“Fortunately, the task of preparing this volume has been carried on by those who have had the feeling that a piece of work must be done, but who also have had a purpose to make it reveal beauty and exude the historical atmosphere of the region with which it is concerned.”

—Santa Barbara: A Guide to the Channel City and Its Environs (1941)

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Mollisol Meadow

Santa Barbara Hikes Los Padres

“Maybe 7% of the landscape across the world is mollisol.”

-Dr. John Reganold, Professor of Soil Science and Agroecology, Washington State University

“Mollisols (from Latin mollis, ‘soft’) are the soils of grassland ecosystems. They are characterized by a thick, dark surface horizon. This fertile surface, known as a mollic epipedon, results from the long-term addition of organic materials derived from plants roots. …

Mollisols are among some of the most important and productive agricultural soils in the world and are extensively used for this purpose.”

University of Idaho, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

I crested the ridge picking my through the scrub, pushing through paths of least resistance in the tangle of wiry hardwood brush, and there it lay below, a remarkable meadow. The grassland covered a sloping depression which was enclosed entirely by chaparral and accented by two large coast live oak trees.

Walking through the grass of the meadow some minutes later it was evident that this field was an exceptional tract of land like few if any others in the vicinity. This was not an  average dry meadow or potrero thinly covered in wild oats, star thistle and skinny grasses and floored by hardpan.

The grass, whatever it’s make up, I’m not sure, thickly covered the soil in a dense mat and my feet didn’t feel to be plodding on solid earth, as is the case in most fields I’ve walked across in the backcountry, wherein each footfall stomps the grass firmly down flat against the ground.

The grass was so dense it kept my feet well above the soil on uneven clumps and tufts. I had to tread carefully to avoid twisting an ankle. Despite so little rain in this fourth year of what may be the worst drought in California in 1200 years, and despite the unusually warm winter which at times had felt like summer, the forage was still, amazingly, tinged green and showed no signs of thinning to reveal bare dirt. Grassy fields elsewhere were already dead brown. Clearly the underlying soil was thick and nutrient-rich and held a remarkable amount of moisture.

The north and south sides of the field sloped toward its center and into a slight crease where rainfall naturally funnels. There in the center the grass was especially thick and even greener. In years of abundant rainfall it may be a boggy spot. From that spot there meandered a foot to two foot wide channel carved by flowing water, but which was dry. It led from the meadow, between hills, and turned into a small creek.

I walked over to the largest of the two trees, a skyscraper of an oak, rising unusually straight upward from the soil before branching out high overhead, lush and full and apparently enjoying an uncommon supply of water and nutrients. Sitting in its shade I scanned the meadow admiring how exceptional it was, how were I a pioneer back in the day I would of been keen to build a homestead here and “prove up,” where it not so far from a reliable water source. Although that problem may have been mitigated by the digging of a well and collection and storage of rainwater during winter. I daydreamed about returning to camp there during wetter times.

I dug through a foot of crispy oak leaf mulch, down to the soil to level a spot for my stove to brew coffee and boil soup for lunch. A rich organic fragrance hit my nostrils as soon as I exposed the dirt and instantly brought to mind chanterelle mushrooms. Having foraged for wild fungus for years in the Los Padres National Forest, the sweetish scent of good soil never goes unnoticed to me in the woods.

I glanced up and scanned the immediate area around me analyzing it, looking for softball-sized mounds of leaf mulch pushed up by mushrooms hidden beneath. They would have been dry by then and worthless, as it hadn’t rained in many weeks, while the weather had been exceptionally hot.

There were no signs of mushrooms, but judging by the scent of the dark soil it seemed to have had the qualities to support an abundance of edibles in wetter years. The symbiotic relationship between chanterelles and coast live oaks may be another reason why the tree was so large and healthy looking.

I was shocked to find that the soil was still moist. The hills around me were cooking, sage brush having barely the rain needed to sprout but little new growth. In some areas sage leaves were already shriveled and dead and it was only early April. Many creeks had not run for more than a day or so if at all for the last several years.

Yet here, in this rarely visited meadow without a trail, the soil was moist, fertile and thickly covered in dense green grass. I grabbed a palm full of soil and inhaled deeply of its rich earthy fragrance. How I love that smell. Squeezing it tightly the soil clumped together into a clod lined with the imprints of my fingerprints due to its moistness.

