Lucy Buchanan-Parker and Alberto Contreras Sanz are an American and a Spaniard with a taste for travel and bikes. They are spending the year 2014 cycling through South America, from Colombia to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Along the way they are collecting valuable data for ASC's Roadkill project to help researchers understand the effects of roads on wildlife and wildland connectivity. When not on the road, Lucy works in social policy and research, and Alberto is a scientific researcher.
“Don't you get scared sometimes?,” we often get asked, both by distant friends and by people we meet on the road. We're four months into our yearlong cycle tour of South America, and the truth is, we have been scared a few times, but hardly ever for the reasons you would think.
Our route takes us to places with bad reputations, like Colombia, where we've just spent one of the most rewarding and wonderful three months of our lives. It is considered by many to be a dangerous country, full of crime and violence. For the record, we've found exactly the opposite—a country full of welcoming and helpful people, not to mention stunning landscapes. But we are keenly aware that we take a risk every day that we travel by bicycle, and occasionally (really, very occasionally) we do get scared—of the traffic.
Cars and trucks in Colombia are mostly great at looking out for cycle tourists' safety. Not just that, we got uncountable numbers of thumbs up, honks and waves every day on the road. And when you're climbing a never-ending hill in the rain and your luggage feels like it weighs twice what it normally does, support from drivers really makes a difference in keeping up motivation. Nevertheless, there have been a few close calls. When people ask us about all the risks of traveling in the countries of South America, we try to keep them in perspective by reminding ourselves that the biggest risk is spending eight hours a day on the road.
When we decided to spend a year (or more!) cycle touring in South America, we felt it was important to contribute to something outside of ourselves and to have something to work for beyond our own enjoyment. At the same time, we wanted to be able to change our plans on the fly and ride whatever route felt best to us. ASC's Roadkill Project was a perfect match for us. We go wherever the squiggly lines on the map take us, but along the way we record any roadkill that we see to contribute our observations from South America to this worldwide collection of data.
After four months and almost 4,000 kilometers of cycling in Colombia and Ecuador, we've seen many animals, big and small, that have fallen victim to an oncoming vehicle. We've photographed mammals, reptiles, birds, and insects. We've recorded roadkill at 300 meters above sea level and at 3,000 meters above sea level. (We prefer to find them at higher altitudes because they usually stink less!)
We've also gone days at a time without seeing any roadkill at all. In fact, we have learned that the roads we enjoy riding the most—dirt roads, roads with very little traffic, and winding mountain roads where cars can't go very fast—are also the roads with the least roadkill to be found. It seems that the roads where we as cyclists feel happiest and safest are also the roads where wildlife probably feel happiest and safest.
Conversely, we have sometimes been unable to collect data for the project because we feel too unsafe on a particular road to stop to record the roadkill we see. Cyclists are often described as 'vulnerable road users' in transportation policy circles, but animals using our roads must be even more vulnerable.
Debates about wildlife conservation are often framed as a zero-sum game, as if humans must give something up in order to protect wildlife. But participating in the Roadkill Project has shown us that human and animal needs are not always in opposition. We cycle tourists have a common interest with the wildlife around us in figuring out ways to create roads that are hospitable for vulnerable road users.
Danica Cowan worked in a cancer research lab at UCLA for two years, obtained an MS in nutrition science from Tufts, and is now on academic leave from pursuing her Registered Dietician certification. She is currently on her second 10-month voyage from Maine to the Caribbean aboard her family's traditional wooden schooner. She is joined by her parents Beverly and Horatio "Ted" Cowan III, husband Isaac Brown, brother Horatio "Scott" Cowan IV, and his girlfriend Molly Segee. Danica and crew are collecting data on microplastics for the Marine Environmental Research Institute. Follow their adventures on their blog: schoonerkoukla.wordpress.com.
Few boats, or people, ever head so far from civilization. As we sail hundreds of miles from land, the ocean becomes a stunning deep blue, almost purple. Sargasso weed stretches out in long ribbons atop the swells, trailing to the horizon. Flying fish occasionally burst forth without warning to dart across the wave caps. There is nothing comparable to the feeling of being at the wheel in the open ocean, with no other object in view but sea and sky and a strong breeze sending the boat crashing through the waves.
When I signed up to collect water samples for ASC, it sounded like a piece of cake. Take bottle, rinse three times, fill with seawater. Top the bottle with foil, label it and record the location. Easy. And for the most part it was (other than the minor unpleasantness of handling frigid seawater with gloveless hands). It seemed a small task to do to contribute toward understanding the influence of plastics on the marine environment. But when we headed offshore, things got a bit more complicated.
Smaller boats typically go south to the Caribbean via the Intercoastal Waterway and the Bahamas, but with Koukla’s 9-foot draft and tall masts, this is not an option, so it was offshore for us
We expected it to be rough the first day out as we exited the Chesapeake and crossed the Gulf Stream, and it was, but after that it was supposed to calm down. It didn’t. On the third day a storm front barreled through and knocked us so far over water was knee-deep on the downwind deck. Things calmed down some when the storm passed, but the seas stayed rough, and for 12 days we were tossed about constantly. Normal activities such as cooking or even reading became impossible. Because of the motion we were confined to just the two aft cabins and the wheelhouse. Meanwhile, with the crew split up into alternating 4 hours on and 8 hours off watches, we became out of sync with normal day/night cycles and each other.
