Monday, August 23, 2010

Secret Escape

Just returned from a quick overnight to my new, secret campsite. Man, what a great spot! This is one of the cooler places I've come across. It's too bad I can't post more photos, but I'm afraid they'd give it away, and I just can't let that happen. This place is special. In just over 24 hours I got a great little reboot from city life, and even managed to come back with a new wildlife adventure - read on!

Overnight Gear

One of the main reasons I took this trip was to try out my "new", hand-me-down Gregory day-and-a-half pack. I'm pleased to report that in combo with the waist day-pack I've been using all year, it worked perfectly. A nice, lightweight alternative to a full pack for short trips and/or those with minimal extra-gear (e.g. clothing) needs.

I cruised up to the campground in blistering, 100deg+ heat in the middle of the afternoon, and was stoked to meet my friendly ranger buddy under the shaded trees. I proceeded to have lunch, set up camp, and string up my first-ever bear bag. I was pretty proud of my handiwork:

Exploring the nearby environs, I came across this Western Gray Squirrel, doing what squirrels do best: running down trees head first.

"Because I was inverted"

This is made possible by incredible range-of-motion in their hindlimb joints (I suspect mostly the hips) that allows the back legs to rotate nearly 180deg and give the rear claws grip. Note that this particular squirrel was doing so immediately after leaping about 10' (or 20x its body length) from one tree to another. I think I'd like to be a squirrel for a day.

After a beautiful mountain sunset to the west, I turned around to watch a full moon rise over the trees to the east. The moon would track over my tent throughout the night.

What makes this spot so great is its unique crossroads between the city and the wilderness. You can hear the distant hum of the city, but at the same time the eerie hoots of owls. You can look out over the vast city lights, then up to a starry sky above. Along the trail are masses in spandex and ipods, but after dark when they all retreat to civilization, the wild reclaims its space...

The Wildlife Story

As I fell asleep under the glow of the moon, I heard the owls, what I believe were the squawks of hunting hawks, scattered coyote yips, and harmonic crickets. Soothing nature sounds...

Then at about 1 in the morning I heard the loud clang of a trash can falling over. Uh oh. This could mean only one thing...Ursus americanus. Well, actually it could mean a few things, including Prycyon lotor, an unusually clumsy Odocoileus hemionus, or perhaps most disturbing, a very well coordinated group of Sciurus griseus. The sounds of heavy breathing, slow, methodical movement, and repeated tearing of plastic would, however, confirm the original diagnosis.

All of the sudden being solo in the wilderness lost a bit of its luster. With a hungry bear (lets call him Yogi) about 50 feet away, I started wondering if I'd be wiser to:

a) make some noise in an attempt to scare it away or
b) lie still and hope it didn't notice me

I eventually settled on b), figuring that even if initially scared off, Yogi would return to his tasty dinner, and I'd be better not to draw attention to myself. One thing is for sure:

I was very happy in this moment to have followed strict bear protocol, including hanging of the bag with all food/toiletries/smellys, and a fresh pair of sleeping clothes. I was not happy, however, about a sudden, imminent bladder urgency.

Unfortunately, leaving the tent was not an option.

Bear's-eye view from the trash can

So for the next hour or so I lied there and waited for Yogi to finish up, trying to convince myself that all was well and I should just go to sleep. Right. Eventually the bladder would no longer take no for an answer, and I was forced into action. The tent door was quietly opened, the water bottle inside my tent emptied, the tent door closed, and the bladder relieved.

Apparently this little noise was enough to get Yogi moving along (or he was done with dinner anyhow), as the foraging sounds quickly stopped. I took a deep breath, started my way back to sleep, and about 20min later watched as a very large shadow came by in the moonlight, took a quick sniff around the tent, and went along its way...

In the morning I found this:

Pretty tidy work, I must say, for a bear

Meal Ready-to-Eat..."Agreed," said the bear

A quick note to the Boy Scouts of America (who visited the night before):

Is there a section in your handbook about how to dispose of food scraps/trash properly, as to not get mauled by a bear? Please read it. Thank you.

The ranger told me in the morning that the bear's a regular - a goodly sized, 400lb regular. Oh yeah. In a way it's actually pretty cool to have shared the campground with this magnificent creature, and part of me wishes I'd gotten a better glimpse, but I can't say either sentiment was at the forefront of my mind in the moment. Did I mention how happy I am to have strictly followed bear protocol?

The rest of the day was great. I took a little hike down into a nearby canyon, where I found this babbling brook surrounded by green plants, butterflies, and nice boulders to sit on:

...and on the way out, I spotted this albino hawk soaring overhead:

The rattlesnakes were kind enough to continue their observance of The Pact, though I did note evidence of their presence:

Note distinctive serpentine track

What can I say? Another great outdoor adventure. Until next time, Aloha!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Agua Tibia

I had the opportunity to spend some time last weekend with my great aunt and uncle (who are indeed great), along with my extended family of cousins. I really enjoyed catching up with them, hearing new family stories, and especially taking in the quiet ambiance of their home. Their house (which by the way, they built themselves) sits in a scattered oak forest in the mountain/desert area east of Temecula. Thanks to the variety of native and introduced vegetation nearby (and some well-placed bird feeders), sitting in the kitchen looking out the window provides better wildlife viewing than many zoos. One day I spotted quail, scrub jays, hummingbirds, rabbits, squirrels, and a bobcat within about 5 minutes, all while drinking a V8 juice at the table. Not bad.

