Maui Moments

It’s this time of year that I often get the call of Hawaii. It’s not a phone call or a text, but the Aloha spirit, reaching out, whispering of the warm ease and sweet fragrance, sea breezes and lapping waves.

No trip to Hawaii this winter, it’s not a safe or wise time to travel. I’ve put that call on hold. But when it’s time, I’ll be back to Maui, one of my favorite islands in America’s 50th state.

You can google Maui activities and come up with hundreds of ways to spend your time, below are a few of my favorites.

The second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Maui rose up from the sea in the form of two shield volcanoes. Today the island is two mountains: West Maui and Haleakala. They are old volcanoes and dormant.

My favorite thing about Maui in winter is the humpback whales. They’re everywhere.

From December through April, up to 10,000 humpbacks migrate to Maui from Alaska, to breed. The water is warm and shallow–good conditions for birthing and avoiding deep-water predators.

You can spot whales just about anywhere, evident by the exhalation breath spraying from their blowholes.

Whales have been migrating here for centuries. Lahaina, a city on the west coast of Maui, was a lively center for the global whaling industry in the 1800s.

These days whale-watching is the big attraction on Maui, and harpooning is out. An exciting way to spend the day is on a whale-watching boat, cruising the waters looking for whales, and waiting for that special moment when they breach.

Snorkeling is great fun, too. A good map of the island (published by University of Hawaii Press) will yield hundreds of suggestions for good snorkeling beaches, and is helpful for bypassing some of the more web-linked popular tourist spots.

This bay, below, is off the radar. We had to trek through some overgrowth to get to it, and the beach is not sand, it’s rocks. But under that water we found butterflyfish, parrotfish, goatfish, tangs, triggerfish, wrasse and more. Left center in this photo are three dots. Those are the only other snorkelers. That, to me, is paradise.

Sea turtles bob around, and, if you’re lucky, you might hear the singing of the humpbacks underwater. We did.

This spotted dove joined us on the beach.

Birds on the Hawaiian Islands are either native or introduced. Natives are the prize for birders, but rare; most are introduced, they arrived on the islands in numerous ways centuries ago.

It is interesting to see the array of introduced birds in the lowlands, but it is absolutely thrilling to go to the mountains and find some of the rare, native birds.

Introduced, non-native birds in the lowlands are bright and exotic. Hotel and resort grounds, residential backyards, and parking lots are festive with them.

Introduced lizards, like this green anole, thrive in ornamental landscapes.

But if you want to see what the Real Maui looks like, you have to leave behind the warm temperatures and sea frolics of the lowlands, and head up to the higher elevations.

We never go to Maui without at least one, preferably two, day-trips to Haleakala. From the west coast, where we usually stay, it takes 2-3 hours to reach the summit.

The farther you drive away from the tourist towns, the more Hawaiian culture you will find. Fruit stands brimming with papayas and guava and homemade banana bread, school kids getting off the bus, local life.

Then, as you ascend Haleakala, you come to overlooks with views over the whole island–land and sea. If you scan the sea with binoculars, you will see a whale spout or two in the distance.

About 75% of the island of Maui is Haleakala…that’s how big the mountain is. The tallest peak: 10,023 feet (3,055 m).

One of our favorite Haleakala places to go is Hosmer Grove. We have spent many rain-drenched hours searching for rare, prized native forest birds in this thicket, below, in Haleakala National Park.

Inside that mass of tangled trees we were rewarded with sightings of several native birds, two shown here. They have the curved bills to draw nectar from flowers.

At Haleakala’s summit are incredible overviews of this sacred mountain and its cinder cones.

Only a few plants, birds, and insects live on the summit with its harsh conditions and volcanic slopes.

Just a few virtual moments in some of your favorite places are a pleasant reminder that we have a marvelously diverse planet, and many more adventures await us.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Map of Hawaii highlighting Maui.svg
Hawaiian Islands, Maui in red. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Hiking the Columbia Gorge

Columbia River and Freight Train

I had the privilege of hiking two different trails while visiting the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia Gorge recently. The trails were on opposite sides of the Columbia River, in two different states.

 

Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River

On the north shore of the river is the state of Washington, the south side is Oregon.

