Saturday, December 31, 2011


Six months into my State Park trips I finally made it to one of the State Beaches on the closure list. Morro Strand State Beach is a mile and a half stretch of pristine, swimming and surfing beach, with the south end of the beach ending at the iconic Morro Rock.

The beach can’t actually be
closed of course, especially since there is another non-state park entrance at Morro Rock. The affects of closure at this beach will be the shutdown of the campground, the elimination of ranger services, restrooms and trash cans. People will still have access to the beach. The concerns are – as usual – vandalism, garbage, drug use and fire.

At a recent town hall meeting in Nevada City about the closure of South Yuba River, the question was posed, “Without Park Services, how long do you think it would take before `South Yuba becomes an undesirable place to take your family?” A member of the audience shouted out, “One weekend.” Sadly, this is probably true.

Roxy and I strolled through the campground and chatted briefly with the camp host. He relayed stories he’d heard of a State Park that had recently closed up in my neck of the woods, and that the results were disastrous. I wonder which park he was referring to. Although the campground was sparsely populated on this gorgeous holiday week, he assured me that in the summertime it was always full. I have no doubts that is true. This stretch of beach is gorgeous.

As with many patches of central coast beaches, the habitat includes nesting grounds for the endangered shorebird, the snowy plover. Thus, dogs are not allowed on this stretch of beach. The path down to the water was postered with children’s drawings urging the public to “save the snowy plover.”

Wintering birds were a-plenty today. Black Brants (small geese from Northern Canada) munched on shrubbery while Curlews stuck their long bills into the sand looking for food. There was the usual variety of gulls (many of which were hatched at Mono Lake,) terns, grebes and of course the Snowy Plovers darting in and out of the foliage, quickly sprinting across the sand.

The grand focal point at this beach is course, Morro Rock. The roundtrip walk to “the rock” and back is 3.2 miles. The sand was wet and packed hard and flat, so the walking was easy. The beach was exceptionally clean, not just of trash, but also of shells, seaweed, driftwood and other ocean generated spew.

When explorer Juan Cabrillo first saw Morro Rock back in 1542, it was a much greater, rounded dome than the slim rock we see today. It was also an island, located about 1,000 feet offshore. In the late 1800s, harbor builders expanded Morro Bay’s entrance. Sand shoals piled up between the rock and the beach, creating what geographers call a tombolo, a sand split that connects and island to the mainland.

Although the sun was out, the temperature was only around sixty degrees, and the breeze was cool. This, however, did not keep away a few dedicated and/or youthful belly boarders, surfers and wind surfers. That would have been me as a kid. It was never too cold to go swimming. The last quarter mile of the beach – right at “the rock” – allows dogs if you enter from the town of Morro Bay. I guess the Snowy Plovers have no habitat in that little stretch. Two energetic canines gleefully chased their “kids” through the surf.

Directly across from the rock is the Morro Bay Power Plant, drawing almost as much visual attention as the rock itself. The hillsides beyond the beachfront have several clumps of houses. Whenever I see hillside villages like these, it always reminds me of ancient Greece, or other Mediterranean hillside habitats. My mind wandered, as I wondered if in another 1,000 years, humankind will be curiously digging the rubble of these hillside homes, searching for clues of how life was lived in 21st century California.

The Central Coast Natural History Association provides park programs, lectures and school tours. I was one day late for a talk on Peregrine Falcons. Rats!

I returned from my walk and shared a snack with Roxy. We then hopped into the car and drove to the beach entrance by the rock, where Roxy was allowed to run and play while we watched the sunset,. Both Venus and a crescent moon hovered directly over Morro Rock, giving us a sparkling view to end our day. And then, on to our next adventure.

Hope to see you at the parks.


Thursday, December 15, 2011


Curved pathways and double doors were built at the Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park with the belief that they would confuse the evil spirits and keep them out of the Taoist Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds. We can only hope this methodology works and that the dark forces that would have this Joss House closed can be kept at bay.

The Weaverville Joss House is located in the town of Weaverville, fifty miles west of Redding, right on Highway 299. They are currently open two days per week - Thursdays and Saturdays - sharing some of the park services with Shasta State Historic Park down the road.

Prior to California's gold rush, the Native Wintu people had occupied the local lands for about 4,000 years. With the arrival of thousands of fortune seekers, their indigenous ways were forever changed. In addition to the "gold fever bug," the new residents brought with them many diseases to which the original people had no immunity, decimating three quarters of them. Today Wintu descendants are reviving their languages, crafts and traditions.

In addition to Americans and Europeans flocking to the gold fields, a large number of the miners were from China, particularly from the economically challenged southern province of Guangdong. Hard working, many were able to send their earnings back to their families in China. Sadly, many others were unable to survive the new, harsh environment and went to early, unmarked graves. Still others chose to open small businesses such as grocery stores, barbershops, bakeries and restaurants. Weaverville had an opera house and puppet theatre to accommodate traveling troupes of Chinese entertainers.

