Archive for the ‘california’ category

MISTY MEMORIES OF THE CALIFORNIA COAST

December 3, 2013

Couple on Laguna Point Boardwalk in Fog in MacKerricher State PaBoardwalk along the headlands above the Pacific Ocean in MacKerricher State Park

When I was just 19 years old, I drove to the California coast for the first time. I had two days off from my job as a U.S. Forest Service firefighter in the Cascade Range of northern California, and I decided to drive to the coast for the first time. I left the ranger station and drove west, through Lassen National Park, then down into the scorching Central Valley, which was about 100°F in the shade, of which there was very little.

I got out of the valley as quickly as possible in my little fire engine-red Buick Opel, then drove past golden hills covered with grasses and scattered oaks, up into the Coast Range, which was covered with soothing green Douglas Firs. This was California State Highway 36, which turned out to be the slowest road I’ve ever been on. It snaked its way up into the mountains, following closely the contours of the deep ravines and steep mountainsides, with one hairpin curve leading immediately into another. Imagine a really long strand of spaghetti noodling around the mountains, and you get an idea of the playful road. It took most of a day to drive.

California's SR 1 Winding through Redwood Fores

California's SR 1 Winding through Redwood ForesIn the Coast Range, the roads twist and turn incessantly; making these roads faster to travel would mean moving mountains

When I reached the hamlet of Mad River, there had been an accident in which a man had been thrown out of the back of a pickup. I stopped to help his family lift him back into the pickup, supporting his head rigidly as we lifted. It was going to be a long three-hour trip for him to the nearest hospital while laying with his neck and back badly injured in the back of the pickup. Life was more primitive then; today a helicopter or plane would be dispatched.

I drove on from Mad River through two more hours of twisting roads until I descended from the sunny mountains into the cool and foggy California Coast. It was soothing and new. I saw my first Coast Redwood trees as I approached Highway 101. I learned about ocean fog. I drove north to Redwood National Park on my whirlwind tour, stopping at a roadside cafe in redwood country where burly guys were talking about the huge size of a redwood they had just cut–one of those trees that took up an entire logging truck all by itself.

I hiked some short trails in the redwoods and walked the Pacific Ocean beach to explore Fern Canyon in the fog. It was magical. Too soon, I had to hightail my way back to my job, but at least I had experienced a bit of the storied California Coast.

Coast Redwood Forest along Trail in Humboldt Redwoods State Park

Coast Redwood Forest along Trail in Humboldt Redwoods State ParkImmense Coast Redwoods form magnificent groves along the northern California Coast

Since that early summer, I’ve returned many times. One summer, my wife and I explored the Menocino Coast while I was stationed in Mad River, where I had helped administer first aid several years before. We saw our first sea stars: this is embarrassing, but we were very young and from the midwest and were so excited to sea starfish that we attempted to take several home with us. Of course, they died and we were left with a stinking mess and a guilty conscience. Live and learn.

Many years later, in 2013, I drove up Route 1 and 101 from San Francisco, after participating in an art show in a redwood grove in Marin County. The road was as twisty and slow as I remembered it, and there didn’t seem to be many more people living out there along the lonely coast than there were before. It is a hard place to make a living, with much of the logging industry diminished.

Coffee Shop Closed and Overgrown along US 101 in northern CalifoThe old-fashioned tourist industry struggles along this coast; I suspect that Californians spend far more of their money fashionably sipping wine in Napa Valley than in walking among ancient redwoods. But there is still a drive-through tree for travelers who want to show their kids what the tourism experience used to be like.

But there were reminders on the radio that there are alternative ways to earn cash. There was a report of several black SUVs heading north on a back road near Mendocino, with a wood chipper being hauled behind one of them. It seems that the government uses its black SUVs to search-and-destroy marijuana crops, which are then fed through the chipper (maybe the mulch is then fed to pigs; and perhaps it gives the pigs the munchies which helps fatten them up). There is apparently a whole network of people who call in reports of the government agents and where they’re headed. This seems to be a contemporary twist on the moonshiners and revenue agents that made up so much of the popular view of Appalachia.

I camped overnight at MacKerricher State Park north of Fort Bragg. I’ve heard that this park is where the movie set for the house in the great movie Summer of ’42 was built. That film, which came out in 1971, starred Jennifer O’Neill as “Dorothy,” a woman living on Nantucket while her husband was away and fighting during World War II. It was an enchanting story, and based upon a real experience in the screenwriter’s life. See it if you haven’t.

MacKerricher was filled with ocean fog during my visit, so it was wonderful for photography. The roar of heavy surf hitting the rocky shore lulled me to sleep.

Laguna Point Boardwalk in Fog in MacKerricher State Park

Boardwalk through Forest on Laguna Point  of MacKerricher State

Night Glow from Restroom building MacKerricher State Park

Couple in Fog along Trail in MacKerricher State Park

Laguna Point Boardwalk in Fog in MacKerricher State Park

Conifers in Fog in Mackerricher State Park in California

Godbeams from Pacific Ocean Fog in MacKerricher State Park

Misty Morning on Lake Cleone in MacKerricher State Park

Pudding Creek Trestle in MacKerricher State Park Near Fort Bragg

Bull Kelp Washed up on Beach of MacKerricher State Park in Calif

Bull Kelp Washed up on Beach of MacKerricher State Park in CalifGlimpses of my misty afternoon and morning in MacKerricher State Park

The next day, I drove north through the redwoods, eventually reaching Oregon, the words to a Jimmy Webb song so memorably sung by Linda Ronstadt making for an unusually pleasant earworm in my brain:

“Going up north where the hills are winter green

I got to leave you on the California coast …”

And, so, that’s where I’ll leave my memories until my next visit.

