Other California Adventures – Birding and Hiking

After the sailing trip to bring the boat home, I stayed with my parents for a week to hang out and recover. While I was there we enjoyed the outdoors and I thought I’d share some of our adventures.

One foggy morning my mom and I, and a friend of my mom’s, went walkabout birding around Los Osos and hit two of the best sites in the area. Check out the Morro Coast Audubon Society page for birding news in the area and directions to these locations. Our first stop was the Audubon 4th Street Overlook. The tide was in and we didn’t see much except for an egret getting uppity with a seagull in response to a rude awakening. I did get a chance to play around with my binoculars and figure out how to take some pictures through them with my phone. I really like this one of marsh grass in the fog!

Walking through the neighborhood was lovely. Parts of Los Osos are eclectic and artsy while others just made me smile.

Our second stop was the Sweet Springs Nature Preserve. It’s a wonderful piece of land spanning the ecotone between chaparral and estuary, and as such, contains a huge diversity of birds. The trails are wonderfully maintained, and many of them are ADA accessible. There are a few viewing platforms for birding and just generally watching the world go by. Some highlights from our trip to Sweet Springs were blue-winged teals, great blue herons, a Townsend warbler, and a copious amount of wading birds like godwits, plovers, and types of sandpipers.

Blue-Winged Teals hanging out.

The Townsend warbler was a particular favorite of mine and deserved a drawing in my journal to remember the day.

All-morning birding trips should conclude with lunch somewhere and a thorough recounting of the day’s observations. This might be a rule for my mom and her birding friends, one I certainly agree with. We had lunch at Beerwood, which had great food, great beer, and a wonderful outdoor patio area. The day concluded with a bird tally of 31 different species!

My dad and I, on another day, took a nice hike out at El Chorro Regional Park in our endless quest for sunshine. There’s a campground, golf course, the SLO Botanical Gardens, numerous playgrounds and shelters, and some awesome dog parks there. Where the road ends there’s also some hiking. My dad and I just headed straight up the “sort of paved” “trail” instead of veering off onto the dirt trails in the hills (shorts and poison oak don’t mix well). I wouldn’t recommend the “trail” we did for anyone really looking to hike, but it was a perfectly enjoyable walk that I’d definitely do again!

Sailing Adventures – The Return Trip

After every adventure, whether short or long in time or distance, there’s a coming home. There’s a returning to a place, or a feeling of normalcy or of rest, that gives us a chance to contemplate our adventures and re-calibrate our perspectives of the world.

While I returned to the East Coast for two and a half weeks, my dad toiled in the boatyard. The mast got removed to re-run wiring and get painted, the bottom was sanded and also painted, and a variety of other little projects were also completed. So while I breathed a bit of that coming home feeling on my side of the country, I knew the adventure wasn’t quite over.

So I flew out once more to the West Coast to help out, but this time for the explicit purpose of bringing the boat back home, to complete the journey. The trip northward along the coast of California is a much different beast than the trip southward. Northward is against the prevailing winds and swells and currents, and includes a rounding of Point Conception where the coastline turns from an east-west direction to a more north-south direction. This is the natural division between southern California and central California, and the winds here can get fearsome as they wrap around the land. Many a sailor have waited out the winds at anchor in Cojo before attempting the trip.

The run can take anywhere between 24 and 36 hours depending on the wind speed and direction. I use the word “run” purposefully because it’s not just a trip. There’s a sense of urgency to it to go quickly before the weather changes or something happens. Luckily we had a good weather window and managed the trip in just over 23 hours. My dad said it’s the easiest trip he’s ever had around Point Conception.

This trip brought me a big new experience that I don’t remember from childhood; sailing at night. Obviously as a child we sailed through the night, but I was never an active participant in the journey. This time I was very much an active participant. Night sailing is something that few people ever do, even regular day sailors. It’s a magical experience, so I thought I’d try to describe it a bit. The following is an entry in my journal written soon after our return.

