Archives for posts with tag: waterfowl

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

Usually, when the weather is as hot as it has been, we rely on cooler overnight temperatures to keep the conditions inside the house bearable.  We have fans blowing fresh air in through the windows all night long and it is often comfortably cool—chilly, even—by the time we get up in the morning.

That’s usually.  This summer there has been very little weather that could be described as cool, at any time of the day or night.  Even with the fans running continuously (we almost never turn them off, June to September), it has remained warm in the house.  We wake from fitful sleep only partially rested, even when we have turned on the air conditioner.

And after yesterday’s heat, humidity and haze (perhaps the most unpleasant day so far), we were expecting another warm night and muggy morning.  To our surprise, however, the temperature dropped, the moist air blew out to sea (or wherever it goes) and the sky cleared.  The morning dawned cool and crisp, at least by August standards.

Energized by the favorable conditions, Rachel suggested a hike in Fahnestock.  We grabbed our boots and a water bottle and drove to the head of one of our favorite trails.  Actually, the loop we planned to walk comprises three different trails that traverse striated rock outcroppings, blaze through patches of overgrown wild azaleas and lead us back past sun-dappled, fern-covered meadows.

At the half-way point, a short spur disappears into the underbrush and emerges beside a pond.  The ever-thoughtful volunteers who maintain this trail have provided a bench here which awkwardly straddles an older raised concrete slab (the foundation of a previous bench, perhaps?) and allows weary hikers to sit and enjoy the view of an active and well-maintained farm across the way.

When we arrived, the morning was still and the pond’s surface was flat and mirror-like; the trees and their reflections looked like big green Rorschach inkblots.  We sat quietly, resting and snapping photographs.  Later, as we were leaving, a flock of Canadian geese came in for a landing, honking a warning as they descended.  Dragging their feet across the water to slow their momentum, they sent ripples across the surface that disrupted the reflections before slowly dissipating.

We left the pond to the waterfowl and started back towards the trailhead, feeling centered by the peacefulness of the woods and meditative calm of the views.