 

With the helpful emails and posts of fellow blogger and PNW hiker John Carr, both hikes were awesome, and the book he suggested, Northwest Oregon by William L. Sullivan, was great. His website, johncarroutdoors.com, is dedicated primarily to PNW hikes.

 

The first day, Athena and I hiked the Falls Creek Falls trail in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, named after the first Chief of the United States Forest  Service. This trail was enchanting due to dynamic Falls Creek that was present every step of the way. Sometimes the waters expressed a calm chattering, other times, passionately raging.

 

Two exquisite footbridges aided us as we traversed the trail.

 

Suspension Footbridge, Falls Creek Falls Trail

After marveling at the footbridge engineering and enjoying  many unfamiliar plants along the way, we hiked further and discovered the old-growth trees.

 

We were awed by towering moss-covered rock walls and magnificent old-growth Douglas fir trees.

Rock Wall, Falls Creek Falls Trail

 

Athena demonstrating the size of the old-growth Douglas Fir tree

I always enjoy hiking on familiar trails, observing each new season with appreciation, and warmly greeting the trees, plants, and wildlife as the old friends they are.

 

But it’s also really fun to be in a completely new forest, especially when it is a winner. Each turn of the path yields a new surprise…mystery and adventure.

 

As we continued along the trail, the sound of the water gradually increased until it was so loud we could no longer hear each other speak…and then, through the trees, we were astounded to see the crashing waters high above us.

Falls Creek Falls, Washington

The guidebook’s author described the waterfall perfectly: “The 3-tiered cascade starts with a hidden 50-foot falls, spreads across a 70-foot fan, and finally thunders 80 feet into a rock punchbowl.”

Falls Creek Falls

We had lunch at the waterfall, and headed back, completely satisfied and happy for the magic we had experienced.

 

The other hike occurred a day later in Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. The High Prairie Trail on Lookout Mountain.

 

As we ascended, we came upon a few meadows, like this one. Although is was late August, there were still wildflowers.

Meadow, Mount Hood National Forest

 

As we continued, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Plateau.

Mount Hood and Columbia River Plateau

That day it was 90 degrees F. (32 C.), so we stopped a few times in the ascent, finding rocks to sit on and marveling at the quiet magnificence.

 

More surprises prevailed as the close-up views of Mount Hood just kept getting better and better.

 

Mount Hood, Oregon

There is no place in the world like the Pacific Northwest with its endless waterfalls, gorgeous trails, and sweeping mountain vistas.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Columbia River Gorge

Spring in the Sierras

Sierras overlook, California

Every season  in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is full of wonder and beauty, and right now the glories of spring are everywhere.

 

This mountain range reaches north-south, spanning 400 miles (640 km) on the eastern side of California. See map below. The Giant Sequoias, the largest trees in the world; Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.; and Yosemite National Park, are a few remarkable features of the Sierra Nevadas.

 

Two weekends ago we visited the northern section of the Sierras, near Lake Tahoe and Gold Country.

 

Bear River Falls, Discovery Trail, CA (Bernese Mountain Dog, named Storm, soaking in one of his favorite places, friends’ dog)

In the upper alpine elevations there was reportedly still snow on the ground. Lower, in the montane forests where these photos were taken, the last snow fell two months ago and is gone now…and the woodlands are waking up.

Ponderosa Pine

The rivers and waterfalls boisterously cascaded with frigid, clear, mountain water — snow melt from the peaks. Most of California’s water supply depends on this snow melt, so it’s always great to see the spring waters running strong.

 

We hiked through mixed conifer forests where redwood, oak, pine, and fir trees towered overhead. Bigleaf maple trees had begun their seed production.

 

The understory was coming alive with wild dogwoods in different stages of leafing out, opening their tender white flowers, technically leaves. The yellow button flower in the center attracts insects, for pollination.

 

Wild Pacific Dogwood tree, Cornus nuttallii aka Mountain Dogwood

 

Pacific Dogwood flower

 

Bigleaf Maple

 

Deer Creek, CA

 

On the forest floor wildflowers were bursting through the needle duff. Wild trillium were a special find, and clumps of bleeding hearts, abundant. The gooseberries, a type of currant, will be a tasty treat for forest mammals and birds.

Wild Trillium

Wild Bleeding Hearts, Dicentra formosa

Wild Gooseberry, Ribes

 

Caterpillars, birds and reptiles were emerging, vibrating with life. They have much to do to prepare for the new season.

