Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Refreshing Walk at the Audubon Kern River Preserve

Date: February 15, 2016
Place: Audubon Kern River Preserve, Lake Isabella, California
Coordinates: 35.668814, -118.305661
Length: 1.5 miles
Level: easy

Last spring came early to the California deserts and the bloom was strong and spectacular. After visiting the big desert bloom in Death Valley last February we decided to return via Hwy 178 that passes the mountains by Lake Isabella and along the Kern River. It is a very beautiful drive, but a slow one - the road is narrow and winding, and had only one lane for each direction. And past the mountain pass there would be the long hours of driving through the Central Valley. In short, we were looking for a place to stop and do a little hike and a lunch picnic. The place that called us from the map was the Audubon Kern River Preserve - a small nature area between the road and the river.

We found the place and parked on the gravel lot that was already green with grass sprouts. A few shaggy building stood next to the parking lot but they were close and empty. The owner of the only other car in the lot was nowhere to be seen.
We started with the picnic, then took our cameras and binoculars and went out to explore.
One of the buildings serves as a nature center - at another time of the year. Next to it was a large sign post with a trail map and a list of birds that can be seen in the area. Hanging from the building awning was a bird feeder, and it wasn't lonely.
House Finch (bottom) and Pine Siskin (above)
We didn't olan on a long hike, and the short trail of the Audubion Kern River Preserve fit our purpose perfectly. We had no map with us, but the description posted on the sign by the nature center. And the trail was well trodden and easy to recognize.
Our hike as captured by Papa Quail's GPS
In mid-February the place was just beginning to show signs of spring. The trees and other perennial vegetation were still in deep hibernation but the ground was covered with green sprouts. Small green sprouts.

While the only green seen atop the tree canopies was that of the mistletoe, hanging in bright balls off the bare branches.

Unlike the trees, the birds were already in the full swing of spring activities. The air was filled with song and little birds were hopping in and out of the trees and bushes. Most of them were sparrows and finches, but there were lots of bluebirds too.
Mrs. and Mr. Western Bluebird
While there were many birds active about, there were very few species of birds, and all that we saw were very common ones, common also in the Bay Area. Still, we were happy to see and hear them. The walked swiftly through the loop trail. Other than bare trees, little birds and lots of fresh sprouts there was very little else to see. Still, the dormant trees were very beautiful, and it was a sunny, beautiful day.

The air was a pleasure to breathe, cool and pure. Visibility too, was good. We had a good view of the surrounding peaks whenever we came upon a gap in the trees. 

A small herd of deer sneaked between the trees. They were the only non-bird we saw on that hike. The deer were too shy and kept to the vegetation, and would not pose for photos. 
The mountains did pose. I wonder if there's any other hiking trails in that area. One day I'll find out. 

All too soon our little hike was drawing to its end. We completed the loop and walked back on the short trail panhandle back to the parking lot, not having seen any new or exciting bird species, but well refreshed and ready to drive on. 

We continued west on Hwy 178 and soon the road delved deep into the Kern Canyon and was winding between the rocky peaks of the southern Sierra Nevada.
Pappa Quail had the wheel on that drive, and soon I urged him to stop the car. It took a bit more driving before he found a safe pull-out, and stopped. I got out, camera in hand: the entire mountain side was green and orange with flowers. It was quite a spectacular sight.

The orange was so intense the it's reflection in the Kern was just as bright and impressive. At the time, it was the prettiest orange mountain side I've seen. Two months later I would behold the orange display of Figueroa Mountain, surpassing any other such display, but the Kern mountains bloom is still one of the best ones to see in early spring.

I didn't know what those orange flowers were. Poppies, could be. Also the fiddleneck that I saw blooming right at the river bank. Either way, it was gorgeous.
Fiddleneck, Amisinckia sp. 
It is in our plan to visit the Audubon Kern River Preserve on the next time we pass the mountains by Hwy 178. According to the list posted by the nature center there's lots to see there that we didn't yet see. They must've all been sleeping.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

In the Path of Past Misfortune and Tragedy at Donner Memorial State Park

Date: September 4, 2016
Place: Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee, California
Coordinates: 39.318700, -120.231365
Length: 5 miles
Level: easy to moderate

On the second day of our Labor Day weekend camping trip we were going back to Donner Memorial State Park to hike the Donner Memorial Loop Trail, that for a short distance was going in the path of the Donner Party. I had promised the chikas and their friend that after the hike we will go kayaking at the lake and they were all excited and eager to go.
At the trailhead
Following the instructions of the park's entrance booth attendant we drove out and around the eastern park's boundary and found parking on the dirt road just outside the park, behind the campground. A packed gravel road continued beyond the pavement, leading to the hiking trail, following for a couple of miles the path of the inner Party. I herded everyone and we started walking.
Our hike as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS

In 1846 a party of settlers let by George Donner and James Reed set out from Illinois to California. In consequence of some ill-fated route and timing decisions, and beleaguered by internal conflicts and shortage of supplies, the party got to the Eastern Sierra late in fall and were trapped by snow storms, from November 1846 to February 1847. Suffering cold and famine, and unwillingness to cooperate and share whatever resources they had, many of the party members had perished, the survivors resorting to cannibalism, eating the dead in order to live.
None of those gloomy thoughts were on my mind when we started our hike - I was focused on getting everyone into a decent pace, reminding the children that they'd want some time left for kayaking after the hike.
But then again, I had to stop when I saw some bloom along the way. One of the very few plants that were blooming still.
Gumweed, Grindelia sp. 
A narrow foot trail splits from the gravel road to the left. We turned onto that trail and immediately started ascending.

The slope was mild but was enough to slow us down somewhat. Slowing down also gave me the opportunity to look around some more.
Like the hike of yesterday, the forest had the feel of pausing between the seasons. It was summer-hot, but it felt like summer has already been exhausted. But fall hasn't descended yet. In terms of flowers, there wasn't really anything to see. As for wildlife, only lizards were out and about, and they wouldn't stay put.
At least the interesting rocks remained in their places.
Did George Donner see his rock? 
A quick movement in the trees - and Papa Quail had his camera trained. A little chipmunk sat in the tree, munching away at a pine nut.
Yellow-pine Chipmunk
After some slow ascend through a loose pine forest we came into view of the creek. There wasn't much of a water flow at the time we looked upon it but I could tell by the distance of the trees near it that it can and probably does see quite a high flow on a regular basis. 
Cold Creek
After walking for some time above the creek we started a slow descent to the valley. The creek too seemed to rise up to meet us, its water flowing down and away eastward.
The tweets of birds were in the trees but it was only Papa Quail's sharp eyes that detected them, especially the little brown bird that was creeping up a trunk only to fly off to the bottom of another one and start creeping back up all over again.
Brown Creeper
We met with the creek and little chika went to the water to rinse her hands. I thought it strange that the trees nearest to the creek were dead and I wondered if they had fallen prey to the boring beetle or to another pest's attack.

One ailment at least came directly from people. An old barb wire was wrapped around some of the tree trunks along the path. That fence, now useless, was put up a long time ago. Long enough for the living trees to glow around the wire. Some more years in the future and only a hairline scar would remain as evidence of the wire buried within the living tree.
Healing Powers
The creek soon disappeared between behind trees and the path continued on westward, now more in the open. More undergrowth was decorating the trailside, many of which were annuals already gone to seeds.
A weed of the Brassica family that looks pretty after seed spreading
Eventually we got out of the woods and were walking out in the open. I knew there were lakes ahead and I kept looking for them. Meanwhile we enjoyed the warm sun and the blossom of the rabbitbrush bushes that still bloomed here and there.
Rubber Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa
The line of trees continued to our left. Pappa Quail gave the trees quite a bit of attention. It was worth it.
Clark's Nutcracker
Then we came upon the first lake. It wasn't all that obvious -- the water level was low and the vegetation hid most of the water surface. We had to leave the main trail and walk a bit off to the right to have a good view of the lake's area.

Not all that impressed I was ready to get back on the trail and move on, but the rattle of rail wheels grabbed my attention. Looking up to the north I noticed a train moving high above us on the hillside, its colorful cars flashing through gaps between the trees. The train disappeared into a whole in the mountain - a tunnel dug through the granite. I don't know if that was one of the old railroad tunnels dug by the Chinese workforce in the 19th century, or rather a new one, more recently cut.Either way I stood there, fascinated, until the last of the cars vanished into blackness.

We moved on to the second lake. One of the lizards on our way was kind enough to hang around for a few seconds, enough for a photo.
Western Fence Lizard
The second lake was more lake-like: bigger, and fuller. It was there, on the grassy lake shore that we sat down for our first real break. The chikas and their friend went to play by the water, Pappa Quail kept looking for birds in the trees, and me and my friend basked in the sunshine on the grass.

Eventually it was the chikas and their friend who reminded us that there was still kayaking planned for that day. Reluctantly, I pulled myself to a more vertical position. It took a few long minutes until everyone was ready to move on.

The trail started going up once more. By the time we arrived at the western shore and the place where our trail curved back eastward and back we were once again high above the lake.

The trail back was the Donner Memorial Trail - that wind and convenient packed gravel road. On the north, the mountainside towered over us, densely forested with what a appeared to be mostly pines. There were pines on the south side of the trail too, but the slope dropped sharply down so we saw only the tops of their canopies. All save for the closest band f trees that lined the trail side.  And their cones were fully grown now, ready to go into quiescence for the winter. and pop open when time comes.

For a good distance the trail was level, not showing any signs of going down. At some point we could here the son hum of distant engines. It was coming from behind us, and it was getting stronger and louder quickly. Our little group was already very spread out, but I called whoever was near me to stay to the side. within seconds a dirt motorbike passed us in great speed, raising a big cloud of dust. Less than a minute behind him came another, and that one made a point of rising on the bikes rear wheel and riding like that for a hundred yards or so before going back on two wheels. A show for us, no doubt. A third biker came from behind a minute later and passed us with no special display, save for raising more dust.
Ripping the trail
They came no more. It took a while for the dust to settle down. We didn't wait, of course, but kept pressing on in the wake of the bikers, walking briskly until the slope started descending for real. Then everyone else broke into a gallop, leaving me to bring up the rear.
By the time I made it all the way down and joined the rest Pappa Quail had another bird documented in the trees.
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Just before the final descent and the turn of the trail back northward I turned around and looked at the eastern, shallow lake. There were trees and vegetation still green all around, but all the they were all waiting. The annuals were dry and the soil was parched and crumbling. It was waiting too. Waiting to the rains and snow. Waiting for the water to revive and renew. Waiting for the winter to come, and this time for real.

It was in the path the Donner Party had walked that we were hiking. It was warm and beautiful, and no memory had remained in the land of the strife of those early settlers, and of their horrific tale. None whatsoever, except for the in people's written history. Many places in the area are named after Donner, including the park we were hiking in. A fine reward for Donner's fine leadership skills ...
The Fateful Donner Party was caught by snow early in November. This year winter had arrived earlier. Not long after our visit at Donner Memorial Park the rains had begun, quickly turning into snow. I am writing this post in January of 2017, and as of this date the snowfall had been heavy and packed high. I cannot wait to see how spring and summer would look like this year. I think it will be wonderful.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wood and Lake at Donner Memorial State Park

Date: September 3, 2016
Place: Donner Memorial State Park, Truckee, California
Trailhead coordinates: 39.319047, -120.251484
Length: 2.5 miles
Level: easy

The first weekend of September found us looking for a campground in the Sierra Nevada north of Lake Tahoe. We had no reservations but there are plenty of first come first serve campgrounds in that area, and there were enough campsites that were not occupied by people. The problem was that they were all occupied by yellowjacket wasps that hoarded every picnic table and every water spigot. Eventually we did find a place in a small campground that had no water and very few other campers. Possibly because of that, there were considerably fewer yellowjackets. Either way, we knew that we would not spend much time in the campground, so after pitching the tent we were ready to go hiking.
We were there with friends, but their son wasn't feeling very well so they remained in the campsite while us Quails drove off to check out Donner Memorial Park.
There is a pretty blue narrow lake visible when driving past Truckee on I-80, and that is the Donner Lake, a man-made reservoir. Various estates and resorts are lined along its north shores, and on the south east side there is Donner Memorial State Park - a fee area.
We drove into the park and, following the gate attendant's instructions, we continued all the way to the end and parked right at the trailhead of what we were promised to be a nice forest trail.
Our hike at Donner Memorial State Park, as captured by Pappa Quail's GPS

The trailhead isn't marked, but there was no problem seeing it, leading right from the parking lot and into the forest. The forest at the park is pine-dominated, and the trees are far enough apart to let plenty of sunshine through.
A few yards into the trail
As expected for late summer, I didn't see anything blooming at the forest floor. The pretty colors decorating the ground were those of leaf-turning shrubs.

We advanced quickly through the first part of the hike. The trail meanders between trees and boulders, some of the rocks enticing my chikas to climb.

The park was full of people, but only very few could be seen on the trail. We had the forest literally to ourselves.
We could hear the birds all around us, and occasionally saw one flying between the trees, but none came out to pose for the camera. We also didn't see much of other wildlife, but did see evidence of wildlife activity in the forest. They simply weren't coming out to play.

The atmosphere in the forest was of stillness and quiet anticipation. The trees looked healthy, but tired and ready to go into dormancy. Either way, they were beautiful to look at.
Craning my neck
Despite the plentiful sunshine the forest undergrowth was far from thick. A shrub here and there, that's all. Of these, the manzanita shrubs were the most dominant, occupying the sunnier patches. I love to look at the peeling pattern of their skins.
The trail continued behind and around the park's campground in a distance far enough so that the camping sounds and odors were only a minor reminder of the massive human presence in the park that weekend.
For a short part the trail climbed up the hillside with a mild slope. There, right by the turning point back downward, there was a larger clearing in the middle of which, basking in full sunlight, was a small grove of quaking aspen. Had we been there a month later they's be wearing gold.
Quaking Aspen, Populus tremuloides
We were descending down and approaching the campground from behind when Papa Quail spotted a squirrel and took a photo. He then went on to tell us that squirrels of the Sierra are dangerous - they carry the deadly hantavirus, and should be avoided. Well, I wasn't about to handle it anyway, even if it would have let me.
Golden-mantled Squirrel
The trail had taken us to the back side of the campground. The park's campground was full - I knew that when a week before I was looking to see if perhaps they had a reservable spot there. Despite being full there wasn't the usual hubbub that normally goes with human crowds, and we didn't see too many people walking about the campground. However, we were no longer alone. Families were moving to and fro, going about their vacationing activities. I was more interested in other, non-human children.
Pine Kindergarten
After crossing the campground the trail reaches the lakeshore. Along the lake there is a nice and wide gravel trail. Just before going on the gravel trail I looked back to the forest and caught a cluster of manzanita glowing in the sun, enjoying the last days of summer.
Illuminated Manzanita
The shoreline trail is somewhat removed from the water and for the most part the water is hidden from view behind the trees. Whenever we did see the lake we could also see where all the people visiting the park were: right on the beach.
There were many people on the shoreline trail too, and now we had to watch also for bikers as well as for pedestrians. Every now and then I caught a moment with no people in view.
The shoreline trail
It was there, right by the shoreline trail, that I saw the only bloom there was to see - some hardy lupine plants of a species I do not know.
Lupine, Lupinus sp. 
The chikas wanted to go to the beach but we could only give them a few minutes of time by the water because it was already getting late and we had to go back to camp and cook dinner. I promised them that we would be back on the morrow and have more time by the water. I reminded them that their friend that stayed behind with his mother probably misses them. Reluctantly the chikas pulled themselves from the beach and we continued along the trail.
Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium, dispersing its seeds. 
At intervals of 100-200 yards along the shoreline trail there were large post signs telling of the area's natural features. Towards the end of the trail these signs also told of the human history of the place, starting with the local Native Californian tribe and finishing with the accounts of the fatal Donner Party after which the park was named. This story, infamous and sad, has become part of the lore of settling the West, and I'll write about it in my next post.
Donner Lake
We finished the hike and drove back to the campground near the Little Truckee River. When we arrived there we found that the chikas' friend had recovered. He and his mother had gathered firewood and were enjoying a nice campfire. It was already late enough so tat the yellowjackets have mostly gone and were not much of a bother anymore.
After dinner we sat by the campfire and the chikas told their friend about the park and the lake. I told them that we would go back there on the morrow - that there was another trail that I wished to hike in that park. I promised them that after the hike we would go to the lake and see if we could rent kayaks and go on the water. And with that happy prospect we quenched the fire and went inside the tents.