Expedition: July 2010

We get a huge amount done and show off our stuff at Open House

Dawn at Patriarch
Dawn at Patriarch
Teens CAN greet the dawn
Teens CAN greet the dawn
Hard at work
Hard at work
Drawing lessons
Drawing lessons
White Mountain Research Station Open House Program
White Mountain Research Station Open House Program
The arrowhead
The arrowhead

We had a big list of objectives for this trip:

• Repair and test our watering system,
• Install a new window for the right hand chamber,
• Plant some more seeds,
• Re-paint the exterior of the cold frame,
• Prospect for good artificial hypoliths sites,
• Measure 100 more trees for our Bristlecone Pines twisting project,
• Bristlecone drawing lessons with art teacher Jack Sims,
• Climb 14,000’ White Mountain Peak,
• And, give a slide show and lecture about our projects for the White Mountain Research Station’s annual Open House at the Barcroft Station at 12,500’ elevation.

We did all this and more in two days. Actually, the first thing we did wasn’t even on the list – four of us woke up before dawn Saturday to drive up to the Patriarch Grove to watch the sunrise. It was magnificent.
When we got to the cold frame the winter wheat we planted last September was a foot high. The radishes and peas we planted in June were doing OK but the Swiss chard was a failure.

Dori Cann, the Barcroft caretaker, had told us that our water pump was failing to shut off and was emptying the water reservoir too quickly. Maybe we had programmed the timer wrong? When we tested our timer and pump they seemed fine. But, the irrigation system continued to water our plants whether or not the pump was on!

Finally, we figured out that water was siphoning from the elevated water tank into the cold frame chambers. We lowered the water tank to ground level. We hope it will work properly now.

After two years in the alpine sun the cold frame was looking old. We gave it a fresh coat of white and green paint. We also planted potatoes (Alaska Frostless) and more radishes.

We then went back to the Patriarch Grove and measured 100 Bristlecone Pines on the Cottonwood Basin Overlook Trail. After dinner Jack Sims projected some of our best photos onto the screen in the classroom and taught us how to draw them.
Whew! Not bad for one day. When we woke up on Sunday we had checked off most of the items on our list. But this was going to be the biggest day of the year at Barcroft: the annual Open House.

While George and Dan stayed at Barcroft to demonstrate our cold frame to visitors, the rest of us struck out towards the peak. At the four mile mark Brennan and Mike turned back to prospect the area for hypoliths. We found plenty, and identified five possible sites for our artificial hypoliths project. Matthew, Greg, Mary, Jack and Jonathan continued uphill to bag White Mountain Peak.

At 2:45 Mike, George, Dan and Brennan gave a slide show and talk to an audience of 30+ people about our projects. It was just after the astrophysics lecture and just before the talk on bat disease, and I think we were a popular favorite.
The mountain climbers straggled back soon afterwards. They had all made the summit. Jack’s new artificial knee had worked great.

We saw a lot of wildlife on this trip: Bighorn sheep, deer, marmots, birds and Campito the wild horse. We also heard a pack of coyotes at Patriarch. Brennan found an arrowhead.

But, it was tiring. We went to bed before nine! No campfire.

What we learned:

  • The cold frame is really an engineering project, not a science project,
  • A watering system can siphon water even if the pump is off,
  • The hills and meadows above Barcroft are full of hypoliths,
  • People here really like it that a high school is using the WMRS facilities,
  • All of our problems (illness, balky cars, malfunctioning equipment, bad decisions) can be blamed on the altitude.

Expedition: June 2010

We overcome adversity

CF 2010 June pickup
Special delivery of the photovoltaic system
The June hike
The June hike
A big mess
A big mess
Wheat grass in the cold frame
Wheat grass in the cold frame
All smiles
All smiles
The finished frame
The finished frame
The hike down
The hike down
CF 2010 June Campito
Campito the feral horse

We almost didn’t make it. We knew weeks ago that a snowy spring meant our cold frame at the 12,500’ Barcroft Lab wouldn’t be accessible. We came anyway, to work on our bristlecone pines twisting project. We brought our new photovoltaic system intending to store it at Crooked Creek until the snow melted.

But, once at Crooked Creek (10,000’ elevation) we learned that we might be able to get up to Barcroft after all! This put us in a tailspin because we had left some important irrigation fittings and parts at home.