Mollisol Meadow Los Padres Santa Barbara hikingThis place, these details, they may be of no import to anybody else and tedious to read. If they even hold one’s attention at all in this age of microwave oven immediacy and short attention spans. To me, however, this meadow is of great interest for various reasons, some mentioned above and some not.

The general point here is that there are or may be places out in the depths of the Los Padres National Forest that pique the personal interests of hikers for a wide variety of reasons, and which they have no idea exist.

On a topographical map these less visited wild places may be nothing more than contour lines, places without names nor labels, and unnoticeable on even the best maps covering Santa Barbara’s backcountry, well-crafted by local cartographer Bryan Conant. They may be unmentioned in the best guidebook to hiking the Santa Barbara backcountry, well-written by local author Craig R. Carey.

These places may even be unremarkable or unnoticeable when viewed online with satellite imagery and may be unknown or never written about nor mentioned even among the more experienced hikers, backpackers and campers of the region.

Hidden in plain sight this way, preserved in perpetuity by law, they are out there waiting to be discovered. If only one may spend the time and effort, and seize the opportunity, to explore the lands of their natural heritage and stumble upon them.

One never knows what they may find in the forest if only they look.

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The Trout

(Author’s note: This story is being republished because of a faulty link in yesterday’s post, which when clicked rendered a “Not Found” memo. Please excuse the double posting if you have already seen this piece. Thank you.)

Trout Pool SB CountyThe pool.

“Once there were brook trout in the stream in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

—Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006)

The pool filled the creek bed like ink in a well. Glassy and unusually dark, it had an eerie and mysterious blackness to its depths that hid from sight all there might be within. The boulders forming its edges were swallowed in darkness not far below the water’s surface, and although I couldn’t see or focus on anything at all, I couldn’t stop gazing into the opaque water, mesmerized by the rare liquid gem I had just happened upon.

I had spent the last nine hours strenuously hiking when I walked up on this secluded, seldom seen pool I previously had no idea existed. It was one of those treasures a person may luck upon, if they spend enough time exploring the forest for no other reason than just to see what it all looks like and what may be found.

The pool is not labeled on maps and not written about as a destination. My guess would be very few people know about it, still fewer having been there. I did not see sign of humanity, not so much as a telltale trace. An anomaly in a section of creek with few notable pools, this pool was located high up a mountain, far off-trail, and below a long section of dry creek bed. It seemed to be the last perennial pool in the creek.

I stood there alone in late afternoon shadows cast by rocky cliffs gazing into the water. There had to be fish in there. Trout. Steelhead! Well, at least at one point in time there must have been. I needed to keep getting on down the creek, maintain my pace out, for it was getting well into the afternoon, the fall of night a concern. I had a long hard hike remaining, but I could not leave this pool so fast, could not take my eyes off it.

And then it appeared, floating through the darkened water without concern. I knew it!

steelhead rainbow troutsSteelhead

“Finally there is a glimpse of the snowfed mountain stream, the Santa Ynez River, where dwell the speckled beauties sought by the nimrods and found in abundance.”

—Sausalito News, March 29, 1913

In the weeks and months that followed I pondered the trout, there in that small pool, hole up in a tributary of a tributary, protected from people by a long boulder-filled trench of a brush tangled creek with no trail, and that required near crawling at times just to pass through, and no publicized destination at its end to attract anybody, ignored by all but the most determined explorers, those whom can’t resist beating themselves to a pulp knowing they may find nothing remarkable, yet still seek the satisfaction of seeing a place in person.

One day I would return.

There was nowhere to sleep anywhere near the pool that would afford a wink of rest. It was nothing but uneven bedrock, boulders, and cobblestones and fractured sharp and pointy rockfall. A tent would be completely useless, a minimalistic bed roll no better. A hammock slung between two trees would serve best.

Santa Barbara crawdad crayfish Los PadresFresh trout barbecued over an open wood-fired flame for dinner. Not wanting to be wasteful, but respectful of its life, I thought about simmering the bones and head for broth to be filled with its roasted meat as a soup, possibly accented by a few wild herbs and roasted wild bulbs. The entrails and whatnot used as bait in a small trap to catch crawdads. Roasted miniature lobster tails dipped in a wild sage-tinged hot drawn butter plays well in my mind for lunch the following day.

Then it occurred to me that I had taken for granted this one trout I was lucky enough to spot in this lone desolate pool I was fortunate to happen across. I was surprised to see it gracing waters I otherwise thought long emptied of trout, because I believed other people had fished the creek into decline.

Yet I plotted my own attack to take it for myself as soon as I saw the fish. A sort of tragedy of the commons playing out in my mind, I was acting the lead role of plunderer. So rare was it in my experience to find a sizable native trout swimming carefree in a creek in the year 2015 in southern California, that I had felt compelled to get mine while I still could and to hell with everybody and everything else! If I didn’t take the trout somebody else would. And if nobody did Mother Nature would. I had resisted catching other trout in previous years only to return and find the pool holding them had gone dry.

I hadn’t questioned my ability to catch the trout. I know how to fool wary fish in small and calm pools from years of experience. And this particular fish would be even easier to catch, as it had not been acquainted with, and thus wary of, every lure known to mankind like most fish in nearly every other trout hole or lake in southern California.

The trout had glided ever so slowly out into open water, not far below the surface, away from the immediate safety and security of surrounding structure, evidencing an uncommon degree of carefree confidence; another sign of the absence of humanity at this remote location.

I felt I could take the unsuspecting trout with one well-placed cast. But was that the point of all this, to so easily hook an unwary fish?

The longer I pondered the matter and thought of the fish and what it represented, symbolically, metaphorically, the more I knew that that was not the point. It would be a meaningless exercise of dominance with little lasting satisfaction.

I might regret it later, might rue the day for decades to come. “There was this one trout,” I might tell my grandchildren, “that I was obsessed with catching,” before trailing off into a woeful fable of shortsightedness and greed.

steelhead rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykissI began considering ways to take the trout with true skill and ingenuity worthy of the fish; perhaps crafting a rod from a willow or elderberry branch nearby, a hook and line from natural material collected in the area. (Ray Mears: Hooks from thorns; Hooks from twigs and roots; Cordage from willow; Cordage from nettles.)

If I was lucky I might be unfortunate enough to spend years trying to hook a single trout in this fashion. If I ever did, then it would form a memory of angling worth far more than any fishing experience I have ever had.

At that point maybe the previous daydreams of a wild-caught, fireside meal in a distant creek would alone suffice, and I’d ever so gently release the beautiful specimen, a living reservoir of rare and priceless DNA, back into its natal waters to carry on “a thing which could not be put back” once taken for no other reason, but to satisfy the hunger of one man for a few measly hours.

Maybe that is how this game should be made to play out. That the thought alone will serve sufficient.

The trout left in peace.

And remain uncaught.

* * * * *

Last-Ditch Plan Aims to Prevent First Drought Extinction of Native Fish – Scientific American, July 30, 2015

Shasta Lake, California: “The tanks of Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery are providing refuge this summer for salmon nearly out of water. There, staffers are rearing the only insurance policy that the Sacramento River’s winter-run Chinook have against extinction: a living genetic bank of 1,035 baby fish, selected to reseed the population should it extinguish in the wild.”

Heat, Drought Cook Fish Alive In Pacific Northwest – USA Today, July 31, 2015

“Freakishly hot, dry weather in the Pacific Northwest is killing millions of fish in the overheated waters of the region’s rivers and streams.

‘We’ve lost about 1.5 million juvenile fish this year due to drought conditions at our hatcheries,’ Ron Warren of Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a statement. ‘This is unlike anything we’ve seen for some time.'”

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Grouch of the Woods

Santa Barbara Hikes San Roque Jesusita Trail StevensThe tentacular limbs of coast live oak trees in the Los Padres National Forest.

“The presence of a jostling crowd. . .a familiar irritation to be borne with resignation.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

It’s not that he hated people. He just didn’t like people.

Pulling up to the trailhead his mouth cracked open in disbelief and his grasp on the wheel tightened. Cars lined the road overflowing the small pullout. An audible groan escaped his lips, a slow grumble from deep inside somewhere. He drove on, caught off guard, flustered, and unable to bring himself to park amidst the mob of vehicles and the few chattering people.

It was Sunday. He had expected people to be out on the trails, but was stunned by the lineup. He drove up the road, spun a u-turn, and drove back and finally parked.

He fumbled around in a drawn out act, readied his gear, and tied tight boot laces. Irked by the crowd he tried to think up a plan to escape it.

Sometime later down the well-beaten trail not many seconds after leaving his vehicle he was passing people as if on a downtown sidewalk. Head down, chin pinned to chest and thumbs tucked snugly under shoulder straps, he said hello to exactly nobody, looked at nobody. Through peripheral vision he noted the cocked heads and curious stares of people he passed wondering about this strange fellow storming by as if nobody else existed.

