Wednesday, August 31, 2011


After of mid-day visit to the Bidwell Mansion in Chico, Patty, Roxy and I headed thirty miles west for a short hike and possible swim at Woodson Bridge State Recreation Area, located halfway between Chico and Red Bluff. For anyone with a burning desire to see this park, you need to go this weekend (Labor Day) as it closes September 6!!!

On this day there was no ranger at the entrance, no brochures to be had. We left our day use fee in an envelope and drove into the park, looking for the nature trail and river access. It was hot. A swim wood be nice! Woodson Bridge SRA's 428 acres lie on both sides of the Sacramento River. The east bank is primarily a campground, offering an environment "close to nature." Oddly, there were manicured lawns being watered. A camp host was situated next to the public restrooms. On the day we visited, only two of the forty-six campsites were occupied.

The west bank is undeveloped and is on the main flyway between Mexico and Canada, so it is an excellent place for bird-watchers. Quail, owls, hawks, falcon, pheasant and songbirds reside in this riparian habitat. In winter it is a nesting site for Bald Eagles, in summer for the elusive Yellow Billed Cuckoo.

I parked the car near the river, looking for a trail down to the water. None was apparent. A path that paralleled the river was private property.
We found a portion of the Nature Trail. Blackberry vines were beginning to creep across the pathway. A dozen or so small numbered, wooden signs were apparently once markers for specific plant or animal life, but have now faded away.
Over one hundred plant species have been identified throughout the park; the most prominent is the large valley oak. The California black walnut, Oregon ash, black cottonwood, sycamore, and willow are also plentiful. There are seasonal wildflowers. Our mid-August visit found smatterings of pink Belladonnas (sometimes called Naked Ladies.) We munched on not quite ripe, mouth puckering blackberries, whose vines are either encroaching on or have already taken over pathways.

But the most striking plant of all was the California Wild Grapevine! It took me by surprise I must say. It was everywhere, appearing to be choking out the rest of the plantlife. But in fact, it provides an important food source for a variety of wild animals, especially birds, and the foliage provides thick cover. It is native to most of California. It is a deciduous vine which can grow to over 30 feet in length and is common along the banks of the Sacramento River. I've had personal experience with blackberries taking over my yard, and wisteria creeping into my house, and was initially concerned that this wild grapevine was destroying this lush habitat. But supposedly it's not. Nonetheless, where the plant is not native, or if it is planted
and allowed to thrive in small domestic gardens, it can take down large trees and has the capacity to become a noxious weed. Ooh Ooh I heard it through the grapevine...

Still hoping to find a way to the river for a swim, we were pleased to see a sign that said "beach access." We followed the narrow trail for a few hundred feet to find it not only closed, but hugely overgrown. Prickly, stinging plants covered the path knee-deep. In my lifetime I have been known to occasionally ignore warnings, but the additional signpost about rattlesnakes on the beach trail quickly halted any thoughts I may have had about marching through the stickers. Patty, Roxy and I made our way back to the car, hoping the rattlers would honor the sign and stay where it says there are.

We drove across the street and entered the 14 acre Tehama County River Park. Here we were finally able to dip our feet into the Sacramento River. The county park offers swimming, boat ramps, inner-tubing, hiking and picnic areas, but is strictly a day use facility. No camping.

Tehama County Park is where we found the "new" Woodson Bridge (which replaced the historic bridge that was there from 1920 - 1974), as well as historic markers and plaques commemorating the old bridge. We toyed with crossing the new bridge on foot, but traffic was heavy, there were no sidewalks, and we were hot and tired.

As we left the area, I found myself making peace with the closure of this particular park. True, when the gate goes up next week, the campsite will be closed. But attendance was low. The recreations once provided by this state recreation area are now primarily offered at the Tehama County Park, across the highway.

Yet, with the State of California still maintaining ownership of this luscious riparian habitat, the animal and plant life will continue to survive and thrive. So until such time (soon I hope) that California can keep all of it's parks open, my soul is happy that the land will still remain wild, free of fancy tourist resorts, and that the eagles, cuckoos and all of the other birds on the flyway can stop, rest, and ... munch on a few wild grapes. Take care, Woodson Bridge... until we meet again.

In the meantime, I hope to see you at the parks.


Thursday, August 25, 2011


It's pink! The Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park in Chico is pink! It's a beautiful, three-story, 12,000 square foot, 26 room Victorian House that stands as a memorial to John and Annie Bidwell. The overall style of the three-story brick structure is that of an Italian Villa, and cost around $60,000 at the time of construction. The exterior is finished with a pink tinted plaster.

In case you can't tell, it took me a few minutes to recover from it's pinkness. I guess pink houses and early California settlers have not gone hand in hand in my brain until now! My Mom would have loved it!

Wednesday, August 17, my friend Patty and I, along with my foster dog Roxy, set out for a six day road trip with the goal of visiting nine northern California state parks on the closure list. We left Placerville at 10:00am and headed to the Bidwell Mansion for our first stop. With tours on the hour, we had enough time to lug our ice chest and a blanket onto the front lawn near the pink gazebo and the Monkey Puzzle Tree, and enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade among the squirrels, woodpeckers and scrub jays.

Bidwell led one of the first wagon trains to California and founded the town of Chico, naming streets after trees that spell the town's name (Chestnut, Hazel, Ivy, Cherry, & Orange). Over the years he was many things - a pioneer, soldier, statesman, politician, philanthropist - but his first and foremost passion was always farming. His discovery of gold in the Feather River enabled him to purchase over 30,000 acres by 1850. In addition to his cherry orchard, he grew wheat which he ground at his own mill and baked his "up to the minute biscuits" on the same day. He developed varieties of almonds and olives, produced California's first raisin crop and aided in the development of the casaba melon. Novelty trees dot the mansion grounds including the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Gingko Biloba and Southern Magnolia. I found myself viewing him as kind of a farm nerd. Until his death in 1900, he continued to build his agricultural showcase.

I was pleased to see that there were about 20 of us for the 1:00pm tour. Once inside, the pinks of the exterior gave way to warm golds and browns. Our guide, Blair, asked us to refrain from touching anything inside and guaranteed us that in the first room someone would be caught leaning against the table. The first room is John Bidwell's office off to the left. I clumsily bumped into an end table, and saw Blair chuckle as I reprimanded myself for touching an artifact. And then as predicted, he asked one of the other tourists not to lean against the table! A portrait of General Sherman hangs over Bidwell's desk. Although good friends with the Bidwells - including attending their wedding in Washington DC - he only ever spent one night at the mansion. Mrs. Bidwell did not permit smoking, drinking or swearing in her home, so General Sherman spent most of his Chico visits at a nearby hotel.

Across the hall from the office is the living room. The original grand piano - a wedding gift from John to his beloved Annie - is still played. Blair invited anyone who knew how to play the piano to do so. One lady offered up a butchered version of Chopsticks. Then Patty pointed to me. A hymnal sat on the piano so I opened it at random and played a song that turned out to have the same melody as America the Beautiful. After a round of applause and an awkward bow on my part, the tour continued.

In addition to the piano, some of the chairs and other furnishings are original, but many of the pieces were bought long ago by private parties. So, as with the Stanford Mansion, the rest has been replicated as closely as possible from old photographs. I was curious if the American Flag drapery was a recent addition, but in fact the Bidwells hung such drapes for holidays and other festive occasions.

Side by side dining rooms were on either side of the hall. I chuckled, imagining dinner conversations with the likes of John Muir, Susan B. Anthony and Presidents Hayes and Grant, especially if they were all at the table at the same time. The Bidwells were long time proponents of both women's suffrage and prohibition. I suspect the table talk was quite lively at times. I found the openness of the rooms and lack of clutter refreshing. While the furnishings were of high quality, the mansion did not scream "look at me, I have money!" Art work was minimal, and much of what there was were gifts from friends. Instead, John Bidwell chose to install indoor plumbing, gas lighting and water systems. Every bedroom had a sink with running water. I found his pragmatism appealing.

