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Some of us collect anecdotes of stupid hikers at Whiting:
I met him just as he was coming off the Edison Trail in Whiting Ranch, a small, spindly man with no hair, shorts, a short-sleeved plaid shirt, and a pair of earbuds blasting Beethoven as loud as he could stand it. A few months before I had met a mountain lion on this very trail, so I stopped him.
“There’s deer up there at the end of the trail,” he said, waving his arm in the general direction of nowhere in particular. I have to admit that I was surprised that he saw them.
“There’s also mountain lion up there,” I said, motioning to his earbuds.
“Oh yes,” he shouted with a smile and went on his way.
The little bird working the edge of Pond 1 looked like a chicken to me. A small chicken that poked its beak in the water.
“Anything interesting?” another birdwatcher asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve been looking for the Orange Bishop.”
Oh he’s over there,” said the newcomer. He looked for it. “I saw him from a different angle.” He walked back to where he had been standing. His wife pointed to it and we found it by triangulation.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“Well, I think I’ve seen a rail. It’s been running in and out of those reeds.” I nodded down the embankment. This piqued the couple’s interest. “A rail? Do you know what kind?”
“I don’t know my rails very well,” I said. “I’d have to look it up.” It was true. Until I investigated my guidebooks and web apps, I had had no idea that coots were related to rails. Made sense because coots looked an awful lot like these little birds. Several birders joined us. The rails came out of the reeds and waded into the shallow water. A middle-aged East Indian gentleman with the biggest set of binoculars that I had ever seen slipped behind us and asked in a voice just the slightest of tones past a whisper “Anything interesting?”
I told him about the rails. He looked at them through his lenses. “Sora,” he announced. “Look at the yellow bill.” Another rail came out of the reeds. “Down there is a Virginia Rail. Dark beak. That is how you tell them from the soras.” Everyone was excited about the rails, even more excited that they were about the Orange Bishop. I had hit on the Popular Thing of the moment.
“It’s a good day when you see a new bird,” said the expert. Yes, it was.
Birds subdued their calls. I saw no tracks other than boots and bicycle treads, so I dedicated the day to understanding the landscape. My pocket notebook was filling up with entries about the geology of Whiting Ranch — how the ridges north of Dreaded Hill came in waves, each of them consisting of a different geological formation. A loud buzz startled me from my observations. A blue-black insect the size of a bumblebee shot out of the sage scrub and zoomed down the road toward me, zigzagging before it hit me. I followed it — first by sight, then by foot — as it flew a little further and alighted on the stubble at the edge of the road.
It was my intention to arrive early before other hikers obliterated the tracks of the previous night, but my punctuality didn’t help: at least one docent preceded me and other walkers passed me so there was nothing to see other than scat by the time I scanned the trail. Saturday offered another open access day on which the general public could explore the lands to the east of Black Star Canyon Road. We picked up our lime green passes at the registration table, walked up the road, and started our journey into the dry forest of Baker Canyon. Eucalyptus gave way to live oaks and sycamores as we marched further in. Baker Meadow was lovely even with the dead grass. Coyotes were eating some kind of pitted fruit — the cactus hadn’t ripened yet so it wasn’t that — and leaving purplish mounds in the middle of the path. We lost the forest canopy and trudged up the Hall Canyon Trail — a hard climb that led to a mercy of switchbacks and a crest over which we passed to get to the flood plain of Silverado Creek.
Few people walk the Edison Road except diehards like me who can face a walk back uphill from a dead end. Few people means many animal tracks.
So the other day I discovered a bonanza in the dust. The mule deer which had been absent for several months were back. Their double half moon footprints crowded the edges of the trail (for some reason they didn’t like walking down the middle). Throw in some coyote and the x-shaped tracks of a roadrunner plus a possible bobcat and it made for a good day for tracking. After I climbed the hill from the cul de sac and started on my way back down the other end, I saw them. The first impressions left me uncertain. The loosness of the dust plus the waffle stompers of another hiker had obscured them somewhat. But after rounding the bend beneath the first electrical tower, I found hard evidence. They were about the size of the palm of my hand and there was no mistaking the rounded, bean-shaped toe prints: A mountain lion had followed the deer. A new apex predator was in residence.
One short spur trail makes all the difference in the Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park. When I ascended the Wood Creek Trail to get a view of the canyon beyond, I saw that the trail climbed further and then cascaded down in a series of stairs that I thought would take me back to the main trail. Lynn would not be happy with this country, I realized, so I directed her to go back to the Wood Canyon Trail and wait for me at the first sign she found. The trail — marked “easy” on the maps — dropped into a live oak forest along the creek but where was the main route? The path jumped and swerved along the west bank of the creek — which was fed by water from adjacent housing tracts — over three or four bridges until it finally crossed back and rediscovered the road after about half a mile.
Orange County Parks rules by a strange definition of wilderness. There is no buffer between the suburban and the canyon landscapes. Houses encroach on the very fringes of its wilderness parks. The water on which the plants and wildlife depend comes from the runoff of residential irrigation systems. Concrete aprons permit easy fording of streams. Mountain bikers rocket by with the perennial cry of “On your left! On your left!” Rangers patrol in pickups. A dilapidated wooden corral holds the golden grass that the ranchers seeded to overwhelm the bunch grasses and sedges native to these fields.