The Lonely Stars

Seeing as I haven’t blogged since January, it seems prime time to write something. This is the first weekend since that last post in which I didn’t feel buried by projects and class. It’s kinda tough finding precisely where to draw that “line in the sand” between personal time and work time when it’s all at home. Especially when you have a really driven husband who says “You just keep working ’til you’re done. That’s when you can stop.”  Gee…thanks! ;)

Anyway, enough about me. There are sea stars feeling LONELY out therein the Pacific!

High and Dry

High and Dry

Joking aside, they are indeed sparsely dispersed. Yesterday, I saw around 7. None of which were touching a neighbor. They were all separated by tens of feet. Maybe they are now avoiding contact with each other for fear of spreading cooties. (Can’t you tell I’ve been inside way too much?! We now return you to your regularly scheduled seriousness. Because, this is actually serious.)

The ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) are suffering from what has been labeled Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. ‘Syndrome’ because for a long time, scientists couldn’t figure out what was causing the disintegration of living sea stars. For some gruesome photos of the chronology of symptoms, click over to the University of California, Santa Cruz’s page.

Just last summer, they pinned down a likely culprit, a densovirus in the large Parvoviridae family, that has been present since 1942. Now, the elusive details are the variables that allow this virus to run rampant through various sea star and sea urchin populations.

While it’s tempting to shrug and say they are just sea stars, just like us, they are keystone species. They are capable of influencing the population sizes of other animals, of who lives where. Mussels serve as their primary prey. Keeping those numbers in check, other, more squishy-bodied animals, like the colonial anemones present in both the below photos, can have a chance at clinging to prime rocky real estate.

Sea Stars with their Mussel Prey

Ochre Sea Stars with their Mussel Prey

Ochre Stars between Mussels and Anemones

Ochre Stars between Mussels and Anemones

While scientists know the population crash is going to have rippling effects, what is unknown is what’s in store for the future. What else will ride in on the tides of change? Here’s likely a sneak peak of things to come: warm water this winter brought us these wandering beauties.

Lonely Sea Star 1

Lonely Sea Star 1

Lonely Sea Star 2

Lonely Sea Star 2

Solitude, but Not Alone

Solitude, but Not Alone

Trying out a new way to post blogs, since I have so much trouble with the wordpress formatter. It will be interesting to see how it pans out with regard to SEO. To me, this manner lets me add more of a personal touch that I can tailor according to how much time I have. Hope you enjoy!

2014-3-29 Houda Point Post

The Flood of a Century

We walked alongside the newly-flooded field, watching a person with a work vest hunt for vantage points matching the ones in the binder of photographs he was carrying. As he took pictures, we asked what he was up to in order to satisfy our suspicions of his task. He happily confirmed, throwing in that the dike they broke allowed an area to  naturally flood that had not seen briny water for over a century – 1888, I believe is what he said. Water surged in, pushed by a high tide. Birds fed in the water and hawks terrorized the flocks sending them swarming over dikes and marshgrass.

Usually I loathe areas too heavily trodden by human feet and shovels. Trails with too much use, reservoirs, perfect lawns of fescue, and concrete pathways strike chords in my heart that sound like the pounding opening phrase of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony [you know it – bom, bom-bom-bom, bwaaaaaam]. These areas remind me of how much work we have to do as humans to overcome our domination-laden tendencies toward nature.

Near the newly flooded area

The Arcata Marsh is one of those places that could have been an industrial wasteland, but

One of the human-introduced nuisances

instead someone with forethought and ingenuity turned it into a multi-use haven for people and wildlife alike. Nature and human needs meld as waste water is processed. Runners hoof past retention ponds as birders gaze at belted kingfishers hovering overhead. As glamorous as it all sounds, there are of course the reminders of past human activities that weren’t so kind. Pylons from mills protrude out of the marsh. Artificial dikes like the one recently broken segment the area, choking water away from areas that were once marsh.