Patty and I visited in August. Yellow yarrow in full bloom lined the parking lot. The Visitor Center/Museum was straight ahead, displaying Lion Dancer costumes, historical charts and artifacts. Our ticket from our earlier visit to Shasta SHP also entitled us to entry at the Joss House.

Tours were on the hour and as with many historic sites, we were only allowed into the building with a guide. An ornate red bridge crosses a creek to the temple, with lush plant life, carvings and statuary along the way.

The first temple on this site was built in 1853 and burned down in 1861. Local Chinese resi-dents built a second temple which was once again swept away by flames in 1873, as was the entire town in this heavily forested part of the state. The temple was once again rebuilt in 1874. This time, sitting atop the roof of the temple, are two Chow Win Dragon Fish,
believed to keep wooden struc-tures safe from fire. It would seem these fish have been adequately doing their job for the past 137 years. I myself live in an area where forest fires are the most common natural hazard, and thought perhaps I would like to get a couple of these for my roof.

Our tour guide, Paula, led a half dozen of us to the gates of the temple. The blue color on the front of the building represents the sky, the symbol of Heaven, with white lines resembling tile work of similar temples in China, and now giving it a "blue brick" appearance. Ornate Chinese lettering and paintings decorate the outside of the temple. A double screen door serves as a final barrier to any evil spirits who may have managed to navigate the curvy pathway. It was believed that evil spirits were unable to travel over barriers or around corners. So far, so good.

By 1880 the population of Trinity County had decreased to less than 2000. As gold dwindled, many left to work on the railroads. By 1931 only sixteen Chinese residents were left in Weaverville. The Joss House was robbed of many of it's furnishings. The abandoned dwelling seemed unable to keep the evil spirits away.

Weaverville resident Moon Lim Lee was appointed trustee of the Joss House in 1938, and many of the pilfered items were recovered. For the next twenty years he promoted the temple as a jewel that should be preserved for all Californians. The deities - no doubt happy to have their domain restored - were perhaps instrumental in the Joss House becoming a State Park in 1956. Now, as we entered the temple, we were honored to view the treasures of Mr. Lee's tireless efforts.

Inside is a magnificent, colorful display. Three ornately carved spirit houses hold clay statues of male and female deities. Bright red banners hang from the ceiling. An altar table holds candles, incense, wine cups, stone urns and many other ceremonial artifacts. The side walls of the temple store banners, drums and gongs that are used on Chinese New Year and other celebratory occasions.

Prior to visiting the Joss House, I had read that it is still an active temple. Taoist ceremonies are still presented. “To us, the Joss House represents a direct link back to our honored ancestors” says Rev. Jefferson Lee, chief priest of San Francisco’s Ching Chung Taoist Association.

One of the docents remarked that a local resident - upon hearing that the Joss House was on the State Park closure list - wondered, "How can they close my church?" I instantly replied, "All the more reason to keep church and state separate." And as I said these words, I wondered how in fact that all worked in this situation. I am exploring some of that history now, and hope to have more information when I write about Mission Santa Cruz in a couple of weeks.

A sparsely furnished living quarters for the temple attendant is attached to the Joss House. Relatives of Weaverville's nineteenth century residents who were living in China were nonetheless obligated to financially support the temple. On the walls are hundreds of crumbling red papers with the names of contributors and the amount of their "donation."

Back at the museum I chatted with park workers about the closure list. As at all of the parks I’ve visited, there is concern and dismay about the situation, but it is usually accompanied by hope and a positive attitude. I was sensing something a little different here. Agitation? Anger?

Some suggest that the parks should be privatized. I personally am opposed to this idea, although it would not be the end of the world if it occurred. There are, however, laws in place preventing this. Today one of the park workers expressed support for commercialization and how they would love for the Joss House to be the first to have vending machines or other products. Well, we’re all entitled to our opinions.

What I heard next did not set well with me at all. It was suggested that the Joss House go to the Chinese Embassy and request a large donation. Not only would that keep the temple open, but it would “embarrass the State of California.”

Wow! Really?

My hackles were raised. China support the Joss House? China doesn’t even support temples in their own land. In Tibet alone, the majority of temples and monasteries have been destroyed in the last fifty years. And while religion in general has begun to creep back into Chinese culture, it must often be done privately and behind closed doors. To my mind it would seem the only reason China would want to support California’s temple would be to embarrass us.

Citing a “precedent”, I was informed that recently Fort Ross SHP and it’s Russian legacy received a million dollars when they went to the Russian Embassy and warned of their possible closure. My research found this to be not completely accurate. It is true that a very complicated and detailed arrangement was worked out with Governor Schwarzenegger, Park Administrator Ruth Coleman, and the Parks Department maintaining jurisdiction over Ft. Ross with the Renova Group, a Russian asset management corporation that is currently being investigated in Switzerland for criminal activities with one conviction already handed down. Can evil spirits take the form of hostility and half truths?

Since my visit, the supporting non-profit Weaverville Joss House Association has launched a campaign with the support of the park, volunteers and local politicians, to raise the $250,000 needed by May 2012 to keep the park open.

Guan Gong, one of the presiding deities at the Joss House, has a “world-awakening prayer” that curses for those who cheat the gods. But, this same prayer offers “prosperity and longevity to those who respect Heaven and Earth, and are kind to your neighbors and amass merit through anonymous good deeds.” Perhaps this would be the best route to keep the evil spirits away.

I hope to see you at the parks.


Saturday, December 10, 2011


It was a typical overcast day when Patty and I visited Fort Humboldt State Historic Park in the Northern California town of Eureka. Sitting on a bluff overlooking the rugged Humboldt Bay, (California's second largest bay port,) Fort Humboldt is two parks in one, a historic fort, and a logging and railroad museum .

The original fort was estab-lished in 1853 to assist in conflict resolution between Native Americans and the increasing number of gold miners flooding into the area.

We visited the Railroad portion first. It was August Steam-Up Day at the park and free train rides were being given by the volunteers. Ft. Humboldt's two small operating gypsy loco-motives are the only remaining examples of locomotives manufactured by Marshutz and Cantrell. We hopped aboard and were taken for a short ride, fifty yards at the most. But the crew was jolly and the riders were having a genuinely enjoyable time.

When the gold rush went bust, logging and timber became the primary industry in Humboldt County. The non-profit organization The Timber Heritage Association (THA) has been collecting artifacts for the logging exhibit and working to preserve the local logging history since 1977.

The most notable of these artifacts is the steam donkey. Invented in 1881 by John Dolbeer, a founding partner in the Dolbeer and Carson Lumber Company in Eureka, the steam donkey got it's name from "donkey" engines used in sailing ships to load and unload cargo.

In the simplest setting, a line-horse carried a cable to the felled timber. The cable was attached to the log and on signal, the steam donkey's engi-neer would open the regulator, allowing the steam donkey to drag the log towards it. It was then taken either to a mill or to a landing where the log would be shipped by rail or river. If a donkey was to be moved, one of its cables was attached to a tree, stump or other strong anchor, and the machine would drag itself overland to the next yarding location.

There was to have been a steam donkey demonstration at the park today, but it didn't happen due to a mixup with volunteers. Nontheless there was plenty of interesting equipment and logs to view before heading over to the abandoned fort. One of the THA's concerns about the state park budget cutbacks is the lack of funds for proper maintenance for many of the already deteriorating museum pieces.

I won't deny that my "inner tree-hugger" didn't gasp at some of the early photos of the downed majestic, old-growth giants. But, my own little house was built in 1945 with redwood. I won't even pretend that I have any ideas as to acheiving some sort of balance between homes, jobs and the environment. I hope someone smarter than me figures it out though, and leaves us with some old-growth forests for posterity.

The hospital is the only remaining structure from the original fourteen buildings at the Fort. For some time is has been a historical museum dedicated to telling the story of the Fort and the Native American groups, including the Wiyot, Hoopa and Yurok of this region. In the 1980's the Surgeon’s Quarters was reconstructed and there are plans for its establishment as a period house museum. In 2001 an historic herb and vegetable garden was recreated adjacent to the Hospital.

Unfortunately, the hospital museum was damaged extensively by an earthquake in January 2010. Signs on the building indicated closure for an indefinite period.

Peering through the windows we could see much plaster and debris from the earthquake.

Behind the building a piece of chimney lay on the ground. A ladder lying on the roof seemed to indicate that some repair had been attempted, but the amount of moss growing on the ladder lead us to believe it had been awhile since any efforts had been made. No doubt with the park on the closure list, there is hesitation to continue with repair.

The remainder of the park was an open field with an empty flagpole. Signposts marked the sites where buildings once stood, although some of the signposts had deteriorated to a point of illegibility.

The most notable of Fort Humboldt's occupants was the young General Ulysses S. Grant. After being decorated for bravery in the Mexican-American war, he was posted to Fort Humboldt for about five months in 1854. He found his post at the fort boring and isolating and felt his Army career was going nowhere. The Fort Commander was his bitter rival Lt. Col. Robert Buchannon. Buchannon accused Grant of being drunk on duty, contributing to the myth of Grant as a hard-drinking man. Grant was forced to either resign his post or be court martialed. He returned to his home in Missouri to farm until the Civil War returned him to his military status in 1861. Fort Humboldt was formally abandoned in 1870 and rapidly fell into decay.

A park worker in a golf cart buzzed by us to remind us that she would be locking the gate promptly in 30 minutes and that we'd best prepare to leave unless we wanted to spend the night.

At this writing the Fort Humboldt website states it is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm. However the phone number listed is no longer "monitored" as the answering machine says, I hope the information is up to date. There is much work needed at both the historic logging/train museum and the old Fort. I'm glad I made it up there for a visit before it closes.

Hope to see you at the parks.