Portraits of Spring Neighbors

Common merganser female right at Las Gallinas smaller
Common merganser at dusk

There’s a period early in the year in the Bay Area when the wintering birds overlap with the spring wildflower season, and I can hardly contain myself. Here are a few images from a couple months ago.

One of the best birdwatching sites nearby is the unglamorous Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District sewage treatment facility. Multiple ponds not only allow natural processes to break down waste, but provide habitat for waterfowl, songbirds and raptors. While some are residents year-round, the place really comes to life with the migrants present throughout the winter and spring.

Common merganser female left at Las Gallinas
A different view of the same common merganser

Canvasback at Las Gallinas smaller

On a different day, I headed to see forest-dwelling flowers at the Martin Griffin Preserve of Audubon Canyon Ranch. Posting these a couple months after the fact feels like waving goodbye to familiar friends that I’ll see again next spring.

Douglas iris ACR 4-2016 smaller
Douglas iris

Western columbine ACR 4-2016 smallerWestern columbine

Coral root ACR 4-2016 smallerSpotted coralroot

Miners lettuce ACR 4-2016 smallerMiner’s lettuce

Death Valley Landscapes

Mountain view 1 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smallerMy Death Valley trip last month was so spectacular that it’s taken three posts to include everything. Well okay, part of it is is that I finally got a better camera and just took a lot of photos.

One of my hikes was a loop through Golden Canyon and Gower Gulch.

Zabriskie Point from Golden Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Zabriskie Point above Golden Canyon

Golden Canyon view toward Badwater 2-2016 smaller
View from Golden Canyon Trail toward the Badwater Basin,
the lowest spot in North America

Badwater view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe aptly named Badwater—no plants can grow in these salt flats

Beverly with Badwater sign Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert rat posing for a photo

The geology of Death Valley National Park is complex and it would take me a long time to figure out all the rock types. One of the places I meandered through was the red rock in Natural Bridge Canyon.

Natural Bridge Canyon Death Valley 2-2016 smaller                                     The trail through Natural Bridge Canyon

Natural Bridge Canyon looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLooking up from Natural Bridge Canyon

On my final day in the park, I traveled to the north end for a hike at Ubehebe Crater, or Tem-pin-tta Wo’sah in the language of the Shoshone Paiute. Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile across. It’s at a higher elevation than the valley floor, so the wildflowers weren’t yet blooming. It has the kind of stark moonscape that Death Valley National Park is known for.

Ubehebe Crater rim view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerView of Ubehebe Crater from the rim

I had intended to take the rim trail around the crater, created by an ancient volcanic steam explosion. But having never hiked inside a crater, instead I chose to head down the very steep trail, a 600-foot descent in a quarter mile. I figured that since I’ve been able to grunt up from the bottom of the Grand Canyon with a heavy backpack, I could manage this short climb.

Ubehebe Crater view of the bottom Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The other-wordly bottom of Ubehebe Crater

Heading down in loose scree was a blast, like cross-country skiing with my feet skating along in front of me. Of course, that meant the ascent was a beast. My feet sank up to my ankles. I’m convinced that whoever coined the term “two steps forward, one step back” took this hike.

Ubehebe Crater trail view Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThis might be the steepest trail I’ve ever taken.
See the people at the rim and the bottom of the trail for scale.

In concluding this series about my travels to Death Valley, it’s fitting to finish with more photos of this year’s extraordinary wildflower bloom.

Mountain view 2 with desert gold Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold carpeting the valley floor for miles

Desert gold close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert gold

Desert five-spot multiple blooms Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Desert five-spot

Gravel ghost 2 Death Valley 2-2016 smallerGravel ghost

Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Golden evening primrose and notch-leaf phacelia

Lesser mojavea close-up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
Lesser mojavea

Desert-star and scented cryptantha Death Valley 2-2016 smallerDesert-star at the top with tiny scented cryptantha in the lower left

Desert gold landscape 1 Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
For more about Death Valley, see the previous two posts featuring photos of wildflowers and my adventure in a storm.


Storm in Death Valley

Storm approaching Death Valley 2-2016 smaller

I based my trip to Death Valley National Park last month at Emigrant Campground, a remote location at an elevation of 2,000 feet. It features 10 tent sites, no electricity, water and a bathroom across the road, and expansive views. Unstaffed and first-come first-serve far from the developed areas of the park, the campground attracts people like me who seek quiet and solitude. My neighbors and I respected each other’s silence and didn’t speak to one another.

An unseasonably hot day in the 90s rolled in so I left my base camp and drove up the Emigrant Canyon Road to high elevation for the day where it would be cooler. The term “wide open spaces” came to mind with views all the way to the Sierra Nevada 75 miles away. I stopped often just to take it all in.

Wide open spaces looking down Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
The view from about 5,000 feet looking down toward the distant Sierra Nevada range

Wide open spaces looking up Death Valley 2-2016 smaller
This is the view looking up to the snow-covered Panamint Mountains within the park. An old dirt road below shows the massive scale of the place.

The pavement ended and the bumpy dirt road began. It was closed at 6,800 feet due to snow beyond that point. When it’s open, the road ends at a higher campground. Further up is a hiking trail to the highest point in the park, Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. The road closure was at the Wildrose charcoal kilns, masonry structures built in the 1870s that created smelter fuel for lead and silver mines. I was impressed that the kilns are in such good shape. The black stains on the inside walls are still visible.

