Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Saratoga Gap and Travertine Spring

And sudden oak death

Fog bank out at the coast
This area of California is not noted for having a really striking fall. Many of the more suburban areas have lots of carefully planted and manicured trees that display fairly nice color, but that never really impresses me. What I really love is displays of natural growth. I always look forward to perusing photos from my flickr contacts, and checking out blogger content from other parts of the country. To some extent I can live vicariously through them when I can’t get away. That’s the beauty of online photo sharing and blogging. I enjoy great photos from places like the eastern Sierra, Pacific Northwest, and various locations back east, that are all very impressive without even leaving home. But what I really look forward to the most is to get outside, and there are areas around the south bay that do have their own unique quality when fall come into full swing. So that was my goal on a foggy and chilly Saturday morning. The areas around Saratoga Gap and along the southern skyline region have lots of big leaf maple, alders, and deciduous oaks that help to give the fall season a special character, even if you couldn’t really make a post card out of it. The cooler air and increased moisture content play a role too as the shades of green in the mosses and lichens really begin to display vividly, popping out in contrast with the orangey brown of the mulching leaves. The coastal fog rolling in overnight inducing the natural drip system pattering a rhythm on the forest floor provides a nice backdrop to the grayish mist as it floats like an apparition amongst the darkened shapes, and attenuated light.

Deciduous Oaks near Saratoga Gap
As I arrived at Saratoga Gap, I had noticed a temporary sign posted at the trailhead going north from the junction of highways 9 and 35. It had a MidPen logo on it, and provided a brief announcement of a new grant funded oak protection project. There has been an ongoing war being waged between scientists and Sudden Oak Death (SOD) since the mid 1990s in this region, as well as many other areas of California, and part of Oregon. MidPen and the CCC are teaming up to implement the latest front in the war to save California’s heritage oaks. This project involves the removal many California Bay trees from peninsula open space preserves, which did not make much sense to me at first. After all, the California Bay is a native tree species that has co-habited within the coastal range amongst many oak species for millennium. The Native Americans used the leaves for various remedies including headache relief. I have heard a lot about SOD in recent years, and we follow the guidelines for cleaning footgear and staying on trails, but I did not understand about removal of bay trees. The sign at the trailhead does not provide a lot of information, so that compelled me to do a little research of my own in order to better understand the situation.
According to the most reliable scientific studies, SOD is caused by a pathogen which can be classified as water borne mold called Phytophthora ramorum. The pathogen spreads in the form of spores which are born in the wind or by rain. SOD needs an unwitting host which harbors the disease, but does not die from it. The California Bay (Umbellularia Californica), also called California Bay Laurel, Pepperwood, Spicebush, Oregon Myrtle, and other names, have been discovered to be the primary vehicle to spread the disease if they are located within 15 feet of an oak species. This is why this new project has been initiated to remove bay trees that are within close enough proximity to be a threat to vulnerable heritage oaks. This is not the first project of this kind. This article in SFGate describes a similar project that was carried out last July. The following quote from that article identifies the California Bay as a major culprit in spreading SOD.
"The research showed that bay trees are responsible for the spreading of the disease," said biologist Cindy Roessler, the open space district's senior resource management specialist. "If you have a bay tree within 15 feet of an oak tree, that oak tree has a much higher chance of getting the disease."
The seriousness of the situation can be underscored by the following quote from the same SFGate article.
“Scientists have discovered that California bay laurels are the prime harborers of the microscopic spores, which are dispersed in the wind and rain. Arborists and ecologists are afraid that if the tiny marauders aren't stopped, California's golden hills could be denuded of its signature live oak trees. As it is, experts predict that as many as 90 percent of California's live oaks and black oaks could die within 25 years.”

This MidPen document from their website describes an earlier bay tree removal project from 2008. Here is a quote from that document.

“The California bay tree has been identified as a main transmitter of sudden oak death
because it hosts the pathogen on its leaves, but is not killed by it. Spores of P. ramorum
spread from the California bay tree leaves to nearby oak trees, which develop trunk
cankers and die.”

And I will offer one more quote from an article posted to the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management Program website.

“Research in California forests has shown that the greatest predictor of P. ramorum canker on oak is the presence of California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Pathologists believe P. ramorum drips or is blown down onto oak trunks from neighboring bay leaves when it rains. Once on the oak trunk, P. ramorum uses natural openings in the bark to colonize the bark tissues, killing cells and clogging water and nutrient transport vessels.”

I could go on, but the science gets really heavy from here, and that's a little beyond my scope. However, it is clear that there is no equivocation from the scientific community on the bay tree removals as being a logical step in order to help arrest the spread of SOD. For more detailed information you can visit the California Oak Mortality Task Force website. Given all the research data and public announcements that I found, I am actually amazed that I had not been more aware of this connection between the bay trees and SOD. I had to get this off my chest because I love bay trees, and I hate the idea that some of them must be destroyed, but this is indeed war, and I am in full support. If I only had more time I would volunteer my help.

San Lorenzo Headwaters
Now back to the hike. Oh, that’s right! I was on a hike. I hiked north on the Skyline Trail making my way through the greyish mire drifting lazily along the ridge tops to the crossover of highway 35 and into Long Ridge OSP. I turned south again using the Achistaca Trail to take me back to the crossover of highway 9, and down to the Saratoga Toll Road Trail. After that I was basically doing the same hike I had done a couple of weeks ago using the Toll Road to get to Travertine Spring Trail. With the progression of the fall weather, I was keen to visit areas with thick populations of the deciduous trees in order to explore the signs of seasonal change.

As the trail descended down toward the headwaters of the San Lorenzo River the fog thinned out into intermittent sunshine. This was on of those odd days when the fog was primarily up high. I was having a really great time checking out, and enjoying the sights, sounds, and even the smells of fall until reaching Castle Rock where I encountered a really large group of hikers that were taking a break around the trail camp. I immediately was thinking that I should really try to get out ahead of them just in case this huge mob of humanity was going to take the Trail I wanted. I was planing to use Loghry Woods Trail to get back to Skyline, and I did not want them to wind up becoming a walking, talking, trail blockage for my assent back to the ridge. I’ve had that happen before with large hiking groups, and it’s really annoying when they don’t have any sense of trail etiquette. Plus their noisy clamor scares away all the wildlife. I decided to make use of the pit toilet there as it was the only one around for miles, and then take off. But when I got finished, lo and behold, there they went en masse down the trail, making a huge racket, in the direction of the junction I was planning to use. And sure enough they began making the turn onto Loghry Woods Trail. Incredulous of my luck, I decided to just hang out around the trail camp for about 30 minutes to let them get well ahead, hoping that would be enough that I would not see them again. Quiet time is good I kept telling myself. The ploy worked, and the rest of my hike was just as pleasant as in the morning. Surely there must be a way to keep Castle Rock open. If this park actually closes, that will severely degrade the trail connectivity of this area. You can visit my photoset on flickr to see some pictures, and see a track log on EveryTrail.

Click here to visit the California Oak Mortality Task Force website
Click here to see MidPen's Sudden Oak Death fact sheet
Click here to download a Guide for Recreational Users from the California Oak Mortality Task Force

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Nelson Lake

Echo Creek
Whenever I make a return visit to a location as high on my list of favorite-places-on-earth as Yosemite, the sensory experience of being there has the effect of stimulating a host of old memories of really great camping and hiking trips from years past. When planning a day’s hiking, it can be hard to decide whether to use a route that you know already from a past hike that was especially rewarding somehow, or to seek out new experiences by looking for the best of what you may have missed on previous visits. We have a whole collection of maps and books that we’ve collected over the years. Perusing them all can actually be a little daunting. But on this trip Sue stumbled across a trail description from a little old dog-eared book from who knows when. The book is from a series called High Sierra Hiking Guides by Wilderness Press, copyrighted 1970. These little books do not include any maps. They’re really only collections of trail descriptions, with basic directions on how to get to trail heads, and some marginally useful photos. I do have some nice National Geographic topo maps but they can only show you so much. Reading from the guide book for the Tuolumne Meadows area, there is a fairly detailed description of a route called the “Vogelsang Loop”. The route is a 28+ mile high country loop that is better undertaken as a backpacking trip. Surely this is not the kind of terrain to march over like you were trying to set some kind of record. We’re really just looking to have a nice time in the mountains while recharging the proverbial batteries. But we noticed something interesting. Another of the hike descriptions focuses on a portion of the same loop as an out-n-back to a place called Nelson Lake. The hike begins from the Elizabeth Lake trailhead, which begins at the same campground we were at. However, checking all of our maps, they all show the trail ending in the vicinity of Elizabeth Lake. Searching beyond to the south, Nelson Lake is shown as a feature, but with no trail leading there. Even still, the area seemed very inviting, secluded, and surrounded by unique terrain features, capturing our interest. Obviously there was a trail there at one time, so after considering all the options and making absolutely sure to put fresh batteries in the GPS just in case, we decided to use that tattered old trail description to lead us to this place called Nelson Lake. We were well prepared, but I was expecting this hike to be a lot of fun no matter what happened.

