Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Canyons

Mountain Lion kill. Fresh. Sketchy situation.

Interesting day. On the agenda was a recon of two adjoining canyons which branch off of Sierra Madre/Buckhorn Road. These two little ravines have always caught my eye as I've blown by them on the way elsewhere, but today was the day to spend some time in this neighborhood. I had no idea what I'd find up there, nor did I start the day with any preconceived expectations. It turned out to be an "interesting" day of off-trail exploring.

Click any image to enlarge.

I started off with the nameless canyon to the west of Alamo which I dubbed "Fossil", for reasons you'll see below. The bottom end of this ravine was narrow, rocky and steep, and shaded by mature oaks and maples. The first water I encountered was a milky sky blue and smelled strongly of sulfur. Continuing upward I ranged back and forth along the walls of the ravine, giving special attention to the towering rock walls on the left (E) side. No rock art. No mortars. After discovering the sulfur seep I immediately concluded that the natives wouldn't have placed much value on at least this lowest portion of "Fossil" Canyon.

I continued upward, scrambling up dry waterfalls and jumbled creek bed. Standing pools of water remained iced over in this perpetual shade. I soon cleared the steep scramble and emerged into a close and overgrown ravine, still narrow but widening incrementally. I found numerous animal trails and began moving upstream with little difficulty. On my way up I discovered numerous fossils of clam shells, some quite large. I continued up paths parallel to the dry creek and ranged back and forth from one side of the canyon to the other in a loose zig-zag pattern, just keeping my eyes open. High in the canyon I spotted a large grey fox before he spotted me. That was kind of a treat. Parts of the upper canyon retained healthy oak trees but further upstream the scars of the Zaca Fire became more obvious. Eventually I was getting thrashed in long thickets of wild rose and spiky manzanita. It soon became clear that there wasn't much more to see in "Fossil" Canyon and that it was time to back track and find a way to climb over the eastern ridge of this ravine and descend into Alamo Canyon.

A view back down the lower (N) portion of "Fossil", from high on the east wall of the canyon.

Animal track, better than many of the SLP's "trails".

I located a steep gully which climbed in the direction I wanted to go. Following animal tracks I bypassed a wall of dry waterfalls and continued upward through brush and charred trees. Higher up this gully I discovered more sea shell fossils. Eventually my route narrowed and I was able to see daylight at the top of the gully. I scrambled out of the gully headed northeast and soon found myself weaving through low brush and grasses on a rounded hill (4805). From the top of 4805 I had line-of-sight views to both Sierra Madre Rd and to portions of Buckhorn Rd. I could also see directly down into Alamo Canyon and beyond that, into Santa Barbara Canyon. Cuyama Peak seemed a short distance away ENE.

The top of the gully I chose to get from "Fossil" to Alamo. Note the excellent animal track on the right.

Sierra Madre Rd from Hill 4805.

Alamo Canyon, Cuyama Peak on right, Cerro Noroeste and Mt Pinos in the distance.

I made my way over to the rim of Alamo Canyon and followed a precisely cut and inherently logical deer track which switch-backed down to the creek. In the canyon proper I turned right (S) and headed upstream for quite a while, passing through multiple groves of mature oaks. This was a pleasant park, which alternated from one side of the dry creek to the other. I found a very old and abandoned bush camp but little else of interest. Animal tracks were everywhere, deer, bear, and I happened across several hairy twists of old mountain lion scat. Far up the canyon and under some tall old oaks I disturbed a very large great horned owl. As with the upper portions of "Fossil", this canyon had also been scorched by the Zaca Fire, and I encountered similar problems with prickly scrub. I turned around and headed back downstream, paying attention to aspects of the creek I hadn't travelled on my way up. 

View from the western rim of Alamo Canyon.

Alamo Canyon

I descended the creek and eventually moved past where I'd dropped in from the western ridge. Continuing, I meandered through rocky creek bed fringed with elephant grass and wild rose, dead reeds, scrub oak and poison oak. At some point I rounded a boulder in the iced over stream and saw a fresh, wet and muddy lion print on a mossy stone. At about the same moment my nose caught the bloody scent of raw, red meat. As all this was registering in my mind, my eyes were drawn further around the boulder to a bright red, shredded and gnawed deer carcass. "Uh oh. This is not good." was the first coherent thought that I could put together. This kill was fresh. My hackles rose and a shower of ice particles peppered my gut. My heart rate spiked and my eyes dilated. I turned in several tight circles and thoroughly scoped my surroundings. Nothing. This did not make me feel any more at ease. Another finger of cold awareness trickled down my spine. I knew I was being watched. I slowly backed up into the boulder behind me and searched the reeds, the trees, the rocks, everything, but I just could not shake the feeling that I was not alone, a feeling that needed no imaginative urging. I knew I was being watched. This was the real deal. I slowly unslung my pack, retrieved my camera and snapped two quick shots. It was time to E&E outa here. 

The beginning of Sierra Madre/Buckhorn Rd, from the western rim of Alamo Canyon.

The further I got away from the scene of the kill, the better I felt. Eventually the feeling passed altogether and I was able to relax a bit, though I remained on high alert. As I descended the last hundred yards of the canyon I encountered a sulfur seep similar to that at the bottom of fossil falls, another indicator that the water in this canyon wouldn't have necessarily invited the Chumash to reside at this immediate location. As the cat had demonstrated though, the hunting must have been pretty good. Soon I climbed up onto Sierra Madre/Buckhorn Rd and the adventure came to a close. To finish the day I drove up to Cuyama Peak LO for the sunset (see previous post). 

Like I said, interesting day.

Sulfer seeps abound in the lowest portion of both these drainages.


  1. Dang !!!!!!! I know you like soaking up the Los Padres but that's just a bit too close! If that was any closer, there could have been a DS-Venison "double stack w/cheese" in that picture. BTW... nice trekking; I too have wondered about those canyons as I pass by on Buckhorn. Your theory about the sulphur stink/lack of Chumash habitation makes good sense.

    Glad you made it back to share.

  2. Umm, not sure I dig the sandwich analogy. Man, I sure did feel like I was on the wrong end of a territorial issue. -DS