Katrin’s Kernels Book Report #1: “The Sixth Extinction”

Katrin’s Kernels is a new series of book reports offering pithy kernels from books I read. While certainly not a replacement for reading the entire book, I hope to give readers a snapshot into its overall message, and inspire them to read it fully themselves. I enjoy reading non-fiction and Science books, especially related to human impacts on the environment. I look forward to sharing more books in the future, and please send me your suggestions if so inspired!

Katrin Deetz

Katrin’s Kernels Book Report #1: “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert

Introduction

In a short period of time, humans have manipulated the planet like no other species in recorded history. The gargantuan footprint of Humanity on Earth is unprecedented, and our technologies further the complexity of our influence on the future. Though we live in an age of great productivity and innovation, we are undoubtedly part of one of the most punctuated mass species extinction in geologic history – what Elizabeth Kolbert masterfully describes as “the Sixth Extinction”.

I hope to present you with some of the leadweight facts and findings from her beautifully written book. Her writing style made even the saddest subjects shine with dignity and grace. I cried, questioned out loud, and stood up out of my seat while reading this book; it certainly moved me in every sense of the word. I tried to summarize the highlights that spoke strongest to me, and I am skipping over a lot! This book is rich with statistics, figures, and information that all support her thesis. I highly recommend reading her book in full, and then try to think of new ways you can help, too. We need all hands on deck.

Book Report

“The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert

(Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History. New York:Henry Holt and Company, 2014. Print)

Image result for the sixth extinction

To gain a context for this book, it’s important to first review the “Big 5” mass extinction events in Earth history. The first was the late Ordovician, about 450 million years ago (mya), likely due to changes in sea level and glaciation. Then there was the late Devonian, about 365 mya, where some 75% of species were lost from possible volcanic ash, and eutrophication from algal blooms in the ocean. The third was the Permian-Triassic, about 250 mya, when 96% of life perished as a result of massive volcanic eruptions that altered the atmosphere and acidified the oceans.

The fourth was the Triassic-Jurassic extinction, beginning some 200 mya, and lasting for several millions of years as a proposed combination of volcanic flood basalt eruptions and an asteroid impact were to blame. The fifth happened in the Cretaceous-Paleogene, about 65 mya, from an asteroid and volcanic eruptions, wiping out dinosaurs and ¾ of species on the planet. Bottom line? The Big 5 Extinctions happened over a long period of time, and were brought on by natural phenomena, not the direct consequence of one species’ actions. Over 100 species have gone extinct since 1980, the year I was born, and dozens are threatened. Of all threatened species, amphibians top the list. 

Fighting for the Frogs

Author Elizabeth Kolbert is quick to explain the title of her book The Sixth Extinction. She references a pair of early authors to first publish an essay using the term “sixth extinction”. Authors David Wake, of UC Berkeley, and Vance Vredenburg, of San Francisco State University published an article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians”.

David Wake studied the decline of frogs in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, where in his lifetime he had known them to be populous. Suddenly there were die-offs everywhere, and scientists have continued to document overall amphibian species loss regularly. They are known as an “indicator species”, for their sensitivity to subtle, and not so subtle, changes in environmental conditions; their reactions to toxins often indicates how other larger species, like we humans, may be impacted.

What’s killing the frogs? It’s Bd fungus, short for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, and it has ravaged frog populations beyond the Sierra Nevadas. Its relative Chytrid fungus is decimating Panamanian golden frogs, among many other species, in Central America.

Kolbert traveled firsthand to see for herself what was happening. She went to a frog sanctuary in central Panama, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), where biologists are racing against time to preserve many different species of frogs. Ultimately, their goal is to repopulate the native environment with healthy frogs, but, as Kolbert writes:

“Everyone I spoke to at EVACC told mt that the center’s goal was to maintain the animals until they could be released to repopulate the forests, and everyone also acknowledged that they couldn’t imagine how this would actually be done” (Kolbert, p. 14).

Volunteers toil tirelessly for a mission that seems more impossible with each dying frog. I am in awe of their determination, steadfast morale, and daily efforts to make some headway on this daunting fungus. These funguses can be thought of as invasive species, as they have spread their way across the world to populations maladapted to their wrath.

It’s Not Just the Frogs…

For some perspective, a key concept called “background extinction rate” is introduced in this first chapter. “It is the rate of which a species goes extinct in ordinary geologic times: no volcanic eruptions, asteroids, or dramatic, punctuated event. Depending upon a complex set of factors that vary from species to species, mammals may have an extinction rate of about ¼ per million species-years…since there are about fifty-five hundred mammal species wandering around today…you’d expect – once again, very roughly – one species to disappear every seven hundred years” (Kolbert, p. 15). Amphibians’ extinction rate has yet to be determined, as their fossils are so rare, and are required for determining its rate; however, approximately one amphibian species in the world may go extinct every thousand years or so.

Amphibians are the “most endangered class of animals, though; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion” (Kolbert, p. 17).

Let those statistics sink in for a second. Now visualize them in your mind.

Image result for one third    One Third = 33 ⅓ % = .3

That’s one out of every three corals at risk for extinction.

Now consider this: one out of every four ocean species depends upon coral reefs for their survival.

Image result for one-fourth   One Fourth = 25% = .25

The ramifications are nothing short of catastrophic for life as we know it. With fisheries already overtaxed, it’s no joke that we may not have fish to eat in our lifetimesThat’s a big problem not just for the billions of people who depend upon fish for their main protein source, but for the multitude of species that make up a complex, delicately balanced ecosystem that is completely dependent upon biodiversity. It’s outright depressing, simply for the sake of so many species at risk for extinction. I care about us, but I’m mostly sad for the animals.

One of the biggest threats to healthy, diverse populations of organisms worldwide comes from invasive species. Kolbert explains some likely avenues for Bd’s introduction to the Americas: the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, in which shipments of African clawed frogs used for pregnancy detection in the 1950’s were spread worldwide; or the “frog-leg soup” hypothesis, in which the introduction of North American bullfrogs to other countries is to blame.

