Schoolhouse Celebrates 50 Years of Wilderness in the Point Reyes National Seashore

Karen Gray of the Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound welcomes you to the wilds of the Northern California Coast. Hosting the 2014 Point Reyes Birding and Nature Festival Reception

 The Point Reyes Schoolhouse is celebrating the 50 year anniversary of the Wilderness Act in America, part of a 2014 nationwide jubilee called, “Wilderness Forever” that unites national institutions dedicated to wilderness preservation as well as NGO’s such as the Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, Trust for Public Lands, The Audubon Society,  The Nature Conservancy, and the Smithsonian Institute. The Point Reyes National Seashore includes the Phil Burton Wilderness Area and the Drake’s Estero Wilderness Area where the wild in us shares the earth with wildlife.

Ah. The Rain

Ah, The Rain

IMG_2661After a long wait, the first of the season’s rains are here – not enough to swell the creeks and rivers for the steelhead and salmon gathering at their mouths preparing for runs upriver into the fresh water to spawn, but enough to diminish the extreme fire danger on land.

The beginning of the rainy season brings a special relief to folks in Point Reyes after the great Mt. Vision Fire of October 1995 burned over 12,000 acres of forest and grassland taking many people’s homes along with it. The extreme dry conditions combined with fall winds acted to fuel a fast burning fire that raged for 4 days. Fire suppression practices in the area for over a century had built up a tremendous fuel load.

The pyrotechnics on the wooded Inverness ridge were astonishing to watch from the hill on the Schoolhouse Compound. We thought at first, horrified, that we were watching propane tanks explode at people’s homes. It turned out to be a natural form of a similar occurrence: the Bishop pines, ancient trees evolved over millenia to reproduce with the aid of forest fire, were heating up and sending their flaming sap rich cones flying hundreds of feet through the air to explode on landing, distributing their seeds over large areas. The dense carpet of Bishop pine saplings – some of which can be seen now standing along the Limantour Road edge – was the result.

As the rain continues to come down now it sounds like reassurance to those of us Point Reyes inhabitants who do not welcome wildfire readily.

Overnight the pale gold grasses will give way to bright green shoots, properly named as they shoot from the newly dampened soil to turn the entire coast range a shimmering green. This is California’s ‘second spring’ when the warm temperatures of fall combine with the first rains to spur the native grasslands to regenerate. Blooming California poppies will soon dot the hillsides along with wild radish.

Thousands of migrating birds stop to feed on the berries ripening in coastland gardens: cotoneaster, hawthorn, pyracantha, elderberry and huckleberry. Large flocks of western robins mixed with cedar wax wings drop out of the skies to gorge on their route south. The hummingbirds, Anna’s, Rufous and Allen’s, are dallying around feeders and the last of the blooms deciding whether to winter over here or move on to the south.

Five o’clock and the sun just dipped behind the Point Reyes ridge.

Point Reyes Western Weekend 2013

This is a Point Reyes tradition coming up on Sunday, June 3rd. The 4H show of livestock and farm animals is at the Green Barn in the morning; the Western Weekend parade starts promptly at noon at the north end of Main Street with the 4H Homecoming Queen and her attendants on a float; marching bands; the West Marin Sheriff’s Possee on horseback and lots of other local color – you might see tap dancing cows, Main Street Moms with banners opposing fracking in California, Cowgirls for Peace riding in their jeep and artists gone wild for the occasion.

The parade has been a local event for decades and celebrates the ranching roots of the community as well as the eclectic mix of artists, eccentrics and social activists who have made West Marin home since the Hippie Days of the 1960’s.

The local Lions Club puts on a chicken barbeque in town afterwards that raises money for good causes and all are welcome.  4H will sponsor a cake sale, too.

Drake’s Estero Wilderness Area Point Reyes National Seashore

Photo Credit: Douglas Elliott

Photo Credit: Douglas Elliott

The air was crisp and the sun shone brightly as we hiked through the peace of the Estero Trail early this spring. Careful to keep our voices low as we passed, we saw many shorebirds feeding in the shallow waters of low tide. A pair of peregrine falcons, the fastest animal on earth, swooped past us as we climbed up and over the ridge heading west towards the ocean.