Sea Stacks of Cuffey's Cove along Mendocino CoastThe sea stacks of Cuffy’s Cove

Surprise Lilies Blooming in Cuffey's Cove Catholic CemeteryCemetery at Cuffy’s Cove, with Surprise Lilies in bloom in autumn

Line of Monterey Cypress Trees along Cuffey's Cove CemeteryMonterey Cypress trees have been planted along many stretches of Highway 1

Arch and Pacific Ocean at Mendocino Headlands State ParkA daring hiker crossing a sea arch in Mendocino Headlands State Park

Ice Plant at Duncan's Landing at the Sonoma Coast State BeachIce Plant, an invasive succulent originally introduced to stabilize slopes, has really taken over the headlands along parts of the California Coast

Bridge over South Fork Eel River in California's Redwood ForestHighway 1 leads over a classic steel bridge spanning the Eel River in redwood country

Coast Redwood Forest along Trail in Humboldt Redwoods State ParkRedwood grove along Avenue of the Ancients viewed from a fish’s eye

Coast Redwood Forest along Trail in Humboldt Redwoods State ParkConvergence

Scotia Museum Built in the Greek Revival Style Using Redwood

Winema Theatre in the Town of Scotia in Northern CaliforniaRedwoods were used to create these classic old theater and bank buildings in Scotia, a company town located south of Eureka in the heart of redwood country

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (just ask to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date). 

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 or go to my Flickr Photostream.

CHANNEL ISLANDS RESTORATION: We are as Gods

June 3, 2012

We almost lost the Island Fox, whose numbers plummeted from over 2,000 to under 100 in a few short years on Santa Cruz Island, due to a complex chain of events set in motion decades ago. This blog describes the ways that people affected the wildlife and plants of Channel Islands National Park, and how the National Park Service and its allies in conservation have attempted to rescue some of the iconic native creatures and restore the fragile ecosystems of these islands located so close to the millions of people living along the southern California coast.

The rat’s dark eyes reflected the full moon as it twitched its whiskers, sniffing the air. Nearby, a newly-hatched seabird, fluffy and vulnerable, scrambled around its mother as she waited patiently for others to hatch. The rat, sensing the vulnerability of a baby, dashed in for a quick take, grabbing the tiny chick and then rushing up through the rock crevice, its naked rat tail trailing like a snake. 

The next morning, two fox kits played by their den, tugging on a fallen eucalyptus branch and wrestling together in the dusty earth. High above, a predator watched with eagle eyes as it floated on currents of warm air. An ache of hunger stirred in its cells, an ache that two days ago was satisfied by zooming down on a squealing piglet. Adjusting its wings, the Golden Eagle plunged at dizzying speed, opened its talons, and snatched the tiny fox. The kit never saw it coming, but his sister did, and she learned a lesson in horror that arrives unexpectedly from the sky.

When I visited Channel Islands National Park in April 2012, it struck me that the Channel Islands are a virtual laboratory for many of the great conservation disasters and subsequent restoration stories of the last 50 years. These rocky outcrops and their creatures have endured DDT poisoning, a major oil spill, overgrazing, overharvesting, invasions of alien animals and plants, endangered species, and now the threat of ocean acidification.

The National Park Service is steward of land on five of the Channel Islands, and has made a heroic effort to restore the islands to something closer to their historic natural state. This effort has come at the cost of controversy and lawsuits, but the National Park Service has stayed the course; the islands and their native plants and animals are better for the effort.

Santa Cruz Island has a long history of ranching and farming, but it has also supported endemic animals and plants in wild ecosystems–creatures found nowhere else on earth. 

Santa Cruz Island

Some 10,000 years ago, Earth was emerging from an ice age and the Channel Islands were experiencing monumental changes. At that time, so much of the earth’s water was locked up in glacial ice that the vast oceans were lower, exposing more of the coastline. Four of today’s islands–Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel–were combined into one large island known as Santarosae. With the sea level 300 feet below today’s level, the island was much larger than the four remnant islands of today.

The prime herbivore of the islands, the Channel Islands Pygmy Mammoth (the mother of all oxymorons–but the pygmy mammoth indeed weighed only 10% as much as its mainland ancestors), which had grazed these windswept landscapes for eons, suddenly disappeared. Forever. Did it have something to do with the arrival of people at roughly the same time? Perhaps. From the admittedly spotty, pieced-together timeline that scientists have constructed based upon remains of mammoths and people, it appears that the mammoths disappeared shortly after the arrival of the first humans. Did these Chumash people ram spearpoints into the last 2,000 lb. beast of its kind? We may never know, but I’m placing my bet on a simple “yes.”

But enough of ancient history; the Chumash people came to a rough balance with the other island inhabitants for the next 10,000 years, so we’ll cut them some slack for the vanishing mammoths. Especially since they themselves disappeared from the islands in historical time, coinciding with the invasion of the Europeans, and all the cultural changes and diseases and opportunities that made for huge societal changes in native peoples across the continents.

People have been a part of Santa Cruz Island for some 10,000 years

The Chumash did manage to live in harmony with the little Island Foxes and the strikingly blue Island Scrub Jays. As well as the Sea Otters that fur traders eliminated from the Channel Islands, and the abalones that have become so scarce due to overharvesting and poaching that they have largely disappeared from California dinner tables.

Next on the scene were ranchers. Santa Cruz still has historic ranch buildings, roads, orchards, stone piles, and other artifacts that represent some 150 years of agricultural operations. Generations of ranchers carved a living out of this island. With the island’s Mediterranean climate, olive groves and vineyards prospered; the latter until Prohibition. Sheep grazed the hillsides. Pigs and other farm animals became a common sight and smell on the island. Eventually, pigs escaped and sheep ventured into inaccessible places, so the island had some new creatures enjoying their newfound freedom.

An old fence in Scorpion Canyon speaks of the ranching that occurred here for over 100 years

As agriculture thrived on Santa Cruz, the California mainland was becoming a bleeding edge of industrial America. By the 1950s, Bald Eagle nests had completely disappeared from the Channel Islands, where there were previously two dozen. The culprit? DDT. The industrial strength pesticide, sprayed nearly everywhere in the world where mosquitoes were a problem, had side effects. Yes, a DDT scientist claimed that the chemical was perfectly safe, each year shocking the students in his classroom by eating a spoonful of the stuff. And, yes, like many baby boomers who camped in the late 1950s in state parks, I inhaled big gulps of the chokingly thick DDT fog that park staff sprayed through the campgrounds, and I’m still alive. So far.

