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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 10:29 am | Mostly Cloudy 55º


Dan McCaslin: Traversing Potrero Canyon Trail to West Hurricane Deck

Life in our wild and crazy San Rafael Wilderness is simple yet intriguingly complex

Green winter grass grows beneath scattered oaks along Happy Canyon Road. Click to view larger
Green winter grass grows beneath scattered oaks along Happy Canyon Road. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

Mother Nature’s erratic weather behavior has to be accepted and enjoyed, as well as feared, for Her capricious power. Just look at unfortunate Montecito. The mid-March 8-mile quest described below — Nira to Potero Camp on Manzana Creek then up to the awesome Hurricane Deck — created great enjoyment as three of us hiked four ascending miles amid the chaparral and early spring wildflowers.

Always north and “above” us, the ‘Deck is not particularly high (the maximum elevation is 4,237 feet), but this massive marine sandstone bar extends more than 17 miles across the San Rafael Wilderness.

This waterless Miocene era slab forms the northernmost tier of the San Rafael Mountains.

While driving to the trailhead near Nira Camp (see 4-1-1), my colleagues and I savored the emerald-green winter grass growing luxuriantly beneath scattered oaks along Happy Canyon Road. Spring is here already in the south-facing hillsides of Santa Barbara County’s glorious backcountry.

We also saw the lilac-purple, yellow-centered, blue-eyed grass flowers, blossoming white ceanothus, California poppies and even a few brodiaea lilies (blue dicks) just beginning to burst into color. The tasty, onion-like blue dick bulbs were highly prized by indigenous peoples. The Chumash called them shiq’o’n and ate the bulbs after roasting them.

Leaving my Westside Santa Barbara home in the dark at 5:30 a.m., by the time we got up the dreaded Highway 154 and reached the Manzana trailhead, we found the temperature had fallen to 29 degrees. Every vehicle near the growling creek was encrusted with serious ice, not merely sleet-ice or a dusting of frost.

Standing beside the briskly flowing Manzana, we noticed that a recent light rain had doused the five vehicles parked there, leaving a spectacular glittering façade on a late-model dark sedan. The frozen raindrops stuck on this car had spread evenly over the metal surfaces, gleaming like hundreds of tiny silver Hershey’s Kisses at 7 a.m.

We walked a mile and a little more to reach Potero Canyon Camp, where we forded gushing Manzana Creek and marched sharply north straight toward the Hurricane Deck. There are appropriate iron signs on the north side of Manzana Creek after Potrero Camp (do not go to Manzana Schoolhouse — eight miles downriver!).

These trudges that I make again and again, and have been repeating since the early 1970s, are part of an effort to rewild myself. This isn’t that romantic flight from civilization trope we read about in Rousseau or even Daniel Defoe’s earlier Robinson Crusoe.

The area near West Hurricane Deck.
The area near West Hurricane Deck. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

“Rewilding” is a debated term, and one usually thinks of nature organizations such as Rewilding Britain, dedicated to bettering our world by restoring wild nature and building a rewilding movement.

Mark Boyle wrote in a recent Guardian piece about keeping the best of the old ways alive (e.g., keep your old cassette players and tapes), practicing the joys of face-to-face communication, and by rewilding himself he learned how postmodern industrialized life is far too simple. Yes, “too simple” because with multiple websites, apps, switches, video games, power tools, video entertainment and edutainment, TV and Internet news sources, there is little left for one to do for himself — oh, except plug away at the job earning the cash for these endless tech toys.

I agree with Boyle in most ways, and clearly my 45 years of incessant hiking has helped me fight today’s blurring of boundaries between man and machine. Since organism is now ruled by algorithm, our techno-dystopia seems to be causing an ecological meltdown. Mother Hutash/Gaia wilts beneath the junk of 7.3 billion humans.

After a couple of hours of hard hiking, we reach a ridge marked by weird boulder formations and some rock overhangs. Cresting this, the trail drops down, and we see skeletal oaks against the sky, with more cool boulders to the west beneath a carpet of green winter grass.

We did not make our little goal to get to the top of the ‘Deck because we wandered among the hills and rocks here, looking for marine fossils and relishing the slow travel method. Looking to the east, we noticed the so-called backside of 6,600-foot San Rafael Mountain and some small patches of snow.

Snow dusts San Rafael Mountain.
Snow dusts San Rafael Mountain. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

As we angled west, we could see the white “Castle Crags” pointed formation in the distance, and as rumor had it, there was an ancient pictograph in an obscure little cavern. Crazy Peter found the one shown in the photo, but it was extremely hard to detect, and it required the camera flash to highlight the archetypal checkerboard design in red.

Checkerboard designs go all the way back to the Greek Geometric Age in Europe, about 700 B.C.E., and even earlier. I am not claiming a direct connection, of course, but the migraine-based hallucinations painted by local Stone Age shamans are just like those depicted in Archaic Age Greece, ancient Persian ceramics (1500 B.C.E.) and in many other regions on Earth.

None of us suffered the burden of a cellphone (reception poor here anyway), or missed our WiFi connections or tech impedimenta.

Boyle asserts, “When you’re connected to WiFi, you’re disconnected from life.”

When I’m back in the San Rafael Wilderness, especially if backpacking for a few days, I realize clearly how boring these digital age curses really are. And who can now trust Facebook? Life out here is really simple — yet intriguingly complex at the same time.

A pictograph with an archetypal checkerboard design in red is found in an obscure cavern. Click to view larger
A pictograph with an archetypal checkerboard design in red is found in an obscure cavern. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

In the old days at my school, we sold conservation through the three Rs of reduce, reuse and recycle. Boyle contends that today’s climate-catastrophe generation must intensify this approach with three new Rs: resist, revolt and rewild.

As we make efforts to rewild the dwindling natural landscapes, we simultaneously work at rewilding ourselves. When Mother Gaia wracks Montecito with terrifying debris flows (Jan. 9), She is also rewilding part of that landscape and altering it permanently. For the many in Montecito who suffered then, and through subsequent rain evacuations, we might consider that their temporary PTSD-like traumas also equate to a form of individual “rewilding.”

We cannot always count on civilization’s defenses to hold off the raging storms or withstand strong earthquakes, for example. We are all learning that “life is an unceasing tradeoff between comfort and feeling fully alive.”

You will feel fully alive and highly energetic by making this eight-mile hike up toward the Hurricane Deck in our wild and crazy San Rafael Wilderness. With additional preparation, sturdy children from age 8 or older can make this trek.


» Drive up Highway 154 past Lake Cachuma. Turn right on Armour Ranch Road just past the concrete Santa Ynez River bridge. In about a mile, turn right again on Happy Canyon Road and drive to the end (Nira Camp). Park on the high bench above the Manzana Creek, about a quarter-mile west of Nira Camp itself. Note: After heavy rain, click here to check with the U.S. Forest Service to verify this road is open (there is a two-mile dirt stretch).

— 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.

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