Archive for April 2011

Mendocino on My Mind

April 26, 2011

A simple seaside cottage in Mendocino, with the blue Pacific distant

I first heard of Mendocino two years after the Summer of Love brought tens of thousands of hippies to San Francisco. In the spring of 1969 I drove west from Michigan in a bright red Opal; I was heading to California for a summer of fighting forest fires. At a campground in Nevada, a friendly fellow camper came up to me and told me all about how he had “dropped out” of society and was currently part of a small theater troupe in Mendocino–a place I had never heard of. He had a hippie van and long hair, and I asked him if he regretted dropping out. He said “Lord no!” and seemed amazed that I would ask the question.

Two years later, my wife-to-be and I went to see a movie in Ann Arbor, where we were in college. The Summer of ’42, a sad and romantic tale about a young woman who lost her sailor husband in World War II, had a character even more beautiful than the star, Jennifer O’Neill, and that was the lovely village of

Rustic fences and open meadows characterize the bluffs here

Mendocino. Perched on cliffs above the blue Pacific, with flowery meadows, weathered picket fences, and lovely old wooden homes, the town seemed like the perfect American village–the kind of small town we admire in our collective imagination.

During the summer of 1973, my young wife and I went to California, where we spent a five month summer camped under soaring Douglas Firs, with me fighting forest fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During some days off, we took a trip to Mendocino and had a chance to experience this lovely village first-hand. We didn’t realize it until then, but Mendocino had been something of an artists’ colony since the 1950s, and I remember buying a piece of earthy stoneware that was innovative for the time. There was also a bookstore that had lots of wonderful do-it-yourself manuals inspired by the contents of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was the closest thing to the internet that we had back then. I remember leafing through some books about building your own house, but realizing that I didn’t have any talents for building a house. But plenty of hippies of the time did, and ramshackle houses sprouted along with marijuana crops back among the Redwood groves in the endless ridges and steep valleys of the Klamath Mountains. Those remote wildlands became one of the eminent pot-growing regions of North America, for better or worse. As we drove through the area, I recall singing lyrics from a Gordon Lightfoot song about the footloose wanderers of that era: “If you’re drivin’ east to Reno, or north to Mendocino, I hope you find your rainbow’s end …” (from the 1971 song Cabaret).

I returned to Mendocino while attending college in Utah during 1975. An “Animal Communities” class I was taking, taught by esteemed ecologist Dr. James MacMahon, did transects (straight lines where a biologist records data on plant and animals observed) recording animal life from the shore and out

The beautiful rocks of Mendocino Headlands State Park

into the ocean, so that those of us living in the mountains of Utah could have a sense of the structure of an entirely different kind of animal community. It was fun to see an octopus and sea stars and all the other varied tidepool life. The rocky beaches of Mendocino are incredibly fecund; naturalists can see Gray Whales migrating offshore; Harbor Seals and California Sea Lions basking on rocks; seabirds nesting on the offshore rocks; and all the wonderful invertebrates that occupy the tidepools. I recall driving through town, and it didn’t look like much had changed.

By the late ’80s, established in a career in Upstate New York, I was a long way from Mendocino, but once in a while the little village would show up unexpectedly in the media. Murder, She Wrote was the prime example. Set in Cabot Cove, Maine, the mystery series starring Angela Lansbury was actually filmed on the left coast, featuring Mendocino as the fictional Cabot Cove. Since Mendocino was founded by New Englanders, it had that look and feel. Residents of the little town enjoyed the occasional on location filming visits from Ms. Lansbury and Tom Bosley, and sometimes locals were hired as extras for the series. One home that is currently a bed-and-breakfast, Blair House, became Jessica Fletcher’s home in the series.

By the early 1990s, I had switched careers and became a photographer. My photographic travels took me to Mendocino one spring circa 1992, where I was enchanted once again by the early American coastal architecture. By the early

The village is perched on a headland terrace above the Pacific Ocean

1990s, yuppies had displaced hippies, and the town had a different feel. Art galleries were marketing more to people with money, and the gallery scene was big in town. The VW bus I was driving seemed like an anachronism in a place now dominated by Lexus and BMW cars drivien by the tourists. I wandered around town with camera and tripod, thinking again what a lovely place this would be to live if I could afford it, which I couldn’t.

