Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Animals Are Rad

I've recently been sent a few amazing animal photos that I feel compelled to share. This is pretty incredible stuff!

Exhibit A, Bighorn Sheep. You know, baaaaa:

That's Buffalo Bill Dam in Wyoming. It's 325 feet tall, almost 70 yards wide, and in case you can't tell, pretty steep. Those little dots?

...those are bighorn sheep, walking across it. Don't try this at home kids. And another memo to the mountain lion community...

Wise lions wait at the base of dams.


Exhibit B, Gray Wolf. You know, hoooowwwwlll. Not exactly known for sportfishing, right?


That's a grizzly bear in the foreground, cleaning up the last tidbits of a morning snack at Katmai National Park in Alaska. Whatever, grizzlys catch fish all the time. Even the cubs can do it. But look at Wolfie in the background! That's a good sized salmon!

Nice catch, canid.

Hat's off to amazing animal feats.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Beach Construction

It was pretty hot in the southland on Monday. So hot, in fact, that the National Weather Service thermometer in downtown L.A. broke, at 113 degrees. There was only one place for the reasonable person to be on a day like this - the beach.

Ah yes, the beach. Encinitas, August 2005

Unfortunately, I was at my dentist's office instead, cranking my jaw open to get a couple cavities filled. Damn you, post-workout-gatorade-and-protein drink. Fortunately, my dentist's office is right next to the beach, so after the hard work was done I felt entitled to a little R&R.

There was a nice, cool breeze, the ocean water felt great, and I was about ready for a little swim when I realized that I hadn't brought any sunscreen. Given that it was 3 in the afternoon, the sun was pretty intense, and I was teaching the next day, this presented a problem. Swim aborted.

Sticks lashed together with kelp

The beach, however, could not be abandoned, and fortunately I had a plan. With me I had brought a large bedsheet to sit on. Lying on the beach I found sticks, rocks, and kelp. Add ingenuity:

Custom umbrella

After a few minutes, I managed to tie some sticks together, build a frame, and drape the sheet over it, creating a cozy little sunshade. I was pretty proud of myself. This has nothing on bearbagging.

Note tether line with attached rock to thwart troublesome wind

UV damage averted, I was able to relax for a couple hours listening to the waves, and watching the seagulls and pelicans before joining my buddy Ryan for dinner. Not a bad day, even with the dentist!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ocean Sunsets Never Get Old

Once again, for great photo-ops, leave the camera at home

Headed back home from an appointment this evening, I decided to stop by a place I hadn't been for a while - the beach - and catch the sunset. Once upon a time, the beach was my second home...scratch that, it was my first, but for a variety of reasons these days I don't get there so much.

Immediately upon arriving, the sound of crashing waves, the smell of the ocean air, the long vista over the horizon, and the sensation of sand and water beneath my feet took me back. Memories of times in life, of places, experiences, and people flooded into consciousness. I don't think any other place has so recurrently in my life been a focal point for vivid memories. Though nature in general through its mountains, forests, skies, canyons and open plains has always captured my spirit and spurred my imagination, the ocean is my soul. Through memories of the beach and water, it seems I can track the full chronology of my life.

On this evening I had the whole of the experience to myself. Low clouds and high tide apparently deterred other visitors, save the gulls and a few surfing pelicans. These brief, quiet moments allowed me introspection, perspective, and a reminder of how much I missed this place in the years I lived far away. It's nice to be back. Mahalo moana. See you again soon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Adventures in Bear Bagging

With the aerial tramway shut down for annual maintenance, the weekend's planned summit trip to San Jacinto was a bust, so I was left looking for a plan B. Fortunately I had options, the most attractive of which was a return to the Secret Spot. My buddy Brian was game, and considering how much fun we had on our last camping trip, I knew the weekend would be sweet. Game on!

Gear loadout for the weekend

We arrived at camp Saturday morning, and commenced the process of rigging up a couple bear bags. After my bear encounter on the last trip, I'd done some research and had a foolproof strategy worked out. As it turned out, there were a few kinks...

