Sunday, May 2, 2021

Navigating Out of the Pandemic Shell: April 2021

April got off to a somewhat ominous beginning when I was awakened on April 1 at 4:00 am by Syd growling downstairs. I found him growling at a very large raccoon who was standing on the other side of the sliding door. My appearance spooked the raccoon who shuttled off the porch and headed down the hill of our backyard. Syd followed along inside going from window to window until he was satisfied that the four-legged trespasser was long gone. The rest of our April nights were quiet although sleep doesn't always come easy to me. 

In April our daily lives moved toward a more normal level of activity. We celebrated Easter with my brother Leonard, his wife Kristin, and their youngest son Wesley (18 now). They came up from Antioch on Saturday evening so we could spend more time together on Sunday. What a joy to be able to do something as simple as having family visit and celebrate a holiday together again. They hadn't begun their vaccinations at that point but have since.

Syd gradually introduced himself to this part of the Clark family and made himself the center of attention. Pandora lived in our closet both days. Besides Kathy, their cat sitter, they haven't had interaction with other humans for more than a year.

We took a number of drives to enjoy spring wildflowers. After seeing a photographer friend post photos of California poppies, we headed to Jackson (Amador County) to see for ourselves. We found them but getting decent photos involved walking up a very steep driveway (the land was for sale and no gate) to get to the top of the hill. 

The view from the top

Several days later we bought tickets to the vintage Crest Theater in downtown Sacramento to see the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. We saw five absorbing movie shorts and spent 2-1/2 hours in the theater. Tickets were limited to the first 100 persons but there were only about 20 of us present and distanced on that Sunday afternoon. We began the day with brunch. Brunch and movies - that's definitely a bridge crossed. 

A couple of months ago I had two photographs in the Humor in Photography show sponsored by Yolo Arts and Viewpoint Gallery. As a result, I was invited to an Art and Ag Farm Visit to Hungry Hollow Olive Ranch in Capay. Capay is about 1-1/2 hours due west from where we live. It is almost to the coast range. With the Art and Ag Farm visits, artists are given the run of a participating farm two mornings a month. Dan came too and we enjoyed being in an area we've never before visited. 

The olive trees are still young but they were in bloom and stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Meadowlarks sang from the tops of the olive trees while we looked for interesting photographic subjects.

The colors were soft and there was a little moisture in the air that further softened the colors. 

We concluded our trip west with lunch at the Alamar Restaurant on the Sacramento River. When I was younger, stronger, and had a friend with a boat, I waterskied this part of the Sacramento River on many summer afternoons with a group of work friends. It was a nice memory.

Between our wildflower wanderings I did a few freelance photo jobs for our local paper the Mountain Democrat (the oldest paper in California). The first two were people events: the Fishing Derby for kids under 18 and an Earth Day Celebration. The last assignment was to photograph the glorious lupins blooming at Folsom Lake State Park with the caveat that I take some photos of people enjoying the lupins. We visited the park at Peninsula campground at the end of Rattlesnake Bar Rd on the day after a much anticipated "storm" that yielded a disappointing 1/10 of an inch of rain. Happily, the sky was filled with lots of fluffy clouds and we were the first to visit the lupins. We took photos. I took one of Dan enjoying the lupins just in case we never saw another person. We hiked and took more photos of lupins. When we finally returned to our car there were a handful of people in the lupins. I took their photos and got their names for the paper. None of the lupin peepers were local. A group of four were from San Francisco, and there were two women photographers one from Banff, Canada, and one from Arizona. Success and a memorable day of purple haze.

Folsom Lake is currently 64% of normal for this time of year when the lake is waiting for the snow melt to bring the level up. Unfortunately, our snow pack is about 45% of normal and this is our second drought year. The present lake level is about 1/3 of its capacity. The water is so low that from the normal beach one must walk about 200 feet to get to the water. The boat launches are high above the water level. Boats that do get into the water are restricted to 5 mph due to the lake's low level. While our water does not come from this lake, the western edge of El Dorado County does get some of their water from Folsom Lake. We are already having "red flag warning" days because of the dryness of the vegetation and high winds. 

Stranded driftwood at a former high water mark
Clumps of Lupin growing on the newly exposed shore below the boat launch

As a consolation, the lupins have carpeted much of the area that would/should be covered by water in a normal rainfall year.

One Saturday we enjoyed a lunch hosted by one of Dan's former co-workers. Also invited were several other lawyers whom Dan once worked with from the U.S. Attorney's office. We were all fully vaccinated. When will we no longer care about vaccination status?

When at home our lives still revolve around our cats, walking them twice a day, our yard, and photographing the changes in both. Walking cats is not like walking a dog. There is a lot of time for photographing, weeding, listening to podcasts/audiobooks, and searching for your cat after your attention has strayed to something more interesting. I've documented an entire year of cats and yard and it is getting boring.

Pandora and our yard lupins
Our yard is at its best in April when spring bulbs are still in bloom, the purple wisteria blooms and as it begins to wane, the white wisteria takes over with its waterfall of white. Between the wisteria and the lupins, the fragrance is heavenly.

At the end of April we began making plans for future travel. The end of June, we're going to Tanzania for 12 days. Our fellow travelers on this trip have been vaccinated. That is not the case for the people of Tanzania. Presently, there are no travel restrictions to get there. Of course, that could change before the end of June arrives. We haven't been on an airplane since the pandemic began so this is another big bridge to cross. 

Committing to travel internationally led us to consider returning to our local gym. Last week, we returned to gym exercise and yoga for me. We are going during the less busy hours, but our friends who returned well before us said that the gym is never very busy anytime now. Working our way back to normal and staying healthy involves so many leaps of faith and luck. So far, we have been.

There were a total of 9964 positive Covid cases and 110 deaths at end of April. April's increase in positive cases was 516 and there were two additional deaths (65+ category). Our county managed to slip down into the orange-moderate tier from the red-substantial tier. Our governor has floated the possibility  that California's tier system will disappear mid-June ready or not.

In April, the City of Placerville managers voted unanimously to "lose the noose" from the city seal and stationery. Those not in favor of this move have begun a recall campaign to remove all five managers. There have been protests against the removal of the noose, and those who insist that Placerville is ignoring its history, but the noose is not part of the city's history. The 1849 miners who came for gold named it Dry Diggins. After 3 men, rustlers or claim jumpers, were hanged, the city became known as Hangtown. In 1854, the city name was changed to Placerville because the residents didn't want to live in a town called Hangtown. The noose didn't show up until the 1970s as a way to attract tourists. 

I like the words of the Vice Mayor: “I know a lot of people want us to stand up and fight this battle against change, but our job at the city is not to fight change — but to navigate it. The welcome to Placerville/Old Hangtown sign will remain. Seems like an intelligent compromise.  

Navigating our future-carefully.

Monday, April 5, 2021

California-Nevada Desert Road Trip, Part 5 the End: March 2021

South Tufas at Mono Lake, CA

We made good time from Panaca to Mono Lake. There wasn't much to take up our time along the way. We did stop at the abandoned Coaldale Junction and also Nevada's Boundary Peak (tallest mountain in Nevada) viewpoint. Had my heart and stomach set on a wonderful dinner at the Mobile Station restaurant (not a joke), but found out that the restaurant/service station is only open seasonally. It would not open for another month. Fortunately, the grocery was open. We bought frozen chicken pot pies to microwave at the hotel, but discovered that these chicken pot pies are supposed to be baked in a conventional oven. Managed to microwave them but the crust became more of a dumpling instead of a flakey, browned crust. Another trip to the grocery for a cup of chili from their hot food counter. It was a better choice.

Boundary Peak, NV
What remains of Coaldale Junction, Nevada

Our first stop in California was at Mono Lake's South Tufas. There wasn't a breath of air and the reflections of snow topped mountains and tufa formations on the lake were even more beautiful.

Tufa towers are created when calcium-rich fresh water springs bubble up through the lake bottom and the calcium bonds to carbonates in the lake water to form a type of limestone called calcium carbonate. This is a gradual process that stops completely when the lake level drops.

In 1941 the lake level began to drop precipitously when the City of Los Angeles extended its aqueduct system into the Mono Basin to divert water from four of the six mountain streams that feed Mono Lake. With reduced freshwater inflow the lake lost more to evaporation than it gained from its inflow. "Mono Lake dropped nearly 50 vertical feet, shrank to half of its volume, and doubled in salinity over the next 40 years." Just like what has happened with the Salton Sea, miles of newly exposed lake bottom created unhealthy and unsightly dust storms in the windy Basin. 

Additionally, researchers found "if the lake continued to drop and increase in salinity, there would be a total ecosystem collapse. The decreasing lake level caused the islands where California Gulls nest to become connected to the mainland [which gave coyotes easy access to the nests]. The brine shrimp and alkali flies which millions of migratory birds depend on were also threatened, due to the increasing salinity."

In 1978 the Save Mono Lake movement began. In 1983 the California Supreme Court found that "the human and environmental uses of Mono Lake  . . deserve to be taken into account. Such uses should not be destroyed because the state mistakenly thought itself powerless to protect them."