To complicate matters, the staff at the White Mountain Research Station didn’t want us to drive to Barcroft in our own vehicles. They thought we would get stuck in the mud, and they were probably right about that.
Dave Stockton kindly put our heavy photovoltaic system in his high clearance four wheel drive truck and delivered it to Barcroft. We hiked the two miles uphill from the locked gate. Our view was stunning, but we certainly felt the 12,500’ elevation!

A big mess greeted us. A storm had ripped the University of California’s solar panels off the Barcroft Lab roof and most of them came down on top of our cold frame in a tangle of panels, rubber, ropes, cables, wires and splintered wood. We had to spend an hour or so clearing it all off. Our cold frame was not damaged.
The winter wheat we planted last September in the left hand chamber was alive and green. The soil was very dry, though. We watered it with melted snow and then heaped some more fresh snow on top of it to melt. Winter wheat is supposed to do well under snow.

Barcroft lacked electricity and running water. We used dirty puddles to water our chambers, but we couldn’t put dirty water into the 70-gallon reservoir. The dirt would clog the plumbing. Instead, we installed our photovoltaic system (guaranteed not to blow down!) and 12-volt pump and filled the reservoir with clean white snow. We set the pump to turn on in one week. We hope that by that time the sun’s rays on the green plastic exterior of our reservoir will melt enough snow for the pump to have something to pump.
We added manure and planted radishes, Swiss chard and peas in the central and right hand chambers. That was really all we could do until we return. Our work done (for now) we hiked back down the mountain.

Marmots were everywhere. One of them gnawed on the battery terminal of the Sicroff’s Honda Pilot, but no harm was done. We also saw “Campito”, the feral horse who lives alone up here.
What we learned:

  • Where there’s a will, there’s a way
  • Winter wheat can survive the cold season here


Expedition: September 2009

Our project has been successful beyond our hopes

IMG_7459 Sept 2009
Matt and George at cold frame
IMG_7470 Sept 2009
A bumper crop
IMG_7479 radish Sept 2009
The radish harvest
IMG_7498 Sept 2009
Salad greens prospered too
IMG_7503 potatoes Sept 2009
Productive potatoes
IMG_7581 cooked potatoes Sept 2009
Potato harvest at dinnertime
IMG_7577 September 2009
Observatoary after sunset

When we arrived the left hand chamber was like a lush jungle. Radishes gone to seed were poking their flowers out of the ventilation hole in the top. The roots were still crisp and sweet, though. Bees were buzzing around the flowers.IMG_7575 September 2009

Dori Cann and Scott Cole, caretakers at the Barcroft Station, said they had taken several harvests of radishes and salad greens from the cold frame left chamber in July and August and had made several salads.
Dori and Scott also told us that on August 7th they had a hard frost (low of 22 degrees F!) and that after that our gravity-fed watering system ceased to function properly – it just drained quickly instead of dripping like it should. Up to then, it had worked well. We will repair it and improve it in the Spring. For now, we left it disconnected and drained. The interior of the left hand chamber was quite humid, although it hadn’t been watered in almost six weeks.

We downloaded some temperature and humidity data from all three chambers, and harvested a LOT of radishes and salad greens from the left and right hand chambers. The plants in the right hand chamber (which has no window glazing) were much smaller, but they were alive.
The central chamber had been planted in potatoes. The potato plants were now dead above ground (probably they froze on August 7th) but below the ground we harvested a big bowl full of new potatoes. The variety is called “Alaska Frostless.”
We added some local sheep manure to the left and central chambers and planted them with a variety of winter wheat called CDC Falcon. We removed a portion of the window glazing from the left hand chamber.

Our work done (for now!), Matt and Cooper climbed 14,000’ White Mountain Peak. They saw two coyotes, a flock of bighorn sheep, and ballooning spiders and butterflies. George and Mike found some great examples of hypolithic cynaobacteria growing underneath quartz rocks. We also saw some amazing black-sky stars.
What we learned:

• The idea works!
• The Bayliss vents opening a window flap at the top of each chamber worked.
• The gravity-fed watering system worked for most of the growing season.
• The WMRS Staff are very supportive of this project.

Ideas for next season:

• Photovoltaic system with a 12-V sealed battery
• Rebuild the gravity-fed watering system
• Also build a pumped watering system – compare performances
• Plant: radishes, greens, potatoes, winter wheat, herbs? Calculate yield per acre.
• Convert the (no glazing) control chamber to a chamber that is glazed on the lower two thirds; open at top.
• Replace the Bayliss pistons
• Hook up a web cam?

