Friday, November 30, 2007

Insider's Austin

As the deadline approached for my latest contribution, I asked Tamara: "What's so great about Austin, anyway?"

"Our back porch, apparently," she replied.

I do spend a lot of time there, and I think maybe she was hinting that she would like to get out a little more than we have been lately. Okay, done. Tonight we'll head down to The Continental Club for Jon Dee Graham's CD release party.

The new, live CD is called "Swept Away" and is a companion to feature-length documentary that is scheduled to be released sometime in January. Both the CD and the DVD include bits of my first date with Tam, at Graham's Mercury Hall show early this year.

Cool, huh? I mean, how often does an established documentary filmmaker with National Geographic, Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel credits create a first-date keepsake?

I write just a little about Graham (see some thoughts on an earlier recording here) and a few other Austin singer-songwriters in the new article, and also touch on some of my favorite local eateries. These are my opinions of course, and may be opinions that are not shared by other Austin residents.

My take on the city -- which for years I quietly labeled as "the most over-rated city in America" -- has changed. It's true that Austin is a bit full of itself. It's also true that it has diverse offerings that are possibly unique in this state, or even in the entire country.

One of those, of course, is my back porch. I'm heading out there now, but I'll leave you with a view of Jon Dee Graham on his back porch. This is the trailer for the upcoming DVD.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The view from the bridge

Here is some really cool video from the Hi-8 "Bridge Cam" aboard the USTS Texas Clipper, courtesy of TPWD's artificial reef program folks.

Here's what my colleague Bob Murphy had to say about the event:

She fought hard not to sink as she slowly took on water when the valves for sinking were opened just before 11:00 am. She began to sink more quickly about 12:20 as water entered large openings in her sides, and then plunged quickly below the surface at 12:35 pm CDT in a plume of spray and bubbles.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The sea that was

It was kind of like the Antiques Road Show Sunday, only better; at the Texas Natural Science Center at UT, staff and volunteers manned tables labeled with signs like: "Vertebrate Paleontology," and "Sea Creatures," and "Rocks and Minerals."

Patrick and Tamara and I made the journey uptown with a heavy bag of rocky stuff -- a year's worth of collecting here and there -- to confirm independent (and sometimes informed) guesses and third-party IDs, and to get the skinny on some things that were complete mysteries to us.

Vince and Barbara Terracina, our friends and neighbors, were already there with their kids when we arrived.

Saturday, Vince and his next-door neighbor and good friend Richard, took the Terracina kids to a road cut in Hays County that Vince and I explored last weekend on the way back from the Nueces River. We met the Terracinas and Richard (and Maggie, the good dog) there.

We arrived early at the site high on a county road south of US Hwy 290, and Vince apologized when he got out of his car: "Sorry to ruin the peace and quiet."

Tamara and I agreed the "noise" of the kids was preferable: "Daddy, Daddy! This is a really good spot!" and "Daddy! Look at what I found!" and "Mr. Richard, can we go over there?!"

"I can't believe I haven't brought the kids out here before," said Vince.

And -- truly -- it is an amazing site. When we first arrived, Patrick was eager to skip lunch and get right to collecting.

"I'll give you one minute," I said. "See if you can find a fossil."

In 40 seconds he was back with five good specimens.

Most of the fossils in our bag -- including those from the incredibly rich site in Hays County -- were marine invertebrates; steinkerns (interior molds) of clams and snails.

One of the most common is a bivalve that is often called a "Texas heart" or "deer heart;" the molds may be of any one of several related animals. One of ours is Granocardium pseudopendens.

Among the most spectacular finds at the Hays County site were a handful of echinoderms; asymmetrical sea urchins in the genus Hemiaster.

The best specimens retain the bumpy surface where fuzz (not spines, in this case) attached to the critter, and clearly show the "star" recognizable today on contemporary sand dollars.

Among the other treasures we had identified were the little Cretaceous oysters called Ilymatogyra arietina -- we call them "Devil's toenails," which is a name most folks give to another genus altogether of extinct oysters .

We also identified a rare (for that period) brachiopod known as Kingena wacoensis.

Patrick was particularly proud of his example of a scallop still embedded in a limestone matrix. The shell, from the genus Pecten had been mineralized as chert and quartz, and sparkles under the light.

