“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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Wilder Than I Thought

Alder Tree Cold Springs Trail MontecitoI stood daydreaming with my back to the river when a loud slap broke from behind me, the sound of something smacking the surface of the water. It was pushing toward 100 degrees and I had just climbed out of the stagnant pool.

I turned quickly, falling into a crouch on my toes with fingertips spread on the stone for balance, a conscious reaction but seemingly driven automatically by instinct.

I do not like being the odd item out in the woods, a focal point, a target, attracting unnecessary attention. I like to be quiet, to blend in, become part of my surroundings rather than stand out from them.

The surprising noise, while not directly threatening, triggered a sense of apprehension. Thoughts sped across my mind like stock quotes on a ticker tape on fast forward. For a fleeting moment I thought somebody was playing a mischievous game, throwing something from the nearby cliff into the water to startle me.

I once was attacked by three heavily tattooed thugs from Lompoc not too far from where I was, one throwing a rock that slammed into my shin and drew blood. They surrounded me, getting off on cowardly intimidation and threatening further violence.

Following the slap on the water, the thought of some punk maliciously toying with me from the high ground was unsettling. I was out in the open. Imagine quickly scanning the high hillsides of a wide forest while standing on low ground and thinking somebody is out there hidden from sight spying on you. Not a good feeling.

Santa Ynez River carpCarp stranded in a summertime pool in the Santa Ynez River. (Photo taken several years ago at a different location than described in this story.)

A moment later, ripples radiating out from a point in the middle of the eerie looking deep green pool, I wrote it off as a large carp. The water is full of them, and I had just been gazing down upon several lazily swimming  around just the below the surface of the water.

I knew that sound, however, and it was not a carp or any other fish, but I couldn’t believe what my mind was telling me after it had time to settle and add up the equation. So I rejected it. Yeah, right. No way.

I clambered down the sandstone outcrop I had been standing atop, stepped back into the cool, refreshing water and lunged out into its depths swimming back to the far shore, along a rocky cliff and up onto the gravel shoreline. I was comfortably back in my element, alone in the woods, the previous thought of another person of some unwanted sort dismissed.

Santa Barbara hikes beaver

I walked back to the line of riverside brush and young trees where I had stashed my backpack and sat in the shade. It was hot, but I’ve come to appreciate hiking in 90 degree temperatures.

I noticed beside me a telltale clue that further confirmed my previous conclusion about the source of the noise in the water, but which I had rejected. I knew immediately upon seeing the branch what it was that made that slapping sound, but yet again my mind refused to accept what the clues confirmed. It just couldn’t be.

The branch had been recently gnawed in half and carried away for it was nowhere in sight. I scanned the immediate area around me and suddenly realized I was surrounded by numerous nubs of freshly gnawed branches sticking up from the riverbed and other old ones, too.

I wondered how I had missed all this obvious sign when I first hid my backpack and stripped off my clothes for a swim. It bothered me that I’d been so negligent, so lacking in situational awareness, oblivious to my surroundings. The roughly cut branches were everywhere. I must have been too hot, fatigued and ready for a swim.

On closer inspection I could see the wide bladed teeth marks that had smoothly slid through the wood in singular passes and with ease. Obviously whatever the animal was that made these marks had remarkably sharp teeth and powerful jaws.

Beaver Santa Barbara County river“The branch had been recently gnawed in half and carried away.”

I knew what it was that made the marks, that cut the branches, that removed them to another location. Yet I still would not accept what my mind was telling me. I had been hiking through or around this general area since ever I could remember. One of the first hikes I remember was to this very location when my dad and uncle, the Brothers Elliott, dragged me down the trail here one day as a young boy.

I recall watching my dad dive off a notably high cliff-side perch into the deep river with near perfect form. That same perch was now right before me some yards away. They had pointed out fossil seashells along the way, which to me as a young boy were a great fascination and to this day those images still remain on my mental hard drive. The water was deep and rushing loudly that day.

Years later, as a teenager after I got my driver license, I hiked back to this area of the river frequently, sometimes with friends, but many times alone. It was a favorite backcountry hot and sunny spot in late spring and early summer when the coast is often buried in a cool, foggy marine layer. I’d spent many afternoons swimming and diving off the rocky cliffs and swinging from rope swings into the deep water. I’d caught and eaten trout and crawdads and saw big bass and carp.

