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California Days – Fossil Falls

October 23rd, 2017 No comments

It was hot. We’d left the mountains with temperatures in the low nineties (90’s) and were now in the middle of the Mohave Desert and heading out in 104 degrees to find a local landmark called Fossil Falls. We were staying down the road at Ridgecrest, California which is noteworthy for a big military weapons testing and desert training facility called China Lake. But it is the Mohave – we never saw a lake – just a few salt flats here and there that would imply that there might once have been a lake there in the past and that there just might be a lake again in the future if it ever rained enough. But there wasn’t much chance of rain on this hot dry day in July…and it was doubtful for the near future.

California Oil Fields

We had arrived in Ridgecrest on Saturday after a long drive around from Three Rivers over on the western side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We’d gone from cultivated areas with lots of orange, almond, and olive groves to drier “farms” with lots of oil wells pumping steadily throughout the long hot days. As we traveled further east, it became drier and the oil wells changed to gigantic windmills covering every ridge. Maybe about half of the windmills were slowly turning but they seemed to be calibrated to the same slow ever-droning-on sequence as the oil wells we were leaving behind. Then turning north and moving even deeper into the desert, we encountered fields of solar panels…which probably moved slowly if they even moved at all. It was like traveling through a diorama of the history of power generation for the past fifty (50) years. Then it was nothing but desert and the occasional Joshua Tree until we left the highway and headed east to Ridgecrest.

After checking into our hotel, we went into town to check out a small local museum where we’d heard from our hotel clerk that we could get some information on how to get to some well-known petroglyphs in the mountains nearby. The Maturango Museum was lovely – small and well-maintained with quite a few native crafts and displays, but, alas, our hopes to see the petroglyphs in the area were dashed when we were told that the petroglyphs were in a restricted area on the military reservation and no one was permitted to enter without a guide from the base. For a glimmer of a moment, we thought maybe we could hire a guide and see the petroglyph site that way…but that was not to be. The Government only allows visitors into the site twice a year in fall and spring. They would not even be considering allowing access to the site at any point before September – we’d be long gone on our way home before the next reservations would be made for visitors to see those petroglyphs. In all fairness, the problem was the heat…the military just couldn’t take visitors up into the mountains in the heat.

Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest, CA

Outside display at Maturango Museum

Checking the time on the human sundial at Maturango Museum

Seeing my disappointment, the kind docent at the museum told me that just up the road from the museum there was a lovely park where a few years ago, the community had set up rocks along the walking path and local artists had painted their “interpretations” of the petroglyphs on the rocks. She said I should take a look at those renderings if I wanted to see petroglyphs. Her heart was in the right place, I am sure and she only wanted to help. I thanked her kindly but, somehow, seeing modern versions of ancient drawings and carvings just wasn’t going to be the same as seeing the originals carved a few thousand years ago.

The artistic renderings of petroglyphs in Petroglyph Park

But, we did cruise by Petroglyph Park anyway and it was indeed a lovely park with a pretty good walking path just as she had told us it would be….and there were great fake petroglyphs that we could enjoy if we chose to take a stroll through the park while enjoying the nice stiflingly hot weather.

Did I mention it was hot? Cruising by the Baptist Church to check out the temperature.

On Sunday, we’d had a lovely morning visiting a local church for the morning services and had then stopped in at Arby’s for a sandwich for lunch. It’s a military town – lots of strip malls and fast-food joints – always something available to grab a quick bite. Our plans were to head out to Death Valley bright and early on Monday so we had Sunday afternoon to do a little exploring. Since petroglyphs were out, we decided to check out another local landmark called Fossil Falls.

So, here we were traveling north on Highway 395 looking for a roughed up National Monument sign that would direct us onto a washed out gravel road leading across the massive lava fields to the site. The sign turned out to be relatively easy to find and soon we were passing Red Cinder Cone, also known as Red Hill, one of the many evidences of volcanic activity in the area, and heading back to the visitor’s area near the “falls”.

