Thursday, April 22, 2010

Back to Basics on the Bobcat

Mother Nature rules.
The Earth is her kingdom.
And we are merely in the way.

Much of our time here is spent as lucky bystanders, as happy witness - if we pay attention - to the subtle, to the grand, and to the often mind-boggling beauty on our tiny blue planet. The incredible diversity of flora and fauna, the intricate tapestry of the landscape, the mysteries in the sky above and in the deep below, the miracle of life itself: you couldn't make some of this stuff up if you tired. All is bewitching. Staggeringly so, at times.

In the midst of our 24-hour days and our 365 days a year, however, simply being human sometimes means quietly co-existing until the next show of force, the next ultimatum, the next Who's on First, the next declaration of Marshall Law, the next "I'm sorry, what did you say?" Waiting for it...and dodging it, if possible.

Tornado - Earthquake - Tsunami 
Hurricane - Wildfire - Monsoon
Avalanche - Heat Wave - Blizzard
Cyclone - Hail Storm - Drought

Yes, Planet Earth is a lovely place to live, but at its core lurks a violent doppelgänger soul. And when Mamacita decides to put her foot down our man-made, human-centric concerns can suddenly fade to almost trivial: the inventions and technologies, our worries and wants and supposed needs, the miracle of flight and with it our departures and arrivals, the 21st Century mantra "Moving at the Speed of Business".

How's this for speed?
Shut it down!
And so she did.

While one part of the planet succumbed to the angry whims of an unpronounceable Icelandic Volcano, another basked in one of the loveliest days of the year. We - and by "we" I mean "I" - were waiting for it, especially after the preceding two weekends of rain. Sure, there have been some fine days in the Bay Area this spring, but Sunday April 18, 2010 was absolutely gorgeous. The weather report had predicted fair skies, just as it warned another series of storms would follow; so in a burst of energy and organization I completed Farallon's monthly wine inventory on Friday and Saturday instead of the usually scheduled Sunday. I counted the California chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, the New Zealand sauvignon blanc and Australian shiraz, the French, Italian, German, Spanish and Austrian bottles so the whole day could be mine.

Ours, really, as I had hiking buddies for the trek, and a strenuous, sweaty one it was. A foursome, plus one dog (a doggone tired dog, after a while): we started at Rodeo Beach, the kick-off point for The Loop, walked up Coast Trail to Wolf Ridge, then made our way behind the the top of the hill to the Miwok Trail, where normally we would hang a right and descend to the lagoon and beach. But normal wasn't gonna cut it for me, so instead we turned left and climbed some more: up, up, up the Miwok to the junction with the Bobcat Trail. Total elevation gain from sea level was 1020 feet, and it was worth every step. I had never hiked the extended route before and was smitten, in-between gasping for breath, with the views to Tennessee Valley, Tiburon, Mill Valley, Mount Tamalpais and the North Bay. As always, the juxtaposition of urban space so close to such wide (and wild) open space left me pleased to find myself exactly here/there.

I am happy to report (and even happier to witness) that the annual parade of wildflowers is hitting its stride in full force; blooms are everywhere you look. They burst in single, isolated explosions or pepper entire hillsides. We must have walked by two dozen different species on our hike, at least one of which I've never before seen.

The outing was lovely, a damn fine workout, and for me well-needed. The temperature in San Francisco hit 70 degrees, which means the protected valleys of Marin were probably warmer still.

It was perfect, in fact; and I encourage you to get out there and walk your own neck of the woods.  Just open the door and step outside. Do it now, while the land glistens with the memory of spring rain, while wildflowers poke their technicolor heads skyward, and trees push new green growth from their awakening silhouettes. You'll be rewarded with a glimpse into the benevolent side of Earth's two-faced, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde mistress: Mother Nature. The side that'll make you almost forget her darker persona.

Until she decides otherwise, that is.

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The following photos were taken on Sunday April 18, 2010 in the Marin Headlands. More specifically, they were shot on the Coast, Wolf Ridge, Miwok and Bobcat Trails during a 7-mile/3.5-hour loop hike from Rodeo Beach. Unfortunately my camera didn't - or couldn't - capture them all, but hopefully the pictures translate.