“Either way, the etiology is the same. Without being loaded by someone onto a boat or plane, it would have been impossible for a frog carrying Bd to get from Africa to Australia or from North America to Europe. This sort of intercontinental reshuffling, which nowadays we find totally unremarkable, is probably unprecedented in three-and-a-half-billion-year history of life (Kolbert, p. 18).

Species are being exposed to foreign pathogens that they can’t evolve quickly enough to build immunity against. Invasive species outcompete and edge out native species that play vital roles to long-established cycles within the ecosystem. It is a balancing act that is held in harmony by its diversity, and a growing laundry list of invasive species stand against it.

Hunted to Extinction

Kolbert explains in great detail the history of extinction, speciation, and evolution in chapters two and three, including how Darwin not only discovered new species, but in his lifetime saw the extinction of an iconic European species: the great auk. Great auks were large, flightless birds about two and a half feet tall, with small wings adapted for swimming in the ocean. They were eaten into extinction by Icelanders, on the island that served as the last death knell of the auks. Once widespread throughout the world, their numbers quickly plummeted as they became a primary food source for humans, in addition to serving as fish bait, feathers, and even fuel (Kolbert, p. 60).

A preserved great auk serves as a totem of its tragic demise, with the inscription at its base: “The bird who is here for show was killed in 1821. It is one of the few great auks that still exist” (Kolbert, p. 57). The last pair of auks was killed off on the Icelandic island of Eldey in 1844 by a trio of men arriving by rowboat.

A British naturalist, Alfred Newton, had hoped to witness a sighting of the elusive pair of auks; upon learning of their slaughter, he wrote in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science:

“‘The bird that is shot is a parent. We take advantage of its most sacred instincts to waylay it, and in depriving the parent of life, we doom the helpless offspring to the most miserable of deaths, that by hunger. If this is not cruelty, what is?’  Newton argued for a ban on hunting during breeding season, and his lobbying resulted in one of the first laws aimed at what today would be called wildlife protection: the Act for the Preservation of Sea Birds” (Kolbert, p. 67).

The Great Auk can, sadly, be added to the list of species plucked – quite literally in this case – to extinction. Newton’s environmental activism, on the other hand, set an admirable precedent.

The Anthropocene Epoch

In Chapter 4, Kolbert gracefully leads us through a detailed yet relatable summary of Earth’s geologic history, and in Chapter 5 discusses the “Anthropocene Epoch”, a term coined by Paul Cruzen, a Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize recipient for his research and proactive measures to protect the ozone layer (Kolbert, p. 107). The term embodies human dominance over Earth, including:

  • Human activity has transformed between one third and and one half of the land surface of the planet.                      
  • Most of the world’s major rivers have been damned or diverted.
  • Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
  • Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ coastal waters.
  • Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff. (Kolbert, p. 108)

He was also quick to note human’s alteration of Earth’s atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. Our current carbon dioxide levels hover around 400 ppm, which is higher than any point in the last 800,000 years, if not longer; if current warming trends continue, we’re predicted to top 500 ppm, or twice pre-Industrial levels, by 2050 (Kolbert, p. 113). The effects of such warming are numerous: changes in climate with more extreme weather events; sea-level rise from warming oceans, and melting ice-sheets; acidifying oceans, killing many species; changes in native ecosystems from invasive species; and those are just several.

As Kolbert snorkels among beautiful coral reefs, she and others lament their visible decline, and more commonly, demise. With the pH of the ocean lowering as acidity rises with the absorption of carbon dioxide into the ocean, pteropods, corals, and other shelled creatures who depend upon a delicate chemical reaction of calcium carbonate are literally dissolving. In Castello Aragonese, a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, Kolbert dives with researchers studying ocean acidification; they have a natural source of carbon dioxide from an active volcanic vent beneath the sea. Check out a short video of it here.

It provides for a perfect laboratory to study varying acidity; the areas closest to the vents have the highest carbon dioxide, and the highest acidity. As you move away from the vents, there are varying pH zones. Scientists study the organisms in each zone, how they’ve adapted to their unique environments, and experiment with species to see how they react to changes in preferred acidity. In the pH 7.8 zone, three-quarters of the missing species are calcifiers (Kolbert, p. 122). Today, we’re at about 8.1, but that number is expected to drop.

Kolbert continues to The Great Barrier Reef to delve into the effects of ocean acidification on corals. I was curious to learn about what’s called the “saturation state with respect to calcium carbonate”; it’s basically how much is available in a given amount of seawater.

“Prior to the Industrial Revolution, all of the world’s major reefs could be found in water with an aragonite saturation state between four and five. Today, there’s almost no place left on the planet where the saturation state is above four, and if current emissions continue, by 2060 there will be no regions left above 3.5…Eventually, saturation levels may drop so low that corals quit calcifying altogether, but long before that point they will be in trouble” (Kolbert, p. 137).

J.E.N. Veron, a former scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science, wrote:
“A few decades ago I, myself, would have thought it ridiculous to imagine that reefs might have a limited lifespan. Yet here I am today, humbled to have spent the most productive scientific years of my life around the rich wonders of the underwater world, and utterly convinced that they will not be there for our children’s children to enjoy”.

A recent study by Australian researchers found that coral in the Great Barrier Reef has declined by fifty percent just in the last thirty years (Kolbert, p. 138). Furthermore, a study published in the journal Science in 2008 found more than a third of 800 reef-building coral species to be in danger of extinction (Kolbert, p. 142).

This was one of many moments in the book that made me cry.

It’s not simply because I may not be able to snorkel among the vivid reefs I’ve explored before; it’s the collapse of a long-established ecosystem, and its hundreds of dependent species that worry me. It’s happening in our lifetime, and faster than we think. 

Kolbert travels to the rainforests of Manu National Park in Peru, and the Amazon in Brazil to witness changes in biodiversity from deforestation. Then, she’s back to the US, where bats are fighting White Nose Syndrome, a deadly fungus that has made its way to the Americas, and is decimating bat populations. This is part of the species “reshuffling” that’s happened with invasive species being shipped, flown, driven, and sailed across the continents. And at this point in the book, it’s easy to see how their impact is all-encompassing. 

