Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Trial by Fire-Recovery

No I'm not talking about recovery from a weekend riding in the mountains drinking beer and swilling rye whiskey. I’m talking about fire recovery in specific wildfire recovery in a native ecosystem.  Its been a little over 5 years now since the 2007 Witch Creek Wildfire coupled with the Poomacha Wildfire in the north descended on my park fueled by high Santa Ana winds and drought conditions. I was at work when the fires started on October 21st, 2007 the day before my birthday. It was a Sunday and a fairly quiet day despite the fires that were beginning to gain ground in the backcountry to the north and east. Towards the end of that day I was really beginning to wonder if things were about to change for the worse. The air was thick with smoke and I remember climbing up on the roof of the office to try and get a better look. I saw nothing but white smoke but the reports I was getting seemed to say that we would dodge the bullet as we did in 2003 Cedar/Paradise wildfires that strangely enough started again at the end of October on the 26th.

I continued to watch the news throughout the night and went to bed hoping for the best. I awoke however to TV news reports of the fires march west towards the ocean using the San Dieguito River Parks corridor and abundant fuel source as its path. The air in North County had changed from white smoke to an acrid red hell fire engulfing cloud, ash rained down over Escondido as I wondered how I could access the park to check on the devastation I was sure was happening. The closest I got that day was the outer edge of the park by North County Fair Mall. It was clear at that point that we were losing everything.

The next day I found out the totality of the destruction. The fire had gone straight through the heart of the River Park and nothing was spared. Using my Ranger credentials I gained access to the Highland Vly rd leading to my office, the park was gone, completely. The road on either side was bare, nothing but dirt and burnt out trees, power lines hung in mid air and an abandoned burnt out vehicle sat in the middle of the road a testament to the speed of the fire. I continued on to the office and it too was gone except for a few charred filing cabinets. This story was the same for much of the park. All in all we lost about 75% of the entire habitat within the River Parks open space. We lost 99% of all the parks assets, the only reason I don’t say 100% is because we had a Park truck in the shop at the time. Office, vehicles, heavy equipment, tools, kiosk, bridges, picnic tables all gone.

But this story is about recovery right? Right, since then we have recovered as a park, dealing with FEMA and other agencies we rebuilt most of our infrastructure. It was not easy, and every step we took in the early days was a new one. But we were able to get up and running quickly, by memory and memory alone we replaced most of tools and equipment that was lost. That was us. The park itself took a little longer.

I really debated on how well the habitat would recover. We spent a lot of time in the first couple of years working with various volunteer crews like the California Conservation Corps,  Urban Corp and the good people at American Conservation Experience as well as our own dedicated crews to replant and rehabilitate the habitat. I'm not sure how many plants we planted back in those days but it numbered into the tens of thousands.We got really good at not only planting them but also propagating them on our own. I gained an entirely new skill set during that time. Slowly but surely the habitat rebounded and at this point you would be hard pressed to tell that a wildfire that cost the park 75% of it's habitat had actually happened at all.

Fire is a natural thing and though the losses to the human aspects were great the habitat actually responded positively. It cleared the palate you could say. It got rid of a lot of weedy non-natives that were choking the native habitat and paved the way for a more robust and healthy ecosystem.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Ranger Dave meets the Silver Fox

Last friday started like any other friday, I hesitantly rolled out of bed made my way to the bathroom and started getting ready for the day ahead. Like most fridays for the last couple of months my plan was to get an early start and head up to Idyllwild for a weekend of riding and some good ol IMBA advocacy/trail crew work. I got all my camping gear, bike crap, six finley hoend Mcclouds and a Pulaski, (the latter two are used to aid in the creation of trails) all loaded up into the jeep and away I went.

The drive up was uneventful and as always scenic and as soon as I crested the hill into Anza I said goodbye to coastal Eddie and hello to clear skies and sunshine. It was shaping up to be a great weekend. I have been making the drive up the hill a lot lately because I have once again fallen in love with this quaint mountain town. Most of my life I had grown up living in mountain towns, Wyoming, Denver, Colorado Springs and Woodland Park Colorado about eye level with Pikes Peak. I still seem to gravitate towards those mountain towns, especially if the riding is good or climbing or fishing. Downieville, Truckee, Mammoth,  places with a lot of local flavor. Places that both love and hate cyclist, places that on one hand are more than happy to welcome you in and take your money and on the other walk in groups down side streets pointing fingers and laughing at lycra clad cyclists while daring there drunkin brethren to jump from the highest manmade structure in town into a puddle of water doing a belly flop. "E Clampus Vitus" but I digress.

I rolled into town fairly early with plenty of time to set up camp, relax and read a little "Generation of Swine" before heading into town to the Cafe Aroma, billed as "Idyllwilds funnest and funkiest fine dining establishment" for some lunch and a presentation of "Better Living Through Trails" by the Trail Crew representatives from the IMBA. It was a good presentation filled with fun facts and numbers letting all the business owners in town know that mountain biking is GOOD business and just by living next to a trailhead ups your property value. You don't say.

After the presentation I was up for a ride and after talking to Brendan Collier proprietor of Idyllwilds The Hub Cyclery and Siren frame builder extraordinaire I was hooked up with some locals who were set to show me the inner workings of the Hub system. I rushed back to the camp as giddy as a little school girl, I had been to May Valley area a number of times and was starting to get the hang of the trail system on the that side of town but I had yet to make it to the Hub trails. I'd only heard tales of fast flowing single track and "tasty" rock overs that made you feel alive again, but never experienced them. I was already on a high as I raced out of my campsite geared and ready to ride. The directions from camp to the trailhead were basic but confusing at the same time since I'd never been there, fortunately a lifeline to Simon at the shop set me straight and I was soon standing at the trailhead waiting for my guides.

I first met Marlin an unassuming gent that looks what you think a guy would look like from the mountains that rides and works on the trails a lot. Great guy, we small talked as he unloaded his John Henry Siren and waited for the others. A couple minutes later two other fellas pulled in, Scotty whom I met earlier that day at Cafe Aroma and wait for it, wait for it THE SILVER FOX. As they pulled their trusty steeds from the truck I noticed the the Fox too was on a John Henry Siren, singlespeed version. Must be in the water cause every local that I've ridden with or ran into on the trails up here sports a John Henry Siren of some flavor. After a brief howdoyoudo we were on the trail and rolling.

I never knew where I was, not for one second, nor did I care. I followed one wheel after another as the guides switched leads down swooping singletrack that zigzagged thru the pines, down the sides of canyons and on some of the most fun natural features I've come across. I hopped onto the Silver Fox's wheel for the uphills and set into a comfortable singlespeed pace to grind it out. Its a pace I know and one that's always consistent on an uphill run. These mountain dudes got some lungs and my poor flatlander lungs were screaming for the thin air by the top of most the climbs but those were just the dues paid for the eye watering, twisting, machine testing downhills.

After the ride I headed back to camp and the Silver Fox decided to ride back with me. We stopped and I invited him to join me in a little after ride libations. Before leaving North County I had made a stop by the liquor store and picked up a bottle of Corsairs Wry Moon whiskey. A particularly spicy rye whiskey unaged and made in handmade pot stills, supposedly Al Capone's favorite. This is commonly known as moonshine. We talked about the ride and drank and talked and drank and drank a little more and the Fox was off. I got changed and with bottle in hand went to meet Brendan at The Hub Cyclery to talk bike frames.

My Twinzer in the buff!
There was a good sized crowd in the shop when I got there and Brendan was already hip to the fact I was a commin with some moonshine. Good news travels fast in thin air. We talked frames briefly and before I knew it I was the proud owner of a Twinzer Siren(stay tuned for the build up) and summarily invited to pizza with some more locals. It's a good crowd on a friday at the Idyllwild Pizza Company, the place was buzzin. We ordered some pizza and beer and found a seat. I meet some great people and shared some good stories then out of the corner of my eye I see a guy pull up on a bike. Lo and behold the Fox was back and in prime condition. As the beer flowed and trips were taken to my jeep to look at the "moon" it came to pass that the Silver Fox had just been playing with me out there on the trail that afternoon and that he had given me a good run for my money. I told him yes he had given me a run but my lack of directions impeded my natural flow causing me to slow down and wait for directions. He insinuated I was weaker than he and that I need to come to his neck of the woods to take him on in the sand, a real mans challenge. I told him I was down and the heated but funny conversation continued.
The Silver Fox and Brendan.

Most parted ways after a while and the rest of us ended up nestled back in the arms of Cafe Aroma wondering what tomorrows trail crew day would bring(thats a different story in and of itself). Me, I was already thinking about the trip to Blythe I was gonna take to meet the Silver Fox on his home sandy turf. All in all it was a great weekend on the hill spent with some really cool and talented people. If you have not been to Idyllwild lately you are missing something special. As Brendan says "This place is about to blow up!"