Thursday, July 10, 2008


Spring Shadows and Green return to the Onofreo Firezone
The stream, beach, and ocean are in the distance.
PHOTO: by/COPYRIGHT Ross Care
When we came back south from the Solvang/Buellton area the temperature must have dropped about ten degrees on the other side of the tunnel. The tunnel passes through a huge and rugged formation, virtually a mini-range of red rock mountains, which serves as a barrier between the sunny clear (hot) inland, and the (sometimes) gray (cool) foggy coast.

(It might be noted that the temperature hit a high of 126 in Death Valley this week, and wildfires are raging north of Sacramento).

As a weather/climatic barrier this sudden elevation of rock works extremely well because the coastal region around Gaviota was still remarkably cool and blanketed in fog while it was sunny and intensely hot in Solvang.

In spite of the fog we did spend some time on a favorite secluded beach, San Onofreo, to which there are two coastal accesses between Gaviota State Park and the Refugio State Beach to the south.

Neither one is what you’d call easy access. From the northern parking area, called Vista del Mar or something like that, you hike across the top of the bluffs and face a precipitous descent that is more like going down into a crevasse than a trail.

The southern access is less rigorous. From a parking area along the railroad tracks a sloping trail descends to the beach down a moderate slope. The trail once passed through a thick tangle of chaparral, but that was all burned away in a wildfire that crossed the freeway and burned to the sea last year.

For a while this was a blackened nether land of ash and charred trees but after spring rains it quickly came back to life and was ablaze with dazzling yellow mustard instead of fire. By July the mustard has dried into a combustible mass of ochre yellow but other growth continues.

It has been an interesting experience to see the area come back to life. Unfortunately for native plant enthusiasts much of the new growth is by invasive species. Among these castor beans, summer mustard, sweet fennel, jimsonweed, and a variety of thistles are the most fecund and aggressive.

By now these species are to be found everywhere along the coast. Some are quite decorative. Fennel adds welcome touches of feathery green to the arid summer landscape (but seeds like mad). The blossoms of the jimsonweed are beautiful but, like the entire plant, deadly (enough to kill cattle and sheep that have grazed upon it. The seeds are said to be a powerful but also toxic hallucinogen).

With all these invaders California natives face much competition for soil and space but some are making a comeback here as well. The stand of California sycamores seems dead and charred at first glance but new growth is sprouting profusely from the base of the trunks. (See photo). Chaparral and California sagebrush also seem to be gradually recovering and some California poppies dotted the ashen soil in the spring.

Before hitting the beach the trail passes along a stream. It flows between the chaparral and the steep hills that ascend to the bluffs that line this secluded coast for miles. It was a cool green riparian oasis but the fire also passed over the woods of sycamore and oak that line its banks.

Just before emptying into the Pacific there was a small oasis that was one of the most magical places I’ve ever seen in nature.
Blooming nasturtiums literally climbed into the trees, other flowers lined the banks, and the stream itself formed a small pond that was clear and tranquil and a home of tadpoles in the spring and early summer. After the small pond it burbled on over the rocks and into the ocean surf.

In fact, this was one of the places that were a decisive factor in my decision to move to California over ten years ago.

But like all coastal environments this bower undergoes constant change, not the least of which was last year’s wildfire.

But yesterday as I moved onto the beach and passed the clear waters of the pond I noticed plumb tadpoles resting on the underwater rocks and a sprig of late nasturtiums dangling over the back.

Change, sometime radical, is a part of nature, especially on the rugged, sometime inhospitable California coast.
But so is regeneration.

On to the beach……

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