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The Search for the American Dipper or Dipping On Dipper

Once, perhaps 35 years ago, I saw an American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) flying downstream on the San Lorenzo River, between Middle and Sandy Beach in Paradise Park. What an amazing sighting. The bird of John Muir, the aquatic songbird of clear, turbulent mountain streams was on the San Lorenzo!

At the time I did not keep records so I don’t know the month or year of the sighting but since that time I have been looking to find another dipper on the river. This bird is an indicator species for the health of a river. Dippers are considered a rare bird in Santa Cruz County but there was suitable habitat upriver in Henry Cowell State Park that look promising. Large granite boulders, turbulent river water. This is where a dipper should be, I reckoned.

I first checked the location of my first sighting on the San Lorenzo on the turbulent turn in the river between Sandy and Middle Beach. This rocky bend looked like good habitat for dipper and I walked up river, checking river rocks for the tell tale signs of whitewash, bird poop. There was some but this could be from a black phoebe. I did not see a dipper here.

On another day I next searched Rincon Gorge upstream from Paradise Park. Dipper had been reported here in May 1988 and again in May 2009 where a nest with young was seen. That was a long time ago and there were no current reports on eBird. So I searched and I again dipped on dipper.

Now it was time for a bigger expedition on the San Lorenzo, to explore some of the best stretches of river between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden Beach in Henry Cowell State Park. This effort would require traversing down to the river from the railroad tracks on what only could be called a mountain goat path and then hiking up and often in, the San Lorenzo, towards Garden of Eden.

I parked on Highway 9 and headed down the Ox Fire Road towards the railroad and Garden of Eden. When I was halfway down the trail I heard the primeval calls of our largest woodpecker: the pileated. On a Douglas-fir snag, about 100 yards from the railroad, I spotted a family group of four pileated woodpeckers! Either this was a good omen for my dipper search or a great consolation for dipping.

After leaving the pileated family I headed downstream on the railroad and took the trail down to the popular beach, Garden of Eden. Perhaps this beach should be renamed Garden of Trash. I was appalled at the amount of cans and bottles, random clothes and towels, and toilet paper. Beachgoers clearly ignored the “Pack Out Your Trash” signs.

The amount of discarded cans and bottles along the banks of the San Lorenzo was truly disgusting!

I headed upstream from Garden of Eden to check the granite boulders for dipper. I was further appalled at all the graffiti on rocks and logs. It seemed far from the favored pristine rivers that the dipper preferred. And I did not find any dippers upstream from Garden of Eden.

What makes someone come to the San Lorenzo and spray paint a rock, I will never know! No wonder I didn’t find dipper on this stretch of the river.

When I returned to the main beach a young man was wiping graffitti off a sign post that no longer contained a sign. I’m sure the sign said, “Don’t Litter” or “Respect The Trees, Dippers, and Rocks!” or “Save the Painting For Sketchbooks and Canvas!” Turns out he was an interpretive ranger from Henry Cowell State Park who comes to Garden of Eden, before his shift, to clean up the beach. I asked about beach clean-ups and he told me that when litter is removed, there is more to replace it on the following days. Shameful!!

I returned to the railroad and hiked downstream towards Coon Gulch. I paused at the osprey nest where both adults were perched near the nest, indicating that there might be chicks hidden in the deep nest.

A view of the osprey nest and the two adults from below on the banks of the San Lorenzo. I did a brush-pen sketch of the nest on my journal.

I then headed down the steep mountain goat trail towards the river (this seemed so much easier 30 years ago). The final pitches of the trail had rope tried to trees to aid in the descent. This was a far less accessible part of the river and is not visited as much and seemed a little more “pristine” then upriver.

I traded my hiking boots for river sandals, made sure everything was secure in my dry bag, and I grabbed a hiking stick and headed upstream.

This, to me, is the most scenic and “wild” stretch of the river. The stream bed was lined in large granite boulders, perfect foraging perches for the American dipper.

Heading upstream on a beautiful stretch of the river, between Coon Gulch and Garden of Eden. If there was any place on the San Lorenzo that contained dipper, I reckoned this was it.

Progress was slow going as I was hiking in the river, reminiscent of The Narrows in Zion National Park. I had to pick my path through the large boulders often crossing and recrossing the river bed to find the path of least resistance. A bonus was finding a Pacific wren nest built under a fallen Doulas-fir tree that spanned the river.

The river veered to the right and I was in the stretch of river that when viewed from Highway 9 is known as Inspiration Point. I needed some avian inspiration at this point!

The river hike was an adventure in itself but the closer I came to Garden of Eden, I knew the the chances of seeing American dipper on this stretch was diminished. The habitat seemed right but the pollution and semi-turbid waters of the San Lorenzo did not look like the pristine mountain stream that the dipper require.

I have made the journey with no mishaps or injury and as I came in sight of Garden of Eden, which was now full of family groups, I took this time to slip and fall. It’s always good to have an audience. And as Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” And so I recovered and stood up again only to see that no one noticed. 

    

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Trees of Life

“To enter a wood is to pass into a different world in which we ourselves are transformed.” ~Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees

When a sketcher is in the woods it’s hard not to sketch trees.

There is something special being at the base of a coast redwood and looking at it massive bole which would take an extended family, with linked hands, to encircle the circumference.

Looking up, following the redwood to it’s crown is literally a pain in the neck! Coast Redwoods, after all, are the tallest trees in the world.

On a Monday morning I hiked out and sketched an impressive specimen of Sequoia sempervirens in Fall Creek State Park, a redwood named the Big Ben Tree.

The Big Ben Tree is a giant amongst many second growth redwoods. The tree stands at one if the highest points on a hiking trail in Fall Creek.

From the trail junction, the tree is impressive. I walked around to the other side and the massive bole was scarred by fire, perhaps many centuries before. Here I wanted to sketch this scar, a record of the tree’s history. Redwoods can live to 1,500 to 1,800 years. They do have a long life line; a very long history.

Sketching is a language that is created over a series of experiences. I have sketched redwoods many times and over time, I have gotten to understand their language. Their shape, mass, contour, and there undefinable essence. This helps me create an artistic shorthand to render the infinite, finite.

A bench view sketched of mixed woods of redwood and Douglas-fir from the end of Shire Way.
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The Big Loop

In the last post I was reexploring the Old Ways, hikes and routes that I had travelled years ago, a pathway of the mind as well as the soil.

On the Saturday of the Memorial Day weekend, I decided to do the Big Loop, a route I had hiked with my friend Erik, at least 30 years ago when we were both much younger, full of confidence, and much closer to birth than death. Now I would do the Big Loop solo.

The start of the loop was heading up Shrine Way and then hiking up Powder Mill Creek. I had done this hike the week before but I had stopped at the falls, pausing to sketch and then turned back. But not today. Today I was going to scale the waterfall.

I’m sure in my 20s, climbing this three-tiered waterfall didn’t cross my mind as something that could be dangerous. I thought no more about the challenge than breathing. But now, the night before the hike, I knew that this was going to be the most challenging and technical part of the journey.

The three pitches required some unaided technical climbing. I had confidence in my climbing ability having spent hours in the climbing gym (a few years ago) but climbing outdoors certainly provides other challenges. The challenge on this route was that the rocks were wet and in some places I would be climbing in the waterfall. Here I was not roped in. A fall from one of the waterfall pitches probably wouldn’t kill me but it could introduce a bit of maim into my life. And I would have no one around to help me out to safety in the event of a fall, midway between the cascade.

These thoughts went through my mind as I headed up Powder Mill Creek. I reached the bottom of the falls at 8:15 AM. While the sky was clear, in the cold shade of the canyon, it was cold.

I folded up and stowed my trekking poles, bowed to the creekside alter, and started up the first pitch of the climb on the right side of the lower falls. Just to get to rock, I had to struggle through a fallen branch tangle to get a hand and then foothold on rock.

I methodically completed the first pitch, no need for speed climbing here. I was rewarded by the beautiful middle falls, which fell into a pool, surrounded in luscious greens.

The middle cascade of Powder Creek Falls. I paused here to catch my breath and did a brush pen sketch. On this pitch I climbed up the wet and mossy rock on the left side of the falls. The height of the middle falls was abut 15 to 20 feet.

Once up the middle falls I came to the final upper falls. This was the last technical part of the journey and once this was behind me, I could really get hiking. With each pitch I was gaining confidence as I understood the rock more and more.

It is all about keeping three points of contact with the rock. I read the rock, looking for the best hand and footholds. Often times, young trees where perfect handholds as I looked to place a foot in a position to raise me upward towards the point where the watershed flattened out.

I had made it, the toughest part of the journey was now behind me! Now the creek canyon flatten out and the only challenge now was climbing over or under fallen redwoods and not fully immersing my feet in creek.

Since I was a boy, I can never get close to water without getting wet. On the Big Loop I grabbed a fallen log that proved not be as secure as I thought and before I knew it, I was up the creek and in the creek! I know myself and my attraction to water well, so I came prepared. I had packed an extra pair of socks.

The whole hike, from the base of the lower falls to Pipeline Road, was perhaps just under a mile. I covered the distance in 25 minutes. The romance of the wild Power Mills Creek is dashed when you come to the point where Pipeline Road in Henry Cowell State Park, crosses over the creek. The creek is routed under the road in a pipe and falls out the other side into a pool.

I scrambled up and out of the creek on to Pipeline Road. I was now in Henry Cowell State Park. Pipeline is a paved road, a much different substrate than what I had just traversed. I not headed northwest up the road.

Twenty-five minutes later I was at the Overlook Bench. At this viewpoint you look out to south with wooded ridges overlapping wooded ridges giving way to the flats of Santa Cruz with the Giant Dipper roller coaster silhouetted against Monterey Bay.

