Archive for the ‘state parks’ 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.

WINTER PREDATORS OF THE SAMISH FLATS

February 22, 2013

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owl taking a close look at the photographer

The deltas and estuaries of Puget Sound are not a good place to be a mouse in winter. On a recent trip to the Samish Flats, located on the northern shores of Puget Sound, we observed hundreds of avian predators, including Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, Red-tailed Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Short-eared Owls, and a single Northern Shrike.

We drove through the Skagit Flats and Samish Flats for an entire winter afternoon, enjoying the sight of over a thousand Snow Geese and hundreds of Trumpeter Swans: both cheery white against the muddy farm fields. There were also a lot of ducks, including Northern Pintails and both American Wigeons and fifteen Eurasian Wigeons.

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk up close and personal

What we really wanted to see were Short-eared Owls, and we had heard that a great spot to see them was on Department of Fish & Wildlife land known to birders as the West 90. We arrived at about 3:00 p.m., and hiked out to a location where people had recently seen the owls.

We quickly spotted some owls, then spent the next two hours observing and photographing the owls as they hunted the fields, sometimes encountering and skirmishing with the Northern Harriers who hunt in much the same way. It was thrilling!

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish Flats

Samish_Flats-69-2

Short-eared Owl in Flight while Hunting in Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls in flight while hunting, reminding us of butterflies with their erratic flight patterns over the fields

Short-eared Owls fly erratically, quickly changing course to drop on a vole; the flight reminds me somehow of a huge butterfly. Like many owls, they are certainly wary of humans, but we were able to get reasonably close to them without causing a panic attack. I think they view us as less of a threat than Bald Eagles and Great Horned Owls.

It was a cloudy day for photography, but I often find that the pale winter sky on a cloudy day makes a wonderful background for my bird photographs.

As the afternoon wore on, twilight approached and it became too dark for exposures of moving birds. We left the owls to their hunting, and came away thrilled with the experience.

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish Flats

Short-eared Owl Perched in a Shrub in the Samish FlatsShort-eared Owls will perch on shrubs between flights

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget Sound

Northern Shrike in Samish Flats Area of Puget SoundA young Northern Shrike was a surprise visitor to the West 90; shrikes are known as “butcher birds” for their habit of impaling mice on thorns–storing them for later use. We have observed that behavior along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, where the shrikes used hawthorn trees as their gruesome storage facility.

Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier Skirmishing in Samish FlatsSometimes the Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers–who appear to occupy a similar ecological niche in winter–don’t play nice

Red-tailed Hawk in Samish Flats of Washington StateRed-tailed Hawk

Murmuration of a Flock of Small Birds in the Samish FlatsAt twilight, a flock of small birds rose in an ever-changing three-dimensional natural sculpture known as a murmuration

The Seattle Audubon Society has a web site that tells more about the Samish Flats, as well as bird species found around Washington. Go to: BirdWeb.

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

TWITCHING AND GRUNGE: A Day of Birding on the Washington Coast

November 5, 2012

Like water off a duck’s back: Common Eider 1st year male in winter plumage bathing in the saltwater of Westport Marina; the last time I saw this species was in Oswego Harbor in Upstate New York some 30 years ago

Once in a while I get an itch to twitch. Which means I have to convince Karen that there are some rare birds to be seen somewhere within a 200 mile drive that we really should add to our life lists.

Twitching is the now widely-accepted term for going long distances on a moment’s notice to see rare birds–an activity that began in the land of trainspotters and other great eccentrics: Great Britain. The British Isles are small enough that twitchers can go anywhere in pursuit of rare birds. The passion quickly spread to other European countries and to the USA and Canada. I know people who will hop on a plane to go and see a rare species on the opposite coast.

Back in the ancient 1980s, twitchers used phone trees to notify each other about rare birds and where they were being seen. This evolved into recorded phone messages as “birding hotlines.” Then, in the mid-1990s, the internet was hatched and birders started posting messages about birds they had seen. Here in Washington State, the regional resource is Tweeters, a great name for an internet posting group that is hosted by the University of Washington. I have followed Tweeters almost daily for about 15 years, so that I can find out about birding hotspots. Other regions have similar informal groups, where people can get emails of all the postings about birds. When smart phones became widely adopted, birders started posting about birds in real time from the field, and using apps to broadcast bird calls to bring in target birds (to some controversy). It has gotten exciting to be a birder in these technological times!