Patrick sees in the shell fossils proof positive that central Texas was once under water. He's right, of course; during the Cretaceous period (from about 165 million years ago to about 45 million years ago), Texas and much of North America was covered by a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway.

In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report predicted that by 2100, global warming will lead to a sea level rise of 9 to 88 cm (that's ... uh, 3.5 inches to nearly a yard).

The geologic record kind of puts things into perspective, doesn't it? I mean, the Hays Co. site is about 1,000 feet above the current sea level. (And yes, I know about eustatic and isostatic changes ... but do we really want to get into all that here? No? I didn't think so.)

In a sense, much of the limestone around (and beneath) us here is fossil something; calcerous planktons and algae and bivalves and brachiopods and gastropods and corals ....

Much of it is compressed and undifferentiated; in places where it is not, like in the Hays Co. road cut, we find fossils.

The vertebrate paleontologist at Sunday's event, Dr. Pamela Owen, identified one Corpus Christi Ship Channel bone as a piece of the plastron (bottom shell) of a land tortoise, and another as a rib bone from the extinct giant sloth.

The museum has a complete reconstructed skeleton of that impressive animal on the bottom floor. It's about the size of a Mini Cooper.

Many of our spoil island finds are associated with the Pleistocene epoch, the geologic time period from about 1.8 million years ago to just 11,500 years back.

In Texas, it was characterized by mega-mammals like giant beavers, mastodons, glyptodons (a huge armadillo species), sabre- and scimitar-toothed cats, short-faced bears, mammoths and the like. The coast was then more or less where it is now (the Texas barrier islands mostly formed since then, but the dune line was just a dozen or so miles farther inland, near where bay shores now are).

Some of my favorite fossils, from both the coast and the Hill Country, are the ichnofossils, or ophiomorpha -- trace fossils created by the burrows of mud shrimp or crabs or other critters.

Some of the fossils we brought in were so nondescript (weathered or otherwise altered) as to defy easy identification.
"Well, it's some sort of bivalve," one of the paleontologists said of one steinkern.

"I knew that when I got up this morning," Tamara remarked later.

It was great fun, though, to watch how respectfully and seriously the volunteers treated all of the treasures kids of all ages brought to them. One little girl brought her favorite rock to be identified by the fellow from the Bureau of Economic Geology.

The geologist questioned her about where she found it, and examined the perfectly smooth, triangular, white specimen carefully -- first with his naked eye, then under a microscope. Finally he carefully handed it back to her and said: "Well, I'd say it looks like you have a very fine piece of limestone there."

Perhaps the most fun, for me anyhow, was listening to a TPWD expert explain the history of something that was interesting from neither a geological nor biological standpoint: an early archaic spear point I found some time ago.

The point, he said, was made of central Texas chert and had been traded or washed downstream to South Texas, where I found it. It had been resharpened, several times, and some of the resharpening took place while it was still attached to the haft of the spear.

It was amazing to watch and listen as the archeologist brought to life events that took place 5,000-7,000 years ago, right here in Texas.

I think humans are by nature -- still -- hunters and gatherers; at least I am. I am also, by nature, a taxonomist -- I want to name and categorize things.

Finding fossils (or artifacts, for that matter) and then getting expert help in identifying them and the context in which they originally existed satisfies both of those deep-seated needs.

Plus, it's just a heck of a lot of fun.

She's down!

Ten years and more than $4 million later, the dream of preserving the USTS Texas Clipper (ex-SS Excambion, ex-USS Queens) as an artificial reef off the Texas coast is now a reality.

After several weather delays this week, the ship was successfully sunk on the reefing site at 12:35 p.m. Saturday. What hasn't been reported -- or not enough anyhow, is just how much everyone involved in this project cared about this ship.

People actually get teary-eyed talking about it. Those people include me. No kidding.

Something else that I'm sure we'll be talking about more in the future is the science that will be conducted at the reefing site -- everything from monitoring biological communities to studying the pace of corrosion.

Here's the video of the sinking, courtesy of the Associated Press (courtesy of my colleagues at TPWD, actually).

And here is the AP story on the finale:

The 473-foot, 7,000-ton Texas Clipper went under the rough wind-tossed waters about 17 miles offshore at about 12:35 p.m. and took about two hours to sink, said Bob Murphy, a Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife reef specialist.

The operation to turn the Texas Clipper into an artificial reef cost $4 million and has taken a decade.

"For those of us who have been working on it for ten years, the delays were frustrating but today was great," Murphy said. "It was good to see her out there on site, taking on water and going down."

The Clipper, pulled by a tugboat, left its dock in Brownsville and headed into the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. The departure had been delayed a couple of days because of bad weather and high winds.

The Texas Clipper, the largest vessel in the care of the department to be sunk, is expected to become an attraction for divers and fishermen, and to provide an economic boost for the South Padre Island area.

The ship, which began life as the USS Queens, was commissioned as a Navy troop transport ship and was among vessels in the Pacific at the battle of Iwo Jima. It was used in the American occupation of Japan until it was decommissioned in 1946.

It then carried cargo and passengers between New York City and the Mediterranean as the SS Excambion until 1958.

In the mid 1990s, the ship was decommissioned after almost 30 years as a classroom at sea for about 200 Texas A&M-Galveston students each summer.

[Photo courtesy of Earl Nottingham, TPWD, distributed by the Associated Press.]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why is this man smiling?

That's Bob Murphy, a colleague at TPWD and native of Texas' Golden Triangle. Bob and I are both in South Padre Island for the sinking of the USTS Texas Clipper -- which has now been delayed twice.

After the last flurry of phone calls letting folks know we were pushing-back the scuttling of the ship, Bob and I had just enough time to head down to Isla Blanca Park at the south end of South Padre Island to do a little rock-hopping.

We were looking for snook on a strong incoming tide. The water, pre-cold front, was in beautiful condition.

A few bumps -- missed fish, and not snook from what I could tell -- and I look up to see Bob hooked into something. He lifts his rod tip and swings a shimmering, shivering Atlantic cutlass fish (we call them ribbon fish around here) onto the rocks.

I hook into something small -- a pretty little Rock hind (the diminutive, polka-dotted member of the grouper family) -- followed quickly by my own ribbon fish.

By this time I am fishing the calm, northern side of the north jetties; Bob is working the tidal rip on the channel side just 20 feet away from me. We're chatting as the last glow of a pretty nice sunset lights the skies.

Suddenly, Bob's rod bows and I see him fumble to get a good grip as line sizzles off the reel. I'm sure it's a big snook and open my mouth to tell him to hold on tight (why do anglers offer such advice? Like he hadn't thought of that ....) when a huge, silvery shape rockets out of the water.


And not just any tarpon, but a better-than-man-sized fish well into the triple digits. The fish crashed back into the water with the sound of someone dropping a 2-ton granite jetty boulder into the channel. Bob's reel sizzles again, then: slack.

The fish "came unscrewed." That's no surprise since tarpon have notoriously hard, bony mouths, and the majority of hook-ups for any angler typically result in lost fish.

"Jumping" a tarpon is the thrill, the rest is just a slugfest for the most part.

Bob whooped and yelled and jumped up and down on the rocks, then suddenly went silent.

"Sorry for all the noise," he said, a bit sheepishly.

I laughed.

"Sorry? Man, if it was me, I'd still be laughing/cussing/crying -- all at the same time. I nearly had a heart attack, and I was just watching."

It was Bob's second tarpon. The first came years ago, on the very same set of jetties.

Those are some pretty good rocks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Nuts for the Nueces

Driving south from San Antonio on Interstate Highway 37, the first hint of the city of Corpus Christi is the gleaming profusion of refineries off in the distance: scaffolding and gas flares, storage tanks and distillation towers. At night, the lights look like a cityscape in their own right.

The refineries exist because of the Port of Corpus Christi -- the nation's sixth-busiest -- and the port exists because of the Nueces River.

Shortly after the refineries come into view, the interstate crosses the river. Here it is a slow, silt-laden stream crawling between muddy banks choked with mesquite, willow and scrubby oaks. Just downstream, the river meanders into spartina marsh before emptying into the shallow, reef-strewn reaches of Nueces Bay.

That's the Nueces I grew up with.

It is a distinctly different river some 300 miles upstream at the western edge of the Edwards Plateau. Uvalde, about 50 miles from the river's headwaters and a good four-hour drive from Corpus, is the only other town on the entire river with a population above three digits, and it boasts only around 17,000 souls.

Last weekend, with four friends, I set out to explore that difference, and the river that has long been calling to me.

Marc McCord, writing for, reports that: "The spring-fed, crystal clear water flows through the limestone bluffs of the Edwards Plateau, and is one of the most scenic river trips in Texas."

McCord also reports that some 45 miles of the upper Nueces, from north of Barksdale to near Uvalde, are navigable nearly year-round.

Not so, said Marilyn Stoner. Marilyn and her husband Tom own Clear Creek Outfitters in Camp Wood. From the paddling shop-and-antique store on the main drag, they rent kayaks, provide shuttles and counsel kayakers on current river flows and conditions. The advice and help with route planning is free to all comers.

"There is a lot of outdated information on the Internet," Marilyn told me when we stopped in Friday. "I don't recognize some of the things I read about the Nueces. This river changes all the time."

Marilyn warned us that the river is shallow in many places and we'd probably end up dragging the boats part of the way.

"There are rocks in some of those rapids that will eat boats," she said.

Of course, the same is true of most Hill Country streams. The classic pool-and-drop configuration of these spring-fed rivers, with the hard, limestone bedrock of the Edwards Plateau, mandate carrying a strap or line with which to pull boats and decent footwear for the portions the paddler will be forced to walk in ankle-deep water.

On the Nueces, even more than some other Hill Country streams, rises can come quickly. The river's watershed is huge -- it drains something like 17,000 square miles -- and a downpour out of sight and sound beyond a ridgeline can translate into a sudden wall of water under bright sun and blue skies somewhere else minutes or hours later.

To my surprise, I found the portions of the Nueces we paddled -- at what Marilyn and Tom said is average or just below-average flows -- to be more easily navigated than most Hill Country streams farther east.

On one six-mile reach I was forced out of my boat exactly once, and then only because I chose the wrong channel at the head of a riffle.

There are few legal camping spots along the river bed, and an even smaller number of comfortable ones. But with frequent county road crossings between Camp Wood and Uvalde, daytrips with overnights in one of several private campgrounds in the area is a good strategy.

We chose Big Oak campground just south of Camp Wood, where tent camping sites include water, electricity, fire rings and grills.

A trip like this isn't all about the paddling, after all, or fishing, for that matter.

It's also about leaving workaday concerns behind. It's about the joy of watching a belted kingfisher hover above a riffle, dive and emerge with a minnow in its beak. It's about the play of light and water and limestone, and a flock of wild turkeys coming down to drink.

It's about good friends and good food and the lies guys tell around the campfire.

Vince (an old college buddy of like mind who I'm just now really getting to know) brought venison fajita meat -- and his Big Bend staple, Easy Cheese (I'm now a convert); Ken, my regular coastal paddling partner, provided a flask of apfelkorn. Danny -- my fishing partner of more than decade -- and Schu, another Houston friend, kept busy passing icey cans of Pearl Light around the fire.

After a full day of paddling -- and with well over 100 fish caught between us -- Saturday was an early night. After coffee and campfire eggs and sausage in the morning, we decided to break camp and enjoy the scenery on the way home rather than attempt the three-hour paddle we had planned for farther downstream.

For Vince and me, that meant heading 20-plus miles cross-country from Barksdale on an unpaved county road that wound through large ranches along the canyon carved by Bullhead Creek. That road connected to Ranch Road 336, which plunges south to Leakey.

From Leakey, it was left on my old friend FM 337 through Vanderpool and down to Medina.

Between Leakey and Vanderpool, Vince and I pulled off at a picnic area high atop a ridge to stretch our legs and grab a quick bite to eat. As we carved chunks of venison sausage onto saltines liberally spread with Easy Cheese, we heard a voice: "Good job! You're doing great! Just a little farther now ...."

We turned to see a young boy -- probably only 9 or 10 -- coast to a stop on his bicycle. Behind him came a man on a triple-seater, two younger children behind him.
I was amazed they had all pedaled up the hill we would soon coast down in my truck. Iwas even more amazed when the man told me they had come all the way from Medina, and their destination that evening was Camp Wood.

