Monday, July 1, 2013

Tracks at the End of the Road

To find a raccoon, be a raccoon 
"We could go to the end of the road," I prompted Naiad, trying to keep her moving and distracted. "This is an old stage coach road. It probably went back to lumber mills and then the Shriner's camp before it became a state park." Now, I explained, the old road ends at a remote location on the Dipper Ranch where a steep ravine has been washing out crossings and culverts for a long time. "Maybe a hundred years!" I claimed to make the dirt road sound exciting.

Recently Mr. B, one of our co-workers, got a fisheries grant to pull all the loose sediment out of the failed crossing and restore the creek banks to natural conditions.  I offered to show Naiad the erosion control project and how well it had stood up to the past winter's storms. "Hardly anyone goes back here anymore," I added. "At least not people."

I led her farther back into the forest with stories about grizzly bear bones, a smashed Studebaker, and other local legends. We were checking the wildlife cameras for the first time in weeks. It's not easy to find people who will walk miles on hilly terrain with me, and ever since mountain lions started showing up on the cameras, I've promised to not travel back there alone. So I have been coaxing family and friends to go hiking with me by showing them photos from the wildlife cameras and interpreting them with wildly speculative stories.

Where's that track app?  Oh wait, I don't have one.
Anyone have a good recommendation for a smartphone app for tracking? 
The story-telling started earlier that day when I dragged Naiad to the firemen's pancake breakfast. With a little bit of coffee and bacon, my neighbors were already comparing rattlesnakes, crooks and mountain lions they've recently and long ago encountered in these hills. I'm never sure what to believe, but the more I walk these hills, the more their stories line up. Sometimes when I am surveying plants in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I'm startled to find old signs of human occupation and it is a reminder that these lands keep on changing.

Three muddy raccoon tracks on a rock in a stream. 
We'd already checked most of the cameras by the silver barn whose foundation shows up on an 1894 USGS topographic map. Everything seemed quiet with the only new sign of predators being a large scat at a trail junction below the barn. There was just one more stretch of road I wanted to check for tracks and one more camera behind another gate and around a few more turns . . .  I was starting to run out of stories and we still had another half mile to go.

I assured Naiad that the mountain lions had probably moved on to another part of their territory. They were probably just passing through the Dipper Ranch earlier this spring on the way to some place more rugged and more mountain lion-y. Or not, she pointed out, since as a plant gal my interpretation of animal behavior could be all wrong.

Scrambling at the confluence of two streams.
Large boulders indicate these are flashy streams in the winter. 
Our last camera was at a bend before the end of the road. It was the Recon, our oldest camera with slow response and low resolution but always dependable. When we checked this area weeks ago, we saw very few tracks or other signs of wildlife even along the muddy banks of the creek. But I wanted to know if any animals were traveling this far back on the old road and if they were using the recently repaired banks to cross the ravine. So, just in case, I had set the trusty Recon there.

Cattle trigger the wildlife cameras. The cattle aren't supposed to be back here but the irresistible pull of an open road brought them wandering down a steep hill. 
I suggested Naiad walk the short distance to the scenic creek while I unlocked and downloaded the camera. "I've got 58 photos," the Recon signaled me, but since this was an old model I had no way to view the photos in the field. They're probably just photos of cows or ones we triggered while originally setting the camera, I thought as I waited for the slow Recon to go through its electronic mumbo-jumbo. "You better come see this," Naiad suddenly called. What was happening at the end of the road? I left the puttering Recon to join Naiad at the creek.

The long heel often doesn't show on a raccoon's fore print, but the horseshoe pattern below the toes is a good clue. 
This time, the creek banks were covered with many different types of tracks. Dark, long-fingered prints on rocks in the creek. The wet habitat and long digits were typical for a raccoon, but a raccoon's long heel was missing. Naiad crawled from rock to rock spotting the coon's route and showing how a heel might not make contact with their irregular surfaces. Above the confluence of two tributaries, deer tracks angled upstream in both directions. Petite prints under shallow water were probably a squirrel stopping for a drink.

Small track with long straight claws in front - my best guess is squirrel.
On the closest bank, there was a round and large track registered over a narrow oval track with nail marks. Although I could vaguely make out the toe-heel arrangement, these tracks were older and starting to fade. I was thinking "big feline on smaller canine" but didn't dare say it out loud.

At the side of a pool, a large round track (~ 3"x3") on top of an oval track with nail marks.
Sorry, Flycatcher, I keep losing the penny you gave me to show scale in track photos. 
"Why do you call this the Railroad Stream?" asked Naiad as we scrambled up and down the banks looking for animal sign.

"There used to be a rail track here."

"Way back here? Are you kidding? Why would there be a railroad in the middle of nowhere?"

"Mr. B found it when they were restoring the stream. No-one knew it was here. It might have been some type of jerry-rigged crossing while they were logging."

Multiple culverts pulled out of the creek. If you look carefully, you can see the contorted rail sticking out over the leftmost culvert and tangled near the center of the pile. 
As we explored underneath the large Douglas firs and alders, it was hard to imagine that once there may have been a major logging operation here, or at least, this corridor may have been used to haul out lumber from giant redwood trees felled farther down the canyon. While removing the damaged culverts for the erosion control project, Mr. B kept unburying older culverts, wooden posts, and just as they were about to reach bedrock, a narrow-gauge railroad track. Since they were only removing sediment and debris in the stream channel, they weren't sure if the tracks were just at the crossing, or if they continued into the canyon on the rest of the road which was now largely covered by landslides.

Probably mountain lion tracks. 
Several times during that construction season two summers ago, Mr. B told me they found mountain lion tracks in the soft construction dust in the morning. One day when we were walking into the site, he pointed out a line of tracks on the old stage coach road. The tracks were round, approximately 3" wide, had no nail marks, and the toes were arranged asymmetrically around the heel pad - they were probably tracks of a mountain lion. I asked him how he felt to have a mountain lion checking his construction site. "No complaints so far," he said, "so I guess we pass inspection."

Digging sediment and failed culverts out of the creek. 
Naiad and I were having a great afternoon, never expecting to find so many types of tracks at the end of the road. "Actually," I told her, "there is no end of the road." Whether you are on two feet or four feet, there's almost always a way to go around an obstacle. If the original trail is blocked, there is usually an alternate route. It may not go to the same place, but it still goes. You can also go back the way you came and the route back always looks different. And there are the roads that go backwards and forwards in time. Okay, so we aren't so great about time travel, but the history of a place is influencing your current experience even if you don't know it.

The restored stream with clear water,  pools and stable banks. 
Although we couldn't go back in time and fix the mistakes made at this place, the logging of ancient redwood forests, the clouding of steelhead spawning streams, we still had choices in our careers and personal lives to change our trajectory and those of people and places around us, at least in incremental ways. And then there would be the people who followed us and made subsequent changes and the future possibilities - well, that's when it gets really confusing and we decided to just focus on the steps and road right in front of us.  What was in front of us was an inspiring example of a damaged road turned back into a clear stream that attracted many types of wildlife.

At the end of the afternoon at the end of the road, we collected the memory card from the Recon camera and chose to go back the way we came to rejoin our families. Besides, that way was civilization where we could download the cameras' memory cards and see what wildlife had passed this way in the last few weeks. We were in for a surprise.

. . . to be continued soon as Tracks Upon Tracks.

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