Despite the reminders of past transgressions, every stroll through the marsh quiets the eulogy for human coexistence alongside nature. It seems possible, just with a little more work and creativity on all our parts. At least, that’s what I’m hoping! We’ll all benefit in the end if we can manage the extra effort; I’d hate to think what would happen otherwise.

More Than One Way to Carve a Canyon

…or is there?

Water is known to be an amazing force. It sustains life, takes life, removes and deposits rock. Yet, with all this power, sometimes the artist behind the work is hidden to us, our perception working like a snapshot of an incredibly dynamic, drawn-out scene.

Fern Canyon is usually brimming with water in the winter. By summer, the creek that spans from wall to wall withers down to a trickle, allowing for foot bridges and less of a wet walk thanks to our Marine West Coast climate [or “Csbn” (Mediterranean/summer fog) if you want a more technical Köppen classification. Don’t be fooled, by the way, by the Mediterranean part!! I’m not sure what part of the actual Mediterranean is this chilly; the only part I’ve been to was really, really hot! None of that here.].

Fern Canyon

The interesting thing about Fern Canyon, as small as it is, is the fact that the walls are vertical [and covered in ferns, although brown this time of year]. Of course, these walls lend themselves to all sorts of ‘myths’ about their creation, the most pervasive being that they are man-made [!]. Again [!][!!!]. According to such generalist sites like, Fern Canyon was a result of the frenzied California gold rush and miners using hydraulic rock removal methods [I see a future post on how it’s not wise to fully trust major travel guides [no endorsements from them here, eh?]]. Au contraire!

While there were miners present at Fern Canyon and Gold Bluffs Beach, they were never capable of hydraulically mining the canyon due to the lack of dams [they tried and failed]. Oddly, they occasionally focused their efforts on sucking the gold dust off the sea floor, at times thinking its origins were ocean-based and not from the bluffs themselves.

Fern Canyon Dribble

Indeed, the tool of choice to sculpt Fern Canyon was water, but by the hand of nature, not man. If you ever get the chance to go, *cautiously* check out the walls, or even the bluffs as you drive out there. They are nothing but pebbles! Sand and pebbles, lightly cemented together, ready to crumble at the first rain shower, or prying finger. Couple this soft ‘rock’, laid down by the ancestral Klamath River, with Home Creek [and perhaps a dammed ancient river that broke through?], and you get an easily carved canyon. Again, lots of water + soft ‘rock’ = natural canyon!

Speaking of water, we were lucky to see some in Sabino Canyon in Tucson, Arizona. Only 12 inches of rain falls a year.  Much like Fern Canyon, Sabino Canyon is amazing in that water is the sculptor, but unlike Fern Canyon, Sabino doesn’t have water year round. When it’s time to remove some rock, nature does it violently and quickly, almost like a woodworker wielding a chainsaw, hacking off bits and sending them flying.  Walking on the canyon floor, the drama of flash flooding is hinted at by the new restroom facilities [made of stone, replacing the old ones that were washed out–also made of stone!], broken bits of bridges, and boulders the size of small houses strewn about.

Sabino Canyon

Water is an amazing artist, even when only present a few times a year. Much like a museum that houses the works of great artists for the rest of us to admire, it is important for us to recognize the correct artist of our natural works, be it rain, wind, or ice, so that we may better understand the natural processes that occur around us. And much like a museum that asks you not to touch the works so they are preserved for future generations, it’s becoming critical that we work to preserve our natural places and allow the natural processes to continue uninhibited, creating the marvellous and mysterious works that they do. /soapbox

Peak to Peak: Jewels along the Coast

As is human nature, people are naturally attracted to peaks. Whether it’s for the good views to survey, a place for reflection, or the chance to add another check mark of accomplishment, peaks and high places have been sought out for thousands of years. The peaks around these parts of Northern California [more specifically North Coast California], while not high enough to make the ‘best of’ lists, offer lovely views of rolling mountain ranges, the recalcitrant Pacific Ocean, plus a few hidden surprises.

A surreal scene at the top of Horse Mountain looking down to the Pacific Ocean

The first surprise probably isn’t that fascinating to most, save a few renaissance, jack-of-all-trades types, but it is certainly surprising. I found out about it this way: sitting in the visitor center the other day, an older lady came to the desk searching for some type of mine or quarry. While the existence of such a thing within park boundaries seems feasible, especially considering how young the park is, neither my co-ranger nor I really knew much about it [not to mention, disturbing the ground within park boundaries opens no fewer than 3 cans of worms, proverbially speaking]. Turns out, the peak is just outside the park boundary [not sure about the quarry areas though], but the minerals discovered almost 30 years ago are decently rare and new: Coyoteite, named after the peak, and Orickite, whose namesake is the little hub of Orick. Huh!

The view from School House Peak to Coyote Peak

Speaking of things rare, another peak to the south offers some interesting treasures along the same vein. Horse Mountain lies 30 miles from the Pacific, more or less east of Eureka, California, and as one drives up Highway 299 to the peak, a change in vegetation occurs, so much so that Horse Mountain boasts a federal Botanical Area designation. This change is more than just a switch from coastal Sitka spruce that hugs the rocky shore to the redwood and Douglas-fir forests of the gently rolling Coastal Range. The change indeed occurs as the elevation increases, but Horse Mountain is around 4,000 ft–not enough to be alpine or even subalpine, so the difference found on the peak isn’t caused by elevation, nor even climate, alone. This peak has reached through some threshold that the surrounding land couldn’t.

As if using a magnifying glass to view the globe, a look at ecoregion [think: bigger than ecosystem] maps offers clues once the finest detailed “level 4” map is consulted. Starting at the grossest view and working down to the finest, the levels start at the Northwestern Forested Mountains of the Marine West Coast Forest, then down to the more specific Klamath Mountains/California High North Coast Range with the Horse Mountain area specifically falling in the Coast Range of that category.

These mouthful of words loosely state that Horse Mountain falls just on the border of the Pacific Northwest rainforest type of environment we often think of in coastal Washington and Oregon and the forested mountains of the Rockies. And the Coast Range category points directly at this region in California, but does not define what exactly makes Horse Mountain worthy of a botanical area designation compared to the rest of the Coast Range.

See 78j at red arrow

The “level 4” map unassumingly calls the area the “Western Klamath Montane Forest”, which does not relate the isolation and uniqueness of this area unless you consult the map and see the isolated dot south of the rest of the occurrence of this region.

A variety of conifers on the edge of Horse Mountain


The designation fails to mention the serpentine soils that sculpt the plant communities and had previously supported a mining operation at the peak. Serpentine isn’t a friendly rock, so thank heavens it’s not more common, otherwise plants would be faced with finding special methods to grow in a hostile environment full of toxic metals. It would be like us trying to live in a house full of carbon monoxide. We’d have to divert energy from developing and growing into coping with the adverse environment. So instead of looking at Facebook, you’d have to spend that time maintaining your breathing unit so you could continue to live in your oxygen deprived world. That’s what the plant community at Horse Mountain is doing. The area receives around the same amount of precipitation as the wet town of Eureka [somewhere around 50 some inches], but the plant community acts like it’s struggling against a lack of water. Among some of the intriguing species, Jeffery Pine, more at home in the Sierras, and Hoary Manzanita, whose family really likes chaparral areas [with frequent fires and 15-39 inches of rain], both call Horse Mountain, and all its precipitation, home thanks to some heavy metal, low nutrient dirt.

As interesting as peaks are to the human mind, the peaks of California’s North Coast are like the spires of a royal crown, each boasting natural jewels at the top worthy of being investigated thoroughly. While not every region in this country can point to peaks as their crown jewels, it’s a good bet that each nook and cranky has something unique to only that region nearby. Check out the Level IV Ecoregions map [large PDF–takes a while] and see what’s nearby your home!


The Rainy Season

This is our first winter here in the North Coast. We are at nearly the same latitude as Salt Lake City, Omaha, and Indianapolis and yet have no snow.  Thanks to the Pacific Ocean, we often don’t see temperatures below freezing. While that could be a consolation for some, we also get the majority of our precipitation during this time of year. Winter has been replaced with the rainy season.

The rainy season is beckoned in by radio ads talking about getting the greenhouses up as to not get caught off guard [certain cash crops can be severely damaged by the slightest rainfall], spiders disappearing, worms appearing [inside!], and birds coming down from the higher altitudes to stay warm.  I rather enjoy having company at the feeders, but I’m not too fond of peeling half desiccated worm bodies off the entry floor.

Glad to have enough light to catch this "Oregon" Dark-eyed Junco finally!

When the rains and wind let up, everyone floods outside. It is strange one day to walk the dog and see very few people moving about, and then the moment the sun breaks, people pop up like mushrooms. I guess it’s not so bad though, since looking like a drown rat walking something that looks like a drown polar bear isn’t really what I want everyone to see, just the other drown rats.

Chickens Enjoy Sunshine, but Most of All, Bugs

On a couple of fine days in between storms, we joined the crowds and headed to the beach. We really like walking around the beaches of Trinidad, and since in North Coast California, a busy day really isn’t all that busy.  The only place that has felt busy recently was Moonstone Beach with its dog walkers, rock climbers, hula hoopers, tight rope walkers, bocce ball players, kayakers, surfers, and general beach goers. Every time we go there is someone doing something you wouldn’t expect. And it’s not a developed beach, it’s a little cove blocked by cliffs on one side and the Little River on the other. It’s just easy to get to and has a cool name, I guess.

Anyway, we made it to Trinidad twice now between the sputtering showers and heaving, wind-driven downpours. 

It is one of my favorite places to mill around because of the color in the rocks. I feel like every time I go, I see a new rainbow in a rock. I believe most of that can be attributed to the hodge podge geologic composition of the North Coast Range that butts up against the ocean. Farther East you have mountain building due to volcanic activity. Out here, the North American plate is scraping against the Pacific plate, peeling off sea floor sediments and piling them up as the Coast Range. It’s essentially like mounding up what you can scrape off the top of a gravel road; it’s going to be a mix of whatever is in the way.

A Rainbow Rock in College Cove

Getting past this geology tangent, it is the rainy season when the land and sea really battle it out. Large waves are more frequent, chipping away at the cliffs and bluffs, but the rains do their part to put as much of the earth into the sea as possible.  All this sediment contributes to our murky seas, and possibly to the higher rate of shark attacks here. Since the visibility is reduced, sharks likely rely more on their electromagnetic sense than sight. Obviously, sharks don’t have hands, so they ‘feel’ around with their mouths.  There aren’t many people in the water, thankfully, but if we were as busy as southern California, yikes!

The Creeks are Swelling Fast

It is a dynamic coast that seems to be caught in a never-ending cycle of washing away, scraping up, and washing away again. Of course, it’s not just the rock sediment that gets caught up in this battle. On Pewetole Island, Sitka Spruce hangs on precariously to what used to be connected land. I’m not sure what species of tree that has been wedged between the boulders, but it attests to the force needed to place it there.

Pewetole Island Between Boulders

Waves Crashing on Pewetole

Remember when I mentioned that people pop up like mushrooms when it doesn’t rain?  The same fair weather rules apply to the crab fishermen. In the summer months, you hardly see a boat on the water [if you can see the water through the dense fog], but come the rainy season, boats line the Pacific’s horizon like streetlights on a major highway.  They have to battle the waves [most of the boats are fairly small], plow through the rain, and avoid the sea stacks that guard the rocky cliffs.  While I am sure they have a lot more on their mind, the crab fishermen can likely thank the rainy season to rush sediments down to the ocean where the prey items of the dungeness crabs feed, allowing the crabs to feast on the small, well-fed  shrimp and fish. From there, the now well-fed crabs are traded for bills to land on a plate. Cycles within the cycles of the rainy season.

