Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Project 1: Lake Mead, Mojave Desert

So the first project! After checking the schedule I found out I had been assigned to the Lake Mead re-hab project. Speaking to returning volunteers they told us that this was basically a lot of plant work and not too physically demanding.

We set off at 7am on Wednesday morning heading West towards Las Vegas. The drive took around 4 hours but did include a crossing of the Hoover Dam which was pretty cool. Lake Mead is situated just after the dam and is one of three man made lakes in the area, each the result of the dam project back in the 1930's. We found our camp which was fairly luxurious by most standards (it had a working toilet), pitched our tents and headed for our first half day of work at the Lake Mead National Recreation Centre.

This is effectively a nursery which is growing species of cacti native to the Mojave Desert and re-planting them. The reason for this is the construction of a new bridge next to the Hoover Dam which is aiming to move traffic off of the dam. The construction project is huge and on both sides of the Colorado river large areas of the desert have been disturbed to create the various approach/access roads, on-ramps, etc. This has left large sections of road with what are effectively wastelands either side.

Our main job is to manufacture seed balls and distribute them and then transport and plant hundreds of cacti along these roads. The seed balls took the majority of the first two days and involved making a mix of red clay, sand, compost, water and the seeds into large batches which we then had to mould into miniature balls. These would then dry overnight and we would distribute them along the new roads at the end of our project. The project partner did stress that this was an experimental method and so unfortunately it is not guaranteed to work, unlike the planting of cacti that has already blossomed which was our next task.

The cacti came in two forms. The large, heavy Barrel Cactus and the small yet thoroughly annoying Beaver Tail Cactus. The Barrel cactus were heavy and the mopst physically demanding in terms of transportation and loading on and off the trucks. The Beaver Tail's were just plain evil and we warned that we had to wear long sleeve shirts and sunglasses as the spikes can come off so easily with hardly any wind at all. This proved to be right and they even found their way through two layers of clothing. There are some pictures at the link at the bottom of the post where you can see the damage they did!

After transportation we had to plant these hundreds of cacti and trying to dig into solid desert floor is a task and a half. Then, when you have finally dug a hole big enough to support the cactus roots you have to handle the cactus in order to place it properly (Barrel Cactus have to be North facing) and there is simply no way to avoid being pricked or stung. You then have to use the earth that you have dug up to bury and support the cactus and once that is done you move onto the next one and then the next one and then the next one. Most days the sun came up and we had to work in the heat but it was exactly what I wanted. Fairly tough, outdoor work in an amazing location.

On the Saturday night we had a visit from one of the supervisors to check on the project and during his visit he took a phone call from the office back in Flagstaff. It turns out that a major snowstorm is due to hit to Flagstaff on Monday afternoon and the Highways Agency have declared they are going to shut the highways, effectively meaning we wouldn't be able to get back as the project was meant to last a week and we were to return on Wednesday. It is Wednesday as I write this and I am already back, having returned Sunday. It has snowed heavily for the last couple of days but apparently it is going to hit really hard tonight and then snow all the way until Saturday. Some of the locals reckon it might the worst snowstorm they've had in twenty years! Needless to say I've done some food shopping and have got tea and cigarettes for the next few days just in case we're snowed in.

On a more positive note I have just found out that our crew will be returning to Lake Mead next Wednesday partly to finish the job we started and also as the project partner has requested the same crew. I guess we did a great job! You can find all the pictures here.