Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tarantula Treks at Mt Diablo: Time For That Fuzzy Hairy Feeling

Back to school time is open season for tarantulas - for soul searching that is. If you've ever hiked the East Bay trails, you passed countless tarantula burrows without realizing it. Small dirt mounds with a dollar-coin size hole, they could be gopher hideouts for all you know. In fact, in their cool and dark underground room, male tarantulas are quietly waiting seven to ten lonely years until they reach puberty. When finally they've grown to adult size and wisdom, they only have a year or so to live until they starve to death. FYI, females can live up to 49 years so yes, it's unfair. Speed-dating tarantula style starts. Male tarantulas go skittering all over the place to please the ladies.

Tarantula hikes are a great way for kids - and their parents who've seen too many arachno-horror movies - to uncover the true nature of these prehistoric animals. Forget the bad rep, they're sweet things who love nothing more than a cricket or two. You (the human) should grab your camera and watch in utter fascination as this mating ritual and drama unfolds at your feet. No screaming involved. Even if you have a serious case of spider phobia, you'll get out of there with new respect for the hairy type. Kids simply love tarantula treks.

Two weeks ago, our family drove to the Bay Area mecca of the biggest creepy crawlies on earth: Mount Diablo State Park. Mount Diablo is such a popular tarantula hangout that people come from all over the place for the hikes organized by the Mount Diablo Interpretive Association. Think of this season as the ultimate hair-raising educational opportunity.

I happen to have a bad case of spider-phobia. Until recently I couldn't even watch one on a TV screen. I'm better now but still won't touch one. When I suggested we go on a tarantula hike, I viewed it as shock therapy with an opportunity to learn cool facts about the creepy crawlies. You know what? It worked. I'm not afraid of tarantulas any more. I know I'm very unlikely to get bitten by one, much less to be eaten by one. Look, I can even write about them without cold sweats.

The docent that day was a lovely woman called Helen who brought Isabella, her Chilean Rose pet tarantula, in case we didn't see any on the trail.  She did well. We didn't see any at all but we had our tarantula fix at the start of the hike when Helen told us a little bit about tarantula behavior, life cycle, diet and moulting.

After Isabella appeared in her vivarium, my girls were transfixed by the graceful movements of the spider. She had a pink spot on the back - apparently typical for Chilean tarantulas - and crawled everywhere. My oldest one swore she didn't want to touch it and told so to the docent three times. We got the message all right.

She would probably have stuck to her guns if another little girl hadn't asked to hold the tarantula. She cupped her hands and stayed calm as Charlotte transferred from her owner's to the little girl's hands. She even started stroking its back with a smile. Ours couldn't resist. Seconds later, here she was holding the tarantula.  It's ticklish, she said. My husband tried too and said the tarantuila was as light as a feather and very soft. I took notes in my notebook. Ticklish. Soft. Light.

The hike itself, around Mitchell Canyon, was an easy 2-mile loop with splendid views on the hills. I was surprised to see so many yellow and pink flowers on the trail. Sage was fragrant under the East Bay sun and the temperature was pleasantly warm. It was a great hike and though we didn't see any wild tarantulas, some in the group were quick at spotting their burrows.

If you plan to go on tarantula hikes before the season is over, here is the calendar for September and October 2010:

Saturday, September 11 - 9 a.m. to noon  - Mitchell Canyon Meander
Join Ken Lavin on a nature walk along shady Mitchell Creek to see what blooms, flies, swims, burrows, and crawls on Mount Diablo in late summer. We may even meet the notorious "mining tarantula" of Mitchell Canyon! This is an easy to moderate hike of 4 miles with a couple hundred feet in elevation gain. $6/vehicle park entrance fee. Meet at the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center. No organized groups on this outing.

Sunday– Sept. 12 – 5:00 pm - Mitchell Canyon - TarantulaTrek (also Saturday October 2, 11am-1pm)
Join Helene Crowley for a talk and 2-mile round-trip nature walk to find out the truth about the world's largest spiders. Bring sunscreen, snack, liquids and your expert eyesight. Meet at the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center at the end of Mitchell Canyon Rd. in Clayton. Scout and Youth groups are welcome. Please contact Helene at or(415) 974-2209, M-TH, 6:30am-3:30pm with questions.

Sunday– Sept. 19 - 8:45am – 11:00am - Tarantula Trek (also Saturday September 25, 8.45am-11am and Sunday October 3, 8.45am-11am)
A 19th century scientific expedition described Mt. Diablo's tarantulas as "attaining the size of a half-grown mouse, possessing fangs the size of a rattlesnakes', and delivering a bite generallyconsidered to be fatal." Fact or fiction? Join us for a talk and 2-mile round-trip nature walk to find out the truth about the world's largest spiders. Cost: $6 park entrance fee. Meet: Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center, Mount Diablo State Park. Leader: Ken Lavin, (925) 852-8778, or No organized groups on this outing, please

Sunday– Sept. 19 – 4:00pm – 7:00pm - Tarantula Trek (also Sunday October 3, 4-7pm)
Join Phil Reed for a talk and 2-mile round-trip nature walk to find out the truth about the world's largest spiders. Bring sunscreen, snack, liquids and your expert eyesight. Meet at the Mitchell Canyon Visitor Center at the end of Mitchell Canyon Rd. in Clayton. Scout and youth groups are welcome. Please contact Phil at or (925) 829-0628 with questions.

Now you know everything. Do go, you won't regret it. Even if you don't go, remember to be nice and gentle to those hairy beasts on the trails. They have a heart too.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Scottish Highland Games in Pleasanton: Tartan, Bagpipes and Haggis

On the field of the Alameda County Fairgrounds, a lone bagpipe player started to play Amazing Grace at the Grandstand Show of the first day of the Scottish Highland Games. Left of the podium, I was looking at 600 massed musicians in full Scottish attire in front of me on the field. My gaze was flirting from the shiny wind instruments to the flag of California flapping in the wind behind when the voices of people rose in unison from the bleachers.

They were singing Amazing Grace, each note more forcefully than the previous one. At the pause, all voices turned silent and the lone bagpipe player let out the first notes of the hymn again. Only this time, 400 bagpipes droned together a third above the last note. The long single tone prolonged until all at once, all bagpipes joined in a powerful rendition of Amazing Grace.

From where I stood the mass effect was incredible and I choked back a tear (go ahead, feel free to be cynical). It was a beautiful musical moment and you can get a flavor on YouTube here, though really nothing beats standing inches from the first tartans. The song only lasted a few minutes. Three maybe? But those were worth the three previous hours we'd spent at the Scottish Highland Games sweating under 90 degrees.

On that note, who decided that scorchy Pleasanton was a good location to invite people to wear wool socks, eat warm meat pies and drink beer under the sun with no green hills in sight? Sheesh, coastal cities should really think of building a good size county fairground in the fog belt. But since Pleasanton it was, let's go with Pleasanton.

Until today, I didn't know what to expect from the Scottish Highland Games. Mostly I anticipated a Scottish-themed county fair, maybe funnel cakes and certainly sodas. I didn't realize what a big event it was, nor what the different types of entertainment were. Clearly, the Caledonian Club of San Francisco's website needs a good redesign on main page for the games where I could find neither the schedule nor a clear idea of festivities. For a yearly two-day event, it seems like basic information and the fact that I had to pay $7 for the program at the door was a bit much.

Nonetheless, once we made it through the gate I opened the program and looked for the athletic events. What's a Scottish game if you can't cheer to a big guy flexing his biceps for the caber toss event? For me that's the iconic Highland game and we found it all right on the field where the Grandstand later took place.

Caber toss, weight for height, hammer throw are all part of the so-called "Heavy Events" and have constituted the raw essence of Highland Games for centuries.

We watched in awe as strong muscular guys cupped their hands to get a pole in upright position, started running and threw it in the air attempting to have it rebound on the ground and end in a 12 o'clock position relative to the run.

Next on the field, female participants were competing for the weight for height, a sport consisting in throwing a ball weight attached to a ring handle over a bar similar to that used in pole vaulting. Again, lots of muscle at work, a strong line-up and some loud cheering in the audience. I was psyched to see there was a women's class for the championships. You go girls!
After the athletics, we made our way to the Living History corner where the Stuarts and Mary Queen of Scots were throwing late banquets in the sun and Caesar was enteraining his non-Roman guests in front of a display of gladiator armors. Honestly, who would've thought the Highland Games also included a Scottish taste of the Renaissance Faire?

If you knew nothing about Scottish history, you would have come out of there at least a little enlightened - and with a heat stroke. There was very little shade in that corner and we had a hard time watching the end of an archery demonstration in full sun.

Sun considerations aside, the props and costumes were very well made and seemed as real as they possibly could. The map of the vikings sea explorations were a delight to our girls (also the fact that Christopher Columbus did not discover America but the Vikings did), as well as the Roman weaponry and stone engraving with Celtic designs.

While ladies in fluffy dresses frolicked between stands, they did not draw my girls' undivided attention as much as the re-enactment of Mary Queen of Scots visiting her nobility to re-establish herself as queen.

Now that looked great but we were too far to hear the words so we retreated to the air-conditioned hall of the Daughters of the British Empire for a breather. I would have loved to sit down for tea and scones any other day in chilly San Francisco by 55F but under the Pleasanton heat, just the thought was too much. Haggis anyone? We simply browsed through the shops and exited to find marching bagpipe bands.

On the way, a cup of pink lemonade shaved ice gave a second life to my girls who were wilting under the sun.

At snack time, we sat down for a shepherd's pie from a vendor whose banner displayed the profile of Queen Elizabeth saying "Finally some decent food in our colonies." Great shepherd's pie, my girls want the same at lunch time at school.

That was minutes before we walked in the Grandstand Show and some Scottish dances by designated dancers from the local clans. The San Diego U.S. Marines Band joined in too.

We walked out of the games pouring over the performance of Amazing Grace. Both my husband and I shared the same feeling at the beauty of the piece. It made us forget about the heat and the somewhat loud aspect of county fairs with beer vendors and burger stands. Wish we'd gotten a kilt for my husband. Men in kilts look great.

Practical details
Scottish Highland Games
Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, Bernal Av. & Pleasanton Av. (Bernal Av. exit off 680)
Saturday September 4-Sunday September 5, 2010
Hours: 9am to 6.30pm
Activities: 9am to 3.45pm
Price: $18/adult, kids under 12 free, discount for seniors
Children's Glen, Gathering of the Clans, Piping Competition, Highland Dancing Competition, Athletic Events, Grandstand Show