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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 Old Ways

“No hay camino, se hace camino al andar” -“there is no road, the road is made by walking”. ~ Antonio Machado

As an omage to Robert McFarlane’s incredible book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, I decided to revisit some of the old pathways traveled both by my father and my younger self.

To connect, once again, with the journeys on foot, made me feel a part of the landscape as well all who had also travelled this way, the people and the deer and mountain lion. These were the tracks that marked the land like the slime trail of the banana slug, weaving it’s way, often finding the path of least resistance.

The previous Friday I headed out of Paradise Park along the fire road to the railroad grade. This was a route taken by my father and his friends when he was a teenager. He would frequently hike up to the old rock quarry, which is now part the campus on UC Santa Cruz. (It is the quarry where my graduation ceremony was held). I’m sure he also hiked upstream, as I did, toward Henry Cowell State Park and the osprey’s nest.

Today afterwork, I wanted to hike up a water way to a waterfall. I had hiked up here, from my cabin, many times. Although it has been a while since I have hiked up Powder Mill Creek. My destination was Powder Mill Creek Falls, which was a short ramble up the creek.

From the very start of the hike, there is a clearly defined trail, but once you cross the creek it seems to be a “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” type of hike . There are no correct paths, it just depends on how wet you want to get.

I paused along the way to look at my favorite fern, the five-fingered or western maidenhead fern, (Adiantum aleuticum). This fern favors damp habitats usually near small turbulent streams. Native Californians use it’s dark veins to weave baskets.

The hike is maybe a quarter of a mile but it can be a tough scramble and progress is slow as I favored a methodical approach rather than a reckless bush-whack! (the path of youth). The way has been constantly reformed by the waterway and the trees that have fallen into the watershed, making the pathway ever changing and ever challenging. I was not traversing this old way in my youthful self but as a middle aged shelter-in-placer. This was the first time I had used trekking poles on this hike. I need all the points of contact I can get!

I made it to the falls and I love the feeling of arrival, like coming into camp after a long trudge with a 40 pound pack. I was here and I found a good vantage point and I do what all sketchers would do in my situation, I started sketching. I settled on using my sepia brush pen to keep things loose and bold. There was a lot to take in and I simplified the scene with ink strokes.

Try to keep it simple stupid. I succeed and fail in equal measures.

There is a price to pay with a bush-whack in the San Lorenzo Watershed on deer trails, and that was an unwelcome traveller, a deer tick, firmly attached to my left side. This was the first tick in almost 50 years to have found purchase on my flesh. A fair price to pay for a sketch I think.