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AP RIL –JUN E 2 0 1 0


Through the Eyes of the Lion

Special Section The Once and Future Delta Trekking Napa’s Upscale Wilderness California’s Only Native Turtle $5.95

Ian Creelman

tre kking ab ove t he na pa va l l ey


The uniform columns of charcoalcolored lava claim your eye as soon as you scan the horizon above the Napa Valley resort town of Calistoga. There is something of the Badlands in their appearance that, if you’re like me, instantly makes you wish you knew more about geology. This vertical bank of andesitic pillars, called the Palisades, rough-hewn even when seen from a distance, ranges for four miles to the west across the face of the Mayacamas Mountains. It is the proverbial tip of the submerged iceberg — 60 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 4,000 feet thick, this slab of rhyolite and obsidian is known among geologists as the “Sonoma Volcanics.” The 3.4-million-year-old formation is crowned by the imposing mass of Mount St. Helena. But enough science — what do the poets have to say about the matter? “Three counties, Napa County, Lake 10

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County, and Sonoma County, march across its cliffy shoulders. Its naked peak stands nearly four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his book The Silverado Squatters. When the state park was established here in 1949 the name Robert Louis Stevenson was chosen because of the summer the famous Scot spent in 1880 honeymooning with his bride on the side of Mount St. Helena. (Scenes informed by his stay show up in the novel Treasure Island.) What had attracted Stevenson — the fog-free weather up the mountain and the heat both above and below ground — still fuel the local attractions, now complete with hot water and mud spas, wine tasting, and hot air ballooning. And the attraction for the rest of us,

Though long and strenuous, a day’s hike on the Table Rock and Palisades trails is among the best in the Bay Area, with tall cliffs on one side and extensive views over Napa Valley on the other.

the canteen-laden and soon-to-be-sorelegged? Hiking challenging wilderness terrain and learning the names of the local flora and fauna as we go, as Stevenson did: “Our driver gave me a lecture by the way on California trees —  a thing I was much in need of, having fallen among painters who know the name of nothing. . . . He taught me the madrona, the manzanita, the buck-eye, the maple; he showed me the crested mountain quail; he showed me where some redwoods were already spiring heavenwards from the ruins of the old; for in this district all had already Reny Parker,

on the trail

Phacelia, Indian paintbrush, lupine, and sticky monkey flower bloom along the trail in spring.

tr ail © Samanda Dorger,

David Jesus,

th e

the State Park to relocate the trail. At the time, Grummer recalls, this was a major disappointment to fans of the Palisades, himself included. But he soon came to see it differently. Though our natural inclination is to “peak-bag” and climb, as Grummer puts it, “as high as possible,” the current layout affords views that are just as dramatic. To take advantage of Grummer’s handiwork yourself, go to the Table Rock trailhead on Highway 29. You warm up on old utility roads before you get to an opening with views to the north of forested ridges that disappear into the wilds of Lake County. Soon, you’ll have your first views of the Napa Valley among the scattered lunar rock formations and


perished: redwoods and redskins, the two noblest indigenous living things, alike condemned.” While the Palisades Trail, located to the east of Mount St. Helena on the panhandle of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, is open year-round, you should consider hiking the Palisades a three-season proposition. Leave out summer, due mostly to the oppressive combination of high temperatures and steep rocky terrain: When the trail was being built in the late 1990s, California Conservation Corps members were given the summers off. In spring, the wildflowers on the way to Table Rock and beyond, along the Palisades and Oat Hill Mine trails, are as profuse and varied as anywhere in the Bay Area. According to native plant enthusiast Dick O’Donnell, who has been hiking the area for decades, between April and June you are likely to see the full array of wildflowers at all stages of development. Last spring there were glorious turnouts of wildflowers both in mid-April and late May when I hiked the trails. Fall and winter, though they cannot compete with the teeming spring displays of color, feature their own mellow earth tones (thanks mostly to the deciduous white and black oaks and big-leaf maples) and mild tempera-

