Sunday, January 17, 2021


Early snow at Upper Lindsey Lake (6,700'). We couldn't keep climbing without snowshoes or slowing way down.

Here in the North-Central Sierra Nevada we’ve all been longing for cleaner air, cooler weather, more water in the streams, greener vegetation and less fire danger.  That time has arrived – it’s called winter, and it’s best enjoyed by participating in it.  Winter is another superb season for hiking in the Yuba-Bear watersheds.


“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing” – You’ve probably seen this well-worn outdoorsy quote many times.  It’s usually attributed to Alfred Wainwright, who wrote hiking guidebooks in the British Isles.  First off, this is an untrue comment and dangerously simplistic.  While I get the Be Bold attitude it still sounds as if it was written by a marketer of outdoor clothing.  What’s irresponsible is suggesting that nature is a mere nuisance and not a formidable and often unpredictable force capable of creating weather ranging from merely “inconvenient” to devastating disasters.  Being respectful and aware of the landscape you’re navigating (and dressing sensibly) will provide you the greatest satisfaction and the most safety.


Fortunately, among my friends, there is a small band of rugged and enthusiastic hikers who are willing to undergo some rough weather for exercise and cheap thrills.  But, truthfully, I have had a difficult time getting people enthusiastic about hiking in the wind, rain and snow.  Actually, most winter days around here are sunny, bright and crisp with a blue sky that is unattainable in the summer, while on other days skies are in shades of gray, but seldom depressing.  In the winter, I’ve found that it’s often more pleasant outside than it appears from the inside.  The sun may, or may not, “break-through”, but once you’re outside it’s great to be out, regardless.


In general, winter hiking takes longer than summer hiking – you tend to move slower and encounter more obstacles – plan accordingly.  Days are shorter in winter, so hit the trail early to avoid being out in the dark and always bring a flashlight or headlamp (spare batteries too).  Contact land managers, etc. to inquire about conditions and high-risk areas.  If you’re in a group, base the plan on the least experienced/able person.  Always tell someone your plan – where you’re headed (include a map), your estimated return time, who you’ll be with, etc.  When in doubt, don’t go out.


Inclement weather, however, you define it, provides drama and often interesting photos.  If possible, test your raingear, wind breaker or lug-soled shoes before you’re in a circumstance where you need to depend on them.

Winter on the South Yuba, near Purdon Crossing about 1986 


Wear a hat, the value of a wool hat and scarf can’t be overemphasized – about 4 % of body heat is lost through the head, neck and shoulders.  Pack gloves, dry socks and bring enough food and water.  Hiking poles absorb shock on descents and provide stability on slippery surfaces.


Technological devices can malfunction in cold temperatures or when wet, so bring extra batteries/battery packs.  Don’t rely on your phone.  A few years back, in September, we were up near Gold Lake/Sierra Buttes when we were surprised by a summer squall with heavy rain.  Suddenly everyone was scrambling to get their cell phones deep inside their packs where the rain couldn’t reach them.  Still another use for the versatile Ziploc baggie.


I also carry a topographic map, a whistle, a pocket-knife, a compass, a small first aid kit, plastic bags for wet clothing or garbage, toilet paper, sun block or sunscreen, packets of trace minerals and a lighter.  I always carry a bandana as well because they come in handy.  They make a decent sling or bandage and they’re good for wrapping treasures like that bird wing or fox skull that you need to take home.  Be aware.  It only takes a light dusting of snow to obscure trail splits and turns.  If you’re not sure of your location in a particular situation, you’ll be glad that you have GPS and/or a topo map with you.  


Food is fuel – bring enough.  Just as a wood stove requires logs to create warmth so does your body need calories to generate warmth and energy.  Bring more of the various energy bars, nuts, and cookies than you think you’ll need and share them.


One more thing.  Some trails because of their slope, soil, or use patterns can take a beating in the wet season and suffer erosion, landslides, etc.  If you see a trail that’s being overused or has been damaged please stop using it, advise your friends to stay off of it, and report the damage to the agency managing the trail.

Near Maybert, on the South Yuba above Washington

Dress for the known weather conditions but be prepared for the unknown.  Each layer has a different function in the creation of a microclimate around your body.  When hiking in cold weather, you should wear three layers.  If you get hot, shed a layer before you get too sweaty.


The inner, or base, layer is meant to transport body moisture away from the skin so that wet undergarments do not rob the body of heat.  Polypropylene, silk, wool or cotton-net undergarments are recommended.  A middle layer allows for insulation against cold air.  This would include such items as a long-sleeved shirt, a wool sweater, a vest or a jacket.  The outer layer is meant for protection in case of adverse conditions like snow, rain and high winds.  Typical outer, or shell garments, are Goretex jackets, windbreakers, coated nylon shells or waterproof parkas.