An Informed Sendoff

After guiding us through some difficult topics to read about, Kolbert wraps up the book with an emphatic call to action. I’ll let her words speak for themselves:

“To the extent that we can identify the causes of these revolutions, they’re highly varied: glaciation in the case of the end-Ordovician extinction, global warming and changes in ocean chemistry at the end of the Permian, an asteroid impact in the final seconds of the Cretaceous. The current extinction has its own novel cause: not an asteroid or a massive volcanic eruption but ‘one weedy species’. As Walter Alvarez put it to me, ‘We’re seeing right now that a mass extinction can be caused by human beings’. The one feature these disparate events have in common is change and, to be more specific, the rate of change. When the world changes faster than species can adapt, many fall out” (Kolbert, p. 266).

“Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy. The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust and giant rats have – or have not – inherited the earth” (Kolbert, p. 269).

Personal Thoughts

I knew this would be a difficult book to read. Learning about a multitude of hopeless, tragic cases of animals dying isn’t for the light-hearted. I cried several times while reading this book, my heart heavy with the guilt and anger of what we’ve done to our animal companions. This book also reminded me that I’m not doing enough to help improve any of the problems I’m so upset about. Like most people I know, I fastidiously recycle, reduce, and reuse; I donate to a few charities that are fighting for the very causes I’m concerned about. I work hard to educate my Seventh grade Science students about the state of our planet, and hopefully that creates a ripple effect. But overall, I feel like I ought to be doing more. It is painful to just stand on the sidelines watching a tragedy unfold, and I feel like we all – as in all 7.6 billion of us – should be doing more to help.

I realize not everyone may care about the state of our environment as much as people like Kolbert do, or like I’d like to think I do. We all have different calls to action. Some issues concern some more than others. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the severity of them all. But it’s important to stay in the loop, know what’s happening, and be proactive with that information. There are many things we are doing to make progress on these issues, and we ought to try everything possible to ebb the destructive tide we’ve risen.

I hope you read this book in full, and I hope it inspires you. It takes a world of smart, creative humans like ourselves to solve our way out of the crisis we’re in, and we all play a part in the solution.

Big Basin MTB Loop

Big Basin Redwoods State Park, in the middle of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, is famous for its old-growth redwood trees. As the oldest state park established in 1902, it has drawn visitors from around the world to stand beneath its towering, majestic giants. Some redwoods are over 2,000 years old, and command the forest floor like marshals on patrol. They certainly command awe and respect.

Big Basin is also known for its 13-mile Skyline to the Sea Trail, which meanders from the park headquarters down to Waddell Beach at Rancho Del Oso. I backpacked this trail about fifteen years ago, sleeping overnight midway; it was a gorgeous, surprisingly remote adventure. Though we’re so close to Santa Cruz and “civilization”, it feels starkly desolate out here. Wildlife abounds, and inspiring views surround you.

While not known particularly for its mountain biking, Big Basin offers a network of fireroads for riding upon; single-track trails are off-limits. Today, I decided to try my first mountain bike ride here on the Big Basin Loop, a 13-mile loop climbing about 1,700′ in elevation. Only about a 25-minute drive from my house, it is close enough I should come here more often! This year, the first ever Old Growth Classic will take place here on August 25; if I weren’t already racing the CES at Northstar that day, I would be doing it.

Starting off at the Park Headquarters, you climb up Gazos Creek Fireroad for nearly seven miles. There are some downhill, flowy segments on this trail, and then it returns to climbing. At the end of this trail, turn right on Johansen Fireroad, which skirts a very unique mountain property with a treehouse and tepees. This is the steepest climbing on the loop.

After a few miles, you’ll reach Ocean View Summit at 1,685′; as the name implies, it’s a sweeping view West over the Pacific Ocean. Due to all the wildfires burning across the state, it was especially smoky today, and you can see it in the video. I also felt it in my lungs.

Middle Ridge Road was the funnest downhill of the ride, dropping quickly from the summit back to park headquarters over a mix of sandstone and redwood duff. Though nothing on this ride was exceptionally challenging, the gorgeous scenery and flowy fireroads provided enough motivation to make the climbing worth it. It was a good workout, about two and a half hours riding time.

I finished with a short walk through the Redwood Loop back at the Park Headquarters, appreciating the grand redwoods we are so lucky weren’t logged back in the 1800’s. Though it may feel like “wilderness” out here, it’s easy to see how much this land was ravaged for its valuable resources only a century or so ago. I can only imagine how this forest must’ve looked when it was full of these beautiful, old-growth giants.

Enjoy this video summary of the ride, or better yet, go try it yourself! You won’t regret it.

 

Thank You For Not Asking

Subjectivity. Personal preference. Different strokes for different folks. Our perspectives are inherently built upon the fabric of our character, circumstances, and choices in life. There are many lifestyle preferences that may be questioned by family, friends, and acquaintances throughout our lives, but there is one question people won’t seem to stop asking:

Are you going to have children?

It’s a simple question, really, and a relatively fair one to ask while getting to know someone better. But at age 37, I can tell you I’m tired of hearing it from those I already know – which is why I’d like to take this opportunity to say, Thank you for not asking.

Thank you for not asking if I’m going to have kids for the umpteenth time. I don’t mind the occasional check in, but when it becomes as regular as morning coffee, it starts getting old. Thank you for not reminding me that, at age 37, my fertility is declining each menstrual cycle. Thank you for not assuming that I must be incomplete with my life since I don’t have children of my own. Thank you, most of all, for not looking down on me in pity as you wonder how I could be married and not yet have kids.

Because I’m out here having the time of my life, thank you very much.

Since you asked, however, I’ll take the time to answer your question thoroughly.

My first serious thoughts about whether I would reproduce began as a Senior at Acalanes High School in Lafayette, California, in 1998. The world was approaching a population of six billion people, and I was learning about a myriad of environmental issues from my passionate, informative teachers. I was concerned about overpopulation, and humans nearing our carrying capacity. If it weren’t for all the people demanding so much from the planet at once, we may not be having the same plight of problems. What if there were a way to reduce the population to a more sustainable size? What if some three billion of us were to all of the sudden just die?

