Naturalist and writer Jules Evens has lived near Point Reyes for over 30 years. He is the founder of Avocet Research Associates and the author of The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula and An Introduction to California Birdlife (both UC Press).
Arroyo Hondo, January 18, 2012, after months of drought-like conditions
We only a have an hour or two before dark and dinner in Bolinas, so a few friends and I decide to take a short walk. Although not an official designated trail, this fire road at the southern end of the Park, the trail we take begins at the end of Mesa Road, in the parking lot of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory’s Palomarin Field Station.
With me are some friends. We are acquainted through circuitous routes, but Jack Nisbet, Gene Hunn and I have each worked at “Palo” banding landbirds at some point in our lives, so PRBO’s Field Station seems a natural place to start the hike. Jack has written extensively on the human and natural history of the Pacific northwest and his recent book, The Collector (2009), recounts the remarkable career of David Douglas–for whom our esteemed Douglas-fir is named–in his botanical collecting trips throughout the Pacific Northwest.
From the field station’s parking lot, a narrow trail leads along the marine terrace, then drops down into the arroyo and crosses a wooden footbridge. The arroyo is deeply incised here and the steep canyon walls host a fern grotto–mostly maidenhair, bracken and sword ferns, with a few polypody mixed in.
At the top of the south bank, a large buckeye (Aesculus californica) is leaning precariously toward the arroyo; its lower trunk is swollen with odd bulbous goiters that we ponder over. Huge galls? Disease? Only later, after querying some botanist friends do we come to understand that the growths are probably advantageous root burls, incipient “prop roots,” developing to support the tree should the bank erode further. This is a common condition of redwoods and bays, but none of us have noticed it in buckeyes before.
The trail passes through a small remnant patch of northern coastal scrub, then wends up to Mesa Road, which we cross and pick up the fire road that leads up Arroyo Hondo. The fire road parallels the perennial watercourse known as Arroyo Hondo Creek. (This is an oddly contradictory name because this is a perennial creek and “arroyo” means a gulch that is usually dry except after heavy rains.) There are a few small reservoirs along the creek, one of the primary sources of drinking water for the town of Bolinas.
It’s late in the day, starting to drizzle slightly, and the forest is silent accept for the distant whisper of the creek and the fir needles overhead. Although is has hardly rained this winter, the creek is still flowing modestly, fog moisture retained and released ever so reluctantly through the firs and sedimentary soils overlaying the granite bones of Inverness Ridge. The only bird sound is the occasional sibilant chitchat of chickadees and kinglets moving through the firs, or the throaty “chuck” of a hermit thrush. But we are immersed in our own chatter and may have missed some subtler sounds. We pause at the small reservoirs and look for salamanders and newts, but see only fish fingerlings, perhaps stickleback? Steelhead? The water is too clouded to tell.
After about a mile the fire road comes to an end; we thought it might connect to the Ridge Trail, so we start to follow an overgrown game trail into the brambles, but get only a few feet before blackberry vines and fear of poison oak convince us otherwise. Jack, the intrepid explorer (like David Douglas), continues ahead and we decide to wait for his evaluation. A winter wren is scolding us from the understory tangle and we crane our necks for a better view. Then Jack returns, having discovered the trail impassable, but he is carrying a beautiful scarlet elf cup fungus, an unexpected find.
Dusk is deepening. As we walk back to the car parked on Mesa Road, we discuss earlier walks up this same trail, walks each of us have taken separately, each in decades past. We all remember hearing or seeing a northern spotted owl in this forest, that spirit of the old growth, an early encounter that etched itself into our individual and collective memories. Near the entry gate we find a small owl pellet in the road, rounded and about the size of a strawberry. I tease the charcoal hair apart and find the jawbone of a mammal, maybe a shrew mole. The pellet seems too small for a spotted owl, and we speculate that is was cast by either the smaller saw-whet or screech owl, but come to no conclusion, just another question to linger as we head back to Mary and Tim’s house for dinner. It seems it’s always the unexpected that one encounters on these hikes, and those are the memories one takes home–a scarlet fungus, buckeye burls, an unidentified owl pellet.