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Dec 13

Skinner Ridge and the Big Pines

Sam and I set out last week on another Rec-Site Inventory outing, this time beginning at Botcher's Gap-up Palo Colorado Canyon- and hiking in a northeasterly direction along the Skinner Ridge Trail.  We were both new to this trail and quickly realized what a gem it is in the Ventana Wilderness.  Once reaching the ridge we were greeted with gorgeous views of the iconic Ventana Double Cone and the Window and then down to Pico Blanco, with the shimmering ocean beyond, that left us shaking our heads in astonishment amidst old-growth Black Oak- in their late season bright yellow- and giant Madrones atop the grassy ridge tops.  We lucked out and began this hitch in a sunny and warm stretch from Saturday to Tuesday December 11th.  What a time to be in the mountains with the trees losing leaves but the first signs of regrowth and a new year well underway, the under layer of green gaining in stature with the recent rains and the earth still moist.  Sure glad I live in the majestic central coast of California and have the opportunity to explore these wild places.

Pico Blanco

Black Oak and Madrone (Quercus kelloggi and Arbutus menziesii) happen to be two of my most favored trees and I was delighted to be hiking amidst such robust populations; each in spectacular form in late fall.

Black Oak

Madrone full of berries

Madrones seem to do this thing where one tree out of many will have the berry overload and lose more of its leaves than their companions.  Often times the birds- Cedar Waxwings in particular- will feast on this exciting abundance in great numbers, unfortunately we were not treated to such a fowl display.

Looking up

As we made our way along the ridge looking for camps and taking in the view we eventually found another hiker enjoying the rare beauty of this area.  He too was new to this trail and was in similar astonishment.  Not wanting to hurry him from his contemplative study of a particularly nice spot- one that showed obvious signs of a trace camping site- we struck up some friendly conversation to ease our intruding presence.  One of the challenges of doing the Rec-Site Inventory is encountering other hikers and encroaching upon their wilderness solace.  Opportunities for solitude is a defining characteristic of wilderness and a quality most seem to seek when entering a wilderness area and the subsequent mindset of tranquility that often accompanies it.  In that spirit we approach other hikers respectfully and even avoid them if we can so as to leave them be with little intrusion.  Taking out our GPS unit and photographing their tent is not the best way to make friends.  (To avoid this we try to inventory during the week, but not always easy with the weather patterns).  Luckily this fellow was just day hiking and seemed quite intrigued with what we were up to.  A long time visitor to the Santa Lucia mountains, he's been making the drive all the way down to Salmon Creek from the Bay Area since the 70's, but sought something different on this venture, scouting a new possible backpacking route.  As is often the case in such scenarios, our conversation inspired some deeper questions and new insights.  I've been thinking about deer populations since my encounter with Jack English and an old photo circa 1945 he showed us with some 30 deer grazing in the Pine Valley meadow.  Are there less deer now then there was at that time?  I've heard coyote populations and black bear populations have actually been increasing the last decade, so what about the deer?  This gentlemen made the point that perhaps the deer have moved closer to urban populations. Well, back in the convenience of modern city living, a quick google search leads me to the Department of Fish and Game's page on the 'Long Term Trends in California's Deer Populations.'  It appears that in the early 1900s deer populations began to rise due to high disturbances from the intensive logging, mining, fire and grazing that gained steam after the Gold Rush, which actually "produced increased acreages of early successional vegetation (new, young plants) that deer thrive on."  In the 1930's evidence that deer actually were exceeding their carrying capacity due to this unusual abundance of food was noticed  but then coincided with the beginning of an era of fire suppression which then began to reduce their choice vegetation.  As most people now realize, California is a naturally fire-adapted ecosystem that has been used to regular cycles of burning over the course of thousands of years.   The report goes on to state that all wildlife populations seem to have suffered from the consequences of fire suppression and the decreased habitat value that now allows more mature, less tasty greens.  So perhaps it is true the deer and other animals now move closer to urban populations, where the grass is always young, green and freshly mowed.

