Thursday, April 27, 2017

South Llano: West Canyon Trail

For my next hike I chose the West Canyon Loop Trail.

One thing to be aware of with Texas State Park trail maps is that the distances shown in bold for individual trails are for the actual trail segments and are not necessarily measured from and back to a trailhead. For instance the trail I chose for today is marked as being 2.4 miles long, but from my campsite it's a good mile-plus to where the trail starts, and of course a mile-plus back, and it's also necessary to cross a quarter-mile segment of the Golden-cheeked Warbler trail to close the loop.

Point is, pay attention when planning your outings or you might end up taking on more than you expected.

As usual I was out and about early. This shot was taken from an official-use-only service road on my way out to the trail. (Many parks don't mind you walking on these restricted roads and it kept me off the more populated park road.)

and for some reason this Jackrabbit was also using the otherwise empty service road as the sun came up.

In fact he was pretty insistent about staying on the road and moved along ahead of me in fits and starts for quite a while before turning around and giving me one last baleful look; though I'm not sure bunnies can actually pull off baleful; and moving on to less crowded environs.

One thing about old ranches is that, unlike geologic timelines, they have history that can be comprehended on our human scale. It was only a couple of generations ago when this gate was built, along with some iron bits picked up at the mercantile, with materials harvested and milled locally.

and even less time has passed since it was last used to control livestock.

Again, this hike had the mixed variety of lush canyons with water nearby

and the more arid ridge-tops.

Like many Texas State Parks, this one hosts several public hunts every year, including the annual Youth Hunt where parents are mandatory, as is the Hunter Safety course, but only the youth are allowed firearms.

If you are lucky enough to get picked in the lottery for one of these public hunts you are assigned, and escorted to and from, a fixed blind (Wouldn't do to have the cityfied public stalking all over the hills shooting each other now would it?!)

In this particular park it pays to carry both the facilities map as well as the trail map with you. The trail markings on the facilities map are rudimentary to say the least, but  the locations of the blinds, not marked on the more accurate trail map, are identified on it with numbered X'es. These blinds make great reference points to keep yourself oriented when hiking.

The blinds aren't anything fancy, but after the storm a couple nights ago some of them are going to need a little attention anyway!

The noon light presents some photographic challenges like flat light and harsh shadows, but even when the sun is closer to noon than dawn it can still produce some incredible lighting, such as here somewhere up on the ridge between West and Mid Canyons.

While I was taking this photo, all crouched down a few feet off the trail in my head-to-toe, blend-into-the-background, khaki hiking clothes, a deer casually crossed the trail some distance ahead of me without realizing I was there then slowly moved out of sight behind a stand of Mesquite as it casually worked on it's mid-morning browse.

I readied the camera and crept forward, closing the 50 feet between me and where the deer crossed the trail one careful foot at a time. I knew trying to channel Daniel Boone was a lost cause since the vast majority of us, with our shoe and pavement inspired heel-banging stride, hard lug soles to protect our soft feet and more familiarity with drywall and Pergo floors than brush and grassy meadows, have long since lost the skills to move quietly, in nature or otherwise, but there was no one around to see me fail so what the hell.

Eventually I approached the spot where I was going to be able to see around the Mesquite she disappeared behind and I slowed even more. Reaching out, toe first, one short, careful, calculated step at a time, gently shifting my weight forward only after I had established firm, quiet(ish) contact so I could take the next step.

I don't know which one of us was more surprised!

I had preset the camera to rapid fire and got 4 of these face-to-face shots at 10 shots per second before she overcame her disbelief and bolted.

She made a panicked arc out in front of me then approached the fence line from right to left at full speed.

I tried to follow her with the camera and mashed down on the shutter just as she made the leap over the fence with that breathtaking grace that only deer seem to be able to master, but the camera had to think about exposure and focus and by the time it finally started snapping shots it was too late.

Damn. . .

My photographic luck (or skill. . .) wasn't any better later on when I had moved on down into the canyon and caught a flicker of movement against the bark of this tree.

I stood there for a long time waiting for the lizard that had been there to move back around the tree to the sunny side, my side.

