A Family Vacation at Big Bear Lake

 

walking-rogerAfter having lived most of my life in the Bay Area, California mountains meant only the Sierra Nevada.  My earliest memories are of Lake Tahoe with the bands of blue, the color deepening the further you were from shore.  I remember the translucency of the water, the whiteness of the beach sand and the way the sun shining through the water left a dazzling pattern on the sandy bottom. And the granite, always angular and glistening with feldspar.

Vacation in the mountains was a reprieve from home and the rank eucalyptus odors. Now it was sage and pine, and brilliant, hard edged cumulus instead of the dull sheets of stratus.

But it was time to put all that behind and turn my thoughts without aversion to the Southern California Mountains, another  transverse mountain range like the Santa Ynez range. The deep power of the San Andreas fault had twisted the mountains sideways, contrary to the northwest trending of the other California ranges.

With some of the family now living in Southern California, a three and a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos won the day over nine hours north to Lake Tahoe.

San Bernardino MountainsThe San Bernardino Mountains rise abruptly on all sides out of its arid landscape.  The curving road makes a quick ascent passing occasional coulter and knobcone pines, dried stalks of yuccas and  chaparral.  In a land of few lakes, only dams can create a body of water, gathered mostly from snow melt.  Big Bear Lake, no exception, occupies its own shallow valley set in low mountains and open conifer forests.  Unlike the Sierra, where millions of trees have succumbed to the long drought and insect attacks, Big Bear’s trees look healthy, perhaps being accustomed to dry years.

While noticing the distinct differences between the appearance of Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardinos, I remembered reading of their similarities.  Both began as batholiths formed of cooling magma deep underground before being uplifted some three million years ago. Older rocks overlain the newer granites.  But in the Sierra Nevada, the old rock eroded away with the heavier rains and the extensive glaciation.  In the Santa Bernardinos, with glaciation only on the highest peaks and less rain, more of the old rock remains.

deckBecause we were nine people, we rented a large, recently remodeled house which is currently on the market for three and a half million dollars.  While the family took to kayaks and paddle boards, I settled in on the deck to figure out this place.

The dominate pine is the Jeffrey – a close relative of the ponderosa (yellow) pine, which along with the coulter pine, are all members of the yellow pine family distinguished by packets of three long needles which produce nice harmonies in the wind.

The fir family was represented by white fir growing, at the deck rail, with short, dense needles which point upward.  Each species seems to have its own distinct odor.  Press your nose into the cracks between the plates of bark on the yellow pine and you smell vanilla.  Sniff the white fir and you get an essence of pine and citrus.  Be like the native American Indians, brew a cup of tea with the needles and you have your daily requirement for vitamin C.

sugar pinesBut what took my fancy was the pair of sugar pines above a neighbor’s roof.  Aside from being both the largest and second tallest in the pinus family with uncommonly long pine cones, I love this pine. John Muir savored the exuded gum which he said was sweeter than maple-syrup.  The branches are arranged on the straight trunk often symmetrically, but sometimes a branch will shun order and stretch out further than the rest.  Cones hang near the tip of the branch.  I remember watching them in a winter wind swaying as if they were extravagant ornaments.  Once, while examining a cone a foot and a half long lying on the ground, I remember someone telling me that the scales expand and contract with the change of temperature and the prickles make a grove in the soil for the seed. I’ve never been able to find another citation for that charming “fact” since.

The forest, at least in the neighborhood of our house on north-facing shore is knitted together by an understory of a tall manzanita called Pringle Manzanita.  The season for its pink urn-shaped flowers is long past and only a few dried berries remain.

sierra juniperTime to shake off the lethargy that comes with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting across the blue and then dissolving or the soft song of pines, and explore the rest of the lake.  The dam is a modest one required only to hold back the snow melt and the marshy waters in the shallow basin.  Once around the corner to the drier south-facing shore, sages and the sturdy Sierra juniper make an appearance.

At the visitor’s center, we take literature on the trees of the region and the description of a champion lodgepole pine further up the mountain which sounds almost reachable by a short trail.

