“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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Lost Hikers and Search and Rescue

Santa Ynez Mountains Los Padres National Forest creek poolA winter scene in the Santa Ynez Mountains, Los Padres National Forest.

“No, I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”

“I wouldn’t give a tinker’s damn for a man who isn’t sometimes afraid. Fear’s the spice that makes it interesting to go ahead.”

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

cowboy up
[kou-boi uhp]


1. ( US, informal) to adopt a tough approach or course of action
2. to tuff up; to get back on your horse; to never back down or give up; to face the hand you’re dealt without complaint

I’m going to opine here and perhaps ruffle a few feathers if not anger some people, but I’m not one to remain silent out of concern about such trivial and fickle matters as human emotions. I’m sick of hearing about so-called “lost” hikers calling in Search and Rescue (SAR) to save them from having to face the inconvenience and discomfort of the consequences of their own poor decisions.

In the neighborhood where I grew up, and within the school from which I come, a man was measured by his willingness to accept without complaint the consequences of his actions. That whatever situation a fella got himself into he was first and foremost responsible for getting himself out of before calling on others to risk their health and lives to help him. He looked not to others to relieve him of unwanted, though entirely bearable circumstances. And I do not mean a fleeting or cursory attempt, but a damn good, all in, everything tried sustained effort.

I do not intend to say that a person should never call on SAR or rely on their selfless and noble service, but that I believe such services should be reserved for rescuing people who have sustained serious injuries or are facing imminent great bodily harm or death. I routinely read about so-called “lost” hikers who when the sun goes down have rescue personnel deployed, at great expense, to save them from a few hours of uncomfortable cold and darkness, circumstances brought on by their own thoughtless actions or misguided behavior, situations entirely survivable without injury let alone death. SAR does not exist, in my opinion, to save people from fear or a few shivers and goosebumps or a sleepless night.

I have noted on this blog before, and I am sincere in saying it, that “I’d rather spend a cold miserable night lost in the woods and have another try at finding my way out next morning, rather than call for help. I’d die sooner from embarrassment than exposure.”

When discussing this matter with my wife recently, after reading a post one night from a lady requesting help on the Santa Barbara Swap Facebook page to locate her boyfriend who had misplaced himself in the Santa Ynez Mountains above Santa Barbara, my wife said she wouldn’t hesitate much in calling SAR if I failed to show up after dark. (We do, however, have an understanding that I should be granted a solid chunk of time well after the sun goes down before she even considers calling in the troops.)

I replied in jest as if acting like a rescuer, “We located the lost hiker, but it was the strangest thing. Upon seeing us he fled further into the bush and we were unable to catch up to him. After several hours of fruitless attempts at relocating him we called off the effort.”

I would dread seeing SAR arriving to “rescue” me if I was not incapacitated or not facing serious harm. We later read that rescuers were purportedly dispatched to find the lady’s confused boyfriend and his friend and found them in the vicinity of Seven Falls. Numerous news reports over the years recount similar events. Were they rescued from serious harm or from mere fear and discomfort?

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Fight With a Condor: Experience of a Forest Ranger in Santa Barbara County (1902)

Although the forest ranger mentioned in the newspaper article below is Joseph Montgomery, I wonder if it may actually have been a brief about Josiah T. Montgomery, for whom Montgomery Potrero atop the Sierra Madre Mountains is named. I do not know if Josiah was a forest ranger, but he was a pioneer of the Sisquoc River region and his was the last official homestead claim made in that particular area (Blakley & Barnette 1985).

The article was originally published in the Los Angeles Herald in 1902. About that time the California condor population is estimated to have numbered about 600. By 1987 the condor population had been decimated by intentional and unintentional human actions. In that year the last California condor still flying free in the wild was captured in a desperate attempt to save the species from possible extinction.