Declared the West Coast’s first Marine Wilderness Area, Drake’s Estero is the heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore. This photo was taken from the bridge crossing over the mud flats via the Estero Trail this spring.

This magical trail starts at the edge of a pasture for black angus beef cattle, continues through a shady pine forest, and further on emerges into the open air of the estero. The estero bridge has been outfitted by the park with viewing benches for birdwatching and studying the life in the tidal waters below- blue crab and bat rays being the most active.

The rich diversity of the water is matched by the land with a terrific wildflower display in late spring. Native poppies, Indian paint brush, bush lupine, monkey flower, pink mallow and Artemisia line both sides of the trail attracting butterflies and hummingbirds.

One of my favorite trails in the park because of the variety of landscape and spectacular views, this is a good choice for families with younger children or older folks who aren’t up to the rigors of steep inclines.  There always seems to be a surprise waiting around the bend on this path. This time it was an elegant great white egret fishing intently  in the cattle pond over the ridge. We spotted him just as he caught a frog in the shallows.

THE WILDERNESS NEXT DOOR: POINT REYES NATIONAL SEASHORE

The wide range of landscapes that make up the national seashore always amazes me. I have made Point Reyes my home for nearly 35 years and there are Still areas that are brand new to me.

One such magical place was revealed on my birding walk with the Environmental Action Committee’s Annual Point Reyes Birding Festival this past weekend.  Our group  met not long after dawn in the freezing cold and foggy parking lot of Drake’s Beach. The wind was whipping through this natural wind tunnel as we layered on hoods, jackets, sweaters and gloves for the morning hike.

Heading down the beach to the northeast we took advantage of the low tide to walk well below the Drake’s Beach cliffs and the wind. The tide pools in the beach rocks were exposed to reveal hundreds of green sea anemones, barnacles, mussels, sea stars and other creatures.  Shorebirds, including turnstones, plovers and oyster catchers were foraging along the sand and rocks.

A ways down the beach the cliffs dropped and a lightly used trail headed up the ravine to the top of the hill. Ascending, as we wove our way through the poison oak and ceanothus, we passed pink mallows, hedge nettle, California poppies, three types of lupine, beds of blue Douglas iris, pussy ears, buttercups, blue-eyed grass, mule ears, lotus foot trefoil, and cow parsnip.

Near the top of the rise we walked very near the arbors of a eucalyptus stand beneath us that sheltered a great white egrets’ roost. The colony shimmered white in the fog, hunkered down on their branches in the cold.

To the west we looked down over the Phillip Burton Wilderness Area of Drake’s Estero. A colony of harbor seals were hauled out there on a sand bar with a couple dozen pups, small and black in their new fur. All were resting on land but vigilant as a coyote trotted along the main beach, perhaps looking for a land bridge to get across the water to a nourishing meal.  We speculated that if hungry enough it would swim across the channel but no such encounter happened while we watched.

At the top of the hill we trained our scopes on a grazing tule elk in the mist.  A white tailed doe and her fawn sprinted up the hillside through the scrub. A number of song sparrows and other lgb’s trilled in the brush around us, the only sound we could hear as we lingered in the peace and quiet.

All in all, it was a richly rewarded effort, well worth the cold and damp. Just a few hours after we had set off, all were headed over the Inverness Ridge back to Point Reyes Station and the warm sunshine – only twenty minutes distant but a world away.

The Milkmaids are Out

milkmaidCardamine californica is out in Point Reyes. The first of the native wildflowers to bloom, milkmaids bob their white blossoms on thin stalks in the company of ferns and other shade loving plants. The stark white of the delicate bloom shines from the shadows on northern slopes where the moisture collects after late winter rains.

A member of the cruciferae family, these flowers are so named because they bear four petals that recall the Christian crucifix, an association they share with the native radish, the cultivated mustard, and other leafy green vegetables sown as winter crops in California.  The pure simplicity of the bloom creates a pattern like snowflakes when the singular flowers are scattered through the rich green of the undergrowth beneath coast live oaks, buckeye and elderberry.

Along water courses the giant cow parsnip will also bloom early along with the naturalized calla lilies left from old ranch house gardens long abandoned; (large stands can be seen from the road as it borders Bolinas lagoon just north of Stinson Beach.)  The wild plum is now a flurry of intense white blossom set against the dark green conifers in Olema Valley.

