Latest News from Sul Ross August 1, 2014


    by Steve Lang, News and Publications

    Jeffrey Keeling’s discovery of a rare plant species likely sent some prominent news media representatives scrambling for an atlas.
    Last November, Keeling, Aledo, a Sul Ross State University graduate student in Biology, found a live sample of the incredibly rare Solanum cordicitum near Valentine (pop. 134), about 60 miles west of Alpine.
    Keeling’s find of this relative of the eggplant marked the first time the plant had been documented since 1990. The desert-dwelling annual species grows to about 14 inches, flowers and dies. It has characteristics of the eggplant, but is also covered with spines and is thought to be poisonous to humans and animals alike.
    Keeling’s find is noted in an article by Dr. Stephen Stern, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction; Dr. Lynn Bohs, University of Utah; and Keeling, published in the August issue of Journal of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Keeling was interviewed by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram in early July. The find has also been reported in The New York Times, Science News, Houston Chronicle and other publications.
    “Our work in terms of taxonomy is collaborative,” said Dr. Jim Zech, Sul Ross professor of Biology and Keeling’s thesis adviser. “It is exciting to me when Jeff gets a phone call, goes out and finds it (Solanum cordicitum) and is able to contribute to this project.”
    “Having our (Sul Ross’) contributions included in bigger projects is also really important,” Zech said, noting that a large percentage of Texas’ rare plants are located in the Trans Pecos region.
    “Jeff did an incredible job.”
    Following a presentation at a national conference on his work identifying flora in the Davis Mountains Preserve of the Nature Conservancy, Keeling was contacted by Stern.
    “I met Jeff at the national botanical conference in 2013 where I heard a talk about his work doing floristic studies in the Davis Mountains,” said Stern. “I contacted him because I had seen museum specimens of the new species. Before I described and named it, I wanted to see live material and get pictures. We corresponded through email and he agreed to spend some time in the field looking for the new species.”
    Keeling scoured a 10-acre site in Valentine last November for more than 10 days, up to eight hours per day.
    “The drought conditions stacked (the odds of discovery) against me,” he said. “I was about to give up when I came across it. I saw it, and I was so excited, I immediately fell to my knees.”
    “Within about three minutes, I was pretty certain this plant was different than the common species,” said Keeling, who has completed the requirements for his M.S. in Biology (Botany).
    Keeling collected the specimen – only the third found in the new species – pressed and mounted it and sent it to Stern at Colorado Mesa University. The other two specimens, also found in West Texas, are in collections at the University of Texas El Paso (found in 1974) and the University of Texas at Austin (found in 1990).
    “I had not had luck finding it on a short trip through the area and his (Keeling’s)  extensive time in the field yielded only a single specimen,” said Stern. “Despite not having tons of material to look at, I decided to go ahead and publish to draw attention to the species in the hope that more populations might be discovered.”
    Persistence may be Keeling’s middle name. He spent two and half years in fieldwork documenting flora in the Davis Mountains Preserve. In addition to identifying the documented 423 species, he found about 45 previously-undocumented plants. One of his finds was a strain of wild geranium last found in 1936.
    Keeling said the successes of both his graduate fieldwork and the recent search have been motivating factors in pursuing a career in botany.
    “I’m really excited, for the university as well as for myself. I have learned a lot and this will help me as a field botanist,” adding that his future goals include exploring the rain forests.
    “Sort of an Indiana Jones of the plant world,” he laughed.
    “For him to be involved this early in his hope is that this is really encouraging for him to continue,” said Zech. “I have known Jeff since he was an undergraduate and I have seen the evolution of him into a careful scientist and responsible adult and this is one of the most fulfilling parts of my career.”
    Sul Ross Professor Emeritus Dr. Mike Powell, who continues to serve as director of the Powell Herbarium, also praised Keeling’s persistence.
    “It is important to get the right kind of scientific information to add to a collection,” he said, “and what was also important was Jeff’s persistence in continuing to look for something that just wasn’t there. It could have been extinct, but he found it. For a botanist, it’s kind of like an Easter egg hunt.”
    “This discovery is a neat thing for Sul Ross: for the student, the program and the university as a whole,” Powell said.
    Zech said the discovery of a new plant species “is always significant in terms of finding something we didn’t think was there before. This (discovery) provides insight to the range and adaptability of that species. To have a greater knowledge of in terms of distribution and adaptability in this part of the world is significant. This can be an inhospitable place to live.”
    “Numerous plant species are discovered each year,” said Stern. “What makes this so interesting is that it is a new species from the United States (most new discoveries are from the tropics) and that the plant appears to have a very restricted range and be relatively rare within that range.”
    Keeling, meanwhile, plans to obtain a Ph.D. in botany and hopes to teach in addition to conducting fieldwork. He will work as a private contractor in various native plant ventures while applying for doctoral studies.
    “Sul Ross is a special place, especially for what we’re doing (in the Department of Biology, Geology and the Physical Sciences),” he said.

