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.

Overlook Trail founder is honored

fullsizeoutput_7196Karen Collins, who helped establish the Overlook Trail, has been honored as Sonoma County Woman of the Year for the Third Senate District. Karen has made vital conservation efforts in Sonoma and we appreciate all she does for us hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Karen has long been active in local civic and community service. She spearheaded the community effort to preserve the land to the north of town for hikers instead of having a luxury hotel built. She co-chaired the task force that created the trail and is still involved with the volunteer stewards and maintenance and use of the trail.

She currently chairs the Sonoma County Regional Parks and Recreation Commission, which oversees the County’s outdoor recreation programs and is also on the board of Jack London Park Partners, the nonprofit group that operates Jack London State Historical Park. In 2014, she was named the Sonoma Valley “Conservationist of the Year.”

We are lucky to have a dedicated person like Karen that supports the Overlook Trail and outdoor recreation in Sonoma County.

Congratulations Karen.

The Movies and Hiking

While hiking the Overlook trail, I’ve been thinking about movies that I enjoyed that had hiking as the central plot.

IMG_3111Wild is a story of an inexperienced hiker who decides to hike solo the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. She wanted to drive out her demons after the death of her mother and her own addiction. With sheer determination –and some help from REI replacing hiking boots—she made the entire distance and experienced what many hikers know—get out in nature and your problems diminish. I may not be driving out demons but every time I go on a hike I feel better afterwards. Being out in the great outdoors lifts my spirits.

A Walk in the Woods is a tale of two older friends who challenge themselves to hike the legendary Appalachian Trail. They aren’t really tackling any weighty issues—the movie is really the story of two grumpy old men dealing with mishaps, sharing confidences (some of them pretty racy!) and building a bond between them while hiking. I find that walking with a friend is comforting and fun and this movie reminded me of how hiking with another person can create a strong bond with your hiking buddy.

There are many movies that have hiking as part of the plot, I’m much more aware of them since I’ve become a hiker. I’m even reflecting on hiking that may not be central to the plot –think Julie Andrews hiking with the seven Von Trap family members out of Austria to safety at the end of the movie Sound of Music, a multiple Academy Award winner.
What movies have you watched lately that made you think, “Forget sitting here watching a movie, I’m going outdoors to hike!”

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.

Oh, the Views!

002808_lI’ve always enjoyed seeing long distances, so the views from both the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Preserve have always been one of my favorite aspects of the trails.

The best views in my book are these:

  1. From the top of the Overlook Trail, looking out over the City of Sonoma to Mount Tamalpais and (on a clear day) all the way to the skyscrapers of San Francisco.
  2. 004252_lFrom the Valley View Trail (not the top, but along the ridge before you get to the top) across Sonoma Valley to Sonoma Mountain.
  3. Several spots along both trail systems where the trail traverses an open space and you get a view of the surrounding countryside.
  4. And of course, the wildlife!

So the next time you’re out on the trail, take time to admire the views. It’s one of the best things about our trail system in the hills above Sonoma.

Who? Who?

p1010385_hdrA Great Horned Owl, that’s who. At least some hikers spotted one on the Montini Preserve this week. He or she was perched in a large Bay Laurel tree just below the trail near the Red Quarry entrance (see picture).

Owls are common in the forests and meadows of the Overlook and Montini properties, although sightings are not frequent.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this to say, in part, about the Great Horned Owl:

“Great Horned Owls have the most diverse diet of all North American raptors. Their prey range in size from tiny rodents and scorpions to hares, skunks, geese, and raptors. They eat mostly mammals and birds—especially rabbits, hares, mice, and American Coots, but also many other species including voles, moles, shrews, rats, gophers, chipmunks, squirrels, woodchucks, marmots, prairie dogs, bats, skunks, house cats, porcupines, ducks, loons, mergansers, grebes, rails, owls, hawks, crows, ravens, doves, and starlings. They supplement their diet with reptiles, insects, fish, invertebrates, and sometimes carrion. Although they are usually nocturnal hunters, Great Horned Owls sometimes hunt in broad daylight. After spotting their prey from a perch, they pursue it on the wing over woodland edges, meadows, wetlands, open water, or other habitats. They may walk along the ground to stalk small prey around bushes or other obstacles.”

Feel free to find out more about this beautiful bird.