Since the house sits right on the edge of a wilderness area, Monday evening I decided to go for a short hike. After making my way up through the forest and dodging some colorfully evil P.O. along the way, I found myself wandering through some relatively dense chaparral. There was a clear path in most places - a combination of wildlife trail and reclaimed fire road - but it required some careful maneuvering, due mostly to my maniacal fear of rattlesnakes. Here's a play-by-play:
  • Stand ever-so-quietly in the path scouring the ground with my eyes like a starving hawk looking for dinner
  • Take a careful step forward, slowly placing a foot before stomping it on the ground as to scare away any snakes within a hundred yard radius
  • Stand ever-so-quietly listening for even the faintest hint of slithering through the bushes
  • Convince myself that any sound heard is either a bird or a lizard
  • (yet remain tensed and ready to scream like a little girl should a snake actually appear)
  • Repeat
This made for rather slow progress.

Fortunately rattlesnakes don't usually climb

All of this is, of course, completely irrational. Rattlesnakes are an important part of the ecosystem, mean me no harm, and with reasonable precaution are unlikely to give me any trouble. In fact I've never (knock on wood) even encountered a rattlesnake while hiking. They are actually, to date, observers of The Pact, my longstanding (though decidedly one-sided) agreement with nature and its creatures that in exchange for allowing me to pass unharmed through their domain, I will make every effort to respect their place in that domain and promote their well-being. Bison, mosquitoes, and scorpions, for example, are egregious violators of The Pact against whom war has been declared (this reminds me that a Pact-dedicated post is long overdue...)

Anyhow, the point is, I have no rational reason for my fear of rattlesnakes. I'm comforted somewhat by the knowledge that at least part of this fear is genetically predisposed, and that it offers evidence of my evolutionary superiority, but still...walking through rattlesnake country just freaking freaks me out. And I still wish the hawks would come and eat them all.

So after a little while I called it good, and took some pictures of the lovely surrounding scenery. The picture below shows Mt. San Jacinto in the distance, the mountain that once summoned me to an awesome, unplanned camping adventure.

In the end, this was only an hour long, 1.5mi/300' journey, but a rewarding one nonetheless (made especially nice by a hearty bowl of lentil soup upon my return). I hope to one (very cold, wintery, rattlesnake-paralyzing) day make my way back, and explore further up the mountain!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Just Another Sunny Southern California Day

Today was one of those days that makes me grateful for the diversity of outdoor opportunities in Southern California. I'll be the first to admit that the LA area is lacking in spectacular wilderness, and it's pretty hard to find quiet nature spots to yourself. However, there are many spectacular spots of varied flavor within a half day's drive, and even staying relatively local one can get a decent mixed plate.

I started this morning with a hike in Monrovia Canyon Park, where there's a surprisingly pleasant amount of tree cover, a nice, quiet little stream, and even this nifty waterfall:

On the way I saw a deer skirting along the road, and later wished she'd come through and eat some of the P.O. along the trail. I also spotted a curious looking squirrel that I believe was a Western Gray. It was unusually large for squirrels I've seen in this area, with long legs, and surprisingly skinny. Maybe it should fatten up on P.O. too. Or it could learn to metabolize padlocks. There are plenty to go around at the park:

Closed means closed

After the hike and a nice chat with a new friend I met at the park (who advises me, by the way, that squirrels forget about 75% of the nuts they stash - incredible!), I went to the Rose Bowl and ate lunch under a tree. Sitting under a tree and eating lunch is an underappreciated joy. Know who knows this? Squirrels. Go ahead, try it. Tell me I'm wrong.

I was seriously contemplating getting in the car and driving north a couple hours to a nice, quiet, and very dark place that I figured would be perfect for checking out the Perseid meteor shower, but I couldn't scare up a travel companion, so instead I bailed and met my buddy Jon (a.k.a. Will Clark, of Lewis and Clark) at the beach. Good move as it was a beautiful day, and he had a righteous BBQ going. Don't believe me? Check out the spread:

Feeds four avid carnivores, plus Sam

Not to mention the giant bowls of fresh fruit and vegetables. Ok, so I just mentioned them. They were great. But before we ate we ventured out in the surf, where I managed to practice my underwater takeoffs and ride a handful of 2' whitewater mushburgers. Good times! I remember days like this when I used to drag out Kai da inflatable gator...

Coronado, May 2005

And so I reiterate...there aren't many places where one can go to walk in the woods and check out a waterfall in the morning, have a picnic lunch under a tree, consider driving to the mountains for a meteor shower, but instead decide to spend the afternoon at the beach under sunny, 75 degree skies riding little waves and feasting with good friends. Gotta love it, right?


