Thursday, May 31, 2018

Madrone In The Morning


Not exactly what I would call a pretty trailhead, even in the flattering light of early morning,

but it is what it is.

Fortunately I don’t have to trudge the powerline right-of-way very far before

making a sharp right into far more pleasant environs, although most anything is more pleasant than hanging around under those humming, snapping power lines which conjure up images of a bug creeping along under the imminent threat of a bug-zapper.

The 4.5 mile Madrone trail is mostly contained in a little slice of Pedernales Falls State Park that is on the south side of CR-201 and for the most part is, for the area, a relatively flat hike among Juniper with a healthy scattering of hardwoods for variety.

The trail is named for the Madrone trees which put in a few rare appearances here at the southern end of the park. As can be seen in the photo above the bark of the Madrone is often a distinctive red and, unlike many trees, doesn’t grow with the tree but is shed in long flakes to reveal the next, fresh smooth layer.

I know there’s at least one larger specimen along this trail because I’ve seen it before, in fact the image above comes from a 2015 hike on this trail,

but today the best I could come up with was this seedling protected by a ring of stones as it struggles to survive right at the edge of the trail.

The seeds are barbed so it’s not unreasonable to expect that a few years ago this one hitched a temporary ride to this spot on a hiker’s pant-leg. Maybe even mine!

With a little luck maybe this one will survive long enough to one day be classified as a tree.

The Madrone Trail is not in itself a loop, but by piecing it together with parts of the Juniper Ridge Trail it can be turned into one.

Though like the Madrone, the Juniper Ridge Trail has a minimum of vertical challenges, it crosses distinctly more pitched and rocky terrain than Madrone. Juniper Ridge was designed and built by a mountain bike club out of Austin and it shows.

Rather than backing off into the easier ground a few feet away, the Juniper Ridge Trail clings right to the rocky edge of a number of ravines as it zig-zags across the  park for over 9 miles, sometimes just barely clinging to the edge of drop-offs.

Given my skills, or rather lack of, as a mountain-biker you won’t catch me riding it, but as a hike it's actually pretty good.

Using the Madrone and Juniper Ridge, I could have created an 8 mile loop that traverses most of the southern end of the park, as I have in the past, but I was actually supposed to be heading home to chores rather than out here hiking today, so I used a piece of the Windmill Road to cut things down to a 5 hour, five and a half mile bit of procrastination instead.

Monday, May 28, 2018

A Plethora of Critters

One moonless night at Pedernales Falls State Park I was standing out behind The Van watching the sky and otherwise not doing much of anything when I heard something off to my right sort of moaning.  I couldn't see a thing but got the impression that whatever it was was nosing along the ground as it moved across in front of me on the other side of a tree, rhythmicly moaning the whole time.

It was feeding like an armadillo but I’ve never heard anything other than rustling and an occasional hiss from an armadillo. It could have been a feral hog, such as the one I spotted nearby during daylight hours, but they tend to grunt, and if they are in a group, squeal occasionally.

I pulled the headlamp I was carrying out of my pocket and clicked on the red light, but there was too much brush between me and whatever it was to get a glimpse of it. But as I was trying a Bobcat trotted through the little pool of light around me just as casual as could be, not more than 5 feet from where I was standing.

As far as I know that's the closest I've been to one in the wild.

The previous afternoon I was sitting out in my camp chair a fair distance behind The Van which I had all opened up to stay cool when I noticed a small bird flitting around the back doors. I had no binoculars nor camera-zoom to get a better look so curiosity eventually forced me to get up. My plan was to get my camera, go back to my chair, and let things settle down again, but I didn’t have to go to all that trouble.

The Carolina Wren didn’t seem to mind that I was standing right there.

It just kept on keeping on. Flitting off to nearby vegetation, bringing a little bit back with it, then jumping up into the door-pocket where it would disappear behind the case of TOPO CD’s I keep with me just in case I ever go east and need to load new maps into my GPS.

I figured that this behavior, though pretty neat, wasn't at all productive for the little avian workhorse and I was right. When I removed the CD case I found the beginnings of an ill-fated nest  clinging to the Tyvek suit I also keep tucked into this door-pocket.

Normally my folding camp-table blocks this part of the door but I was using that so after I cleaned up the burgeoning nest I hung a cushion I wasn't using across the opening in the hopes that would deter the little wren so it would then put its efforts towards a more realistic nest location.

This seemed to work, though not for lack of trying on the part

of the determined, and slightly pissed off, bird.

So I went back to my book feeling all warm and fuzzy about keeping the local wild-life from making a mistake.


Except that later I looked up and noticed continued activity around the back of The Van. Activity that seemed to be centered on the two camera bags and one water-tote I have hanging just inside the rear door.

The cover of one of the camera bags was gaping slightly and

sure enough, we had another nest underway. . .

I emptied all the batteries and chargers from the bag, shook out the nest material, closed up the cover more securely, and sat back to see what the wren would pick on next.

The next day, mid-hike, I had to negotiate with these two for space at Polly's Horse Camp.

I don’t know where this guy hitched on, but as I took a break at one of the tables there at the Horse Camp he was bungee jumping off my hat-brim there in front of my eyes. Made it kind of hard to concentrate - not that I had anything to concentrate on at the moment.

Then a couple minutes later this guy ran quickly up to my arm, made a hard left, then tried to dive between the table-top boards.

I don’t know what this is, nor if that is its normal abdomen or if it might by carrying a clutch of eggs under there, but I didn’t want to disturb it for any longer than it took to snap this photo.

Later, while still sitting there at that weathered and splintery table trying to mind my own business it suddenly sounded like I was in the middle of a New York tenement street filled with squabbling neighbors as a pair of Crested Titmouse objected to sharing their tree with this Scrub Jay who, even though trying to look casual about the whole thing, eventually relinquished the tree and settled for the ground.

A few hours further on I was sitting at Jones Spring watching this guy lord over the little pool there. The image is grainy because every time I moved closer it would disappear into the bottom of the pool so I had to resort to extreme zoom to get this image of the creature which is smaller than my little finger nail.

Initially, because of the coloration I thought it might be a tiny little turtle, but eventually I caught a glimpse of the pair of oar-like legs that are the hallmark of a water-bug.

Critters critters everywhere!

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Tale Of Three Blinds

Shortly after starting back up the park road when leaving the Pedernales Falls area, right there at the blue arrow, there’s a bar-gate on the right guarding a lightly used but obvious track. If you’re on foot or bike and hang a right here you end up in a relatively flat area of the park with a number of trails looping through it.

Tucked in here just off one of the trails on the north side of the Duck Pond, which in dry times is more like a Duck Scrap-of-Water, is a viewing blind right there at the green arrow.

In the past I’ve seen quite a few creatures from this blind, including all sorts of birds, raccoons, turtles, deer, a pair of foxes, one solitary coyote, and a couple dozen feral hogs feeding around the edges, but mid-day is a crappy time to be wild-life spotting.

Even so, the area wasn’t completely devoid of spotting opportunities.

It just takes some patience. But hey, I’ve got all day – or at least until I get hungry, which, now that I think about it, might not be very long. . .

Further along the trail system, there at the black arrow, where two trails converge at a Y junction, providing line-of-sight in three different directions, I come across one of the hunting blinds scattered around the park.

Some of the state parks, including this one, have managed hunts. Since there’s more yahoos with guns than there is space (Serious hunters in Texas pool together with friends and buy hunting leases on private land) permits are thrown in a hat and a limited number are then drawn.

In order to cut down on the number of hunters getting shot, those with a drawn permit are then assigned a blind to which they will be escorted, and where they have to stay until their escort returns to collect them later.

Obviously the parks are closed during hunts, which is really kind of annoying because hunting season coincides with some of the best weather to be out hiking.

Another stop-over in this part of the park is the bird viewing area. A small compound with a garden-like area flanked by two separate enclosed blinds each looking out on different feeding areas.

Of course the best viewing is at sunrise and sunset, but this a pleasant stop any time of day.

Oh, and just to dispel any exaggerated illusions about my trail-riding expertise I offer up this photo.

Granted the trail is actually steeper than it appears here, but despite the diminutive scale of these rocks and ledges and the Quad-B’s 29” tires which are supposed to eat rocks for lunch, this is the kind of thing that has me getting off and walking.

But in my defense, I’m alone out here so if I crash and burn that whole buddy-system thing kind of falls apart on me because in a situation like that the voices in my head are no damn help at all!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Not Much Water In The Falls

At the far northern end of Pedernales Falls State Park is the park’s namesake, Pedernales Falls. This is a stretch of river that flows over a tilted uplift of the area’s underlying limestone that creates more a series of pools flowing down into each other than traditional falls, but in this dry country you take what you can get!

This is also the most popular part of the park and, because I’m – well, just naturally persnickety, it's an area of the park that I visit infrequently.

But early this morning I set out for a hike/bike day and made an exception by turning right as I exit the campground.

The hike part of hike/bike is necessary at this end of the park since bikes are not allowed down by the falls area. Which is why I tucked the Quad-B into the trees right about where the little knot in my trail is at the bottom-center of the image above and continued on foot.

Rather than hike straight down to the river (there’s that persnickety bit again!) I soon left the trail and headed northwestward for a bit, angling to come out slightly upriver of the falls area.

Limestone and water can create some interesting formations, including this miniature mountain-range.

In this image the limestone formation is tilted upwards from right to left and the river flows against that tilt left to right.

Right now the water levels are low and the river is tucked out of sight in a channel under the bluffs over there, but in wetter times everything in front of me can be under water.

But wetter times are few and far between around here so water is precious.

To the left is park property but on the right side of the channel is private land. On the top of the bluff, not really visible behind the trees unless you know it’s there, is a 30 to 50 thousand gallon concrete water tank and just at the end of the arrow is a pipe dangling over the bluff and heading down towards the river.

There’s an eddy tucked in there behind that point of the bluff and the end of that pipe is used to suck water up out of the river and into the tank.

Or at least that’s usually the case, but at the moment the pipe to the tank is dangling loose up there in the top of the image and a pair of ranch-hands are making some improvements/repairs to the system. (notice the red rope on the far right that they are using, hand-over-hand with no other safety gear, to scale the bluff to get at this hard-to-access spot.)

The river is still about 20 feet below this guy’s feet and his co-worker is about midway between banging on the side of that sand-filled culvert with a big-ass sledge as the visible guy rams the pipe up and down over and over, gaining an inch or so at a time.

I, working hard to tamp down any empathy I have for the hard-working men, move up-river a bit and take advantage of the low water levels to find a spot to just lay back and chill, the rhythmic thunk – thunk – thunk of the ranch-hands labors just loud enough from here to lull me into a stupor.

But only until the sun eventually intrudes on my little hide-a-way.

Growing up in cloud-shrouded Michigan which clocks an average of 75 sunny days a year we sought out the sun, taking advantage of its handful of summer appearances to stretch out on sandy towels and let it bake our lily-white Irish skin to a golden brown, (we didn’t know squat about UV damage back then) but when I moved to Texas with closer to 220 sunny days, and more tropical temperatures, I quickly learned to appreciate shade, and when it’s gone it’s time to move, even in late April.

Besides, people are starting to show up, and frankly people are not my favorite people.

And here is an example of why. Despite ample signage on the trail down from the parking lot explaining Texas property laws, the four people on the left have, without hesitation, jumped the channel and are now trespassing on private property. I wonder how they’d feel if I just walked in their front door during lunch??

The poor ranger stationed down here is supposed to be for interpretive purposes, but when the water is this low he/she has to spend a good half their time chasing the stupid back across the river before a gun-totin’, pissed off rancher,

who’s goats, on which he will barely break even as it is, are trying to graze undisturbed, turns up and resolves the issue himself.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Down By The River

Upriver the sun has peeked over the bluffs.

Downriver the shadows are quickly giving way to golden rays.

And over there, the far side of the river, is where I want to be.

Low rainfall since the first of the year means the looming threat of drought, burn-bans, and a so-so showing of wildflowers, but it also means low water levels. I’ve crossed this river, the Pedernales, thigh-deep with the current threatening to rip my leg off and drag it downstream every time I lift it for one more short, slippery shuffle far-bank-wards, I’ve also seen it tearing at the bank 20 feet above my head’s current position, but today the water is ankle-deep most the way across with one short section, the main channel on the far side, reaching mid-calf.

I’ve got a lot more hiking to do today and wet feet are to hiking like – well – wet feet. My boots are waterproof but only ankle high, so a more inexperienced me would go through the hassle of finding a dry spot to sit, removing boots and socks, fighting my way into snug-fitting and grippy water-shoes, doing the crossing, finding yet another dry spot to sit,  fighting once again with the water-shoes, made worse now because they and feet are wet, drying feet with the scrap of towel I carry, dragging socks back over slightly damp toes, pulling on boots, and finally going through the elaborate process of doing up the laces. But I’ve done enough hiking to have found out, by accident verified with follow-up experimentation, that as long as I don’t stand and soak, I can completely submerge my tightly laced boots and still have dry feet. Of course the exposed part of my socks get wet and a little of that will eventually wick down past the collar of my boots, but a quick pat-down with the towel minimizes that to just a temporary coolness around my ankles.

Over here on the east side of the river, ankles damp, feet dry, I’m back in the shadow of the bluff,

but shadow doesn’t mean gloom, just a little extra chill.

The air is cold enough this morning that the river-water felt warm, and, unlike me, this guy is having none of that, preferring to hang tight right where he is, despite my nosiness, until the rays reach in here and get those juices flowing again.

When I’m done peeping into insect bedrooms I have to face the fact that as far as I climbed down to the river on the other side, I now have to climb back up on this side. The yin and yang of life.

But there’s usually little rewards for those that look for them, such as this solitary globular flower-cluster just there at the top of the bluff being pollinated by tiny little moth-like creatures feeding on the nectar.

One of the dark-winged, white-banded insects is near the top center of the photo with a butt-side view of another  just left and slightly down from him, and if you look hard enough (As if you’ve got nothing better to do)  there are at least two more feeding at this buffet.

I throw this photo in for a sense of scale.

But I have a goal this morning that has nothing to do with entomology. In fact it’s a goal I’ve had for a long time, ever since I first stood on the southern bluff, there in the red circle, years ago and looked across at the gentler slope on the north side of the river. On-site observation and examination of topo-maps has convinced me that, though there is no trail there, it should be a bit of simple bushwacking to get down to the river in this quiet corner of the park without having to resort to any rock-climbing, or falling off of cliffing. . . (Which, as a sport has it's limitations, namely you only get to do it once!)

And to make my goal even easier to obtain, the park added the Spur Trail to the official trail system several years ago, which actually isn’t a spur at all but rather an extension of the original Loop Trail.

But I still manage to get distracted along the way by this tightly knit web of a Funnel-Spider,

but whoever is in there is smarter than me. I tickle the web, which is slick rather than sticky so prey will slide down into the hole, with a blade of grass but can’t entice the architect to show herself.

But eventually I make my way along the Spur Trail to its southernmost point, down there at the top end of that short out-and-back spur of my track.

From here I’m only a quarter mile from my objective, but it isn’t exactly going to be a stroll in the park.

With compass in hand I pick a likely looking spot and leave the groomed trail.

Ideally I want to maintain a bearing of 180 degrees but, as is normal when going off-trail, there are a few necessary detours along the way.

But there is also a wide band of this cousin to the Sawtooth Agave between me and my objective that there is no detouring around.

Now any normal idiot would retreat at this point, but I’ve never claimed to be a normal idiot, so I tuck the compass away, because I've gone far enough that now all I have to do is keep moving downhill, and bull my way through, very gingerly.

My clothes take the worst of it, (I always hike in long pants and long sleeves) but my person doesn’t come out unscathed.

This might not look like much here but I've already washed the blood off a couple times and those little needle-darts don’t always leave marks. But I knew all about each one of those little pricks when washing veggies for dinner that night! When I sprayed the veggies, and of course, the hand that was holding them, down with vinegar I promptly started dancing and cussing because that shit stung!!

But I do manage to make it down to the river!

A nicely isolated, quietly pristine river with water so crystalline it looks shallower than it really is.

Which is no big deal because I wasn’t going to cross the river here anyway.

Texas laws regarding waterways, private property, and trespassing are very specific. Generally property lines run down the middle of the main channel. As long as you're floating on the water you are fine, but once you put your feet on the bottom you are trespassing, so despite how inviting that barely visible little shaded inlet on the other side of the river, up there in the top-right, looks

the park boundary on the south side of the river is right there and anything left of the sign, which includes that little inlet, is trespassing on private property.

I certainly don’t like people trespassing on my property so I’m not about to do the same to someone else’s. (I’m the same way about speeding. I don’t like people speeding on my street so I have the courtesy not to speed on theirs.)

Once more into the breach!

After an extended break there beside the river, which I have all to myself, it’s time to make my way back uphill to continue my hike.

I survive my detour, smugly satisfied with myself, regain the official trail, and eventually make my way up to the northernmost point of the hike, which is at the designated Scenic Overlook.

I find the single, rustic bench that constitutes the overlook sunning itself without the least bit of shade

so I make my own little nest and hang out there, nearly alone, (One solitary hiker made it to the overlook bench, spent all of 15 seconds looking, then left again.) until the westering sun eventually starts encroaching on me.

All in all, a very satisfying day out on the trail alone with my own thoughts (We’ll get to the voices in my head another time. . .) with the bonus, the extra chocolate-chip cookie in the bag, of achieving a long-time goal.