Footloose Forays is a small travel business begun in 1983 while I was still in graduate school at San Francisco State University. It has grown slowly and organically through the intervening years. I have taken over 10,000 people on various natural history outings ranging from 4-hour night hikes on Mt. Tam to three week adventures in Ecuador. I have enjoyed nearly every minute of this work. The Buddhists refer to the importance of right livelihood and I have been lucky enough to find that. I lead every single trip. Footloose Forays = Michael Ellis. I have no staff except when I enlist my lovely son to help me. I have a very high repeat business and most trips fill up way in advance. One of the many blessings is the lovely relationships that I have with my fellow naturalists all over the world.
Currently I am concentrating on international travel and only offer a few of my favorite Footloose Forays trips in this country, mostly week-long camping in the mountains or deserts. If any of these trips interest you please feel free to contact me.
In addition to my own natural history forays, I often lead trips for a number of Bay Area organizations. I have a BS in Botany and Masters in Marine Biology, though I firmly believe that formal schooling is only a small part of the educational process. I have been a regular contributor to the KQED-FM Perspective Series since 1988 and write the Ask the Naturalist column for Bay Nature Magazine.
business. Outings that still have room: the Birds Birds Birds trips in December
all have room. The early 2015 adventures to Ecuador (Galapagos and the Amazon)
and Tanzania (the Serengeti!) trips are full with long waiting lists.
However there is room in both of these trips in January and February 2016.
Contact me if you are interested because, believe it or not, they are already
filling. We decided not to do the boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April 2015
and it; I postponed until 2016. I have elected to do only one trip to Turkey
next year and forgo the eastern Turkey trip until things quiet down a bit with
Syria. However the Western Turkey trip still has room, though it is filling. We
are redoing my website and a brochure is heading your way in late December or
early January. However, please continue to check the website as I post the outings sooner there than in
update. I will be in northern India and southern Bhutan from November 2 to
November 20. I'm really looking forward to doing an adventure in a new part of
the world. Southern Bhutan just opened to tourism last year. The Royal Manus
National Park was created in 1964 but it was never opened to tourism until last
year. This is an area, which has
rhinos, elephants, tigers and several species of primates. It's wild!
I'm really looking forward to going there. And I have an intrepid group of
people that are joining me. They have all traveled to the country of Bhutan
before with me.
On a personal note Hunter
and his girlfriend, Devi, are in New York working for a screenwriter. I spent a
wonderful 4 days visiting him in October. What a wonderful city New York is! My
sister, Pamela Sue, is adapting well to her new paradigm without a pancreas,
gallbladder or spleen. My mother at age 94 is still thriving. Though of course
she remains continually worried about her errant son traveling all over the
planet where there are typhoons, diseases, and lots of people that look
different. She really doesn't understand me.
I have been busy--
spent 5 days at a hula hooping camp in the Santa Cruz mountains, I attended my
1st Bioneers Conference, spoke at the Olympic Club in San Francisco,
emceed a fundraiser for the Sonoma County Museum, lead several field trips for
the Point Reyes Field Seminars, was interviewed by the kitchen sisters of
National Public Radio, and of course continue to lead my regular Monday hiking
Here is my latest NPR Perspective
The largest living thing
For years the blue whale was
considered that the largest living organism on the planet at more than 100 tons. But if sheer weight
is the standard, the General Sherman sequoia in Sequoia National Park registers
an amazing 4.5 million pounds. But two decades ago researchers announced they
had found the largest living thing, at least in area, and claimed it weighed
much more than a blue whale. It was a mushroom, of all things, and it covered
38 acres in northern Illinois. What we refer to as a mushroom is actually just
the fruiting body; the real mushroom are the underground white mycelia threads,
which pervade the soil. The media dubbed it the “humongous fungus”.
Then some other scientists said
"oh yeah? we got a bigger
fungus”. This one in Washington State, which covered 1500 acres. And the ‘my fungus
is bigger than your fungus’ contest escalated when another huge clonal group
was discovered in Oregon, at 2300
But it turns out that fungi
are lightweights in the size versus poundage debate over what constitutes the largest living organism. Scientists in Utah have been researching a huge colony of
quaking Aspen trees in the Wasatch Mountains. This colony covers only 106 acres
but sports 47,000 individual trunks, arising out of one single organism. Essentially
every apparently separate aspen tree is connected underground by common room system.
In other words, it is one huge genetically identical clone. They have named
this "tree" Pando, which is Latin for “I spread.” And it weighs in at
least 13 million pounds, dwarfing the General Sherman and outclassing the punchless
I was just up on the east side
of the Sierra amid the changing autumn colors. If you observe a hillside full of
aspen trees you too can easily see the clonal groups. With the same exact soil,
exposure and rainfall, some aspens leaves are slightly different colors than
other groups. This makes it very easy to distinguish the various clones. As for their weight? Well, that you’ll
just have to guess.
