It was a rag-tag crew that convened at the Horn Canyon trailhead on a recent Friday afternoon; dads just off work and kids and allies all ready to end the week with some fine time in a fine corner of the southern Los Padres.
There have been plenty of quick trips into the backwood of late — Sundays along the Sespe, lunch at Potrero John, hikes above Bellyache Springs and into Matilija Canyon for school science projects — but it had been a solid few weeks since I’d tramped into a trail camp.
But this was a special trip … perhaps we should call it the trip before the trip.
As many wanderers of our backwood have lamented of late, the ongoing drought has really put a dent in our options. Even usually reliable camps across the Forest are beginning to drop off the list of viable destinations as springs and creeks dry up, and the Forest Service itself had been detailing the wide-spread decline and death of drought- and beetle-stricken trees across the forest. To borrow from Professor Slughorn, these are mad times we live in. MAD! Weeks before this trek to The Pines, the reports had come in that the trough at the venerable camp had – like so many other sources — gone dry.
Well, I had a gaggle of Cub Scouts headed up that way in a few weeks, so that didn’t bode well. Level III fire restrictions is one thing, but dry-camping with a pile of youth … no. So a hearty crew of volunteers and volun-tolds had in their packs 19 gallons of water ready to cache for the impending Scout invasion.
After a nice chat with Thacher School’s headmaster (who informed us the hose leading from the spring to the trough had recently been routered, re-connected, and were again flowing), our merry band was off in the waning afternoon light. Armed with headlamps and enough water to drown a fish, we were in no particular hurry and with Tanman, Trailmaster Cobra, and the Caminator in the lead, we took some time to enjoy the views, chat about the numerous mariposa lilies in bloom, marvel at the ridiculously healthy poison oak, and ponder the geology of Horn Canyon. (Oh, and catch our breath.) It was a great time.
Now, the wee Careys have made this trip a number of times, and they’ve witnessed the slow decline of a few of the Coulter Pines at the namesake campsite, but I don’t think any of us were prepared for the dramatic decline in health the trees at The Pines now exhibit.
The glimpse one gains at the last stretch before heading west toward the “Red Ravine” gave a disheartening preview of what awaited us at camp. Now of course we all know the life of trees is finite … even Methuselah out in the Whites won’t live forever. But of late a number of notable trees that have held some level of import to me and my fellow wanderers have fallen victim to drought, among them “Quickbeam” along the Chorro Grande, G’s “Biggest Tree” along the North Fork Lockwood, and even the eastern bluegum of Ventura’s Two Trees. Beetles, the current drought, and whatever other stressors have made it a rather lousy time to be one of my favorite trees.
Chorro Grande Sentinel Trees | Winter 2015 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat
We arrived at camp with some daylight to spare, but as those fire restrictions precluded a warming fire which Trailmaster had so proudly built our last two visits, we set instead to jackets and beanies.
Our younger hikers picked around camp a bit, and though the weeds are encroaching mightily, one positive take-away from this island of dendrological decline was that the spring was in fine shape, and the overflow basins were all full. But true to the Scout motto, we were not to be caught unprepared if the spring did run dry, so we got to work secreting our heavy burden beneath a long-standing wood pile of Coulter rounds.
We rewarded our industry with a round of IPAs for the hydro-sherpas, and then packed up for the return. The hike out was under lamplight, and for many of our crew it was their first time night-hiking. Exciting stuff!
In the weeks after our caching expedition, I often found myself wondering what will become of Jacinto Reyes’s beloved copse of Coulter Pines. Though Coulters are notoriously fire-susceptible (Alamar or Madulce Peak trails post-Zaca, anyone?), I don’t dislike them as a tree … but wonder if perhaps some Big-cone Douglas firs (my favorite conifer of the southern LPNF) wouldn’t be better-suited to this stretch. Or need any trees be planted at all? Would that be “meddling?”
The Pines | Spring 2013 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat
The Pines from On High | Summer 2011 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat
The Pines from On High | Fall 2012 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat
A few weeks later, a fine team of Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts was assembled at the Horn Canyon trailhead on a hot Saturday morning. The morning had gotten off to a rough start, with Trailmaster being felled by a stomach bug and left home … and missing the Cubs’ 47th “Hunt of the Month.” He was not pleased.
Whilst we readied our gear, once one more did the Thacher school head happen by, and we had another short chat about conditions along the trail. And then we were off!
It was a scorcher, reaching between 83 and 86F as we made that slow climb beyond the fourth crossing. As this was the first backpacking trip for some of the boys, I was beginning to think I might end up ruing the decision to “bend” the no-Los-Padres-backpacking-after-Memorial-Day rule.
The BSA’s character trait of the month was “perseverance,” and the boys did all sorts of persevering. My Lady Mountaineers — Senior Girl Scouts — are hard-as-nails mountain women, so I wasn’t at all concerned with how they’d fare, but I was pleasantly surprised at the gusto with which so many 9- and 10-year-old boys tackled that hot-as-blazes ascent. Upon our arrival at camp, they were quick to set about to making swords from fallen branches, rope from yucca, improvised bows and arrows, and, well … acting like boyz in the wood.
Later that afternoon, a text came in informing me HRH was en route with the uber-hund and Trailmaster: the little man was on the mend and eager to join his fellow Cubs … could I meet them somewhere near the fourth crossing? And so with only a slight sigh, I headed back down the trail that steep mile-and-a-half to rendez-vous with my lovely bride, her ever-eager trail hound, and the young master.
It took some time to convince the 13-year-old uber-hund she was to return with Mrs Carey, but after that sad task done, the little man and I headed toward camp. Even with his pack and I only carrying a small day kit, he dusted me on many of the stretches. I am loathe to imagine what will happen when he hits double digits.
Once back at camp, the boys enjoyed unstructured free time into the night, we had a “flashlight fire” to award some recent advancement and badges, the Lady Mountaineers spent a disproportionate amount of time with their photography pursuits, and we all ate like kings of the forest. And yes, we went through all 19 gallons … and then some.
We were up, fed, packed, and gone by 9am the next day. Another great adventure in the annals of little feet in a big Forest … but still I wonder what will be come of this camp, one that for nearly a century has been a refuge for many a hiker.
Get ’em out there!
(The Horn Canyon Trail is detailed in Route 59 of Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura.)