Friday, June 27, 2014

The Cottonwood Charcoal Kilns

Once again we stopped at a California Historical Marker and once again, we were jolted by a big bolt of current--the kind that connects one era to another and brings history alive.  As we read the writing on the bronze plaque, its significance started to soak in.  "These beehive ruins could be a metaphor for global warming," I said.
We were standing on the edge of a now dry Owens Lake and looking at the remains of a kiln that turned lumber into charcoal to fuel the silver and lead smelters of the Cerro Gordo mines.  But where were the trees?  And where was the lake?  In the late 1800's the charcoal was loaded onto steamers that crossed a lake 12 miles long and 8 miles wide to the mine.  The bullion from the mines were then loaded onto 20-mule driven wagons and taken to Los Angeles.  The plaque read  that these kilns " . . .played a major part in the building of that little pueblo into the city of today."  Whoa!
These beautiful ruins are located about 14 miles south of Lone Pine on Hwy 395.  This part of California is covered with ghost towns, comprising the remains of once profitable mines.   When the earth was stripped bare, the people moved on.  It is a never-ending story.  Conservation has never been part of industry's long term strategy, and today, the climate of the world is changing because of it.

It's hard to believe that a vast, deep lake used to cover this area.  That little pueblo grew into a booming city and water was needed.  In 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power diverted the rivers and streams that flowed into the lake into aqueducts and sucked it dry.

As we climbed the hill overlooking the kilns we had mixed feelings looking down at them.  The sky that day was beautiful and so was the desert and the mountains in the distance.  A hundred years ago, however, we would have been looking at a lake with thousands of migrating birds resting on its shores.   Trees would have dotted the landscape.  We would be walking on grass instead of sand.

The earth is changing and there's no stopping it.  We were looking down at the result.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Hugging a Bristlecone Pine

Hyperbole often sneaks into my posts, I confess, but today I'm not going to restrain it.  Today I am going to gush.  Our four-mile hike through an ancient grove of bristlecone pines was the BEST HIKE I'VE EVER BEEN ON.  Our trailguide said the Methuselah Walk would take 2-3 hours; it took us 6!  We could not get over the age of these trees, their sculptural beauty and the remote, yet harsh grandeur of the White Mountains where these ancients have lived since the reign of King Tut.  We stopped at every bench to take in the views.  We picnicked.  We hugged several trees (and each other) and took more than 200 photographs.
Getting to this oldest known living forest IN THE WORLD takes a singular commitment.  It is why it took so long for us to finally make the trip.  We took US Hwy 395 which parallels the Eastern Sierras in California, to Big Pine (where we stayed the night).   The next morning we got up bright and early and went east on Hwy 168 to White Mountain Road.  This road leads up to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center where the trailhead begins.  You climb to higher elevations very quickly so can get rather light headed--that's another reason we took the hike slowly.
That many of these trees are nearing 5,000 years of age is truly a miracle of nature.  These trees have been around as long as civilization.  They took root when agrarian societies started to colonize and form settlements.  Architecture, sculpture and metal-working started to reach new levels of mastery.  The Egyptians built the pyramids.  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon astonished the Mesopotamian world.  Closer to home, the populations of Mesoamerica and the Andes exploded.  Commerce and government enabled people to explore astronomy and math.  And all the while, these bristlecone pines just kept growing and growing.   Slowly, ever slowly.  Soaking it all in.
I am standing next to a bristlecone pine that is 200 years old.  A mere babe in the woods, but as old as our country.  These trees are evolutionary wonders.  They have survived so long because they have adapted to their environment in a truly admirable way.  If only we humans could do that!

They conserve energy by keeping their needles for 40 years before replacing them.  The brochure we read as we hiked, pointed out there are no needles on the ground from these trees.  Their wood is very dense and almost feels like stone.  Therefore, it is resistant to mold, fungus and bugs.  Even though the bark may eventually peel off, as long as there is a single narrow strip, the tree can survive.  It is why so many of these trees look like driftwood.  They need little water and little nutrients from the soil--a good thing because both are nearly nonexistent here anyway.  The White Mountains get their name from the white alkaline dolomite and sandstone which is mostly rock and rubble.  No other plants have been able to survive here so there is no competition for water.  The roots of the trees are shallow and far spreading.  They will find that rare pool of water from melting snow.

Because they grow so slowly, the trees have been sculpted by wind, ice and exposure during their thousand plus life span.  Once you enter the Methuselah Grove, where the oldest trees are located, there are hundreds of wooden sculptures everywhere.  Their unusual, contorted shapes are as beautifully wrought as any sculpture made by man.

The actual location of the Methuselah Tree remains a secret.  The tree was named by Dr. Edmund Schulman in 1957 because it was dated to be over 4,600 years old.  It was named Methuselah in honor of the longest living man, according to the Hebrew Bible anyway.  Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, was 969 years old.  But ha!  That's nothing compared to the ages of these trees!

It didn't matter to us that we didn't know which one was Methuselah.  Last year, they discovered an even older tree so he's lost his title as "World's Oldest" anyway.  To me, they were all spectacular.
As we walked through this grove of ancients, we realized we were treading on sacred ground.  My travel buddy and I are not religious people, but we definitely felt a sense of spirituality here.  I felt so alive and so thankful to be a part of this amazing world.  The Methuselah Walk allows the traveler to communicate with the oldest living trees on earth, to marvel at history and nature and to enjoy the isolation of this unique landscape.   This feeling, this magic, this euphoria, is the reason I am addicted to travel!  And I don't apologize for the hyperbole.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Kern River Hatchery

That fishermen can still catch Rainbow Trout in the rivers and lakes of California is due partly to the diligent efforts of the staff here at the Kernville Hatchery.  Eggs are extracted by hand and placed in gravel.  The hatchlings are then cared for in shallow troughs and allowed to grow until they reach a half pound.  As many as 250,000 rainbow trout are then released into local waterways every year.  In addition, larger fish are planted, giving fishermen a chance to win a "Trophy".

While we are not fishermen (but love fish), it was fun feeding these little guys, touring the ponds and reading up on their life cycle.  At least here they have an opportunity to reach adulthood.  In the wild, survival is a rare and tricky business!  The facility is open Friday through Sunday.  The hatchery and the small natural history museum are both fun to explore, especially if you have children, but be forewarned,  it makes you hungry.  Couldn't find a local restaurant that night which served trout, so settled on tri-tip instead.  Got my trout a week later.   At Whole Foods!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Mimi by the Kern River

Mimi reminded me that it was not all fire and brimstone and doom and gloom last week.  The Kern River was still flowing and its banks were lush and green.  Those Class IV white-water rapids of yore have been replaced by quiet ripples of clear, icy water.  The water is still too chilly for me, but my travel buddy jumped in to cool off in the hundred degree heat.

The 165-mile Kern begins with snow runoff from Mt. Whitney, California's highest mountain, and descends into the San Joaquin Valley to Bakersfield.  California, however, is in its third year of drought so the rafters were gone this summer.  Fishermen were still out and even a few gold prospectors.  They like the lower depths of the river because they can wade right in with their pans.  People are actually finding some good size nuggets.

We drove north on the 395 and noted the Sierras were still topped with snow.  So Mimi's right.  Even though 2013 was the driest year on record, that snow made me realize the rivers will still flow.  At least, a little.  And if they dry up completely?  Well, we can always pan for gold!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Scorched Earth

Branded with the black spines
of manzanitas,
the hills curl up in shame.
Not even a blade of grass
can penetrate
its blistered skin.

The earth is naked
when it should be clothed.
It is sick
when it should be bursting with health.

The scorched earth is life
Waiting for rain.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Drought-Stricken Isabella

Okay, I am officially worried.  Alarmed even.  Our beautiful lakes and rivers are being sucked dry by a drought that is not ending.  Last week we made our annual journey to Lake Isabella, located just south of Sequoia National Park, and were saddened to see it so low.   Boat ramps led into dry, scorched earth.  The flume, pictured above, used to be under water.  So were the many tree trunks and islands that boaters now have to navigate around.  "In another month, you won't be able to windsurf here," a local told us.

While walking out to the water's edge, we ran into a couple of women scavenging for old arrowheads.  "I even found a gold pocket watch buried out here," one of them said.  "And my mother found a clock."

The dam is broken, as well, and  I wonder if they'll even bother fixing it when there's no water for it to fill.
Poor drought-stricken Isabella.  And then . . . and then . . .

Late Friday afternoon, while I was quietly reading in the house we were renting, my travel buddy comes in and announces, "I don't mean to frighten you, but there's a fire behind us."  We spent a restless night, taking turns watching it.  We packed up the van . . .just in case.

Now called the Shirley Fire, fierce hot winds caused it to explode.  Five hundred homes were evacuated in the Wofford Heights area where we were staying.  We left on Sunday before it really took off.  It has now burned 2,600 acres, including parts of the Sequoia National Forest.  We spent most of Saturday watching helicopters drop water (from poor Isabella) on the flames.  Then the Big Guy arrived.  Watching the huge DC-10 drop red retardant on the ridge brought back memories of our own Santa Barbara Foothills being ravaged by fire five years ago.  Not a deja-vu I enjoy experiencing!
And so we left a smoke filled Kern Valley, wondering if we will ever return.  If it doesn't rain this winter, Lake Isabella will be no more.