Crab Boat Horizon


Conflict: How Best to ‘See’ Nature

My job doesn’t often involve conflict, but I often feel divided on how to approach certain subjects. One subject that I feel is ever-difficult to tackle is if someone has very little time, how should they best ‘get a feel’ of a place: driving all of it, or hike one single, short trail. I find myself agreeing more and more with Edward Abbey. Of course, not fully; I don’t find it necessary to include blood in hikes and travels.  I do appreciate those [i.e. tourists and visitors] that want to marvel at something natural, because that is the path to understanding and appreciating a resource, but I do often disagree with the manner in which people prefer to ‘take it all in’.

It is hard to dispute that America is a car culture. It is equally as hard to dispute that what you see from your car isn’t even half of what you see on foot.  Some folks do feel that just driving through an area means they have ‘been there’ and they can mark it off their list. The loss is theirs, to an extent. I won’t even go into the benefits of physical activity and what the car and television have done to us.

Abbey, while extreme, brings up a good point in his quote below long before cars were so climate controlled, equipped with entertainment centers and pleasant to sit in for long periods. Imagine what he’d say if he found out that children in the future will no longer look out the car window, but instead stare at yet another screen!

Boy Scout Tree Trail

“Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast. This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands. A bloody rock. Don’t drop it on your foot – throw it at something big and glassy. What do you have to lose?”
Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire Introduction page xii, Ballantine Books, New York, 1967

I don’t know, I do rather like people coming to visit National Parks. I be out of a job and entertainment otherwise. But Abbey’s point boils down to the fact that you will glean nothing substantial [aside from treasured family memories, which he doesn’t care to acknowledge] from a place you visit just in your car. And even if you hop out onto a trail, you will still likely not “see anything”.  In order to understand a place, one has to become infused in the essence, character, and rhythm of the place, and that takes time. More time than downloading an app and snapping some shots.

I feel that I accomplished that in the Badlands. It was almost an insult to hear someone condemn the place as ‘snake infested’ and ‘hell-like’ after I had spent hours listening to meadowlarks and grasshoppers and the wind whisper through the prairie grass like frolicking kids playing muted flutes as they skipped around with abandonment.  Such quick judgments without a second thought! But they had no time to investigate, less than an hour was allotted on their trip to pass judgement on a place, check-mark it, and then move on to the next item on the list.  Hard to compete with Wall Drug these days.

Redwoods on Lost Man Creek Trail

The Redwoods are no different. They are an area most people have on their lists, but frequently as just a stop over or at worst, something to drive through on the way to another destination. The only difference is that I myself haven’t had the time to get to know the forest, only to do recon so far.  I had the advantage in the Badlands of living in them, hiking around every evening and day off.  Here, I haven’t made it past my to do list; haven’t had the time to just sit for hours on end with my face in the duff, watching as the mechanisms of the forest move like gears in a giant, fern-covered watch.

The number of trails I’ve hiked is far overshadowed by the number I haven’t, but I rather walk them purposefully than merely check them off my list. Boy Scout Tree Trail was a very nice hike. There are lovely trail descriptions on the web already, so I don’t need to rehash any of that. In my opinion, the best part are the unique and characterful redwoods dotted along the trail side.  The oddness of each hints at their interesting pasts and makes one wonder at their future.

Twin-like Trees on the Boy Scout Tree Trail

I also managed to squeeze in a three hour mile of the Lost Man Creek Trail. Once a logging road, the trail leads along the creek as well as redwoods that show obvious signs of the recent past. Scars from passing logging equipment not only expose the inner layers of the tree, but also the carelessness of our use of vehicles. I’m sure the thought was that the trees will come down,  so no bother. I try to bite my tongue at the irony that the same mindset occurs today even with the trees protected. The same carelessness is facilitating damage to the trees that were spared the ax and saw. Are the redwoods that remain just elegies and tombstones?

Scarred Base

The Old Logging Road

Scarred and Gone on Lost Man Creek