Friday, February 26, 2010

Daffodil Days at Filoli

Filoli's 16-acre English Renaisssance Garden comes to life every year with the Daffodil Days, a grand flower display that features 144,000 daffodils from 118 different varieties planted throughout the garden. Some are in pots, some in the ground. Some are fragrant, some are not.

However you'll recognize the tell-tale spherical shape of "...golden daffodils, beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze" (Wordsworth's full text here). Minus the lake part, that is, but Filoli has some lovely ponds and pools for the water element.

As you exit the visitor center with your tickets in hand, you have a map of all the daffodil locations in the garden. Look right away on the spot #4 for big pots of Saint Keverne narcissus. They are a deep canary yellow with large cupped flowers. This daffodil is so fragrant! It was intoxicating. It reminded me of some irises. Next to it is the Minnow daffodil, a multi-florets fainter-colored daffodil that smells like a flower honey and that kids should like.

Out in the park and if fragrance-hunting seems like a good game, look for Avalanches and Sugar Cups. They shouldn't disappoint either. The map tells you where to find them.

I started my daffodil stroll by the sunken garden where bold red tulips are already looking good and getting ready for the Spring Fling. Since the weather forecast predicted rain and wind the crowds were few and far between, which wouldn't be the case of a glorious sunny day such as Woodside knows. As I walked along the sunken garden and headed towards the fruit orchards (walled garden), I was attracted by another fragrance that I knew belonged to other flowers. Hyacinthes.

To my left, the garden house was entirely decorated with potted white, purple, and blue hyacinthes, a fittingly seasonal addition to the gorgeous flower bouquets next to the Edwardian pigeon cage - with a live white pigeon in it. Gosh I love it when hyacinthes open up. It means that spring really isn't far. The walled garden had more beds of pink and lavender-hued hyacinthes but pots of swaying daffodils and pink tulips definitely stole the show.

Where in the Bay Area do you get that close to garden perfection in the Western sense of the term? Undoubtedly you will pass countless dedicated gardeners raking, weeding, pulling, and improving what already looks like a jewel of a garden.

So knowledgeable are Filoli's gardeners that they are partnered with University of California Master Gardeners, San Mateo and San Francisco counties. Indeed I had a question about a pink blossoming tall tree and I asked one of the gardeners who told me I was looking at a plum tree.

After you go past the hedge that separates the walled garden from the rose garden, head to the fruit garden which currently resembles a country meadow. A dirt path meanders through a vast green expanse punctuated by yellow dots undulating to and fro at the mercy of the winds. What I liked most in that field was the presence of fruit trees (as winter skeletons, compliments of late February) in the middle of daffodil dreams.

Rather than the orderly potted varieties that grace other areas of the garden, this one seems less tame and wilder - inasmuch as daffodils are ever wild in California. It's a place to frolick, to bend down and touch, to spot oxallis carpetting the ground between the bulbs, to relax. Kids would like to follow the path that in places disappears between stems of daffodils.

As you continue on the olive walk, notice the white fluffy blooms of the Santa Rosa plum trees. Now turn around the corner and enjoy. You made it to the high place, one of the spectacular sights of this garden. This is a spot where I could spend hours just admiring the architecture of the garden.

As the name suggests it is placed on a promontory and the view embraces all the other gardens. By the way, this is one of the spots for the sugarcup daffodils (right by the stairs).

Now retrace your steps in the direction of the house using the middle alley until you hit two square planter boxes with bonzai trees in the knot garden. Look at the design in the box very carefully and then turn around. Both boxes are miniature reproductions of the gardens right behind you, intricate knot patterns in lavender, myrtle, rosemary and barberry. Simply amazing and even more enjoyable when lavender scents fill the air and the hedges textures are accentuated by the summer colors.

Continuing my daffodil tour I made it quickly to the swimming pool (now clouds had turned from grey to menacing) and headed to the west daffodil meadow, probably the biggest daffodil display at Filoli. Again a dirt path slithers through the meadow and you will be able to admire the main building, a brick Georgian revival historic mansion now turned into a museum.

Feel free to take a look at the hills surrounding the estate. From the edge of the field just west of the House, a line of trees marks the edge of the San Andreas Fault and, beyond that, the hills and patchwork of broadleaf evergreen forest, redwoods and chaparral.

Now if you have children like mine who enjoy nature but other things too, it might be high time to return to the visitor center where you can hit the crafts tables and make daffodil pinwheels, magnets, frames and other daffodil-inspired arts and crafts. Daffodils only last so long and at Filoli so long means three days - until Sunday February 28 at 5pm. Go for it, it's gorgeous and it'll be sunny.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Winter swimming in the San Francisco Bay: is it cold?

It never fails. As I get out of the water at Aquatic Park with a swim partner and we cross the sandy beach to reach our flip-flops, a couple of jetlagged tourists having strayed from Fisherman's Wharf walk up to us with a complacent smile and pop the million $ question "Is it cold?"

I wonder, what do they expect? It's 42F outside. They are bundled up in all their fleece layers, arms crossed over their chest to keep warm. We are either in speedos & swim caps or in wetsuits and dripping wet. It can't really be that toasty in the bay now can it? We always chuckle and reply with bravado that "Oh no! It was great." Which doesn't exactly answer the question.

Yes we want to convince that it's great to swim in the bay on a windy January morning but the fact is, you better get your strokes going if you don't want to experiment with hypothermia in salty waters. After I completed my Alcatraz challenge last September, I wondered if I would keep swimming in the bay over the winter.

There were rumors about frigid waters. Seriously. Winter swim events are notoriously for swim nuts. The iconic Polar Bear challenge (see 2008 results here) of the Dolphin Club rewards people who swim at least 40 miles between December 21 and March 21 in the Bay. If you do, you're honored as an official Dolphin Club Polar Bear.

The South End Rowing Club (SERC) Alcatraz Swim on New Year's day (starting the year bright and early before 7.12am) gathers a number of yellow caps in speedos or criss-crossed black swim suits. Oh the joyous sight of them jumping off the Hyde Street Pier wooden railing down below!

Now, I am not (yet) a Dolphin Club or SERC member - although my heart would go to the SERC - but swimming in the San Francisco Bay is sort of addictive. Sure I have the Farmer John wetsuit and wideview mask-goggles and might as well make good use of them. But I also like the feeling as you make your way to the opening of the cove to catch a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge on your left and Alcatraz on a backdrop of Marin rolling hills across.

I kept swimming through October when the days got shorter but temps were mild, November when autumn settled in and flocks of birds kept diving in the cove because of an exceptional sardine run (tasted fishy too), December when the rain showed up and sea lions playfully joined swimmers, January when the heavy storms made for rougher conditions and sea lions went to Oregon, and February when it's getting warmer and pelicans are the only bystanders with seagulls and fishermen.

It still tastes pretty fishy but at least there's no risk of becoming the target of a steep-dive attack from a hungry bird. March will be the unofficial kickoff for the swim season for Alcatraz contenders. That's when training transitions from the heated swimming pools to the bay.

Two Saturdays ago diehard "crowds" at Aquatic Park were swimming laps along the buoys. That's dedication. If I was swimming laps, I'd much rather do it in a pool. I always go around the cove, sometimes cutting across but always getting to the opening.

Now, to the real question.

How cold is it really in the water?

Turns out, you can find out the water temp the easy way, the digital way or the Michael Phelps way. The easy way: dial 1.866.727.6787, then station code 010 for wind speed and air/water temps at the GG Bridge.

The digital way: check the NOAA web page for the port of San Francisco.

The Michael Phelps way: there is a thermometer in the water hanging from one of the buoys under the ship Balclutha. Just swim to the buoy, poke around in the water and you will find it. I heard it was broken in January. Hopefully it's been repaired since.

Greg and Laura showed me. Greg is a SERC member and knows all the Aquatic Park insider gossip, as in "last week a sea lion tried to bite so-and-so" or "there's this new guy who swims at Pier 7".  Laura is an enthusiastic swimmer who swam with us with Leslie's Swim Art.

Last time we checked the water temp was 51.7F (just under 11C). Yesterday it was 55F (roughly 12.8C). What do you think, is it cold? It's never going to be tropical anyway so why bother asking? Just enjoy the swim. It's quite a thrill.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fort Ross: From Russian-America With Love

1811. Europe is at war with Napoleon. On the North California coast then known as Upper California, Vologda native Ivan Kuskov gets his men ready to drop anchor in a cove next to a rocky promontory. The spot, 15 miles north of Bodega Bay, is the seasonal home of the Kashaya Pomo native people. They call it Metini. Satisfied by the terrain, Kuskov returns to Russia to report on the area. In 1812, Kuskov comes back to purchase the land from the Kashaya Pomo for "three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes, and some beads."

Heading 25 Russians and 80 native Alaskans, Kuskov builds a wood fortress for the Russian-American Company, a government-sponsored trading company established by Tsar Paul I. Their mission is dual. First and foremost, they need to find alternate sea otter hunting grounds to Alaska whose waters have been excessively plundered. Sea otter pelts are precious commodities for trade with China at the time. Fort Ross is also to become the company's agricultural base in America. Fort Ross will be the new and southernmost outpost of the Russian enterprise.

As it turns out, Fort Ross never lived up to its promise for the Russians. Sea otters disappeared quickly, the cost of shipping agricultural goods outweighed the efforts spent growing them, and hunters-turned-farmers lost their illusions. Sold by the Russians in 1841 to John Sutter (8 years before the Gold Rush), Fort Ross still stands today as Fort Ross State Historic Park, a rare testimony to California's Russian ghosts.

Having already visited Fort Ross three times in the past, we decided to explore the coastal trails right on the bluffs overlooking the ocean. We sort of knew about the history. Now we could focus on the nature and it is every bit as majestic as the area's quietly troubled history is intriguing. Welcome to Big Sur's little sister.
As we exited the fort, we followed the stockade wall and walked towards the sea. This might have been where the sloped fields were tended for produce, where wooden shacks lived the rythm of civilian life next to the army barracks inside the fort. Nature has now reclaimed the views.

There was a nice wide path on the left that soon winded down towards Fort Ross cove, one of the first California shipyards. Shoes sinking in the black sand, I tried to imagine the criss-cross of jetees and pullies, ladders and washed canvas next to the wood working shops. It seemed like a stretch. Nothing remains. Even the clams at Clam Beach are gone. Fort Ross today is not 1820 Fort Ross.

At this point, Fort Ross creek separated us from the trail so we made our way through thickly tangled willows and alders to find a tree stump to reach the other side. Some of us made it standing up, others went more cautiously crawling. To each his own way.

A lone pelican graciously landed on the beach and clumsily strolled down to the lagoon where we were able to admire him on a backdrop of bull's head kelp. The bird was amazingly oblivious of our presence. I don't think I've been able to check the colors on a pelican's beak that well before.

After a while, we kept on going and followed the trail leading up to a vast coastal terrace. In between muddy spots, we walked along the coast towards Ross Ross reef. In the mud we spotted raccoon and deer tracks, the local regulars. We could have kept on going for 4 miles until Reef Campground but we turned around after roughly a mile. The young 'uns were getting hungry.

Coming back on Fort Ross cove, we spent a little time building a rock dam just to see if we could cross the creek at another spot. Having done our deed, we took a few steps back and watched as other visitors arrived on the beach, looked for crossing options and hesitated between our rock dam and the not-so-easily-accessed tree stump.

It was in fact a great game and I can proudly say that 8 to 5, our dam didn't look that bad to newcomers.

Lunch was getting more and more appealing so we hiked back up and set up shop on the picnic tables right next to the fort. The field of blooming sour grass was incredibly pretty and we did our best not to disturb the grasses by crushing them. Futile effort since the sour grass is probably the most resilient grass around and it will be gone soon to be replaced by other wild grasses anyway.

Nonetheless, the sight was too close to a pre-impressionist painting to be disturbed. As we left, I was already planning the next visit with a walk through the former orchards and an excursion next to Plantation to check the hills. Great area. May it remain pristine and undeveloped long.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Salt Point State Park: Hike to the Pygmy Forest

There is a pygmy forest at Salt Point State Park between Jenner and Mendocino. Pygmy as in dwarf coastal redwoods, pines and miniature cypress trees. Pygmy as in too much salt and iron in the ground and not enough nutrients for the trees to grow full size. Pygmy as in large slabs of graywacke sandstone 18 inches below the ground and hardly any room for a root system to develop. This forest grows on an ancient seabed, an uplifted marine terrace that's now lush hills and slopes. And it's only a few hundred yards from a pristine rugged coastline where waves batter the shore with loud resounding booms.

We visited the park after two weeks of rains and some of the paths were still interconnected puddles - to our daughters' delight. Salt Point SP may not be the star of the California state park system but it features one of the only underwater reserves of California, a bull kelp forest, grassland, forests and a Rhododendron reserve - plus beaches and shoreline. Pretty good if you ask me.

Unforunately as a "minor" park with low frequentation numbers, Salt Point SP has suffered from budget cuts. As we stopped to have lunch along Gerstle Cove, we noticed that the visitor center was closed and the restrooms too. We couldn't find a brochure with a map for the hike we planned so we photographed the visitor center's map. One of the day use areas in closed this winter. We would have loved to ask a ranger some information but there was nobody in sight. Granted, rare visitors does have its advantages. We didn't fight to park the car at the trailhead and didn't meet a soul on our 5-mile hike. If we wanted to be away from it all, this was the place.

Starting on Central Trail next to the ranger station, the path is wide and rises through groves eucalyptus trees, Douglas firs and tan oaks. Trailside, gorgeous red branches of madrones were covered in white bell-shaped flowers ready to bloom for their springtime show. In the summer, they would be replaced by clusters of edible berries.

As we went up the trail - it rises steadily over 2 miles or so - we heard water trickling down the forest on all sides. Sure there were creeks indicated on the map, but these gurgling brooks were the result of the storms. We were glad we saw the forest just then, as oposed to at the end of the dry season.

The trail was occasionnally interrupted by interpretive signs about the local flora and the Kashaya Pomo uses of the plants. The one on the sour face game was particularly fun. It's about a berry bush that produces sour berries that make you cringe. Kashaya Pomo children played at who would eat the most! Our children loved going from one sign to the next.
We passed the four water tanks that store the park's water supply for the year and continued in the direction of the prairie. I was fascinated by the idea that there could be a prairie amidst this dense forest. I'm so used to coastal forests barely letting the sun go through.

However right in the middle of the trail - or should I say, over the trail - was a pool-size puddle blocked by a fallen tree. One of us had rubber boots, the others not. We decided to give it a try and negotiated our way in the somewhat dry thicket until we could just hop quickly to the other side of the stump and cross over. Done.
We were free to go on to the prairie which was straight ahead. And what a prairie it was. It was lovely - wild west style and all.

Bordered by tall pines, its center was covered in yellow grasses that sway gently in the breeze. If I blinked to see far enough in the distance, I could discern a low-rolling fog licking the slopes of deep green hills. We walked a while along the prairie, just taking it all in, savoring this tranquil place that only wild hawks swooping by disturbed.

At the junction with Prairie Trail that would have taken us towards Plantation, we decided it was time to go back if we wanted to see the pygmy forest. We had no idea how much hiking time the other trail entailed so we turned around. Vaguely watching the ground for sneaky puddles, I saw a flash of Granny Smith green jump in front of me. It was a tiny frog, lean and lank and jumpy. It wouldn't stay in the cup that I held to show it to my girls so we let it jump away from us, watching it regroup under sunken leaves before hopping to a new hideaways.

Soon enough we saw the trail we had missed on the way in (it's a pretty sharp curve coming the other way) across from the sign that says "Prairie" and veered right on North Trail, the top of our ascent. From now on, it was only going to go down. The vegetation changed abruptly and before we knew it, we were in mushroom country.

Salt Point State Park is a popular hangout for mushrooming enthusiasts.For a good reason. It's the only state park that allows mushroom foraging in California. Naturally, mycological societies from all over and until the Bay Area plan big parties there. Except we weren't privy to the world of Salt Point mushrooms so we just admired their shiny caps, fancy colors or slimy appearance.

How I wish we were surrounded by mushroom experts though. I love eating mushrooms and I hear the area even hides heavyweight boletus edulis above the two-pound mark. If you do go there with mycological afterthoughts, note that there is a five-pound limit to your collecting zealotry. As for us, we played I Spy a Mushroom during a pretty long time, almost forgetting that we were actually crossing the pygmy forest.

The trees of the pygmy forest were not as small as I anticipated but they were definitely smaller than the earlier forest. Our girls had envisioned a knee-high forest and were disappointed the trees were still taller than them. But hey, these trees are several centuries old and in fact not so tall at all. We could definihtely see more sky around us. Also, they looked like they had suffered from acid rains with their sparse silver leaves and short branches. At that point, the soil is part sand part clay and with the rain, some patches were slippery so we watched our step.

Beyond the pygmy forest, we entered a full-grown forest with normal size coast redwoods and more mushrooms. There was a majestic coastal redwood feel all around, with very little underbrush and a slightly green light accented by the mossy trunks.
From there on, it was an easy hike down the trail. So easy that our girls occasionally broke into races from big tree to big tree to hollow stump to big tree. We followed Warren Creek to our left and passed the trail that goes to the water tanks. We made it to Huckleberry Trail and made a left to come back to the trail head.

Of course on the way, more mushrooms crossed our path. Makes a girl think. It might be time to join a mycological expedition. How would they taste, I wonder?

The high point of our hike to the pygmy forest ended up being the prairie, with the mushrooms a close second. You just never know what the trail will offer.