Monday, April 10, 2006

SUNOL REGIONAL WILDERNESS: Ramblin’ ‘n Gambolin’ in Diablo Range Hill Country

One sunny day during a remote mountain bike ride, rounding a bend in the fire road, I’m suddenly startled by a quick, agile movement of a smallish but nonetheless imposing animal a few feet in front of me. A very long second passes. . .a slow motion processing of this unexpected, in-your-face appearance of a wild feline! How unsettlingly casual this rare encounter is! I brake a bit, but continue riding, more amazed than concerned; the wild feline continues strutting slowly along ahead of me, in a seeming hurry to get nowhere. I suspect I have just roused him from an early afternoon cat nap.

Tawny, quite shaggy, pointy eared, with a cute, clipped tail, what we have is a larger-than-average bobcat, acting, all in all, quite nonchalant about the encounter. This is the closest, and for the longest amount of time I’ve been in the “company” with, a free-ranging wild animal.Oh, my, what a goreous cat, with piercing hazel eyes and extra heft -- I want to believe he must weigh 35 or 40 lbs. (The excess fur carried by a bobcat often makes them seem bigger than they really are.)

Bob sure seems big to me, even at a respectable minimum weigh-in of 25 lbs. It crosses my mind to, just maybe, stop and dismount, put some distance between us. After all, let’s get real: Lynx rufus californicus can take down and kill an adult deer. But aggression toward, say, a stinky human being, would only occur out of desperation.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime meeting of Tomdog and Bobcat. So, mindfully (mindlessly?), I cycle on, coasting slowly behind the loping, lackadaisical cat, keeping pace about six or seven feet in front of my bike. He cocks his neck to check me out, eyes glinting jewel-like, teeth exposed in a wide languorous yawn.. It’s mesmerizing, the rumbling meow, the vibratory purring of contentment, almost. I roll along veritably awestruck, following the cat for maybe twenty or thirty seconds, before he diverts up the hillside. I dismount as the cat stops, turns, and faces me off from about five feet up.

Ohhh-K, now what? I am both fascinated and paralyzed with unknown fears -- I should pass as quickly as possible and get on down the road. I should just stand here and appreciate the moment. We stare at each other with -- not predatory hostility -- but mutual curiosity and respect. Finally, bored, he heads ever higher up. I give a whistle just for the heck of it, and to my amazement, Bob turns to acknowledge it, or so I feel, before disappearing in a jumble of rocks.

Where else in the greater Bay Area, but somewhere deep in the 6,858 acre Sunol Regional Wilderness, can you expect to experience such an encounter? A few places, perhaps, but they’re farther away and harder to get to. So, when you’ve got the urban blues, and crave a nearby escape to big hill / big water country, no place satisfies more than this fabulous regional wilderness, located in the rugged Diablo Range northeast of San Jose, southeast of Oakland-Berkeley-San Francisco.

Sunol (where I go to get a “new soul”) is my favorite of the East Bay Regional Park District’s 65 parks. (Sorry, tree-mendous Redwood Regional Park! My apologies to you, a-mesa-ing Morgan Territory and Brushy Peak! Forgive me butte-iful Briones! I ‘ll always love you Tilden and Wildcat!) But Sunol consistently wins out. Over a span of nearly a quarter of a century, my fervid love of all things Sunol has resulted in, probably, 100 visits (possibly a conservative estimate) -- that’s possibly more than 8,500 miles of driving, $1,200 for expenses (gas, entry fee, and wear and tear), and 400+ hours of soul-satisfying, heart-rejoicing, physically rejuvenating hikes, bike rides, romps, rambles and scrambles..(Not to mention dozens of tick bites, poison oak scrapes, blisters and shin splints, hail storms, an ant attack, and one lost dog!)

What is it about the place that so enthralls? For starters, Sunol delivers on all counts -- it’s located just under an hour’s drive away from the Bay Area; whilst endlessly beautiful and easily accessible landscapes and splendid isolation await you on enticing trails leading through thickly forested hills; hiking and climbing efforts to some stratospheric lookouts pay off in a reward of glorious panoramas of faraway San Francisco Bay, Mt. Diablo, Calaveras Reservoir, the twin McGuire Peaks, Mission and Monument Peaks, and the expansive Diablo Range sprawling into the Ohlone Regional Wilderness and out towards Alameda Creek’s high, inaccessible headwaters in the Mt. Hamilton range (4,213 ft.).