Avoid sweating to the point that your clothing gets wet.  Most outer garments have features to allow for the escape of heat.  Of course, you can always open your parka or even remove a layer of insulation.  Naturally you heat up when you’re moving but when you stop for a break, put something on.  Dress before you start to get cold.  Anticipate your metabolism slowing down and keep a warm body core by putting something on.


Wool has the miraculous ability to retain heat and warmth even when it’s soaking wet.  The investment you make in a good wool sweater, jacket or hat is worth it because it’s going to protect you.  Leave extra clothing in your vehicle for when you get back – dry clothes are always welcome.

Chilly, but cool.


Hypothermia. Be aware of it because it can sneak up on you and take your life!  When you begin to lose heat faster than your body produces it, the process begins.  Wet clothing facilitates the progression.  If exposure continues until your energy reserves are exhausted, cold eventually reaches your brain, depriving you of judgment and reasoning power.  You will not be aware this is happening.


The symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable fits of shivering, slow and slurred speech, memory lapses, incoherence, immobile and fumbling hands, a stumbling and/or lurching gait and drowsiness.  The desire to lie down and close your eyes is nearly impossible to fight off, but it is crucial to remain awake.  A victim of hypothermia will lie down to rest, fall asleep, lose more body heat and die.  I have had several close calls with hypothermia that have made me very respectful.


Many years ago, after spending a few days alone on the Pacific Crest Trail near Gold Lake, I was surprised by an early snowfall.  It was wet and slushy snow, so I started downslope toward my car, which was a few hours away.  As I descended there was more rain than snow, and by the time I got close to Gold Lake, I was soaked, and a bit confused about where my car was parked.  I was really getting tired and despite the fact that I was only about a half-mile from the car, I thought that it might be a good idea to lie down for a rest.  My thinking was very fuzzy at this point, but luckily, I stumbled upon a summer camp with wooden buildings that was closed for the winter.  One of the buildings was open, so I went inside and immediately wanted to lie down for a nap on the bunk, despite my wet clothing, which by now had me shivering.  There was a small voice telling me to get out of my wet clothes and into my sleeping bag, but it was not as persistent as the big voice telling me to get some sleep right now.  Somehow, I did get out of my clothes and into my dry down bag.  I’m lucky to be here.  This was stupid behavior that could have been prevented.  Right up front I should have been with a companion who could have noticed my symptoms.  Secondly, where was my rain gear?  Clearly, I was unprepared to begin with, and the hypothermia only made me more stupid.


If the weather is cold (but not necessarily freezing) and you get wet from rain, melting snow or perspiration; and if the wind then picks up to increase the chilling effect, you are a prime candidate for hypothermia.  Cold is not necessarily a factor –I have seen the temperature drop after a downpour followed by strong wind in July.  Remember, hypothermia has to do with your body’s ability to retain heat.  Wind and rain can cause heat loss at any time of the year.  When you stop for a break, put a layer of clothing on before you cool down, and don’t sit on a cold rock surface where you can lose heat by conduction; sit on your pack or on a log.


First aid for hypothermia involves getting the victim out of the cold and or wind.  Get them out of wet clothing, cover with blankets and offer warm beverages.  If the person is not breathing begin CPR.


Frostbite. Frostbite is less likely because it’s caused by exposure to very cold temperatures, whereas most hiking occurs during warmer weather or at lower elevations.  However, because spring and fall weather is so unpredictable, it can’t hurt to be prepared.  Frostbite is caused when crystals form superficially or in the underlying tissue of the skin and in the body fluids.  The extremities—the nose, ears, fingers and toes are most commonly affected. The effects of frostbite are more severe if the body parts are thawed and subsequently refrozen.


Symptoms of developing frostbite include skin with a glossy sheen, skin color changing to white or grayish-yellow and numbness and blisters that may appear in the affected tissue.  Frequently victims will not be aware of frostbite until someone else notices their pale, glossy skin.  First aid is to warm the affected area(s) rapidly (but without rubbing or disturbing the frozen tissue, which could lead to gangrene).  Out on a hike the best you’ll be able to do is cover the affected area, get back to your vehicle and out of the weather as soon as possible.  Seek medical attention immediately.

That's me in 1978 out for a few days of spring skiing near Castle Peaks

Most people who hike in winter do so just below the snow line in the mixed conifer forests and on stream-lined trails where there is plenty of moss, lichen and other spore bearing plants.  These lush, bold green plants can dominate and dazzle a landscape in the winter so treat yourself to this seasonal splendor.  If you want to know more about these plants, I recommend Katie O’Hara’s North Yuba Naturalist blog and these two posts in particular:


Enjoy, but Leave No Trace

In the 1980s I had a cabin on Washington Ridge at about 4,500' .  It was colder then.

If you live in the vicinity of the Bear or Yuba watershed here are a few places to hike in the winter – I’m only offering general locales here.  Details about these hikes are available from various sources online.


