“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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Gaviota Coast Galavants: The Wildest Wilderness


“The ocean is an unbelievably vast wilderness.”

–Steven Callahan, “Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea”

The 76-mile long Gaviota Coast is the wildest wilderness in Santa Barbara County.

According to Gaviota Coast Conservancy, it is “the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline remaining in Southern California, and is representative of the only coastal Mediterranean ecosystem in North America.” It is here where the smothering urban sprawl of southern California finally and dramatically ceases.

Walled in on the north by the Santa Ynez Mountains and capped by the Los Padres National Forest, lined by miles of bucolic grassy hills and potreros parted by creeks, the Gaviota seashore is a raw and ragged frontier between civilization and the world’s single largest contiguous wilderness, the Pacific Ocean.

The sea along the Gaviota Coast is a biological wonderland of uncommon natural wealth. According to biologists at Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, “The waters of the Santa Barbara Channel form one of the most biologically productive ecosystems found on Earth.” The density and diversity of life in local waters, they say, is rivaled by few other places on the planet. That cannot be said of any other parcel of forest or wilderness in the county.

gaviota-coast-hikes-pelicans-surfA squadron of fifty-one pelicans soar the Gaviota Coast in formation.

Animals put the wild in wilderness. Rodrick Nash explains in “Wilderness and the American Mind” that the root of the word appears to stem from “will,” as found in the Teutonic and Norse languages, with a meaning of being self-willed or uncontrollable. From “will” came “wild” which was understood to mean something that is unruly. Later the Old English “deor,” meaning animal, was attached with the resulting wildeor conveying the idea of uncontrollable or dangerous animals.

“From this point the derivation of wilderness is clear,” Nash writes. “Wildeor, contracted to ‘wilder,’ gave rise to ‘wildern’ and finally ‘wilderness.’ Etymologically, the term means ‘wild-deor-ness,’ the place of wild beasts.”

In “Coming Home to the Pleistocene,” Paul Shepard writes: “Wildness occurs in many places. It is composed of the denizens of wildernesseagles, moose, and their botanical coinhabitants and all of the species whose sexual assortment and genealogy have not been controlled or set adrift by human design or captivity.”

Gaviota hosts all the denizens that Santa Barbarans commonly associate with backcountry wilderness. The largest of these on land include lions, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, bears, deer, and even the occasional condor. The coast here, land and sea, holds much more wildness than all other forest or wilderness areas in the county combined.

The marine environment and its remarkably rich biodiversity sets Gaviota apart from all else. If we are to conceive of wilderness as a land of wildness, then nowhere in Santa Barbara County will ever match Gaviota.

fox-3A gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), Gaviota backcountry.

No official record exists of anybody dying from a lion attack in Santa Barbara County in contemporary times. Mountain lion attacks in the Los Padres National Forest are virtually unheard of. The only verified lion attack acknowledged by California Department of Fish and Wildlife happened in 1992. The attack on a nine-year-old boy occurred in Gaviota State Park.

On rare occasion a person may be mauled by a black bear, as happened in Carpinteria. Sometimes a hiker or camper is pestered by a bear that is particularly bold and inquisitive, but no recent record exists of a fatal bear attack happening in Santa Barbara County.

Gaviota hosts both lions and bears, oh my, but also a far more deadly apex predator. Nowhere else around here, no forest nor wilderness, am I lower on the food chain than when I enter the sea to swim, surf or spearfish along Gaviota. Here humans must contend with the man in the gray suit.

gaviota-sunset-tafoni-rock-formation-geologyTafoni rock formation along a desolate beach. (Previous post: Tafoni Weathered Stone)


In the waters along Gaviota there is a real possibility of being killed by a great white shark. And, in some sense, I rather enjoy that fact, as perverse as it may sound.

Where else around this heavily populated and largely depleted land does a person get to experience such a primal feeling?

It’s a feeling very few people know. And though macabre as it may be, it is a rare and ancient feeling that is special. An emotive endangered species nowadays when humans so utterly dominate the natural world.

Think of peering into the green depths of the sea while floating alone in a kelp forest far offshore, and knowing there is a stealthy predator out there that could attack unseen at any second and end a life.

Think of floating on a surfboard with feet dangling into the dark water like bait, perhaps a toe nicked on a rock while wading into the surf and oozing drops of blood like chum that can be detected for miles. Think of surfing by moonlight at midnight, alone. (Previous post: Night Surfing)

imageA white seabass shot spearfishing Gaviota in August 2016. Note the head shot. . .not bad, if I may say so myself. 

