Monday, March 21, 2011

TILDEN REGIONAL PARK: A Humble Little Stream Turns Into a Raging Torrent, Replete with Frothing White-Water Cascades & Tremendous Waterfalls

"That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter."
 Rainer Maria Rilke
The past few days, we've experienced some wild and wacky weather patterns  waterspouts at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, a tornado touchdown in Santa Rosa, hailstones in buckets, and streaky displays of lightning over the Bay.
And the rain.
When rain falls, in the right amount, it can turn a place you think you're familiar with into somewhere completely different and wholly unexpected.
Rain resuscitates a dried-out forest, lending the bark of trees and the texture of rocks a glistening patina, soaking the earth and releasing heady aromas of oxygenated air, pine duff, eucalyptus mint, and mud, sweet mud. Little rivulets burst to life in their fossil channels.
Creeks are recharged. And, if you know where to find them, and time it right, secret waterfalls boom into being.
They are miraculous manifestations of the transformative power created by raindrops from the heavens, John Muir noting that:
" . . . each one of them is a high waterfall in itself."
On a puddle-licious and mud-lectable day, in between blustery downpours, I borrow a car and steal away after the grind of work to my favorite local watershed haunt – a veritable Pacific Northwest rainforest environment during these times – Wildcat Creek in Tilden Regional Park.
I have written a few posts about Wildcat and Tilden, but with new rains come new adventures, new dimensions, new inspirations and insights. (And new photographs, folks!)
A mere seven-minute drive away, I’m perpetually astonished (and always irrepressibly enthused) to know that a beautiful rugged "park" exists so close by. ("Park" because I consider it the wild land.)
Even by bicycle, it’s under half an hour up the big hill – and there you are.
Or are you?
Today not a single other car is at the Lone Oak Trailhead. Granted, it is 5 pm, on a Friday, and the weather is, well, a bit iffy – but just how Gambolin' Man likes it! I pay the price to get these "great photos" today!
A poke in the eye, a strained arm, a hobbled ankle, poison oak, nicks and scrapes – all wonderful souvenirs!  and doggie-style wet and muddy from head to toe. Just how Gambolin’ Man likes it! 
I know I’m in for a treat, after this latest series of fierce late-winter squalls that have soaked the Bay Area, bringing drenching rains to the tune of several inches. Drought schmought. (At least for now.)
During such wet spells, the creeks pulsate with a spellbinding current. With limited daylight remaining, my intention is to check out the most accessible, as well as one of the most beautiful, stretches of the creek – a lovely riparian corridor from Nook Pool to the Lake Anza spillway.
The winding course of bedrock-cutting creek supports a lush habitat and is home to many – mostly unseen  aquatic critters, birds and mammals.
Sweetly flowing, it charts a path through mixed woodland and rocky volcanic outcroppings. It's a most familiar place, visited a hundred times, and believe me, it's a lovely little walk any time of the year.
But on a day like this, bursting to the frothy seams, I feel overwhelmed by a raw primal energy, disoriented in a barely recognizable world.
Such is the mysterious nature of the electric power of water to transport and transform. Wildcat Creek  look at 'er go!  is churning fast and high, joined at gully junctures by the muddy run-off of countless freshets and snaky streams of water channeling to their natural low-point destination.
It almost looks kayakable, as nuts as that sounds! At Nook Pool, a roaring tumult of water barrels down the sloping cascade in a fury of foam and frenzy! This normally reserved, tranquil little trickle of a flow suddenly is overpowering and dangerous – one slip and you’re done for!
I stop for a long while, absorbed in wonderment and devoid of thought, just to soak in the unbridled energy of the place. Creation's handiwork – a mysterious, unseen ability to call into being a force majeure of nature – however temporary – rocks the mind!
I stop to inspect a familiar old friend – an outcrop I believe to be a volcanic plug. It's an imposing rock jutting thirty feet high and forming a creekside wall and standing out in bold textural sensuousness after a fresh shellacking of rain, a living entity, vibrant with mossy patches, delicate ferns, splotchy colorful lichen and intriguing in its curious aspect of sculpted relief so characteristic of anthropomorphic designed rock.
When this same outcrop is dry and dusty, lacking in texture or drama, it's just sort of there, a bland part of the landscape. 
And so wet and washed and smelling like a steaming mound of solidified earthly slag, it is a thing of beauty to behold, caress, look up to. I slosh and squish through sucking mud up and along the root exposed trail leading through a pretty forested area of bending bay limbs and stout oak trees.
Up on the ferny hillside, one of the bays, leaning too far and loosened by the erosive action of water, has tumbled over, like a downed Brontosaurus.
Its trunk will grow new shoots, eventually into large trees again. The forest creatures recycled, nothing wasted or lost. My very atoms are part and parcel of this process – miracle of miracles! More down to earth, I see the wild charming lover – Wildcat Creek – swooshing below faster than I’ve seen it in years.
Every little square foot of everything fascinates, enthralls, absorbs, and threatens to delay my progress. From a perch at creek's edge, I return to the trail as it winds up to a small prominence for a nice look-down at a pretty bend. If this is all there is – count me among the fortunate and grateful to be here, witnessing it. But there’s more!
The trail continues through a real muddy stretch – who cares! I'm at a favorite little glade home to three or four century-old Sequoias – stunning in their heavenward reach, right here in my presence!
Miracle of miracles!
I let them know I love, admire and respect them. Here, the creek cuts a blistering course over half-submerged rocks, roaring in a foaming bed of water turbid with the soil and silt of hill country being washed away. Can't take my eyes off it.
Farther along, I come to the area below Lake Anza, the pretty artificial lake / dam built up above and held in place by 73-year-old giant berms whose impounded waters long ago buried a 90 ft. waterfall back in the day – imagine that!
In place of this recreation lake, once existed a dramatic cliff-strewn valley – "Berkeley's own Glen Canyon” as it was once characterized by park naturalist Margaret Kelly in an article by Gordy Slack in Bay Nature Magazine.
Ah, what a loss, you're thinking! Imagine the spectacle of a miniature Yosemite plunger right in our back yard! well, guess what . . . we are still blessed by the presence of a comparable waterfall / cascade tumbler – and here's the kicker – that is twice as tall!
Let me repeat that  twice as tall!
Like frogs coming to life from deep below cracks in the dry earth after a downpour, it is the rains that animate these falls in all their glory. I kid you not! And – here's where I leave the world behind! – I'm about to (do something foolish or fearless) . . .
I'm about to climb up that suckuh right now and see what's up! For in a few days, it will all be over, done with, gone, nothing to indicate its splendiferous momentary existence, as it trickles into obsolescence once the rain stops and the run-off has exhausted itself.
But now, today, this minute even as I write this, it is surely an amazing sight, a sparkling curtain of plunging water that stops you in your tracks when you first gaze up at it from the tangled and gnarled vantage point below.
How can it be such a wonder exists . . . ? What is the source of this phantom spectacle, this dissipating display, this evanescent event?
I’m determined to find out, come hell or high water. (Turns out to be a little bit of both!) But first, at the big S-curve, I stop again to marvel for several minutes at a very scenic stretch of Wildcat Creek that whooshes over mossy boulders and the detritus of fallen trees, carving a path around a pretty darn impressive ten-million-year-old lava flow.
Say what!?
A 10,000,000-year-old remnant of one of several volcanoes that spewed and spilled its deadly cargo of magma to help (along with earthquakes) create and shape the geology and topography of the Bay Area. Again, a normally prosaic dusty old rock pile turned to a glistening stupa of sacred proportions.
A spiritual monument to the Gods of this place.
These outcrops rise to heights of forty or fifty feet and form a rugged rampart alongside the opposite bank, nearly impossible to get to – so to get to the spillway waterfall, it's necessary to traverse back up and around and down.
And finally, there I am  standing in front of a free-falling wonder of nature – a tremendous flurry of white water that lures me to its intimate façade, stopping me live in my tracks to prostate myself, very nearly, at this unexpected altar.
It almost doesn’t compute – this kind of powerful display of nature's wild wet watery force is not supposed to be seven minutes and a short jaunt away from your urban home. But here it is defying all expectations. Chilled spray covers me in spurty gusts created by the force of tumultuous water.
It doesn’t seem possible.
But the rains have made it so.
Tilden's unique geology has made it so.
Surrounded by an ancient world, perfusing its ambient magic. Water in eternal guise and infinite disguise. Primeval newts and frogs. Phanerozooic Redwood trees. Volcanic outcropping reminders of a violent earth in upheaval. Entities millions upon millions of years old, truly.
The moist earth, decaying and renewing simultaneously, an age-old symbiosis of life and death feeding off one another, interplaying in an eternal elemental dance.
Here I am.
Miracle of miracles!
As mind-blowing as the spillway waterfall is, I am in search of another, secret, hidden waterfall / cascade combo that eludes possibly nearly everyone who braves the muddy slog because, because . . .
Not only is it hidden from the trail and from all purviews, essentially, but even if espied, most would deign to stay away because . . . because it's too intractable to deal with, too remotely situated (this, in a pretty tame park!).
Just getting to its base, a little above the dilapidated old pump shed, requires a slippery scramble up a faint path through poison oak, stinging brambles and other thorny botanical nuisances.
Follow me, boys and girls! I first “discovered” and beheld the ephemeral glorious sight during last year’s rainstorms, but from the lowly perch looking up. What lay high above and beyond seemed at the time (and still does) well-nigh as distant and impossibly out of reach as Angel Falls jet-streaming down some lost world jungle tepui.
Okay, slight exaggeration, but this time I'm determined to seek the source of this little seen and shadowy wonderland.
It’s an impulsive decision – I had no plans to scale the falls. Turns out it requires pigheaded resolve and upper body strength I thought had abandoned me long ago. I instinctively chart a course up and around a slippery rock face, untrammeled by human or deer.
