Sunday, October 31, 2010

Spooky Halloween Night Hike


There are lots of great ways to celebrate Halloween, which according to Wikipedia originated as a Gaelic harvest festival called Samhain, marking the end of the "lighter half" of the year, and the beginning of the "darker half." Fitting, though it should be pointed out that (in the northern hemisphere) the actual halfway point between the summer solstice (presumably the lightest day), and the winter solstice (presumably the darkest) is a full month earlier, on September 20-21. But who's counting? OK, I am.

Anyhow, some people (like my advisor) go all out with the costume thing, dressing up like ghouls and goblins and gremlins, turning their houses into haunted castles, and scaring unsuspecting PT students. I may have been part of that in the past.

Halloween 2008

Dr. Schroeder (R) really likes Halloween

Others celebrate by eating copious amounts of candy, and displaying copiously oversized gords. Last year I cooked such a gord:

Halloween 2009

I still have leftovers in my freezer.

This year, fitting with the outdoor exploration theme, I decided to go for a spooky Halloween night hike. I was super stoked that my friend Anil was up to join in the adventure.

The destination was Paseo Miramar, an easily accessible and popular West LA trail widely rumored to feature spectacular views, but which according to recent intelligence (Exhibits A and B are hereby entered as evidence) may also just be a giant, gray cloud - not that there's anything wrong with giant, gray clouds. The plan was to hike up in the daylight, check out the sunset, wait for darkness to settle, then work our way down.

As it turned out, when the weather's good, this place really is spectacular. Here's a view looking east toward downtown, enroute uphill:

Smog and sprawl are indeed spooky

and here's the view from the top at Parker Overlook:

Whaddya know...a mira...of the...mar

Apparently everybody else in town was busy tricking, treating, or refilling their insulin pumps, because we had the place to ourselves. The sunset was rad:

Paseo Miramar sunset

As darkness fell we swapped a few scary stories, and took a few pictures. I like this one, looking down on the Santa Monica Bay:

Walking back down in the dark under a moonless sky was really cool - checking out a few stars overhead, a curious spotlight in the distance, and of course fending off all the vampires, zombies, and werewolves. OK the last part didn't really happen, but we were walking right through the middle of some dense foliage when Anil brought up the possibility that intelligent plant life is actually surreptitiously controlling the world. That was creepy.

For more nice sunset photo's, check out Anil's gallery. I particularly like this one, of a silhouetted (and secretly all-powerful) plant:

Photo credit: Anil S.

Here's hoping you had a happy - and spooky - one too!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Seashore Stroll

This and all photos courtesy of A. Galvez - muchas gracias!

I often tell people that the best part about being a grad student is that you can pick any 27 hours out of the day that you want to get your work done. If you're very efficient, you only get 3 hours further behind every day.

This is of course a bit of an exaggeration, but there's truth to the sentiment, and I do appreciate the flexibility. So when the Sisters Galvez (whom I was fortunate to meet on my hike the other day) said they were down for a midweek hike in the rain, I was all in!

We headed for one of my favorite nearby beaches, driving through intermittent rain along the way. Upon arrival the rain had stopped, but picturesque, gray clouds remained overhead:

We were lucky to have arrived near low tide, which gave us a chance to visit the sea caves. As some may recall...

...I really dig the sea caves

Of course the best part is sharing that joy with others, and my companions seemed to enjoy the sea caves too:

We all liked the view so much that we decided to hang out and enjoy lunch inside the cave:

When we emerged, the sun too had emerged from behind the clouds, providing some very nice scenery for a stroll along the water:

I thought it was really great to have seen both the cloudy and sunny scenes on the same day. A friend later told me that according to the weather radar, clouds and rain had covered the area all day. We must have been in just the right spot.

Another vote for spontaneity. Carpe diem, eh?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rain Dance

I set out this morning for Millard Canyon in Altadena, and a historic, old mine recommended to me by a fellow hiker I met on my recent Sequoia/King's Canyon trip. Leaving the house, there was a light mist in the air, but the forecast called for partly cloudy skies and a 10% chance of rain. I figured I might actually get some fresh, smog-free views of the city.

Never trust an L.A. weather forecast. When I arrived at the trailhead, a rather heavy mist was falling, and I lamented leaving my trusty rain gear at the house. Nevermind, I like the rain, and set off along the trail, content that I might get a little wet. Unfortunately (or fortunately, perhaps, as the day turned out), I only got about 50 feet before reaching a sign stating that all area trails were closed.

Broken itinerary. [grin].

I headed back south, and after a little misnavigation arrived at Griffith Park, where I set off for a little hike into the clouds. The crowds were sparse, the birds were chirping, and I thought Bee Rock looked pretty cool from beneath the trees...

Bee Rock

so I climbed up it, arriving in about a half hour. I think it was prettier from below:

Bee Rock summit

Why would someone climb all the way to the top of a mountain to spray graffiti? Anyhow, continuing up the trail toward Mt. Hollywood, I walked through a thick, gray cloud. It brought a smile to my face as I remembered trips to Rainier, Sandstone Peak, and Paseo Miramar.

I knew I was nearing the top when I heard voices of laughter, who upon my arrival offered a friendly greeting. The voices turned out to be a trio of South American ladies, who were kind enough to offer their company for the afternoon, share a meal, and enchant me with stories of Patagonian glaciers.

I really like meeting nice people along the trail.

Another great day in the outdoors, and another example of the serendipity to be found in broken plans.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Royal Adventure

The open road, just north of Porterville

Alright, so as it turns out I still haven't been to the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. My friend had a late-breaking emergency and couldn't make it out from Texas (hope you're feeling better Brian!), so I had to hatch a contingency plan. Regular readers will know, however, that broken itineraries are always the best anyway. That's why when the plan breaks down, I just get a big smile on my face, pick out a soundtrack (this time my Auntie Laura's awesome new CD) and prepare for an adventure!

Day One

As mentioned last week, this time of year brings particularly unpredictable weather high in the mountains, so instead of venturing solo into the Sierra wilderness, Sunday I headed for Sequoia/King's Canyon National Park.

As I drove in from the southwest side of the park, gray clouds hovered over the western Sierra foothills and mountain peaks. They would foreshadow some exciting weather to come.

I arrived at the Lodgepole campground just in time to get set up and whip up some tuna stew before dark. Thunder echoed off in the distance, hastening the process. I met some friendly neighbors from San Jose who were nice enough to invite me to join them for dinner around the campfire and swap stories. We thought we saw a few lightning flashes overhead, but with a gorgeous, star-covered sky and no thunder, we didn't give it much more thought.

Day Two

Around 4am, a righteous Sierra thunderstorm arrived. Lightning lit up the walls of the tent, and booming cracks of thunder came closer behind...first 15 seconds, then 10, 8, 5... I awakened, excited for the show, saying to myself "it's about to go down!" The skies opened and rain came pouring down, with space between the flashes and thunder shrinking to counts of 3 (indicating a range of roughly half a mile). I was digging it. Warm and dry in my tent, I enjoyed nature's spectacle, falling back to sleep as the rain slowed, the thunder retreated, and dawn slowly arrived.

Monday morning following the storm

I got up energized and ready to roll, much to the surprise of some nearby RV campers, who speculated that I must have had a miserable night. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I was stoked to arrive at the Wolverton trailhead and find this sign:

That's what I'm talking about!

I did exercise due prudence, however, and decide against hiking to 11,200' Alta Peak, the likelihood of repeat thundershowers being what it was, and high altitude exposed granite not being my first choice destination in a lightning storm. Instead, I headed up a 6mi/+2300' trail to a series of alpine lakes, topping off around 9500'.

Less than 5 minutes in, I stopped to photograph a scenic firry, foggy scene:

I'd barely admired my handiwork on the screen when I heard some raucousness in the same trees. Further inspection revealed this character, about 40' up, with a buddy in the trunk next door.

The arboreal Ursus americanus

It probably wasn't the best idea to stand there taking this picture, and as the two bears started working their way down the tree, I decided it was time to start working my way down the trail. I don't think I'd realized until this moment that black bears are so truly comfortable just hanging out in trees.

After my recent bear encounter, I'd done a little research and learned that it's a good idea to let bears know you're coming when wandering down trails alone. For the rest of the day, I was pretty regularly yelling "Hey Bear" (see 1:35). For variety I'd toss in a little "Da Bears" as an ode to the legendary Super Fans.

Bears have to love this skit

Upon arriving at the Watchtower overlook, I found this incredible view into the valley below:

Outside in the cold distance...a black bear did growwwl!

Some backpackers passed by, and told me the story of camping the previous night at Pear Lake during the epic thunderstorm. Apparently what was rain at 7000' was hail at 9500'. Sounded pretty serious. I got a little nervous when jets would pass overhead, sounding a bit like thunder, and I'd catch a glimpse of a nearby lightning-scarred tree:

The lakes were nice though. Here are a few photos:

Near Emerald Lake

Aster Lake

Pear Lake

Heather Lake

With freezing temperatures, intermittent freezing rain, and thick fog, I didn't linger long in the high country, but did enjoy taking a few minutes to relax and enjoy the scene at Heather enroute back down the trail:

Relaxing @ Heather

Finishing the hike near dusk, walking through a dense fir forest enveloped in fog was both beautiful and a bit unnerving, particularly as I passed the spot where I'd earlier seen the bears. All went well though as I returned to camp, had a quick, cold, wet dinner, and turned in early for the night, reading a little John Muir by headlamp in the tent.

Day Three

Deciding that high elevation probably wasn't the place to be throughout a week with likely precipitation, on Tuesday I headed down King's Canyon, which turned out to be a great call. Enroute I stopped to visit the General Sherman Tree, the world's largest (by volume).

The sequoia forest and General Sherman

Ducking below the clouds into King's Canyon

The campground at Sheep Creek was quiet, and I had my pick of spots, setting on a large spread along the King's River amidst Incense Cedar and Ponderosa Pine, where I would fall asleep to the sound of rushing water:

King's Canyon camp

I took some time to document my tent setup in a series of photos I've sent to video:

Note expert use of dirt angel for tent location

After setting up, I cruised down the road for an easy hike along the river to Zumwalt Meadow. Along the way I saw a really nice waterfall, and great views of the canyon including KC's version of North Dome.

Roaring River Falls

A canon fit for a king

North Dome from Zumwalt Meadow

Zumwalt Meadow

Along the trail, journaling the experience

Warmer temperatures and clear skies made for a very pleasant evening back at camp.

Day Four

Waking up to a cool, crisp, autumn mountain morning, I was excited to hit the trail again. Today's destination was Mist Falls and Paradise Valley. Leaving out of a place called Road's End, I figured it'd be pretty good.

Good advice

There were only a couple cars and nobody else at the trailhead, which is a popular takeoff point for long-range backpacking expeditions. Shortly after beginning the hike, my attention drifted off briefly, and mesmerized by the beautiful canyon scenery, I nearly ran into this pair of mule deer, who seemed equally surprised to find anyone else on the trail. They quickly scampered along, but stopped about 20' down the trail to pose for photos.

View shared with the mule deer

The experience reminded me that, tempting as it is, nature is no place to absently let one's mind wander, at least while moving alone down a trail. What if instead of surprising a mule deer, I'd surprised a grizzly bear, or wolverine, or worst of all, a buffalo? Ok, granted, none of these animals live in King's Canyon, but it's the principle of the matter. In any case, I went back to doing my "Hey Bears."

The trail to Mist Falls winds up the King's River canyon from 5000'-6000' elevation through a lovely mixed conifer/deciduous forest, frequented by giant-coned Sugar Pines; according to John Muir the "Kings of the Conifers."

Sugar Pine cone fronting the King's River

After an hour or so, I arrived at the spectacular falls, where I spent a while loitering, stunned to have the whole place to myself.

Mist Falls

As I looked at the waterfall, I was struck by the thought of a single drop of water falling down, it's journey to get here, and where it will go next. From the journal...

Perhaps it evaporated from a faraway sea or lake, or salt marsh or rice paddy. Perhaps before getting there it was drunk by an animal, or an Olympic athlete. It floated in a cloud across endless ocean before falling as snow atop the high Sierra. Maybe it stayed there, in a little shaded crevice, for years before melting and percolating through rock and soil to join a stream and flow here. From here it will begin a journey downstream, along the King's River before joining larger waterways to the Pacific. Will it make it all the way there? Maybe instead it will splash up on a rock to be evaporated by the sun, or lapped up by one of these thirsty, bushy-tailed gray squirrels. Maybe it will freeze as ice and winter here. Or maybe when it hits the bottom of the falls, it will splash up into one of these glorious cedars and be stored in a cell somewhere in the massive plant, only to be eaten by a bird and crapped out somewhere else (perhaps upon a noisy camper's head?) Who knows? But how cool would it be, were we to follow that drop of water along its journey, and see all the places it sees?

On the trail above the falls were glorious views to the south toward Sphinx Mountain:

By the time I reached Paradise Valley, I was actually hoping to find some company. This had more than a little to do with the fact that while I'd seen no sign of other hikers, I was increasingly seeing signs of other animals, namely huge piles of fresh bear crap:

Evidently more bears than people use this trail

The campground at P.V. was beautiful, densely tree-covered, and again - by virtue of all the bear scat - a little unsettling. I set up for lunch on an isolated, rocky peninsula in the river, figuring I'd at least have fair warning should a troublemaking ursid appear.

Not 10 minutes later, I again heard some rustling across the river, and saw this big furry thing climb down out of a tree:

Call me crazy, but until this trip I thought of bears as primarily ground-dwelling creatures. After this trip, I think Sierra black bears actually prefer to hang out in trees. I started wondering how many arboreal bears I had unknowingly passed by along the trail.

A short time later, I heard more noise along the peninsula, but that turned out to be Tony, a really cool guy from San Francisco who ended up joining me for the return hike. Tony had amazing stories of backpacking journeys through South America, and I enjoyed having company along the trail. It's amazing how much less fearful I was of a chance bear encounter.

And a chance bear encounter we would have. Again, from the journal:

Returning just above Mist Falls, we heard a call from a woman some distance down the trail, who ran up and reported bears in the trees above the trail below. She asked to walk together, and the three of us set off, calling to the bears. A little way down we came upon a non-descript section of trail, and the woman pointed to the trees saying "there!" Tony and I said "where?" and only upon close inspection saw two bears - a blonde mother and little black cub. They would be easy to miss, even right atop the trail where they were. We paused beneath the tree briefly to check them out. They were 10-15' up, sprawled across seemingly far-too-small branches. We were kinda enjoying checking them out, but mom wasn't so keen, and started climbing down the tree. We walked off, she went back to her business, and all was well.

Having now become acquainted with the arboreal ways of the bear, I think all forms of bear bag might just be a waste of time.

Enroute back to the trailhead, I spotted a tree that didn't appear in my park tree guide. I'm not sure, but I think it's a single leaf pinyon pine:

Pinus monophylla?

Back at camp I did a count of large mammals I'd seen on the day's hike. The tally:

Black Bear: 3
Mule Deer: 5
Human: 6

Pretty incredible, on trail in a national park.

Day Five

On my last day in the park, I chose a short and steep (5mi RT, +1300') hike to the Hotel Creek Overlook, a route that had come recommended by both a local ranger and my new friend Tony. Once again, I had the trail to myself as I climbed up a relatively open, manzanita- and switchback-covered ridge.

Total tree eclipse

Manzanita amidst pines

Since Tony had surprised a bear two days earlier at a switchback, the "Hey Bears" were in full effect, but I would see no ursids on this day. I did see a bunch of lizards sunning themselves on rocks, and a whole bunch of this bear clover (a.k.a. mountain misery), which makes for beautiful ground cover and a curiously strong artichoke-like odor.

Mountain misery for the artichoke-averse

Near the top, the green-blanketed ground combined with pleasantly shady ponderosa pine, incense cedar and cool breezes to create a little mountain Eden, from which one had a birds-eye view along the length of King's Canyon. Here's a panoramic video:

At the overlook I met fellow hikers from Germany and Pasadena, who shared in my appreciation of this amazing spot.

A great place to meet friendly strangers

It was tough to leave and drive back to LA, but the view on the way out made up for it at least a little bit...

Massive granite fins, near the western end of the canyon

Under clearer skies, the ridges of the high Sierra were visible to the east of King's Canyon, lightly snow-capped from the week's storms:

My last stop was Hume Lake, a man-made former mill site that now has a unique, stump- and moss-covered ambiance:

Befitting the theme of an unanticipated, broken itinerary outdoor adventure, I stopped on the way home for an impromptu visit with Beck and Sally, friends I'd made when car trouble during a trip to the Western Sierra last summer brought new adventure, great stories, and a reaffirmed faith in the kindness of strangers.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. To me a visit to nature isn't about conquering, isn't about control, and sometimes turns out best when the planning goes out the window.