Sunday, February 23, 2014

Game of Thrones

* * *

I hadn't planned to get up so early, but since I'd actually woken up around two in the morning I decided to finally roll out of bed around 4:30. Plenty of time for a leisurely breakfast and a drive up along the western flank of Mt. Tam to photograph sea stacks along the coast.

I'd noticed this stretch of rocky coast during a couple of recent drives south from Stinson Beach. The light wasn't very good either time, being around mid-day, so I made a mental note to return for a sunrise foray. 

I would have wished for a more interesting sky, but at least the scene was clear of fog. (A day later -- today, Sunday -- the fog is back.) The two peaks in the distance are Mount Davidson and San Bruno Mountain.

Although I'd noticed the stretch of coast during drives south, I figured I could easily find it driving north as well. And I might have, if it hadn't been dark! By the time I reached Steep Ravine I knew I'd overshot my mark. Turning around to head south, I still had a little trouble finding the spot. 

There are actually two good locations. The shot at the top was taken from the southernmost point with a 300mm lens. The next shot (and the fishing boat) was taken from the next point north, using a 105mm.

After the sunrise I headed up the hill, reaching Pantoll gate at about five past seven, just after opening time. Although the gate was open, the poppies remained closed, awaiting the warmth of the sun.

I stopped at a pull-out to take in the gorgeous view and was drawn down onto the steep hillside by fresh California poppies. By the time I headed back down the mountain at the end of my trip (around 11:30 a.m.), the poppies had all opened up to a bright, sunny day.

Also growing on the steep hillside were some wild cucumber plants.

You can see the prickly cuke getting started here. Its elongate shape makes me lean towards M. oregonensis rather than the usual M. fabaceus that produces the spiky globes.

This was part of the view from the pull-out, a line of dense fog on the horizon. The morning light was so beautiful on the mountain that I wanted to remain in the moment forever. Pure bliss. But I had other things to do . . . which reminds me of a funny passage in Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces

"The dreadful mutilations are then seen as shadows, only, of an immanent, imperishable eternity; time yields to glory; and the world sings with the prodigious, angelic, but perhaps finally monotonous, siren music of the spheres."

I parked at Rock Spring and walked out along the Simmons Trail where I spotted a few shooting stars in a shaded spot at the edge of the woods.

Out in the sunshine I found California lilac in bloom. I believe this particular plant, with its spiky leaves, is called musk brush, Ceanothus jepsonii.

I'd mosied out into the chaparral where the Ceanothus and serpentine play while looking for a new location for the trail camera (which has been sitting uselessly at home the past couple of weeks). I found a bare rock near a trail junction that had a couple of huge bobcat scats on it. I'd love to have aimed the camera at that junction, but I wasn't sure I could conceal it from passing hikers.

I was in an area off the main trails, so I would guess that a week could go by when no one would use the trail, but in the end I decided not to risk it. I don't lock my trail camera, in part because the lock itself would detract from its camouflage, but also in part because I like the challenge of placing the camera in a way that it remains unseen by hikers.

By the time I was out here among the manzanita and Sargent cypress, the game was no longer to find a camera-trapping spot, but to find . . . the throne!

I first found the throne back in the days when I wandered off-trail at every opportunity. Mt. Tam is so criss-crossed with trails, some maintained, others made by hikers taking shortcuts, and others made and used mostly by animals. Whenever I encountered one of these side trails I would go exploring to see where it went.

And one day it went to a throne. It's in such a funny spot and is surrounded by such a web of trails, both human and critter, that it can be a game just to find it.

The royal view.

I'd won the game of thrones but still needed to find a place to put the trail camera. I wanted to put it on the edge of a meadow area, so I kept my eyes peeled as I walked back to Rock Spring. The camera's out there now, hopefully recording passing bobcats and other charismatic critters.

One charismatic critter I stopped to photograph on the way back was this sedge. The fuzzy white stalk is the female flower. The male flower hasn't opened up yet. I believe this is Carex nudata, or torrent sedge. It grows in a very wet place adjacent to the Cataract Trail that usually has such a little trickle of water running through it, and is so festooned with sedge, stinging nettle and giant chain fern, that you can't actually see any water.

But when it's stormy, as it was just a couple of weeks ago, the little trickle becomes a torrent.

* * *

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Walking Cataract Creek

* * *

It was so cloudy when I looked out the window this morning that I couldn't even see the full moon. I didn't expect there to be much, if any, color for sunrise, but I decided to get out of bed anyway and try to reach Cataract Falls nice and early.