All started out swimmingly as I sized up a perfect branch, about 25' up, sticking far out from the trunk, just big enough to hold the weight of my bag, but small enough to discourage even a hungry, courageous ursid balance-beam gymnast:

The chosen branch

After a few tries I managed to lob a rock over the branch, hook up a carabiner, and rig a PCT-method hang. My plan was to string up everything except the absolute essentials for sleeping, including food, backpack, gear, and extra clothing, thus keeping anything remotely smelly out of a bear's reach.

The rock toss

PCT-method carabiner passthrough

Unfortunately I soon learned that attempting to hoist a 30-40lb load with 3mm parachute cord over a tree branch is not as simple as it sounds. It turns out the friction between rope and branch is quite formidable, and no matter how hard I pulled the bag wasn't moving.

After pondering for a while, I decided to separate my gear into primary and secondary (a.k.a. second-hand) smellys. Primary included food, toiletries, and cookware. Secondary was anything that might come in contact with a primary, including clothing, backpack, and backpacking stove. I reasoned that the primaries must be hung, but perhaps secondaries would be safe if left in an open backpack somewhere other than near the food or tent (open so that a curious animal wouldn't chew through).

With considerable effort, I managed to hoist the primaries up into the tree, strapping my backpack with the secondaries to another nearby trunk:

I was reasonably happy with my work, but still somewhat concerned about the secondaries. I also found the PCT method's retrieval process pretty difficult. The stick used to arrest the cord in the carabiner was quite challenging to remove from the hitch knot when the line is under tension. Though I found my Leatherman useful in this task, handling the rope still left my hands a little worse for the wear:


Nonetheless we set to work on a second hang for Brian's stuff. Lessons having been learned, this was sure to be quick and easy:

Brian sizes up the branch, rock in hand

Then the rope got tangled in the branch. In trying to untangle it, more rope got tangled in the branch. Then we yanked on it, and it got further tangled. It seemed every step we took to improve the situation worsened the situation. Then the rock got tangled in the branch. After an hour or so, the situation wasn't looking too promising:

At this point, I was hoping the bear might come by and offer some helpful suggestions. Instead we heaved giant rocks at the branch, granny style, hoping to somehow knock the whole mess loose. We took down a few minor branches, but in the end had to surrender and cut the cord. Brian decided this handy bear box was a fine place to stash his stuff instead:

Bear boxes: quite handy when available

After relaxing for a while at the awesome campsite...

Awesome campsite

...we took a short hike and watched this awesome sunset:

Awesome sunset

The next day we cruised up a nearby mountain, enjoying some awesome views:

Awesome view

It was awesome.

Not to be defeated, later in the day I set about revisiting the bear bag problem. I came up with a pulley system which was successful in improving the ease of lifting, but also required a higher branch (and more rope) to get the bag to adequate height. I also discovered that by attaching a large stick to the end of the rope, I could pull substantially harder and raise a heavy weight using the original system:


This worked so well that I managed to pull my entire backpack about 25 feet in the air...where it subsequently became stuck:

Backpack stuck in 25' tree branch: not so awesome

After finessing things a little bit, I finally got the bag back down and achieved a successful hang, roughly 13' off the ground. It was my crowning achievement:

Full bag successfully hung

I was quite proud of myself, and spent the rest of the evening swapping stories with the local ranger. He's a cool dude. Good times. Then I went back (after dark) to retrieve my bag, which contained food for dinner. Retrieval did not prove so easy.

Apparently changes in temperature, humidity, or simply the fact that the bag had been hanging for a while somehow altered the dynamics of the whole rope sliding mechanism. I pulled (very hard), but the rope would not budge. More finessing, more patience, more pulling, and after a half hour or so I managed to get the small stick to head height, where I went to work with the Leatherman to get it loose. The knot was very tight (I would later find grooves in the stick where the rope had been). The rope became progressively more frayed as I pried on it with my pliars, and finally just as the stick was poised to escape the knot, the string broke, dropping my 30lb pack roughly 20' to the ground. Thump.

One 50' rope is now two 25' ropes

I ate dinner, put my primaries in the bear box, and hung my secondaries from a tree the old-fashioned (though vulnerable) way. Fortunately the rope had broken right in the middle, leaving just enough length.

