Posted tagged ‘california’

RIDING AMTRAK’S COAST STARLIGHT

September 30, 2014

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-87Riding in the Sightseer Lounge Car with trains passing by on each side

Does Amtrak use Central Casting to hire its conductors? Probably not, but it seemed so when the man with the neatly trimmed white mustache and commanding manner arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station and announced to us how to queue up to board the train. He made the railroad proud.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-29The conductor checking tickets early in the journey

The last time I had been in King Street Station, the place was a mess, with temporary plywood walls and hardly a hint of the grandeur of the original station, which served the Great Northern and Northern Pacific passenger trains through much of the last century. Alas, the station had been modernized and lobotomized numerous times through the years, and had lost its personality. The city of Seattle bought the station a few years ago for the princely sum of $10, and agreed to renovate it at a cost of millions. Now the station’s interior is restored to much of its original glory, with plaster ceiling rosettes and marble floors and walls galore, along with the tradtional long wooden benches. Our voices echoed in the empty cavern. Earthquake cracks snaked along the marble floors–a result of the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake that shook Puget Sound at a 6.8 quake level.

Seattle_King_St_Station-9Seattle’s King Street Station, recently renovated, is a classic, soaring space of light and marble

We had arrived at Seattle’s King Street Station early on Sunday morning, after a beautiful late summer ferry run across Puget Sound, followed by a quick yellow taxi ride to the station. We were early because the ferry and train schedules don’t quite match, but that was all right, since it gave me a chance to photograph the station without the clutter of the passengers it was built for.

Our destination on this trip was Fresno, California, where we planned to pick up a new camping vehicle to drive back to Washington. We could have flown and been there faster, but we wanted  to take a bit more gear than would have been easy on a plane, and the train ride sounded like it would be more relaxing, since there is absolutely nothing relaxing or pleasant about the airport and airplane experience any more unless you can go in the airline club and get tanked prior to your first class flight.

Seattle_King_St_Station-15Amtrak’s classy poster for the Coast Starlight train, which runs daily from Seattle to Los Angeles (and visa versa)

Besides, I love trains. I’ve loved trains since I was three years old, and found an American Flyer train with a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive circling the Christmas tree in my family’s Detroit living room. My longest train ride was a trip to New Mexico circa 1964, when I went with a group of Boy Scouts to Philmont Scout Ranch for a great backpacking trip. In addition to seeing a UFO out the window while crossing the New Mexico desert, I remember flushing the toilet on the train and seeing it directly open to the railroad ties whizzing by below.

Later, I developed a love for the train songs that were popular in early folk and country music. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was influential enough in my life that I would have enjoyed becoming a Canadian if the opportunity arose. It didn’t. Then there was Linda Ronstadt’s exquisite version of “2:10 Train,” which showed her powerful vocal talents on one of her early efforts. And The Grateful Dead singing of “Casey Jones” meeting his fate, as in “Drivin’ that train, high on cocaine, Casey Jones you better watch your speed … trouble ahead, trouble behind, and you know that notion just crossed my mind.” Music these days isn’t focused as much on planes, trains, and automobiles as it was when I was coming of age, and I miss hearing new train songs.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-23Passing one of the powerful locomotives on powerful Warren Buffett’s railroad, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

Soon enough Karen and I boarded the Coast Starlight for our overnight journey from Seattle to Fresno, California. Fortunately we got to sit next to each other on the nearly full train, though I hogged the window seat so that I could photograph the passing scene. There are big windows and plenty of legroom on these big seats, which is almost enough to make me never want to fly again. I could actually work on my computer without the fear that the person in front of me would suddenly recline their seat and shatter my screen.

There were passengers of all sorts: a few railfans, but mostly people who just wanted to get from here to there easily and inexpensively. From the start of the journey, there was a quiet murmer of conversation and the pleasant white noise of the hissing air conditioning system. The announcer came on the loudspeaker and asked people not to talk on their cell phones from their seats, but to instead take their cell conversations to a different part of the train car. But the young guy next to us didn’t hear the announcement, because he was already into a series of hours-long cell phone conversations that were so profoundly boring that I still feel like my useful life was shortened by being near him.

Alas, that is the common result of sharing a limited space with strangers for hours on end. It often works out well; sometimes not. Fortunately the passing scene outside kept us occupied, and Karen knitted a blue baby sweater for hours on end.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-24Passing through Tacoma, where the cable-stayed 21st Street Bridge crosses the Thea Foss Waterway

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-25Passing by Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, with its striking, cone-shaped hot shop, which celebrates the roles of Tacoma and artist Dale Chihuly in creating beautiful art glass. Note the Airstream trailer, which goes nicely with the stainless steel architecture of the museum.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-49Homes along a tidal slough along Puget Sound south of Tacoma

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-15The train takes passengers along industrial corridors normally not seen by highway drivers

We watched the passing scene as we wound through Tacoma and along Puget Sound. A group of scuba divers in drysuits and masks prepared to enter the Sound. Rotting piers and multi-million dollar condo developments flashed by. Occasionally a silver and red Santa Fe locomotive sat on a siding. This was a remnant of the the railroad business prior to to the merger of the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroads. Now Warren Buffett’s company owns the whole BNSF system so we’ll blame him for any delays on this trip.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-45We passed right under the Tacoma Narrows Bridges. For those who remember their high school science classes, this is the location of the Galloping Gertie bridge that developed dramatic waves in a 40 mph wind soon after it was built in 1940. The waves were filmed and, at least in my fuzzy memories, the film showed cars being tossed from the bridge. It soon collapsed, and the pieces now create an artificial reef on the bottom of this stretch of Puget Sound.

