Thursday, November 29, 2007

#51 Shipboard Water Conservation

This show originally aired on July 26, 2007 but is as timely now as it was when drought restrictions were first placed on the community this summer.

I just returned from Kinsale, Virginia, where I keep a small sailboat at a marina. The purpose of my trip was to re-plumb my fresh water system. The tank had gotten so funky that the last time I used the small hand pump faucet at the sink, green slime came out. This called for immediate action – so I set to work, removing the 15-gallon polyethylene tank from its home under the V-berth in the bow of the boat. This prompted a closer look at the length of hose for potable water from the aforementioned tank forward to the aforementioned faucet. It only stood to reason that I should replace the hose while I was at it – and so, on an unseasonably mild Tuesday in July, I subjected my body to the necessary contortions required to gain access so that I could route the new hose. This took a couple of hours, but I left for home satisfied that on the next sailing trip, I’d have sweet fresh water, suitable for drinking.

While I was out of town for a couple of days, the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority invoked a Drought Watch in accordance with its drought management plan that emerged after the 2002 drought. This all got me to thinking more about boats I have known – and the role of fresh water aboard boards, especially those which ply the saltier waters of our commonwealth. Like backpackers and other outdoor adventurers, sailors for the most part live in constant awareness of the amount of remaining fresh water in their very finite tanks and have devised a myriad of ways to conserve water.

Take my friend Mac, who has owned a 45-foot sail boat that he’s been chartering out of the Virgin Islands for the last 15 winters. I first met Mac in the mid-90’s while he was on his annual swing through Charlottesville, reconnecting with old friends, recruiting guests for future trips aboard Stranger, the given name of his boat. A love of the sea, compatible politics, and the desire the answer life’s important questions were a few things that we shared, long before I was able to sail with him on his boat.

When Mac comes to visit, he brings a bottle of wine, cheese and crackers, and a whole boatload of compelling Life Questions. And when Mac doers the dishes, which is his thank offering for the meal you’ve just cooked, he is as parsimonious with water as he would be on his own boat. I remember the first time I came across Mac washing dishes at my kitchen sink – the dishes and pots still frothy with suds where they were carefully stacked to dry. I thought perhaps that Mac was about to rinse them, but Mac fussed at me, shoeing me out of the kitchen, telling me that the soapy dishes were done, having rinsed the operative surfaces – the working sides of the plates and the inside, cooking part of the pots. As I turned to leave the kitchen, he said, “I got all the soap off of what counts! I’m saving water!”

Well, of course, Mac – a creature of habit like the rest of us – had made water conservation a way of life … certainly living on a boat will do that to you. Bringing it ashore is another whole thing … and got me to thinking about how my habits shift and change with the conveniences of life ashore. While my boat carries only 15 gallons of potable water, and I am frugal with its use when living afloat, it is so easy to slide back into practices that tap water makes possible.

The Water Resources Federation says that clothes washing and toilets flushing each claim about 25% of a typical American household … with another 20% being used in showers and baths. Add to that, now, the running water from kitchen and bathroom faucets for another 15%. Leaks account for almost 15% of domestic water use, with washing dishes and cleaning consuming a mere 3%. So what was my friend saving, after all, with his one-sided rinse?

What he was saving was the trouble of having to relearn the habit of conservation. Yes, he was also saving water – and that’s the whole point here, but equally important, I think, is what it takes to cultivate an ongoing consciousness of the finiteness of our water supplies, whether it be from the tap, from a well, or from a tank on a boat. If I could be like the “water efficient household” -- described by the Federation as one that uses 52 gallons of water, per person, per day -- I would be frugal in the best sense of the word: careful, sparing, and opposing the luxury of unlimited water. While the drought watch is a perfect time to cultivate these conservation habits, it’s worthy goal to retain them when water resources are replenished. I have my friend Mac to thank for reminding me that shipboard practices can and should be brought ashore.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

#66 Encounter Along the South Fork Moormans River

November 22, 2007

I cannot hear the stream below me on the left as I ascend the fire road along the South Fork of the Moorman’s River above Sugar Hollow Reservoir. The only sound I hear is the rush of wind funneling briskly down its own course of this steep valley in the Rivanna headwaters. And my own foot noise, in spite of my effort to walk quietly up the path strewn with leaves. Occasionally, my eyes search the hillside, looking for movement. There were only two cars in the parking area, so I imagine privacy and maybe, if I am lucky, some wildlife. But leaves continue to fall with abandon everywhere, camouflaging any living thing, except myself.

It’s a steep climb at first, but as the hillside flattens along the trail, I cut off the path and approach the water through a stand of young hemlock and flowering witch hazel. I scramble down to a moss-covered boulder with a view of a shallow pool that is fed from upstream around the bend and which disappears downstream over a small riffle. I sit, letting the sound of water over rock join the wind rush and the wood creak making harmonies in the moving air. I strain to discern what is not the sound of rock, air and water, feeling hopelessly human with an unpracticed perception and limited audio hearing range. I hear nothing and everything in the water: the faint sound of mewing, as I imagine the cougar cubs I long to see. The sound of human voices, but when I look behind me on the trail, I see nothing. The clap of iron upon wood, like a hammer. All imagined. I lean back, my knees draped over the rock, the sun warming me through ever thinning leaves. I descend into sleep.

