Photo of the month

Roni ponders the mysteries of science, or perhaps how to interpret the instruction manual, as she unboxes a Celestron microscope purchased for the Delta Science Center through a grant from DuPont. The scope, which includes an electronic display capable of taking video and still images, will be used to teach kids about the plankton that live in the Delta waters. Photo by Glenn.

August 2013

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With our gear waiting on the dock, we prepare to cast off in Dr. Mike Painter's boat for our July 13 trip to Taste of the Delta near Stockton, where the Delta Science Center was operating a booth. Photo by Glenn.

One of the San Joaquin River's many swing bridges vanishes in our foamy wake as we head east. Photo by Glenn.

We are happy passengers in the backseat. Photo by Glenn.

Any given summer weekend you'll find pleasure boaters clustered on the river bank for an impromptu party. These guys were having a great time, but it wasn't our destination. Photo by Glenn.

ABBA didn't break up in the early '80s after all, they just changed their name to Waterloo and moved to California's Central Valley, where they now perform at such popular venues as Village West Marina, site of the Taste of the Delta. ...Or maybe it's just a cover band. Photo by Glenn.

Heading home Saturday evening, Pam Painter hangs onto her hat against the wind as Roni enjoys the sunset. Photo by Glenn.

July 28 finds us at the Delta Pear Fair in Courtland, where for the first time ever we set up a booth for the day. The DSC isn't well known in these parts. Photo by Glenn.

No visit to the Pear Fair is complete without a souvenir collector pin. Photo by Glenn.

Thanks to some volunteer help Roni was able to break away from the DSC booth to check out the crafts. We bought these two wood cat sculptures from one of the vendors. Photo by Glenn.

The Pear Fair was a hotbed of political activity this year, as folks hoping to prevent Gov. Jerry Brown's Bay Delta Conservation Plan ran information booths and distributed signs like these. Photo by Glenn.

The protesters took their case to the pear parade. Photo by Glenn.

Not all the parade entries concerned the Delta water tunnels. Some, like this lady and her son, had a ball just riding in the parade and waving to the crowd. Photo by Glenn.

The shade tent was still packed close to closing time as the Mariachi Los Gallos performed on the main stage. Photo by Glenn.

Our festival cavalcade took us next to Martinez for the Aug. 3 Beaver Festival. Roni tried to attract kids to the DSC booth with this sign offering them the chance to test water from nearby Alhambra Creek. Photo by Glenn.

We bid on this basket of animal puppets at the Beaver Festival's silent auction. Roni hopes to use some of them in her DSC booth. Photo by Glenn.

Singer Mark Comstock entertains the crowd with his performance of an original number he called the "Beaver Ballad." Photo by Glenn.

Another weekend, another festival. This time Roni is holding camp at the Ironhouse Sanitary District booth at the Bethel Island '50s Bash, Aug. 10. Today she's educating the public about why you shouldn't flush disposable diaper wipes down the toilet; they don't decompose well. Photo by Glenn.

Bethel Island Chamber of Commerce manager Cha Cha Cha stopped by the booth to visit. Her golf cart is decked out in peace symbols for the Sunday golf cart parade. Photo by Glenn.

That evening after the '50s Bash we caught up with the Undead Bettys roller derby team in Antioch for their bout against the Bay Area Derby (B.A.D.) Girls Oakland Outlaws. Time to get it on. Photo by Glenn.

Undead Bettys player Nasty Drew makes her way around the track during warm-ups at the Antioch Indoor Sports Center. Photo by Glenn.

Ben stretches his legs as he watches his first roller derby. He says he'd go again. Photo by Glenn.

Roni checks out some of the fresh produce at the Delta Farmers Market outside Rio Vista. We were on our way back from Twitchell Island. where Roni met up with one of her UC Davis rice research connections. Photo by Glenn.

One of the UC Berkeley student researchers does field testing at the Twitchell Island rice farm. Their rice is much further along in its development than DSC's small plot on Jersey Island. Photo by Glenn.

Meanwhile, back at Jersey Island, the abandoned rice greenhouses have been disassembled, leaving behind a pile of PVC pipes, 1x2 lumber and screws. Photo by Glenn.

After weeks of waiting the young rice plants are at last starting to produce grain. It doesn't look like much yet, but it's got us excited. Photo by Glenn.