The Spenceville Wildlife Area contains 11,900 acres of wildlife habitat in the Bear River watershed.  There are many trails, averaging 3 to 6 miles long with little climbing involved.  Most of the area is in a savannah-type setting, featuring blue oak and gray pine.  Elevations range between 200 to 1,200 feet.  Its major perennial stream is Dry Creek.  The trail to Fairy Falls has become a popular attraction and for that reason is best enjoyed in “bad weather.”


Fairy Falls on Dry Creek, near Spenceville.  It's raining.

Also, in the Bear River basin is the Empire Mine State Historic Park in Grass Valley and its system of trails


The Black Swan Preserve is located near Smartsville where elevations range from 750 to 900 feet  Currently there is a 2-mile loop trail around a former hydraulic mining excavation that is now a pond and wildlife preserve.  Views are impressive.  There is also a side trip to a scenic section of Deer Creek and more options will be added in the future.


Bridgeport is a former settlement, mining locale and historic resort with a historically significant covered bridge situated on the South Yuba River.  I lived here in a tipi, with my family, in 1973.  It’s now a park managed by the California State Parks system.  The two main trails are Buttermilk Bend, a beautiful 2.2-mile roundtrip, very popular and very easy, and the Point Defiance Loop Trail, which is If you live in the vicinity of the Bear or Yuba watershed here are a few places to hike in the winter – I’m only offering general locales here.  Details about these hikes are available from various sources online.


The Spenceville Wildlife Area contains 11,900 acres of wildlife habitat in the Bear River watershed.  There are many trails, averaging 3 to 6 miles long with little climbing involved.  Most of it is in a savannah-type setting featuring blue oak and gray pine.  Elevations range between 200 to 1,200 feet.  Its major perennial stream is Dry Creek.  The trail to Fairy Falls has become a popular attraction and for that reason is best enjoyed in “bad weather.”


Also in the Bear River Basin is the Empire Mine SHP in Grass Valley and its system of trails


The Black Swan Preserve is located near Smartsville where elevations range from 750 to 900 feet  Currently there is a 2-mile loop trail around a former hydraulic mining excavation that is now a pond and wildlife preserve.  Views are impressive.  There is also a side trip to a scenic section of Deer Creek and more options will be added in the future.


Bridgeport is a former settlement, mining locale and historic resort with a historically significant covered bridge situated on the South Yuba River.  I lived here in a tipi, with my family, in 1973.  It’s now a park managed by the California State Parks system.  The two main trails are Buttermilk Bend, a beautiful 2.2-mile roundtrip, very popular and very easy, and the Point Defiance Loop Trail, which is 2.7-miles.  In the summer this park is way too overcrowded for me, so I either start way early or wait for winter, when the weather is “uninviting.”  


Nevada City is a base camp for several decent trails just as was in the days before the gold rush when the indigenous Nisenan made it an important settlement and trade hub because of favorable topography and a variety of abundant ecosystems.


From downtown you can pick up the Deer Creek Tribute Trail and follow the combination of road and trail down Deer Creek to the extremely popular suspension bridge.  This is as far as most people go, but if you follow the obvious trail markers downstream on Champion Road, then onto the Newtown Ditch, you can see the impressive China Bridge as well, located only 2.2 miles from Nevada City.  By getting back on the ditch/trail you can continue following it downstream to Newtown Road, about 3-miles out.  There is no shortage of information about this route.


Another trail beginning in Nevada City is the Hirschman Trail, which if you walk it all, is a 4.8-mile round trip.  Here the landscape undulates amidst mixed conifers and oaks doing a good job of repopulating a heavily mined area.


There is another short trail currently in the process of realignment.  It’s the called the Sugarloaf Trail.  It’s named after a Nevada City geological landmark, a 3,060’ peak that offers a tremendous view of the town situated in the Deer Creek drainage.  It’s been a favorite local vista for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  From the top, at a glance, it’s evident that we live in a forest and should behave accordingly.


Lately, the Old Downieville Highway from Nevada City has become popular as a trail, but you would be wise to remember that it’s a well-used paved road, so be careful here.


The Cascade Canal Trail, a few miles east of Nevada City, is part of a historic water conveyance system used for gold mining, electrical power generation, and irrigation.  Ditches/canals are part of our legacy and they often make excellent trails.


Round Mountain is a mixed conifer, black oak environment with elevations from 1,970’ to 3,250’.  There is a limited but very good trail system here and it’s only four miles from Nevada City.


In the South Yuba canyon there are many options like the South Yuba Trail and the trail system at Malakoff Diggins State Park.  The North Yuba River has the Canyon Creek Trail and the North Yuba Trail, both of which I enjoy most in the winter.


Realize that I’m only nibbling at the trail possibilities, there are many more.

• • •


Wednesday, December 16, 2020


“Blackbird fly - into the heart of the dark black night”
– Paul McCartney

“I am always nighttime on the inside

barefoot and heretic”

 – Deborah Landau 



We are approaching the Winter Solstice when the days grow shorter and twilight happens in a small window that somehow creates a vague need to hurry home before dark.  Twilight is at once scientific and supernatural, both measurable and ethereal.  As a photographer I’ve spent many hours in twilight simply because the light is so juicy and continually changing.


Twilight is the illumination of the lower atmosphere when the sun is not directly visible because it is below the horizon.  It’s produced by sunlight scattering in the upper atmosphere and illuminating the lower atmosphere, so the earth’s surface is neither completely lit nor completely dark.


You may be surprised to know that according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration there are three kinds of twilight defined by how far the sun is below the horizon:  Civil twilight begins at sunset and ends when the geometric center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. The brightest stars and planets can be seen, while the horizon and terrestrial objects can be discerned.  Nautical twilight ends when the geometric center of the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon.  The term refers to sailors being able to take reliable readings via well-known stars because the horizon is still visible, even under moonless conditions.  In astronomical twilight the sun needs to be more than 18 degrees below the horizon.  Then the sky illumination is so faint that most observers would regard the sky as fully dark, especially under urban or suburban light pollution.  The horizon is not discernible and moderately faint stars or planets can be observed with the naked eye under a non-light polluted sky.  Dusk is the moment at the very end of astronomical twilight, just before the minimum brightness of the night sky sets in or may be thought of as the darkest part of evening twilight.  The collateral adjective for twilight is crepuscular, which is used to describe the behavior of animals that are most active during this period.


In the early 1970s Carlos Castenada’s books were widely read by my generation who were very interested in alternate realities and non-rational possibilities.  Tales of Power (1974) was his fourth book written about his apprenticeship and mind-blowing adventures with a Mexican shaman.  In the book is the observation that “The twilight is the crack between the worlds. It is the door to the unknown.”  Now this is not something that can be proven but rather sensed or recognized – another way of seeing perhaps?  Later, Castenada came under fire for his methodology and ethics, but still, there are cracks where things like liquid and light can creep in and around academic rigor.  I’m surprised that I still remember this comment.

There are far more definitions and discussion about the metaphysical implications of twilight than there are scientific interpretations.  The Twilight Zone is a popular metaphor for a “weird” place where two different ways of life or states of existence meet.  That perception is largely based on Rod Serling’s popular television series that ran between 1959-1964.  Writer Paul Keegan has a headier definitionof twilight: “Twilight is the world of what is unsaid or half-said, of shared obliquities between unnamed friends who appear at the edges of vision.”  


Pamela Petro is an artist and writer who has been teaching in Wales where she learned that the Iron-Age Celts considered dusk to be the beginning of the day, the moment of greatest potential. “It was what they called a thin time, when seen and unseen worlds overlapped and became porous.”  In a series of photographs about dusk Petro found, “Like ruins, like puzzles, dusk lets us in.  It’s the planet’s original invitation to imagine.”  “Darkness obscures and sunlight reveals, but dusk—that liminal moment in between—murmurs suggestions.”


Light pollution can be detrimental to a variety of different organisms.  The lives of plants and animals, especially those which are nocturnal, are affected as their natural environment becomes subjected to unnatural change.  Nocturnal animals can be harmed by light pollution because they are biologically evolved to be dependent on an environment with a certain number of hours of uninterrupted daytime and nighttime.  The over-illumination of the night sky is affecting these organisms, especially birds.  Coyotes group howl and group yip-howl more during the new moon, when it is darkest.  Communication is necessary either to reduce trespassing from other packs, or to assemble packs to hunt larger prey during dark conditions.  Skyglow could increase ambient illumination to eliminate this pattern in affected areas although I have faith that coyotes will adapt as they have done so many times before (Longcore & Rich:2004).


Metaphorically speaking twilight describes a period or state of obscurity, ambiguity, or gradual decline.  In the western world it’s often used to describe “the elderly.”  Many of us have lived lively in this gradually fading light for years, knowing full well that we’ll eventually die (but they didn’t say when).  That makes twilight a pretty broad window between day and night.  There’s nothing ominous or impending about it.  Here’s a sweet commentary by Virginia Woolf on the twilight of life: “The compensation of growing old [is] that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained – at last! – the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence, – the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light” (Mrs. Dalloway 1925)”


In her keynote address to the 2020 International Dark Sky Association Conference, Annette Lee, Ojibwe and D/Lakota, reminds us that our relationship with the dark sky is not new: “For tens of thousands of years, indigenous people have nurtured critical relationships with the stars, from keen observation and sustainable engineering to place-based ceremony, navigation, and celestial architecture. This legacy of our species – connection to the sky – is in critical danger. Indigenous communities and Indigenous knowledge systems have suffered great loss, but knowledge and knowledge keepers are still among us.” Annette Lee is an astrophysicist, artist, and Director of the Native Skywatchers research and programming initiative. This initiative seeks to remember and revitalize indigenous star and earth knowledge. She has over thirty years of experience in education as a teacher, program administrator, professional visual artist, and researcher. Currently she is an Associate Professor of Astronomy & Physics at St. Cloud State University.


