Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hiking to Maple Falls at the Forest of Nisene Marks

Hiking through miles of densely wooded terrain, you would never know this land at the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park was bare in 1923. Not a single tree left in the ground. All chopped down between 1883 and the 1923. The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park, now one of the biggest California State Parks, was a major logging operation with a railroad, residential housing, telegraph office and school. Look at the photo today. The current forest results from fantastic reforestation efforts and you will be walking through miles of second-growth redwoods that look like they've been there forever. What a beauty. Miracles do happen after all.

In the morning we checked out the Old Growth Loop set in Marcel's Forest, a recent addition to the park featuring ancient redwoods and the beautiful Aptos Creek running through canyons. We even stumbled upon a random golden crown sticking out from a redwood stump and our girls' imagination ran wild with winged forest creatures at every other turn thereafter. Whoever got the crown where it is had a brilliant idea. Finding treasures in forests is a rare treat.

After this appetizer, we set out for the main course, Maple Falls, one of two major waterfalls of the park. Before you go there, make sure you download and print this map, as the park suffers from budget cuts and we couldn't buy it at the entrance the day we went. You can get a green paper map created by Jeff Thomson, author of Explore - The Forest of Nisene Marks State Park by the entrance kiosk but once you hit the trails, they are not always well-marked and some junctions can be confusing.

We started the 6.3 mile loop hike at the Porter family Picnic Area. The total hike took us up the Loma Prieta Grade Trail to the Porter House Site, Hoffman's Historic Site, the Bridge Creek Historic Site and Maple Falls, back on Bridge Creek Trail.

Getting to the Porter House Site was a piece of cake as the trail was both wide and well-marked but nothing remains of the Porter House itself. Here stood the house of the secretary of the Loma Prieta Lumber Company who lived there with his wife Mary Easton and his son John. If Loma Prieta sounds familiar, it's because the epicenter of the Loma Prieta 1989 earthquake is only a mile away inside the park. Hence an unusual number of fallen trees on the trails. While no structure remains of the Porter House, a bench and interpretive sign commemorate the site and we spotted bricks scattered on the hill as we left the site to go to Hoffman's Historic Site. Or shall we say, China Camp?
This portion of the Loma Prieta Grade trail follows old railroad tracks. The Southern Pacific Railroad had Chinese workers cut, grade and lay a standard gauge railroad up the steep canyon leading to the upper Aptos and its treasure trove of redwood trees. As a result some 150,000,000 board feet of lumber flowed down the railroad line to markets all over the world from 1883 to 1923 (you can find out more about this fascinating history in the Amended General Plan of the park). As we walked steadily up the canyon, we kept seeing eroded tracks and could see where bridges had disappeared and where the tracks resumed further up the trail.
I need to look up why China Camp was renamed Hoffman's Historic Site but the truth of the matter is, there isn't much standing there anymore. If not for the interpretive sign you might even walk by it and not notice. While there used to be a thriving community of 400 lumber workers, only collapsed roofs and broken doors remain. Come to think of it, it could be creepy but it's all so quiet that you want to try hard and imagine a bustling village here.
As the girls were getting tired - it is a long and steady climb - we set out for the Bridge Creek Historic Site where we initially intended to turn back. However as we reached the junction, the Maple Falls seemed so close that we just couldn't pass. An extra mile and we would call it a day, returning to the trailhead.

Unexpectedly the kids enjoyed most this most challenging part of the hike, an adventure-course type trek through a narrowing canyon hopping over rocks, crossing the river several times without bridge and crawling under fallen trees and over land slides to the bottom of the gorge where Maple Falls are finally revealed behind a big boulder.

We sometimes had a hard time keeping up with the 6-year olds but the 4-year old kept tripping on roots and rocks so that was definitely slower. The effort was worth it though. With all the rain we've been having, the 30-foot tall falls were gushing fom a granite slab and splashing into a circular pool surrounded by maple trees. Quite the origin of the world.

We stayed a while there. The girls threw rocks in the pool, they splashed around a bit, the sun was shining and it was a rare moment in the hike where we were actually under open skies and not under tree cover. We enjoyed it as long as we could before walking back through Bridge Creek Trail.

Walking back was a breeze and strangely enough, the children picked up the pace so we were a lot faster than on the first half of the trail. It's not that it was all downhill but there was definitely less climbing than going north. Following the banks of the river was refreshing and on occasions the creacking of tall trees above us made us pause. Obviously the girls kept looking for golden crowns behind redwood trees but this had been a unique surprise. The real treat, for me, was definitely the falls and I recommend you see them while they are still flowing generously.

Directions to the Forest of Nisene Marks: From Highway 1, take the State Parks exit, turn east towards Aptos and then left on Aptos Creek Road that you follow until you hit the park's main road.

Camping: As the park does not offer any camping options other than backpacking, we camped at the nearby Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Olompali Park's Heritage Day

Every third Sunday in May since 1975, Olompali State Historic Park in Marin organizes a heritage day that celebrates both the Native American and Victorian heritage of the park. During that day, visitors get to see Dry Creek Pomo dancers perform at the reconstructed Miwok village, see blacksmiths in action at the forge, visit the Victorian gardens, observe insects of all shapes with the park rangers and drill holes in shells with traditional wooden hand drills.

All things exciting, yes, but if you ask my girls and their friend Ben today, the highlights of the day were catching tiny lizards with their bare hands at the Miwok village and close second, eating the complimentary Clover Stornetta Farms vanilla ice cream under the tall oak trees.

The festivities kicked off at 10am and we arrived shortly after after navigating a tricky U-turn as coming in from 101 south is not very direct. Skies were overcast and I was glad we all had long sleeves. Sadly we missed the native plant walk at 10am but the kids found activities almost right away. As we walked on the lawn at the entrance, we were greeted by a very realistic looking mountain lion!

From far it almost fooled me. The kids were thrilled. Mountain lion, bobcat, beavers, skunks - the animal gallery was displayed as naturally as possible, a skunk even "hiding" under a tree on the grass. This booth set up by the Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue was definitely hands-on, featuring fur pelts and naturalized animals to touch. It had a side display that delighted and disgusted our kids too.

Their little table with mouldings from animal scat (with an illustrated guide to connect the right scat with the right animal) and tracks drew interested "eeuws" from our youngsters who nevertheless grabbed the guide to find out what animal's poop they were looking at. Ah, the power of poop!

Upgrading from naturalized wildlife to live insects, we went over to the California state parks table where big magnifiers were awaiting curious minds. "Want to see a spider?" asked a ranger. Our kids immediately gathered around a table where the ranger let loose a small spider. She then covered it with a tube connected to her computer and they watched the arachnid's explorations on the computer screen. Gosh things have gone hi-tech since I was a kid!

After the spider came a millipede and a worm, sometimes combined in dangerous pairs under the same magnifier. If not for the ice cream cones carried by two other kids at our table, they'd still be watching insects. See, vanilla ice cream has an appeal that even the most lovable spider doesn't have.

From what I've read, the free ice cream is a recurring feature of this event and always a hit. How could it not? Clouds are going away, the ice cream comes in crunchy cones, you can have as much as you want and the morning is drawing to a close. Why, ice cream is just the thing you need to go on to the next adventure.

After all that natural exploration the Miwok village was the place where we would satisfy our cultural endeavors that day. A work in progress, the current reconstructed village features two redwood bark kotchas (houses) and a native tule reed rounded hut. Perfect for role playing and hide-and-seek, the village was going to come to life with a dance by the Dry Creek Pomo dancers.

If Dry Creek rings a bell it's perhaps because you've seen signs for the River Rock Casino in the Alexander Valley. Opened by the Dry Creek Rancheria, this casino funds many of the tribe's needs and Bay Area highways feature many big signs to attract customers. However the Dry Creek Pomo dancers' performed was as traditional and no-thrills as a long-standing ceremony can be.

Two musicians, both of them singing and playing rhythmic sticks, a foreword to say "Oooh" to praise rather than clap, and ten dancers on a tree mulch covered circle. While the men wore elaborate feathered head dresses, the girls - including the cutest little dancer - wore fabric skirts and thick black belts with an interesting beaded head band that covered their eyes.

I wish we had had an explanation about the symbolism of the dances, a way to relate the body, head and hand moves to a story but that wasn't the case. We sort of guessed there were hunting scenes involving an eagle and another bird of prey but we weren't sure about the whole picture.

Since the dances were obviously divided into separate scenes, it would be great if the lead singer could also announce what is coming up or give a brief outline at the beginning. Even without a subtext the dances were beautiful and slightly hypnotic, a feeling that the regular beating of the sticks and singing reinforced.

Our children were captivated until the lizards came into play. They had caught lizards before the dance and fifteen minutes into the dance, wanted to catch some more. As respectfully as they could, they got up and they took off toward the bark village.

It didn't take long before one of them came back yelping that "I got it on first try!" We quietly sent them away and met them after the dance. It was fun to see how kids took care of the lizards as they would have of pets. Holding them loosely between their fingers, they stroked their claws and petted their blue bellies while whispering sweet words. Had the little scaly guys been hamsters, they would have been treated just as well. Lizards and ice cream, who could have guessed? When I advertised the event over breakfast with feathers and indians, I certainly didn't think we'd go for a crawling pets kind of day.

Next event at Olompali: Bat Night in August

You can visit Olompali on weekends until the summer, or on a daily basis after July 1st. Check the website for details. However for extra excitement and if you are looking for a fun evening with the kiddos, August 15th will be Bat Night at Olompali! Expect a twilight slide show followed by a night walk to watch the bats colonies emerge in the evening skies.