Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Barn dance at Pie Ranch

"First couple goes galloping down the middle and stops at the end!" announces Andy Wilson the caller on the music of the County Line Pickers. Down the middle goes the first couple hand in hand, laughing madly, skipping and galloping sideways while others are clapping. Laughing madly? The first couple is not even 13 years old - both ages combined. They are two little girls aged 6 respectively and they giggle so hard they gallop too far and catch up later with the line. The monthly barn dance at Pie Ranch is not only legendary -  it's a family event with no alcohol allowed and that doesn't prevent anybody from having a good ol' rollicking time.

Every third Saturday of the month, growing numbers of people converge to Pie Ranch for the Work Day & Barn Dance to get dirty and hit the dance floor. Yes it all starts in the fields - if you can volunteer your time and efforts at the work party at 2pm. Note the terminology: it's a party, not a chore. And it really is. 

Weeding the strawberry fields, cutting wood for the bread oven, collecting eggs in the chicken coop, you'll get to participate in the daily operation of a great educational farm that teaches Bay Area students about sustainable agriculture. Hey, you don't even have to end up with blisters on all your hands to feel good about the whole thing. Just enjoy a day out in the sun next to the ocean. 

All the harvested produce is sold either at Pie Ranch directly in the barn or through San Francisco's Mission Pie   a corner cafe and bakery that offers a menu based on seasonal produce from 7 different Bay Area farms including Pie Ranch. Check out their daily offering of fruit or savory pie, it's a rare find on Mission Street between 25th and 26th. As far as the eggs - well there's a new word for you. They are part of a community supported eggriculture (CSE) egg share program. Yes, "eggriculture." Sponsor the hens, crack the eggs at home. Neat for those of us who can't offer room and board to our feathery friends.

After the work part, you can tour the farm (there are lovely views stretching all the way to Ano Nuevo State Reserve from the ridge above the strawberry fields) or enjoy the surrounding beaches until 6 pm when the official potluck starts. Ah the potluck - the scary and exciting anticipation of unknown anonymous dishes on the table. Note that said dishes were perfectly labelled and we mostly knew what we were eating and whether it was vegetarian, vegan or other-friendly. Unconventional in an organized manner (appetizers on first tables, sweets at the end), the potluck beamed with community spirit all around and worked as a great introduction to other groups of people.

Some brought fresh goat cheese from Harley Farms in Pescadero. A woman made home-baked sourdough bread stuffed with fresh artichokes. Others whipped up deviled eggs with their chickens' eggs from Slide Ranch. One fixed a pasta salad. We prepared some chocolate-coconut British treats and a pork terrine. Dishes kept landing on the tables as people trickled in, car after car. On the practical side, we brought our own plates and so should you. Try eating a chili con carne a la barbaric!

As the potluck delighted stomachs, the place filled up and a contained beehive atmosphere settled in. They were waiting for something to happen: the dance. With picnic tables full, diners migrated to hay stacks, to makeshift tables  or just ate standing up. It was that popular. With our hungry children, we were glad we arrived at 6 pm so we didn't have to wait in line.

Was the food any good? Was there enough? Hell yeah, there was more than enough and we tasted some great stuff. Obviously, according on our timing in the line we missed a few dishes but on the whole we tasted 5 to 8 foods. Now the dance could steal the show. 

At 7 pm sharp, the barn door opened. Our girls ran inside. They were getting cold. We washed our dishes at the outdoors dish washing station, scrubbed our plates above the compost buckets, recycled what could be recycled, and joined them inside too. We paid our dues at the entrance table - $7 to $20 per adult on a sliding scale - and went in.

We didn't waste a moment and joined the line right away. Mr. Wilson was already half way through the first song's set of steps and moves. At the top of the line were the two 6-year-olds who skipped down the line with gusto when the signal came. We were beginners - we kept skipping beats to catch up with the music. After repeating sets 6 to 8 times we kinda got the hang of it. After 5 dances we were panting and steaming hot. This is physical! So to cool off, we stepped aside to listen to the County Line Pickers.

This group of country musicians includes Ken Clarkson on banjo, Jon Young and Nancy Vail on fiddle, Hide Kawatsure and Josh Lane on mandolin, Joni Davies on guitar and vocals, Jim Davies on bass   as well as friends who joined with their instruments all evening long. I honestly have no idea which songs were played. The only one I remember distinctly had people point at their partner twice saying "Sasha!" and then count to three in Russian before playing hand games, do-si-do-ing and swinging with their partner. If you want an idea of what the evening might have looked like, here is a YouTube video of a contra dance at Pie Ranch in July 2008. Clearly, there were fewer people then. 

We left at 8.30 pm but the party rocked on until 10 pm. As soon as we sat down in the car, we realized that all the dancing had used up all our energy. Our feet hurt. The kids conched right away. What a workout this is! As we headed home, new dancers were arriving. Some revelers were sneakingly drinking beers in the dark parking lot. Oh well. We loved that the party was alcohol-free but we didn't mind that some felt they needed a booster. Aside from weddings, it's really the first time I've seen a dance party with so many kids and the sobriety requirement is a good idea to avoid rowdy behaviors. However if a few drinkers want to enjoy a local brew (it's local & seasonal, right?), why not? The party was the best we've been to in a long time and we'll definitely return - hoping to get the moves right this time. Yeehaw!

Next Work Day & Barn Dance at Pie Ranch: April 17, 2010. Be there with your dancing shoes on. No barn dance experience needed. Trust me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hiking around Bon Tempe Lake and Lake Lagunitas in Marin

Marin's vibrant green landscapes come close to Granny Smith slopes in the spring and the hills around Mount Tamalpais resemble waves of green tea slushies. Yes, Marin sure is green and spring is prime time for admiring its shades while still tender before the summer turns the hills to yellow. In other words, it's time to hike! Come March, days get sunnier, warmer and longer and a hike is in order. 

There are two reasons you may want to hike around Bon Tempe Lake and/or Lake Lagunitas this weekend: the trail is flat-ish and the hike is only 3.8 miles with a possibility for a 3-mile extension mid-way if you're feeling peppy. That's an easy day out under the sun and you can enjoy coffee from Fairfax's downtown Coffee Roastery or lavender vanilla ice cream at the Fairfax Scoop on the way out.

One of many lakes around Mount Tamalpais, Bon Tempe is part of the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. The reservoirs you will drive or walk by provide 75% of the domestic water consumption in Marin, the remaining 25% coming from the Russian River. Hence the no-swimming/camping/boating rule. However there are plenty of other opportunities to enjoy these lakes, the two top ones being hiking and fishing.

Minutes from Fairfax, Bon Tempe Lake is a local fishing mecca and if fish is on your mind, plan to get there at daybreak to catch one of those trouts. If hiking sounds more like your kind of day, mid-morning will do and all you need is to follow these directions. After you reach the Sky Oaks headquarters (directions at the end), follow a sign for Bon Tempe Lake 0.4 mile after the entrance kiosk. The trailhead is on your left at the parking lot on the dirt road. Park there.

We started the hike at noon with a group of roughly 50 hikers and ended at the same spot at 5.30 pm, 7 miles and a Mediterranean food break later. However you can cut this hike at 3.8 miles by going around Bon Tempe Lake only.

From Bon Tempe Lake to Lake Lagunitas
After the gate, follow the trail up to your right and enjoy the views of Bon Tempe Lake as you go over the hill. That's 140 acres of blue waters surrounded by redwoods, madrones and ferns with the occasional osprey soaring overhead. Nice, right?
Take Sunnyside trail immediately to your left. This wide dirt trail follows the lake all around and you will pass many a hopeful fisherman or woman or child staring at their fishing rods in silent anticipation. Note that the trail is dog-friendly and you will also probably see a few dogs too (or bring your own Mutt for a healthy stroll). The trail is well managed and unless it's been raining lately, sports shoes are fine (hiking shoes are recommended for the Lake Lagunitas extension).

At the north-eastern shore you get to the paved Sky Oaks Road. Cross the road and continue on Oaks Trail. As the name indicates, the trail is lined with oaks stooping low. If you want to get back to the lake shores, make a right on Pine Point Trail after 0.2 mile, otherwise keep going straight. Eventually Pine Point Trail merges with Oaks Trail again and you'll reach a large parking lot at the western tip of Lake Lagunitas.

If the kids are already slowing down, skip the Lake Lagunitas portion and come back around Bon Tempe Lake on Shadyside Trail. Otherwise, you're in for a treat with great views of both lakes from a top picnic spot.

From Lake Lagunitas parking lot to Pilot Knob
At the Lake Lagunitas parking lot, look for the fishing sign and follow the paved Lake view Road. This section is moderate including some climbing but the change of pace is well worth the effort. In the spring you will see Douglas Iris as well as Forget Me Not splashing spots of blue and purple along the trail. Roughly 0.1 mile in, turn left on Pilot Knob Trail.

You will be deep in oak and madrone underbrush, shaded almost all the way to your picnic spot. The trail will go through meadows before returning under the shade of trees and so forth during 0.5 mile until you reach a trail junction on the right to Pilot Knob.

Go right and pace yourself because this hike's climb is concentrated on this tiny portion. Gradually you will climb first on dirt then on wooden steps until you reach a bald hill with a lonely oak tree. This is it!

At your feet are is the V-shaped Lake Lagunitas, on the right the blue waters of Bon Tempe Lake and all around, unobstructed views of the eastern side of Mt Tamalpais where a fire lookout can be seen on the ridge. This is a great spot to just sit down and relax. Get your picnic out and enjoy. Little ones will enjoy climbing in the tree's lowest branches. If they climb high enough, they will even find a heart-shaped scar on one of the tree's branches. When you're ready to get going again, know that the hardest part is over and the rest is a breeze.

From Pilot Knob to Lake Lagunitas picnic area, south shore
Retrace your steps on Pilot Knob Trail and go downhill until the first junction where you will go right on Lake View Road. After 0.5 mile you will take a left on the wide Lagunitas Fire Road to go around Lake Lagunitas, a scenic stroll that will take you through redwood groves and shaded shores. At this point you are mostly going down with a few ups.
At Colier Creek you will cross a wooden bridge under the redwoods (unless you go for the iffy rock path in the creek) and continue right to continue along the lake's shore. The trail will get narrower and will bring you back to the Lake Lagunitas picnic area with the large parking lot after passing the dam.

Look for ducks and turtles around the dam and check out the cool spillway that connects Lake Lagunitas to Bon Tempe Lake. It looks like a giant water slide and that's indeed what it is - for spawning fish, of course. 

From Lake Lagunitas picnic area to Bon Tempe Lake and Dam, south shore
At the parking lot, walk south to get to Shadyside Trail. This narrow and winding trail will closely follow Bon Tempe Lake shores under the evergreen canopy. You will need to walk single line most of the way but you get gorgeous views of the lake all around minus the heat if it's a warm and sunny day.

After 1.4 mile you reach the dam that drops sharply into Alpine Lake down below. On your right the vast waters of Bon Tempe Lake, on your left the Swiss-like valley with Alpine Lake at the bottom.

The dam road is so wide you could easily ride a bicycle or more side to side. You've done it, congratulations. Your car is at the other end of the dam. For another cool - and steeper - spillway, check out the end of the dam and watch the water gush from Bon Tempe Lake in rough white "waves."

Now is the time to get a reward and head down to Fairfax for some well-deserved ice cream and coffee. Fairfax is cute, you may even want to lounge around until dinner time if the weather is nice. Next time, you can continue exploring the Mt. Tam Watershed and its many waterfalls (check out description on this blog next week).

Practical details:
  • Hike: 3.8 miles for Bon Tempe, 7 miles for Bon Tempe and Lagunitas
  • Download trail map here
  • Directions to Sky Oaks/Bon Tempe here
  • Restrooms: at Bon Tempe trailhead, Lake Lagunitas parking lot, Bon Tempe dam (south end)