After a while, we decided to wander the train, exploring the aisles and determining where we could eat when we got hungry. Three cars toward the locomotive, there was an observation Sightseer Lounge Car with windows that wrap over the top of the car where volunteer interpreters from Seattle’s Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park told engaging stories about the passing scene. My favorite story was about the guy who so enjoyed watching the trains go by from his driveway that he stipulated that he be buried under his gravel drive; it was fun seeing the wide green spot in his driveway that covers his grave, and waving to his friendly ghost.

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As we approached Portland, we bought lunch from the snack bar tucked away below the lounge. The coffee here was good; the microwave meals, not so much. As Karen said, it should be considered “filler” rather than food. Her plastic-enclosed Caesar salad was marginally better than my microwaved cheese pizza., but neither would win the mass transit cuisine competition. Amtrak, can we talk? Are you listening? Can’t you make these snack bars a little bit better with some truly edible food? Please?

Meanwhile, the interpreters pointed out all the houseboats around the islands as we approached Portland. They said that the original impetus for houseboats here was that people thought they could avoid property taxes by living on water instead of land. The government quashed that notion pretty quick with a different kind of tax, but people came to like the romance of rocking gently on the water as they drifted off to sleep.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-76Train station in Centralia, Washington

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Actually, speaking of taxes, this border with Oregon has long been a hotbed for tax avoiders. There are a lot of people who live on the Washington State side of the mighty Columbia River because Washington doesn’t have an income tax. Then, they do their major shopping on the Oregon side, because Oregon doesn’t have a sales tax. It’s a pretty good racket, though they generally get caught if they buy a car in Oregon and try registering it there.

We pulled into the classic Portland Union Station, where smokers were told they could take a “fresh air break.” We coughed as we passed through all that fresh air, then entered the busy station, which was filled with so many people that it seemed like we had stepped back 60 years, though the cell phones and casual clothing were decidedly current. After a few minutes photographing the soaring station interior, and wondering why today’s public spaces are so uninspiring in comparison, we bought ice cream bars to savor during the walk back to our train car.

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Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-94Portland’s Union Station, another classic structure from the classic era of trains

The train filled up again for the run south through the Willamette Valley, through Albany and Salem and Eugene and all the flat country of this vast agricultural valley.  When pioneers on the Oregon Trail finished their long journey in covered wagons pulled by oxen, this valley was their promised land. Its rich soil had been deposited during huge glacial floods that scoured eastern Washington and filled the Willamette Valley. Now there are vast vineyards to supply the wineries, tree and shrub nurseries, fields of peppermint to delight the nose, and orchards of hazelnut trees. During our ride through the valley many of the fields were brown after late summer harvests; had we come through in March, after the winter rains, the entire valley would have been a dazzling green.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-114Some passengers taking a fresh air break outside the train, with others just boarding

The afternoon passed pleasantly, and eventually we began to climb out of the valley and into the mountains of southern Oregon. We chose to have dinner in the dining car, where we were seated with two pleasant ladies heading home to Red Bluff, California after a Seattle wedding. They immediately refused the dinner rolls, saying they were on a gluten-free diet, along with tens of millions of other Americans. There were several entrees available; one of the ladies chose an Amtrak Signature Steak, which was a rare treat … actually, extremely rare, to the point of still mooing. She sent it back for some fresh searing. Meanwhile, we ate the Herb Roasted Half Chicken with rice pilaf, which was very good and filling. Amtrak may not rise to the level of excellence of a fine Seattle restaurant, but its meals are good enough to satisfy hungry travelers.

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-115The dining car had some empty tables during our early seating

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-119Forest fires burned during this hot fire season, filling the air with smoky haze

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After dinner, we reclaimed our seats and watched as the train passed through a mountain landscape choked with smoke from nearby forest fires. We could not see any flames, but the fires were nearby.

Once it grew dark outside, we grew sleepy. After all, it had been a long day with an early ferry ride across Puget Sound, a cab ride to the train station, and then a long train ride. The gentle motion of the rails induced easy sleep in the reclining seats.

We were unexpectedly awakened before dawn by the Conductor saying that we were 12 minutes from Sacramento, and that it was time to gather our things. Amazingly, we were a full hour ahead of schedule when we pulled into the station, and were able to make an earlier and better rail connection for the rest of the trip into Fresno.