Disregarding the morbidity of thinking about billions of people dying en masse, it was a simplistic, fleeting idea I thought about one day in my U.S. Government class. While I soon moved on from that idea, what stuck with me was the real problem of overpopulation. From my Netscape browser in our new computer lab at school, I researched Zero Population Growth, the simple premise that if every couple had two children or less, Earth’s population either plateaus or declines over time. It seemed like a logical solution to an overtaxed, overburdened planet that was bleeding resources faster than it could replenish itself. If I were to have kids, I would stop at two, I decided at the young age of seventeen.

I understood why and how families could have more than two children, certainly; as the youngest of three sisters myself, I am the increase in population from my parents. My two older sisters negate their lives in the longrun, while I am the additional resource-sucking human; the growth in population.

Then I majored in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. It was a phenomenal, rich four years surrounded by constant information, inquiry, and mental aerobics that fired me up to do something about all the problems I was upset about. I graduated feeling a mix of informed, enraged, and inspired to change that which bothered me so much. Yet I still felt like overpopulation was at the root of many of our problems.

Today, there are some 7.6 billion people on Earth. I worry about overpopulation, and a heartwrenching laundry list of environmental issues. I vacillate between feeling faithful about the future, and completely despondent. Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to bring children into the Earth we live in today.

Then there are days when a student says something so inspiring that you wonder how you couldn’t have known it all along; or you see your niece and nephew laughing with pure abandon in a hammock on a Summer day. These moments give me some faith in the future, and definitely tug at my heartstrings to have kids.

But do I want to bring children into the world?
I have a blog and share my life pretty openly; I have nothing to hide. I don’t take myself too seriously. It’s possible no one will read this, anyway. I firmly believe that none of this will matter in a hundred years, so might as well share my authentic, imperfect self. That includes when I’m ambivalent about something.

After all these years, I still am not 100% sure if I want to have children of my own. My husband Ron feels closely the same. Every time we are out having fun on a mountain bike ride, snowboarding trip, or playing at the beach, we both feel grateful for that time together. We are living out the most passionate, greatest romance we’ve ever known, growing stronger after twelve years together. Despite everyone’s advice that you can still do all the things you love with kids, I’m sure there is some sacrifice of this time, especially in the early years. It’s hard to just give it up.

It can be challenging to feel so unsettled on the topic. Most of the time, I know exactly what I want, and go for it. This is a decision that has sat on the shelf without a clear directive for years. Deciding whether to procreate isn’t like changing the paint color in your bedroom, of course. The philosophical ramifications of adding a human into your life have definitely kept me up a night or two. And yes, I know I’m running out of time, which adds to my growing sensitivity from those who keep asking…so thank you for not asking.

Again, it all comes back to whether we want to or not.

It’s okay not to know the answer. And it should be okay with everyone else in my life, too. I’d like to think most people couldn’t give two cents about the issue, and would like to extend a warm thank you to all of you who haven’t continually asked me about the subject. I appreciate it beyond measure.

Then there are those who ask, with worry in their eyes, if I am ever going to have children?!
I feel like I’ve disappointed them before I even answer. I understand their curiosity on the subject, especially since Ron and I are both getting older. I’m not angry they’re asking; it’s a fair topic. But at this point, my answer hasn’t changed.

You know we’re still not sure about that, I shrug.

It’s like they’ve just watched a mother bird lose her baby chick. They look at me with a quizzical, let down, mildly sad look in their eye as I scramble to offer more justification.

We’re so happy as it is. It’s wonderful having freedom, you know, I try to overcompensate.

Don’t you know you’re over the age of thirty-five? they counter, terror in their eyes at uttering such a statement. Worse, they’ll question my athleticism. All those bikerides can’t be helping…

And this is where I’m over it.

I’m not sorry if my lack of children makes me not good enough for you. That’s on you, not me. If you look at me and see an incomplete, unhappy spinster, then fine. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see me, because I do. The joke’s on you if you think I’m missing out. While you’re wasting breath judging me, I’m laughing on the way to my next adventure.

It carries a little more weight when it comes to my family asking about kids. Though they hide it well, I know my sisters are hoping I have children to add to their brood. They have been undyingly supportive of me as I ponder this decision. It is hard, though, when I see them sharing experiences only two mothers can share; when I see their children play together, creating memories only they will remember. They’re in the Mom’s Club, and I’m not. Sure, it makes me want to have kids more when I see them with their own.

My parents are, understandably, so proud of them and their families. There are times when I question how proud they are of me, despite their love toward me over the years. I know it must be hard as a mother to want your own daughter to become a mother herself, to join that “club” that only mothers can be in. I see the genuine love she has with her five beautiful grandchildren; I see my Dad beam as he plays with them. When I see my parents light up talking about their daughters, I know they would be as proud if I had children, too. And who wouldn’t want more grandkids? I wouldn’t have kids just to please my family, of course, nor would I because I thought I was supposed to.

I can’t control what other people think, and it doesn’t change my life if someone thinks I have a perfect life or not because I don’t have kids. But I am human, and there are moments when I feel unrecognized for who I am today, like I’m not truly seen. When someone doesn’t seem to care about what I’m up to, except for the fact that I’m not having kids anytime soon, I can feel passed over – ignored, with a hint of not being good enough.

Anyone care to hear about my latest adventure in the mountains? Sometimes, I wonder, do you see this badass mountain biking nature girl, cultivating a blooming garden on the property she bought? Do you see the peace of mind that I have, the contentment I have to just sit in stillness with myself, free of stress and worry? Do you see the books I read, the quiet miles I run through the forest, or the compassion I show to others in my daily actions?

Do you see that I am happy? Though I may seem “selfish” in your eyes spending all this time doing what I love, I’m actually spending most of that time getting outside of myself. I’m not trying to focus on myself so much as I’m trying to use myself as an instrument to experience and learn new things. Can you see that? Do you see me?

While some may assume I’m living an incomplete life without kids, I’m busy building my life – carving out my own path, following my passions, and becoming a fuller, better human being in the process. I’m improving myself, growing into a wiser, stronger woman in the process. Someday, should I decide to take on that sacred journey of Motherhood, I will be that much more interesting of a Mother, that much more experienced of a guide, and beat with that much stronger of a heart to love with. And I’ll have a lot of damn good stories to tell.

There is so much to do in life, but it’s impossible to travel every single path. Including motherhood. I can never know what it would be like to not ever have kids, and become a mother. I will have to choose, or biology will choose for me.

So why stress about the one path I cannot take? I only have this one life to leave my footprints in the sand, washed away by the tides as soon as I’m gone. What I know for sure is it’ll be okay whether I have kids or not. Once I’m gone, I won’t know otherwise. The world will keep on, and these words will fade away into the ether.

So thank you for not asking. Surely you weren’t expecting to read all of this for the answer.

Which is, of course, it doesn’t really matter.

AirSickMagic Ride

Here’s a video of the mountain biking trails Airborn, Sick & Twisted, and Magic Carpet Ride in the upper UCSC area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. We begin with Airborn, a trail known for its steep, loose descent over redwood roots. This time of year it is especially dry, and today I noticed the braking bumps had grown at least a few inches since my last run down it. But it’s still good fun, of course!

Flowing down steep hillsides like this one requires a balance of keeping momentum while not sliding out of control. Though I try to mostly use my rear brake on trails like this, your front brake provides that stopping power that you need to slow down. It becomes a controlled slide, at times. Keeping your weight back, and your center of gravity balanced over the bike, helps keep you from falling forward over the bars as you hold on and just slide down that slope until it lets up. It’s fun to ride on this edge of composure and chaos.

I focus on keeping my four points of contact firmly intact: hands committed to the bars, feet solid on my pedals. Maintaining these points of contact, while balancing your center like a gyroscope, helps absorb some of the bouncing and bumping that is inevitable on steep trails with lots of features. Dynamic, split-second reflexes, are part of the fun of this dance. Mountain biking is a lot like dancing; your bike is your partner, and you must keep a firm, constant frame with each other in order to flow with grace across the dancefloor of the forest floor. You must stay completely aware; the word present is an understatement. It can become meditative, despite the speed and stimuli involved.

Sick & Twisted is a short trail that feeds into one of my longtime favorite trails, Magic Carpet Ride. I love this area with all my heart, so much I often say “Thank you” at least once during my ride. Thank you for my legs and body to ride out here; thank you for the awesome, natural beauty that bathes me in its gentle, scattered sunlight. Gratitude is inspired from doing what you love, where you want to be. For me, that’s flowing with grace on my bike among beautiful, natural places. Blessed with another day to do just that!

Happy Summer!

2018 Summertime Ride

Here’s a video of today’s ride, my favorite regular route. I added some captions to highlight some unique areas of the trails I’m grateful to call home. It’s about 20 miles and takes about 2 hours, starting at Highway 9 and Pipeline Road through Henry Cowell State Park, and continuing up 17 Turns to Mailboxes for the first downhill. Then, it’s a fireroad climb back up the mountain via Long Meadow in Wilder Ranch to Twin Gates; on to Sweetness, the second downhill. The warm-up and cool-down through Henry Cowell are perfect for this ride, and I’m super appreciative I can ride these trails with just a short drive from my house in Ben Lomond!

The birds and wildlife are always a huge motivator to do anything outside around here; I’ve seen a mountain lion on Mailboxes trail before. Today I saw several baby lizards, only about an inch long, which was a reminder to watch out for hatching reptiles on these hot, late-Summer days.  Having access to this stunning outdoor escape is one of the main reasons I moved to Santa Cruz in the first place, almost twenty years ago. These mountains feel like home, and though I’ve ridden these trails hundreds of times, they never get old – endless fun!

Summertime rides like these set the stage for content, happy evenings; under balmy conditions, a symphony of insects and a full moon fill the sky and the senses. I savor the Summer! I am beyond thankful for this time off, and for the freedom, flow, and grace it brings. Time is the biggest gift of all, and I don’t take it for granted. As a teacher, I know exactly when my time off is, and take advantage of it while I can. August 20 will be here before I know it.

Enjoy your Summer, too; go ride your bike! It doesn’t matter what you’re riding, it’s that you’re riding – and with a smile on your face.

 

 

Northstar VideoBlog

Northstar, California 7/10 – 7/11/18

Ron and I had an awesome time mountain biking at Northstar for a couple of days, followed by Downieville the next; I filmed four of our rides from Northstar, shown below. The Sierra Nevadas are breathtaking this time of year, with pops of color jumping off the landscape from bursting wildflowers, and long days to fill with fun activities to your heart’s content. I’m going to let the pictures and videos do the talking here, but let’s just sum it up with one word: heaven!

Packer Saddle, top of the Downieville Downhill

Campsite at Lower Little Truckee Campground

White Pelicans at Martis Creek Lake

Sardine Lake, near Packer Saddle

Livewire Trail Video:

Gypsy Trail Video:

Dog Bone Trail:

Lower Sticks & Stones/Pho Dogg Trails:

Happy Summer! As always, it goes by too fast. Enjoy every last second!

Katrin

California Enduro Series 2018 Mid-Season Update

Summer is in full swing, and mountain bike racing season is too! With the Enduro season almost half-way through, I’m reflecting on the races I’ve done so far. Last year was my first year doing the California Enduro Series, and I won the Beginner category. This year I moved up to Sport 35+, and am halfway through the series competition. Here’s a recap of the first five races of the season so far, including a couple of others:

Race #1Sea Otter Classic Enduro: 4/20/18

This was my fourth year doing the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California. The largest bike festival of its kind, it draws thousands of visitors over a 4-day span at Laguna Seca Raceway near Fort Ord. I had just gotten my new Santa Cruz Hightower LT a week before, and was excited to put it to the test in this race. The course is sandy and flowy, with four stages: a downhill course, two trail stages, and a dual-slalom course at the end. 

Though I was familiar with the course, I hadn’t really adapted to my bike’s new geometry yet; I was trained from my old Specialized Camber, which was more of a cross-country bike, to lean way back over my back tire on descents. On my new bike, however, I didn’t have to lean so far back anymore, and kept getting razzed by my back tire (always a surprising sensation). This proved both humorous and startling on Stage 1, the Downhill Course. I hit one of the first few jumps with good speed, but I was too far back over my back tire. I got slapped by my back tire on the landing, which nearly propelled me forward over the bars. Amid a crowd of spectators, I felt my pants get caught on my seat as I rode out the landing.

