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Saturday, December 15 , 2018, 6:29 pm | Fair 56º


Dan McCaslin: Blue Canyon Still Green, Sacred and Serene

Beloved area in the middle backcountry is unburned and unbowed by the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows

The top of Blue Canyon looking east toward Cottam Camp. Click to view larger
The top of Blue Canyon looking east toward Cottam Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

[Editor’s note: Dan McCaslin’s next column recounts his overnight backpacking trip to Blue Canyon’s Cottam Camp in November 2017; the column was held back since it was unclear whether the Thomas Fire had burned through Blue Canyon.]

Dayhiking into Forbush Flat Camp on Jan. 20 led to the discovery that the beloved Blue Canyon in the middle backcountry — less than five air miles from Montecito’s Upper Village — is still there, unburned and unbowed by either of the recent twin catastrophes: the Thomas Fire and the deadly Montecito mudflows.

The 15-mile drive to Gibraltar Road on east is among the most scenic in California — southward toward the gleaming Santa Barbara Channel looms Santa Cruz Island (and a tiny tanker), and northward we see rows of transverse mountains, the Sierra Madre Range and even 8,900-foot Mount Iwihinmu (Mount Pinos). (See 4.1.1. for specific directions and book references.)

When we arrived at East Camino Cielo Road, we found two of the five road barriers down on the pavement and another moved aside, leaving space for vehicles. There were motorcyclists and plenty of bikers on the smoothly paved sky road (Camino Cielo), and we saw another vehicle driving around the fallen road barriers, so my friend Crazy Peter sped ahead while I looked out his silver Tacoma’s shotgun side searching for signs of Thomas’ fiery destruction.

The entire northside (oceanside) of the steep slopes was green as far as we could see, and untouched by fire or flood. After a few miles on the Camino Cielo, burned hillsides appeared on this frontside long before we arrived at the concrete water tower near Montecito Peak. There seemed to be no pattern, and the other vista north remained green and somewhat rejuvenated by the recent rainfall. The many huge tire tracks along the road’s edges showed that the firefighters had been battling the blaze right here along this line.

A view of Santa Cruz Island from East Camino Cielo.
A view of Santa Cruz Island from East Camino Cielo. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The fire obviously jumped around, and likely this was because of the red flag Santa Ana sundowner winds we had in December, fanning the fire in terrible ways and generally toward the coast.

The closer we got to the concrete landmark — the round water tower with its parking area and trail signs — and to Montecito Peak, the more burn area we saw until it was mostly charred.

Peter parked his truck near the water tower, next to another truck. When we got out, a howling gale force wind almost knocked me down. We scurried across the road, noted the Forbush Flat Trail sign (it’s 1.4 miles) and scuttled down the steep and well-worn path. Within 300 yards, the wind dropped sharply, but it remained breezy the rest of the day, and the temperature stayed consistent at about 60 degrees. Old man Fred Forbush built a cabin there in 1910, and there are still some olive and hard fruit trees flourishing at the historic Forbush homestead.

A tremendous resource for Santa Barbara hikers and bikers would have been lost if the Thomas wildfire had incinerated Forbush Flat and the three lovely campsites located along the adjoining Blue Canyon. Reports mentioned fire and burning around Jameson Reservoir, and a recent Ray Ford article on Noozhawk showed the caretaker’s cabin at the reservoir burned to the ground.

The middle backcountry from East Camino Cielo.
The middle backcountry from East Camino Cielo. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Yet, I needed to go on my own legs in real time to observe Blue Canyon and Cottam Camp with physical eyes. It’s less than 10 miles from Jameson Lake to Cottam Camp in the middle of Blue Canyon, and Thomas had been moving very fast. In the trio of lovely campsites within Blue Canyon running from west to east, we begin at Forbush Flat Camp where Blue Canyon really starts. We could visit Cottam Camp, Blue Camp and then Upper Blue Camp. Cottam is the gem in this lineup, only 1.6 miles down from Forbush, and I had made a successful overnight at Cottam at the end of November (see next column). It’s five miles between Forbush and Upper Blue camps.

On this Jan. 20 trip, I aimed to peer down into Blue Canyon and Cottam Camp from the high ridge above Forbush using Peter’s excellent binoculars. Cottam’s large, straw-colored meadow shone in the sun, and I can attest that none of it had been burned. While we went on to Forbush Flat Camp on dry Gidney Creek, we turned it there after a scanty lunch.

Burned hillsides on the southern slopes below East Camino Cielo Road.
Burned hillsides on the southern slopes below East Camino Cielo Road. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

I could have floated around using Google Earth to “see” if Blue Canyon was OK, and I did use Google to view my beloved Crane Country Day School for water damage (none), but in an age bewildered by “fake news” and rife with epistemological confusion, I had to bite the coin, spend the time and literally see that this little riparian corridor had escaped unscathed. That is, unscathed this time; human time and geological time are on radically different scales.

There will be other flash floods and destructive debris flows, more earthquakes and perhaps plagues of locusts or marauding fire ants, and other wildfires someday may scorch Blue Canyon and Cottam Camp.

Near Forbush Flat on the Mono Trail, up a rocky slope, Peter and I also noticed masses of marine fossils embedded in the Franciscan Assemblages, including serpentine and blue schists. While microfossils are more common, our recent moderate rains on the backside washed some of the larger ancient shells clean, as you can tell in the photograph below.

Burned southern hillsides before reaching Montecito Peak.
Burned southern hillsides before reaching Montecito Peak. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Blue Canyon is a sacred place, and this is affirmed by its closeness to Big and Little Caliente Hot Springs, which Native Americans enjoyed, as well as the upper Santa Ynez River. Novelist N. Scott Momaday, who once taught at UCSB, writes about “knowing” the Earth through its holy zones:

Sacred places are the truest definitions of the earth; they stand for the earth

immediately and forever; they are its flags and shields. If you would know the

earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places. At Devil’s Tower or

Canyon de Chelly or the Cahokia Mounds, you touch the pulse of the living

planet; you feel its breath upon you. You become one with a spirit that

pervades geologic time and space.


» 15-mile drive to Gibraltar Road, to the T junction at East Camino Cielo Road with the road signs, e.g. to Divide Peak, and then east to the concrete water tower near Montecito Peak.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

A marine fossil shell on the Mono Trail near Forbush Flat. Click to view larger
A marine fossil shell on the Mono Trail near Forbush Flat. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

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