    Due to use by the University of Texas El Paso football team, there will be limited accommodations at Graves-Pierce Recreation Center from Tuesday, Aug. 5-Friday, Aug. 15.
    The Graves-Pierce gym, locker rooms, cardio room and dance studio will not be available during this time. The indoor track and racquetball courts will be accessible. Also, some of the cardio equipment will be available for use.
    The weight room will remain open for member use. However, from Wednesday, Aug. 6-Wednesday, Aug. 13, the weight room will be closed daily from 2-3:30 p.m. for UTEP’s use.
    For more information, contact  Antuan Washington at or call (432) 837-8792.

Sul Ross Gear Up staff visits Gallego office

Members of the Sul Ross State University Gear Up staff visited Congressman Pete P. Gallego's office during a recent conference in Washington, D.C. Pictured (from left) are: Mary Hernandez, Del Rio outreach coordinator; Mary Beth Marks, assistant vice president for Enrollment Management; Melissa Ramirez, project assessment manager; Markel Bilbao-Mate, Gallego's media coordinator; Patrick Clingman, Gear Up Grant director; Monica Saenz, assistant project director, Project ReACH; and Rolando Hernandez, data tracking specialist. Gallego was in session and unable to meet the contingent personally. (Photo Courtesy Monica Saenz)


    by Travis Hendryx
    (Note: Travis Hendryx is a 1998 Sul Ross State University graduate and former sports information specialist. He has made nine trips to Northwest Alaska.)