Charcoal kilns Death Valley 2-2016 smallerWildrose charcoal kilns

With a comparable forecast the following day, I drove up the same road to leave the heat in the valley behind. This time I left my car in one of the few turnouts along the road and hiked at Pinon Mesa on an old rocky mining route toward a canyon that sounded interesting. The weather forecast turned out to be incorrect. With the wind picking up, the sky darkening, and the temperature dropping, I changed my plans and turned around.

I took shelter for lunch in my trusty Subaru that’s well-suited for the rough dirt roads. Hearing a loud pop outside the car, I looked up to see that the sound was the wind ripping a leafless bush from the ground. It was now a tumbleweed rolling away. The car was shaking.

Rainstorms in this topography often don’t make it all the way down to the valley itself, but the water they drop does. I didn’t want to get cut off by a flash flood along my route downhill, so I headed back to check on my campsite a few thousand feet below.

View of storm arriving Death Valley 2-2016 smallerFollowing the weather down the mountain—unlike the day before, the Sierra Nevada was invisible

Storm view descending Emigrant Canyon Road Death Valley 2-1016 smaller
Back on pavement, descending on the Emigrant Canyon Road

When I got back to Emigrant Campground, the storm created an instant community among a group of us who had not previously spoken. Two other solo hikers returned from their wanderings around the same time, all of us recognizing that we had needed to skedaddle back. While we were gone, our tents collapsed and pieces of them were blowing across the desert. Joanna from Nevada, who had been camping in her van and hadn’t left the campground, explained that the force of the wind had knocked her down and she scraped her hand. Nevertheless, she had grabbed our scattering gear. She piled rocks on the wreckage to hold it all in place until we returned.

Ron from Utah and John hustled over to my campsite to help wrestle with my stuff as the sand and rain pelted us. We stuffed the tent, sleeping bag and air mattress willy-nilly in the back of my car. John told us his own tent was shredded but he had his truck to sleep in. Ron declined my and John’s help with his damaged tent. He calmly shrugged and said his brand new tent was a lost cause, and he was just going to wait out the storm and sleep in his van. Not having a roomy vehicle myself, I needed to find a place indoors to spend the night. I turned the car toward the road and stopped when Joanna flagged me down. She handed me the tent’s groundcloth that she’d grabbed before it blew too far away.

En route to the lodge in Stovepipe Wells nine miles away, I could see that rain wasn’t falling in the valley below sea level ahead. Instead, there was a massive dust storm enveloping the landscape and blocking the view of the mountains I’d seen clearly just hours earlier.

Emigrant Campground view Death Valley 2-1016 smallerThe view from Emigrant Campground in the morning before the storm

Sandstorm view from near Emigrant Campground Death Valley 2-2016 smallerLater that day looking in the same direction at the miles-wide sandstorm below sea level

Sandstorm in valley dose-up Death Valley 2-2016 smallerA closer look at the sandstorm

Exiting my car, I stopped before I entered the lodge and savored the sweet scent of the air, countless creosote bushes damp from the rain. I booked the last available room and set up the tent inside to survey the damage. The poles hadn’t snapped and the body was intact. The rainfly had multiple holes so it would be useless for a future rainy trip. With the storm inevitably passing quickly, the tent was in good enough shape for the rest of this trip.

The wind continued blasting throughout the night. Much of the next day, I was blowing dust out of my nose. Some of the sand particles still hung in the air, gradually settling under clearing skies.

View across valley after storm Death Valley 2-2016 smallerThe view across the valley floor the morning after the storm as the clouds were clearing

The raindrops that had fallen at the campground the night before hadn’t reached the ground below sea level. Instead, the rain from the mountains moved through the valley in flash floods. By the next day they had already disappeared, leaving behind damp surfaces and sediment in the washes and across the road below sea level—rare water in the desert that extended the life of the equally rare bloom this season, the best since 2005. (You can see Death Valley wildflower photos in a previous post.)

Desert gold flower in muddy wash Death Valley 2-2016 smaller Desert gold blooming in a muddy wash

After exploring during the day, I got back to Emigrant Campground at nightfall. I was surprised by how much I hoped to see the others because I was concerned about how they had fared. I was pleased that none of us let the weather chase us away, and over the next few days we continued our parallel outdoor adventures. The storm had broken our silence and we swapped contact info. I brought cookies from Stovepipe Wells to thank Joanna, passed along some food I wasn’t going to use to John, and got the link to Ron’s website for his landscape photography.

As desert storms do, this one blasted through in a hurry. The friendships it created continued.

View across Devils Cornfield Death Valley 2-2016 smaller             View across Devils Cornfield

Two additional posts about Death valley feature photos of wildflowers and landscapes.

Worth a Thousand Words – Wildflowers in Death Valley

Desert gold landscape at sunset 2-2016

Death Valley National Park has the hottest overall temperatures on earth, including the highest recorded air temperature of 134 degrees. With an average of less than two inches of rain a year, the plants there manage to eke out their survival in harsh conditions.

So during the rare years when several inches of rain show up in a few months in fall and winter, it’s miraculous for plants. The long-dormant seeds burst out in carpets of wildflowers across the desert floor. Luckily for me, for five days in February I was able to experience this spectacle.

I have stories to share about my journey in a future post. For now, it’s all about photos of the flowers.

