Fire damage cannot extinguish magic of Sierra-at-Tahoe

Fire damage cannot extinguish magic of Sierra-at-Tahoe

Brothers Ray and Floyd Barrett opened Sierra Ski Ranch in 1946. Vern Sprock purchased it in 1956. In 1993, Fibreboard bought it and renamed it Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. It has been owned by Booth Creek Ski Holdings since 1996. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

This ski season was supposed to be all about celebrating 75 years of schussing down the slopes at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Unfortunately, the resort doesn’t know what lifts will spin this winter even though opening day should be a few weeks away.

The Caldor Fire that ripped through the Eldorado National Forest in late summer/early fall caused significant damage to some of the lifts and many of the trees.

Sierra threw a big party for Jamie Anderson, Maddie Bowman and Hannah Teeter after they competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

“We do know that the trails + area accessed by West Bowl Express will be inaccessible this season, as we restore that section of the mountain for seasons to come,” Sierra-at-Tahoe said on Instagram Oct. 24.

Even though the ski resort’s insurance company brought in private firefighters before the flames reached that section of Highway 50, fire has a way of doing what it wants. Most of the buildings were saved, but the cables on some of the 14 lifts that are scattered across 2,000 acres are the problem. So are all the damaged trees.

Sierra’s restaurants serve more than traditional cafeteria food. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

On the resort’s website is a Q&A about what to expect this season. It gets updated as more information is available.

In part as of Oct. 25 it said, “We are still conducting a thorough evaluation of Sierra’s lifts and trails to understand the full impact of the fire. That evaluation will determine what operations look like for opening the resort for the 2021/22 winter season. Repairs, routine yearly maintenance + annual inspections continue on Nob Hill, Short Stuff, El Dorado + Easy Rider Express, as well as mitigation for fire-damaged trees along ski trails accessed by these lifts. The operating status for individual trails accessed by each of these lifts is still unknown as they undergo inspection. In addition, many of the in-bound tree skiing areas, such as Jack’s + Avalanche Bowl, will likely be closed for the season. Grandview Express’ haul rope, which suspends the ski lift’s chairs, was damaged during the fire and a replacement cable is currently in production in Switzerland. Due to these challenges, Grandview Express will be delayed and we currently do not have an estimated date for allowing access to this lift.”

This video from KCRA-TV shows the damage:

The fire changed a lot of things for a lot of people. And while it might be trite to mourn the damage to my favorite South Shore ski resort when whole towns (Grizzly Flats and Greenville) were leveled this year, the loss is wrapped up in so many wonderful memories of skiing at Sierra.

I’ve never been a huge tree skier, but I loved the trees at Sierra. I loved that I could find stashes of powder a day or two after a storm. The special events were fun. The food was good.

Kae Reed, left, as a special guest judge during the annual salsa competition.

Sierra has always had a friendly, non-corporate vibe. It was welcoming.

And all those Olympians it has produced.

There is a reason the lift that accesses this vista is called Grandview. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

I skied there with friends and family. I skied for work, I skied just to have fun.

None of those things will change as the resort repairs the fire damage. It’s possible Sierra will be even more magical for having endured this significant setback.

Good thing the keys were not left in the snowcat. (Image: Sue Wood)

Sierra has weathered many storms—ownership changes, drought, rain on snow, a pandemic, short seasons, lack of personnel, road closures, and so much more. Resilient is what this resort is. It takes some pretty special people—from the GM to the lifties—to create this sense of belonging.

The fact that the resort seems to be so honest via social media about what is going on makes me like it even more. Transparency with guests is going to get some converts to the slopes even with limited terrain this season.

This isn’t just a ski resort; it is a community. It’s a place that will always be special to me.

Birds easier to hear than see in the wild

Birds easier to hear than see in the wild

A woodpecker takes a break from ferreting out insects from the log. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

At times we were surrounded by all this noise, but we could not see the culprits. It was as though they were mocking us.

Some of it was lyrical, at times it was chirping, and then there was the squawking.

It was like a game of hide-and-seek. I wanted to shout “olly, olly oxen free” for them to come out and reveal themselves. If only birding were that easy. Instead, it’s a lot of waiting, listening, and finally excitement when seeing a feathered friend fly or rest on a branch without visual obstruction.

Few birds made themselves so visible. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Before they even came into sight we had our weapons of choice—camera, binoculars, bare eyes—ready to document their existence.

With my friend, Darla, in town for a long weekend, we hit a couple nearby places that were recommended for seeing a variety of birds. This is an activity she is just getting into, so the birds listed below that we saw come with the caveat that she is a self-described “below beginner level birder” and I’m not a birder of any kind.

