Saturday, December 5, 2015

12/5/15 Estrella Mountain Regional Park exploration

A track for a stroll on the surface of Mars.
6.6 miles in 2 hours
Crossing through scorched desert on trails that wind between cactus and boulders, beautiful vistas and a meditation on the consequences of drought times.
But first, we begin with landmarks closer to home.

The Cabazon T-Rex! 
And the Cabazon Brontosaurus, an iconic statue that haunts my earliest memories.

I adored visiting them during trips to the desert in childhood, and when scientists started insisting the Brontosaurus ought to be renamed A-PAT-osaurus even though that included my name I was greatly dismayed. Now in 2015 it has gone back to being a bronto, finally, the great Thunder Lizard once again.
I have often thought there are two kinds of kids, gun kids and dino kids. I was a dino kid. I had the plastic models and loved the Latin names.
Little did I ever expect to be trailering my own mule past there en route to an Arizona adventure.
If you are traveling Interstate 10 near Palm Springs, don't miss this roadside attraction.

And here is the view.
Endless miles of this.
The sky changes, and the mountain silhouettes flow past on the horizon, but once you commit to traveling to Arizona you pretty much get a sense of how bad things get when the water runs out. Being in the fourth year of the present drought, and knowing there have been historic dry spells that lasted ten years, I couldn't help but wonder how quickly California could see our deserts expand.
But for now
I was off to ride in the epic desert of Arizona at a Max Bishop MuleSense Clinic.

There's Max, out on the trail on a little Paso Fino mule he brought to the clinic. This guy is the real deal. He has the bearing and gaze that immediately let you know he has a military background, in his case Special Forces, and he works very hard to have the patience to tell the people who attend his clinics pointers to help them communicate with their equines. He does an excellent job of leading by example if you pay attention carefully enough to SEE what he is doing with the mule.
You'd think people who attend would want to learn, and want to work with their animal when he gives them drills to do or exercises to practice, but that isn't always the case.

Here we are, Tobe and I, ears up and watching Max as he is talking theory while riding a mule that had been recently purchased from the Grand Canyon pack string. Mule riding is as much an intellectual exercise as a physical.
The arena at Estrella Mountain Regional Park was beautifully prepared for us, soft raked sand and BIG so we had a lot of room to move.

And here is Max riding a different mule, showing the owner how smooth the movement can be when directed correctly. All my recent years of working Tobe in an arena, getting the lines of communication clear and gentle, really showed to good effect here. We understood what he was saying, and we did the exercises he suggested successfully.

Max is all about extreme riding. So he works in his clinics to get people to do things they would otherwise not attempt, knowing that after they have done them their confidence level in both themselves and their animals will increase. A good example is this set of gigantic tractor tires he had the arena staff fill with sand and pound down to make a platform for the mules to jump up on. One mule was engaged in a battle royal for over an hour the first day, but he did eventually do it. Watching was fascinating, as Max directed his helper and others to drag up a roped forehoof onto the tires and then encourage the mule to follow through and jump up. Over and over the animal refused, but the humans outlasted him and he finally overcame his fear and did it.
Tobe watched for a while, and we both saw what was being asked for, and then we did it !!!!!
Mules can learn by watching so I knew when I went to ask him to jump on it he knew what I was asking for, I just had to convince him that it was going to happen. He feinted off to the side repeatedly, but I was persistent, and finally he jumped up just to stop the aggravation.
The second day we went to the tires and he went right up and stayed there, as asked, until told to get down. Giving him overnight to "soak on it" was enough to convince Tobe that it was something he could and would do easily.

The clinic participants worked their animals on the tires one by one,  some creatures taking a lot longer than others. Max got this big mule to get his forelegs on it and then did a bit of a circus acrobat trick. He told us some tales of his "other life" training mixed martial arts fighters, and with displays like this it was easy to see his balance and strength are the foundations of his courage.

But we came to ride! So it was lovely that after a morning in the arena it was time for a trail ride after lunch.
My fondness for the Gadsden Flag made me very happy when I saw that one of the trails we went on was named Gadsden.
The park is well laid-out with lots of trails, easily marked.

I prefer, when possible, to ride up front in a group. Less dust in my face, but also the person whose riding I want to be watching is the trail boss. And I'd prefer not to be chattering with people, I want to "Ride alone in a group" as I have been taught. Use the group for security, but actively ride, paying attention to the trail hazards and being a participant partner with Mr Mule.