In 1990 the court ordered that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's activities must comply with Fish and Game Code laws to protect fisheries in the creeks below the diversion points. In 1994, the State Water Resources Control Board negotiated an agreement between parties that the lake must be raised to an elevation of 6392 feet which was expected to take about 20 years. That elevation level is 25 feet lower than when the diversions began but 19 feet higher than it was in 1994. An informative online self-guided tour and map of the lake can be found here

Petrified Springs
When the lake level drops and exposes the tufa towers, the fresh water springs no longer percolate up through or around the towers leaving a petrified spring and stranded tufa towers.

The next morning we got up at sunrise when it was 23℉ and went back for more photos. The moon had yet to set.

The stranded tufa towers and much of the vegetation reminds me of what a coral reef looks like. Some of these bushes look like they could be fan corals.

After packing up, we stopped at the National Park visitor center overlook for a last look at the quiet serenity of Mono Lake. 

One sign pointed out that standing 13,000 years ago at the spot that I took this photo I would have been nearly 200 feet under Ice Age Mono Lake.

Ten days away from home to photograph geologic formations, animals, and learn about water-rights fights. I almost feel like our lives are gaining some normalcy. It was a great getaway. Next stop: Home.

We were gone just 10 days, but Spring was definitely in full swing. The wisteria was budding out and flowers were blooming everywhere at home.

California-Nevada Desert Road Trip, Part 4: March 2021


It's not a long drive from Valley of Fire State Park to Cathedral Gorge State Park. Even though these two parks are relatively close to each other they have very different geologic formations. The spires and gorges in Cathedral Gorge were created by volcanoes, earthquakes, water, and erosion. 

According to the Park Service brochure: Less than one million years ago, this area was covered by a freshwater lake. Sands and clays were washed down from the surrounding mountains into the lake eventually filling the valley to a depth of almost 1400 feet. Uplift and faulting caused the waters of the lake to drain away (part of the Colorado River drainage). As the lakebed was exposed, torrential rains washed gravels down onto the sediments from the nearby mountains. The erosion process continues today with Meadow Valley Wash and its tributaries cutting deeply into the silts and clays of the former lake bottom to create the gorges and spires of the Cathedral Gorge landscape. The old lakebed is carried 100 miles downstream to Lake Mead.

There are few trees in this park. The only shade is that cast by the spires. The coolest place to be is inside one of the slot canyons that wind through the formations. They weren't long but they were refreshingly cool inside.

We stayed in the nearby small town of Panaca. Panaca, settled by Mormon pioneers in 1865, is the second oldest town in Southern Nevada. The word "panaca" is the Southern Paiute word meaning "metal." 

Modern day Panaca has no restaurants but it does have the Pine Tree Bed and Breakfast. We rented their cabin which was separate from the house and very roomy. For lunch/dinner we had to drive to either Caliente or Pinoche. Residents of these towns make periodic trips (2 hour-drive) to St. George, Utah, to stock up on groceries.

Caliente has two open restaurants. We enjoyed the Side Track Cafe near the tracks. 

Social Distancing at the Side Track Cafe

Because we pretty much did all the hikes and exploring of rock formations on our first afternoon, we filled the next day with exploring Pioche and hiking at another park.

Pioche was considered to be one of the wildest mining camps in the west during the 1870's. Hired guns were recruited to keep the peace. It is no longer wild but has some interesting historical sights. The aerial tramway for transporting mined rock still hangs above the town. It also has an open restaurant, The Silver Cafe, and a grocery store.

In 1874, Pioche became the county seat of Lincoln County. The new courthouse was designed in 1872 and had a construction budget of $26,400. Contracts were broken and construction costs increased. Bonds were issued but not paid. In 1907, new bonds were issued with a repayment plan. In 1938, two years after the building was condemned, the final cost was over $800,000 and the reason it is called the "Million Dollar" courthouse.

The "Million Dollar" Courthouse
The Fire House
Pioche's Modern Era Movie Theater (closed)

From Pioche we drove to Echo Canyon State Park to hike the Ash Canyon Trail recommended by one of the Eastern Nevada park rangers. 

View of Echo Canyon Reservoir from the Ash Canyon Trail
We scrambled over huge boulders and hiked through canyons with 300 feet walls ending back near the road and the Echo Canyon stream.

While we tried to find a trail across the road so we didn't have to walk along the road, it was still too wet over there to make much progress. So, it was back to the road to make our way to the campground and our car.

Tomorrow, we begin the drive back to California and home. Next stop, Lee Vining, California, and Mono Lake.