What little color there was quickly faded, and right about sunrise a fog bank started to blow in from the coast. It obscured all but the upper edge of the mountain, leaving a beautiful outline. Sunrise was 6:59 this morning, meaning it's no longer possible to drive up to East Peak for sunrise photography since the Pantoll gate doesn't open until 7 a.m.

Alpine Lake was a lot fuller than the last time I saw it (Jan. 20). It's still not quite full, but at least the mudflats are gone. If I were to stand today in the same spot I stood on Jan. 20, I'd be very much underwater. 

My plan for the morning was to hike from Alpine Lake to Cataract Falls. The water district road and trail crews must have had a busy week. A bay laurel had fallen onto the first bridge you cross going up Cataract Trail, but the tree had already been cut up and the demolished bridge railings already replaced. There was sign of other tree falls and mudslides along Fairfax-Bolinas Road, but it was completely cleaned up this morning.

I really wanted to concentrate on photographing the waterfalls, but I couldn't resist this little mycena. It looked perfect until I put on my glasses and saw that a chunk was missing, so I snapped a photo and continued on my way. Had it really been perfect, I'd have spent more time. I told myself I'd allow digressions from the quest for waterfalls on the return trip, knowing I'd probably be too worn out to care by then.

The trailside view of one of the first major waterfalls is partly obliterated by an encroaching bay laurel tree.

Just a little higher up the canyon I arrived at probably the most picturesque and often-photographed set of waterfalls.

I stitched a few vertical images to make one large horizontal image that I had to downsize to bring it to 24x36 inches.

For those of you who are familiar with this little waterfall at the junction of Cataract Trail and the Helen Markt Trail, can you tell what's missing?

Compare it with this view from four years ago.

Last week's flood finally dislodged the log that an earlier flood stuck in the middle of the waterfalls many years ago.

There's always stuff being hurtled down the canyon. I never liked the log in that previous waterfall, but I kind of like this one. It makes a nice line in an otherwise difficult waterfall to photograph. It's difficult because you can't really shoot it straight on, and it has a tendency to look askew when photographed from the side.

This is Cataract Falls. Hard to believe, but just last week it looked like this. The split rock that you see in last week's image near the center right of the deluge is almost dead-center in this image. Last week, almost everything but that rock and the trees was completely submerged.

I actually did make a couple of stops for "ancillary" waterfalls on my way back down.

This is hardly an ancillary waterfall, but I didn't appreciate this sweet little grotto until I got off the trail and checked it out more closely.

Right behind me was a gorgeous patch of lush northside forest.

I'd seen the scarlet cup fungus on my way up and managed to find it again on the way back down. I'd had the canyon to myself for most of the morning, but by now I was sharing the place with quite a few runners, hikers, dogs, and people milling around holding cardboard coffee cups close to their lips. I can't really do nature photography when there's any kind of hustle and bustle around me, so my camera stayed in the bag from the cup fungus on down.

* * *

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Drought? What drought?

* * *

I know the drought's not really extinguished, but this weekend's rains must have put a pretty good dent in it.

My first stop this morning was Muir Beach. I wanted to see if Redwood Creek had blasted through the sand bar yet so the salmon could make their connections from the ocean. I could see from the hill as I came down past Green Gulch that the creek was in fact flowing to the sea. 

At the parking lot I waited inside the warm and dry Jeep, snapping the photo above through the windshield, but the rain kept coming. I sipped from my tall mug of hot water -- I'd put in the water and the sweetener but forgot to add the instant coffee. I'd spend several hours traipsing around the mountain without ever feeling quite awake because of that little slip-up.... I also realized once I was at Muir Beach that I'd forgotten my tripod. I've forgotten the coffee once before, but forgetting my tripod was a first.


Ordinarily I wouldn't go out in the rain to do photography, but winter's first rain -- and such a heavy rain -- made for special circumstances.

The rain did not let up for even two minutes the whole time I was out there. Every photo in today's post was shot from beneath a large golf umbrella. My last umbrella fell apart, so I bought a new one a few months ago in anticipation of the rainy season. Today was the first day I actually used it.

From Muir Beach I drove along Redwood Creek, heading upstream toward Muir Woods. The scene above is where the Dipsea Trail crosses the creek. I was going to wander into Muir Woods but it wasn't free today, so I headed up to Rock Spring instead.

There were waterfalls in places I'd never seen them before, like this spot between Pantoll and Rock Spring.

Surprisingly, I did not have the mountain to myself. There were actually quite a few hikers taking in the season's first big rain. And it wasn't just a big rain. It was really big! Here, the top of the Cataract Trail is completely washed out -- and this is very near the headwaters of the trail, where the volume of runoff is relatively light.

