Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Into the Desert: Self-Isolation at the Coso Range Wilderness

Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

Date: December 18, 2020
Place: Coso Range Wilderness, Olancha, California
Coordinates: 36.266897, -117.766855
Length: 3.2 miles 
Level: moderate

The rise in COVID-19 cases resulted in a state-wide closure of hotels and campgrounds. Even backcountry camping is forbidden in many places, including Death Valley National Park, which was the planned destination for my family's winter vacation. When my plans crumbled my patience snapped. After nearly a year of no time alone at all I was becoming knot of anxiety and despair. I mad a half concocted plan to take my daughters backpacking in the desert (Pappa Quail had to stay and work) , but soon realized that this would make the three of us miserable. So when Pappa Quail told me I should go on my own I jumped on the idea whole heartedly. 
The California desert is big and wide. Even with Death Valley NP off limits, there was still plenty of open desert area to get lost in all by myself. My choice for this hermit experience was the Coso Range Wilderness. 
It took me over 7 hours of nearly continuous drive to get there, with the final access road to the Lower Centennial Springs camp area and trailhead being 7 miles of rough dirt road demanding a very slow drive. At the end of the road I found a nice campsite where I settled for the night. Having still some daylight left I wandered around a bit to explore the surroundings. 
Silver Cholla, Cylindropuntia echinocarpa 

The first thing I looked for were the springs. I didn't need spring water right then and there because I had brought with me a large container with plenty of water. I wanted to know however, if the springs were flowing to get an idea of how much water to take with me should I decide to go backpacking. I went up the creek a bit directly to where I expected to find the spring - a small grove of poplar trees and willows. The creek bed was bone dry and the vegetation around looked very miserable. I wasn't very hopeful but I went into the grove anyway. There I found a small hole that was covered with wet leaves. I looked down into the hole and found brown water below the cover of leaves. That was all. Disappointed, I climbed back up and out of the creek, glad I wasn't in a survival situation when I would have to drink this water. 
Over the creek was a small cabin. At first I thought it was a relic from an old settlement site, and perhaps it originally was. But the cabin can actually be used by anyone who gets stuck there without proper accommodations: it has some wooden sleep benches, a fire pit , and some emergency equipment. It was also very dusty and it was quite obvious that no one had taken advantage of this wilderness hospitality in a very long time. 
The Cabin at Lower Centennial Springs

Neither did I. I returned to my campsite and lit a very necessary campfire because as soon as the sun went down, the temperature plummeted. I cooked dinner and sat to eat, watching the last daylight kissing the mountains goodnight and fading into darkness. One by one the stars popped out and before long I was sitting under the most magnificent canopy of night sky I have seen in a very long time. 
I kept feeding the fire, holding out until 7 pm. Then I finally put my campfire out and crawled into my tent, checking in for the night. 
Sunset at the Lower Centennial Springs
It was a very long and very cold night. Temperature was fine inside my tent and my double sleeping bag, but outside the temperature dropped below freezing point. By daybreak it was so cold outside the tent that I didn't feel like getting out until the sun actually cleared the mountain ridge, at about 8:30 am, making it officially the longest night I've ever hunkered down. Once the sun was out however, the temperature rose quickly and soon became quite pleasant. 
Now I was facing a dilemma. I wanted to go backpacking but I didn't trust that I would find any water at the Upper Centennial Springs. I also knew that the nights would be very, very cold. Basically I needed to limit my winter gear for water. Having grown up in a desert environment I leaned toward carrying more water. 
I took it slow and easy and it was almost noon when I finally set out carrying over a gallon of water and a full set of winter clothes in my backpack, but I did leave the second sleeping bag behind. 
My hike as captured by my GPS

I started up the creek west of Centennial Creek. My pack was very heavy and the desert silence lulled my mind into a daydreaming state. There was no wildlife activity anywhere, not even birds. There was plenty of gorgeous desert plants, however. Most attractive of all - Joshua trees. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

There was no established trail there so I simply followed the path of least resistance, hiking up the creek bed. Hiking on gravel, especially while carrying heavy weight, can be very tedious. 

Soon however, I encountered rocky areas that provided more solid footholds. They did present other challenges too though, as I often needed to figure out the best climbing route up and around large boulder aggregations. 

I wasn't deluding myself that I would find any wildflowers at this time of year, especially since the Coso Range hasn't seen any precipitation in a very long time. Still, the dry remains of last year's bloom were a pretty cool sight. Everlasting floral shapes mummified by the desert air. 

These of course, were not merely leftover flower bits, but the actual fruit and seeds, not yet dispersed. 
Hopsage, Grayia spinosa 

This wash wasn't exactly a canyon with high side walls but the slopes on the sides did seem to get taller and steeper as I progressed up'stream'. 
Further in, my path narrowed even more. Besides having to negotiate rocky steps I also had to push my way between and around the shrubbery, much of which was prickly. Surprisingly, there were very few cacti there.  

At some point I turned around and looked back, surprised to see how high I ascended over the flats below. I hardly noticed the climb because of the mild slope of the wash itself. 
View northeast 

As the slopes got steeper and the sun got lower I got more often in the shade of the southern ridge. Each time the sun disappeared behind the ridgeline the temperature had dropped a few very significant degrees. As long as I was under the direct sunlight I was comfortable, but one step into the shaded areas and I had to wrap myself in my sweater and pull down my winter hat's ear flaps. 

I found a lupine bush, recognizable by the shape of its leaves only. It was so shriveled and damaged by the drought that I wondered how long it would survive and when will the rain come to save it. I knew for a fact that won't be that night I had planned to stay there.

Many of the creeck bed rocks were beautifully decorated by orange circles of lichen - a hardy, symbiotic organism comprises of mutualistic species of an alga and a fungus. 

While Joshua trees are the signature trees of the Mojave desert, there were a couple of other prominent tree species in the area, pne of which was the Utah juniper, a species common to the deep California desert. 
Utah Juniper, Juniperus 

The side wash I was hiking up on begins inside a military zone that's off limits to the general public, i.e. me. This military zone is used for aircraft bombing practices, and I really didn't want to accidentally enter it, so I kept checking my map to se when I should be turning to climb the eastern slope to get over to the Centennial Creek. When I came upon a human-made trench across the creek past which the path seemed to be efficiently blocked by boulders I thought this was a sign I should better start across at that place. 
I though I could see a faint trail meandering up the eastern slope. Without stopping to think it over, I heaved my backpack on my shoulders and started very slowly uphill. 

My slow uphill progression gave me plenty of time to appreciate the pretty desert colors of early winter. The evergreens mixed with the grays and rusty reds and pinks, interspaced with the grainy talus rocks suspended in their slow motion mid-sliding way to the bottom of the creek. 

The map I had was too large scaled to be good for fine navigation. It was very useful to have a modern GPS navigator on my hand. Easily spotting the most prominent feature in the area, I made my way toward it, circumventing that butte from the north. 

Joshua trees are most interesting plants. They belong to the Yucca genus and branch only at their blooming apices. The more branched a Joshua tree is, the more blooms it had. In the photo below - a baby Joshua that hadn't bloomed yet, and a toddler Joshua that had bloomed once. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

Uo at the top of the butte was a cavity and inside was something that looked like a perched bird. I couldn't really tell what it was because the sun was in my eyes. I went up slope and around until the sun was hidden behind the butte's summit and took a photo. I was somewhat disappointed that upon enlarging the photo I saw that that 'bird' was just another rock. 

The first gully I've came upon at the top of the ridge was leading back to the wash I came up on so I meandered eastward on top of the ridge, searching for a way down to the Centennial Wash.

It's a good thing I found a pointer in the right direction ....

There seemed to be quite a lot of trees on top of the ridge. A real forest, in desert terms. Some of the most magnificent Joshua trees I've seen on that trip were right there, between those two washes. 
Joshua Trees, Yucca brevifolia 

The other trees were the Utah Junipers and the single-leaf pinions. I was excited to see so many pinion trees and I had hopes of seeing the pinion jay which had eluded my family birders for many years. I didn't get lucky with the jays but I was very happy to see how many pinions were growing on that area of the Coso Wilderness, all of them looked very healthy. 
Single-leaf Pinion, Pinus monophylla 

I didn't see any jays on this trip.  In fact, on my first day there I didn't see any bird. It was eerily quiet the entire time. I did encounter one evidence of a very specific type of bird, however. It was a half broken owl pellet. Owls swallow their prey whole and regurgitate all what isn't digestible - fur and bones - as a pellet. It s much fun to find such pellets and dissolve them in water, pulling the tiny rodent bones one by one and reconstructing a skeleton. I know of at east one species of rodent that was identified as a separate species based only on bones found in owl pellets. No live specimen was ever captured or seen. 
Owl Pellet

Eventually I found Centennial Wash, the one I needed to go down to. The eastern bank of this wash is a high wall of broken basalt. It supported very little vegetation and looked quite impressive, deep dark against the lighter desert background, like a fresh cut in the Earth. 
Looking down on Centennial Wash

I found a way down the western slope of Centennial Wash. As soon as I cleared the ridgeline though, the sun disappeared behind it and I found myself hurrying downhill to beat the fading daylight and the gathering chill. 
When I reached the creek bed it was at some distance downstream of the Upper Centennial Springs, which I estimated to be at least half of a mile. It was only 4:30 but within half an hour it would be dark and very, very cold. I decided to stay and set camp where I was, making use of the remaining daylight to pitch my tent and gather enough firewood for my evening fire and my wood stove. 
Centennial Wash

I should probably add a word of caution here - camping at the bottom of a desert wash, especially in winter,  has some risk tin it of being caught in a flash flood. Desert storms can be unpredictable, strong, and destructive. Where I was that risk was very low not only because there was no precipitation in the forecast for the entire region, but also because the Centennial basin is fairly small. Either way, I was more concerned about the possibility of being stampeded by burros, the droppings and hooves prints of which I've seen all over the place. 
Chilly sunset at Centennial Wash

After eating my dinner I huddled as close to the flames as I could, trying to absorb as much warmth from my small campfire. There was no sound except for the wind, and the heavens were the gorgeous starry desert night sky. I pointed the constellations to myself quietly, both sad and glad that I had no one else there to share the experience with. 
I sat by the fire for two hours until my firewood was all burnt. It was only 7:00 when I finally put out the last of the embers and crawled into my tent for one of the coldest nights I've ever experienced in my camping life. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Back to the Modoc: Emerson Lake Trail

Emerson Lake Trail at the South Warner Wilderness, Modoc County

Date: July 4, 2020
Place: The South Warner Wilderness, Eagleville, California
Coordinates: 41.263677, -120.138940
Length: 7 miles in and out
Level: strenuous

Our first family road trip in the COVID-19 pandemic time was to central Oregon. On our way back we stayed a couple of nights in Alturas, already back within the California borders. We planned to visit the Modoc NWR and to do a hike at the South Warner Wilderness (SWW), an area where we have hiked, and even backpacked, a couple of times before, but really didn't have enough of. 
On the morning of the 4th of July, after spending some time watching the holiday parade in Alturas, we headed east to Cedarville and then south to the Emerson Lake trailhead. On the way the elder chika spotted an eagle on a power line pole by the rode, so we had to stop for the family birders to get their satisfaction. 
Golden Eagle 

From the main road we took a long and winding dirt road to the trailhead. The dirt road was a single lane cut into the slope with no side space or pullouts. When Pappa Quail spotted the mariposa lilies on the roadside I squeezed the car as much as I could to the hillside, then had to climb a few steps up the crumbling soil of the slope to get a good view of the lovely flowers. 
The first time I've seen this species of mariposa lily was in Lava Beds National Monument, not too far from the SWW. It was great seeing it again in bloom. 
Sagebrush Mariposa Lily. Calochortus macrocarpus  

We arrived at the small campground where the trailhead was. There were a few vehicles parked there and I assumed that we'll see more hikers on the trail. We got our packs and cameras and started along the dirt road up the hill. 

Our hike as captured by my GPS

We walked for abut 5 minutes before we figured out we were on the wrong side of the creek and had to come down and cross the water to find the actual trail on the north side of the creek. 

As usual, the birders of my family had moved forward, looking to spot the chirpers in the trees. The first sighting wasn't actually a bird though, but an empty nest that fell from the tree. 

When they did find the first bird there was much delight - it was the colorful western tanager. 
Western Tanager

A bit further up the trail I made my next exciting discovery of a rein orchid, a patch of them, in fact, right by the water. 
Scentbottle, Platanthera dilatata 

The lower part of the trail was under the forest canopy, right along the Emerson Creek. The slope was mild at first, with only a few short steep segments here and there. We had to cross the creek back and forth a couple of times, but eventually the trail settled on the north side of the creek and rose above the creek bed.
Emerson Lake Trail

Two years ago, when we went backpacking at the SWW at exactly the same week of the year, there were snow patches on the ground still. This time there was non left. The soil however, still retained the dampness, and under the pine needle cover there were mushrooms blooming.

As the trail rose above the creek bed, so did the slope steepen. Out in the sun now, there were other kinds of wildflowers blooming along the trail. 
Low Phacelia, Phacelia humilis

The trail we were walking on isn't marked on any of the navigation instruments we had, nor in the AllTrails app. It is marked on the SWW topo map, and we had used this paper map as we used to in the pre-GPS navigation stone age to figure out our location. Not that it was very critical because the trail was pretty obvious. The important point was to know when we would come across the water so we could fill our bottles. We were very close to the creek still, but already inconveniently high above it. And it was a hot day. 
Emerson Creek

Heat is good for insects and there were many of them buzzing all over the place. The butterflies of course, grabbed most of our attention. 

Even Pappa Quail and the elder chika who were focused on finding birds were enchanted by the colorful butterflies. 

The trail steepened and the day heated up. We were walking mostly under the sun, which was now directly above us. Our pace slowed down and soon we had our first rest stop in a small patch of shade cast by a pine tree close enough to the trail. 
Hot Rock Penstemon, Penstemon deustus var. pedicellatus

Not all pollinators are butterflies, of course. Although less photogenic, flies wee pretty common flower visitors that day as well. They are harder to photograph, but I managed to catch a few shots. 
Cinquefoil, Potentilla sp.

I kept checking the map to see when we will cross the creek again. When we came near it, we were still too far above it. I wasn't worried though. According to the map the trail was to cross one of the creek's tributaries a bit further up. I just hoped it wouldn't be dry when we get there. 

Meanwhile, I kept stopping every yard or so to appreciate the wildflowers. 
Onion, Allium sp.

At least for one plant however, I stopped because of its strange, hairy fruit rather than the wildflowers. 

Pursh's Milkvetch, Astragalus purshii

My family already knows my passion, so when they saw a mariposa lily blooming they yelled to me so loud and urgent that I had to run up ahead to see it. It was the Leichtlin's mariposa lily I was familiar with from my Sierra Nevada hikes but I was excited to see it in the SWW nonetheless. 
Leichtsinns Mariposa Lily, Calochortus leichtlinii 

They were good at spotting even less glamorous flowers for me. Already familiar with the violet genus, my young chika made sure I wouldn't miss any of them on this hike. 
Violet, Viola sp.

It seemed that the higher we ascended, the more numerous and more colorful the flowers were. Patches of  paintbrush shrubs dotted the mountainside with brilliant contrast to the brownish-gray soil and the matted green leaves of the mule-ears.
Great Red Paintbrush, Castilejja miniata

The mule-ears were the most common wildflowers blooming at the time. Only a few here and there at lower elevation but carpeting entire areas of the upper slopes along the trail.
Woolly Mule's Ears, Wyethia mollis

I named my young chika after this gorgeous genus of flowers, and whenever I see any of its wild species blooming on our family hikes I point it out to here with delight. Roses make me happy.
Woods' Rose, Rosa woodsy, pollinated by a long-horned beetle 

The trail took a curve away from the creek, up and around the mountainside contour. It was pretty hot now, and our water was getting low. On the other hand, we were already quite high up the trail with not much distance left to get to the lake. 

Still, we could use another rest stop during which I was busy exploring the nearby vegetation and pollinators. 
Varied Leaf Phacelia, Phacelia heterophylla var. virgata 

Brilliant yellow buckwheat bloomed in large patches near where we stopped and attracted many bees that made the young chika a bit nervous. I was fascinated by all the insects that wre bussing around the flowers, many of which were flies, too. 
Sulphur Buckwheat, Eriogonum umbellatum 

The south facing slope bathed in brilliant sunshine. A few trees, keeping good social distancing from one another, avoiding competition over the limited water on the drier side of the mountain. 

Not shaded by trees, the drought-tolerant shrubs dominated the south-facing slope. As we continue our ascent up the trail I was checking out all these pretty beauties with every step. 
Morning Glory, Calystegia Occidentalis 

Another common color along the trail was the lupine blues, like feathery bits of summer sky that descended to the earth. 
Silvery Lupine, Lupinus argenteus

When we finally came upon a tributary that was running we stopped to filter some water and there I found some veronica flowers, dotting some more blue at the creekside. 
American Brooklime, Veronica americana

After crossing the tributary we were back inside the forest, walking underneath the trees. It was a relief to be in the shade for a change. Eased by the shade and eager to get to the lake, we quickened our pace. 

In the forest - there are forest birds to be found, and my family borders indeed found them. Some of them, anyway. 
Western Wood Pewee 

A little higher up and the familiar and much welcomed fragrance of the coyote mint is mixed in the air we breath, now heavily once again.
Pale Mountain Monardella, Monardella odoratissima ssp. pallida

Closer to the ridge now, the slope became milder again. We were still under the trees but the heat was heavy and we stopped for yet another breather and a drink of water.

Right there under the trees, really close to the trail I noticed an interesting wildflower that I have never seen before. The flower looked very much like a tomato flower, placing it in the Solanaceae family, but other than that, I had no idea. Only later at home I found out that was indeed a lifer for me.
Dwarf Chameasaracha, Chameasaracha nana

At last we were out of the forest and on the final ascend toward the lake, Making our way under the hot sun and between the little suns of the mule-ears flowers we made a slow progress toward the basin, expecting to see the lake at any step.
Woolly Mule-ears, Wyethie mollis

At the final stretch before reaching the lake I paused to enjoy the brilliant green shine of the cornlilies, growing asked in the shallow depression between the trees. 

A few more steps, and there it was - person Lake. Pappa Quail and I joked about Palmer not being around (I actually checked the map to see if there was any feature with that name in the area, nerdy me). We walked around a bit looking for a good place to sit and surprised three hikers under the trees above the lake. The hikers seemed a bit jarred by our arrival and cleared off shortly after. 
Emerson lake

I went down to the water to look around and to fill the bottles. It was difficult to get to the water without sinking in smooth, silty mud and stirring the mud in the water. I found a stable enough patch of vegetation to stand on while filling the bottles. A bird started screaming and jumped from the nearby shore vegetation, and as I walked carefully away the bird hopped away, screaming like mad, and dragging it's wing on the ground, as if broken.

This behavior (pretending to be injured) is a way for birds to distract predators from the nest. I didn't see where the nest was and I wasn't about to look for it or to follow the screaming bird. Indeed, after a few more seconds the bird ceased the show and flew off. I went back to our stilling place and sent my family birders down while I sat down to filter the lake water. They came back with images of spotted sandpiper - the bird has performed for them too.
Spotted Sandpiper

But hey, I got a winged creature on camera too!

We sat by Emerson Lake for nearly an hour, but finally it was time to head back down. It was past mid day but the heat was still intense. Hurrying to get in the shade we half walked, half galloped down the trail.
Emerson Lake Trail

We were going down the same trail we came up on, and still there were more wildflowers to see and appreciate. 
Pussy Paws, Calyptridium umbellatum

Going down, however, gave me a fantastic new point of view on the view. The air wasn't too hazy and I could see quite far into the horizon. Within a few months we would be heading east into that high desert scenery on a different road trip, in search of wintering birds. 
View east from the South Warner Wilderness

From the height of the trail I also had a better view of the beautiful features of the ancient lava flow that makes bedrock of the mountain range. 
Way far in the crevice I could even see a straggling snow patch, and it brought me memories of our backpacking trip to the SWW when we got trapped behind a snow field. It was the same time of year, yet way earlier in the season. 

The day got older and the shadows were lengthening. Looking up at the north slope I had the vision of green flames licking the sky. These were the pine trees, shaped like beautiful condensed drops because of the space between them, not needing to compete with one another over sunlight while reaching to forest canopy heights. 

A little surprise waited for me on the way down - a milkweed plant that I noticed on the way up but had all of its flowers closed, had now a few of them open. Especially for me, I guess. I didn't pass on the opportunity.
Purple Milkweed, Asclepias cordifolia

I don't mind in and out trails. Each time I pass the same trail, even on the same day, I get to see new sights that I haven't seen the first time around. 
American Dogwood, Cornus sericea

The way down was much quicker, naturally. Before long we were back at the lower part of the trail, the part where we needed to weave back and forth across the Emerson Creek. The heat seemed to break a bit too. 
Emerson Creek

We slowed down again, enjoying a lazy stroll back to the little parking lot, looking at the busy squirrel. 
Douglas Squirrel 

At the campground near the parking lot a little party was going on. We got into the car and drove back into Alturas for the last night of our summer road trip. 
Crimson Columbine, Aquilegia formosa