They kept coming, nine, eleven, fifteen. Like ants, they were scurrying up and down the trail everywhere. Voices echoed through the canyon. What the hell is this, some kind of public hiking trail on a spring weekend?!

“I’ve always valued solitude and anonymity . . . Silence is like music to me, and I need some time to myself.”

Kira Salak, The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles To Timbuktu

Eventually another hiker said hello, which consequently forced from his mouth a gruff “howdy.” It was the sort of mutter to which Mr. Stathakis, his tenth grade English teacher at Santa Barbara High, would’ve asked of him before the class, “Can you mumble a little louder, please?”

Onward he stomped. Growing increasingly agitated. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen in one fell swoop. Bam! Bam!! Bam!!! At nineteen he had stands all he could stands and he couldn’t stands no more.

At that point, hardly down the trail but a few minutes yet having passed a score of people, he opted to veer onto a different footpath. A contingency made up on the fly to salvage pleasure from the maw of the detestable closing over him. The alternative path would be far less busy, might even be empty, abandoned if he was really lucky. Totally forgotten and completely ignored. What better place to roam?

Let ’em have the oak shrouded cool canyon trail that wound gently along the creek through forest and meadow. He took the exposed and hot south slope and upward huff through the chaparral, as bristly as his own nature, a good match.

It was there amidst the “stillness, solitude and space” that he found “a sense of time enough to let thought and feeling range from here to the end of the world and back; the discovery of something intimatethough impossible to namein the remote.”

It’s not that he hated people. It’s just that what he sought when in the forest was solely the forest.

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Gooseberry Wildcraft

Santa Barbara gooseberry Los Padres National ForestCalifornia gooseberry illustration from Pacific Rural Press (1873).

“The California wild gooseberry, red variety (Ribes menziesii), is certainly a desirable variety, and is said to be superior to crabapples for jellies, etc. The plant is exceedingly ornamental when loaded with its reddish-gold fruit.”

-Pacific Rural Press (1893)

I first ate wild gooseberries in the mountains of Oregon as a boy. Sometimes, when my dad and I went trout fishing or when we were staying in the mountains, my aunt would forage for wild berries to make fresh pies or jam.

I ate myself sick in the woods on more than one occasion, shoveling down strawberries and huckleberries by the handful. They were smaller in size than their store-bought cousins, but they burst with superior flavor.

Coastal southern California always seemed like a wasteland by comparison. Trout were small, few and far between. What few wild berries did grow in my local weed patch were sparse and puny.

Not only were the gooseberries around Santa Barbara smaller, they were wrapped in an armored shell that bristled with an especially dense coating of evil looking spikes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a meaner looking gooseberry than those found in the southern Los Padres National Forest.

Gooseberries Santa Barbara Los Padres foraging wildcraftingGooseberries (Ribes menziesii) ripening in June in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

A person today may still possibly receive some mild medicinal relief from the bark of a willow tree. Then again, they could just crack the lid on an ibuprofen bottle and swallow a couple of pills.

Not all traditional wilderness knowledge is still relevant. I think, sometimes, that foraging around this here neck of the woods is an eccentric pursuit inspired by a romanticized view of the past.

gooseberry syrup Los Padres Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara

Wild gooseberry syrup.

Nowadays foraging is a leisure pursuit of the well-off rather than an existential necessity of hardscrabble times. It’s largely wisdom long since rendered obsolete by the march of civilization, but I like to think some of it’s worth hanging on to.

The Sisquoc River pioneers of Santa Barbara County would probably think it’s ludicrous to waste time and energy hiking into the woods to pick gooseberries, when today we have fully loaded supermarkets, refrigerated shelves stuffed with over-sized blueberries and gargantuan strawberries, and everything available on demand at all times of the year and most hours of the day.

Wild gooseberries, I think pioneers would say, are too much effort for too few calories to be of much worth nowadays. But if the value is found in rare flavor rather than generic nutritional density, then a good ol’ fashioned gooseberry harvest may still be worth while.

gooseberry Santa Barbara Hikes Los Padres National ForestGooseberries are rich in natural pectin which makes for exceptionally thick syrup and jelly without the need of added thickening agents.

Gooseberries are a sweet-tasting wild edible I like to eat right off the plant even though each berry doesn’t offer much. I introduced my children to them when they were only a few years old, and while the novelty of tasting a wild fruit in the woods was initially exciting, their enthusiasm quickly evaporated.