Chaw Se' Roundhouse - Miwok Country

Shorter days, of course, means longer nights.  The indigenous Nisenan spent time with extended family and guests when storytelling took on an added importance as accounts, sagas, parables, comedic theater, cautionary tales and shaggy dog stories went on night after night, week after week, etc.  We are, all of us, deeply grooved to respond to shared knowledge, experience and wisdom.  This is when singing, dancing, gaming, training and wooing are undistractedly practiced.


Less well known are the practices of traditional Inuit communities, before electric lighting became the norm.  In Make Prayers to the Raven (1983), Richard K. Nelson cites Inuit tribal elders who described how they dealt with the very long nights of winter.  Faced with long wakeful hours in the dark, people crawled into their warm beds and listened to the recounting of stories.  Most of the narratives happened in late fall and the first half of winter because they were taboo after the days began lengthening.  After a story the teller finished by commenting that he or she had shortened the winter: “I thought that winter had just begun, but now I have chewed off part of it.”


Junichiro Tanizaki in his book, In Praise of Shadows (1933) argued that excessive illumination is the most atrocious assault on beauty in the West, a pathological tendency to turn something beneficial into something excessive.  Today we’re more lit-up than he could ever have imagined.


In these times many urban and sub-urban people have never even tasted the dark.  Instead, we live with indispensable, but nasty, little led lights everywhere indoors. We fear the dark – my new neighbors have added eight bright outside lights should there be a need to perform an emergency appendectomy outside.  Why did they move to a foothill conifer forest where it’s dark by nature?  Sometimes, while I’m luxuriating in the fading caress of twilight someone will walk into the room and abruptly flip on the overhead light switch while saying “it’s getting dark in here”, as if there is only dark and sitcom/gameshow lighting.


Hong Kong

As far as I know, the town of Borrego Springs, in the Anza-Borrego desert, is the only International Dark Sky Community in California.  Their goal is to organize the community to legally preserve the night sky through the implementation and enforcement of a quality outdoor lighting ordinance, dark sky education and citizen support of dark skies.  Dark Sky Communities hope their efforts promote responsible lighting and dark sky stewardship and set good examples for surrounding communities.  One look at a nighttime photograph of our hemisphere from space makes it obvious that setting a good example is not enough.


The darkest nights are overcast, when even starlight is not available – what poet Deborah Landau calls “immaculate middle-of-the-night quiet.”  I’ve had the pleasure of making my way home from a friend’s place on such a night when it was so dark that I had to navigate the half-mile trail on the basis of its well-worn compaction and the absence of vegetation – a bit scary but also exhilarating.  On other nights I’ve had the gift of cross-country skiing adventures in meadows and on ridges illuminated by starlight.  The light of the full moon on snow is gorgeous and breathtaking – chattering ceases.


Nature writer Henry Beston disliked streetlights and other artificial illumination.  In banishing the dark, he said, we’ve lost something essential.  “For eons, the hours of darkness were a time for a different kind of thinking, a different way of being.  Now unlit night is rare and difficult to access.  With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea.  … Are modern folk, perhaps, afraid of night? Do they fear that vast serenity, the mystery of infinite space, the austerity of stars? (The Outermost House:1928) 


Longer nights can mean more time for preparing food undistracted. Try an afternoon minding dough, so fresh bread can be had at dinner.  Long slow cooking in a crock not only fills the stomach, but the home with the aroma of good care and helps heat the house as well.  Eating foods that have been canned or dried is a serious treat to be savored in this season of long nights.


I’m sure that this December you are finding yourself sleeping more (hard-driving ambition be dammed).  Sleeping-in is not a guilty pleasure but a deliberate practice that guards against illness and ill-tempered weather at a time of year when the body (and soul) needs it the most.  In Scandinavia, to cope with the long nights of winter, the Danish practice the hygge which means creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people, while in Sweden they have a similar response with their mys.  I had a Norwegian friend who claimed that, for most of the winter nights, her whole family shared a big bed with a down comforter.


Research has revealed that people living in urban areas of more than 500,000 people are exposed to night-time light levels that are three to six times brighter than people in small towns and rural areas. Those living in areas of more intense light sleep less, are more tired during the daytime, and report feeling more dissatisfied with their sleep. They also go to bed and wake up later than people in darker areas (Ohayon and Milesi:2016).