I saw many things, but in all those early experiences I’d never seen any beaver nor sign of them. And in all the years since, while I knew there were beaver on the lower sections of the river and also in the upper Sisquoc River of Santa Barbara County, and I knew of historic accounts of beaver, and had also seen a Chumash pictograph that purportedly represented a beaver, I had never heard tell of beaver in this particular area in my lifetime.

But that’s what had slapped the water behind me when I was on the rock, not a carp or somebody throwing something. That’s what had gnawed through and carried away all those branches.

Santa Barbara hikes Los Padres National Forest Santa Ynez MountainsThe characteristic gold, green and blue of summertime in the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Yet it was not until a few days later, after I had emailed a friend who is in a position to know, even if he had never seen them personally, that I finally allowed myself to accept what my mind had been telling me all along. After a couple of email exchanges I was thrilled to know that, yes, he had heard of beaver here and so, indeed, that is what I had heard and seen sign of that day.

I returned soon afterward and while I did not see any beaver, as I arrived at the very spot where I had hidden my backpack the week before and sat to rest in the shade, an animal went charging loudly through the brush down the riverbed. I could see a trail pressed through the reeds and branches leading from the water. It had to be a beaver.

I doubled back downstream and tried to walk back up the riverbed to sneak up and get a look at it, but the brush was too thick. Rather than continue the pursuit I decided to return another day at a better hour and hopefully catch sight of the animal in the water. The hunt to photograph the furry critter continues.

And so this late in my life I am still discovering new surprises in areas of the Los Padres National Forest that I thought I knew, and that I have spent much time recreating in and exploring since the earliest days of my youth, and which lie less then 100 miles from the nation’s most populace county.

It is wilder out there than I had thought.

Beaver chewed branch Santa Barbara California

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Finding Frontier In the Forest Conquered

Barger Canyon Arch

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A Treasure Hunt For Chumash Pictographs and the Vicious Protector

Chumash maritime culture fishing scene mural Lompoc Santa Barbara CountyA mural in Lompoc, Santa Barbara County depicting a seaside Chumash village scene.

Little of what Bill said made reasonable sense.

He stood on the other side of his termite infested, dry-rotted, wobbly fence, which was missing slats and had gaping holes, saying that the reason he would not allow us on his property to view a Chumash pictograph panel was because he was protecting it.

He was, in his own words, “a vicious and violent protector.” He was calm and peaceful and obviously being hyperbolic or perhaps his sense of humor was as bone dry as the surrounding landscape. Maybe despite his serene demeanor, however, he really was a mean animal if provoked. “I don’t own the rock art,” he said. “I’m just a temporary protector of it.”

In the grand scheme of things, in a philosophical sense, he was correct. The art may be on his private property, but his life is short, fleeting, a mere speck in time relative the universe. Nobody really owns anything, by that measure, but are only temporary caretakers for the short period of time during which they exist on this planet. Ownership is a legal abstraction, a man-made concept that exists only in the human mind.

Chumash Indian Rock Art Pictograph Santa BarbaraA Chumash rock art panel in the Santa Barbara backcountry holding one of my all-time favorite design elements, which is seen here in the top half of center frame.

Chuck took the lead in trying to break through the armor plated steely resolve Bill represented. From this angle and that angle he attempted to gain access but was met each time with steadfast denial. He tried this. He tried that. And it went on from there. What if we never tell anybody? No. What if we promise, take a solemn oath, never to post photos of the site online? No. What if we don’t take any photos? No. How about just a quick glance? No. No. No.

Ten minutes prior to this fence line standoff, Chuck had spotted Bill in his driveway and approached him to ask if by chance he knew the location of the pictographs. We had been hopping around a pile of boulders, across the road from Bill’s house, looking for the treasure we had driven some distance to search out and find by way of a few scant clues. The boulders seemed an unlikely place, their location did not match the one telltale clue we had clung to all afternoon in our questing, but we were running out of ideas and so we checked anyway, and then Chuck saw Bill across the street.

Bill had played dumb. “I’ve heard that there is supposedly some Indian rock art somewhere around here but I’m not sure where it’s at.” I had been laying a few yards away under the canopy of oak trees on a boulder in the shade, enjoying a brief respite from the heat and the previous few hours of fruitless hiking. Chuck had chatted with Bill for some five minutes before we hopped in Chuck’s car and returned back up the small residential lane a second time for a final attempt to locate the sought after site.