Because she is from Central Oregon we were able to check off some birds she had not recorded before. Others, like the scrub jay, quail and turkey vultures, were species she had seen long before she started getting interested in this activity.

Some of the other birds we are pretty sure we saw include the Western wood pewee, acorn woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, bushtit, and oak titmouse.

There were others, but their shape, coloring and any unique characteristic were not distinguishable enough for her decipher. I was of little help in this whole identifying ritual. When they don’t sit long or are camouflaged by leaves and tree limbs, it’s hard to get a definitive read on the animal.

With nearly 10,000 bird species in the world, it could take a lifetime to track them all down.

Plenty of people bird every day. Then there are the events where people count them.

Chico is home to a number of bird species; and is also on the Pacific Flyway. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

One of the biggest bird counts is the annual Christmas event put on by the National Audubon Society from Dec. 14-Jan 5. This year marks the 122nd year.

The Audubon website says, “The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years. The long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.”

This is a count I’ve participated in on the fringes as a journalist. It really is amazing to see species of birds you might otherwise not notice were nearby. And to view them with specialty equipment is a treat. These birders, well, they, too, are an interesting breed.

Private park in Butte County a hidden gem

Private park in Butte County a hidden gem

Merlo Park is tucked away in a remote area of Butte County. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

A 20-acre oasis of tranquility awaits those willing to make the drive to Stirling City.

This Butte County town with a population of 374 people is home to a majestic private park at an elevation of 3,500 feet.

I visited the park for the first time earlier this month with the Native Plant Society’s Lassen Chapter. While there were plenty of native plants to look at—ponderosa pine, sugar pine, Douglas fir, white fir, quaking aspen, black oak, incense cedar, fern, rush, and manzanita, to name a few—this park also hosts many nonnative flora.

Other specimens (some native, some not) that were identified included golden rod, tanbark oak, naked buckwheat, wild cherries, acacia, St. John’s wort, dogwood, and Sierra redwood.

In May and June the wildflowers are said to be magnificent.

A man-made waterfall at the park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Our leader Marjorie was correct in calling this a peaceful place to enjoy nature, as we embraced the solitude.

Three ponds on the grounds are pumped and the water recycled. Paths are gentle as they weave around areas that are more developed, and some that are wooded and more natural.

Small statues of children are placed throughout the park. The caretaker told our group these were bought by Harry Merlo to commemorate his childhood. One shows a boy with a dog, another is a child fishing, one is of a kid playing ball.

Placards are next to trees that have been planted in honor of someone who has died, signifying how important this park must have been to that person and their loved ones.

Harry A. Merlo dedicated the park to his late mother, Clotilde, in 1987. She had died in 1962. Clotilde had immigrated to Stirling City from Italy. The park is near where Harry grew up. This is where the Diamond Match sawmill used to be.

One of the many statues scattered about the park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Growing up in a lumber community it’s not a surprise that he became an executive of Georgia-Pacific. When Louisiana Pacific spun off from Georgia-Pacific, Merlo became the CEO of LP, a position he held from 1973-95. At that time LP was headquartered in Portland, which is where Merlo spent most of his life. Merlo died in 2016 at the age of 91.

Today the park is run by a nonprofit foundation. There is no cost to visit, though it is not open in the winter. It will close this season on Oct. 17, and will reopen on Mother’s Day.

The park’s Facebook page says, “Coltilde was a war widow who came from Italy in 1920 with her small son, Pete. She met and married Joseph Merlo, also widowed with two small children, Caroline and Amiel. They had three sons, John, Harry and Frank. She was the foremost teacher in her children’s lives as well as running a boarding house for Joseph’s co-workers from the nearby sawmill. After WWII, she moved to Berkeley with her three youngest sons where she worked to help them through the university.”

A plaque at the park says, “It is the intention of the Harry A. Merlo Foundation that this park bring peace, tranquility and dignity in remembrance of the many emigrants who, in the first decades of the 1900s, settled in the community of Stirling City.”

Mount Tamalpais trails a contrast in terrain

Mount Tamalpais trails a contrast in terrain

The coastal climate keeps part of Mount Tamalpais State Park lush. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It was like two hikes in one—first being surrounded by verdant green flora, then descending through dry grasses and oaks.

It didn’t matter that we started in fog because the tree canopy was so thick it was hard to know there was even a sky above us. It was damp, almost humid in this majestic wooded area of Mount Tamalpais State Park. Moss covered tree branches, ferns were at our feet, while redwoods and bay trees provided a canopy.

Fog keeps the morning cool at Mount Tam. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The sounds of Webb Creek followed us most of the way up. It was rather amazing to have so much water flowing on Labor Day weekend. Multiple bridges cross the creek. On the route down we crossed numerous dry creeks–or maybe sections of the same creek, and areas that looked like the trail would definitely be wet in the rainy season or early spring. The landscape also looked like there would be waterfalls when it rains again.

My legs felt the climbing the next day; mostly because of all the stairs involved. The nice thing is they were not made out of granite, which is what I’m used to. The compact dirt trail was rather gradual.

There is only one way up … or down. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

An interesting obstacle was the necessity to climb a ladder in the first section of the route. I was glad we encountered it on our way up instead of having to climb down it.

This is definitely not a hike for those with bad knees.

The route we took was devised by our leader Harold from the Chico Orville Outdoor Adventurers group. This was his description of the hike, “This popular hike departing from the town of Stinson Beach, strung together from the Matt Davis, Steep Ravine, and Dipsea trails feature a bit of everything, with waterfalls (not in September), redwood, Douglas fir, and oak forests, grassland, canyons, and views galore. These three trails are some of Tam’s best, and combined them into one hike intensifies their pleasures.”

Sue walks along the exposed area of the route. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

We seemed to startle three coyote cubs near the start of the trail. A few chirping birds were our only other wildlife encounter.

After lunch it like a different world with more expansive terrain and the occasional oak. Fog muted our view to the ocean, but there was plenty of wonderful scenery worth pausing for.

By the end of the hike we had finished a 7.57-mile loop; starting and ending in the town of Stinson Beach in Marin County. The GPS registered the start at 27 feet, with our highest point 1,631 feet.

Trees from around the world line nature trail

Trees from around the world line nature trail

While I have plenty of familiarity with pulling a cork out of a wine bottle, until this summer I had never seen a cork tree.

A cork oak grove is part of Bidwell Park in Chico; more precisely in the World of Trees Nature Trail off East Eighth Street. The cork trees were planted in 1904.

A grove of oak cork trees in Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Knocking on a tree it almost seems hollow. It’s soft to the touch. I didn’t try to see how easy it would be to take a piece off because that seemed like it would be destructive, selfish, and truly pointless.

Others, though, have harvested cork from the trees in the past. The stripping occurred in the 1940s and at other times; the scars are visible.

Trees from around the world thrive in Bidwell Park. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Cork works so well for keeping wine from seeping out of bottles because it contains suber. In fact, the official name of the tree is Quercus suber. Suber is the exterior of the bark of the tree, which is waxy. It is also waterproof, which makes it ideal for sealing in wine.

A plethora of trees are part of this half-mile or so nature trail. It makes a loop, though there are off-shoots that can make the experience longer. Interpretive signs point out some of the species of trees.

Italian Cypress trees tower over many species. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

In addition to the cork, the trees AJ and I saw that were named included:

  • Austrian pine
  • Bay tree
  • Coulter pine
  • Valley Oak
  • Zelkova
  • Madrone
  • Coast redwood
  • American persimmon
  • Aleppo pine
  • Western Catalpa
  • English Oak
  • Black Walnut
  • Italian Cypress
  • Incense Cedar.

Cork trees in Chico used to be harvested. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The grove once had 122 sequoias. The nonprofit Friends of Bidwell Park said a week of 10-degree temps in 1932 wiped them out.

The cork grove was part of the 29 acres John Bidwell in 1888 donated to the just created State Board of Forestry. Within five years the funding for the new agency was cutoff. The Legislature gave the property to the University of California Department of Agriculture at Berkeley. In 1921, the state took possession from the university. The city of Chico became the landowner through locals each contributing $100 to buy the acreage from the state. All of this is according to Friends of Bidwell Park.

It’s a wonderful path that is bound to change seasonally. It’s flat, dirt, and isn’t open to bikes or horses. It was delightful to see so many different species of trees, including ones I had never seen before, in less than a mile of walking.

Tahoe Rim Trail celebrating 40 years of wonder

Tahoe Rim Trail celebrating 40 years of wonder

Incredible views await those who hike the Tahoe Rim Trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Looking up at the mountains that surround Lake Tahoe it can be hard imagining circumnavigating this magnificent body of water on foot.

Fortunately, people with more vision than I have figured out a way to build a single-track path around this alpine lake. While there are 72 miles of shoreline, the Tahoe Rim Trail started as a 150-mile loop and expanded into 165 miles, which now has several off-shoots. It keeps growing and keeps being improved upon.

The nonprofit Tahoe Rim Trail Association had planned a 40th anniversary celebration for Sept. 18 in Stateline, Nev. The Caldor Fire is throwing everyone’s plans into standby or cancellation mode. Even the trail itself is closed.

Despite the temporary closure of the Tahoe Rim Trail, it is still worth celebrating.

While hiking 165 miles would seem daunting to most people, the beauty about the Rim Trail is that is can be done in sections or even fractions of actual TRTA designated routes. Access points are throughout the basin and just outside of it. Often times hikers will find themselves on the TRT without having set out to hike a part of it.

The nonprofit association, which is essentially the caretaker of the trail, says this on its website: “The Tahoe Rim Trail is one of the most iconic and beautiful long-distance recreation trails in the world.”

This is not hyperbole.

Wildlife shares the trail system with humans. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Views from the Rim Trail are stunning. It’s not just Lake Tahoe that is captivating. Plenty of small alpine lakes dot the trail. Then there is all of the granite, the pines and other flora.

The trail covers two states and three wilderness areas (Desolation, Mount Rose, Granite Chief). The entire route is designated a National Recreation Trail, with part of it being along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.

While the trail is recognized nationally, and even internationally, it is volunteers and donations that keep it going. Yes, the association has paid staff, but so many people associated with the trail are working for free.

This trail system is truly magical. Even if fire changes how the terrain looks, the Tahoe Rim Trail will remain a destination and worthy cause to donate to.

Time line:

  • 1981: Tahoe Rim Trail founder Glen Hampton, a U.S. Forest Service recreation officer, envisioned a 150-mile loop following the ridge tops of Lake Tahoe
  • 1982: Tahoe Rim Trail Fund formed and was granted nonprofit 501(c)3 status.
  • 1984: Construction began at Luther Pass.
  • 1990: First trailhead completed at Big Meadow in California.
  • 1991: First interpretive trail at Tahoe Meadows complete
  • 2001: After 17 years and more than 200,000 volunteer hours, the 150-mile loop was complete at the California/Nevada state line on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe; the Tahoe Rim Trail is officially declared open.
  • 2001: Ed Laine completes a photo project to document each of the 150 miles within the new trail system to correspond with the official opening of the trail.
  • 2003: 96 miles of the Tahoe Rim Trail are dedicated as a National Recreational Trail.
  • 2006: TRTA celebrates 25 years, 165 miles completed.
  • 2008: Tahoe City reroute project is completed.
  • 2009: Trail crews kick off summer breaking ground on the Daggett Summit reroute project.
  • 2009: Ultra runner Killian Jornet sets fastest supported through hike record at 38 hours, and 36 minutes.
  • 2011: Rim to Reno trail project breaks ground after epic Tahoe winter.
  • 2011: Van Sickle Bi-State Park which straddles California and Nevada is open to the public.
  • 2014: Rim to Reno trail project is completed to Mt. Houghton.

Source: Tahoe Rim Trail Association

Lake Oroville sets a new record low every day

Lake Oroville sets a new record low every day

The water level at Lake Oroville, as seen Aug. 21, drops a little more every day. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

During a drought it’s hard to imagine the primary reason the Oroville Dam was built was for flood control measures.

As the tallest earthen dam in the United States at 770 feet, today it seems like a bit of an overkill considering how low Lake Oroville is.

This dam on the Feather River was completed in 1967, with the spillway finished a year later.

Houseboats at Lime Saddle are on land because there isn’t enough water. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Earlier this month the lake level broke the record low set in September 1977 of 645 feet above sea level. As of Aug. 23 it was at 632.02 feet, and dropping. What the record for 2021 will be set at will be marked once it starts to rain.

When full, the lake’s water level is at 900 feet.

On Aug. 5, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said, “This is the first time Hyatt Powerplant has gone offline as a result of low lake levels. This is just one of many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought. California and much of the western part of the United States are experiencing the impacts of accelerated climate change including record-low reservoir levels due to dramatically reduced runoff this spring.”

Houseboats at Lime Saddle arm of Lake Oroville compete for water to float on; the ramp is closed. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The power plant had to be shut down because it needs a minimum water level to function. This underground plant had been operating continuously since it was completed in 1967.

Farmers and municipalities that rely on State Water Project water are only receiving 5 percent of their allotments right now because there isn’t any more to give. Oroville is the second largest reservoir in the state behind Shasta Lake.

Another resource of Lake Oroville’s is as a recreation destination. Not so much this year.

A few houseboats remain in the water. At Lime Saddle they look like tiny specks sharing a bath tub worth of water. Several are dry docked in two parking lots. They had to be pulled out of the water because there wasn’t going to be enough wet stuff for all of them to share.

It is possible to drive, walk and bike across Oroville Dam. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Facts about the dam:

  • At 770 feet, it is the tallest earthen dam in the United States.
  • Crest length is 6,920 feet.
  • Base width is 3,500 feet.
  • The state of California owns the reservoir/dam.
  • A sack of sand and gravel from each of the 58 counties in the state were used in the construction.
  • Thirty-four men died during construction.
  • Spillway capacity is 650,000 cubic feet per second.
  • Lake Oroville can hold 3.484 million acre-feet of water, covers an area of 15,500 acres, and has a shoreline of 167 miles.

Central Valley rice farmers helping migratory birds

Central Valley rice farmers helping migratory birds

Migrating bird numbers continue to decline as their habitat dwindles. But there is some hope as rice farmers around Chico and in the greater Sacramento Valley create habitat for these winged visitors.

The National Audubon Society says, “Each year at least a billion birds migrate along the Pacific Flyway, but these birds are only a fraction of those that used the flyway a century ago. Habitat loss, water shortages, diminishing food sources, and climate change all threaten the birds of the Pacific Flyway.”

A headline from 2017 in Scientific American said, “Shorebird populations have shrunk by 70% across North America since 1973, and the species that breed in the Arctic are among the hardest hit.”

After two years of little winter precipitation and a disastrous spring runoff, many are calling this one of the worst droughts in California’s history. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley are receiving a trickle of the water they normally do. This means less water for these ducks, geese, waterfowl and other species to enjoy as they fly across this swath of land.

Migratory birds refuel in rice fields in the Central Valley. (Image: Nature Conservancy)

These birds migrate between Canada and South America in the spring and fall, with a popular stop being the 500,000 acres of rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.

Bloomberg reports, “Ducks and geese traveling through California’s agricultural heartland get about 50 percent of their food supplies from those flooded fields, according to John Eadie, a waterfowl biology professor at UC Davis. A lack of resources could weaken current populations and hurt their chances for survival and reproduction.”

Rice farmers this year have planted 20 percent less acreage because of the drought. That translates to tens of thousands of acres of what is normally avian habitat. It will mean more birds accessing fewer resources; which could mean malnourishment and their inability to make the trip south.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s online news site The Revelator reports, “Last year drought conditions forced too many birds into too small a space, and 60,000 perished of avian botulism that spread quickly in close quarters.” That was just for the Klamath Basin, which crosses the California-Oregon border. This year the prediction is the die-off will stretch south into California’s Central Valley.

Obviously birds have been traversing the Pacific Flyway long before white people settled these lands. They did just fine; after all California is known for having droughts for centuries. What is different is people started creating dams, building levees, paving over wetlands and converting them to agriculture. This all lead to the elimination of the birds’ natural habitat.

Today, only 5 percent of the historic wetlands in the Central Valley remain.

That is why people are trying to right the wrongs of policies that have been detrimental to migratory bird species. The Nature Conservancy in 2014 started an initiative called BirdReturns to pay famers to flood fields in the off seasons so birds would have “pop-up wetlands.” More than 100 farmers have created more than 58,000 acres of short-term habitat for shorebirds.

The California Rice Commission since then has created a similar program to entice farmers to flood fields when they wouldn’t normally do so. The agency’s website says, “Rice fields have a unique ability to provide surrogate wetland habitat during both the growing and post-harvest periods of the production cycle. The Central Valley supports 30 percent of the shorebirds and 60 percent of the ducks and geese in the entire Pacific Flyway.”

These birds don’t require deep water. It can be 2 to 5 inches to satisfy their needs.

“Many rice farmers in the Sacramento Valley of California use water to decompose their remaining rice straw after harvest. This post-harvest flooding creates over 300,000 acres of surrogate wetland habitat between October and February, the peak of migration season,” the Rice Commission explains on its website. “While this flooding is key to the survival of millions of wintering water birds, there are many species that migrate early or late and arrive in the Sacramento Valley to find little to no flooded habitat. By focusing on the shoulder season, both before and after the typical post-harvest flooding period, the foundation can provide a critical source of flooded habitat when it is most scarce and therefore most needed.”

The problem this year is that farmers have less water, so fewer are likely to participate in the program not because they aren’t willing to, but because they are unable to. What this will mean for the fall migration remains to be seen.

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