The start of the hike and the lay of the land above Rodeo Beach and Fort Cronkhite, which, I hope you can see, is speckled with wildflowers.

Sun Cup (Camissonia ovata) and Blue-eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) at the start of the climb.

I'm not sure what this is, but the tiny orange flower is everywhere this year: the most prolific bloom I've seen.

More Blue-eyed Grass, which is going bonkers right now.

Goldfield (Lasthenia californica).  Low to the ground mats and oh so sunny.

The view from Wolf Ridge Trail looking north to Tennessee Valley and Mount Tamalpais, with Goldfield, Bush Lupine, California Poppy and Checkerbloom.

Crimson Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) and one of the many subspecies of Wild Lilac (Ceanothus).

I think this is Forget-me-not (Boraginaceae myosotis), a delightful but introduced species.

More sunny Sun Cup.

No idea, but this flower is found in 3 or 4 different color schemes.

Huffing and puffing to the top of the Miwok Trail under very blue skies.

Mule-ears (Wyethia angustifolia) and Blue-eyed Grass.

Redwood Violet (Viola sempervirens), I think. We came upon these at the top of the Miwok Trail: a new discovery as I've never seem them before.

Checker-bloom; Wild Hollyhock (Sidalcea malvaeflora).

Getting sick of typing no idea, but I have no idea.

California Poppy, Goldfield, Blue-eyed Grass and some Buttercup, all in one.

Looking back up the Bobcat Trail, with a big eucalyptus tree and white Cow Parsnip.

A close up view and one far off. In the Headlands entire hillsides look like the picture on top, with myriad wildflowers tucked into the grass. The lower photo is from the top of the Miwok Trail, with a hiking buddy for the day contemplating the North Bay and the Tiburon Peninsula.

The lovely and vibrant Sky Lupine (Lupinus nanus). Out in force right now, completely lining some of the trails.

A view of the Miwok Trail as it nears Rodeo Lagoon. Take this photo, multiply it by 7 up-and-down miles, add in another 20 or so types of flowers, and you've pretty much got the gist of the hike, and what the Headlands look like right now.

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To the people of Europe who are dealing with the fallout from a volcano almost 1200 miles away, and to the travelers worldwide who, due to said volcano, have become stranded for over five days now, well...I wish you a speedy return to clear skies and home, wherever that may be. In lieu of a halt to the eruption - which could happen, but probably won't any time soon - I hope for a much needed change in the winds.

To the people of Iceland, may your fiery, frozen world settle down just a bit. I know that flash floods and huge slabs of ice falling from the sky, not to mention the toxicity of volcanic ash, all pose a serious threats to livestock, to agriculture, and to people. Lord knows you could use a break in the action. We all could: Haiti, China, Indonesia and Mexico, to name but a recent, alarming few.

Oh, and Iceland? When you get that break, when you have the time, please tell us all how to pronounce the name of that damn volcano!

Peter J. Palmer

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Trapped Inside

Tut-tut, it looks like rain.
- Winnie-the-Pooh

It's raining, it's pouring, the old man is snoring.
- English Nursery Rhyme

The groundhog was correct. The calendar says spring, but as predicted a week-long cold front brought frigid temps and a bucket of rain to the Bay Area on Easter weekend, so any thoughts of a Sunday hike swirled right down the storm drains with the water. Monday was much more clement, and I took advantage with a two-hour afternoon bike ride to the Golden Gate Bridge, up through the Presidio to Baker Beach and back. Twas a lovely and gruesome ride: lovely because it had been a while since I biked the dramatic coastal route, and the skies were bright blue with puffy cotton ball clouds; gruesome because it had been a while since I biked the route, and my legs were poorly prepared for the hills.

The days following Easter were progressively sunnier and warmer, culminating in a gorgeous Thursday and Friday while I was trapped inside at work, but winter returned on Saturday night. Alas, the weather for Sunday April 11 (today) and Monday April 12, my days off, is supposed to wet and chilly (it's pouring as I write this, and it's cold, very cold). I'm becoming just a teeny-weeny bit sick of it, especially the recent pattern of sunny weekdays and rainy weekends, but I guess there's no use getting my banana hammock in twist. Rain levels for the season are above average, and the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada looks extremely promising for a big, healthy melt. Beats another drought year, right? So while good old El Niño storms in from the Pacific with a (hopefully) last and final, drizzly goodbye, let's take a moment for some official business.