Chumash Pictograph DesignA touched up version of the design element noted and shown in the previous photo. This is a redrawn image that enhances the design and relatively accurately conveys the general sense of the original artwork, but is not an exact representation.

After some two hours, maybe three or more even, of hiking up and down and all around a fully exposed, all but shadeless, hot south-facing mountainside in the summer swelter, we had one last option to investigate. The option, like the boulder pile across from Bill’s house, did not match the aforementioned clue, and so we had not pursued it earlier, but we had no better ideas at this point.

We headed downstream, or more properly described, down a small dry drainage channel that funnels runoff down the mountain during periods of significant precipitation. It seemed unlikely we would find here what we had already expended so much energy searching for, but it was our last hope before admitting failure for the day and heading home.

Twenty to thirty yards down the narrow drainage, which held only minimal brush and a few stunted oaks due to so little annual rainfall, it opened to a flat beside the creek bed. There before us protruding from the hillside adjacent the creek was an outcrop. Bingo! This was it. This had to be it.

We approached the site for a closer look onto what was obviously private property, and as we stood about conferring with each other, a man spoke to us from beyond the fence line. It was the owner. The same man Chuck had just spoken to face to face on the other side of the house and whom, bald faced, fed him a big ball of lies and pretended to know nothing. Later Chuck would say that he wouldn’t want to play poker with Bill, who had so well hidden the fact that he owned the rock art Chuck had stood before him inquiring about.

Chumash rock art pictograph santa ynez mountains santa barbaraAn exceptional Chumash mandala pictograph in the mountains of Santa Barbara County.

“I feel bad,” Bill repeated several times during the lengthy over-the-fence conversation, speaking of his refusal to allow us a peek at the rock art. Yet he stood firm and would not relent. He kept insisting he was a protector defending the art and repeatedly justified his denial of our friendly requests on that basis.

I understood his reluctance to allow strange men appearing at his backyard unannounced onto his property to view a rare, fragile and priceless piece of antiquity. I respected that, but what he was saying made no reasonable sense, and that bothered me more than his obstinate refusal.

I don’t appreciate being taken for a fool, like a small child who lacks the mental capacity to reason and see through a patently absurd argument.

We now knew exactly where this archaeological site was located. We knew his street address. We knew his name, and through various public records could find out a lot more about him. We could pinpoint the site location on Google satellite imagery and broadcast a map and GPS coordinates to the world, if we were so inclined. At this point we could tell anybody we wanted to regardless of whether he let us onto his property or not.

By refusing to allow us even so much as a brief glance at the pictographs Bill wasn’t protecting anything. His claim was prima facie ludicrous. He had tried to prevent our discovery of the site, and thus tried to protect it, by lying to Chuck earlier but that failed. We were persistent and determined. As Chuck told Bill over the fence, “We have a nose for these things.”

There was nothing any longer to protect, because we knew where it was. The only way he would be protecting the art was if he allowed us onto his property and then we somehow tried to harm the art right in front of him and he forcibly stopped us, but that was a wildly silly idea. We just wanted to see it.

DSC05797Chumash pictographs in the Los Padres National Forest of Santa Barbara County.

I remained silent, though I wanted to let Bill know what he was saying was foolish, and that I well knew it. If he was willing to put up such a fallacious argument to justify his action, or was unable to see the falsity of what he was saying, then he would not likely be receptive to reason and so was a waste of further time.

We left Bill, the great self-described protector, after failing to convince him to let us see the treasure he hardly kept hidden beyond his shoddy, rickety fence. For a man who so adamantly claimed to be a defender of the site, he sure put little effort into keeping it hidden and secure from wayward eyes. And we wondered what the dust kicked up from the dog we heard barking in his yard did to the art.

We were kind and considerate and left on good terms. In the end, at least for me, as much as I wanted to see the pictographs, and as much as Bill’s lame excuse irked me, the fact that we were finally successful in locating the site, and did so on our last effort and after so much work, was a worthy reward in itself. The treasure hunt paid dividends even though we were ultimately denied the jackpot.

Chumash Yokut Salinan rock art pictographs San Luis Obispo CountyRock art in San Luis Obispo County.