In 2016 alone at least ten white shark sightings were reported in Santa Barbara County at popular beaches (though as with any eye witness accounts some may be dubious). One harrowing incident, however, was captured on video taken by the victim when a man spearfishing was nipped in the foot by a white shark along Gaviota in August 2016. (See video of attack here.)

The following list is a record of shark attacks in Santa Barbara County over the last 45 years:

  • July 19, 1971–Point Purisima–Non-fatal
  • July 19, 1975–Point Conception–Non-fatal
  • July 23, 1975–Perch Rock, Point Conception–Non-fatal
  • December 18, 1976–San Miguel Island–Non-Fatal
  • February 18, 1985–San Miguel Island–Non-Fatal
  • October 22, 1985–Point Conception–Non-Fatal
  • October 29, 1992–Castle Rock, San Miguel Island–Non-fatal
  • November 11, 1992–San Nicholas Island–Non-fatal
  • December 9, 1994–San Miguel Island–FATAL
  • September 8, 2008–Surf Beach–Non-fatal
  • August 2, 2010–Near oil rig Hondo five nautical miles from Gaviota–Non-fatal
  • October 22, 2010–Surf Beach–FATAL
  • October 23, 2012–Surf Beach–FATAL
  • August 13, 2013–Butterfly Beach–Non-fatal
  • October 2, 2014–Walls Beach–Non-fatal
  • August 18, 2015–Gaviota–Non-fatal
  • September 24, 2015–Horseshoe Rock–Non-fatal
  • (Reference Source)

Mentioned previously on this blog in 2010 was a white shark that washed up at Rincon Point.

I was once told by a friend of an incident he witnessed when freediving the Channel Islands. After hearing frantic yelling from one of his buddies, he looked up out of the water to see his terrified friend scaling the rocky wall of the island to escape a circling white shark.

And if killer white sharks are not enough, there are occasional makos and hammerheads in the Santa Barbara Channel, too. One video taken offshore from Santa Barbara proper appears to show a mako feeding on a seal, while another video taken along Gaviota appears to show a hammerhead circling a kayak fisherman who defends himself with his paddle.

That, my friends, is the wildest wilderness in Santa Barbara County!


The Gaviota Coast remains largely unprotected in law despite its rare or at least uncommon natural wealth.

Please consider getting involved to help protect and conserve this precious coastal gem from further commercial and residential development.

The Gaviota Coast Conservancy is a great place to start.

Thank you for reading!


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Tarantula Mating Season, Santa Barbara County

tarantula-santa-barbara-mating-migrationNo photos on this blog have ever been staged, but in the interest of honesty I’d like to note that this tarantula, found walking a few yards away, was placed atop this branch in order to allow a better snapshot. The photo was taken on 10-18-2016.

Around this time in late summer or early fall every year male tarantulas set off in great numbers in the Santa Ynez Valley in search of female mates.

The first tarantula I recall seeing in the wild as a small boy was in fall during a Monte Vista School campout at Sage Hill Campground. I still remember how much of a spectacle the large hairy spider was for us gaggle of elementary school kids.

This is the best time of year to walk the forest, especially open and grassy areas, to find tarantulas crawling about in search of mates. Or drive at a leisurely pace with eyes peeled along one of the many roads winding through the Santa Ynez Valley. In driving you can cover a large area with ease and have a decent chance at seeing one crossing the road, which is common. Paradise Road, Happy Canyon Road and Figueroa Mountain Road all lead through prime tarantula hunting territory. If nothing else, it’s a great excuse to escape the urban cage and get out of the city.

I do not want to bore readers with the minutiae of tarantula biology, which I find tedious apart from the fights they are known to engage in with tarantula hawk wasps, but I think it’s interesting to note that female tarantulas can live to be around 25 years old. That seems quite long for such a creature. Males are said to live for about ten years.

Tarantula burrow hole denTarantula burrow as found on a hike in October 2011 and previously mentioned on this blog: Grass Mountain & Zaca Peak Via Birabent Canyon.

It might also be note worthy to mention how public sentiment has changed over the last century regarding these giant spiders. In the early twentieth century and the last half of the nineteenth century newspaper headlines routinely reported tarantula encounters like horror stories. Purported deaths from tarantula bites were written up and many blurbs routinely mention people falling gravelly ill for weeks on end.

A typical newspaper account reads as follows in this clip from the Los Angeles Herald published in 1901 about a supposed hard fight with a spider:

“Right after the centipede a large and vicious tarantula sprang from the opened package at Mr Frey, Mr Still, hearing the shouts of Mr Frey and seizing a stout club, rushed up to aid him. After a hard fight the men succeeded in killing both centipede and tarantula.”

