The Making of California Explorer

Long-time reporter Susan Valot came up with the idea of creating California Explorer for her thesis project in the University of Southern California master's in specialized journalism program.

Susan Valot with Bridalveil Fall at Yosemite.

Valot came to the program to specialize in science and technology reporting after spending more than a decade and a half as a public radio reporter in the Los Angeles area. She grew up visiting state and national parks around the country on family vacations.


Valot knew she could not cover all of California's parks in the few short months she had to complete the project. So she narrowed it down by variety: at least one by land, one by sea, one by air.


She selected Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for the "land" component. Valot made several trips to the park and UC Irvine's Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center

Interview at Anza-Borrego.

in Borrego Springs to capture a variety of stories centered around the desert.She trekked through the desert by foot and in an off-road vehicle with a native bee researcher. During that trip, during the scramble up and down boulders with her gear, both Valot's main microphone and recorder broke, forcing her to make adjustments in the field to capture the audio. She also visited the park's paleontology lab, where volunteers worked on the fossil of a woolly mammoth. She watched endangered Peninsular bighorn sheep be netted and carried by helicopter through the air to a command post, to check the health of their herd.


The particular day of the sheep capture was a long one. Valot drove out to the park in the early morning, where temperatures rose to near triple digits. Hours and hundreds of miles later, she was driving through the first major winter storm of the season, through California's Central Valley, amid thunderstorms and downpours, on her way to Yosemite and the Stanislaus National Forest. In all, she drove 13 hours that day so she could do interviews at both Anza-Borrego and Yosemite.


Snow falls on the road into Yosemite.

The next morning, Valot was driving in snowfall into Yosemite to gather more audio for the project, amazed by the variety of California weather in less than a 24-hour span.


Of course, the reason why Valot went to the Yosemite area, to go out in the field with a researcher studying the impact of the massive 2013 Rim Fire on streams, dissipated in the heavy rainfall. U.S. Forest Service officials deemed the flash flood danger too great to go out in the field that day. Valot had to come up with other ways to tell the audio story.


Interview at Anza-Borrego.
Photo courtesy of California Park Ranger Steve Bier.

The "by air" component was closer to home in Los Angeles, where researchers are studying the bat population in a pair of parks in Baldwin Hills, an area surrounded by oil drilling. Valot skipped celebrating a milestone birthday so she could gather bat audio. Except the bats didn't cooperate. Researchers did not pick up any of the small flying animals on their bat locator beacons and they spotted only a couple visually. The bat expert wondered whether the park had sprayed for mosquitos to kill of the risk of West Nile virus risk, thus eliminating the bat food source.


Finally, Valot headed out by boat to Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park, off the coast of Santa Barbara. There, researchers are studying a variety of topics, including the ph levels in the ocean and kelp beds off the islands. They're trying to track how global warming may impact those levels and the sealife. While Valot recorded the researchers as they dove, she also helped them by handing gear from the dock, built into a cliff eight- to ten feet above the water.


So California Explorer didn't come off without a hitch. But in the world of being an explorer, that's nothing new. Become an explorer yourself without even leaving your couch. Click around the site and explore the sights and sounds of California and the science that's happening here today.