Elizabeth Lake and Unicorn Peak
The hike up to Elizabeth Lake in the morning air was refreshing. Trailhead elevation is about 8600 feet. There are still some wild flowers sprinkled around as you hike up through the woods. In many areas there is brilliant green ground cover which at casual glance looks like grasses. But a closer look and you discover that this is actually a leafy succulent of some kind. Unicorn Creek is not far off, and you can hear the gentle sounds of its course. These woods are beautiful, and if you are early enough, there are no people around. When you reach Elizabeth Lake at 9500 feet you are greeted by commanding views of barren and alien looking Unicorn Peak to the west, and Johnson Peak to the east looking more like a huge knarly rock dome in the middle of a forest. The lake is surrounded by woods and shrubbery, and has rocks strewn about as though fallen from the sky. Signs of ancient glacial activity are everywhere up here. A trail leads around the shores, buy we didn’t take time for that. Elizabeth Lake is pretty, but we knew more people would be along soon as this place is a popular short day hike by itself. We were much more interested to head on up the rocky pass toward Nelson Lake.

Cloudy view from the pass
We quickly found the trail heading south across the lovely open green meadows shadowing the sandy banks of a meandering stream enjoying the breezes. The trail is not marked, but is easily discernable. After about a mile the trail starts climbing again and the habitat changes back into dense woods with many tall, fragrant, incense cedar. The grade keeps getting steeper and soon you are confronted with a steep slope that resembles more of a rock talus, except that the rocks are more embedded in the soil rather than being loose. It’s almost like a natural staircase. What had been a very discernable trail had now become much more obscure. There were no cairns or trail markings at all, making dead reckoning a more reliable way to find you’re way up to the pass at the top of the ridge. I might have built some cairns if I had been sure we were on the best route. We kept hiking up using rocks as steps, and along a passable slot between two steep slopes, and eventually found the trail again on the other side. But pausing at the top of the pass at 10,206 feet the views open up to a breathtaking panorama to the north over the treetops, across Tuolumne Meadows dotted with rocky outcrops, to an expanse of high mountains across the horizon. We took a break at the summit to enjoy the sights before heading on. Views like that are not to be wasted by being in too much of a hurry. Proper trail etiquette compels you to stop, relax, and drink it all in. After all, this is why you hike the Sierra.

Zoomed view to Vogelsang Peak
Back into the trees again the trail begins leading downhill, switching back and forth down through a rocky canyon. You can hear water flowing in a stream down below that is concealed by thick vegetation. As you look through the sparse trees to the west, you can spot the jagged crest of the Cockscomb looming above, and soon the entire Mathis Crest dominates your view to the west as you descend into a valley bordered by the Mathis Crest to the west and Rafferty Peak to the east. As the trail levels out near the bottom, the valley opens up into green meadows, strewn with rock, and a stream system meandering along its course, and lots of wild flowers. In the distance to the south commanding attention in your forward view is Vogelsang Peak directly in your path, which gives you a great landmark for keeping your bearing. As we continued heading south a few more miles, we could notice the trail becoming more obscure, so we began relying more on the GPS than the map or trail. I have California Topo loaded in my GPS, and the mapping is detailed enough to show all the terrain features and Nelson Lake, so we knew we were close. As we approached a solid rock slope, the trail had completely vanished into obscurity, and we were not sure if we should head straight for the lake over the rocks, or continue to follow the stream which would maybe lead around them. We decided to hike up the rock slope to gain higher ground for sight reckoning, which was the more direct route anyway. We hiked over a long rock formation and down into a wooded valley again, and then up another rock slope. Reaching a little pass at the top of the rock ledge, I looked over into the sheltered valley where Nelson Lake lies, ringed by trees and grasses, and surrounded by high jagged peaks and flowing layers rock. Not a sole was down there, and there were really no signs of any human influence at all. It seemed almost perfect. A veritable Shangri-la. This would be a fantastic place to camp out for the night, and permits for the area are available.

Nelson Lake
As we were leaving, we followed our track log back to the trail without doing much exploring. I’m still not sure if the old trail follows the stream around the rocks, or if you need to climb the rocks to get down to the lake. I suspect I’ll be coming back here sometime, so maybe I will have more time to investigate then. We wanted to head back because the skies were beginning to look stormy as the afternoon wore on. The sky in fact continued to darken, and we got rained on a little bit off and on, but not enough to really get soaked. I took some more pictures when we reached the summit pass near the Cockscomb to show the difference in the sky from in the morning. I had been a little concerned about having to hike back down the steep rock slope, slick and wet, down to the lower trail again, but it was no problem. It didn’t get that wet. We did not see any other people until we were back at Elizabeth Lake. We had been on a fabulous hike, and true to the words of John Muir, our cares had melted away.

Click here to see the track log at EveryTrail
Click here to see the photos on flickr