    In the Northwest Borough of Alaska's Brooks Range, 40 miles above the Arctic Circle, nestled on the banks of the Kobuk River lies the Inupiaq village of Shungnak. Also known as Nuurviuraq in the northern Eskimo dialect, the community of just less than 270 souls was named for the large quantities of jade that rest in the nearby mountains and along the shores of the Kobuk.
    Shungnak also served as the focal point for a group representing the Sul Ross State University Baptist Student Ministry (BSM) who ventured north for a 10-day missions endeavor in mid-July. Dan Dunagan, BSM director and Sul Ross alum, was joined by his three grandchildren, Trey, Taylor and Mackenzie, San Antonio; recent Sul Ross graduates Taylor Richey, Gail; and Ryan Kubena, Hallettsville; Hendryx; and Hendryx’s nephew, Brice, son of Sul Ross graduates Otis and Kelly Hendryx, Stockton, Kan.
    Following the first day of a five-day vacation Bible school program with the village children, the group discussed their initial experiences of life in the Alaskan bush.
    “First of all, it's definitely a place of survival,” said Trey Dunagan, who will be vying for a tight end spot on the Lobo football team this fall as an incoming freshman. “There are limited supplies at the store and most of the food folks eat they either shoot out in the tundra or catch out of the river.”
    He added that making a difference in the lives of children would be his biggest satisfaction. “The kids here are really wanting attention,” he said. “And the great thing about what we're doing is that we can try to get them focused on the things of God and hopefully steer them down the right path at an early age."
    With no roads going into or out of the village, air travel is the only means of accessibility to the Kobuk River Valley.
    “The isolation is very real in a place like this," said Kubena, a former Lobo offensive lineman. “There has to be a defined purpose for coming up here and it seems like it has been and always will be about serving other people.”
    Most of the ministry work was geared toward children in the pre primary and 7-10 year-old range and for former Sul Ross track and field star Richey, that is precisely where the work starts.
    “It's so important that we begin working with them at such a young age,” Richey said. “It seems like the older children become, no matter what culture they live in, the less they will be willing to follow Christ because there is so little Godly influence in their home life. So we try to approach them by building friendships early.”
    “At first, this place seemed really hard to live in, even for a short stay,” said MacKenzie Dunagan, who will be a sophomore at Brandeis in the fall. “But like a lot of things, you learn to eventually settle in and when you realize you have a job to do, it gives you a sense of purpose. We're all here for a purpose and that makes everything worth it.”
    For older brother Taylor, who enters as a junior this year at Brandeis, the slow nature of village life in the Arctic was something of an adjustment.
    “Everything is so fast-paced in a city like San Antonio,” he said. “Then you come to a place like Shungnak, and everything seems to be running like 30 minutes behind schedule. There's just no rush in a place like this which I think is really cool.”
    Ministry work in the Alaskan bush has always been challenging but it has its rewards, according to BSM director Dan Dunagan.
    “Most people don't get the opportunity to do what we are doing in a place like the Alaskan wilderness,” he said. “For people who do this for the long haul, they may not see any fruit of their labor for years. But I can tell you that if just one person's life is changed through the Gospel of Christ, it's worth the time, the money and travel.”
    Dunagan was in Shungnak in the summer of 1999 with a group from the BSM. He had a shirt made with the handprints of the children he baptized in the Kobuk that year and brought the shirt back to Shungnak as a reminder to himself and those he baptized of the keeping power of God.
    “Those kids are grown up now and have children of their own,” he said. “So this was a spiritual reunion of sorts. My biggest prayer is that they make Christ the foundation and center of their lives and that they would have a substantial spiritual legacy to pass down to their children.”
    “The kids are so full of energy but they are so fun to hang out with," said 13 year-old Brice Hendryx, whose parents, Otis and Kelly, were part of the BSM team that came to northern Alaska 15 years ago. “Some of them just want lots and lots of attention and they just swarm around you like bees!”
    With sunlight available around the clock, bedtime was another facet of life where adjustments were made.“You really don't know when to turn in for the night because there is no night," said Kubena.”Getting up at 6:30 or 7 in the morning feels closer to getting up at 11 or early afternoon. So although you might be on schedule time-wise, sometimes you feel like half a day has just slipped by.”
    “It makes for great basketball games," added Taylor Dunagan. “The older kids will stay awake and play for two or three hours at the outdoor courts until they get tired and go home.”
    Mosquitoes played havoc on most outdoor activities. “It's rained most of the time we’ve been here,” said Trey. “The bugs love it and that makes it hard to keep any games going outside with the kids.”
    The pests have been unofficially classified as the State Bird of Alaska and according to locals, have been known to drive large game such as caribou and moose into rivers and lakes as a place of refuge. “They are just everywhere,” said Brice Hendryx. “It’s hard to take a walk outside where a mosquito doesn't fly into your nose or down your throat.”
    Shungnak boasts one school with 75 to 80 students. The village’s supply of municipal water is pumped from a reservoir which is filled intermittently from the Kobuk River.
    “All of the water for town comes from the Kobuk. It’s just like other water sources and has to be treated with chemicals and filtered,” said Dion Ticket. At 25, Ticket serves as the village water plant manager and was one of the children who were baptized in the Kobuk 15 years ago.
    “We used to have an old filtering system for the water but it got ruined by ice a long time ago,” said Ticket. Attempts at groundwater wells for the community have been unsuccessful.
    Area weather’s relationship with the Kobuk is unpredictable. With the rainy season showing up a month early, issues with flooding pose a threat to native fishing activities.
    “The river is very dangerous if you don't know where to go especially when it’s carrying so much water like it is right now,” said Lawrence Custer, who manages the local store and served as the group’s fishing guide. “There are so many places to take a wrong turn and you could be lost forever."
    “We had a very dry spring," said fellow local Gary Ticket, noting that temperatures in June reached above the century mark. “Things are kinda messed up with the weather right now with an early rain season this month. Right now, the river is too swelled up to fish and we might even have an early winter.”
    “We start moose season in August,” said Custer. “We may have to hunt earlier this year before the cold hits.”
    The village's lone 3,400-foot gravel airstrip is owned by the State of Alaska and is the town's only avenue to the outside world. According to a report by Maniilaq Association, in the summer of 2006, only part of Shungnak's fuel shipment was able to be delivered by barge and the remainder of the village's fuel needs had to be supplied by air.
    The report stated that bringing the fuel in by air resulted in gasoline prices rising to $8.10 per gallon at Shungnak's only filling station in 2006 and 2007. Today, gas runs a little more than $9 per gallon.
    “There's nothing cheap about flying in Alaska,” said bush pilot Dave Rue, who operates a flying outfit out of Fairbanks, some 330 miles from the village. “It’s one of those things that the further you get into it as a career, the more expensive things become,” he said, adding that insurance and maintenance of the aircraft account for the bulk of money spent.
    Rue, who has been flying since 1972, served for a short time as a teacher and principal in nearby Ambler, roughly 40 miles up the Kobuk from Shungnak.
    “People always say they miss civilization when they come to a place like Shungnak, Ambler or Selawick,” Rue said. “My answer is that this place and others like it represent civilization at its absolute finest.”
    From Travis Hendryx:
    I have been traveling to northwest Alaska since 1998, the year I graduated from Sul Ross. A 1994 graduate of Alpine High School, I served six years as sports information specialist at Sul Ross (2004-2010). It was two months following my graduation from college that I made that solo trek to Ambler, Alaska and I vowed after my first journey to never return.
    Sixteen years and nine trips later, this latest venture has been the most satisfying because I had the privilege of seeing college and high school students actively engaging in missions and giving of themselves in the fulfilment of the Great Commission.
    The other blessing, which is no less great, was seeing my 13 year-old nephew, Brice, working with the young children of the village. It was all part of a promise I made to him four years ago that I would take him to Alaska when he turned 13. Of course, back then I had no clue how that was going to happen and feared it was going to turn into an empty promise.
    I was sitting with Dan Dunagan at a Lobo baseball game in February and he told me about a return trip to the Alaskan bush in July that was in the works. I told him it was a fantastic idea but I never gave it a second thought. The last trip I made to Shungnak was 10 years ago, right before I signed on as sports information specialist, and felt it was one of those “been there, done that” scenarios. I told him I’d pray about it, which, if I was honest with myself, was a cowardly way of saying “thanks but not interested.”
    A week or so had passed and Dan approached me again about it but this time there was a twist. An anonymous donor had supplied the funding for a trip for about eight to 10 people. All expenses were paid. It was as if the Lord Himself was giving the green light, which, of course, He was. Then a verse from Scripture came to mind which states “whether you turn to the right or the left, you will hear a voice saying ‘this is the way, walk in it.’”
    As Dan explained to me his need of an experienced hand, someone who had seen the ins and outs of bush life, the entire picture became clearer and I knew this is what I needed to do. Then came the promise I made to Brice. I told Dan I was in but I needed my nephew at my side and this may be the only opportunity he would have to experience a place like the Arctic.
    The rest is history. The Lord supplied every need, kept our group unified, and, most importantly, gave us the honor of making a difference, great or small, in the lives of young people from one of the most remote destinations on the globe.
    Would I go back? God willing, there is always room for sequels.

Members of the Sul Ross Baptist Student Ministry prepare for rafting trip on Nennana River. (From left): Ryan Kubena, Mackenzie Dunagan, Trey Dunagan, Brice Hendryx, Dan Dunagan, Taylor Richey, Taylor Dunagan. (Photos by Travis Hendryx)

Shungnak students (from left) Billy Ticket, Carline Douglas and Ashton Douglas sport Lobo T-shirts.

A view of the Brooks Range and Kobuk River from the deck of the Shungnak Baptist Mission.