Wednesday, June 20 , 2018, 9:32 pm | Fair 63º

 
 
 
 
Outdoors

Dan McCaslin: Manzana Narrows Wilderness Backpack Will Re-Energize Your Spirit

3-day weekend offers perfect opportunity to enjoy pristine Manzana Creek in the nearby San Rafael Wilderness

White sandstone caves are accented by a pine tree along the trail above the Manzana Narrows Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness. Click to view larger
White sandstone caves are accented by a pine tree along the trail above the Manzana Narrows Camp in the San Rafael Wilderness. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Anytime a “no-school Friday” lines up with an interesting backcountry weather window, backpacker guru Franko and I conspire to head for pristine Manzana Creek in the nearby San Rafael Wilderness area of Los Padres National Forest.

With a spectacularly warm final February weekend, and an early Friday departure, we can pull off a significant backpack with the blessing of a layover day free for backcountry exploration. The third day we will trek back out to Nira Camp (see the 4-1-1 below).

The San Rafael and adjacent Dick Smith federal wilderness areas within Los Padres National Forest comprise more than 250,000 acres of dry backcountry demarcated by its two main small river systems: Manzana Creek and the more remote Sisquoc River.

Except for a few settler groups in the late 1880s led by Kansas faith healer Hiram Preserved Wheat, there has never been extensive or lasting European-style settlements in either riparian zone: we’re north of Santa Barbara, west of Los Angeles and south of Bakersfield.

Nira Camp itself is simply a vast parking lot beside Manzana Creek, located literally at the end of Sunset Valley Road; it serves as the primary gateway to the intense wilderness named the “San Rafael” by Congress in 1968.

Nira campground and trailhead is highlighted in red on this map of the San Rafael Wilderness. Click to view larger
Nira campground and trailhead is highlighted in red on this map of the San Rafael Wilderness. (U.S. Forest Service map)

In late February, not a single other car or camper is at Nira when we arrive.

As we tighten our loads, my own 28-pound backpack feels heavy for a planned seven-mile first-day jaunt.

Since there isn’t much elevation gain and only a few “high left” switchbacks, I’m not overly concerned, but having chosen to leave fairly early, we’re hiking in deep shade by 8 a.m.

I attempted to make this backpack work as a solo effort this past June, but as I reported in my July 2015 column, it became a fiasco: there was no water in the Manzana at Nira, or at any of the following U.S. Forest Service camps on the river-route to Manzana Narrows: Lost Valley, Fish or Manzana Camp, although Ray’s Camp had emergency water if one had a filter (which I did).

Manzana Creek flows near Fish Camp on the way to Manzana Narrows Camp. Click to view larger
Manzana Creek flows near Fish Camp on the way to Manzana Narrows Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

It was so low at Ray’s that using the filter was practically impossible.

Imagine our joy in February at finding the Manzana’s strong flow at all these sites, and the emerging spring flowers along the well-trod path made for heady enthusiasm.

On this venture, Franko and I pushed on for five miles to Ray’s Camp (sign is missing).

After a pleasant but brief lunch at Ray’s, we tackled the last and more challenging miles up to shady Manzana Narrows Camp — you cover about 800 feet ascending these two miles deeper into the narrowing gorge.

There weren’t any other campers or hikers at “the Narrows”; in fact, we didn’t see any other humans until after 4 p.m. of our first sweaty day.

The pool and waterfall at Manzana Narrows beckon hot and dusty backpackers with a place to cool off. Click to view larger
The pool and waterfall at Manzana Narrows beckon hot and dusty backpackers with a place to cool off. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

There are three spacious campsites at the Narrows, three iron fire rings (fires are legal in these rings with fire permit, which we had), and three tables.

Since it was empty, Franko and I took the main site above the big pool, and by chance two tables were there. The pool attracted us, of course, and pretty quickly we managed a swim and a rinse to get the dust and sweat off.

We also happily noted that there were a few wild trout in these pools; there is absolutely no fishing allowed, not even catch and release.

The 80-degree weather astounded us since it was the end of February, and spring is three weeks away. However, in our desperate land of little rain, spring has sprung based on the four-inch rain we got back in January, and a couple of scatted one-inch sprinkles since.

A small rainbow trout holds in a pool at the Manzana Narrows Camp. Fishing is not allowed in the San Rafael Wilderness. Click to view larger
A small rainbow trout holds in a pool at the Manzana Narrows Camp. Fishing is not allowed in the San Rafael Wilderness. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The California golden poppies have burst into bloom, the fragrance from blooming white ceanothus blossoms caresses the nose while hiking, and a Chumash favorite, the delicate blue dicks (Shamala: shiq‘o’n) litter our path.