Despite this, (almost) every day after I got off watch around noon I would strap in to the safety harness to keep me attached to the boat and collect a water sample. Isaac, not having grown up on boats, was sometimes too seasick to help me collect samples, so I would wedge myself in against the rail and haul up buckets of purple-blue seawater that became crystal clear when poured into bottles. With the large degree of heeling and large swells I usually ended up pouring half the bucket all over myself.
My mom seemed to think this was all quite funny, watching me pull up bucket after bucket as we sailed along, filling only a fraction of the bottle as the waves caused the stream of water to snake about. It was much easier with a second person to help, but still no piece of cake.
Despite the wonder of being offshore, surrounded by nothing but sea and sky, after being tossed about for bordering on two weeks, when we finally pulled into the calm waters of the harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, we literally shouted with relief. Sure, we hadn’t reached the US Virgin Islands like we had planned, but we’re a sailboat, we go where the wind takes us.
Learn more about our Marine Microplastics project and keep up with ASC by subscribing to ASC's blog, liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter (@AdventurScience), Instagram (@AdventureScience) and Google+.
Landmark is the groundbreaking project that ASC has undertaken in conjunction with American Prairie Reserve (APR) to provide "boots on the ground" support for the conservation management team at APR. Landmark crews consist of six highly motivated and skilled outdoors men and women who will leave and work on the Reserve for a month at a time, collecting valuable data that will directly influence conservation management on APR.
May marks the beginning of the summer season up on the Northern Great Plains (regardless of how the weather may disagree) and it also marks the migration from the relative comfort of Landmark winter HQ at the Lazy J Ranch to the newly established Landmark field camp. This month we have a few familiar faces and a few new crew members. Meet them below:
Craig Weiland is a mountaineer from Seattle, Washington who loves to get off the beaten path frequently hiking and climbing in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest. Craig has been an ambassador for ASC collecting samples for our diatoms project all over the PNW and participating in ASC’s Pacific marten project in the Olympic National Forest. He even has a species named after him: Encyonopsis weilandii. Now Craig is exploring a new frontier in the Northern Great Plains by joining the May Landmark crew.
Katie Birch is a Colorado native and graduate of the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering and has worked for the City of Steamboat Springs and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environmental Water Quality. She has conducted fieldwork on Rio Grande cutthroat trout and volunteered on water engineering projects in Uganda. Katie is looking forward to expanding her fieldwork experience with a month on the prairie.
Kayli Mellencamp grew up in Indiana and works in early-childhood education. She graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Education. Her senseof adventure is reflected in the mode of transport that she took to get to the Malta…a 20 plus hour Amtrak ride from Chicago! Kayli is an avid rock climber and when not teaching children she can be found working in her local climbing gym. Kayli’s love for the outdoors and interest in the social dimension of conservation motivates her to commit to a month on the Landmark crew. Kayli likes to rock climb, read, and conduct ancestral research to make a connection to John Cougar Mellencamp in her spare time.
Lisa White started alpine climbing five years ago when a friend asked her to climb Mt. Rainier in her home state of Washington. The ability to experience part of the mountain where few people reach and the sense of accomplishment drew Lisa to mountaineering. Soon she and her husband were looking for the next challenge, and the next. By 2012 they had climbed the highest peaks in North America, South America and Europe and most of Washington’s volcanos. They had also volunteered on numerous ASC projects, lending their passion for being outdoors for conservation. Their latest objective: 16,067 foot Mt. Vinson in Antarctica where Lisa and Darrin collected samples for ASC's Snow & Ice project.
"Antarctica?! Who goes there?" That's what flew out of my father’s mouth when I told him where I was headed. Having spent all of their lives in Illinois, it was difficult for my family to wrap their brains around what would draw me to such a remote and harsh continent. There were two reasons, really. My primary motivation was to safely climb Mt. Vinson, but secondarily I wanted to share the experience with others who, like my father, who couldn’t envision what the coldest continent was like. This is where ASC comes in. Some would argue that mountaineering is a selfish activity, and I agree that it can be very self-serving. But it doesn’t have to be. Three years ago when I started working with ASC, I realized that by doing what I love, I can help other people. Other people whose primary focus is helping the planet. How cool is that?
Landmark is the groundbreaking project that ASC has undertaken in conjunction with American Prairie Reserve (APR) to provide "boots on the ground" support for the conservation management team at APR. Landmark crews consist of six highly motivated and skilled outdoors men and women who will live and work on the Reserve for two months at a time, collecting valuable data that will directly influence conservation management on APR.
The adventure continues year-round on the Reserve. This month the crew moved out of the relative comfort of the Lazy J Lodge to set up Field Camp for the summer. Here are a handful of our favorite photos of the May crew.
This past winter we partnered with the Olympic National Forest for the second year in a row to help with an intensive survey for coastal Pacific Marten, a "critically imperiled" species on the peninsula. ASC recruited and trained two dozen hardy outdoor enthusiasts turned adventure scientists to search for the elusive member of the weasel family. Without the efforts of these volunteers and ASC this survey could not have been completed and the fate of the marten would be an even greater mystery. Find out more on our marten project website.
A big thanks to the National Forest Foundation, Olympic National Forest, Kahtoola, Clif Bar, Osprey Packs and especially all our adventure science volunteers for making this project a huge success! We would also like to thank Danny Schmidt of Colorburn Productions for directing and producing this film for us.
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Read the Landmark Notes blog: