Saturday, December 27, 2008

Snow on the Grapevine


On December 19th, I took this picture of snow on the Tehachapi Mountains while driving toward The Grapevine on I-5. I was heading to So Cal to visit family for the holidays. I've never seen the snow line this low here (although I'm sure the locals have seen it plenty). My educated estimate (using google earth and topo maps and comparing that to my photo) is that the snowline was at 2000 feet this day. My dad's family used to have a cabin above here in Frazier Park that they hand built themselves. I'm sure there were winters where they saw the snow much lower too.

The Tehachapi's are a "transverse range" (laying east-west) between the north-south running Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges. I remember from a couple geography classes that the Tehachapi's may be the tail end of the Sierra Nevada but got bent northward due to movement of the North American and Pacific Plates so that they run east-west rather than north-south.

View more photos here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Happy Winter!

fountain PC110202. "holiday" lights on the bandstand fountain, Lake Merritt.

Since we are having some seriously cold winter weather here in "sunny" California, I thought I'd post this festive photo and a little note about the coming shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere. I like this Wikipedia entry for the Winter Solstice:

The winter solstice occurs at the instant when the Sun's position in the sky is at its greatest angular distance on the other side of the equatorial plane from the observer.

This year it happens at 4:04 A.M. (PST) on December 21st, 2008. In the United States this is the official start of Winter. So Happy Winter!

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Swan at Lake Merritt

I've never seen a real-life swan until this year at "The Lake". They are HUGE, bigger than geese. According to my copy of The Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Region this is a mute swan:

Mute Swan (Cygnus olor), an introduced species and a tame pond bird, is smaller [than a Trumpeter Swan] with a black knob at the base of its orange bill. Mute Swans hold their necks in a graceful curve with bill pointing down.

It swam right up to me probably thinking my camera was something tasty I was going to offer it to eat. I don't know what it is doing at the lake because apparently we are too far south of the normal range.

Many people don't know that Oakland's Lake Merritt was the first wildlife refuge to be established in North America (proposed 1869, instituted 1870).


View more photos here at flickr.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Backpacking: Butano State Park Trip Report

PB280036View of the sun getting ready to set from the Landing Strip near the trail camp on Butano Fire Road.

Figuring I should take advantage of not having to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving and wanting to burn off all that turkey and pie, I asked my friend Brian to join me for a short backpacking excursion. Originally I thought a two-nighter from Hetch Hetchy to Rancheria Falls in Yosemite might be nice, but then I remembered how gnarly traffic would be on Sunday coming home through Tracy and the Altimont Pass...BLECH!!! So I narrowed it down to this local one-nighter at Butano State Park returning home Saturday rather than Sunday to avoid the holiday return traffic frenzy.

Backpack Stats:
  • Date: November 28 & 29, 2008
  • Location: CA, Bay Area, Pescadero, Butano State Park
  • Mileage: ~11.25
  • Elevation: +/-2,081' ; lo pt 281'; hi pt 1,690'
  • Trailhead: Mill Ox Trail
  • TH Lat/Long.: 37.208,-122.333191
  • TH Facilities: NO toilet, water, or phone at trailhead; phone at entrance; water & toilet at picnic area on right after entrance station.
  • Trails Hiked: Mill Ox, Jackson Flats, Canyon, Trail Camp, Butano Fire Road, Mill Ox
  • Route Type: Loop
  • Trail Terrain(s): single track: steep in parts, slippery when wet, roots, some gravel higher up; fire road well maintained (mountain bikes allowed on fire roads).
  • Camp Lat/Long.: 37.22451,-122.291451
  • Camp: designated trail camp first come first pick; pit toilet, trash cans, NO WATER—pack it in or be prepared to hike for it; No fires, stoves only, some sites have log table w/bench
  • Plant Communities: Riparian, Redwood Forest / Mixed Evergreen, "Vernal Wetland", Chaparral.
  • Why go?: newts, lots o' banana slugs, fungi & lichen, nice sunset from the abandoned landing strip by camp. Trail camp is not heavily used, local solitude.
  • Official Website: Butano State Park
  • View the entire flickr photo album.
Fire-breathing newt crossing, BEWARE!
Brian molesting a newt for my photographic exploitation.

Newts, & Slugs, & Fungi, Oh My!

This was my first time visiting Butano State Park and I was quite impressed with the sheer numbers of newts, banana slugs, and variety of fungi and lichen. This is one moist park! I was also quite amused by all of the "Slow! Newt Crossing" signs. I'm really not sure it is possible to drive slow enough to see a newt actually crossing the road in front of me, but I tried my best.