With the invention of gaslight and electric light, social and commercial life started to move indoors, with very few exceptions.  Still, biologically we remain outdoor creatures in an indoor society.  In fact, by settling indoors, our species has undergone a deliberate and artificial change of micro-climate that significantly exceeds the macro-climate change that is global warming.  We are no longer results of biological evolution alone.


Normally, we are not aware of the strong haptic and embodied ingredients in our visual perceptions, but twilight reveals these forgotten sensibilities.  Sight is activated and sharpened in twilight.  The evolutionary process has tuned the human eye for twilight rather than bright daylight.  Normal illumination levels today are so high that the full capacity of vision is suppressed as the pupil automatically closes.  Paradoxically, our culture reveres vision and visibility, but at the same time it weakens the capacity of vision through the use of excessive light (Turrell:2016).

A big hit in 1958


Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ is a song written by Sir Harry Lauden, of Scotland, in 1911.  It’s a popular love song written about a man and his sweetheart courting at the end of day:

Roamin' in the gloamin' on the bonnie banks o' Clyde.

Roamin' in the gloamin' wae my lassie by my side.

When the sun has gone to rest,

That's the time we love the best.

O, it's lovely roamin' in the gloamin!


Some might say it’s a wee bit corny, but Lauden’s right about it being a lovely time to wander.  It’s the time when you’re most likely to soak up the constant shading of hues and moods that, until this moment, you didn’t know existed.  At the same time all the usual landmarks fade and lose their edges while our aesthetic zones gulp down the evanescent deliciousness remaining.  It’s surprising to see how little light is required to find your way.  Vineet Raj Kapoor, author, lyricist, poet and game designer, reminds us that, “Darkness doesn’t mean the path doesn’t exist.”


The gloaming is a word recognized by many people, but few have actually experienced it (especially when you eliminate the skyglow created by cities, stadiums and lighted roads).  That the word is Scotch should come as no surprise because Scotland uses hundreds of words for what we might consider bad weather.  Gloaming describes evening, twilight and dusk but there’s something about the word that sounds gloomy – not so much negatively but more melancholic.  It’s first recorded in in the “Original Chronicle of Scotland” in the fifteenth-century texts with a reference to ‘the glomyng of the nycht’ found.  Other Scotch words for outside conditions include “smirr” for a fine rain or drizzle, “drookit” to mean extremely wet or absolutely drenched, “oorlich” to describe situations damp, chilly and utterly unpleasant.  “Stoating” is when it rains so heavily that the drops of rain bounce off the ground. (The Scotsman. 19th April 2016).  It’s raining heavily as I write this and, after months of no rain, it’s delightful.


You may wonder what Scottish words have to do with my habitat, the Yuba River in the Sierra Nevada of California.  Well, in 1850 Scotsman, Major William Downie led a party of Black men, a Kanaka and an Irish boy to a gold mining location just downstream from Goodyears Bar on the North Yuba River.  This location was known as Rantedottler Bar, for which there are seven spellings but no known etymology.  It’s not hard to imagine one of those Scotch words for troublesome weather being used here in 1850.  Only a few weeks ago there was a drop of 50° overnight at Goodyears Bar.  If, in the 1850s, you mined on this 20-mile stretch of the river winter weather was a serious concern in all languages spoken because the conifer coated canyon is narrow and the walls are steep, therefore there are only a few hours of direct sunlight available.  What that means is that winter had an extra bit of bite for gold miners who worked in, and with, water every day they possibly could.  

• • •


Some additional references:


Downie, William. Hunting for Gold. American West Publishing Company. 1971.

Lee, Annette. 2020.

Longcore, Travis & Catherine Rich. Ecological Light Pollution. 2004.

Ohayon, Maurice M. & Cristina Milesi. Artificial Outdoor Nighttime Lights Associate with Altered Sleep Behavior in the American General PopulationSleep, Volume 39, Issue 6, June 2016.

Petro, Pamela. Shedding LightGuernica. November 2, 2020.

15 Words Which Can Only be Used to Describe Scottish Weather. The Scotsman – Edinburgh. 19th April 2016.

Turrell, James. The Thingness of LightDaylight & Architecture. Autumn 2016, Issue 26. Autumn 2016



Sunday, November 1, 2020




Before the contemporary surge in scientifically designed synthetics for “outdoor wear,” wool was revered for its durability, warmth and ability to perform even while wet. A wool garment or blanket could be heavy and bulky, but it was dependable. I’ve had my share of wool sweaters and Woolrich Shirts that have become as close as pets and as reliable as friends.


California’s indigenous population did not weave textiles but instead developed basket weaving, creating some of the most aesthetic and functional baskets on earth. The tradition continues into the present (see California Basket Weavers Association, When the Spanish arrived in California they brought sheep and taught natives living at the missions how to spin and weave wool. In 1821 Mexico gained independence from Spain and "Alta California" became a Mexican province rather than a Spanish colony. The Californios traded with the native population who valued the highly desirable wool serapes obtained from highland Mexico and they allowed the fur trade to flourish inland. Notable among the traders was the Hudson’s Bay Company, who traded high quality woven wool blankets for beaver pelts provided by the native population. 


The sheep industry in California developed in two distinct periods before 1906. The first, 1848–1860, involved driving animals from New Mexico and southern California to mining camps and towns in the western foothills for consumption. After 1860, The sheep industry consisted of seasonal grazing of mountain pastures by itinerant or “gypsy” sheep bands. Before the creation of National Forests (The Tahoe Reserve 1906) there was no limit to the size or the number of bands that entered the Sierra nor was there a limit on the length of time they could stay in a specific area. Undoubtedly, the number of sheep using all available meadow systems in the Sierra Nevada during this time would be in the millions. Some scholars attribute the reduction of some native perennials and their replacement by more aggressive annual species in upper-elevation grassy hillsides and higher-elevation meadow systems to this unregulated sheep grazing.


Michigan Bluff, no date, photographer unknown

Sheep grazing in the Sierra Nevada in the late nineteenth-century was condemned by contemporary critics and considered more far more destructive than cattle grazing. They had two major complaints about the sheep industry: first, too many animals were grazing for too long on Sierra Nevada pastures, and second, sheepherders were starting fires to improve future range or to remove barriers to sheep movement. The First Biennial Report of the California State Board of Forestry for the Years 1885–1886, reflecting this anti-sheep view, recommended that all sheep be excluded from the Sierra Nevada because of the damage they caused to soils and vegetation. Among the critics was John Muir who famously called sheep “hoofed locusts,” and said that they were more effective than fires or glaciers in destroying vegetation.


The views of those opposed to sheep industry practices eventually shaped future federal forest management policies. At the time no one involved in grazing had any understanding of previous native burning traditions. From the lumberman’s point of view sheepmen added to naturally caused fires in a significant way. The California State Board of Forestry wanted to exclude all fires so as to improve timber production and watershed potential of Sierra Nevada forests for agricultural uses. Most of the Sierra Nevada was affected by grazing especially in the foothill, middle-elevation forests, and subalpine areas 


The first Basques to migrate to the western hemisphere went to Argentina and Chile but later traveled to California to join the gold rush. Most were not successful miners, so they turned their attention to agriculture, especially cattle, then later sheep grazing. The Basque who came from the Pyrenees, the mountain range that straddles the boundary between France and Spain, may have tended a few sheep before, but certainly none had worked as open-range sheepherders before they immigrated to the United States. Basque immigrants took on this work because, although it was hard (and boring), it paid relatively well, and it didn’t involve specialized skills or require a command of English.

Freeman Meadows – North Yuba

Typically, a recently arrived Basque sheepherder worked for another already established Basque business and was paid annually. Many chose to have their pay in head of sheep rather than money, in order to begin their own herds.


The largest immigration of Basques with intentions to work in the sheep industry occurred between 1900-1930 when the demand for lamb and wool was high, and so was the profit margin. Initially ranchers could graze their sheep free of charge on massive tracts of public lands and sheepherding in the United States became synonymous with itinerant grazing by moving herds constantly to new pastures in new regions.  In the late 1890s and during the first decade of the 20th century vast forested districts of the American West were either declared National Parks, in which livestock grazing was prohibited, or National Forests, in which livestock grazing permits were issued to American citizens according to how much ranch land they held in private ownership. The Basque were typically not owners of large tracts of land, putting them at a disadvantage in discussions of land use.


Independence Lake – Truckee River

Prior to 1910 herders usually set-up camps in the center of their range and herded sheep back to the camp every night. This resulted in denuded bedding grounds, trampled into dust. The Forest Service attempted to lessen the damage by restricting the number of days sheep could be bedded in one spot; at first six and later three. They also introduced “open herding”, which minimized driving and instead, allowed sheep to spread-out and graze. This resulted in smaller flocks, which was the outcome the Forest Service preferred.


World War I (1914-1918) increased the number of livestock permitted to graze on public land because meat and wool was in demand. The war, and the increased livestock production associated with it, was disastrous to public lands in the west. In the North-Central Sierra Nevada there was tremendous damage to the sub-alpine meadows on the east side of the summit. In 1928 the Tahoe National Forest released their Management Plan and in it, Forest Supervisor Richard Bigelow, revealed a planned policy to eliminate as many sheep as possible and replace them with “locally owned cattle.” 


Pole Creek – Truckee River (1978)

Resentment against these “transients” led to the occasional roughing up of sheepherders or the killing of their dogs. Most local U.S. Forest Service officials defended the idea of keeping many Basque herders out of the national forests in favor of cattlemen who had stronger ties to the local business communities. Forest rangers, in reports to their supervisors continually recommended the exclusion of sheep in the national forests and typically portrayed Basques as “furtive” and selfish destroyers of the environment.


These public policy changes further concentrated the transient bands onto the public range outside the reserves, some of which was still suitable as marginal summer range. In the unprotected districts, the problems that the reserve system was designed to address were exacerbated. It took nearly three decades, or until 1934 with passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, that the remaining unforested parts of the public lands were brought under effective federal control. The era of the nomadic Basque sheep band was coming to an end.


Gold Lake Highway – North Yuba

Basque historian, Gloria Totoricag├╝ena Egurrola found that as the economy in Basque Country improved, fewer Basques wanted or needed to emigrate for economic reasons and the Western Range Association began to recruit sheepherders in Peru (1971) and in Mexico (1973). During the 1960s, sheepherders were paid an average of $200 per month for inexperienced males, and $300 per month for experienced workers. During the 1970s the closing of Basque immigration related to sheepherding resulted from three major factors: competitive salaries in the Basque Country itself, cheaper labor from South America, and an overall decrease in the demand for sheepherders in the United States. In 1966, there were approximately 1,200 Basque sheepherders working in the United States, and by 1976 there were only 106 Basques with sheepherding contracts. Basques dominated the sheep industry in the United States for almost exactly one hundred years beginning with the establishment of the Altube brothers' Spanish Ranch in Nevada in 1873.



Basque sheepherders created a unique western cultural phenomenon. They carved on aspen trees, tens of thousands of them in ten western states. These carvings give us information we could not find elsewhere. If you want to know when and where sheep grazed or who the sheepherders were, chances are only arborglyphs can provide answers. 


Gold Lake Highway – North Yuba River

In their solitude the Basque shepherds, who were predominantly young men, developed a means of expression by carving in aspen bark. Nothing like this existed in their homeland. Most carvings are names and dates; often the messages are hard to understand as most are in the Basque language, Euskara or in Spanish and they’re sometimes misspelled. Other topics include political commentary, humor, poetry, symbols from Basque mythology, animals, love and loneliness. Not surprisingly there are also erotic fantasies depicted.  Some of the drawings are crude, some are abstract, and still others are very sophisticated. These carvings provide documentation of Basque presence and some insight into the people who created them. 


While working for the Tahoe National Forest in the early 1990s I was fortunate enough to meet Joxie Mallea-Olaetxe, then part of the Basque studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno. He was beginning his systematic study of arboglyphs that spanned ten western States. I showed him the arboglyphs that we had recorded on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, northwest of Lake Tahoe. These sites were mostly in the aspen stands in mountain valleys near Gold Lake and Haskell Peak and a few others near the headwaters of the Middle Yuba. It was a great learning experience, and to this day, I have yet to meet a PhD with a more rollicking sense of humor, while suffering no loss of academic rigor.


Howard Creek – North Yuba River

In the last few decades, in a scramble to record the arbooglyphs, a series of events where the public can participate in recording these sites on federal lands under archaeological supervision, became quite popular. There have also been a few books published and articles have appeared in a wide assortment of periodicals. Their very remoteness is what preserves their integrity. Mallea-Olaetxe, in a Basque newsletter, observed that “The fact that sheepherder history is becoming almost mainstream is an amazing development. Just think of the decades through which the Basques lived in America like ghosts”. As for technique most sheepherders used a pocket-knife or nail, “most herders soon learned that the best arborglyphs are produced with a single thin incision,” Mallea-Olaetxe wrote. “Over time, the tree bandages the wound with a dark scar, creating a high-contrast image that, if executed properly, remains legible for decades”. 


Perhaps the arboglyphs were inspired by nearby prehistoric petroglyphs which have endured for thousands of years? Because aspen typically live between eighty and one hundred years the oldest Basque arborglyphs have already been lost. Finding and documenting those that remain, before they disappear, has always been a race against the clock. Now climate change is adversely affecting aspens and running the clock out even faster. With them goes a distinctive part of the landscape that clearly reflects aspects of an American subculture. It’s strikingly ephemeral – just a ripple in the lake of history. Their genesis and demise occurred in a discrete window of about 150 years. It makes me wonder how many times cultural expression has appeared then disappeared in the past. Our present culture’s mania for documentation is itself a cultural expression.

Gold Lake Highway – North Yuba River

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Additional Reading

Mallea-Olaetxe, Joxe. “A Basque Historian's Dilemma” (Buber’s Basque Page,

Mallea-Olaetxe, Joxe. “Speaking Through the Aspens: Basque Tree Carvings in California and Nevada” University of Nevada Press, Reno. 2000.    

Totoricag├╝ena Egurrola,Gloria. “Ethnic Industries for Migrants: Basque Sheepherding in the American West”. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, Reno