Birds weren’t so lucky. DDT thinned their eggshells, especially the eggshells of birds higher on the food chain; when a Bald Eagle or a Peregrine Falcon or a Brown Pelican would sit on the eggs, the thin shells would crush under her weight. This was a problem across North America, but the Channel Islands had a special problem: they lay just offshore from a major DDT manufacturer. The Montrose Chemical Corporation had its DDT plant in the Los Angeles area, which EPA estimates dumped 1,700 tons of DDT into the sewer system and subsequently into the Pacific Ocean before the plant closed in 1983. Over the decades, that DDT, residing on the bottom sediments of the Continental Shelf, made it into the food chain, contaminating fish and the creatures that eat the fish–including the Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and Peregrine Falcons that nested in the Channel Islands.

By sometime in the 1950s to 1960s, all the Bald Eagles were gone from the islands. Fish and small ducks breathed a sigh of relief and perhaps the sharks ate better than they used to, but those of us who loved our national bird were in shock. The Endangered Species Act, created during the Nixon administration, was a response to seeing such a rapid decline in some of America’s most charismatic creatures.

The late 1960s were a time of budding consciousness for the environmental movement. I was taking Introduction to Ecology 301 at the University of Michigan in 1969, and I remember coming into the classroom and hearing about the Santa Barbara oil spill that had just happened. An offshore oil well had blown out, allowing millions of gallons of oil to float atop the Santa Barbara Channel, killing thousands of seabirds and marine mammals. This sad event spurred the movement tremendously with the clear and present danger of careless drilling. When the spill occurred, oil-soaked birds and marine mammals were shown nightly on national news as they washed up on once-pristine California beaches, feathers saturated with black oil. It was a sight that many never forgot, and thousands of Channel Islands birds and marine mammals were affected. Volunteers worked tirelessly to clean feathers of birds coated with petrogoo–an effort that unified environmentalists and animal lovers in an emotional and physical struggle to reverse the damage. Tragic oil spills have occurred since then in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, and the terrible results have been similar. At least we now have protocols for attempting to clean up the mess, for which we can thank the Santa Barbara spill.

Meanwhile, island pigs were multiplying like rabbits (though the island had no rabbits). When conniving pigs escaped their fences, they took off squealing with the glee of freedom, heading into the mountains of Santa Cruz. In their happiness, they enjoyed sex in the wilderness, and made lots of little piglets to root around among rare plants, dig holes in old Indian camps, and generally make a mess of the island. This might sound cute enough, but the spectre of a 400 lb. boar surprising a hiker on a trail is enough to send a mental warning of what a big pig can do.

The little pigs rooting everywhere on Santa Cruz then attracted a predator, the magestic Golden Eagle, that had only occasionally visited the island in the past. When the Bald Eagles nested on Santa Cruz, they ruled the skies with shows of aerial strength, and kept away the Golden Eagles. But when the Bald Eagles disappeared, the Golden Eagles sensed a vacuum and moved in for the kill … of piglets. There was so much pork that the Golden Eagles decided to nest on Santa Cruz.

All would have been wonderful had the Golden Eagles eaten a strict diet of pork, but in eagle fashion they decided that the tiny Island Fox also made a delightful meal. As a result, the Island Fox population on Santa Cruz plummeted from about two thousand in 1994 to under a hundred some seven years later, and the very survival of the species was at stake. The National Park Service had a choice: they could let nature take its course, in which case an entire charismatic species would disappear; or they could take action to save the Island Fox.

Two Island Foxes greet each other affectionately

It was not only the survival of the Island Fox that was at stake: there were also Chumash archeological sites and a wealth of endemic plants–plants found nowhere else on earth–that were being absolutely hammered by the pigs and sheep. The National Park Service has a mandate to preserve the landscape and its wild creatures, so they had to come up with a comprehensive plan. This was to be done in coordination with The Nature Conservancy, which owns and manages well over half of Santa Cruz Island.

Nothing is ever easy these days, when so many interest groups and individuals believe that they truly represent nature, or wildlife, or common sense, or industry, or …

One of the first steps the National Park Service took was to remove 16 wild horses, or more properly, “horses gone wild,” from the island. Had the horses remained, they would have gone forth and multiplied, and added even more pressure on the island’s natural inhabitants. But, for every bureaucratic action, there is a reaction. The National Park Service was sued by the Foundation for Horses and Other Animals Inc., a group that wanted the horses to remain. After the group lost its initial court battle and subsequent appeal, the way was clear for the NPS to remove the horses. They did it in the face of last minute pressure from the local congresswoman, but all 16 horses were removed, alive and kicking, and placed in a mainland sanctuary.

Next, the 2,000 sheep on the island were removed and transported to the mainland. Sheep are not as charismatic as horses, so there was much less controversy about this removal.

Skull of a sheep that died on Santa Cruz Island; at one time there were 2,000 sheep grazing on the island

Pigs were another matter. The National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy decided that the pigs had to be killed rather than live-trapped. The now-wild pigs had diseases such as cholera and pseudorabies that meant they could not be safely transplanted to the mainland.

Dramatic clouds over the hills of Santa Cruz Island

The plan was to construct electric fences to contain the pigs, then shoot them from helicopters and use a defoliant to kill a favorite pig food, the invasive Fennel. A group sprang up to oppose pig removal, the Channel Islands Animal Protection Association (CHIAPA), and held several raucously emotional public meetings to discuss the proposal. A journalist for the student newspaper of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported on the first meeting, quoting a spokesman of CHIAPA as saying “The pigs have been demonized and accused of imaginary crimes.” A colleague opined that “The Island Fox population was robust until The Nature Conservancy took over the island … the finger goes right to The Nature Conservancy for causing the near extinction of the Island Fox (this person claimed that the Golden Eagles were drawn to the island by rotting sheep carcasses when the sheep were removed). The latter spokeswoman also said that “This is literal warfare. They are defoliating the land so they can gun down the enemy.”

Despite the controversy, a company from New Zealand indeed executed the pigs–all 5,000+ of them–in 2005. That action meant that the island’s native plants and foxes had a better chance of surviving.

The next step was to relocate the Golden Eagles, in order to preserve the Island Foxes, whose numbers were now far less than 10% of what they were just a decade before. An elaborate plan was devised to live trap the eagles, then move them back to a distant place on the mainland. This effort went well, and over 40 Goldens were trapped and transplanted. They have not returned.

Ravens are part of the native fauna of the Channel Islands

At about the same time, ten pairs of the increasingly scarce Island Foxes were rounded up and moved to a captive breeding center, in order to try and give the fox population a jump start. Fortunately, it worked wonderfully, and in a few short years the fox population is back to its natural levels.

