A Walk in the Woods

10 Apr

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by Rhea H. Boyden

I have been spending the past couple weeks at my mother’s lovely house in the Santa Cruz mountains, which is a fabulous predominantly second growth redwood rolling mountain range. We are nestled at the top of a canyon about 10 miles uphill from the beach and the city of Santa Cruz. The Santa Cruz mountains are a fabulous rural range that are easily accessible from the densely populated San Francisco Bay area, so we are very blessed here to have such backwoods beauty so close to a metropolitan area.

My mother, stepdad, sister and a friend and I set off on a 5 mile hike through the woods and down the canyon. The ecological diversity encountered along the way was a special treat especially for a city dweller like myself. Most of the redwood forest around here are 100 year old second growth redwood or sequoia trees, as they are also known, as large tracts of the 1 to 2,000 year old redwoods were initially clear cut to build the city of San Francisco when gold was first discovered in 1848 and the gold rush began, exploding population and economic growth. The redwoods were known as ‘red gold’ and there was clear cutting across the mountains. Many more were cut to rebuild large parts of San Francisco after destruction by fire following the 1906 earthquake.

Landscape

San Francisco Earthquake 1906 Photo by George Haley

We took a trail into the woods and apart from the redwoods there are some other deciduous trees, live oaks and a red barked tree known as a madrone. I wore long jogging pants tucked into my socks as I know very well how allergic I am to poison oak which grows here everywhere. If you get the oils of the oak on your skin you can break out in a horrible itchy, pusy rash that you are not allowed to scratch even though it itches like crazy and causes extreme discomfort. When I was 17 visiting my grandparents here in California I got a horrible dose of poison oak all over my face and it swelled up and my eyes swelled shut. I spent Christmas day at the emergency room getting treated for it. It is truly horrible and I fear poison oak more than the Pacific rattlesnake who rarely shows his face here.

Because the climate is so mild here year round there is not the changing climate to support great bug and insect growth which is of course nice for us humans so that we are not eaten alive, but it also means that there are not many birds in these parts as they need insects to survive. We saw the occasional hawk circling overhead and heard the caw of a raven, but this is not a place for bird watching enthusiasts. Other parts of the U.S. are far more ideal for that. One strange creature that lives in these woods is the huge banana slug which I have not had the pleasure of seeing. It is the largest land slug in North America and is the mascot of UC Santa Cruz which I find very amusing.

Banana slug

Photo of Banana Slug by Jim Whitehead

The Santa Cruz Mountains are the perfect habitat for bears as they do not need to hibernate here, but there are very few bears in these parts. There is a scant population of black bears who keep themselves well hidden. It is presumed, interestingly that the bear population will increase here in future. Grizzly bears roamed the virgin forests here over a hundred years ago. Huge terrifying bears wandering between 1,000 year old trees, one can only imagine how different it was. The last grizzly bear was sighted in the Santa Cruz mountains in 1885. The bear made the mistake of stealing a 300 pound hog that a local rancher was fattening to sell at the fair so the rancher shot him. The bear weighed 642 pounds. One animal that does thrive in the mountains is the mountain lion. It loves the mild climate and does well here.

Mountain lions are rarely spotted by humans, but their tracks are to be seen frequently. We hiked down to a stunning waterfall which is surrounded by lychen covered rocks. I swim in the cold pool at my mom’s house and I like cold water, but the waterfall is at least 12 degrees colder so I preferred to just look at it. My sister and friend took the plunge and jumped in screaming at the cold as they did. From our vantage point they looked like two beautiful water nymphs in a classical painting. They reminded me of the William Bourgereau painting ‘Satyr and the Nymphs’ from which I got the inspiration for one of my poems. I felt it was my poem coming to life.

coyote

Coyote by Christopher Bruno

We then hiked out of the canyon and woods, which sadly still bear the scars of clear cutting if you look closely, and we entered a prairie which was dotted with live oaks, California poppies the colour of the sunset, (the State flower of California) and lovely purple lupins. We did not encounter any other animals on our day time hike, but I saw a bobcat lurking across the field the other evening and I was enchanted by it. And in the early morning mist when you hear the wild turkeys gobbling, you can run outside and catch a glimpse of the flock of six strutting across the field. They make me smile. I haven’t heard any coyotes here yet, but I have been told that they howl like banshees and I am not sure whether I really want to hear them late at night from my bed in the violin workshop where I am sleeping or if it is a pleasure I can do without.

fog SC mountains

Fog in the Santa Cruz Mountains by Elin Ruby

There used to be a lot of foxes in these mountains, but the coyotes have either scared them away or eaten them. Coyotes are not herbivores. Deer, of course, are everywhere here. And you see them frequently. I hear them walking around outside at night, but I just try and ignore them as they are pretty harmless, even though it is a little spooky hearing footsteps outside your door at night. We eventually walked back into the woods off the prairie and walked the last mile or so back to the house which is such a nice place to return too. The pond at the my mom’s is filled with koi and goldfish, and the Pacific tree frogs make an awful racket at night, but they are somewhat amusing too. We see lizards scurrying around the place and the garden has dogwood, azalea, crab apple, wisteria, lilies, sycamore and lots of other lovely plants. It is a truly lovely place to spend a few weeks out of the city.

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