This is Michael Ellis with a
First some business. Outings that still have room - the
Mono Lake weekend is now from October 3 to 5 (I changed the date from September
so I could attend a Hula Hoop camp in Santa Cruz, CA!). The Birds Birds Birds
trips in December all have room. The 2015 adventures to Ecuador (Galapagos and
the Amazon) and Tanzania (the Serengeti!) trips are full with long waiting
lists. However there is room in both of these trips in 2016. Contact me
if you are interested because, believe it or not, they are already filling. We
decided not to do the boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April 2016 and both
Turkey trips next May and June are slowly filling but still have room.
donated a night hike for the Pt. Reyes National Seashore Association annual
fundraiser being held September 20th. A worthy cause.
OK my update. Burning Man was incredible as usual. I
got to see more art this year than ever before. I dyed my hair purple (why
not?); it has faded to a gray/pink color. My sister Pamela Sue is
recovering very well from pancreatic surgery. Although diabetes is a new
paradigm for her and it takes a while to adjust. Her son Patrick has been very
very helpful. He should be a nurse.
Hunter is now working for Backroads Bicycle Company. He was up
in Alaska cooking and working at camp support and then to Yellowstone. Now he is in Oregon. He's laboring
extremely hard but also is enjoying himself immensely and is surrounded by
wonderful coworkers. I'm sure he'll get offered a job as a guide next year -
apparently like father, like son. He and his sweetie, Devi are heading to Manhattan
where Hunter will be working for a screenwriter doing editing and being a PA
(personal assistant) from October 1 to December.
Here is my latest NPR Perspective from KQED on the Golden
THE GOLDEN GATE
As I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge recently, the Marin
hillsides of our Golden State were baked to a nice golden color. Gold
references abound. Why exactly do we call the entrance to the greatest natural
harbor on the West Coast – the Golden Gate? When I bring visitors to San
Francisco for the first time and we reach the bridge, they exclaim “but it's
not gold, it’s red!” And I explain yes the bridge is red because the
manufactured steel came with a red undercoat. Everyone liked the red hues so
much that the architects decided to paint the bridge- International orange. And
anyway the Golden Gate is not alluding to the Bridge but to the entrance to the
So it must be then that Golden Gate is referencing these golden
hills. Wrong–the reason that the hills turn yellow in the late summer is
because most of the grassland vegetation is non-native. It is composed mostly
of Eurasian annual grasses brought by the Spaniards. These plants grow quickly
in the spring- flower, fruit, die and turn yellow. Originally there were mostly
perennial bunch grasses growing on the hills and while they would've turned
color there would have been much more green when the Golden Gate was first
Okay then it must be that gold that was discovered in the
foothills. Actually the name for the Golden Gate also precedes the discovery of
gold in California. So even though the motto of our great state references the
gold –Eureka- I found it! The entrance to San Francisco Bay has nothing to do
with this precious metal.
Col. John C Fremont who led the infamous Bear Fag Rebellion,
which wrested California from Mexico, named it. He gazed at the narrow strait
that separates the Bay from the Pacific Ocean, and said “it is a golden gate to trade with the
Orient and I give this name for the same reasons that the harbor of Byzantium
was called Golden Horn.”
So two of the world’s great waterways – one in Istanbul, the
other here, are joined at least metaphorically. This is
Michael Ellis with a Perspective.
First some business. Outings that still have room -
Natural History/Natural Mystery in western Sonoma County (but nearly full.)
The Mono Lake weekend is now from October 3 to 5 (I changed the date from
September so I could attend a Hula Hoop camp in Santa Cruz, CA!). The Birds
Birds Birds trips in December all have room. The 2015 adventures to Ecuador
(Galapagos and the Amazon) and Tanzania (the Serengeti!) trips are full with
long waiting lists. However there is room in both of these trips in 2016.
Contact me if you are interested because, believe it or not, they are already
filling. The boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April 2015 has plenty of room.
And both Turkey trips next May and June are slowly filling but still have room.
OK my update. From July 19 to July 26 I will be
in the Lakes Basin region in the northern Sierra Nevada for my annual trip to
that wonderful part of the world. Wildflowers galore, black bears,
golden-mantled ground squirrels, high Sierra birds, refreshing lakes. But you
must act quickly for this one. If not this year then next, because it is one of
my favorite places and I do it every year.
Personal note: I had a wonderful trip to Turkey, which
included a full week of rest and relaxation along the Turquoise Coast. It was
wonderful to have very little to do except sleep, swim and eat. This is a
usually a challenge for me but I rose (or not) to the occasion. We also were in
Istanbul for Ramadan, which was very exciting. This is the most important of all
the Muslim holidays. It was quite festive around the Blue Mosque and the Aya
Sophia. Families came from all over Istanbul and outlying areas and
gathered with all of their food laid out on the grass waiting for the call from
the mosque to break their daily fast. Was so much fun. I love Turkey and look
forward to being back there next spring.
I flew back to California for one day and then
immediately went to Memphis to be with my sister. She is recovering very well
from pancreatic surgery. Although diabetes is a new paradigm for her and it
takes a while to adjust. Her son Patrick has been very very helpful. He should
be a nurse.