Now my hiking gear, including the 4 liters of water that I stubbornly insist on carrying, clocks in at 25 pounds and a measly 1.3 pounds of that is the camera, but that damn thing got awful heavy on me as I stood there!

At one point the lizard did come around the edge of the trunk, but it stopped in half shade - half sun, so I waited patiently for it to move just a little farther. Which it eventually did, but in the wrong direction!

Shortly after that I decided the camera, which by now weighed somewhere around the 20 pound range all by itself, was just too dang heavy and I gave up. (Well there goes my dream of NatGeo hiring me as a photographer. . .)

I hadn't taken a half dozen steps away from that tree when I got this shot of a male Vermilion Flycatcher, though I can't help but think that after watching my previous failures at wildlife photography he was just giving me a pity-pose.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Surviving South Llano

OK, I admit that if you discount my after-dark trip to point of interest #5, the Scenic Overlook, nothing too dramatic happened at South Llano, but technically I did survive!!

After that ill-advised first-night visit to the overlook, over the next three days I covered just shy of 25 miles of trails, about 4 on the Quad-B and the rest on foot.

I tend to hit the trails early

which, after last night's storm, meant things were a little wet

but also fresh and sparkling.

But fresh and sparkling or not, this sign was not the little boy crying wolf.

Later in the day a woman rode by me on her bike, drifted casually down a short hill, and when she hit the bottom the mud down there violently jerked the bike out from under her and, with a shriek - from her not the mud - threw her face-down into it's cold and clammy embrace.

No photos of the actual event because the two of us were busy separating her and her bike from the amorous grip of the exceedingly slick and clingy, I dare say needy,  muck and she was too embarrassed to see the funny side of the encounter. (I think I might have damaged myself trying not to laugh. . .)

But after she was safely on her way I shot this photo of the short little downhill and the mud that snagged her at the bottom, there to the right of the large tree and just this side of the bright swath across the trail.

It's easy to see how a person might not notice this tiny and innocent-looking patch of treachery.

But I'm getting ahead of myself since that was later in the day after 'normal' people had a chance to roll out of bed, down their fresh-brewed morning coffee while kicked back under the awning in a folding chair and contemplating - well - things, and then eventually strap on their 'adventure' gear.

Don't get me wrong, I'm greatful for the normal people since it leaves the early hours to the wildlife and me.

When I checked into the park I asked about hikes and the ranger marked off a section of the East Border Fence Trail, saying people seem to like it.

He did warn me about a hill along this trail; marked with a red arrow on the map and just there along the left side of this photo; that I would probably need to walk my bike up (No problem since I would be on foot and wheel-less anyway.)

but he failed to mention another uphill climb I had to negotiate before getting that far.

But maybe this one; marked by the blue arrow; slipped his mind because it's along the bucolic sounding Fawn Trail and you don't really expect anything too challenging along a trail called Fawn do you?

Of course if I had given the contour-lines on the map any attention at all I would have been forewarned, so my bad.

At the top of the climb I had been warned about it was easy to see why people liked this trail. It turned from the 'track', typical of trails on ex-ranches, into more of a trail-kind-of-trail as it wound along the ridge-line.

Somewhere along there I found nature's fine-arts painting as the acids from the yellow-green lichen are slowly breaking the limestone down into fertile soil.

Eventually I dropped over the side of the ridge on the short Turkey Spur Trail.

Again, I hadn't been warned about this trail and it's true nature isn't obvious from the contour-lines, but, as short as it is, if I had been on two wheels I'd have been careening down it out of control, bouncing from boulder to boulder, skidding from one loose patch of gravel to the next and the brakes would have been about as useful as a used-car salesman, and with just as many empty promises. It's a real screamer! So it's a good thing I was on foot because screaming like a little girl is really bad for a guy's image!

As it was, this Black Vulture was hanging around just in case my bumble-feet and gravity conspired to smear me into a tasty buffet-on-the-rocks.

I mean a guy could get . . . .

Oooh, pretty!                          OK, so I got distracted

and quickly forgot about that ominously lurking vulture.

When I came across this I had to marvel at the capriciousness of time that led me to this spot at this particular instant in time.

Hundreds of millions of years ago tiny sea-creatures died and settled, forming a thick layer of little shells that was then compressed into limestone. Eventually tectonic action lifted the former sea-bottom, which by now was under a thick layer of other sediments. Over eons all this eroded into the hills and canyons I was now hiking. In the process this platter sized chunk was weathered free and cracked into what looks remarkably like the plastron (bottom shell) of a turtle.

The tiniest flick of geologic time before or after and I would have missed this!

Yeah, yeah, I know. I've wandered off on some obscure flight of fancy - again -

Eventually my hike lead me down off the semi-arid high ground, complete with totally blank signpost,

and into the lush canyons that eventually dump me back out near The Van later that afternoon.

OK, my original plan was to cover all my hikes/bikes in South Llano with this single post, but I see that once again I've gotten long-winded and, despite ruthless culling, photo-happy, so I'm going to have to break them down into several posts instead - so more to come later from South Llano River State Park.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

What Kind of Fool Hikes to an Overlook in the Dark??

OK, in my defense, that wasn't the original plan at all!

Though South Llano River State Park is in my home state, it still takes a good part of the day to get from here to there, so it was late afternoon before I got to my campsite and later still by the time I unwound and had a chance to study the trail map.

It was still a little early to call it a day, but given the lateness of the hour I didn't want to get into anything too ambitious, so I grabbed the vest that makes up part of my nature trail, or 'casual stroll' gear and decided to check out the nearby Juniper bird blind.

But as I ambled on by the walk-in camping area and approached the blind I could hear voices. And I mean HEAR voices!

It was clear that there were at least three, and probably more like a gaggle, of people at the blind already. It was also clear that, instead of any interest in wildlife spotting, they were treating the blind like the bar at the local bowling alley on league night, complete with raucous laughs loud enough to make a deaf man wince.

Now I'm sure any reasonable person would find this situation annoying, and I, having never quite reached the lofty heights of reasonableness, was pissed. I wasn't ready to just turn around and go back to The Van, but after strongly suggesting that the current blind occupants 'try shutting the hell up for a while' I figured I wasn't going to be warmly welcomed into their little cluck-clatch, (And yet I continue to wonder why I have so few friends. . .)

so I checked my trail map for an alternative and there she sat; point of interest #5 of 5; the Scenic Overlook; and less than a mile away.

Of course most of that mile was pretty damn steep. So steep that even though it's paved (At one time you could drive up there but not any more.) it's the only trail in the park where bikes are banned. I guess the rangers got tired of scooping up the shattered bits of failed daredevils at the bottom of the hill with shovels and plastic trash bags.

The only real problem with my new plan was the rapidly dropping sun out there to the west.

OK - so maybe that wasn't the only problem - maybe, somewhere out there to the west and heading this way, there was also a squall line. It wasn't due for hours yet, but the sky was already doing some interesting, and perhaps slightly scary, things and once in a while there was just the faintest rumble of rolling thunder. (That sky looks suspiciously like the kind of thing from which something is about to reach down and give the foolish a dope-slap!)

But at least it was quiet up here in terms of human-generated noise, though by the time I did; stubbornly fixated on my alternate destination; get to the actual lookout itself the sun was below the horizon and it sure did look like that squall line was closer than a few hours out! And here I am standing up there all by myself with nobody but - well, me - knowing where I'm at,

As the sun battled with the clouds things got - well let's not use the S word (Scary) and just say -  interesting there for a bit and I started to get that tingly feeling in the backs of my legs. You know, the same feeling you get when standing too close to the edge of a cliff?

After all, any even partially sane person would have come up here in daylight, would have chosen a nice sunny day with no storms anywhere within a day's drive.

You know, when you could actually see some of the scenery from the Scenic Outlook, and do so without risking Mother Nature ripping your shirt open, slapping the paddles on your chest and shouting 'CLEAR'!!

When, with a decent zoom, you could look out into the adjacent ranches

and make harmless bets on whether the cows would knock the rancher down or not as he spread feed-pellets from the bag in the back of the truck.

But - well - things don't always work out that way and by the time this damn fool started back down the hill it was more by touch than sight. (When branches start clawing at your face you know you're off the trail!)

But there's something out there that once in a while, pretty much randomly, watches out for drunks falling off second-story balconies and idiots bumbling around on dark and stormy nights, and I made it back to The Van pretty much intact.

And that squall line? Well it came through around 2 AM, right on schedule, and slapped the heck out of The Van for a while.

I briefly worried about any tenters out there trying not to get Dorthy-ed into Oz, but, selfish bastard that I am, I rolled over and let the storm rock me back to sleep.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

South Llano River State Park

It takes Interstate 10 some 879 miles to get across Texas from border to border, from Orange to El Paso.

(A couple points of interest: From Orange at the eastern border of Texas it's only 789 miles to the eastern end of I10 in Jacksonville FL. From El Paso at the western border of the state it takes fewer miles of driving to get to the Santa Monica Pier than it does to cross the state back to Orange.)

Roughly halfway across Texas there's a kink in the Interstate right there in the southern part of the Hill Country, and sitting there in the embrace of the that kink is the little town of Junction with about 2600 inhabitants, a number that has stayed pretty much the same since 1980.

Now if you look at a map you wouldn't be faulted for thinking that the town got it's name because US 83, US 337, and Interstate 10 all meet right there. In this part of the country that's a lot of roads! But faulted or not, you'd be wrong. Junction got it's name long before the highway system was even thought about because it sits at the confluence of the North and South Llano rivers.

And, though I can't speak for AT&T, if you're a Verizon user Junction is a black hole where you'll be lucky to get one bar of 1X service, and to add insult to injury you'll find yourself firmly centered in voice-roaming territory. Why this is I'm not sure since just a few miles in either direction along Interstate 10 there's 5 solid bars of 4G. But connectivity is over-rated anyway so never mind.

About 4 miles south of Junction is South Llano River State Park.

Like many Texas State Parks this used to be a ranch, Walter Buck's ranch to be exact. You just might know a Walter Buck, but probably not this Walter Buck. Like most people passing through life he was a normal, hardworking man that contributed significantly to his little corner of the world but very few ever heard about him. In other words he was one of our true celebrities. (I mean come on! What has the likes of a Tom Cruise ever done for society other than look pretty (Although frankly I got pretty damn tired of looking at him so stopped years ago.) and make questionable life choices?? I'll take the Walter Bucks of the world any day!)

The 2600 acre ex-ranch is a mix of lush riparian land flanked by wooded pastures that are now a protected turkey-roost (Only open to the public between 10AM and 3PM October through March so as to not disturb the roosting turkeys.) and above that typical Hill Country hard-scrabble rolling hills and canyons.

Nowadays there's some 18 miles of mixed use (Hike/Bike/Horseback) trails winding around from the river up into the hills and canyons as well as three different bird-blinds scattered around in the easily accessible lower elevations.

If something a little more moist and laid-back is your preference you can float the roughly 3 miles of river bordering the park,

or, despite what the map says about bank access beyond the park, there are public access points along the river both above and below the park that cover over 15 miles of established paddling trail.

Also scattered around the lower elevations along with the bird-blinds are bits of 'nature' trails. Only here they've done a better job than many with the interpretive signs. Although when first approached you might think the information they were to impart has succumbed to weather (The Texas summer sun can be brutal!)

all you have to do is lift the hinged protective flap and the information is not only there, but it's legible too!

And of course there's the campground. (But not really 'of course' since there are a few Texas State Parks with no campgrounds at all!)

On the park map it looks like the campsites are close and cramped, but that's a cartographer's illusion.

Here's my site, site #20, for the next three nights.

Sites 1 through 58 around the loop are all water electric.

There is a primitive camping area about a mile and a half up one of the canyons

and 5 walk-in tent sites adjacent to the main campground, but if you are in an RV your only choice are the $20 a night water/electric sites.

Although there's only a few 'bad' sites, the sites along the outer edge of the lower section of the camping loop, essentially the odd numbered sites from 21 to 57, are the best, although I would skip site 43 since an access trail to one of the bird-blinds and the turkey-roost area practically cuts right through the site.

Why get so specific??  Because, like ReserveAmerica has done for years, as of next December the Texas State Park reservation system will allow you to reserve specific sites, but that only works if you know the good ones ahead of time. (Just check with me first so you don't take the one I want!!!)