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Gabe Surfing Sandbar, Hurricane Marie 8-27-14

Gabe Venturelli making it look easy. Good to see a friend, a Santa Barbara local, getting it like not many people do. In the middle of summer, no less. Pacific love.

“Look at this shot of Sandbar yesterday,” my wife says to me this afternoon, and holds out her iPhone to reveal a video of an epic wave featured on some surfer magazine page on Facebook entitled, “An Endless Barrel at Sandspit.” Such are the times, cell phones and social media, and, well, blogs like this. Much hated by many, but that’s reality these days.

“Wow. Oh man,” I reply, thoroughly envious of whomever it was that picked off the reeling grinder showing on the tiny screen.

“You’re not pissed off you missed that are you?” she asks knowing me all too well.

I refrain from answering her directly and after a brief pause, which effectively meant, “Hell yeah I’m pissed!” I continue the conversation with: “I drove by there yesterday late morning during high tide.”

I had a brief moment to check the surf at that time. I knew it wouldn’t be as good as when the tide dropped, nowhere near as good, but I had to lay eyes on the scene as soon as I had a chance anyway. It was a rare swell event.

“It was unreal!” I continue. “There were four SUKs out there!” SUK being a pejorative for SUP, which means Stand Up Paddleboard. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Just ridiculous!”

Frame grabs from video by Tony Modugno:

Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14 (1) Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14 (2) Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14(3) Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14 (4) Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14 (5) Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14 (6)Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14
Late in the afternoon, that is the yesterday featured in the video my wife had shown me, not having felt like battling the mob I knew would show up at low tide Sandbar on an epic south swell, and not having wanted to try and elbow my way into waves amid the frenzy of wave-starved surfers, I had opted to go elsewhere.

I certainly did not score anything remotely close to what’s seen in the video, but my afternoon was made sweet and memorable nonetheless with some clean and green long walls at a break that rarely works in summer. The last time I had surfed there in summer was in the mid-nineties, after wakening one morning at a friend’s house along Gaviota to the sound of meaty shorepound slamming the beach, and the air laden with ocean mist. It was a rare treat to surf there once again in summer.

Gabe Venturelli Sandbar Hurricane Marie 8-27-14(1)

I see an old friend I grew up with at the beach today after having seen the video. He mentions that he saw Gabe, a mutual friend, at Sandbar on that glorious aforementioned yesterday. That he got one of the best waves he’s ever seen, saw it from the wharf across the harbor channel. He says he later saw it on video on the Web. Could it be? I wonder to myself. Naw. Couldn’t be. What are the odds?

I return home later and check the Web and sure enough, Gabe immortalized. I hadn’t recognized his style the first time I saw the video. “That was Gabe, that video you showed me,” I tell my wife. She knows him, too. “Wow!” she says. “You always said he was a good surfer.”

“Yeah. He’s really good.”

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8@20 WNW 286°

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Barger Canyon Arch

Barger Arch Santa Barbara HikingLooking through Barger Arch toward Santa Barbara.

A coast live oak tree obscured for most of my life this frontside feature of the Santa Ynez Mountains. Arroyo Burro Trail, which cuts the mountainside nearby, was one of the first trails I explored as a boy. Riding my bike to Stevens Park and hiking up San Roque Canyon. My house sat beneath Barger Peak, just a few miles as the condor flies from the arch.

In later years we’d hike up Northridge Road, a steep length of skin-stripping asphalt below the trail and arch, and bomb it on skateboards wearing down the chosen Powell IIIs until they lost their bulky cubic form, turned into long thin cylinders and eventually got core-rot, could no longer bear the torque and ripped apart. We walked up La Vista Road innumerable times, also beneath the arch, and flew down it on skateboards testing our humble high-speed skills against gravity and pushing luck.

We wandered on foot the empty ridgeline above Northridge and connected it to Arroyo Burro Trail and down into upper San Roque Canyon. Now there are a couple of estates perched on that ridge overlooking Santa Barbara making such walks legally impossible.

We hiked, bushwhacked and crawled our way over and through the various folds of Barger Canyon. Thoughtlessly rode motorcycles across private land therein and were run into the hillside by an irate Robert A.

Barger Canyon Arch Santa Ynez Mountains Santa Barbara HikesA frontal view of the arch showing the burnt branches of the oak tree.