*  *  *  *  *

I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain;
what a glorious feelin', I'm happy again!
- Arthur Freed

Remember the name, my fellow outdoor enthusiasts: Congressman Phillip Burton. He's the gentleman responsible for spearheading the creation of The Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), and with it the Marin Headlands. We have him to blame, along with other like-minded visionaries, for the patchwork of unique parkland, historic military sites and other open space stitched together on the San Francisco Bay Area coastline now visited by over 13 million people a year. I have him to blame for being one of them, but I have only myself to blame for doing it over and over again.

Remember the date, as well: 1972. I was a twelve year old Catholic schoolboy in Cleveland, Ohio, when President Richard Nixon signed into law "An Act to Establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area". The first acquisitions by the U.S. National Park Service were Alcatraz Island and Fort Mason in San Francisco. This was followed by the purchase of a large parcel of barren hills north of the Golden Gate by the Nature Conservancy, which then transferred the land to the GGNRA. The land at that time was owned by the Gulf Oil Corporation and in the 1960's had been slated for a (thankfully failed) housing development named Marincello. Let's have a group shudder at the thought.

Rain, rain: go away. Come again some other day.
- English Nursery Rhyme

The GGRNA is not one single park but rather a collection of previously existing sites and other locales enlarged over the ensuing decades by purchase of more, more, more. Currently under its jurisdiction is 59 miles of coastal land that stretches from the San Mateo County south of San Francisco to Marin County north. Can we get a big fat group hug now, followed by the collective shout: "Amen!"  

The roster of individual place-names, each one a cherished parcel in and of itself, together makes for one of the largest urban national parks in the world - in size over twice the area of San Francisco - and beckons travelers from the far corners of the earth to our crumpled, foggy, earthquake-prone shores. How many tourist dollars the combined space brings to the California economy I do not know, but based on the various languages I hear every time I find myself hiking, biking, camping, exploring or just plain old sitting amidst the beauty it's gotta be a lot (English), beaucoup (French), mucho (Spanish), mólto (Italian), viel (German), mnogo (Russian), muito (Portuguese), marami (Tagalog, Filipino), quids (Australian, slang), kekahi mau (Hawaiian), yáa (Mayan). I wanted to include Chinese and Japanese in that last sentence but couldn't figure out how.

Alcatraz, Fort Mason and the Marin Headlands was just the beginning of the grand design. Within the San Francisco city limits the GGNRA now includes the Presidio, Crissy Field, The National Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park, the Marina Green, Fort Point and Fort Funston, Land's End and Sutro Baths, Ocean Beach, China Beach and Baker Beach. In San Mateo County: Sweeney Ridge and Mori Point.  In Marin County: the Marin Headlands (including Rodeo Beach, the starting point for our beloved hike, The Loop), Tennessee Valley and Beach, Muir Beach and Muir Woods, the Mount Tamalpais area, Olema Valley, Stinson Beach and Angel Island.

It's raining men, hallelujah!
- The Weather Girls

*  *  *  *  *

A map of the San Francisco Bay Area, compliments of the National Park Service. The green areas are all part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the big one just north of the Golden Gate Bridge is the Marin Headlands.

This is the view two blocks north of my apartment in the Fort Mason District of San Francisco. The statue in the Great Meadow, as it's called, is none other than Congress Phillip Burton, the man so responsible for the formation of the GGNRA. The hills in the far background are the Marin Headlands.

On the bike ride at the start of Crissy Field, with sticky monkeyflower, bush lupine, and the restored tidal lagoon.

Crissy Field and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Down by the southern end of the GGB and Fort Point (sorry, not in the picture), an Army outpost built just before the American Civil War.

A view of Crissy Field, the Bay Trail and the San Francisco skyline. Before the restoration, during my  first 10 years in the city, Crissy Field was a dilapidated asphalt air strip, originally part of the Army's Presidio. Much of it was fenced off, old military buildings were in various stages of disrepair and collapse, and almost none of it was green. People, including me, still walked, jogged and biked along the bay shore, but it was a much different scene. Thankfully, in 1998 a two-year long reconstruction effort began that would change the face of the waterfront into one of the loveliest and grandest open spaces in San Francisco. Today the area is carpeted in native grasses, plants and wildflowers; a restored tidal lagoon is host to herons, egrets, coots, grebes, surf scooters, geese, ducks, pelicans, cormorants, terns and more; the Bay Trail stretches from one end to the other; picnic tables and benches, restrooms and showers for day use, a visitors center, a café, The Warming Hut, and the offices for The Gulf of the Farallones Marine Sanctuary line the path.  The transformation is stunning.

Outside the Golden Gate, on the way to Baker Beach. Those big green hills are, you guessed it, the Marin Headlands.

On Baker Beach.  Now I just gotta ride back.

*  *  *  *  *

The way I see it, if you want the rainbow,
then you gotta put up with the rain.
- Dolly Parton

Well, unless things change rapidly there sure ain't gonna be a hike today. It is freezing, and the rain is still coming down in buckets! I just turned up the heat and put on another layer, and I am seriously thinking of crawling back under the covers for the rest of the day.

Tomorrow then?

With fingers crossed,
Peter J. Palmer

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Grand Day Out

Just in case you ever need to know, it costs $40 to take a taxi from the Fort Mason District in San Francisco to Tam Junction in Marin County. That includes the six dollar Golden Gate Bridge toll for the driver's return trip and ten bucks for a tip. I know this because on Sunday morning, March 28, as I sat comatose at the computer, sipping a cup of Peet's coffee and trying to rouse my tired ass, my friend Heidi called and asked if I was still up for the hike to Alamere Falls. The time was 10:08 a.m.

A week earlier I sure was. It was my idea, and I had contacted a few hiking buddies to see if they were free for the day and wanted to accompany me. You need a whole day, pretty much, because the drive to the trailhead is over the top or around the flanks of Mount Tamalpais, past the long, sandy crescent of Stinson Beach and north of Bolinas town to the end of Mesa Road; and the hike is 8 miles round trip, with multiple, breathy ups in both directions. But then work happened (including inventory), and then I didn't hear back from anyone, and so when I didn't hear back I tried to rent a car but my rental joint was sold out, and then I stayed up late on Saturday watching the movie Precious into the wee hours of Sunday. So let's just say that by the time I answered the phone I was doggoned pooped.

I'm not sure how it happened, but by 11:00 a.m. I was standing in the parking lot of the Bell Market at Tam Junction, waiting for a rendezvous with Don and Heidi and their boys Calvin and Lucas. I had my backpack beside me, I had $40 less in my wallet, and I had in my head the pleasant realization that I was doing exactly the right thing, the only thing that really mattered, on my day off.

That's not true; I know how it happened. In my sleepiest, groggiest, sexiest morning voice I told Heidi that I would call her back and let her know if I was gonna make it, hung up the phone and sat for a moment contemplating my options. One of them was to bag the entire idea and lay on the couch for the remainder of the day; one was to catch the #76 MUNI bus over to the Headlands and take a quiet two-hour hike by myself; and one was to get the lead out and go for it. The trek to Alamere Falls is not something one does every week, but it is one of the finest hikes in the Bay Area.

So I rallied, plain and simple. A hot shower, a lightning-fast pack-up, a prompt taxi arrival and surprisingly light traffic across the bridge (especially considering the favorable weather) found me in place less than an hour later. We were off!

The Palomarin Trailhead is just inside the southern boundary of Point Reyes National Seashore, that magnificent triangle of fun and adventure in western Marin County. From my apartment it's only an hour away by car, but it's out there. It feels remote, and the last part of the drive on unmaintained gravel road, past a lonely Coast Guard Station and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, doesn't help any. That said, the parking lot was almost full when we arrived. The sight of all those cars made me wish we had started earlier, but I was thankful for any extra sleep; and the area is immediately so vast, uncluttered and pristine that the trail and the falls didn't seem crowded at all.

We'll let the pictures do most of the talking, and there's a lot of them. Once again I remain pretty impressed with the abilities of the Little iPhone That Could. I got some more great close-up pics of the 2010 wildflower bloom (which is going strong) and some shots that I hope capture the rugged beauty of the area.

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Hiking buddies for the day (for all kinds of days) Don and Heidi Rosevear, with their boys Calvin and Lucas and the all-in-one Happy Mobile.

A not-so-great map of the southern part of Point Reyes National Seashore, posted at the start of the hike, with the town of Bolinas on the right (south). I'll look thru my box of maps and see if I can find one that shows the area and the network of trails more clearly.

The Coast Trail begins with a walk through a stand of lovely, but non-native, eucalyptus trees.

A view of the seashore from the Coast Trail, looking south, with Duxbury Point in the distance.

Sixteen miles of hiking will take you past Wildcat Camp, Coast Camp, Sculptured Beach and Santa Maria Beach, all the way north to Limantour Beach and Drake's Estuary in the heart of Point Reyes National Seashore.

The good old California poppy, this one a bi-color version found in the area. Further north in Point Reyes is an all yellow subspecies, unique to the area.

One tasty hawk lunch!

A view of the Coast Trail as it snakes above the mighty Pacific Ocean. There are so many beautiful places to hike in Northern California; but this trail is up there with the best of 'em, and the payoff at the falls is simply spectacular. Past eucalyptus, in and out of forest, high above the seashore, inland, in shade, in sunlight, past two freshwater lakes (Bass and Pelican), on rocky path and then sandy path, uphill and down, past hills covered in tangled chaparral, with deer, lizards, rodents, rabbits, a possible whale sighting, hawks and turkey vultures and pelicans and songbirds and herons: you just never know.

Silver Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons). This is a close-up view of the blooms that adorn big, well, bushy Bush Lupine.

Big green Cow Parsnip leaves intertwined with Man-root flowers and (beware!) some shiny, very healthy poison oak.

Beach morning glory.

Sticky or Bush Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus).

Franciscan Paintbrush (Castilleja subinclusa ssp. franciscana).

No idea, but delicate and pretty.

Two shots of Douglas iris, one with California Buttercup (Ranunculus californicus).

The cut off trail to the falls.

Seaside Daisy (Erigeron glaucus). A lovely, prolific display on the cliffs above the falls, and my first sighting this Spring.

A view down to the the falls area, with the Point Reyes Headlands way in the distance. The weather, although hazy at the falls, was on our side for the whole day: mostly sunny and kinda warmish, with zero to very little wind, which is a rare occurrence at the seashore.

Calvin and Lucas heading down.

One cascade, with lupine.

Seep Spring (Mimulus guttatus). A beautiful sight at the falls, and a somewhat rare find as this bloom seems very particular about where it calls home.

Three cascades. The top fall is barely visible in this shot, but it's the one with the lupine from a moment ago.

The fourth and last waterfall, a forty-foot drop over the cliff to the beach! The path down is a steep eroded rut in the crumbly cliffside; it's a bit hairy and demands caution but is worth the trouble to see the fall from below.

Alamere Falls from the beach. Lunchtime soon after: a turkey/bacon/avocado sandwich, Vella Dry Jack cheese and Wheat Thins, mixed olives, Trader Joe's potato chips, and a frosty IPA compliments of Don, who rarely hikes without a beer or two in tow.

Happy, well-fed feet (Thanks, Heidi!). After the four-mile return trek to the Palomarin Trailhead they're about to be very tired, happy and well-fed feet.

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All-righty then! Hope you enjoyed the ramble. This weekend, weather permitting, it's back to the Loop and Hill 88 in the Headlands to see wassup. The break in the El Niño storms has been greatly appreciated, but that's what it was: a break. We've had more blustery spring rain the past couple of days and got more wet in the forecast; the temperatures have dropped and I hear we've even had some snow on Bay Area mountaintops. Fingers crossed for Sunday (and perhaps Monday), because after this six-day work week I would love to get back out on the trail.

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Chill and ill and dill,
Peter J Palmer