I pulled out my Stillman & Birn Beta Series spiral sketchbook and sketched in the view with my sepia brush pen (featured sketch). This finished sketch has a Japanese feel to it, reminiscent of the sumi ink paintings of Japanese-Californian artist Chiura Obata.

To complete the loop, I continued northwest along Pipeline Road, off on a hiking trail to Cable Car Beach (where I swapped socks) and then along the River Trail to the 1909 Railroad Trestle which I used to cross the San Lorenzo River and then back south along the railroad. I passed over Coon Gulch with the osprey nest on my left. At this point I was about 40 minutes from my cabin.

I completed the Big Loop in three hours and 40 minutes. This included a few snack stops and sketches and a chinwag with a ranger who was guarding the entrance to Garden of Eden Beach from the hordes of three-day weekenders.

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The Osprey’s Nest

One of my neighbors knew I was struck with the affliction of birding and told me about the osprey’s nest on top of a Douglas-fir along the railroad about a 30 minute hike up river from my cabin.

After work on Friday, I hiked out of Paradise Park via the fire road and scrambled up a deer trail to the even grade of the railroad. This railroad is now operated by the Santa Cruz, Big Trees and Pacific Railway and takes tourists from Felton to Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. At one time the railroad went over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Los Gatos but now does not go very far beyond Felton. I have hiked this railroad since my youth and it had been a few years since I played hopscotch on railway ties up the San Lorenzo Valley.

Walking along this rustic railroad always feels like I’m participating in a scene from Stand By Me on a quest to find a dead body. But in this case I was in search of a big bunch of sticks on top of a fir, high above the San Lorenzo River.

I kept one eye on the rails and one on the trees off to my right. My neighbor had given me good directions to the nest and when I was 30 minutes out of Paradise, I thought that maybe I had passed the nest. But how could I miss it? So I continued hiking upstream.

Ten minutes later the osprey nest appeared across the river between a break in the redwoods and firs. I put bins on the nest and could not detect any occupants. But osprey nests are deep and the osprey could be laying low. The only sign of life were the acorn woodpeckers that looked to have used the fir as their granary tree, their acorn larder, for years.

I was at a point in the line where the railroad curves gracefully over a curved viaduct. The concrete arched bridge was build by the Southern Pacific Railroad in March of 1905 and spans Coon Gulch. At this point the San Lorenzo River takes a turn and you can get an amazing view upstream. This point in the line is known as Inspiration Point.

It didn’t take long to see signs of life. An osprey flew in and briefly alighted on the nest. Bingo! The nest is occupied after all. The unseen osprey, presumedly sitting on eggs, sat up in the nest and became visable.

The osprey that flew in could have been the male who is responsible for bringing fish to the nest while the female does most of the incubating of the two to three eggs. The male perched near the nest on a Doug-fir and preened.

First sign of life at the osprey’s nest. Perhaps the male dropping off fish.

I stood by the railside and sketched the nest. On the left side of the spread is my field sketch (first in pencil then in dark sepia pen) of the Douglas-fir crowned by the osprey nest. The osprey perched on the right was drawn from a field photo I took of the presumed male. The title and text were added back at the cabin. In the end, I decided to create a spread that is almost monochromatic. I resisted the urge to paint in the sky because I didn’t want anything to distract from the form of the Doug-fir and nest.

The osprey doing a little housekeeping at the nest. This is presumedly the female who does most of the incubation of the eggs. Both sexes build the nest. A hiker who stopped to look at the nest told me that the nest had been there for past two or three years.
Ospreys reuse their nests each breeding season. A lot of work has gone into this nest over the past two or three seasons.
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Extreme Hammocking

Now that I had successfully hammocked over a ragging Gold Country creek I thought it was time to raise the stakes.

From my cabin base camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I headed upstream with my hammock, a book (Birds of Tropical America), and an adult beverage. It was time for some serious hammocking and I was planning to hammock over the mighty San Lorenzo River, Santa Cruz County’s largest river!

At just under 30 miles, the San Lorenzo River does not make the top 10 of the longest rivers in California (or the top 25 for that matter), but in December 1955, this river was a force to be reckoned with and with massive rainfall she jumped her banks and flooded downtown Santa Cruz. Now earthen dykes have been built up in order to tame her wintery wanderings.

The winter of 2016-17 have seen record rains and the river has stayed within her water course. But as I hiked upstream I noticed the toll that the high water level had metered out to the trees in the riparian flood zone. So many of the trees were now leaning downstream, almost at a vertical angle and some trees had been completely uprooted. Now this was going to be a challenge because I needed two vertical trees close enough together to pitch my hammock and I wasn’t seeing many.

Once I entered Henry Cowell State Park, I spotted a large, fallen redwood. This looked promising, now all I needed was a parallel fallen tree to attach the other end of the hammock. About 12 feet away was a smaller bay laurel that would do the job. And within 5 minutes, I was hammocking!

The Doublenest pitched between two vertical trees, with the mighty San Lorenzo River flowing below. The smaller bay laurel provided some bounce.

A sketcher in repose, Henry Cowell State Park.