Regaining control, I heard someone yell, “Nice job! Now pull up your pants!”.

My pants? They were pulled down almost to my knees! Yes, I got pantsed at the Sea Otter. Luckily, my bikeshorts were still on tight. I awkwardly tried to pull them up as I kept riding, which was awesomely captured by a waiting photographer. Note how much I am smiling in the pictures because I am laughing my butt off at being pantsed in front of all those people. I finished the rest of that course with my pants in disarray, but with levity and gratitude that at least I didn’t crash off that jump. 

I finished the rest of the race in 6th place out of 13 for Open Women 30-39, and shaved a full minute and forty seconds off of last year’s time, which felt good. Check out a video of the downhill course here.

Race #2 – May 19, 2018: Old Cabin Classic Cross-Country Race

This race was all about proving to myself that I could ride 29.3 miles at race-pace without a break; it was my second ever cross-country race. Read all about it in my previous blog post Old Cabin Classic 2018. Let’s just sum it up as: “Check that box and done!”. 

Race #3 May 26, 2018: California Enduro Series Round 1 Toro Park, Salinas

This was the “local” race for me of the California Enduro Series (CES). Toro Park is only about an hour from my house, and its sandy conditions mimic a Santa Cruz riding spot, Bear Mountain, where I go to improve my sand skills. Sand was initially a challenging, intimidating medium for me to ride, but over the years, I’ve grown a lot in my ability to ride it.

I prerode the course a couple of days before the race, which really helped with my confidence going into the race. The best part about the preride? On my last lap, climbing up a punishing fireroad, a race marshal drove up in his truck with a small crew of guys.

“Want a lift?” he offered.

“Hell YEAH!” I emphatically replied. I hopped into the back of his truck with my bike, and enjoyed a beautiful drive up that steep climb to the top. Now that’s how we get the race weekend started!

On the actual race day, it was cold and cloudy, only about 55℉. I am racing this year with a new team, MTB Experience, full of cool girls who are racing the CES this year. Our encouragement and excitement feed off each other, and definitely added to the positive vibe of this race. It was also wonderful to meet up with all of the awesome people that come out to these races. The community of people is one of the main reasons I race at all.

I felt on top of my game during this race – no mechanicals, no crashes or hiccups, and I felt fast. Having ridden here a few times now, I also felt like I knew what to expect.

I placed first in this race for the Women’s Sport 35+ category, with an overall time of 15:55, shaving a full minute and a half off last year’s time. This was a fun race and a great kick-off to the CES season! Check out a video summary of the course here.

Race #4 – June 16, 2018: CES Round 2 Mammoth Bar, Auburn

7/10 of a second. 70% of a second. A mere .7 seconds! 

However you annotate it mathematically, let seven-tenths of a second be the theme of this race!

I went into Mammoth Bar with a plan. I was going to preride on Friday, the day before the race, spend the night at my Auntie Christie’s house in Roseville, and then race Saturday. All was going to plan, except it was hot as hell on Friday when I showed up to preride. Duh. No wonder all the practice rides started at 9 a.m.! Showing up at 3 p.m., it was nearly 100℉ and miserable. I prerode only three out of the four stages, and went for a swim in the American River afterwards to cool off.

I spent a wonderful evening at my Aunt’s house with her husband Lee at their beautiful home in Roseville, about 20 minutes from Auburn. We had a nice dinner, watched a movie, and I went to sleep early, only to be woken in the middle of the night to a pounding headache and nausea. Soon after, I got totally sick – throwing up, feeling like death. My sweet Aunt checked on me and I went back to bed.

I woke up in the morning still feeling awful, but the nausea wasn’t as bad. My first instinct was to skip the race; just go back home to Santa Cruz and sleep. But I know myself, and I knew I would be regretting it later. I knew within a few hours I would start to come back to life again, and would think to myself, Why didn’t you at least try the race?!

I decided I would at least try to do the race, even if it was miserable.

When I got to Mammoth Bar, I was immediately buoyed by seeing my racing teammates. Their patience and support helped me push through what would be a hot, punishing day of riding – with about 3,500’ of climbing to seal the deal. There were multiple injuries that day; one person had to be airlifted by helicopter after riding – literally – off of the Confluence Trail and almost straight into the American River. There were many mechanicals, too; I came up on a rider who flatted, and a rider who dropped a chain, on Stage 2. The seconds I spent slowing for them until I could pass proved to matter at the end of the day.

I had to take a short nap after one of the transfers, feeling completely exhausted, but kept sipping my water and Cranked Naturals Lemonade, which I credit for helping me finish that race at all.

By the final lap, Stage 4, I was coming back to life and feeling better again. I gave that last stage my all after somewhat conservatively riding the first three stages.

Coming through that finishing gate is the best feeling! I usually give out a loud “YES!” when I cross through because it feels so amazing to know you are actually done. I love that feeling, and it motivates me during the tough times of the ride. Check out a short video of the course here

I should have been happy I did the race at all, what with food poisoning and all. I should have been happy that I ended up in 2nd place for this race. But to miss 1st place by only .7 seconds?! GARR!!!!! This was the worst feeling! Less than one freaking second separated me from that top spot. My mind reeled through every missed opportunity to gain that time. One more pedal stroke! One more push! I should’ve passed those people sooner!

My self-pride about just doing the race while sick went out the window. I was mentally haunted by that 7/10 of a second for days after the race, thinking of every little situation where I could have gained back that tiny fraction of time. I don’t ever want to feel this way again! It was so frustrating. I can only imagine how elite level athletes, like Olympians, must feel when they lose by even less time. It was a painful reminder that every millisecond counts when you’re racing, even when you’re sick – something I unfortunately would encounter at the next race.

