My California Adventure

I was born in California. When I was 12, my family decided to escape the “rat race” of the San Francisco Bay Area by moving to Oregon. Prior to marrying my husband, I had only been back once, and that was over 20 years ago. Aside from fond memories of my time at our cabin in the Sierras, most of what I thought of California involved smog, traffic, and way too many people. However, in recent days, I have been reminded of some of the finer things that sunny California has to offer.

Like me, my husband grew up in California. Unlike me, his family did not make a mass exodus from the state, so many of his relatives still live there. His father lives in Southern California, in Bakersfield, best known as the home town of country singers Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick. Last week we made a trip down for a visit. During our flight over the state, I looked out the window and was surprised at the vast tracts of mountains, some of which were extremely rugged. It was beautiful! Unfortunately, there was also a brownish haze of smog that served as a reminder that I was flying over the most populated state in the nation.

After landing in Burbank and making the 100 mile drive through the swarm of blood pressure raising traffic to Bakersfield, I was excited to learn that on the agenda during our visit were a day of snake and lizard hunting and another day of exploring a remote cattle ranch. My husband and I often go for evening drives looking for snakes during the summer months back home in Washington. Any snake we find that hasn’t been squashed by a speeding car is wrangled off the road to keep it from becoming road-kill pizza. We have a lot of rattlesnakes here too, and if we find one that has already been run over we will sometimes take the rattles. California has a great selection of interesting snakes; the Inland Northwest, by comparison, is pretty boring. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of critters we might come across.

Our first outing involved a nearly two hour drive. With my 81 year old father-in-law behind the wheel, he took us on what was perhaps the windiest and narrowest road I had ever been on. Numerous near-misses of oncoming cars made for a nail-biting ride. I was relieved when we finally got off the main road and onto a dirt road leading to a remote mountain hideaway. In less than two minutes out of the car, I spied a blue belly lizard sunning himself on a rock “this could be a great spot for lizard wrangling!” I thought.

Lizard wrangling involves using a long cane pole with a short length of fishing line looped into a noose at the end of the pole. The noose is slipped over the head of a lizard and when he moves forward or the pole is lifted, the noose captures the lizard, which dangles at the end of the line like a fish. They are not harmed and are removed easily from the noose. The hard part is sneaking up to the lizard and getting the noose over its head. The wrangler must be very stealthy, patient, and have a steady hand.

By the time I got my cane pole ready, the first lizard had disappeared, so I started prowling the rocky hillside in search of others. Going was slow because of the amount of brush, which was a perfect hiding spot for rattlesnakes. I had to be slow and observant to make sure I didn’t step within striking range of one of these critters. I’m not afraid of snakes, but I certainly am not interested in getting bit by one, especially a poisonous one.

After about half an hour looking and finding no further lizards, I relocated to a rocky area close to a dry creek. Within one minute, I could see lizards running everywhere. I quickly was able to noose the biggest one, who measured about 6 inches. Within ten minutes I had captured a second one. Both were released unharmed. It was a bit like catch-and-release fishing and it was a blast!

After leaving our lizard-wrangling area and stopping for dinner, we headed back home on an isolated back road in search of snakes. We came across a beautiful black-and-white striped California king snake, one of those interesting critters we don’t have in Washington. We also found a baby rattlesnake and two gopher snakes, which we gently coaxed off the road to keep them from getting run over. I was loving California!

The next day we made our way to a remote cattle ranch that sat in the middle of some of those rugged mountains we had flown over a few days before. The ranch manager had complained about the huge numbers of ground squirrels who were overrunning the place, digging holes all over the cattle’s grazing areas and leading to broken legs. He encouraged us to kill as many as we could. He took us on a long tour of the ranch on his Ranger 4×4. Everywhere we looked there were squirrels running amuck. Despite shooting several dozen we didn’t even make a dent in their numbers.

As we drove along one of the old four-wheeler trails, I heard a rattlesnake buzzing as we passed by. We stopped and walked back to where I had heard the snake and saw perhaps the largest rattler I had ever seen in person. He had 15 buttons on his rattle. Yikes! I’m glad I didn’t come across him while I was hiking around!

We covered many miles of trails and saw some of the most beautifully rugged country California has to offer, all within two hours or so from huge Los Angeles. I was actually amazed and pretty impressed at the remoteness of the land. We even saw a group of blacktail dear, as well as a couple of piles of bear scat. When I asked about bears, the ranch manager showed us several photos of some very large bears that had been taken from the ranch. He also told me that mountain lions were a real problem in the area and often killed his calves and cows. I could believe it after looking at the area. It looked like perfect cougar country: rugged, rocky, and vast.

On the way home that night we took another back road on the way home in hope of finding more snakes. As we came around a corner, bright yellow eyes suddenly shined in the headlights as a bobcat was caught crossing the road. My husband grabbed a powerful flashlight and we watched the cat for several minutes as he casually scaled the nearly vertical hillside, stopping several times to glare at us, his eyes flashing like bright beacons in flashlight beam before finally topping the hill and disappearing from our sight. He was the first bobcat I had seen in the wild. Who would have thought it would happen in California?

My most memorable experience of the day took place a few miles further down the road. We saw something small and dark moving along the edge of the road and slowed to investigate. To my surprise and joy I saw that it was two tiny skunks, not much bigger than baby kittens. Looking farther down the road we saw that their mother and another one of the babies had been run over by a car. As we got out of the vehicle to check on the babies, they both started waddling towards us, acting as if they were looking for food. We had no idea how long the mother had been dead, but these guys were clearly starving. As I picked one of them up, he started making suckling noises in my hand. They were adorable!! Apparently (thankfully), their scent glands were not yet developed (their eyes were barely opened), so they did not spray us. They hardly had any smell at all.

We knew that if we left them there, they would either starve to death, be hit by a car, or get eaten by a predator, so we wrapped them in a pillow case and took them home. At that late hour we had to drive around town for an hour before we finally found a store that was open and sold the goat’s milk I knew they needed. I was able to get some milk into them before heading to bed. With full stomachs, they slept through what was left of the night.

Luckily, the next day we were able to find a wildlife rehabilitation center that was willing to take the babies in. A special thank you goes out to Bakersfield’s “California Living Museum” (CALM) for ensuring these guys get the best chance of surviving after being orphaned so young and getting returned to their wilderness home.

As we flew home, the memories of my trip were not of the traffic, the smog, or the crowds. It was and always will be the great adventures I had in California’s wild spaces. Once upon a time, I would never have said this, but I can’t wait to go back!

May 25, 2013 | Category: Blog, Conservation | Comments: none


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