Island Foxes are tiny; only about a quarter of the size of their mainland ancestors, and about the size of a typical house cat

Meanwhile, Bald Eagles have been reintroduced to the islands and have started nesting again, as have the Peregrine Falcons that went through a captive breeding and reintroduction program starting in the late 1970s.

So, Santa Cruz has gone from an island with a dozen species in danger, to an island that is recovering nicely. On my trip to the island, I saw about two dozen Island Foxes in three days, as well as a Peregrine Falcon and some of the endangered plants that are returning from the brink of extinction. The slopes no longer have the denuded look that the sheep brought, and the diggings of pigs no longer threaten archaeological sites and native plants. Island Foxes no longer have to worry about death diving from the sky. All is well …

Greene’s Liveforever and several of its island relatives were negatively affected by the 5,000+ pigs running wild on the island

Anacapa Island

Anacapa Island is far smaller than Santa Cruz Island, and the challenges have been different. There are no foxes on Anacapa, as it is too small to support a fox population. It does have major populations of nesting seabirds that have faced tremendous challenges.

Anacapa supports one of the two American breeding colonies of California Brown Pelicans, but DDT poisoning had the same effect on their eggshells as it had on Bald Eagles. In 1970, only ONE pelican chick hatched and survived in the entire colony. Recovery began soon after DDT was banned, and there are now about 4,600 pelican nests on West Anacapa–a remarkable recovery from the brink of extinction. There are still challenges: nighttime squid fishing disturbed the birds and led to some nest abandonment a decade or so ago, but now there is a buffer zone. Hikers are not allowed close to the colony.

View west from Inspiration Point along Anacapa Island and toward Santa Cruz Island

Another major challenge came to the islands earlier. About 150 years ago, a ship named after Mexican-American War hero Winfield Scott ran aground on the rocks just off Anacapa Island. Everyone aboard was eventually rescued, but the Black Rats on board decided to rescue themselves, and many swam successfully to shore, where they colonized the island and found a rich food source in the seabirds that called Anacapa home. They devoured eggs and chicks of such rare and threatened species as the Xantus’s Murrelet. They bred like rats, of course, and soon thousands of them were swarming over the tablelands and cliffs of this small island. A few years ago, the National Park Service mounted an all-out assault on the rats, completely eliminating the creepy creatures using poison, some of it spread on the cliff faces by helicopter. Of course, groups of animal rights advocates spoke up for the rights of rats, but the National Park Service did the right thing and eliminated the rats, thus saving untold native birds and a native island mouse from elimination.

Giant Coreopsis, one of the fascinating and unusual plants on Anacapa Island, was threatened by the encroachment of introduced, invasive plants

In the 1950s, the US Coast Guard staff on Anacapa decided to introduce Ice Plant to the island. This attractive plant is good for erosion control, and had already established a foothold along the central and southern California coasts. Unfortunately, the Ice Plant spread quickly over much of the island, displacing native plants in its march to utter domination. The National Park Service inherited the Ice Plant when it took over the island, and decided that the invader had to go. Volunteers and staff have tried various methods of eradication, including pulling it up and applying herbicides, and are finally winning the battle.

About a year ago, the National Park Service set up a greenhouse on Anacapa, and is growing native plants from seeds collected on the island. The goal is to jump start the revegetation of Anacapa with native plants. Based on what I saw, the newly growing natives are doing really well.

We are as Gods

Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogues of the 1960s and beyond were the Google of their day, but with a sustainable living emphasis. The eminently browsable pages skipped from resources for raising chickens to building a windmill to understanding deep ecology to printing on a small press. It lent itself to dreams, and to a feeling of responsibility toward Planet Earth.

I recall a statement by Stewart Brand–it may have been on the cover of one of the catalogues along with a photo of Earth from space taken by one of the Apollo missions–in which he said “We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” Meaning, that we have such an overwhelming presence on Earth, that we had better learn how to responsibly guide the impact of people upon the natural systems we depend on. It is an obvious statement, yet extremely profound in its implication that we cannot continue soiling the nest, or we will all get sick.

Recently, Stewart Brand revisited and revised his classic statement to “We are as gods, and HAVE to get good at it.” Again, an obvious statement, but one that flies in the face of those who think we can drill our way to sustainability in an era when over seven billion of us demand and deserve better lifestyles and lifespans. How do we get to the point of sustaining all those souls without ruining the planet so it no longer can support us?

That brings me to back to Channel Islands National Park, where the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy are playing the role of being the good Gods of ecological restoration and sustainability–not an easy task and often a controversial one.

Arch Rock at the eastern point of Anacapa Island

As a naturalist, I have always loved wild creatures of every kind, with the certain exceptions of ticks and mosquitoes and some kinds of spiders. But, just as there are the good gods of restoration, there are the bad gods of invasion and elimination. Is it right that an accidental introduction of pigs threatened the very survival of the Island Fox? I think the clear answer is “NO!”  The National Park Service did what it had to do to protect the wild and natural inhabitants of these islands, rather than reserving them for rats and pigs.

I have witnessed the result of these restoration efforts, and it is good. We are indeed as Gods.

The National Park Service and its allies in conservation saved the Island Fox from extinction.

Further Reading and References:

Restoring Santa Cruz Island

Restoring Anacapa Island’s Seabird Habitat

Restoring Anacapa’s Native Vegetation

Pig Eradication Completed

Animal People News (point of view of animal rights advocates)

Yet More Killings

When the Killing’s Done (T.C. Boyle’s novel about the Channel Islands killing controversies)

National Geographic News reports on pig killing controversy

The Daily Nexus article about pig killing

Blog about Anacapa Island Restoration

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Exploring Santa Cruz Island

May 31, 2012

Island Foxes greet each other with obvious affection; seeing these foxes was the highlight of our journey to Santa Cruz Island

En route to Santa Cruz Island, the boat’s captain steered us off course, so we could see dolphins porpoising (or is it porpoises dolphining?) over the Santa Barbara Channel. Our crossing was smooth, so we were glad that we hadn’t applied the seasickness patches; they work, but make me groggy.

Dolphins viewed during our ride to Santa Cruz Island

We pulled up to Scorpion Anchorage, a protected cove with a dock, where a National Park Service Ranger greeted us and filled us in on the rules and regs. He also checked our campground reservations.

Visitors arriving on the Island Packers boat from Ventura; from here we carried our packs and other gear about a half a mile to the campground.

Then we gathered our gear and began the scant half-mile trudge to our campsite, which proved to be a lovely spot under huge old eucalyptus trees that were planted in the early days of Scorpion Ranch. There was a picnic table and a pair of food lockers, one at each end of the table, to ensure that campers’ food was kept away from the inquisitive and daring little Island Foxes that trot through the campground with regularity, as well as the startlingly intelligent Common Ravens that know we are a source of food.

Campsites are located in a eucalyptus grove

After setting up our tent, we followed a trail up Scorpion Creek, then went off trail into Scorpion Canyon, in hopes of seeing the Island Scrub-Jay among the oaks that thrive in that canyon. Skirting pools of standing water, we walked and scrambled up the rocky, narrow reaches of the canyon. It was lovely, with red rocks and intricately branched oaks. There were lizards and small birds and species of plants that we had never seen before. There were even a couple of small rock overhangs, one of which had clear evidence of early humans. With the pile of chert and abalone shells out front, we could imagine a Chumash Indian crouching there, eating a meal and waiting for night to steal away the day, revealing a stunning spread of the Milky Way overhead.

Wild and beautiful Scorpion Canyon is the the best place to see the Island Scrub-Jay when coming to Scorpion Anchorage, though it is a rough hike over the boulder-strewn creek bed

Then we heard it … a clear call of a jay. In the oaks across the canyon, higher on the dry slope, there was a big, blue Island Scrub-Jay foraging in the branches of an oak. This species lives nowhere else on earth, so all the bird listers from across North America have to make a similar pilgrimmage into this remote canyon in order to add the species to their life list.

Island Scrub-Jay–a species found nowhere else on earth. This species is substantially larger than its nearest relatives on the mainland, and makes its living feeding mainly on Island Live Oak acorns.

After the jay moved on, so did we. The day was getting late, so we had to figure out how to get out of the canyon and back to camp before nightfall. We decided that instead of going back, we would try to climb out of the canyon by going due north up the steep side of the canyon. It was a huff-and-puff climb and scramble, but eventually we emerged onto a stunning, grassy plateau, where we followed an old ranch road toward Potato Harbor. As we gazed down toward the crashing sea below, Karen spotted an Island Fox trotting through the grassland. This was incredibly exciting for us, since we had hoped to see a fox but thought the chances were remote. Little did we know that, since their population recovered from near extinction, the little foxes are again thriving and don’t seem to mind being seen by humans. They are certainly not tame, but they are not especially afraid of us, either.

Island Fox fitted with radio collar to help scientists monitor the population

Island Foxes are about a quarter the size of their closest mainland relatives, and saw their populations plunge from above 2,000 in the 1990s to below 100 about seven years later, due to a complex series of events set in motion by mankind. I will fully explain this chain of events in a coming weblog.

We watched a second fox hunting in this area above Potato Harbor, and this one had on a radio collar that was recording its every move, so that scientist could monitor the recovering fox population.

The high and lonely headlands above Potato Harbor

Is it just me, or does this formation above Potato Harbor look like a warning that Indiana Jones would have disregarded?

With darkness coming fast, we switched on our headlamps and followed the old Potato Harbor Road back toward the campground. As the road led steeply down off the plateau, we crossed some extensive patches of bare, white earth. These were different from most of the soils of the island, and they turned out to be diatomaceous earth, which is composed of billions of silicon skeletons of algae that once lived in the sea.

Heading back to camp by headlamp

We reached the campground well after dark. While walking through the campground, Karen caught the gleam in a fox’s eye as it stood atop a picnic table, foraging on food left on the table by some campers who had turned their backs and were rummaging in their tent. Another coup for the wily fox!

That night, the stars splayed magnificently across the sky as we prepared a backpacking dinner with the hiss of the MSR stove and the stabbing rays of our headlamps. Deeply tired, we sank into pleasant sleep.

The next morning, we awoke to beautiful sunshine on the grassy hills rising across Scorpion Creek from our campsite. We spent a couple of pleasant hours exploring the Scorpion Ranch buildings and immersing our minds in the lives of those who spent generations here, growing grapes, raising hay, tending sheep, maintaining roads, and all the other tasks of a large-scale rancher. The National Park Service has maintained the ranch buildings beautifully, and repurposed one of them for use as a visitor center. This is the area where people coming off the boat for the day generally have lunch, and there are plenty of big lockers to keep food from the foxes while people are taking a short hike or exploring the ranch buildings.

Golden hills and cirrus clouds in morning light near the campground

Old ranch buildings and blooms of bougainvillea at Scorpion Ranch

This was a beautiful, but sometimes lonely, place to live and raise sheep

The walkway into the building now repurposed as a National Park Service visitor center is paved with tumbled and polished beach stones

Old ranch building with a huge circular saw blade

At Scorpion Ranch there is a lot of old and rusting ranch and road-building machinery; this photograph shows the fanciful logo of an old Caterpillar bulldozer

Canned goods inside the old kitchen, now part of the visitor center at Scorpion Anchorage

Interior detail of an old blacksmith shop at Scorpion Ranch

We stopped and photographed an Island Fox in the bright sunshine as it foraged among the tall grasses of the hillside. Then we walked down to the pier to see what tide pool creatures we could see, and were rewarded with the sight of a colony of bright purple sea urchins. There was also a crab that was bigger than we expected to see–about a foot across. We got glimpses of it through the kelp that waved back and forth. There were fish about a foot long, and we looked for large, bright orange Garibaldi (California’s state marine fish), but didn’t see any.

An impressionist view through surging waves of Purple Sea Urchins, which are collected for their edible roe by divers in the vicinity of the Channel Islands

We decided to do another hike up Scopion Canyon, to see if we could get a closer look (and photograph) of an Island Scrub Jay. We enjoyed good looks at Pacific Chorus Frogs and their tadpoles. We also saw a new bird species for our life list–the Rufous-Crowned Sparrow. We eventually saw a jay, but it kept its distance.