Desert five-spot close-up 2-2016
Desert five-spot, an uncommon flower

Desert goldDesert gold, the showy and densely growing flower that turns entire landscapes yellow

Scented cryptantha
Scented cryptantha, easy to miss with its tiny blossoms

Notch-leaf phacelia 2-2016
Notch-leaf phacelia—I was glad a ranger warned me that touching it can cause a rash

Brown-eyed evening primrose at dusk 2-2016The night-blooming brown-eyed evening primrose, at sunset as blossoms opened

Lesser mojavea
Lesser mohavea

Golden evening primrose 2-2016
Golden evening primrose soon after sunrise, with the notch-leaf phacelia

Fremont pincushionPebble pincushion, the only one of this species that I saw

Purplemat 2-2016

Desert-star 2-2016
Desert-star, looking like miniature daisies

Gravel ghost 2-2016
Gravel ghost

(Two additional Death Valley posts feature my adventure in a storm and more landscapes.) For more of this ephemeral beauty, check out Death Valley National Park’s video about this year’s bloom.

Return of the Water

Redwood Creek, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

It’s always special when the rainy season returns after months of no rain, the typical dry season in California. Except that the rain hasn’t come for years, with a record-setting drought that has left us over and over crossing our fingers each winter for rainfall that never came.

Until it did this winter.

Everywhere, the green has returned. The moss in the forest has once again revived as a big sponge along the tree trunks and rocks. Mushrooms of all colors are emerging from the soil. I’m savoring the squishiness of mud underfoot instead of hard-packed trail. Just being outdoors, you can feel the earth soaking it all up and coming back to life. I can’t help being energized by it.

Today I walked a favorite seven-mile loop, starting in Muir Woods National Monument early before the crowds, heading uphill into the quiet of Mt. Tamalpais State Park, and eventually descending back where I started. What was distinctive this time is that I could hear the welcome sound of rushing water the entire way—first as I hiked up the steep canyon on the Bootjack Trail along Redwood Creek, where the water surged in waterfalls and narrow channels, and then along the smaller braids in the adjacent gullies along the TCC, Stapleveldt, Ben Johnson and Hillside Trails.

Creek on TCC Trail 1-2015Redwood Creek passes through Muir Woods into Golden Gate National Recreation Area and eventually to the ocean. After years without success, this year, the endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout can make it back to spawn.

Although California’s drought has been severe, Oregon’s rainfall until this winter had been below normal as well. On a recent visit to see my friend Bryan in Portland, the one activity I insisted on was a visit to the Columbia River Gorge to see the gushing waterfalls. They were so loud that Bryan and I had to shout so we could hear each other.

Beverly at Latourell Falls in Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Standing beside Latourell Falls, Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area

Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Horsetail Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Covered head to toe in raingear, it was fabulous to be in the wet forest tromping around in the downpour. Water everywhere. Bring it on.

Beverly portait Bridal Veil Falls Columbia River Gorge 1-2016
Bridal Veil Falls State Scenic Viewpoint, Oregon – Photo by Bryan Aptekar

Time and Textures – The Company of Old Trees

Bristlecone pine portrait White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pine, Inyo National Forest

Craving the company of old trees, in September last year I ventured to the land of the world’s oldest living things—the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California’s White Mountains. I’d fulfilled a dream to visit with my first trip but at the mercy of altitude sickness, I was only able to stay for a few hours. The place beckoned me back. This time I had medication that enabled me to camp for several nights at 8,600 feet and hike the trails as high as 11,000 feet.

The bristlecone pines’ gnarled trunks speak to their endurance, through fires and thousands of winters in blasting wind, and snow that sustains them through the dry summers. Many parts die back with just a few branches sprouting needles and cones. They grow in nutrient-poor soil at a profoundly slow rate, sometimes reflecting 100 years in tree rings that are only an inch across.

The oldest known tree, Methuselah, is more than 4,600 years old. The trail winds through the grove where Methuselah grows anonymously among its neighbors that are 3,000 and 4,000 years old. Their shapes and textures are striking.

Bristlecone grove on Methusaleh Trail White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone pines siilhouette White Mountains 9-2015Bristlecone fire-scarred bark White Mountains 9-2015Even after they die, bristlecone pines can take thousands of years to decompose.

Fallen bristlecone that died in 1676 White Mountains 9-2015Log from a bristlecone pine more than 3,200 years old that fell in 1676

Along the Methuselah Trail, I came upon a tree that was about my height and I wondered about its age. Certainly it must have been at least a few hundred years old, perhaps 1,000 or more. I held its young green needles in my hand, a contrast in old and new.

Bristlecone branches White Mountains 9-2015

Walking among the bristlecones is a journey of awe. I am moved by their persistence.

Moonrise at Patriarch Grove White Mountains 9-2015
Moonrise over the Patriarch Grove at 11,000 feet

Wind and Wings

Snow geese near Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In early December each year, I head off for a solo retreat. I drive to see some of the millions of geese and ducks in the wetlands of their winter home, the wildlife refuges and agricultural fields of California’s Central Valley.

This is a different kind of nature experience than I usually seek out. The setting is ordinary—agricultural fields, highways and dirt roads. There’s often a strong wind that chills to the bone whether it’s rainy or sunny. I barely leave the car to avoid scaring the flocks into flight, and when I do park on the shoulder, I’m careful not to step in the concrete-like mud that can glue itself for days to my shoes.

The journey is about the birds, a spectacle of thousands of them all around me. Their honks and quacks are audible long before they’re visible. Up close, their wings whir like thunder when a flock of snow geese takes to the air all at once. The whole experience leaves me teary-eyed and breathless with wonder.

A late start meant I missed the sunset at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, when snow geese typically take wing en masse heading to the surrounding rice fields to feed, and other birds fly in for the night. Just as it got dark, I decided to drive the six-mile auto route anyway before the staff locked the gate for the night. Blasting the heat with the windows rolled down, I could hear the honking of invisible geese in the air. I switched off the engine and just listened in the darkness. It’s a sound I crave all year during their absence, and there was something magical about hearing it for the first time this season in darkness.

I spent the night at a motel in Willows and climbed into the car in the rain before dawn. It was 47 degrees, about 20 degrees above what it can be when it’s clear. I arrived at the refuge and awaited the return of the geese at sunrise. Only they didn’t come that day, a first in my experience.

Eventually in full daylight, I meandered slowly down the dirt road watching the many species of ducks emerge from their evening resting spots. Bundled up in my thermals and layers, I opened the windows. For the first time in my years of morning visits at the refuge, I could hear the ducks’ calls that are typically drowned out by the chattering geese. It was a sweet, soft chorus. I smiled coming around the bends and greeting the species I hadn’t seen since last year.

Where were the geese? I would have to explore the backroads and look for them.

I took off in search of the snow geese, white-fronted geese and tundra swans, driving the backroads and stopping on the shoulder for whatever surprises greeted me on the way. I love these discoveries, the mix of knowing that something amazing will show up, just not knowing what.

At 8:00, the temperature had risen a single degree to 48. I’d been up for three hours. The wind was blasting now, whistling against the car even with the windows closed. A bald eagle on the ground took flight, working hard as it flapped in the wind and drizzle. A kestrel was wobbling on a wire, barely able to hang on. The horizon was full of distant geese aloft and on the move.

The sky opened up with rain in earnest as I slowly drove down Road Z in anticipation. And there were birds I always seek out, in their usual spot feeding and resting in the flooded field near some rice silos—tundra swans, this time in the company of ducks and white-fronted geese. I rolled down the window to listen to them cooing and put my binoculars up to my eyes. Immediately I was pelted in the face with rain so I leaned over to keep it to a drizzle. And then… thousands of snow geese flew in, circling and cackling away as they descended into the water with the swans. I turned the car around to watch instead through the passenger window, letting my belongings get wet instead of me.

The roaring in this video made on my older generation camera is the sound of the wind masking the more appealing sound of the geese.

Snow geese flying above tundra swans and ducks

I decided to take one more spin through Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge before my drive home. The visitor center staff, who have come to know me, explained that the geese typically spend the day in the refuge only when it’s sunny and prefer the farm fields when it’s overcast and rainy.

I drove the auto tour route again, well under the speed limit of 15, and looked upward for raptors. A soggy peregrine falcon was perched just above me. Further along, I saw a distant dark triangle in a tree, looking like a kite that had gotten stuck. Once I used my binoculars, the kite became a red-tailed hawk, spreading its wings and tail out to dry. There were multiple raptors in that position along the route, soaked from the earlier downpour and unable to fly until they dried out.

Turkey vulture drying wings in Sac Refuge 12-2015
Turkey vultures in Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

I was a little sad when I pointed the car toward the freeway to head home. I drove across the overpass and as I descended before the entrance to I-5 South, in the field in front of me was an enormous flock of snow geese. I stopped on a pull-off and made the short video that’s posted at the top of this post. I couldn’t imagine a better way to end this year’s birding retreat.

Snow geese photo by Len Blumin
Photo of snow geese by Len Blumin, used with permission

I don’t know why being with these birds draws me so irresistibly. I only know that I am deeply moved by their company. My homing instinct brings me every winter on my own rejuvenating migration.

Len Blumin’s stunning bird photography can be found at his Flickr photostream.


Dreaming of the Canyon Country

Bryce viewed from the trailhead before descending into the canyon
The view from the trailhead of the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

Recovering from an injury, this year’s spring hiking season came and went. Although it’s now summer, I’ve been yearning for a favorite springtime destination, the canyon country of the Southwest, so I poked around and found my photos of a trip to Utah. My explorations there date back to the 1980s, but this trip in 2004 was the first to include the new technology of a digital camera.

Although photo-sharing sites have been around a long time, I haven’t wanted to use them because the images alone convey an incomplete picture without a narrative. It’s the writer in me. Now I can unearth the photos and share them with the full story, bringing the experience to life until I can explore the canyons again in person.

Spring in the canyon country is my favorite time to visit. It’s also a gamble, an experiment in arriving late enough to avoid snowstorms but early enough for sufficient moisture to see wildflowers before the dry, intense heat bakes the high desert.

On this particular trip, it was warm and sunny when my friend and I set up camp in Dixie National Forest just outside Bryce Canyon National Park. Without the crowds that come in summer, we had lots of solitude, another reason to come this time of year. Hiking in our tee-shirts through the striking rock formations, we planned to spend at least a couple days there.

Bryce doorway with pine
Archway on the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon National Park

The aptly named Fairyland Loop was stunning. Our eight-mile walk began and ended with a sweeping view for miles. When we returned to the canyon rim, we could see approaching clouds.

During the night at our campsite at 8,000 feet, it started to snow. There were already a couple inches on the ground when we awoke and it was coming down heavily. We broke camp and skedaddled out of there before we got stuck in the infamous muck that the red rock trails and dirt roads become when wet. We drove through the snowstorm on the paved highway to just outside Capitol Reef National Park, low enough at 5,000 feet that the snow had become rain. We spent the night indoors, dried out our wet gear, and waited for the storm to pass.

The next day was cloudy and cool, with ephemeral waterfalls gushing over the canyon walls above the valley in Capitol Reef. With our four-wheel drive car, we navigated the drying but sticky dirt roads to our backcountry campsite. A couple times, we stopped and stuck a trekking pole into the water flowing through the washes across the roadway, measuring the depth to make sure it was safe to drive through them.

At first, the arid environment dried the landscape so thoroughly that there was no sign of the previous downpour and the resulting flash flooding only a day earlier. But then we were lucky enough to be there for the burst of flowers that the high desert is famous for. Within a day, sprouts were visible. Within two days, the first flowers appeared. By the third day, the landscape erupted in color. For the rest of our trip in Utah, everywhere we went, the red rock country had been transformed by the rain.

Dwarf evening primrose blooming after Capitol Reef stormDwarf evening primrose, Capitol Reef National Park

Golden mariposa lily in Capitol Reef vertical croppedGolden mariposa lily, Capitol Reef National Park

Oak and sandstone in Capitol ReefOak and sandstone, Capitol Reef National Park

Common prickly pear near Moab cropped

Common prickly pear cactus, near Moab

Globemallow explosion after desert rain in southern UtahGlobemallow, near Moab

Prince's plume near Moab

Prince’s plume, near Moab

Claret cup cactus in Capitol Reef

Claret cup cactus, near Moab

Another great joy when visiting the canyon country is discovering the rock art by the native people who lived there up to 2,000 years ago. Yep, I need to get back there in the spring.

Petroglyph panel in ArchesPetroglyphs, Arches National Park
(I don’t know the era or tribe of the artists—I welcome that information by email)

Following Flower Season

Tiburon mariposa lily - 1

For years I’d heard about the threatened and protected Tiburon mariposa lily. A small population of individuals blooms for a few weeks on a single serpentine outcrop at Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve, and nowhere else in the world.

I at last decided to find the lily, researching its location online. I stumbled around on the crisscross of unmarked trails and found the general vicinity where the plant grows. I headed out alone, late in the day when the shadows were long and the trails were empty. I ended up on various side trails, poking around along the rocks. To protect them, there is no signage marking the exact spots where the lily grows. I had memorized the photos I’d seen, but realized since it’s not a showy flower and only the size of a quarter, I could easily miss it.

And there it was, right beside the trail. A single flower.

Tiburon mariposa lily - 2
Tiburon mariposa lily, Ring Mountain Open Space Preserve

It was deeply moving to sit beside one of the world’s rare living things. I reached to touch it as I do with most plants, but extra gently. In the silence I appreciated that it exists, and felt grateful to those who arranged for The Nature Conservancy to purchase and protect this property until it could become public land.

That first visit to Ring Mountain was six years ago. I still visit each June to see the flowers, as I did a few days ago. This season after years of drought, the plants could barely eke out their blossoms, noticeably smaller and paler than I’ve ever seen them.

There is a depth of connection that comes with returning to familiar places over time. I have come to know which trails to hike at which time so that I can visit particular flowers I’m fond of.

This year, I’ve missed nearly the entire wildflower season while I’m recovering from the sprain that accompanied my broken ankle in January. Except for the Tiburon mariposa lily, a late bloomer that grows not far from the trailhead, I’ve had to be satisfied with memories and photos from previous trips. I’m smiling, though, looking at these images and thinking about next year.

Oakland mariposa lily - Mt. Tam Van Wyck Meadow 5-2013
Oakland mariposa lily, Bootjack Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

 Baby blue eyes at Mt Tamalpais 3-2009
Baby blue eyes, High Marsh Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

California bead lily at Mt Tamalpais 5-2013 California bead lily, TCC Trail, Mt. Tamalpais State Park

Winter Portraits in Contrasting Climates

Stairs and Mississippi River 11-2014

I find it incredible that we can step on an airplane and in a matter of hours go from one climate to another. Although I grew up in frigid and snowy Michigan, I’ve been on the West Coast for many years. Since I don’t have to navigate the day to day difficulties associated with living in northern climes for more than a few days at a time, visiting the Midwest in winter has become novel and exciting.

On Thanksgiving morning a few months ago, I headed out from my relatives’ home in Minneapolis for a walk alone in the park along the Mississippi River on a sunny windless day. It was three degrees.

Covered in every layer known to humanity head to toe except for my nose and eyes, I was comfortable. I wore insulated boots, thermals on top and bottom, a flannel shirt, a fleece jacket, and the vintage thinsulate and wool coat that I’ve had for almost 30 years. Under the insulated hood was a neck warmer covering my chin and a fleece hat, and on my hands were the wool mittens my mother knitted for me decades ago, doubled up with two on each hand and rewoven multiple times to repair the fraying thumbs.

I was delighted to be outdoors in the quiet solitude of the morning. It had been so cold that there was no open water in the broad channel, with solid ice along the banks and mini floes in the middle. I descended down the long stairway to the river’s edge.