The moss is digging all the moisture.

Instead of hiking down the Cataract Trail, I drove along Bolinas Ridge (where visibility was just a few feet in heavy clouds) to the parking area above Laurel Dell and hiked down from there. I figured I could use my huge crossing log to get past this section, but the water was so high that I was cut off. Quite a change since I was down here last month on a hike with Pam.

I doubled back to try the "high route," only to reach a bridge that was impassable. I hadn't noticed this log-crossing until this group of hikers approached from the other side and gingerly made their way across. 

One of the hikers who crossed the log told me to just wait till I saw Cataract Falls. "I've been here hundreds of times," he said, "and I've never seen it like today. It's like four times as big." I was not disappointed when I finally saw it -- and heard it roaring -- for myself.

All I could think to compare it to was Niagara Falls. It was just booming. I didn't think of Yosemite Falls, or Vernal or Nevada falls. Something about this unprecedented volume of water going down the ravine took me all the way back to that first huge waterfall I saw as a kid.

This should all mellow out by next weekend, making for prime waterfall conditions. Something without quite so much water, and the muddiness will have subsided as well.

This was a great first storm of the season. The Marin IJ reports nearly 21 inches fell at Mt. Tam from Fri-Sun. Hopefully there's more to come.

* * *

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Feelin' the Drought

* * *

(Click photo to view it larger.)

Since I'm only going to do this blog (in it's Circumannuation of Mt. Tamalpais incarnation) for one year, I can't help wishing it was more of a normal rain year. I can't believe I won't be able to post any decent mushroom photos, and I don't imagine the spring wildflowers will put on much of a show either.

As I drove up to the mountain today I wondered whether I'd find anything at all that I'd want to photograph. I took a walk out on the ridge to look for bobcats but didn't see any. It was such a clear day, though, I decided to snap a couple of pictures. Looking west over the nearly summer-brown hillsides, you could see the horizon beyond the Farallon Islands. Looking east -- well, I'll get to that in a minute.

The cobweb thistle (Cirsium occidentale) is just getting started.

I liked the look of this patch of forest on the edge of Bolinas Ridge and shot a panorama with the 300mm.

I spotted a pair of snoozing coyotes high up a hill as I scouted the possibilities along Bolinas Ridge. I parked and hiked toward them, and although they did get up and move to a new location, they didn't go far.

This spot was safer since it was close to the woods.

The coyotes spent so much time snoozing that I looked for other things to photograph (with a 500mm lens) from my sit-spot, including last year's mugwort plants. Mugwort likes water, and the ground was surprisingly damp in this spot. A few tiny green plants were just getting started.

The biggest surprise wasn't right at my feet, but way off in the distance -- the snow-covered Sierra Nevada. I believe this is the first time I've seen the snowy Sierra Nevada from Bolinas Ridge clearly enough to be sure they weren't just clouds. They are about 130 miles away as the crow flies. I'd love to know the name of the cone-shaped peak toward the right side of the frame. 

The coyotes weren't impressed.

That's the female snoozing in the front while the male scratches his back in the background. He actually slid quite a ways down the hill, wriggling like a snake the whole way.

When he was done, he strolled back up to roust the wife so they could move on to a new location. They ambled downhill toward the east; the female pooped; the male sniffed; and they disappeared into the woods.

* * *


* * *

I left the camera in the same place for a second week. The water is really going down, and I wonder how much longer this little spring will last.

The date reads Feb. 25, but it's actually Jan. 25. I didn't have my glasses with me when I swapped the memory card last week, and I must have accidentally changed the date while I was trying to reformat the card. 

I had re-positioned the camera in this spot with the raccoons in mind. They had trooped single-file in the streambed directly towards the camera in a previous set in November. This time only one 'coon got his picture taken, and only just barely. 

I had several daylight frames that left me moaning at what could have been. You can easily see one bobcat going down for a drink in this picture, but there are two cats in the frame. In the first shots, both bobcats are in the blown-out bright spots. Again, this was not shot on March 4, but just this morning -- in fact, not long before I stopped by to pick up the camera.

Here's a crop of the previous frame. Can you see the second cat? The other cat is smaller, and I'll bet it's the mate of this larger male. Coincidentally, I'd just been spending some quality time watching a (presumably) mated pair of coyotes napping in the sunshine on Bolinas Ridge. 

I'd planned to move the camera to a new location, but now I want to put it back at this or another nearby water hole. The other hole has better, more even, light than this spot, but it's closer to a human trail.

* * *

Welcome to February

* * *

Bye-bye, "driest January on record." Hello, hopeful February.

* * *