It appears there would be no avoiding the walk once my daughter learned of it.  Children, no matter how old themselves, are reluctant to entertain the ills (real or imagined) of their elders.  I did bring my boots so maybe I can avoid a compound fracture when I turn my ankle on the inevitable loose rock.

graniteOnce we turned off the road that circles the lake, we were in the forest headed uphill. We pitched and heaved over the bumpy road.  But once in this sub-alpine forest we felt like we were back in the forests above Lake Tahoe.  Though I am considered the chief exclaimer in the family, we all exclaimed over this familiar beauty.  No more yellowish rock.  Here the granitic core of the mountain revealed itself.  The understory became varied – sometimes tender green fields of bracken ferns, other times corn lilies.

trailWe parked at the end of the road where a sign pointed downhill to the lodgepole pine and to the Bluff Lake Preserve.  I recognized this kind of trail – decomposed granite made “interesting” by rocks and exposed roots.  My grandson Stuart walked close behind me and my daughter ahead of me.  I focused on what was underfoot allowing only sidelong glances at the creek next to the trail over hung with wild flowerswildflowers, the first such sight in these mountains.  The trail leveled out as we approached the lodgepole pine grove.  Lodgepole pines are uncommon in this southern forest.  They hark back to a cooler era.  My joy was somewhat tempered by remembering that I had to walk back out.  I didn’t care.  I hadn’t expected this gift in my 89th year.

 

we made it
“We made it!”

The old giant was closely encircled by younger trees (as I am by my family).  The tree overlooks a broad green meadow—a meadow which not so long ago had been a pond.  In the Sierra, the Lodgepole pine is the first to show up as the pond becomes a meadow.  As other trees move in, the meadow becomes part of the forest.

 

noble tree The noble tree is a part of a national registry of the largest known of its species in a particular geographic area.  A nearby Jeffrey pine is several hundred years old, an “old growth” survivor in a forest that had been heavily logged

 

The champion lodgepole pine from its meadow and two oldtimers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AROUND THE CORNER TO NOJOQUI FALLS

falls

Sometimes it’s only a few thin bands of water dropping 164 feet. Other times  it’s a gossamer tracery of water more mist than substance. It nourishes families of mosses and ferns growing on its walls. Only after a rain, does Nojoqui Falls aspire to something grander.

The falls (pronounced NAW- ho – wee) are named for a Chumash village “Naxuwi” once nearby.

When my granddaughter asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said: “A day trip with you.” We talked about where and decided on a drive up the coast and inland to Nojoqui

falls2

Falls County Park, and then lunch at one of the good places in the Santa Ynez Valley. I wanted to walk along a creek and possibly even see falling water while it was still spring.

Driving up along the coast is a treat in itself.  Once you’ve cleared the outskirts of Goleta you are in full view of the ocean and if the day is clear enough, you can see the profile of the islands on the horizon.

refugio beach

On the right, the Santa Ynez Mountains make a formidable barrier to the sea and its cool breezes.  We passed three beach parks.  On the landward side of the freeway, the beaches become canyons.  Though beautiful on its own, the landscape stimulated memories  – El Capitan Beach where grandson Stuart always wanted his birthday to be celebrated with a campout.

tunnel

Just beyond Refugio Beach, the highway swings inland where ahead, the mountain wall is pierced by the Gaviota Tunnel.   I thought about all those years when Santa Barbara could only be approached easily from the south.

barns

 

 

At the sign “Nojoqui Falls County Park,” we left the noisy highway and dropped down to the Old Coast Highway and Alisal Road to the peace and quiet of farmlands. Once horse pastures, organic produce now grows in the soil enriched by manure.

Skirting the western edge of the mountains, we rounded the corner to the lush, north-facing slopes, the rainiest place in the county.  How different from the south-facing slopes above Santa Barbara where the mountain slopes are dominated by bare sandstone and chaparral.

park

When we turned into the park with its broad meadow and a scattering of trees, Caroline said: “This reminds me of Yosemite Valley.”  I could see her point except that when every detail of a beloved place like Yosemite is so perfectly embedded in my memory, nothing can compare.

We drove up to the end of the road where a few cars were parked. At the base of the canyon, a short trail leads up to the falls..  Starting up the trail I was transported to the Berkeley Hills where bay trees also form arches of fragrant leaves and the sun shines through the thin leaves of the big-leaved maples.  The creek burbling over dark rocks reminded me of the dark-gray basalts of home.

gateThe final ascent on stone steps to the base of the falls looked damp, making them especially perilous for my old legs.  A bench at their base invited me to sit a while, let my granddaughter

Warbling Vireo
Warbling Vireo

trot ahead while I listened to the creek and the cascade of Warbling Vireo songs spilling down from the bay trees overhead. Click here to listen to their song.

purple martin
Purple Martin

Purple Martins are our largest and highest-flying swallow.  They perform breath-taking acrobatics when hunting insects.  At the park, martins ignore man-made boxes in favor of holes in the sycamore trees.

brushThree weeks later with Berkeley birding friends, Bob Lewis and his wife, Hanno, we returned to Nojoqui Falls park to find the Purple Martins. Bob is sitting on the left.  The heap on the right is actually me lying on my side watching martins in flight.  Stretched out, has become my preferred position for watching birds of the sky and for general cloud-spotting.(I highly recommend to others who love clouds “The Cloudspotter’s Guide by Gavin Pretor-Pinney – the founder of The Cloud Appreciation Society)

varied thrush
Varied Thrush

Now we will be leaving the park to the summer crowds, returning in the fall to see the winter birds like the beautiful Varied Thrush.

 

 

 

 

BirdWatcher
Birds watching bird-watcher watching birds         -Roger Bradfield

SUMMER THOUGHTS

berries2If you have lived a natural life say as a manzanita bush on the slope of the San Ynez Mountains you will understand the true meaning of summer.  You will have grown new foliage or lengthened the leaves you have during late winter or early spring.  You will have flowered and welcomed the bees.  Now the flowers have turned into fruit, it’s time to let them ripen in the warm sun of the long days.  It’s a season for repose or maybe deepening, as your tap root reaches down further to find water.

LESS THAN AN HOUR AWAY

Tucked into the coastal range 40 miles southeast of here, is a valley that fits my description of near perfection.  The road which travels its length is five miles long. There are few buildings of any kind. Geographers would describe the countryside as oak/savanna. Only the fence lines tell you that the land has been claimed.  On a good year of decent pasturage, you’re apt to see some cattle and maybe men on horseback responsible for their well being.

Even its name Canada (pronounced canyada) Larga has a sweet resonance.  “Canada” has a number of meanings:  valley, glen, cattle trail.  Take your pick.  “Larga is more specific, meaning long (or tall in another dimension).

waterworksThe valley was part of a 6,658 acre Mexican land grant known as Canada Larga 0 Verde. Turning off highway 33 (one road to Ojai) onto Canada Larga Road you see your first bit of early California history – a 7-foor-high remnant of a rubble wall which was part of the aqueduct that once carried water seven miles from the Ventura River down to the the mission San Buenaventura where it satisfied the needs of the 350 inhabitants for their gardens and pastures.  The waterworks were built by the Chumash Indians under the instruction from the padres sometime between 1785 and the early 1800s.  What’s left of the ruins is protected behind a chain link fence.

slopeNot much remains of the nearby Canada Larga Creek in late spring but a sluggish flow full of clots and streamers of algae.  By the bridge, the creek runs beneath a steep slope of near white rock.

What interested us was the old, rather disreputable blue gum eucalyptus (actually several trees in various stages of decline).  Ignoring the heaps of shed bark caught between branches, our focus was on a Red-tailed Hawk’s nest with a full-grown young standing at its edge with an adult nearby.  Nobody appeared happy with their presence.  The Cassin’s Kingbird with their nest in the same tree voiced their raucous objections, while a pair of Bullock’s Orioles, with their nest in a smaller euc behind, went about their business of carrying food to their young.

oriole
Bullock’s Oriole
kingbird
Cassin’s Kingbird

I sat in the shade of a walnut orchard where ground doves were seen earlier and watched the activity.  Getting back into the car, with windows down, we proceeded slowly up the narrow road stopping where there appeared to be activity.  Birding along the Canada Larga Road is a challenge as the pullouts are infrequent and hardly adequate and the occasional cars and trucks often travel at a high speed.

western kingbird
Western Kingbird

Barbwire fences make good perches and we were almost always in sight of a Western Kingbird, a low-slung bird with a yellow belly who would frequently leave its perch to grab something appetizing.  One stop was warranted by a phainopepla calling from the upper branches of a half-dead walnut tree.

buntingMy eyes were on the yellow mustard growing along the fence where last year I had seen a dazzling Lazuli Bunting amongst the yellow flowers.  Plenty of mustard this spring but no bunting.  Further up the road everyone (but me) saw a smallish bird sitting on a rusty water tank.  The bird turned out to be a blue grosbeak – one of the target birds of the trip.  And best yet, it appeared to have food in its mouth.  With young to raise, the pair should be around for a while.

Now I could indulge myself with the scenery and days later, at the computer, I would struggle for words adequate to describe what I was seeing.  Maybe I should let it go and simply say that this landscape made me superbly happy.

hillsWas it the contours and shapes of the hills, the close and distant views, the colors and always the possibility of an eagle?.  You’re not going to be slammed by the brilliance of spring wildflowers.  The muted tones of late spring reach a deeper place.  Russets, pale beige grass, drifts of mustard reach up into gray chaparral with lavender undertones.  A gifted Landscape Architect couldn’t do it as well.