The Jersey Island rice field is mature enough that it's time to start running tests. Roni has a sealed container that will be inserted over one of the plants to conduct air sampling. Photo by Glenn.

We used one of the discarded greenhouse boards and a mason jar to construct our own water scoop. It's easier than mucking around in the mud to get the water samples. Photo by Glenn.

Nothing like a little home-brewed rice tea on a warm summer day. Ew. This sample will be sent to UC Davis for analysis. Photo by Glenn.

The rice farm is teeming with mosquito fish. We caught a big bucket of them to take home and observe before we realized they weren't going to grow any bigger. Photo by Glenn.

It's been a productive — or should we say reproductive — year for our local doves. This baby hatched in late July, the third successful nesting on our patio this year. Mom is keeping a close watch. Photo by Roni.

The squab is just about ready to fledge in this shot taken July 23. Two days later he was gone. Photo by Glenn.

We've been anticipating the eventual double-tracking of the railroad behind our house for several years. BNSF recently dropped these switch assemblies about a half mile from us, but they've been sitting there for weeks and no one seems to be in a hurry to get them installed. Not that we're trying to rush them. Photo by Glenn.

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Seeing the Pear Fair in a whole new way

August 17, 2013

Late July and early August have long been the peak of festival season for us, and for the past 25 years the centerpiece of that schedule has been the Delta Pear Fair in Courtland. It has been our longstanding tradition on the last Sunday of each July to make the leisurely trek up Highway 160 to the tiny Sacramento River town for an afternoon of parades, history displays, music, car shows and a coveted pear pie to bring home for dessert.

With a quarter-century of attendance under our belts, you'd think there was little left to do that we hadn't already done at the Pear Fair, and you'd be almost right. That was before Roni got involved with the Delta Science Center and it was decided that Courtland would be a good place for the DSC to have an information booth during the festival. We had always attended the Pear Fair as casual visitors, never as vendors, so this would give us the opportunity to see our favorite event from the other side of the action.

It would also mean we'd have to get up super early on a Sunday morning. Usually we don't arrive at Courtland much before 10 or 11 a.m., but as vendors we had to set up our booth starting at 8 a.m., which meant we had to be up and at 'em by 6:30. Even for the promise of pear pie that's early for us. We'd loaded up Roni's car the night before, so it was just a matter of getting ourselves out the door and on the road. On the way out of town we stopped first at Lauritzen Yacht Harbor in Oakley to collect a bucket of Delta water that Roni planned to use in her booth as part of a water testing experiment kids could do.

Being a Pear Fair vendor had several advantages, as we soon discovered. First, it got us there early enough that we avoided the line of cars queued up for the parking lot. Second, we didn't have to pay the 10 bucks for a parking space, as all vendors received a free parking pass. We got to drive our car up on the dirt behind the Mokelumne High School gym and found our booth space along its back wall. We dumped our gear and then parked our car in the back 40 of the huge field that serves as the festival's parking lot.

The other advantage to our early arrival was that we got first crack at the food booths once they opened, so while Roni settled in at the DSC booth, Glenn made a beeline to the pear pie and secured one of the pink pastry boxes for the trip home. In past years the pies have gone quickly, so we learned through experience to always buy them at our earliest opportunity once we arrive. We needn't have worried this year, however, as the pie bakers planned well and had nearly 1,100 pies on hand, which took them almost to the fair's conclusion at 4 p.m. Of course there was also the pear bread at the Lions Club booth that we wanted to purchase, as well as a dozen other pear confections that we sometimes go for depending on our whim in any given year. There are also the commemorative yellow pins that are distributed for free in the history exhibit, and once Glenn picked up a handful for the family we were satisfied that we'd procured the fair items we always come for.

The DSC booth was situated in the alley between the two sides of the park where all the commercial and nonprofit vendors are clustered. We had a drug education program to our right, and on our left was a large open space where another vendor failed to show up. It was nice having that gap because it made our booth more visible. A State Farm insurance display took up one entire wall across from us, between their booth space and the decaled pickup truck and trailer they strategically left parked nearby against the festival organizers' wishes. Other neighbors included the usual array of voter registration workers, representatives from the Sacramento water district, the library's used book sale, and the Restore the Delta political action booth.