Race #5 – June 30, 2018: CES Round #3 China Peak

China Peak is part of the CES Golden Tour. The Golden Tour is a series of three races, all part of the CES, which are considered the hardest courses. They are also qualifiers for the Enduro World Series, something I daydream of riding…only in my dreams! I raced China Peak last year in the Beginner category, and got second place. China Peak, in one word, is loose. The dirt just gives way under your tires. You pinball between granite rock boulders and loose, decomposed granite as fine as sand. This is technical, challenging, all-mountain riding in its primitive state. China Peak doesn’t do much, if any, mountain bike trail maintenance, pretty much letting Mother Nature, and mountain bikers, shape the trails. Those who’ve been riding here a long time speak of the drops growing taller each year; the trails getting scarier to ride. Let’s just say it’s slightly intimidating to ride here if you’re new to the area.

I drove up the day before the race to preride, but I lagged and didn’t get there until 2 p.m., when the line for the chairlift was about thirty minutes long. With the chairlift ride itself about 25 minutes, I only squeezed in one practice run on Stage 4, the one stage I didn’t ride last year. In retrospect, it would’ve been wise to have gotten there earlier and preridden the entire course. Though I’d raced Stages 1-3 the previous year in the Beginner Category, my Sport 35+ category also included Stage 4.

That evening, I drove up Highway 168 to Kaiser Pass, parked my car, and hiked up a rough trail to an overlook that dropped my jaw. I cried in a moment of total appreciation for life. Sometimes I tear up when I’m really enjoying an experience, taking in the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of each place. It’s not lost on me that life is too short, passing by too fast, and the older I get, the more I value doing what I love, where I love, with those I love. There is something so moving and emotional about the raw beauty of wilderness that makes me feel so at home, that makes life feel more sacred and meaningful.

I watched the sunset from Kaiser Peak and felt completely at peace taking in the amazing scenery of the High Sierra.

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I had a veggie burger and salad from the hotel restaurant at China Peak Inn, and went back to my hotel room to get an early night’s rest. My water bottle was empty, so I filled it with water from the hotel tap. I immediately noticed it tasted off – metallic and astringent. But it was the only water to drink, so I drank a glass and went to bed.

I woke up on raceday morning, and drank a couple of glasses of water. About ten minutes later, I was throwing up violently.

Sick last race, and now this one too? Seriously?! 

I couldn’t believe it was happening again. But this felt different from the last time, when I was sick in the middle of the night with what felt more like food poisoning. I felt like I was just starting the grueling process of fighting whatever it was that was kicking my butt. 

I laid back down in bed, and set my alarm for an hour later, at which point I would need to decide to kit up and race, or call it a day.

Just go home. It’s only a race. It doesn’t matter; no one cares. You don’t need to torture yourself.

But I cared. I abhor quitting; it grates at my spirit. I might also be a little bit stubborn; headstrong, perhaps to a fault at times. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least try, especially since I was there at the venue. I reluctantly headed out to start the transfer up to Stage 1, which was a long fireroad climbing about 1,700′ poised in the blazing sun. Fortunately, I was joined by my sweet, encouraging teammate and friend, Anne-Laure, who stuck with me all the way up that climb for about an hour.

“You can go ahead; you don’t need to wait for me,” I tried to tell her.

“I know, but I want to make sure you’re going to be okay,” she consoled me. She patiently and kindly encouraged me, waiting as I took several rests in the shaded spots. I even started crying at one point. I get really emotional when I’m sick, and I just felt defeated; frustrated that this was happening again. I was ready to turn around, ride back down the trail, and just quit.

“Is this the longest transfer?” I asked her.

“Yes. If you can push through this one, this is the longest climb; the second climb is super short, and the last two are lift-assist,” she answered. That was key information; if I could just do this, maybe I could finish the downhills. I am way more confident in my downhill skills than climbing in the heat while sick. I knew I could ride the terrain here; maybe not with grace today, but I could muster through it with the help of gravity. With that in mind, I committed to suffer up until the top, and ride the race with a stage-by-stage approach. I also accepted that I might end up quitting.

Once we got to the top of Stage 1, I was ready to get started. I chipped in and went, riding rather timidly down the trail. I was tired. I could feel my body struggling. I wanted to finish the race, yes, but I didn’t want to hurt myself doing it. So I eased into it, warming up as I made my way down.

Stage 2 was a bit more technical, and I fell a couple of times. Nothing bad; just startling. I endo’d straight on my face into some soft dirt, thanking my full-face helmet and body armor for sparing me any injury. Knowing I was on the clock, I got back up on my bike as quickly as I could and kept riding. I slowed my roll, reminding myself it was only a race.

After I finished Stage 2, I still felt awful, but the last two stages were lift-assist, so I figured I could hang in there and finish them. I boarded the chairlift up to Stage 3, and started feeling worse by the minute. By the time we were nearing the summit at about 8,700’ elevation, I was puking off of the chairlift. This was not a comfortable spot to get sick in, hanging above the ground on an old chairlift, feeling like I needed to keel over into a ball. Holding onto the bars for extra safety, I began to cry. Not just cry, but sob like a baby. Why now? Why am I not feeling better yet?!

When I got off the chairlift at the top, the lifties unloaded my bike and noticed I was crying. I walked over to a shady area, took off my gear, and just sat down crying. I was overwhelmed. Exhausted. Feeling like total crap. All I wanted was my bed. I was half-way done with the race, tantalizingly close to being done with it, but that last half loomed like a mammoth of a challenge.

A nice man came over to check on me; he was a Medic, apparently.

“You okay there? Are you crying because you crashed, or something else?” he gently asked.

“I’m okay; I’m just super sick. I just threw up off the chairlift, and I’ve been puking all morning. I don’t want to quit the race, but I don’t know if I can keep going. Can I ride the chairlift back down with my bike if I don’t think I can finish?” I vented to him, breathing hard through my childlike sobs. I often revert to a child when I’m sick like this.

“Of course you can; only you can make that call for yourself, but it is only a race. What’s most important is to take care of yourself,” he comforted. “Do whatever you need to do”.

I took a breath and contemplated my next move. “I just need a few minutes to rest here in the shade, and then I think I can keep going. Thank you for checking on me.”