A flowery path and a water tower among the Victorian homes

Nearly 20 years then went by in the blink of an eye, until I next had an opportunity to visit Mendocino. My old VW van had burned in a highway fire years ago, and my hair was grayer and shorter, but I still liked the look of the town–which has remained almost identical through all these years thanks to the officially designated Mendocino and Headlands Historic District, which carefully limits what owners can do with their property. In those 20 years, the shops that went from hippie to yuppie had now transformed again. The art galleries were fewer, having been displaced by nail and hair salons, an organic coffee shop, and more higher-end clothing boutiques and jewelry shops–all representing what I’ll call the “California Me” style, in which personal indulgence has become the accepted norm. There are undoubtedly hippies still out in the woods growing pot, and I’m sure that high-tech and banker yuppies

Classic Victorian details and a rustic water tower

who made fortunes during the bubble eras have second homes in the area, but the typical tourist these days is someone with the personal funds to enjoy a lovely bed-and-breakfast, and spend the days visiting wineries and brew-pubs, shopping in boutiques, and enjoying other indulgences. Once again times had changed.

And times will continue to change. I’ll probably return to Mendocino in a decade or so, if I am lucky. What changes in American and Californian society can I expect to see on that next visit? More gray-haired people? Undoubtedly; after all, that is the trajectory of my baby boom cohort. A new dominance of electric cars? A sudden influx of craft whiskey and vodka distillers?  Vast lavender farms to equal those of Provence? State sales of the headlands to developers in order to raise money for California’s beleaguered government? Hopefully not the latter …

Times change; fashions come and go; and some of these changes are reflected in this remote, offbeat village. Fortunately, the look and feel of Mendocino has remained relatively unchanged in the whirlwind of bigger changes that blow through American life. The unchanged look of this charming little village perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean is an anchor in the storm of change sweeping America.

Calla Lilies along a picket fence in this quaint village

Main Street in Mendocino is a collection of cute shops

A beautiful home, undoubtedly occupied for over a century

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


GLASS BEACH: A Shattered Legend

April 21, 2011

Glass bottle fragments and seaweed

I heard fragments of the legend of Glass Beach from several people, who told me about it after seeing my photographs of beach stones. As they told it, there had been a glass manufacturing plant on the Pacific Ocean bluffs of Fort Bragg, California. As time went by, evidence of the plant had been erased, leaving only the broken shards of glass washing in and out, in and out, steadily being ground by the raging surf.

I found Glass Beach during a recent trip to Fort Bragg and Mendocino. It is a stunningly beautiful wild beach, with rocky bluffs and a gravel beach. Lots of people visit the beach, often with containers to (illegally) pick up and cart away some of the beautiful glass fragments.  I hiked the short trail to the

The stunningly beautiful Glass Beach in Fort Bragg

beach, and immediately found thousands of beautiful shards of glass among the stones on the beach, in colors ranging from Budweiser brown to Seven-Up green to Vicks blue. Most of them were in really tiny fragments, since a lot of years have gone by since the legend of the abandoned glass plant began.

Actually, the truth is out there, and there was no glass plant. The truth was that the people of Fort Bragg used this beautiful ocean cliff as an informal

Tiny shards of glass polished by the waves and sand of Glass Beach

dump, discarding old washing machines and tires and cars and whatever else they didn’t want to pay to have hauled away–including lots and lots of glass bottles. The dump was closed in the mid-1960s, and cleanups brought the beach back to nearly pristine condition. Except, of course, for the fragments of glass that were too small to pick up.  Now those pieces of glass are steadily being reclaimed by the ocean, gradually turning into colorful grains of sand.

Glass Beach is now preserved as part of MacKerricher State Park.

Blue glass pieces were rare and tiny

Wet glass along Glass Beach

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website


OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK: Rime Ice on Hurricane Ridge

April 19, 2011

Karen Rentz snowshoeing through a forest of trees coated with rime ice

Avalanche danger was in the orange to red zone–a high probability of snowy terror and a warning to watch for unattended snowpacks and to be prepared to take action if there were suddenly loud sounds. Terror indeed!

Still, it had been a long winter, with a lot of dangerous weekends in the mountains. We had the special kind of cabin fever that comes only from months of rainy winter Puget Sound weather, when we either turn into lethargic slugs or go screaming madly into the rain.

Weather forecasters back in early autumn predicted a La Niña winter, which would bring colder and wetter conditions to the Pacific Northwest.  Nature obliged. Our rain gauge for 2011, so far, was over 20 inches and the snowpack in the mountains was getting thicker by the day. The problem was that there had been alternate patterns of sun, rain, and extreme cold in the mountains, which caused the layers of the snowpack to be unstable (think of a layer cake with the top layer, lubricated by a thin layer of Cool Whip and Jello, avalanching onto the floor in a ’60s sitcom). The avalanche danger everywhere in the mountains was extremely high, weekend after weekend.

We finally decided to head for Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, avalanche danger be damned! Hurricane Ridge is known for treacherous weather and deep snow, so we checked out the forecast, the webcam, and the avalanche danger web sites, and decided that we would be OK if we were careful. The drive to the ridge is about 140 miles from our home, so we left early in the morning, carrying tire chains and extra food and warm clothing.

There was no snow in Port Angeles, gateway to the Olympics, but as we headed up the road, we encountered the first snowbanks and it gradually got thicker as we rose in elevation. Finally, we turned the corner onto Hurricane

Rime ice on the subalpine trees, viewed through icicles on the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center 

Ridge, and saw what we had specifically hoped to see: rime ice coating all the conifer trees, making each tree look like it had been created in a fantasy workshop.

Our northwestern conifers are adapted to winters where the accumulated snow seemingly gets as hard and heavy as concrete. The shape of our subalpine firs and spruces, for example, is tall and slender. Longer branches would break off in the heavy snow, so these species have short branches.

Rime ice is a special kind of ice that forms at windy, high elevations. Water droplets in the atmosphere, at temperatures between -4 and +14°F, become supercooled, staying in liquid form until hurtled against an object. Upon striking that object, the supercooled water suddenly freezes solid. The result?  Danger, in the case of an airplane.  Beauty, in the case of a subalpine forest.

Rime ice on a weather and radio station; note how the ice crystals grow in straight lines out from the metal of the structure and into the prevailing winds

We had never examined rime ice close up before, and we found that it has a distinct pattern. It grows outward from say, a branch, in a long structure that resembles an opaque crystal (I’m not sure if it technically would be considered a crystal). These linear structures can be over a foot long, and face into the wind. As long as the wind carries supercooled water and as long as the wind comes from the same direction, the formations grow outward in a straight line.

Yet rime ice is not soft like snow, despite its fantasyland appearance. It is hard to the touch; when we tapped it with ski poles, it made a rapping sound rather than collapsing like snow would do. And rime ice only occurred at the places along the ridge where wind would funnel. In the forest just below the open ridge, there was no rime ice (and little snow) on the trees. Interesting stuff indeed!

Looking downslope from Hurricane Ridge: the higher trees are entirely coated with rime ice, while the slightly lower trees have much less ice

Karen and I snowshoed through the rime ice forest along the ridge, taking care to avoid cornices at the tops of cliffs and to avoid steep, avalanche-prone slopes. All the alpine skiers, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, and even a woman in high heels were having a good time on Hurricane Ridge. Well, except, perhaps, for the woman coming down off the slope borne by a snowmobile, whose leg was in a splint.  Perhaps she later sought help from Dr. Gouge, an orthopaedic surgeon from Port Angeles who had a sign advertising his services on the side of a van parked at Hurricane Ridge.

The snow depth gauge on Hurricane Ridge measured 14 feet of snow

Olympic National Park is among the few national parks with an alpine ski area; a rope tow leads to the ridge

Note the record snowfall and the accumulated snow this winter (much more has fallen since)

Snow level rising on the windows of the Visitor Center

Tall, thin conifers are the rule here; a tree with a lot of wide branches would pick up too heavy a snow load, and branches would break

Karen Rentz snowshoeing into the rime ice forest

Rime ice coated the structure of this walkway window outside the Visitor Center

Another view showing thick accumulation of rime ice

Young men marveling at and photographing the rime ice

Looking north from Hurricane Ridge toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island in the distance

Wave shape of a cornice atop a cliff on Hurricane Ridge

A pair of conifers covered with ice

Lone tree coated with ice; with a view of the Olympic Range

Cauliflower trees

For more information about Olympic National Park, go to:  http://www.nps.gov/Olym/index.htm

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website