And in this environment a big hazard is the teddy bear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii, The cactus in the photo above that almost seems to glow is the one to watch out for. Most stands of it were off the trail, but certainly close enough that an inattentive rider might let their animal drift to the side of the trail and encounter the spines, which would drive deep into the hide and cause a strong adverse reaction. There were also big sections of jumping cholla, Cylindropuntia fulgida, that has sections so tenuously attached as to seem to be capable of jumping onto an animal's legs or a human's clothing.
All of this means I am an observant and active participant in the ride, asking Tobe to sidepass over and away from anything I consider a potential threat. He knows quite well how far away he has to be to not brush his own legs or belly up against a cactus, but I sometimes need to ask for those extra inches to keep my own leg clear.

Max scouted off ahead and had just such an encounter.
He went to check out an area where I declined to follow, because i did the quick decision that Tobe and I might well be injured and I had nothing to prove. The rest of the group tagged along with Max, and his apprentice Chris Adams stayed behind with me. I likely could not have stayed if he hadn't, so I was very grateful. If every equine had left, well, Tobe likes me but he believes in herd psychology and I would not likely have been able to hold him back.
So Chris and I watched, and waited, and finally we saw Max coming back very slowly, leading his Paso mule. Funny thing, at that moment all my hesitancy about risk factors fled, when I thought that Max might be injured or needing help. Chris and I hastened up to him and found him with a mule in distress, with a massive cholla stuck to her nose.
With Chris helping to hold the mule's head still, Max was able to remove the spines one by one with needle-nose pliers, and the mule fretted but seemed to understand that these humans were the way to relief from the pain. I can't help but think a horse in the same situation would be in a blind panic, but the mule patiently let Max get the spines out before they began to fester.

While waiting for this drama to unfold Tobe and I surveyed the landscape. Right next to us was a saguaro cactus, Carnegiea gigantea, the signature species of this part of the American Sonoran desert. They are ancient individuals, they don't even start to grow a first arm until they are 75-100 years old. Their presence on the high ridges standing sentinel to the passage of time causes the theme music to endless cowboy westerns to cue up in nostalgic revery.

This con trail was likely from maneuvers being conducted at the nearby Air Force Base. At my hotel every morning I was surprised to be accompanied while eating the complementary breakfast by a mass of identically uniformed tiny Asian men who explained they were from the Singapore Air Force. They told me they were here to fly helicopters and jets, and several times while we mule riders tracked slowly down the trails on the ground we were buzzed by them overhead. One had a name tag with his English nickname "Crypto." I couldn't help but contrast their view of the desert from high above with mine, moving so carefully below.

Another kind of cactus that we passed a lot of were ocotillo, Fouquieria splendens. I liked lining up Tobe's forelock with the fanned branches for this photo. At this time of year they look like long-dead spiny sticks, but if there is a rainfall they burst into a coral red bloom.

The sun was setting, so it was time to turn back to the arena pens and give the mules a well deserved rest and dinner and water.

Once again my marvelous AniMule was my stalwart companion for a journey of exploration.
I was very proud of him, he gave every exercise and learning experience his best effort, and we worked as a calm and confident team together. Max took apart the way I had my rigging done on my saddle, and explained why an alternative system of strapping up the britchen and breast collar would make it safer for me and more comfortable for Tobe. I am very grateful for this knowledge and will be making those changes immediately. And the one behavior issue I had, Tobe showing cranky dominance on the ground after rides, well, heck. Max set me right about that too. He watched me work with Tobe and explained the precise moment when Tobe "punked me out" and got the upper hand. Now that I see how it was happening I can take responsibility for changing my own behavior to make sure that bad habit is corrected and does not continue to build. I understand that Tobe does the hardest work on the trail, but he was getting a bit pushy with me as I took off the saddle, telling me to hurry up. And now I have the awareness to nip that as soon as he starts it, because it is unworthy of how well we work together the rest of the time.

We had three days of lessons and rides, that I have condensed here. Then it was time to load up and once again make the trek back to the edge of the continent, where more mule adventures await us.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

11/21/15 Summerland Greenwell Angels Flight with LPTR

Nothing like starting out in the early morning for a trail ride. The rising sun blazing on the sea, the anticipation of a journey to see a new trail and ride with interesting people on their odd collection of animals.
We met up with a dozen members of the Los Padres Trail Riders at the Summerland Greenwell Preserve. There is a large parking lot that can accommodate numerous rigs, and easy access to many nearby trails.
The route we took was 7.4 miles  and took 3 hours. That was actually a little over 2 hours of moving time, at 3.2mph moving speed, and lots of rest breaks for the animals.
The trail system is maintained by the Montecito Trails Foundation, and connects the sea to the tops of the mountains. We tracked around in the area in the middle, between estates and along the sides of streets, wherever the trail boss decided to lead us to.
Who's the one with the red hair under the sensible helmet? Why, me of course.
Walking through the forests it is easy to see the toll the drought is having, the understory grass is dry tinder and the trees are dropping limbs.
But the shade was most welcome on this Indian Summer day, as we went for our equestrian stroll.
On the high points of hills there are sea views, always a pleasure at the Edge of the Continent.
And in between the massive estates that fill the hilltops there are nice trails, making passage very easy.
The ride was organized by Barbara who rode her new mule Sierra. There were a surprisingly high number of mules on this trip, almost half of the animals. I am used to Tobe being the only mule, so this was a real pleasure. We mule riders can go on and on about The Natural Superiority of Mules, and tend to bond easily with other long ear enthusiasts.
At one vista we stopped at a picnic table for a break, Tobe was already working up a sweat on the 80 degree day. But he's a noble beast of burden, and never faltered in his assigned task.

Sometimes property owners go the extra effort of adding rail fencing, defining their privacy and giving the trails a nice edge.
Often the trail passes through large stands of trees. These eucalyptus were especially fragrant, and where they lean onto the trail are a lovely opportunity to ask Mr Mule to sidepass away from them lest I smash my knee on a trunk. He knows how wide he is, but it is my job to make sure I don't bang a limb on a trunk.

The story is that every week right now the crews are removing another deadfall tree from the Ennisbrook trail. They seem to pretty much cut them up and drop them in place, and we are all hoping that the promised El Niño winter storms will come and save the rest of the forest.
This is an example of the good work done by the work crews of the Montecito Trails Foundation. On the left is a steep drop off to a creek bed. A metal reinforcement has been placed into the slope, and boulders added on this side of it to define the edge and stop further erosion.

And a bit further on we passed across this old stone bridge, wishing there was water underneath it.
Sometimes there is a bump in the road, in this case a boulder in the trail. That's OK. Where there's a mule, there's a way.
But then, what is this? In my previous rides I had never seen this before. It is a memorial to someone unknown. But what a gift to come across it here in the depth of the woods, stark and elegant and so very poignant.
The inscription is from Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 5, Scene 2
"And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
A sad epitaph for a sweet prince, one who perhaps loved this forest.
I think this is a California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens.  The bark is amazing.
On the way out and on the way back we passed through this horse boarding facility, owned by the trail boss. Gave the animals a chance for a drink and a rest.
Then it was time to climb the Ortega Ridge hill and go back to the starting point.
One last obstacle, down a steep hill. Not too difficult on the way up, when the animals were fresh and excited about a chance to go for a walk, but a bit of a challenge for many of them as they started down after hours of walking. They zig-zagged down it, trying to find purchase in the dusty dirt.
Off to the side in the avocado grove were many bee hives. As long as none of them got too interested in the sweaty animals, we were OK.
Then we were back at the meeting point, and my pal Cowboy Bob shared an apple with his Dutchess, who deserved a treat after this long ride.
And I'm a happy person, having risen to the challenge of this day's trail and eager to see what will be the next adventure.
Back to the real world, where the highway is already in progress, and the sign says we can go either way. Time to choose the next path.
As Theodore Roethke wrote:
"Over every mountain there is a path, although it may not be seen from the valley."

Friday, November 13, 2015

11-13-15 Ojai Fish Diversion

5.58 miles in a total of 2 hours moving time
average speed 2.3 mph with one burst of 9.9 mph when we loped a bit
total ascent 684 ft
moderate trail, nothing technical, half of it could accommodate 2 equines walking abreast
well maintained and brushed trail, well signposted
two spring-locked gates that require dismounting and holding open to pass through
Time to load up the little BrenderUp mule trailer and SubUrban and head out to Ojai. I had never gone there to ride, but my pal Cowboy Bob and his mare Dutchess invited Tobe and I to come explore. We met at high noon at the Oso Road trailhead entrance to the Ojai Valley Nature Conservancy Ventura River Preserve. There are 1,583 acres, and we explored just a small part of it.
We went out Wills Canyon, and came back on the Rice Canyon trail.
I use the Gaia GPS app to make the map above, which you can zoom down into to see the trail we followed. I just have it humming along in my pocket the whole time, and I take pictures and enjoy the ride, and only after I get back do I look to see where I've been. Cowboy Bob brings an Android app along on his phone that talks sweetly to him as he travels. Every 5 minutes she tells him how far he's gone and how much of a pre-loaded trail is left to go. If she doesn't talk for 10 minutes, you are going the wrong way!
There are lots of different trails, dirt paths and abandoned roads, and the junctions are well marked with signs.
This sign says NOTICE : AUTHORIZED VEHICLES ONLY. NO FOOT, HORSE, OR BICYCLE TRAFFIC. So, I guess that means a Fish on a mule is OK.
We crossed through the riverbed, a field of boulders that is no worry for a mule, he always knows where to place his feet. With the El Niño coming it is all too easy to imagine this filled with rushing water.
Then it was time to head from the flat lands up into the hills. The landscape changes very quickly from sagebrush scrub to mountainous.
The wind picked up and so did our speed as we went along the wide manicured paths, this being the ADA accessible area I think. Many possible trails, but the audible GPS kept us on track.
Then it was time to rise up into the forested area. The signs of the drought are very evident, but the trees have seen worse in their long lifetimes, so they provided a wonderful canopy of shade and dappled light.
Then, not too far into the trees, we came to a crossroads and went straight through it when we should have turned left. If you look at the map above it you can see a bit of a spur to nowhere. We headed up a pretty grassy hill, bashed through some overgrown bushes, skirted around a scary drop off and then, realized that there was too much silence. The voice of Bob's guidance counselor had not chirped from his phone in way too long. A consultation with his map on the phone showed that the little blue dot representing our present location was way off the trail, technology is a wondrous thing, so we sidled on back to the crossroads and continued on correctly.

I'd like to say this was an example of Fall colors, but really I think it was just a dying tree, cooked by this summer's heat, holding on and hoping for the Winter rains.
But a lot of the trees look quite healthy, and for most of the ride we passed through a pleasant quiet forest. The one time we were zoomed up on by a bicyclist Tobe Mule alerted me something was coming way before he was perceptible to me. I told Bob to be wary, something was up, and then whoooosh, around a corner came a speeder. But he turned out to be most pleasant, stopped to give us right of way, and then flew off downhill. Coexistence on the trails is a vital skill for equines to learn.
Bob was actually more worried about the gigantic longhorn bull he'd seen on his last trip here. I hoped he'd only glimpsed a steer, but once he told me about the length of those horns I was keeping an eye peeled. The only sign of bovine presence was this watering trough with COWS ONLY scrawled on it. Kindof like the clubhouse door with NO GURLZ on the door. We didn't need their stinkin' water anyway.
I know you are going to think this is the picture taken right before the branch fell on my head, but no.
Now it was time to turn in an arc and start heading back toward civilization. Part of the area the trail passes through belongs to the Los Padres National Forest and that is where the cattle are grazing. Bob cleverly brought bungee cords to hold the spring gates open as we passed through, I highly recommend you pack that to ride here. The gates have such strong springs that it would otherwise be hard to hold them open to get a horse through.
Looking at the enlarged version of this photo you can see the cliffs of the TopaTopa Mountains in the distance, rising above the town of Ojai. Facing West, they are famous for the "pink moment" glow when they are illuminated by the sunset. For explorers they are a welcome panorama, high on the horizon and a sure lodestone to guide you back to your trail head.
But first we had to cross over the Fish Diversion. It is a large cement river that allows spawning trout to pass up river to complete their destiny. Now, it is bone dry.
And once again I was glad to be a Fish on a Mule and pass through with impunity.
And back across the riverbed boulder field, with Tobe Mule stepping lively, sure he is heading back to carrots in his little transport.

Another happy day, Friday the 13th was a lucky day for us!