The Pear Fair is normally pretty laid back, but this year there was quite a furor over the state's plans to build twin tunnels that would take water from the northern Delta and pipe it to Southern California. Just a few days earlier Caltrans had removed tunnel opponents' campaign signs from along Highway 160, so the Restore the Delta group used the Pear Fair as a very public platform to promote their cause and let the state know they wouldn't be bullied. Their booth was beseiged with hundreds of requests for "Save the Delta – Stop the Tunnels" signs and bumper stickers. They also sponsored a float in the fair's parade and had dozens of people marching along the route waving signs and shouting slogans. Quite the display.

The DSC booth didn't immerse itself in such controveries, although Roni did field lots of questions from the public about the Delta Science Center's mission and programs. She is in her element when talking about the DSC with adults, and had a ball showing her youngest visitors how to check the pH balance of the Delta water sample we'd collected in Oakley. (It's a 7, by the way, exactly where it should be.) People were happy to take home copies of the DSC's 2013 calendar, which Roni was giving away for free along with an envelope seeking donations from anyone willing to contribute to the cause.

We don't usually stay at the festival much past 2 p.m., so it felt odd when we were still there at 4 p.m., tearing down our booth as the Mariachi Los Gallos band played on the main stage to the thinning crowd. Another advantage to being a vendor: we didn't have to fight traffic leaving the show, and got to exit through town rather than via the lumpy, dusty dirt road that leads regular visitors back to the highway.

All in all it was a worthwhile experience, and one we might consider doing again sometime.

* * * * *

The Pear Fair wasn't the only festival we participated in as vendors this past month. July 13 found us at Village West Marina near Stockton for the Taste of the Delta, a small show focusing on food and wine tasting that attracts a hardy crowd of boating enthusiasts. DSC board member Mike Painter had attended the show the past couple of years and invited us to join him and his wife Pam on his boat for the trip up the San Joaquin River to the event.

We met the Painters around 2:30 that afternoon at their property on Bethel Island, loaded our booth canopy and other gear into Dr. Mike's bass boat, and the four of us set out onto the Delta for the hourlong voyage. Considering that we hadn't been boating in years before Roni became involved with the DSC, now we've taken five trips in the last 18 months. Mike says we need to take more, and he's been angling for Roni to borrow his Jetski sometime.

We squeezed into a slip between a pair of large yachts at Village West – known affectionately by the boating folks there as "Garlic Brothers," after the restaurant by the same name that sits near the marina's entrance – and walked our gear up to the festival site, a grassy knoll overlooking the banks of the river. A huge shade tent was set up on one side for the food and wine vendors, while a handful of commercial booths flanked them on either side of the lawn. We were told to set up wherever we wanted, so we found a spot with a picnic table behind the concert stage. The entertainment for the evening was an ABBA tribute band called Waterloo, and being the ABBA fan that Glenn is, that felt like a pretty good spot for the booth.

For the price of admission, visitors were given a plate and a wineglass and allowed to take all the samples they wanted. Needless to say, the wine tasting was pretty popular with the crowd. Unfortunately, people focused on eating and drinking aren't so focused on learning about science education, so our booth was pretty quiet most of the aftenoon, although Roni was able to make some contacts with a couple of Stockton-area farmers who invited her to do educational programs at their farm.

We packed it in early and headed back to the boat before Waterloo got to "Dancing Queen." Mike raced the setting sun home, and after getting soaked on the choppy waters of Franks Tract, we returned to the comfort of dry land at his dock in Bethel Island. Our "Taste of the Delta" had been a full-course meal for one day.

On Aug. 3, just six days after the Pear Fair, we found ourselves in Martinez for the sixth annual Beaver Festival, where we had set up a DSC booth two years earlier. We backed out of last year's show at the last minute because Roni wasn't feeling well that day, but there were no such issues this year. We collected some minnows and a mudsucker from our local bait shop so we'd have something to put in the fish tank at the booth. Fish always attract kids, and Roni always keeps the booth stocked with games and activities that will appeal to the younger visitors. We collected some water from nearby Alhambra Creek and let the kids do water testing, and we put some of it on magnifiers so the kids could look for plankton. Roni had a constant stream of people coming by the booth to learn about the DSC's projects and programs.

Meanwhile, Glenn strolled the festival checking out the other environmental-themed booths, taking photos, and participating in the creek tour where a volunteer showed everyone where the beaver dam is located. The beavers were smart enough to remain hidden during the festival, but we were told they like to slide down the bank into the river around 6:30 each night.

