Thursday, May 15, 2014

Castro Canyon, A Game Of Lost And Found

I finally found it! Smilodon's fang! This fang measured roughly 16" from root to tip.

What blind luck! Total and complete chance!
Over a dozen years ago Dave Rivas told me a story his own father, David Rivas Sr, had told him. The gist of it went like this--somewhere in the Cuyama Badlands is a fossil of a Saber Tooth Cat. And that's it. That's all the information I could ever get. Those of you who've been out that way know what I mean when I say that my odds of finding this fossil with just that information were about the same as winning the lottery. Worse even. I never forgot about that short mention and it's nagged me for years, but with nothing to go on there wasn't anything to pursue. At times I started believing it was a myth. Well here it is. 

Back to the blind luck, I was traveling trans-badlands sans trail, got curious about a fin of rock up just another steep and unpleasant gully, clambered under it and eventually scrambled up to its top, and viola! Sabertooth tooth! I don't know why, in the middle of an otherwise difficult day, I would waste the energy to go up this gully and climb 100ft up to the top of this thing. I have no good answer for what my motivations might have been. Finding this has affected me in some weird karmic cosmotic conundrumial kind of way. I could theorize that I was meant to find it, which would be a load of horse shit. It was just plain ole dumb luck. Now, I was born lucky, and I recognize luck when I see it, and figuring this was my lucky day I bought a MegaMillions ticket later that afternoon. Naturally, my luck didn't reach quite that far, or even as far as a single winning number. 

This is a much prettier and better preserved Smilodon Fang.

Ice Age predators aside, what I actually came to this part of the planet for I did not find. There are a couple rock art sites in Castro Canyon which I intended to find, but I'll get to that later. Having received permission from a landowner to cross through Rainbow Canyon, I set off westward through that colorful country with the sun at my back. The day was already promising to be a warm one here on the north slope of Sierra Madre Ridge. Glossy cows and scampering calfs parted before me as I crossed a wide expanse of surgically cropped grass. Further on the canyon narrowed considerably. The southern wall of the canyon rose up in striations of brick red and tan soils. Nearing the impassable head of the canyon I followed an old trail up the southern rim. This short climb afforded a clear view of the colorful "V" of multicolored soils which marks the top of Rainbow.

Rainbow Canyon at sunrise.
The "V" at the top of Rainbow.
Cresting Rainbow gave me a good look at what lay in store, and that future looked like it was going to be a struggle. Before me was a landscape slashed by numerous deep and twisting gullies which drained off the northern slope of Sierra Madre Ridge. The next several miles would entail traversing laterally across these steep and brushy drainages, climbing over and down one after another. I groaned with displeasure. Having studied the map and those innocuous topo lines was one thing, but seeing it up close made the day more personal. Heading west would be a tough haul. Time to go to work.

The going was slow. I descended into the large tangle of gullies just west of Rainbow Canyon which come together at Tennison Springs. I picked my way through juniper, scrub oak, and prickly scrub which clung to each side of these deep gullies. Up then down, repeat process. There were occasional animal paths which zig-zagged up and down this maze of badland washes, though many were old and led straight into walls of scrub. The day heated up, dragged on through this tiring cycle of climbing and descending. After roughly three miles of this repetitive struggle I climbed out of a drainage and found myself on a small plateau upstream of Goode Spring. Though I was now on relatively easy terrain, the scrub oaks and juniper were thick and close which resulted in a drunkenly weaving sort of route, both time consuming and at times frustrating.

Past that initial flat I had another series of several drainages above Olive Springs to contend with, similar in nature but brushier than my earlier struggles. This went on for a bit and I soon climbed out of the final gulch and into a more open and airy flat land plateau. Later, a couple arduous gully crossings resulted in a short scramble up to a cracked and wind hollowed collection of brown boulders. Beyond these broken stones lay a vista of pointed hoodoos, sloped whalebacks, overslung cliffs and towers of pocked sandstone--Castro Canyon. I think I kind of gaped for a minute. Somewhere in this square mile of bizarrely sculpted landscape lay a couple rock art sites. That's all I knew. Jeez, I thought, they could be hidden anywhere in this jumble. I could spend days in this mess and never find them. Just gazing out at all this remarkable rock was somewhat dispiriting in that sense. Despite starting the day with 5.5L of water 4 hours ago I'd already cut that load in half. Additionally, I was already too worked for an extensive search. I sat in the shade of a giant boulder and started calculating, giving myself 1.5 hours to search the eastern edge of Castro. Sketching in the dirt beneath me I plotted out the lay of various formations and selected a route which would arc through the most amount of stone I could search in that time window. 

That hole opens to a flat cave large enough for a comfortable 2-man bivouac.

The first view west into Castro Canyon.

This middle terrain of Castro Canyon is tiring to get around in. Getting up to and under the rock formations for close inspection often took some doing, and all for naught. I must have stuck my head in 50 otherwise promising holes, peered intently at 75 alcoves, and traversed under every side of a couple dozen of these massive formations. No dice. Well into the second hour of my search I was reluctantly forced to accept that I'd used up my luck early in the day. Sure wish I could have borrowed a horse. This was definitely the country for it. But then I wouldn't have found that cat fang either. Guess it all worked out the way it was supposed to.

Typical of the badlands drainages off the north slope of Sierra Madre.

Fossil something or other.
View toward Santa Barbara Canyon from Rainbow Canyon.


  1. I've spent a lot of years looking for the stuff you're finding ... congrats!

  2. Sometimes, there is a pot o' gold at the end of the rainbow. Great job and congrats!

  3. Really enjoy your work...gets me places I'm not sure I have the skills or drive to do anymore. Thanks.