Lave Rocks. Somewhere in there is a trail…or not. Red Cinder Cone Hill is in the background.

Of course, there are no waterfalls today. The Owens River that flowed here at the end of the last Ice Age and carved out a path through the lava rocks is long gone. The lakes and ponds that filled Indian Wells Valley and supported aboriginal peoples are also long ago dried up leaving only rocks and gullies that might support a flash flood now and then in the event a storm comes sweeping in from the mountains to the west.

Red Cinder Cone Hill, one of the volcanos that would have helped create the Lava Fields here.

But no such storm is predicted for today. Today it is dry and hot…..very much so. As we drive into the parking lot, I am surprised to see that it is a relatively well-maintained park with a cinderblock toilet rather than the usual porta-potty we have been seeing in all the national parks we’ve visited on this trip. Nonetheless, in this heat, I eyed that bathroom with a goodly amount of consternation telling myself that there was just no way I was going to venture into what would probably be a very hot stinky hazardous filled to the brim with all sorts of nasty bacteria box in this heat. Not no…but NO!!! Just wasn’t gonna happen.

Ancient Lava Flow coming down from the mountains nearby.

The temperature had risen to just about 107 in the meantime but we decided we would go ahead and walk the trail out to the former river bed and take a look at the cliffs where once the raging river had rushed over the lava rock polishing rough knife sharp edges down to the glassy smooth surfaces that were now so slippery as to require caution even when dry. That’s what the signs said and I believed it. However, I found the sharp rocks much more intimidating as we tried to navigate the “trails” through the lava. One misstep and an ankle could be broken or sprained just like that….then I suppose I would be forced to hobble my little hobby back to the car. There just weren’t any improved walking trails here…no markers….no cleared pathways…..just more or less tracks laid down though the lava rocks by previous visitors and hikers to the area.

The trail was just under half a mile one way so I figured I could handle it even in the heat and even with all the rocks. After all, haven’t you heard all about it being a “dry heat” and not the same as that oppressive heart-stopping humidity back home? The air is dry here….so dry. That’s what I have always heard and I can vouch for that for the most part as we hardly even broke a sweat all day although breathing was a bit of a chore. Then again, I suppose that every ounce of humidity that dares to form on our bodies was just evaporated away into the heated air before it ever had a chance to form a good solid drop of sweat.

In the heat, as we walked across the lava field, I found myself wondering about the ancient peoples who lived here. According to my research, the Coso People had lived and camped along the river about 10,000 years ago but, by 6000 BCE, those natives had abandoned the area due to drying conditions. The glaciers finished melting…the rivers stopped flowing.

Sometime around 4000 BCE, the climate became more moderate and the natives had returned to the area. It was still plenty hot and dry but they learned to use what resources were available in the area. By the 19th century though, only the Little Lake Shoshone peoples came here to look for obsidian in rocks among the lava fields to make the spears and knives and arrowheads they needed to survive in the harsh climate.

(We didn’t find any obsidian although we did look for it. It is probably best that we didn’t as I would, no doubt, have wanted to bring it home as a souvenir. As I get older, I’m finding that some things are best left in the preserves where they are found and not lugged all the way back home to sit on a shelf somewhere. And the sign said not to take anything out of the park…so, there’s that.)

The “Falls” at Fossil Falls. The Owens River would have rushed over the 40 foot drop        creating the waterfalls.

Now, the area is abandoned and the site is managed and controlled by the state. The river no longer exists; the falls no longer overflow with water thundering down onto the rocks below….no more water, no more trees, and no more people….the land is silent now and left to the small desert creatures who can still manage to survive in the harsh environment.

The ancient Owens River bed (center). Note that the lava rocks in the old flow area are smoother here.

We found the old river bed with few problems. Just pick you way through the rocks until you reach the gully, and then head downstream until you can see the cliffs where the falls used to be. We didn’t hike all the way down to the cliffs themselves….time and the heat just did not permit it….at least not for me.