Once again, I was satisfied with rail travel. It is far more relaxing than flying, with better seats, freedom to roam the train, and a better space for working on a computer. What’s not to like, other than the snack bar’s offerings?

Amtrak_Coast_Starlight-124Waiting to board our connection to Fresno, a train run by Amtrak California

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my NEW website at Lee Rentz Photography or go to my Flickr Photostream.

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). 

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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

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

DUMB QUESTION: Where are the Alabama Hills?

April 2, 2010

Early light on Lone Pine Peak, viewed from the Alabama Hills

A hint: the Alabama Hills are NOT in Alabama!  Actually, the Alabama Hills are in California’s dry Owens Valley, at the base of the high Sierra.  They were named by local confederate-sympathizing gold miners during the “War of Yankee Aggression.” At that time, the confederate warship CSS Alabama darted about the Atlantic Ocean, sinking ships bound to supply the Yankee states. Alas, the confeds met their match and the Alabama was sunk off the French city of Cherbourg, by the USS Kearsarge. When news of this battle reached the California desert and mountains in 1864, union sympathizers named a peak, a mine, a town, and a mountain pass after the Kearsarge. So the war over naming rights ended in a draw, and the rival names have stuck in a most un-Civil War place.

But enough of ancient History. What everyone really wants to know is the celebrity status of the Alabama Hills, and here they shine like an actress strutting the red carpet in a designer gown during the Oscars. Actually, if they gave a movie location an Oscar, the Alabama Hills would get a shiny statue for “Lifetime Achievement,” because over 150 movies and a dozen TV shows have been filmed there. The location is perfect for westerns, with sagebrush flats and weathered brown boulders for the gunfighting and horse chase action, against a backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada.

Classic old movies were made here, including such chestnuts as How the West Was Won, Gunga Din, and High Sierra. More recently, parts of The Gladiator, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, GI Jane, Star Trek Generations, Dinosaur, and Iron Man were filmed here.  These weathered rocks have watched Humphrey Bogart, Demi Moore, James Stewart, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, Patrick Stewart, and scores of other Hollywood actors playing their roles with passion.  The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry television shows were filmed in this dramatic location, as have been scores of TV commercials.

Can you imagine a stagecoach careering around the bend, with masked riders chasing it and shooting their Colt 45s and Remingtons at the driver?

Even more exciting than the Hollywood history is the geologic history!  Well, maybe to a nature nerd like me.  Suffice it to say that these round and weathered rocks are NOT sandstone, despite their superficial resemblance to the red rock formations of southern Utah. They are actually spheroidally weathered granite of roughly the same age as the peaks of the high Sierra towering above. Owens Valley, where the Alabama Hills are located, is a graben (a technical geologic term that sounds inspired by Tolkein), which is a fault block basin, in which a valley dropped between two mountain ranges, in this case the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine the West as a giant torture rack, in which California is being pulled away from the Rocky Mountains by the unbelievable tension of tectonic forces.  Giant stretch marks appear because of the tension, which are actually the valleys that dropped between mountain ranges.  That’s my Field Geology 301 lesson for today.  There will be a quiz tomorrow …

Karen and I spent an afternoon, night, and morning in the Alabama Hills, taking a hike to the Alabama Hills Arch, getting yelled at by the campground host because I was driving too fast, and photographing exquisite morning light on the hills and mountains. A road runs through the hills; actually it is more of a road complex, with lots of spur roads and dead ends. The main road is appropriately named “Movie Road,” for reasons referred to above.

Granite showing spheroidal weathering

The Alabama Hills are administered as the Alabama Hills Recreation Area by the Bureau of Land Management, a prior employer of mine that moves with the speed of molasses in January, except when approving mining and grazing leases … but I digress. The recreation area was designated in 1969; the first summer I drove to California to fight forest fires. Now, 41 years later, there are ATV trails everywhere, few amenities, and almost nonexistent interpretation. But BLM says it’s working on a management plan.

If you go, you’ll find that the Alabama Hills have some of the most splendid western scenery in the West, and you can relive the experience by watching scores of movies and TV shows that will take you back to the old West. Can’t you just hear the longhorns mooing as John Wayne waves a dramatic start to the cattle drive?

Alabama Hills Arch

A crescent moon, showing craters, sets over the Sierra

Mount Whitney from Lone Pine Campground

Weathered granite formations reminiscent of a Henry Miller sculpture

Lone Pine Peak and the Alabama Hills

Lone Pine Peak and Mount Whitney at dawn, from the Alabama Hills

Fire-killed Pinyon Pine, Inyo Mountains distant

Evening shadows creep up the Inyo Mountains

Spheroidal weathered granite in the Alabama Hills

The high Sierra towers above the Alabama Hills

Spheroidal-weathered granite with the Sierra distant

Alabama Hills with Lone Pine Peak (l) and Mount Whitney (r)

For more information about the Alabama Hills, here are some places to start:

Wikipedia

BLM Bishop Field Office

Movies of the Alabama Hills

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