dispatches & explored

Of Pines, Water, and Wasting Away

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.

Bautista_Rope Throw
Cub Scout Readyman Training | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy Mrs Bautista

"Science!" 1/2
“Because SCIENCE!” (Matilija) | Spring 2015

"Science!" 2/2
“Because SCIENCE!” (Bellyache Springs) | Spring 2015

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.

Horn Canyon Trail | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Horn Canyon Trail | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Woolly Blue Curls
Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum), Horn Canyon Trail | Spring 2015

Wooly Blue Curls 1
Woolly Blue Curls | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy and © Li’l G

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 Pines
View of the Pines | Winter 2010

What a Difference Two Months Makes
View of the Pines | Spring 2010

Pines in View! O! The Joy!
View of the Pines | Early Winter 2013

Approaching Camp
(Shaky, Zoomed) View of the Pines | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy and © Trailmaster Cobra

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.

G's Tree
G’s Tree, Chumash Wilderness | Spring 2015

Panorama: The Chorro Grande trail Sentinel Trees, January 22, 2015
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.

2013-02-10_HornCanyon-Pines (17)
Watch and Learn | The Pines, Winter 2013 | Photo courtesy and © Bardlero Primero

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.

“Dad SMASH!” | Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Image courtesy and © Li’l G

19 Gallons
Image courtesy and © Li’l G


Pines Posse
Pines Posse | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Image courtesy and © Li’l G


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!

Night Descent


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 camp
The Pines | Spring 2013 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat

The Pines Camp from above
The Pines from On High | Summer 2011 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat

Horn Canyon trail ocean view - The Pines camp overlook
The Pines from On High | Fall 2012 | Image courtesy and © The Los Padres Expat

The Pines from On High | Spring 2014 | Image courtesy and © Andy K

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.

Guardians at the Gate, The Pines | Spring 2015

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.

Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Image courtesy and © Li’l G


Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Spiral 3
Image courtesy and © Li’l G

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.


The Pines
Image courtesy and © Li’l G

Get ’em out there!

"What's that shadow on the blind?"

(The Horn Canyon Trail is detailed in Route 59 of Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura.)

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Sespe Sundays

Last April, I spent a great 3 days out at Sespe Hot Springs with an intrepid crew of Los Padres luminaries. But this April has been a bit mellower — and the miles fewer — as schedules, water scarcity, and an aging pack all combined to make lazy afternoons creekside a pretty viable option.

The Warden

And so of late I’ve been revisiting the old Lion swimming hole along the Sespe. Once a crush of poorly-behaved revelers, half-drunk and/or half-naked rabble-rousers and general miscreants, the Lion swim hole wasn’t one I visited often (nor were we ever allowed to camp there as wee explorers of the forest when Lion Campground still stood). For us, Lion Camp was simply a take-off point into points beyond.

Lion Takeoff
12 Years Old, About to Get Taken Down a Notch | Lion Camp | Image Mumsy

Now the ever-bustling Piedra Blanca TH, it’s a place (like the Sespe itself) that has had many guises, including roadhead, CCC Camp, and party spot. After the camp was shuttered (official reason was the preservation of endangered amphibians, but you just know the USFS was glad to be rid of the headache that was Lion Camp), it seems many folks began to forget why it was such an attractive location in the first place.

2925-C @ Piedra Blanca Guard Station, May 1940
2925-C @ Piedra Blanca Guard Station, May 1940 | Image courtesy LPNF Archives

This past Easter — with our original plans for a family backpack made impractical by some of those aforementioned factors — the lovely bride and I hauled the wee ones and the pack to Lion for a day of decompression and some Easter egg hunting.

So less a trip report or idle musings and more of a photo essay of lazy days and Cub Scout fun at yonder swimmin’ hole and the old Lion camp grounds, behold the little forgotten corner that’s actually re-established itself as a nice little spot this past decade. (A “Diamond in the Rough” entry will follow in due time.)

On the Hunt
On the Hunt | Easter 2015

Found One!
“Found One!” | Easter 2015

Patrolmutt Emeritus

Lion Swimming Hole

“You May Scratch Me,” Quoth the Queen Uber-hund | Image courtesy Li’l G

Image courtesy Li’l G

Image courtesy Li’l G

Best Buds
Image courtesy Li’l G

Refreshed x3

Shake it Off
Image courtesy Li’l G

Bautista_Lion Orientation
Cub Scout Readyman Training | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy Mrs Bautista

Bautista_Rope Throw
Cub Scout Readyman Training | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy Mrs Bautista

Gibson_Setting the Buoys
Setting Safety Buoys | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy Ms Gibson

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Chumash X

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

In early April, the monkeys and I headed into the backwood for our annual Chumash Wilderness sojourn. We had spent the morning at the LPFA‘s excellent open house event at Wheeler Gorge, and so didn’t quite get the early start we often enjoy, but it was a sublime mosey along the North Fork of Lockwood Creek.

Heterochromatic Happiness

These Kids

“Mr McGee, Don’t Make Him Angry …” Image courtesy Li’l G.

Meadow-bound | Spring 2015 | Image courtesy Li’l G

Lily Meadows Campsite

Water was — as one might expect — about as low as could be, and short of having snow on the north-facing slopes to melt as I’d had my last few visits (including last Spring’s epic Bear Cub service project), we were relieved to see at least a trickle coming over the North Fork Falls, as we knew we should be able to locate at least some water closer to Lily Meadows.

Morning on the Chumash

This was a special year because it marked the tenth year in a row Li’l G was joining the trip. As so I did the math: those 10 trips included 9 treks up the North Fork and 1 to a guerrilla camp along Amargosa Creek, but in addition to those annual events she’d thrice backpacked in to Sheep Camp with the family or Scouts (her first trip at 3-and-one-half years, thank you kindly). Clearly, Li’l G isn’t so little anymore.

At the Pictographs
Lunch Break | Spring 2008

Lil G and the Sherpa
Off the Grid | Spring 2009

North Fork Falls No. 2
North Fork Falls | Spring 2010

Chumash Posse
Vincent Tumamait Trail | Spring 2012

We arrived at our traditional guerrilla camp in the late afternoon, and were greeted by the usual hiking hounds and general Forest malcontents: Mighty Mary, Billy Monster, Mr G, Hank, Bardlero Primero … a veritable gaggle of backwood wanderers, who’d landed here from points disparate. We set our beds beneath the usual copse of Jeffrey pines, and then after some idle fire-side chatting and beer-swilling, took advantage of the late sunset and wandered back downstream far enough to find a mucky, silted seep beneath Lily Springs where we were able to pull enough water to last us the rest of this sojourn. Even with the pre-filter and the intake set in the cleanest spot we could find, I was scrubbing the ceramic element on the filter after every liter. Dire times, people.

One Big Happy BPA-free Family | Image courtesy Li’l G

It was a long evening of revelry around the fire, and as temperatures dropped and folks turned in, Little Man (as usual) watched them go. He beds down at a reasonable hour at home, but when out here on the perimeter he seems to want to be awake for as much of the time as possible. And I don’t blame him.

Little Stalwart

Hank Alight
Hank Alight | Spring 2015

38 Degrees and All Good

Image courtesy Li’l G

To the ... North Star!
To the … North Star!

Eventually, though, we did turn in … the kids in their tent and the heterochromatic hellhound and I testing a new (to us) floorless tent I’d recently acquired.

Reading Light

The next morn, we were up when we felt like it … which might very well be the best thing about the wilderness. After hearty breakies and photo-taking, the crews all packed and were on their respective ways. Bardlero Primero joined Clan Carey for our descent back toward Camp Three Falls.


Smith_Chumash 001
Image courtesy Bardlero Primero

Thin tread

Smith_Chumash 003
Image courtesy Bardlero Primero

End of the Road 2015

Another fine outing, and already we look forward to next year. Get ’em out there!

(North Fork Lockwood Creek is detailed in Route 71 of Hiking and Backpacking Santa Barbara & Ventura.)

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Segue: Costa Rica Reprieve

Livin’ la Pura Vida

As we walked through the drizzle, the Little Man subjected me to the usual queries: “what kind of plant is this, Dad?” … “is that flower edible?” … “do you think there’s giardia in that river?”

And I didn’t know — not once. It was a uniquely disconcerting experience, not having an answer for pretty much anything. In the Los Padres when one of my Cubs make similar queries, I can usually drop the scientific name, ethnobotanical history, idle trivia, and an engaging anecdote or two for every tree, flower, or bug they point out or bring to me.

But here, I was a stranger in a strange land, and my slate was blank. And that was no bueno.

Etlingera elatior (el bastón de emperador)
Etlingera elatior (el bastón de emperador) | July 2014

But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so allow me to explain.

In the summer of 2014, Li’l Professor G was awarded a partial scholarship to partake in a Girl Scout “Destination” program, studying green sea turtles off the coast of Panama in a joint Girl Scouts/Outward Bound excursion. And so rather quickly the clan’s plans for a short sojourn to the UK were superseded by a 10-day exploratory of Costa Rica. This is our story.

