WILDCAT GORGE TRAIL: Seeking Wonders of Nature in the Mud and Drizzle as Tilden Park's Rain-Swollen Creek Charms, Amazes, Soothes the Soul
Overnight, these choral, flirtatious invocations from the heavens have transformed our local watershed (Wildcat Creek in the Berkeley Hills) from a brown, sere landscape into a primeval, lush, green rainforest world of visual sumptuousness and olfactory sensations wafting in the moist autumny air – inhaling the sweet scent of freshened bay leaves, the pungent aroma of eucalyptus bark, the musky odors of mud plashing under feet, and deeply breathing in a mish-
Uncharacteristically humid and dank, water drips off
Not surprisingly - for it's simply too mud-licious and puddle-wonderful (thanks ee) of a day - this backyard paradise is bereft of people. And now it's stopped raining, the sun is peaking out, adding to the sensational illusion of tropical euphoria. People, what people? There are close to 500,000 of us in 75 square miles bordering Tilden - and it's just me, in silent meditative mode, all alone, save for a bunch of hopped up squirrels, chirping birds, and the newts and slugs. It's irresistibly, impossibly wondrous! This - all to myself! A short hike up and down the gorge trail provides instant respite from a hectic workday, bestows peace of mind from the jarring, frenetic city, reaffirms precarious sanity, and instills in my heart that soulful happiness borne of an ineffable sense of belongingness in this beautiful place, not ten minutes (by car) from North Berkeley. . .this place that may well be one of the most charming and amazing swathes of preserved wildlands in any urban setting in the world. Yes, the world.
The rains have induced the creek to flow with florid vengeance – a powerful force of destructive (in the good sense) water tearing through the gorge that quickens the pulse, soothes the soul, and enlivens the ionic ambience of the entire forest. It's positively electric! It's pulsating, throbbing, alive like some embryonic creature called up from a dry and brittle hibernation. To think – just yesterday, it was bone dry here, not a trickle! And now, the creek bed is a miasma of dancing water, frothy white or silty brown - twisting water, raging water, torrential water dashing through narrow chutes and gathering in broader stretches where it collects in swirling eddies and then continues on its way dropping ever so slightly in elevation, but still churning and fast-flowing enough to fantasize about kayaking it! Now, that would be a novel adventure! I doubt if anyone has ever kayaked Wildcat Creek - but in the days of ephemeral big rains, it would be manageable with a few portages where downed trees have obstructed free flow. Well, maybe an inner tube with a wet suit...would I be the first?
The trail from Lone Oak staging area to the Lake Anza spillway - Wildcat Gorge Trail - is but a mere mile, and it is probably one of my favorite mile stretches anywhere in the East Bay Hills. Maybe the world. Following the winding creek, the trail first enters a beautiful meadow, where I’ve spotted chickadees, towhees, warblers, woodpeckers, rare hummingbirds, hawks, jays, and wild turkey. Soon, it comes to a bend at the cascade of Nook Pool, a lovely area backed by high banks lined with arching bay trees and a stately stand of 100 year old redwoods, where fencing is installed to keep dogs out of the sensitive breeding habitats of fingerling rainbow trout and California newts. (Many dog owners irresponsibly ignore the signs and let their dogs off-leash to romp and frolic in the pools, and damage stream banks, creating erosion and destroying plant cover which helps to retain soil and provide shady riparian conditions. . . I guess on a hot day, can't blame 'em - the dogs, that is.)
From here, after taking in this splendid watery spectacle, the trail continues up and over a hill, before finally leading back down along the creek. Throughout the charming corridor, the forest is richly blanketed with a mix of coast live oak, bay laurel, madrone, alder, big leaf maple, dogwood, buckeye, and redwood - an arboreal sanctuary where you leave the world behind and enter the kingdom of trees to commune with and express endless thanks and praise for their sacred existence amid your solitary and grateful presence. Trees glorious trees! At one particularly beautiful stretch, I stop to linger and bird watch in a brambly, wooded area that is painterly in tones of red, yellow, green and amber, with a backdrop of an ancient volcanic cavity formation rising fifty feet that lends the scene exotic appeal. From here, the trail continues creekside in an upward course toward the spillway, below Lake Anza, where, thanks to Anza's overflow, the creek comes crashing down over a thirty foot high, twenty foot wide ledge creating a most impressive plunge spewing forth a tremendous amount of roiling white water gushing along in a boomerang trajectory around the ten million year old lava flow that – if you give it half a look – boggles the mind and challenges your conception of the area's geologic heritage. Once gigantic volcanoes dotted the landscape, spewed forth their prodigious fiery vomit, and left their solidified statuesque remnants strewn here and there in the Berkeley Hills for us to admire and ponder over eons later.
Wildcat Creek continually amazes and astounds us aficionados of (semi) urban water courses - from its origins atop Grizzly Peak, it begins in humble fashion as rainwater drains in a culvert in the Steam Trains parking lot. Seeping deep into subterranean pockets of Franciscan Formation rock, it collects and is stored in natural aquifers for gradual release throughout the year. But the force of its run-off is what gives Wildcat Creek its bedrock-cutting power, and over millions of years it has carved a beauty of a stream running down the hillside from the Steam Trains, through Tilden
Before heading home, I have just enough daylight left to check out one of Wildcat's hidden tributaries - this one off
I'm tracing a nearly unnoticeable deer path off the main stem of Arroyo Trail, ducking beneath low hanging branches, avoiding snags of
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