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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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2017 Winter Linocut Print

It is that time of year when I continue my tradition of creating a linocut print, a gift to my friends and family.

I had read that children in Japan, design, cut, and print a holiday woodcut for their families. Over the past ten years I have started this tradition in my own life.

This year I decided to keep it basic. No background. No Border. No complex lines. Just a snowman on white.

In the past, I tried to get perfectly inked blocks that would leave perfectly black lines. This year I want to embrace imperfect perfection. A celebration of the medium, its benefits and it’s limitations. As a result, this years prints has more of a brush-like quality.

A coffeehouse design sketch in a Stillman & Birn journal. This is the sketch that would go on the linoleum. When it prints, it is the mirror reversed image (featured image).

Over the course of a week I sketched out designs for the print, making small changes until I had settled on an image that worked. In the end, the image is a snowman, facing away from the viewer, his head held up, scarf flowing behind, and his arms raised to the sky. The title of this print is “A Prayer”.

Preparing to print with a charged linocut and my Speedball printer’s press. For these prints I used black oil-based ink and then mixing in a little brown ink. The prints will later be hand painted with watercolor.

I leave it up to the viewer as to what the snowman is praying for or even if he can pray at all.

The title was inspired by the Mary Oliver poem, A Summer Day. In the final few lines she writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?

I have always loved this poem. It captures the ephemeral nature of life. Just like the snowman, who lives but a short season. Maybe that’s what he’s praying for: more time.

Like the proverbial snowflake, each handmade print is unique. 

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Yellowstone’s Fauna

The Lamar Valley has been called America’s Serigetti because of the large number of animals that wander through the Valley. Bison, grizzly and black bear, bald eagle, and the recently reintroduced gray wolf.

The most productive times are dawn and dusk for wildlife viewing. But because of icy road conditions and a visit to Roosevelt Arch, I rolled into Lamar Valley just after noon. What impressed my about Yellowstone is the amazing animals I had seen in the park for the first time: Bison, grizzly bear, and trumpeter swan. Today the bison where covering the near distant hills and gazing near the Lamar River. On the near shore was an adult bald eagle accompanied by two ravens. It was a beautiful panorama but my target animal, the gray wolf, was evading my view. I would try again the following day, which would be my last day in Yellowstone. And the setting of my search would be another wolf hotspot: Hayden Valley.

A sketch of Lamar Valley while waiting for a bear or wolf to appear. They didn’t but I have a sketch to prove I was there.

I had to take a round about route to Hayden Valley because of road closures so I entered the Valley a little over two hours after I left West Yellowstone. Aside from far off bison and a pair of feeding trumpeter swans, there was no sign of Canis lupus.

Our largest swan, the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinator). A lifer for me.

At one turnout a couple pulled up, unloaded a scope and scanned the far off hills. This was good sign, they were wolf watchers. The woman told me that they had just seen four mollies feeding on an elk carcass. I asking for clarification, what did she see? Mollie was the name of one of the wolf packs whose territory was in the northern part of Yellowstone Lake. The man described the location in great detail. He told me to look for the lake to the left and on the far shore was something that looked like a “brown suitcase”, this was the elk carcass and the wolf pack had wandered off into the trees. I reversed course and headed south, in search of the most sought after mammal in our Nation’s first National Park.

I arrived at the location 25 minutes later. It was just as the wolf watcher described it. As I pulled up, I saw a dark mammal on the far shore. The prerequisite roadside cars were in attendance. I parked on the roadside and crossed over. I didn’t need my binoculars to tell me what I was looking at: Canis lupus. 

My first signing of Canis lupus, a black Mollie near what had become the brown and red suitcase on the shore of the small lake just north of Yellowstone Lake.

A field sketch of the black wolf from the Mollie pack.

The two journals I brought with me on the Oregon Trail and to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A Strathmore bound watercolor book (in front) and a Sillman & Birn spiral bound Delta Series. The journals are covered with stickers representing the animals I saw and sketched on my journey: bison, grizzly bear, and moose.