Wednesday, November 21, 2007

CASCADE CANYON OPEN SPACE PRESERVE: Seasonal Riparian Splendor, Exquisite Sylvan Beauty, Tantalize and Enchant in the Coast Range Foothills of Mt. Tam

Flipping and flopping about in a desperate attempt to surmount a 2 ft. high elevation hurdle in the stream bed, the big Steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) momentarily gives up, swims around in circles in the shallow pool, then tries again to scale the little drop fall - this time succeeding by literally jumping out of the water and wriggling / hoisting her fatty bulk up the obstacle course to reach the next little pool, and eventually her spawning area, where she'll set to work fanning her smoothly rubbed pinkish tail over the gravelly bottom to construct a suitable redd for the next generation to hatch.

This scenario is not far-fetched. In upper San Anselmo Creek in the Corte Madera Creek Watershed northwest of the 2571 ft. peak of Mt. Tamalpais, artificial barriers to fish migration have been removed and now, if you're lucky or your timing is right, it's no longer uncommon to witness the age-old spectacle of anadromous Steelhead trout returning from the ocean to secluded mountain pools where they originated, to lay and fertilize eggs, rear young, and then return to the deep sea in a life cycle that may take up to seven years to complete.

The relatively non-impacted upper reaches of San Anselmo Creek, and perhaps Cascade Creek, primordially was ideal trout habitat -- bedrock pools, riffles and cascades, a balanced mix of sunlight and canopy, and unpolluted water -- and, like many a Marin County creek, supported indigenous populations of Steelhead; but only recently have they been able to return to spawn and rear young in these traditional backwater habitats. The (re) appearance of Steelhead here is a triumphant victory for preservationists, conservationists, ecologists, and others who worked tirelessly with local agencies to rehabilitate the severely perturbed ecosystem, for O. mykiss is a key indicator species of the health and sustainability of aquatic systems and watersheds of the Bay Area.

As seen and experienced during the rainy season - when ninety-nine point nine percent of visitors see and experience it - Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve, including the Elliot Nature Preserve, is flat-out pretty, no two ways about it, the next best thing to Kaua'i in your backyard. A miracle of preservation, its existence proves the remarkable point that in the heavily urbanized and industrialized Bay Area nature gems are readily "at hand" (make that "at foot".), just waiting to be "discovered" for your outdoorsy pleasure and enjoyment! Grab a map and see for yourself the many splendored shades of green surrounding, contiguous to, and abutting our cities and towns. These atolls of wilderness are heaven-sent open spaces, serving as respite from the harried world, if the world be too much with you, and, more importantly -- step aside humans! -- these places provide badly needed home, habitat, refuge and sanctuary to over 50 "species of concern" and thousands of other species of plants and animals in the Bay Area. Among the species of concern: Alameda whipsnake, California red-legged, Foothill yellow-legged and Pacific tree frogs, Southwestern pond turtle, several hawks, Peregrine Falcon, Burrowing Owl, Alligator lizard, California Tiger salamander, and many notable rare, threatened and endangered grasses and flowers hanging on in serpentine soils and marsh lands. Indeed, it is a fragile, tentative existence for these beleaguered plants and animals, whose fates are unknown, in jeopardy, unless we can set aside more land for wildlife preserves than we do for shopping centers and housing developments.

When seasonal rains transform the thirsty land, a dormant homing instinct awakens, compelling you to return to familiar but unknown places, to seek out some unheralded gem of nature, right on the world's doorstep. This gem of nature is a secretive redoubt of local hikers and waterfall lovers, but somehow it's always been off your radar as a place worthy of visiting; after all, you want big adventure, big water, big views. What could possibly be of interest at such a "nowhere little place" and so encroached upon by civilization? Besides, is there any real hiking to be had here? And what about rude mountain bikers, awkward encounters with horsemen, and the inevitable hordes of people marching in bee-line fashion along the easy trail, for a perfunctory look-see at the waterfalls, before bee-lining it back to the "real world"? - put-offs and distractions all to be expected in a small nature preserve plunk in the middle of the Marin County urban corridor.

But waylaid by the prospect of a never before seen waterfall, you end up spending the whole day here, traipsin' around aimlessly, hanging out leisurely, having fun exploring, hiking and back tracking through this riparian woodsy wonderland located in a seemingly insignificant parcel of land existing on the purlieus of the ultra-hip hamlet of Fairfax, California.

Situated barely 300 ft. above sea level, in the coastal range foothills a ridge or two over from the spacious Marin Municipal water district lands holding fabulous acreage of non-recreational lakes and miles of hiking trails, Cascade Canyon Open Space Preserve is immediately sandwiched on four sides by mostly more open space. To the north/northwest, lie the even smaller White Hill Preserve (you've never been there yet either), and contiguous to the preserve, a big romping land known as Camp Tamarancho, owned by the Boy Scouts (a de rigueur mountain biking experience for the serious fat tire single track devotee). A luxurious golf course - Meadow Club - borders to the south (paradise for you duffers), and Fairfax lies to the west. Despite its untoward proximity to the town, CCOSP is a difficult nature venue to access via the dead end, narrow, and mostly off-limits for parking Cascade Canyon Road. But there are other routes, hiking in by way of - oh, get your map and figure it out yourself! - if you want to see, experience and enjoy this delightful, surprising place.

Highwater Trail leads into the small confines of the preserve. Thirty yards in, you stand slack-jawed in kid-like wonder marveling at "little old" San Anselmo Creek, gravid with an amazing amount of fast-flowing water cutting a sinuous course through the preserve and on through the town of the same name, and, via Corte Madera Creek, dumping into the bay (when it's not overflowing its banks and flooding downtown businesses). High inaccessible slopes, steep-cut gullies, and the forested ravines characteristic of these coast range foothills contribute to the pristine nature of the Corte Madera Creek Watershed and the creation of San Anselmo Creek. Thanks to abundant winter rains, arteries of water originate as seeps or springs -- Upper San Anselmo, Pine Mountain, Cascade and other small creeks -- and flow down sharp defiles for up to a mile before their voluminous "discharge" converges into a 12-mile long creek - San Anselmo / Corte Madera - flowing uninterrupted to San Francisco Bay.

One sweeping look around, not fifteen hundred feet into your hike - hike? what hike? - and you can't help but stop for a timeless eternity - turns out to be only a few minutes -- bathing in warm sunshine, oohing over the lush, fragrant forest, freshly glistening after recent rains, aahing at the stately specimens of bay, madrone, buckeye, redwood, maple, alder, and oak. Lollygaging endlessly, as you're wont to do when the water's flowing, the earth is green and the sun is shining, you leisurely take in the splendid natural setting, trying to remain hushed in thought, attuned to a pure sensual feeling of oneness, or nothingness, with your surroundings. . . you even take your shoes and socks off to feel the earth. You're moving slowly, blaming it on the bum ankle, and stop to soak it in a cold pool. It helps. You give thanks and praise. Now, you're just truly happy to be alive, with no agenda, so you can just kick back (like you're doing) and languorously soak in the magical ambience of the sounds and vibrations - melodious water flowing, sweet chirpings of harmonious birds, soft wind chimes through tree tops.

You walk some more. There's no hurry, no sense of destination, even though the magnet of nearby Cascade Falls pulls relentlessly. With each and every step, a world of beauty and intrigue is revealed unto its own, slowing your pace to a lackadaisical saunter until suddenly you're again motionless as a tree, watching, looking at, observing life around you. Although nothing seems to be happening, and there is nothing to see, seemingly. . .until you begin to notice the little things -- Thoreau's "meanest flower that grows," Whitman's "unseen buds, infinite, hidden well", Emerson's "God in a blade of grass," and countless other subtleties of Mother Nature's never-ending, unfolding pageantry of life . . .none of it meant to inspire AWE and DREAD, mind you, nor conjure up ultramontane visions of the "remote and stupendous," but rather, as American writer and naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch reminds, it's more about "the daily and hourly miracle of the usually unnoticed beauty that is close at hand. . .not the unfamiliar but the power to realize that the familiar becomes unfamiliar once we really look at it, and that every aspect of the natural world is in its own way 'awful'."