tures, as well as the stark visual contrasts produced by the rare snowfall. Many hikers opt to carpool to the upper trailhead and work their way down the strenuous 11-mile route, rather than double back (see map, page 13). Like so many State Park trails, this one has seen little maintenance since being built. The fact that the trail got built at all is something of a miracle, says former ranger Bill Grummer. From his arrival in 1973 until his retirement in 2005, with only nominal support from park managers, Grummer got involved in all aspects of the trail’s evolution, from acquisition on through dedication in October 1999. He often volunteered on his days off to assist John Hoffnagle and others from the Land Trust of Napa County; without them, he says, “the trail never would have happened.” The trust persevered for nearly a decade, negotiating with various government agencies and private landowners to stitch together acreage and easements needed to complete the trail. The Palisades had always attracted attention: Sierra Club hikers and their minimalist trail constructors would push through on periodic treks to summit the Palisades in the 1960s and ’70s, when much of the route was crosscountry guesswork in steep, chaparral-choked terrain. Those legendary “death march” hikes, as they came to be fondly remembered by hardy participants, used to traverse the top of the Palisades, not 700 feet below along their base where the route runs today. The Livermore family, who 50 years earlier had donated land to establish Stevenson State Park, wanted to protect the mineral water source in the upper reaches of the Palisades and persuaded

(above) Numerous springs emerge from the fractured rocks of the cliffs here, creating small, wooded oases along otherwise unshaded portions of the trail. (left) Poppies and lupines are plentiful along sunnier sections of the trail.

the sparsely vegetated, mostly stony meadows known by locals as the “Craters.” Two miles out from the parking lot after passing through a rock art labyrinth and dropping into and climbing out of a fern- and giant trillium-dotted canyon, you come to a large plateau of overlapping flows of naked rock geologists call tuff  —  solidified volcanic ash. (The rocks of Mount St. Helena and the Palisades are volcanic in origin, though the formations themselves are the result of tectonic uplift.) As promised, a wide variety of wildflowers greets you everywhere you turn: april–june 2010

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habitats of

the East Bay Regiona l Parks This story is part of a series exploring significant natural habitats and resources of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), many of which are encountered in other parts of the Bay Area as well. The series is sponsored by EBRPD, which manages 65 parks, reserves, and trails covering more than 100,000 acres in Alameda and Contra Costa counties (


A Wild Life on the Urban Edge


n a ridge atop Las Trampas Regional Wilderness near Danville, a naturalist

and I come across a large track in the mud. It’s rounder than a dog or coyote track, with three scallops along the back of the heel pad. We silently stare at it from all angles and snap some pictures. After a long pause, the naturalist, Jim Hale, smiles: “It’s probably a puma.”

Jerry Ting

Top predators generally don’t do well in suburbia. But whether you call them pumas, panthers, wild cats, cougars, catamounts, or mountain lions (all Puma concolor), these big cats have somehow endured in the Bay Area. Few people see them. A 1990 initiative made California the only state to ban trophy hunting of pumas and also devoted $30 million a year to habitat protection. Nevertheless, the state Department of Fish and Game estimates that only 4,000 to 6,000 pumas are left in all of California, and it can’t give you a local head count or even tell you whether the population is stable, growing, or shrinking. Yet marks in the mud like the ones we’ve just seen — and other evidence — suggest that one of North America’s most powerful predators is quietly going about its business in a Bay Area shaped by and shared with more than 7 million people. At first, the idea of a puma in a metropolis seems nothing short of miraculous. How could such wildness persist alongside so many people? In research that took me from a remote ridgetop to a forested freeway overpass to a popular shopping center, I learned about what cats need and where they get it amid the lands of the East Bay Regional Park District and adjacent open spaces — and what (above) Pumas persist in the East Bay, where large chunks of protected open space make good habitat for our largest remaining terrestrial predator. (left) Deer, like this one at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, are the big cats’ main prey, so wherever deer thrive, there’s a chance lions will too. But pumas need huge home ranges, and habitat fragmentation is a major threat to their survival.

the Eyes of the Lion by Joan Hamilton

Jeffrey Rich,

the entire Bay Area might learn about living with wildness as our human population continues to grow.


espite the East Bay’s intersection of big cats, big open spaces, and millions of people, there’s never been a major study of pumas in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, says East Bay Regional Park District wildlife ecologist Steven Bobzien. That may change in the next few years, as a collaborative effort called the Bay Area Puma Project looks to expand from the Santa Cruz Mountains into the East Bay and Marin. “There’s been a lot of discussion over the past decade and a lot of interest in doing a study, but there hasn’t been funding,” says Bobzien, who has been involved in puma research since 1995. The hope is to bring together academic researchers with agencies like park and water districts that own the bulk of protected land in the Bay Area, to start amassing hard data on how pumas are faring in our region. “We’re just right now on the front end of that,” he says. Meanwhile, much of what we can say about pumas in the East Bay is based on the anecdotes and experiences of folks who spend a lot of time out in the parks.

Exploring the puma’s peregrinations in suburbia is one of the wide-ranging interests of Jim “Doc” Hale, a biological consultant, outdoor educator, and member of Contra Costa County’s fish and wildlife advisory committee. The 60-year-old Hale has lived in Contra Costa County all his life, and he’s seen plenty of pumas in the Bay Area, by tracking or spotlighting them, by photographing them with hidden cameras, and sometimes simply by paying attention while taking a drive or a walk. On our first outing, Hale drives up in a white Jeep with “zoology” spelled out on the license plate. With his gray ponytail, foot-long beard, and well-worn clothing, he seems to belong in an earlier century or a wilder place. We set out late in the afternoon, because pumas are more likely to be active then than during the day. You might think they would be easy to spot, given that most adults weigh 80 to 150 pounds. But finding them is harder than bird-watching on a Jeffrey Rich,

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The Once and Future Delta M e n d i n g

t h e

B r o k e n

H e a r t

o f

C a l i f o r n i a

by John Hart

Dale Kolke, CA Dept of Water Resources

n March 30, 1772, Spanish explorer Pedro Fages was traveling east along the south shore of Suisun Bay, looking for a land route around the seemingly endless chain of bays extending inland from the Golden Gate. Mounting to Willow Pass, the rise of land between present-day Concord and Pittsburg, he found himself staring at a new obstacle: an enormous expanse of marshland, threaded with bright channels. He had “discovered” the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. The Delta is a flat, watery region of roughly a thousand square miles—covering nearly as much territory as San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay, Carquinez Strait, and Suisun Bay combined—radiating inland to the Central Valley. Its natural boundaries are fuzzy and its nature double. In one aspect it is a river delta; in the other it is the



Paul Hames, CA Dept of Water Resources

Rich Turner,


(top) View west over a range of north Delta habitats: wetlands on Prospect Island, the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel, and the open water of southern Liberty Island. Cache Slough, Yolo Basin farm fields, and the Coast Range are in the background. (left) Some birds flourish in the human-altered landscapes of the Delta. Here American white pelicans and great egrets swarm a reopened irrigation ditch on Jones Tract. (above) Six months earlier, in June 2004, Jones Tract flooded as the result of a levee break.







innermost region of that vast intrusion of tidewater into the continent called the San Francisco Estuary. (An estuary is a tidally influenced aquatic system with a range of salinities; this one is the largest on the west coast of the Americas.) However defined, the Delta is the meeting point of rivers that drain 40 percent of California’s landmass and carry just under half of the runoff from California’s mountains. It is a crossroads on migratory routes extending in the air from the arctic to the tropics, and in the water from the Sierra out into the Pacific. It is also a rich-soiled farm region and, directly or indirectly, the source of drinking and farming water for the majority of the state. And it is, as the whole state now knows, in several kinds of trouble.










Laura Cunningham, 2010

Early spring scene along the Sacramento River, with a Plains Miwok village on the bank and a condor overhead. The natural levees of the north Delta were covered with a thick gallery forest of valley oaks, cottonwoods, and willows, with “backswamps” and large ponds behind, all supporting large numbers of waterfowl and wading birds.

The Aboriginal Delta 

Understanding what the Delta was and how it got into so much trouble is the starting point for envisioning a better future for it. A delta is what forms when a stream approaches flat water. As currents slow, sediment settles out and the channel divides fanwise into what are called distributaries. The classic delta—think of the Nile— adjoins a coastline. It is a triangle, narrow upstream where the parent river enters, wide downstream where channels spill into the receiving water through several separate mouths. California’s great delta, by contrast, lies well inland, and it is backward or “inverted.” It is wide on the east because it is the creation of two different river systems, one flowing in from the north and one from the south: two deltas, really, not one. It is narrow downstream because all its branching channels must finally reunite at the inner edge of Suisun Bay to pass through the hills of the inner Coast Range. The original Delta has been called “a tule swamp the size of Rhode Island,” a thumbnail that says more about our lack of knowledge than it does about the place itself. “We know surprisingly little about the ecological conditions that once characterized the system,” says Alison Whipple of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, which is in the midst of a research effort to derive a better picture. “The Delta is so unusual and was transformed so early. It’s complicated to fit all the pieces together retrospectively.” But we do know that the building blocks of the Delta were its water22

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ways, its natural levees, and its marshes, tidal and nontidal. The major channels were laid out then much as they are today. The Sacramento entered from the north, the San Joaquin from the south, the smaller Mokelumne River from the east, all throwing off distributaries but forced by topography to gather them in again downstream. Alongside major waterways rose the levees, berms of sediment deposited over hundreds or thousands of years. In the north of the Delta, along the Sacramento and its branches, these stood 20 feet or more above the water and supported “gallery forests” of cottonwoods, sycamores, alders, and oaks, footed with brush and intertwined with vines. Along the San Joaquin and its branches, the levees were lower and more sparsely wooded. Downstream toward the heart of the Delta, and on smaller channels, the levees were low berms with willows on top, or no trees at all. Behind these barriers, connected to the rivers by narrower channels, were the vast marshes, or “backswamps,” of cattails, reeds, bulrushes (tules), and other freshwater wetland plants. In the heart of the Delta these were tidal, irrigated twice daily through an intricate system of sloughs that branched and branched like tree roots. On the landward margins of the Delta, the tidal marshes graded almost imperceptibly into seasonal wetlands, flooded in the wet season only; and these into wildflower meadows, vernal pools, and oak savannas on the upland rim. There were also many lakes and ponds, apparently larger in the northern part, that filled when river flows were high. And there were


Make Way for the Western Pond Turtle

Sarah Anne Bettelheim


By Matthew Bettelheim


n 1929, an unremarkable gentleman set out to explore an unnamed creek in an undisclosed corner of California. Wading through the creek that day, scrabbling along its cobbled banks, this “Nature-curious” fellow counted 108 western pond turtles in three miles of running water. Before Europeans settled the Bay Area, the western pond turtle thrived in large numbers throughout California’s hundreds of rills and rivers. Still, this unremarkable gentleman’s foray, later chronicled in the American Nature Association’s Nature Magazine, remains important for two reasons: His observations were made at the close of more than a century of commercial turtle hunting, and such numbers of turtle were rare then and are even rarer today. As a Bay Area biologist specializing in the western pond turtle, I have focused over the years on understanding California’s turtle fishery and the effects of this fishery on pond turtles. So I wondered if this unremarkable gentleman’s experience could be re-created 80 years later: If I visited a few creeks and lakes that hadn’t been riprapped, undergrounded, or polluted, would I find western pond turtles in anything like their historical abundance? In 1841, about 80 years before our unremarkable gentleman’s adventures, Russian naturalist Il’ia Gavrilovich Wosnessenskyi came to Northern California to explore “Russian America,” centered on Fort Ross, near the mouth of the Russian

River. Visiting Bodega Bay and the Sacramento River, he collected five western pond turtles, possibly the first pond turtles taken by a scientist in California. They were little different from those found today: up to nine inches long with shells and skin marked with inconspicuous but intricate marbling and stippling in earthy browns, greens, and yellows. As years passed, naturalists came to realize that this modest pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata)  — ranging from British Columbia south to northern Baja — was the Pacific Coast’s only native freshwater turtle. Compared to more than 20 turtle species on the Atlantic coast, the humble western pond turtle is a remarkably successful and wide-ranging species. And it’s been that way since the dawn of the Pliocene epoch five million years ago when changes in climate and tectonic and volcanic activity displaced its ancestor from the Great Basin into the turtle’s current range. Despite its success over that vast range, the western pond turtle had grown increasingly scarce by 1992. That year, three herpetologists petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list it as threatened or endangered. Among the key threats the petition cited were habitat degradation and loss, the spread of exotic predators, and epidemic disease. The petition stated that the western pond turtle was in a “general state of decline through most of its range” and that its

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from Bay Nature Apr-Jun 2010  
from Bay Nature Apr-Jun 2010  

Excerpts from our latest issue: searching for pumas and pond turtles, trekking above Napa Valley, and learning from the past in the Sacramen...