Fire and Fog on the California Coast

It’s summer on the Northern California coast—fog season. The fog moves in dramatically as an aerial waterfall flowing over the tops of the hills. It’s the only source of moisture during the extended dry season, and it’s what nurtures the growth of the coast redwoods found nowhere else on earth. The fog provides the temperature contrast with the intense summer heat inland and while the frequency varies year to year, it sees us through until the winter rains.

It seemed to be a relatively foggy summer until it wasn’t. Just still warm air, and then high winds bringing freak storm clouds shooting down dry lightning that ignited thousands of fires. And still no fog to slow down the flames.

Where I live is not in the fire zone but the smoke is intense. Seeking cleaner air and the comfort of nature, I headed toward the coast in Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the late afternoon. Traveling through the Marin Headlands, I spotted a coyote.

And the coyote spotted me.

I arrived at Rodeo Beach. Walking on the sand toward the waves, I looked across the ocean as I have countless times. But never had the sky looked like this. There was the fog, hovering over the water miles away. A thin strip of blue sky was visible above it, and on top was a giant layer of smoke drifting above and heading out to sea.

I watched the seabirds coming and going from appropriately named Bird Island, silhouetted against that strange sky. The cormorants traveled alone in straight lines, the solitary gulls meandered, and brown pelicans gracefully circled in groups and glided just above the water. I was watching a moving painting that was simultaneously ominous and beautiful.

I lingered to take in the fresh salt air. Before I left to sequester indoors with my air filters again, I watched the sunset with the eerie orange glow that only smoke can create. And willed the fog to come ashore.

Within the Buddhist teaching of Metta, translated as loving-kindness, is a phrase one says on behalf of all beings—may you be safe. For all affected by the fires, known and unknown, this is my wish for you.

Redwood Parks in Spring


Rhododendron, Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park

I set off into the darkness, toward the sound of the creek. Though I hadn’t been here in a long time, there was a familiar feel to a trail in a redwood forest. My feet knew the surface below me, and I smiled to myself hearing the sound of my footsteps on the wooden footbridge as Godwood Creek, shallow but swift, moved below me.

I might have hesitated on a dark night, but tonight with the moon above nearly full it was bright enough to read an interpretive sign on the reflective metal: New Growth.

I had come to Prairie Creek Redwoods multiple times, but never in the spring. Even in the darkness, I could see small white flowers adjacent to the trail. At an opening, I watched for bats and saw a few.

New growth. I couldn’t recall so much water here before, audible from a good distance away at Elk Prairie adjacent to the visitor center.

I knew this was a well-groomed, flat trail without obstacles or anything to trip on, but I placed each foot carefully. Not because I was afraid I would stumble, but because each footstep connected me with this forest of ancient redwoods.

There is something ironic about writing about an inherently wordless experience. It was about natural silence. Eventually, I tore myself away from the darkness and the creek to head back to my campsite. But I laid myself down on the same soft earth, to the soothing sound of the smaller Prairie Creek before it flowed into the bigger one.

More delights awaited me when I visited the trail in daylight. I had walked right past a large cluster of rhododendron blooms adjacent to the bridge, now just beyond where I could reach with my fingertips, and snapped the picture above. The new growth referenced in the sign was the vibrant green and delicate leaves of vine maple. The small white flower I’d seen was one of many, the blooms of redwood sorrel. This was the beginning of days meandering among the giants above me and tiny beauties below me.

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What a treat to visit in the spring after a near-record wet winter. I had never been there when so much was blooming.

Western azalea

 
Bleeding heart

Giant trillium

Hairy buttercup

Salal

Coast twinberry

I meandered through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and neighboring parks, Redwood National Park and Jedediah Smith State Park, collectively managed together to best protect them. Trail damage was extensive from the winter storms with some trails still closed. For the ones that were open, they still had a lot of downed trees and limbs to climb over, under, or through.

Since May was still a bit rainy before the tourist season, I had little human company. The Ten Taypo Trail in Prairie Creek in some places was a carpet of moss from little use.

I was fortunate to observe lots of wildlife. Previously I had seen Roosevelt elk in the fall breeding season, when the bulls have their enormous antlers and aggressively vie for the cows. This time of year, instead the males herded together and the cows stayed as a separate group with juveniles. The young bulls had their new antlers for the season covered in velvet, and many of the elk had a patchwork of hair as they were shedding their winter coats. I watched them from a safe distance.

However, just because I gave them space didn’t mean they did the same. One day, I pulled my car over on the shoulder of the road to watch a herd, and they calmly strolled by just a couple feet away. I took the following photo through the open window.

It was nesting season for birds. This barn swallow glared at me when I got too close to his nest under the eaves of the bathroom at the Trillium Falls trailhead.

Everything was so lush, a tangle of green upon green, with every available spot occupied by something growing, including the dead logs that provided a home for everything from moss to whole trees that sprouted out of them.

Trillium Falls

Even the picnic table at my campsite had a couple tiny plants sprouting where rainwater had soaked them. I transplanted them where they wouldn’t get trampled, and gave them a drink from my water bottle before I reluctantly headed home.

Happy blogger in Redwood National Park

Trip Report, Part 7: Wildlife

When I scrapped my plans to head to Sequoia-Kings Canyon and to the redwoods, I skedaddled from my friends’ house in Bishop to get as far as I could that day en route to Prairie Creek. I made it 445 miles to Weaverville.

With the exception of the area around Reno, it was a beautiful drive. It felt strange to head up the east side of the Sierras and past Lassen National Park without stopping to explore.

I was driving through Lassen National Forest when I spotted animals off to the right. Even at high speed, I could tell they weren’t deer, but I wasn’t sure what they were. Always ready to pull over for another nature moment, I stopped the car on the shoulder. Pronghorn antelope!

This was a rare sight for me. I watched them for a while with my binoculars, then got out of the car as quietly as I could to take photos. They were pretty far away–and got farther once I showed up and I felt a little bad about spooking them–so this is the best shot I could get.

I’ve long been an admirer of band-tailed pigeons–wild forest birds, not the urban kind–but they tend to be shy and I’ve never been able to get a photo. At Prairie Creek, I lucked out because the elderberries were ripe and attracting the pigeons all around my campsite. They are enormous birds. It was funny to watch a pigeon crash-land on a slender branch. That whole part of the tree would bend way down while the bulky bird flapped noisily until s/he was in a stable enough position to eat the berries.

I had hoped to see the resident Roosevelt elk at Prairie Creek, and lucked out on my last morning. I was headed to an area they are often seen in the early mornings on my drive back home, and there they were just hanging out beside the road in front of some unused cabins. This was the primo grassy area and several bulls shared the area, eying each other warily among the cows during the rutting season. Periodically this dominant bull would chase off one of the other males

And last, no account of a trip to the redwoods would be complete without including the ubiquitous banana slug.