Signs of Spring

Spring is definitely in full swing. Wildflowers such as lupine and California poppies are in profusion, as are the butterflies that frequent the also prevalent Blue dicks (like the Swallowtail pictured).

The trail is mostly no longer muddy (until the next rain, at least), so now is a great time to get out and enjoy the warmth and the wildlife. Just keep your eyes peeled for rattlesnakes, as they have already been sighted on the trail. Other wildlife to look for include squirrels, deer, lizards, and wide variety of birds, from Red-Tailed Hawks to Red-Shafted Flickers to Great Horned Owls (all of which have been sighted from the trails).

Another sign of spring is, well, a sign. We just replaced the sign at the top of the trail that describes a little of the history of the area and names some of the surrounding sights viewable from the upper meadow. On the Overlook Trail, costs such as these are borne by the volunteer Stewards of the Overlook Trail group, which
collaborates with the Sonoma Ecology Center that serves as our fiscal agent. But anything that costs money to maintain or upgrade the trail and property requires us to raise money through events, donations, etc. If you feel so moved, please click on our “Donate Now!” link in the righthand column. Or, come to our next event at the Sonoma Raceway.

In any case, enjoy all of the sights of spring and stay safe out there!

Nowhere To Go But the Sea

Yesterday morning I was hiking in the rain and I was surprised to see how much water was already running off the trail  (see picture). This is because we had had several days of dry weather and the rain wasn’t all that heavy. But I soon realized it was because the ground is already super-saturated. We’ve had so much rain this season that the ground simply can’t hold any more. Everything that falls runs off.

Even our reservoirs are near full, or even over full — Lake Sonoma, our largest local water supply, is at 101% of its water supply pool. Meanwhile, other reservoirs that are expected to receive the runoff from a record snowpack are near full (e.g., Shasta, Oroville, Don Pedro). Reservoirs have long been viewed as our way to build ourselves out of a drought, but by now clearly that has been proven to be a lie. Any stream worth noting in California has been damned at least once, with many of them sporting several dams. Dams will not solve our water issues. The Colorado River has a number of dams in its watershed, and only in the most amazing rainfall years can it come close to filling them. There has even been a call recently to fill Lake Mead first to cut down on the inevitable water loss from evaporation by trying to keep two reservoirs partly full. And there was even a time when not just one, but two additional dams were planned to be built in Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon. I mean, seriously. We need other solutions. Specifically, more intelligent use of the water we have.

Meanwhile, we have destroyed more amazing river canyons that I can even adequately describe. Glen Canyon, the cathedral in the desert. Hetch Hetchy,  the second Yosemite Valley. The Stanislaus River Canyon, the single best whitewater river run in California. All tragedies individually, but when seen together it is beyond justification or even comprehension. We have become morally bankrupt in terms of water in the West.

We need to stop growing water-hungry crops in a desert. The southern part of the Central Valley of California is clearly a desert. The Northern part of the Central Valley is only slightly off the desert designation. The crops that use the most water are (in order from most to least): alfalfa, almonds and pistachios, pasture, and rice. Two of the top five water-hungry crops are for cattle — alfalfa and pasture.

Although we are exhorted to save water, the vast majority of California’s water is used by agriculture, which means the real gains in conservation are likely to be realized there. But it’s unclear that our farms are making the changes that are needed. Part of this is clearly seated in our arcane water rights system, which basically means that those with early water rights can do whatever they want. This is a recipe for disaster, but it’s considered the “third rail” in California politics. It’s completely untouchable. And so we must find another way.

One way is completely in our hands.We can adjust our diets. This means cutting back on both dairy and beef. Doing this could go a long way to both reducing our water use as well as improving our health. We can advocate for change at the state level about how water is allocated and used. We probably already conserve, if you are like me, but perhaps there is more we can do.

Water has been important in my life. I became a commercial whitewater river guide on my 21st birthday. Not long thereafter I became the boyfriend to my eventual wife on a Green River trip. I proposed to her on a Grand Canyon river trip. We couldn’t get married on a river because, well…family. But you get the drift. A river runs through it.

So you could say that I have an affinity for water. After learning to river guide, I couldn’t look at the smallest riffle without figuring out how I would run it in the tiniest of river rafts. Those days are mostly past, but occasionally I slip back into that mindset.

As a river guide, I know the singular and imperative nature of water — to always and forever seek level. Usually this means to flow downwards toward the place where there is nowhere left to go. For most streams, this ends up being the sea.

As the water that falls today, or tomorrow, or the next day, flows inexorably to the sea, we need to figure this out better than we have in the past. We can’t dam our way out of our predicament. We need to to think more carefully about our options and the consequences of what we truly and forever give up in pursuit of aims that only benefit a few.

In the end, water can only run to the sea. Here in the West we need to find a way where water only runs to justice. May we do this, and soon.

Water Water Everywhere

Seasonal rogue runoff crossing the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail.

Whether it is related to global warming or not, California seems to go from one extreme to another. Years of punishing drought have given way to one of the wettest winters we’ve seen in a long time. The drought is officially over for northern California, but in so doing it is making amphibians of us all. The average annual rainfall for Sonoma is 31.49 inches. As of today we are at 37.71 inches with more on the way.

The trails take a beating from this much wet. Water often courses down sections of trail, eroding soil needed to make a smooth trail. Puddles create mud that hikers walk through which can also tear up the trail. This year on the Rattlesnake Cutoff trail on the Montini Preserve a new seasonal runoff channel has cut directly across the trail with pools beside it (see picture). Clearly we will need to address this next summer.

Having said all that, we needed to have a year that well and truly broke our multi-year drought, and we certainly got it. It would just be nice if it didn’t also mean mudslides, road closures, and un-hikable sections of trail.

Being Thankful for the Trails

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

An adult wild turkey in the Red Quarry, blissfully oblivious of what most people in the US are doing today.

On this, Thanksgiving Day, it’s appropriate to consider what one treasures. For me, the Overlook Trail and the Montini Preserve are high on the list. I started hiking the Overlook 5-6 years ago, on virtually a daily basis. When the Montini Preserve was opened, I lengthened my hike by starting there, making my way to the Overlook and then back. For quite a while now this has been my daily exercise, a four mile hike with around a 400 foot elevation gain. This replaces what is for many people their indoor “spin class” or gym time.

So in the spirit of the holiday, these are just some of the things I’m thankful for that have come into my life through hiking these trails:

  • My health. Breaking a sweat for over an hour is always a good thing, especially when performed multiple times each week.
  • My mental health. Unlike a number of people I see on the trail, I don’t have earbuds in my ear piping in music. This lets my mind wander and process a lot of things as well as foster new ideas. I’ve had a number of ideas on hikes that have led to real results once I’ve left the trail. Also, there is new evidence that exercise prevents or decreases depression.
  • The views. I love seeing long distances. Perhaps this explains my love of the Grand Canyon and treehouses. There are some great views from the trails.
  • The wildlifeYou pretty much always see wildlife on the trail, whether it is the ubiquitous birds and squirrels, the frequently-spotted deer, or the more rarely spotted snakes (yes, including rattlesnakes). Of course let’s not forget insects.
  • The sense of adventure. My favorite times on the trail are actually when a storm is raging. I love when the creeks rise so high that they are a challenge to cross, and when there is a waterfall that crosses the Holstein Hill trail. It seems raw and exciting. Plus you often see more wildlife (like a flock of turkeys running in the rain) and fewer people.
  • The friends I’ve madeBy walking the trail so much, and running into volunteer trail Stewards and other regulars on the trail, I discovered a new source of good people to have in my life whom I appreciate.
  • The chance to do good. Whether it is picking up trash on a daily basis, or pulling invasive weeds in the Spring-Summer, there are multiple ways you can make a difference on these precious properties. Knowing that your work is both making an impact and is appreciated (as I’m often told by visitors on the trail), is a gift indeed.