A news clip from the California Daily Alta published in 1864 mentions a tarantula “captured at Dos Pueblos, Santa Barbara” as being a “vicious and deadly monarch of the spider family.”

In 1855, the Los Angeles Star published this gem of sensational scaremongering warning that a tarantula bite is “absolute certain death.” The writer proceeded with a comical bit of yellow journalism further warning that the spiders can “jump eight to ten feet to inflict his deadly bite.”

On a different note, it is remarkable how many stories spanning many years and from numerous newspapers from differing regions report about tarantulas being found by surprise in clumps of bananas. The stories appear so frequently that it nearly compels me to want to set out a ripe bunch of bananas in the woods to see if they attract any spiders.

Back to the previous point, by contrast contemporary media reports that come out every September and October no longer demonize the tarantula and often note that they are not deadly, but writers sensationalize the matter nonetheless.

These stories often mention an annual tarantula “migration,” which does not accurately describe what is happening, but does lend an air of fascination above and beyond being simply a matter of spiders searching for mates. Monarch butterflies migrate, but tarantulas do not. Yet journalists constantly repeat the word in copy-and-paste fashion without apparent thought. The wandering spiders are also frequently described in anthropocentric terms with the male spiders said to be out in search of “love.”

Please pardon the editorial here, but it does not ever seem to be adequate to describe nature accurately if the description is not thought to draw enough eyeballs and interest without the addition of embellishments. I suppose nature has much competition these days when it comes to entertaining the masses, and subtlety, nuance and smallness rarely wins out over sensationalism and hype.

To me, these natural matters written of as they truly exist, to the best of my understanding, are plenty sufficient to capture my attention and interest. I hope the same is true for some other people, too.

Related Posts On this Blog:

Tarantula Hawk

Grass Mountain & Zaca Peak Via Birabent Canyon

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Chumash Rock Art, Santa Barbara County

chumash-pictograph-rock-art-santa-barbara-californiaThese Chumash paintings show little wear from the elements over the last several decades.

They are presented here without alteration, but for a slight intensification of the existing natural color.

They measure roughly about twelve inches in length.


The pictographs are located near the top of a canyon on an outcrop amid rolling hills of chaparral and a short walk from a miniature gorge.

Here in the serpentine meander, deeply carved through the sandstone bedrock by the seasonal flow of water, several pools hold for remarkably long periods of time, even through years of drought when the surrounding region atop the mountain is mostly dry.

Looking over the land it is not hard to see its attraction to those that came before and why it was a choice location to paint.

There are a number of other pictographs adjacent the panel featured in the first photo, including some found in the alcove shown above which also contains incised markings on the floor.


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The Mighty Chia Seed, Cuyama Badlands


The Cuyama Badlands can be a wicked and terrible place for a human on foot with minimal supplies. Heaved aloft, scorched and desiccated, it’s a land clawed open and washed away by spotty cloudbursts that quench a sparse growth of piñon pine, juniper and sagebrush.

Barren hills pushed upward through thin forest like a balding head pushing through thinning hair. Deep rain-carved wrinkles, tall and thin wavy fins and ruffles hint of hills melting imperceptibly raindrop by measly and hardly ever seen raindrop into the piñon flats below. Hillsides of ocher-colored cobblestones piled as if dropped by dumptrucks.

How long with so little rain to wash the stones free and clean of nearly every grain of sediment that once entombed them? How long to form the cement-like, crusty hard sedimentary fins of eroded badland terrain that rise above the ground taller than a person’s head, forming deep and narrow troughs?

cuyama-badlands-hikes-vantura-county-los-padres cuyama-badland-hiking-campingchia-seed-bloomA spent chia bloom full of seeds.

“Good-tasting and satisfying, chia was highly regarded among every Native American group in whose territory it occurs.”

Jan Timbrook, “Chumash Ethnobotany: Plant Knowledge Among the Chumash People of Southern California”

August can be hellish, but the day is mild. I rest comfortably on a hillside in the desert sun rather than hiding in tree shadows from the fireball overhead.

The bad land and sparse forest before me feel more like Arizona or New Mexico than California. Indeed, a nearby arroyo takes its label from this variety of drylands, “Apache Canyon.” It’s appropriately named. Venturing into these canyons is like traveling into the American Southwest though they’re only a short drive from Santa Barbara in neighboring Ventura County.

Despite the land’s deathly appearance and harsh climate, a remarkable small flowering plant grows here that was once vitally important to prehistoric humanity, including the Chumash Indians for which a nearby wilderness is named. This is the chia seed producing Salvia columbariae.

