Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Wet Environmental Education at Little Darby

Date: November 30, 2014
Place: Little Darby Environmental Education Area, Willits, California
Coordinates: 39.437045, -123.257777
Length: about 1.5 miles
Level: moderate

That Subday after our strained hike at Grizzly Creek State Park we woke up in Willits, to the last day of Our Thanksgiving vacation. There was a general glumness in the air and a subtle pressure within the family to skip the hiking plan for the morning and drive straight home. It wasn't raining, but a heavy and grey dampness hung over us that might have contributed to the overall feeling. That, and the mute awareness that a regular work/school day was coming up just a single Earth-rotation away.
Fog on the Forest, Water in the Sky
Things looked more upbeat after breakfast, and the family agreed to a short morning hike. So I directed the car to a place I learned about only the night before: Little Darby Environmental Education Area.
The place is under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is habitat of the endangered spotted owl, a scouts camp, and a lovely place to hike.
Our hike at Little Darby, as captured by the GPS.
Finding the place isn't straight forward. Kind of a local secret, very little is written about it outside of the BLM site, and even there I could find only a general description to go on. We followed the given directions and when we arrived at the pullout that constituted the parking lot, the sky was once again dark with clouds. Grandma Quail, who wasn't feeling well that morning, decided to remain in the car and the rest of us donned our rain ponchos and headed into the damp forest.

It smelled wonderful. The damp forest felt and smelled absolutely wonderful. Earthy, rich, fresh. There were mushrooms everywhere, and the slugs were everywhere too. Feasting.

The trail begins with a drop down to the canyon. Below, the creek was running beautifully. As were all the tributaries.

We crossed the bridge and came across a sloped forest clearing where we found the remain of a primitive wood shelter, probably the work of the scouts from the summer before.

Bright orange spots littered the ground near the shelter. At that time we didn't pay much attention to them. On our way back, however, after completing the loop, I stooped over to see what they were.
Mushrooms, of course. Of a species I haven't encountered previously.

The clearing is where the loop trail starts (and ends). We took to the right and hiked along the creek.

The trees were all wrapped in a sheath of moss and fern, lush and moist.

Lichen, often seen at the most hostile environments, flourishes in the rich wetness of the California coastal forest.

The chikas were in a much better mood than the day before. They were eager to find new mushrooms for me to document.

Many of the mushrooms I've seen are edible. But I am never absolutely sure and I'm to afraid to try. The one wild mushroom I am sure about is the Suillus that grows under pine trees. At Little Darby I saw a close relative: a bolete mushroom that grew under a broadleaf tree that I didn't recognize.

Mushrooms don't have to be edible to be enjoyed. I have been admiring these fascinating organisms ever since I learned about them and the crucial role they play in the biome. But it is when they fruit above ground that I can enjoy their aesthetic qualities and sheer beauty.

Fungi decompose biological materials underground but also work inside dead logs to break down and release the locked-up nutrients, making them available once more to growing plants.

From the creek the trail climbs up the hillside. Water dripped heavily on our heads and for some time we told ourselves that it was just from the trees towering overhead. 
Most of the trees there were Douglas Fir, but there were also broadleaf trees here and there. One of these tree species was the red-barked California Madrone, beautifully contrasting with the forest greens. 
California Madrone
Atop the first loop there are two fallen trees, lying opposite of each other with a large gap between them. It was the perfect place for a rest stop. The trees must ave fallen fairly recently because nothing yet has grown on the freshly turned soil. 

About that place there is a split in the trail to the upper loop. We didn't plan to go on the upper loop (mainly because it became clear that the droplets were not coming just from the trees), but we had missed the turn. So further up we went. 

The trail wasn't all that steep, but it was quite slippery. The wood stairs were of some help, but to me they were more interesting as the mushroom garden they were. Each log seemed to have only one species of fungus growing on it. I wonder how long it would tale for the decomposition process to complete. 

Until the log would be recognizable only by the line of mushrooms on the ground. 

The rain intensified. We arrived at the top of the hill and looked around. At that point we'd realized we had taken the wrong turn. We could not recognize any landmark and we had no idea how long is the upper loop so, reluctantly, I conceded and agreed to go back the way we came. 
The view from the hilltop at Little Darby
Fortunately, the trail was more obvious on the way down and so we didn't have to backtrack our entire hike, but make the turn we had missed.

Papa Quail and the chikas were eager to go back to the car, while I lumbered along on my injured knee, steadying myself on the slippery slope with my hiking poles. Half way down, when I caught up with them for the umpfth time, I told Papa Quail to take the girls and hurry along. He wasn't happy about it, but conceded. Soon, all three were out of my sight.

With no one to hurry me along, I slowed down again and took more time to appreciate the local beauty.

Hiking in the rain has its merits. Many of them. If it isn't too cold, and wearing appropriate attire, it can be a very pleasant experience. Nature loves rain and responds in strong vibrance of scents and colors. 

Not to mention that some wildlife encounters are more chancy when conditions are wet :-)

I made it back to the creek and crossed the bridge. It was about there that I paid attention to the other organisms that the rain awoke: numerous sprouts of miners' lettuce were pushing through the mat of fir needles.

My way up to the road was very slow indeed. And it wasn't because of my knee, or because of the upgrade. It was the last walk of our Thanksgiving trip. Getting in the car meant going back home. 

But then, again, one must return to the home base in order to set out on a new adventure. The hike at Little Darby was the last of a long and highly gratifying vacation along the most spectacular coastline of Northern California, at the season when it bursts with life like nowhere else I know. 

Little Darby is a sweet little gem for hikers. Out of the way and not broadly known, this place is the perfect hide-out for anyone who likes a quiet retreat in the woods. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Mushroom Climax at Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park

Date: November 29, 2014
Place: Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, Garberville, California
Address: 16949 Carlotta, CA
Length: 1.2 miles
Difficulty: moderate

Our 2014 Thanksgiving road trip was drawing to an end. After spending a fabulous morning at the Arcata Marsh we drove further south on our way back home. We planned to spend our last night at Willits, and had some time left before nightfall, so we decided to check out Grizzly Creek Redwoods State Park, which was on our way (sort of).

A light drizzle welcomed us at the park. My family must have been eager to get out of the car, because I cannot otherwise explain the ease in which I convinced them it was just dripping from the tree tops. After a quick chat with the rangers on duty and a longer stop at the local facilities we were on our way under the bridge.
A view of Grizzly Creek from under the bridge
The river trail was closed because of the muddy conditions, therefore we were headed uphill to he redwood grove.
Our hike as captured by our GPS
I could have titled this post 'Redwoods in the Rain' once again. And it would have been just as true and expressive as with the like hikes I've written about here. This time, however, the redwoods ceded the spotlight to their underground network operators: the fungi.

We embarked on this trip at that season to see the NorCal coastal mushroom splendor. Indeed, we have seen it at every trail we hiked that week. But it was here, at Grizzly Creek Redwoods, that the mushrooms display had topped them all.

Very shortly into the trail I was lagging behind, stopping and stooping to photograph as many mushrooms as I could.

Not that there weren't other things to see there. The forest undergrowth is of lush ferns and redwood sorrels. Of the ferns, my favorite is the 'five-fingers', although I have yet to see one with exactly five.

The rain intensified and Papa Quail hurried the chikas along. He had his camera under his poncho the entire hike and didn't take a single photograph. I, on the other hand, was busy with mine.

The lighting there was terrible. A combination of late afternoon hour, thick clouds and deep forest made the use of flash necessary most of the time.

That hike was a good opportunity for me to practice low light photography. It was there I finally figured out that the shaded arch that ruined so many of my photographs in the past was caused by the lens shader ring, and that I needed to remove it for close-up flash photographs.

We were going slowly on the hillside, trying not to slip in the mud. The old growth redwoods are not clustered in one specific grove there, but scattered along the trail.

Fitting giant redwoods into one photo is always a challenge, but doing so in the rain (having to point the lens upward) is even more so. I did find a few photos in my collection that weren't blurred by droplets.

Looking down was more rewarding that day.

And not only for the mushrooms. Fallen trees make a wonderful growth bed for moss and ferns. In the park there are some wonderful little fern gardens, more beautiful than any cultivated garden I've seen.

The loop we hiked was a short one, but for seeing fungi it was perfect. Rain and all.

The chikas were interested at first but soon got bored and started bickering. Nature provides many attractions, and redirecting the chikas to them can go a long way to keeping them in a cooperative mood.
'And he lived under the name of Sanders'
All the fairy-like mushrooms in the forest, however, couldn't offset the effect of an already long day, the incessant rain and knowing that the vacation is drawing to its end.

I continued enjoying the fungi display. I was amazed how many different species were there. Many of them were already quite familiar from previous hikes, like the turkeytail.

Others were new to me. But once I noticed them, I detected them again and again along the trail.

But even the familiar mushrooms seemed fresher and shinier, and better looking than before. The rain does them good.
At some point I heard heated voices ahead and when I caught up with the rest I saw that a conflict between the chikas (a very common occurrence) had escalated into a full-blown, pre-teen style tantrum of the elder chika.

It was too late for me to get involved. I simply moved forward and directed my angry chika down the trail a bit faster. 

It didn't take long before I stooped once again to photograph a pretty mushroom. It was so pretty, I couldn't help myself. It was enough time for the others to catch up and for the conflict to reignite.

Downhill the trail comes close to the road. My angry chika took off and crossed the road on her own. An even angrier Papa Quail chased her, gave her a stern talk-down and directed her back across the road and on the trail, to the long way back under the bridge.

Grizzly Creek collects into Van Duzen River, which joins Eel River to the west. At the time we were there the river was overflowing. I found a reasonably 'dry' (meaning, not too muddy) spot on the river bank and sat there for some time with my elder chika, listening to her grievances and complaints and letting the river wash them all.
Van Duzen River
It was already getting dark when she eventually calmed down enough to rejoin the rest of the family. The only problem was, they were not there. Turns out there was one more visitor in the park! And he had told Papa Quail that he'd seen a river otter upstream, so they all went to the edge campground look for it.

So me and my (less) angry chika followed. We didn't see any otter, but we did see many more mushrooms along the river too.

All and all it was a very intense little hike. within the short distance of a mile+ there were packed rain, giant redwoods, gazillion mushrooms and a family spat. There wasn't any day light when we left the park, and we were all very tired. It was very quiet in the car on the way to Willits, where we'd stay the final night of our Thanksgiving vacation.

Grizzly Creek is a small park, and it's a bit out of the way. It is the perfect place to go see giant redwoods and the natural treasures of that forest without the crowds that normally pack the big redwood parks along Hwy 101. It is certainly on my list of 'revisit soon' places.