An unfamiliar sound alerts me, and I sit up and scan the stream. From around the downstream bend, with the slow tempo of dreamscape, a man comes in to view. He is walking the streambed, carefully picking his way from rock to rock. He is older, his rock-hop more of a step-by-step assessment as he approaches where I am sitting. His head is down, and I am not sure if he has spotted me.

I have only a moment to make my decision, but that’s all I need. I drop my eyes and still my body. I am in plain view as he approaches from thirty feet away, but I have decided to be part of the scenery. Every once in a while out of the corner of my eye, I check to see where he is. It appears, by the path that he takes, that he has seen me and is steering respectfully clear. Only when I cannot see or hear him anymore, do I arise and walk carefully through the under story towards the trail, pausing to answer the call of nature, making my own mark in private, I hope.

I walk slowly downhill, savoring yellow leaves against blue sky. I enter a patch of air scented with animal, fresh as water and pure in its rankness. At my feet is a small deposit of dark and berry-filled scat. Down the trail, the air returns to “normal” but in another 500 yards, the same thing happens: the unmistakable smell of wild. I wonder if I am being watched by an animal, folded still into the hillside above me.

When I return to the parking area, the two cars I’d seen are gone and are replaced by a new one that belongs, presumably, to the man I had seen. It was a chance encounter, not the one I had hoped for, but I learned some things about making my own path through the woods. Listen to the water: you will hear what is necessary. Be still as a rock, for your privacy and solace lie within. Step gently on the leaves and know that you are not alone in the woods.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

#65 Autumn on the Rivanna: The Long View

November 8, 2007

There is something not altogether right about this day. Here it is, November 1st, and we should be bundled in fleece and wearing high rubber boots to venture out on the water. Instead, we’re wearing light rubber wading shoes that sink into the mud as we shove the canoe from the launch into the Rivanna at Hells Bend Farm, striving for a patch of water that will be deep enough to float the boat. Though the water is a cool 56 degrees, the air temperature is climbing past 65 as the sun arcs into the autumn afternoon. I’m not sure what doesn’t feel right: is it the air temperature? or the water level? which is still near historic lows in spite of patches of rain we’ve had.

Headed downriver to sample for aquatic bugs for the StreamWatch volunteer program, we quickly learn that the shoals in the center extend almost entirely across the river. We snuggle up against the left bank, a vertical wall of dying asters and poison ivy, where a channel twice the width of the canoe is just deep enough to get a decent stroke. Rounding Hell’s Bend, we stick to the outside, but in the long straightaway below we have to shove our way to the other side, seeking a route through the shallows of coarse sand deposited as the water slowed and dropped its load after the last storm. The bottom is now being sculpted by the gentle flow into underwater ripples and bluffs much like the sharp relief of the winter beach is built by the tides and wind. The channels along the banks are a Piedmont version of aquamarine. The summer’s weed is gone, and everywhere, the water is clear enough to see to the bottom, where sunken leaves tumble and pile up against underwater tree limbs and rock outcroppings.

Once at the sampling site below the Mill, we get to work, scraping bugs from a shallow cobbled riffle into the mesh net and pouring over the contents with our middle aged eyes. We enter the world of macro – where everything of interest is small – one-eighth to as much as an inch long, like the fat, ribbed crane fly larvae that are in abundance today. We’ve also captured small pebbles, twigs, and leaves in various stages of decomposition – and from this tumble of browns and yellows, we must pick out the larvae of mayflies, water pennies, and caddisflies – as well as the tiny clams and snails and worms that inhabit the stream. Having sampled for a couple of years, we know that you look until you can’t find any more bugs, and then you look again, switch sides of the table and look some more, flip the net over and keep on looking, before you can have confidence that you’ve collected all the bugs in the net, which is necessary to assure quality data. While we pour over the net, the river tumbles over the stone from the old dam, the sound making it seem like a fuller river than it is.

By four o’clock, we’re winding down, just as the sky turns an ominous gray and the late afternoon sun catches clouds in curving lines stretched out in the wake the tropical depression, Noel. After pulling the canoe back up through the rapids to head home, I trip trying to step in the canoe and am suddenly on my butt in two feet of water that now feels plenty cool. The paddle back upstream is welcome and warming work. At the far end of the long straight channel, the late afternoon sky is dense with clouds descending their dark on tawny yellow sycamores that flank the river. After straining to find the small bugs, it feels good to stretch my eyes into the distance.

This is a good time of year to stay flexible and acknowledge what is. Though the Virginia autumn has been fickle with little water and overly-warm temperatures, what is just right is the slant of light -- unmistakably autumn -- soft but crisp, forcing one’s concentration on the essentials of life: food, shelter, and companionship. It is a good time to gather up, pick over, collect what is meaningful or needed, being sure not to waste or overlook anything important, while at the same time keeping the long view -- which stretches out past the shorter days that are upon us – with a vision of another season to come.