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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 5:49 pm | Fair 64º


Dan McCaslin: Hitting the Trails to Happy Hunting Ground Camp

Four-day backpacking trek boasts signs of spring — but beware of rattlesnakes

Mr. C takes in the view at the mouth of Alcove Falls. Click to view larger
Mr. C takes in the view at the mouth of Alcove Falls. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Continuing my futile resistance to the urban nightmares and prying digital devices, I try to get far outside as often as possible — thus, there can be no reluctance or false pride about repeating a Manzana Creek backpacking trip into the San Rafael Wilderness.

With school colleague Mr. C, I backpacked along the same Upper Manzana Creek for seven miles to shady and well-watered Manzana Narrows Camp. In early March, Manfred and I had overnighted at Manzana Camp, not the shadier Narrows Camp.

The middle pair of days on this four-day camping trip, April 3-6, we day-hiked up and away from the Manzana Creek onto what I’ve always called the "Eastern Escarpment" of the Hurricane Deck formation.

This is the “gateway” to the sacred Chumash Upper World area they called alapay, and the U.S. Geological Survey term “White Ledge Canyon” (it leads down to the Sisquoc River eventually).

Mr. C and I are experienced backpackers, and luckily during hundreds of packing trips neither of us has had a catastrophic experience (although in 2012 I got way off-trail, caused a little ruckus and even a helicopter dispatch, which I didn’t need).

So it was surprising that while driving to the Nira Camp trailhead at 4:30 a.m., Mr. C abruptly asked me if I was worried about a rattlesnake bite out there on this trip.

With poor cell phone reception, once you’re more than three or four hiking hours from your car, a bite is likely a death sentence. A couple of years back, Manfred’s dog was bitten by a rattler and died in real agony, and we both recalled this sad story.

I have to be fatalistic about the chance of suffering a rattlesnake bite in the backcountry; the odds are tiny, and surely driving Highway 101 into Los Angeles is much riskier.

Rock shelters at the “Eastern Escarpment” of the Hurricane Deck formation. Click to view larger
Rock shelters at the “Eastern Escarpment” of the Hurricane Deck formation. (Dan McCaslin photo)

The rattlesnake shaman had great powers; the Chumash call this powerful spirit xsap, and the Native Americans knew rattlesnakes are generally not threatening.

In more than 20 rattlesnake encounters, only one was a bit aggressive toward me. One might have to literally step on xsap to be bitten.

Mr. C and I agree we can’t worry about it, but acknowledge that a real bite could be fatal.

Most of the time while on this four-day backpacking trek, or the one I reported a month ago with Manfred, we hiked in the cool of early morning when snakes aren’t as active.

As we trudged along, we noticed spring in full bloom, the mighty Manzana still gushing strong and wildflowers in ebullient bloom, e.g. the prickly phlox.

Passing through Fish Camp on day one, I chatted with Ranger Mike Smith and the many strong volunteers working with him on much-needed trail repair and maintenance projects.

They took out several downed trees and cleared several rock slides between Fish and Manzana Narrows in early April.

The prickly phlox in full bloom. Click to view larger
The prickly phlox in full bloom. (Dan McCaslin photo)

It’s invigorating mentally and spiritually to live a few days with only the stuff in your backpack and a wooden table (we made no fires), as the photograph shows.

With my usual insomniac ways, I’m up all three mornings at the Narrows by 3:30 a.m. and hugely enjoy hot cups of Via instant coffee along with trail mix.

By red headlamp’s glow, I read W.S. Merwin’s poems and scribble furiously in my journal. The Manzana roars nearby, and occasionally I hear owls hooting.

Georg Hegel wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at the falling of dusk,” yet here they are hooting in morningtime.

On our first day hike to the Eastern Escarpment area and beyond, we’re on the only trail, and it leads across sandstone ridges that we chose to explore on this easy layover day.

Backpacks and a table — no fires — at the Manzana Narrows camp. Click to view larger
Backpacks and a table — no fires — at the Manzana Narrows camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

Up there on the sandstone cliffs, you will easily find the so-called “Alcove Camp,” and in the photo you can see someone’s plume of white campfire smoke above the Eastern Escarpment, contrasting with cobalt-blue sky.