Native Americans relied on the blue dicks (also termed Brodiaea) for the starchy tuber that they boiled or steamed.

Jan Timbrook informs us that the blue dicks were an important food source for Native Americans, in particular for the Channel Island Chumash, and archaeologists have found six-foot long pits in which they scorched hundreds of these bulbs for feasting (her Chumash Ethnobotany, p. 75).

Our layover day trek sans backpack was a planned ascent into what we called the Chumash “upper world” — this would be clambering up the southeastern edge of the famed Hurricane Deck formation.

According to Thomas Blackburn, “The Chumash universe, like that of the Pomo, consists of a series of worlds placed one on top of another” (his still useful December’s Child, p. 30).

We humans dwell in a middle world, such as the Manzana Narrows or at coastal settlements like Syuxtun (Santa Barbara town) — and we need the assistance of Upper World “spirit-helpers” (atishwin) to fend off the nasty lower world nunasin, malevolent supernatural beings.

California poppies and yucca grace a hillside near the Hurricane Deck, high above Manzana Narrows Camp. Click to view larger
California poppies and yucca grace a hillside near the Hurricane Deck, high above Manzana Narrows Camp. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Since guru Franko (aka Dr. Frank L. Hudson) has been studying the Samala language, he had memorized some ritual phrases and spoke them reverentially as we ascended onto the ’Deck:

Kaqinaš a piqilikiyuw (Thank You for watching over us)

Tani ha inikikuti a xšap (Please let us not see a rattlesnake today)

Because we had his yellow labrador with us, we had concerns about her and rattlesnakes. Within five minutes, we suddenly heard the sharp keening cry of a triumphant red-tailed hawk and spied it soaring high above us with a long snake wriggling wildly in its talons!

Too far off to note if it was a rattlesnake, but we chose to believe it was one and that our sincere invocation stirred an atishwin to protect us and the dog.

The distinctive and rugged Hurricane Deck divides the two main drainages of the San Rafael Wilderness — Manzana Creek and the Sisquoc River. The two join about 9 miles downstream from Nira near the Manzana Schoolhouse. Click to view larger
The distinctive and rugged Hurricane Deck divides the two main drainages of the San Rafael Wilderness — Manzana Creek and the Sisquoc River. The two join about 9 miles downstream from Nira near the Manzana Schoolhouse. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

This could also be taken as a form of the “godless mysticism” British philosopher John Gray describes so eloquently in his book, The Silence of the Animals (2013).

On the return to our campsite at the Narrows we could see 4,600-foot Cachuma Mountain to the south as we trudged down amid scenic crags on our right.

We took advantage of a lucky late February weather “window” and managed to complete this exciting backpack in three days. This helped excise painful June 2015 memories of the solo Manzana fiasco when I ran out of water and had to turn back.

Our cleverness in jumping on the opportunity was not unique since on our way out we encountered cool backpackers at every campsite enumerated in the fourth paragraph above. And there were 18 cars at Nira.

A wonderful group of 11 Asian-Americans from an Orange County Foursquare Church used the Narrows as a sanctuary, and at times Franko and I could see them in a circle praying.

Atishwin (spirit-helpers), nunasin (devils), Jesus (the western avatar), Shiva, godless mysticism — when you wander about “outside” and away from town, your energy increases, your creativity triples, and you expect miracles and the unimaginable to happen.

Dramatic Notch Camp boulders come into view on the hike from Manzana Narrows up to Hurricane Deck. Click to view larger
Dramatic Notch Camp boulders come into view on the hike from Manzana Narrows up to Hurricane Deck. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Quite possibly, you might manage to heighten your natural awareness as you get farther from the urban world’s techno-babble and presidential debates.

Timbrook’s Chumash Ethnobotany, Gray’s The Silence of Animals and Blackburn’s University of California Press classic December’s Child are available at Chaucer’s Bookstore, 3321 State St. in Santa Barbara.

I also relied on the excellent Samala-English Dictionary (Ineseño Chumash language) by the Santa Ynez Band and Dr. Richard B. Applegate (2007).

4-1-1: Backpack from Nira Camp to Manzana Narrows

Distance: 6.9 miles along Manzana Creek via Lost Valley, Fish, Ray’s, and Manzana Camps to Manzana Narrows Camp; suitable for sturdy children 8 and up.

Driving directions: From Santa Barbara, drive the 46 miles to Nira (end of the road); 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).

Map: Bryan Conant’s San Rafael Wilderness Trail Map Guide

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. 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.

The view from the “Upper World”  of Hurricane Deck back toward Cachuma Mountain. Click to view larger
The view from the “Upper World”  of Hurricane Deck back toward Cachuma Mountain. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

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