Saturday, January 23, 2021

Sycamore Canyon and The Open Space Imperative

Who needs wilderness? Civilization needs wilderness. The idea of wilderness preservation is one of the fruits of civilization, like Bach's music, Tolstoy's novels, scientific medicine, novocaine, space travel, free love, the double martini, the secret ballot, the home and private property, the public park and public property, freedom of travel, the Bill of Rights, peppermint toothpaste, beaches for nude bathing, the right to own and bear arms, the right to not own and bear arms, and a thousand other good things one could name, some of them trivial, most of them essential, all of them vital to that great, bubbling, disorderly, anarchic, unmanageable diversity of opinion, expression, and ways of living which free men and women love, which is their breath of life, and which the authoritarians of church and state and war and sometimes even art despise and always have despised. And feared.

~Edward Abbey, Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom

To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on a map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.

~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

There exists in contemporary American society a school of thought that teaches the pernicious idea that we the people hold title to far too much green and brown land. Too much open space where flora and fauna and freedom and frivolity and fun and fantasy can flourish. Whether in the form of regional parks, state parks, national parks, national forests, national recreation areas, national monuments, state beaches, national shorelines, conservation areas, or designated wilderness, the thinking is that all of this available land, locked up as it is by an overbearing government, is simply being wasted. "Wasted" in this context meaning that the land isn't being fully exploited for financial gain by private industry - loggers, miners, farmers, ranchers, the oil industry, the energy industry, dam builders, home builders, gold course designers, solar power generators, and the like. This idea, which is incessantly peddled by the monied interests, reinforced by their political mouth-pieces, and generally accepted as Gospel truth by an alarming portion of the population, is hard-coded into the American psyche, an artifact of 19th century expansionism and the arrogant notion of "Manifest Destiny." It is particularly prevalent in the West where, fortunately, we still have large tracts of publicly-owned land to argue over.  

But if this never-ending pandemic has shown us anything, it is the utter absurdity of this well-worn and tired idea. Not only do we not have too much public, open space to cavort in, we have far too little of this most-valuable commodity for a stressed population that needs an unconfined place for both therapeutic and not-so-therapeutic activities. Hiking, biking, running, camping, bird-watching, exploring, finding oneself, losing oneself, hunting, fishing, drinking beer, smoking weed, skinny-dipping, fucking. All of this, good and bad, legal and illegal, is part of the palliative of the public-lands prescription. That probably sounds a bit hyperbolic and overly-opinionated. But that's only because it's a bit hyperbolic and overly-opinionated. But it also happens to be absolutely and infallibly true.

How do I know this you might ask? Well, because I've seen it with my own eyeballs. Repeatedly. At my local trailhead. In the Angeles National Forest. In the Los Padres National Forest. In the Santa Monica Mountains. In the Sierra. And most recently, on a foray into Sycamore Canyon and it's reliably more serene offshoot, Serrano Canyon. 

It was a magnificent winter day for an outing outdoors and my soul was begging for the chance to escape the mundane confines of my suburban yard which, because of the pandemic, has been mowed and trimmed and clipped and edged and mulched and weeded and watered and planted and swept to perfection. Being the stereotypical dad that I am, I like my yard to look presentable. But it's gotten to the point that I now wander my yard aimlessly, clippers at the ready, searching for unruly twigs to snip, errant weeds to yank, and any other landscaping imperfections to remedy. I then retreat to the house for about 30 minutes or so, only to return to the yard again with my clippers just in case some botanical menace has happened to spring up and take hold during my brief absence. 

So on this day, I determined to escape the pathetic prison of domesticity, and my self-imposed, quasi-exile from trailheads beyond my community, and venture out into the world. I would penetrate Serrano Canyon in Pt. Mugu State Park, glory in its glory, search for Red-Legged Frogs in the remnant pools along the now dry creek-bed, frighten myself into imagining that every bird hopping around in the leaf litter was a ferocious mountain lion waiting to pounce, lollygag and luxuriate in the soft winter grass of the Serrano Valley, listen attentively to the ancient silence, and pretend that I was a noble Chumash tribesman on a vision-quest. And I fancied that I would engage in this bit of conceit without really having to see, hear, or share space with many (or any) of my fellow countrymen and women.   

But those silly delusions faded into oblivion when I encountered a teeming mass of humanity clogging the coast and filling the folds, crevices, and recesses of the range that immediately fronts the Pacific. It began at at the Chumash Trail trailhead and continued unabated to Sycamore Cove. Thousands of automobiles jammed the roadway as folks desperately searched for a place to stop roadside and disembark. Those that succeeded, sat in their cars, windows down and eyes closed as the sun warmed their faces and the cool, salty breeze washed over them. Others stood at the water's edge, absorbing the blue sky and the bluer ocean whose horizon is punctuated by Anyapax and the three saints. Still others scrambled down to the sand carrying towels and umbrellas and coolers and other beach paraphernalia to find a place next to the roaring and foamy surf. Even the "lesser" beaches, the ones littered with rocks or other ocean-borne detritus, were fully occupied.

Past Thornhill-Broome, cars lined the PCH all the way to Sycamore Cove. At the great sandhill, hordes of kids and adults and seniors crawled up and down the dunes like hungry ants on sugar. At Sycamore Cove, a line of cars was queued-up at the entrance on a fool's errand to get a parking space that did not exist. On the opposite side of the road, a sign at Sycamore Canyon indicated that the lot there was similarly "full." Paradise has never been easily attainable, but on this day, attainment was virtually impossible.

Dejected, I turned around and contemplated just going back home to pout. But on a pass going north, I spied someone pulling out of a legal spot on the other side of the road. Despite high demand, these legal spots along the PCH are in shorter supply these days ever since CalTrans posted "No Parking" sign all up and down the coast. It's a dirty and sinister ploy which foists upon "we the people" the Hobson's Choice between the paid lots or a ticket. Either way, you pay the king's ransom for the privilege of stepping onto your public land. I made a dangerous U-turn and pulled in to the open spot before anyone else could. Fuck the state of California and its sordid and transparent revenue-generating schemes. 

Away from the coast, within the shaded confines of Sycamore Canyon proper, the automobile was replaced by the bicycle. Here, a steady stream of cycling enthusiasts cruised up and down the canyon in groups of two, three, four, and more. Sycamore Canyon has always been an attractive haven for cyclists, but on this day, the bi-pedal traffic was uncharacteristically heavy. A good distance up the valley, I ducked into the wilderness, Serrano Canyon, which is closed to bikes and is too distant for most casual hikers. Here, the traffic by-and-large finally subsided. 

This is no way to run a public-land asylum. Every inch of the public domain everywhere is being lovingly mauled to death by the American public and foreign visitors. There simply isn't enough room for us to all get away from each other. And the problem is not unique to Southern California. Our national parks are literally being overwhelmed with visitation spiking significantly nationwide. It has gotten to the point that we now have lotteries that you must enter and win in order to experience some of our more high-profile and eye-popping places (e.g., Mt. Whitney, the cable route to Half Dome, etc.). These are the types of places that Mark Kenyon has said "physically move you, creating a tightening in the chest, a loss of breath, or a tingling along the spine."

But politicians of a particular persuasion don't want you to believe what your lying eyes are showing you. Instead, they want you to buy off on the notion that we actually have way too much public land, especially wilderness which Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) dismissively refers to as the "royal forest." Invoking the bogeyman of feudalism, Mr. Lee and his adherents attempt to leverage the specter of craft beer-swilling, artisanal coffee-drinking "elites" to encourage the idea that such lands are neither intended for, nor open to the the archetypal everyman. 

I'm not sure that I know what an "elite" looks like, especially on the trail, and I didn't realize that the litmus test for being an "elite" was avoiding Miller Beer and Folgers coffee, but I do know this to be complete and utter bullshit. Putting aside for the moment the fact that only 5% of the land in America is designated as wilderness (2.7% if you exclude Alaska), and 18% of national forest lands are designated wilderness, the folks I have seen and shared the backcountry with have been quite a varied group - young, old, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, conservative, progressive, on horseback, on foot, armed, unarmed, well-equipped, ill-equipped, formally-educated, uneducated, seemingly wealthy, and seemingly less-wealthy. We're all there, bumping into each other and enjoying the outdoors that Mr. Lee fantasizes has been locked-up for use only by the "elites."

Edward Abbey once said "better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion." So regardless of whatever label you want to pin on the people using the outdoors, here's the cruel truth: there isn't sufficient wild, undeveloped, open space to comfortably support the number of "elites" and "non-elites" who want to enjoy it. And we can't simply create more land out of thin air or whole cloth or whatever idiom you want to use. Another cruel truth. So what we're left with is making certain that we preserve the limited open space that we fortunately still have. Because barring an unimaginable loss of life beyond what we have already experienced due to the pandemic, or a radical reconfiguration of our ideas and attitudes about procreation, we're going to want and need that open, public land for both our physical well-being and our mental health. Because as Henry David Thoreau said, in "wildness is the preservation of the world."

Thursday, November 26, 2020

The Persistence of Piedra Blanca


Until death, it is all life.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote

No matter where you go, there you are.
~The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension

The plan was...well, there was no specific plan really. We would just make it up as we went along. Let things unfold organically. Go with the flow. Ride the wave. Pierre Joseph Proudhon called it "the fecundity of the unexpected." It's an approach that literally makes my more centered half insane. She bristles at the idea of having no destination, no route, no schedule, no agenda. Me, I don't mind so much. In my daily life, I'm chained to planning and schedules and agendas and calendars and deadlines and meetings and formal processes. So cutting free from that rigidity is liberating. And I've found that things generally work out if you let them. 

So off we went into the forest like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the aging adventurist with his head full of romantic ideas about the outdoors, and his more pragmatic side-kick. We didn't pack much. This was to be a quick and dirty outing. On the way, we stopped for over-night necessities. Burritos from La Casita in Santa Paula, beer from Transmission Brewing in Ventura. Then up the Maricopa Highway.

I've accepted more crowds in the forests these days. Another inconvenience of the pandemic. But on this day, Route 33 was surprisingly and pleasantly quiet. At Rose Valley Road we veered east and descended to the Piedra Blanca Trailhead. Here too, we found less company than we had expected. A good omen on this All Hallows' Eve. 

On the trail, we crossed Lions and Sespe Creek which both still held water this deep into the dry season. At the junction with the Sespe Creek Trail we had options. Right took us east where we might find a nice spot along the creek. Left took us west and then north toward the impressive white sandstone of Piedra Blanca. Wanting an open site with uncluttered views where we could peer deep into the abyss of the universe on this Blue Moon night, we chose the latter route. Our pace was unhurried as we had committed in advance to not go far and just enjoy a leisurely night out. 

At Piedra Blanca, we wandered without agenda up, over, and through the manzanita and white stone until a promising location to put down for the night revealed itself. For those who have ever spent a night in the outdoors with me, this is generally a painful process because of my annoying, idiosyncratic insistence on finding the absolute perfect spot. My propensity to demand campsite flawlessness is so well known by my outdoor companions that it's become a bit of a running joke amongst them. As soon as we get to this part of any trip, the furtive glances and eye-rolling always begins as I scour the surrounding area for a truly transcendent site.   

Much to the chagrin of my companion, I was no different on this occasion, but fortunately the search was short. At the top of an impressive sandstone monolith with big sky views, we found a flat depression large enough for two bags and declared this our home for the evening. Because we were  cowboy camping, set up was easy and soon enough we were hard at work on the beers we had brought  and staring at nothing in particular and everything in general.  

Words are an imperfect medium to communicate the sacred sublimity of this place. True understanding can only be gained by sensing it, feeling it, allowing it to seep into and permeate every fiber of your soul. The indigenous people that previously occupied this land (this is the historical territory of the Ventureno band of the Chumash people) certainly understood this. Or being the overly-romantic character that I am capable of being, so I'd like to imagine.  

As the sun started its descent to the horizon, and dark shadows began creeping across the landscape, we sat in the stillness as the rock turned gold and the sky turned pink. Then, the lights went out completely. And stars twinkled and glinted as diamonds in the infinite black sky. A full moon then rose and it was like daylight once again. And we realized our place in both time and space. Despite what we as a species choose to believe, we're an insignificant pin-prick in the vast, undefinable fabric of the universe; an irrelevant flash along the time-line of infinity. But this immortal place, it has always been and it will always be. That's both a disconcerting and comforting thought. 

The next morning, the sun returned to brilliance, the sandstone shone white, and the cycle of things began once again. We meandered through the area looking for nothing, exploring like children for its own sake. Then it was time to leave, our welcome worn out, our trespass threatening to become conversion. So we packed up and left to return another time with the knowledge that this immutable place will be there. It always has been and always will be. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Ain't No Cure for the Pandemic Blues

Thorn Point and Mutau Flats

Sometimes I wonder what I'm gonna do
But there ain't no cure for the summertime blues
~Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran

So I'll meet you at the bottom if there really is one
They always told me when you hit it you'll know it
But I've been falling so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floating
~Gravity's Gone, Drive By Truckers

As you can tell from looking at the large gap between posts here, I haven't been inspired to write much lately. The process has always been a laborious challenge for me, but now it's a real struggle to even put pen to paper. Being the opinionated bastard that I am, it's not that I don't have anything to say. Just ask the people around me. They know that I'm rarely at a loss for words. And they're probably grateful for the respite from my constant yammering and bloviating. But the whole thing weighs on me. The muse has abandoned me without notice and everything I try to write now feels forced and inauthentic.

But these are strange and frightening times we're living through. People are fucking dropping dead from an enemy that can't be seen or fought. We're all wearing face-masks at the grocery store for fear of contagion. I haven't shaken a stranger's hand or given someone outside of my bubble a hug in months. I'm maxed out on vacation accrual, but can't go anywhere to use it. The restaurants and malls are empty, but the trails are packed with people, graffiti, and trash. And politicians' promises notwithstanding, it don't look too much like things are going to get materially better for the average person any time soon. So yeah, things are kind of fucked up right now. For that reason, I guess my muse can be forgiven for perhaps having a case of the pandemic blues.

In an effort to get out of my funk, I decided a day in the woods would be good for my soul. So last Friday, I played hooky from work and headed for San Rafael Peak, a seldom-visited summit deep in the Sespe Wilderness. 

The Iron Hiker joined me on this adventure. The original plan, devised by the ferrous one, was to hike Hines Peak and Cream Puff from the eastern terminus of the Nordhoff Ridge fire road. To do that, we needed a permit from the Forest Service. But that plan was foiled when fires closed the entire Los Padres for a spell and permits became unavailable. Then, the normal, seasonal closure of the Nordhoff Ridge road went into effect guaranteeing that we would not be doing Hines Peak the easy way until next spring. So we went searching for a remote, uncrowded, and challenging alternative. San Rafael checked all of those boxes nicely. 

Morning Commute

Cattle Drive

We met early at the entrance to Grade Valley Road and then drove the 10+ miles south on a washboard dirt road to the Johnston Ridge Trailhead. Sunlight peaked through the forest canopy as we went and I kept an eye out for wildlife as the conditions seemed ripe for a sighting or two. Unfortunately, all we encountered was a herd of bovine blocking the road that weren't in any particular hurry to cede ground to us. But being the superior beings that we are, we dispatched the dumb beasts with a couple of blares of the horn and we were on our way. 

The trailhead parking area was vacant. We were the only ones in the forest. We gathered our gear and started off, heading southeast on a well established trail that skirts Mutau Flats to the south as it drops about 200' in elevation to Mutau Creek. The word "Mutau" features prominently in this part of the forest. Although linguistically it sounds like it could be Chumash in derivation, it's actually the last name of a cantankerous old horse rustler who homesteaded these parts. Old Man Mutau, who settled in the area that is now the flats, was a known ally to horse thieves who moved stolen horses along the Horse Thief Trail from southern Ventura County to Kern County. Mutau, whose homestead sat right along the trail, permitted rustlers to use a canyon on his homestead (appropriately named "Horse Thief Canyon") to graze purloined horses before they were moved off to Tehachapi to be sold to work crews who were constructing the railroad from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Old Man Mutau met his maker at the flats that now bear his name when was ultimately shot and killed there.

No Country for Old Men

Mutau Creek

Breathing Room


Mutau Creek was still flowing some, so we splashed through and started up a minor drainage that climbed to an obvious saddle at 5,729'. Along the way, we found a mylar balloon with a bright pink boa that we would retrieve on our way out. (PSA: stop releasing mylar balloons into the air people!) At the saddle, the trail continues east, dropping into the Little Mutau Creek drainage. Here, however, we abandoned the trail, opting to go cross-county in a southerly direction over a serious of bumps that lead to San Rafael Peak. 

The Sierra Club says that the navigation along this part of the route is "difficult," but we found it to be pretty straight-forward. At one stage, we wandered slightly off-track, going too low on the northeast flank of Pt. 6,408, but we quickly righted ourselves by making a steep climb back to the ridgeline which has expansive views of Hot Springs Canyon and the Sespe Creek drainage. We then traversed one final minor bump and made the steep climb to the summit. 

Going Off the Grid

Dragon's Back

St. Raphael

Home of Hot Springs

Atop San Rafael we had 360-degree views of the entire Ventura County backcountry. Cobblestone, Topa Topa, Devil's Heart, Hines, Chief, Thorn Point, Haddock, Reyes, and Pinos are all clearly visible from summit. We logged our appearance in the summit register which dated back to 1974 and then lollygagged in the warm sun and tried not to share our snacks with a bunch of insistent hornets that magically appeared every time a plastic baggie or foil was opened.  

Then it was time to go. Days are short this time of year and light a precious commodity. We were well equipped with lighting, but really didn't want to have to rely upon it. So we retraced our steps back to the trailhead and began the long drive back to the reality of life in a pandemic. I can't say that this little adventure cured my pandemic blues or broke my writer's block, but as the old saying goes, "sometimes you just need to go off the grid and get your soul right." And my soul was right on this day. 

Cobblestone Views

Topa Topa and Devil's Heart

Summit Pano

Thorn Point, Haddock and Reyes

Going Back Home

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Eustace Bagge Joins the Trail Crew

Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.
~Edward Abbey, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Get away from me!
~Eustace Bagge, Courage the Cowardly Dog

I've never been much of a "joiner." What I mean is that I've never been terribly fond of becoming part of some collective "we" that assembles sporadically or regularly to accomplish some task or to engage in a communal activity. I've done that type of thing before in my life, but it's always felt unnatural, inauthentic, and slightly forced. And if I'm honest with myself, it has almost always been the consequence of some self-imposed social pressure and the silly desire to fit in, to be accepted, to be one of the "cool kids." Even if that meant suppressing my natural inclinations and/or tempering my instinctive nerdiness and unconventional world-view.

So as a young lad, I participated in scouting, first as a Cub Scout, then a Webelo, and finally a full-fledged Boy Scout. I liked the actual scouting piece of it, but not so much the group dynamic. I also found the cozy admixture of knot-tying and religious indoctrination troubling if not downright repugnant. What in God's name did staking a tent or starting a fire have to do with Jesus anyway? Nothing as far as I could tell other than keeping me in-line and on the straight-and-narrow. But I didn't really care to be on the straight-and-narrow. And neither the scouts nor "the brethren" appreciated doubters, independent-thinkers, or trouble-makers. After all, there were rules to be followed, flags to be saluted, invisible Gods to be worshipped, and serious oaths to be taken. And that wasn't me. So before I ever achieved my Eagle, I drifted away a scouting loser much to the dismay of my poor mother who must have regularly asked herself "why can't he just be like all the other good Mormon boys?"

When I got older and entered college, I followed my childhood best friend into a frat house. Our friendship was waning some at that stage, but I still looked up to him. And I was a follower. So where he went, I went. And that was into Greek life. It was a fraternity for mostly white, good-looking, athletic and popular kids from the wealthy side of town. Lots of BMWs, loafers, Polo shirts and everything that went along with that. I was somewhat surprised they even let me in the door. I'm even more surprised that I knocked in the first place. With my long hair, VW Rabbit, aversion to golf, flannel shirts, and crunchy enviro-ethics, I was an anomaly. And as soon as I was permitted entrance into the the exclusive club, I regretted what I had done. I'm sure my fraternal brothers harbored some regrets of their own. So I slunk away from the whole ridiculous scene to spend time with the hippies, dorks, and dope-smokers in the Biology department who shared my nascent enthusiasm for evolution, ecology, and systemmatics. That afforded me the opportunity to spend part of a summer in independent study sitting in a lab picking microscopic nematodes off of root knots for a tenured professor who was researching how marigolds rebuff the parasitic little roundworms. 

You could be forgiven at this stage for thinking that perhaps I'm a loner. But it's not necessarily that I'm anti-social, or that I don't like people. It's just that I'm anti-social and don't like people. Or at least I don't like lots of people doing the same fucking thing that I'm doing at the same place and time that I'm doing it. I don't need that type of camaraderie or want the social stroking. And I don't fancy the associated chaos, complexities, and cacophony that comes with group projects and outings.  

My predilection for crowd-avoidance has carried over to my outdoor activities. I don't enjoy large group hikes so rarely participate in them. They typically involve too much disappointment and compromise. Somebody's late. Someone else bails at the last minute. There's the constant stopping and waiting for the group to reassemble at every conceivable trail junction lest someone gets lost because they didn't think to look at a damn map before going out. Then the group has to wait for me because I'm older and dragging the pace down. Fuck that. I don't want to be the subject of furtive glances and frustrated whispers.

Beyond all of this, at base level I'm just a selfish bastard with my limited outdoor time. I don't want to go where you want to go. I want, to go where I want to go. And when I want to go. And how long I'll stay there. Admittedly, that's not a particularly endearing quality, but at least it's honest. But honesty only gets you so much these days, so more often than not, my hiking companions are limited to me, myself, and I. No one else can stand to be around me. I am the Eustace Bagge of the hiking world.

Because of that, I'm not exactly a prime candidate for organized trail work parties. I've done trail work and trash pick-up before, but only as a solo, guerrilla undertaking. I've cleared both Russian Thistle and Black Mustard by myself from my local trail. I've hauled many a heavy load of broken glass from the slabs in the hills near my house where teenagers escape to get inebriated and then joyously fling their empties down the sandstone rock-face to explode into a millions glittering shards. And I've picked up and carried out of the hills more candy wrappers, cups, soda cans, water bottles, buger-encrusted tissues, sweat rags, pee rags, shit rags, dog shit in baggies, and dirty undies than I can remember. But it's always been a solitary effort.  

Until recently that is. Contrary to my natural predisposition to go it alone, I've recently tried my hand at some actual, organized and officially-authorized trail work. You know, the kind of work where some government functionary pre-clears everything you intend to do, dictates the number of people that can participate, approves the types of tools that can be used, and drafts the language of the release that you must sign to prevent you from suing when you stab a Pulaski into your shin or an unseen rattlesnake sinks its fangs deep into your calf. All while sitting in an idling truck in the parking area burning fossil fuel and just waiting to hand some poor slob a ticket.  

My first go at this was in Santa Paula Canyon shortly after it was closed to the public due to over-crowding. Santa Paula Canyon has been an abused and graffiti'd trash-heap for years, but with crowds swarming the place because of the pandemic, it had become a veritable sewer. Spray-paint marked every rock, stump, and branch. Garbage was strewn hither and yon. Used diapers, feminine products, and reproductive prophylactics were not an uncommon sight. New use trails all through the canyon bottom spontaneously appeared. In short, the place quickly went to hell, but the Forest Service, perpetually short on money and man-power, was ill-equipped and/or unwilling to assume the mantle of responsibility and do anything about it. 

Enter Santa Paula local Ellie Mora aka mtnbabe aka Los Padres badass who took control. She solicited and obtained the Forest Service's blessing, organized a clean-up, secured the necessary tools, and then recruited help. Fortuitously and fortunately, I ended up being part of that help. I was joined by a bunch of other like-minded, yet much younger forest regulars as well as local Boy Scout Troop 111. Over the course of several outings, the group scrubbed or covered-over graffiti, removed multiple dumpster loads of some of the most disgusting garbage imaginable, reconfigured and improved trails, trimmed evil poison oak, and broke down and removed rock dams from the creek-bed. Very dirty, difficult, yet immensely satisfying work. Especially when your regular routine is to sit behind a desk for nine hours a day staring at a screen and getting a pasty fluorescent light tan. Getting grimey is good for the soul.

Then this past weekend, Ellie organized another work party in conjunction with the Los Padres Forest Association. This time, we would be working the nature trail at Wheeler Gorge just north of Ojai along Highway 33. As I drove up Grimes Canyon at 7 a.m. and then began the swirly drop into the Santa Clara River valley I could already feel the heat coming on. The weather gods had guessed it was going to be 102 and it felt like they were going to be right. Clad in long pants, long sleeves, and work boots to keep the itchy and poisonous plants at bay, the dread began welling up in me.

Forty-five minutes later I was at Wheeler Gorge with the rest of the work crew. After demonstrating the the proper use of the mcleod, Ellie informed everyone that we would be segregating into two different groups: one group would work the upper trail in the scorching sun, and the other group would work creekside in the shade ripping out poison oak. Make your choice, heat or poison oak. I pondered this "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition and decided I'd take the heat. I had just recovered from a nasty bout with poison oak and I wanted no part of that again. Then Ellie said she also needed a couple of volunteers to walk the creek and bust rock dams. No one raised their hand so I jumped at it. A third option that didn't involve heat or poison oak? Mama didn't raise no fool. 
For the next three and half hours, my work companion (code name Bear Woman) and I splished and splashed through the N. Fork of Matilija Creek finding artificial rocks dams and then dismantling them. This involved lifting and moving an endless number of heavy rocks, tree trunks, and other material from the creek and redistributing it elsewhere so that the creek could again flow freely. It's surprising how much effort some folks will go to in order to build these annoying things in the first place. It involves some degree of engineering, a lot of time, and a lot of muscle power. Just for a trailside pool.

Anyway, when we finished our task, we committed to head up trail to let Ellie know we were done. At that moment, she suddenly appeared on the rise above us to tell us her crew was finished as well. So we all picked our way through the forest back to where we began and called it a day before the real sweltering heat set in.  

So does this mean that I'm now cured of my group-phobia? Am I jonesing to go on a hike with 20 others? Not really. I'm still pretty much a cranky old lone wolf. I'll continue to do my own, unauthorized thing. But when it comes to trail work, I definitely have no aversion to linking up with what I consider to be the next generation of local Los Padres hot-shots and stewards. When it comes to them, I've become a "joiner."

Sunday, July 26, 2020

They Can't All Be Winners

Entrance to Cascade Canyon

Thurman: Have you seen my advent calendar?
Willie: What the fuck is it with the advent calendar?
Willie: What are you so obsessed with that goddamn thing? The story sucks anyway.
[Feels badly for yelling at Thurman]
Willie: I think I saw it out there in the hallway.
Thurman: Really?
Willie: I think so.
[Thurman retrieves calendar]
Thurman: Looks like someone messed with my advent calendar.
Willie: What are you talking about? Let me see.
Willie: Nobody messed with it. It looks fine.
[Thurman opens calendar]
Thurman: There's a candy corn in this one.
Willie: Well they can't all be winners, can they?
~Bad Santa (2003)

There's a discernible "wart," "bump," "protuberance," or whatever you want to call it along the dramatic ridgeline leading south from the summit of Ontario Peak. It's not a recognized "peak" in its own right, but it is prominent enough in relation to the rest of the ridge to be instantly recognizable from both near and far. Peakbagger refers to it as a "provisional" peak. Everyone I know just calls it the "Turtle's Beak,"  so named because (i) it does somewhat resemble a terrapins's schnozz, and (ii) the alter-ego of the first guy reputed to climb it was named "Turtle."  

When Turtle first climbed the beak, he approached it from the north. After scaling Ontario Peak, he then dropped along the ridgeline south, roller-coastering over a series of humps before finally achieving  the objective. It was an arduous overnight affair, and along the way he encountered a sea of buckthorn and other nasty flora.

Since that first ascent, a handful of other hardy souls I know have visited the Beak. But instead of following in Turtle's gigantic footsteps, these folks discovered an alternate route that avoids the impenetrable buckthorn of Ontario's south ridge. The approach also shaves miles off the "standard" route. This "shortcut" involves going right up the steep gut of Cascade Canyon to attain the ridge immediately north of the Turtle's Beak. It's a 3,000' scramble up a wild and trail-less canyon that involves some route-finding and class 3 exposure. 

Cascade Canyon is a notable destination for rock-hounds. Not only can corundum crystals be found here, but it is reputably one of the few places in the United States where one can find rare lapis lazuli. Getting to the veins of the uncommon mineral is quite a challenge, however because the deposits are located in the steep, remote, and rough upper stretches of the canyon. Mining for the semi-precious stone has occurred here in the past with limited degrees of success, but those days are now gone (although the north fork of the canyon supposedly still harbors the visible remnants of one of these operations). Amateur collecting is now all that occurs here.

The Iron Hiker, an accomplished peakbagging friend a mine, determined that it was time to visit the Beak and he invited me along. He'd done his due diligence and spoken to others who had ascended Cascade Canyon before, and his plan was to essentially repeat their efforts. Always game for an adventure in the forest, I agreed to the join in on the fun. 

We met at the parking area at Barrett-Stoddard Road at 6:00 a.m. and soon headed off for parts unknown. The morning was clear and cool as we walked easily along the well-maintained fire road, crossing the still-flowing creek at North Fork Barrett Canyon and passing the intriguing Gingerbread House. Beyond the last reclusive home in the canyon and a forest service gate, the road leaves the forest's protective canopy to burst out into the open, permitting unique views of San Antonio Canyon, Sunset Peak, and Lookout Mountain.   

Views Along Barrett-Stoddard Road 

The Beak (center-right) from Barrett-Stoddard Road

Starting Up Cascade Canyon

A short distance later, we were at the obvious entrance to Cascade Canyon which didn't look particularly inviting. We paused briefly to double-check our bearings, put on our battle armor, and headed in. Initially, there were signs here and there that others had been in the canyon. Most likely rock-hounds. We followed their faint trails as best as we could until they eventually petered-out entirely. Then it was just a matter of following the drainage straight up the canyon. 

But this was no easy task. There is no established route so we were basically just feeling our way up the drainage. And the canyon is a continuous obstacle course of dislodged boulders, thick dead-fall, impenetrable brambles, spider webs, and poison oak. Progress slowed to a crawl as we climbed over and ducked under downed trees, hopped from unstable rock to unstable rock, and delicately danced and shimmied as best we could around, over and through the ubiquitous stands of poison oak. 

After what seemed like a couple of hours of moving but not making much progress, we hit a veritable wall of thorny blackberry bushes. To our right, the hillside opened up some affording an opportunity to leave the hostile canyon floor. We took that opportunity, optimistic that it would allow us to bypass the blackberry rampart. But not long after that, our hopes were cruelly dashed when we cliffed-out high above the canyon bottom. We could look down and see exactly where we wanted to be, but getting there was too treacherous. Back at the blackberry wall, we re-assessed our situation and decided it best to abandon the effort. Begrudgingly, we rock-hopped and brush-bashed our way back to Barrett-Stoddard Road.

Since it was still early and we felt the need to at least go home with a participation trophy, we continued south on Barrett-Stoddard Road to climb nearby Stoddard Peak. The road-walking was easy and chatter distracting and we were soon at the saddle that separates San Antonio and Stoddard Canyons. Here, a well-established use trail peels off to the right to ascend the short ridgeline on which Stoddard is the third knob to the south.

After passing some interesting rock formations near the middle bump, we arrived at Stoddard proper where we cooled for a bit, had some snacks, and absorbed the fine vista. There's a triangular witness post on the summit, but we didn't find a register. We did, however, find a red ant colony, some of which were of the flying variety. And the voracious little bastards didn't appreciate our presence and started stinging. Or at least they started stinging me. The Iron Hiker, apparently ill-tasting and immune from red-ant scorn, sat bemused as I stripped off clothing to rid myself of the demonic and cantankerous little pests. 

Eventually, he (and I) had had enough and we started back. The road walk went quickly, but less so than on the way out. Or so it seemed. It's always that way for some reason. Maybe it's the Christmas-Day excitement of going out that makes the miles pass so effortlessly, and the dread of returning to reality that makes them creep by so slowly. Regardless, back at the previously vacant parking area, cars now filled every available nook, cranny, crevice, space, and spot. A canyon resident was there sweeping the dirt off the "No Parking - Fire Zone" markings on the pavement and barking at scofflaws who responded with everything from indifference to disdain. I chatted with her some as she put her broom into the back of her SUV. She confirmed what I already knew: since the pandemic began, and bars, restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and other amusement establishments all closed, the canyon has been overrun by what a grumpy acquaintance of mine disparagingly calls the "filthy casuals." And it's having a real and negative impact on our open spaces. Trash, graffiti, and other urban and suburban-type fuckery is now a regular part of the outdoor experience courtesy of those who have spent the better part of their existence indoors. 

A vaccine for Covid can't be developed and deployed quickly enough so that these indoor refugees can finally get back where they belong and they really prefer to be: indoors.

The almost "standstill" speed represents the time spent in Cascade Canyon. Very slow going.