Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April Favorites

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The towering redwoods I see from my living room remind me of an ancient age when dinosaurs roamed here. And hiding among the grasses are subtle echoes of even earlier eras: spiders and snails, humble pioneers of life’s experimentation with an existence on land. I recognize them now, as I do myself, as separate strands of life, woven together by time into a tapestry of nature that is connected in the present as well as linked to the past.

--Frans Lanting, from Life: A Journey Through Time

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Lupine Sunrise

Frog in the Moss

End of the Line


Lizard Man

Steep Ravine


Spring Greens

Duskywing & Clover

March Flies

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

An Old Map's Trail

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I don't always stop to photograph wild turkeys when I see them, but every now and then I can't resist, and I've been seeing them a lot lately. Courtship displays started back in November or December, but they are still going on. I have yet to see any turkey chicks, but I imagine there's more than one brood per year. From what I read, a hen might lay nearly a dozen eggs at a time, and they take only 28 days to hatch.

You'd think with that many chicks potentially running around, I couldn't miss seeing them. But I don't believe I ever have. Wild things have their ways.

The jackrabbits are out and acting frisky in all the fresh green grass. I watched two meet up and chase around like squirrels before settling back down to keep an eye on an encroaching photographer.

The big surprise when I got out of the Jeep to photograph the turkeys was how cold it was! I saw the sun shining and went up in short pants. Thankfully I at least had a windbreaker because I believe it was the wind chill that was really getting to me. My fingers were almost numb in minutes, and I was glad to finally get back to the warm Jeep. Even though I knew it was going to be cold out, I still couldn't resist making a stop here for the beautiful light. I'd stop here again on the way home a few hours later and watch several turkeys in a courtship ritual on one of the near ridges. They must never quit.

The gate out to West Ridgecrest was open early, so I headed on out to my trailhead destination. If the gate had been closed, the plan was to check out the trail camera before starting the day's hike. In the end I decided to leave the trail camera alone until next week.

The light was kind of nice as I drove out along Bolinas Ridge, so I kept my eyes peeled for wildlife. These two deer were resting right at the edge between a meadow and the woods, maybe fifty feet apart from each other. The deer below the lichen-crusted branch is a young buck, with very tentative yet velveted antlers. I'm proud to say that I took my pictures and was on my way without either deer rising from its bed.

Despite yesterday's cloudy, rainy weather, or maybe because of it, the air today was clear as a bell. I thought it might even be clear enough to see the newly snow-covered Sierras again, but it was not. Here you can just make out Pt. Reyes' Chimney Rock in the distance. A group of hikers is taking a confab near the center of the frame. The hikers are near the junction of the Coastal Trail and the Willow Camp Fire Trail, which is where I expected to be in a few hours (after beginning my hike a little farther north).

After having no luck spotting bobcats in the nice light, I finally got under way with the hike I'd planned for the day, which was to drop down the McKinnon Trail toward Stinson Beach, then hike south along the bottom of the ridge, pick up the Willow Camp Trail to hike back up to the Coastal Trail and finally get back to the Jeep. The sign at the trailhead said the McKinnon Trail was only 0.12 miles long. But that only gets you as far as a stone bench with a nice view.

I'd never before hiked the route I was attempting today, but I'd been on forays part-way down. So I knew the trail was lightly used and I was not perturbed by the lack of signs beyond the stone bench. My old 1989 Olmsted map shows not just a trail, but a fire road, that leads down the hill. I think you can still see a trace of the old fire road near the top of the hike, but it peters out into a faint trail with little more sign of any passage than a few bobcat and coyotes scats, as well as some deep deer tracks probably made when the ground was soft after a rain.

I was happily surprised to find this weird member of the mustard family growing along the trail. I've never seen this species before, and there were only three plants growing in a small area. I imagined I'd found one of the most rare plants on the entire mountain. I tried to look it up when I got home to no avail. Instead of being the last remaining stronghold of a nearly extinct Mt. Tam endemic, though, it's probably either something that grows in huge fields somewhere else, or it's some sort of Mediterranean weed.

The spotted coral root are still in bloom. I can't remember if I mentioned already that these plants, which lack chlorophyll and do not photosynthesize, get their food by parasitizing fungi. And not just any fungi, but fungi in the Russula family.

Following the trail down past the first meadow and into the woods, you soon run into the old pig fence. Feral pigs used to root around Mt. Tam and were considered to be something of an ecological nightmare. The pigs were chased into the fence, then herded toward waiting riflemen. The only wild pig up here now is the Wild Boar Half Marathon. 

This is not a member of the Russula family and has nothing to fear from parasitic orchids.

I kept looking at my back-trail as I descended what I presumed to be the steep remnant of the McKenna Trail, thinking that I sure didn't want to have to hike back up that way. Here I've recently emerged from the woods into an expansive meadow. You can just make out the trail near the center of the frame. When I finally reached the woods you see farther down the hill, even this modest game trail petered out. To continue would have required bushwhacking down to the cross-trail that would take me south to the Willow Camp Trail junction. Maybe I will try that sometime when I'm not carrying so much camera gear, but on this occasion I decided to turn around and head back up. Sometimes an exploration goes that way. I'm reading a book right now about early polar exploration, and my little trip on Mt. Tam turned out a whole lot better.

The return trip was ridiculously steep but not crazy-difficult. One foot in front of the other, and eventually you get there. I hadn't even paid attention to this chert outcrop on the way down, so I took the opportunity to rest and photograph it on the way back up. I wondered what the explanation is for those layers. I mean, it's pretty obvious there are layers, right? It's not just one continuous slab. These rocks are believed to have formed on the Jurassic seabed. Presumably, the creatures that lived in the oceans died and sank to the bottom. So what's the explanation for the layers? Are they composed of different organisms? And if so, I have follow-up questions!

Finally back at the top of the hill near the trailhead, I take in one last view before heading home. One nice thing about having hiked back up the hill -- I was no longer the least bit cold.

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Friday, April 25, 2014

Ode To A Rainy Day

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It was still pouring rain when I arrived at the trailhead at the end of Lagunitas Road. I normally don't like to do photography in the rain, but in a year in which there's been so little rain it doesn't seem so bad. There are limits to the kinds of things you can reasonably photograph while fumbling with an umbrella, a tripod, and a backpack full of camera gear. It's not like I'm out there in the rain every weekend, so for one day, the trouble was no trouble at all. 

I started off by shooting a few video clips which I turned into the Mt. Tam Blog's first and only video presentation. I don't know why I didn't shoot any video for this project before now. I really wish I'd thought of doing so during February's big flood, although that was an especially pugnacious rain, and I didn't even attempt to bring along my tripod or umbrella. This April rain was a friendly spring shower with very little wind, much easier to contend with.

I've got to thank Jane Huber for suggesting this hike. I'd never been on the Yolanda Trail before, and it is gorgeous! I love how different the various parts of the mountain can be. The west side has Bolinas Ridge and the grassy Coastal Trail; the south side has the sun-drenched chaparral, perhaps the most popular trails, and West Point Inn; the north side is thickly forested with wet meadows, relatively lonely trails, and Cataract Falls; and the east side has a great mix of broadleaf woodlands and soft chaparral, plus the "Lake District."

Coastal sage and flowering California buckeye -- two great scents -- share a beautiful view of Mt. Tam's East Peak along the Yolanda Trail.

From the parking lot, you hike up the Yolanda Trail to reach the Hidden Valley Trail and return via the Shaver Grade fire road, a total trip of about 3.5 miles.

This incredible black oak was in the middle of lovely Hidden Valley. The trail down was so overgrown with yellow broom in one section that I literally couldn't see the trail beneath my feet. Fortunately I was wearing rain pants in addition to carrying an umbrella since passing through the broom was a very wet experience.

The hike back to the Jeep was enjoyable, but it wasn't the kind of trail that held a lot of photo opportunities, especially in the rain. I left the town of Ross, bought some gas near Red Hill, and headed out around the north side of Mt. Tam where I stopped at the Lily Pond and ran into this spotted banana slug on a tree just outside my door.

It's interesting to visit my favorite mountain haunts from year to year and find them different every time. Lily Pond is one of those places. Just because the plants grew a certain way one year, doesn't mean they'll be that way again the following year. Things shift a little or a lot. A fungus sprouts one year on a certain log and maybe never again. The horsetail grows thick as horsehair around the base of a group of young bay laurel one year, but never again. For a few years there are bullfrogs, then none.

But one thing you can sort of count on is the profusion of horsetail in general around the pond. In another month these will be significantly higher. Maybe I'll remember to get back and shoot this viewpoint again.

Meanwhile, in the Lily Pond itself, the non-native yellow lily flowers are coming into bloom. They never open up beyond a bunched-up, fist-shaped ball.

After a brief stop at the Lily Pond I continued to Cataract Creek to check out the lower falls and was happily surprised to find a whole troop of Clintonia andrewsiana along the trail.

I've been inspired by the bases of trees lately. Not sure why, but these mossy bay laurel trunks seemed striking to me, surrounded by sword ferns.

I also found a nice little patch of five-finger ferns, which remind me a little of maidenhair ferns.

Speaking of places that change, I had planned to photograph one of my favorite waterfall sections of Cataract Creek, but a number of trees had fallen into it! I have a waterfall in this section hanging on my wall at home, and it would be impossible now -- short of bringing in a chainsaw -- to reproduce it. Some logs get washed out. Others tumble in. With so many people photographing these waterfalls over many years, you could figure out the date range of the images by what sorts of tree-falls were jammed into the rocks.

I'm not sure why such things interest me. Of course things change. Everybody knows that. Still, there's something about experiencing the change for oneself that is profound.

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Cataract Creek

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The other day I got an email notice from the library that my request for Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Living With A Wild God, was ready for pick-up. I didn't start reading until early that afternoon, but I'd finished it by early evening. I love a book like this.

"Like this" means a personal account by a modern, rational person of their own first-hand experience of the transpersonal, the mystical, the holy. My "hero" in this regard is Joseph Campbell (of course!) who best puts the individual experience into its universally human context.

Because the myth of scientific explanation is so powerful today -- the myth that only rational knowledge has value -- I especially liked how Ms. Ehrenreich worked her way through the possibility that religious experiences are reducible to something like electro-chemical brain farts. 

I also liked how Ms. Ehrenreich's experience occurred in the Eastern Sierra, during an unplanned trip to Death Valley, and that even though it came while she was not yet an adult, she protected it -- without consciously knowing why -- until she needed it much later in her life. A hurricane in the Florida Keys might have wiped it out. But it didn't.

Speaking of needing something later, I was wondering what the big water tank at Rock Spring is used for. It appears to be full, judging by the leak springing forth from a fitting near the top of the tank. [Turns out it’s a 20,000-gallon “fire hydrant.”]

I don't believe I've ever seen so many iris on and around Mt. Tam as I have this year. Ditto for Amanita pantherina mushrooms. It's almost the only mushroom species I notice some days, and other years have passed where I don't recall seeing a single one. 

We had an interesting year, weatherwise, and it would probably be imprudent to believe there's no connection between the unusual weather and nature's unusual reaction. If only I had a few hundred years of circumannuations to review.

I was prepared to find that Cataract Creek was no longer flowing today, but it's still moving, gently, even high on the mountain.

I hiked down past Laurel Dell to the topmost drop of Cataract Falls. The pit toilets at Laurel Dell are broken, as evidenced by the "Out of Order" signs on the doors, and by the dozens of little piles of toilet paper behind the structure.

Cataract Falls in the second half of April. Not bad for a drought year.

I had once again forgotten my water bottle, and although I had loaded up on coffee and guzzled from a gallon jug of water before leaving the Jeep at Rock Spring, I was a little thirsty when I headed back up the trail and was making good time, stretching my legs toward home, when I spotted this caterpillar dangling in mid-air. 

On my "Return to Rocky Ridge" hike, I'd drunk creek water (or "wild" water, as I like to call it), half-wondering if I'd experience the dreaded giardia a few days later while camping at Steep Ravine. I know clean water can mean the difference between a healthy community and an afflicted one, but I can't help wondering if the water-purifier companies have made us unduly afraid of wild water. Water filters occupy the same space in my mind as bike helmets. I got by without them for so many years that I simultaneously hold them in suspicion while almost always choosing to use them.

Anyway, back to the caterpillar, which was dropping from a tree branch high above, length-by-length, along a silken thread of its own making. I realized it was moving too fast to get my camera out, the lens changed, the correct ISO set, before it would reach the ground. 

So I snagged the thread in my hands and let the insect drop onto the side of this fallen tree. I figured it was falling head-first, its thread emerging from its hind-quarters, but it was the other way around, falling tail-first. It remained motionless for a while after reaching the ground, presumably gathering back its strength, before turning to and setting off into the unknown. I watched the inch-long insect for some time as it moved, peristaltically, both left and right, before settling on a trajectory toward the west, along a slight incline, toward the uphill end of the log. 

To what end, I wondered. To feed some more? Then why come out of a tree full of tasty leaves? To find someplace to form a chrysalis and metamorphize into a creature that can fly? Then why drop to the earth? Alas, my curiosity about its intention wasn't strong enough to continue watching for long.

I eventually left the caterpillar to its own devices and returned to the Jeep, slaked my thirst, and drove out along Bolinas Ridge, just to take in the view. As I was heading toward a vista point with just my binoculars and no camera, I almost stepped on a gopher snake stretched out across the trail. I turned and jogged back to the Jeep to get my camera and almost stepped on it again when I returned. Very good camouflage! 

The snake was very clean and shiny. Maybe it had recently shed its old skin to begin life anew. Heck, snakes do it all the time. Why can't we?

May the irrational, but no less real, spirit of renewal fill all your water jars to an overflowing refreshment on this mystical, mythical, holy day -- a day, in the end, like all others.

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