California condor Sespe Wilderness Los Padres

A condor soaring over Sespe Wilderness, as seen on a hike to Whiteacre Peak. (Return to Whiteacre Peak or Day of the Condor)

Fight With a Condor: Experience of a Forest Ranger in Santa Barbara County

SANTA MARIA, March 12 As Joseph Montgomery, one of the forest rangers, was on his way to town last week from the government forest reserve he had quite an experience with a California condor. Coming down a wild canyon he noticed a commotion in some brush near the trail, and on investigation found that two mountain foxes had attacked an immense condor, which was apparently sick and disabled. As the fighters worked out of the brush Montgomery tried to lasso the bird, but with no success, as he would fight the rope off with his wings. It attacked Montgomery by striking at him with his beak and talons, and for a time was getting the best of him until the ranger picked up a club and soon dispatched the bird, but not until his clothes were in a sadly demoralized condition, and he still can show several ugly scratches. The wings, which he brought home, measured nine feet across. As this species is vary rare, he tried to capture it alive.

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Piedra Blanca Creek West, Descent From Pine Mountain Lodge Camp

Piedra Blanca Sespe WildernessA smidgeon of Piedra Blanca.

“Civilization has a relatively precarious hold on us and there is an undoubted attraction in a life of absolute freedom once it has been tasted. The ‘call o’ the wild’ is in the blood of many of us and finds its safety valve in adventure.”

Percy Fawcett, legendary British explorer of the Amazon who vanished without a trace in the “green hell” of the jungle in 1925 never to be heard from or seen again.

After confirming a plan with Stillman to hike up to Pine Mountain Lodge Camp and descend Piedra Blanca Creek, I spent the next week dreading it. How easy it would be to not wake up when it’s dark, to not haul my butt up three thousand feet of mountain in six miles only to turn around and hike down the mountain, without a trail, over unknown terrain.

But the self-imposed forced march is always inevitable. There is something deeply ingrained in me that, sooner or later, always wins out and compels the body to follow the order of the mind. One week I’ll be stumbling back to the trailhead thoroughly exhausted with aching muscles, repeatedly wondering why I do this to myself, while also thinking that at least now I’ve had my fill for awhile. Yet, by the next week my mental half is already Jonesing to get out and punish my physical half some more.

As ridiculous as it is to compare anything I’ve done or ever will do to the adventures, in the true sense of the word, of Percy Fawcett, I suspect I am routinely driven into the woods on long and sometimes grueling hikes by a strain of pathology similar to what propelled him into the jungle time and again.

Gene Marshall Piedra Blanca National Recreation TrailDavidStillman.blogspot.com

Pine Mountain Lodge Camp SespePine Mountain Lodge Camp along the headwaters of Piedra Blanca Creek.

Piedra Blanca Creek emerges from a crease in the mountaintop, just above Pine Mountain Lodge Camp (PML), a thin brook winding through the rocky high conifer forest alongside the backpacking camps. Neither of us had laid eyes upon the upper length of this creek aside from its headwaters around the campsites.

A short distance below PML prime was a stretch of the unknown. There was even the potential for a chance at encountering some degree of relative adventure. What was there? Waterfalls or caves and incredible sandstone outcrops? Endearing creekside flats perfect for camping but that are never visited? Remnants of historic Americana? Traces of prehistoric Native Americana? It was the lure of the unknown and an unanswered question of how it might proceed. It was tempting. And irresistible.

Pine Mountain Piedra Blanca Creek Sespe Wilderness

Sespe Wilderness hikePiedra Blanca Creek hikeFall color in the Sespe Wilderness.

We knew there was no official trail. I was operating on the premise that there wasn’t likely much to see in the upper reaches of Piedra Blanca Creek; little that might set it apart from the other creeks in the neighborhood; nothing that would attract the average hiker.

Despite not thinking I was going to find the extraordinary, I nonetheless felt compelled to put in the strenuous work required to survey the land on foot myself, never satisfied sitting at home scanning through other people’s photos and brief captions via the Internet. Even if I had heard that there was nothing remarkable to see, I’d still have gone. I can’t help it. And much that might be said to be ordinary or unremarkable by most people usually hold a greater degree of value to me.

Piedra Blanca Creek Sespe WildernessHoping boulders down the creek, I turned for a view of my backtrail just as a beam of sunlight shot through a gap in the clouds illuminating a massive old-growth cedar and bringing out its characteristic brilliant red hue.

Piedra Blanca Creek upper Sespe WildernessPine Mountain old growth incense cedarThe gnarled fingers of a giant cedar growing midstream.

This was my first hike of autumn and what a glorious day for it, just following the first rainfall of the season. So long had it been dry. The sky was a brilliant blue, but daubed here and there with just the right touch of white clouds, sometimes puffy, sometimes torn and wispy, to add character and depth to the crystalline air, which was freshly washed and filled with an invigorating mélange of earthy and herbal fragrances, newly moistened soil and damp chaparral.

We walked up on a large black bear, which we may have come face to face with had our timing been less than a minute different. We had been downwind from it and sufficiently quiet enough that it might have told its friends the same tale as I have here, that it unknowingly walked right up on two humans.

I had heard the crack of some bending branches or bushes, but had dismissed it as a deer. When we passed around a boulder blocking our view we saw it traipsing away only to pause once up the slope and out of the creek and give us a good stare down. I didn’t much like the way it looked at us.

Piedra Blanca Creek hikesPine Mountain SespeWe came across a remarkable amphitheater-shaped outcrop or grotto over which the creek flows. Beneath the overhang it was felted over in dense dark green moss and embellished with delicate fern fronds poking from the cracks in the sandstone.

The woods through which the creek flows exude a primeval ambiance. A keen eye, however, may spy telltale signs of previous human passing. But just a couple, and only minute and subtle traces. It’s wild up there. Remote. Shadowy and mysterious with a tinge of creepiness. Big timber. Big boulders. Big beasts. It is legitimate big mountain terrain and wildness quite unlike what might commonly be thought of as typical forest found so close to Ojai and Ventura.

Piedra Blanca Creek grottoThe grotto.

And then, leaving the open tall timber, and falling lower in elevation, we entered into the range of chaparral and the creek suddenly became choked with dense brush and brambles. I went from standing erect and easily hoping boulders while scanning the surrounding conifer-clad slopes, to crouching, scrambling and crawling under a frustratingly thick tangle of overgrowth spread across the creek like a sieve straining the runoff of flotsam during winter storms.

Getting stabbed, poked, and sliced. Incessantly impeded and pestered. And unable to see much more than what was passing within a short distance before me. When possible I’d stand craning my neck straining to see where in the canyon we might be, and then sulk in contempt at how much farther we had to fight our way through the nightmarish tentacles of brush.

Piedra Blanca Creek Pine Mountain SespeApproaching a dry waterfall just prior to entering the unpleasantly brushy section of creek.

We finally broke through onto the official trail once again. That is always a refreshing feeling, to set foot onto a wide-open, well-packed trail that requires so much less physical effort and seemingly zero mental attention, after barging through woody and wiry mountain weeds constantly searching for the path of least resistance.

While I had satisfied my curiosity in experiencing firsthand what that stretch of the wilderness was made up of, the craving for yet more of the same, always coursing through my interior, would soon yet again make itself known. It’s insatiable.

Related Posts:

Pine Mountain From Piedra Blanca

Sespe Wilderness Piedra BlancaPiedra Blanca

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Hericium Hunt: Days Late and Feet Short

hericium mushroom Santa Barbara Santa Ynez MountainsA hericium or “Lion’s Mane” mushroom growing on an oak tree, circled in red.

With the first rain of the season some weeks ago the countdown had begun until the opening harvest of mushroom season. One week passed. It may have still been a mite early at that point for the particular type of mushrooms I was after, knowing it was far too early for chanterelles, if enough rain had even fallen to make them fruit. I only had a fraction of a day that weekend and so I opted to go spearfishing rather than mushroom hunting.

Another week passed and by this time I was figurin’ it was too late, but I couldn’t blow it off entirely, had to take a looksee at one of my go-to sites. Even if I found the mushrooms rancid or partially dried, it was still important to me to witness the ways of nature and how these things work, how the equation adds up under the variables of an exceptional drought. Conditions, weather, had been so dry for so long, the soil hydrophobic in all but the most protected and moist nooks of the forest, that I figured this site would be producing if anywhere was after such minimal rainfall.

Making my way down the steep slope beneath the chaparral and into the creek I noted right off how dry it was already. It was as if no rain had fallen. It smelled parched. The creek was flowing, not unexpectedly, but everything else was crispy and dusty. The leaf mulch crackled under foot rather than absorbing footsteps in muffled compression.

