WILDCAT GORGE TRAIL: Seeking Wonders of Nature in the Mud and Drizzle as Tilden Park's Rain-Swollen Creek Charms, Amazes, Soothe
Posted Oct 20 2009 10:04pm
The recent downpour in the Bay Area set one-day drenching records for October in the last fifty years. Parts of the nine county region got up to ten inches, and most places averaged well over four inches - a spectacular pluvial outburst! What could be going on? Is El Nino making a comeback? Not since I can recall - many years ago - has an October been so, so - wet! Well, certainly nothing better to do but "let the rain kiss you," as Langston Hughes exhorted, "let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby."
Overnight, these choral, flirtatious invocations from the heavens have transformed our local watershed (Wildcat Creek in the Berkeley Hills) from a brown, sere landscape into a primeval, lush, green rainforest world of visual sumptuousness and olfactory sensations wafting in the moist autumny air – inhaling the sweet scent of freshened bay leaves, the pungent aroma of eucalyptus bark, the musky odors of mud plashing under feet, and deeply breathing in a mish-mash of assorted earthy smells heightened by the rain's effect. . .is ambrosia for the senses.
Uncharacteristically humid and dank, water drips off giant fronds of bright green Western ferns; once straggly and dried out mosses are suddenly velvet green and plush, spongy and soft to the touch; banana slugs mi cro-inch their slimy way across the trail; dozens of newts plod here and there, perfectly blending in with the reddish trail; and smoky wisps of steam rise from the forest floor where stray god-beams of late afternoon sunlight break through the pearly tree canopy -- it’s no leap of the imagination to convince myself that I’m not in Berkeley, but, oh, say, Hawaii. Add to the sensory overload, the sweet sound and fury of unleashed rains roiling through the small gorge - Auden's bucolic water, "perfect in music and movement" -- pouring down steep ledges in symphonic thunder, singing white static melodies over boulders as it churns around the bend of an ancient lava flow, rushing and gushing along in a twisty, thirteen mile journey to the Bay, and the scene is complete – if not Hawaii, then a fair imitation of a Pacific Northwest rainforest on a warm, humid day. No, sorry, folks - wait a sec! Who's sorry?! - this is Berkeley, California!
Not surprisingly - for it's simply too mud-licious and puddle-wonderful (thanks ee) of a day - this backyard paradise is bereft of people. And now it's stopped raining, the sun is peaking out, adding to the sensational illusion of tropical euphoria. People, what people? There are close to 500,000 of us in 75 square miles bordering Tilden - and it's just me, in silent meditative mode, all alone, save for a bunch of hopped up squirrels, chirping birds, and the newts and slugs. It's irresistibly, imp ossibly wondrous! This - all to myself! A short hike up and down the gorge trail provides instant respite from a hectic workday, bestows peace of mind from the jarring, frenetic city, reaffirms precarious sanity, and instills in my heart that soulful happiness borne of an ineffable sense of belongingness in this beautiful place, not ten minutes (by car) from North Berkeley. . .this place that may well be one of the most charming and amazing swathes of preserved wildlands in any urban setting in the world. Yes, the world. The rains have induced the creek to flow with florid vengeance – a powerful force of destructive (in the good sense) water tearing through the gorge that quickens the pulse, soothes the soul, and enlivens the ionic ambience of the entire forest. It's positively electric! It's pulsating, throbbing, alive like some embryonic creature called up from a dry and brittle hibernation. To think – just yesterday, it was bone dry here, not a trickle! And now, the creek bed is a miasma of dancing water, frothy white or silty brown - twisting water, raging water, torrential water dashing through narrow chutes and gathering in broader stretches where it collects in swirling eddies and then continues on its way dropping ever so slightly in elevation, but still churning and fast-flowing enough to fantasize about kayaking it! Now, that would be a novel adventure! I doubt if anyone has ever kayaked Wildcat Creek - but in the days of ephemeral big rains, it would be manageable with a few portages where downed trees have obstructed free flow. Well, maybe an inner tube with a wet suit...would I b e the first?
The trail from Lone Oak staging area to the Lake Anza spillway - Wildcat Gorge Trail - is but a mere mile, and it is probably one of my favorite mile stretches anywhere in the East Bay Hills. Maybe the world. Following the winding creek, the trail first enters a beautiful meadow, where I’ve spotted chickadees, towhees, warblers, woodpeckers, rare hummingbirds, hawks, jays, and wild turkey. Soon, it comes to a bend at the cascade of Nook Pool, a lovely area backed by high banks lined with arching bay trees and a stately stand of 100 year old redwoods, where fencing is installed to keep dogs out of the sensitive breeding habitats of fingerling rainbo w trout and California newts. (Many dog owners irresponsibly ignore the signs and let their dogs off-leash to romp and frolic in the pools, and damage stream banks, creating erosion and destroying plant cover which helps to retain soil and provide shady riparian conditions. . . I guess on a hot day, can't blame 'em - the dogs, that is.)
From here, after taking in this splendid watery spectacle, the trail continues up and over a hill, before finally leading back down along the creek. Throughout the charming corridor, the forest is richly blanketed with a m ix of coast live oak, bay laurel, madrone, alder, big leaf maple, dogwood, buckeye, and redwood - an arboreal sanctuary where you leave the world behind and enter the kingdom of trees to commune with and express endless thanks and praise for their sacred existence amid your solitary and grateful presence. Trees glorious trees! At one particularly beautiful stretch, I stop to linger and bird watch in a brambly, wooded area that is painterly in tones of red, yellow, green and amber, with a backdrop of an ancient volcanic cavity formation rising fifty feet that lends the scene exotic appeal. From here, the trail continues creekside in an upward course toward the spillway, below Lake Anza, where, thanks to Anza's overflow, the creek comes crashing down over a thirty foot high, twenty foot wide ledge creating a most impressive plunge spewing forth a tremendous amount of roiling white water gushing along in a boomerang trajectory around the ten million year old lava flow that – if you give it half a look – boggles the mind and challenges your conception of the area's geologic heritage. Once gigantic volcanoes dotted the landscape, spewed forth their prodigious fiery vomit, and left their solidified statuesque remnants strewn here and there in the Berkeley Hills for us to admire and ponder over eons later. Wildcat Creek continually amazes and astounds us aficionados of (semi) urban water courses - from its origins atop Grizzly Peak, it begins in humble fashion as rainwater drains in a culvert in the Steam Trains parking lot. Seeping deep into subterranean pockets of Franciscan Formation rock, it collects and is stored in natural aquifers for gradual release throughout the year. But the force of its run-off is what gives Wildcat Creek its bedrock-cutting power, and over millions of years it has carved a beauty of a stream running down the hillside from the Steam Trains, through Tilden golf course, zig-zagging its way through the Botanic Gardens, before veering northwestward through the parklands of Tilden and Wildcat p reserves. Lake Anza - a reservoir created in 1938 - halts its free-flowing course, and because its broad contours used to be a rather deep valley - imagine this! - a 90 foot waterfall once graced a now submerged cliff face! (Berkeley's "own Glen Canyon" a Tilden naturalist once quipped.)
Before heading home, I have just enough daylight left to check out one of Wildcat's hidden tributaries - this one off South Park Drive is an unnamed little spur - dry most of the year - that I'll call Big Springs Crick, which now gushes anew with fresh rainfall run-of f. Walking along the trail, I have to tread cautiously lest I step on and crush dozens of newts suddenly roused from their summer burrows. They're the color of the earth and you only notice them if you look closely, as they methodically engage their rubbery limbs in a comical, slow-(loco)motion criss-cross pattern of movement. Unfortunately, many of these simpatico creatures are threatened by the early rains this year, since South Park Drive won't close until November 1 (through May) to allow the newts to migrate from these spur tributaries to the main creek. The rain has brought them out in numbers - I counted two dozen in less than a 500 foot stretch along the Crick - and the slow movers are no match for the hurtling metal racing down South Park Drive. Hurry up, November 1st!
I'm tracing a nea rly unnoticeable deer path off the main stem of Arroyo Trail, ducking beneath low hanging branches, avoiding snags of poison oak and brambles, seeking the confluence of two small arteries. At the right fork, the path becomes even more slippery and indistinguishable, leading up a muddy humpback ridge strewn with ever more obstacles . . .and yet I'm drawn deeper and deeper in by the louder and louder roar of - can it be? - yes! My secret waterfall! Come to life! Here, in a hidden ravine, an unnamed, unknown about, uncared for, little nothing of a seasonal rivulet has carved a bedrock chute spilling a swirling mass of tightly channeled water over the mossy lip of a cliff . . .as I struggle up and over several downed tree branches and trunks, nearly losing my footing on the unstable, steep s lope of the hillside, a real beauty comes into view- a twenty-five foot plunger! A sight that only I shall witness today, perhaps all week, perhaps all season. . .the hidden waterfall of my dreams, in a remote gully in Tilden Park in the Berkeley Hills. And it's all mine, and I can't get enough of it, or get over its inordinate preciousness which half the world - nay, all the world - will never know or care about in its utter, beautiful, simple obscurity. I linger a while in peaceful silence, prayerful in my contemplative reverie, before realizing it's getting dark, and it's time to go back the way I came. But I will be back, I will be back, I guarantee you that, the way I came.