Night fell as cars disappeared into Gaviota pass on the mainland. Night sailing is a weird mix of constant apprehension, wonder, beauty, and cold. There's always the fear that you'll run into something that didn't show up on the radar, hit a lobster pot buoy that gets caught around the prop, or have to "buckle in" with your harness when the wind picks up suddenly and you have to go forward to drop the main sail... The wonder part of the trip includes watching the lights on land, trying to guess what they belong to, telling time by the changing position of the lights... The rolling of the boat over darkened water is reminiscent of riding a smooth conveyor belt. It's an odd sensation that the water is picking you up, carrying you, and forcing you along, whereas during daylight it very much feels like the boat is charging its way through the water. At night you don't have as much control, you have to trust the ocean to carry you where you want to go... The cold is numbing, wind in your face, eyeballs as wide as possible looking for pitfalls or floating obstacles. The cold seeps in past openings at wrists and necks and waists; up past pant legs and past socks. It's a soul-crushing cold because its the cold of wind and not of temperature. You can't shore up every crack and you can't put your back to it without relinquishing that little bit of control, that chance to see something in the darkness before it becomes a problem.

Once again, I’m deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time with my dad out on the water. I’m also reminded that it’s shared experiences that help build connections between people and I’m thankful to have that as well. For now, I’m headed home to contemplate my adventures and re-calibrate my perspectives of the world!

Sailing Adventures – Part 4

We left off last time with a hike between Pelican Bay and Prisoners Harbor.

Day nine dawned sunny and windless. We took our time with breakfast and then headed out for an 8 mi jaunt down the coast to the western tip of Santa Cruz Island to an anchorage called Little Scorpion. Despite the lack of wind, our stubbornness meant turning off the engine and “sailing” down the coast at 2-3 kts with the sails luffing. By the time we got close to the anchorage the wind had come up a bit.

We took a couple passes through the anchorage, scoping out spots and then tried our stern and bow anchor dance. Unfortunately, the combined result of the wind, a steeply sloping bottom and an error dropping the bow anchor meant that we ended up laying perpendicular to the other boats in the anchorage. It was late afternoon, both anchors seemed dug in pretty well and we were tired, so we gave up and let it be.

Journal entry day ten: By the time we woke up, the anchorage had eight boats in it. One was leaving while at least three others jockeyed for their spot. It was ridiculous and claustrophobic and the wind was still blowing. The weather report said there was a small craft advisory for the western part of Santa Cruz Island and Anacapa Island. So we pulled up the anchors and went to find a better spot.

Unfortunately we got waved off at Scoprion Anchorage by a boat that had situated themselves in the very middle of the anchorage. So we continued down the coast to a little cove called Potato. It is completely surrounded by cliffs, with a small opening to get into the bay. A happily barking sea lion colony welcomed us. The winds and swell were from the northwest and straight through the small opening and into the bay.

We kept an eye on the wind and the swells, which kept building throughout the afternoon. Usually the wind and any wind-driven swells die down toward the end of the afternoon, but they didn’t this time.

Towards evening, with the swells still increasing and the wind still strong, Dad and I decided it would be safer and more comfortable to “bug out” and head back to Little Scorpion for the night. Unfortunately that decision wasn’t made until 8:30 pm.

Journal entry evening day ten: Dad pulled the anchor quickly and I fought the swells out of the cove at the helm. I got to the mouth of the cove by the time Dad got back into the cockpit and we literally weren't going anywhere. Momentary panic with the 6-8 ft swells, 15 kts of wind, and cliffs on both sides closing in. Dad reached over and gave her a little more gas, and then freedom. What followed was battling a broadside swell down the coast for about thirty minutes as darkness closed in... Coming into Little Scorpion in the dark wasn't much fun either, but I drove through the anchorage, Dad dropped the anchor and we called it good.

After getting settled back at Little Scorpion we let the adrenaline subside a bit while watching the star-filled sky. The Milky Way swept across the blackness and a few satellites raced from horizon to horizon.

Day eleven dawned bright and breezy and we were off early to get to Ventura by noon.

Journal entry day eleven: I found myself at the helm of Savant once again. All of the sails were up in 12 kts of wind and we were speeding over the water at 7 kts. We finally had enough wind for a decent sail and there was nothing that was going to get me to relinquish that helm. It was beautiful and magical and felt like flying. I could hear the propellor spinning freely, the pitch changing slightly as we got pushed over the crest of a swell or loitered a bit in a trough. We saw schools of dolphins and avoided oil platform "Gail".

We made it to the Derecktor boatyard in Ventura Harbor early and was greeted on the dock by Leonora who is organizer-extraordinaire for the operation. I wasn’t able to stay in town for the boatyard activities, but my dad was happy with the services that were offered, the environmental considerations, and their ability to come up with solutions when problems arose.

Our adventure was over and I was headed home. It’s a trip that I feel lucky to have been a part of, not just for the sailing itself, but being able to share it with my dad was a gift.

Sailing Adventures – Part 3

We left off last time having anchored in Fry’s Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

Journal Entry Day six: I'm sitting here listening to the lap of waves against the rocks, watching the water slowly rise and fall against the cliffs. It's like the ocean is breathing slowly as each swell comes through. The water is relatively calm and glassy this morning in the gray light, and there's hardly a breeze. I can smell bacon cooking downstairs in preparation for breakfast burritos. I've already had my cup of hot vanilla chai tea and the sleepy fog of my mind has mostly lifted. Behind the bacon smell is the rich smell of kelp and algae and salt permeating through the air. It's a balm that's so familiar I can almost reach out and grab it, put it somewhere close to my soul so that when I'm thousands of miles from this place I can still come back to this calm, this home.

That lovely calm was interrupted by Island Packers anchoring in deep water and ferrying about 80 people onto shore in their zodiacs. Island Packers is a great way to experience some part of the islands if you don’t have access to your own vessel. They have day trips and will drop campers off at the island campgrounds. So, we watched as people picnicked on the rocky shore, played in the cold water, and snorkeled around. Three hours later it was the process in reverse and Island Packers left us to our little notch in the coast. In between, we took turns taking the kayaks out to explore the cliffs up and down the coast a bit. It was lovely being on the water, looking at all the patterns in the rock, and gasping at little blowholes as an errant swell smacked the rocks.

The next day (day seven), we sauntered down the coast a couple of miles to a place called Pelican Bay. We again successfully set a stern and bow anchor in the harbor and then kayaked, drank, and ate to our success. Pelicans is very cool because it feels like a bowl. It’s surrounded by cliffs in an almost perfect half circle. There are bright yellowish patterns in the sandstone cliffs on the eastern side of the bay, an identifying landmark for boaters.

There used to be a hotel on the western edge of the bay on the cliffs in the early 1900’s and the foundations and century plants from the gardens are the only evidence they ever existed. Well, that and the boat landing that no one in their right mind would ever use (at least after a first try). It’s a low flat rock covered with barnacles and all kinds of sharp marine life available for landing dinghies, followed by a small set of stairs crumbling up the cliffs to the hotel foundations. A much more reasonable landing spot is around the western end of the bay in a small sandy/rocky cove directly behind the long gone hotel.

Day eight brought us to land again, this time with a well executed dinghy landing. We were there to do what my mom has dubbed “the hike from hell”. She and my dad have done this hike before in much hotter conditions and with some shoe malfunctions. I can appreciate the moniker now that I’ve done the hike. The trail runs two miles between Pelican Bay and Prisoner’s Harbor down the coast. It follows the canyons, dropping down into cooler shaded gullies and then climbs up to warm and shrubby breathtaking views of the coast. And it does this over and over again, each gully filled with greenery and each climb filled with scrub jays (endemic to the islands) and new views.

Once again we were greeted by Island Packers, who had arrived at Prisoners Harbor that morning to drop their clientele off at the pier. A fair number chose to hike the trail, meeting us headed in the opposite direction, while others chose to stay in Prisoners and enjoy the rocky beach and picnic tables.

We joined the picnickers when we arrived at Prisoners and were greeted by a too friendly Channel Island fox. It was clearly making a good living off of handouts, although I blessedly didn’t see anyone slip it snacks.

Our arrival back to the boat was shadowed by a single-handed sailor trying to anchor in the harbor, clearly having trouble. I asked dad to go help him because that’s the thing to do out on the water. An hour later, dad had him anchored on the opposite side of the anchorage away from everyone else and had earned a well deserved drink.

Stay tuned for a story of “bugging out” and the end of our adventure.

Sailing Adventures – Part 2

Back to our sailing adventures. We ended last time having gotten to Cuylar Harbor on San Miguel Island.

Day four was our guided hike. The previous evening Dad got the ranger on the radio and we arranged to meet him at the ranger station at 8:30 AM. The ranger station and campground are at the top of a steep canyon and down the beach at the opposite end of Cuylar harbor as the anchorage and safe dinghy landing sites. The ranger recommended giving ourselves an hour to get up to him once we’d made it ashore.

This was our first beach landing with the four of us in the dinghy and it was going smoothly, until it wasn’t. It was a comedy of errors, but we managed not to capsize the dinghy in the surf and there was only minor blood drawn. The beach was inviting, even in the haze of the early morning, and had been claimed by a pack of sea lions and elephant seals. We gave them a wide berth as we walked toward the trailhead, but they were sleepy and barely acknowledged our presence.

The trail to the ranger station was in fact steep, dusty, and up the side of a sheer ravine in some places. I hiked faster than “the boys” and managed to make my way to the top of the ravine silently enough to see two Island foxes cross the path in front of me and then study me from the brush. One was clearly an adult, but the other, while almost the same size, didn’t have the brown coloration of a full-grown fox yet. It was likely a youngling following momma in search of a lizard breakfast. The noise of chatting carrying up the trail scared them off and I was sad to see them go.

During our hike with the ranger (Eric Oberg – who is absolutely wonderful), who turned out to be a ranger at the Channel Islands Visitor Center on the mainland and doing stints on all the islands, we were regaled with the history of the Channel Islands fox. In summary, they were critically endangered (only 15 individuals on San Miguel). A within-island captive breeding program brought the populations up to a stable size (about 400 on San Miguel) on all the islands and they are doing very well. The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service monitor the populations using radio collars and we happened to run into one of the seasonal workers who monitor the population while we were on our hike. She had her radio antenna out and was hiking around the island trying to get signals from all the foxes. In an effort to monitor their health, she was also setting up to do some trapping to collect samples.

Our hike took us out to a place called Cardwell Point. Along the way Ranger Eric told us with stories about the history of the island (and it’s unexploded ordinances), the flora and fauna living there, the geology of the island, and about the Chumash tribes who colonized and lived on the islands for hundreds of years.

It was a great hike, but after four plus hours of information and talking, the cranky level was ratcheting up, so we headed straight back to the ranger station instead of seeing where the island fox breeding pens were. The rest of the afternoon was spent hiking back to the dinghy and getting back to the boat. Our launch off the beach was much more graceful than our arrival that morning. We rewarded ourselves with some quick sun showers and one of the crew even took a quick dip off the side of the boat. I wrote in my journal: “No one smells too bad, so I’d say we’re totally winning!” It’s funny what’s considered a win when you’re living in close quarters with other people.

The next day (day five) took us from San Miguel to Santa Cruz Island.

Journal excerpt from our sail:  The islands are really different from each other. The northern shore of Santa Cruz Island exhibits cliffs dropping precipitously hundreds of feet into the ocean, filled with caves and nooks that have eroded. They look black with tinges of red oxidized rock and the flatter spots are white with bird crap. We sailed within a quarter mile of the shore and still had 150 feet beneath the keel.

We checked out several anchorage spots on the north side of Santa Cruz Island and finally settled on a little inlet called Fry’s Harbor. There were only two other boats anchored when we arrived and we successfully threw out a stern anchor and a bow anchor, setting both in a smooth J shaped arc of the boat. We celebrated our victory and comfortable anchorage with a boat classic, a strong drink plus cheese and crackers.

Look for Part 3 for our run-in with Island Packers, kayaking, and more hiking!

Georgia Aquarium Visit

Hey all, it’s been a while and I’ve got a bit more free time on my hands, so you can expect some updates coming soon. I thought I’d start with a trip to the Georgia Aquarium this summer.

My husband had the week off and we decided to explore the city a bit and then watch the olympics at home. We haven’t been to the Aquarium together in more than two years. I’ve been separately as part of classes that I’ve been teaching, but most of that was spent watching children and making sure they didn’t bring fishing line or gum in their backpacks or get eaten by the sharks!

Anyway, we masked up and took off under the sea.

Some things have changed like the addition of a new shark exhibit. My husband was fascinated by the sharks and I couldn’t take my eyes off all the little fish in the tank constantly trying to avoid the sharks gliding through their midst. It was like a dance and we watched the masters for a good long time.

There is a baby beluga whale at the Aquarium. We watched it, trying to chase its mom around the tank, wanting constant attention. We giggled when momma plastered her copious fat rolls against the front glass. It’s impressive the insulating ability of blubber, and even more impressive is the amount of blubber a grown beluga whale has.

