Summer’s winding down here in Northern California. Soon we will be in the rainy season. Six months of dry weather followed by six months of potential wetness. Every year’s the same. This Mediterranean climate is a boon for flora and fauna. So much inspiration for my art is here. My spirit soars and my legs take flight. I like it here. I like it a lot!
Ubiquitous graffiti — If you look hard enough, you will find some. Just off Cabrillo Highway, where Pigeon Point Road begins, a narrow footpath leads down to the sea. Here, an unexpected find: graffiti by a tunnel under the road.
Fiery Agen-Dax blooms surround bikes that earlier/ sailed over cobblestones in stage three Orchies/making me think of mammoth Russians grown from a previous years’ seedpod/eaten by cloven hoofed fiends/Sunrise blooms now on cream colored windowsills.
I spent most of yesterday (okay, 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.) removing invasives by a pond at Driscoll Ranch, one of the Mid-Peninsula Regional Open Space District’s preserves. Ooooh, there were lots of red winged blackbirds darting about as we made the ascent up over the hills. (A four-wheel drive was necessary!) Numerous cows lazed about near the large drinking hole (an enormous man-made pond fed by underground springs) while deer watched our caravan of three pass by.
No Sugar Cane Here
Down by our little pond (a small man-made one, fed by a trickle from the mountain above), there were polliwogs galore! Seeing them took me back to my childhood in Jamaica, to a year spent playing by the gullies that irrigated the cane fields. These gullies were a treasure trove of tikki tikkis (baby fish) and polliwogs. A little girl and boy, could and did, lay side by side on the banks of the gullies catching tikki tikkis and tadpoles, then releasing them back into the water. When we got tired we’d watch clouds drift overhead as we chewed on freshly broken cane.
There is no cane growing at Driscoll Ranch but just as on the plains in Jamaica, the mountain heat here is unforgiving. One of the nearby ponds had completely dried up leaving behind a landscape scarred by fissures. Any polliwogs remaining in that environment are all dead by now. Hopefully, the adult frogs were able to make it to a pond filled with water like this one.
Saving the California Red-Legged Frog
Most of the tadpoles here are the babies of the rare California red-legged frog. They are the reason my fellow volunteers and I were breaking our backs under an exceedingly hot sun, to remove invasive plants and restore this riparian habitat. How did the slaves do it? How did they work from sun up to sun down, seven days a week? Some of us were on the brink of heat stroke yesterday, and we didn’t even put in a full day’s work! With my volunteer work done at around 2:30 p.m., I headed down to the beach to enjoy the rest of the afternoon.
(Note: Driscoll Ranch – near the town of La Honda – is not yet open to the public.)
Pomponio State Beach
Where: On the San Mateo Coast (a few miles from the towns of San Gregorio and Pescadero)
Notes about Pomponio
Pomponio State Park is a refuge for the: barn swallow, blue heron and kite; and deer, fox, racoon, skunk and weasel.
The park is named after Jose Pomponio Lupugeym, a Coast Miwok who fought against Mexican rule and the Mission system. He was captain of a group of outlaws called Los Insurgentes. Pomponio died before a firing squad in 1824. (California was under Mexican rule then and Pomponio, along with many other First Peoples, was forced into the Mission system.)
You can connect to Pescadero State Beach on the south and San Gregorio State Beach on the north from Pomponio. Only do so during low-tide; it is extremely dangerous at other times.
I learned this interesting fact as I started doing research for my trip to Yellowstone National Park: The Yellowstone River is the only river in the contiguous United States that is not damned. The 692-miles long river rises in Wyoming on the Continental Divide, flows through Yellowstone National Park, runs northwards into Montana and finally flows into the Missouri River near Buford, North Dakota.
The River, a tributary of the Missouri, is known for its trout fishing. One of its forks was a favorite fishing spot of author, Ernest Hemingway. In 2011, an oil pipeline belonging to ExxonMobile ruptured in the river. Only with the passing of time will we understand the extent of the damage. No matter where in the world we are, we seem to manage to despoil our rivers.
