Succumbing to hypothermia

Volcanology Class - Hiking up Obsidian Dome

I recently stumbled across a 1997 article from Outside Magazine on what it’s like to freeze to death. Can’t say that it sounds too enjoyable.

At 85 degrees (core body temperature), those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.

All you know is that you’re burning. You claw off your shell and pile sweater and fling them away.

“This is my church…”

Owens River Gorge overlook

Overlooking the Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California

Finally have a chance to fully check out Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

In the first episode, they document the discovery of Yosemite Valley and a quote by Lafayette Bunnell.

“None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley can even imagine the feelings with which I looked upon the scene that was there presented.

The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley-light as gossamer-and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.
…for I have seen before me the power and glory of a Supreme being.”

It’s a great quote (and a great geology related quote at that) and reminds me of something a friend said to me on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada a number of years ago.

While eating lunch on an outcrop overlooking a forested valley, he said, “I may not believe in much, but this right here, this is my church.”

Agreed, my friend. Agreed.

Encounters with nature: Backpacking in California’s Lost Coast

Photo by Meghan Pecaut

This past weekend, a group of friends and I ventured four hours north of San Francisco, to California’s beautiful and isolated Lost Coast for a weekend of backpacking.

We stayed in driftwood shanties that were located south of the abandoned Punta Gorda Lighthouse.

Lost Coast - Our Shelter

One of the most exciting events this weekend, was an encounter with a lone elephant seal on the beach. While casually walking down the beach on Saturday afternoon near the lighthouse, we noticed a lone seal following us. We stopped and watched it come closer and took photos as it approached our group. The seal was adorable, though we couldn’t help but wonder if something was wrong with it. A lone seal approaching 6 adult humans didn’t seem like normal behavior. We indulged it for a little while, took some more photos, noted that it had an orange tag labeled 21940, and then we moved on (it still tried to follow us for a bit).

About 200 yards down the beach, we approached a pod of seals sun bathing. As we came closer, they became alert and scampered away from us and into the water. A striking difference from the previous seal encounter.

Curious Sea Lion

Curious about this whole situation, I did some research on seals and sea lions when we returned home. Courtesy of The Marine Mammal Center, I found out that animals with an orange tag had been rescued and rehabilitated at some point. I wrote them an email, detailing our encounter, sharing the photos, and was curious to find out more. They promptly wrote back!

Lost Coast - Curious sea lion

Dear Dave,

Thank you for the information. The animal you saw with the tag was an elephant seal pup that we released at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore on 5/13/09. This female weaned pup was sighted post release at Baker Beach in San Francisco on 5/17/09. We always appreciate post-release reports and pictures of our previous patients.

The behavior you experienced with this pup, commonly referred to as Buzz, is unfortunately not uncommon for recently release elephant seal pups. This pup spent nearly 2 months with us learning how to forage and compete for food; it was simply malnourished upon rescue. During rehabilitation it is difficult to avoid the patients associating people as a food source. Elephant seals in general are not fearful of people, but particularly pups that have been in rehabilitation are reported as approaching people in a curious manner.

The behavior of the group of seals sounds very typical of harbor seals, which are very skittish of people; so I suspect you were seeing entirely 2 separate species.

Thanks again for your reports and let me know if you have any further questions.


Lost Coast - Curious sea lion

Fascinating! “Buzz” was observed here in San Francisco, at Baker Beach, just over a week ago. Since then, she’s managed to travel over 200 miles north. Buzz seems to be a pretty good name for her. Here’s to hoping she makes a full recovery and leads a productive life!

Thanks to Shelbi and The Marine Mammal Center for their prompt response to my curiosity.

Anyway, the trip was a blast, and it is one of my favorite hikes that I’ve ever done in California.