Along the trail I spied a clump of fungi I had never seen before. It was a series of almost translucent white finger-shaped stalks pointing out of the leaf litter only a few inches high. Once home I found out it was named appropriately enough: Fairy Fingers. There were many other species, some of which I had seen before in other redwood parks but never took the time to figure out what they were. This time I did a little research after getting home. Three of the species I identified were:

Clavaria vermicularis
a.k.a. Fairy Fingers
Enjoying the little camp table at site #1 and a few afternoon rays of sunlight. The redwood canopy above creates a very damp & chilly environment
Butano Trail Camp

As with most of the local backpacking opportunities in the bay area, camping is restricted to a trail camp. Often this situation feels like all the disadvantages of car camping mixed with all the disadvantages of backpacking (all work and no solitude). But not so this time. We practically had the whole trail camp area to ourselves except for one very quiet couple—not visible or audible to us at our site.

I don't know if this relative vacancy was due to Thanksgiving weekend and everybody traveled out of the bay area, or if the masses were too busy shopping to hike, or if the camp is just deserted like this most of the time in the off-season. Or maybe it was because there is no water at this trail camp so you have to pack it all in or hike back out in search of the closest running creek. In any case, this solitude created some much welcomed peace.

Butano trail camp does offer some amenities such as a pit toilet and trash cans, and some of the sites have little log benches and tables (site #2's was squished under a felled conifer). Also this camp doesn't seem to have the racoon problem of other local trail camps (let's keep it that way people...don't leave out any trash or food "rewards").


One of MANY banana slugs near camp.

One potential downside is that the camp area is shaded by a reasonably thick redwood canopy, so in the event of fog or recent rain bring some extra dry warm layers and a tent or tarp over and under your sleeping bag because everything left out WILL get wet just from the surrounding moisture and there won't be much sunlight to dry it off the next day. Also be prepared for curious, moisture loving banana slugs crawling on your stuff. Have no fear of the slug. They won't hurt you, but they will leave a slime trail that does not wash off easily.

If at camp you find yourself craving views, you are in luck. Not far from camp along Butano Fire Road to the west there is an abandoned landing strip of sandstone gravel surrounded by chaparral and knobcone pine with nice views of the valley to the south and west. After setting up camp, we took a stroll over to the landing strip to explore and watch the sun dip into the blanket of coastal rolling fog with colors turning from silver to yellow to orange to pink to red.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Planting Natives with Save The Bay

One of the reasons I love and have stayed in the bay area is the wonderful mix between the urban and the wild. For instance this mingling is what makes the Golden Gate Bridge THE Golden Gate Bridge—a giant painted-orange steel engineering marvel wedged between dramatic eroding sea cliffs standing high above the churning currents of the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay with amazing views of the natural and manufactured extending every which way (as long as it isn't foggy of course), with seals and sea gulls barking swimming diving and flying above and below while four-wheeled, motored cages whiz buy at 50 MPH. This contrast of the man-made and the natural creates—what is to me—an exotic texture that most of the rest of strip-mall, track-home California lacks.

One of our leaders giving us the marching orders for the day.

Saving the Bay One Plant at a Time

To show my appreciation to mother nature (and yes even my fellow man) for creating this wonderfully mixed-up urban wild thing we humans call the San Francisco Bay, and give a leg up to the natural side of this equation that is ever at risk of being annihilated by the over-producing / consuming side (90% of the bay wetlands have been turned into real estate since the 1850s), I decided to spend a few hours of my free-time planting California native species here in Oakland with a non-profit organization called Save The Bay.

Interpretive map of the area on the paved trail to our work location next to the slough.

I Learn Something New Every Day: Slough is Not Pronounced Sloff

When I arrived at the Save The Bay nursery located at Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline park, everybody was gathered around to receive a brief lesson about the bay wetlands and why they are important. We were also given our assignment for the day. We would be planting a few native plants next to Damon Slough (pronounced SLEW). Thankfully the leader pronounced it before I ever had the opportunity to publicly embarrass myself.

Damon Slough is a channel that feeds runoff to the Oakland Estuary and from there to the San Francisco Bay. It's not a natural slough. Long ago the natural streams of the East Oakland watershed were concreted up into man made storm drains and forced underground to make room for "progress" and then made to resurface here and spill out into the estuary.

Me getting down and dirty with my Western Goldenrods.
A baby Coyote Brush (Baccharis pilularis) I planted.
The Natives are Restless

Sometimes the volunteering involves working in the nursery planting seeds or picking up trash along the shore after a storm, but this day we planted four California native species that needed to be put into the ground before the rainy season really kicks in:

One of these days I'm going to volunteer for one of their paddle-in locations where you get to canoe or kayak into a bay wetland area to do restoration work.
Damon Slough draining into the Oakland Estuary in the afternoon at Martin Luther King, Jr. Regional Shoreline, Oakland