The lovely preserve is a mini-wilderness of ancient, gnarled oak trees, festooned with stringy white moss in spooky groves; mushroom penises popping out everywhere in the fecund earth; psychedelic lichen designs on rocks; freshets and small tributary streams, miniature in their awe and grandeur, captivate, tantalize, and enchant, ever powerful in their evoctions of the one true literal metaphor - life blood of the planetary organism. And, how can it be, on a day so blessed with perfectly balmy mid-winter weather, that you're all alone for the most part?

You eventually pick up your pace, following the contour of fern-choked Cascade Creek, downright lovely in its cut bedrock channel, lured by the sound of tumbling water. Rounding a bend in the trail, there's the falls. What falls? On first sight, it doesn't look like much, but, with no people about, it's an easy postcard view to fall in love with. You perch atop a big outcrop facing the 25 ft. tall falls, watching in awe as jet streams of water methodically, rhythmically cascade over the bluish black lip of the rock face, breaking off into rivulets streaming down in different directions, spraying, spuming, putting on a decent show. Certainly not Vernal Falls, but nonetheless stunning in its own little way. You become lost in meditative reverie, hypnotized by the repetitive mantra of water plunging to pool. Soon, you find a route up over the top and bushwhack from on high to see what's back there. The geology changes - pink and green and blue boulders ajumble in a tight twisted ravine, layered with small pools, little falls, miniature chutes, a fascinating hidden world - does anyone else come back here? Billy-goat fashion, you jump-hop up, up, until you can squeeze up the defile no farther. Now, hemmed in by high rugged walls, there's only one way out, back down, down, to your rocky perch, now occupied by several adults, with a bunch of cute kids scampering around playfully on the slippery rocks. Your cue to pack it up and move on. Perhaps you'll get ambitious and climb the gut-check 800 ft. trail up Repack way to the top of the ridge, then return by way of some unnamed game trail for a nice ankle-busting 8 mile loop . . ah, yes, real adventure and hiking indeed await! Time to break that sweat! You don't think you're getting off that easily, now, do you?!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA: Hiking Sensational Coastal Landscapes Through Changing Seasons in the Marin Headlands at Tennessee Valley

Hiking 850 ft. above sea level in a strenuous effort to attain fabulous "pay-off" views atop Wolf Ridge crest, the breathtaking panorama of green rolling hills and blue expanse of ocean is so captivating that I misstep and nearly crush the head of a 30 inch long rattlesnake sunning on the trail. Now highly perturbed, the Northern Pacific specimen lithely shoots up in the air, just inches off to my left, luckily opting not to lunge at my exposed leg and flip-falls back into the brush, remaining coiled in strike pose, mad as hell at me, but forgiving enough, simmering there under cover of chaparral while I snap a useless couple of pictures, amazed and disconcerted myself at the encounter.

One time, approaching an isolated outcrop of eroded and lichen-encrusted boulders, high in the rugged hills of upper Miwok Trail, no one about for miles, I watch as several monster sized ravens convene on a rocky prominence and hold court like dark royalty deciding weighty corvine matters. There is much mocking and admonitions, flapping about and carrying on, squawky nay saying and jostling for prime perches. Many photos, but not a one turned out. (What do you expect, Gambolin' Man, with your puny little digital?)

Another time, on the final leg of a tough hike, we stop to watch a hungry bobcat hunting at the dusky hour, in an open meadow close to the parking lot, where hundreds of passers-by could have witnessed (if hundreds had been there) the cat pawing at the ground, then pouncing, then pawing some more, but coming up empty before dashing away out of sight into the thickening night.

Not long ago, hanging out by a small hidden creek, I happen to look up and espy the tiniest of nests about ten feet up on an alder branch; on closer examination with the binoculars, sharp textured details of a delicate oval shaped basket, woven of fibers and grasses, are revealed. Must belong to any one of a number of species of hummingbirds who call this part of GGNRA home. (For the record, I've named her Anna.) Next thing I know, here she comes, flitting expertly through the foliage, alighting with perfect precision on her diminutive roost, sitting there contentedly for a goodly while.

Throughout countless visits at different times of the year, through the changing seasons, many animal residents of Tennessee Valley have been spotted: playful aquamarine mammals, stealthy coyotes, ultra cautious rabbits, nonchalant deer, skulky fox, waddling skunks, slinky blue-tailed skinks, darting Western fence lizards, many varieties of slithering snakes and threatened and endangered amphibians, dozens of species of dragonflies and butterflies, all beautiful and intricate beyond description, and a myriad forms and manifestations of avian life, mostly unnamable and unknowable, but common sightings include red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, golden eagles, ravens, crows, vultures, owls, quail, ducks, and a plethora of pelagic / shore birds, including terns, gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and herons.

I've barely touched the surface of possible birds, trees, insects, animals and plants that live in this swathe of the GGNRA's 75,500 acres of open spaces covering three counties and spanning hugely diverse ecosystems amidst the urban matrix called the San Francisco Bay Area. You're not likely to find any natural venue more stunning, any biota richer, in such proximity to a large city, than the parks of GGNRA, and especially the lovely, spectacular and, naturally, over-visited Tennessee Valley.

This "wild" place truly holds the promise - or threat! - of catching glimpses of animals you probably won't ever see in "person", such as the elusive mountain lion, but you will, if you're observant and follow game trails and look for faunal scat areas, come upon plenty of evidence of their comings and goings, this top chain food predator's stealthy movements through a green connector belt that provides access and egress via riparian corridors across a huge swathe of land encompassing more continuous mantel of unbroken green forest than Costa Rica! This, folks, is Marin County, a land blessed with a cornucopia of natural preserved beauty -- portions of the GGNRA, several State Parks, the Marin Municipal Water District lands, and far beyond west Marin to Pt. Reyes National Seashore. My! My! It just doesn't get better than this! -- San Francisco's "back yard paradise." (And you want to know why it costs an arm and a leg to live in the SF Bay Area.)

Tennessee Tennessee, there ain't no place I'd rather be, Baby won't you carry me back to Tennessee . . . Valley, that is, with all due respect to the classic Dead song. Crazy thing is, though, it took - what? - 20 years of residing in the Bay Area - to finally haul my butt out to Tennessee Valley! That's because, all along, I smugly figured, like Oakland so famously described, there wasn't much "there there." Couldn't be. Just look how damn close it is to roaring freeways, metropolitan skylines, modern suburban sprawl, and ugly housing developments - all this bustling activity and endless concrete and asphalt of development run amok, it all seemed much too THERE THERE for a veritable nature get-away to exist in its purlieus, right on its frenzied, artificial fringes. Besides, the crowds, the crowds, the madding crowds. On any given day, especially on weekends, the commodious parking lot is jam packed with enthusiastic hikers of all ages and sizes (90%), perfectly outfitted mountain bikers (8%), and a few equestrians (2%), each special interest "outdoor user group" squeezing in their couple of hours of effortless, all-access, ultimate nature experience at Tennessee Valley. And because it's a mere stone's throw from San Francisco, you not only have to contend with outdoorsy Bay Areans who believe their slice of coastal paradise is unrivaled up and down for hundreds of miles, but millions of tourists from all over the world who also come and visit and contribute to Tennessee Valley's often tiresome overcrowdedness and super-popularity. Yes, Tennessee Valley suffers from being loved to death.

But what the hell. One off-day, you venture over there, and can't believe your eyes at the transcendent beauty of place, at the wide open space right smack dab in the middle of the rat race! And crowds be damned! Don't let the crowds scare you. You can always escape the hoi polloi. Most of these horrible people you'll never encounter anyway, or make contact with, so why worry. (I must admit, people are so damned friendly out there on the trail! Everyone's smiling, and in a such a good mood - the endorphins must be flowin' freely from the electric, eclectic goings-on at this magical gathering place!) But, hey, it's a brilliant Saturday morning, and if you elect to go to an easily accessible, over-the-top beautiful NATIONAL RECEATION AREA, then by God deal with it. Even if, heaven forbid, you find yourself there one gorgeous weekend morning, fret not -- the place is spacious enough to swallow you up. You really can plot an escape to your perfect destination and see more animals than people, hopefully.

The unlimited opportunities for physical exertion and recreation -- hiking, biking, and horseback riding -- certainly attract hordes of outdoor sports enthusiasts, but the multitudes also swarm to Tennessee Valley to soak in its all-access beauty and pervasive picnicking tranquility. The easy hike through the lovely meadow / valley to a spectacular wedge of rugged ocean beach where Tennessee Valley Creek dumps in is the big magnet for 90% of visitors, but even so, TV's many well-tramped upper loop trails in the "back country" accommodate any and all fit enough to be there: the casual walkers, the light joggers, the serious marathoners, the Sierra Club groups, the downhill bombers, the earnest (and gabbing) Marin moms push-running their strollers. Bring 'em all on at Tennessee Valley and everyone's the better off for it!

Whatever your passion, wherever your bliss takes you, at Tennessee Valley you will find it. Amateur and professional ornithologists rejoice in hollows and hidden nooks of nature to engage in superb bird watching. When they're out, the native wildflowers attract throngs of floral admirers to look at meadows and hillsides carpeted in bright orange poppies, purple lupines, checker-bloom, and buttercups. Painterly, still scenes of wispy clouds over green hills and blue ocean. With each visit, you'll find Tennessee Valley becomes ever more magical, albeit ever more familiar, but never prosaic, as its protean charms are subtly revealed through the timeless passage of seasons and its changing, contrasting moods of a landscape in flux, alternating from a wet / lush / moist / green environment half the year to a bone-dry / brown / drought stricken one the remainder. You might have misty fog rolling in one second, blanketing the land and reducing visibility to zero, and the next giving way to warmth and sunlit dappled hills. One moment ferocious out-of-nowhere winds can whip up and howl, and the next calm down to a perfect peace. One minute it's a hot blue day, the next a cool lavender dusk.

As the informational sign board in the parking lot lets you know - and which you've read now a hundred times and will read yet again on your next visit - Tennessee Valley has a steeped and varied history, occupied for countless moons by coastal Miwok peoples, probably since at least 10,000 years ago. There was a big ship wreck in 1853 - the eponymous S.S. Tennessee - parts of which can still be seen embedded in the shore; it went through a big farming and grazing period; and then, in the 1960s, thankfully, the community rallied to save a large chunk of precious Tennessee Valley from a crass development scheme that would have brought the 'burbs right up to where, today, wild gentle hills roll toward the open sea.

No matter which direction you set off, hiking options are endless, varied, and run the gamut from easy to strenuous. Fantastic views can be had of Mt. Tamalpais, Tiburon, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay and skyline, the East Bay, including a far-flung vision of Mt. Diablo hovering on the distant horizon looking quite insignificant, and vast stretches of the Pacific opening up to views of the Farallones 18 miles offshore. Sometimes, high up on Coastal Tail, it seems like you're in the enchanting land of Cinque Terre, Italia, it's so beautiful and exotic. Then you pinch yourself and know you're here, right at home.

No matter the time of year, whatever season you visit, Tennessee Valley will yield a banquet of surprises. You can spend a couple hours or all day having fun at Tennessee Valley. Most always, a hike or ride ends up at the beach, a truly gorgeous place, no matter the number of other visitors, frolickers, and admirers, where you can find a patch of sand to dig in, a sea boulder to perch on, and lose yourself in thoughtless reverie to the hypnotic rhythm of waves breaking ashore. Peace and calm wash over you. Crowds, what crowds?