“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)

Posted in Reference | 7 Comments

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

Posted in Santa Barbara County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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

Posted in Ventura County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Hunting Desert Bighorn Sheep

Desert Bighorn Sheep  Ovis canadensis nelsoniA preserved desert bighorn sheep in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

“. . .the most modern hunters, the men who sally forth with rapid cameras instead of repeating express rifles, who press a high speed shutter instead of a hair trigger.”

—New York Tribune (1904)

After a bowl of oatmeal and a pint of coffee I had set out from camp hiking up a remote defile between ragged mountains with two strangers. A narrow, tertiary canyon above a river, it cut deep into the mountain, zigzagging up to the foot of a prominent peak. The mouth of the drainage, where it dumped into a wide-bottomed rubbly canyon, was a door into another realm. A tight entrance bracketed by rocky cliffs leading into a shadowy moist riparian strip.

The surrounding terrain, by contrast, was barren, steep sloped, mostly broken rock and exposed loose soil with little vegetation. It was oddly bare in its nakedness relative mountains nearby covered in dense chaparral. That’s one reason why the quarry we were after lives there. The open landscape allows the sheep to better see predators and the steep slopes aid their escape.

No trail lead through the canyon. It was a wild land of bears, lions and bighorn sheep, where condors soared the thermals faraway overhead, mere dots of black ink against a blue canvas. We walked up the shady creek hopping from one side to the other stepping over the few inches of water trickling down the stony groove.

california bighorn sheep canyonThe zigzag riparian strip of Sheephorn Canyon.

We were looking for an exit point out of the creek and up onto the mountainside. Somewhere we could manage to sit for two hours peering out across the vast space before us and maybe see something move out there. The land was rugged with few places to sit that had any sort of long view. In many sections the drop into the creek was sheer or too steep and rocky to scramble up and over. Getting out of the creek took effort and caution.

We were working for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) searching for a remnant herd of desert bighorn sheep. We had been brought together as volunteers through an invitation extended by a prominent frequenter of the local backcountry, a conservationist who puts in many hours of volunteer work bettering the national forest in various ways. He was leading this outing and was sitting somewhere on another ridge also searching for the bighorn as we three settled in for our morning round of surveillance.

Our assigned duty was to sit for two hours glassing the mountain slopes for sheep, note how many we saw, if any, and their presumed ages as identified by the size of their horns or lack thereof. Our observational notes and photos would later be forwarded to CDFW officials for analysis.

bighorn sheep rams class identificationClass I 2-3 years old; Class II 3-5 years old; Class III 5-7 years old; Class IV 7+ years old (CDFW graphic)

I had never seen a live bighorn sheep, just the stuffed specimens in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. I had only learned of their presence at this particular location relatively recently.

Not long before first learning bighorn lived in the local forest I had taken my young daughter to the museum and stood before the stuffed sheep. I had looked at it many times through the years on numerous visits, but it was a different experience this round.

An illustration from an article entitled, "Shooting Mountain Sheep In Lower California," published by the Los Angeles Herald in 1897.

An illustration from an article entitled, “Shooting Mountain Sheep In Lower California,” published by the Los Angeles Herald in 1897.

It had always been just another exhibit to glance at like so many others, never captured my attention much. This latest time, however, seeing the exhibit through a child’s eyes, I no longer only understood in a remote abstract sense how these large animals had disappeared from the mountains, but felt for the first time a sense of loss and lament unlike during other visits.

I pondered what had been seized and snuffed out by previous generations. There was the ill-considered actions of otherwise decent people. But there was also the plundering, the rapacity, and the ruthless indifference by others. Fleeting actions by a few that forever altered the course of history for all others and life on the planet. I thought of what we of later times had lost. I felt a deep sense of regret that my own children, through no fault of their own and without their having any say in the matter whatsoever, would never see the bighorn when hiking in the wilds of their own extended backyards.

It was if I had brought my daughter to this illuminated glass case to view a treasure that had been stolen from her. It wasn’t a celebration of the wealth of natural history. It was a memorial. It wasn’t a museum. It was a mausoleum. The plaque on the exhibit was an obituary. It was a hall of holocaust where people spoke in whispers and filed through to catch a glimpse of an extinct specimen of humanity’s relentless massacre. A dark record of civilization’s collateral damage. The stuffed sheep stood behind the glass as a silent testament. The heavy door, the weight, having to heave it open to leave the stale confines of the dark-colored room, it seemed fitting.

When I later learned that the bighorn were not in fact regionally extinct I was stunned and thrilled. When I was subsequently recruited to venture into the forest and find them I could hardly wait to get out there. I need little reason and an even smaller excuse to get out into the backcountry bushes.

The thought of hunting down wild bighorn sheep from a remote base camp provided a surplus of stoke to fuel the long arduous hike alone through the heat of the day, to reach the camp, and meet up with the select group of other volunteers. And when finally out on the mountain, the tedium of sitting for hours glassing the distant slopes was erased by the sense of excitement motivating me to do all I could to spot, for the first time in my life, these magnificent curly horned sheep in their natural habitat, and not too far from my home.

Lompoc Journal Bighorn Sheep 1913 Lompoc Journal California Bighorn SheepA photo of a hunting camp on Mexico’s San Pedro Martir Mountain. The image accompanied a story from which the following quote was excerpted, relating as it does one reason for the decline and disappearance of bighorn sheep in areas along the Pacific Coast. Twenty-five dollars in 1913 equates to about $600 today when adjusted for inflation. Other historic newspaper stories recount the exploits of Colonel Roosevelt, later elected 26th president of the United States, hunting bighorns in these same mountains.

“Another man had a standing offer from a San Francisco firm of $25 for every head of a male bighorn, and he shipped a good many. The traffic of course was stopped when Mexican law declared a closed season for mountain sheep. It was high time, too, for they were wantonly destroyed, sometimes not even for their heads and skins, but merely for the pleasure of slaughter.”

—Lompoc Journal, Santa Barbara County (1913)

I had been sitting in silence for nearly two hours, though it seemed to pass rapidly, and I had not seen any sheep. My vigilant effort felt futile, like the old needle in a haystack exercise. Then I caught sight of several sheep walking over the crest of a ridge high above me. I thought of the odds of seeing so few sheep in so large a wilderness, and to have them appear as close as they did, and how I was fortunate enough to have been assigned to stake out this particular location, while the other few groups of volunteers had been placed elsewhere. Everything had come together nearly perfectly.

I had separated myself from the other two men by ten yards or so and they had not yet seen the sheep. I started calling to them to get their attention by blowing breath across my teeth in such a way that was just short of a whistle. I didn’t want the sheep to hear or to frighten them so I avoided speaking, but mountain sheep are keen and naturally leery, having evolved to evade silent and stealthy predators like mountain lions. They quickly spotted me with their acute eyesight.

I kept blowing, making the soft rustling sound, unable to get the two other guy’s attention, the sheep peering down directly at me from their high mountain perch the whole time. Later one of the guys mentioned that he heard me for some time before realizing it was me, and that I sounded something like a bird.

Bighorn sheep glassing Los Padres National ForestWe watched through binoculars and cameras. Ten or so sheep, young and mature alike, traipsed over the steep rocky slope cropping forage over a period of perhaps twenty or thirty minutes. They walked across the side of the ridge and then back from whence the came, ever vigilant, before disappearing from sight.

One of the other guys jotted down notes as the other peered through his binoculars calling out the approximate age of the animals. I had my eye to my camera lens rapidly firing off photos. I had brought, aside from my SLR camera, a Russian-made spotting scope but it was too powerful to be of any use and did not have a wide enough field of view. I could not keep it pinned on the sheep as a group as they ambled about and I found it impossible to see much through the shakiness. I decided that I would be of best use by taking photos I could later send to CDFW for staff biologists to analyze.

Bighorn Sheep Los Padres National ForestThere’s sheep on the slope, but impossible to see in this photo showing the landscape and habitat.

