Archives for posts with tag: wilderness

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.

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After reading about it in the paper, we tried a new trail (new to us, I mean) in Fahnestock State Park.  We’ve been hiking in the park for years and it is exciting to realize that there are still significant portions that we have yet to explore.

We checked our trusty—and well-worn—trail map and found that the trailhead for the Sunken Mine Railbed Trail is located just a short distance (about half of a mile) closer to us than a trailhead we have been using for many years.  We’ve passed by the parking area a hundred times with only a vague notion (at best) that another convenient hiking opportunity awaited us there.

As its name implies, the trail follows an old mine railroad.  This seemed apparent for the first quarter of a mile from the trailhead as the path was wide and flat.  However, the trail then traversed up and over a ridge (where several trees, toppled by Hurricane Sandy no doubt, made passage difficult) and dropped steeply down to a pond.  I don’t think even a mine railcar could manage that terrain.  While we were enjoying the view, we noticed that the night had been cold enough that a thin scrim of ice had formed over the pond’s surface.

From there, the trail widened and continued in a straight and level alignment along a raised berm; clearly, this was the former railbed.  Although not physically challenging, I enjoy flat, roomy trails because they allow two or three hikers to walk side by side with less fear of stumbling or tripping.  This, in turn, facilitates conversation making for a much more social experience; walking and talking in the wilderness.

When we’d been hiking for half an hour, we came to a sharp turn in the trail and again checked the map for potential routes back to our starting point.  A loop was possible and would have been preferable except that another quarter hour of outbound walking would have been needed.  We didn’t have the energy for what would wind up a hike of 90 minutes duration and so decided to turn around and head back the way we came.

Further study of the map revealed that the comeback point on the loop we could have taken is the same trail intersection that we passed, from a different direction, on a hike last month (about which, for a change, I did not blog; for photographs, however, see October 7, 2012).  I was reminded that everything, potentially, connects to everything else.  (And I wonder, for instance, whether this section of mine railbed connects to a similar section of the Appalachian Trail; see January 1, 2012.)  With today’s hike, I have filled in a gap in my mental map of the park.

On the walk back, the sun was in our faces and its warmth felt good (even if it was also blinding).  There is a quality to the light at this time of year that always makes it feel later in the day than it actually is.  Even at its highest inclination, the sunlight remains oblique and thus heavily filtered by the atmosphere.  In the summer, this condition only occurs near sunrise and sunset but in winter, it lasts all day.  As a result, the look of early morning quickly transforms into the appearance of late afternoon.  It is a strange sensation to completely skip a time that feels like midday.

On the other hand, the low angle of the light is great for studying textures.  The shallow rays accentuate the smallest surface irregularities so that even tiny pebbles and diminutive tree roots cast shadows that drape across the full width of the trail.