Hot Springs and Camels and Golf, Oh My!

With a goal of having a science learning experience (SLE) in the San Luis Valley (SLV) and in a quest to answer, 'What am I going to do for fun today?' I drive south on 285 over Poncha Pass and into the SLV. My interview with camels was in two hours so I had time to make one stop at Valley View Hot Springs and discuss their micro hydro electric generator.

Located on a mountainside, the continuous flow of water supplies the heat energy for the soaking pools. The outflow is collected in a pipe and runs 1.7 miles downhill in a 540’ vertical drop to a Pelton wheel - an efficient electric generator.

SCIENCE LESSON #1. (Physics - one of Newton's laws of motion) Force equals Mass times Acceleration. (F = MA) When the water­—the Mass—Accelerates down the mountain, it has a lot of Force. When the Force of the water hits a Pelton wheel (the picture here is of the first wheel used at VV), the wheel spins at a high rate of speed. Through another magic of Mother Nature, with the use of magnets and coils of wire attached to the Pelton Wheel, the Force excites electrons, creates an electric current, and wires send the electrons 'racing' back up the mountain and supplies power to the lights, stoves, computers, and blow dryers needed by the guests and employees. The electrician works closely with the water manager which allows them to make sure the system works smoothly as water quantities can fluctuate and energy needs can vary greatly. They 'speak' a different language that allows them to communicate such that to them, water is electricity and electricity is water. Huh? That's the same question I asked! The systems can be controlled remotely by computer with backups for possible human error and equipment failure. As Mr. Spock from Star Trek would say, "Fascinating." Me, I usually say "Cool!"

With my research done at Valley View, I go from the science of Physics to Physiology. Driving a few more miles south on Highway 17, I turn west onto one of the county roads. Within a short distance, I am seeing ships of the desert … camels! Again, I say "Cool!" Never seen a camel outside of a zoo. But these camels have a different purpose. Big Mama and Dora supply milk and Niam and Maya are their kids. I meet Matt and Meghan, their loving owners and interpreters, and we go behind the house to the barn and pasture where the camels are located.

I meet Maya, born to Dora in January of 2015. She is affectionate, which according to Meghan is unusual as most baby camels are shy. But Maya greets me and gives me the whiff and sniff test to make sure she likes me okay. As does Dora. I say hi to Big Mama and Dora and then to Big Mama's son Niam who is kept close but in a separate fenced in area. He is pleasant also and wants to nibble my hat.

SCIENCE LESSON #2. (Evolutionary biology) Environments create adaptations. Matt, Meghan and I discuss the adaptations of camels to the deserts and how these adaptations work in the SLV. Common knowledge about camels is that they can store fat in their hump. They can go for long periods without food or water. When required, fat is drawn for food and water is released from fat when it is used by the camels. Their 'internal plumbing' is an efficient system at conserving water. Camels have specialized nostrils, and ears for keeping out blowing sand. They have two sets of long eyelashes to protect against sand and strong sunshine - no mascara required. As Dora gives me a camel kiss, I get an up close view of her eyelashes, nostrils, and ear adaptations.

Camels have long legs to keep them high above the hot desert sands which can be up to 150 degrees! If they do have to kneel down, they have specialized pads on their contact points with the ground. Camels have two stomachs to digest almost any plant material they can find to eat when crossing deserts. Big Mama and Dora can eat the gray dry brush that dominates the high desert in the north part of the SLV and digest it. When camels drink water, they can consume more gallons than most pickup trucks can put of the same amount of gas in their tanks! Fortunately, Matt and Meghan have a reliable well courtesy of snowmelt from the mountains. And camels, with seasonal changes in their body hair, combined with behavior modification, can handle temperatures from 30 below zero to 120 above.

I thought that camels had hooves like cattle. When Matt lifted Maya's front foot, we observed a soft leather-like pad. As I watched Dora and Big Mama walk, their pads, along with the rest of each foot, 'squish' outwardly, creating a bigger surface area that allows camels to stay on top of deep sand. But this pad is also sturdy enough to walk on sharp stones, resist cactus thorns, and stay undamaged on any other surface they may encounter.

As for camel milk, it is nutritious, naturally low in fat, and it comes 'self homogenized' meaning that the fat molecules are small and stay suspended in the milk without rising to the top. How are camels like humans? When it comes to milking time, they are regimented and everything must be in order for their milking time without distractions, such as me hanging around to observe. Camels can produce large quantities of milk. Big Mama can provide up to 3 gallons a day! Call ahead if you want to meet the crew when passing through.

SCIENCE LESSON #3. Golf is a human attempt at controlling physics. It combines sport with humor. If you are not going to make money at a sport, it might as well be fun! Using specialized grooved clubs, with various loft to control the flight arc and distance of a hard, round, dimpled ball about the size of a lime, and played on courses with 9 or 18 holes with water hazards, creeks, trees, wind, buildings, other golfers, and other ways of getting golf balls lost or in trouble, golf is a challenge. Golf has its dangers. Being no stranger to danger, I am no stranger to golf. G-o-l-f is a four letter word. Golf is probably single-handedly responsible for more combinations of swear words linked together than any other human endeavor.

I ran out of time to play the Cattails Golf Course on the north side of Alamosa on my science learning trifecta but I did go to the practice driving range and hit a bucket of balls and enjoy the scenery. I used every club in my bag to re-acquaint myself with my clubs after the winter off. The driving range has the distant Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as a backdrop, so all was good except some of my practice shots. Two shots I pushed to the right almost hitting two grazing geese. But I am ready to go back and attack the course. To experience the spectrum of human emotions that only the game of golf can provide, while getting a lesson in physics at the same time, come play the Cattails Golf Course on your next trip through Alamosa!

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