Saturday, September 30, 2006

Sam Stokes the Fire

Here’s a picture of our beach bonfire in August courtesy of Sandy Feet. Pretty abstract, eh? Not bad for a cell phone camera, though. It has become something of a tradition to have a small bonfire on a full moon – the next one is Saturday October 7th.

So I’m ready, thanks to Fred the ex-Alderdude and his old driftwood collection. According to the Farmer’s Almanac this would be the Hunter’s Moon, but I like the Chinese version which calls it the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. I didn’t know this, but it is a huge celebration in China and they eat lots of Moon Cakes.

So I have quite a ritual about making a beach bonfire. No I don’t throw down a huge pile and use a gallon of gasoline. How gauche! You have to do it Indian style but newspapers are OK, and yes matches or a lighter are acceptable. But with the wind blowing 10-20 knots, it all starts with the pit.

So I show up with a shovel and a 5-gallon bucket. The bucket has some newspaper and kindling and is used later for dousing the fire. People think I really lost my marbles but a pit really helps. So I figure out the wind direction, usually honking from the Southeast, and dig a trench in line with the wind. The extra sand goes in a pile on the upwind side as a wind break. The trench is sloped from shallow at the back to very deep at the windward end. So the front is maybe 14-16 inches deep and the sand is piled and another 14-16 inches high.

This allows longer boards and timber to be put in the bonfire because due to the design, the flames actually flow in reverse into the wind (until the wind whips it the other way). Using the trusty shovel, one can then scootch up the lumber into the fire pit as it is consumed.

Ah, the moonrise, and nice small bonfire, a chair, and a cool beverage. You never know, folks might break out the guitars, ukuleles, and fiddle – we had a bazooki there last time, some strange Turkish contraption. Our SOB ukulele band has already learned such famous songs such as ‘Your are my sunshine’ and ‘Shit makes the flowers grow.’
See ya,

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lori Plays the Blue Uke

Here's a nice shot of my lovely wife taken by none other than sand castle wiz Sandy Feet. It was very fun, about five ukelele instruments going at once. Mahalo, baby.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Save the Old Fish Camps

My sense of local history is still growing, but it wasn’t until the 1930’s and 1940’s that people started coming out South Padre Island in any large numbers. Most folks went to Boca Chica, which was really the king of the local beach scene until the Hurricane of 1933. After then, especially with the first causeway constructed in the 1940’s, South Padre took over. So I’m doing some research and my point is that maybe we need to preserve some of the cultural history of South Padre Island: the fish camps.

My suspicion is that the commercial fishermen kept a few stilt houses and wharves on the bayside of South Padre, such as for gear, salt, nets, and the occasional tarpon fisherman or as a ferry landing for the few locals and ranchers. I will check with local historians such as Ron Bates and Steve Hathcock.

It wasn’t until a guy named Jim Ghilain bought some property from John Tompkins that things really took off – we know this place as Jim’s Pier. That area between Fisherman’s and Louie’s was I suspect where the old time commercial fishermen camped. In fact, one photograph I saw of the first Jim’s Pier looked like, well, a fish camp and a small pier.

I wish I had some photographs taken of the area before and after Jim Ghilain started, with updates as he expanded or had to rebuild after another hurricane. For all of you that may want to contribute any photos on this theme, my email address is

Anyway, Hurricane Beulah blew through in 1967 and after that a major rebuilding occurred in the 1970’s, with bulkheads being put in so as to prevent the loss of sand. Today, it is a hard sight to imagine the old fish camps, since things have changed so much. But those old fish camps are still there, their wooden bones deep in the sand and muck, such as hearty oak and cypress.

My purpose in writing is to not only elevate the history of South Padre Island, which included not only the nicely appointed hotels down by Dolphin Cove but the fish camps down by Jim’s, too. Soon, these lands may be converted into huge condominiums due to escalating land prices.

Folks, this doesn’t have to happen. If there is some semblance of a waterfront heritage, just like Maine is so proud of its, well, now you know the exact places. Put that together with some historical pictures, a vision for a comprehensive plan, and work with (and not against) the developers and I think it can be done. It is your call.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Ann Richards Dies

Today Ann Richards Died. I don't care what you think about her politics but she was one hell of a lady. She loved to fish, especially down here on South Padre Island. Anyone who can say "that dog won't hunt" is cool, although one of her best was "you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig." She fought the good ole boy system up in Austin, tore them up, and got more state hiring for women and minorities.

She was 73 years old. We'll miss ya, Guv.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Body Surfing: The Zone

We just got out of the water and wow how relaxing. Sure, the water’s a little warm but that means we’ll still be body surfing when it is October. For what was predicted as 1-2 foot waves we did have some 4-foot stand-ups with rides of up to 60 feet.

Sure, we’re a little jealous because Florence is just beginning to bring in some swell to the East Coast. So far the waves are 4-6 feet and no big deal, but better than nothing. They say the surfers are flocking to Florida, the Carolina outer banks, and Guana Cay, Bahamas.

But with body surfing, who cares about extreme action? I suppose someday I must get a waterproof camera and GPS to prove these incredibly long rides because of the gentle sloping beach we have. But something about all that expensive gear takes the spirit away though: it’s just you, a swimsuit, and a wave. Having a thousand bucks of stuff would definitely ruin it.

And who do I have to prove to, anyway? We know the long rides, the ones that almost leave you gasping for breath. We know what the wave looked like and how funny it looked when you’re buried in the snout of a large breaking wave. That’s why there’s no picture today because folks, since the ya-ya’s are all inside your head, how happy you feel when you come home smiling.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

A Ban on Carry-On Luggage

This is actually the storyline from an opinion article in the New York Times. Heck man, ban all of those carry-on suitcases and bags, please. It makes sense, The waiting line would go faster and yuck, do you really want to see people dumping ookie things into the trash bucket? Ban all laptop computers for that matter - we know some can explode or flame out. And those yackers with cell phones and noisy PDA's, lose 'em, baby, put them in the checked-in luggage.

I didn't mean to cover up some great articles below, but after a few flights this summer I decided heck, you folks are trying to keep your luggage close to you so it isn't re-routed to Newark or Nome, Alaska. That is not fair. Get used to it, baby, these luggage handlers are some real devils and will try the "stomp and mash" on anything at a given moment, and have no regard for the routing tickets no matter if they have colors or say HRL for "Harlingen." We're talking monkeys here.

Plus, there's a growing work force that depends on a steady source of mis-routed airline luggage. Since the airlines downsized, right-sized, and went half bankrupt, well these delivery folks are doing pretty good as independent contractors. Cynthia up there serves a good part of the northern Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine area. She said she's been booking 60 hours a week just off her Continental account. Fuel surcharges are extra and she's bought a second, larger "econo" van.

Cynthia and I had lots of conversations because we were well off the beaten path, and of course the stuff had to be sent to three airports before ending up in her van. "I'm sorry Sam, but I'll get you your stuff." This went on for three days until it mysteriously showed up. "Just be sure to leave me a piece of paper on the door in case you're gone - I have to have a signed thingy before I get paid."

It turns out that my errant luggage delivery cost Incontinental over $100, since it was way up old Route 1 in Maine, not to mention the share in flying the stuff to Nome and Newark. I called Cynthia back to say thanks and ask about that. She said "Sam I don't mean to cut you off, but I have five more drop-offs and have to turn in $8,000 in tickets; I let it get a little out of hand. See you again, honey."

Friday, September 08, 2006

SPI The Environment, 2006

Thanks for all the traffic about Ila “the turtle lady” in the topic below this one. I wanted to add that this was quite a successful year for nesting turtles on our section of South Padre Island, with maybe a dozen nests found, saved, hatched, and released into the Gulf.

The map of the Gulf and Texas coastline shows basically where we are, with our town being at the very bottom of the black part called the Laguna Madre – the only bay saltier than the ocean in the entire US.

To expand upon the environmental theme, things are looking up in many regards. There is no red or brown tide, often a sign of stress in the waters and a cause of some devastating fish kills in the past. While rainfall has been desperately low, relatively warm winter temperatures have allowed many wildlife species to recover quite nicely – there was a minor fish kill of mullets and other rough fish after last December’s near freeze (apparently it is not the absolute temperature, but how fast it drops).

We have a lot to brag about. The flooding of the Bahia Grande, a major former wetland land-locked by the US Army Corps of Engineers (circa 1933-1960) when building the Brownsville Ship Channel; the Bahia is now re-flooded and the birds and aquatic creatures are coming back fast. Even better, the flooding has helped prevent massive dust storms common in the early spring when the winds were high.

On the beachfront, the water appears to have been in the “green” zone because water samples do not indicate the presence of harmful entero-bacteria – while many other beaches in the US had to be closed this summer. Things are doing so well, sometimes we might forget some of the issues which lurk behind the scenes.

Threats to the local ecology and environment take several forms. These mainly take the form of (1) habitat loss, (2) beach erosion, and (3) water inflows to the Laguna Madre.