Occasionally an item was found lying around the mansion that was not actually a part of the decor. So, I assumed the cheesy fake palm trees on the stair platforms must be from some recent private event. But in fact, they are part of the original furnishings. Our guide likened it to decor from the 1970s... fads that are now considered tacky but seemed fun at the time.

The second floor holds the master bedroom as well as several guest rooms. The third floor was originally to be a ballroom. John Bidwell built the mansion before meeting his beloved wife. Annie was deeply religious and a devout Presbyterian. Dancing was strictly forbidden. So it was converted Into space for the children of their guests. The Bidwells had no children of their own.

In 1880 the Bidwells donated eight acres of their cherry orchard for a teachers' college, originally called Chico State Normal School. Mrs. Bidwell - surviving her husband - willed her home to her church to be used as a school, but the Presbyterian Church was unable to fund it. The Normal School (now Chico State University) bought it for a dormitory.

The ever lively Chico college students had fun with the bell system set up for the servants, and enjoyed sliding down the banisters. Eventually the house was converted to classrooms and administrative offices - and finally - the polished wooden dance floor on the third story was used for its intended purpose with dance classes.

Before exiting the mansion to stroll the rest of the grounds - including the pink carriage house - we talked with Blair about the park closure. At this writing, the mansion will be closed July 1, 2012, with actual closure to the public a month or two prior to that in order to pack up the furnishings and ship them to a temperature controlled warehouse in Sacramento. Letter writing campaigns, meetings and hopes for fund raising and/or partnerships with non-profits are being looked into, but nothing is in place yet. Like many of California's historic sites, thousands of fourth graders studying California history parade through the mansion annually. Once again it is believed by some that to close the Bidwell Mansion will actually cost more in lost tax revenues than its actual operating expenses.

Reduced hours will commence sometime in autumn, as Chico prepares for the place that was the center of social activity for decades, to close. If you're in the area be sure to visit, but as with any of the State Parks, call first as the hours for many of them are in flux.

I hope to see you at the parks.


Friday, August 19, 2011


When I first viewed the list of the 70 State Parks scheduled for closure, my biggest surprise was seeing Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve on the list. Is it possible that after decades of effort to save California's second largest lake, that we may lose it to budget cuts to save $111,000? The Mono Lake Basin is a partnership between the California State Parks, the National Parks and the National Forest Service. So, finding out what part is affected by the state closure is a tricky business.

To the best of my knowledge, the state park preserves the spectacular tufa towers. It also protects the lake surface itself as well as the wetlands that provide habitat for between one and two million birds that feed and rest at Mono Lake annually. 80% of all California Seagulls are hatched at Mono Lake, feeding on the millions of alkali flies that rest on the surface of the water.
Articles by both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mono Lake Committee estimate savings obtained by closing this park to be anywhere from $111,000 to... ZERO!

I have long wanted to explore this lake, so I indulged myself with an overnight trip and a 3 hour kayak tour with a local naturalist. I arrived in the tiny hamlet of Lee Vining mid afternoon. I stopped at the very large visitor center (which is run by the National Park Service, not the state, so it will be staying open) and gathered some information from the rangers. It was suggested that I might enjoy hiking around the rim of Panum Crater, which would also give me a slightly different view for photographing the lake and tufas.

Panum Crater is on the south side of the lake and is one of the youngest volcanos in the area, about 700 years old. A hike on the barren, sand & gravel trail around the rim takes about an hour and offers aerial views of both the inside of the crater and the South Tufa area.

When it came to taking photos I felt the same as when I was at the Grand Canyon. You know that hundreds of thousands have come before you and taken the same shots you're taking, but you've just got to do it! 300+ camera clicks later and I was a happy camper.

After Panum Crater I drove another couple of miles to South Tufa Park. This is where the most spectacular of the tufa formations are. If the State Park Closes, this will not affect South Tufa Park. But, it will eliminate the wide variety of guided tours offered. Our guide, Oliver, lead us on a 90 minute excursion. The path down to the water is wheelchair accessible.

Oliver described the primary vegetation on the south shore: sage, rabbit brush and greasewood being the primary plant life that thrives in the harsh soil around the lake. Paintbrush plants and a yellow lily like flower called Blazing Star add occasional color to the landscape.

Our tour brought us right up to the tufas on land and had us slogging through puddles filled with thousands of alkali flies. Small natural hot springs dot the marshier parts of the lakelands, some still in use.

Our guide flagged questions from the adults, engaged the kids, and assisted the photographers. To see the tiny, 1/4 inch long brine shrimp, just dip a cup into the water to come up with half a dozen. As with all lakes that are high in salinity, the 65 square mile Mono Lake has no outlet. Throughout its long existence, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Eastern Sierra streams, but nothing flows out. It is about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean and very alkaline.

The lake is, of course, most famous for her tufa formations, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. This is the only place in the world where this occurs. Approaching them on land – and especially on water – felt like I was entering some weird combination of a sci-fi landscape and a Disneyland ride. A naturalist demonstrated how easily tufa are formed in Mono Lake by taking a jar of water, adding calcium and carbonate, and then pouring the contents into the lake. Within moments we could see small bits of tufa forming. Tufa are only formed underwater.

Sunday morning I took a three hour kayak tour with Caldera Kayaks. Our guide Stuart offered some excellent information about the ecology, environment and history of Mono Lake. When we stopped on shore for a break, he even read to us from Mark Twain's opinion of Mono Lake! We paddled up to Rush Creek, one of the lake's feeder streams. Where the fresh water combines with the salt, the fresh water sits several inches above the saline water and creates an interesting lens. Our kayak tour was skillfully led back to shore just as the afternoon winds began to kick up, so we only had to power paddle for about five minutes. Caldera Kayaks and other commercial boating groups will no longer be able to operate on the lake once the State Park closes.

I visited the Mono Lake Book Store, viewed a film on the history of the lake and signed a petition to keep the park open. The residents of the Eastern Sierras are determined to save their lake, and have a long history of doing so. Anyone living in Northern California from the late 70s on has seen the ever present "SAVE MONO LAKE" bumper stickers.

Mono Lake's existence is a modern environmental success story. It was saved, in dramatic fashion, by an unlikely coalition of trout fishermen, environmentalists and water-rights lawyers. Today, it’s recovering from 50 years of abuse. In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting all of the lakes feeder streams for the city's drinking water. By the 1970s, the lake water level was reduced to half, thus increasing the salinity so that none of shrimp, flies, or birds that depended on the lake could survive. After years of legal wrangling, in 1994 a compromise was reached and half of the feeder streams were returned to the lake. The lake continues to recover, and in the meantime, Los Angeles has become one of the leading cities in water conservation! The photo of the long walkway is taken from the spot where the lake level was when water diversion began in 1941.

Now it’s one of 70 state parks being shuttered in hopes of saving $22 million. Mono Lake's boosters say closing the park won‘t save the state a dime, but rather will derail volunteer programs that have allowed the park to operate for years at minimal cost to the state.

About 250,000 people visit the park each year. A couple of years ago, budget cuts took away the park’s only state ranger. Now, a ranger from the state park of Bodie 20 miles away occasionally drops in on Mono Lake. The closure will sideline the interpretative programs, kayak tours and other activities that have been paid for by private donations and staffed by volunteers.
The committee is organizing a letter-writing campaign and exploring how to get off the "closure list." Closures are set for July, 2012, and the state is seeking partners who could operate parks that would otherwise be shut down.

Finally, before heading home, I stopped at the county park on the north end of the lake. This is where the official State Reserve is and therefore another area that will be shut down with state closure. There is a lovely, grassy picnic area, a wetlands, more tufa and a long planked walk way to the lake that is wheelchair accessible.

If nothing else, my tour guides wanted me to take away one thing. Mono Lake is a living lake, and not California's "Dead Sea." Oh yes, and it's pronounced Mo-No... the O is long. It is not pronounced like the kissing disease. The word Mono means "fly eater." The Paiute Indians traded the alkali fly eggs from the lake as a delicacy with their Yosemite neighbors.


Hope to see you at the parks.