Side-blotched Lizard in Scorpion Canyon

Pacific Chorus Frog in a stagnant pool in otherwise dry (that day) Scorpion Creek

Rock shelter used by Chumash Indians, perhaps over thousands of years during their occupation of the island

Again, we climbed out of the canyon onto the plateau. This time, as we looked down the length of Santa Cruz Island where the steel gray Pacific met the land, there were thick gray layers of clouds, with watercolor washes of rain falling on the distant hills. We decided to head quickly back to camp.

High grasslands in the area above Scorpion Canyon and Potato Harbor

Headlands above the Pacific Ocean between Potato Harbor and Cavern Point

That night, the heavens opened up, with hard rain all night. We stayed dry in a new tent, but other campers weren’t so lucky. Two young men were sitting glumly at their picnic table early the next morning; when I asked them if they got wet, they grumbled that they were soaked, because water came up through the bottom of their tent. Later, I watched them pouring GALLONS of water from the tent as they packed up. I asked a lady ranger how much rain had fallen overnight, and she said there was about 1.6.” That’s roughly 10% of the yearly annual rainfall here. There were puddles in the road, but the plants looked as fresh and happy as the wet campers looked wet and dejected.

Blue tarp campers–more commonly seen in the Pacific Northwest, where we live, than in southern California

In the unsettled weather, we decided to hike the dirt road to Smugglers Cove, where there was another old ranch. The road surface was slick from the overnight rain, and our hiking boot treads caked uncomfortably with heavy, squishy mud. Once atop the plateau, the views across the open grasslands toward the sea and the distant mainland were stupendous. We stopped for a break in a grove of Monterey Cypress, then continued on to the ranch. Descending the steep hill to the ranch, we walked past an old grove of olive trees, planted when the owners long ago decided to get into the olive business.

Scorpion Anchorage viewed from the Smugglers Cove Road

Monterey Cypress grove along the Smugglers Cove Road, with a view to Anacapa Island

An evocative view along an old fence line intersecting Smugglers Cove Road, with the grand Pacific Ocean distant

An olive orchard was part of the Smugglers Cove ranch operation

As we approached the ranch from the cobble beach, four foxes that had been foraging in the meadow scattered into the adjacent brush. The ranch still had plantings of bougainvillea, which was bright with magenta blooms. We took shelter under the eaves of a building next to the ranch house during a hard shower; and I took the opportunity to pick a couple of oranges for us from a tree. As northern people, we had never before had the opportunity to pick oranges fresh from a tree [In contrast: when I was displaying my photography at an art show in San Francisco several years ago, one woman said my photograph of apples hanging on a tree in late autumn, and she said she had never seen an apple tree!]. There was also a nearby lemon tree, very pretty, but we decided that these fruits were impossible to eat fresh from the tree.

After leaving the ranch and heading back up on the plateau, we took a spur road that led up to an abandoned oil well, where I stopped to photograph the

Rusty surface of a steel shed at the old and abandoned oil well

old machinery. Then we descended steeply into the valley of Scorpion Creek. In the valley, Karen suddenly stopped and said that a Loggerhead Shrike had just dived into a bush about four feet away from her. I got out my long lens and was able to get great photographs of the shrike when it emerged and perched atop the same bush, perhaps eight feet from us. It lingered a long time, enabling me to get dozens of photographs at this unexpectedly close range. This gave me a sense of part of what the National Park Service means when they call the Channel Islands the “Galapagos of North America.” The wildlife is abundant, different from the mainland, and not very afraid of people.

Loggerhead Shrike in lower Scorpion Canyon; a subspecies endemic to the Channel Islands that is relatively rare

Mourning Dove on an old fence

We walked back along the trail along Scorpion Creek, which had turned from a dry creek bed with intermittent pools where frogs lived lazily with their tadpole offspring, to a raging, brown current that moved boulders, carved stone, and carried little tadpoles out to the playground of sharks. This was an excellent lesson in canyon-cutting, and we were glad we didn’t need to hike up narrow Scorpion Canyon again in order to see endemic jays. We might not have made it.

Finch foraging on a thistle near Scorpion Creek

On our next and final morning, we hiked up a trail to Cavern Point. Nearing the top, we saw a fox trotting up the trail ahead of us. Suddenly, it dashed across the meadow; I thought we had scared it, but then we saw what it was doing. It had sighted another fox across the field and was running over to see it. It was like a glorious reunion of people who have not seen each other for years. Well, maybe a bit different since there was tail-wagging (I didn’t realize that foxes could exhibit this dog-like behavior) and vigorous sniffing that looked like kissing. After a long greeting, the two foxes foraged in close proximity to each other. It was thrilling for us to be able to see such fascinating emotional behavior.

Two Island Foxes greeting each other like long-lost buddies

Island Fox hunting in a meadow; these foxes eat a lot of insects, scorpions, mice, and berries

Island Fox foraging on Santa Cruz Island near Scorpion Ranch

Then it was time to leave. We were extremely satisfied with our hikes and wildlife sightings. What a wonderful place!

Common Raven on the headlands at Cavern Point

Beautiful cliffs of Scorpion Anchorage

Patches of white diatomaceous earth–made of the silicon “skeletons” of untold billions of ancient algae that once inhabited the sea–along road leading down to the Scorpion campground

Limbs of an Island Oak along Scorpion Canyon

To get to the Channel Islands, Island Packers offers boat access to each of the islands.  Check their web site for all details and schedules. The National Park Service has excellent descriptions of Channel Islands National Park, including information about the biology and geology of the islands, and the rules for visiting. T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” about the ethical implications of the National Park Service’s replacement of exotic species in the Channel Islands with native species; it’s an excellent and timely novel for anyone interested in National Park policy.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

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

CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK: Adventuring on Anacapa

April 19, 2012

Anacapa Island Lighthouse at dawn; the air alive with thousands of Western Gulls against the distant Santa Monica Mountains

The Beach Boys never harmonized the joy of scaling the rocky cliffs of Anacapa, yet this jagged stone island stands just 11 miles off the celebrated surf of southern California’s iconic sandy beaches. Ventura and Malibu are neighbors across the Santa Barbara Channel. Anacapa is one of five islands designated as Channel Islands National Park, which are accessible only by boat. Once visitors get to the islands, travel is by foot or by sea kayak.

Western Gull with full moon rising behind, in a forest of Giant Coreopsis

We chose to visit two of the Channel Islands in April, a month when there would be abundant wildflowers and nesting birds on the islands. Departing the harbor at Oxnard, we took a small commercial boat to Anacapa. Seasickness is one of my banes, so I chose to wear half a Scopolamine Patch in order to face the waves of the storm that had roiled the sea just prior to our arrival. Upon leaving the harbor, the Pacific Ocean greeted us with roller coaster waves, but I survived the passage with aplomb. Upon reaching the cliffs of Anacapa, the boat’s captain turned his boat around so that the stern faced the cliff and ladder, then held the idle against the dock while we unloaded. We climbed the rungs to the landing platform, then huffed up 157

steps, with all our heavy camping gear, to the top of the tableland that is East Anacapa. Then we backpacked half a mile to our campground, which consisted of seven sites and two wooden outhouses.

This is not a quiet island, at least at this time of year. The Anacapa Island Lighthouse is an active navigational aid, and its foghorn blares almost constantly when visibility is low. Even louder are the mating Western Gulls, nesting everywhere on East Anacapa since the National Park Service exterminated thousands of Norway Rats that had infested the island since the wreck of the Winfield Scott some 150 years ago. The gulls are used to people, and enjoy sitting atop picnic tables in the campsites whenever campers leave for a few minutes. Despite all the cacophony of gulls and foghorns and waves and sea lions, I slept better in my sleeping bag on Anacapa than I do at home.

View from Inspiration Point toward Middle and West Anacapa, and Santa Cruz Island

Trails lead around the island, and we explored the birds and wildflowers and cliffs with pleasure. The most unusual wildflower, the Giant Coreopsis, looks more like a small tree than a wildflower. One man told me that in good years, the island in spring has a golden glow, as viewed from his coastal home. This year the rains came at the wrong time, and fewer of the coreopsis bloomed, and most of those bloomed before we arrived, so the golden glow never materialized for us in 2012. The coreopsis is actually, at four feet high, the tallest tree on the island, and is a favorite perch for the gulls.

Two views of the Giant Coreopsis that is native to the five Channel Islands and to a small area of the mainland; this plant is also known as Tree Sunflower

At sunset and sunrise, we hiked to Inspiration Point, a cliffside perch looking toward Middle Anacapa, West Anacapa, and Santa Cruz Island. This is among the most dramatic coastal views in North America, with jagged cliffs and mountains rising from the sea for miles in the distance. The other Anacapa islets are off limits to hikers, because of nesting seabirds that could be disrupted by our presence. In fact, a good share of the western Brown Pelican population breeds on West Anacapa.

Cathedral Cove gives another dramatic view of the cliffs, but also features an overview of the kelp forests and California Sea Lion groups cavorting in the aquamarine sea. Sea kayakers love exploring this cove, and we saw several kayakers disappear into the gaping mouth of a sea cave, never to return. Actually, the apparent cave was an arch, and kayakers could travel right through it at high tide, but we couldn’t see them emerge on the other side.

Cathedral Cove’s aquamarine waters

Sea kayakers exploring the cliffs and kelp forests of Cathedral Cove

California Sea Lions hunt and play among the giant fronds of kelp

From our vantage point high above, we counted about 20 California Sea Lions lollygagging in Cathedral Cove

Sea kayakers entering a big arch at high tide among the rocks of Cathedral Cove

Geologically, the Channel Islands are a dramatic result of the slow motion collision between Planet Earth’s North America and Pacific Plates–the collision that leaves California particularly susceptible to earthquakes. During this giant meeting and grinding of the plates, the Channel Islands have rotated about 100 degrees from where they once stood. It sure would be nice to watch the Channel Islands on Google Earth over a span of say, 20 million years.

One problem with a northwesterner visiting southern California is that songs from my musically impressionable college years keep playing on an endless loop in the brain. This time the worst offender was “Ventura Highway,” a 1972 song by America with its reference to “alligator lizards in the air.” I had just about conquered my brain’s addiction to the song, when a young guy we met talked about seeing an Alligator Lizard on the trail toward the lighthouse. And off the brain goes on its never-ending musical soundtrack …

Speaking of the lighthouse:  it is still an active lighthouse and island visitors can’t go beyond a barrier to see it up close and personal. There is a warning that the foghorn can damage the ears; given that my hearing is already marginal (and the Coast Guard has guns), I decided to obey the sign.

Anacapa Island Lighthouse at twilight, with hundreds of gulls scattered across what will be their nesting grounds

An old Fresnel lens on display in the island’s visitor center

Ecologically, Anacapa is an island in recovery. The aforementioned rats and an invading army of Ice Plants, originally from South Africa and planted by a long-ago lighthouse staffer, have devastated the island. The National Park Service is waging war on these invasives, and has already completely removed the rats. Now it is working on the Ice Plants, using herbicides and volunteers to remove acres of the invading succulents. They even have a new greenhouse on the island, with staff successfully raising Giant Coreopsis, Live Forever, and other native island plants from seeds harvested on Anacapa. Volunteers are welcome to help with the efforts. In the areas of the island where the native Giant Coreopsis still created extensive pygmy forests, the diversity of wildlife and plants was greater than in areas infested with a monoculture of Ice Plants.

Western Gull resting between sessions of fighting and love making; note the beautiful but undesirable invasive Ice Plant that the gull has chosen as its bed

Undeniably beautiful flower of an exotic invasive, the Ice Plant from South Africa

During the ice age, Anacapa and the other Channel Islands were essentially one long island, when sea level was lower. At that time, Dwarf Woolly Mammoths roamed the island. That was only a little more than 10,000 years ago, a blink of the eye in time. People arrived about 6,000 years ago, and probably used the island as a place to gather seabird eggs and other foods.

Today on Anacapa Island, there are a few clustered Coast Guard buildings that the National Park Service now uses for a visitor center, staff housing, and maintenance facilities. There is no water, so we lugged about five gallons of our own water up the stairs and up the island to our campsite, where we stayed for two nights. Native Deer Mice are plentiful on the island, and we were repeatedly warned not to inhale soil contaminated with their droppings, because we could contract Hantavirus–a life-threatening disease that features symptoms similar to the flu, only more so. I only saw one mouse, and it was checking out our campsite after dark. Fortunately, the National Park Service ranger kindly provided a Rubbermaid container for our food, so the mice couldn’t get to it in camp.

We shared camp with Western Gulls, who used our sites and picnic tables as soon as we would leave

Gulls are not clean animals. A National Park Service ranger came around each day with a power washer to wash the guano off the picnic tables.

The National Park Service started installing whirligigs on the picnic tables during our visit; these rotated in the wind and were completely effective at keeping the gulls off

The moon was full on our visit, and we walked quite a bit after dark, navigating using moonlight and headlamps. Perched atop a cliff on the south side of the island at deep twilight, I suddenly heard a blood-curdling screech (it made me jump–fortunately I didn’t jump over the cliff!) and saw a ghostly presence in the sky. It turned out that Barn Owls nest on the cliffs, and I was seeing one that was unhappy that I was invading its space.

Telephoto view from the campsite of an oil pumping platform in the Santa Barbara Channel between the mainland and the Channel Islands

Bird diversity on the island was relatively low, because of the limited size and diversity of habitats. We did see Brown Pelicans, White-Crowned Sparrows, Orange-Crowned Warblers (actually, these were little green birds that mostly hide their orange crowns), and two species of cormorants. Anacapa is breeding home to various other seabirds that are highly protected by the National Park Service and thus unlikely to be seen.

Orange-Crowned Warblers foraged among the island’s plants

The Western Gulls in breeding plumage are extraordinarily beautiful, and they preen to stay that way

Love was in the air all over the island

On Anacapa we could actually use our iPhones to check email and news stories, which is kinda sad for a National Park experience, but what can I say: like almost everyone, we are addicted to the web. When we first lugged our gear up to the visitor center, there was one visitor sitting at a picnic table using her iPad, another guy using his MacBook Pro, and almost everyone checking their smartphones. Multitasking has even come to the national parks.

This is a small island, and after taking 650 photographs over two days, I was ready to go on to our next adventure, a visit to Santa Cruz Island just a few miles away.

Boardwalk along trail through a bed of Ice Plant

Some visitors moor boats close to the island for an overnight visit

View from Inspiration Point overlook toward Western Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands

Arch Rock viewed from the water

Old U.S. Coast Guard buildings clustered at one end of the island

Another view of iconic Arch Rock

Wave rolling in off the vast Pacific Ocean, viewed from above

To get to the Channel Islands, Island Packers offers boat access to each of the islands.  Check their web site for all details and schedules. The National Park Service has excellent descriptions of Channel Islands National Park, including information about the biology and geology of the islands, and the rules for visiting. T.C. Boyle has a new novel, “When the Killing’s Done,” about the ethical implications of the National Park Service’s replacement of exotic species in the Channel Islands with native species; it’s an excellent and timely novel for anyone interested in National Park policy.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com (Just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

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

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


Shhhh … Don’t tell anyone about this leaked federal document!

April 11, 2010

Trembling Aspens aflame in the Bodie Hills, with the Sierra distant

February 2010 brought news of a leaked document in the Department of the Interior, in which it was revealed that 14 locations are under consideration as possible national monuments.  One of these is the Bodie Hills, a rolling landscape east of the Sierra Nevada in California, and a place that I photographed during several days in the fall of 2009.

Part of the Bodie Hills has been a wilderness study area for many years, but the idea of a national monument seems relatively new.  This is a vast, rolling landscape, covered with grasses and sagebrush that make it excellent habitat for Sage Grouse and Pronghorn Antelope.  Within the Bodie Hills sits the ghost town of Bodie, now a California State Park that was threatened with possible closure because of the state’s severe funding problems; the legislature came up with a temporary fix that rescued the town from closing in the 2009/2010 fiscal year, but beyond that it is under threat.

Bodie was a gold-mining town, once the second largest city in California.  Thar is still gold in them thar hills, and there is currently an active Cougar Gold Paramount Exploration Project that hopes to find more gold in the Bodie Hills.  They plan to drill, or are drilling (I’m not sure which), a series of test holes in the vicinity of the Paramount Mine.  There would then be the possibility of a large open pit cyanide heap-leach mine.  If the price of gold continues to rise, and if enough gold is found in the area, you can bet on it.  Though there would certainly be legal challenges.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) administers the Bodie Hills landscape surrounding the ghost town of Bodie.  If part or all of the Bodie Hills were made part of the proposed national monument, BLM would presumably administer the monument, though it is conceivable that responsibility would be transferred to the National Park Service, which would be my preference, because the national parks seem more likely to get consistent funding in times of tight budgets.*  Ideally the National Park Service would also take over administration of the ghost town of Bodie from the state, since the state is threatening closure and the subsequent deterioration of the ghost town itself.

Back to the leaked internal document:  other places on the list for possible national monument designation include beautiful locations in Utah, Oregon, Nevada, Montana, Arizona, Colorado, California, and Washington (under the proposal, the San Juan Islands in my home state of Washington would be designated a national monument).  Several others, including Bristol Bay in Alaska (where our walrus adventure took place last summer), are on another short list, but are less likely.  The next step would be for the Interior Department to make a specific proposal to President Obama, who could then use the Antiquities Act to make the designation as a national monument.  All recent presidents have taken similar actions, most recently when President Bush designated three significant areas of the Pacific Ocean as national monuments.

The Bodie Hills stretch on for miles

We are reaching a point where most of the United States has been either conserved or developed, and I hope that the best areas that remain in limbo between conservation and development are tipped toward conservation.  The world is filling up fast, and we need these places.

*For example, the U.S. Forest Service administers the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument, but has always struggled for consistent funding.  In the last few years, they have shuttered a multi-million dollar visitor center–a gorgeous facility–that was less than 20 years old, because they lacked money to make necessary repairs.  I call that irresponsible, but it is hard to know who to blame for the fiasco.

Road to Bodie crossing the Bodie Hills

A hill honeycombed with gold mines just above the town of Bodie

Unsettled weather over the Bodie Hills and High Sierra

Bodie ghost town nestled in the Bodie Hills

Another view of Bodie, with the Bodie Hills beyond

Trembling Aspens in the Bodie Hills

For more information about this story, go to New West.  For the negative Fox News take on the initial proposal, go to Angers Some, and for information about the gold mine exploration proposal, go to BLM Cougar Gold. I wrote a previous blog entry about the Bodie ghost town; go to The Ghost of Bodie Past.

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