After about ten minutes, I felt collected enough that I could fight through Stage 3. I made my way over to the staging area, where some of my teammates were. They could tell right away something was off with me, and I told them how miserable the morning had been. Jeni, one of our team captains and a nice friend of mine, compassionately encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do to take care of myself, reminding me it was only a race. I laid down on the ground next to them in the shade, and closed my eyes for a short nap with my buff over my eyes. After about twenty minutes, it was time to start the stage. Though I still felt awful, I was ready to get it done.

Stage 3 was a long stage, and I fell again. I reminded myself to slow down. Fatigue is the enemy of mountain biking because it makes you sloppy, which equals dangerous. By the time I finished the stage, I felt completely spent. But there was only one more stage to go.

I boarded the chairlift for that last stage, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread. I was starting to feel light-headed and like I was going to puke again. About halfway up the lift, I noticed a creature on the hillside; it was a cute Pacific Fisher! I’d never seen one before, and despite my heavy spirit, considered it a token of good luck to finish the race. All I had to do was get off the chairlift and ride back down. That Fisher was so adorable!

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When I got off the chairlift, however, I saw about 100 racers lined up waiting to start Stage 4, and they hadn’t started releasing riders yet (check out a video of the full-course here). It was going to be about an hour wait, and I felt a sense of panic in my body. I knew right away that I didn’t have it in me to wait around another hour or so, at altitude, for all the other riders to go. Whatever it was I was sick with, being at nearly 9,000′ wasn’t helping. I feared I might even become a medical emergency if I didn’t get myself down to a lower elevation stat

I don’t think of myself as a princess or diva by any means; I’m pretty self-sufficient (most of the time, ahem), and don’t like imposing on others to meet my needs. Entitlement is the antithesis of what I appreciate in a person. But this was an extenuating circumstance; I was sick as a dog and needed to get the race over and done with. I could feel my Mama Bear instincts kicking in to protect myself. And I was feeling a little bit desperate.

I walked up to the front of the line, where all the guys were waiting to start. With dirt on my face and fighting back tears, I apologized first for even asking them what I was going to ask. I explained that I’d been throwing up all morning and was barely hanging on by a thread; that I needed to get back down the mountain as soon as possible to a lower elevation. 

“Is there any way you guys would let me go towards the front of the line with you so I can get this overwith?” I asked. Only a mild reluctance was palpable from some of the guys, but quickly their compassion shined through. I felt bad asking them, given that they’d been waiting who know’s how long for their turn. 

“Of course you can; that sucks you’re sick. Get it done,” they commiserated.

I was beyond grateful for their grace toward me. I grabbed my bike and lined up at the front of the line with the Sport U-18 crowd, feeling guilty for doing so. I bet some riders assumed I was some kind of self-important diva cutting in front. It’s kind of embarrassing to have happen, to be honest, and I pray to the racing gods that this never happens again.

Having ridden this stage the day before, I felt most confident on it out of all the other ones. I knew I had ridden it fast and clean the day before, so I decided to give everything I had left to it. It also helped that I didn’t want to slow anyone else down; I wanted to try and keep some sort of pace with the young’uns behind me. 

I roared down that trail, giving it every last ounce I had, motivated by the sweet release of almost being done. I expected to be passed by several riders on my way down, but ended up passing one guy myself, and only got passed by two riders, whom I got out of the way for quickly so as not to slow them down. I felt good riding the rest of the trail, and passing through that final gate at the end of Stage 4 felt like the relief of a lifetime. Freedom!

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Beautiful Sierras. I couldn’t get enough of this view.

After turning in my timing chip, I went straight to Huntington Lake for a quick, refreshing dip, and reflected upon the whole experience in this video below. I’m so tired, I say it’s January 30 when it’s actually June 30.

Upon returning back to the venue and checking my time, I was surprised I did well, earning First Place for the Sport 35+ category. I also shaved a load of time off compared to last year’s results of Stages 1-3. 

Of all races, this win probably felt the best because it was so hard. Physically, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. If that sounds overdramatic, the next time you are throwing up and feeling like you want to curl up in a ball, go try a challenging mountain bike race, at altitude, in the sun. It wouldn’t have been such a tough race, of course, had I been feeling well. Mentally, it was just as hard to balance my well-being with my desire to finish the race. How do you weigh pushing your physical limits with preserving your health and safety? What happens when you redefine those limits? It’s never something I want to repeat, but knowing I could do this helps build resilience.

I also find it strange that I got sick at both of the last races. I take good care of myself, eating and hydrating well, and am looking into what connections there may be. I’m going to give my water bottles, Camelbaks, and travel mugs all a good deep cleaning as a start. I think altitude certainly played a part in this situation, but am most suspicious of the hotel’s water. After the race, I told the front desk about how the water tasted funny and I got sick, just in case anyone else had the same issue. The employee said they only drank the filtered water, pointing to a large ewer in the registration lobby. I asked him to please take note of it and look into it. I’m not outright blaming their water, but consider it a likely culprit.

I took a nap in my car for a couple of hours after the race before joining the rest of the crew for dinner and the awards ceremony. My appetite was coming back, and though I was spent, it was fun to hang out with everyone before heading back home to Santa Cruz.

Now it’s time to take a break from racing for a few weeks or so. I look forward to enjoying the golden month of July, that one month each year that is completely uninterrupted by work. Time on my bike, in the garden, and among loved ones in beautiful places are what I savor about this time of year.

I’m not sure what direction I want to go in with racing. I only like doing things when they are enjoyable, which includes challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone. So far, it’s been pretty fun, minus being sick twice. I’m ranked #1 for the Sport Women 35+ category at the moment. How far do I want to go? How far can I go? I’m not sure yet, and I know I’m only getting older. I’m not sure how much racing matters to me, either; how important is it to “prove” myself? And to whom? What am I trying to prove, anyway? In the end, you’re really just racing against yourself, regardless of how you place. All I know for sure is I love mountain biking, and I’ll keep riding as long as I can. 

Enjoy your Summer! Relish all of the fun things there are to do outside. Thanks for reading!

Katrin Deetz

DirtOntheFace
Looking Pretty Haggard        PC: Owen Ransom