Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Tracks Upon Tracks

A mountain lion journeys along the old stage coach road.
When Naiad and I returned to the house after our afternoon of tracking at the end of the road, we excitedly checked the memory cards from the wildlife cameras to see what "hits" we got over the last few weeks. Mostly cows, lots of cows. Cattle are irresistibly drawn to the ribbon of an open road.

The trusty old Recon camera, however, had a short series of very interesting photos taken three mornings earlier:

7:00 - young doe crossing old stagecoach road near Railroad Stream in westerly direction
7:19 - older doe crossing road in westerly direction, looking down road
7:31 - mountain lion crossing road in westerly direction
A few minutes later, two more photos:

7:40 - Cowboy V walking down road from the south
7:43 - Cowboy V going back on road the other direction

I am not showing these last two photos just to give Cowboy V a little privacy.

I remember that morning. I was outside in the yard when Cowboy V pulled up in his truck to say he was going to check the cattle in the lower pasture. I looked at the time - 7:00 am - much earlier than I usually see him. As he drove one mile down to Pasture 1, the wildlife must have heard his truck. Cowboy V had to get out of his truck and walk the last section because a big oak had fallen and blocked off the stagecoach road. Having reached the end of the road with no cattle present, he shortly turned around and returned to his truck. The mountain lion that passed that same location nine minutes earlier was probably quietly watching. And may have left the track on the edge of the creek for Naiad and I to find three days later.

Cattle at same spot on old stagecoach road later in the day.
The day after viewing the Nine-Minute-Lion photos, I saw Cowboy V at the corral. I showed him the deer-deer-lion-cowboy photos on my cellphone. He laughed and told the other cowboys that next time they were getting out of the truck.

Two bucks on the old stagecoach road a month later
What was it about this old stagecoach road that it's so well-traveled by animals? I checked back through the photos from various wildlife cameras we had set up at different locations along the road over the past 5 months. Who traveled on that road?  Cattle, ranger trucks, Zip the cowdog, more cattle, many deer and one bobcat. On 21 days of that 126-day period, we had at least one photo, sometimes more, of a mountain lion. Was this some kind of mountain lion highway? And that doesn't even figure in all the scrapes and scat we were finding on certain sections of the road.

A big-shouldered lion at another location on the old stagecoach road in March.
Just for the record, our camera trapping on the ranch was rather intense over that period of time.  Random Truth was training me on cam-trap techniques, occasionally providing his most-excellent quality cameras, and helping me interpret the photos and understand wildlife behavior. There's no way I could have stumbled on this on my own. And by the way, he's moved his cameras to some exotic location far away, so don't even think about trying to come and steal them, just go to his Nature of a Man blog and enjoy the photos because they're way better than any of us could ever hope to get anyway.

Big paws on the old stagecoach road in April. When he found this track, Random Truth was telling me about his friend  who leaps out of a trapdoor beneath a staged carcass to grab golden eagles by their legs for her research. I am always going to associate this location on the trail with crazy biologists.
I decided to do a little research on the history of the dirt road I knew as the stagecoach road, or Old Page Mill Trail. Fortunately, my neighbor Sheri Jansen-Olliges just published a book on the history of a small residential community downstream from the Dipper Ranch. I peeled open From Timber Barons to Tree Huggers: the Story of Middleton's Redwood Community and read the sections on William Page, his mills and roadbuilding in the late 1800's. It's a whirlwind intimate summary of regional history.

Deer on the old stagecoach road in May of the 21st century.
On a very hot day, I sat on the shaded porch of the Dipper Ranch, watched the parade of birds, deer, lizards and snakes visit the birdbaths, read and reread the early chapters and poured over the many maps and photos in her book. I was surrounded by modern-day lidar aerials and historical topo maps and in the distance I could see the outline of redwood trees along the north-south canyon of Peter's Creek.  "Who is Peter?" I wondered as I journeyed back a century and a half all the while feeling the pulse of water flowing in Peter's Creek along the boundary of the Dipper Ranch, through the roots of the few remaining giant redwood trees in Peter's Grove of Portola Redwoods State Park, and around the curve of the Middleton Tract.

The Navigator and his Wingman check out the old stagecoach road in June.
In 1868, William Page and his buddy investors built a road they called the Santa Cruz-Menlo Park Turnpike that went from the Mayfield area of present-day Palo Alto where Page operated a lumberyard business into the timberlands. The turnpike business failed but Page continued to develop the route as a means to haul timber by oxen from his mill in the redwoods (in the vicinity of today's Portola Redwoods State Park) to his lumberyard. Today, as I commute from the Dipper Ranch to my place of business, I travel along most of this route now known as Page Mill Road. West of the summit (what we now called Skyline Boulevard), the original road split into two: Upper Page Mill Road (what we now call Alpine Road west of Skyline Boulevard) and Lower Page Mill Road.

Lower Page Mill Road is memorialized as Old Page Mill Trail on the Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve leading south from Alpine Pond, past the Native American grinding rocks, and continuing approximately 2 miles until it ends at a tributary of Lambert Creek. At a sharp curve along this section of trail, I have been told there used to be a hotel and stagecoach stop, and today you can see broken dishes, and the vines of hops and cultivated grapes clambering up the large oak trees.

From the tributary crossing, the "turnpike" twisted across the future Kenyan, Monotti and Big Dipper Ranches until it reached the canyon of Peter's Creek and eventually rejoined Upper Page Mill Road near today's entrance to Portola Redwoods State Park. Of the two parts of the loop, Lower Page Mill Road had a more gradual ascent from the redwood forests along Peter's and Pescadero Creeks, so that was the direction the oxen teams hauled the loaded wagons to the lumberyard.

Naiad and I exploring the 145-year old road on two feet in May.
Did you get all that? It's a convoluted history on convoluted land. The main point is the old stagecoach road on the Dipper Ranch which we have been walking up and down, repairing creek washouts and capturing photos of mountain lions is 145 years old. And it could be older since there are records of a Native American trail from the general Alpine Road area to Pescadero on the coast.

My Middleton neighbors, Lori and Josh, join us on a June hike down the stagecoach road.
Last month I got to visit Peter's Creek in the Middleton Tract, and a few weeks ago, two of my Middleton neighbors walked the stagecoach road with me.  We had no idea we were walking on a road that links the history of our homes.

Peter's Creek at the Middleton Tract with one of the many people working to protect it.
The clues are fitting together like a giant transportation puzzle. Animals often follow human roads, so we check dirt roads for animals tracks and sign. And old roads may have originally been placed on top of animal trails since wildlife and humans are looking for some of the same things - water, trees, and less steep routes to cross rivers and mountains. We are just putting tracks upon tracks.

Ferny pools along a tributary of Peter's Creek - the Secret Place
Where the heck were these animals coming and going from on this old road? Were they just using it as a shortcut to another off-trail destination? Staring at maps, I suddenly remember the Secret Place - a ferny pool along a tributary that we discovered when beating our way along another abandoned road on the ranch. We rarely go back there because it so difficult to get through the poison oak, over fallen trees and around landslides. Maybe that pool is actually downstream on the tributary we have now started calling the Railroad Stream. I think it's time to go explore another end of the road and plumb the mysteries of the Secret Place. Who will go with me and what history will they bring that has connections to the past or the future?

Up Next: Let's take a break from history. Next up is the sharp-tailed snake.

Sheri Jansen-Olliges, From Timber Barons to Tree Huggers: the Story of Middleton's Redwood Community, 2012.

1 comment:

  1. Well researched and told (and interwoven). Those old roads on the Dipper are amazing. You really get a sense that they're from when (or before) people first moved into the SC Mtns. And thanks for the kudos - it was good fun taming lions with you.


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