The Chumash would roast the seeds, grind them into flour and then mix the flour with water to create a drink, chia pinole, that was “a good thirst-quencher,” Timbrook writes. Using less water in the mix, they also made a thick gruel or paste that was dried into small cakes. The cakes could be saved for later or carried into the field on outings.

Wandering a random animal trail along a ridge I come across a stand of crispy brown chia plants which bloomed and died months ago. Yet, a quick shake of a stem sends shiny seeds flying. The seeds have remained sheathed in the protective husk of the spent bloom through months of summer swelter.

The old blooms stand in the air on thin stems like packets of a highly nutritious snack on the shelves of nature’s grocery store. Within a couple of minutes I gather several handfuls. The tiny kernels have an exceptional flavor, far superior in my opinion to the store-bought variety. I eat the free and natural energy-packed snack by the handful savoring the nutty flavor.

chia-seeds-salvia-sageFreshly harvested chia seed.

The word “chia” derives from the Nahuatl language of the Aztec. “The seeds of the chia plant were such an important part of the Aztec diet,” Keoke and Porterfield write, “that they were brought as tribute to the capitol city, Tenochtitlán. . . .The effects of chia’s nutritional potency were legendary. Aztec warriors and hunters lived on chia seed in the field.”

Commenting in jest to emphasize the point, Christopher McDougall writes:

“In terms of nutritional content, a tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone. . . .If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia . . .after a few months on the chia diet, you could probably swim home.”

“The Hopis fueled themselves on chia during their epic runs from Arizona to the Pacific Ocean,” McDougall writes. “The Mexican state of Chiapas is actually named after the seed.”

In his book, “Born To Run,” McDougall writes of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico whose diet includes chia. The Tarahumara credit the seeds for helping them achieve mind boggling feats of physical endurance.

The men of this tribe are widely regarded as some of the world’s best long distance runners. In traditional times their hunters ran down large game on foot, chasing deer until the animals dropped of exhaustion and could no longer so much as walk to escape.


“The Tarahumara keep the deer constantly on the move. Only occasionally does he get a glimpse of his quarry, but follows it unerringly through his own canny ability to read the tracks. The Indian chases the deer until the creature falls from exhaustion, often with its hooves completely worn away.”

-W.C. Bennett and R.M. Zingg, “The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico” (1935)

Victoriano Churro of the Tarahumara set a world record for the ultra-marathon in 1993. At age 55, he ran 100 miles through the mountains of Colorado with 20,000 feet of elevation gain/loss in just over 20 hours.

He finished 40 minutes ahead of his nearest competitor.

Still not impressed? Try this on for size: He made the record-breaking run while wearing “huarache sandals homemade from old tires and leather.” (See a photo of Churro running down a mountain in sandals.)


Chia seeds contain all essential amino acids and are about twenty percent protein, which notably comes in a nutritionally complete form. The seeds are also about twenty percent fat and high in fiber. These components combine to provide a remarkable level of essential nutrients that fuel sustained energy. These days the tiny kernels are often called a “super food.”

Two tablespoons of seeds provide about 6 grams of protein, 8 grams of fiber and 8 grams of fat along with 120 calories. By contrast, a Clif Bar offers about 9 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber, 3.5 grams of fat and 240 calories.

If available in nature’s storehouse along a hike, four tablespoons of seeds will outperform that dense wad of Clif Bar, and do so without added sugars and artificial foodstuff like “soy protein isolate” that’s concocted in a laboratory by scientists.

In addition, chia absorbs many times its own weight in liquid, which is thought to help maintain hydration and electrolyte levels longer during physical activities when the seed is eaten with water. For the hiker of hot weather and drylands this hydrating characteristic is invaluable.

Interesting that this plant often grows in these sorts of dry places, one of many cases of nature providing something of a solution on one hand for a problem it presents to humans on another. Sort of like medicinal mugwort growing beside noxious poison oak.

Even if a hiker doesn’t care about scoring the nutrients for added energy without having to carry it, a couple handfuls of seeds quickly harvested along a trail could do wonders for keeping them hydrated, and thus lessen their need for water, which in turn could mean lugging less weight in their pack.

Knowledge and skills weigh nothing and take up zero space in a backpack. What a person carries in their head they need not carry on their back nor buy at the store.

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Scotland, Shifting Baseline Syndrome & Your Local Wilderness

Goatfell Peak Isle of Arran Scotland hikingGlen Sannox as seen from Cir Mor Saddle, Isle of Arran, Scotland. Such scenic sweeping grassland is not natural, but in fact the result of human agency.

“The British Isles, a Roman outpost located at the edge of European civilization, was covered with timber at the beginning of the Middle Ages. All who came to the British Isles unrelentingly pressured the woodlandsthrough unrestricted grazing by pigs and cattle, unrestrained logging for charcoal (used to smelt iron) and for building timber, and wide-spread clearing and burning of forestland to create pasture. By the end of the Middle Ages, Great Britain had been largely stripped of its native forests, except for patrician hunting preserves.”

Max Oelschlaeger, “The Idea of Wilderness” (1991)

“Since the Second World War, sheep have reduced what remains of the upland flora to stubble. In 6,000 years, domestic animals (alongside burning and clearing for crops and the cutting of trees for wood, bark and timber) transformed almost all the upland ecosystems of Britain from closed canopy forest to open forest, from open forest to scrub and from scrub to heath and long sward. In just sixty years, the greatly increased flocks in most of the upland areas of Britain completed the transformation: turning heath and prairie into something resembling a bowling green with contours.”

—George Monbiot, “Feral: Rewilding the Land, the Sea, and Human Life” (2014)

I would like to step back to a previous post, Goatfell Peak, Isle of Arran, Scotland, to discuss environmental degradation and how people sometimes misinterpret the land they see before them.

In his book, “Feral,” Monbiot writes about how some people in Britain have forgotten, or never learned, that the land there was once heavily forested and populated by wolves, bears, lynx, wildcats, boar, beavers, loads of birds and other creatures common in woodlands.

With the clearing of the forest so went the wildlife. And nowadays, “the open, treeless hills are widely seen as natural.” But, he writes, “what we have come to accept as natural is in fact the aftermath of an ecological disaster—the wasteland that has replaced a rainforest.”

What’s more, he elaborates on how, incredibly, conservationists have worked to maintain the wasteland as if it was natural and pristine rather than the butchered remnants of a once thriving and diverse forest ecosystem.

Goatfell Peak hiking Scotland Macrie MoorDenuded valleys and hills. Glen Rosa as seen from Goatfell Peak.

As I hiked to the summit of Goatfell Peak, along its ridgeline flank toward Cir Mhor Peak, and down into and through the entire length of the Glen Rosa valley, the most remarkable wildlife I saw was a black slug, a caterpillar and a few small trout. It was, despite its seeming beauty, a wasteland with little apparent life apart from its low plant cover.

The land had been stripped of its native forest and mowed into submission by grazing sheep. An exclosure fence had been installed in Glen Rosa to keep the sheep out of an area selected for protection so as to be allowed to regrow native flora.

In all the valley only a few small trees remained clinging to a few rocky, steep nooks on short cliffs above the creek, inaccessible to the ravaging ruminants. Much of the land, as evident in the photos here, resembled the bowling green with contours Monbiot describes.

black slug Arran Acotland

caterpillar Arran Scotland

Monbiot references a phrase coined by Daniel Pauly, “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” to describe the general public’s lack of historical context when assessing the health of their wildlands.

The idea is that each generation bases its notion of what are normal and natural environmental conditions on the state of the land they have experienced during their own short lifetime.

Without a proper understanding of what the land once was as based on past conditions, and with ever greater environmental degradation through subsequent years, the bar is consistently lowered from one generation to the next. Hence the baseline for what is considered normal, natural and healthy ecosystems is ever shifting, falling lower and lower and lower.

The result is that we can look approvingly, and I mistakenly have, upon an environmental disaster and describe it as being stunningly beautiful, because we lack the historical perspective that dramatically proves otherwise.

Glen Iosa Arran ScotlandLooking down Glen Rosa.

“The objective is to teach the student to see the land, to understand what he sees, …”

–Aldo Leopold, “The Role of Wildlife in Liberal Education” (1942)

I encourage readers to take the notion of Shifting Baseline Syndrome into consideration when viewing the wildlands where they live, and to try to understand what they are actually, really seeing before them. To see and analyze what they are looking at through the prism of history and to use that as a baseline in assessing the health of the wilderness in their own wild backyards.

Consider the possibility that what may seem sublime, beautiful and scenic at first glance, may in fact be highly degraded habitat or an outright environmental disaster that has been normalized by a shifting baseline, where the standard of quality, so to speak, creeps ever lower through each subsequent generation but goes unnoticed.

It is important to understand how much has been lost if we ever expect to replenish and revitalize the wild world to anything remotely close to what it once used to be, long before our own birth.

We can’t possibly hope to rebuild what we aren’t even aware once existed.

Glen Iorsa Arran ScotlandLooking up Glen Rosa at Cir Mhor Peak.

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