Anyway, word got out on Tweeters that Grays Harbor was suddenly hosting a variety of rare birds in late October, including a Northern Wheatear, Common Eider, Wilson’s Plover and several others. Of these, the Wheatear and Eider are usually Alaskans, while the Plover normally calls the Mexican and Gulf coasts home. They apparently decided to meet in the middle for a discussion of the changing climate.

Grays Harbor is often a terrific birding destination; last winter, Damon Point State Park, a sand spit that sticks out into Grays Harbor, was where a dozen or more Snowy Owls escaped the Arctic cold and spent a mild winter. The marina at Tokeland is a great place to observe over a hundred big and gangly shorebirds roosting and feeding together; these Marbled Godwits have wintered in this remote location for years.

Still more rarities have been seen around Grays Harbor lately. There was a Northern Mockingbird at the Tokeland Marina–way out of its normal range. A Tropical Kingbird was sighted at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond. Now, if you are not a passionate birder, the idea of staring intently through binoculars at a sewage treatment pond might seem a bit odd, but those of us who are truly odd don’t find it weird at all. Last Christmas break, Karen and I took Karen’s mother (on her birthday!) and father to see Snowy Owls at the Muskegon Sewage Treatment Facility in Michigan. It made for an “interesting” and aromatic day; but we did see the owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch at the facility, with a nice view of masses of gulls at the adjacent landfill mountain.

Immature Brown Pelican in flight over Grays Harbor

Back to Grays Harbor: we got to Westhaven State Park in Westport by 10:00 a.m. This is where the Northern Wheatear was being seen. I asked Karen to look for Subarus in the parking lot, as that would be a good indicator that Seattle-area birders were looking for the bird. Actually, the parking lot was almost full. In addition to all the older birders (including us), there were lots of surfers, kayakers, and dog walkers at the state park. We walked up a dune to where people were intently watching a jetty through spotting scopes, and found the bird. It was hyperactively foraging at one end of the jetty, and apparently did that continuously. We rarely saw it pause. To add to the fun, there was a Palm Warbler feeding among driftwood on the sand. The last Palm Warbler I had seen was in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where one was flying up to within a foot of my face and grabbing the black flies that were hovering there and making me miserable. I wasn’t able to photograph the Wheatear, as it vamoosed when we were approaching photographic range. Others were successful in photographing it, as some of the posts on Tweeters show.

We spent the rest of the day searching for other birds. We had great views of the behavior of the Common Eider as it dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina. We dipped on the Wilson’s Plover: okay, I need to backtrack here and talk about British birding again. “Dipping” is another British birder-originated term for when you don’t manage to see the bird that you just drove 200 miles or flew 2,000 to see. It is discouraging, but it happens. We decided not to go look for the Tropical Kingbird at the Hoquiam Sewage Treatment Pond because it was getting late, it was raining, and we are wimps.

Common Loon in winter plumage doing a friendly leg wave

Near the end of the day, we drove a road through the cranberry farms near Grayland, and enjoyed seeing some the harvest, including huge bins full of fresh cranberries. There is an informative auto tour that you can take, and the guide is available online at Cranberry Bog Tour. There are also opportunities in the Westport Marina to take a chartered boat out for Halibut fishing during certain times of the year, as well as lingcod, salmon, and albacore tuna fishing. Pelagic birding trips are also available occasionally, where birders can see ocean-dwelling species that are otherwise hard to see.

This Eider of the Arctic adapted well to Grays Harbor, where it repeatedly dove and caught Dungeness Crabs in the Westport Marina

The only problem for the Common Eider was that a gull repeatedly hovered over it when it came up from a dive, and in this case successfully snatched the eider’s crab; the enraged eider then attacked the pirate, to no apparent success

Grays Harbor is famous for an entirely different reason. I was reminded of that when driving past the “Welcome to Aberdeen” sign that had a tourist slogan attached that said “Come as You Are.” I did a double-take at the sign and drove back to photograph it when I realized its subtle double meaning. Aberdeen is the small mill town and harbor on Grays Harbor where rock star Kurt Cobain was born and lived much of his life. “Come as You Are” was one of his great

songs, and a fitting memorial to him and his band, Nirvana, in a town that largely ignored his huge cultural contributions for many years. As an older guy, I considered his grunge style to be just noise for many years; lately I’ve started enjoying his music. I’ve always been slow to adapt new styles, though I was right in synch with the grunge era in my appreciation of old flannel shirts. Perhaps I’ll get a tattoo next … maybe of a Northern Wheatear (actually, in Portland recently I saw a young woman whose arms were covered with bird tattoos; I guess she took to heart the Portlandia slogan: “Put a bird on it!”

