Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Camping! Blue Oak Campground and Bear Creek Campground

A week ago, Susan and I went camping. We used to go camping several times a year, but for the past several years we hadn't felt safe leaving town for more than a few hours because the duplex we were renting was becoming surrounded by unsavory characters who we feared would burglarize it if they saw that we were away for any significant length of time. Now that we own a house of our own where we can feel safe again, we're finally free to go camping again. (Meanwhile, there are now apparently about 20 people living in the 800 square feet of what used to be our half of the duplex - or maybe only 19 now, because the local newspaper reported that one of them was arrested for burglary in December and went to state prison.)

Anyway, we were eager to camp again, and a three-day weekend seemed like the perfect time to do it. It seems a little weird to spend our life savings (more or less) on a fancy house and then go sleep in a tent instead, but, well, we've never claimed not to be weird. This being February, however, we tried our best to pick a campground at a relatively low elevation and somewhat near the ocean so we wouldn't freeze to death. The ocean is quite a long drive from here, though, and we also wanted to be able to start driving immediately after we got off work on Friday and arrive at the campground before dark. And dark arrives early in February, so we figured we only had time to arrive at the eastern edge of the coastal mountain range, not really very near the actual coast at all. Specifically, we decided to camp at Indian Valley Reservoir. This was a drive of about an hour and 45 minutes, as opposed to the three hours and 20 minutes it would take us to arrive at the ocean.

We hoped to camp at Wintun Campground, because it is a single-site campground very isolated from other people, so we could let the dogs off leash all weekend and not worry about them bothering anyone nor about anyone bothering us. However, we recognized that it might already be occupied by the time we arrived, so we made a backup plan: Blue Oak Campground. Both campgrounds are at Indian Valley Reservoir, and they're only seven miles apart - although that's seven miles of twisting dirt roads, so it's a half-hour drive from one campground to the other. The sun was already setting as we neared Wintun Campground, and since we were driving west, each time we rounded a bend in the dirt road, the sun would blind us so badly that Susan kept having to bring her truck to a complete stop until she could figure out where the road was and where the cliff at the edge of the road was. Luckily, there were no other vehicles around, so we had all the time we needed to figure out where the road was. We did get a little lost. Our directions said that Wintun Campground was half a mile down Wintun Access Road, so we drove half a mile down an unmarked road that seemed to be in the right location and then, not finding a campground, decided that the unmarked road must not be Wintun Access Road. We turned back and drove several more miles but couldn't find any other road that could plausibly be Wintun Access Road. So we went back to the unmarked road and drove a little farther down it this time - and there was Wintun Campground! It looked beautiful. Unfortunately, there was already a truck parked and a tent pitched. Reluctantly, we turned around and made our way to Blue Oak Campground instead. The last few rays of sun vanished at just about the moment we arrived there.

Only one of the six campsites at Blue Oak Campground was taken before we arrived. It was taken by two hunters, men about fifty years old or so. They had put up separate tents for each of them, as straight men tend to feel the need to do when they camp together. They had a boat with them, and a dog. Their dog was off leash but obedient enough to stay in its own campsite. Our dogs are not so obedient, so chose a campsite at the far opposite end of the campground from theirs and then tied our dogs' leashes to a tree while we put up our tent and started our campfire. We've had trouble in the past with Boston breaking out of our tent during the night - she persistently bangs her head against the zipper until the zipper splits open - so I had brought along a canvas dog crate as a sort of separate tent just for the dogs. However, Susan insisted that Boston wouldn't be able to break out of the tent we were using on this camping trip. We have two tents, and Susan said that Boston was only able to break out of the large red one, not the little green one we had brought for this trip. I wasn't one bit convinced. But then the two hunters started shooting. From right in their campsite. When it was pitch dark outside! I have no idea what they were shooting at, but whatever it was, I also have no idea how they could possibly see it to shoot at it. Anyway, the shooting scared Susan to the point that whatever small chance I might otherwise have had of persuading her to let the dogs sleep in their own separate tent was clearly gone, and the dogs slept with us.

Blue Oak Campground is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and it's illegal to shoot within one mile of any campground on BLM land. However, at free campgrounds like this one, there's pretty much never anyone present with the authority to enforce such laws. We were not happy about the illegal shooting, but since the hunters' guns weren't especially loud and they were at the opposite end of the campground from us, we just resigned ourselves to putting up with it. They did stop shooting by 8:00 p.m., which was before we went to bed, so they didn't disrupt our sleep. And Susan was right - Boston didn't break out of the little green tent.

In the morning, Susan started a new fire. One of the hunters came over to warn us that one of the blue oak trees in our campsite had a beehive in it. We shrugged and said that the bees hadn't bothered us. He said they would start bothering us when the weather warmed up later in the day. We decided to wait and see. All we ever ended up seeing was maybe three bees flying in circles a few times overhead, which didn't seem terribly bothersome to us. The hunters left their campsite to hunt elsewhere, although they still weren't the legally required one mile away - we continued to hear their guns from just across the hills from the campground. But we continued to ignore them.

I spent several hours picking up litter - not just from our own campsites but from the two adjacent campsites and the brook and the nearby areas that weren't technically part of the campground. I filled a very large trash bag with other people's trash - beer cans, candy wrappers, broken glass, a receipt for someone's $500 money order, some crumpled paper targets, and uncountable numbers of shotgun shells. Across the brook, farther away than I ventured during my trash pickup, there were also these fluorescent orange things everywhere, all of them shattered into hundreds of fluorescent orange bits.

Susan identified them as "clay pigeons." Apparently there are special machines that hurl hundreds of these things into the air for people to practice shooting at them. And apparently people bring these special machines to campgrounds with them and shoot them, illegally, in the campgrounds, littering the campgrounds with a hundred million fragments of fluorescent orange. I had never seen these things before, and Susan said that she'd never seen them in person before either; she was able to identify them only because she had seen them on television. Suddenly they were everywhere.

I did not pick up other people's litter purely out of a noble desire to do good deeds. I picked up other people's litter because I wanted to be able to enjoy a litter-free camping experience - both just for the sake of it, and so that I could take pretty pictures. If I hadn't picked up all that litter, all of my pictures would have had prominently visible trash bits in them, and I didn't want to take ugly pictures that were all full of trash. But I was frustrated at how much of the litter I was unable to pick up at all. Some of it was tied to trees up out of my reach - clearly tied there for target shooting purposes, but whoever tied it there was long gone, and the litter was still there. I didn't even attempt to pick up any of the fragments of fluorescent orange clay, because there were far too many of them, and because they're supposedly biodegradable. I suspect it will take a very long time for them to biodegrade, however. There were also a bunch of someone's discarded orange peels on top of some rocks in the brook next to our campsite, which I didn't pick up because I couldn't reach them without wading in the water, and because I know orange peels are biodegradable - but I also know, because I own and regularly use a compost bin, that those orange peels may still be prominently visible and undegraded up to a year from now. That's a long time for every campground user to have to look at one person's discarded orange peels. If you need to dispose of something biodegradable, couldn't you dispose of it in a way that makes it invisible? Campfires are very handy for burning those types of things. Even if you can't be bothered to burn your own orange peels, couldn't you at least leave them in the firepit where future campers can easily burn them for you?

And then there was also the tremendous destruction caused by people driving off-road vehicles everywhere. That path up the hillside at the far left edge of the picture below, for example, is not a walking trail or a road for any normal vehicle; it's purely a path of destruction left behind by one single person who decided to drive an ATV up the hillside and kill every plant in his or her path. This campground was all too close to the only road around the reservoir, which turned out to get so much traffic that it seemed almost like a major highway - and what made all the traffic especially annoying was that a large portion of it was ATV traffic with extremely loud motors. People, a motor that loud can't possibly be good for your hearing! And driving on top of plants is not good for the ecosystems you're driving through.

After I finished picking up litter, Boston and I explored the small brook running alongside our campsite. The rocks along the right side of the picture below were in our campsite; our tent and picnic table are just out of sight to the right of the rocks. Boston and I followed the brook in the direction you see here for half an hour or so, but the scenery didn't change much at any point along the way, so after a while I sat down on a boulder in the middle of the brook and spent another half hour or so tossing pebbles for Boston to chase. I also searched a bit for interesting-looking rocks to bring back to Susan, but the rocks here were generally pretty ordinary-looking. Eventually, Boston and I made our way back to the campsite.

Since we were camping at such a low elevation - not much over 1,000 feet, I think - the plants were mostly the same ones we'd see in wilderness areas very close to home: blue oaks, manzanitas, chamise, buckbrush. The only somewhat less common plant I saw was a California juniper. There were two of them - a large one in the vacant campsite next to ours . . .

. . . and a smaller one in our own campsite, with the cones down at eye level.

However, at around noon, three 20-something men arrived and set up camp in a site directly next to ours. While talking in extremely loud voices, they set up three separate tents and then proceeded to unpack a vast stockpile of guns of every shape and size, from pistols to semiautomatic rifles (Susan recognized the types of guns because her ex used to be in the army reserves) and began firing them at the hillside. Some of these guns were absolutely deafeningly loud. Our dogs, who at this point were tied to a tree again by a rather long rope, were absolutely terrified and stretched their rope to its full length so they could hide in our tent. We were not much less terrified ourselves. Unlike the two hunters we'd seen before, these three guys were definitely not here to hunt. They referred to themselves as a "militia" and spouted all manner of right-wing conspiracy theories about the need to defend themselves from the federal government. "Britain is on the brink of passing legislation to ban kitchen knives!" they said. And then, "The trouble with the United States is that people here don't know how to handle differences of opinion. In Somalia they know how to handle that kind of thing. They don't have any government there, so they deal with things a lot better." And then, "Only faggots wear their pants up at their waists!" They also, at another point in the conversation, scoffed at "weekend militia guys" who aren't as serious about the militia movement as they are - even though they had arrived at noon on a Saturday and were clearly there for the weekend themselves.

But to my mind, the most bizarre part was when they mentioned that they live in the East Bay and they find the town of Ukiah terrifying rural. "It's all full of rednecks!" they exclaimed. (And what do they think they are? I have no idea.) "People up there don't know how to talk about anything but their cornfields!" they continued. They must have confused Ukiah with Iowa, because there are no major cornfields in Ukiah. Ukiah is a town of 16,000 people - larger than Marysville - and it consists more of aging hippies than of farmers or rednecks. Marysville is very much more "redneck" than Ukiah is, so it was very funny to hear these guys who seemed so frightening to us express fear of Ukiah.

One of them, the one who talked most constantly, also announced at one point that he planned to keep being very loud until at least midnight. Between the complete inability to enjoy ourselves during the day because of the scary people shooting deafeningly loud guns and the clear indication that the problem was going to continue into all hours of the night, I concluded that we needed to find ourselves a new campground. Susan said she hated to let them win by letting them chase us away. I said we'd be letting them ruin the entire remainder of our three-day weekend if we didn't leave. I got out the camping book that we'd used to find our way to Blue Oak Campground and looked through it for other possible campgrounds in our vicinity and read the descriptions aloud to Susan. We settled on Bear Creek Campground, which was not really very nearby at all - it was 67 miles away, on so many miles of dirt roads that it took us two and a half hours to get there. But we packed up our stuff and started driving.

The first portion of the drive was easy and familiar - we followed Highway 20 along the shore of Clear Lake, the largest lake included entirely in California (i.e., the largest lake in California that isn't Lake Tahoe). We drive that route anytime we drive near the coast.

More than ten miles of the road leading to it was deeply rutted dirt with huge mud puddles that Susan used 4-wheel drive for. Then just two miles from the campground, the road disappeared into a very substantial creek. Susan stopped the truck and we sat there for a few minutes trying to figure out what happened to the road. Just then, two van-shaped SUVs came from the other side of the creek and drove through the creek toward us. The water came up just above their bumpers, but they made it across. Susan's truck is significantly higher up than those SUVs were, especially because it has the extra suspension lift, so she concluded that we could cross the creek safely. However, she first stopped one of the SUVs and asked the driver whether this was the correct road to Bear Creek Campground. He said it was. He was very polite about it, too; Susan said she felt like crying afterward from relief that someone had actually been polite to us for a change, because all the people we'd encountered until then had not been. He was an American Indian man, probably 40-something years old, and in the back seat of his SUV were two 20-something black men with Rasta-style clothes and hair. They were sort of an odd group, with such different ages and cultural signifiers; I had the feeling that there must be an interesting story that had brought them together.

Anyway, Susan drove through the creek and up the steep bank of rocks on the other side. I was much too frightened by this experience to think of taking pictures at that time, but Susan suggested that I should take pictures when we drove back across the creek on our way home, so I did.

At last we found a campground, which we took to be Bear Creek Campground, and set up our tent again. We noticed, however, that the campground didn't look quite like what Bear Creek Campground was supposed to look like. Bear Creek Campground was supposed to have 16 sites, and the place we camped really only had one fully functional campsite left, though there were traces of what had clearly been additional campsites in the past. It appeared that the campground was no longer really meant to be used anymore; it had been mostly dismantled. Oh well! It was still Mendocino National Forest land, where people are free to camp wherever they like as long as they have a fire permit and follow the rules. And we were absolutely delighted that there weren't any other people around. The dogs got to be off leash most of the time for the rest of the weekend.

This campground was at 2,000 feet elevation, so it was quite noticeably colder than Blue Oak Campground had been. Blue Oak Campground had been cold at night but surprisingly warm during the day, and we were able to stay up after the sun went down, reading by lantern-light. This new campground was cold the entire day long, and as soon as the sun went down, it got so cold that we went immediately to bed and stayed there for 13 hours until the sun was fully up in the sky to warm the place up again. We kept a campfire burning pretty much every waking minute, although our campsite was so extremely damp from the nearby creek that all the wood we found in it was almost impossible to set on fire. The first night we were there, I slept in three pairs of socks, one pair of long pants, two sweatshirts, a hat, an overcoat zipped all the way up and with the hood pulled up, and gloves. Inside a sleeping bag, inside the tent. But I was still freezing, so the second night we were there, I added a second pair of pants. This warmed me up enough that I was able to take my gloves off. The fully zipped overcoat was really the most uncomfortable part of the ensemble - I was wrapped in so many layers I could hardly move my arms and had to flop like a fish just to turn over in bed - but there was no chance of ever getting warm enough to take that off during the night. I hardly ever got to take it off in the daytime either.

When we got up in the morning, the drinking water we'd brought with us was frozen. The dogs' water bowl was also frozen. I was afraid to take my camera out of its case in the early morning hours, because it's a very new and very expensive camera and I didn't want to expose it to possible damage from the cold, but even as late as 10:30 a.m. when I got brave enough to get my camera out, the dogs' water dish was still frozen over, and you can see the little hole where Susan chipped through the ice with her axe so the dogs could get to the water.

Even this late in the morning, the camera was hardly usable even when I dared to try using it. The camera lens kept fogging up each time I held the camera near my face. No sooner did I wipe the lens clean than it fogged back up again.

I was warm enough by this point in the morning that I unzipped my coat, but there was only about an hour or two in midafternoon when it ever got warm enough for me to take off my coat entirely.

Susan took to calling me "my little smurf" because I was wearing at least seven shades of blue, including a vaguely smurf-like hat that really belongs to Susan.

Well, Susan was wearing a fair amount of blue herself. She just wasn't as monochromatic as me because she owns more camping-appropriate clothes than I do. I always end up borrowing some of my camping clothes from her - in this case, a blue sweatshirt and a blue hat - and when I borrow her clothes, I tend to borrow blue ones because blue is pretty much the only color we both look good in.

There was quite a bit of litter at this campground too, and once again, much of it was shooting related. Here too, there were thousands of clay pigeons everywhere - in fact, it was here that I took the photograph of a clay pigeon that I showed you earlier. At Blue Oak Campground, all the clay pigeons we saw had been shot to smithereens, but here there were quite a number that were fully intact. We also found the shot-up remains of one of the machines used for tossing clay pigeons into the air; apparently the people here missed so many of the targets that they got frustrated and shot their machine into pieces. We also found the shot-up remains of a CD-ROM from an Apple computer, and numerous shot-up beer cans, several of which were again tied to trees.

I was feeling demoralized after having picked up so much litter at Blue Oak Campground only to be driven away by people who no doubt filled the place right back up with just as much litter as before. I simply couldn't summon the will to clean up all the litter from yet another campsite and surrounding area in the same weekend. Susan tried to take over litter-cleaning duties from me and picked up most of the litter in our own campsite, and I just picked up a few stray pieces here and there. But if this had been the first place we'd camped, if I'd had all the same determination I'd brought to my litter clean-up efforts at Blue Oak Campground, there was a ton of additional litter I would have picked up in the areas that were not quite technically in our campsite but adjacent to it. I simply couldn't face the futility of it anymore. Instead, I photographed a sample bullet-riddled beer can for your viewing pleasure. Note the date: this had apparently been sitting there for a year already.

Other than the litter, our campsite was gorgeous. In this direction - behind our tent - was a little rocky beach with some of the most fascinatingly colorful rocks I've ever seen. There was lots of green serpentine and a brilliant, almost stop sign-red jasper, and occasionally these colors were combined in different portions of a single rock, like a geologist's Christmas decoration.

The rocky beach itself looked like this.

A tree had fallen across the creek just downstream from our campsite.

The dogs and I went to look at it.

Then we turned around and went back to the campsite. (Well, Ganymede and I did. Boston lingered a bit to play in the creek while I was taking this picture.)

What, you want to see Boston too? Fine. Here's Boston in the creek.

Not all of the creek's shoreline was accessible; a blackberry thicket blocked a portion of it. But a dismantled former campsite that directly adjoined ours - nothing was left of it but some rocks where the firepit used to be - offered another point of access.

The band of rocks on the shoreline was narrower here, but the boulder on the other side of the river was lovely, and two branches of the creek joined together just slightly upstream.

Here's the fork.

Here are the trees along the bank of the creek.

And here's the view back downstream, toward our campsite.

There was also a rather odd clearing near our campsite that may have something to do with the fact that the campground seems to have been an equestrian one.

A short retaining wall formed one side of the clearing. At the foot of the retaining wall was an artificial-looking mound of dirt with an odd slab of cement slanting up to the top of the retaining wall.

This is a view of the slab of cement from above. It looked a little eerie, vaguely reminiscent of like a grave.

This is the path back up out of the clearing, toward our campsite.

This is the "driveway" of our campsite, as seen from inside our campsite.

When you drive between those trees, you arrive at this view of the road.

And on Sunday morning when I walked around that bend in the road for the first time, I discovered that directly beyond the mound of dirt on the left side of the picture was the sign for the actual Bear Creek Campground, which we hadn't arrived at after all - we had stopped at the very last possible spot before it would have come into view. All 16 sites in the actual Bear Creek Campground were completely empty, but we didn't feel like packing everything up and moving yet again, so we stayed where we were. However, we found lots of firewood at nearby Bear Creek Campground in addition to the firewood we had brought with us, so we were able to keep a good fire going all day long to stay warm in the daytime. The wood we found there was much drier than the wood we found in our own campsite, because the actual Bear Creek Campground was not quite right on the creek like our campsite was, so all the ground was much drier.

The sign for Bear Creek Campground also pointed out a road to nearby Snow Mountain Wilderness. The road began directly across the bridge from Bear Creek Campground, and I mistakenly assumed it would be a reasonably quick and easy trip, so I asked Susan if we could go there. She obligingly agreed to drive us. However, the road turned out to be absolutely terrifying! It was a narrow dirt road carved into the side of the cliff, with no berm or railing or anything to prevent vehicles from driving over the edge, and previous drivers had carved deep ruts into much of it. These ruts had in many cases been further widened by snow and water, with the result that the ruts sometimes went all the way through. By this I mean that while we were driving over a rut, I looked down and saw a batch of blue sky showing through the run, pretty much right in the middle of the road, not at a spot where we could possibly have avoided driving over it. Driving over patches of blue sky did not seem like a good idea to either one of us, but the road was so narrow that it also did not seem like a good idea to turn around. Unfortunately, the road just kept getting narrower and narrower, until pretty soon we were desperately wishing we had turned around back at the points that had previously seemed too narrow and risky for turning around in. Finally we picked a spot - not an easy spot, but a good enough one, and Susan managed to turn the pickup truck around and get us safely down the mountain. But first, at the spot where she turned the truck around, she paused to let me take this picture of what we think was Snow Mountain in the distance.

Safely back in our campsite, I photographed plants. Here are valley oaks draped in lichen and moss.

Here's a moss ball on one of the valley oaks. It was several yards above our heads, but my new camera's zoom lens is wonderful.

The tree on the left below is a valley oak; the tree on the right is a bigleaf maple.

Here's the bigleaf maple by itself.

And here are its branches intertwined with those of the valley oak.

Here is a yellow pine. (Yes, both trunks belong to the same tree.)

Here is a California bay. Its leaves can be used for cooking, although the bay leaves more commonly used in cooking are from a different species. California bay leaves taste pretty much the same but stronger.

Here is a manzanita.

And here are our dogs again.

Far too soon, it was time to go home. On our way home, Susan asked me to photograph the sign for Forest Road M1 to show to her sister, who lives in the U.K., where M1 is the name of a major highway.

Then we drove on.

And eventually we got home!
Tags: photographs, susan
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