Seasons of the San Gabriels

November 25, 1998

Silver Moccasin Trail, Charlton Flats almost to Chilao, along the East Fork of Alder Creek

Stillness. Silence. Clarity of air. Nostrils tingle. Breath condenses. It is early morning in the high country of the San Gabriel Mountains in late November. This is the time to appreciate the evergreens--Jeffrey pines and canyon oaks--and the rocks exposed by the leaf fall. The leaves of the white alders, having dropped away, unmask the eyebrowed trunks. Reddish gray stems of poison oak blend into the background of russet-colored leaf litter and gray granite. The trail following the stream, dry now late in the season, slopes steeply to the valley below. The wind softly ruffles the crowns of the pines on the ridges and the evergreen oaks overhanging the trails shed a few brown leaves. The pine needles are soft and spongy underfoot while the oak leaves are scrunchy. The air smells cool, damp, earthy.

A twenty foot high granite outcropping looms over the trail and surprisingly seems to vibrate with a low pitched sound. An active hive resides inside the rocks, but no bees can be seen entering or exiting, just the hum of rapidly beating wings warming the swarm and a slight scent of honey give evidence.

After the rock, the stream surfaces and the trail levels out. Birds congregate around the still, brown water. Western scrub jays squawk, mountain chickadees fuss, ravens croak. Flycatchers perch atop leafless snags.

Further on, the trail crosses the streambed, fingers of ice reaching across the marshy spots. Then, sunlight floods the little valley. Sagebrush warms, exuding a spicy scent. Jeffrey pines can be recognized by smell alone--pungent needles and vanilla-scented bark. Western gray squirrels chirp and scamper through branches overhead. A slim gray Townsend's solitaire guards his territory from an overhanging limb.

Few yellow leaves remain on the willows lining the stream. Sparrows here--song and white-crowned--are easily seen in the bare branches. The stream sinks, the trail rises, dry and warm. Sounds of scratching under a bush followed by a diligent search of the undergrowth reveal another sparrow, this one golden-crowned. The view atop the climb looks down on the valley half in shade muted even at midday; half in sun vibrant with warm brown and golden tones.

© Jane Strong, January 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

Monday, December 7, 1998

Clear Creek Vista to Upper Chilao Picnic Area

Clear Creek Divide about 3400 feet
Snow patches begin, surrounding the edges of the turnouts, where the road curves behind the front range at Clear Creek Vista, the first place remaining in shadow the day long. Past the Clear Creek Station, the road climbs the chaparral-covered south-facing slope of upper Arroyo Seco, sunlit despite being behind the front range. Yucca, chamise, buckwheat, and mountain mahogany on pink rocks radiate slight warmth. Looking across the canyon to the north-facing slope, all is darkness of bigcone spruce and canyon oak and bareness of bigleaf maple and alder in the gullies.

Red Box Gap, 4666 feet
At Red Box Station, snow covers the parking lot, snow that has melted and refrozen during the night for it is icy, crusty and crunchy. Following the West Fork Canyon now, the same situation exists as before, sun and chaparral; south across the canyon, again all is shade, snow, and tall trees. The reasons for the differences in slope vegetation are so obvious now in the short days of late fall, the perennial shade, the long shadows, the everlasting cold.

Snow near the road doesn't reappear again until the entrance to Charlton Flats, which is gated, locked, no cinders, not plowed.

Upper Chilao Picnic Area, 5300 feet
On to Chilao where the road is open to the Visitors' Center. Pushing on to the picnic area, only one set of tire tracks mars the snow. In the black asphalted parking area, what looks like melted water is ice, very hard and very slippery, black ice. Snow is piled on the ground, fresh and powdery, on the picnic tables, on the benches, on the fire rings.

Snow is many things: light, a mirror, pages in a book, a ground cover. Fresh snow, new snow, white, glistening, soft, powdery snow, pure joy!

Snow is light. With it comes the realization of often intangible, often overlooked marvels--the patterns of adamantine light and long dark blue shadows, shadows sharp and dark, shadows light and fuzzy, light absorbed by the somber dark green Jeffrey pine, light reflected by the mineral crystals embedded in the boulders, snow sparkle, ice glare, sun shine. Snow lights up shade, creates mirrors, provides contrast.

Beige grasses and gray bushes that before blended into the background of crumbled granite and battered leaves, are now small individual trees in tiny forests. Each has a long shadow on the snow, emphasized by a small melt patch around the base. Great Basin sagebrush, lit from below by reflections off the snow, whitening the branches, highlighting the shape, glows, diaphanous.

The snow is, literally, a ground cover. With the leaf litter hidden, the season of fall is over and gone. Trees are bare. Wind has removed the last ragged leaves and snow has blanketed them. Trees are now recognizable by silhouette, by bark, by colors of gray, brown and white. Cottonwoods' furrowed gray-barked branches stretch skyward. Willows' shiny reddish-brown twigs form tangled skeins.

The snow is also a clean canvas, a blank page ready to be written on, a journal of time, of what happens on the surface and when. It receives the impressions of animals' tracks and reveals their activities. The black bear comes to the trash bin and goes away, the tracks thaw, and refreeze during the night, the edges becoming hard and rounded. The raccoon follows. Next morning, the mule deer walks slowly in soft snow along the shaded road, leaving tracks with steep sides and sharp edges. The rabbit bounds. The mouse investigates the grass plants. The raven picks up scraps. Pine needles fall leaving imprints in the snow.

An ephemeral rock, snow vanishes; its legacy, enrichment of soils and souls.

© Jane Strong, January 1999

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Seasons of the San Gabriels

December 19, 1998

Mt. Wilson to Mt. Harvard, 5441 feet, in the clouds

Temperature range unbelievably low, 34 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, deep marine layer, upslope fog.

The familiar trail looks new today--no distant ridges, no shadowed canyons. All is foggy, all is white, giving a feeling of lightness, of exhilaration.

Trees drip. Ceanothus branches overgrowing the trail leave wet imprints on my jacket. Constant sounds of moisture plash, plop, trickle, gurgle. Drops fall under the canopy of the somber dark green canyon oaks. Drops glide down the sparse needles of the bigcone spruce. It is an inside out rain, a reverse pattern. It is wet under the trees from dew condensing on the leaves, rolling off, and falling to the ground.

Out on the trail, in the open, it is dry. I put my hand out to feel the rain. Nothing. Yet my clothes and pack are wet.

The Oregon juncos, barely discernible from the duff on the trail through the mist and steamy binoculars, are easily approached. Sounds are muffled. Pairs of wrentits hop around inside the ceanothus bushes along the trail unafraid. California towhees peck at fallen grass seeds. Fox sparrows sit peacefully atop the shrubs.

At the saddle, the cold wind rushes up. The fresh air chills, quickly becoming saturated. I watch in fascination. I can see the wind! The drops of water, suspended in the flow of air, trace its movement up and over rocks, curling up the slope, twirling in the treetops.

At the junction of the trail to Henninger, birds congregate in the trees and on the utility wires--many western bluebirds, some band-tailed pigeons and a single sleek, tufted phainopepla attracted to the mistletoe berries. Smaller tufted gray birds, oak titmice, feed on the rocky slope. White-breasted nuthatches busily spiral down the spruce trunks. A hawk screams eerily in the distance, out of sight in the opacity.

Moisture, condensing on the felt-like leaves, brightens the gray chaparral plants. The hairs, which give the felty appearance, hold the drops that collect and magnify the light rays illuminating the plants. On the other hand, the dried seed heads of the buckwheat, damp with dew, darken to deep orange, one of the few colors visible today.

Wet as I am, the slightest of breezes chills. I keep moving.

© Jane Strong, January 1999

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