A Team Cyclone support trailer pulled in a few minutes later, so I guess they probably knew what they were doing. But still. Wow.

Closer to home, a quick stop at a top-secret fossil hunting site yielded the most numerous and perfect clam casts I have yet seen, as well as a handful of fossilized sea urchins. Family obligations kept us from lingering long, but we plan to take the kids back Saturday.

It's a fine coincidence that Sunday is one of two "Fossil ID Days" UT hosts each year. Look for a report on that expedition here after the weekend.

[The Nueces at LaBonte Park, alongside IH-37 just north of Corpus Christi. Note the dead crab in the foreground; still life with boats on the Nueces River near Big Oak River Camp; this view of Ken's right foot gives a pretty good idea of both the water depth and quality in the upper Nueces (photo courtesy; Schu and Danny negotiate a snag in a tight bend on the upper Nueces below Camp Wood; A nice Rio Grande perch, the only cichlid native to Texas; Danny, Ken and Vince show-off a largemouth bass triple-header; Vince admires a nice Nueces River Guadalupe bass; Ken goes for broke with the Easy Cheese; sitting around the campfire; You never know what you might see on the roads through the Hill Country. Here, two camels kiss; Five tired but happy bikers at the top of the ridge between Vanderpool and Leakey ; even if you don't paddle, or fish, the trip to Camp Wood is worth it for the amazing scenery. We figure the more warning signs, the better the drive (photo courtesy Vince Terracina, TAG Marketing).]

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Final voyage

For all sorts of reasons, I don't often write here about things that go on at my day job at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but I feel compelled to write about a project I'm currently working on.

In two weeks time, on Thurs., Nov. 15, workers will open a series of valves and flood the USTS Texas Clipper, sending her 134 feet down to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, about 17 nautical miles from South Padre Island, Texas.

The 473-foot ship, ex-USS Queens, ex-SS Excambion, will become Texas' newest artificial reef.

Wednesday, she'll be towed to the reef site, and I expect there will be a crowd at the jetties lining Brazos Santiago Pass: former crewmembers, interested locals, some of the department's staff.

Some of those who sailed aboard the ship have told me that's the only part of the event they want to see -- the final voyage; they said seeing the grand old lady slip beneath the waves was not the final image they wished to hold in their minds.

Ships have lives.

The Texas Clipper was born at the Bethlehem Steel Works shipyard at Sparrows' Point, Md., in 1944. She got to the Pacific in time to be the first attack transport ship to resupply U.S. forces on Iwo Jima, and ferried troops to the occupation of Japan. She then brought nearly 4,000 war-weary soldiers home.

Refitted at Bethlehem's Hoboken, N.J., shipyard, she was renamed the S.S. Excambion, one of the American Export Line's grand passenger-cargo combi-liners.

As the S.S. Excambion, she was the first fully air conditioned combi-liner in the world, and plied a New York - Mediterannean route for more than a decade. Mothballed as jet airliners became the preferred mode of transatlantic travel, she was loaned to Texas A&M University-Galveston as a maritime training vessel.

Painted Aggie maroon, the USTS Texas Clipper made 30 summer cruises, a gentle teacher to generations of Merchant Marine and Naval Reserve officers.

Even with her funnel and masts cut down, the Texas Clipper today remains recognizably the same ship she was in 1984, in 1964, in 1944. Her fine bow and graceful counter transom hark back to an era of shipbuilding when beautiful lines still counted.

As an artificial reef, the ship will provide critical structure and the foundation of a diverse and complex community of corals, sponges and other organisms. They, in turn, will draw fish. The ship, and the life surrounding her, will bring people.

Such a rush of divers and anglers, in fact, that local economies can expect to see a boost of $30 million a year, each year for the next half century.

It's not a bad end for a grand old lady. In fact, it's not an end at all. Many of my colleagues refer to it as the Texas Clipper's "fourth life." I think of it as a sort of afterlife.

I wish her the best.

[To see the electronic press kit for the Texas Clipper reefing project, go to: The illustration at top is by Paul Hammerschmidt, TPWD; the photo of the USS Queens on patrol is a U.S. Navy photo, courtesy of the National Archives.]