Each upward step is calculated, deliberate, each grasp of tree branch or rock a careful study of finality, for one mis-hold or slip, and I'm a goner. Even ten or fifteen feet would be a cruel fall – and I’m fairly certain the bottom third of this gusher is a free-fallin’ 50-footer over sheer rock façade.
As I get higher and higher, it becomes clear that the length – the depth  is much greater than I thought viewed from below. I estimate the whole thing is over 175 ft. of vertical and semi-vertical ruggedness.
It is not child's play. I’ve made it to the middle point and can now look out across the curtain of water which takes on a whole new mien, a dramatic sight worthy of North Forkian adjectival hyperbole – but enough!
We're in Tilden Park!
It's then that I realize I've still got quite a ways to go to scale the uppermost top shelf. Gotta scramble up there, and over that, and around this, between that . . . over increasingly bigger outcroppings of volcanic ejecta – heretofore unseen by Gambolin' Man's eyes – still-life painted colonnades of colorful cliffs framing the snaky cascade of spraying water!
And still I haven't topped outFinally, after much slipping and grappling and pulling and nearly falling a half dozen times, I make it to what I think is the ultimate – or first – shelf drop. I'm nicked and scratched up pretty nicely. But now, to my chagrin, I’m faced with an obstacle-laded course up the bedrock of the drop falls.
If I can just get up and over it, I’ll be home free. To my right, it's impenetrable owing to a 70 degree incline, so the only way up is over this shelf in the heart of the cascade. I lean as much as I can into it and find a teensy fingerhold with arm outstretched to the max, just enough to secure my position, and then heave my left leg high up and onto the table rock.
Before committing myself for the pull-up, I glance down  a mistake – and gulp when I see it’s a dead drop of 75 ft. – it could mean death or severe maiming at the least, at the worst . . . and who would find me up here in this uncharted speck of wilderness?
Well, I'd come this far, and there’s no turning back.
I take a deep breath and without hesitation pull my weight over the lip of rock, to safety and the prospect of more intense scrambling up ever more impressive cliffs and cascades. Hell, this thing might be 200 ft. when it's all said and done. And still not to the top, but it’s pretty easy clambering from here on.
The gully narrows into a smaller defile until its cut lip emerges onto flat ground – the top of this big cliff. Finally, I can see the source of the dramatic waterfall flowing off the cliff face.
Unbelievably, all it is is a pathetic, thin ribbon of shallow water no wider than two feet snaking along an undistinguished trough in the ground. How could that make such a commotion?
Momentarily disoriented, I look around and realize where I am once I spot the brown body of water looming in the dusky gloom of the late afternoon emerald forest – Lake Anza.
I've climbed to the high ground above the lake, connecting to a matrix of trails I’m not too familiar with, but certainly if I'd come from the lake I would have avoided all the danger and nastiness – but what fun and adventure would that have (not) been?
I start to head down the trail, taken aback by an absolutely elephantine eucalyptus tree. How'd I ever miss that? But impulsively, instead of continuing down the trail the easy way back, I turn off and head through the forest again, drawn by the muffled roar of the falls, still not sated by their magical pull and throng.
I’m now finding myself going back down the way I came – always a more difficult prospect, going down than coming up. But I can’t get enough of it, and so the steep thicket-laced descent is worth every step.
I begin by carefully lowering my bulk down over a rock, daintily testing the sodden unlevel ground beneath my feet. I follow the trampled vegetation and displaced rocks from my ascent, lingering here and there to soak in the magic a final time.
To revel in a mirage of beauty. To cling to a precarious perch and just listen and look in breathless wonderment. To lose myself in familiar but wholly unrecognizable surroundings, mesmerized by white static noise of running water brimming over in my brain, penetrating to the core of my bones, with the electric healing energy of radiant positive ions.
Getting to the bottom of things turns out to be as difficult as I suspected  at one point, I loose my footing and slip slide on my ass for a good ten feet, helpless as Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in that scene in Romancing the Stone, where they're sliding down a mud chute faster than the speed of sound – the only thing that saves me is my last-second grasp of a spindly stalk of a plant that keeps me from going over a cliff and crashing on the rocks below.
Shook up, I'm hanging in a limbo of immobility, unable to pull myself up, unable to let go and drop to the little slickrock ledge beneath me for fear of slipping on the wet rock.
I maneuver into an awkward twist and find a stable rock with another little fingerhold just secure enough to pull myself up and head-first into a faceful of unfriendly brambles. I'm a wet, muddy, thoroughly happy mess by the time I get back on the trail, super-enervated by this unexpected little adventure.
Sign me up for the next one  do I have any takers?
Read selective essays from Gambolin' Man on birding in Tilden and Wildcat Regional Parks in the hills and down on beautiful and hidden Wildcat Creek:
Read many more bird-related posts from Gambolin' Man at his "backyard bird blog":
Enjoy dozens of live-action scenes of a special creek & watershed in the Berkeley Hills: