The first time I experienced the awesome grandeur of California’s Eastern Sierra was in 1975, when, as a rookie Fish and Game warden, I drove there on assignment to work the Crowley Lake trout-season opener. That spring, the majestic mountains to the west were covered with snow, and the entire scene, from Mount Whitney to Mammoth Lakes, looked like something you’d see on a Christmas card. Over the years I’ve visited again and again, sometimes in the spring, sometimes in the summer, and sometimes in the fall. Whatever the season, the Eastern Sierra always offers an eye-popping display of color and natural beauty.
With camera in hand, Kathy and I have spent much of the last thirty years enjoying nature and searching for wildlife wherever we could find it. We’ve meandered through mountains, marshes, and meadows in seven states; we’ve trekked across deserts in California, Arizona, and Nevada; we’ve kayaked with great whales in Monterey Bay; and we’ve dived to the depths of the ocean in California, Hawaii, Key Largo, and the Caribbean. One place we’ve never gone in search of wildlife is Africa.
It was early September when Kathy and I arrived in Pacific Grove to find the whole town buzzing with excitement. Something strange was going on, the likes of which no one had ever seen. Water temperatures in Monterey Bay were reportedly five degrees warmer than normal for this time of year. Baitfish numbers were off the charts, and wherever anchovies, sardines, and other prey species swam, congregations of larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals followed. Among the marine mammals in relentless pursuit of these tiny, silver-sided fish were sea lions, dolphins, and the largest creatures on earth—the whales.
My first opportunity to visit California’s magnificent Eastern Sierra came in late April 1975, while I was a young Fish and Game warden stationed on the Colorado River. During the next three and a half years, I was sent to the Eastern Sierra six more times. My assignments included working the opening weekend of trout season at Crowley Lake, the opening weekend of deer season near Walker, and covering the June Lake Loop while district warden “Bigfoot” Johnson was on vacation. Regardless the duty, I couldn’t wait to go.
I’ve been exploring Northern California’s streams—above and below the surface—for most of my life. One of my most memorable adventures took place on a hot summer’s day in 1964, not long after my sixteenth birthday. My fishing buddy, Paul Martens, had heard that some trophy browns could be caught in upper Chico Creek. The only way into this treacherously steep canyon was an overgrown Caterpillar track that hadn’t been traveled or maintained in years. Throwing caution to the wind, I shoved my 1947 Chevy pickup into first gear, gingerly stepped on the gas, and inched down the steep embankment.
When I looked at the list of outdoor activities for this year’s Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) spring conference, a rafting trip down the American River practically jumped off the page. “Let’s do this!” I said to Kathy. “I haven’t rafted the American River since 1973, when I was a graduate student at Sacramento State.” I had also worked as a paid intern for the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors during that time and learned firsthand about a fledgling organization called Friends of the River. Friends of the River was mounting a campaign to stop the proposed Auburn Dam project. It seemed that certain political heavyweights were pushing to bury the breathtakingly pristine north and middle forks of the American River under several hundred feet of water. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and the project was eventually abandoned. Natural treasures like the American River Canyon are never completely safe, however. Like a bad cold that just won’t go away, the plan to build Auburn Dam still rears its ugly head from time to time.
In late April, before summer set in, Kathy and I decided to spend a few days in the land of blistering sands and sharp thorns. I had worked in the California desert during my early years with the California Department of Fish and Game and remain captivated by the incredible diversity of plants and animals that flourish in this seemingly barren landscape.
“Quick, roll up the windows!” said Kathy. We had just entered the ten-mile auto tour route at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, when four cars roared by us like we were standing still. Pulling to the side of the road, we waited for the dust cloud that enveloped us to subside.
Kathy and I recently attended the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) fall conference on the aptly-named Wild Rivers Coast. Stretching from Port Orford, Oregon to Klamath, California, the Wild Rivers Coast is 101 miles of incredibly beautiful coastline. Eight of America’s most renowned salmon and steelhead streams course through this magical land of tall trees and spectacular seascapes: the Sixes, Elk, Rogue, Pistol, Chetco, Winchuck, Smith, and Klamath Rivers. For an outdoor enthusiast who loves to write, paint, fish, kayak, bird watch, and walk on the beach, this may have been as close to nirvana as I will ever come.