There was no shortage of beavers elsewhere at the festival, however, as most of the booths adhered to the theme. There were pictures, crafts, clothing and even music featuring the celebrated animal. One of the folk bands got the crowd's attention by performing an original number called the "Ballad of the Beaver," which they played with impromptu accompaniment from a costumed beaver character that danced for the audience. The song was such an instant hit that the band honored requests for an encore at the end of their set.

We placed a bid at the silent auction for a basket of animal puppets that Roni thought might be fun to have at the DSC booth. The kids seem to love her other critters, including a stuffed toy kit fox she has affectionately named "Sammy." We nearly got outbid, but Glenn scored the prize with a $40 bid just as the auction closed at 3 p.m. Now Roni has a rabbit, river otter, gopher and porcupine for her collection. Well, she doesn't have much use for the porcupine since it's a non-native species to the Delta, but we'll consider it a bonus.

* * * * *

Our festival tour concluded Aug. 10 with a visit to the Bethel Island '50s Bash, where Roni operated a booth for the Ironhouse Sanitary District. She had originally planned to have a DSC booth there as well, but decided against it because she was shorthanded on volunteers and didn't think she'd be able to run both booths at the same time. Additionally, a show focused on hot rods and rock 'n' roll didn't seem the best venue for interesting people in information about plankton and rice cultivation.

The Bash, which we hadn't attended in many years, turned out to be a low-key affair with a modest crowd and pleasant family atmosphere. Glenn had time to browse the show cars lined up along Bethel Island Road, the town's main drag, and take in the semifinals of the catfish races while Roni held down the booth in the community park in front of Scout Hall.

The show wrapped up at 5 p.m., which worked out well as Glenn had made arrangements to attend the roller derby that evening in Antioch with Ben. It's a rare event that draws Ben away from his computer and online connections at home, so when he said yes to a night with Dad to watch the Undead Bettys take on the Bay Area Derby (B.A.D.) Girls Oakland Outlaws, Glenn wanted to make sure to be home in time.

Glenn and Ben had bought their admission tickets earlier in the day at Vamp Salon in Oakley, not the establishment's typical clientele. They hopped in the car and arrived at the Antioch Indoor Sports Center a few minutes after the doors of the place opened at 6 p.m. Seated in the third row of the skate rink, they had decent seats to watch the action for the next three hours as the home team Bettys defeated their opponents 215-191. It was Ben's first derby, and he was duly impressed – enough so that he is considering going again if we decide to attend the team's September home bout. Anything to spend a night on the town with his father.

For Glenn, the derby was the first competitive bout he'd attended since seeing the Bettys put on an exhibition match during the county fair in June. He had looked forward to coming back with some decent action photos, but camera issues (operator error) spoiled some of the better shots, so a return engagement next month may not be out of the question. At least he had the chance to purchase some swag in the form of a team T-shirt and pins.

* * * * *

Interesting things have been happening at Glenn's workplace this month. On Aug. 12, nearly two years to the day that the company announced it planned to sell the old newspaper building, it finally confirmed its sale to a local commercial real estate developer. The newspaper offices will move to a smaller building a couple of blocks away from the present location sometime in October.

Meanwhile, what was once a print-only operation continues to move deeper into the digital world, with reporters, photographers and editors alike being asked to spend more of their time posting updates on Twitter and Facebook as well as shoot video of the events and stories they cover. To that end, Glenn has been reluctantly converted to a member of the smartphone generation, being issued a company-owned iPhone 5 that he has been using predominantly for keeping abreast of the daily email mountain. He has also been dabbling in video, so don't be surprised if you see more Tout clips appearing in his feed if you are a Facebook friend or Twitter follower (@festfan).

All of this has made Roni rather jealous, as she has been craving a new iPhone with its higher resolution camera to replace her two-year-old model. She can't wait for the iPhone 5S to come out, but Apple has other plans, so she's waiting on the new release like everyone else.

* * * * *

You knew you couldn't get through a newsletter without an update on the Delta Science Center's rice project, and you were right. The rice field on Jersey Island has been growing since we transplanted the seedlings in June, and for the first time we are starting to see rice on some of the stalks. This comes as good news for Roni, who has been concerned because the crop is a few weeks behind schedule and may not be ready to harvest this fall before the weather turns cooler. The researchers she is partnering with from UC Davis had a specific timetable they wanted the DSC to follow so that they could run the tests they needed done at specific times. But it was decided a few weeks ago that the DSC would do whatever it could manage this year and that the point of the exercise was more to get the high school kids some hands-on experience with the project rather than achieving specific results with it.

Arriving at the stage where rice has begun to appear marked an important milestone for the Jeresey Island rice farm, as it allowed Roni to begin performing the air, water and soil tests that the UC Davis team wants done. In late July we drove to Twitchell Island, just east of Brannan Island State Park on Highway 160, where the university has its main experimental rice fields so Roni could collect the testing equipment she would need. The Twitchell fields are dozens of acres large compared to Jersey's teeny plot, and it was impressive to see all the computer gadgetry the research teams there use. The gear we received isn't anywhere near that advanced. Roni was given 50 evacuated test tubes to collect air samples, and a box of homemade air chambers fabricated from plastic drain pipes and duct tape. The tubes we had to assemble at the Jersey Island site and then insert them in the mud over one of the rice plants to trap the plant's gasses inside. To take the air sample, Roni used a hypodermic syringe that she inserted through a rubber stopper into the chamber. The needle was then poked into one of the test tubes and the contents of the syringe emptied.

Conducting the water tests required Roni to be more creative, as no equipment was provided for this task. We made a trip to ACE Hardware in Oakley and wound up purchasing some small mason jars, screws and a metal retaining ring like the kind often used to attach heating ducts or dishwasher hoses to their fixtures. At the rice farm we fabricated a water scoop by sliding the ring over the rim of one of the mason jars and screwing it to the end of an 8-foot 1x2 piece of pine we'd salvaged from one of the dismantled greenhouses. Now Roni could stand on the bank of the rice pond and collect her samples from its middle without having to wade into the mud.

The soil testing, unfortunately, required getting down and dirty. Roni was glad she only had to do this once, as it meant bringing the shovel into the pond and retrieving a large scoop of mud that was then transferred to a sealed freezer storage bag for transporting back home. The samples have to be kept cool until they can be sent back to UC Davis, so for a week we had sacks of Delta peat soil sitting in our refrigerator. Yum. The air and water tests have to be repeated each Wednesday, so for the foreseeable future we will be making a lot of weekly visits to Jersey Island.

Although the official tests will be performed at UC Davis, Roni has had to do some of the testing herself, checking for water pH levels. The DSC recently acquired a digital microscope through a grant from DuPont, so Roni broke it in by peering at the water sampled from the rice farm. For the past year she has been showing school kids the plankton that live in the water with the aid of low-powered magnifiers that she has brought to some of the festivals, but the microscope takes the viewing to a whole different level. You can really see the critters swimming around on the glass slides. The microscope also allows the user to take video and still photos through the viewfinder, and eventually Roni hopes to set it up to do so.

Plankton aren't the only thing living in the rice pond. We'd noticed since the spring that hundreds of tiny fish were swimming around in the murky water, so eventually we decided to catch a few to observe at home, thinking they might be minnows or something that could grow much larger. One day when the water level in the field dropped lower than normal, all the fish clustered themselves into a couple of shrinking puddles that made catching them a snap. We soon had a 5-gallon bucket loaded with hundreds of them that we placed in an aquarium at home. Roni was excited about them until she did some research and discovered they were nothing more than mosquito fish likely left there by the county vector control district. Nothing worse than having a rice farm swarming with West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes, so it made sense that the vector district would be preemptive. True enough, we haven't seen any skeeters in the pond.

* * * * *

Things have gotten pretty quiet around our home this month since the neighbors to our north moved on at the end of July. We wrote last spring about how they sold their home in a day for cash at several thousand dollars over the asking price and were leasing this house back while they waited for their new home to be built in Valley Springs. They were decent folks, but they had several young children and a yappy dog that made it hard to enjoy a peaceful afternoon in the backyard, train traffic notwithstanding. Of course you never know what you'll get when new neighbors move in, so we are crossing our fingers and enjoying the quiet August weekends while we can. Now if we could only convince ourselves to do some yard work.

Glenn, Roni and Ben

This page was last updated on Friday, July 19, 2013 at 13:20 hrs.

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