Yet in all that time, through the years, in all those hours of unsupervised and unstructured recreation, crisscrossing the foothills of this particular section of the Santa Ynez Mountains, I never knew the arch in Barger Canyon existed.

Perhaps, though, it did not exist as it does today. Maybe it was smaller or even nonexistent. Standing beneath it now one can clearly see how a massive chunk of sandstone fell at some point from the outcrop thus creating the arch, if not entirely, then as it currently stands.

Barger Arch Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres National ForestSitting under the arch.

Then the Jesusita Fire stripped bare the mountain slope in 2009 defoliating the oak tree and exposing the arch as I had never seen it. A new feature was suddenly and dramatically revealed.

And along with it so too came the revelation that there was, amazingly, even this close to the city in a place in full view from areas all over town, and somewhere I grew up roaming, still some frontiers to explore, still some of the unknown to discover, still surprises and new experiences to be had, even in the nearest portions of Los Padres National Forest.

Barger Arch Santa Barbara HikesView through the arch.

Santa Barbara Hope Ranch Laguna Blanca dry droughtOverlooking a dry Laguna Blanca, living up to its Spanish name due to the drought, with Barger Canyon arch noted by red dot. (Laguna Blanca Lake)

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Chumash Rock Art, a Pool of Water and a Chipmunk

Chumash rock art pictograph painted cavesA Chumash pictograph with inset showing a recreation of the design.

A seasonal creek flows by this Indian rock art site in Santa Barbara County and there is a spring not far from the paintings. When flowing the creek cascades several feet over an exposed outcrop of bedrock and into a small pool near the painted alcove. On the face of the outcrop where the waterfall flows there is a cavity in the rock that catches and holds water for far longer than the pool below the falls.

I checked this natural tank in mid-July out of an interest in seeing, during the current severe drought, how long it will hold water through the summer. It was still holding a decent amount despite no rain in over three months, the last precipitation amounting in total to about one inch which fell on the first and second of April. As of August 8, the tank still held water, remarkably clean looking water, and was a magnet for honey bees seeking moisture.

water hole tank Chumash Pictograph Rock Art site Santa Barbara

The small protected tank.

I sat beside the small puddle watching polliwogs wiggle around. A week earlier I had scooped up and saved twenty or so of those same tadpoles from a tiny volume of water, nearly dried up, which was held in a cavity on the same rock, just above the puddle where they now swam.

I sat wondering if the longstanding puddle ever served as a precious source of stored water for the Chumash. There is the spring lower down the creek, but in such a dry landscape, during a record drought, any bit of water catches my attention and seems remarkable.

I had been sitting there for ten minutes or so when I suddenly noticed a chipmunk clinging precariously to the rock just above the waterline. It was wet and shaking and had his face pressed against the rock. It looked like it was going to fall into the water at any moment.

My camera flash caused it to do so and I watched it for a couple of seconds frantically trying to swim, fatigued, its puny body vertical in the water, barely able to keep its nose above the surface. It was unable to claw its way back up onto the rock despite its desperate bid for life and after bobbing there for a moment its head dipped below the waterline. I could see it wasn’t going to make it.

water hole

I jumped off the rock and snatched a stick from the ground and thrust it into the water. Should have seen how fast and how solidly the little thing grabbed the wood. I brought the stick out of the water and slowly set it beside me. The chipmunk just sat there clinging to it.

I reached into my pack to grab a few raw almonds, thinking to leave them there for it to nibble as I left, but realized I had taken out my trail snacks and left them in the car. It was getting close to sunset, and as the chipmunk sat there shivering, I wondered if it would live through the night or succumb to hypothermia in its wet and weakened condition.

In making an effort to carefully carry the chipmunk on the stick up to a patch of sunshine, he jumped off and scampered through the brush. He found his way up to the exposed bedrock shelves, which were still soaking up the day’s last remaining rays of direct sunlight.

As soon as he left the shadows and hit the sunny rock he froze and collapsed like a lizard on a hot stone on a cold day. I laid my palm flat on the stone beside me which had already fallen into the shadows and it was exceptionally warm to the touch. The heat radiating from the bedrock must have felt awesomely good to the poor little cold bugger, which had just spent who knows how many hours or maybe days trying to avoid drowning.

chipmunkClinging on for dear life.

chipmunk rescueThe moment of rescue.

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