When the milkmaids are out it’s a sure sign that the spring blooms are not far behind: columbine, forget-me-nots (not a native but seen everywhere in the dappled shade), checkered lilies, pink mallow, buttercups, and the blue hound’s tongue.  Later, the blue and yellow bush lupine, Indian paint brush, wild radish, brodiaea, and farewell-to-spring will come into bloom as the green grass turns golden.

The Milkmaids are Out

Elephant Seals

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

These photos were taken by retired ranger Carlos Porrata with a telephoto in the first week of January 2013.
This is a very newly born (notice how wet its pelt is) elephant seal pup and its mother on the southern end of Drake’s Beach. There are over 500 individuals hauled out on the sand now. We expect another 4-600 more over the season. The pups are ‘hard wired’ for survival according to marine mammal scientist Sara Allan of the Point Reyes National Seashore staff.
This means that after about 6 weeks of nursing and gaining weight on the beach with their mothers as guardians the pups are left alone. One day the mother swims out to sea and never returns. The pups must navigate down to the surf and into the ocean to feed all on their own with no lessons in survival. The miracle is that so many of them do it.
The elephant seal colony at Point Reyes is a miracle in itself in that this mammal was nearly hunted to extinction for the oil extracted from its blubber that was used to illuminate oil lamps before the advent of electricity. Only a few pairs remained into the 20th century to repopulate a few areas on the California coast. Point Reyes saw the first individual arrive here in the 1970′s.

Tule Elk

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

Photo Credit: Carlos Porrata

We did a New Year’s Day 2013 hike out Pierce Point Ranch trail in full warm sunshine with bright blue sky. Large groups of females were gathered in herds on one side of the trail and bull elk were in a herd on the other. The rutting season has not begun so there was peace in paradise as they lounged and grazed together. The bulls in their full racks are magnificent to see and they are surprisingly comfortable very near the trail as long as people stay on the track and do not approach them. Hundreds of individuals now thrive in the Point Reyes National Seashore from a few pair that survived in the San Joaquin Valley through what was believed to be their extinction. Point Reyes National Seashore appears to be the perfect wilderness area for their come back. The herds have been so successful that another population has been established on the hills above Limantour Beach. This winter time display is a thrill.

The Glorious Rains

The glorious rains returned to California’s north coast as the season turned from winter to spring last month. In the few weeks just passed our Marin County reservoirs have gone from low levels to 95% of capacity. The fresh water began gushing over the spillway for our local Nicasio reservoir just as the waterfalls on the cliffside of the road were running full. When my son was a little guy in the back seat of the car we counted over 20 of these waterfalls between the eastern end of Lucas Valley Road and Point Reyes Station – steep rock cuts gushing water from 20 feet above, stepped babblers meandering through the buckeye trees and ferns to the road edge, larger inland creeks down in the ravines alongside the road that rush over large boulders to join other flows further downstream.
It’s an occasion for celebration for us all: the wildflowers will be spectacular this spring and there will be renewed pasture for the goats, sheep and cows replacing the trucked-in feed that ranchers have been forced to buy with the late rains. The flushing of fresh water into the mouths of the rivers at the coast will signal the anadromous fish, coho salmon, steelhead and others that travel from the salt to freshwater rivers, to begin their journey back to their spawning beds. They will struggle up stream until the most determined of them reach the very same stream bed where they began life from eggs in shallow gravel basins called “redds” that are dug by the female with her tail and fertilized by the male before they die.
This morning I was walking around the edge of Millerton Point, the heart of Tomales Bay State Park on the east side of Tomales Bay, reflecting on my hope that the bay waters held these fish now headed home, and noticing how quickly the native plants had grown up in the rains. The soap root, Douglas Iris, blue-eyed grass, pink mallow and California poppies were all beginning their show. A large flock of pintails bobbed peacefully on the surface as two osprey scanned the bay from overhead. This blunt peninsula juts far out into the bay so that the casual hiker can see for many miles to the Mount Tamalpais in the south and far north to Lawson’s Landing. It is here where I feel most the literal truth that Tomales Bay is the San Andreas Fault as it comes in from the ocean to the north and continues down to Bolinas Lagoon in the south before heading out to sea again.
The skies are bright blue today with the wind whipping through the cypress on the Schoolhouse Compound this afternoon – still and peaceful in the morning, the winds howling down the bay in the afternoon. It must be early spring in Point Reyes.

