Sunday, August 21, 2011

California's big country - and getting to know one little slice of it

© 2011 Joshua Stark

Most people think of California as either Sun, sand, and surf, or as a seething hole filled with people, or as a cosmopolitan bastion of communism.  But there is much more to this, the third largest State in the Nation.

California has more climate regions than any other state, and within each region lie dozens, if not hundreds, of microclimates.  California has more plant species than all other states put together.  It has the oldest natural park in the Nation (Yosemite was created in 1864).  It has the tallest peak in the lower 48, the tallest trees on Earth, the oldest living thing on Earth, the largest thing on Earth, the largest animal on Earth (which it shares with other Pacific states), even the largest elk in the country (which it shares with Oregon).  It's agriculture is simply unsurpassed.  And half of the State is owned by the federal government, which means that huge tracts are accessible for free by all us Americans. 

Within California lies the Sierra Nevada Range.  Within the Sierra Nevada run a number of big rivers, each an accumulation of huge watersheds.  One of these watersheds, the American River system, is very dear to me, and one mountain-side in this watershed, in particular, holds a very special place in my heart.  At the base of this mountain, in the river, I proposed to my wife of 8 years.  Each year, I get to know this mountain, a very large, craggy-in-places, ecologically diverse sliver of California.  It has huge elevation changes which make for amazing habitat diversity, beginning with mixed conifer (but mostly oak) at its base and toying with sub-alpine habitat at its plateau.  Its wildlife is equally diverse. 

Every time I visit this place, I find something new.  Yesterday, I walked the mountainside with bow in hand for the opening day of our archery season.  The place was crawling with hunters, "crawling" in the sense that they were slowly picking along the mountainside in four-wheel-drives and ATV's.  I found a gully without a truck parked on it, and slowly started walking up-slope.  The Sun was creeping up (I'd gotten up late, but wasn't worried - this was more of a scouting trip) over the ridgetops, and below, a couple thousand feet down, flowed the American River through its canyon.

Archery hunters are, by their nature, quieter than gun hunters, and so there was very little human sound in the land.  I poked my way up the gully, noting little sign, but fresh in the grass.  Nothing jumped out of the thicket, however, and I moved over the ridge to the South slope.  It was going to be a hot day (90 F), and I knew they'd be moving to the North side and hunkering down early.  At the ridgeline, I looked down at a beautiful reservoir.  On the North side, I found new habitat, a great spring running off the mountain (a spring!  In late August!), and more good sign, but no deer.

No deer, but my new finds this time were a new meadow filled with yampa, a couple of red currant bushes, another great spot for gooseberries (finally ripening - in late August!), and four coveys of quail with babies.  (Babies!  In late August!)

It has been a wonderful, watery, verdant year for the mountain.  I can't wait to get back up there and find something new.

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