Belted Kingfisher

 

Springtime doesn’t last too long in the Sierras, but when it’s here, life is vibrant.

 

Written by Jet Eliot

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

 

Sierra Nevada map.png

California and the Sierra Nevadas. Graphic courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Celebrating Earth Day, Las Gallinas Ponds

Mute swan with cygnets

For Earth Day this year I am happy to introduce you to the Las Gallinas Ponds, a place I have been visiting for nearly 20 years. This trio of shallow lakes is a humble but noteworthy example of how a large community has learned to integrate wildlife and human needs.

 

Las Gallinas is an Earth Day story. For over half a century humans and wildlife have been inhabiting this same functional space. It is more than just a park. It is an important facility in the San Rafael community, covering 400 acres and serving 30,000 residents.

 

As you walk around the three lakes and gaze upon the marsh and fields, you are greeted by birdsong and vast, open wilderness. Over 188 birds species live here, as well as mammals, reptiles, butterflies, and other wildlife.

 

Las Gallinas Ponds, San Rafael, California

Pair of Common Mergansers

 

This marsh on California Bay Area’s San Pablo Bay has a pedestrian walkway that winds around each lake. It is flat and wide, and a magnet for neighborhood walkers, joggers, bikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. It accommodates wheelchairs, strollers, and people of all ages; and is surrounded by mountains and bay.

 

Two of the ponds have small islands where black-crowned night herons, egrets, ducks and geese gather. In winter the waters are covered with migrating waterfowl.

 

Cattails and reeds host marsh wrens, bitterns, rails, and gallinules; while songbirds flit in the surrounding trees. I always see at least five different species of raptors cruising the open sky, including peregrine falcon, merlin, harriers, kites, and red-tailed hawks.

Snowy Egret

A few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, we heard about a pair of mute swans on a nest, from other trail walkers.

 

We found the nest and waited patiently, knowing that eventually the mother would stand up, turn the incubating eggs. And when she did, she revealed a nest of five large eggs.

 

Mute Swan Wikipedia. 

When the swan stood up, we saw her eggs. Look closely underneath the swan.

The next Sunday when we returned, we found two fluffy cygnets tucked underneath Mom’s large wing.

 

That day we saw so much springtime:  wildflowers in profusion, mating cinnamon teal, the absence of most of the winter migrators, and the arrival of swallows by the hundreds.

Mating Cinnamon Teal

 

I truly love to be here at the ponds. But I do not bring friends unless they are hardy outdoor people…because it is actually a sewage treatment facility. Birders go wherever the birds are, but not everyone is so undiscriminating.

 

The ponds are holding tanks for human waste, called reclamation ponds. There are 200 acres of wastewater storage, freshwater storage, and pasture irrigation fields. There is also a field of nearly 3,000 solar panels for generating electricity. See diagrams at the end.

 

This sanitation plant not only opens their grounds to the public, but they also provide generous numbers of picnic tables and benches, maintain the grounds for visitors, and host school groups. There’s even a bowl of water for dogs. Their website is also inviting, with funny educational videos.  Check out “Can’t Flush This Song” and “Recycled Water Taste Test.”

 

When you first arrive, it looks like the processing plant that it is. There are many large tanks with huge churning arms, and lots of pipes in all sizes. Hundreds of gulls, red-winged blackbirds, and starlings hover over the stirring tanks.

 

The processing station only occupies the front section, and in two minutes you don’t even notice. The trail extends alongside the ponds, stretching out for several miles.

 

Northern Mockingbird

By this past Sunday, the third one in a row, we were nervous about what we might find at the swan nest. Who, we wondered, had been successful: the swan family or the predators? There are river otters, badgers, and coyote here who would love to crack into a big swan egg.

 

Wildlife check list at Las Gallinas Ponds

American White Pelican

Good news. The two cygnets were still around, had even grown a bit, and they were earnestly paddling beside their parents. I don’t know about the other three eggs.

 

People laugh when I tell them I go to the sewage ponds for my birthday. They think I’m kidding.

 

Photo credit: Athena Alexander

LGVSD Pond Poster

Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

Solar Power Project

Solar Power Project. Courtesy Las Gallinas Valley Sanitary District

 

Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles Nat'l Park, Calif.

Pinnacles Nat’l Park, Calif.

This week marks the 108th anniversary of Pinnacles National Park located in central California, approximately 50 miles inland of Monterey.

 

 

Craggy peaks of Pinnacles, Calif.

Craggy peaks of Pinnacles, Calif.

Initially designated as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, the park has expanded in size, upgraded to national park status, and been graced with fortifying legislation by at least five U.S. presidents.  More history here.

 

Pinnacles entry to Balconies Cave. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Today it is known for being one of four U.S. sites where captive-bred California Condors were released into the wild.  It is also home to 14 of California’s 24 wild bat species. Hikers, rock climbers, birders and outdoor enthusiasts enjoy it year round.

 

Pinnacles NP, Calif.

Pinnacles NP, Calif.

Pinnacles was created 23 million years ago when the Neenach Volcano erupted in powerful explosions of lava flow.  Lying on the San Andreas Fault, it was then split and moved 195 miles.  It continues to move at a rate of one inch per year.

 

Pinnacles hiker

Pinnacles hiker

Rock formations, talus caves, and abundant wildlife are just a few of the attractions in this huge (26,606 acres  or 10,767 ha) expanse.  Park info here.

 

Interestingly, Pinnacles, Muir Woods, and the Grand Canyon were all designated as national monuments on this week in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

 

Pinnacles NP, Calif.

Pinnacles NP, Calif.

What a great week, and great foresight.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

Denali Delights

Male caribou, Denali

Male caribou, Denali

Touring through Denali is unlike other U.S. national parks because there is only one road, and few trails. This glorious park is well designed to preserve the park, protect the wildlife, and lighten the impact of human visitors.

 

Denali Park Road is 92 miles long, with only the first 15 miles open to private vehicles. Going deeper into the park requires park buses.  Additionally, most of the park does not have trails; those that exist are less than five miles long and primarily near the entrance. This is to minimize maintenance in this extremely remote and unserviceable place.

Denali Park Rd & Mt. McKinley

Denali Park Rd & Mt. McKinley

 

There are 39 species of mammals, including caribou, moose, bear, wolves; and 169 species of birds.  With over 650 plant species in an environment of forest, tundra, and glaciers, there are numerous habitats.   In addition, majestic Mt. McKinley looms at 20,320 feet offering hiking, mountain climbing, and glacier exploration.

 

For visitors there are ecological options of courtesy, shuttle, or tour buses.  Hiking is largely cross-country.

 

green bus stopped along a dirt road, mountains in the distance, and a sheep downslope.

Denali Shuttle Bus. Photo: Nathan Kostegian, NPS

Green shuttle buses travel Denali Park Road, picking hikers up and dropping them off wherever they please.  I noticed not many people did this.  Alternatively, there are a few designated day trips available, or visitors can take a park bus tour.  Learn more here.

 

One day we enjoyed a designated day trip to Wonder Lake.  With views of Mt. McKinley and exquisite panoramas of the mountains and tundra, it was awesome.  We did not spend as much time at the lake as hoped, because the mosquitoes were rabid.

 

Grizzly Bear, Denali NP, Alaska

Grizzly Bear, Denali

One day we took a pre-arranged flight tour to a glacier at the top of Mt. McKinley.  Spectacular!  Read more here.

 

Several days we explored, on foot, areas we had researched, targeting wildlife and birds.  We used the required green bus and boarded and de-boarded as we liked.  One day the bus driver dropped us off, and as the two of us descended the bus steps he said, “Be careful, I’ve heard there are grizzlies around here today.”  Off goes the bus, we are completely alone in this vast expanse, and I said, “What did he just say?”

 

A few hours later I had forgotten my fear about the grizzlies.  We had hiked a few miles, taking photos and exploring, and then came across a delightful stream.  After carrying loads of equipment, we decided to temporarily stash the scope and tripod under a bush; set the daypack down while we scouted out a picnic spot upstream.

Denali creek, daypacks

Athena photographing, Denali streamside (Photo: Jet)

 

Ten minutes later we returned to the daypack and found, disconcertingly, that it was moving.  We ran at the backpack, and shouted at it.  Out jumped a ground squirrel.  Fortunately it was only a small mammal, and not something big enough to eat us.

 

Ground Squirrel, Denali

Ground Squirrel, Denali

One of the things I absolutely love about hiking and outdoor adventures, is that the conventions of household living are considerably looser.  Here we were in the middle of 6 million acres of wilderness, no food shops for hundreds of miles.   We needed lunch, but would there be any left?  Fortunately, he had only eaten parts of our Fig Newton cookies.  So we sat down, ate our pawed-over but uneaten lunch, including the untouched ends of the Fig Newtons.

 

Wolf, Denali

Wolf, Denali

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander (except as noted)

 

Mount McKinley, Denali NP, Alaska

Mount McKinley

Dall Sheep, Denali NP, Alaska

Dall Sheep, Denali

Wonder Lake, Denali

Wonder Lake, Denali

Tule Elk

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

Tule elk male, Pt. Reyes, California

The tule elk are a thrill to be on the trail with, in one of my favorite places on earth:  Point Reyes National Seashore. This time of year the females and their calves are clustered together.  In the late summer or early fall, the rutting season begins.

 

Tule-Elk, Doe

Tule elk, female & calf, Pt. Reyes

Because it is the seashore, there is often dense fog.  It is surreal to hear those big bulls bugling, but not see them. It sounds like a whiney scream.

 

I’ve found that sometimes the moisture of fog can distort the direction of sounds, like with birds.  But not so with the strong voices of the elk.  That call comes blasting directly through the fog.

 

This is a comforting thing because I like knowing exactly where that 500 lb (226 kg) mammal is standing.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Echidna

Echidna, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Echidna, Kangaroo Island, Australia

Australia has some of the strangest and most divine creatures on this planet.  The day I got to see an echidna was a thrill.

 

The short-beaked echidna is a monotreme, meaning it is a mammal that lays eggs.  There are only two kinds of monotremes in the world:  the echidna and the platypus.  They both live in Australia and nearby New Guinea, and I am happy to report I have seen both.  (I have written about the delightful platypus in earlier posts.  Click here to read Chasing a Platypus.)

 

The day I saw the echidna was one of my first days in Australia.  A ranger in the park, where it looked like we were the only humans within 50 miles, had told us to go to the Black Swamp if we wanted to see a platypus.  We spent most of the searingly hot day at this swamp, but never saw a platypus.  Then on the hike back, with no animals or humans in sight, we heard a disturbing rustle at our feet.  Fortunately we remained quiet and just stepped back.  Then out waddles this spiky little brown ball.

 

Common throughout Australia, Tachyglossus aculeatus are no longer than 18 inches long and weigh less than ten pounds. The entire body is covered with spines (except for its underside and face).  Each spine is 1-2 inches long, and used in defense.  They have strong little legs for burrowing into hibernation; and a long, sensitive snout for finding food.  Sometimes called spiny anteater, they eat ants, termites and beetle larvae, and use their sticky tongue to lick them up.  To read more about this unusual animal, click here. 

 

I went back to “Oz” again years later, and overall I have spent six weeks here, but I never came across another echidna.  Fortunately the few minutes I had with this special creature were savored and celebrated, before he waddled away.

 

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Coastal Hiking Adventure

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

A recent trip to Wilder Ranch State Park on the California coast was a truly spectacular day.  Few cars in the parking lot and unpaved paths were the first sign it was a gem, for this meant fewer people.

 

A short distance from the sea, we could not yet see it, but we could smell the brine.  After less than a mile we turned a corner and our world opened up with a bay and cliffs and the mighty Pacific Ocean.  Sea birds, seals, and tumbling waves were surrounded by craggy cliffs and the infinite expanse of the sea. Thereafter, every corner was a new coastal cove and a sleepy pod of seals, or nesting shorebirds on the cliffs, or soaring pelicans.

 

Harbor Seals

Harbor Seals

Our return hike extended longer than anticipated because the map wasn’t quite accurate.  The sandy trail ended at a farm, and our new view was a field and a farmer on his tractor.  In the distance we saw trail bikers going somewhere, so we headed that way and found abandoned railroad tracks that turned into the trail that eventually led to the parking lot.  It was all part of the adventure, and a fine one it was.

 

Harbor Seals

Harbor Seals

Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

 

 

 

Western Gull on nest

Western Gull on nest

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans