I slow, stop running, and then walk carefully toward it. The snake is dead still. A confounding series of thoughts follow in quick succession.
Looks like it’s probably a gopher snake… Glance at the tail — no rattles. Check the head — where’s the head? Check the tail again — definitely no rattles. It is a gopher snake. Look for the head again — did the snake get run over, or decapitated?
At least 30 seconds have passed and the snake has not moved — not a millimeter. Very weird. Is it dead? It doesn’t look dead. There’s no blood.
Realization dawns as I comprehend the snake may be caught in the entrance to a small burrow.
Com’on, stuck? If so, it’s in a bad place. Pick your peril: Upper Las Virgenes Canyon is hiked, biked, ridden on horseback, roamed by coyotes, and hunted by hawks.
Now it’s been a couple of minutes, and the snake still has not moved. I’m beginning to think maybe it is dead. So I touch it.
Panic! The snake writhes, contorts and convulses in an attempt to free itself. No go — it continues to convulse, and then suddenly, and impossibly, slithers down the hole.
What? My guess is that the snake had found a lizard, mouse, or other prey in the hole, started to swallow it, and with its body engorged, became trapped by its meal. Or maybe it just got stuck!
With little new growth this Spring and Summer, coyote paths at Ahmanson Ranch have become so well worn that several have recently been posted with “Restoration Area – Please Keep Out” signs. Whether the canny coyotes will choose to cooperate remains to be seen.
Note: Ahmanson Ranch was acquired as open space in part to protect several sensitive species and their habitats. Some (human) use trails have evolved and “Restoration Area – Please Keep Out” signs are a reminder that the area is a preserve.
From a recent run at Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve (formerly Ahmanson Ranch).
The sky was brightening in the east, and sunrise was approaching when I met Miklos and Krisztina at the Denny’s in Sylmar. We were already wasting light. The plan was to drive from near sea level up to Horseshoe Meadows, at about 10,000′ on the Sierra east side. The hike/run we had in mind was a keyhole loop from the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead up (old) Army Pass and then down New Army Pass. If we felt OK at the top of Army Pass, we would also do Mt. Langley (14,026′).
The weather forecast looked good. There was a chance of some gusty southwest winds in the afternoon, but temps were warm and there was virtually no chance of T-storms. With a record low Southern Sierra snowpack, there was almost no chance that an ice axe would be required on Army Pass. I was familiar with the route on Langley and down from New Army Pass, and expected to be back to the car well before sunset. But, just in case, the moon was about half full.
In fact, there had been very little snow on Army Pass, or anywhere else. We reached the pass relatively quickly, and decided to continue to Langley. Now, after another hour of hiking, we were above a prominent rock band that extends across Langley’s south face, and making good progress.
I’ve been convinced for some time that pursed-lip breathing helps me at higher altitudes, particularly when I’m not well acclimated. There’s a skill to it. There seems to me an optimum blend of heart rate, respiratory rate, and the amount of resistance created on exhalation. When all these factors are in balance, the breathing technique is almost automatic and effortless, and it really does seem to help. It certainly seemed to be helping me now.
I topped out a few hundred yards west of the summit, and ambled over to the high point of the peak. On a scale of 1 to 10, I felt pretty good — maybe a 7. Making an effort to stay hydrated, consume plenty of calories, and not push the pace too hard seemed to have worked — at least this time.
The view along the crest to Mt. Whitney and the peaks of the Kings-Kern Divide was telling. It was remarkable just how little snow there was at the highest elevations of the Sierra. A week before I had been paddling the Kern River. Now I could see why the flow on the upper Kern was dropping so fast.
Miklos and Krisztina joined me on the summit, and after taking a few summit photos, we headed down. Screeing down the slopes below the rock band, we were startled when a herd of perhaps 20 big horn sheep rumbled across the slopes below us. They flowed across the rough landscape like quicksilver. Graceful and robust, they moved effortlessly between the rocks and up a small slope. In the moments it took me to react, grab my camera, and turn it on, all but two large rams trailing the group, had disappeared.
Energized by the sight of these fleet-footed animals, we continued down to the saddle at Army Pass, and then up and over New Army Pass. Before sunset we would be back to the car, and before dark, eating dinner at Lone Pine. Before midnight we would be back in L.A. Here’s a Google Earth image and Google Earth KMZ file of a GPS trace of our route.
About ten feet in front of me, there was a flash of brown as a large animal leaped across the trail. In the balloon of time that accompanies a surge of adrenalin, I thought of the possibilities. The last time an animal startled me, I was running on a dirt road through ten foot tall chaparral in the Simi Hills. In that case a large bob cat had bolted from the brush.
Lingering in my mind was a trail runner’s recent encounter with a mountain lion while running at Whiting Ranch in Orange County. The last place I had seen mountain lion tracks was on a muddy nature trail, not far from where I was now. That was more than a year ago. It had rained overnight, but so far I had only seen tracks of coyote, dogs and deer.
Today, I was on the Musch Trail, doing one of my favorite cool weather runs — an approximately 12.2 mile, fire roads out, trails back course from the end of Reseda Blvd. to Trippet Ranch, in Topanga State Park.
As time warped back to normal, I saw the animal wasn’t a bob cat or mountain lion, it was a mule deer. A doe had stopped just a few feet from the trail. That was unusual. Also, it was strange that her full attention wasn’t on me. Instead, she seemed concerned about something behind her, uphill from the trail. I stood quietly and watched.
Now her big ears, and more of her attention, were focused on me. With the fawn at her side, she obviously didn’t like being out in the open. She scented the ground, checked her fawn, and then looked back up the hill. I couldn’t see any more deer from my position, but they could easily be hidden in the surrounding cover. Almost a minute and a half after the encounter began, the doe and fawn moved into the brush.
Slowly moving a few feet along the trail, I glanced up the hill and discovered two more members of the group, waiting for me to pass. I continued walking down the trail, and after few yards, picked up the pace, and resumed my run.