EAST BAY REGIONAL PARK DISTRICT: Hidden Surprises, Natural Charms, and Commonplace Miracles Abound in Backwater Stretches of Wildcat Creek
Once a land ‘o plenty teeming with inexhaustible salmon runs, cornucopias of shellfish and acorns; once the wild stomping grounds for grizzly bear, elk, bald eagle, and mountain lion; once home to Ohlone and Miwok hunter gatherers for tens of thousands of years – in other words, Paradise on Earth — today, Wildcat Canyon, set on the ecotone of the urban and the wild, where East Bay metropolitan sprawl meets Mother Nature’s organic green blanket, covers more than 2400 acres of pretty valleys, modest peaks and roller-coaster ridges, attractive meadows and healthy woodlands, tropical-like riparian corridors, chaparral sage-scented hillsides, and a rich aquatic biota composed of ponds, marshes, lakes and creeks. In other words, it is still, relative to, say, nearby industrial Richmond, Paradise on Earth.
Living as we do, so close to the “Berkeley hills”, has the psychological drawback of tending to take the beauty and ecological integrity of our local "over the hill" parks for granted. But the secret is out - Wildcat Canyon (and Tilden) is wilderness right in our back yard! It is there I go, as John Burroughs put it in an age before OCD and ADHD existed, "to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order."
In this little patch of paradise, I’ve spotted more birds – ducks, hawks, golden and bald eagles, hummingbirds, kingfishers, kestrels, vultures, owls, black phoebes, orioles, herons, egrets, wrens, sparrows, finches and flycatchers; I’ve encountered more amphibians – Pacific tree frogs, bullfrogs, California newts, salamanders; I’ve stopped in my tracks for more reptiles – Western fence lizards, skinks, rattlesnakes, ring and king snakes, and rubber boas, gopher and garter snakes; and I’ve observed more species of mammals making their rounds — deer, fox, raccoon, bat, coyote, bobcat, feral cat, and skunk — in these two parks than seems possible in such a heavily populated / urbanized area. In a real sense, it's a wildlife refuge, a haven for all creatures, a place so wild that even river otters somehow made their waddling way from over twenty miles distant to fish and frolic in Jewel Lake a few months ago.
In this small Eden in our midst, I’ve witnessed surreal sunsets atop the seemingly insignificant 1250 ft. Wildcat peak, a modest but stand-out eminence offering up nonpareil 360 degree views of the Bay Area's classic geo-landmarks. I’ve hiked my butt off from Richmond to Orinda and still haven’t covered all the trails. In the rainy season, I’ve marveled at hard-flowing Wildcat Creek cutting deep bedrock channels, and have sought out hidden, amazing waterfalls in secret ravines off South Park Drive, one of the busiest arteries in Tilden, when it’s not closed for seven months out of the year (November to May) to allow for the safe passage of migrating, sexually active newts. There is just so much to do in these two parks, for every walk of life — biking, horseback riding, swimming, exploring, picnicking, golfing, calliope and steam train rides, and, of course, aerobic hiking to the top of Wildcat Peak for superb views, west, of the Marin headlands, Mt. Tamalpais and San Francisco’s glittering skyline, north to hills and glistening reservoirs of San Pablo and Briones, and east, twenty miles distant, to iconic Mt. Diablo rising to 3849 ft. It just doesn’t get any better than this, for urban living - your pick of nature retreats / wild escapes right on your doorstep, minutes away, there for the enjoying. If only you'd stop your grousing. . .
The other day, lamenting my recent carless state of being – a purposeful experiment going on one year and counting (my carbon footprint plummeted, I've saved a ton of dough, and I ain't looked back!) – I found myself whining about not being able to (easily) get to Marin’s playgrounds, or down south to the big hill country of Henry Coe, or over to Mt. Diablo’s vernal woodlands, or even to the relatively nearby regional parks of Redwood or Briones - in other words, somewhere, anywhere more exotic and farther afield than my humdrum commonplace old familiar haunts in the Berkeley Hills. . . .can you blame me for tiring of the "same old thing"?
So, I sigh, shrug – alas, pity poor me – and hop on my bike, laboring up the hill to my old standby – Wildcat Canyon. I take Arlington Avenue all the way up to Rifle Range Road - just to take a different approach. It's been a while, so I'm dismayed by all the residential development - palatial like estates metastasizing in previously open space land and ugly towering condos lining the ridge overlooking the canyon. Nice views of green hills stretching as far as the eye can see. But do they get out and enjoy it? Just below, out of sight and mind and consciousness from the city dwellers, down about 600 ft, is my destination to my inner journey of self, of soul-clearing out, mind blanking release, there on the placid outlier banks of unseen Wildcat Creek. I tear down the now mostly paved Rifle Range Road, and in a flash I'm on Wildcat Creek Trail at the pretty bridge and pool where I meet a birder who points out two species of Orioles (Hooded and Bullock's) just up from Mexico singing and carrying on in a eucalyptus tree. I head up the hill toward the Alvarado Staging Area in concretized Richmond / San Pablo, and well before coming to that picnic haven for the urban masses, I spot my little rabbit path - “Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by”. Ditching my bike in a thicket of brush, dropping helmet, gloves, sunglasses and all but my Camelbak, I veritably hopscotch in joyous abandon down the hill to where the creek beckons me, flowing unseen and unnoticed by most, deep down, down, down, to the bottom of the canyon, swallowed up by thick vegetation and lost to a world that only moments before existed in a time a place nowhere to be found deep in the bowels of this ancient, timeless, moist, sensuous-smelling forest.
Descending deeper into the lush bay and oak and fern-filled forest, where also dogwood, willow, cottonwood and birch reside, the artificial sounds of the other world melt away – the drone of airplanes and distant traffic from I-80, a plaintive buzzing of a chainsaw high up on the ridge somewhere – replaced by the soothing acoustical balm of water’s gurgling melody swooshing through its winding bed, and the melodious chirping notes of birdsong, and the scrunching underfoot sound of deer scampering away. Welcome to the good tidings of the world of unseen and hidden Wildcat Creek, as beautiful and peaceful a creek as if it were 1910 or - easy stretch of the imagination - 1910 B.C. It is only I in my modernity of thought and consciousness who wreck that poetic flight of fancy.
Down here, the creek is hidden, lending a magical apparition to its spirit – there is no vantage or viewing point from the trail – and its coursing waters run deep enough down the gully and through heavily enough forest cover as to be ignored by 99.9 percent of everyone who passes by on foot, bike or horse. Is there, I often have wondered, even scant interest to know what secrets might lie down there, off the trail, what worlds exist that might be explored or accessed, so as to experience and appreciate the simple miracle of the unknown? Probably not, because people are on their way somewhere, engaged in their single-minded outdoor pursuit of health, fitness, social gabbing, whatever. Even if interested, it would be tough to find. If evidenced by the narrow foot trails leading down to the creek, not many pass through. They are obscured by brush and overgrown most of the steep descent, so they’re very easy to miss and the thick tangles of overgrown vegetation discourage all but the foolhardy from venturing down.
Down here, where sunlight filters through a yellow-tipped tree canopy, and a gentle breeze caresses the budding leaves on swaying branches, and you're all alone with no one to come to your rescue should - heaven forbid - you have some medical emergency. . .to get to this backwater location, you’ve really got to want it, because getting here is not a walk in the park – it’s a tough hill mountain bike ride in the park - then it's a foot-pounding and knee-buckling bushwhack up and down the creek’s sometimes wide and occasionally narrowing contours, always rocky, slippery, and the threat of sinking knee-deep in oozing mud. Oh, and have I mentioned the bane of all civilized hikers - the poison oak, really a lovely looking plant that means no harm, personally; and the ticks, really a misunderstood arachnid just doing what it's meant to do; and the mosquitoes to deal with, really just deal with them and leave your DEET residue out of the natural surroundings; and the thorny brambles and stinging nettles, really wonderful creations of botany - each and every "horrible" thing in nature is an integral cog in a perfectly functioning ecosystem. They belong! Do you or I belong? Of course, too, there's the constant banging up of soft cartilage on hard rock, and ankles twisting, and backs being thrown out of whack. . .all a small price to pay for the privilege of being uniquely privy to nature's sanctum sanctorum, down here on the ol' crick, in a holiest of holy setting, where one small miracle after another plays itself out in infinite variation and eternal fashion, in the guise of commonplace phenomena. Ha! We are all sorely in need of a lesson imparted by Ralph Waldo Emerson, to know and understand that "the invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common."
Down on the creek, in a curvaceous nook, a hushed stillness prevails, tempered only by the soft and gentle gurgling of water flowing around logjam obstacles; now, the creek widens in a big S-curve, enlivening the forest with whitewater noise as a minor drop in elevation galvanizes the flow into a display of mini-falls and swirling cascades, now channeling into shallow turbid pools eddying up against ten foot high banks composed of some hard clay or mud-like rock bearing ferns, horsetail and other aquatic plants. Giant trees, growing on the banks’ precipices, their tangled masses of roots gnarled up in balls of Medusa head snakes, and choked by creeping lianas, lend a Maya jungle world look and feel to the scene. In a burst of radiance, the day's warm rays find cracks in the forest canopy and shine glittering shafts of light onto the water surface reflecting trees and plants shimmering like mirages in the aqueous mirror. Dankness and shade, heat and sunlight, moisture and ripe earthy nutrients, engender a lurid rampage of green overgrowth, dreadlocked understory and dense high canopy - a lush, contagious habitat more characteristic of Olympic National Park than a little old commonplace spot just beneath some condos up above.
I make my way slowly up and down, then back again to my starting point, along a mile or so stretch of the anfractuous course of Wildcat Creek’s twisting S curves in its eleven mile journey to the bay from high atop Grizzly Peak near the Steam Trains. Each bend is a provocative glimpse into a new world, a dazzling kaleidoscopic vision of Mother Nature bursting at the seams with surprises, inviting further exploration, more surprises, and more discovering of elusive charms and wonders. How can it be, that although I’m only down about 150 or 200 ft. at the most from the trail - but maybe 600 or 700 ft. from the condos - I might as well be 1500 or 2000 ft down, and twenty miles from the nearest parking lot, for as remote and far away from it all as things seem. Literally. Seriously. I am all alone. It is primeval. There is very little evidence of humans passing this way, even though, obviously, people do come down here to explore. (I’ve seen kids playing in this one stretch where the trail leads up through the hill to Kensington.)
At a particularly pretty spot, I lazily plop down for a rest, a bite to eat, and some meditative reverie on a hard-soft rock of blue andesite (a variety more characteristic of Diablo Range geology), next to a funneling of water splish-splashing down a stepped ledge and then pulsing to form a torrent of a small cascade – with the sun beaming down hot and bright, my aching feet soaking and rejuvenating in the splay of water, birds singing, and the interplay of all senses taking it in, it really is an idyllic moment, a precious sensation, of just being in the present, not having a future or remembering the past - just experiencing the pure inner quietude and spiritual consolation that being isolated and alone in nature affords. (And I didn't have to get in a car, drive somewhere, hike miles to relish in this. It is all right here, right now.)
I’m putting my shoes back on when I happen to look up and see the tail-end of a large brown bird swoosh overhead and then alight on a branch about a hundred feet away. Thinking hawk at first, I soon realize, that with a wing span I sense to be over fifty inches in length, it can’t be a hawk. I quickly get out my binoculars and am tickled beyond measure when I espy the bird and see that it’s a Great Horned Owl (wow!) – or at least I think it’s Bubo virginianus; it might be the lesser variety, the Magellanic (but no less majestic) Horned Owl, Bubo magellanicus. I'm just not that versed in ID-ing owls to know who I'm staring at head-on. They look similar to one another. I’ve got an excellent “bead” on the bird – and he’s staring me right in the face with his penetrating and intense eyes, like, I see you, buddy, no foolin' me. I watch in fascination as he rotates his head nearly 180 degrees like a furry horned bobble doll. A beautiful creature – an omen of keen intuition, clairvoyance, and astral projection, or so it is believed. Pondering this, the owl flies to another branch, out of sight. I continue my riparian peregrination, hoping to see him again, and, luckily, I do. The owl and the pussycat – me, Leo the Lion! – seemingly play a little game of tag – or hide ‘n seek – for several minutes, as he flies from branch to branch, all the while stopping to check me out and gauge my intentions. Why all the fuss and interest over a two-legged critter? One, ol' Bubo probably rarely if ever sees a human, and might just be curious. More likely, I'm guessing, there must be some little owlets in a treetop aerie nearby.
Contrasting with the big bird is the flitting appearance of several hummingbirds, tiny, delicate avian pixies dancing on air, throttling their necks to reveal glinting patches of ruby red feathers, suspended aloft in animated but calm frenzy, and then dropping down to gentle riffs in the stream to dip and bathe. Their little hum-hum motors alert me to their presence before I spot them. Such an unveiling of Mother Nature's secrets and doings - "depend on it," said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "there is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace." Other forest dwelling animals, where are you? Laying low, no doubt, ensconced in burrows and dens, hunkered down in nests and lodges - you see me but I am oblivious to your physical presence. I sense you, though! I do come across lots of weird cranefly like critters swarming over a rotting log, wasps and bees, a caterpillar, butterflies and moths, water striders galore, and evidence of the passing of deer, raccoon, and - could that be a bobcat, or just a dog? Hard to tell when you're just an amateur.
The sun's arc has passed over a hill and it seems later than it is, deep down in the dark, moist forest. Surviving patches of ribbons of sunlit creek light up the forest like a glowing snake. Do I really have to leave? Why, I could just, contentedly, die here and rot into the earth like a log, but I guess that would be selfish, especially since I didn't tell my loved one where I was heading to disappear. Fat chance, though, anything like a rattlesnake bite or heart attack or anaphylactic reaction to a bee sting could occur. Maybe an alien abduction or a transformative morphing into the owl companion. But no such luck, I'm stuck - gotta return to the "real" world.
It really is hard to pull myself away from this self-imposed world of splendid isolation and backdrop of profoundly simple beauty and sensorial adornments. I had set off to find a familiar place to see what I could see anew – the spring hills are plush green and exploding with wildflowers, the rain-filled pond is turgid with water and turtles sunning on logs – and I ended up following a flight of fancy, a whim of the heart, to the bottom of an un-GPSed canyon creek. After years of exploring, I really thought I knew Wildcat Creek inside out. But I have returned to know it for the first time, or know it like a prince knows the third or fourth of seven sisters, to find that the unheralded, ignored one is truly the most beautiful. Plus, it proves the wisdom of the adage, that right in your own back yard is where true adventure is had, where commonplace miracles abound, if only we can open the eyes of our heart to see and experience them. Trudging back up to my bike, my senses soothed and healed and put in order, "I listened, motionless and still; And, as I mounted up the hill, The music in my heart I bore, Long after it was heard no more." (Wordsworth)
Great Horned Owl photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/pictiurfear/
Other Tilden / Wildcat posts by Gambolin' Man: