colorado and used bug spray only once. We did encounter some coastal fog and quite a bit of smog and agricultural dust that severely limited visibility, but otherwise the weather was clear.

I got two life birds, Gunnison Sage Grouse and Island Scrub-Jay, both species that were officially “split” (declared separate from existing species) after we moved east. These were my last straightforward (“Code 1”) bird species in North America, and I have also seen all the Code 2  (predictable but challenging) species and all but two Code 3 species (yellow-green vireo and great skua). Eileen had five additional life birds: lesser prairie chicken, northern pygmy-owl, juniper titmouse, gray flycatcher, and plumbeous vireo. Other birds we were particularly pleased to see included flammulated owl, Xantus’ murrelet, Lawrence’s goldfinch, and black swift.

Our mammal list was 42 species, our best total ever, although 5 species of mice were seen only by virtue of setting out live traps at night when camping in remote areas. I saw a remarkable 6 life species:  Palmer and long-eared chipmunks, Nelson’s antelope squirrel, canyon mouse, yellow-faced pocket gopher, and desert pocket mouse. In addition, Eileen got desert woodrat, Belding’s and round-tailed ground squirrels, brush and pinyon mice, and kit fox. Eileen’s next new mammal will be # 150 for her, a major milestone. Other exciting mammals included blue whale, badger, and alpine chipmunk. We identified about 330 species of plants, a good list, featuring many desert wildflowers and cacti. We searched for and found 3 target conifers: one-seed juniper, foxtail pine, and Piute cypress. The first two were new for Eileen, the last for both of us, so now we have both seen 96 of the 98 native conifers in North America (the last two, Baker cypress and Washoe pine, occur in northeastern California). Piute cypress grow only in a few groves on the steep slopes overlooking Lake Isabella in the southern Sierra Nevadas. The foxtail pines are one of the most magnificant conifers in the continent, growing in open groves at timberline, with massive, fluted, orange trunks. We saw the champion (largest known) foxtail pine above Mineral King in Sequoia National Park.  

The trip was a nostalgic one for us, as we were able to visit many of our favorite locations while we lived in southern California. It was a thrill to relocate a desert woodrat nest I discovered 19 years ago and to find it still occupied! Similarly, we heard flammulated owl near Yosemite within a few paces of where I heard them two decades before. We also tracked down some old friends in their haunts, staying with Jim and Ellen for several days, and visiting Dianne and family, Merrilee and Bob, and, in Fresno,  Joy, Tom, Matt, Beth, and Katie. It was so nice to see everyone again! With Jim and Ellen, we toured the Caltech campus again, paying homage to the grand Engelmann oak there, and ate at the Acapulco restaurant, where Eileen and I had our wedding reception, not to mention first formal date (during which Eileen chose to eat tacos, a serious tactical error when one wishes to make a favorable impression).

The new camper got quite a workout, with very hot and dusty conditions and rough four-wheel driving. We made a number of modifications and enhancements during and after the trip, and now are in good shape to handle such extreme conditions. By the end of the trip, having had the camper just under one year, we had spent a total of over 100 nights in it, and the number will be about 150 nights by the end of this calendar year.

In mid-October we took a 9-day trip to the Great Smokies. We stayed overnight in Charlottesville on the way down and saw my Mom and my brother Chris. The next day, we stopped to hike along and paddle on the James River, where it crosses the Blue Ridge Mts. in central Virginia. Here we found lobed spleenwort, a small, beautiful fern growing in cracks in cliff faces, and saw a five-foot long black rat snake slither straight down a steep, rocky pitch. Eileen identified opossum tracks, with the unique opposable toe on the rear foot, in the mud where we put our canoe in the river. In the Smokies we mostly hiked to areas with cove hardwood forests, where the largest deciduous trees in the east grow. Some of the larger species we saw were hemlock, tulip tree, white and red oaks, sugar and red maples, buckeye, black locust, Fraser magnolia, and cucumber tree. Mountain gentian and sourwood were two species we had not seen previously. The fall color was only mediocre but it was an enjoyable trip.

 Just after we returned Eileen’s parents came to visit for a week. It was nice to see them again,  make the rounds of our favorite local restaurants, and play a few games of anagrams. Shortly after they left, we flew to Phoenix, where I was teaching a course at a conference. We made a week-long trip of it, spending three days at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon before the conference, and one day afterward visiting Casa Grande National Monument and Picacho Peak State Park. It was cold at the Grand Canyon, with snow on the last morning. One day we walked 8 miles along the rim trail, and another day we hiked on the South Kaibab Trail, dropping 2400 feet to Skeleton Point, a viewpoint over the Tonto Platform, from which the Colorado River is visible in the Inner Gorge. The highlight of the trip was a California Condor, one of the birds that have been reintroduced into this area of historical occurrence. In Phoenix, Eileen visited the zoo, we climbed Camelback Mt., and two friends from Kodak joined us for an afternoon tour of the magnificent Desert Botanical Gardens.

With luck we’ll be swimming with manatees on Florida’s Gulf Coast in three weeks!

Happy holidays! 

Brian and Eileen