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Nature...The Best Medicine

Friends know that I have struggled over the last 4+ years with a mysterious and frustrating back/hip problem. At times it can be quite disabling, and it's dramatically reduced my activity level compared to where I was at 5 years ago. But over the past year, and especially the past 6 months or so, I've learned to better manage it in a way that allows me to do a lot more things that I enjoy. I'm grateful to able to hike and camp so much lately with few serious issues.

However, sometimes it still catches up with me, and the past week was one of those times. On Tuesday morning I pushed it just a *little* too far in the weight room, and knew so immediately. Workout over. Walk home. Take drugs. Ice on back. Accept that much of the next few days will be spent on the floor. Over the years I've learned to manage these episodes when they happen, and though one never really gets used to it, never really wants to accept it, in time we learn to deal. The physical pain becomes an inconvenience, an annoyance mitigated by copious psychological warfare. The mental part though is tough. Exhausting, excruciating really.

I've figured out that for a couple days, there's not much I can do. Ice, stretching, walking, very light exercise. Things improve daily, for a few days. Then the improvement plateaus. The cost of inactivity meets the benefit, and at this point it's time to switch strategies. Time to exercise. By Saturday I'd reached this point, and got excited, because it was just in time for Sunday, my designated outdoor adventure day, and a little dose of the best medicine on the planet!

Any escape from the LA smog has to be good for you

I hit the trail in some nearby mountains. The wilderness code requires that I conceal the identity of these mountains, since along the way I happened across an amazing, apparently rather unknown and unused campground...and I have every intention of keeping it that way! (I've sprinkled in a few photos, however, that the astute reader might use as clues). Almost immediately upon hitting the trail I felt improvement. My legs were glad for the work, my back started to loosen, and most importantly my spirits rose. Watching a hawk fly overhead, squawking and chasing mice. Listening to the breeze through the canyons. Smelling the fresh scent of the trees. Dodging P.O. and rattlesnakes, and feeling smugly superior to the dumbasses powerwalking up the trail with their iPods. Once again, a memo to the mountain lion community...

Easy prey. Eat them.

All of this served to refresh my mind, bring a smile to my face, and allow me to feel alive, engaged, human again. The spiritual fulfillment I find in nature, expressed in its many forms, is the closest thing I've ever found to religion in my life. It is my church. My sanctuary. Both my escape from and most profound engagement in this world. What else can I say? I love it.

Mountains & Pines

After a 9.8mi/2670' roundtrip, I was ready to head home to a crock pot that had been stewing all day, and now I believe it's time to eat... aloha!


Sunday, August 1, 2010

Feeling Inspired

On the advice of my friend Michelle, I ventured today to the foot of the western San Gabriels, and climbed nearly 3000' over 5 miles to Echo Mountain and Inspiration Point. Due in large part to the 2008 station fire, and related closures in the Angeles National Forest, I haven't explored the San Gabriels much, so this was a welcome new adventure!

Just above Inspiration Point, looking NW into the western San Gabriels

The first half of the trail from Altadena to Echo Mountain is well-used, and along the way I saw many fellow day-hikers, trail runners, and people chatting on their cell phones. I was tempted at one point to grab the cell phone away from this guy and chuck it into the canyon, but managed to restrain myself.

Scenic foliage along the trail

At Echo Mountain there are some fascinating historical remnants of the old White City resort and Lowe Mountain Railway. Evidently after being repeatedly ravished by weather and fire, this rather ambitious and decadent resort was shut down in the 1930s. Only scattered remains are left, but there are plenty of interpretive signs.

Along the way I met a guy carrying a big backpack up the mountain (who looked decidedly out of place amidst the kooks in spandex and their ipods), and got to chatting with him. It turned out he was an experienced mountaineer, preparing for an upcoming trip to Mt. Baker, in the northern Cascades. I shared my love for giant, snowy volcanoes, and we had a nice talk about nature, outdoorsing, and life in general. He gave me some great advice on exploring the San Gabriels and Sierra Nevada, and invited me to join him and his family for lunch at Echo Mountain. It's always great to meet new people along the way who share my love and appreciation for the outdoors.

From there, I followed the Castle Canyon Trail up to Inspiration Point. The crowds all but disappeared, the trail wound up through a shaded forest with a slowly-running creek, and after a short scramble at the top, I reached a peak around 4700' elevation with 360 degree views into the LA basin, the mountain ranges to the west, and the heart of the San Gabriels.

Inspiration Point features many "locating" scopes that orient the visitor to waypoints below

The radio-towered Mount Wilson was obvious to the northeast, as were the fire-scorched hills all around. Less obvious was Los Angeles, which was covered in a disgustingly thick, smoggy haze. If you look very closely in this picture, you can barely make out the PV peninsula poking out, along with two little humps on the horizon that are Catalina Island:

I really enjoyed the view to the west, where I could clearly spot previously visited sights in the Verdugo, Santa Susana, and Santa Monica Mountains:

After a peaceful lunch hour, I made my way back down the hill (oh how I would love to have a paraglider!) and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon and evening with friends in Pasadena. Good stuff!