I enjoyed a good night's sleep without any ursid visitors, leaving me well-rested and chipper in the morning to contemplate lessons learned in bear bagging:

Here's what I came up with:
  • I need lower friction rope. Somehow this part of the equation has to be improved. Imagine if it were raining or cold. This weekend's challenges would be a joke.
  • Though it would be ideal to hang both primaries and secondaries, there must be a contingency plan for hanging primaries only should this prove too difficult. Perhaps simply doing two hangs is the way to go?
  • A small section of aluminum pipe would likely be an improvement over the small stick used in the PCT method. The knot should slide off much more easily.
  • The pulley system has promise, but would require a branch of 40+' to get the bag to acceptable height (at least 10-12'). These are tough to find, especially without other branches in the way. They're also tough to get a string over. Not to mention needing 100+' of rope.
I'm open to suggestions. It's clear there is much to be learned.

Oh yeah..Aluminum tent stakes suck. Go steel, all the way.

Despite the challenges, this was still an awesome (and educational) weekend. Only two more weeks until I hit the Sierra!


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hummingbirds: Not the Brightest

Think this hummingbird's pretty bright, huh? Read on.

Sunday outdoor adventure day this week coincided with a small reunion of some of my best friends, who date all the way back to 7th grade in the Eureka redwood forest. Benson was in town for his big bro's wedding reception at this sweet mansion in Malibu, so we all crashed the place and went for a little hike along the Santa Monica Mountains Backbone Trail in nearby Trancas Canyon.

The trailhead was not immediately easy to locate. We came across this place first, which wasn't exactly inviting (though apparently also a fire station):

Not the trailhead

Speaking of dudes in orange jumpsuits, we found out along the way that Benson's mom once had a coffee-date with the Unabomber. We're all glad that one didn't work out, because Benson's a righteously good dude. It was a bad match from the start, anyway. She paints pretty pictures and speaks seven languages; he's a maniacal psychopath.

Actually the trailhead

We eventually found the trailhead, and went along our way. It was pretty hot and dusty enroute, but I thought this sign was a little melodramatic:

Finding a shady spot, we settled in and had some Bay City sandwiches for lunch. They were prego.

Lunch break along the trail

At one point along the way, I stopped to water some poison oak. I was midstream when a curious hummingbird flew up and...went in for a sip. Bad call, hummingbird. Quickly discovering this wasn't the kind of nectar it was looking for, the hummer buzzed off and hopefully found some P.O. to spit it out on. This was one of the more curious and disgusting things I've seen in nature in a while.

After about 2.5mi/420' we reached the top of a little ridge, and took in the surrounding mountain view. There was a sweet view of Sandstone Peak, which I visited a couple months ago. Off in the distance we also saw the mansion, and decided the pool looked pretty good, so we cruised back, went for a dip, and spent the remainder of the afternoon and evening lounging in luxury, playing pool, and chowing on some tri tip and Bien Padre chips. Not a bad day, eh?!

Here's a google map and earth file of the day's trip. Aloha!

View Encinal Hike Sep 12 2010 in a larger map

Monday, September 6, 2010


Yosemite Valley from the west

This has to be one of the most looked at, gawked at, and photographed spots on the planet - Yosemite Valley from the west at Tunnel View. Yet somehow it never gets old. In the days leading up to the trip, my friend Tad described "that first look around the bend coming into the park and seeing the cliffs lining the valley...breathtaking every time!!!" I can't add to that.

Day One

After getting a jump on the Labor Day traffic by leaving L.A. late Thursday night, we arrived in Yosemite valley midday Friday, and set up camp amidst the trees at Upper Pines.

Upper Pines camp

Almost immediately, I spotted this woodpecker nearby the picnic table, who was so accustomed to human visitors that he hardly minded posing for a photo:

Little did I know this was part of a masterful plan coordinated with a local California Ground Squirrel, who in the short time I was photographing the woodpecker had hopped up on the table and made a go at my lunch. Thwarted by my ziploc bags, he was forced to retreat (albeit reluctantly) when I announced my intention to examine his hip joint to further understand his tree-climbing capabilities. These characters, along with Western Greys, make a good living raiding the campgrounds (as, it would turn out, do the local black bears).