Expedition: June 2009

We returned to our cold frame on White Mountain Peak to make repairs, improvements, and spring plantings

We almost didn’t make it. A late spring blizzard had dumped a foot of fresh snow on the site earlier in the week. By the time we got there the sun was shining and the snow was melting.


CF2009girls in yosemite june 2009
In Yosemite, on the way to the White Mountains
Tuolome Meadows
Tuolome Meadows

The frame was a little beat up from the winter. Part of the hardware cloth rodent-fence was torn off, and the middle window frame was warped and ajar.

A bit of winter damage
A bit of winter damage
CF2009 melted thermometer June 2009
It gets pretty hot in there

A surprise awaited us when we opened it up. The plastic garden thermometer in the right chamber (the one that was sealed tight) had melted! It looked a lot like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. When we checked the data logger in that chamber we learned that the temperature had exceed 185 degrees F. As Matt pointed out, water boils at that temperature at this altitude! No wonder nothing was living in this chamber. So, we learned that ventilation on hot days is crucial.

CF2009 starting to fix frame June 2009
Fixing the frame
CF2009 girls with drills June 2009
At work on repairs

Fortunately, we came prepared for this. We replaced the left and central chambers with windows that have much stronger frames and better ventilation systems. We also added analog minimum/maximum recording thermometers and a gravity-fed drip irrrigation system with a 75 gallon capacity.

The data loggers also recorded high temperatures of 165 degrees F in the middle chamber and 112 degrees F in the chamber that had no window glazing! The last measurement was simply impossible to believe. Belatedly, we realized that all three of our blue plastic data loggers were exposed to the direct rays of the sun. They had given us readings that were too high.

How could we have made such a simple mistake? But, live and learn. We build little sun shades for our data loggers out of reflective bubble wrap.

Most of what we had planted last August in the middle chamber had sprouted and started to grow, but it was all dead now. Or was it? A close examination of the brown tufts of winter wheat revealed green blades. We left the winter wheat to try to recover in its new cooler and moister environment. We also planted radishes, assorted salad greens, marigolds and a variety of potato called “Alaska Frostless.”

What we learned:

  • Extreme heat is more of a problem than extreme cold. Ventilation is the key to success. It got so hot in the sealed chamber that water would have boiled.
  • Nothing grew in the unsealed chamber, so the window glazing does help maintain an environment suitable for plants.
  • We have to keep our thermometers and data loggers in the shade (we ought to have known that.)
  • We don’t seem to have any trouble with rodents.
  • Our MicroDAQ data loggers worked great.
  • All three chambers recorded approximately the same minimum air temperature (-5 to -9 degrees F), so we need some way to better heat or insulate the chambers on cold winter nights.
  • Winter wheat shows promise for a fall planting.

CF2009 campfire June 2009

Around the Patriarch bristlecone pine
Around the Patriarch bristlecone pine

Our work done (for now), we enjoyed campfires at the University of California’s Crooked Creek Facility (elev. 10,000 feet) and went for walks in among the bristlecone pines. We’ll be back in September if not sooner.

Expedition: August 2008

August 2008 group photo
A cold frame is a miniature greenhouse.

In August of 2008 students from Sir Francis Drake High School built an insulated cold frame at the University of California’s White Mountain Research Station (elevation 12,470’)

This one is higher than any other test plot, greenhouse, cold frame, farm, or garden in California. In fact, it may be the highest cultivated place in all of North America.
University of California's White Mountain Research Station
University of California’s White Mountain Research Station
Our team consisted of Monica Dreitcer, Matt Gabel, Meredith Goebel, Christine Quach, Mika Weinstein (students), Ray Goebel (parent) and Michael Wing (teacher). We installed it August 14-17, 2008. (We slept and ate at the UC’s Crooked Creek facility (elev. 10,000’):
We also saw the ancient bristlecone pines and climbed 14,246′ White Mountain Peak.

This project was featured on the front page of the Marin Independent Journal on September 4, 2008.

girls at crooked creek August 2008
At Crooked Creek Station


van on way to Barcroft Station August 2008
On the way to Barcroft Station, White Mountains, CA

Author | Teacher | Scientist