I was surprised to see that the oyster mushroom colony on a standing dead tree rising from the creek bed had not even sprouted. The hericium I was after had also not sprouted. I wasn’t too late. Nothing had even happened. Not enough rain.

Hericium mushroom lion's mane Santa Ynez MountainsI wandered up the creek, my dog bounding behind me. I walked the canyon aimlessly, observant, searching the forest for whatever might catch my attention: step, hop, bound, step, pause, peer. With head tilted upward, scanning the slope rising beneath the oak canopy, a white spot caught my eye. Bingo! A hericium was growing from a knot hole in a big oak.

I hadn’t seen this mushroom in previous years though it grew just a short distance from one I had harvested numerous times, the one that had not yet sprouted, likely because it grows in the rain shadow under a log and requires heavy rainfall. The one I had just found was growing in an hole facing skyward that collects rain.

Santa Barbara hikes foragingTeetering

I scrambled up the slope to the tree and quickly found that the mushroom was too high to reach and that I had no way to climb up and grab it. Using my trekking pole I was barely able to reach the mushroom, standing precariously on tip toes on a rock leaning over a short drop.

I gave it a gentle prod, but they root firmly into the wood and it was clear I wouldn’t be able to liberate it without tearing it to pieces. I drew back my pole, the end of the handle wet with hericium juice. I gave the wet spot a sniff. The fragrance was remarkably fruity and sweet smelling, so much so that it made my salivary glands tighten and my mouth water. That’s probably not something one typically would think of happening when smelling fungus.

I forced a chunk of the mushroom off with my pole and it plopped into the leaf mulch below. I was just a bit too late, the fruit beyond its prime and beginning to rot. While that was a disappointment, I was nonetheless stoked to have found another hericium.

Even on days that don’t go according to plan valuable experience may be gained, experience that accumulates into wisdom. Following the first rain of next season it will be a site I’ll return to, with a rope ladder, to harvest one of the most delectable mushrooms in the forest, far superior to the highly overrated, lesser mushroom, the chanterrelle.

Santa Barbara hericium lion's mane mushroom

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Chumash Indian Mortars and the Puzzle of the Midden

Coast Live Oaks canyon hikeWe had set out to go spearfishing, but a south wind and a west swell combined to ruin conditions. We drove up the mountain from the beach and hiked down into the canyon, the creek within which drains into the Pacific adjacent the reef we had planned to dive.

Within about fifteen minutes of stomping through the brush we found two bedrock mortars beside the dry creek under the oak canopy. Surrounding the mortars, and spread across a large area, were the remnant pieces of shellfish long ago harvested by the people that had used the stones to presumably grind acorns. The site was located in an oak shaded draw near the top of the canyon at the confluence of several dry creek channels.

I never tire of finding these sorts of archaeological sites, and imagining what life was like for those that once frequented them, and how the land might of looked during their times, devoid of modern alteration and absent the mechanized drone of civilization.

California oak forest Chumash mortars midden siteThe mortars are located on the rocks frame left, the seasonal creek flows just below them.

The midden was comprised mostly of mussel shells so far as I could determine. One aspect that I found interesting was that all the shells were remarkably small. I did not see a single large, full-grown mussel. I wondered why only small ones were scattered about the area. Did they prefer the taste or consistency of younger mussels?

Two weeks prior, I had harvested a pull of mussels and cooked them for dinner. Out of curiosity I had taken some small, medium and large mussels wondering if there was a difference in taste or tenderness among them. I have always tended to take medium-sized mussels thinking that the larger ones might be tough and that the smaller ones weren’t worth the work for so small a morsel. There might have been some degree of difference in tenderness depending on size, though I think the manner in which they are cooked is a bigger determinate in how tough they are. If overcooked they become rubbery and chewier. There was really no notable difference. They were all tasty and worthwhile.

Thinking back on my own experience, that there did not seem to be any notable difference in taste or consistency among differing sizes of mussels, it occurred to me that what I found at this Chumash site mirrored the findings of scholars working on the Santa Barbara Channel Islands. As previously noted on this blog, “midden evidence [found on San Miguel Island] shows an apparently significant decrease in the size of mussels harvested as the shellfish are thought to have faced increased pressure from a burgeoning Native American population.”

Chumash Indian bedrock mortar grinding stoneOne of the mortars.