After securing our food in the handy steel bear bin, Michelle and I hit the trail for Vernal and Nevada Falls. This was short, sweet, and steep 2.5mi/2000' climb that featured gorgeous views down into the valley, mixed deciduous and conifer forest, and of course, two big waterfalls.

Rainbow at Vernal Falls

Nevada Falls

Looking down into the valley from Nevada Falls (photo credit Michelle S.)

Returning along the John Muir trail to the southern end of the Merced River, I was particular impressed by the late afternoon sun illuminating spectacular granite formations on the north side of the valley.

Liberty Cap and Nevada Falls

Half Dome, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap from the John Muir Trail

After returning to camp, cooking up some of my famous [mushroom-flavored] Tuna Stew (naturally to a "Tuna Stew! Tuna Stew!" chant), and meeting new friends who had joined for the weekend, I set about getting a good night's rest in preparation for some Saturday hiking. This would not prove easy.

As it turned out, I was awakened pretty regularly during the night by a) late-arriving campers and b) panic-stricken screams, pot-banging, and even a few gunshots in response to a visiting bear. Evidently a relatively small black bear had been making a habit of visiting the campground to raid stores of variously unsecured food items left out by campers who - apparently unfazed by ubiquitous signs, brochures, instruction from rangers, and the bloody 3 foot wide 2 foot tall steel bear bin in their campsite - managed to miss the message. When someone told me they saw the bear walking away with a marshmallow in his mouth, that pretty much said it all. How hard is it people, seriously? Sigh.

The local bear (photo credit Michelle S.)

Day Two

Feeling not-particularly-rested and a little under-the-weather, I took it easy on the second day, and went for a very pleasant hike out to Mirror Lake and the base of Snow Creek. The 5mi/200' trip featured great views of Half Dome, and pleasantly smaller crowds due in part to somewhat confusing signage about a landslide that closed part (but not all) of the trail. There was a fascinating diversity of trees along this route. Along with previously familiar conifers (Douglas Fir, Incense Cedar), I learned a bunch of new trees, including California Black Oak, Big Leaf Maple, Pacific Dogwood, White Alder, Jeffrey Pine, and California Bay along the way. I thought it was really cool to see the conifers mixed in with deciduous, leafy varieties.

Mt. Watkins from Mirror Lake

Wildlife was pretty scarce, although the familiar ground squirrels and an occasional lizard made their way across the trail. We also found some large piles of scat indicative of recent bear activity. I think my favorite feature of this trail, however, was a nifty little rock temple, containing literally hundreds of carefully stacked stones.

Rock temple near Mirror Lake

Of course we added our own little pile before making our way back to camp, having a refreshing, cool dip in the river, and settling in for dinner ("Tuna Stew! Tuna Stew!" - this time with chili seasoning and couscous).

Day Three

After a much better night's sleep (now immune to the screaming), I was up early and ready for a hiking adventure. The plan was to climb 4000' vertical feet over 10mi from the valley floor up Yosemite Creek to Tioga Road, and take a shuttle bus back to camp. Unfortunately, the (very cute) ranger at the visitor's center informed me that the shuttle bus came through Tioga at 2pm, leaving me only 5 hours to complete the hike. While certainly possible, I'd rather take my time and enjoy such a trip, so I asked her for an alternate recommendation. In all honestly, I was happy for the excuse to keep talking to the cute ranger, and probably would have done just about anything she recommended ("El Capitan? Sure! Let's go!").

However, she did in the end make a great recommendation to drive up Tioga Road and do a loop hike to North Dome. Enroute to the trailhead, I came across a "needles and cones" interpretive exhibit that introduced me to all the trees in the area. The higher altitude (roughly 7000-8500') had a completely different ecosystem from the valley, exemplified by dense, evergreen forest.

Jeffrey Pine

Mixed in with Jeffrey Pine, which often grows straight out of granite rock formations, were Lodgepole Pine, occasional Western White Pine, and beautiful, tall, full White and California Red Fir. It almost felt like home in the redwoods to walk through this dense forest of tall conifers.

Amidst a "firry" forest

The wildlife was different too, with the squirrels of lower altitudes replaced by scampering little chipmunks like this guy, who looked remarkably similar to the baby wolverines I saw in Idaho:


I was enjoying the scenery so much that I made a wrong turn at a trail-fork, and ended up taking a mile-long, -800' detour to Snow Creek. Cursing myself (but still loving the firry forest), I paid my idiot-tax, trudged my way back uphill, and continued on toward North Dome.

Along the way, I took a short side trip to Indian Rock, an awesome little rock formation sitting at about 8500'.

Indian Rock

Through the "window" at Indian Rock is a sweet view of Half Dome:

Half Dome beneath the arch atop Indian Rock

Getting to this spot required some easy rock scrambling and some not-so-easy quelling of the good ol' acrophobia. I've gotten a thousand times better at this than I was as a kid, but it still required some patience. Fortunately I met some new friends from Sacramento Trail Mix who offered encouragement. By encouragement, I mean offered to take a picture for me, then told me if I wanted my camera back, I had to climb up and get it (good one, Kellie!) I'm glad they did, and I enjoyed joining their group for the remainder of the hike to North Dome. It's always great to meet new people who love the outdoors!

Along the way we got some views into the valley and across to Clouds Rest and Half Dome that were at least above average:

Along the North Dome trail (photo credit Kellie)

Kidding, of course. The views were spectacular, and reaching North Dome we spent an hour or so sitting there taking it all in.

North Dome with the Sacramento Trail Mix crew

Half Dome from North Dome, through the Jeffrey Pines

Confirming that this is, in fact, a Jeffrey Pine (photo credit Kellie)

Gary showed us all a sweet spot where we could jump over Half Dome, and was kind enough to lie on the ground and patiently take photos of us all taking a giant leap.

Taking flight over Half Dome (photo credit Gary P)

With binoculars, I even spotted a few climbers scaling the face of Half Dome. No, not the hundreds of tourists walking up along the cables - people scaling directly up the face of the rock, with ropes.

Half Dome Face - I would have done it with the ranger girl

Here's a short video that Gary P of Trail Mix shot, panning East to West from Clouds Rest to Yosemite valley:

Looking down at a massive traffic-jam on the valley floor, I took the opportunity to enjoy a few moments all-by-my-lonesome before making my way back up through the forest to the trailhead.

Near the Porcupine Creek trailhead

Arriving just before dark, I bided my time, and later made my way down Tioga Road, stopping often to look up at a beautiful, moonless, starry sky.

And then, of course, Tuna Stew.

Day Four

We were up early Monday, and out of camp before the crowds hit the road. Stopping in Fresno at a sporting goods store, I happened across a rather thorough taxidermy display. Alongside several moose heads, a wolf, an elk, a mountain goat, countless deer and antelope heads, and an alarming number of rifles, I saw this stuffed wolverine:

Stuffed wolverine at Fresno sporting goods retailer

A wolverine? In Fresno? I don't know whether to be angry, impressed, or just confused. "It was roadkill, Shawn." Just keep telling yourself that.

One night around the campfire in a discussion of global warming, someone said:

Don't worry, the earth will take care of itself. People may not be around anymore, but the earth will regenerate.

The thought stuck with me. I wondered if people really do have the capacity to destroy the world, or if rather we just have the capacity to destroy our ability to inhabit the world, and thus ourselves. Though we perceive ourselves in modern times, for the first time, as being able to influence powerful forces of nature (like climate), in truth despite what we do nature likely will prevail in the end. It's been through worse. Though perhaps not as they would have were we not here, nature and the earth will almost certainly - in some form - outlive us all, and indeed our entire species. We're not as powerful as we think. In the large scale we are transient visitors, privileged to live for a short time amongst nature and the natural wonders of this world. To think that we can conquer or control it is an illusion. We should strive instead to understand that world, and to exist within it, harmoniously and quietly. To me it seems that we should try our very best not to screw with it. I suspect if people spent more time in nature, this would become more obvious.