The trails in the hills above Sonoma are truly a treasure. Many people I’ve met have traveled some distance to enjoy them. So those of us who live nearby are well and truly blessed. I am thankful indeed, on this Thanksgiving.

Rain, Rain, Come and Stay

Ripening Toyon berries in the rain.

Ripening Toyon berries in the rain.

Today was my first hike in the rain for the season and I was reminded what a joy it is. Hiking in the rain is a joy, you ask? Yes, it is to me, and for these reasons:

  • You tend to see fewer people and more wildlife.
  • Colors are more vibrant.
  • When runoff starts, it’s more exciting.

And if you have the right gear, you don’t get soaked. I have rain pants, waterproof hiking shoes, and a rain shell. But if it is raining only lightly I will often pull my rain shell through a caribiner and clip it to my belt, since if the storm is warm I can get more wet from sweat than a light rain. A ball cap helps keep rain off my glasses. So it’s really quite simple and even if you get a little wet, it’s just water. And the hiking is well worth it.

Given this, and the drought that we are still experiencing, I welcome the rain and wish for much more to come our way this winter. If you’re on the trail when it’s raining, look for me.

Once More Into the Breach

IMG_1263Lately I’ve been too busy with a more important project to get my daily hike in on the Overlook and Montini trails. But yesterday I cleared some time and made my way there. I knew that we were well into the season of the invasive Yellow Star Thistle, so I took along a feed sack to pull what I could.

Those of you keeping score at home likely know that the Overlook Trail Stewards have been waging war against this pest, and that war has been stepped up in recent years. Last year we were successful in eradicating it from the main Overlook and Montini properties. We knew it would be back this year, but we also figured that given how we beat it back last year it likely wouldn’t be as bad.

Having inspected a couple locations where it was bad last year I’m happy to say that it isn’t nearly as bad this year. We are indeed making progress, but we also know that this is a multi-year war and that it will require us to be vigilant and relentless.

This war is led by volunteer Steward Rich Gibson, who has called work days for groups to get together and take out both Yellow Star Thistle and Scotch Broom – another non-native that has a tendency to take over the landscape. Without efforts such as these our landscape would look very different than what it should be, and has been for centuries.

Here Be Snakes

rattlesnakeAs I set out on my hike in the warm morning air, I realized that today would be a likely day to see a snake. Today was predicted to be a hot day following on a warming trend over the last several days. It proved to be prophetic, as a group of us who converged on the Overlook upper meadow at about the same time were treated to spotting a gopher snake (see picture from a previous sighting).

Gopher snakes have similar markings to a rattlesnake, so they are often mis-identified. The simplest way to tell is to look for rattles — if the snake has rattles, it’s a rattlesnake, if it doesn’t, it’s a gopher snake. The gopher’s head is also not as spade-shaped as a rattlesnake.

Although many people are afraid of snakes — and especially the poisonous rattlesnake — snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Without predators, ecosystems can fall tragically out of balance and perhaps damage an ecosystem irreparably. They also tend to avoid humans if they can, and it’s usually only when they are surprised or cornered do they strike.

In a conversation later the same day, a man recounted the story of a relative running the trail just last week who was nearly bitten by a rattler as she ran past. It missed because she was in rapid motion, but it was likely because she was in rapid motion and going past the snake in close proximity that it chose to strike. This is why it is very important to watch the ground ahead of you, especially when running. When hiking the snake usually has time to sound a warning before you get too close. I have had this happen on the trail.

So now that snakes are out of hibernation and on the Montini and Overlook properties, stay alert! If you can avoid riling up a snake it can be a pleasant outdoor experience to see a predator up close and watch it slide away into the grass. Let’s hope this describes all of your future snake encounters.