The mortar and midden site mentioned here was between one and two miles from the beach, high up in the canyon. I wondered why people had carried the mussels up the mountain rather than having eaten them down near the beach much closer to where they were harvested. I pondered this question assuming that efficiency was crucial to a primitive hunter-gatherer culture, and so why cart the additional weight and bulk up the mountain?

The site was not located on an expansive plot of land sufficiently large enough to provide adequate space for many people to live. It did not seem large enough to support habitation for anymore than a small group of people at best. With only two mortars, and relatively shallow ones at that, it also did not seem to be a site where a significant amount of work was carried out preparing food, though perhaps they might have relied more on free-sitting individual stone bowls rather than bedrock mortars.

My inexpert conclusion was that it didn’t seem likely that there were loads of mussels routinely carried to the site to support habitation. I’ve seen more and deeper mortars at a spring site in the Santa Ynez Mountains where, due to geography and a lack of flat ground and open space, habitation was impractical if not effectively impossible.

The oak grove at this mortar and midden site we found was minimal, as well. It was not a sprawling forest of acorn producing trees that seemed likely to attract many people looking to secure food. Though perhaps the forest of oaks was larger historically than it is now. Whatever the case historically, there were now just as large of oak groves found lower down in the canyon closer to the beach.

I thought that perhaps those people that visited the site had routinely brought with them mussels to eat while they ground acorns beneath the oaks. A sort of lunch cooked on the mountain for a hot meal while out gathering food. And if that was the case, it seemed to me that the logical action would be to bring larger mussels rather than smaller ones. It seemed it would require less work to harvest, cook and eat larger mussels and so was a more efficient means of filling the belly than dealing with loads of tiny shells.

Chumash midden mussel shellsTwo small mussel shells from the midden.

And so, in other words, it seemed to me that the reason all the shells in the mountainside midden were so small was indeed because, like on the Channel Islands, they were a highly valued food source whose population was being heavily relied on by the Chumash. That mussels were routinely harvested before they had time to mature. The faded, chalky old shells were an interesting telltale clue telling a story about the Indians and their exploitation of natural resources, a clue on the mainland which matched the evidence found by archaeologists on an island across the channel.

Native Americans, in general, are often romanticized in American culture as careful and responsible stewards of the environment in a manner unlike much of modern humanity. As I squatted beneath the oak trees examining the shells once plucked from the seashore by Chumash hands, I wondered that if history had taken a different tack, and North America was left untouched by conquistadors and explorers and fur traders and subsequent European settlers and their descendents, and the population of Chumash Indians continued to grow and to increasingly rely on shellfish, would they have over-exploited blue mussels?

We proceeded down the canyon from the mortar and midden site, following the dry creek to the beach. There were several other small oak groves along the way, wonderful stands of trees that were to me no less attractive than the one where the mortars and midden were located. We did not, however, see any other traces along the way left by Native Americans.

It left me wondering why they had chosen the site they had, nearly at the top of the canyon, about as far from the beach as one could hike before exiting the canyon and reaching the chaparral covered ridge above. Perhaps it was a stopping place during travel between villages or harvesting and hunting grounds and villages, but being so close to the beach, it did not makes sense to me that they would stop to roast and eat mussels if hiking between destinations. Why not just eat them at the beach, fill the belly at the harvest site and then be on your way with no need to stop a mile and half later or carry the mussels?

Assuming the Indians were a practical people and did not act arbitrarily, I wondered why they had not chosen one of the oak groves lower down the canyon, closer to the beach and with easier access. Of course, all these questions might be quickly answered by scholars, but it was an unanswerable puzzle to me.

Whatever their reasoning, the forest within which the site was located, and the nearby seashore and nearshore reefs, must have offered a wealth of exceptional food. I always daydream of that long lost richness, how it was before the American population explosion greatly depleted what once was abundant. I wish at times I could experience the way it once was, though I harbor no illusions about how much harder life was at that time.

California creek canyon hikeA short distance down the dry creek from the Chumash site we found this seep still holding water, which in this exceptionally dry year of record drought was a remarkable feature of the landscape.

Related Post:

Santa Barbara County Beach Gaviota SunsetMussel Harvest at Low Tide: Modern Man, Ancient Practice

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