Oso Flaco Isn't Painful

The trail through the arroyo willow and oaks. 

The trail through the arroyo willow and oaks. 

"Let’s go to Oso Flaco.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Let’s go to Oso Flaco,” proudly proclaims my Ever Planning Another Adventure Husband.

I winced thinking “that sounds painful.” And I paused while my brain kept searching, searching...

Is it rising to a higher level of spiritual consciousness? Is this a country I haven’t hear about? Maybe a Karma Sutra position?  A day spa, a concert, a performance venue, café, auditorium, hot spot, dinner club, gallery, conservatory, institute, infirmary, or maybe a medical clinic? 

“But will it hurt?”

“We could do it as a day trip.” He replies, beaming with anticipation.

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My friends Google and All Trails helped me figure it out.

In Spanish it means skinny bear, and it is a coastal California State Park trail. The complete title is Oso Flaco Lake Trail. It is just north of the small town of Guadalupe, and according to the Dunes Center, "it is one of the most scenic natural areas all along California's coast. 

Cormorants, the lake and the dunes at Oso Flaco

Cormorants, the lake and the dunes at Oso Flaco

“Oso Flaco Lake is part of the former Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, operated by The Nature Conservancy. The area has been transferred to California State Parks, and is now part of the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.”

According to San Luis Obispo Visitor's Guide, Oso Flaco is an ancient name given to the lake by the Spanish in 1769. It is where they killed and ate a skinny bear. That sure sounds like it hurt for the bear. 

We painfully woke at 0500 and it was very dark. The drive is almost four hours long, and we pass several Fresno favorite spots: Paso Robles, Morro Bay, Cayucos, and Pismo Beach.  My husband’s motivation for the trip was to see two warblers that he needs for his life bird watching list. Me, I am always happy to have a chance to see, hear, and smell the Pacific Ocean.

 

The coastal access and parking are on a dead-end road flanked by fields of truck crops and hoop houses covering strawberries. This is hardcore California heavy-duty agriculture land.  We pass brilliant green field after field with rich brown dirt, all punctuated with turquoise farm worker portable toilets.

It wasn't log ago that there were no toilets in the fields. 

It wasn't log ago that there were no toilets in the fields. 

Oso Flaco Parking Guard Chicken

Oso Flaco Parking Guard Chicken

The parking lot and trailhead were well signed and patrolled by a welcoming chicken looking for handouts. In addition to a trail map, the bulletin board informed us to be aware of mountain lions and report any bear sightings.

Oso Flaco Lake is recognized as an important migratory bird location. I’m a Reluctant Bad Birder. I call blackbirds starlings, and I mistake turkey vultures for red tail hawks.  Real birders roll their eyes when I say "look is that a falcon or an owl?"  But, today I was able to identify coots, cormorants, mallards, herons, cinnamon teals, white pelicans, western gulls, and goshawks.  Birds putter under and around the boardwalks. At the lake and on the shore, birds vie for fish and so do people. The air is filled with squawks, tweets, squeaks, peeps, flirts, chirps, blurts and an occasional splishy splash of a catch.

My Ever Planning Another Adventure Husband looking for birds. 

My Ever Planning Another Adventure Husband looking for birds. 

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An extensive boardwalk is well maintained and meanders above the lake, through the dunes and  dumping onto the coastline. Along the route, there are benches to sit, and places to secure your tripod or spotting scope, or space to take a contemplative moment to reflect.  

There is something about seeing the waves on the beach that always seems to call for a moment of silence. A minute to respect the land, to honor the people who were there before us, a time to be outside of time and space, but in the here and now.

I like broccoli. 

I like broccoli. 

Oso Flaco is a place where the broccoli and beach are separated by dunes.

“An' I got to thinkin', on'y it wasn't thinkin', it was deeper down than thinkin'.” 
― John SteinbeckThe Grapes of Wrath

In this place, I couldn’t help but recall “The Grapes of Wrath”; the historic and current struggles of farmworkers.

Mallard duck butt. 

Mallard duck butt. 

All the hard labor in the broccoli at my feet.

