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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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!

THE ELFIN FOREST – California’s chaparral

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Chaparral – with white-flowering ceanothus



To most people, forest means stands of pines and fires or at least deciduous trees like maples, beech and possible aspen. Entering The Los Padres National Forest, just above Santa Barbara, what do you see?  Steep slopes clothed with brush we call chaparral.

Chaparral is the name for that tough assemblage of mostly head-high drought-tolerant, evergreen shrubs that grow where heat and dryness is even too much for grasslands, and the soils are too thin for “real” forest.  Chaparral plants are superbly adapted to our region of cool, moist winters and long, hot, dry summers.  Growth and blooming occur at the end of the wet season, in early spring.  Once the rains end and the heat increases, chaparral plants shut down.  Tough, usually small leaves resist the desiccating sun, while roots reach ever deeper into the sandstone in search of remaining moisture.

You might call chaparral the quintessential California plant, appearing the length of the state from the Oregon border to a short distance into Mexico. Chaparral finds its most perfect expression in the mountains of Southern California where chaparral often extends from horizon to horizon.

Chaparral is associated with the Mediterranean climate which is characterized by short, sometimes wet, mild winters, and a long, often hot summer.  Less than three percent of the earth’s surface shares this particular climate  – most often on the west coast of a continent between 30 to 40 degrees latitude, facing on a cold ocean, with its large high-pressure air mass.  The shrubs in each of these regions have their own distinctive species and go by the names maquis, garrigue, matorral, fynbos, or heath.

Toyon in fruit
Toyon in fruit

The manzanitas are typical of our chaparral plants. To save moisture, they turn their leaves sideways to the punishing sun. Companions are other chaparral plants like toyons, ceonothus, and scrub oak.

To ride through the unyielding and sometimes spiny vegetation in pursuit of wayward cattle, Spanish vaqueros wore leather leggings called chaps, short for chaparro, the Spanish name for scrub oak, thus the name chaparral.

Chaparral plants grow in such close association that their tops are often interwoven, creating dense canopies which protect chaparral-loving animals like the shy wrentit and certain reptiles from view.

Chaparral and fire have always been closely associated.  The recent view had been that chaparral depended on fire for renewal.  But now, plant scientists, support the idea that mature chaparral can remain healthy indefinitely.  And often near populated areas where fires are frequent enough to burn recovering chaparral, the once beautiful and life-filled plant community, may be replaced by non-native grasses and weeds.

firefollowers
Fire followers

Where there are infrequent fires, chaparral plants return healthy and vigorous, covering the charred remains in a few years with new growth.  In the meantime, the first spring after a fire brings forth a beautiful display of wild flowers called poetically, “fire followers.”  Their seeds may have laid dormant for decades, sometimes centuries, waiting for their moment, when the chaparral cover is burned in a fire. Whether it’s the heat itself, or possibly certain chemicals in the smoke, the seeds awaken and a new cycle begins.

After a fire, brilliant blue and rust-colored Lazuli Buntings arrive to sing from the tallest charred branches and Lawrence goldfinches salvage unsprouted seed.  The wrentits, bushtits, and California Thrashers – the species living in mature chaparral – are weak fliers and often perish in the flames.

Some years ago, I remember driving up the San Marcos Pass and amongst the charred skeletons of manzanitas, twined white morning glories.  Out of the ashes bloomed annual flowers in a multitude of colors – orange poppies, purple phaecelia, yellow goldfields.  As the burned chaparral begins putting on new growth, certain small perennial shrubs like bush lupine appear until finally they, too, were shaded out, and mature chaparral once again takes over the mountain slopes in all shades of green.

In spite of the tough, doughty appearance of mature chaparral, in early spring comes an explosion of flowers.  On the mountainsides above Santa Barbara, the white-flowered ceonothus begins blooming in February, frosting the slopes, followed by another species with purple-blue clouds of flowers, subtly fragrant.

Chaparral
Chaparral covering the Santa Ynez Mountains

In the late afternoon, I remember approaching the Santa Ynez Mountains from the north.  The chaparral-covered mountains looked as if they were covered with a deep purple velvet, with even deeper color in the canyons. But the illusion is dispelled on close approach when you are confronted with a wall of stiff, unyielding vegetation, discouraging further investigation except possibly on hands and knees.

Close to the coast, often growing on the sand dunes, is another assemblage of plants sometimes called “soft chaparral.” The preferred name is coastal sage scrub.  The plants are smaller, softer, pungently fragrant and unlike true evergreen chaparral are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry summer.  It’s here you’ll find various sages, buckwheats, and California sagebrush.  I often bring home a sprig of sagebrush in my pocket to tuck under my pillow.

 

A GIANT IN AN ELFIN FOREST

Lester Rowntree
Lester Rowntree

For a conventional wife and mother who helped with homework and had nourishing meals on the table by 6 pm, I harbored very unconventional thoughts.  I was drawn to books by women who lived eccentric lives, often pursuing a passion for the natural world.  Lately, I had been rereading the two books by Lester Rowntree who spent nine months of the year traveling the state of California in her old Ford touring car, specially adapted to carry tools and the necessary equipment for preserving plants and collecting seeds.  In the high Sierra, she walked beside her faithful burro who carried her gear.

In the late fall, she returned to her mountainside home south of Carmel where she had built a cabin on a slope, surrounded by her native plant garden, overlooking the sea.  Even in somewhat domesticated surroundings, she slept with windows and doors open to encourage visits from the foxes and to listen to the changing tides and the sound of pounding waves on the rocks below.

What Lester Rowntree especially loved was chaparral — that most California of all plant communities — which makes us sisters of sorts.

Maybe it was thinking of Rowntree that made me put on my boots,  sturdiest trousers, gather up field guides and plenty of water.  I planned on driving up over the top of the Berkeley Hills and head east for Mount Diablo in the inner coast range of Contra Costa County.

I needed to go inland for hard chaparral like the Manzanita and its companions.  My Berkeley Hills are mostly open grasslands with a scattering of soft, but durable shrub called coyote bush.  On a few isolated slopes, coyote bush teams up with fragrant sages, and becomes what we call “soft” chaparral, which prefers the moister hills near the ocean.

Crawling under manzanita
Crawling under chaparral

I was looking for a mature stand of chaparral tall enough for me to crawl under.  I had read somewhere that this was the only way to penetrate the thickets.  I found a promising hillside, parked my car along the edge of the road, hoping to find my way back after an hour or so.  I looked both ways to be sure no one would witness me dropping to my knees and crawling into the brush.

I found myself in a dim and silent world, out of the wind and the strong sun.  The tight interweave of leaves, stems, and twigs made an almost impenetrable roof above.  I had no difficulty skirting the leafless lower branches.  With no under story plants, I had an almost unrestricted view in all directions.  The going was easy. It occurred to me that I needed to surface now and then to determine my location.  After pushing up through the tangle of abrasive leaves and punishing stems, I was relieved to see my car on the road below.

Submerging again, I felt more confident.  I knew of the unique creatures that live in the chaparral.  I’d hoped to see a stripped racer, head held high hurrying about on some secret mission, or a California Thrasher scything through the litter with its long curved bill.  It appears that an unexpected presence like myself would be largely ignored.  Even a shy bird like a wrentit might come close, cocking its head to fix me with its yellow eye.

But today, I had the chaparral world to myself.  Remembering that I had to retrace my route downhill, I came out at the edge of the chaparral a few yards up the road from my car.  My exhilaration had masked my fatigue. Tired, I stretched out on the back seat aware now of rich, redolent smell of wild plants clinging to my clothes.

 

SANTA BARBARA’S SUNDOWNERS

The publication “The Names of Winds” describes Sundowners as follows:  “Warm downslope winds that periodically occur along a short segment of the Southern California coast in the vicinity of Santa Barbara.  Their name refers to their typical onset in the late afternoon or early evening, though they can occur at any time of the day.  In extreme cases, winds can be of gale force or higher, and temperatures over the coastal plain and even the coast itself can rise significantly above 100 degrees F.”

From: A Naturalist's Guide to the Santa Barbara Region by Joan Easton Lentz
From: A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region by Joan Easton Lentz

The more famous Santa Ana winds are a minor player in Santa Barbara. The Santa Anas affect the regions to the south – the Santa Clara Valley and the Los Angeles basin.  Santa Anas form further inland over the Great Basin or the Mojave Desert, taking on the quality of that dry landscape.  Under certain conditions, the dry air rushes through the passes of the Southern California mountains, the wind compresses and becomes hotter and drier as it descends.

Sundowners typically originate in the Santa Ynez Valley north of Santa Barbara where the heated air rising in the afternoon or early evening is pent up behind the Santa Ynez Mountains and rushes through the mountain passes toward the coast.

I experienced a sundowner last November when I was spending the evening at my family’s house in Mission Canyon.  It was mild enough to sit outside with a light sweater.  The air was calm and sweet smelling from the blooming citrus.  Without warning, a violent gust of wind swept down upon us releasing a cascade of leaves from the tree above, slamming doors, and rising a swirl of dust from the path. And then another gust followed, and we scrambled to right the furniture before fleeing inside. The unrelenting, wrenching wind seemed to come from all directions.  I was agitated, and dry mouthed. In less than an hour, the temperature went up 20 degrees.

The lights went out as we lost lost our power.  What can be disconcerting when the lights are on, is terrifying in the dark.  A thud on the roof told us a frond had no doubt been blown loose from the big palm behind us.

Firestorm
Firestorm

With no lights, and too dangerous to venture outside, we went to bed.  Falling into a restless sleep, I woke up suddenly around 3:00 a.m. to silence.  I waited for the next gust of wind, but none came.  Even with doors and windows closed I could sense the air was now cool and moist, telling me that our normal onshore flow was back.

I knew daybreak would reveal what the wind had blown down.  Even faced with a monumental cleanup ahead, we had escaped fire, which can be a companion of these sundowners.

Each Santa Barbara season has it own wind.  In the winter, Pacific storms approaching the coast are carried on the south winds, sometimes reaching gale force. A passing storm, is most apt to be followed by cool winds from the north or west bringing sparkling clarity.

The prevailing northwest wind in the summer, passing over the colder off shore waters, often condenses into fog which is drawn inland by rising warm air in the valleys.  The fog delivers a valuable gift of moisture.  Droplets forming on leaves, drop to the ground like rainfall.

I love the wind.  For me it’s the breath of life.  If I lived in the high prairie of Wyoming where the wind never stops blowing, I would probably feel different.  But in temperate Santa Barbara, wind brings the landscape to life.  It sets the hillside grasses rippling. trees to murmur and sway, while palm fronds trash and clatter like a downpour on a tin roof.  Without wind or a least a stiff breeze, the air grows stagnant and feels over breathed.  Wind brings us our weather as high pressure rushes toward areas of low pressure.

Credits: Roger Bradfield for Crawling under chaparral cartoon and George Dumas, Webmaster