We weren’t the only ones at the site that day. We had noted with amusement the two teenage girls who headed out across the lava rocks taking lots of “selfies” wearing absolutely the wrong shoes. Really, who wears flip flops and sandals through a rock-strewn desert with snakes and lizards and scorpions and spiders?

The trail begins. That Owens River bed is towards that small hill in the distance (center).

On our way, we met four young men who seemed to appear out of nowhere heading back to the parking lot. They looked just plain hot, beat up, exhausted and ready to get back into an air conditioned car and head to some cool oasis for a nice cold glass of iced tea. (Tea, right?) I think that I must have looked equally as bad when I emerged from the trail and headed across the parking lot because a nice lady hurried up to me with a nice cold bottle of water straight out of her cooler. Guess she thought I was going to pass out or something.

I thanked her profusely but I was on a mission at this point and couldn’t be delayed. You see, I had other things in mind…..I was going to have to do it….going to have to risk everything….put aside my better judgement and my sanity….just take my own safety in my own hands and head right into the heart of danger. I was going to have to risk it….I was going in….just had to do it….no other choice. I was going into that bathroom after all. Imagine my surprise to find a bright sunny well-ventilated clean-smelling composting toilet with plenty of toilet paper and a full container of hand sanitizer.

Amazing.

You just never know what you are going to find in the desert in the middle of nowhere.

Sources for Factual Information:

  1. Wikipedia Fossil Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fossil_Falls
  2. Visit California Website – http://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/fossil-falls

Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 8

July 7th, 2017 No comments

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5,  Day 6, and Day 7.)

viz ctrLast days are for doing last things. But this time, the last day was an extra day. We had allowed more travel time to get back to Omaha from Burwell so we hadn’t anticipated having a whole day available for one last adventure in Nebraska…well, not only Nebraska.

Do not assume that I hadn’t added a few possibilities to my list of things to do just in case we had extra time. Yep, I knew there were two National Wildlife Refuges near Omaha that would just be perfect for filling in any extra time that we had.  So, after breakfast, we headed up the Missouri to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) …..which is technically in Iowa…I think.

Day_8

Nebraska Trifecta Day 8

Okay, it is in Iowa although the actual spot might have once been in Nebraska since the two states are separated by the great Missouri River. The Refuge sits inside what used to be a loop in the river…but at some point the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) went in and cut the loop off and made a channel that made the river straighter and the leftover loop became a lake inside the refuge.  Why did the Engineers do this way back in the 1800’s, you might ask? Well, I will tell you what I got on good authority – they did it to help the steamboat industry – they cut out some of the loops on the river making it easier to navigate.  You don’t hear about that kind of thing much anymore what with all the environmental groups wanting to leave natural things alone and let rivers flow whichever way they have flown (sounding like birds now….oh my) for thousands of years.  I’m thinking that should be “flowed” now that I ponder on it…..it gets rid of the bird’s part in it if I use “flowed” instead of “flown” so “flowed” it is.  And, yes, the Government does still tinker in terraforming and manipulating rivers but maybe not as much as they did back a hundred years or so ago.

desoto on riverBut, both the “loop” that’s now a lake and the steamboats on the river both play a part in the history of DeSoto Refuge which is the first of two refuges we visited on our last day in Nebraska.  Because of the river and the locations where the bridges are built, we seemingly took the long way up to the Refuge – first in Nebraska, then in Iowa, then back to Nebraska…..seemingly for miles.

loop

I found out later, we could have just turned left out of the hotel parking lot and drove north for maybe fifteen or so miles and gotten there with a whole lot less travel time and without crossing state lines but the route we took was the one the GPS told us to take via the Interstate.  But these things happen when you’re in unfamiliar territory – you stick to the map and you go where the GPS tells you to go and sometimes it takes you the long way.

tealBut we got there all the same with no big problems. From the very start, we found birds. There are nice wetlands and impounds right along the entry road to the refuge and, although most migrating birds had left the area, there were still enough to keep our interest as we drove into the refuge.