Habitat loss is the number one problem on SPI. Simply stated, the land is worth up to $200,000 per 50-by-100 foot section and it is being plowed under at an alarming rate. Nobody has taken any moves to purchase these “wild” tracts of land as conservation land within the town limits except one small tract near Pompano Street. The impact on coastal and migratory species is not fully known, although the loss of reptiles can be fairly well demonstrated. Only one or two areas of Tepaguaje trees stands remain – the inland part of this part of the Island used to have rampant thorny brushland trees. Continued development of county land to the north and south of the town continues to threaten the dune and wetland ecosystems.

Beach erosion is worse as one progresses north from the Brazos Santiagos Pass. Sand is accumulating at the southern end but is losing three to eight feet a year north of Oleander Street. There have been several efforts to combat this, although the preferred strategy appears to be pumping high-clay sands from periodic dredging of Brazos Pass, although mostly in the southern parts where it is least needed. The beachfront is just now recovering from all the clay sands deposited several years ago, which caused high turbidity and perhaps even a major shellfish die-off. However, the sloping and gutting of the beachfront, without even a major tropical storm this season, is quite alarming. Such sloping and gutting could cause failure of large sections of the beach if heavy north winds set up this coming winter and spring, especially between Oleander and the north Town limits. There is currently no active plan for beach renourishment, and the continued use of tractor beach rakes is only making matters worse. (In defense of the beach rakes, it does promote tourism and the tailings are used for beach dune restoration – it is just that some weed should be left on the northern beaches where the severe erosion in occurring.)

Water inflows include wastewater, runoff, stormwater drains, and inflows from streams such as the Arroyo Colorado. The Arroyo is officially listed as an impaired water body by the EPA and state agency (TCEQ). Dissolved oxygen is its main problem. It is truly remarkable that the lower Laguna Madre has not suffered from these impaired waters, perhaps due to the large blooms of sea grasses and the biology of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria). What is not known is what would happen if it actually rained. Local rainfall rates are over a foot and a half shy of the climactic average if one considers the last two years. This has several consequences, first being that the bays and Bahia Grande (discussed above) are becoming even more hypersaline, close to the point of producing salt crusts. The second issue is what happens if we experience extreme flooding.

One hypothesis is that flooding conditions – maybe defined as a very large areal coverage of several days of more than an inch of rain each day – could mobilize tons of material that has been stored on the ground and on impervious surfaces for the last two or three years. This would include animal feces, lawn chemicals, crop chemicals, atmospheric dust, soil, vehicle and road oils, other non-point pollutants, and some point sources such as storm sewer outfalls. These effects can only be a matter of speculation. However, as we move into a late-season El Nino condition which could cause cooler and wetter winters in the southern US, it perhaps could only be a matter of time before the results are truly known.

In conclusion, things are doing very well although I though it was useful to note the threats we have. For example, we do not use stormwater runoff ponds to help clean the water before being spewed into the local water bodies, which is a common practice in other parts of the US. But for a nearly pristine environment, with some limited planning and investment, our environment could be preserved for generations to come. This report was not documented with references as a “real” environmental study. Instead it was meant to provoke some thought, some comments, and some local action.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Reprint on "Ila the Turtle Lady"

photo / painting credit: Sea Turtle, Inc. 2006

Here is something composed not by me, but by a former town employee who collected snippets about Ila "the turtle lady" over the years. It is well written and to the point - a remarkable lady worthy of a book just to herself. So I get the day off from writing and Mike I hope this was OK with you, e-me at

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Ila's story is one of a remarkable woman with great determination and a lesson for all of us. When she was growing up in Pella, Iowa, she became intrigued by her father's Model T Ford. He was a physician and had one of the first autos in the area with which he made house calls. Ila went along on the house calls with him, but not to learn about medicine. At age twelve, Ila was driving her dad's Model T. At age twenty-two, she became the first licensed woman pilot in the state of Iowa at a time when there were only about 120 women in the United States who were licensed pilots She became associated with Amelia Earhart as a charter member of the 99's Club, formed by ninety-nine licensed women pilots in the United States. Recruited by Amelia, their purpose was to encourage other women to achieve their goals in technical fields not then easily accessible to women These women flew air shows, county fairs, delivered mail and gave flying lessons.

Ila went on to marry and with her husband, David Loetscher, moved to the east coast, eventually settling in New Jersey. Her continued interest in flying brought her into contact and friendship with Charles and Ann Lindbergh. Ila reminds us that in addition to being a great writer, Ann Morrow Lindbergh was also a pilot. Living on the east coast, Ila found her flying too great a drain on the family finances and so she gave up flying. She remained active in the 99's, enjoying the meetings, which were held in New York City.