Harbor Seal and Common Loon

Nonbreeding adult Brown Pelican in flight near the jetty at Westhaven State Park

Yeah, I believe that birds evolved from dinosaurs!

Common Eider motoring to its lunch spot in the Westport Marina

Common Eider bathing after feeding

Loon staredown

Marinas in Washington State are among the best places to closely observe loons; they are accustomed to seeing people and are relatively approachable with a camera from the docks

Common Eider flapping its wings to adjust feathers after preening

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

SNOWY OWL INVASION: Ghosts from the Arctic Circle

January 12, 2012

Snowy Owl and the rising January full moon, known as the Wolf Moon

As twilight descended, a Snowy Owl gazed at us from a driftwood stump, alert with the promise of hunting in the coming hours. Just then, a reddish-orange moon rose above the horizon, over Grays Harbor along Washington State’s Pacific Ocean coast. Realizing the opportunity, I moved quickly into position, hoping to photograph the rising moon directly behind the sitting owl. The opportunity lasted about 30 seconds, then the moon distorted as clouds ate away at its edges. This brief experience capped a perfect day of watching and photographing Snowy Owls.

The owls use their wings to help lift themselves up to a higher point on a log

Since we have lived in Washington State, this was the third coming of the normally arctic Snowy Owls. There was one in 2006, and prior to that in the mid-1990s. I photographed the owls both times at Damon Point State Park–the place we returned to on January 8, 2012. This year there are a whole host of Hedwigs–Harry Potter’s pet Snowy Owl–at Damon Point, lending a wonderful opportunity to see this charismatic visitor from the arctic.

Damon Point sticks out into Grays Harbor, and is a spit of land constantly renewed and reshaped by harbor currents.  In fact, the landscape had changed so much since our last visit that we didn’t even recognize it.  There is a short asphalt road that leads directly into the ocean–a road to nowhere that used to lead far out on Damon Point.  It was washed away in winter storms, and now visitors have to hike out along the beach to Damon Point.

An alert Snowy Owl, with its bright yellow eyes staring at the photographer

This was the second time this winter we have seen Snowy Owls. The first time was in Michigan, during Christmas, when we were visiting family. We could have seen up to six Snowies at Tawas Point, a spur of land sticking out into Lake Huron that is probably a lot like the Damon Point landscape (minus the spectacular view of Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains over saltwater). But that was too far to drive with family, so we instead spent a couple of pleasant hours at the Muskegon sewage treatment facilities–located right next to the Muskegon dump–where we saw two Snowy Owls and enjoyed an aromatic picnic lunch.

The first time we ever saw Snowy Owls was during the mid-1980s, when we were living in Upstate New York. That year, the owls gathered along the lonely shoreline of Lake Ontario and were undoubtedly also visiting Michigan, Washington State, and the entire tier of far northern states.

The photographers we observed kept a respectful distance from the owls, and used long lenses to get close views

So, the Snowy Owls come down from their normal arctic home about once every decade, in a winter-long invasion that is known as an irruption. Birders long thought that the owls came south because they were hungry. But this year, a new theory has emerged. There was an excellent crop of arctic lemmings during the summer of 2011, which led to the survival and maturing of an excellent crop of Snowy Owls. This high concentration of owls wasn’t sustainable over the bleak midwinter, so many of the owls dispersed southward to the areas we are seeing them now. According to the new theory, they are not starving and are not under a lot of stress. In fact, their lives don’t look too bad; they seem to be enjoying a coastal winter of sleeping and eating–much like the human snowbirds who head to the Gulf Coast for the winter.

Damon Point State Park is a spit of land that is constantly changing, as ocean currents add to it or nibble away at its features

Snowy Owls prefer to winter in places that remind them of home: flat and mostly treeless expanses that are reminiscent of arctic tundra. That’s why some of the best places to see them are airports and wild lands along shores of the Pacific Ocean and Great Lakes. One Snowy Owl took the winter vacation concept a bit too seriously, and ended up at the Honolulu airport in late 2011. It was the first Snowy ever recorded in Hawaii, and it was promptly shot by overzealous airport officials (something about an illegal foreign national threatening an airport …).

At sunset, warm light bathed the owls; after a day of lounging, they were getting ready for the evening hunt

Back to Damon Point. Visiting this lonely stretch of land is always a wonderful experience. On our 2006 visit, we saw the remains of a lost shipwreck that was melting out of the sands. The S.S. Catala had an interesting history, according to a June 2, 2006 article in the Seattle Times:

“Built in Scotland in 1925, the steamer carried woodsmen and miners from British Columbia to Alaska before serving as a floating hotel in Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It ended up being towed to Ocean Shores to be a hotel for charter fishermen — complete with poker games and prostitutes — until it tipped over in a storm in 1965.”

In 2006, the S.S. Catala was determined to be leaking oil and was completely scrapped by the State of Washington.

On our 2012 visit, there were surfers and birders and beachcombers and photographers … perhaps 30 serious photographers. This was a huge change from my previous visits. In the mid-1990s, I don’t remember any other photographers out there. I was using film, and exposures of the white owls were tricky (it didn’t help that my lab made a mistake and processed my three days of owl slides at the wrong setting). Now, wildlife photography, even of white owls, is amazingly easy. We can check our exposures and focus immediately and adjust accordingly. This winter will produce an incredible number of great Snowy Owl photographs from hundreds upon hundreds of photographers.

So, what do the owls eat in a landscape lacking lemmings?  Ducks and rats and mice and voles and yappy little dogs. Okay, I made up the last prey item; on the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past them … so if you love little Pooky, keep her on a leash!

We observed about ten Snowy Owls at Damon Point on January 8. There were almost certainly more, as there is a whole area of the peninsula that we did not visit. The hike out to see the owls near the point is about 1.5 miles each way. The owls generally sit on driftwood logs and stumps that are low to the ground. I learned that as the winter progresses, these flat-and-barren-land owls get used to the idea of vertical space–as in trees–and start using higher vantage points. We noticed some doing this already, though most perched low to the ground.

Snowy Owl in flight over Damon Point. Ideally, there would be few owl flights during the day, but with so many visitors coming to see the owls, occasionally one will get disturbed and take flight for a hundred yards or so.

During the day, the owls are mostly napping. When a birder or photographer or dog walker gets within a bird’s comfort zone, it may snap open its yellow eyes and check out the intruder. If it feels threatened, it will take flight and head off a hundred yards or so to a more isolated perch. So, if you go, keep this comfort zone in mind and act responsibly so that others can view the owls.

Alpenglow on Mount Rainier, viewed over Grays Harbor from Damon Point

After photographing the Snowy Owl against the Wolf Moon (one traditional name for the January full moon), we watched the intense pink alpenglow fade on Mount Rainier and saw the last sunset glow fade from the clouds over the Pacific Ocean. The long walk back along beach was accompanied by the cadence of crashing waves and the crunch of cockle shells underfoot.

The January “Wolf Moon” rose over Grays Harbor at sunset, capping off a wonderful day on the coast

Birds ruffle their feathers to rearrange them, fluff them, and presumably make them a more comfortable covering; owls are no exception. It amazes me that this chaos of feathers ends up perfectly arranged.

Humans, dogs, and owls like a nice muscle stretch after staying in the same position for a long period

Sunset glow on an owl getting ready to hunt

The owls liked to perch on or near one of the numerous driftwood logs and stumps washed in by winter storms

A wildlife photographer in beautiful light, just waiting for the perfect composition

Immature and female Snowy Owls tend to be darker, with more patterning, than the nearly pure white adult males; although rules like this are made to be broken

Using its wings to help hop higher on a beach log; wouldn’t it be great if we had wings to help us hop up mountains?

These owls are graceful flyers, with strong and rhythmic wingbeats

In flight over the grassy beach at Damon Point, with a few short conifers in the distance

A sleepy Snowy Owl yawning (I am so prone to yawning that I yawned as I looked at this picture and typed this caption)

Flying to a quieter location farther out on the point

Waves lapping in along the beach of Damon Point, where we observed the shells of delicious Razor Clams and Heart Cockles

We absolutely loved this day of birding along the outer coast!

For further information about Damon Point State Park, go to Damon Point State Park; there was no sign for the park on our January 2012 visit, but it sits directly adjacent to a private campground, and there are usually cars parked neatly off the road at the entrance.  Birders tend to like Subarus, so just look for the Subarus. The owls will probably be at Damon Point until March 2012.  Then it will be years before they return.

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

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