The visitor center was quite attractive. You never know what you’re going to find in the National Wildlife Refuge system – some sites have large modern and beautifully built visitor centers and some are very small with buildings that are much more rustic and little more than an office with bathrooms, which are a good thing to have…..to heck with nice visitor centers, give us the bathrooms.

The visitor center at DeSoto was of the former type.  It was large and the architecture included just a touch of prairie style embellishments that really added to the overall effect of the building.  Almost all of the visitor centers, which are sometimes called nature centers, include small museums or natural wildlife displays and local geography type overviews to help you understand the area where you are birding. DeSoto was no different from the other refuges in that respect. But, this refuge also included a museum of another sort altogether……DeSoto has a museum which includes all the treasures found in the wreck of the Steamboat Bertrand which was lost on the Missouri on April 1, 1865……before the “loop” was removed which might explain why the loops were removed in the first place.

boat model

The Bertrand was built in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1864. She was built for river cruising in shallow water on the river.  (Who knew they ever built boats in Wheeling?) She left St. Louis under the command of Captain James Yore in March 1865 fully loaded with general merchandise and lots of mercury which was used for gold extraction (there was a gold rush going on a little further west at the time, don’t ya know).  They were headed west to the headwaters of the Missouri bound for the mining towns near Fort Benton in Montana territory. On that fateful morning in April, just about a mile from DeSoto, Nebraska, the 161 foot boat hit a snag and sunk going down in just about ten minutes flat…..gone….just like that. The passengers and crew were saved but the boat and all its cargo was lost….for just about 100 years.

carboys

It was the mercury that someone finally thought about….worth a fortune if you could find the boat and recover the goods. Two treasure hunters, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino, set out to find the wreck and recover the mercury in 1967….working in cooperation with the Federal Government who now owns the property.   The excavation was completed in 1969 and about 150 tons of cargo were recovered. While some mercury was recovered, the treasure hunters did not find enough to make them rich…..not even close……only 9 carboys out of the expected 500 were ever found.  (A carboy is a lead container used to transport mercury.)  I’m wondering if some previous treasure hunters didn’t get to that boat and the mercury before 1967.

betrand stuff

mud drum

But, even without all the mercury, the items that were found tell a story of life on the river in the 19th century and it is all there in the museum in the Refuge Visitor Center for anyone to see…and for various academic types to study and write about in their various academic journals. It is interesting to say the least. The only downside is that everything is stored behind glass walls so you cannot really get into the museum area and explore. Alas, it is sad but museums do have to protect things from unscrupulous thieves and….well, treasure hunters.

bertrand site

But, wait, there’s more. This had to be one of the best nature/visitor centers I have ever seen. Okay, the nature displays were nice and the Bertrand Museum was unique but what I really loved was the huge observation area at the back of the center.

obs deckRemember that “loop” from the river that became a lake (Loop Lake, by name) in the refuge? Well, the back of the visitor center has an observation area built to overlook the lake making it very convenient and very warm in the winter to come and see the thousands of migrating waterfowl that come to the river and lake each year. Most had already headed north for their breeding grounds when we visited but, having spent many winter days shivering in the cold on a refuge watching Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, etc., I can tell you that a large, warm, glassed-in visitor center built right over the lake would be just the ticket for winter birding.  As noted, I absolutely fell in love with that observation room…I really think Jerry thought I was a little bit crazy….but I’m telling you, warm birding in winter is way better than freezing birding….I’m just saying.

sparrow

We did actually find some time to bird while we were on the refuge. They have a great nature drive around the southern end of the lake and along the river.  We enjoyed about an hour roaming around outside and then headed on down to Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.

Which proved to be a bit trickier than we had anticipated….because this is where we had our last, and maybe most interesting GPS glitch of the trip.  We headed out of DeSoto, grabbed lunch at the next town up the road, added the address for Boyer Chute to the GPS, and headed out.  Nothing too complicated – continue down the main drag, hang a left, drive a few miles, then another left onto a gravel road….which was not unusual, all the secondary roads were dirt roads.  We were driving along checking out the scenery and didn’t pay too much attention to the huge gravel trucks that kept passing us headed back towards town…..right up until we came to the top of the ridge and found ourselves outside the main gate of what appeared to be a quarry. The GPS showed the road continuing through the area and indicated that our destination was less than a mile away…straight ahead…….straight ahead through that gate.

quarry
We debated a moment and then decided that maybe going through a quarry wasn’t really the best idea…even if the people in the office inside the gate allowed us to pass….and there had to be another way to the refuge. So, we turned around (after we checked out the quarry view by the side of the road) and headed back down the road.

quarry 2

I did manage to talk Jerry out of knocking on the office door and asking about work. Turns out he has this idea about checking out jobs at certain industrial type places and then working for maybe a week or two until he learns all about the place – sort of like getting an extended operational tour of the place – before quitting and moving on. I reminded him that he was in his 60’s and working even a week in a quarry might be just a tad bit too much – some dreams are for younger men, I’m thinking.

We turned back onto the main road and, after going through a much smaller community a mile or so down the road, found a nice brown nature sign indicating that we should turn left again to get to the refuge.  I surmised that the old road had gone through the quarry prior to there being a quarry there and that we would find the other side of that road ahead of us prior to actually finding the refuge. And we did. But this the south side of the road had a barrier showing that the road was closed to through traffic – that would be us. A similar sign on the north end of the road might have been good too.

Boyer Chute Refuge was established in 1992, includes just over 4000 acres and is just southeast of DeSoto Refuge. Both refuges lie on the Missouri River. The name comes from a channel, the Boyer Chute, which was cut as part of a channelization project for flood control and navigation of the river. You guessed it, the Corps of Engineers (COE) again.

lewis and clark

There are two basic roads inside the refuge or, maybe just one…..turn left at the entrance to explore the north side of the chute or turn right for the south side of the chute. The refuge is much more rustic than DeSoto. While there are a few wilderness type bathrooms – composting toilets, etc. – there are no other facilities there. There are several hiking trails and, had the weather not turned cold, we might have checked them out.  At the end of the road on the south side of the chute, we did actually get out of the car and head down one trail that traversed a ditch spanned by a wooden bridge. Jerry wanted to find out what was on the other side but we had only traveled a hundred yards or so when the cold biting wind off the river cut right through our jackets and helped us to decide to cut that walk short. Crikey, it was cold there…something we hadn’t noticed up the way at DeSoto Refuge.  And what was on the other side? Well, not much really, just the trail leading down by the chute into the brush…but nary a bird in sight.

dutchmans breeches

We headed back to the car and I put the hand warmers from my gloves over my ears and held them there until I could feel my ear lobes again.  I might have looked silly but my ears were getting warm.  As we left the refuge, I noticed a road named Abbott Road – and that’s where I realized that this was the road that would take us right back to our hotel….we were just about 8 miles north of the airport and maybe a couple more to our hotel.

Our adventure was almost over. Tomorrow we would have an early wake-up and head to the airport and home.  What a successful journey it has been! We’d met our birding goals and then some. Okay, we’d only wanted to see three birds to start with but they were great birds and they were lifebirds.  We’ve chased a lot of birds in the past and we have not always been successful in seeing them….this trip was a resounding success but it was time to go and it would be good to be home.

Links:
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

Itinerary:
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (I80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch/Calamus Lake: @ 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus Outfitters to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles
April 10 – DeSoto NWR & Chute-Boyer NWR: 69 Miles
April 11 – Omaha, NE to Baltimore, MD: 1153 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far: 
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dannebrog (D7)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Happy Jack’s Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds d8

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