We landed in San Jose as do nearly 99% of international travelers arriving in Costa Rica by air, and headed north toward the Arenal region. My lovely bride — the inimitable finder of bargains (have I mentioned her $499 nonstop LAX-AKL roundtrip fares a few years back?) — had booked us at an off-the-beaten-path, off-the-grid accommodation just outside the southwest edge of Parque Nacional Volcán Arenal, and so we enjoyed five hours of driving through tropical two-lanes through torrential rain, finishing on a rutted and muddy road to the banks of the Rio Cano Negro and toward Rancho Margot.

This ...

Wandering Rancho Margot | July 2014

Now, to be fair, my lovely bride is certainly not part of the shoestring-budget “Lonely Planet” crowd. She won’t do hostels, she won’t share a common bathroom, and though as green as can be, she likes her comforts. So her willingness to embrace the carbon-neutral, chemical-free, and uber-sustainable accommodations at Rancho Margot I suspected would be a stretch.

Upon arrival, Little Man (who’d been patient with the long car ride, but needed to go burn some energy) extolled me to go explore. And so we wandered off a few hours around the river banks and grounds.







I’ll not sing the praises of the Rancho Margot staff, amenities, or great food overly, lest this chronicle turn into a thinly-veiled endorsement. (I but humbly recommend you check it out.)

After a steady night of rain, we enjoyed a lazy morning at the dining common sipping coffee and watching Little Man chase various bugs. Soon afterward, we headed along the Mirador trail for our first full-family hike of the trip.


Happy Feet

Mud Magnet





Big Stick Diplomacy

Doing the Bardlero, Costa Rica-style


Mirador Mosey

With muddy boots and soaked clothes, we wandered back to base and sat through another squall of tropical rain. The kids busied themselves on the small rain-slicked playground while the missus and I enjoyed mug after mug of coffee beneath the awning.




That evening, the frogs and toads came out in numbers. A huge chorus of amphibians sang to us during dinner and our evening wanderings.



It rained all night. In fact, so as to allay any suspense, I should let you know it basically rained the first 6 days we were in Costa Rica. All. Day. Long.

The next morning, acknowledging getting wet wouldn’t be a change of course, we headed down the muddy rutted road in the shadows of the volcano for some hiking on the grounds of the Arenal Observatory Lodge.





The kids discovered new trees, uncovered snake skins, enjoyed views from the Arenal Observatory, and — on the way back to the car — spotted their first coati.




A lazy lunch in Castillo, more rain, and by the third day we were well into the groove of la pura vida. I probably had more uninterrupted conversations with my lovely bride over the course of our week in northern Costa Rica than I’d had in the past few years. (And mind you, this is on holiday with the wee ones in tow.)


The next morning, we were up early for a behind-the-scenes tour of the workings at Rancho Margot, from the methane recovery system used to fuel the cooking stoves, to the vegetable gardens, to the hydroelectric system used to generate the resort’s electricity.


But the monkeys were excited to further explore the local grounds, and so another hike was organized, and we spent the mid-day wandering the tracks in the hills above.

Phoenix Forest Trail, Arenal Costa Rica




It rained all night. The next day, we were up early to travel down the rutted road back to the highway, enjoy some lunch in La Fortuna, and — at Little Man’s request — go ziplining. Neither the missus nor I were too keen on that last part, but we figured what the heck. We navigated fallen trees, debris, and high-water flotsam getting back to town, our sojourn occasionally punctuated by fly-bys of chestnut-mandibled toucans. All very entertaining.





It was rain, rain, beer, and more rain. It was awesome. Then, to sate the adventurous appetites of 8-year-olds, the weather gods acquiesced just long enough to allow a thoroughly entertaining afternoon of ziplining through the jungle canopy at the foot of the volcano.







After 5 days wandering northern Costa Rica, it was time to pack up and haul our Girl Scout back to San Jose, where she would head off on her adventure with other Scouts from across the US. We enjoyed a relaxing return to the “big city,” dropped Li’l G off with her Outward Bound escorts, and soon enough our party of three was westward bound, headed for Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast.



Well, yeah. It’s still me. Monument over the Rio Tarcoles.


“No, I don’t think you’ll need to use Sport mode, buddy. Just take the picture.”


This is what Costa Rican stress looks like.

Pretty sure he asked for one every 5 minutes.

For the Little Man, it was lifelist overload. Crocodiles in the rivers beneath the highway en route, cold coconut juice at will, sloths and iguanas and monkeys, days spent in the surf and meals with insane views … his only regret was not finding an eyelash viper. (Neither his mother nor I had similar regrets, thank you kindly.)

On the whole, a supremely relaxing and restorative time. Pura Vida!

Recommended reading: Lonely Planet Costa Rica (Travel Guide) and Lonely Planet Costa Rican Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary and Tropical Plants of Costa Rica.

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