Stairway descending to Mississippi River 11-2014 3Between the sounds of crunching through snow underfoot, an accompaniment that took me back to childhood memories of Detroit, I stopped to observe the long shadows of the bare trees and the contrast of grays and browns against the bright blue overhead.

Snow trees and shadows 11-2014 1

Black-capped chickadees flitted above me, adapted to spend the whole winter in such a fierce climate. I later learned that these little songbirds have no measurable fat every morning, yet are able to create and store a fat layer each afternoon that gets them through the night.

Bare tree silhouette 11-2014I returned home to California at the peak of the winter waterfowl migration, what is typically the green season when the rain starts. In early December after the first rains, the parched earth in the Central Valley wildlife refuges was sprouting with green.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge sprouting 12-2014Hundreds of thousands of snow geese had arrived to escape the northern winter, congregating in Sacramento and Colusa National Wildlife Refuges.

Snow geese feeding at Colusa 1-2015

Snow geese in Sac 12-2014And later, I enjoyed the return of the green season myself on a favorite trail in Mt. Tamalpais State Park.

Beverly at Mt. Tam 1-2015

Acorn Woodpecker Season

Acorn smallerFor my birthday yesterday, I headed to my redwood retreat, twin giants in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I described in a previous post here.

This is a busy time of the year for the acorn woodpeckers. They gather their stash of fallen acorns from the live oaks and tan oaks and hammer them into their granary trees for the coming months. While other birds are pretty quiet this time of year since it’s past nesting season, yesterday the raucous family groups of acorn woodpeckers chatted away as they flew above me in flashes of black and white wings.

I settled in leaning against one of the two ancient redwoods. The young tan oak that had been a footrest in recent years looked dead, most likely another victim of the sudden oak death that has been ravaging California in recent years. The trunk was only as wide as my foot, and I lightly pushed my toes against it to see if was in fact dead. To my surprise, the entire thing toppled over, with its trunk rotten where it broke at the bottom.

I nested in the hollow that the former oak tree occupied, with the slope creating a headrest above me and the tangle of fallen branches providing a place to prop up my feet. I curled up and watched and listened.

I wonder how much of nature I miss by moving through it instead of being still. In that one spot for a chunk of the afternoon, I became a part of the landscape for a while. A tiny spider tried to use my shoulder as an anchor for her web. I could hear what sounded like a small mammal moving around beneath the layer of dead leaves and twigs. I watched the leaves of the tan oaks above me and the redwood needles even higher move in the wind that preceded the fog, then watched their colors change as they became still again once the fog arrived. All to the accompaniment of the acorn woodpeckers, which you can listen to here.

The light would be fading soon. I reluctantly sat up, disentangled the pieces of redwood and tan oak duff from my hair, and retraced my steps back up the trail. I snapped this photo of a fallen leaf from a big-leaf maple, the one deciduous tree around here that provides fall color.

Big leaf maple leaf 9-2014

Face to Face with an Endangered Species

Listening to birds is one of the things I love about being outdoors, especially when I’m hiking alone. In spring, the avian chorus is at its peak during nesting season. On a morning hike in May, I had just passed the boundary of Muir Woods National Monument and entered Mt. Tamalpais State Park when the change in the sounds of the birds got my attention.

Up ahead, multiple birds were vocal, but these weren’t their lyrical springtime songs. I was hearing alarm calls. I walked a few steps further and looked up to see what was causing the fuss.

And there perched on a tree only a few feet from the trail was a northern spotted owl.

I stopped, thinking my presence and movement might startle her, wishing her to stay. If I could have held my breath, I would have. She looked down at me. And stayed. I was awestruck.

Northern spotted owl 5-2014

Getting this close to a rare wild animal touches a part of me that is wordless. I think that’s why it has taken me months to write about the experience.

When it was clear that the owl was more concerned about the songbirds dive-bombing her than she was about me, I pulled out my camera. It was new and I didn’t yet know how to work the settings so the photo isn’t sharp. But having this image brings alive the wonder I felt when for a few minutes, my life intersected with a northern spotted owl.

Crater Lake National Park – Early Winter Appearance in September

Crater Lake view with two trees in foreground 10-2013Crater Lake was created by the massive eruption of Mount Mazama about 7,500 years ago. In the volcanic blast, lava flowed 40 miles and the ash traveled across 656,000 square miles. The 12,000-foot mountain in Oregon’s Cascade Range shortened by a mile in two days, collapsing under the weight of the melted rock that was left behind.

I chose September for my visit to Crater Lake National Park because the weather is consistently warm and clear. Except when it isn’t. I happened to arrive in the wettest September in Oregon’s recorded history, which meant there was snow at Crater Lake with its highest elevation at 8,929 feet. The access roads were closed. For several days at my friends Liz and Jason’s home in Bend, I checked the park’s webcams. Over and over the view was solid gray and the closure continued.

My days off for vacation time were ticking away while Liz and I waited for the weather to clear so we could join Jason, a ranger who was already in the park. On September 30, the park re-opened. By then Liz had work in Bend the next day, so I drove up through the rain on my own.

The average temperature at Crater Lake in September is 64 degrees. It was 37 degrees as I walked through the snow to the rim overlook at 7,100 feet, hoping the cloud cover would lift enough for me to see the legendary view of the lake and Wizard Island 1,000 feet below. I had a momentary glimpse before the clouds closed in again and hoped for better luck the next day.

The following morning, October 1, I faced a different challenge, best illustrated in the following photo.

Crater Lake government shutdown sign 10-2013National Park Service staff graciously gave visitors a few hours to leave the park so I had time to walk for a few miles before I was booted out. The high-elevation trails were covered in snow and impassable. Rim Drive, closed to cars due to snow for days, offered the perfect place for a walk. I cleared the snow off the windshield, drove up to the parking lot at the end of the access road, and walked to the overlook. The sun was out. Here was the spectacular view of Crater Lake and Wizard Island that I had waited for.

When I left balmy California two weeks earlier, I tossed my cold-weather layers in the car just in case. Today I needed all of them. It was 29 degrees.

I brought my trekking poles so I could walk on the Discovery Trail adjacent to the road. Because I had left the poles in the car the night before, the handles were chilling my fingers even through my gloves. So I strapped them to my pack and ditched the plan to take the wet trail, since a fall from the rim into the crater could be my last. The walk and views on the empty road were lovely enough.

Rock outcrop in snow Crater Lake 10-1-13Outcrop with Wizard Island in the background

It had been a long time since I had heard the crunch of snow under my boots. There were no other footprints. With the weather and the federal government shutdown, I had a national park essentially to myself. The snow and ice on rock faces created stunning formations.

Icicles on rock face Crater Lake 1 10-1-13
The view from the road

Icicles on rock face midrange Crater Lake 10-1-13
A closer look at colors and textures

 Icicles on rock face close-up Crater Lake 10-1-14
Icicles were everywhere

The snow in the Cascade Range is so wet and heavy that it’s gotten the nickname of Cascade concrete. At Crater Lake, the average snowfall is 44 feet a year. The western hemlocks and Shasta red firs are well-adapted, shorter here than their counterparts at lower elevations.

 Ice crystals on hemlock Crater Lake 10-1-13
Western hemlock

 Icicles on red fir Crater Lake 10-1-14
Shasta red fir

Even the dead trees looked beautiful in the deep freeze, like they were wearing jewelry.

Ice crystals on dead tree Crater Lake 10-1-13 horizontal
Ice crystals on a dead limb

  Ice crystals on dead tree Crater Lake 10-1-13 vertical
A closer view of the ice crystals

The clouds rolled back in. At first there were just a few flurries, but soon the wind picked up and the snow fell in large flakes. It was time to turn around. I took a last photo of the trees in the storm before it got too wet for my camera.

Hemlocks snowfall Crater Lake 10-1-14

   Beverly legs in heavy snow Crater Lake 10-1-13
The fleece pants came in handy

Exploring Eastern Oregon’s High Desert

In September of 2013, it was a good thing I was already planning to depart when I did from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in California. As described in my previous post, unseasonably heavy rain rolled in the day before, with a brief break in the evening.

Then it poured all night. I stayed dry and wouldn’t know until I got up in the morning that a pond had formed overnight under my tent. Note to self: spending extra on quality camping gear was worth it. When I took the tent down, it was such a soggy, muddy mess that I just stuffed it into garbage bags, one each for the groundcloth, tent body and rainfly. At that point it was hard to believe that this had been my bedroom for six days.

Tent wet in bags in car Prairie Creek 9-2013Fortunately, after my six-day camping trip, this part of my trip to Oregon involved staying indoors with friends and family. It was the beginning of what would be the wettest September in Oregon’s recorded history. But cool, wet days outside aren’t a big deal with a house to dry out in afterward. “It’s never like this in September” was the refrain I heard from everyone.

I was scheduled to visit my ranger friends at Crater Lake National Park, but with the entrances at 6,000 feet, all of the access roads were closed due to snow. Instead I went to their home in Bend, joining Liz there while Jason was at Crater Lake. We waited out the storm. And waited another day. And another one. The snow closure was making the news. It was even raining sporadically in arid Bend, with high temperatures barely breaking 60.

A positive about traveling on my own was the ability to spontaneously change plans. I had never explored eastern Oregon and in a hike with Liz, I discovered the beauty of the high desert in the US Bureau of Land Management’s Oregon Badlands Wilderness Area. We walked five miles on the Ancient Juniper Trail to the Flatiron Trail. After my time in the lush redwood forest, it was a contrast walking through the sparse landscape.

Rock formation-Oregon Badlands 1 9-2013With an environment shaped by volcanic rock, little rain and warm summers, the high desert is taken in only with close attention. It’s all about subtlety. In the Oregon Badlands, you could easily walk by the state’s oldest western juniper at 1,600 years because it wouldn’t look unusual. I may have done that myself. But I did stop to check out this one.

Beverly under Juniper-Oregon Badlands 9-2013Portrait with one of the largest junipers I’ve ever seen – Photo by Liz Ballenger

Juniper bark-Oregon Badlands 9-2013

Juniper bark

Juniper berries-Oregon Badlands 9-2013
Juniper berries

Much of the ground’s surface is nearly bare. A dead tree that can take hundreds of years to decompose in this dry climate provides important nutrients and shade that support little gardens. To discover the wonders of this landscape requires going slowly to observe closely. The beauty is in the textures and small signs of life.

Rabbitbrush and lichen-Oregon Badlands 9-2013Lichen on dead log with flowering rabbitbrush

Lichen-Oregon Badlands 1 9-2013Lichen close-up

Beverly in juniper tree near Bend Oregon 9-2013
Migratory wildlife – Photo by Liz Ballenger

Camping Retreat in the Redwoods – Part 2

Prairie Creek tiny portrait 9-2013There is nothing like an old-growth redwood forest for a reflective silent retreat. During my six days living at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in September 2013, I spoke only when needed, at the visitor center or giving someone directions. After walking a number of trails, I looked forward to the route I had saved for this final day here, my birthday.

It was sunny as I made breakfast, typical for late September and a reason why I had selected this time of year for my three-week trip in Northern California and Oregon. But I knew from the weather forecast posted at the visitor center it was supposed to rain, odd this early in the season.

Today I planned to revisit a magical spot I photographed in 2011 on the James Irvine Trail. I usually have no particular craving to have my own photo taken, but today I wanted to have a passing hiker take my picture in this redwood grove, to look at later when I needed a reminder of keeping perspective.

I hoped the weather would hold clear long enough for me to nest in that enormous redwood circle for a good long time, but I was also prepared if the rain came. In my daypack—rain jacket, rain pants, fleece jacket, fleece hat, all in a plastic bag. I wore my long-sleeved wicking synthetic turtleneck instead of the tee-shirts I’d been wearing the last few days.

My seven-mile loop began on the James Irvine Trail. Stunning, huge orange fungi grew on a trunk beside a bridge. I stopped to admire them and wished I could reach them to touch, but settled for sitting on the bridge and taking photos instead. Two band-tailed pigeons flushed, the sound of their wing beats unmistakable.

Orange fungus group Prairie Creek 9-2013Hiking on, the wind picked up and the sky darkened as the storm moved in. I knew I would recognize that special grove of interconnected tree trunks when I saw it. I stopped and looked up into it. So far the weather had cooperated and fortunately a couple other hikers happened by from the other direction. I asked one of them if he would take the photo of a wee human under the towering ancients. And the first raindrops fell just as he was taking the photo, creating an image of a dark blur covered in spatters. Time for the raingear.

The light rain quickly became a vertical flood, the kind of torrent usually seen in December, not September. I saw no other hikers as I continued on the Clintonia Trail. The birds and squirrels that had been chattering earlier were all hunkered down and silent now, with just the sound of the downpour.

I recalled the advice of my friend Ray in Alaska describing spending time outside there—you’re going to be wet, it’s just a matter of being wet and cold or wet and warm. My breathable raingear meant that I didn’t sweat like crazy like I would in waterproof materials, but with the surprisingly intense rain, the fabric eventually became completely saturated. My fleece jacket and hat would keep me warm even if they got soggy. The lower half of my body was a lost cause. I was soaked to the skin through my nylon pants under my rain pants. The Gore-Tex boots were the only thing that stayed mostly dry and gave me good footing.

I continued up and over the Miner’s Ridge Trail, grinning as I slogged through the huge puddles, dodging the numerous tree roots that make great footholds when dry but are slick when wet. I got to see the whole forest glistening without the distraction of other human company. I was in awe at my good fortune to be in the redwoods during the first major storm of the year. All the debris of the dry season came down with the raindrops like snow, a cascade of brown needles and twigs. The thirsty earth after the months of drought surely must have been happy. I swear I could feel it.

Banana slug Prairie Creek 9-2013
Banana slugs liked the rain

It was early afternoon. Had I not known better, I would have thought I was racing to get back to the campground by nightfall, as it was that dark under the forest canopy. I was warm and even hot as I moved quickly up and over the ridge, but soaked as I was with the rain not letting up, I wasn’t about to stop to eat my sandwich and cool down. I pulled an energy bar out of a side pouch of my pack without stopping, gulped some more water from the tube of my water bladder, and pressed on. Then ate the second bar en route, too.

Eventually, I got to the junction back at the James Irvine Trail. I realized I could get to the visitor center to dry off a bit before they closed. The park staff had gotten a fire going. I joined two parties of soggy cyclists from Germany, South Africa and Canada as we took turns warming up and hanging our wet gear around the fireplace.

There was a timely break in the rain when the visitor center closed. Back at my campsite, I found a pond in the parking area behind and beside my car, so I moved it forward to avoid the moat that was clearly here to stay through tomorrow. My tent was in good shape as expected, but I got a sense of how hard the rain had fallen when I saw the splatter of duff and dead needles fully a foot above the ground and completely under the rainfly, with bits of duff stuck to the mesh part of the tent body. I changed into dry clothes and finally ate my sandwich, pleased that I had hustled for the last four miles up and over a ridge with no break, not bad 10 months after my knee replacement.

I knew whose company I wanted for my birthday evening, so I drove a few miles down the road looking for the local herd of Roosevelt elk. I parked by the road and headed down the footpath. Peering over the bushes, there was the big bull and the herd of cows. It was rutting season so I wanted to give the bull a wide berth. They were far enough away that I could creep down into the edge of the meadow. Given my distance, it was a surprise when the bull looked up and started walking toward me. I darted up the path and then looked to see if he was behind me. He was slowly herding the cows closer together, and I then saw it wasn’t me he was concerned about. When I got back into my car, another bull walked 15 feet away and into the meadow.

I arrived at my campsite just before dark. After dinner, I celebrated with cookies and sang the happy birthday song to myself, grateful to have a spectacular birthday in the perfect place for the fluke of the first storm of the year.

Prairie Creek giant redwood grove 9-2011 smallerThe 2011 image of the grove I revisited