Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Homing in on the Grand Places, or the Grandness of the Home Places? The Tuolumne River


It was just one of those moments...

I was taking my near daily walk along the river trail that lies a mile from my house. It winds for two miles along the Tuolumne River where it emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills and flows into the Great Valley. I'll grant that for a river like the Tuolumne, it's not the grandest bit of scenery. This is a river that begins in the spectacular high country of Yosemite National Park, flows through a little known canyon that is as deep as Arizona's Grand Canyon (actually called the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), and then through a network of gorges famous for white-water rafting. Downstream, the river feeds into a floodplain that is part of America's greatest savanna environments, the winter home of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds like Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and many, many others.

My stretch of river? It's historically been kind of a dumping ground. It was first turned upside down in the search for gold in the 1800s an early 1900s. Much of the riparian habitat was torn out while miners processed millions of cubic yards of sediment. An old dredge still sits abandoned a few miles upstream. In the aftermath, quarry operations removed gravel, altering the streambed and leaving a series of ponds. Invasive plants like hyacinth invaded the river, and noxious invasive weeds invaded the hillsides above. Reservoirs were constructed upstream, siphoning off water and sending it to hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland downstream. In some ways, the river is a shadow of its former self.

And yet...

The trail follows a bench above the main riverbed, and there are a number of spots where one can clamber down and sit by the river. I have my favorite spot about a mile up the trail, and I was sitting there enjoying the sunset and watching a Kingfisher diving into the water for a meal. It occurred to me, sitting there for maybe the 100th time or so (the trail was opened about two years ago), that this was home. I mean, sure, home is usually a place with walls and a roof and all that, but our homes are also a place beyond the backyard. We may have co-opted almost all the natural places, but there are bits and pieces still present, a place where we can comprehend the nature of the land that we live on. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail is that place for me, a spot that I can explore again and again, always with the possibility of seeing something surprising, something new and unexpected.
The other day it was the surprise of discovering that beavers have been living and working not thirty yards from where I sit and watch the river. How in the world could I miss that for two years? It's possible that they recently arrived, given that the entire floodplain was actually flooded for more than six months last year during the record precipitation year. They may be just now reestablishing themselves in the newly changed environment. A bit of research later on resulted in the discovery that this very stretch of river was one of the last stands of the native California Golden Beaver. Some were captured here to establish populations elsewhere in the state (this was in the 1940s).
My explorations of the river coincided with the discovery that our county has one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere. More than three hundred species have been recorded here. Many, of course, were rare sightings of vagrants from elsewhere, but birders in the area regularly record more than two hundred species in a year's time. So...I always have my camera with me when I wander the trail. I'm new at this sort of thing, but still I have seen more than eighty species on the river and the adjacent bluffs and pastures.
Pied-billed Grebes on the Tuolumne River
I'm still seeing new ones. Since January 1st, I've seen Pied-billed Grebes (above), a Merlin (below), and a flock of Common Goldeneyes (below the Merlin) for the first time on this stretch of river. I only saw the Merlin once, but the Grebes and the Goldeneyes turn out to have favorite spots to hang out on the river. Now that I know where to look, I can almost always see them, and note whether the flocks have grown larger or not.
Merlin on the Tuolumne River

It's that way with the more common birds too. Many of the birds spend their time near the same trees or shrubs. The Scrub Jays and Yellow-billed Magpies prefer particular trees on the bluffs or near the river. When the swallows arrive in spring, they have their preferred cliffs (and bridges) for their nests. There are several oak trees where I can expect to find colorful songbirds like Hooded Orioles, Bullock's Orioles, Western Tanagers, and Audubon's Warblers in the right season. The Phainopeplas have their favorite trees, as do the egrets, cranes and herons.
Common Goldeneyes on the river

There have been two American Kestrels that have about four perches that they will abandon, one after another, as I walk forward on the trail (I can't walk the trail without irritating them; I keep hoping they'll finally just recognize me and stop fleeing). It's that way with dozens of individual birds that I see over and over.
American Kestrel above the river, giving me that irritated look...
They're rarer, but I have seen more and more of the larger mammals as well. Early on I photographed a Gray Fox where the stairway sits today, and the picture was eventually added to the interpretive signs for the trail. I've seen River Otters three or four times, and Raccoons (one was sleeping in a tree next to the trail just this week).

As I sat there this evening I thought of how lucky I've been in my life, the privileges I've been granted in exploring some of the most spectacular places on planet Earth. I treasure my handful of overseas adventures in Australia, Italy, Scotland, England, France and Switzerland, my journeys to the Hawaiian Islands, and especially the adventures I've had with my students across the western states of the U.S. (and Canada, too). I was lucky to see so many spectacular sights, but I also know that I will see many of those places only once, and for only a brief time (the schedules must be adhered to).

On the other hand, I have been granted a continuing privilege of getting to know a single place well, learning the rhythms and seasonal changes, being there long enough to take advantage of capturing a fox or otters on video (like the one below). It may not be the most spectacular of scenic places, but it is a small piece of the natural world that still exists just beyond my front door. It's the kind of precious gift that just about anyone can experience. Practically everyone lives relatively close to a river or stream, lake or forest, even in places where such things are not expected. There are some great places to see the natural world in the Los Angeles Basin, for instance. They're worth seeking out. It is a great adventure to learn something new, and to have the potential for making discoveries every time one ventures out beyond their doorstep. It's a cheap thrill, so to speak, since one really doesn't need money to visit many of these places.


I encourage you to seek out those small wild places close to home. They have their very own kind of grandeur, even if the tour guides and brochures would never send you to there. It's the grandness of the home places. What is your place?