The leafy sea dragons and the river otters are a traditional long stop on any visit to the aquarium. Leafy sea dragons are other-worldly and propel themselves using small little fins that make it look like they are just floating along. The river otters are always hit or miss. They could be fast asleep curled up in each other, or tangled in the long pieces of felt they use to play. They could also be racing around chasing each other over land and through the water, always with a playful spirit.

One of the whale sharks had just died, but the others in the largest tank were still impressive. We stood by the large window and watched the green sea turtle munch on lettuce while other little fish cleaned up what the turtle missed. Groups of cownose rays sailed past while a guitarfish settled into the sand. Morey Eels and Electric Eels stuck their noses out of hidey-holes.

The Aquarium required masks and had signs telling people to socially distance. Tickets were timed, presumably to limit the number of entrants. Despite those measures, the Aquarium didn’t feel any less crowded than it has in the past. Maybe a little less pressure from people leaning in to get a good look at the tanks, but still just as many people. So we kept our masks on and found a deserted corner to eat our chicken fingers and salad. All in all, we had a pretty good time, but had enough covid anxiety to keep us away from museums for a while.

North Carolina Museum of Natural History

We were up in Raleigh this past weekend. Asa had to work so I went to play. Of course the science nerd I am headed straight for the Natural History Museum.

This is the second time I’ve been there and it didn’t disappoint, again. The museum does a couple of things really well:

1. It’s free!

2. They have an amazing collection of live animals including snakes, fish, turtles, frogs, and insects.

3. They have a butterfly room you can walk through with lots of live butterflies. Warning – it’s closed on Monday’s.

4. They have a whole section of the museum dedicated to research and education. There are science labs with glass windows so you can look inside and see what the scientists are doing. In addition they have “meet the researchers and learn about the research” time.

5. Dinosaurs!
Great for kids and science nerds alike! I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

JanTerm and the Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge

As a teacher at a fantastic school, I get the opportunity to do some pretty cool things. This past week was no exception. The Westminster Schools (high school only) decided last year to implement a January term; a three week learning experience for students to explore concepts that they normally wouldn’t be exposed to during the regular classes. Teachers were requested to design courses that were interdisciplinary, with focuses on meeting people, traveling, and interactive hands-on activities. Classes include The Science of Cooking, Biotechnology, DIY Culture, Sports Medicine, Entrepreneurship, Journalism, and my favorite class: Coastal Ecology and Culture of the Southeast.

51QQKSS3BALThe class I teach (Coastal Ecology and Culture of the Southeast) was designed to introduce students to the science of coastal habitats like salt marshes, estuaries, maritime forests, and barrier islands. Within this context students learned about the local people and culture (the Gullah-Geechee) by visiting museums, talking to locals, and reading God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man By Cornelia Walker Bailey (a Gullah-Geechee woman that still lives on Sapelo Island, Georgia).

The highlight of this class is a week-long field trip to Skidaway Island and the UGA marine extension service. While there, students were able to interact with the communities they were introduced to in the classroom. They explored biodiversity, learned about the animals and plants, got their hands dirty, and explored.

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Sampling invertebrates off the dock at the marine extension service.

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Tromping through the salt marsh exploring and getting muddy.

 

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Under the Pier at Tybee Island.

 

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View from above the pier at Tybee Island.

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At the Pinpoint Museum, a Gullah-Geechee facility near Skidaway Island.

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Learning how to make a crab net from a Gullah-Geechee man at Pinpoint.

The week culminated in a trip to Wassaw Island, part of the Wassaw Island National Wildlife Refuge. Wassaw Island is a protected and undeveloped barrier island. People are allowed to visit without any permits, but no boats are allowed to stay docked or ashore and there is no overnight camping. Because of this, the island is pristine. The maritime forest is on its way to developing a climax community of live oak trees, alligators wander around in the holes they have dug for the winter, the wrack on the beach harbors little crabs, the birds stretch out in large flocks, and the beach is littered with shells and driftwood. There is not a footprint in sight.

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So, thanks to my school for making this happen. I can only hope that my students understand the opportunity they have been given to enjoy and interact with nature! I truly believe that experiences like these can shape people and help make them better stewards of the earth.