Unlike the Yellowstone River which I only recently started learning about, I am quite familiar with the Hudson River. The Hudson was the site of many environmental studies and environmental activism during many of the years that I lived in New York. Along with the Long Island Sound, the river had been under severe stress. The details below are an apt description of the Hudson of the 1970s and ’80s, and perhaps, of the ’90s too:
“New York City was dumping 1.5 billion gallons per day of raw sewage into the River, the paint from Tarrytown’s GM plant dyed the River a new color each week, the Indian Point power plant was killing millions of fish each day, the National Guard was filling tidal wetlands at Camp Smith, and Penn Central Railroad was discharging oil from a pipe at the Croton Rail Yard. The oil floated up the Croton on the tide, blackening the beaches and making the shad taste of diesel.”
Man, business and government were killing the river. Today the Hudson has rebounded, thanks in part to a Riverkeeper boat that patrols the river in an effort to protect it from environmental lawbreakers. But other problems like the introduction of non-native invasive species (example, water chestnut and zebra mussels) have altered and impacted the aquatic animal populations. What will the river look like in ten years, fifty years, from now?
The Mississippi River on Exhibit
If you ever read the adventures of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, you will recall that one of the biggest stars in both books is the Mississippi River. Just like the Morant and Yallhas Rivers in Jamaica (See The River Road, Part One), the Mississippi held a special place in my childhood fantasies. I read and re-read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and pretended that my local river was the Mississippi upon which steamboats ran and adventures were to be had. Now my old friend is on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum.
In an exhibition that runs until June 2013, photographer, Richard Misrach brings the Mississippi River to life in a way that is far different from Mark Twain’s version of it. Though invisible in some of the photographs, the river is still very much a presence in each of the twenty-one images. The larger than life scale of the photographs (each is about five or six feet high), makes it unlikely that the viewer will soon forget the subject matter. The title of the show? “Revisiting the South: Cancer Alley.”
Cancer Alley is an eighty-five mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Baton Rouge through to New Orleans. There are innumerable industrial plants there. All are drawn to the region because of favorable taxation policies. The first photograph that the visitor encounters upon entering the gallery is to the immediate right. The photograph is striking for two reasons: First, there is an ethereal light beyond which the viewer cannot see and so, cannot imagine what it is that the woman in the photograph is looking at. The second striking thing about the photograph is that the lady doesn’t seem to belong inside this house. Is she standing in a museum looking outwards? Is she the owner of the house or merely a visitor? As you move closer to the photograph you learn from the wall tag that she is a tour guide. The plaque reads, “Tour Guide, Nottoway Plantation, White Castle, Louisiana, 1998.”
Today’s Nottoway is a tourist destination. In yesteryears, it was a slave plantation. Not so long ago, this woman would have been a slave in this place. She may have been in the fields or she may have been in the house but either way, she wouldn’t have had time to stand around, looking out windows.
This show makes me Jim, the runaway slave (in Huck Finn) kind of sad. Today there is destruction of communities, the river and the environment. The entire show is dressed in poverty, destruction and degradation. In Huck Finn there was hope — hope that Jim would be free, hope that he wouldn’t get sold down river, hope that he and Huck would remain on the island in the river, happy and undetected. If you read the book as a child, you know all about hoping, hoping, hoping, against all odds. Today, after viewing the show, I hope that the:
Mississippi River, poisoned and polluted as it is, will make a comeback
people, like the woman in the photograph, will be able to continue living there
petro-chemical factories that pollute the area be forced to stop degrading the environment and everything connected to the River (including the nearby communities)
cancer rates in the area will subside/lessen
As is the case of the pollution of the Yellowstone River, only with time, will one have answers to these questions.
I’ve been around rivers all my life. In the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, a river ran behind our house and also across the street. It could have been two different rivers or maybe it was one river and the Jamaica Public Works Department interfered with it by running a road across it. I don’t know. Since we lived about twenty miles upriver in the same direction as Serge Island, I would guess that the river of my early memories is the Morant River. Later on, when we moved further down towards the sea, I again encountered rivers, including the one that emptied out into the Caribbean about a mile or two from my first school. That too, may have been the Morant River. I don’t know.
As a small child, I took all these rivers for granted. They were constant companions to play in, get stranded on boulders in, watch from the upstairs rooms of our house, and follow as we drove down the valley to places like Serge Island, Trinityville and Morant Bay. On longer drives, as we made our way down winding mountain roads to Kingston or towards Golden Grove in Portland, we drove past children splashing about as their mothers, aunts and grandmothers washed and dried clothes by the river banks. Always of interest, were the lambs, new arrivals to the kingdom of god, dressed in their flowing white robes and tightly wound turbans. Dipped into the river, they were born anew and welcomed into the fold of believers. There was the occasional Rastaman, bathing and shaking his locks dry, and there was also me, a small girl, skipping over rocks, collecting “beads” from river grasses, following the river to its end by Lyssons Beach. I didn’t realize it then but these things were all my special friends.
Plantain Garden River
My all time favorite river in our home parish was the Plantain Garden River. I loved its name and I reveled in the names of the communities through which it ran. Most of all, I loved that it “walked its own walk,” refusing to run in the same direction that the other rivers on the island did. This river, the Plantain Garden, runs through communities with names like Ginger Hall, Airy Castle and Sunny Hill. Whereas all the other rivers in Jamaica (nearly one hundred of them) flow north or south, my idol flows eastwards. I am sure there is some geographical reason for this but for me, it is its difference that makes it memorable.
The parish of St.Thomas is filled with rivers. These include the Clock and Roaring rivers, both of which meet the Plantain Garden River in the district of Ginger Hall. As memorable as the Plantain Garden may be, it is the Yallahs River that is most striking. Just about every year this river floods its banks, rages across the land making roads impassable and in some cases, makes lives unbearable and unlivable. During floods and hurricane season, it cuts country off from town and vice versa. It surges in a mad rush, taking crops, livestock, homes and humans with it.
Yallahs is a heavily mined river. It is valued by the construction industry for its sand and river rocks. It is also valuable to the National Water Commission (NWC). The primary provider of potable water in Jamaica, the NWC designed the Yallahs Pipeline Scheme to divert an estimated average annual yield of 16.4 million imperial gallons of water per day from the Yallahs River. This water is channeled into the Mona Reservoir, a large concrete dam that serves the semi-metropolitan area of St. Andrew. In some ways this undertaking is similar to the construction of California’s Hetch Hetchy Dam and the diversion of water from the Sierras to the San Francisco Bay area. In both cases, the corporate area gathers water at the expense of the countryside. To learn more about the Blue Mountain Multi-Purpose Project of 1980 and its possible ecological impacts, access the Ministry of Mining and Natural Resources of the Government of Jamaica’s special report here: <http://www.pcj.com/dnn/Portals/0/Documents/SWECO%20PREINVESTMENT%20B3.PDF>
~Please stay tuned for next week’s, “The RiverRoad” part two.~
What are Elephant Seals? We are deep sea divers and long distance travelers. We fast for long periods of time while on land. Our food sources, skates and squids, small sharks and other seafood are so far away – thousands upon thousands of miles – that once we arrive on land, we have to wait a very long time before eating again.
Northern and Southern Elephant Seals
There are two types of elephant seals: the northern (found along the Pacific islands and coasts of Mexico and California); and the southern (found along the Atlantic islands and coasts of Patagonia, Chile, Tierra del Fuego, et al). This article is only about the Northern elephant seal.
Northern Elephant Seals
Northern elephant seals spend most of their time in the ocean, coming ashore twice each year, once to mate, breed and give birth, and the other time to molt (shed and grow new skin/fur). Between the molting and breeding seasons, the northern elephant seal is at sea for six to eight months, swimming, diving and feeding. Incredibly, they remain submerged for nearly ninety percent of their time in the ocean, surfacing a mere two to four minutes during dives.
Season Change at Ano Nuevo
Now that the breeding/mating/birthing season is over, so too are the guided hikes at Ano Nuevo. That means pretty soon we will be entering the roving season. This is when the public can access areas that up to two weeks ago, were only accessible by guided hikes (led by volunteer naturalists like me). The roving season will be less hectic, more laid back and so, I am hoping to do some sketching and painting while volunteering out by the coast.
During the breeding season (December to March), many of the adult males (the alphas, for sure) are on the beach for about 100 days without food. The mature females are on land for about five weeks. The females who are coming in pregnant during the breeding season give birth within 4-5 days of arrival. They nurse their pup for about 24-28 days, mate during the last 3-5 days of nursing and then head back into the ocean to find food to eat.
Elephant Seal Pups
Elephant seal pups weigh about 70 pounds at birth. They quadruple their birth weight while nursing, but lose about 1/3 of that weight during the weaning period. The common belief is that the mom weans her pup, leaves it all alone and it then has to figure out how to survive. The mom in me thinks this cannot be! Momma elephant seal, while nursing her baby is saying things, teaching him/her how to survive and us dumb humans don’t even realize it. That is what I think. I watch mom and pup bonding during those 28 days before weaning occurs and I imagine mom passing on the following tidbits: “Baby, you see that far side of the island over there? Don’t stray there, my love. There are these pretty white sharks who are just waiting to greet and eat my plump little baby. Steer clear my love. Swim in the open. Swim toward the deep my love. Head in that direction over there. If you pay attention to what I’m saying, you’ll be just fine. Good luck my baby. I love you.” That is what I think the mom is telling her baby all the while that she is nursing him or her.
Incredible Divers and Swimmers
Elephant seals dive as deep as 2,000 t o 5,000 feet for food. The average dive lasts about 20 minutes, but they can dive for an hour or more. They resurface for 2-4 minutes and continue this diving pattern 24 hours a day! The females eat mostly squid; the males eat small sharks, rays and bottom-dwelling fish.
The male elephant seals from Ano Nuevo typically travel 5,000 miles round trip, towards the Aleutians where they feed along the Continental Shelf. They make this trip twice per year. The female elephant seal travels a shorter distance, about 3,000 miles along the Northeast Pacific, in the direction of Hawaii. She too, makes this trip twice per year.
The northern elephant seal was hunted to near extinction for their blubber. By the early 19o0s, only a small group of between 20-100 managed to survive the hunts. Protected first by Mexico (where this small group was found) and later by the United States (as they multiplied and expanded their range), the elephant seals have managed to multiply and increase their population. Today’s population is estimated to be around 175,000 to 185,000 seals. All of them are from the bottleneck, the same gene pool, that was discovered on Guadalupe Island, Mexico, a little over 100 years ago. Researchers at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), are tracking and building a database on the movement and habits of the Ano Nuevo population of elephant seals. With each year comes new revelations. For a brief overview of the work being done on elephant seals by the UCSC, visit their site at http://news.ucsc.edu/2012/05/elephant-seals.html.
The adult females can weigh up to around 1,700 pounds and the males, up to around 5,000 pounds. The mature male has a bulbous appendage for a nose. It is called a proboscis. He uses it to honk and to assert dominance. For more interesting facts about the northern elephant seal, visit the National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s site at:
Photo credit for the male juvenile elephant seal at the top of the post belongs to The Marine Mammal Center. You can see his proboscis is just barely starting to form. Only the males of the specie grow this nose and it seems to serve no other purpose except for asserting dominance, which is crucial in the breeding season. (Not all males get a chance to mate.)
I took the second photograph of a colony of what is mostly young pups, at Ano Nuevo State Park, two weeks ago. The seals in this photograph will be heading out to the ocean soon. They will have many challenges along the way, including figuring out where to go, what to eat, and how to avoid predators like the great white sharks that lay in wait not too far from where they are now. The mortality rate for young elephant seals is extremely high. Only about twenty six percent of them make it to age two. Some of the young die at the rookery but the majority of deaths occur at sea. For more details on elephant seals’ mortality rate, see the UCS”s 1971-78 Ano Nuevo study at:
Where: Pescadero, CA (25 miles south of Half Moon Bay, and 35 miles north of Santa Cruz)
Note: The Calypso Orchid blooms only in the spring. It tends to bloom from the middle to the end of March in Butano State Park, Pescadero.
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Seen last weekend at Butano State Park, the tiny Calypso Orchid (also called Fairy Slippers). When John Muir came across these rare plants in the 1890s he wrote:
“I never before saw a plant so full of life, so perfectly spiritual, it seemed pure enough for the throne of its Creator.”
Calypso bulbosa, you are beautiful but you failed to bowl me over. Perhaps it was the idea of finding you, rare as you are, that colored Muir’s reaction. Look! You are barely visible, hiding as you are in the underbrush on the forest floor.
Butano State Park
Sitting in a redwood filled canyon in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Butano is one of the lesser known parks in the California State Parks system. It is located three to four miles from the San Mateo Coast and offers the hiker over seventeen miles of uphill and downhill trails. If you wish to get a good view of the ocean from inside the park, hike the Mill Ox loop. You won’t be disappointed (unless the coast is blanketed in fog). The campgrounds, closed when I visited, are open from April through November. There are also guided nature walks and weekend programs at the campfire center during the summer.
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ACTIVITIES: Hike, camp, dog walking (dogs are only allowed on the paved roads and in campsites; they should be leashed at all times)
REGION: off the San Mateo Coast
HOURS: Day use area from 8:00 a.m. to sunset; overnight camping
COST: $10 day use fee; $35 overnight camping fee (Book reservations via reserveamerica.com or by calling 800-444-7275. Dogs are allowed at the campground but not on the trails.)
LOCATION/VENUE:Butano State Park, 1500 Cloverdale Road, Pescadero, CA 94060 Phone: (650) 879-2040
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Sensuous Kalypsoblissfully isolatedbeneath giantsroots skirting,writhing, touchinguntil lovingly you emitjust one single bloombefore withering,dying, fallingbackwardsinto self.
Where: Danville, CA (approximately 31 miles east of San Francisco)
Note: This property can only be accessed on foot or by a National Park Service shuttle.
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Take a leisurely hike through the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. Follow either the Williams or Madrone Trail to where they junction at a fire road leading to the back of Eugene O’Neill’s old property. Enter the gate and walk past the final resting place of Blemie, O’Neill’s elderly Dalmatian.
The residence, Tao House, sits on a one-hundred-and-fifty-eight acre property that was once part of the Rancho San Ramon Mexican land grant. Many of the almond and walnut trees that Eugene and Carlotta O’Neill planted are still here. Except for Saturdays, entrance to this National Historic Site is by reservation only.
A black gate (pictured above) leading to the courtyard is decorated with four Taoist characters, Dao, Da, Bie, and Shu. Navigate the zigzag path directly beyond to arrive at the house’s main entryway. Inside the first floor guest room are two wall murals titled, The Mountains of Mist. Although they are representative of the Chinese countryside, they also remind me of the California mountains — Las Trampas Ridge and Mount Diablo — both visible from either side of the property.
LOCATION/VENUE: National Park Service, Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site, 1000 Kuss Road, Danville, CA 94526 Phone: (925) 838-0249
DIRECTIONS: Hiking: 5.9 miles (moderate, 3 hour hike) through the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. Start your hike at the west end of Hemme Avenue in Danville. Take the Ringtail Cat and Madrone Trails to Tao House. Enter through the back gate near the barn.
TIP: If you visit in the late spring – early to mid-May – be sure to catch one of the plays being hosted in The Old Barn/Playwrights’ Theatre. The 2012 lineup included a recently discovered one-act play, Exorcism, that was thought to have been destroyed by the author in 1920. It is based on O’Neill’s 1913 suicide attempt. Don’t forget to get a first hand look at the replica of O’Neill’s 1936 Nobel Prize before you leave. It is the only Nobel Prize to have been awarded to an American playwright. See the National Park Service’s Web site, http://www.nps.gov/euon, for more information on arranging a visit to Tao House, the home where O’Neill penned his final plays, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Iceman Cometh, and A Moon for the Misbegotten.
I finally made it to Big Basin up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The visitor center, also known as Sempervirens Room, is in Boulder Creek, California. To get down to the seaside on foot, you start your hike at that section of the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail near the visitor’s center. It is twelve and a half miles, one way, down to Waddell Creek Beach.
Since I arrived at the park in the late afternoon, I did not attempt to hike the twenty-five miles round-trip from mountains to beach. I opted instead for two shorter hikes, the Redwood Loop, and a self-made route that criss-crossed three different trails. I plan to do the twenty-five miles round trip before the summer arrives in the Bay Area. An additional treat will be to camp overnight at Big or Little Basin.
From Bonny Doon to Fairy Circles
The drive up into the mountains from Highway One is spectacular. Up past Bonnie Doon and a few other towns I went. Further up into the mountains I passed the Ben Lomond Youth Conservation Camp, a monastery, and Little Basin, finally arriving at Big Basin.
There are some magnificent stands of redwoods in this park; some of them are surrounded by fairy circles. If you hike the Redwood Loop Trail you will find some of these circles near the fallen, older trees from which they sprang.
Father and Mother of the Forest
Some of the old growth redwoods have been given quaint names like Father of the Forest (he is 250 feet high) and Mother of the Forest (she is 329 feet high) because they feature what, to those who named them, male and female parts. These trees and others, are on the Redwood Loop Trail, the easiest and shortest of the trails here. It is a mere half-of a mile long and passes by Opal Creek where you will find a beautiful stand of tan oaks along the bank of the creek.
This drive to Big Basin is my third encounter with a conservation camp. The first time I came across one was near a forest between San Diego and Los Angeles. The second time, I was in the Sierras, heading to Yosemite. The words, “conservation camp”, makes me think of “concentration camps”. I did some research, expecting to find that the former are places where people learn how to protect the environment. Instead, it turns out that this is just a fancy name for prison or correctional facility. I don’t know why California doesn’t just call them by their real names. Why the double speak? They are listed right there on the California Correctional and Rehabilitation (Prison) Web site!
Big Basin, designated a park since 1902, is the oldest state park in the United States. That distinction used to belong to Yosemite, at least until it became a federal/national park. Big Basin covers more than 18,000 acres from sea to mountains. Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, Big Basin launched the state park movement in California. Its biggest attraction is a rare stand of ancient coast redwoods that are among the tallest and oldest trees on earth. These include the Mother and Father of the Forest, both of which are anywhere from 1,000-2,000 years old. See my Sequoia National Park article to learn more about some of earth’s giant trees and ancient forest.
Coast redwoods are native to the United States and grow only along the coast from southern Oregon to Central California. They are part of an ancient forest of which less than five percent remains. To meet the demands of the gold rush and urban development we logged the forest and these trees to near extinction. Long gone from the forest are the Quiroste and Cotoni peoples who once made this area their home. Look carefully when you hike some of the Big Basin trails and you will see evidence of their having once been here: The grinding rocks where their ancestors pounded acorns into flour still remain here and in other parks. Some of these grinding stones are also in several Mid Peninsula Regional Open Space Parks along Skyline Boulevard. I’ve seen them at Russian Ridge and over near Alpine Lake too.
Civilian Conservation Corps
As part of his New Deal to lift America out of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a civilian conservation corps of men to work the land and help lift America out of its poverty. The CCC as it became known, helped to develop America’s state and national parks. They built many of the buildings, trails and general infrastructure at parks like Big Basin and Yosemite. The amphitheater and the rows of redwood seats pictured here, were built by the corp. They are a perfect complement to the landscape in which they sit.
More recently (in the 1970s), the endangered bird species, the Marbled Murrelet, was discovered in Big Basin. It was the last bird species in the United States to have its nesting site discovered.
For more than a century early ornithologists searched in vain for the elusive murrelet nest. Quite by accident, a ranger at Big Basin discovered it high in the top of an old growth redwood. This bird flies in from the ocean, about forty-miles away from its feeding “ground”, to make its nest in the old growth redwoods. If we lose our old growth trees, we will most likely lose the Marbeled Murrelet. When you visit Big Basin, stop by the museum near the gift shop to learn more about this bird and what you can do to protect it from other birds when you are there.
For additional information on the Ben Lomond Conservation Camp, Big Basin, and the Marbeled Murrelet, visit the following sites: