Category Archives: nature

Under a Falcon’s Eye

An American Kestrel (female) at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve.

I was in that other-world you can reach when running, lost in thought and dreaming of dreams. As I approached the valley oak on the western edge of Lasky Mesa, I wondered if the tree was going to survive. Even though last Winter had been wet, it had been a hot summer, and this once-elegant star of TV and film was still struggling with the deleterious effects of five years of drought. Leaves grew in clusters along its spindly limbs as if it had been burned in a wildfire.

Nearly under the scraggly valley oak, I slowed to a walk to look at it more closely. Glancing upward I did a double-take… Perched on a bare limb at the top of the tree was a small raptor. So small, that it had to be an American kestrel.

Kestrels are extremely wary birds with acute vision, and I was surprised it had not flown as I had run toward the tree. I’ve seen and heard kestrels many times at Ahmanson Ranch, but never this closely. The diminutive falcon was only about 15′ above me. My camera was in my pack and just about any movement was going to spook the bird.

Ever so slowly, I turned my back to the bird and walked a few steps away from the tree. Wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, I carefully removed my camera from my waist pack, turned it on, made sure it was set correctly, and partially extended the zoom lens. Turning back toward the tree, I expected the falcon to be gone, but it had not flown.

I took a set of bracketed photos and then another. I needed to be a little closer. I took two or three slow steps toward the tree. As I raised the camera, the female kestrel — burnt orange across the back and upper wings — had had enough. With a powerful stroke of her wings she turned and leapt to flight, once again leaving me to my thoughts.

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Point Reyes Peninsula – A Hidden Island

Running on Kelham Beach, Point Reyes National Seashore

The sand was compact, the breeze cool, the surf up and the running oh so pleasant. Brett and I were running south along Kelham Beach, an idyllic stretch of sand between Point Resistance and Miller’s Point within Point Reyes National Seashore. If the tide was not too high we hoped to reach an area of dramatically folded strata along the 150′ tall sea cliffs.

Our adventure had started with a short run from the Bear Valley Visitor Center to a spot on the San Andreas Fault where a fence was reconstructed to illustrate how the Point Reyes Peninsula lurched 16 feet to the northwest during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Fences and roads in the Point Reyes area built across the fault trace were offset by as much as 20 feet during the earthquake.

It is the San Andreas Fault that makes the story of the Point Reyes Peninsula so unusual. A glance at a geologic map shows the rocks of the peninsula to be geologically distinct from those on the other side of the San Andreas. Essentially the Point Reyes Peninsula is an island on the margin of the Pacific Plate that is sitting against the North American Plate. The San Andreas Fault is the boundary between the two plates.

Towering Douglas firs at the junction of the Old Pine Trail and Sky Trail.
Towering Douglas firs at the junction of the Old Pine Trail and Sky Trail.

The core of the Point Reyes Peninsula is a granite similar to a granite found in Southern California. Over many millions of years the chunk of crust was propelled northward along the San Andreas Fault by the movement of the Pacific Plate. The story is not a simple one, involving a combination of faults. At some point — perhaps near current day Point Lobos — the granite core was overlain by the sedimentary rocks we see on the peninsula today.

It seems likely that at times during its 10 million year journey northward from Monterey, the Point Reyes Peninsula may have been separated from the coast. With more than 80% of its perimeter currently bounded by water, it may once again become an island.

Point Resistance and Drakes Bay from the Sky Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Point Resistance and Drakes Bay from the Sky Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore.

After visiting the fault zone we ran across the Point Reyes Peninsula to the coast using the Bear Valley, Mt. Wittenberg, Sky and Coast Trails. For the most part the trails were duff-covered, tree-lined, shaded and cool. For someone that runs mostly in Southern California this was practically nirvana. The previous Saturday I’d run a 50K race on a rocky, exposed course near Los Angeles in 90 degree temps and gusty Santa Ana winds. In the West San Fernando Valley the temperature this year has reached at least 95 °F every month from March through October. In July, August and September the highest temp each month was over 110 °F!

Alders along the Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore.
Alders along the Bear Valley Trail in Point Reyes National Seashore.

It was not 110 °F now. It was about 60 ocean-conditioned degrees. Brett and I had reached the first point where the beach narrowed. There was still room to run, but the beach narrowed even more ahead. We watched as a large wave broke and washed up to the rocks. It looked like the tide was going out, but we weren’t sure. Although the surf wasn’t huge, there was a consistent swell of maybe 6′-8′.

In between sets we took a look around the next corner and it looked sketchy. Debating, we watched as more waves washed up to the base of the cliffs. That part of the exploration would have to wait until another day with a lower tide!

Related post: Point Reyes – Sky Trail Keyhole Loop

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Mt. Wilson Fire and Mt. Wilson Area Trails

October 2017 Mt. Wilson Fire and Mt. Wilson Area Trails

The Google Earth image above shows the VIIRS fire detections from the Wilson Fire. The data is from USDA Forest Service Geospatial Technology and Applications Center Active Fire Mapping Program. The square markers show the approximate location of yesterday’s detected fire activity. The markers do not indicate the areal extent of the fire. This Forest Service Briefing Map shows the completed line and uncontrolled fire line earlier today.

The fire started before dawn yesterday and according to a tweet from @Angeles_NF at 9:31 this morning was 25% contained and at 50 acres.

The yellow traces are GPS-based tracks of trails in the area. The tracks are subject to various errors and should be considered approximate.

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Groundwater Replenished in Upper Las Virgenes Canyon

Small spring in upper Las Virgenes Canyon

The groundwater in upper Las Virgenes Canyon appears to have been replenished by the above normal rainfall last rain season.

The little spring pictured above has persisted through the dry season and farther up the canyon a tiny stream has trickled defiantly through the Summer. The mainstem creek in upper Las Virgenes Canyon isn’t flowing as it was during the Winter, but the sand at the crossing near the Cheeseboro connector trail remains damp.

It shouldn’t take a huge amount of rain to get the creek flowing again. We’ll see!

Related post: Los Angeles Rainfall Above Normal, But…

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Bear Canyon Loop: If the Poison Oak Doesn’t Get You, the Stinging Nettle Will

Bear Creek

Running or hiking the Bear Canyon Trail is always an adventure. The loop from Red Box, past Mt. Disappointment, down Mt. Lowe Road, over to Tom Sloan Saddle, through Bear Canyon, and up the Gabrielino Trail is about 15-16 miles long. But it isn’t it’s length that makes it interesting.

The two miles of trail between Tom Sloan Saddle and Bear Trail Camp is isolated and little-used. The difficulty of the trail above the camp varies from year to year, and today it was a bit more challenging than usual.

Black bear scat along the Bear Canyon Trail.
Black bear scat along the Bear Canyon Trail.

Copious Winter rain had promoted the growth of all things green in the canyon — including much poison oak and stinging nettle — and the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. Thunderstorms had recently washed away any tracks, so the only sign on the trail was bear scat and some cut trees from years past.

Because of the lush growth, fallen trees, brush, fire debris and flood debris, the trail ahead sometimes looked very improbable. A couple of times I stopped and walked back up the trail a few steps to confirm the trail was a trail and I hadn’t missed a turn. The path repeatedly crossed the creek and the creek is where the difficulties tended to be. In places the poison oak and nettle blocked the way and were not easily avoided.

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Dealing with the poison oak was easy — I just ignored it. That’s something I could worry about later. Hopefully the Technu Extreme I had in my car would take care of it. On the other hand, when you are bare-legged and bare-armed ignoring stinging nettle is a hard thing to do — contact with the plant produces instantaneous burning and stinging.

I always thought formic acid was the culprit, but apparently stinging nettle’s micro-needles contain a potent blend of chemicals that produces a poorly understood and unusually prolonged reaction.

Arroyo Seco below Switzer Falls
Arroyo Seco below Switzer Falls

There isn’t much you can do about the burning and stinging in the middle of a run or day hike. Some say flushing the affected area with water (without rubbing) can help. If you Google “first aid stinging nettle” you’ll see various suggestions. By the time I reached Bear Canyon Trail Camp my legs felt like they had been painted with horse liniment.

The trail between the trail camp and the canyon’s confluence with Arroyo Seco is well-used and is usually in better condition than the trail above the camp. From the confluence it’s about a mile to the Gabrielino Trail, which is followed past Switzers Picnic Area to Red Box.

Some related posts: Bear Canyon Bigleaf Maple Leaves, Red Box – Bear Canyon Loop Plus Brown Mountain, Bear Canyon Loop Plus Strawberry Peak, After the Station Fire: Red Box – Bear Canyon – Gabrielino Loop

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Some Summers Are Hotter than Others

Thunderstorm and Rocks - Sage Ranch Park - August 31, 2017.

The photo above is from an afternoon run at Sage Ranch Park on August 31, 2017, during our recent heat wave. The thunderstorm in the distance is over Santa Clarita.

Around the time the photo was taken the temperature at the Cheeseboro RAWS was 110 °F, with an “in the sun” fuel temperature of 119 °F. The temperature at Ahmanson Ranch, where I often run on weekdays, was probably higher. I was running at Sage Ranch to try and take the edge off the heat — even if the reduction in temperature was only a few degrees.

During the heat wave the high temperature at Pierce College in Woodland Hills in the West San Fernando Valley exceeded 100 °F on nine consecutive days (August 24 to September 3) and exceeded 110 °F on five consecutive days (August 28 to September 1). Numerous temperature records were broken in Southern California and across the state. On September 1, Downtown San Francisco set a new all-time record high temperature of 106 °F.

At my West Hills weather station the high temperature for the month of June was 109 °F; for July 111 °F; for August 112 °F; and so far this September the high has been 113 °F. If I’m not heat-acclimated by now, I never will be.

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San Gorgonio Mountain: Falls Creek Loop, August 2017

Morning sun on trees above Mill Creek Canyon.

I was lost in thought and working up one of less-used trails that ascends San Gorgonio Mountain — the Falls Creek Trail. For every 100 people that do the mountain from the Vivian Creek and South Fork trailheads, I’d guess one or two ascend it by the Momyer – Alger Creek – Falls Creek – Divide Trail route.

I was thinking about many things — a rattlesnake I’d almost stepped on here; the old Falls Creek trail that ascended directly from the valley; whether it would be cloudy on the summit; what wildflowers I might see; and a multitude of other thoughts. I was also thinking about tracks.

Falls Creek drainage on San Gorgonio Mountain.
Falls Creek drainage on San Gorgonio Mountain.

It’s a habit of mine to check the tracks on a trail. In addition to identifying the animal tracks, it’s fun to try and guess who might be on the trail ahead. Is it one person or a group? If it’s a group, how many? How long ago were the tracks made? Most of the shoe tracks on the trail today were old, but I kept getting a glimpse of one track that looked like it could have been from the previous afternoon or early this morning. My impression was that it was a solo hiker.

I had not caught the “hiker” by Alger Camp, so either the mystery person was fast and still on the trail ahead, or they had left Alger Camp early, or they had hiked in the day before and had camped farther up the trail. Or maybe there wasn’t a mystery hiker.

Falls Creek Trail near the stream at Plummer Meadows.
Falls Creek Trail near the stream at Plummer Meadows.

There is some very good running between Alger Camp and the Falls Creek drainage. Captivated by the running and my surroundings, I’d pretty much forgotten about the mystery hiker. I’d passed the turnoff to Dobb’s Camp about 45 minutes before and was working up toward Plummer Meadows when a person suddenly emerged from the trees 25 yards to my right, and rushed toward me, shouting, “Sir… sir!” There was such urgency in their quest I was startled, and it took me a moment to realize the individual was a Forest Ranger.

The Ranger said something like, “I assume you have a wilderness permit?”

I assured the Ranger I did, and pulled off my pack.

“Where are you headed?”

I responded, “The peak.”

Falls Creek Trail above Plummer Meadows and below Dollar Saddle.
Falls Creek Trail above Plummer Meadows and below Dollar Saddle.

The Ranger then asked if I was coming back the same way. I explained that after doing Gorgonio, I would be running down the Vivian Creek Trail and then down the road to the Momyer trailhead. Scrutinizing my day use permit, the Ranger asked a few more questions, and then thanked me and sent me on my way.

I was a little later getting to Gorgonio’s summit than the previous Saturday, and it was a busy place. Where last week there had been one person on the summit, this week there were around a dozen. Summits are generally happy places and the conversation can be about just about anything. Today the main topics were Lumix cameras and hummingbirds.

Vivian Creek Trail about a mile from the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain.
Vivian Creek Trail about a mile from the summit of San Gorgonio Mountain.

By the time I was headed down there was a fairly extensive deck of clouds over the mountain. But today the clouds didn’t have the convective instability and vertical development of the previous week. There would be no showers or thunder; the clouds would just keep the temperature comfortably cool.

In some ways the run down the Vivian Creek Trail is more demanding than the climb up from Momyer. The legs have some miles on them and the trail is very rocky. Last Saturday I hadn’t used poles doing the Dollar Lake – Dry Lake loop from South Fork. This week I did use them on the way up, and I think my legs felt better on the descent as a result.

Vivian Creek Trail above Vivian Creek.
Vivian Creek Trail above Vivian Creek.

The most dangerous part of the loop might be the mile and a half run from the Vivian Creek Trailhead to the Momyer Trailhead on Valley of the Falls Drive. In some stretches there’s not much of a shoulder and the road’s busy enough on a weekend that passing cars sometimes need all of it.

Even with the little bit of road-running, I much prefer the Falls Creek loop to chugging up and down Vivian Creek. It’s a favorite I always enjoy!

Some related posts: After the Lake Fire: The Dollar Lake – Dry Lake Loop on San Gorgonio Mountain, San Gorgonio Mountain: Falls Creek Loop October 2015, San Gorgonio High Line

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