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

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

Camping Retreat in the Redwoods – Part 1

Redwoods and ferns looking upIt has been nearly a year since I took my three-week trip to Northern California and Oregon to connect with nature, family and friends. My journey in September and October 2013 included peaceful solitary time in nature, getting soggy in the season’s first rainstorm, and a bit of drama, the natural one of the wettest September in Oregon history and the human one of being in a national park when the federal government shut down. So here begins a belated series of posts including stories and photos about my travels from last year.

At a time of a difficult transition in my life, I was irresistibly pulled toward a solitary camping retreat for my birthday and the fall equinox, and knew where I needed to spend time to reflect and recharge—the old-growth redwood forest of the North Coast. I headed to Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, home to some of the world’s oldest and tallest trees in the remaining 3% of pristine redwood forest. After a long period of recovery from my knee replacement and being restricted from hiking, arriving at the campground felt like coming home.

Picking the ideal campsite was important for a six-day stay and the campground was largely empty when I arrived. I lucked into Site 44, surrounded by a canopy of trees and shrubs to minimize the moisture that would inevitably be all over everything and act as a windbreak. The best feature of this site was the private creekside spot accessible down a short path through the trees, where I would be able to watch the daily show of bats feeding over the water at nightfall.

Prairie Creek campsite 44 9-2013This was the kitchen, living room and bedroom. The sign on the table reminds campers to properly store food and remove crumbs to keep wildlife wild.

 Prairie Creek campsite 44 creek view 9-2013My campsite’s bonus room

There is something about the company of such enormous trees that always inspires slowing down and being introspective. On my arrival day, I was drawn to an open area in the campground for a walking meditation beside two giant redwoods. I naturally slowed down so much that I barely moved with each step, focusing on the feel of the earth beneath me, conscious of deep roots, and feeling my awareness widen.

We are always of this earth, we just forget it. So began my personal journey of remembering and restoring. For more from Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, see Part 2.

My Three-Week Trip Summed Up in Four Photos

I returned yesterday from my three-week vacation in Northern California and Oregon. I’ll share more details and photos soon, but for now these images capture the gist of how it went.

Prairie Creek tiny portrait 9-2013Tiny me in the company of giant redwoods

Tent wet in bags in car Prairie Creek 9-2013The mess of my tent after the first of 12 record-setting days of storms—one bag each for the soaked and muddy body, rainfly and ground cloth (yes, I headed indoors)

Crater Lake view with two trees in foreground 10-2013

Crater Lake with unusually early snowfall

Crater Lake government shutdown sign 10-2013

An interesting challenge for my travel plans

The Wisdom of Ancient Trees

The feel of soft duff beneath my shoes with each step. My pulse quickening as I ascend the winding trail. The sound of the creek as I descend. These are the familiar elements of my pilgrimage to a secret spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains. They are the constants through the things that change through the seasons: light and shadow, warm air and flowers at trail’s edge or chilly wet days with fungi all around. The creek a trickle over the lip of a drop-off or a full waterfall. I have walked this trail for more than 20 years now, leading to twin ancient redwoods.

I first discovered these two giant trees on a hike to a different destination with my housemate when I lived and worked at an outdoor school in the area. I just happened to look up, and the trees off-trail down the slope were so enormous and compelling that I had to stop. I didn’t know then how special this spot would be to me all these years.

Last weekend, I clambered down through the thick duff, moving aside a few branches of a redwood sapling, sinking into years’ worth of needles and rotting deadfall. I stepped carefully on a route that deer have apparently made their own as well, conscious to disturb things as little as possible. And arrived at the two giants growing about six feet apart, survivors from the days of logging that tower over all the second growth around them.

I nestled against one and faced the other. The bark is a landscape unto itself, with spider webs and lichen on the blackened fire scars and way up the brown trunk. There is no way to see through the canopy to the tops of the trees above me, but I love just looking up as far as I can.

The young tan oak growing between them was not there when I first visited. Now it is at least twice my height, and its narrow trunk provides a comfy footrest.

On this day the air was chilly but still. The creek downslope was low and not audible. I could hear the birds moving around. It’s acorn season and the acorn woodpeckers were busy, chattering in their family groups and hammering acorns into their granary trees for later in the season.

Wrapped in my warm layers, I visited with one tree, then the other. I leaned against the trunk, reached up and touched the bark beside me. I closed my eyes, opened them, closed them again. Here I have found strength from these enduring ancients when I could not muster my own. I have grieved here after the death of friends. Sometimes I have silently celebrated the miracle that I am alive on this earth and thanked the universe for that blessing, leaving rejuvenated and mindful of all I have to be grateful for. A few times, I have brought people I love, so they could also benefit from these twin trees’ wisdom.

I cannot explain the depth of my connection to this place, but it is home for me in a way that nowhere else is.

Trip Report, Part 6: Prairie Creek Redwoods

Officially surrendering to altitude sickness, I high-tailed it across the state. I spent five days living in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the most spectacular old-growth redwood forest I know of. The park was saved in the 1920s, long before other redwood areas, so it has big tracts that have never been logged. With only about 3% of old-growth redwood forest remaining, you can find much of it here. I’d been here before but never had such a big chunk of time to explore.

It was quite the contrast going from the dry Great Basin at the base of the Sierras to the moist coastal forest. In the Buttermilks, I was slathering lotion on my hands several times a day to keep my skin from cracking. At Prairie Creek, I poured a little water on my tent fly to remove some bird scat and two days later the ground was still wet in that spot.

I was impressed by how far this park has come over the years in preventing wildlife from being habituated. When I first visited Prairie Creek many years ago, bears ran through the campground looking for food. This time, not even the Douglas squirrels or gray jays were habituated. Birds and squirrels were all around me at my campsite, but all were focused on their natural food of tree cones and elderberries.

Late September was the ideal time to visit. The weather was great and I had lots of solitude on the trail. It was the perfect place to spend my birthday, diving deep into the company of wise ancient trees.

I am awestruck every time by just how massive the ancient redwoods are. I felt like an elf there.

This shot gives little sense of scale, but this was an enormous grove of redwoods on the James Irvine Trail. To get a sense of its size, see the previous photo. In this picture, you can compare the trees to the trail and ferns below. I parked myself in a hollow here and just took it all in for a while. I felt so connected to everything that it seemed like I could easily have just dissolved into that spot.

And here are images that show the intricacies of what’s going on at a small scale.

I was struck by the contrast of the red undersides of the redwood sorrel against the green of the upper surface and the color of the fallen log.

Here’s a close-up of a redwood sorrel leaf and a forest inhabitant.

Redwood sorrel flower

Blue-bead lily

The cones of the Sitka spruce are delicate.These evergreen trees grow beside the redwoods.

I’m too lazy to learn the species of fungi, but here are a bunch that were interesting.