The Valley Oak

Today is a day of mourning at our house – not the Point Reyes Schoolhouse but the cottage in town, in San Rafael, California. A dear and venerable family member died today, leaving a large hole in the complex web of life that has thrived there for easily one hundred years.

When we first arrived in the neighborhood, over seven years ago, she had already been an elder for over a century. Possibly the eldest of the neighbors in the old Forbes area, named for an estate established in the 1800’s and developed over a south facing oak land savannah criss-crossed with many streams that ran along it’s steep slopes. There is a spectacular southern view of Mount Tamalpais just up slope from our place that must have taken in the full panorama of San Pablo Bay to the east and the coastal ridge to the west before development grew up.

I’m sure that spectacular view was still open to every creature who perched in the towering branches of this venerable valley oak, (Quercus lobata Nee), that was anchored in the back gardens of my neighbor to the east. It is clear that when the house was built in the 1930’s the builders planned around this majestic oak whose branches arched gracefully over both houses and back gardens until today.

As we lived through the seasons under her arbor we marked them by the browning and loss of the leaves in winter that left a stark sculpture of forked branches against the night sky; the bright green of newly sprouted leaves and catkins in the spring that dusted the windows in yellow pollen and kept the air alive with the buzz of bees at work; the rich dark green leaves with newly forming green acorns at the twig tips in summer; and finally the fall of thousands of burnished bronze acorns dropping to the ground or harvested by the wildlife that lived in her branches. Red and gray squirrels made their nests up there along with a few song birds every spring.

In winter, I admired the moon and stars through the bare branches, heard the deep rumbling hoot of the great horned owls roosting high atop the arbor, the soft, mellow chirping of the nesting screech owls in the early morning, the rattling call of the acorn woodpeckers harvesting and storing the nuts during the day. Red shafted flickers, rosy breasted nut hatches, blue jays, scrub jays, and a large raucous colony of crows inhabited the oak’s trunk and branches. When the large flocks of cedar wax wings and robins came through the neighborhood on their southerly migration in the fall they stopped to roost in the upper branches to get the lay of the land and spot the gardens that offered up cotoneaster, pyracantha and english ivy berries for gorging before heading on their way.

There was an entire world established in that oak tree that had thrived for generations. Now, the branches are lying cut and neatly stacked in piles on the sidewalk for pick up to the landfill. By tomorrow morning it will all be gone. As it turns out, incredibly, the town of San Rafael has no tree ordinance, no ‘Heritage Tree’ designation to honor and protect these mothers of us all. Instead, the grating whine and stink of those chain saws will be with me for a long time to come.

Revered chronicler of America’s trees, Donald Culross Peattie, wrote of the Valley Oak in his A Natural History of Western Trees, “To say that the Valley Oak is the monarch of all the deciduous Oaks of the West is almost enough to identify it. For you take one look at an old specimen’s great bole, its magnificent crown, the width and the depth of its pool of shade, and you realize that it is king in its class….They grow tolerantly with Live Oak and Sycamores, the three trees forming beautiful harmonious contrasts, like notes in a sweet chord.” Its natural life span is 300 years. Peattie writes: “The acorns…meant a great deal to the California Indians…Naturally many animals beside man eat the sweet acorns –the gray squirrel, for one, and the California woodpecker. An epicure for the mast of this tree is the band-tailed pigeon…”

“Throughout the season this Oak presents a gentle drama which evergreen trees do not offer – the tender haze of color when leaves and catkins first appear in late spring, the beauty of the long summer shade, which is not dim and stuffy like that in a dense growth of young Redwood, Douglastree and Laurel, but luminous and breezy – letting in the light but not the full heat of the day. The trees hold their leaves until December and never turn any gorgeous colors, but while the bare trunks and limbs in winter stand naked their grand, beauty of form comes out, the bark pale against the clouds filled with the promise of rain….”

“The bare boughs have let the sunlight freely through, and the dark loam absorbs its warmth swiftly. Then the year brings forth its sweetest children, those displays of wild flowers that are the singular pride of California….At such a moment one can behold California as it was in its primeval innocence and dignity, before tractor and realtor, fool’s oat and filaree altered so much.”