Friday, January 23, 2015

Redrock Creek, Sespe Wilderness

Back in the saddle and up to my usual tricks, this time with an exploration of an uncomfortable and arduous drainage. Wait. Haven't I written all this before? Yes, however, while the details of this story may seem a repetition of previous outings, the locale is new.

The subject of this day's action is a small creek that roughly parallels the trail from Dough Flat. Redrock Creek is a tributary of the Sespe only in the sense that it empties into Upper Tar Creek which then connects to the Sespe. Nothing is written or mentioned about this creek. There are no nearby trails, no campsites, it's not especially pretty, and it has few other redeeming qualities. 
My kind of place.

Sporting new body armor for the ugliest brush in the nation.

Part of the aim was to familiarize myself with this part of the forest. The other part was to field test some new body armor in a suitably hostile environment. See, last month I banged my shin real good, and on that same day got bitten by a yucca and contracted a touch of poison oak (even through long pants). This all created an inflamed scenario which was ripe for a bacterial infection. During the time I spent with my leg elevated while nibbling antibiotics I began recollecting all the times I've come home from off-trail work with banged up shins, yucca spines, and torn up knees. I got to thinking about a solution. 

As I lay on the couch, laptop in the exact place it's name implies, I scrolled through numerous athletic retailers looking for a lightweight, ergonomic solution. Not finding much I switched to sites for tactical equipment, all of which was bulky, heavy, or overpriced. Finally I started looking at motocross gear and began seeing some products that might meet my needs. I settled on Fox Racing Launch Knee/Shin Guards

I hiked into the Sespe, enjoying views of the sheer cliffs of Whitacre looming over the right side of this landscape of rocky gullies and shale slopes. I reached the high point of the trail, the divide between the gradual climb out of Dough Flat and the descent into Alder Creek. Redrock Creek begins immediately beneath this small rise so I dropped pack and suited up for the brush. The new knee/shin guards had an ingenious mechanism for locking them onto the knee. Twin straps criss-crossed behind the knee and again over the back of the calf. Another strap secures the bottom of the guard to the shin just above the ankles. Between the pad liner and the plastic hardshell I felt almost bulletproof. For a while I've used of archery arm guards (turned outward) to protect my forearms, these being a simple piece of 4mm thick leather with stretch chord and metal loops. I was also trying out some new Kobalt gloves (Lowes brand, replacing a blown out pair of Mechanix) which have nicely padded leather palms, rubberized finger tips, and protective rubber padding over the knuckles. Admittedly I looked fairly ridiculous, but looks aside, and properly girded for war, I launched into the brushed up drainage.    

After a half an hour of busting brush I started feeling pretty good about the new gear. I really liked the gloves.  The arm guards didn't pinch or bind, and with them I could really lean into the brush and part a path forward. After crawling through a few brush tunnels and bashing forward through a half mile of knee-high SLP chum I was feeling really pleased with the Fox gear. No shin bashing, no stabbings, nothing got through that plastic. They didn't bind behind the knee. There wasn't any slippage. I didn't have to readjust them, ever, and I happily wore them for the next 5 hours. My only issue with them was that the knee/shin coverage was very warm. I don't think this would be a good solution for warm weather, but on a day like this one, cool and mild, these shin guards worked awesome.

Okay, let me get back to Redrock Creek. The photos you see here represent the prettiest part of this drainage. The rest of it was either brush, alder and willow, or creek bed plants like cat tails and saw grass. Much of the travel was difficult and most of the day I struggled to accomplish a mile per hour. The day would have gone much faster had I been willing to just endure being wet all day, but wading through a creek in January is very different than doing so in July. I was not inclined to endure the additional discomfort.

The above is very typical of much of Redrock Creek.

Whiteacre Peak

Toward the bottom of the creek, nearing the junction with Tar Creek, I started seeing signs of old oil exploration; rusted and broken piping draped along the bank of the creek, an old road cut completely overgrown and washed out. In the last half hour of the day a shale slope cave under me and I went in the drink. It was bound to happen and I took it philosophically. I sloshed down the rest of the creek, hung a left and headed up the last quarter mile back to Squaw Flat Rd. It wasn't until later on the drive home that I realized that Redrock Creek had been the only wilderness drainage I'd travelled in quite a while that showed no signs of an illegal growing operation. It's a rough little gem of Sespe high country.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Access Lawsuit: Matilija Canyon

The access problem at Matilija will finally be going to court, or at least to negotiated settlement. The first I heard of this happy development was a 15 second blurb on KCLU and then in an article in the VC Reporter. The issue of private property rights versus access to Matilija which the public has enjoyed since the early 1900's will finally be decided. Back in 2009 the land owner, Mr Buz Bonsall, decided to deny access through his property. This created enough of an uproar in the community that the Forest Service and access advocacy groups got involved and things settled down for a while. But the issue has continued to simmer without any clear resolution.

During the 2009 crisis I used this blog to pen a rant about public access to the Forest in general and against Mr Bonsall in particular. The writing was juvenile and provocative but with a title like "The Matilija Nazi Drops The Hammer" the post continued to generate a huge number of hits and responses for the next few years until I took it down. Some time after that writing he started pestering Craig Carey for my phone number which Craig, to his credit, wouldn't have handed it over even if it had been in his possession to give. But Buz wanted to talk to me. Eventually I called just to see what he had to say. I remember the conversation clearly because a.) he sounded drunk, and b.) he just rambled on and on and I couldn't get any sense of what the hell he wanted. It was very strange.

 In the years since I have received tales of Mr Bonsall verbally accosting people and intimidating folks just out for a day by the creek. In one such confrontation, a friend of mine, out for the day with his gal, was approached by Bonsall and two other men. Bonsall made it crystal clear that they were on his land and that he considered them trespassers. While I haven't had such an experience myself, I have heard various versions of stories like this (some of which have a more menacing tone) from people I associate with. I have also noticed that at least one of the signs which the Forest Service posted in 2009 in an effort to ensure that visitors stayed on the fire road leading to the canyon proper had been vandalized and "No Trespassing" had been written where the map was supposed to be. 

Getting back to the law suit, I get the impression that this could have been settled fairly equitably back in 2009. First, a bypass trail from the parking area could have easily been created. A foot bridge could have been built to cross Matilija Creek and a trail could have been created which ascended the opposite side of the creek from Mr Bonsall's ranch house and out buildings. This project would have been fairly cheap and the Forest Service could have used volunteers to construct the trail, and nobody would be walking right through the driveway of Bonsall's ranch residence anymore. For whatever reason this type of solution was never enacted, but the land owner is the one with the perceived rights and the perceived grievance so I suspect that Mr Bonsall was not interested in anything that resembled negotiation toward a solution for any party but his own.

To shed some more light and perspective on this development I will laboriously type every single letter of the article Lawsuit filed over access to Matilija, 01/15/15 VC Reporter, written by Chris O'Neal.

Group claims substantial evidence that
trail should be open for public use

     A coalition of conservation groups and Ojai residents calling themselves the Keep Access to Matilija Falls Open has filed a lawsuit against the owners of land they say should be open to the public.
     The lawsuit filed in Ventura County Superior Court is aimed at restoring public access to the falls, which the group says has been difficult since 2009, when the owner of the property crossed by the trail leading to the falls began confronting hikers and posted "No Trespassing" signs.
     Jeff Kuyper, Los Padres Forest Watch executive director, says the trail has been used by locals and travelers alike, dating back over 100 years.
     "People have used it since the 1900s and there's always been a trail there from since anyone can remember," said Kuyper.
     In 1979, the land was purchased by current property owner Buz Bonsall's family, but it wasn't until 2009 that Bonsall began attempting to keep hikers off the trail, according to Kuyper.
     "Some people felt that they were being harassed for something the public has been doing for over a century," said Kuyper. In a press release about the lawsuit, the group claims that Bonsall "began to aggressively confront hikers and took steps to prohibit access in the area" and threatened to cite hikers for trespassing.
     The coalition said that it believes that the group has strong evidence that a permanent public easement through the property should be granted. In California, all that is required to determine where an easement should be placed is that the land had been open and accessible to the public for a period of five years, uninterrupted. Alistair Croyne, conservation director with Keep Sespe Wild, says there is ample evidence that this has been the case.
     "That area has been popular with Ojai residents for over a hundred years," says Croyne, who says it's been difficult finding people who remember hiking on the trail before 1979 [*I can help with that], but there are documents, maps and guides that detail the trail from decades before the purchase. "It was a surprise to everybody when the property owner started to turn people back who were hiking up there."
     "I think the landowner trying to stop access now sort of flies in the face of public access that has been established," said Ventura County Supervisor Steve Bennett, who represents District 1. "The best outcome is the landowner and the group negotiating an appropriate settlement that everyone can live with."
     Kuyper says that the lawsuit is a last resort and that negotiations began several years ago but the parties failed to reach an agreement. Kuyper is unsure of the reasons for the property owner's actions, but guessed that it was due to the increase in traffic.
     "People learn about a relatively easy waterfall to access - whenever you have more people you tend to get more trash and a small amount of people who don't respect the area," said Kuyper. "That can give everyone a bad name."
     Bonsall has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. In the meantime, Kuyper hopes the two can come to an agreement.
     "It's always easier to sit down at the table and see if a solution could be worked out, but we just weren't able to get anything down in writing," Kuyper said.
     Bonsall declined to comment.

So I'd like to offer a toast to these champions of freedom and liberty, and you all should too. If this writing gets back to the pro-access side of the argument and it is determined that I can be of any assistance, by all means, contact me. My first recollection of Matilija was an outing with my father and another guy. I was five years old and it was 1978. Anyway, I really appreciate these efforts and I'm glad there are people and organizations with the will and the resources to secure access for the rest of us.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The TWO?!? Harris Tunnels?!?, Red Reef Trail

First off, I want to say that I'm so friggin' happy to be back on my feet that I want to do a little happy dance. But Homie don't dance, so instead I did 20 miles. Ha! Take that influenza virus!
Like most men I'm an absolute child about being sick. I hate it. Every sniffling minute of it is one big pity party.  But that's behind me now and to celebrate I bring you all an interesting riddle, one discovered quite by accident, as fortune would have it.

Apparently there are two (!) Harris Tunnels!
I did not know this.

Before I get to the Tunnel stuff I have to mention a few things about the day. Basically, the morning was glorious. Not surprisingly the Piedra Blanca/Sespe trailhead was packed with vehicles. I pulled into the last available slot and left the lot at 0700. Within a mile I was feeling perfect, just humming along. The sun was coming up, cresting the ridges downstream. Little birds were fluttering about, chirping. The morning air was brisk enough to require a little extra insulation. A quiet rushing noise rose from the creek on my right. A gentle sunrise breeze rose. The morning crystal clear. Things were as good as could be.  

I trucked right through the early miles, looking forward to reaching the junction at Bear Creek, where the Sespe Trail stars getting really scenic. Along the way I noticed numerous tents camped in the many unsanctioned sites sprinkled along the length of the creek. Here and there a thin streamer of smoke would curl out of the cottonwoods as I silently passed early risers. Clearly there were many, many people camping along the river this morning.

Eventually I reached the stretch of trail that crosses back to the north bank and starts a repetitive cycle of gently looping climbs and dips that circle around low shoulders of the hills above. Atop each little rise was a fresh view of the dramatic landscape ahead. It's easy for me to forget how pretty this stretch of country can be, how colorful the geology, how brightly the early sun beams off the serpentine curves of the Sespe. Eventually I reached the junction for the Red Reef Trail. I crossed the Sespe heading south and started up the tight little canyon which that trail ascends.

About a mile up the trail the canyon narrows dramatically, framed on either side by steep bands of red sandstone. The trail runs next to a small stream and sunlight dapples through the oak trees and occasional spruce. The canyon gets even tighter and around a twist in the trail one approaches what everyone knows as the Harris Tunnel.

This unusual feature was necessitated by the geology of the canyon. Over time the little creek had eroded a notch for itself in a huge, upthrust strata of sandstone. For the creek this was a completely sufficient solution but getting horses through the rocky creek would be a non-starter. The answer to this problem came in the form of drill holes bored in the rock on the east side of the problematic creek, these holes being packed with a judicious amount of dynamite or blasting powder. The result is a brief tunnel about 8ft high and 8ft wide. A rider would have to dismount and lead the horse through but otherwise the problem had been solved.  

This project was completed in 1907 by TJ Harris and RJ Harris. Says so on the wall of the tunnel, chiseled in their own hand. Another fun fact, there is an old site in Middle Sespe called the Harris Ranch, clearly the two are related. And that should be it right? Not so fast...

The south facing view of Harris Tunnel.
Harris Tunnel, looking north.

I stopped for a late breakfast at an open spot on the creek, got bored, and started doing what I'm programmed to do, which is to start poking my head in holes and scrambling over rocks and busting through brush and generally being a boy. An hour later I was a couple hundred feet up the east slope of the canyon wall when I spied what really looked to me like an old trail. Hmm. I dropped down a little bit and yeah, this wasn't some animal track. This was a real trail. Or, as I found out, remnants of a real trail. I picked up the path and started following it north toward the Sespe. It was overgrown and perilously washed out in places but a few minutes later I rounded a turn and twenty feet away was another tunnel. A big, round tunnel through red sandstone. I was a bit surprised to say the least. From this distance I could even see the marks left by the rock drilling for blasting. I wandered over to this feature and had a look see.

The first thing I did was walk through the tunnel and out the other side. I followed the forgotten trail a bit until it became impassable before returning to my find. First, this tunnel was actually two arches of rock. I concluded that the center of the roof had caved in at some point and made a natural skylight. Again I noted the bore holes. Unlike the Tunnel everyone agrees is "Harris Tunnel", this one didn't have any names chiseled into it, though I did find this one to be the more architecturally and esthetically pleasing to the eye. Pretty dang cool if you ask me.

Here's what I'd like to know: does anybody out there know the story behind this second tunnel? It's just a guess but I'm pretty sure this tunnel precedes the one on the Red Reef.

The "other" Harris Tunnel.

After that I couldn't think of anything else to do here so I went back down to the Sespe. It was so pretty in the creek there that I was reluctant to just cross and get back on the highway-like Sespe Trail. Besides, I could hear people on it from a quarter mile away. Sounded like it was crawling with tourists. I decided to stay in the creek for a while and avoid the masses. The day was warm by now and I stopped to splash my face and take in the sights. I'm glad I did because I was most of the way back to Bear Creek by the time the creek forced me back up to the main trail and into a mass of trudging troglodytes, slouched over with ill adjusted packs, yammering about how being in the great outdoors is so stress relieving. Blechh!

I'm not exaggerating when I say that on my way out I passed at least seventy (70!) people on the trail! I'm not exaggerating because I was counting heads and gave up at seventy! By my estimate there were probably close to two hundred people strung out along that trail and planning on an overnight stay. Probably a hundred people fighting over dipping a toe in the single pot of scummy, sulphury water at Willet Hot Spring. Ahh well, I'm sounding curmudgeonly. Must be my age or something. Pretty good to be back at it though. Take care. See you out there. And don't get that virus that's making the rounds, it's bad for your health.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

No Name Canyon

I need a break from the Sespe for a bit. I've logged four recent trips into the Trout Creek morass and added this (today's) bit of scrum to the mix. Off-trail drainages have been a recurring theme lately. Partly I figure it's wise to knock these places out before the marijauna growing season starts up again.  Encounters of the narco kind aren't my idea of fun, and I've concluded that every little drainage in the SLP, no matter how remote, hosts such sites. Also, these drainages are kind of fun in their own sadistic way. But they sure do dish out a beating. 

The itinerary for this day included an exploratory recon up an unnamed drainage on the south side of the Sespe and just west of Bear Creek. This gully has caught my eye on occasion. The entrance from the Sespe is framed by a clustered jumble of highly eroded red-brown formations. This feature is fairly easy to thread but it does narrow down to a neat little slot. On either side of the slot are pocketed strata which rise like a small gorge to either side of the gully's outflow. In other words, this slot is a natural gate.

I, and Josh Weir, slipped through the gate and proceeded a mile up an extremely brush choked gully. Due to the recent rains, and the fact that this gully drains off a northern slope, every rock was slicker than snot. Muddy feet and slick rocks made for a tough go. The day was not without injury. As the drainage continued its winding course upstream we gradually passed into a zone of oaks scattered with a few sycamore trees. The brush remained a persistent hazard and we were often forced out of the creek onto muddy slopes in order to bypass particularly troublesome tangle or deadfall. 

After a while the trees grew taller and more abundant. The way forward became dark, dank and wet, the rocks blanketed in green moss. The gully steepened and water cascaded down numerous little falls. We climbed upward between immense boulders, sometimes over or under them. We slipped on slick rocks and dead leaves. Our pants were soaked and muddy from the knee down. 

We eventually climbed into a huge and deeply shadowed gorge of grey stone. This feature is very visible from the Sespe Trail and forms a dramatic "V" over the drainage.  Near vertical cliffs rise above a small hollow for several hundred feet on each side. The small space in between these walls was crowded with oaks, sycamores, and large boulders. Several old spruce trees grew in the upper part of the gorge. 

Farther up from the spruce trees the drainage devolved into a mess of manzanita and scrub oak, so we returned to the little hollow in the bottom of this upper gorge. We sat under the trees and had some breakfast and conversation, though Josh talks enough for both of us and I was mostly content just to listen. A quiet breeze stirred the sycamores and dried leaves rustled and fell. The little creek burbled through the rocks. Upstream a jay squawked. It was a good morning, grey and overcast, moody. Excellent exploring weather.

A view across the Sespe to Thorn Point.

Sespe Creek after the rains (and below).