Although a favorite any time of the year, Sunol can seem like a part of the high desert in broiling summers, while especially coming to life in the winter / springtime. Tinderbox dry hills transform into rolling wildflower covered landscapes painted in orange, yellow, red, and purple. Sere, weather-beaten rocks, now moisture-laden with psychedelic lichen patterns pasted in colorful montages, lend, amid a backdrop of towering green hills, a Scottish-like ambience. Secretive ravines, flush tributaries, and gurgling freshets spill out of the hills to join hard-flowing Alameda Creek cutting a dashing artery through the canyon on its eventual way to San Francisco Bay. Higher up, superb Big West views might be mistaken for someplace far away from Alameda County. An abundance of trees -- Coast Live, Valley, and Blue Oak, elderberry, buckeye, dogwood, Pacific Madrone, manzanita, Gray Pine, maple, alder, willow and sycamore -- cloak the land in a healthy arboreal mantle that supports stellar bird and wildlife habitat.

Certainly, there’s something for everyone at Sunol -- an informative Visitor’s Center, easy self-guided nature trails, lovely picnic areas, backpacking and camping zones, and charming strolls along Alameda Creek where folks gather on hot summer days to wade, splash and swim in honest to goddess pools. Naturally, everyone loves Sunol, and they come to visit in droves. Yes, indeed, for ever-burgeoning numbers of outdoor lovers from nearby San Jose and Fremont, as well as outlanders from my neck of the woods, and probably they flock from beyond, Sunol has always been and always will be a very popular place to enjoy outdoor nature activities -- so go walk your dog, take a hike, mountain bike, horse ride, bird watch, nature photograph, backpack to the aerie, or just plop your lazy ass down and have a romantic picnic in the shade of an old oak tree. Welcome one and all! We’re all welcome, and we’re all better off for knowing Sunol, the godsend of a nature retreat on the fringes of our insane urban sprawl.

Sunol can accommodate the large number of visitors, being so expansive and rugged; besides, it’s easy to lose the hoi polloi in short order. Probably 95% of all visitors only manage to make the easy stroll along Alameda Creek Trail, or possibly take the more scenic Canyon View Trail, to check out famous “Little Yosemite”. After a few days of rain, the creek churns ferociously through this pretty gorge, with roaring cascades and swirling pools transforming the placid stream into a veritable gusher of a Sierra foothill style watercourse. Here, Alameda Creek gathers steam from its lazier journey through the upper sycamore-choked flood plain, before dropping into the gorge where, over eons, it has relentlessly carved the bedrock, exposing the richly textured blue and green andesite boulders characteristic of Diablo Range geology.

It’s little wonder that city weary families throng to the gorge to gawk at the most powerful flowing body of water in Alameda County. But unbeknownst to most, only another mile up, more wonders await, such as a fun scramble / bushwhack that is not for everybody, up the W Tree ravine. (The W Tree is a venerable sycamore marking the confluence of the rock scramble creek with Alameda Creek.) After a rainy period, the rock scramble creek bursts to life with the melody of gushing water cascading over richly textured blue and green boulders. It is an absolutely gorgeous little side canyon with steep, oak-studded hillsides, a big plug dome feature, and, originating from inaccessible headwaters on high slopes, the successive and charming series of cascades, pools, cascades, pools, cascades, pools which carve the ravine‘s contours. You could lose yourself permanently in this hidden world, and not even know it, or care. (One time, alone by a small thundering falls, I became entranced -- and a little freaked out -- by the distinct and persistent sound of Native American chanting! -- over and over, an eerie syncopated Hi Ya Hey Ya Ho Ya! Hey Ya Hi Ya Ho Ya! Hey Ya Ho Ya Hi Ya! Hi Ya Hey Ya HoYa!)

There are spots along Alameda Creek that are hard to get to, secretive sanctuaries, below bluffs, down steep hillsides, away from and out of sight of all people. You can while away hours without seeing anyone, or anyone seeing you, lost in naked, meditative reveries, thoroughly enchanted by your rugged and beautiful surroundings on “little old” Alameda Creek.

This time of year (April), the little old creek is at impressive full steam, doing its essential duty of draining a 700 square mile watershed, pulling off a quite convincing and admirable imitation of a miniature Sierra Nevada scene. Throughout dry summer days, water continues to flow in trickles over mossy jumbles of boulders, gathering in surviving pools here and there, providing breeding refuges and critical habitat for the threatened California red-legged frogs and their even more endangered cousins, the Foothill yellow-legged frogs, as well as perfect spawning pools to establish ever vital redds to hatch fish eggs. (So, be careful where you tread all you bushwhacking scramblers!). At a secret pool spot I call Little Dragonfly Canyon, even in deep summer enough water remains to submerge in a sweet baptismal ritual after a long, dusty, sweaty hike in blistering temperatures. It is a lovely little spot, where dragonflies rule the little canyon’s air space and swallows construct their nests on protective undersides of rock faces. Mega-boulders, chalk blue and emerald green, choke the banks. Scrub jays skirmish in stunted oak trees at the cliff’s edge, a hummingbird alights to suck nectar from a monkey flower. No fewer than five varieties of dragonfly, several butterfly species and three interesting beetles make appearances. Some plant that looks like pot grows profusely on the gravelly banks. A hawk screeches. At the water’s edge, where my feet dangle, dozens of inch-long fishies sensuously nibble at the flesh on all ten of my toes.

Sunol Regional Wilderness challenges and fascinates because it exists as an island in geographic, geologic and historic time, a preserved remnant of things past. The Flag Hill environs beckons the pseudo-paleontology nut in you to go off-trail and explore the fossiliferous sandstone formations that once comprised ancient sea beds that are today big mesa-like hiking ridges. Greenstone, schist and metachert rock the stream beds, evidence of a turbulent past. The basalt outcrop at Indian Joe Cave Rocks hint at an earth in upheaval, a time when the whole Bay Area was a volcanic wonderland. Cultural relics (mortar holes in boulders for grinding acorns) and archaeological exhibits at the VisitorCenter help you tune into the pervasive energy, the mystery and mystique, of Native Americans dating back 5000 years, who settled on and around Alameda Creek and lived harmonious, rich lives for centuries upon unchanged centuries in perfect equilibrium with Mother Nature‘s sacred rhythms of life. Preserved riparian habitat, existing in timeless cycles of uninterrupted ebb and flow -- replenishment! -- provides essential life cycle interdependencies for a symbiotic relationship among alder and willow trees, the insects who feed on their leaves, and the fish that thrive on the insects. So birds are attracted, and animals proliferate and abound,and it is indisputably a healthy, functioning ecosystem. Indeed, due to its urban proximity at its terminus, where obstructions, dams, stabilization projects for railways, and other diversions have done much damage, it is a miracle, thanks to restoration efforts by creek alliance groups, that steelhead trout are able to return and spawn in the last ten years. As timeless as it is, ultimately, Sunol, and the health of Alameda Creek, is also an indicator of things to come, existing in a precarious balance of urban perils and natural wonders, pointing us toward a future of sustainability and ecological health, or -- what nightmare would be the opposite of that? But there is hope, more than hope, there is action! (http://www.alamedacreek.org/index.html)

And to think, Sunol is but a small patch of earth in the great Diablo Range system of the East Bay Regional Park District, comprising the Sunol - Ohlone Regional Wilderness. Ohlone, at just over 9,000 contiguous acres, notches up the wild scale another level and would require another 400+ hours of exploration to glean and never exhaust its magic. Ohlone is a big, big land of near 4,000 foot peaks, untraversable divides and ridges, a remote home to golden and bald eagles, mountain lions, and tule elk. Sprain your ankle out in these parts, or wander off trail and get lost, and it could spell trouble. But we’ll leave that for another day.