'Extreme Scientists'

If your family is planning a summer trip to the Oregon Caves National Monument or to the coastal redwoods, a good travel companion would be the kids' book "Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature's Mysteries from Perilous Places."

Colorado author Donna M. Jackson profiles three scientists who explore extreme places — hurricanes, caves and tree canopies. Fortunately, we don't have to deal with many hurricanes in the Pacific Northwest, but we do have easy access to caves and towering trees.

Jackson tells how Northern Kentucky University microbiologist Hazel Barton travels around the world studying single-cell organisms called microbes.

"Hazel hunts the earth's hidden frontiers — from glacial ice caves in Greenland to underwater caves deep in the jungles of Mexico — for some of its tiniest inhabitants," Jackson writes.

Barton said she and her grandfather used to blow things up in the garage with chemistry kits, but she didn't know she wanted to be a microbiologist until she was 14 years old. In her biology class, students brushed their hair over a petri dish, and then watched what would grow.

"The next day, this gross yellow snotty thing grew, and it was just amazing to me," Barton recalled.

In her searches through caves, Barton has focused on microbes that somehow survive in dark places without sunlight and with few food sources. The microbes can survive on one-thousandth of one grain of sugar per liter of water. Barton theorizes that the microbes can survive because hundreds of different types live together, extracting energy from different sources and forming interconnected communities.

Barton said diving in underwater caves feels like flying, but it is the most dangerous aspect of her job.

"If something goes wrong — such as getting lost or tangled in the line — you only have a couple of minutes to deal with it as opposed to in a regular cave, where you have days before you really start getting in trouble," Barton said. "You can't fool around when you're cave diving."

"Extreme Scientists" also features Steve Sillett, an ecologist at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. Like Barton, he also studies complex, interwoven communities of species, but he searches for his at the top of redwoods, sequoias, Australian eucalyptus trees and other forest giants.

Some tree explorations last for days, so Sillett sleeps in a hammock in the branches.

He has discovered that so much soil and debris accumulates on redwoods that a variety of other tree species — known as "canopy bonsai" — grow in the treetops.

"They never get very big — these trees on trees — but the fact they exist and can live for decades is amazing," Sillett said.

If you want to get into tree canopies yourself, consider a Trees of Mystery Sky Trail gondola ride, 36 miles south of the Oregon border on Highway 101. Call 1-800-638-3389 or visit www.treesofmystery.net for more information.

Out 'n' About Outfitters offers treehouse bed and breakfast stays and tree zipline rides south of Cave Junction. Call 541-592-2208 or visit www.treehouses.com for more information.

Closer to home, the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department will have a tree climbing class for ages 13 and up at North Mountain Park on July 13. More information is in the department's summer recreation guide at www.ashland.or.us/Files/APRD_OnlineSummer10.pdf.

Information about the Oregon National Caves Monument is available by calling the Visitors' Center at 541-592-2100 ext. 2262, or by visiting www.nps.gov/orca/index.htm.

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

Share This Story