I like broccoli, and berries, and the food from this land.  

Adjacent were the dunes, shifting in the wind, unstable for walking.  

Rambling along the boardwalk built to cross unsettled ground.

A natural lake filled with birds and fish, and people looking for both.

And at the end, the beach, timeless, constant, peaceful.

Wind and waves washing out human strife.

A story of convergence; California ecology and history.

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The Oso Flaco mystery is solved.

If your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friend, fiancé, son, daughter, sweetheart, or significant other ask you if you want to go to Oso Flaco, say “yes.” 

It won’t hurt.

And you might hear history in the waves.

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Sand dollar with barnacles in the waves. 

There's Hope in the High Country

Great Basin National Park

Pinyon pine prevelant in the Great Basin.  

Pinyon pine prevelant in the Great Basin.  

What first struck me about the Great Basin was the numerous high mountain peaks within the “basin.” Driving through Nevada, we took advantage of the space in-between and stopped for a few days at Great Basin National Park, one of the many places that we routinely discuss during the long drive from one National Park to another. Rising above the blue-green sea of sagebrush, I realized that I didn’t properly pay attention to my high school geography lesson. I missed a few mountains and valleys. The Great Basin National Park brochure sets me straight. “It’s not one, but many basins, separated by mountain ranges roughly parallel, north to south, basin, and range alternating in seemingly endless geographic rhythm.”

Environmental extremes, highs, and lows, a string of unique biomes all in a row. That’s my kind of place. We camped at 7,600 feet and after the first day of altitude acclimation, we hiked the Timber Creek Loop Trail up to 10,000 feet elevation. What a change to be in the spruce aspen forest, making friends with a dozen wild turkeys that paced back and forth as we enjoyed our lunch. What a joy to see the small waving leaves of quaking aspen trees, delicate paper-thin spruce cones, spiny prickly pear, manzanita, and hairy mountain mahogany all living along the same trail.

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But nearby, were the granddaddy of environmental barometers, the 3,000 to 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine forest and the glacier on Wheeler Peak. Two unique relics of bygone ages. Ecosystems that are distinct and thank goodness, not yet extinct. The glaciers and the bristlecone pine endured the folly of history and the willy-nilly externalities of human cultures. We didn’t design systems that would impact these little gems, we just neglected to properly understand that our resource consuming society is harmful. No one said, “hey, let’s warm things up a bit. Let’s melt ancient relic ice and kill some trees that are older than the history of human civilization.”  People had no clue what we were doing to our environments when we cut down forests and started burning fossil fuels. We still don’t understand how things fit together.  

Alive or dead? It is hard to tell with a bristlecone pine. It only take one branch to stay alive. 

Alive or dead? It is hard to tell with a bristlecone pine. It only take one branch to stay alive. 

When we got to the bristlecone pine grove, we were greeted by a lively group of 20 high school students from Cedar City, Utah. They were having a snack and resting near a Park Service interpretive sign. The sign was one of many that explained the special environment of the bristlecone pines.  “An increment borer is a specialized tool used to determine the age of trees, without hurting the tree.” We could hear an adult voice instructing them, “Be sure to look for micro trash. Pick up anything you see, even if it isn’t yours.”

When I was in college, I decided I wanted to take care of trees. Now, that seems so pretentious. With our climate changing it ways we didn’t foresee, caring for trees is really a very tall order.  A hike in the ancient forest was an opportunity to see first-hand just how well are these precious relics? Are they cared for? Are they in good hands?

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The old and the younger trees together. 

The old and the younger trees together. 

These ol’ gals, even after 3,500 years are still cranking out the cones. Beautiful creek basins were full of cones. We should all be blessed with such sexy virility! The proud skeletal remains of trees dearly departed were now their own handsome headstone monument.  Next to the time worn troupers, young, 100 years or so, trees in the landscape grasped to the rock rubble that substituted for soil.

Looking across the hillside, it was green, alive, and it looked like a forest; a beautiful vibrant community of vegetative companions.  I’m sure it isn’t as well and prosperous as it appears to the casual naked eye, but it felt good to be there. I was moved to reach out and touch a twisted tree trunk. “I love you. You are beautiful. Hang in there.”

 

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We continued beyond the bristlecone pine grove up to a rock glacier nestled below Wheeler Peak. No longer were we among the trees, but above the pines within a series of glacier moraine. There were no birds or insects to be found, and a dark cloud was materializing above. There was no soil, only angular rocks piled into repeating rows below the ice field. We scrambled up along the trail with the side walls of the canyon enclosing us in semi-metamorphic layers of multicolored rock material waiting to crumble.

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Out of place, and without context, we saw a scattering of twelve inch, brightly colored, red, blue, green, yellow, and white plastic balls. “What is going on here?” It looked like either art or science. It was hard to tell. We were greeted by a group of college students, from Fargo North Dakota.  They were tracking and mapping the glacier using pulsed laser light, the most current survey science - LIDAR (Light Directing and Ranging). The balls were their reference points.

The question was on everyone’s mind: “How is the glacier doing?” This was the fifth year of measurements and they were pleased to say that it is looking good. How fast is it shrinking? The winter snow fall is replenishing the ice and it is all moving very slowly like a glacier should be moving. We were glad to see someone is taking notice, gathering measurements, collecting data, and following the health of Wheeler’s rock glacier. Someone cares enough to be watching for good news or the bad news.

Climate change is real, and we did it.

But, sometimes I am a dreamer, an environmental idealist, an eco-friendly romantic. Weren’t the ol' masters Henry David Thoreau, Ansel Adams, Walt Whitman, and Aldo Leopold at least part-time optimists? I know they had their good days. I want to stand next to them. 

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Today was my good day.  I want the bristlecone pine forest to be here for thousands of years to come. I want glaciers to move very, very slowly. I want mountains full of trees and valleys full of clean running water.  I want all the basins to be great. I hope the students want this too.

Today, I have hope for the high country.

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Head for the Hills.

How to Hide from Horrendous Heat?

The Sequel -  Head for the Hills  

Spectacular Sunset View of Edison Lake from Vermillion Campground, Sierra National Forest.

Spectacular Sunset View of Edison Lake from Vermillion Campground, Sierra National Forest.

Some memories stay with you for a lifetime. Some memories fade fast under an oppressive heat of the moment. When it is 105 degrees it is hard to recall the comfort of a cool breeze, or a misty early morning. When it is 70 degrees at 7 AM, and 80 degrees at 8 AM, and over 90 degrees at 9 AM, it is time to head for the hills. To be more precise, I headed to Vermilion Campground on Edison Lake in the Sierra National Forest.

Eggburt on his way to Edison Lake. 

Eggburt on his way to Edison Lake. 

Vermillion Campground is an excellent base for exploring the Ansel Adams or John Muir Wilderness Areas. It is located on the northwest shore of Edison Lake, in a shady stand of Ponderosa pine and lodgepole trees.  

You can purchase a hankie with a map of the Vermillion Valley Resort on Edison Lake.

You can purchase a hankie with a map of the Vermillion Valley Resort on Edison Lake.

The campground is located on the lake, and it is ideal for tents, small RVs and trailers like Eggburt. Visitors can enjoy mountain views of the surrounding John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas.  Canoeing and kayaking near the shoreline are popular activities. Anglers can fish for rainbow, brown or brook trout. Sandy beaches within the campground provide lake access for swimming. 

Campsites include a picnic table, campfire ring and a bear-proof food storage locker -which was too small for our ice chest.  Some sites are sloped and not suitable for tent camping but there are a couple of absolutely beautiful tent sites overlooking the lake. Vault toilets and water spigots are on-site, but boiling the water is recommended.  I drank the water and I didn't get sick. 

Edison Lake is more to me than just a beautiful place to escape the heat.  In 1991, I made a career change from working on the Sequoia National Forest to being the Wilderness and Recreation Officer for the Pineridge Ranger District of the Sierra National Forest.  I remember my first drive over Kaiser Pass Road.   The District Ranger and I went for a ride in a green Forest Service blazer up to see the “High Sierra.” We drove, and drove, and drove forever through the wilderness! I was quite convinced that we were driving up and through the John Muir Wilderness and we would soon run over the crest and into the Owens Valley. We could see Banner Peak and Ritter Peak on the horizon in Yosemite National Park and we could identify the backside of Mammoth Mountain.

All that wonderful wild forest stretched on forever.

Edison Lake, Sierra National Forest. 

Edison Lake, Sierra National Forest. 

I promoted past the Wilderness Officer job and came to represent the people of the United States of America in the process to determine how  Southern California Edison’s (SCE) would manage their Big Creek Hydroelectric project. Edison Lake is really a hydroelectric reservoir, and SCE brags that the Big Creek Project is “The hardest working water in the world.” Maybe so, because it was a personal and professional challenge to represent the public interest in the project negotiations. I learned a lot, and it was a high point in my 33-year career with the Forest Service. I loved working on that project. 

 Vermilion Campground serves as a benchmark for my career.  Campground toilets were an important negotiation item. 

 Vermilion Campground serves as a benchmark for my career.  Campground toilets were an important negotiation item. 

Memory has a strange relationship with reality.  I remember my first trip up to the High Sierra. I remember meeting Katy and Toby Horst, owners of Vermillion Valley Resort and I was very afraid of their long lectures on what the Forest Service needed to do for them. I remember the stories about the famous pies of the resort. I recall when they retired, and Butch Wiggs bought the resort and he added a workshop and wanted to put up commercial beer advertising signs that would be visible from the road. And I recall numerous work related trips over the slow, bumpy, pot hole filled, narrow, windy, single lane road over Kaiser Pass. Looking back at my experice with the area, I thought, "It was only a few years ago that I attended the Celebration of Life Services for the two previous owners of the Vermillion Valley Resort."

But was I surprised when I learned that those memories - although clear - were not five years past, but nearly twenty years ago! 

Another beautiful  stormy sunset over the Ansel Adams Wilderness. 

Another beautiful  stormy sunset over the Ansel Adams Wilderness. 

Lodgepole Pine Campground Cones. 

Lodgepole Pine Campground Cones. 

Now I get to create new memories, sitting in Vermilion campground, reading my book, drinking a beer, and listening to the wind softly roar through the tops of the trees.  The temperatures were comfortably in the 70’s and I could relax and listen to the white-breasted nuthatches gurgle “whit-whit-whit-whit” and watch them hang upside-down looking for bugs to eat on the Ponderosa pine tree trunks.

Keith checking out the bird life in Vermillion campground. Eggburt sits in the background. 

Keith checking out the bird life in Vermillion campground. Eggburt sits in the background. 

Mariposa Lilly in bloom on the trail. 

Mariposa Lilly in bloom on the trail. 

I have faith that the work I did on that project will keep the campground running for years to come.   One day the campground toilets will be replaced with newer designed facilities that should smell better and be easier to keep clean.

Trails in the area will be engineered, not pioneered, and they will gently meander through the forest into the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wildernesses.

And families will come to the lakes and streams and find water flowing through healthy ecosystems with birds, fish, and flourishing fauna.

We're gonna need a bigger bear box. Our ice chest doesn't fit. 

We're gonna need a bigger bear box. Our ice chest doesn't fit. 

Fifty years from now, the documents that bear my name will be digitally archived in some corner of a remote server, but the megawatts of electricity generated in these hills won’t suck the land dry. There will be wonderful campgrounds, trails, and a sustainable ecosystem at Edison Lake. 

I wonder, "Maybe Whelan on Walkabout will not endure. Maybe it will become short lived and out dated." Vermillion Valley Resort had a blog. The first entry is dated March 2013 but the last entry was only May 10, 2014. http://www.edisonlake.com/blog1 . We will come and go. Our memories will come and go, but the forest will continue. I may have changed, but Vermilion and Edison Lake hasn’t changed a bit.

Some memories will burn out and be lost, some will last forever.

#vermillionvalley, #hiking, #camping, #highsierra, #outdoor, #forest, #sierra, #sierraforest,