Gooseberries contain more spines and hard and bitter-tasting seeds than sweet juicy pulp. Having been raised on ridiculously large and sugary domesticated fruit, my kids clearly thought I was crazy and soon lost interest. Nearly everybody else has no interest either so they have plenty of company. There are certainly good reasons why very few people, effectively nobody, eat wild gooseberries around here.

There is yet, however, no supermarket substitute for the uncommon and complex depth of flavor these wickedly spiny little berries hold.

And in that deep burgundy, wild pure juice may be found a reservoir of traditional, natural wealth that perhaps has not been devalued and rendered obsolete by the 24/7 cornucopia of postmodern civilization.

Gooseberries Santa Barbara Los Padres Forest foraging
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Flight of the Condor, Rare Santa Barbara Roost

condor-sespe-wilderness-los-padres-national-forest-hikeA condor over Sespe Wilderness in December, 2013. (Return to Whiteacre Peak Or Day of the Condor)

Earlier this month I stood on a ridge along Arroyo Burro Trail gazing from afar into the rocky mouth of San Roque Canyon and remembering times past. A couple of decades ago was the last time I hiked up the canyon. I had no idea back then as a kid that condors once lived there.

Two years ago I had learned from Sandy Wilbur, who led the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s California condor research and recovery program from 1969 to 1981, that long ago they nested in the caves of San Roque Canyon.

“Frank Ruiz took two eggs, apparently both out of San Roque,” Mr. Wilbur told me referring to events around the year 1899, when Mr. Ruiz and Fredrick Forbush raided nests in the canyon. (Historic newspaper story: “Desperate Fight With Condors: Narrow Escape of Santa Barbara Man” (1899)

The Santa Ynez Mountains were apparently once prime nesting habitat. “Willis Griffith claims to have taken 10 eggs out of the various Santa Ynez Canyons,” Mr. Wilbur told me. “I can positively account for six, and know of two more that are probably his, so he may really have taken the full ten,” he said.

San Roque Canyon, Santa Ynez MountainsLooking into San Roque Canyon I thought of condors flying there, something entirely unknown in my lifetime. How it was 100 years ago. I tried to imagine such a sight, what it would mean if they once again soared over the iconic crags of the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara.

And then a few days after my hike to the top of Arroyo Burro Trail I learned about news of a rare event (hat tip NB). Two weeks prior to my hike a female condor had flown right over the trail and had been circling San Roque Canyon.

More notable yet, she spent the night in the Santa Barbara foothills not far from the city. It may be an overstatement to say that such an event is unheard of, but it most certainly does not happen often. When was the last time?

Calochortus fimbriatus Santa Barbara rare wildflower Los PadresJune bloom. Calochortus fimbriatus, a rare flower, growing along the Arroyo Burro Trail, its barbellate petals combing droplets of moisture from the morning marine layer.

Condor Santa Barbara La Cumbre PeakThe flightpath of the condor shown in purple. She appears to have taken some interest in the historic nesting grounds of the San Roque Canyon area, located to the lower left of the green tree icon.

The condor’s flight was recounted and illustrated by “The Condor Cave” Facebook page, which posted the image shown here using Google Earth accompanied by the following brief:

“On May 25th, a two-year-old wild-fledged California condor soared into Santa Barbara County and spent the evening in the Santa Barbara foothills!

Female #717 flew west from the Pine Mountain Club area, through Bitter Creek NWR, before flying south between Los Olivos and Solvang, and into the Mission Canyon area. According to the GSM data, she roosted in a draw below La Cumbre Peak.

On the morning of May 26th, she perched on a cluster of rocks near the Jesusita Trail before flying north past Cachuma Mountain and over Peak Mountain (5,843 ft), the highest point in the Sierra Madre range.

This adventurous condor hails from the Pole Canyon nest territory and is the offspring of sire #237 and dam #255.

While it is not uncommon for condors to venture into the Santa Barbara back country as it is an important part of the species’ nesting and foraging range, it is rare to see them in the Santa Barbara foothills.”

As if taking a gander of a swath of the Los Padres National Forest that may soon be named in honor of the giant vultures, she flew along a length of the Santa Ynez Mountains above the Gaviota Coast known tentatively as the “Condor Ridge Scenic Area.”

The condor made this unlikely flight, of all days, on the day before the “Central Coast Heritage Protection Act” was reintroduced in Congress on May 26. The legislation would, in part, officially establish Condor Ridge.

Condor 717 Santa Barbara La Cumbre Peak Santa Ynez Mountains

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