Fire Break on the Big Pines trail

Above is an example of our modern fire suppression tactics, a fire break, a strip of land that is plowed to stop or slow the advance of wildfire.  The way I understand it, it is mostly on account of property protection from the risk of fire, i.e., houses not burning down, that drives our fire fighting tactics.  A complex conversation, even more so when you throw in the integrity of the Wilderness Act and the methods used to actually implement these types of things. Another question that came up was about human presence in the wilderness.  Are there more boots on the ground in wilderness areas now then twenty years ago?  Or is our technologic society rearing youth that no longer grow up with that wild ambition?  Richard Louv wrote a book a few years ago entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, in which he explores the link between the lack of nature in youths lives with the disturbing trend of childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.  I also work with the VWA's Youth in Wilderness program and am an ardent supporter of getting people outside and plugged into the elements of life.  Hiking this trail I couldn't help but think how amazing it would be to take some of our schools from the Salinas area along the Big Pines trail and show them the lights of their city from high up on the mountain.  (Apparently before the fire it was hard to make out anything that direction due to all the big pines, however, much of that was lost after the 2008 fire.)  Then go over to Pat Spring and fill their water bottles straight from the mountain itself.  I was beside myself thinking about how life changing that could be for them and am excited to make that happen.

Raw, straight from the source

Going into the wilderness, for me, has always been about encountering the non-human other.  The wild presence of mother earth and all her creations and grace and the reflection that offers for the possibilities of life, in and out out of the back-country.  The Navajo have a word- hozho- that translates to something like "an environment of beauty and pleasantness, inner and outer."  A people of ceremony, their ceremonials are most interested in (re)establishing the proper relationship of the individual to her environment, and this will consequently be reflected in good health of the body, mind and spirit.  In this way I see wilderness travel, it is to regain that good relationship, and carry it back with us in our day to day life.  On this particular hitch we were treated to a lovely animal encounter as we made our way down Turner Creek to inventory the site there;  a bobcat of adult size bounding rock to rock.  As I took notice and alerted Sam, the bobcat too took notice and paused upon a small boulder gazing up at us through the trees.  I see you.

Sunrise walk along Pat Spring ridge

Other encounters with non-human life forms included a wide variety of mushrooms in the moist soils of the forest.

Chicken of the Woods

Coral Mushroom

Jack o'Lantern Mushroom

This trip was particularly exciting given that the camp fire restrictions have now been eased and we were able to cook over fire for the first time in our stretch of hitches this fall.  Sam and I are big fans of this style of cooking and happened to make a particularly satisfying "rocket stove" style of set up while camping at one of the many Pat Springs camps that don't have the benefit of the large, rusty Forest Service grills that were hiked out many years ago.  (Some are too tall and awkwardly placed to cook over anyhow and probably serve more people as a sort of table.)

Rocket stove with wind protection fireplace alteration

On the morning of our third day we decided to hike back a ways from Comings camp with day packs and climb Mt. Carmel.  Someone had told us the hike wasn't worth it due to how brushy it was up there and the lack of view.  However, a couple of stoked middle aged day hikers were making their way up their excitedly on our second day and we thought better of that other advice.  We left them to climb in peace rather than follow them up, deciding our time would come.  Sure enough its brushy on top, but there's some conveniently placed large boulders that get you up over the brush and on to some of the most spectacular views of the whole area. We were wise too wait as Monday turned out to be a extraordinarily windless day and yielded what we figured was a view of the Sierra.  Large white masses to the northeast, we thought maybe clouds, but after not moving for a half hour we figured perhaps it was true.

Looking back to Santa Cruz

We continued on down the hill after a nice rest, lunch and sight seeing, allowing the gaps in our mental geography to be filled with the revealing view of the surrounding area.  You don't know till you go and climb it yourself.  I say this after every hitch, but, I can't wait to come back.

Ventana Double Cone and the Window

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