Far to the northeast beyond the rounded hills, gave a glimpse of the higher mountains with their irregular profile.  A fresh breeze filled my lungs and lifted hair away from my face.  Two kingbirds flew close to a Raven’s tail.  My birding friend called it a “teaching lesson.”

The road ended at a horse ranch.  Now we were on level ground where we could rest in the shade of live oaks and sycamores with the bubbling songs of House Wrens surrounding us.

We planned on picnicking at a park along the Ventura River where we could count on Yellow Warblers singing in the sycamores and swallows with their small, bright voices sieving up insects over the water.

dry grassBut I could only think about how nice it would be to set up my cot and roll out my bed roll under the edge of one of the oaks in the Canada Larga valley on a gentle slope with a view in all directions – perfect for night coming on with the changing colors.  I could imagine crickets chirping in the dry grass and a small owl hooting nearby.  Once darkness was complete I would observe stars undimmed by city lights and listen to a night wind rustling the oak leaves, bringing me far off scents.

 


The next blog will be about the same distance northwest to another favorite spot.  I’m on a roll!

 A PERFECT SPRING

After such a sumptuous winter how could it not be – a perfect spring.

I came to Santa Barbara to live in September 2013, the second year of the drought.  The landscape was dry, but as a native Californian, I expected dryness. The winter rains the next two years were scanty.  Not only did the garden lawns die by intent, but landscape and street trees began suffering.  Many of the redwoods, never a good choice for this semi-arid climate, were dying. The conifers were the hardest hit.  The native ponderosa pines on Figueroa Mountain all succumbed, probably weakened by the drought and then attacked by the deadly bark beetle. To try and save street trees, the city attached green plastic reservoirs to young trees which slowly released water to the roots.

Maybe several times during the winter, enough rain would fall to feed the headwaters of various creeks.  Mission Creek with its springs high on mountain sides above the Botanic Garden came briefly to life with muddy torrents of water which rushed down the dry creek bed.  Quickly depleted, the flow stopped and by the second day, the creek became isolated pools.  By the third day, the creek disappeared all together.

poppies
California Poppies

With the return to silent stretches of dry rock, my spirits fell.  I realized again how above all the landscape features – hills, mountains, valleys, and especially the noisy, restless ocean – it is creeks I love the best, for their cheerful sounds and their ability to be a magnet for surrounding life.

 

lupine
Bush lupine

Spring in California is mostly about wildflowers, but in one of the ironies of a wet spring, grass and weeds growing tall often concealed the flowers.  Figueroa Mountain had some nice displays, particularly where lupine grew on perennial shrubs or where poppies grew on serpentine soil which inhibits the rampant growth of grass.

 

 

carizzo
It was in the semi-desert areas like Carizzo Plain, an hour and a half drive inland from San Luis Obispo, where the flowers were amazing, enough so, to gain the title — superbloom. Hills and the desert floors look as if they’d been splashed with paint.

But it is in the exuberance of the commoner plants that I saw the results of a wet winter.  The wild oats, now going to seed are waist high, and must compete for space with wild radishes and Italian thistle.

After four years of drought that tested their endurance, allowing no luxury like new growth, live oaks this spring were transformed with explosions of tender bright green leaves.  The shiny leaves concealed the coarse and somber, dark green foliage, some of which could now be shed.

live oaks
New spring growth on the live oaks

Live oaks are the most abundant native tree of Samarkand, Oak Park and most lowland locations.

 

Best of all was to see Mission Creek behaving like a real stream, not with just the episodic flow of two days that followed a rain during the preceding drought years.  My morning ritual was to look through my binoculars into the small gap between the trees where I could see the overlapping brightness of moving water. The stream had a rhythm, sometimes squeezing around rocks making music and then released, spreading out in quiet pools, before being narrowed again.  I think I could write a score with the proper notations.

 

pollen
The male flowers are heavy with pollen which will be released by the wind to fertilize some of the female flowers growing on the same tree. From the fertilized female flower comes the familiar acorn.

I imagine my father, who grew up near Oak Park, capturing tadpoles with a net, or creating a new flow by rearranging rocks. When the flow was strongest, he and his buddies, no doubt, fashioned boats and then ran along the creek edge to see how they fared.

Two weeks after the last rain in March, the flow began to shrink, imperceptivity at first.  But now in mid-April the creek has disappeared. Or, perhaps it flows beneath the surface still accessible to the roots of trees.

oxalis
Oxalis, considered a hard-to-get-rid-of weed by most gardeners, crowded roadsides after this year’s heavy rains

Speculation has already begun about next winter.  Through summer and early fall, conditions appear to be “neutral” with early signs of building El Nino conditions beginning later in the fall.  In most years, a strong El Nino brings generous rains, but not always.  Speculation, especially about future weather, is irresistible especially for weather buffs like myself.

nasturtiums
In this most luxuriant of springs no slope is unclaimed. Here, nasturtiums have naturalized a hillside.

Looking back – WINTER AFTER ALL

When one of my friends fell on an icy path this morning and Gibraltar Dam flowed into its spillway, the first time since 2011, I decided that winter could not be ignored.

flooded
Mission Creek at flood stage

I hadn’t considered writing about Santa Barbara in the winter thinking that the season had been mostly passed by in these years of drought.  Then yesterday, December 23, we had a storm that was worthy of qualifying as a winter storm in every way.  The day began with a thin cloud cover which built during the morning to promising layers of clouds and brief gusts of wind, which by noon led to rain.  After slacking off in a way that I had become used to during these dry years, the rain built again as if to defy my pessimism.  By mid-afternoon the rain built to a real gully-washer.  I was lucky enough to be in my car so I could enjoy splashing through flows of water at every intersection and best of all, seeing Mission Creek coursing down its creek bed after so many months of being bone dry.

From the sound of my bamboo wind chimes during the night, I knew the storm had passed to the east and the wind had shifted to the north as it does along the coast after a rain storm.  The cold wind continues today pushing around remnant clouds, now empty of their contents.

Cachuma
Cachuma Lake filling up.  From a low of 7% of normal, the reservoir in April is almost half full.  With the reservoir below capacity, and groundwater depleted, it will take a few more good years to bring us out of drought

I know storm must follow storm to make the creek a winter feature and the soil be soaked enough to start recharging the depleted water table.  Lake Cachuma which lies in the valley between our mountains, the Santa Ynez, and the higher range to the east, is the reservoir which holds our water supply.  At present, it’s almost no lake at all, having shrunk to less than 7% of its capacity. Vultures have taken to roosting on the rim of the dam.

December ended with the rainfall slightly above normal. 

river
An atmospheric river arrives on the California coast

January was another matter altogether thanks to massive storms brought across the Pacific by an atmospheric river — a new word in my weather lexicon. An atmospheric river can be several thousand miles long to a few hundred miles wide. Drawing up moisture from near the Hawaiian Islands, the warm air can transport large amounts of rain.  It’s what we once called the “Pineapple Express.’

The atmospheric rivers produced five days of good rains.  At the end of January, rainfall for the month was 8.96 inches rather than a normal 2.86 inches.  Even the lawns, most of which were allowed to go brown over the summer and fall, were green again.

High surf
High surf is often part of a storm system

The rains continued intermittently until Friday, February 17. The papers were advertising that the biggest storm of the season was on its way.  Over the years, I have learned to be suspicious of such a build-up which often leads to disappointment.  I believe in sneaker storms – the ones which arrive with little or no advance warning.  That may be the old days before sophisticated weather-measuring equipment and computers, which can put together predictive models, eliminated much of the guesswork.

landslide
Landslide at Cliff Drive and Las Positas

At 5 AM heavy rain was falling, serious, confident rain.  By mid-morning the velocity of the rain continued to increase.  Coarse and dense raindrops were being driven by gale winds from the south-east.  By early afternoon, the rain had slackened enough to allow me to drive down to the Mission Creek just below us.  Others had already gathered.  Some of us stood on the bridge itself which was trembling with the force of the volume of water pouring a few feet beneath.  On the opposite side of the bridge where the stream bed is narrowed by rock walls, boulders were being slammed together.  The percussive, booming sounds resembled thunder.  Some people, unnerved by the violence, hurried back to their cars.  As a fan of such drama, I stayed put.

pines
One of two historic stone pines on Anapamu brought down by the storm

The storm finally moved on leaving 5-inches of rain downtown and heavier amounts on the mountain slopes.  Mission Creek up Mission Canyon left its stream bed and temporarily carved out a new route.  Further engorged by a cargo of mud, the stream poured over the old Indian Dam.

The gift for me was that Mission Creek became a real stream, a winter stream which flowed for weeks on end, not just for a day or two after a rain.

indian dam
Flood water flowing over Indian Dam in the Botanic Garden

Now it’s early April and the creek has ceased to flow.  It survived for few more days as isolated pools, until it disappeared altogether.  I like to think that it continues to flow underground bringing moisture to the roots of the sycamores and to the other streamside plants.

 

Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Mission Creek in flood conditions.
Credit: Ray Ford
(Please note the material following the video is not part of this presentation.)