Decades ago, when my son was 6 or 7, we came to this awesome and spiritual campsite, only lately dubbed "The Alcove."

The view out to the southeast highlights the backside of 6,600-foot San Rafael Mountain with slightly detectable swathes of “mountain snow” (white ceanothus in full bloom). We hiked around on these formations for a few hours, then returned to the Narrows.

On the early March backpacking trip to nearby Manzana Camp, we had hoped to day-hike over to Happy Hunting Ground Camp or even White Ledge Camp, and failed to make it.

A plume of white campfire smoke rises above the Eastern Escarpment. Click to view larger
A plume of white campfire smoke rises above the Eastern Escarpment. (Dan McCaslin photo)

On the second layover day at the Narrows, Mr. C and I hiked the 4½ miles up past the Eastern Escarpment to Happy Hunting Ground Camp and a little beyond. We stopped to admire Alcove Falls and splash off there.

Arriving at Happy Hunting Ground, there were no campers at this nondescript campsite still termed “Happy” despite being almost completely burned out during the 2007 Zaca Fire.

While it was once quite lush and with an enormous oak — still mighty after half of it fell — the destructive fire incinerated almost everything in this rocky area of upper White Ledge Creek, killing nearly all the big trees.

After our heavy winter rains this year, the creek was flowing very nicely at Happy, and we pumped water out of it.

If you can backpack this far, go on down another 1½ miles and enjoy more beautiful White Ledge Camp, where water is also flowing in the 90-degree bend in the creek.

We contentedly roamed around the sandstone cliffs and wind caves past Happy before the long return. Native American and 20th-century anglo hunters frequented this once-beautiful camp.

On the trail to Happy Hunting Ground. Click to view larger
On the trail to Happy Hunting Ground. (Dan McCaslin photo)

The day before in the early afternoon of April 4, while taking a rest at the same shady Alcove Camp, Mr. C and I experienced a sudden and explosively loud engine noise. He spilled his food into the ashes of a cold fire, as I laughed uproariously, but then we were stunned as a Santa Barbara County sheriff’s helicopter roared past low and on full throttle.

Once back in town, news reports indicated that on April 4, County Copter 1 was in New Cuyama when they received an emergency call at 1:15 p.m. that a woman and her dog had been bitten by a rattlesnake on the Hurricane Deck.

Dispatch sent Copter 1 as well as County Copter 3 to the rescue, and this time frame fits with our field experience that same afternoon with the blazing helicopter flight passing right overhead.

What are the odds about such a rattlesnake bite? It’s really remote up on the Hurricane Deck itself, and it was horribly unlucky for the 20-year-old woman, and difficult to fathom how one rattlesnake bit two big mammals.

A later report indicates it was only the canine that suffered a bite. I was unable to learn if the border collie survived.

A pool above Alcove Creek. Click to view larger
A pool above Alcove Creek. (Dan McCaslin photo)

I’m glad the woman is OK, and I hope the dog survives. I go on longer solo backpacks, so I admire the woman, but also question her decision to head up onto the Hurricane Deck on a warm afternoon with a dog.

Backpackers cannot count on cell phones operating up on the deck, but fortunately hers did and led the helicopter straight to her position (it had to make a risky one-skid landing).

When the German philosopher said Athena’s owl (wisdom) flies only at dusk, he meant experience builds up to better judgment only as we age (how could it be otherwise?). Manfred never takes his new dog out in the inland heat, or up onto the deck on a hot afternoon, because he suffered through his first dog’s lingering death throes.

We arrived back at Nira after four days inside the San Rafael Wilderness, knocking out about 28 miles of trail, with full admiration for the trail maintenance volunteers, and the Santa Barbara County Search & Rescue members who assisted the woman and her canine friend.


» Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive the 47 miles to Nira (end of the road) on this route — from Highway 101, take Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma and turn right on Armour Ranch Road at the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge. After about a mile, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the very end (about three miles of this is dirt road). Begin backpacking east, against the Manzana’s swift flow. MAP Bryan Conant’s excellent San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide (2009).

— 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 view of San Rafael Mountain from Alcove Camp. Click to view larger
A view of San Rafael Mountain from Alcove Camp. (Dan McCaslin photo)

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