In 1955, Ila's beloved David died of cancer. She tells us that it was too painful to remain in New Jersey and in 1957, moved to South Padre Island to work through her grief. Ila has many wonderful stories of those early days on the Island, beach combing with her dune buggy and driving across the bay in her amphibious car.
In 1966, Ila saw a film depicting the plight of the most endangered all of sea turtle species, the Kemp's ridley and was determined to help. Although not a biologist and sixty-two years old, Ila made a difference. Enlisted by the Adams family from Brownsville which had seen first hand the slaughter of these smallest of all sea turtles, she traveled to Mexico with them to help protect the turtles, their nests, the hatchlings, and the only known nesting site of those turtles.

Ila studied everything she could find and, with Darrell Adams' successful appeals to the Mexican government in Mexico City, received permission from the Mexican government to bring turtle eggs to South Padre Island to begin imprinting experiments to try to expand the Kemp's ridley nesting site. She participated in research projects and was the first person to breed sea turtles in captivity. In the 1970's, her efforts turned toward rehabilitation and education. In 1977, Ila formed the not-for-profit corporation, Sea Turtle Inc., and her home became a sea turtle rescue center and classroom for the thousands of people who visit each year.

In addition to her message of conservation, Ila's life gives us another message. When Ila was a twelve-year-old girl, people said she was just a girl and couldn't drive a car. She did it anyway. When she was a young woman of 22, she was told she was a woman and couldn't fly a plane. She did it anyway. When she was 62 years old, she was told she was an old woman and that she couldn't make a difference. She didn't listen to those naysayers either and today she is internationally recognized for her unflagging efforts on behalf of sea turtles. Television talk shows, documentaries, National Geographic, Mother Earth Handbook, and other magazines and news articles all honor Ila and her efforts. She is ranked among the top three of the pioneering Sea turtle conservationists, along with researcher Archie Carr and Darrell Adams. Jacques Cousteau anointed Ila "Wavemaker" for her outspoken efforts on behalf of the endangered sea turtles and today thousands of people still come to hear her message.

Counted among her great achievements must be the spark she lights within us to follow her example - to choose a goal and go for it and never be deterred by those who do not believe.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Mikie Likes It

Went out on Sunday and found one pod of mom, sister, and a baby porpoise, although they were rather camera shy maybe because of all the jet-skis. They were fun to watch but the star of the tour was Mikie. He is one of the few bay porpoises that has figured out how to make a living by mooching bait off the charter boats - as in nibbling it right off the hooks. Not a lot of jumping but he acted like the star he knew he was. He seemed to thrive on all the attention, oohs, and aahs. Mikie likes it.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Season of the Red Plumeria

The last of the plumerias are always the reds. Our Hawaiian Reds are doing fairly well as you can see, especially after installing a soaker hose and applying just a bit of fertilizer. At one time it was doing so poorly we were tempted to cut off the branches, re-root them, and start all over again. It looks fine to me now!

The reds always flower out at the end of the season, bridging the time between carefree summer days on the beach and the time when we need to knuckle under and get serious about work, school, or both.

All this is a good transition to discussing the comprehensive planning efforts on our Island. I have to be careful because my wife Lori is on the advisory committee, but I don’t think she’d mind me saying a few things, since we both take care of the plumerias, anyway. I’ll be a good boy, I promise.

First, I think people were rather mislead by the comprehensive planning process, which starts with hallucinatory “vision statements” and proceeds to recommendations for how to handle future impacts as the town ages. The sole purpose of having a comprehensive plan is to help guide the town leaders and citizens down a common path in the future. It is a tool, a gentle reminder, and way to anticipate difficulties which could occur down the road. We all know that as successive city leaders are elected, sometimes they do not follow a common path, so a comprehensive plan could provide for some continuity.

At the end of the day, a comprehensive plan helps fashion policies for land use planning and can help set some budgetary goals and objectives. Besides that, it is a fairly useless document, and after all the hoopla many people forget there even was a comprehensive plan – our town has tried several times and the city leaders just said “so what?”

One of the former Aldermen, a guy named Fred, was a swing voter who decided to vote to hire a consultant to draft a comprehensive plan – with the caveat that the consultant also fix up some of the land use ordinances, some of which date back to the early 1970’s. As such, this would give real and concrete results to what is often viewed as being a fairly vague and gassy topic.

We’ll see what happens. Hopefully we have luck similar to our red plumeria here.