Desert, Dogs and Dutch Ovens

January 12, 2020. As I write this we’re nine days into an 11 day road trip, making a circuit through Joshua Tree, Mojave and Death Valley. It seems like the theme for this trip is desert, dogs and Dutch ovens. We like to travel with our dog Carson, and winter camping seems to be conducive to Dutch Oven cooking. After sunset I can put the camera away, start the coals for the Dutch Oven, and build a campfire.

We even used the Dutch Oven to thaw out Carson’s water dish after it had frozen solid one morning; that after we had fired up the oven to reheat some quiche from a previous breakfast. Our journey started on Saturday, January 4, with a drive to Red Rock Canyon State Park. Camp fees seemed a little steep there, but the location is worth it. Dogs need to be on leash, which is the rule for many of the places we visited. There is BLM land nearby where dispersed camping is available for free. We paid $23 for the night at Red Rock and that included a $2 senior discount. In the evening we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook cod with lemon and capers. Joann cooked a risotto dish to go along with it. A gourmet meal.

The next morning we were in no rush to hit the road so we fired up the oven again and cooked a mushroom and brie breakfast strada. Absolutely scrumptious, with enough left over to feed us for another breakfast and more.

From Red Rock we drove to Joshua Tree National Park. When we got to Hidden Valley Campground we were discouraged to see a “Campground Full” sign at the entrance, but we decided to take a look anyway and found one open site. We spent two nights and I took the opportunity to wander around for two mornings and one evening looking for early morning and evening landscape photography opportunities. Hidden Valley has interesting rock outcroppings as well as some nice stands of Joshua trees. As a popular spot for rock climbers, camping spaces are scarce. I’ll post more about the landscape photography in another post. It’s hard enough to condense eight days of travel into one blog post.

While wandering through Joshua Tree we managed to do the short nature walk at Hidden Valley. We alternated walking the trail while the other walked the dog around the parking and picnic areas. We also explored some of the other campgrounds and noted that there was plenty of camping available at Jumbo Rocks and Belle. We also drove down to the Cholla Garden which is an amazingly dense stand of cholla cactus.

On January 7 we drove to the Mojave National Preserve where we decided to camp at Kelso Dunes. This is a primitive campground with no running water or facilities except for a few fire rings. There was one other camper about a quarter mile from us. We took a hike up the sand dunes letting Carson wander off-leash, returning to camp just as the sky was going dark following a blazing sunset. With a near-full moon rising to the east we had light to find our way as darkness approached.

From Mojave we drove to Death Valley where we spent one night camped at the Oasis in Furnace Creek. Our motivation was to find hot showers and do some laundry. We camped at Fiddler’s Camp, an RV camp behind the gas station. $24 with showers and pool access included. We also took advantage of the food facilities and ate dinner and breakfast in the luxury of the Furnace Creek Ranch.

Furnace Creek is a good spot to spend a night or two if you want to see some of the more popular attractions of the park. We were intent on seeing some of the less popular locations. In the morning we drove the short distance to Twenty Mule Team Canyon which the park literature suggested was a good spot to walk a dog. We drove in the canyon a short distance, parked the truck and took a two mile walk with Carson on-leash. Dogs are not permitted on the trails in the park, but they are permitted on roads; this is a lightly used dirt road, perfect for walking the dog.

After walking the dog we topped off the fuel tank, anticipating a good 200 miles or so of driving before we could expect another gas station. From Furnace Creek we drove to Mesquite Springs Campground where we spent a very windy night. We were happy to be in the camper rather than a tent. With the propane heater going we were cozy even with a chilly wind blowing outside.

The next morning we drove to the Racetrack Playa with a stop for lunch at Teakettle Junction. The Racetrack is a perfectly flat playa. Near the southern end of the playa there are some truly bizarre trails left by rocks. When conditions are right a thin film of water freezes and thaws in such a way that fierce winds move the rocks leaving trails. Some of these trails go for hundreds of feet. It’s a truly mind bending experience to imagine how these rocks can move. We arrived at about 3 in the afternoon and found good lighting, using the glint of the sun on the playa to photograph the rock trails.

Getting to the Racetrack Playa is a bit of a chore. It’s a dirt road marked as a 4×4 road, and a two hour drive to cover the 27 mile distance over washboard and gravel.

From the playa we drove the short distance to Homestake campground, another primitive campground with no facilities. We had the campground to ourselves. Here we fired up the Dutch Oven to cook Eggplant Parmesan and we ate dinner by the campfire while we watched the full moon rise over the mountains to the east. With nobody else in sight we let Carson have free run of the campground.

Starting the Year with a Splash

Poking around the rocks outside the Golden Gate

On Thursday, January 2, I managed to get on the water with a few of my BASK kayaking friends. We launched from Horseshoe Bay just under the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and paddled out the gate to Point Diablo. We were feeling a bit of swell with 10 foot waves on 18 second intervals. For most of the paddle this simply meant riding up one side of the wave and down the other side, like going over gently rolling hills. We could see the waves slamming into the exposed coast with quite a bit of force. Inside of Point Diablo we were somewhat protected, and we managed to poke along the coast fairly close to the rocks.

While poking around the rocks near Point Diablo we managed to collect quite a bit of floating debris: empty bottles, plastic bags, blocks of foam flotation, and even a tarp. Later, on the return to our launch, Alan found a Christmas tree.

With a high surf advisory we were concerned whether we’d be able to land at Kirby Cove for lunch, but the cove was protected enough that surf wasn’t a real issue. Even so, I managed to dump my boat when launching off the beach after lunch.

We were on the water at 11 AM and back on the beach at 2:30, having covered 5.7 miles. I was happy to get on the water again after being holed up with a cold for the previous 10 days. You can view more photos here and view the track of the paddle here.

A New Year and a New Decade

Looking forward to a New Year and new adventures with the opportunity to provide inspiration and insight into the wonders of the world. We’re about to hit the road again for a ten day road trip through the deserts of Southern California and contemplating this quote from John Muir:

I’d rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains.

Ancient Trees

Some of the oldest trees in the world grow in the White Mountains above Big Pine. Since we were staying in Big Pine for a few days, we decided make a visit to the Patriarch Grove. The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest is open in the summer but closed in the winter for snow. Some hearty souls will venture into the forest on skis or snowshoes.

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva). At the Patriarch Grove of the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest.

Many of these trees exceed 4000 years in age, displaying fantastic forms. The Patriarch Grove is situated at 11000 feet of elevation. It’s quite a climb from the 4000 feet at Big Pine. Leaving Big Pine shortly after 11 a.m. on Monday, November 11, we drove about 15 miles into the Inyo National Forest and pulled off onto a dirt forest service road to find a spot for our picnic lunch. We also wanted a spot where our dog Carson could run off leash.

After lunch we continued our drive up to the Patriarch Grove. The main visitor center is at the Schulman Grove, 24 miles and a 45 minute drive from Big Pine. We were intent on visiting the Patriarch Grove, another 12 miles on a dirt road which took us about another 45 minutes. It’s a windy, bumpy road. Our bouncing around caused a jar of jam to upend in the refrigerator in the camper.

As we left the pavement and ventured onto the dirt road we were surprised to see a sign declaring the road a National Forest Scenic Byway. A sign at the entry station indicated that four-wheel drive was advised for the drive and, while we were equipped with four-wheel drive, the road looked manageable for a two-wheel drive. We reached the grove at 2:15 p.m., and we were the only people there. The grove looks like a moonscape with gnarled, weathered trees scattered about. We spent about an hour exploring the grove before heading back to Big Pine.

For landscape photography I usually prefer morning or evening, although with the sun low in the sky this time of year I found some nice shadows and textures. By experimenting with multiple exposures and using some Lightroom wizardry I managed to capture some interesting images.

There is camping at the Grandview Campground and dispersed camping nearby. In the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, dogs are permitted on leash and visitors are encouraged to stay on trails or boardwalks.

Back in Big Pine we again “set up camp” in our son’s driveway.

Our “camp” in Big Pine.

Paddlepalooza

What happens when you have 53 paddlers from three kayaking clubs point their boats towards Angel Island? It’s a Paddlepalooza! Saturday, October 26, we were on the Horseshoe Bay dock at 9:30 AM for a safety talk. Horseshoe Bay is just inside the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s a popular launch site for kayaking. On Saturday the currents were favorable for a paddle around Angel Island, riding the flood towards Angel Island and after lunch riding the ebb back. A critical part of kayaking on San Francisco Bay is paying attention to the tides and currents. Following the safety talk we broke into eight pods. We were advised by Vessel Traffic Control and the Coast Guard that if we were to paddle in pods with good separation between the pods we would minimize the impact on shipping traffic and other recreational boaters.

Once we were on the water it was off to Angel Island at a leisurely pace, going around the island in the clockwise direction. While on the water we got to mix it up with members of other clubs. The three clubs involved were Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK), Western Sea Kayakers (WSK) and Sacramento Sea Kayakers (SAK).

Our lunch destination was Quarry Beach, a protected beach on the southeast side of the Island. After lunch we assembled into new pods for another opportunity to make new friends, and we headed back rounding Point Blunt, the southern most point on the Island, and hugging the shore until we reached Point Knox. Then it was time to cross the open water back towards our launch point. On the crossing we found ourselves paddling into a headwind with enough wind to kick up a few waves, but with the ebb current we made good time on the crossing.

Things got more exciting as we approached Yellow Bluffs. This spot is famous for kicking up some wild water on the ebb, and true to form it was exploding today. Our strategy was to paddle north around the rough water, but this is not what happened. We stopped for one of our pod members who was having having trouble with his boat. By the time we got going again, we discovered that we were being sucked right into the rough water. It was a wild ride. I was too busy holding onto my paddle to even think about taking photos. I found myself surfing down waves, getting knocked left and right, and somehow I managed to stay in my boat. Paddle forward, surf the wave and keep paddling. Against the ebb it was slow progress. Eventually I made it to smooth water closer to shore where a number of paddlers were holding position while we regrouped.

My wife Joann managed to stay in her boat in the rough water also. Two paddlers capsized. One of them ended up riding the ebb current out towards the Golden Gate before eventually being picked up by a fishing boat.

The water at Yellow Bluff is a popular place for more experienced paddlers to play. Having “played” in it briefly I can see it would be fun to go back with some more experienced paddlers to improve my boat handling skills.

I did take more photos on the paddle. You can view those here. I also had a GoPro on my helmet. So stay tuned for some video footage. We logged 10.6 miles over the course of the day. You can see the map of our route above, or here.

Mendo Madness

Each year our kayaking club, Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK), takes an extended weekend in Mendocino to do what we do best, eat food and paddle. Some members say we are an eating club with a kayaking disorder. Nevertheless, the event is great fun in a beautiful location with great camaraderie and fellowship. We headed to Mendocino on Wednesday September 18 making our way to Van Damme State Park. The next morning we were on the beach at Van Damme with our boats ready to get on the water. There was a good swell running and a number of paddlers opted to go hiking or paddle on calm water rather than deal with the wave energy being displayed on the coast. Joann and I took up the invitation to follow some of the more experienced paddlers who were offering a “Newbie Paddle,” for those new to the Mendocino coast.

This gave us some exposure to the rocky coast and we got to feel what it’s like to play in the rocks with waves with water surging this way and that and waves crashing on rocks. Mind you we stayed clear of the really active water. See my previous post Through the Washing Machine for more about that.

The next day, September 20, we opted for some quiet water after our rather adventuresome day on the coast. We joined a group of paddlers for a paddle on the Big River. The round trip paddle up the river and back was 11 miles and we were back in camp mid-afternoon to drink beer and soak up the sun.

Friday evening marks Bourbon and Brine, a social event with bar tenders concocting some unique mixed drinks. I had a Storm Cag with rum, ginger liqueur, Averna and orange juice. Joann had a Sea Palm with Gin, lemon juice, elderflower liqueur , celery bitters and a sprig of sea palm. Nathan and Krista, two club members hosted the event. Nathan outdid himself with his creativity as a mix master.

With most of these folks wishing to get on the water in the morning without suffering hangovers, drinking was done with moderation. I for one, did not want to find myself sloshing about in the waves suffering the after effects of alcohol.

Saturday night marked the club potluck dinner. With some 70 or so kaykers in camp it was an amazing feast.

Sunday was another flat water paddle on the Albion River. Our journey took us up the river past several houseboats, stopping to was river otters at play. We had a quiet paddle on smooth calm water. The paddle up and back covered six miles

You can view more photos of the BASK Mendo Madness activities here.

Through the Washing Machine

Through the Washing Machine. Rock Gardening near Van Damme

I call this image “Through the Washing Machine” for reasons you can imagine. This was captured on a recent trip to Mendocino. I had a GoPro camera mounted on my helmet. I had intended to capture video, but for some reason I ended with a series of stills. It’s a challenge to take photos here. I’m not going to take my helmet off to see what the camera is doing and this isn’t the kind of place where I’m going to pull out my still camera. With water surging in every direction, keeping both hands on the paddle to brace is a good idea.

We were in Mendocino with our kayaking club, BASK, for an annual event called Mendo Madness. The club takes over the better part of the upper loop of camp sites at Van Damme State Park and spends several days paddling in various environments. Rocks and caves on the coast and quiet flat water paddles on the rivers. This day, Thursday September 19, some of the more experienced paddlers offered a Mendo Newbie paddle and I’m always game to tag along when the more experienced paddlers are offering to serve as guides. More about Mendo Madness in the next post. Here’s a couple more photos from my helmet cam. Note the other paddlers playing in the surf and rocks. You can see a kayaker punching through the surf in the right photo, the kayak is just under my paddle.