Desert Bighorn Sheep foragingA closer view showing at least seven well-camouflaged bighorn sheep foraging.

In late afternoon I followed one of the guys I worked with in the morning and we hiked off-trail up a steep, rocky mountainside above the small canyon we had previously staked out. He was a man whose name I’ve seen signed in at a remote mountain peak in the same region, a seldom visited site with no official trail and which few people have set foot on. I had been told his name is found on a number of other such out of the way, hard to reach mountain peaks and I had heard tales of this man from other local hikers. A picture of him had emerged in my mind as a hardened, stoic, grim character of middle age.

When I met him I was surprised to see that he was an easy going, grandfatherly type quick to smile and easy to chat with. He was fit and able, and scrambled up the loose incline with remarkable dexterity for his age, fully clothed in long sleeves, pants and gloves, and with only his face peeking out from under the bill of his hat, a flap of cloth circling his neck. He seemed partial to covering every patch of skin possible. A choice, no doubt, based on the wisdom gained through hard earned backcountry experience, his clothing a subtle clue that his definition of “hiking” differed greatly from the average visitor to the national forests.

I hoped to remain as agile as he was when I’m his age, I thought as we hiked up to a small bare nub of broken rock protruding from the shoulder of the mountain. There we perched for two hours like sentinels overlooking the deep cleft in the earth below us, and peering out over the valley-like canyon where our camp was located. I drew the circular brim of my hat down around the sides of my face to darken my peripheral view and kept my eye to the lens scanning the distant slopes for long periods of silent time. We exchanged few words, but the long silences were not uncomfortable.

California desert bighorn sheepA member of the group out scouting for sheep high above the creek, center frame circled in red. It was challenging, in the tight canyon, without hiking clear up the mountain out of it, to find a spot up out of the creek that offered a view wide and long enough to actually be able to glass a decent sized expanse of terrain.

We sat for two hours scanning the mountains and lo and behold near the end of this period of time I spied, on a distant slope, barely visible with the naked eye and hard to see even with my zoom lens, a group of bighorn sheep. Several guys in our group in the canyon below us had clued me in with their sudden chatter and pointing, but it took some time to finally spot the sheep. They seemed to be stuck to the wall of the distant mountain, their legs like pegs drilled into the earth, sharp-edged cloven hooves holding them in place.

I saw the sheep, took my eye from the camera, and then looked back through the lens and couldn’t see them. They were there once more before again disappearing in plain sight. Their tanned-hued hides blended with the surrounding terrain making them nearly invisible from a distance and I wondered how long it took for this perfect color match between earth and animal to evolve.

Once more I was feeling fortunate, ever more so, in having had the chance luck to spy yet again a handful of bighorn sheep on my first ever outing in search of them. Mission accomplished.

Desert Bighorn Sheep Los Padres National ForestTwo sheep walked up and perched briefly on this boulder appearing to pose for the camera.

This subspecies (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) is native to the area, but went regionally extinct about 100 years ago due to human actions, overhunting and disease introduced by cattle. Their current presence in their historic range is the result of the CDFW reintroducing them several decades ago. Though many died and the initial effort seemed to fail, the sheep were tenacious and rebounded and increased in number.

The story of these bighorn sheep is one of tragedy and triumph, disappearance and something of recovery, of the destructive force of some humans and those that work to restore and rebuild in the aftermath. In some manner the sheep’s plight is reminiscent of condors which also disappeared completely for a time in this same area due to humanity and were later reintroduced and once more repopulated.

I wonder if the second chance desert bighorn sheep are here to stay or will merely be another short chapter in the long story of interaction between humans and wildlife. The answer mostly depends on the actions, for better or worse, and the interest and care or apathy and indifference of humanity.

Bighorn SheepI believe this would be categorized as a class III desert bighorn sheep.

Posted in Backcountry, Fauna | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

Related Posts:

Finding Frontier In the Forest Conquered

Barger Canyon Arch

Posted in Santa Barbara County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

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.

Posted in Santa Barbara County | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments