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Waddel Creek Hike Sunday March 9, 2014

Winter rains finally came to California during the winter of 2014 in February. A series of relatively warm storms moving directly west to east across the Pacific Ocean broke what had been the driest winter period in my lifetime. December and January our usually wettest months had no precipitation at all. Landscapes here in central coastal areas of the San Francisco Bay Area were a drab dead brown more typical of early November before first rains. And the storms also meant snows to the east in the Sierra Nevada Range. Thus two and three weeks before on Saturdays, I had gone up to Tahoe to ski, a decades old passion of mine, having a wonderful time. However a week ago Friday had come down with a head cold virus that has run most of its course leaving me on this following weekend still in recovery and not straying far from home. But a local hike would be in order. Given the few weeks of rains, I knew the local redwood forest areas would have a fresh crop of fungi and early wildflowers.

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So early on Sunday morning, March 9, 2014, I drove the 47 highway miles south to Santa Cruz and then north on Highway 1 to Waddel Beach on our Pacific Ocean coast that is the southwest tip of inland Big Basin Redwoods State Park. The beach with a sandy estuary and piles of logs embedded in sands is popular with surfers so there were already several cars parked in the dirt lot as I pulled in at 8:40am PDT. The weather forecast predicted cloudy skies as a balmy weather front with rains 100 miles north was pushing clouds overhead. The layer of clouds would provide an even diffuse lighting condition making landscape photography possible in the deep forests up Waddel Creek. I would be carrying about 35 pounds of gear that included my Wisner 4x5 I use for landscapes in a climber's pack, two sizeable tripods, and my Canon G10 camera gear in a fanny pack worn in front that I use for informational and closeup photography. All images in this feature were taken with the G10 which I hand carried the whole way atop its Benbo Trekker tripod while a larger Induro CT113 was strapped to the daypack. As I crossed to the east side of the highway, a modest 8 mph or so breeze was blowing from the northeast at the canyon mouth and skies were a cloudy bright whitish grey. A CHP vehicle stopped to turn around as I fired off the above image of the gated trailhead. Topographic map of the area:

Acme mapper topo of Waddel Creek mouth

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains in San Mateo County west of San Francisco Bay with a size of 28 square miles, Big Basin Redwoods State Park is California's oldest state park. Waddel Creek drains a damp cool redwood forest canyon with a south to north orientation in its lower canyon that averages between 35 and 55 inches of rain each year. The western section of the park is second growth redwood forest while a smaller section of old growth forest provides the centerpiece a dozen miles east at the headwaters. Before the gold rush, much of the coastal mountain areas to the west of San Francisco Bay were covered in redwood forest. Unfortunately almost all old growth was logged in the nineteenth century. The new forest has matured to the extent the old logging scars are barely visible other than a lack of large trees. The first quarter mile is on a paved road within a dense coastal bramble of coyote brush, lizardtail, poison oak, blackberry, coffeeberry, and elderberry that reaches a small visitor information building. Beyond a gate, the official Skyline to Sea Trail climbs on the west side of the canyon wall in state parks lands while I would be taking the easier gravel road that for the next half mile passes through a private vegetable farm. The right of way road is supposed to be used by horses and bicyclists with hikers advised to take the trail. As I moved further from the shore, the distant roaring sound of crashing surf and occasional vehicles on the highway stilled to a gentle quiet.

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Another quarter mile along, I took the image at page left looking back towards the brushy canyon mouth with knobcone pine, coast live oak, and douglas fir on the skyline frame right and box elder at left. And a bit further at image below, a view of the temperate jungle obscurring the creek. Below large branches of a coastal live oak, quercus agrifolia, was a tall wild tangle of blue elderberry, sambucus mexicana, Californai wild grape vitis californica, and white alder, alnus rhombifolia.

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After passing the small streamside farmlands where forget-me-nots and miners lettuce provided fresh green roadside growth, the road crosses a bridge to the east side of the stream and into the state park lands where the level dirt road would remain for the following two miles. Not far along at image below, I stopped along a quiet section of the creek surrounded by water loving white alders. Across the stream at the base of alders were dense areas of ancient horsetails. The stream had considerably less flow than during average winters though much more than the trickle flowing a month earlier. Along the path were large non-native purple flowers of periwinkle. All along my shady route, slopes were covered by sword ferns.

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At the 1.25 mile point, the first coast redwood, sequoia sempervirens, are reached about the Alder Camp area. During summer a series of dedicated camp sites allows limited backpacking in the state park. However at this early still rainy time of year the campsites are closed. Beneath the redwoods, the forest is much dimmer and new species suddenly appeared including trillium, violets, sorrel, milkmaids, and fetid-adder. And everywhere along my route this day would be an abundance of sword ferns. At a flat stream dell I wandered off the trail and down into an area lush with miners lettuce. Although I framed up a potential subject for my view camera, I declined pulling it out in order to reach further up the trail while conditions were ideal. This was about as far as I'd hiked up in the past so beyond was going to be new. This far up the canyon the breeze at the ocean was reduced to calm. Just above the camp, the hiker's trail rejoined the dirt road which at this point was reduced to the width of an all terrain vehicle though nicely flat for bicyclists.

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Before returning to the trail I snapped the above image of white alder surrounding the clear flowing stream. There was a time before loggers decimated the landscape when the modest stream was home to considerable steelhead trout and salmon runs. In this era a few fish still manage to spawn up the stream though during this drought winter when minimal flows had reached historic lows, I didn't even see any small fry much less mature fish.

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Back on the path, a group of 6 fit attractive young women runners passed me at a good pace. I guessed they were a group from University of California at Santa Cruz. The 6 miles of dirt road between the ocean and Berry Falls is certainly one of the nicest places to run or bicycle in the region especially during the summer because it is almost all beneath shady forest and cooled by damp marine weather. The first hiker of the day passed me about a straight section through short greenery of redwood sorrel, under a grove of bigleaf maple, acer macrophyllum, with bare branches, one of many species that had not yet sprouted their summer leaves. At the image at right, frame right, beyond the short sorrel are shaggy leaf growths of stinging nettles, urtica dioica. Having not touched any in a few years and curious, I decided to barely touch one with the tip of my left hand index finger. Immediately felt a tiny prick-like sting injecting its intense juice. For the next 12 hours, a 3/8 inch radius tip of my finger was at the same time numb like pins and needles and highly sensitive.

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I passed a tall redwood trunk that was absolutely covered with an incredible tangle of bare vines of poison oak, toxicodendron diversilobum that had not yet leafed out. At the top of my list of trees least likely to ever be climbed. Well except for by squirrels and I did see one latter that day. Further up the canyon, poison oak thankfully would become scarce.

As a photographer, when in interesting areas, I am constantly scanning and evaluating all manner of things as I move through landscapes both small to large. And that is especially true for any plants and animals. Finally I found a nice pair of western trillium, trillium ovatum, in the image below, the most aesthetic of our local forest species. I set up my Benbo tripod for a close up side view image. Note I almost always use a tripod for serious closeup images and the Benbo is and has for decades been the best tool for low to the ground subjects though the design is radically different than with standard tripods. Below the plants were dried brown redwood needles and tanbark oak leaves that would make a reasonable muted dimmer background using the in camera flash versus if I were to use the ambient light. Setting up my Benbo low to the ground, using ISO 100 0.6 seconds shutter F8.0 (G10 minimum aperture), exposure at -1 2/3 and flash at -1 since the white petals are easily overexposed. The white petals change to pink and purple as they age.

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By 10:40am I reached the 3.0 mile point at Camp Herbert at the confluence of East and West Waddel Creek. A metal bridge crosses the east branch. For the last half mile I was increasingly impressed by the amount of flowering plants and greenery along the trail. This is strikingly different than what one sees at the headquarters main park visitor area beneath massive old growth redwoods because those areas have been heavily impacted by decades of trampling and bouquet picking. Even along the heavily used trail from the headquarters to Berry Creek Falls, wildflowers are surprisingly thin compared to what I have seen in northern redwood forests and most of those wildflowers don't appear until the last mile to the falls. But here above the 2.5 mile point up to the 5 mile point I would see an abundance of redwood forest wildflowers. The flowers I had always thought were missing in the park were indeed there. Just further out of the reach of most hikers. In any case flower density in such dim under canopy environments is at best relatively sparse compared to the vast expanses of flowers in some open sunny landscapes.

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The whole canyon was several million year old Miocene geologic age ocean sandstones with steep heavily forested canyon wall slopes. In places landslides expose the naked rock. A recent slab with its intact moss and fern had slid about 100 feet vertical down to the base of the trail leaving a couple loose football sized rocks on the trail. The older outer surface of the slab had oxidated to a light orange while more recently exposed areas were a grayish white of the original seabed sands.

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One of my favorites objects to inspect are recently fallen tree branches that have dropped from upper tree heights because interesting lichens and fungi often live in those canopy areas and after they fall to the ground exposing fresh inner wood, additional fungi are likely to colonize. Thus I found a most interesting specimen of fragile yellow slime mold, leocarpus fragilis on one such piece of wood where the bark had cracked off leaving this inner world exposed. There were also two other species I don't know the names of with it. One a green growth was beneath the orange veins while at lower left was a white species in tiny linear rows. For some contrast I framed the edges of green hued redwood sorrel leaves at frame bottom. G10 flash.

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A bit further along I found a nice specimen of the always very abundant white petals of milk maids, cardamine californica, where I declined to use the perpendicular orientation of in camera flash as exposing for the white flowers from near inches requires subtle lighting. The full image frame is 2940x2356 pixels or much more than the downsized 720x540 pixels of this web image. The G10 is one of the best digital cameras ever designed for capturing small 3-dimensional subjects with a difficult depth of field because its 14.7 megapixels are densely within a relatively small 7.6mm x 5.32mm sensor. Thus an exceptionally high pixel to sensor area size ratio. A good balance between DSLRs with limited depth of field due to their larger sensor sizes, and standard sensor compact digital cameras with sensors too tiny to provide enough resolution to sharply print 8x10 to 12x15 inch print sizes. Of course most photographers buy digital cameras with low pixel count to sensor area ratios in order to keep the noise floor low, keep shutter speed relative high, and thus reduce the effects of film to subject movement especially when hand holding a camera. Also a large sensor is better for bokeh effects though that is rarely my style as I tend to seek subjects I can render in sharp focus. And for such I set G10 at ISO 80 or 100 that has minimal noise and is almost always on a tripod, with subjects static.

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The earliest wildflower species to bloom in our redwood forests is the fetid adder's-tongue, scoliopus bigelovii, with rather a rather intricate 3-dimensional flower shape and beautiful linear mottled leaves. Although I saw hundreds of their leaves along this section of trail, all had already gone to seed as the bloom had peaked 3 or 4 weeks earlier. To find both fetid adder's-tongue and trillium blooming at the same time is usually a very narrow window. Well I continued to scan the trail sides and finally found a plant still blooming, one of only two I would see this day. Note where a banana slug dined on the leaf lower frame left on the image at right.

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The full image size is 4242x2784 pixels. To better appreciate the actual detail in these images, at page left is a crop of the flower in the image above downsized about 60%. Do you see the little red fly on the left petal?

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Walking along the trail I heard a light rustle by the trail edge. And then saw it was a young alligator lizard about 10 inches long. Using its natural body camouflage to blend in, it instinctually froze still, so I slowly moved my tripod close enough to get this modest closeup before it scampered away beneath the dried leaves. Note this ornery species is a real biter when handled as I've grabbed quite a few over my days.

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Then I came upon freshly fallen branches of a tanbark oak where there was yet another good specimen of fragile yellow slime mold plus some fruticose lichen. The mold was in its more common globular form. A good candidate for most unworldly alien pic of the day. For this image, I had to pull out my Canon 270EX external flash on its extension cord as the target was in an awkward lay close to the ground forcing me to put the G10 lens just a couple inches away from the subject. With the lens so close, the in camera flash is not able to evenly illuminate a subject while I could move the 270EX to the side that would also improve contrast. It took a few exposures before the result I played back was acceptable.

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The day was moving along and it was about noon when I found a worthy specimen of the most common flower in these woods, redwood sorrel, oxalis oregana, with their beautifully triplet heart-shaped leaves. The flowers vary from white to pinkish white and are as much as 2 inches wide though 1 inch is more usual. They are slow to open during the day with most fully displayed by about noon then closing as the afternoon wanes. The under sides of the leaves are interesting too, a reddish purple color. The skies were increasingly sunny that meant any landscape work was doubtful. The next day I would find the storm front had stalled off our coast moving to a more south to north orientation that caused cloud free skies to the east to retrograde west.

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It occurred to me that I had not taken any images of either California newts or banana slugs even though I'd seen dozens this day. Both creatures are among the easiest small animals to take pictures of because they move about so slowly. The slugs were visible all along my route every few feet on the sides of the trail and in places I could see a dozen from given spots. I wondered what fun a seagull or raven might have coming upon one of these colorful juicy bright yellow slugs?

Well at this point I was less than a mile from Berry Creek Falls which I had no intent to bother with. Oh will revisit there someday in the future (unlikely this year) when water flows are much higher and the weekend crowds absent. Instead I descended from the trail at a section where the map showed a higher stream gradient in order to find a reason to take my big camera out. I also needed to take a lunch break resting a wee bit before turning around back to the trailhead. And indeed came upon the stream landscape at page top and below where I exposed a single sheet of Provia 100F film.

The foreground gentle cascade stream section displays a smooth tilted slab of sandstone. And yes all that rock is slippery smooth. Above was a quiet pool with two mossy boulders and behind the pool at frame center, a large shadowed dark lower trunk of a sizeable redwood. Note the gravel bar of small stones on the left side of the pool. Also one can see the reflection of the dark trunk in the pool with a brighter green reflection just right. At frame upper left are the scraggly branches of a small tanbark oak, lithocarpus densiflorus. And at near frame right, numbers of California sword fern, polystichum californicum, reaching out over the water. Above the pool the stream twists around a dam of small rocks covered with vegetation. Above that another barely visible pool with a log spanning its width fed by a longer smooth slab cascade with the light hues of two redwood trunks to the left of the water. Luckily a half hour of clouds filled the skies just long enough to work on the shot. Film that won't be developed for several more weeks until I might amass enough film to bother sending in a package for development. And if I ever drum scan then make a large print of the scene there will be considerable sharp detail. I used a 150mm Nikor lens set for a 1 second exposure with the aperture f25 that is about EV9.3. Exposure taken with my Polaris lightmeter and G10 to evaluate the exposure which is always rather tricky at dim levels.

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Lacking the development sheet of film, the above image will have to remind me of why I carried all that weight 10 plus miles. My hike back 5 miles to the ocean was one of running into lots of people that had started their day slowly, especially those riding bicycles. With the sun now out, I didn't stop much. As I approached within a mile of the trailhead, the roar of the ocean breakers increased with each step. Back at work the next day Monday, it was obvious the effort was a bit more than my aging body was ready for. But then again it is the time of year to get into better shape as spring begins and flowers rise.

   David Senesac

   email: info@davidsenesac.com

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