Hunter is now working for Backroads Bicycle Company. He's up
in Alaska cooking and working at camp support. He's laboring extremely
hard but also is enjoying himself immensely and is surrounded by wonderful
coworkers. I'm sure he'll get offered a job as a guide next year - apparently
like father, like son.
Here is my latest NPR Perspective from KQED on our
only native aquatic turtle.
THE WESTERN POND TURTLE
I just returned from my home state of Tennessee where I
encountered a couple of fierce snapping turtles along the Wolfe River in
Memphis. There are 16 species of turtles in Tennessee but here in the immense state
of California we have only two representatives of this ancient lineage of
reptiles. Our designated State Reptile, the desert tortoise, is of course
confined to the arid regions of Southern California but the rest of the state
only has the Western Pond turtle. That’s it, one indigenous species. In fact
this is the only fresh water turtle native to the entire Pacific coast, from
British Columbia to northern Baja.
Why only one species in this biologically rich province of
ours? One word – WATER. Or more properly, the lack of it. Because in
spite of the name these turtles are rarely found in ponds, which are mostly a
man-made phenomena here anyway. Originally they were found in marshes,
streams, rivers and lakes where good basking sites like logs or boulders let
them conserve energy. Since roughly 90% of all California’s wetlands have been
lost, it is not surprising that Western Pond turtle numbers have plummeted
since first being described by a Russian biologist visiting Fort Ross in 1841. The
Gold Rush didn’t help, either. Tens of thousands were eaten for their meat in
the stampede to get rich..
But one modern practice also has been unkind to this
species -- the release of pet turtles into the wild, particularly a native of
southern states and Northern Mexico, the red-eared slider. It’s the pet turtle of the pet trade.
And it’s listed by conservationists as one of the most invasive species in the
world. It is aggressive, competes directly with our native pond turtles and can
transmit diseases to them.
Turtle have been around since before the dinosaurs. They
made it through that catastrophic meteor impact 65 million years ago but it
remains to be seen whether they can survive mankind. This is Michael Ellis with
I will be in Turkey until July 7. I
am taking my wonderful friend Clarence Chan and his multi-generational family
on another private adventure. We really know how to have fun. Last summer it
was Bhutan, before that it was Belize, and 3 years ago we were all in Peru.
are in order for my dear friend Rick Bacigalupi. He was nominated to
receive a Northern California Emmy for his work with Bay Nature On the Air. I
am privileged to be one of the main hosts of this program. On June 14 at the
San Francisco Hilton was the award ceremony. In our category KGO Channel 7 won
for their excellent program on the new Exploratorium. We will be back next
year! Guaranteed. Http://baynature.org/2014/05/14/bay-nature-air-nominated-northern-california-emmy-award/
Footloose Forays outings that still have room are the Lakes Basin camping trip
in the Northern Sierra, Natural History/Natural Mystery in western Sonoma
County (but nearly full), and Mono Lake weekend in October (I changed the date
from from September to October so I could attend a Hula Hoop camp in Santa
Birds Birds outings in December all have room. The 2015 editions of the Ecuador
and Tanzania trips are full with long waiting lists. I do have room in both of
these places in 2016. Contact me if you are interested because, believe it or
not, they are already filling. The boat trip into the Sea of Cortez in April
2015 has plenty of room. And both Turkey trips next May and June are slowly
filling but still have room.
personal note my sister; Pamela Sue was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. On
June 7th she had the extensive Whipple procedure done (removal of the
pancreas, the spleen, and part of the small intestines). She had nearly the best
possible outcome. There are no invasive cancer cells present and she will not
have to undergo chemotherapy nor radiation treatment. She will be a diabetic
for the rest of her (now long) life. Blessings blessings blessings.
one of my recent Perspectives that runs regularly on KQED, San Francisco's NPR
By Michael Ellis
so many ant trails on the fire roads this time of year. Well-worn paths by
medium-sized dark ants that lead to huge debris piles. These are harvester
ants. They are easy to identify not because of shape, color or size but because
of the rubble they leave at the entrance to their underground homes. They are
harvesting seeds and the germ of the seed is the most nutritious part. The
chaff provides little sustenance, so surrounding the holes are huge mounds of
these hard working insects I immediately consider that biblical proverb and a
well known Aesop’s fable both from the indoctrination of my childhood.
Ants are often used as metaphors for industrious behavior, self-sacrifice for
the greater good and planning ahead for future scarcity. The proverb admonishes, "Go to the ant, you
sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or
ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the
there is the ant and the grasshopper. The grasshopper that spent the nice warm
summer months just singing, while the ant prepared for winter. The grasshopper
begged for food, the ant refused. The grasshopper died. That'll
teach him! Like most people, I was more grasshopper than ant as a kid but
lately that ant is making more and more sense. Human species take note.
biomass of ants on the planet is greater than the total biomass of human
beings. Ants have been around for hundreds of millions of years and have
survived and evolved through several mass extinctions. There are well over 12,000
described species. They are found in nearly every habitat on every continent
humans are singing and fiddling away with climate change, the ants are
meanwhile thriving and adapting to the changes we are manifesting across the
environment. We shall see who survives the coming winter.
Michael Ellis with a Perspective.